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Writer at Work:
Santas, Wizards, & Life behind the Curtain

December 23rd, 2016

jl-santaSo it’s December 1997. I’m driving north out of Oakland, toward Bigelow Boulevard and downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a gray day, light snow falling. Colored lights trim some of the buildings along North Craig Street, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Then I see him.

I clear the rise toward Bigelow Boulevard, and there he is—fourteen-feet high and smiling down from a roadside billboard atop the snowy hillside. Red suit, white beard. It’s Santa. Or is it? I do a double take. This guy’s wearing rollerblades, sporting a Mohawk haircut, and throwing a peace sign. I slow down. Look again. That’s not Santa. That’s my dad!

Backstory: My dad lived a double life. Most of the time he was all pullover shirts, chinos, loafers, conventional haircut. You’d never look twice if you passed him on the street. But every now and then he’d get a call from the modeling agency. When that happened, all bets were off. He could become anything, and for a few years back in the mid-90s, one of those things was a kind of new-age Santa for the shopping district of Pittsburgh’s South Side. He’d go in for the shoot, they’d transform him, and a few weeks later—after he’d gone back to his quiet, nondescript life—his bigger-than-life persona would enter the world on billboards throughout the city.

oz-2In some ways, it’s much the same for writers.

There are exceptions, of course. Writers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come most readily to mind. But most of us prefer living behind the curtain, working the craft’s hidden levers and switches like the great and powerful Oz. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” we say, speaking through the grand illusion or our creations. It’s the duality that drives our writing lives–the desire to create characters more interesting than ourselves and send them into the world to be known, read, and appreciated while we remain safe behind the veil of fiction.

Which brings us to the picture below.

dream-team-vertical-2It was taken at a gathering for a new project that I’ll be sure to tell you about in a future post. But for now, what you need to know is that the picture shows directors Alejandro Brugués and Ryuhei Kitamura in the front, writers Sandra Becerril and the 21st Century Scop in the middle, and directors Mick Garris and Joe Dante in the rear. We all appear to be on our marks, but something isn’t right. I noticed the discrepancy days after the photo was taken. I looked, then looked again.

Can you see it? Look closely.

Is that Mick Garris’s hand on Alejandro Brugués’s right shoulder. Is that Joe Dante’s on Sandra Becerril’s left? No, that doesn’t make sense. The positions and poses don’t line up.

Looking again, I realized something that should have been obvious. There were eight of us in the photo. Writer Richard Christian Matheson had been standing right beside Sandra, but when the rest of us turned to face the camera, he ducked down and assumed the position of the great and powerful Oz–masked from view but nonetheless manipulating the image, adding touches that revealed his hidden presence. Now there’s a writer’s writer.

So what kind of writer are you? Do you foster a public persona to help promote your work, or do you prefer living behind the curtain? Drop me a comment if you have a moment. Facebook and email links are open (see the icons at the top of this page), as are the comment boxes below. I’ve received some terrific responses on my previous posts in this writer-at-work series. Sometime soon, I’ll have to post a compilation of those comments. Until then, watch out for Santas on rollerblades … and scop on!

Images

J. L. Connolly as South Side Santa. 1997.

Frank Morgan as The Wizard of Oz. 1939.

Alejandro Brugués, Ryuhei Kitamura, Sandra Becerril, the 21st-Century Scop, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, and the hands of R. C. Matheson. 2016

Writer at Work:
Out of the Stories and into the World

December 11th, 2016

hollywoodIt’s been a while since I’ve posted here. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve been working.

I’ve always regarded blogging as a leisure activity, fun when there’s time for it, but readily set aside when big projects hit.

Last June, with a new film script sold and an ambitious novel expanding beyond expectations, I realized it was time to focus on fiction. And that’s pretty much where I was until I finished the book early last week. At that point, with the manuscript mailed off and fending for itself, I got out from behind the desk and headed west for some social interaction with the good people involved in the film project.

It felt good getting out.

Offering a view of the Hollywood sign, my room on Melrose Avenue was a block from Paramount Studios and ten blocks from Xiomara, a fine Cuban restaurant in West Hollywood. That’s where I was last Thursday night, eating charcuterie and networking with a dream team of producers, directors, and writers–all taking part in something that I’ll be telling you more about just as soon as I can. In the meantime, since I once again have time for blogging, I’d like to share some thoughts on a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, namely the benefits of temporarily disengaging from the world (something increasingly difficult in this age of social media) in order to focus on long-term projects.

lawrence-connollypre-internetBack in the analog age (typewriters, carbon paper, onion skins), it was just me and the words. The phone might ring, but it was easily ignored. And even later, when I got my first computer, I was still master of the machine, with the biggest interruptions coming in the form of long load times and unexpected crashes (remember those?). The photo at right shows an early model of the 21st Century Scop using an early Tandy computer. One of those had a 128 KB memory.

