Archive for November, 2011

Writing Daily

Okay, it’s Day 21 of NaNoWriMo.  So far, I’ve written three words.  Apparently I’ve decided to spot November three weeks and then pull together a novel in just over a week.  Or maybe not.  I wrote the first draft of King Maker during a NaNoWriMo, though the final version of it was nearly double what was produced during NaNoWriMo.  But the process of tearing through a first draft in a month was a valuable exercise, if only to prove to myself that it could be done (a skillset which has since proven quite handy).

I’ve often gone around and around in circles with myself on the importance of writing daily.  It’s like any discipline that one seeks to acquire in order to further growth in an area.  Take “personal devotions” (daily prayer and Bible reading), for example. Personal study and prayer are vital parts of a growing spiritual closeness with God.  However, I grew up in a church where you were made to feel like a bad Christian if you didn’t start each day with Bible study and prayer time.  Instead of intimacy, I was shackled with some new chains of false guilt, reducing what should be the natural development of a relationship between me and God into some legalistic rule.

So I don’t want to needlessly burden myself with any sort of needless guilt about the notion of “write every day.”  It’s one of those bits of advice newbie writers get all the time (along with “read everything” and “finish things”).  Too often I read on blogs or twitters “reports” on how much said author has written that day.  Always generating within me a variety of responses (not the least of which is dropping their blog or twitter from my feed if they mostly consists of such reports).

I can’t write everyday because I’m not always in a frame of mind to write.  Sometimes life happens and the mind is chaotic and you produce a pile of words which need to be pitched in your next round of revision anyway.  All of that being said, arguably, I always write.  Ideas shape themselves and pool in the back of my head, even without pen put to paper.  Plot kinks get worked out.  Characters gradually introduce themselves to me.  While we believe that our creativity can’t be turned on and off like a faucet, the reality is that it/you can be trained to go into that zone more easily.  A stimulated mind and the pressure of a looming deadline do provide the right alchemy to put words on a page.  As always, the most difficult part of writing is actually planting my behind in a chair and putting my pen to paper.  And the habit of developing that discipline lies at the heart, and is the point, of writing every day.

And I don’t want to miss the point of why I write:  for the love of telling story (and pay).  So … write.

The “write every day” dogma, like much other advice on writing, should be taken with a grain of salt  (or rather, like salt, should be adjusted for taste as it suits your writing “recipe”).  In the meantime, I’ve written 545 words for this blog post.  I’m off the hook for today.

Joyful Noise – A Review

“Fix Me Lord”

Joyful Noise is the kind of movie you want to love.  It has many of the right pieces for a family, feel good movie.  While not exactly a pair we’d expect to see at Wal-Mart hanging out, there is Dolly Parton (9-to-5), a diva in winter, and Queen Latifah (Stranger than Fiction), a diva in mid life, both of whom have personality to fill ten screens worth of movie chewing up scenery AND getting to belt out catchy songs.  Even the most generic of scripts should be able to provide enough set up to let them do their thing and entertain an audience of ninety minutes.  Alas …

When choir director, Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) passes away unexpectedly, the mantle of leadership passes on to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) rather than his wife, G.G. (Dolly Parton), thus stirring the pot on their simmering rivalry.  Vi Rose is a single mom—since her husband, played by Jesse L. Martin, skipped out on them via the military—holding her household together, taking care of her son, Walter (Dexter Darden) who has Asberger’s Syndrome, and her hot and anxious to date teenage daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer).

G.G., on the other hand, has recently taken in her ne’er do well nephew, Randy (Jeremy Jordan), who immediately is drawn to Olivia.  G.G. also happens to be the major donor to their church as their choir continues to battle their way through a choir competition.  Olivia and Randy are the new generation of the choir, wanting to take things in a new direction, while Vi Rose and their pastor, Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance, between he and Martin, the movie serves as a safehaven for Law & Order alums), wants to keep things in a more traditional vein.

