Archive for June, 2012

My FandomFest Schedule

I’m a late addition to the activities down at FandomFest in Louisville, KY this weekend.   I was originally going in stealth mode, that way I could better stalk John Scalzi, Jim Hines, and John Jacob Horner, but I do have a couple of opportunities to hang out:

1)  My Dark Faith co-editor, Jerry Gordon, and I have two signings scheduled at the Apex Books booth, one on Saturday from 5 – 6 p.m. and the other on Sunday from 10:30 – 11:30 a.m.

2)  There will be a special programming event called “Apex Publications Presents: A Discussion Concerning the Function of Faith in Horror” Saturday night at 8:30pm.  Jerry and I will be leading that discussion.

Otherwise, I’m busy stalking folks!

Following the Way of Michael Jackson

(aka Writing Through Tough Times)

A friend of mine sent me this note:

“Please teach me how to go on producing writing when things around you are in total disarray.  It seems like no matter what the world throws at you, you can carry on with very little interruption.  At the moment, I’m so stressed out by all the crap life has thrown at me lately that I can’t seem to think straight.  Please advise.  This is a serious question, so don’t give me some flip-ass answer. :-)”

Let me say that I’m shocked and offended that someone who knows me would assume I would give up a flip answer to something.*  So since my first response was “I still got bills to pay no matter what kind of drama I’ve got going on,” I’m left with a two part answer.  The first thing is to consider Michael Jackson.  His life was crazy and dramatic pretty much from the word go. Chaotic, dysfunctional family.  Surrounded by temperamental artists.  In a cut throat business.  Trying to navigate childhood.  Nothing we as writers could relate to.  But over the years, he answered the question of producing the same way: the only place he felt at peace and in control was on stage.

Writing is my stage.

The second thing to consider is that with writing the doctor is in and cheap.  No matter the clutter building up in my head and heart, art is a way to process emotion.  Whenever I sit down in front of a page, I am feeling SOMETHING.  That’s the place I write from.  Even if I’m not aware of WHAT I’m feeling, I just know that there is something for me to mine.  When I’m not feeling something, my writing is and reads like an intellectual exercise. So I sit down at the page and begin writing.  It doesn’t matter if I’m not specifically writing about what’s going on.  For example, I might not have written a story about someone being unemployed, but I can guarantee you that I wrote a character who struggled with the image issues (not being a man) or the loathing (from not being able to provide for his family) that comes from unemployment.

Writing is my therapy.

Writing allows you to put some distance between you, what’s going on, and what you are feeling.  You’re able to examine it from a variety of perspectives (not just what the main character is going through but how it impacts those around her/him).  You can talk things through using your character, dig deep within and plumb their heart and hidden feelings and truths.  Apparently this is so true for me that my counselor often began our sessions by asking “what are you working on?”  As you can probably imagine, I am pure joy when someone’s trying to get me to open up, however, I’m always happy to talk about my work.

This is part of how I inhabit the emotional space of my characters.  It’s no different than an actor preparing for a role.  You are standing there needing to cry.  So you draw upon a painful moment in your life and emote it.  It you want your characters to convey a certain feeling, you have to open yourself up to that feeling.  it’s why such great art comes from pain.  Pain is universal.

Writing is my medication.

So if I were you, I’d begin with character who is stressed.  Period.  Just see where the story goes. What are they stressed about?  How is the stress playing out, internally and externally?  How do the relationships change around them because of the stress?  What are they going to do to handle the stress?  Are they going to self-medicate?  Are they going to take a drastic action in order to regain some semblance of control in their lives?  There’s a story in your circumstance.  By writing that story, focusing on that character, I am distracting myself from the pain of life without just numbing myself and checking out.  I’m engaging it, wrestling with it, and not simply letting it have its way with me.

