Just when I thought I was out . . . It’s not finished by a long shot.
The plan was to find a quiet place and read through it in one sitting. I started to read and after thirty pages I had to stop. It was too disappointing. Everything that had seemed so sparkling and trenchant a month ago was flat on the page, a dead thing.
A few days later, I read some more. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong that couldn’t be improved by pitching the first 150 pages into a burning tar hellhole of a pit.
So. Decision. I can see the problems plainly. I can identify them. I can name them. I can put the proper colored tag on each one.
What I don’t know is whether I can fix them. That is, I may be at the limit of my skill and talent. Alternatively, I could seek feedback and educate myself further and see where that takes me. I expect that I would then be capable of making some changes, but not have the ability or talent to make others. I may have to accept that this is where I am.
Or I could just scrap the whole thing.
Today, however, I had a more positive experience. I decided to sit down again and start reading from page 151 until I reached the end, some 200 pages later. And I was able to do it. Sometimes I was smiling, and sometimes I was giving myself mental high fives. I liked what I read in that latter part. I was compelled to keep reading up to the end. The patient was definitely worth saving.
I think I see the path I have to take.
The first third doesn’t work because it takes too long for my actors to become active. I need to chisel away the rest of the marble to reveal the action of my story. My protagonist needs to be confronted with her problem within the first few pages. Settings need to be clarified, chronology and seasons sorted out, cliches ditched, language sharpened. I think these are all possible, all within my skill set.
So my time line is extended one more time. They’ve pulled me back in. We can’t let each other go yet. I’ll be back at my desk again tomorrow, as always, trying to write myself out.
Usually when I talk about magic in this blog, I try to make it accessible to even the readers who are not involved with magic. But you’ll excuse me if I go magic geek on you today. This post is about a new magic book that I had a peripheral involvement in producing, and is primarily aimed at those already familiar with the technology of card magic.
Greg Chapman’s new book is called The Devil’s Staircase. If you do any kind of gambling material and know the difference between an out-faro and an in-faro, stop reading this post and go order it right now at: http://www.thedevilsstaircase.com
You must have this book. You will thank me for it later. I’ll wait.
The rest of you take a look at this video: http://vimeo.com/111080641
If you have a belt handy, strap it around your head while watching the above video so your brains don’t fall out. No, it’s not trick photography.
Everybody back? Okay. Now, clearly the must-haves will love this book. But there is also a whole group of magicians who are the should-haves who will also enjoy and benefit from this book. I’ll describe who I think this group should be a little later in the review. But first, let me describe the book in more detail so you can get a sense of why I am so excited about it. (Full disclosure: I proofread a late version of this book. I didn’t know Greg beforehand. It was hard sometimes to focus on the proofreading because as I read it, I got so engrossed. I realized it was an excellent book.)
In the first chapter, Greg introduces his weapons of choice for the cardician. They will not be unfamiliar to the practitioner: the stack, the faro, the run up, the false shuffle, the memdeck, the estimate, the glimpse, and the joker. In this introduction, Greg lays all his cards, as it were, on the table. He assumes the reader has the same tools available for use as well.
The next chapter takes us into a collection of FASDIU (from a shuffled deck in use) effects that are just knockouts. Learn the material in this chapter and you have an evening’s set of killer entertainment that you can do impromptu. Here’s a description of the first effect in the book, Snap Transposition:
Four kings are removed from a deck of cards. One red king is placed on a participant’s hand and the other red king is inserted face-up between the face-down black kings and held, spread at the fingertips. In a snap all four cards instantly change places. That is, the red kings are now seen to sandwich a black king and the face down card on the participant’s hand is shown to be the other black king.
It’s a beautiful effect, and an instant visible transposition.
There are several other excellent tricks in this section including Thought Card Across, a plot which has been explored by others including Bruce Bernstein, but Greg’s version has some decidedly superior features, and Searchers Undone which has a plot similar to the video above, but can be done entirely impromptu.
Greg’s teaching and explanations are detailed and clear; if you’re a fan of Simon Aronson’s books, you will immediately see Aronson’s influence on the way Greg takes such care with his explanations. As with Aronson’s books, you’ll find much to read and re-read carefully because sometimes what seems like a throwaway comment actually contains within it a door that opens up a whole new avenue of magical thought.