With the town facing difficult economic times, the show choir trying to make regionals gives the townsfolk something to have hope in.  Throw in the numerous musical numbers and there is more than enough going on for any movie.  Once you add the numerous subplots—the journey of Walter in wanting to be normal, the romantic entanglements of the choir members, the Romeo & Juliet romance between Olivia and Randy (including rival suitors)—and you have a movie that unspools over all over the place not quite sure what story it wants to tell.

“I just don’t see what’s so great about God.” –Walter

One of the spiritual themes that runs through the movie is the wrestling with the question “Why?”:  why is the town suffering?  Why did Bernard have to die?  Why did God allow bad things?  (as Walter points out, in referring to his condition, that “He’s who did this to me.”) Queen thinks of God as a parent and that we trust in Him as a father even when we don’t understand Him.  Her theodicy, a justification of God, is one way to reconcile the idea of a good, all powerful God and the reality of evil. The fact of the matter is that God is good and is also omnipotent. God created a world which contains evil and had a good reason for doing so (for reasons of greater good that we don’t understand right now). So the fact that the world contains evil is consistent with a Christian view of God. Yet we still want this all knowing, all powerful God to do something about the evil. We want to accuse God, point out how He has screwed up and turned His back on us for too long. We’re tired of His seeming silence and indifference to our sufferings.

The image of God as both good and severe, a God that fit readily into our (Old Testament kind of) paradigm, was gradually replaced with that of a one-dimensional, only-good God, as if Love is the only dimension of who He is.  There is nothing wrong with seeing God as good, as long as you realize that is not all He is. We have many sides to us, so we can only imagine how complex He is.  We forget passages like “Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God” (Romans 11:22a, The Message version).  But this is something to continue to wrestle with, though the short answer is “I don’t know.”

“God judges a man on two things:  on his faith and on the content of his heart.” –Pastor

With Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise has two generations of down to earth divas not allowed to truly cut loose and do their thing.  It doesn’t know how to give them stuff to do, so it keeps throwing storylines like hard dinner rolls hoping to nail its audience.  Both have proven comedy chops but aren’t given enough space to lift this mediocre mess.  Even sleepwalking through this script, they still easily outshine the young leads on whom the film truly rests.  Though predictable and earnest, it is buoyed by great music.  However, even that’s not enough to rescue a movie so unsure of itself and its laughs. As The Bad News Bears of the gospel music set (with Queen Latifah’s rallying speech being a riotous highlight), Joyful Noise showed flashes of what it could have been.

Advice After a Big Sale

(Aka Don’t Let Publishing Turn You Into a Delta Bravo)

Writers Groups are an interesting breed of beast.  In the ideal, you have people at various stages at their careers, each unthreatened by any other, especially their success, and thus are able to contribute freely and openly.  I was asked recently how does one handle themselves within a group of fairly newbie writers after they have gotten a pretty big sale.  I simply said “don’t follow my example.”

Look, writers have egos and no one wants to be thought of as the newbie writer, thus everyone is quick to shout their credentials, or tout their successes.  Basically, we’re caught up in the mindset of writing as a zero sum game, with someone else’s success somehow coming at your expense.  It takes a while to realize that’s not the case, so in the mean time, too often in a writers group the individuals are too busy playing “alpha writer.”  So when someone makes a big sale, it’s easy for them to suddenly think their feces has a particularly perfume-like aroma.

“I’ve been published in an anthology with [fill in the blank]”.  It’s hard to believe folks would actually lead with that, but the thing is that I KNOW it’s tough to NOT lead with that. As writers, after years of decorating your walls with rejection letters, you grasp onto your victories where you can get them.   When I got into the Dark Dreams anthologies, it was hard not to pull out the “do you know who I am?” card (despite the fact that it never got me anywhere.  It was just self-gratifying to whip out the card).  But suddenly no writing group I was in could tell me ANYTHING about writing (my writing in particular) because this major anthology series had bought one of my stories.

