Friday, December 19, 2014

Ranting on The Interview

I am not happy today.

Oh, life is fine. The Catbird had two concerts this week, one for her choir, one for the jazz vocal group, that we attended and enjoyed. We had the organization holiday party, we Skyped with the Magpie, ordered a bunch of Christmas gifts--all that is fine. Though progress has slowed down a bit since November, I passed the 300-page mark on my latest project while I continue to build up some background for what I think will be my next one, and the governor of the great state of New York made a decision that shocked the heck out of me, but I fully support, when he essentially pulled the plug on High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in this state--at least for now. (Seriously, the gas will still be in the ground five years from now. As far as I'm concerned, if there's any doubt about the safety of this process--and there is plenty of that--then this is the best course of action. But that's a story for another day.) After today, I work on Monday and then take the rest of the week off, and that will be nice, too.

But I'm still not happy.

What I'm not happy about is Sony Pictures' decision to pull The Interview. Set to open December 25th, the film is about a pair of American journalists who are granted an in-person interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un--and are subsequently recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. North Korea was not very happy about this--I'm not sure North Korea is actually happy about anything--and said so publicly. Sony Pictures, meanwhile, was hacked in late November. All sorts of information has been leaked out all over the internet, and the hackers, who may or may not be North Korean in origin, threatened September 11-style violence against theaters if they dared screen the film. After theaters started dropping the film, Sony decided to pull it altogether. (Sorry, this paragraph is a hot mess, but I don't care)

As for the film itself, I don't really care one way or another. I think the only Seth Rogen film I've actually seen is Superbad, which actually wasn't bad. The Interview had an interesting concept, but is probably fairly standard comedy, but maybe not. It's the sort of movie I might watch on TV one night if I came across it, but I doubt I would have gone out of my way to see it. On that level, I really don't care.

But it pisses me off all the same. Sony's decision, and the decision of the theater chain, make sense from a potential tragedy and a potential liability standpoint. Imagine the unthinkable. Imagine a major, national release on Christmas Day, and imagine if even one theater, anywhere in the land, is shot up, bombed, whatever.  Aside from the guilt over the injury and loss of life, imagine the lawsuits, and the lawyer saying, "You knew someone was going to do this, and you showed the film anyway?" "We really didn't think they could pull this off" is not going to cut it as an excuse, is it?

I don't blame Sony, or the theaters. Because, even if these so-called Guardians of Peace are just trolling us all (and, despite the noise the government is making that North Korea is actually behind this, I can't help but feel it's just that), even if these so-called Guardians of Peace are nothing more than a couple of idiots who are very good with computers and picked Sony because, hey, why not? Even if that's all they are, all it takes is one other idiot, maybe an idiot who doesn't really give a rat's ass about North Korea and Kim Jong-un, but just some idiot who decides, "Hey, why not?"--all it takes is one idiot like that to arrive at one theater on Christmas Day with a couple of assault weapons and some Molotov cocktails stuffed in his coat to cause yet another disaster. A disaster that can cost possibly hundreds of lives and millions of dollars in damages. I don't blame Sony for not wanting to be part of that, for not wanted to be held responsible for that, because even if there's no real threat from the so-called Guardians of Peace, they knew there was a threat, right? They're screwed.

This might be effective
But it pisses me off that we've come to this. It pisses me off that we live in a world like this. And it pisses me off because, as much as it's scary to think some random idiot or some deeply disturbed person can end my life just because, I actually like that idea better than the notion that some foreign nation is pulling strings inside our country in this fashion. That scares me. And it makes me think of this line from Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction: "Now when you yell at me, it makes me nervous. And when I get nervous, I get scared. And when motherfuckers get scared, that's when motherfuckers accidentally get shot."