Life happens.  We don’t always see it coming.  It can sneak up on us, break into the secure house of our lives, break our stuff, and make a mess of our routines, leaving us completely unsettled.  Unemployment.  Death.  Sickness.  Homelessness.  Loss.  People.  Each day brings a new challenge and new opportunities to grow.  Writing can be a valuable tool to help navigate those experiences and bring meaning and order to the chaos.  For me, everything gets used.  Every hurt, everything that makes me angry, every tear, every laugh, nothing gets wasted (I may be extreme because I’ve been in some pretty dire circumstances but could only think “this is going to make a cool story.”  The first step is to sit down with the blank page, put a pen to it, and see what comes out.

*Though you should probably also keep in mind that some of us function better in chaos and believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we thrive on it to gin up our creativity.

Accepting Grace

(aka Lessons from Testimony)

It feels ridiculous that after thirty years in relationship with Christ and my big take home lesson is that God loves me.  He really loves me.  One of the chief things that separates Christianity from other faiths is its conceit that you’re in a personal relationship with God.  Even for someone as poor in relationships as I am, that comes with some deeper implications.

Love is about engaging the heart of another person, really seeing them, their humanity.  Love produces healing and can be transforming when it is received in vulnerability and brokenness.  It means that I am worth something.  That I am worth knowing.  That I am worth being pursued.  There’s nothing I can do to earn it.  There’s nothing I can do to lose it.  That is the risky endeavor of allowing yourself to be loved unconditionally, by God, by the people in your life.

When we face betrayals, abandonment, disappointment, suffering, or any of the other bumps life throws at us (or that we create for ourselves), we’re quick to take cover in our shame and retreat from others, withdrawing from relationships.  We get trapped in a cycle of unforgiveness, unable to forgive and move past the hurts inflicted on us, leaving us having trouble trusting relationships or God for that matter.  Leaving us unable to offer yourself to others nor receive from them.  We despair as we slowly, inexorably lose hope.  So what’s holding us back?

We’re each a collection of stories.  Stories of tragedy.  Stories of redemption.   Stories of resurrection.  Stories of transformation.  Stories of hope.  Accepting grace, accepting and doing the difficult work of forgiveness, allows us to write a new story for ourselves (rather than being trapped in a story we’ve written for ourselves or had written for us by others).  It can allow us to return to our story with new lenses and better see the key events, the significant people in our life, our response to those situations.  God reveals himself through them.  Our story become revelation, for ourselves and for others.

The “revelation” that God loves me may seem ridiculous, but I guess after thirty plus years, the sheer profundity of it is what leaves my head spinning.  But Brennan Manning assures me that I’m not alone and that we should be staggered by God’s love for us…

Broken Vessels – A Poem

“The accumulated sorrows of your exile will dissipate. I, your God, will get rid of them for you. You’ve carried those burdens long enough.” Zephaniah 3:18 (The Message)

When we’re lost and scared

And no longer know who we are

You go into our secret places

You see our guilt and shame

You fill our cracks

You knit our hearts back together

You want all of us

It doesn’t matter what we did in the past

We are safe and known and loved

And I will sing a new psalm

A song of hope

Of who I am, of who I will be,

Of who we are, of who we will be.

Loved.

Do I Need More Social Media?

I’ve been recently wondering if I need a pinterest or tumblr account.  One of the things writers get told a lot is build up your writer’s platform.  We have to have a web site.  A blog.  A Twitter.  A Facebook.  We hear that all the time and I agree with it.  To a point.  Kinda.

I was sitting on a panel about blogging and an author was going on and on about the six blog sites that she runs and writes for along with the cross promotional stuff she does with them.  All I could think (read: said out loud before I could stop myself) was “why?  That’s a whole lot of time you could be spending writing your next book.”

So, with the latest social media bandwagon pulling up, I would need more of a reason to jump on board besides it’s the latest cool and hip thing to do.  When I think about adding to the social media stuff that I already do, I keep two things in mind:

1)  Protect the brand.  There is a certain benefit to creating an account with my name if only to camp there so no one can use my name.  It’s one thing to have online billboards, another to keep a porn site from occupying a piece of cyber-real estate in your name.