You’ll run across that in the next few chapters especially. Chapter 3 details Greg’s personal MD stack, one especially suited for those who enjoy doing gambling effects. However, even if you don’t do such material, it is well worth reading as there are certain concepts employed that are useful to anyone wanting to create her or his own stack. In the following chapter, you’ll find the Switchable Pairs concept, a simple but intriguing idea with some fascinating implications. This should lead the creative enthusiast to a field of fertile explorations. The Fixed Floating Key Card concept is another idea that could be very helpful to any memdeck worker.
In Chapter 5, you’ll find memdeck effects that are stack independent. While the plots here are not novel, the treasure is in the care that Greg takes to make every step seem absolutely innocent looking. He explains what he thinks some of the pitfalls of memdeck work are, and how to overcome them. If you do any kind of memdeck work, this chapter will improve what you do, no matter what stack you use.
Chapters 6 and 7 are for the hard-core gambling demo guys and gals. These chapters concentrate on the use of the overhand run-up shuffling system to stack hands. This will also enable you to get even further ahead with a memdeck. It is frankly quite technical material, but well explained and Greg strikes a nice balance between holding the readers’ hands and treating them like adults. In the right hands, it’s powerful stuff. If it’s not your cup of tea, you could probably skip these chapters for now, with the knowledge that if you do decide to learn this later, Greg’s teaching here is very good.
Chapter 8 uses Greg’s stack to illustrate the built-in effects possible with it. Some will be happy to know that there are two different plausible Texas Hold’em deals that are available. Also, fairly easily, the stack can be gotten into from NDO and back into NDO as well, certainly a nice little way to end a set.
Finally in the last chapter, Greg spills the beans on the effect in the video above, Dirty Tactics. (You did watch it didn’t you? If not, go back now.) Greg’s diabolical thinking is in full bloom here, and if your pleasure as a magician includes driving your fellow magi crazy, you will definitely enjoy learning this effect.
There are some magicians who are good technicians; there are some magicians who are good writers; there are some magicians who can illustrate their work well; there are some magicians who can create inventive fooling effects. It is relatively rare though in the world of magic to find someone who is all of the above. I think Greg Chapman is such a magician and his book will become a classic in the field of smart, inventive, demanding but do-able card magic. If you like the work of Darwin Ortiz, Simon Aronson, or Dennis Behr, then this book is for you.
I have yet to meet Greg Chapman in person–all our correspondence has been through email. But I can say without reservation that Greg is a man who cares intensely about his work and has taken the care to produce a really excellent book of card magic. Highly recommended.
I have been working on a novel, and it’s always wonderful to see how the masters solved the problems with which I as a neophyte am still wrestling. A novel sets up certain expectations as the plot unfolds and the novelist must fulfill them. If the plot expectations are not fulfilled, it doesn’t matter what else s/he does, the novel will disappoint. Sometimes the success of that expectation hinges on the turn of just one scene. If that one scene doesn’t work, no novel.
I recently re-read E.M. Forster’s comic masterpiece A Room With a View, and it is a perfect example of a novel whose success depends entirely on the execution of one crucial scene. This short turn-of-the-century novel, a social romp through the new 20th-century world of a rapidly changing society, is full of wry commentary and third person omniscient observation. The comedy of social manners of young people caught between the ways of their conventional elders and the almost-liberated woman was a popular subject of the time. With Women’s Suffrage movements as background, George Bernard Shaw and others were making a career out of writing plays about women who, much to the consternation of their elders and the men around them, were asserting their independence.
In a short time afterwards the hopes for change embodied in these plays and novels would turn sour with the aftermath of the Great War. But in those pre-war years at the turn of the century, it was still possible to write humorously about the ways conventions could be overturned with a strong dose of Idealism and Passion.
Forster’s story is about a group of British guardians and their almost-of-age children who meet at at an Italian pensione during a sightseeing vacation. Conventions are upset by the unconventional socialists, the Emersons. They have the uncultured habit of saying what they mean. When the elder Emerson offers his Room with a View to the young filly Lucy, her older prudish cousin Charlotte is shocked at the impertinence and forwardness of such an offer. The younger Emerson, George, and Lucy have other ideas of propriety, and the rest of the novel very quickly becomes a vehicle for delivering the otherwise-engaged Lucy to her real love George. Unfortunately, Lucy herself is still bound to conventional ideas and is too scared to break with them. On her return to England, Lucy denies her love of George and instead sets off to marry the upper-class twit Cecil, in accord with her family’s expectations. But George and his father both know that Lucy is lying to herself and really loves George.
