Oh How I Wish I’d Read Dickens as A Teen

My Grandmother bought me an abridged version of Great Expectations when I was about nine, but I didn’t crack the book till my teens, at which time my dad tried as sincerely as he could (without pushing) to encourage me to read it. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph – to paraphrase: “My last name being Pirrip and my first Philip, all my young tongue could make of them was Pip…” It just seemed like waffle to me at that time – I was into Marvel Comics, Conan the Barbarian novels, the sci-fi of Heinlein, Anthony, Niven and Pournelle, the horror of Stephen King, and that first paragraph of Great Expectations just seemed like nonsense.

How wrong I was. How bitter I am that I never allowed myself to read just the next page, where Pip is grabbed by the convict Magwitch in the cemetery! How that would have grabbed me and pulled me in! And how I could have sat for long hours with my dad, who passed away many years ago now, and talked Dickens! I believe I might even have begun writing my own novels sooner had I discovered Dickens back then. How I would love to be able to go back and do those things, especially sit and talk Dickens with my dad.

I won’t go into anything of the plot of Great Expectations, one should read it and see for themselves, but I’ll describe how I finally discovered Dickens, and how I have recently finished reading that old abridged version of Great Expectations that my granny gave me over four decades ago.

I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was unemployed and filling my days by borrowing and reading books from the library. My reading tastes were quite varied by then and I went through every copy they had of the Deathlands series by James Axler, everything I could find by Robert McCammon, The Ruby in the Smoke books by Philip Pullman, Little Women and the Eight Cousins books by Louisa May Alcott, and all eight books in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series.

Then I found a beat up old copy of something called Poor Miss Finch by a fellow named Wilkie Collins. It was in such a wrecked state, almost falling to bits, and I wondered why the librarians didn’t just throw it out and get a new copy. It intrigued me for this reason alone and I took it home. When I started reading it I realized it was no ordinary book. It was set in nineteenth century England and the style was something I couldn’t quite define, old-fashioned and yet at the same time seeming very modern and easy to grasp. And the story! What was I reading? It was about a poor young blind woman who is taken advantage of by twin brothers – they take turns in wooing her, pretending to be just one man – oh those black hearts! I wanted to jump into that book and throttle them both. It was a long book, very full and densely packed – something else I never would have read as a teen. But when I finished it I wanted more of Wilkie Collins.

A little research told me that not only was Poor Miss Finch set in nineteenth century England, it was also written back then! Collins was from those times and I realized that what I’d read was a Victorian Novel – I’d heard of them, never had the slightest interest in reading one, and now had by complete accident discovered that they were sensational. I was hooked. I read more of Collins: Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret, No Name (a book every modern young woman should read!) and his magnum opus, The Woman in White (the title on his grave marker). I learned also that he was a contemporary of, and indeed best friends with, Charles Dickens, a discovery that made me wonder if Dickens would be as much fun to read.

The first book I could find of Dickens was David Copperfield. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was: funny, heart-warming, tragic and dramatic, and with that same old-fashioned yet modern and easy reading quality (and granted not all Dickens is easy reading!), but also, within the tragedy, there was at times a great sense of fun about David Copperfield. It was to that point the greatest book I’d ever read. And the best thing was there were many more books by Dickens that I would have the pleasure of reading – and they were all tomes! I had become an addict, hooked on Dickens and Collins, and I fed my habit.

After David Copperfield I of course thought of that old abridged version of Great Expectations my Gran had given me, but not having it to hand I bought a four-dollar paperback from Barnes & Noble (full version not abridged) and devoured it in less than a week. I marveled at it. I loved it more than David Copperfield. And that was when I began to wish I could go back and tell my dad how sorry I was I’d never read it while he was alive. This could never be, of course, so when I came back to Australia I did what I felt was the least I could, and read that old abridged version. I just finished it… and it only took me forty-four years!