2)  I love them.  Make no mistake, I love my blog, my twitter, and my Facebook accounts and use them for their own sake, not as a part of my marketing strategy (though I am mindful of their marketing applications).  For example, I blog a lot about writing, faith, and race related issues.  There probably isn’t a lot of audience cross-over between folks who are fans of my faith writing and my stories.  But that’s okay, I blog because I love blogging.

I also have a LinkedIN, a GoodReads, a MySpace, a Red Room, even a Xanga account (look, I probably have an Atari game system in my attic, too).  They basically serve as online billboards that point back to my site.

3) Have a unique purpose.  I need a real use of goal to accomplish with it.  I only have so much time in the day, and even less to dedicate to social media.  I actively use each of my main three venues in different ways:  my blog for my mental noodling, my Twitter for the gibberish of my life, my Facebook for more interaction.

I used to have a messageboard (back when everyone said you had to have a messageboard) and found that I had to babysit all the time.  It became a huge time suck often keeping me from doing the main thing I should have been doing.  My first love is my fiction and it comes first when it comes to how I divvy up and prioritize my time and energy.  Social media will come and go and will continue to play a part in my life, personally and as a writer.  Things is, you can have a successful writing career and do none of those things.

But at least have a web site.  Come on!

Wooing the Slush Reader

It’s been a while since I ran anything close to my dating/advice column on this blog.  Not that I’m planning on revisiting that but I did want to write on the topic of wooing the slush reader and it did start to sound like dating advice to the young writer.

The reader (and especially editors) don’t owe it to the story to finish it.  I don’t know how many times I can say that to aspiring writers or new slush readers or, frankly, a few editors (who, if they think otherwise, are still new to a slush pile).  Thus the following exchange with a slush reader:

Super Slush Reader: If I get through 3 pages of story and am still bored…reject?

me: yup.  a thousand times, yup. you made it three pages.  that’s saying something.

Super Slush Reader: I generally make it a point to read the whole damn thing.

me: that’s funny.  i’m telling my class tonight that the reader (and especially editors) don’t owe it to the story to finish it.  it’s the writer’s job to give us a reason to keep reading.

Super Slush Reader: Amen!

me: so in a slush pile, you have maybe one page to make an impression on a (slush) reader.  one page to woo them to keep reading.  and that’s pretty generous.*  so on your end, don’t be an easy read. for every page of slush crap you read, that’s less time for you to read … me!  So quit giving writers so much leeway.

Super Slush Reader: Why for? They worked hard for it, damn it!!!

me: if i haven’t done my job in the first page, you don’t owe it to me to keep reading.  not if i’m trying to get published.  ultimately, you’re doing the writer a favor. because it forces them to step their game up.  be more impressive up front. wow, a lot of this WOULD be analogous to dating advice.**

*I did once reject a story after reading only the first line.  Feeling a brief flutter of guilt, I gave the story a second chance, deciding to read the last line.  I did feel better, but it was still one sentence too many.

**I was going to make the analogy of being an easy lay, but wisely opted not to.

Ashtrays

Like many parents, I have several ceramic … bowls made by my sons (since these days kids don’t make ashtrays for their parents).  They were presented with great glee and pride by my sons in Kindergarten or first grade and I’ve kept them on the shelf above where I do my writing at home.  Some six or seven years later, my oldest happened across them and said “you’ve still got those?  I’d have thrown them out.  They’re ugly.”  They are both ugly and precious.  All I could think about was my brother.

When my brother was in first grade, he came home with his freshly glazed ashtray and gave it to my dad.  My dad looked at it, asked what it was (as it was somewhere between a jagged plate and a chipped bowl), then set it aside.  In a moment, my brother felt crushed and defeated by my dad’s seeming indifference.  In a lot of ways, it crystallized their relationship, one of those pivotal, defining moments that sent them careening along their respective trajectories with one another.

Which is a lot of pressure to put on an ashtray.