Nevermind the fact that I was still “and others”, that is, *I* was just another story folks skipped over on their way to Zane, Tananarive Due, or Eric Jerome Dickey.  Eventually I settled down.  INSIDE, I was still published alongside some great writers, which meant I thought a lot more of my work.  I also thought a lot more about the quality of markets I sent that work to, and I simply demanded more out of myself, out of the markets, and out of success.  OUTSIDE, I didn’t need to say anything.  Resumes speak for themselves (someone once made the observation about author bios in the back of books or in programs that the more accomplished the author, the shorter the bio … unless they just HAVE to club a newbie over their head with their credentials).

So, you let your success affect how you carry yourself professionally.  Bragging/speaking about it makes you sound like a douche. In case you’re wondering, only in the last few years has my douchiness been “forgiven” in the group.  No matter your level of success, no one stays hot forever.  So there’s no point in being a D.B. once I’ve “made it” since, as the adage goes, those I pass on the way up are those I will pass on the way down.  Anyway, I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.  I just have to write the best stories I can.  I can be satisfied with that.*

File Under:  The Emotional Life of Writing

Inhabiting the Space of Characters

*As long as the check clears

The Muppets – A Review

It’s been a long time since The Muppets were a cultural phenomena.  In the 1970s and 1980s, The Muppet Show lit up many a household.  When it first aired in 1976, many people questioned if a show about puppets would find an audience among adults.  Back then, creator Jim Henson called in favors to get stars, but it didn’t take long for many of the pop culture icons to ask to appear on the show: Paul Simon, Elton John, the cast of Star Wars.  The 1980s brought us The Muppet Babies cartoon series as well as the movie spinoffs until the Muppets faded into obscurity.  The current pop culture waters, however, are being properly chummed for their comeback.

The Muppets movie picks the story up with the Muppets biggest fan, Walter (himself a Muppet), and his his friends Gary (Jason Segel, both a huge fan and the screenplay writer) and Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown, USA.  They travel to Los Angeles on vacation where Walter overhears oilman Tex Richman’s (Chris Cooper) plan to tear down the old Muppet Theatre so that he can drill for oil.  Walter and company search for Kermit—who has been living in and old mansion along with his memories of the old gang—in the hopes that he can hatch a plan to save the theater.  In a plot recalling The Blues Brothers, they opt to put the band back together, in this case, to host The Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever to raise the $10 million needed to stop the oilman’s plan.

The rest of the gang has gone their own way, equally toiling in the shadow of their former glory.  Fozzie now performs with a tribute band called the Moopets; Animal is in residence for anger management; Gonzo has become a plumbing tycoon; though Miss Piggy has become a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris.

“A hard, cynical act for a hard, cynical world.” –Tex Richman

The real plot (and test for the movies) seems to be whether or not they can get people to care about the Muppets again.  It has been so long that people have forgotten about them.  An entire generation doesn’t know who they are.  We live in a world without Muppets, a world that has forgotten Tab and Real Coke.  It has moved on, and The Muppets may be too irrelevant, too happy, and too heartwarming, mistakenly dismissed as smaltzy.  Which would be a mistake.

The Muppets represent a childlike innocence, but also the resiliency of hope.  That things don’t have to be dark and cynical in order to be relevant.  That there can be humor that neither talks down nor denigrates others.  That fun can still be had without the need to wade through a cesspool.  Being nice feels like a throwback to an earlier age.

“Just because you haven’t found your talent yet doesn’t mean you don’t have one.” –Kermit

One of the overarching themes of The Muppets is that journey Walter takes in order to discover who he is meant to be.  It’s a journey we all have to take.  To recognize that we are all eikons, image-bearers of God; worthy of respect, value, and love. We participate in the Divine Being, meant to partake in the Divine Life and Happiness. We were created in love, for love, and are to open ourselves to the possibility of love.   Our “fallenness” becomes about not living up to that potential, what we were created to be.  But there is hope, as we seek wholeness, being restored in all the dimensions of humanity.  And in that grace, we’re moved toward outward expression, joining our talents with the Kingdom of God as we pursue a mission of reconciliation, of restoration.