Things are different today, of course. Even locked away in my writing space, I can still have the interactive world at my fingertips. That can cause problems, as noted a few years back by comedic horror writer Jeff Strand, who got a laugh at the Stoker Awards when he riffed on the hapless writer who pauses at a crucial point in his work and muses: “I wonder what’s on Facebook.” Funny but true, and therein lies the dilemma for the 21st century scop.

Taking a moment to check social media might seem like a harmless distraction, but I find that such breaks in concentration pretty much derail my progress. When I pause in my writing, it’s usually because I’ve reached a crucial point in a story’s development, a place where deep concentration may lead to a stronger book and significant rewards down the road. That’s no time to break concentration and grab for the short-term reward of a Facebook “like” or “share.” And if I do take a moment to seek that instant gratification, even though the engagement may take me out of the fictional world for only a minute or two, I seldom reenter the story with the same deep focus I had when I left it. And let’s face it, most social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged, resulting in the intended “minute or two” expanding well beyond the original intentions.

As for blogging, it presents a different dilemma. Although I may not feel compelled to pause my writing to dash off a blog post, I find that the process of writing, laying out, proofing, and posting invariably consumes all my writing time for that day … and if it doesn’t, I’m still pretty much written out once the post goes up.

untitled_7To be sure, some writers embrace social distractions. Chuck Palahniuk does well writing in public places, and Harlan Ellison produced some award-winning stories sitting in bookstore windows back in the 1980s. But those writers seem to be the exception. Even the young Hemingway, who wrote in cafes, became irritable when Ford Madox Ford sat down beside him for an analog facechat. For some of us, writing takes concentration, and concentration requires solitude.

A few years ago, partly in an effort to figure out how best to balance the distractions and benefits of social media, I moderated a couple of convention panels with writers who had developed some expertise in the use of social media. Among the panelists (pictured bellow) were Robert, J. Sawyer, Jonathan Maberry, Heidi Ruby Miller, Matt Schwartz, S. J. Browne, and Jon Sprunk. You can read some of what they had to say at here.

virtual-panel1The bottom line, we are social creatures. We can’t spend our entire lives in fiction. We need to get out, mix it up with the interactive world, engage with people who are not merely products of the imagination. But there are times when the work requires us to step away. The challenge is finding balance. What do you think?

If you’ve read this far, you no doubt have some opinions of your own. If you have a moment, please chime in by posting a comment below or by clicking the Facebook button at the top of this page.

That’s it for now. I trust it won’t take me another six months to post again. Until I do … scop on!

Images:
The Hollywood Sign. 
The 21st Century Scop in the 20th Century.
Harlan Elison. http://mentalfloss.com/
Members of a virtual panel on Social Media

From Page to Screen:
Talking about Writing @ The Penguin

May 2nd, 2016

Robert A HeinleinIt all began with Robert A. Heinlein.

Back in the 1940s, Heinlein gave what may well be the best writing advice ever given, a five step approach to achieving success as a spinner of tales. And last week at The Penguin Bookshop, an attentive crowd joined me in a consideration of those rules and how they apply to the writing, selling, and adapting of the story “Traumatic Descent” (a.k.a. “This Way to Egress”).

From the story’s first appearance in Tom and Elizabeth Monteleone’s anthology Borderlands 3, through its numerous reprintings and recent adaptation for Mick Garris’s forthcoming feature film Nightmare Cinema, the story has certainly taken on a life of its own. And it’s a life it never would have had without the steps that RAH outlined some 70 years ago.

Penguin Sign WindowFor the record, here are the rules: You must write. You must finish what you write. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. You must put your writing on the market. You must keep it on the market until it sells.

Over the years, people have followed, argued, modified, and disputed those rules. A few years back sf writer Robert J. Sawyer added a sixth, and more recently commentator Charlie Jane Anders disputed them over at io9. Surely, there must be something to them to keep the conversation going for so long.

In any event, they’ve worked for me, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to share the reasons with the good people who stopped by The Penguin on April 27. If you were there, you know the story. If you weren’t, you can still join in by clicking the player below.

It all begins with a burst of 4:00 am inspiration back in 1988 and continues today with the development of Nightmare Cinema. Guess it pays to follow the rules. Scop on!