There’s a lot that goes into parent-child relationships, a lot of ways to screw things up.  And I’ve resigned myself to the fact that 20 years from now, both my sons will find themselves on a therapist’s couch talking about their father’s quirky parenting techniques.  But they’ll know I was present in their lives, possibly too present.

I can’t help but imagine that our prayers to God are like the scribbles on pieces of paper that our kids present to us that we hang on the refrigerator not because they are great art or even show potential, but because our children drew them.  Drew them for us.

So I will keep my collection of ugly bowls just like I keep so many of my sons’ drawings through the years.  And every so often I pull them out and remember that my children made them.  And I love them.

Learning from Rejection Letters

About a month or so ago, a young writer dropped me a note letting me know she was about to kick her first story out of the nest to let it find its home out in the wilds we call publishing.  Being the brother of encouragement that I am, I wished her well with her rejections.  It’s not that I thought her story was bad, but rejections are a part of a writer’s life.

Number of short stories I have written                      59 + 3 WIP + 15 trunked

Number of times I’ve sent stories out                         516

Number of acceptances                                                    56

Number of rejections                                                         460

By my meager calculations, I have about a 12% acceptance rate over the history of my career.  I have no idea where this ranks in terms of being typical.  I’m no Jim C. Hines or Tobias Buckell or else I’d crunch these numbers to death.  For example, see how my acceptance rate has changed over time.  The acceptance rate in my first five years is quite different from my most recent five years (getting invited into anthologies, for example, skews the percentage).

There can be a difficult learning curve to rejections.  The time spent realizing that the rejection is of the story, not of you varies with each writer.  Different kinds of rejections tell you different things.  A lot of quick arriving form rejections may be telling you that the story’s not ready.  I have sold every story that I wrote in college.  The last one sold two years ago (well over a decade since I first wrote it).  They’ve gone through maybe ten drafts each.  I stuck with them because I believed in them and because the rejections went from forms to personal comments.  Those stories which never moved past the form rejection stage, after a dozen send outs, I took a hard look at.  Some simply weren’t good and have been trunked.*  (These days I typically do three drafts of a story before sending it out and let the rejections tell me if I need to do another one.)

Over the last couple weeks I’ve had one rejection and two acceptances.  I’ve sent out rejections to all but 25 or so authors for Dark Faith 2, some of whom are great writers and close friends whose stories simply didn’t work with what we were looking for.

You will be rejected.  It’s part of the writing life.  It feels personal (especially when you’ve poured your soul into it, bleeding over each page), but it’s not personal.  It’s about the work.  Not every rejection means the same thing.  Before you reach to drown the grief of your baby being rejected, parse it for what it means to you and where you are.  Rejection can refine us, letting us know when a story is not ready.  But rejection could just mean not for us.  Or we ran out of room.  Rejection can teach us things, but sometimes the biggest lesson is getting up, dusting yourself off, and sending your story out again.  Like much of life, a successful writing career is about perseverance.

*I’m sure I could find the trunked stories a home, but since each story is part of my resume, I don’t want too many stories out there that shouldn’t be.  They’d only be part of my “porn past”:  they’re out there, I did them, but I’m not going to bring them to anyone’s attention.

Safety Not Guaranteed – A Review

At no point is Safety Not Guaranteed the movie one might expect it to be.  From the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, it manages to blend equal parts heart, comedy, and romance while teasing the audience with the promise of science fiction.  Directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Derek Connolly, the story revolves around an ad:

Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons.  Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

A writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson), pitches the story of tracking down whoever placed the ad, co-opting two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to join him on his mission.  All of them have schticks which should quickly become wearisome, yet they manage to make work.  Jeff is a horny slacker more interested in hooking up with a high school sweetheart than finishing his assignment.  Arnau is the virgin nerd who can’t even look girls in the eyes.  And Darius is the intense, loner.  Their quest leads them to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a paranoid, mid-30s grocery clerk.