“Even the sunniest days can have a few clouds in them.” –Walter

The Muppets serves as a coming out party (or better yet, a welcome back) for The Muppets.  It would be easy for it to skate by on nostalgia while striving for relevance in a new generation, yet it manages to feel updated without succumbing to the pressure to become “relevant” (read:  edgy).  This movie is for parents who grew up with the Muppets as they introduce their children to them.  A whole new generation of stars pop up in this movie:  Jack Black, John Krasinski, and Selena Gomez to name a few.  Keeping their fingers on the pulse of pop culture, The Muppets cover several songs from Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to Cee Lo’s Forget You.  The movie plays to its strengths, with the Muppets being silly, innocent, and chaotic, in other words, like children running amuck.  It’s good to see The Muppets again, but let’s not wait another generation to show up.

Being Mauricenary

So my friend, not to mention brilliant writer, Monica Valentinelli began texting me from a novel writing conference she happened to be attending.  “What is with this attitude that writing for money is evil?  Why can’t I love to write AND make money?”  Don’t get me wrong, as professional writers, we know better than to believe writing is our sure path to riches.  That being said, there is this attitude that bubbles among some writers, typically self/under/poorly-published ones where some of us are told with some measure of disdain that writing for a big publisher makes us a “house slave” or we are informed with equal condescension that they are an artist who cares about story and thus don’t have to worry about writing.

I’m going to pause here because Tobias Buckell put on a clinic on his blog on the kind of rhetoric which takes on a new level of offensiveness with those of us people of color.  He said things so much better than I could.

Monica’s experience reminded me that I probably come across as the exact flipside of the attitude she encountered.  I was at the Indiana Horror Writers meeting a few weeks ago saying that I won’t roll out of bed for less than five cents a word.  I know I can sound mercenary, or as Lon Prater dubbed it, Mauricenary.  Again, let’s be straight, five cents a word isn’t much.  No one is going to make a living, much less get rich, working for five cents a word.  I simply wanted to drive home the point that as much as it clashes with our delicate artistic sensibilities, money is the driving force of our industry.  It’s the business of writing that propels the art of writing.

The fact of the matter is that you can find endless places who will take your stuff if they don’t have to pay you.  You will be invited into all sorts of anthologies, and, believe me, I understand that initial thrill that comes with being invited into a project rather than having to scrap and claw and submit.  However, I also know that you can get trapped there at that level, still pursuing  or clinging to the dream “exposure”.  The same level of exposure you can get on your own, especially if you put any work into it (thus one of the arguments of the self-published; one I agree with, mind you.  I can’t stand when writers act like all they have to do is slap a cover on their work and throw it out there.  That’s an equally bad attitude and that lack of quality control is what ultimately hurts the ranks of the self-published).

When all is said and done here’s what I care about:  1) telling good stories and 2) making sure they’re read.  The former focuses on my craft, the need to keep reading widely and deeply, the need to keep honing and experimenting with my style.  The latter focuses on the business, things like money, distribution, promotion.

A writing career, which is what I’m trying to do (as opposed to writing hobbyists) is about building a reputation as well as readers.  I want to be where I’ll be read and for paying markets, it’s in their interest to build readership to keep their doors open.  For example, Dark Faith was Apex Books’ most expensive project.  Therefore, it was in their interest to make sure it sold.  They pulled out all stops in terms of marketing and promotion.  Other Apex projects felt on the short shrift of not being marketed as hard.  The reality was Apex had to invest in its promotion and go that extra level, which devoured a lot of resources.  But that investment means that the market I have sold my story to has an equal investment in finding me as many readers as possible.