When Overwriting Was King

In my debut novel, The Scare, I’ve been accused by Kirkus Review of overwriting: “…a tedious torrent of overwriting…” is how they put it to be precise. I agree with them and am darned proud of their review! The Scare is overwritten for sure. But what overwriting! It’s a jolly good yarn with great characters readers love and a story that draws you in. And that’s all that matters. My goal as a writer is to entertain my readers and if I succeed it doesn’t matter how many words I used to do it. When I’m absorbed in a book I can’t put down I ain’t counting words or thinking about whether it’s overwritten! But okay, since I’m talking about overwriting let’s talk about it. I overwrite. I admit it and I admit that I love it. Come to think of it Stephen King overwrites and he’s doing just fine. So I’m in great company. Another guy who was big on overwriting–and who was around decades before King–is Robert Ervin Howard, aka Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. That’s right, Conan the Barbarian wasn’t created by some facile, overpaid Hollywood screenwriter fresh out of an Ivy League school, he was created in 1932 by a full grown Texan. In Howard’s day, not only was overwriting not frowned upon, it was King, just like Conan became! The 30s was the age of pulp fiction, no, not that movie by that director, but wonderful stories that could be found in the inexpensive fiction magazines that flourished from 1896 through the 1950s. The term pulp derived from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Pulps were most often priced at ten cents per magazine and were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Many respected writers wrote for the pulps before they became respected, some of them, like Howard, became respected pulp writers. And yet Howard overwrote. In fact, he beautifully overwrote. And you know what? It’s great stuff. There’s not a thing wrong with it. Not back when it was written and not now. Howard’s stuff was so great it’s never been out of print. It’s been adapted into comic books, made into movies, copied endlessly. Some of today’s best writers have even written their own original Conan novels: Robert Jordan, Steve Perry, and L. Sprague de Camp to name a few. Conan the Barbarian is his own industry today. Not a bad achievement for a character created by a man in 1932 who was an inveterate overwriter. In “Queen of the Black Coast” one of Howard’s greatest stories, his overwriting shone brightly:

 

As they moved out over the glassy blue deep, Belit came to the poop.

Her eyes were burning like those of a she-panther in the dark as she

tore off her ornaments, her sandals and her silken girdle and cast

them at his feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering

line of naked

 white, she cried to the desperate horde: “Wolves of the

blue sea, behold ye now the dance–the mating-dance of Belit, whose

fathers were kings of Askalon!”

 

And she danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping

of a quenchless flame, like the urge of

 creation and the urge of

death. Her white feet spurned the bloodstained deck and dying men

forgot death as they gazed frozen at her. Then, as the white stars

glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a

blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry she threw herself at Conan’s feet,

and the blind flood of the Cimmerian’s desire swept all else away as

he crushed her panting form against the black plates of his corseleted

breast.

 

There is no denying that Howard’s overwriting was a pure art form, and although my own overwriting may be nowhere near as good, to be accused of it is a thing to be proud of and shouted from the highest rooftops. Or from the humble keys of my laptop. And so I proudly shout it.

What Makes Me Write?

I’ve been wondering lately what makes me believe I can write something that other people will bother to spend money on and then spend their time reading. I mean, time is a precious thing; we all have only a limited amount of it to spend here on earth. So what makes me think folks out there will buy and read a 300 plus page book I’ve written? Is it audacity? Arrogance? Or is it just plain optimism? I like to think it’s optimism and not audacity or arrogance, that’s much more positive and sounds a lot nicer. There’s a lot to be said for optimism. Take Star Wars for instance. At one point while George Lucas was in the middle of filming, Fox execs got word (which trickled up from various crew members) that Lucas didn’t know what he was doing and his film was going to be terrible. Some of this stemmed from Lucas filming his actors on a sound stage fighting with sticks with nothing around them except green curtains. Of course Lucas knew what the finished product would look like (which the world now knows was the spectacular light sabre battle between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader). But this was the 70s and at that time none of those crew members had any frame of reference by which to guess what Lucas was doing, and they certainly weren’t visionaries with imagination like Lucas so they had no faculty to foresee how it would eventually look on screen. So the production was shut down and a photo was taken of Lucas sitting in a gutter with his head in his hands. Imagine if the production had stayed shut down. We wouldn’t have Star Wars! (Yes, I can’t contemplate that either). But Lucas and his optimism managed to convince execs to let him continue and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. So when I see how many books are already out there in the world, and I start to doubt my writing talent and think I’ve got no chance and no hope and ought to just sit in the gutter with my head in my hands for the rest of my life, I tap into my bottomless well of optimism and remind myself that even if no one ever reads my books or thinks they’re any good (or maybe even great), I should at least still allow them to be the judge of whether I have any talent or not. And the only way to do that is write the darned books and actually finish them and then boldly sling them out into the world. They may not become Star Wars but why let self-doubt and fear deprive me of the possibility? And at the very least, I enjoy writing them. I get to hang out with great characters and go on cool adventures. And that beats sitting in any old gutter!