There's a lot of scared people out there who are reacting with anger, and a lot of talk about kowtowing to terrorists and slippery slopes and where will it all end and stuff like that.  I'm scared because there's a part of me that wants our nation to just go in there and show Kim Jong-un what's what, just like there's a part of me that wants to see us lay waste to half the desert in that rather troublesome part of the middle east--but that's no solution I really want to see, and it's no solution at all, and it's a solution that would cost millions of mostly-innocent lives.

I don't know what the solution is. I don't know if there is a solution. And I don't think I've got anything else to say on the subject. Chuck Wendig has penned a terrific post on why we should be concerned about this as artists. I recommend it. That's it, sorry for the sloppy rant, have a nice weekend.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas Preparedness, and Music!

Well, well, well, we are just a week and a half away from Christmas and...I am totally not ready for it. I did spend about ten minutes moving some stuff out of the living room yesterday so that we can (eventually) put up a tree and decorate. Because we are 'live (or, as my brother likes to call them, 'real, dead) tree' people, there's always a bit of an argument over when to get the tree and when to put it up and how long to leave it up. In my house growing up, we always got the tree fairly late in the season, which undoubtedly explains in part why tree shopping was always such a stressful affair. I remember tree shopping being fraught with tension and short tempers, and trips to many, many different places--often on the coldest day of the year to that point. The tree generally got put up in the tree stand on December 23, and the decorating occurred on Christmas Eve itself. Naturally, I have a predilection for that.

My wife, on the other hand, prefers to get a tree bought and in the stand earlier than that. She's not quite a 'let's get the tree on Black Friday' person, but she runs toward the earlier end of the spectrum. The result is we don't have a hard and fast day. It's not tradition in our house to get the tree every year on December 17, lets say, or December 12. Instead we roll along until we receive some signal that tells us, "It's time." (Usually it's the kids saying, "When are we going to get a tree?")

We are fortunate, however, in that our tree shopping usually isn't all that stressful, which is a good thing because the geography of tree places up here is a lot different than where I grew up. On Long Island it seemed like you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a tree lot. Up here? Well, the Lions Club sells them up in Cooperstown, but it seems like if you don't get one there in the week following Thanksgiving, you're out of luck. There's another place, an actual tree farm where we get our trees year after year, but if we strike out there, we're looking at a 20 minute drive (at least) to the next place--and the further we drive to get a tree, the further we have to drive home with one strapped to the roof of our vehicle. That is always a white-knuckle drive for me; I'm convinced, no matter how tightly we've got the tree strapped down, that I'm going to look in the rear view mirror and see it bouncing along the road behind us. It's a great visual, and might be funny as hell in a movie, but not in real life.


So, perhaps we'll get a tree this week. If not during the week we'll have to do it this coming weekend. I just hope the weather is good. What about you? If you buy a tree, do you get it early, or late?

And now, some music. It's not a Christmas song, but that's okay, there's enough of that out there without me pushing more of it in your face. Julia is the Magpie's friend, a very talented young lady. Perhaps one day you'll see her on TV or hear her on the radio and you'll say you heard her here first. Enjoy!




Friday, December 12, 2014

For Love Or Money

Back at the beginning of the month, when so many of you participate in the Insecure Writer's Support Group (IWSG), Nick Wilford posted about something many of us worry about: money. It's something a lot of us worry about, especially in tough financial times. Early in the post, Nick said:

"I know that very few writers go into the game hoping that they will clean up--if they do, they're either doing it for the wrong reasons or they're suffering under an illusion."
I found myself stewing over that line a little bit, to the point where, two weeks later, I have to comment on it further. The line bugs me. Note this is not to pick on Nick. I like Nick; I just happen to disagree with him, at least in part.

Success in the arts is often presented as an either/or thing. If you hang around any writing forum, it's only a matter of time before someone posts a poll that asks, "Would you rather be a critical success and have very few sales, or sell a lot of books and be panned by the critics?" Essentially, the question is are you in it for art, or for money? My answer: why not both?

So many of us are afraid to admit the truth: we want money. Lots of it. We want to dive into it, like Scrooge McDuck, we want a vault like Harry Potter's. But few are willing to admit. If we do, we're mercenaries. We're hacks. We're not artists anymore. Few are willing to wear that label.