Pursuing payment also allows the newbie writer who might not know the scene as well to avoid a lot of scammers [David Boyer says what] preying on writers.  Let’s face it, because of the ease of technology, anyone can slap together a project, declare themselves an editor, and not have a clue what they’re doing (other than padding their resume).  The adage “money flows TO the writers” protects against a lot of that.

Story is my magic canvas.  I’m a professional day dreamer, cloaking myself in my safe little Walter Mitty-esque world of spies, ninjas, assassins, dragons, monsters, demons, and magic.  I write because I love to tell stories.  I write because I have an inner compulsion with drives me to put pen to paper.  I write because I have the tacit hubris to believe I have something to say.  I write because that’s who and what I am:  a writer.

I write for pay because I want to be read as widely as possible.  I write for pay because I have the tacit hubris to believe something I’ve written deserves to be read.  I write for pay because I have the less than tacit hubris to want to be paid for my efforts.  I do want to get paid, and possibly be able to do this full time as my sole means of income … so that’s part of the long term dream.  And I am a creature of pride, meaning, that I would also love the recognition of awards (including the “award” of huge sales).  Of course I still have to chase down royalty statements and checks.  Just like I still make exceptions for when I’d writer without a check (such as if I am doing a favor for a friend or if I really dig the project).  I never want writing to get to the point where writing is a chore or something I dread (a risk with the mad scramble to SOLELY chase dollars).

Not that I should have to justify wanting to get paid for the work I put into something, especially if I value it or my time.  Should I never be able to get another book deal or sell another story, I would keep writing.  It’s why I have a blog:  to allow me to put my thoughts into the great expanse.  If I wanted to write 4theluv, I’d  just stick my manuscripts in a drawer.

Testrogenfest 3

AKA Learning and loving in community
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I have this friend whom for the sake of this blog I’ll call Rob Pallikan.  I met him at my previous church and my relationship with him is one of the things I’ll always appreciate about that particular church experience.  Rob’s an amazing guy with a big heart for people and a bigger heart for God.  He works at Outreach Inc, he’s amazing with kids, and is completely unashamed of his collection of original Star Wars figures (still in their original boxes)  retains a child-like joy and wonder as he trips through life.
Currently, we each go to two different churches, but we both share a belief that relationships have to be intentional, and people pursued.  It’s so easy for people to breeze in and out of our lives.  It’s easy in this day , age, and culture, with people being so busy, to let a lot of time pass between phone calls, getting together, and basically putting in the work to maintain relationships.
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Every month or so, Rob loves to organize what he has dubbed “test fests”.  We get together and watch “manly” movies and drink manly drinks and eat manly food and do manly things … which somehow usually end with us sitting in a circle discussing our feelings.  Our jobs (or lack thereof), our marriages, how we can be better husbands, fathers, friends, everything is on the table to talk about, and we end up praying for one another as we stare into the firepit.  (I wonder if I’ve just violated the first rule of Test Fest by talking about Test Fest*).
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Over the weekend Rob just had his third annual Testrogenfest, when we have the occasion to bring our delightful spouses along with us to share in our antics (let’s be straight, none of our wives are or can be shocked:  they know who they married and know what we’re like when we get together.  And though our wives retain their image of patient saints, we all know they are just as down for nonsense as the rest of us).  Many of us have served together, the bulk of us united through Outreach Inc.  We laugh, share stories, eat, are real, and connect with one another.
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All of which simply had me thinking about how much we learn about each other through our experience of community.  We have the opportunity not only to see what God’s teaching us, but also how to love and be loved.  There’s something about having a community of people** who know and love and accept you, who are willing to walk through the hard times and dig into the difficult places of our lives.  And since I write, I just wanted to thank Rob for the example of friendship and community that he is an inspires.  We should all be so blessed to have Rob Pallikans in our lives.
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*Photo by the great Miguel Mesa
**No slight to any of my other communities, Rob’s Test-Fests were on my mind.