 Image Credits:

  • Robert A. Heinlein at work. c. 1965. from patrickmccray.com.
  • Penguin Bookshop window display and podcast photo by Mark E. Connolly, copyright © 2016.

Penguin Bookshop, Nightmare Cinema,
& “This Way to Egress”

April 21st, 2016

Nightmare Cinema presents This Way to Egress (2)Don’t go to sleep! Nightmares are coming.

On Wednesday, April 27, I’ll be visiting the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley to talk about writing stories and adapting them for film. Along the way, I’ll be sharing some of the latest news about Nightmare Cinema, the forthcoming feature film that will include an adaptation of my story “Traumatic Descent.”

Created by Mick Garris, Nightmare Cinema is an anthology film (think Steven Spielberg’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, George Romero’s Creepshow, or the classic Dead of Night) composed of five short films by five different directors. Here’s how a new promotional release describes the project:

Fdirectors NCive acclaimed directors of the most macabre horror films from around the world, tell new blood-curdling stories, all carefully curated into the multi-platform feature film, Nightmare Cinema. It’s a selection of one-of-a-kind tales of terror that turns the genre conventions on their heads, but without every giving up the primary desire to scare the hell out of the audience.

The directors are Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), Joe Dante (Gremlins, Matinee), Mick Garris (Stephen King’s The Stand, Sleepwalkers), Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) and David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, and the acclaimed NBC television series Hannibal).

Alejandro Brugués and Mick Garris will each direct their own screenplays, “The Thing in the Woods” and “Dead.”

Matheson and BecerrilRyuhei Kitamura will direct “Mashit,” written by Sandra Becerril. Making her home in Mexico City, she is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and film scripts. Her work is well known to horror fans in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain, and her forthcoming film Desde tu Infierno (checkout the trailer here) and Nightmare Cinema are sure to win her plenty of new fans from around the world.

No stranger to American audiences is Richard Christian Matheson, whose script “Mirari” is being directed by Joe Dante. Following in the footsteps of his father, the great Richard Matheson, R. C. Matheson is the author of  the short story collections Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks and Dystopia; the novel Created By; and the magic-realism novella “The Ritual of Illusion.” He has also written extensively for television, including two scripts for Mick Garris’s Masters of Horror.

Rounding out the Nightmare Cinema roster will be “This Way to Egress,” directed by David Slade, from our collaborative adaptation of my story “Traumatic Descent.”

Nightmare Cinema TW2ELinking the five episodes in Nightmare Cinema will be a wraparound story written and directed by Mick Garris. Here’s the synopsis:

Sitting at the edge of a deserted town, under the guise of a decrepit theatre, is the gateway between heaven and hell. It can only be found by tortured souls, lost in a place of unknown time and origin.

In this twisted anthology, at least one character from each of the five shorts arrives at the cinematic purgatory, unaware of their fate. Upon entering the theatre, they are forced to watch their deepest and darkest fears play out before them. Lurking in the shadows is the Projectionist, who preys upon their souls with his collection of disturbing film reels. As each reel spins its sinister tale, the characters find frightening parallels to their own lives. 

But by the time they realize the truth, escape is no longer an option. For once the ticket is torn, their fate is sealed at NIGHTMARE CINEMA.

This Way to Egress by Lawrence C. ConnollyWant to hear more? If so, I’ll be glad to share a few more highlights at this month’s installment of the Penguin Bookshop Writers Series (PBWS), which gets under way at 6:30 pm on April 27. If you live in the Pittsburgh area, I hope you’ll consider dropping by for a conversation about books and writing in one of the region’s great independent bookstores.

The Penguin has been a fixture in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, since 1929.  With six different owners and three different locations over the last 85-plus years,  the Penguin has remained a vital community institution thanks to the continued loyalty of its customers and the passion of its booksellers. It remains one of the local and regional community’s greatest treasures.

PBWS-small-e1439910444421PBWS presents authors and publishing professionals each month who discuss aspects of both the art and the business of writing. The format ranges from hands-on workshops to lectures and panel discussions. The goal of PBWS is to unite published writers with aspiring writers, aspiring writers with publishing professionals, and curious readers interested in the author’s craft with professional writers.

In short, you won’t want to miss this one. Bring your friends . . . and let the nightmares begin.

Credits:

  • Nightmare Cinema promotional copy & images, copyright © 2016 Good Deed Entertainment.
  • Sandra Becerril, twitter.com.
  • Richard Christian Matheson, thorneandcross.wordpress.com.
  • Cover of This Way to Egress, copyright © 2010 Jason Zerrillo.
  • Writers Series logo & the history of Penguin Bookshop and PBWS are from penguinbookshop.com.