The truth is, once I started to see that maybe, just maybe, I could write pretty well, I started to hope, to dream. Dreaming that I could make it big, dreaming that I could clean up. Hoping I could sell enough to get a new car. Take the wife and kids on a proper vacation. Put a new roof on the house, replace some crummy windows, remodel the kitchen. I'd like to not have to worry about money--is that such a bad thing? Not in my book. Is it why I write? No. I write for assorted other reasons, some of which I can't express easily However, money is part of the equation, particularly when it comes to seeking publication. Does this make me a bad guy? A sell out? I certainly don't think so, but I'm kind of biased here.

Where Nick is right on the money (so to speak) is this: if you get into this expecting to clean up, you're operating under an illusion. Especially if you're doing your homework and understand the economics of writing at this point in time. If you base your retirement plan on having a couple of big bestsellers--really big bestsellers, like James Patterson bestsellers--then, yes, you're doing it wrong. There's nothing wrong with dreaming it, though. Dreaming is what we do, isn't it?

Thanks as always for reading, and thanks for commenting. Have a great weekend!



Monday, December 8, 2014

Public Service Announcement

Carrie Pestritto, my agent, is once again open for queries via her Query Critique Contest. She posted 8 hours ago, so it may be too late this time around, but maybe not. If you've got a query you would like critiqued (with a chance at getting your first 100 pages critiques as well), then check out her blog and the official rules RIGHT HERE.

Allow me to say that getting your query critiqued by an agent is an invaluable experience--and Carrie's excellent! If you miss out this time or don't have a query ready, bookmark her site for next time. Good luck!

Recent Reads

I've been reading a lot lately, which is good. Reading is fuel for the writing mind, a way to help fill up the brain after spilling its contents all over the pages, and since I've been writing a fair amount lately, it stands to reason that I've also been reading. So, what's on that list?

Dr. Sleep, Stephen King. King catches us up on Danny Torrance, last seen as a terrified six-year-old boy trying to escape his father and other monsters in King's epic, 1977 work, The Shining. Now in his 40's, Torrance works in a nursing home where he uses the shine to help comfort elderly people as they die. He's struggling every day with addiction. Danny finds himself having to defend a young girl with prodigious psychic ability from the True Knot, a wandering band of what you might call psychic vampires.

Generally speaking, I enjoy reading King even if I don't like the story (does that make sense? I enjoy how he tells a story). Of his recent works, I felt Under the Dome (the book, not the TV show) and 11/22/1963 were far better. This was more like Duma Key, solid, if unspectacular, but at least it wasn't The Tommyknockers. It's worth picking up if you like King.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. This is one of those books I've been hearing about for years, and like many of those books that are much-hyped, I was disappointed. Cloud Atlas is six interconnected stories spanning roughly 300 years of our past and future. Each of the stories is told in a different way--journals, letters, novels, futuristic holographic recorders--and each of the stories maintains a very different voice.

Mitchell did a fantastic job of creating different characters and writing each section in different styles and voices, but to be honest, the structure of this novel felt gimmicky. I found some of the sections quite dull, some of the narrators extremely irritating, and the conclusion less than satisfying. Much like The Secret History, this novel had some great writing, but failed to live up to the hype (though I liked this one better than Secret History; don't get me started on that one).

Having put down Cloud Atlas, I was a little worried about picking up the next, much-hyped title, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Narrated by Death itself, The Book Thief is the tale of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is sent by her mother to live with a foster family just outside Munich, Germany in 1939. Liesel slowly forms close ties with her foster family, other children in the neighborhood, and, eventually, the Jewish man her foster father ends up hiding in the basement. Like Cloud Atlas, this novel utilizes some unconventional storytelling methods, such as drawing and hand-written books in the middle, yet it never feels gimmicky. I found The Book Thief to be fantastic, well worth the hype, and I was sorry to see it come to an end.