 

Buy Robert Shaw’s book’s on Amazon: http://amzn.to/Tlf0F7

You Can Never Go Home

I’ve always known the meaning of the old saying but never gave it much thought and never experienced what it feels like to actually discover why it’s so true.

Until my recent return home to Australia.

I’d been away for twenty-six years, wandering the world seeking my fortune, which unfortunately someone else picked up before I got to it.

Throughout my time away, I was occasionally struck with feelings of homesickness, but it was only in the last year leading up to my return that I was positively plagued by specific and vivid memories from my teens. One memory in particular was of sitting up all night with my best buddy at the time, Geoff Clements, watching old black & white movies on TV. They played from around eleven in the evening till about seven the next morning, and were called, in succession, The Late Show, The Late, Late Show, The Late, Late, Late Show, and The Early Show, which was so called because it started sometime around five o’clock the next morning.

The movies were nothing special; usually just the cheap and cheesy B-graders one can now get at Best Buy on DVD in boxed sets of 50 movies for twelve bucks. What was special was that at fifteen, I got to sit up all night and watch them. Back then we weren’t doing it with beer either, instead we drank coffee, and instant coffee at that, which was the cultural norm in many Aussie households at the time (and still is in my little sister’s household). One particular movie stood out that I always wanted to see again but had neglected to catch the title of—which was especially regrettable after everything became available on VHS and then DVD and I didn’t know what darned movie to look for!

Years later I told another best buddy, John Eenigenburg, the storyline of this movie: “it was about this woman who’s in a wheelchair and she goes to this house on the cliffs somewhere by the seaside and keeps seeing her father’s dead body everywhere and it turns out SPOILERS AHEAD…………… there are these people trying to drive her crazy and kill her.” By this time I wondered if I even remembered the movie accurately or if I might have actually dreamed some of it in the intervening years of thinking about it so often and was now mixing the movie up with a dream. I never thought for one second that John would know what the hell movie I was on about, but to my utter shock and absolutely happy amazement he blurted out “Scream of Fear starring Susan Strasberg!” And he was right! It was the very movie and one of his favorites growing up too. Turns out it was one of those old British Hammer Horror Films made in the 60s, and armed with this new information I promptly hit the Internet and discovered it was only available on VHS and was $100 bucks! And then I discovered that the VHS was no longer available. Horror of horrors! But at least I now knew the name of the movie.

More years went by and then one day, on one of my forages through Best Buy for bargain DVD packs, I saw a DVD “Icons of Horror” collection called “Hammer Films 4 Creepy Classics”—and lo and behold one of those classics was Scream of Fear. And the DVD pack was ten bucks! I bought it. I still own it. I’ve watched Scream of Fear a dozen times since then and it’s as great every time as it was when I was fifteen and stayed up all night to watch it.

When I came home to Australia in 2012 I thought how wonderful it would be to go to Geoff’s house—or The Clements House as we called it back then—and watch the DVD with my old best buddy Geoff, how awesome to recapture that old time and relive those lost moments.