“I feel like the world is mostly full of jackholes.” –Kenneth

While they begin as easy, one-dimensional labels, Safety Not Guaranteed shows that its characters are brimming with depth and charm.  Kenneth is smart and sincere.  Darius is vulnerable.  Jeff is desperate for love.  Arnau is pathetically geeky and sweet.

Plaza is a revelation as Darius, a young woman who just expects bad things to happen so she doesn’t bother to get her hopes up.  At first blush she’s little more than a variation of the character she plays on Parks and Recreation.  As the movie progresses, we see Darius’ growth and changes.  The more she learns about Kenneth, the more intrigued by him she becomes and the more she lets down her own walls and admit to her own regrets in life.  Kenneth, who could have been written off as a loon, especially by the time he demonstrates his martial arts “sweet moves” which are the equivalent of a kid who has trained with his light saber in their backyard.  Plaza and Duplass have such an interesting charm that we can almost look past was an odd pairing they make (both in terms of their size and age difference).

“What time would you go back to if you could?” –Darius

While time travel is the jump off point, not the point itself, at the heart of the characters’ motivation for that journey is regret, mistakes, and love.  They are a group of outcasts, those easily labeled different or weird, seeking connections they’d lost.  Their biggest regrets come from relationships, either by way of something they did, or worse, something they didn’t do, squandering an opportunity.

“He wasn’t the kind of guy you could easily fit into your life.” –Belinda

People aren’t always comfortable fits into our worlds.  They can be odd, quirky, or eccentric.  Yet we’re reminded that we need to not only extend an additional measure of grace to the “freakshows” of life, but need to be in-the-moment relationship builders, to appreciate the “God moments”, the divine appointments that are other people.  Constantly making connections and being a part of people’s lives. Learning about people for their own sake, to hear their hurts and share their loads, not to fulfill some other agenda. We’re relational beings, hard-wired for relationships, so we naturally seek the connection that comes from getting to know others and allowing them into our lives.

“Just because a guy’s trying to do something new doesn’t mean he’s a freakshow.” –Darius

Safety Not Guaranteed has real heart to it along with a pitch perfect cast to see it through.  With its great characters, meaningful dialogue, and exploration of relationships, it’s like Donnie Darko by way of Wes Anderson.

Prometheus – A Review

(aka Alien 0.5)

Hollywood seems to be in a prequel state of mind (read:  in a franchise re-booting, milk it for anything it’s worth, business as usual state of mind).  With prequels of Planet of the Apes and The Thing, a prequel to Alien couldn’t come as too much of a shock.  Prometheus has been one of the most heavily anticipated movies of the summer, which means it comes with a built in letdown factor.

Prometheus marks Ridley Scott’s first directorial foray into science fiction since his seminal movie, Blade Runner (also being re-made).  With a screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (Lost, Cowboys & Aliens), he manages to echo Alien while creating a back story set in a thoroughly imagined world of its own.  Hands down, the movie is gorgeous to look at and within ten minutes of the movie, the amount of detail that went into is evident.

From the beginning, the movie sets the tone for the themes and issues that run through it.  The movie opens with shots of a planet, both dark and hauntingly beautiful.  Set against this tableau is a pale-skinned humanoid, who ingests something that causes him to break down at a genetic level.  Even with these few simple frames, the film poses questions:  Who is this?  Why are they here?  What is its purpose? WHY IS IT TOUCHING THAT? WHY. IS. IT. DOING. THAT? These are the type of questions the writers continue to pose and leave the audience to keep guessing at.

“God does not build in straight lines.” –Holloway

Enter:  humans.  A scientist couple, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who have discovered recurring patterns in ancient cave paintings all over the world.  They interpret them as a message from alien creators, inviting them to come visit them.  [WHY?]  A trillion dollars later, specifically December 2093, they’re on the spaceship, Prometheus.  Together the audience is presented with a crew of skeptical scientist (Green), “red shirts”, a ball-busting corporate shill (Charlize Theron, fresh from Snow White and the Huntsmen), and a black guy (Idris Elba, who is cool in anything) all of whom might as well have walked around with the words “Monster Snacks” on their foreheads. Oh, and a scene chewing robot (Michael Fassbender).