As the novel moves its scene from Italy to Britain, Forster has fun skewering the mores of the drawing room set. But ultimately the success of the book depends on whether he can pull off the culminating scene. Because delightful as the book’s whimsy, characters, and pointed humor are, if it doesn’t deliver on its obligatory scene where Lucy is confronted with her real feelings, then the book fails.
But Forster at the ridiculous age of 26 executes the scene so beautifully that this one scene in my opinion makes the novel a classic all by itself. Forster in the penultimate chapter of the book has Lucy, on the verge of marrying Cecil, running into the plainspoken father of George once more. In a remarkable monologue, George’s father talks to Lucy passionately of Truth and Love and Lying and Lucy breaks down. She can no longer run from her true feelings. She knows she must have George.
It’s a breathtaking and daring turn. The whole novel depends on whether the reader can be as persuaded as Lucy about the holiness of Love. If we don’t feel it, the novel, despite its other fine qualities, is a throwaway. In the otherwise wonderful 1985 movie, the filmmakers don’t entirely trust the moment. They end the scene too soon and Denholm Elliot’s wonderful performance as the father is somewhat short-changed. But Forster’s father’s full speech is a breathtaking tour-de-force and as a reader I was affected by every word. When I reached the end of that chapter, I felt as if I had been taken by the hand of a master and whirled around in the air, landing giddily with an exhilaration at hearing a truth so plain, yet so inspiring, that I was left, like Lucy, with the feeling of a renewed strength to face life.
Did Forster write that novel with that scene in mind first? I don’t know. But what a dare, what a wager, what an achievement. Set up the expectation, then brilliantly fulfill it. Lesson learned. Simple.
Last night they kicked me, punched me, pulled my hair, grabbed me by the ears and legs, then kicked me in the crotch. Then I got to return the favors. That was enjoyable.
If you’ve read the last two installments of this series in Stage Combat Part 1 and Stage Combat Part 2 you know that I’ve been enrolled in a Stage Combat class and I’m learning how to pound, punish, and pummel without hurting anyone or getting hurt. It’s an awful lot of fun.
But at first I ran into an unexpected difficulty. It was harder than I thought because of the emotional consequences the first week. Let me explain. The first week, I was paired up with a a young woman who was very serious. As the teacher explained to us how to simulate violence without any actual contact, I thought this would be a fun set of exercises. What I did not count on was what actually happened. We took turns being the aggressor and the victim. My partner was the aggressor to begin with. And as she raised her hand to me, a hand that would never actually hit my cheek, I saw in her eyes pure hatred. I was not prepared for this. The hatred flowing through her eyes was palpable and scary. And then when we reversed roles, as I raised my hand to strike her, the look on her face of horror and betrayal was enough to jar me.
She is a gifted actor. Her emotions flow without blocking. It was not just a physical exercise for her, but an acting exercise. I was not prepared for that.
I thought to myself, oh these people play for keeps. In the context of a play, I readily accept that as actors we use our real emotions and that that is part of the job. I was taken aback, however, at the real emotion in this exercise. It felt much more raw than dealing with emotion within a play, because in a play you are sending and receiving emotion within the context of a character. But in this exercise I felt naked, emotionally naked anyway, and it was hard not to be affected by the strength of such emotion. We were involved in something we both knew was forbidden.
As the class was wrapping up and we were putting on our coats and so forth, I tried to make some small talk, just to try and defuse some of the charge in the air. But I felt the small talk was not reciprocated. We left and went our separate ways.
I was disturbed, but my pride said, okay, I’m here to act, I’ll play by actors’ rules, I’m not going to wimp out.
But this current week was much more fun for me. Something happened. Time? We were all a lot looser with each other. Shyness and distrust started to break down. What I felt was standoffish behavior, was just basic tentativeness in a strange new situation. We didn’t choose each other, we didn’t know each other. But now that we know that we are not going to really hurt each other, and now that we know that we are all actors who respect each other, we can leave it on the other side of the studio doors and relax and play.
Singing of pleasure and women of hope, the singer/songwriter Morley jazzes, sambas, and folks her way across the stage of Joe’s Pub in a sleek silver dress. Her generous spirit adds to the warm evening of song on a cold New York night.