But being back home these past six months has made me realize, and finally fully understand the old saying ‘you can never go home.’ The house Geoff lived in is still there and two of his brothers still live in it. But Geoff lives in NSW now with his wife and kids, his sisters are all married and moved on, and his folks passed away. The house I lived in across the street is still there too but it’s been built on and renovated to the point where it looks nothing like it did during my time there. My dad passed away in 2001 and my mom is in the advanced stages of Dementia and now lives in a nursing home. Visiting with her is sometimes like visiting someone who’s happy to see me but doesn’t really know who I am (the most agonizing change of all). I live at my younger sister’s house and my older sister, although not close by, is still only an hour’s drive away. But nothing is the same as it was. I could go to my old house but I cannot ‘go’ to it. I can go to The Clements House—with two of the Clements Boys still in it—but I can never actually go back to The Clements House that I knew growing up. The two Clements boys still living there are old men now, not the youthful guys I knew growing up, and although we’re still friends and except for getting older they really haven’t changed much. How can someone not change and yet changed completely? It’s easy with time I guess.

It’s a painful thing to be struck by; this realization that every minute I lived back then should have been enjoyed and cherished. I cherished nothing and took it all for granted: my parents were there, my sisters, Geoff’s parents, brothers and sisters—we were all there, young and happy and carefree, with our entire lives ahead of us and I was too young and happy and carefree to realize that none of it would last, none of those people and none of those times would be there forever and I ought to be hanging onto every minute as if it was my last. Because it was, each one of those minutes lasted only a minute and then was gone, never to be got back again.

I read somewhere recently that it’s human nature when we’re young to think that the present will last forever. I’m no longer young but I can tell you that it’s still my nature to think the present will last forever. The minutes of my life continue to flare and fade like sparks in a fire and I should be cherishing every one of them just the same way I should have cherished those sparks I lived in my teens. But I didn’t then and it’s human nature that I won’t now. It’s impossible to go through every single minute thinking about how much I should be appreciating it—by their very nature they simply must go by without really being noticed otherwise I’ll miss them. The fire of time burns on, consuming everything I knew and leaving it in place and utterly changed, including me and yet somehow excluding me.

Home might still exist… but I can never go there again.

It’s Story Time….so far

Again my apologies that we haven’t arrived in London yet, but this last little tale about my early efforts to break into writing leads up to my departure from Australian shores. So there I was, stuck with a script called The Steel Prince and no idea what to do with it. There was certainly no way I could get Film Victoria interested in it. I had met with someone at their offices a few years earlier after I sent them the first script I had ever written: a horror story called “The Inheritance” which was a cross between Dirty Harry and The Exorcist; after reading it, the woman I met with at FilmVic told me “you certainly know how to structure a screenplay” but went on to assure me that they did not make films like that in Australia so I would be better off going to Hollywood. Hah! I was around eighteen-years-old at the time so Hollywood might as well have been Mars as far as I was concerned. The upshot was though, that if they hadn’t wanted to make a movie like The Inheritance, then they certainly weren’t going to make The Steel Prince. But I had not a clue on how I’d ever get a script to someone in Hollywood so it would be gathering some dust. Around this time (I guess it was about a year before my eventual conversation with David Tomblin and my departure for London) I was reading a book on the making of “Return of the Jedi” and found some things that the film’s director, Richard Marquand, had to say very encouraging. One thing in particular was how his agent mentioned George Lucas was looking for someone to direct Jedi and suggested they throw Marquand’s name into the mix. Marquand scoffed at the idea and thought there was no way Lucas would even consider a small-time English director who had done no big movies. His agent insisted, however, and it turned out that Lucas was a fan of one of Marquand’s earlier films “Eye of the Needle” and agreed to meet him. Long story short, he got the job and wound up directing Jedi. That story made me think he might just be able to relate to my hopelessness of ever getting a script to a Hollywood agent and therefore he might be willing to help me. Again, I turned to my letter writing skills. I found out that he was editing a movie in France and sent the letter to him there, telling him about myself and The Steel Prince. Lo and behold I got a letter back from him telling me he would be happy to read my script. I sent it to the cutting room he was working in in Paris, and over the next several months, I exchanged letters with Richard Marquand (I still have them in my files at home in Melbourne) as he helped me develop The Steel Prince through two more drafts. After that he sent it to his agent at Creative Artists Agency (who I think at the time was Rosalie Swedlin) to see if he could help me get some representation. Nothing ever materialized from that but Marquand was a true gentleman for all his help and tolerance. Next chapter: London (for real this time) and a further adventure with Richard Marquand).