And therein is the second problem in a nutshell.  The movie is full of stock characters who barely rise above the level of caricature, who (pretensions of deep philosophizing about creation and God aside) spout predictable dialogue, do predictable things, thus robbing the movie of any air of menace, all against a gorgeous background.

“If they made us, surely they could save us.” –Weyland

The power of science fiction is its ambition to wrestle with big ideas, or in this case, pursue answers to big questions.  At the heart of Prometheus is a scientist asking the most meaningful questions about life:  why were we created?  Why are we here?  Seeking her creator’s approval and needing to ask him/them questions, Shaw wants to confront the beings referred to as the Engineers, regardless of how disappointing she may find the answers.  After all, if her “creators” were actually making weapons of mass destruction in order to wipe out humanity, that only leads to more questions:  Why did you change your mind? What did we do wrong?

“I deserve to know why.” –Shaw

While the movie and the ship derive their name from the myth of a fire-stealing Titan who wanted to make humanity equal to the gods, the movie’s conceit brought to mind the image of Job when he confronted God about why he had so much suffering in his life.  That was the climax chapters of the book of Job, 38-41, as he wrestled with reconciling a good with the natural and human evil in creation.  So when Job wanted God to account for Himself for how unjustly Job had been allowed to suffer, here was the answer he received [Job 40:8-14 (as rendered in The Message)]:

“Do you presume to tell me what I’m doing wrong? Are you calling me a sinner so you can be a saint? Do you have an arm like my arm? Can you shout in thunder the way I can? Go ahead, show your stuff. Let’s see what you’re made of, what you can do. Unleash your outrage. Target the arrogant and lay them flat. Target the arrogant and bring them to their knees. Stop the wicked in their tracks–make mincemeat of them! Dig a mass grave and dump them in it–faceless corpses in an unmarked grave. I’ll gladly step aside and hand things over to you–you can surely save yourself with no help from me!”

God gives Job a new perspective of creation and his place in it (going on to reflect on the Leviathan, a terrifying creature, bringing to mind something nearly … alien).  That Job is just a part of creation, not nearly on a level to challenge God.

While sometimes the best theological answer to many questions remains “I don’t know,” the questions are still worth struggling with and working through. But some questions have no answers, at least not here and not now, which leaves us learning to live with conundrums and mystery, in the tensions of knowing and yet not knowing.

“I’m still searching.” –Shaw

The dilemma of the letdown factor can be seen with the movie, The Avengers.  Again the expectations were so high, the movie had that much more to clear in order to meet fan expectation.  It did so and word of mouth became the best marketing for the movie.  Prometheus wasn’t bad, it just didn’t clear that bar of expectation, thus the lingering feeling that it wasn’t what it could have been.

What we do have is an attempt to be the thinking man’s Alien.  While the production doesn’t skimp on the richly imagined, intricate visuals designed (plenty of H.R. Giger inspired eye-candy), it’s also like the movie forgot some of the lessons of Alien.  It forgot how to build tension.  There no extended silences, instead orchestral surges broke any budding mood.  The characters often did stupid things for no reason other than to service a sense of “doing something,” because of a lot of the action happened for no particular reason.  Or worse, made little sense:  even the movie’s best (only?) cringe worthy scene, with Shaw climbing into an auto-surgery machine to eliminate the alien within, yet not even a C-section of a tentacled alien stops her from channeling Sigourney Weaver for the rest of the movie.

In short, Prometheus reminded of Steven Spielberg’s A.I., another mess of a science fiction movie, with marvelous production values and dark aesthethic, which asked a series of philosophical questions set against the possibility of an intriguing story, then backed away from answering those questions.  One would think that Lindelof doesn’t have a lot of grace left for scripts with deferred answers, as all has not been forgiven after the series finale of Lost.  Basically it’s like Prometheus gives up on the pretense of answers, but thanks everyone for dropping $10 bucks a pop in their continuing search for them.