Morley’s considerable talents project well in this venue. Her voice is flexible and both her high and low registers are affecting. Her songwriting and singing are unique with echoes of Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. Her writing when specific can be strong: “Unshackled” a new song she wrote about the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners in New York prisons is gripping. Her signature song, “Women of Hope,” is simple and direct in its imagery, especially with its references to protestor Aung San Suu Kyi’s call to action: “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” Some of Morley’s songs have a tendency to be a bit too generic in their lyrical sentiments but on the other hand, Morley can also grab onto a resonant phrase like Sever the Ties and make something special of it. In her best work, she finds an image and dives deep.
As a composer, Morley takes risks, and you can hear her jazz influences. She also plays with standard pop form. She might begin with a/b/a/b, but soon she’s taking flights in the middle up and down the universe before returning back to home base. Those twists and turns allow Morley to go deeper and wider, a bird’s eye view of the world.
The set was nicely shaped beginning with “Pleasure” (“I’m talking about spiritual pleasure, I’m talking about intellectual pleasure,” she teases as she seduces) backed by a strong band including Robin Macatangay on guitar. Her combo dwindles down to three then two then one as the evening becomes more intimate culminating in an Abbey Lincoln song, “Throw it Away,” followed by a new song called “Baldwin’s Wings” based on a James Baldwin essay. Other memorable songs included “Call on Me” and “A Life Fully Realized.” She rounded out the set by returning the band for a closing of “Love and Understanding” backed with a strong Latin beat. For the encore, she did an acoustic version of “Women of Hope” with the audience joining in on the refrain.
In the intro to one of her songs, Morley mentioned how the late choreographer Geoffrey Holder had said to her that art is this: you make a messy painting and then you find a way to make it beautiful.
Last night, Morley brought beauty along with love, spirit, and elegance to the evening.
I’m as jittery as a three-wheeled caboose. I am about to face my novel again, the fourth draft to be exact. I don’t know what I’m going to find.
I’ve been working on a novel for the past few years. In the last 10 months, I’ve given it more serious commitment. It’s become the most important part of my day. Three drafts done, the words finally sculpting a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
I worked through the drafts without much break in between. I didn’t want to lose the thread of whatever was there. I printed out the completed third draft, put it in a manila envelope, and buried it under a pile of bills by the window in the corner of my workspace. The morning street noises unconcernedly wafted over it.
One month. That’s the timeline I was giving myself. I was on forced vacation from the characters I liked and loved. The plan was to get some distance and come back for one final draft before letting a few others give their feedback.
I kept myself busy during the month (this blog, an outline for another novel) but now the time is up. Tomorrow I dig up the manila folder and start reading the pages again. It’s like meeting an old college friend. I hope we still like each other.
When my son was born I kept thinking how lucky I was to have such an absurdly beautiful baby. Maybe Nature makes that happen for all parents. The parents look at their newborn and think no baby could possibly be more perfect. When I look back at the earliest pictures of my son, the truth is he looks pretty much like every other newborn baby. Even down to the identical funny little hats they are all issued at the hospital. It’s a wonderful protective mechanism we’re given (the parental pride, not the funny little hats).
But novels? I’m not so sure we get that kind of creator’s protection. We have to face the consequences of our lexical mistakes and bear the shock of whatever is really there. What if there’s nothing worth saving?
How bold will I be? Will I wimp out if it’s clear that the whole structure is rotten and needs re-modeling? Will I ruthlessly cut out characters who don’t add to the story line? Will I, as the advice famously goes, kill my darlings?
Not so fast. In previous drafts, my editorial self was tempted to take out whole characters and subplots. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t kill my darlings. And that mercy, I think, for now at least, was the better choice. As I found out more about my characters and my story I found a way to more fully integrate them into the plot of the novel. I think the novel is stronger for that decision.
The one thing I am happy about is that with every draft so far, I’ve surprised myself with new content. It’s not just been about changing words here or there, but still working with something alive and pliable. Each round I’ve written something that surprises me, surprises my characters. I am grateful for that.
She steps off the platform with suitcases, the blue suitcase I remember. The turn of her shoulder. What coat is that? What hair? We walk towards each other with half a smile on our lips. I stumble on a rock.
I’ll let you know how it all went in the coming week.