It’s Story Time….so far

Okay, I know Chapter 2 was supposed to be London, and I apologize for the fake out, but I recall some stuff that means we stay in Melbourne for a bit longer. It pertains to my attempts to become a successful writer, which (despite having embarked on a long relationship with doing odd jobs, photocopying and filing after I left home to chase my dreams) was one of the two reasons I wanted a career in the film industry to begin with (the other being to direct). As a kid growing up in Australia, I never had any interest whatsoever in seeing any Australian films. To me, they were all just boring costume dramas with pretentious aspirations to greatness. I know the Aussie film industry has turned out some gems, but they still seem to make mostly crap with pretentious aspirations to greatness. It’s sad. Australia has great actors and directors who, once the opportunity arises, get their asses to Hollywood as fast as they can so they can become superstars. But the movie business in Australia (at least for making Australian films) has no real financing to speak of and so filmmakers have to rely on organizations such as Film Victoria, who from what I’ve read lately, spend more money wining and dining their friends and fat cat politicians than they give to any filmmakers. So it’s no wonder the Aussie film biz doesn’t turn out an original Australian superhero movie or real big action/adventure. So anyway, when Mad Max came out I naturally thought oh here’s another crap Aussie movie – and with a really dumb title no less. So I didn’t see it when it first came out. I also had no interest in seeing Mad Max 2 for the same reasons, but my sisters kept telling me “no, it’s nothing like what you expect from an Aussie movie” so I relented and went to see it. And I was blown away. It was amazing and at first I couldn’t quite believe it had been made by Aussies. In fact I was so blown away that I immediately sat down and wrote a 5 page synopsis for Mad Max 3 called “The Steel Prince”. Then I researched everything there was to know about the filmmakers and after reading an interview with the film’s producer, Byron Kennedy, in which he mentioned all the reasons why he and George Miller made an Aussie movie that was, well, essentially NOT an Aussie movie in the typical sense, I thought I have to get my synopsis to Byron Kennedy. I had no idea how to do that so I started with the basics, writing him a letter introducing myself and my synopsis and telling him how awesome I thought Mad Max 2 was (I left out that part about not seeing the first one) and how badly I wanted to join his production company and be a writer. I sent it to Kennedy/Miller Productions in Sydney and thought, well; maybe I’ll get a reply. A week or so later the phone rang one evening at our house and my dad answered. I was in the living room and not paying attention, but my dad walked in and said: “Rob, there’s a feller named Byron Kennedy on the phone for you.” I thought yeah sure, it’s just one of my friends (who all knew about my synopsis and the letter I’d sent to him) playing a joke. But when I picked up the phone and said hello and heard this really deep, really serious voice on the other end, I knew right away that it was Byron Kennedy on the frikkin line! I couldn’t believe it! He told me he was intrigued by my synopsis and wanted me to flesh it out into a 60 page treatment and send it off to him. I was like sure Byron no worries I can do that and I’ll get it to you in two weeks. I had no idea what a treatment was or how I was going to flesh out my 5 page synopsis (I’d only just found out what one of those was) to sixty pages. But I’d just talked to the creator/producer of the Mad Max films and told him I’d have a treatment to him in two weeks and by God I was going to keep my word. I read some books my mom and dad had given me on screenwriting and discovered that a treatment was just a story written in present tense that basically laid out the plot structure and beats of an idea in a form similar to what you might see in a book. That was a relief. It was just writing. And I knew I could do that. I sat down and pounded out a treatment on the typewriter my parents had bought me (God bless them they completely supported my crazy aspirations of being a writer and never doubted me). I don’t remember if I got exactly sixty pages but I know it was pretty long. I don’t even remember where all the ideas came from – they just sort of started flowing when I started typing. Never mind that it was mostly crap. There was some pretty awesome stuff in “Mad Max 3: The Steel Prince” by Robert Shaw. I sent it off and got a call a couple days later from Byron’s secretary telling me he’d received my treatment and would be getting in touch with me once he got back from a trip he was on. And I thought this is it, I’m on my way to success. So I waited. And then a few weeks later one of my friends (I think it was Phill Dimitroff or his brother Martin) told me Byron Kennedy was dead. He’d been killed in a helicopter crash while away on some trip. I didn’t believe him. But why would someone joke about something that awful. It was no joke of course and I was devastated. I mean, never mind the fact that it was bloody terrible that the guy had been killed – that really was an awful tragedy – but I’d be lying if I didn’t also think well frak, what about my story treatment? (Selfish right? I know. I was young and I apologize for it). I waited a while and then called Kennedy/Miller Productions and asked what was going to happen to my treatment. The girl I spoke to didn’t know what I was talking about and of course I couldn’t get in touch with Byron’s secretary – the one who’d called to say he’d received my treatment – I didn’t remember her name and when I asked to speak to his secretary they told me she wasn’t there anymore. A few months went by and I went to Sydney to try and shed some light on the subject but was not warmly received by anyone at Kennedy/Miller so that was the end of that. I refused to see Mad Max 3 when it came out but a few of my friends that had read my treatment swore it had scenes out of my treatment in it. I had Max captured by an enemy camp and forced to fight in a pit against a huge half-man/half-machine opponent named Sordak, who was clad in metal and a mask. The pit was surrounded by cheering/jeering enemy members of the camp; Thunder Dome had the fights in the Thunder Dome cage. I had Max discover a tribe of friendly people and kids in a sort of hidden oasis base; Thunder Dome had the kids in the desert oasis. Did they rip off some ideas from my treatment and adapt them for their own use? Maybe. But it was decades ago and I’d never be able to prove it. Anyway, I decided to write a script from my treatment and just take out all the Mad Max stuff – which was easy. I ended up with a script called The Steel Prince, which was a sort of Sword & Sorcery/ground based Star Wars hybrid that I thought (at the time) really rocked. Then I read about an Aussie director named Russell Mulcahy who had just made a movie called Razorback – which turned out to be a great Aussie film and the first of its kind in Australian cinema. I read that he was editing the movie up in Sydney at the offices of McElroy & McElroy, the company that produced the movie, so I called to ask if he’d be interested in reading my script. Man, in retrospect it seemed way easy to get in touch with movie producers and directors back then because when I got put through to the cutting room Mulcahy actually took my call. After a brief discussion he agreed to meet with me and read my script if I brought it up to Sydney. So I hopped on a plane. When I got there I called him and he said to swing by his condo the next morning around 10am. Luckily I went early because when I arrived I bumped into him as he was heading out to have breakfast. He’d forgotten all about me.  Anyway, I handed him the script and he said “Oh, is this it?” I guess it didn’t look too impressive. Anyway, he said he’d read it and would let me know. So I hopped a train back to Melbourne and followed up with another call about a month later. When I talked to him again he told me he wasn’t interested in doing Sword & Sorcery. I guess he was as impressed by the reading of my script as he had been by the receiving of it from me. Oh well, looking back I realize my script was crap anyway. Mulcahy’s next movie was Highlander so I guess he became interested in doing Sword & Sorcery after all. And Highlander was a way better script that mine!

The Scare and Girlfriend Trouble

Robert Shaw invites you to read his modern Gothic zombie tale The Scare, and the YA comedy/drama Girlfriend Trouble, and his upcoming third novel, the thunderously violent slightly sci-fi tale of how the Old West wasn’t, which will be available on Amazon and other outlets soon.

http://www.amazon.com/Scare-Robert-Shaw/dp/0981599303/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1351206512&sr=1-3&keywords=The+Scare

http://www.amazon.com/Girlfriend-Trouble-Robert-Shaw/dp/0981599338/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1351206551&sr=1-1&keywords=Girlfriend+Trouble

http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/OzBritUS