Right now I'm reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and I probably shouldn't say anything about it, as I'm not quite finished (but will be in the next day or so). Station Eleven follows several interconnected lives before and after a new strain of flu brings down civilization as we know it. Twenty years after the fall, Kirsten Raymonde travels with The Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare for the survivors "Because survival is insufficient." The story skillfully weaves past and present together to tell a complete tale (of course, I'm not finished, so it's entirely possible that this will all fall apart at the end, but I doubt it). So far, this is a very satisfying read, and I'm excited to see how it finishes.

That's it for me. What have you been reading lately?

EDIT: I forgot to add, the Magpie updated her Japan blog this weekend, which includes some pictures from her visit to an exhibit about the manga/anime Shingeki no Kiyojin (Attack on Titan). Stop by if you're so inclined.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Behold, the Emerald Ash Borer

Hi, everyone.

As seems to be my habit lately, I'm posting late. It's always my preference to do this first thing, but on Fridays the Catbird needs to be in early which leaves me less time, especially because I never get these things truly written in advance. I've actually got something like three posts in various forms of draft, one almost complete, but I couldn't pull it together this morning, and at this hour I'd rather expend my brain power on my WiP.

Instead, I'll share this piece with you, with some background. Late last year my boss connected with the publisher of a local weekly paper with the idea that someone in the organization (me) would write a column on environmental stuff that might appear once a month or so. He agreed. We sent him three columns, he was enthusiastic, and even came out and took some head shots of me. Eight months and multiple nudges from my boss later, he still hadn't run any of them, so she approached the other weekly. They liked them and ran one. Then another. This is the third, and is the most recently written. Visit the page here, and try not to be frightened by my humongously large picture. As much as I like that photo of myself, it's a bit...big. Time for a new one, I think.

Howard Russell, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org
- See more at: http://www.insectimages.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=1241011#sthash.IrHJVUZj.dp
I should also note that if you live in the northeastern portion of the United States, you should probably pay extra close attention and take a look at your state's Department of Natural Resources or Environmental Protection or whatever they call themselves (ours is the Department of Environmental Conservation) and see if you need to worry about this little sucker, the emerald ash borer.

Howard Russell, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Much better than the occasional spider picture, right?

Hope you all have a nice weekend!


Monday, December 1, 2014

Post-Game Presser

If you're a sports fan, you've probably seen this. Your favorite team has just had its most convincing, most complete victory of the season. In this game/match/whatever you call it, they've done everything well. In winning, perhaps they've snuffed a multi-game losing streak. Or, maybe, it's been a season of inconsistency, victories almost equally-balanced by defeat, and even within a single game they go from stunningly good to putrid in a manner of moments. Yeah, that kind of season.

But not now. This was such a solid victory, that everyone is convinced that the team is finally ready to play up to preseason expectations, is finally ready to ascend to what everyone feels is its rightful spot at the top of the standings.

In the locker room, reporters crowd around one of the star players. Microphones and recorders are shoved into his face as they ask about particular plays, how he managed to score that goal, break loose for that touchdown, sneak that curve over the corner. And eventually, someone asks the question: "Do you think this is a turning point for your season?" And just as surely as that question gets asked, comes the answer. "Oh, for sure,* but we try to take this one game at a time**"

To this day, I don't think I've every heard anyone, not the naivest of rookies, the grizzledest of grizzled veterans, or the most hard-boiled coach in all the land answer this question truthfully, which would be something along the lines of, "We'll know when the season is over. That's when we can look back and know where the turning points were." Or, perhaps, "We'll see how we play the next game." Either of those answers would be more truthful, more accurate, because it's entirely possible that the next game will bring another stinker, another loss, another return to inconsistency.

Wow, I sound like a real downer here, don't I? I should be celebrating a NaNo victory! I had a goal of adding 50,000 words to my current manuscript, and I did, after a fashion. My manuscript now stands at 256 pages and 68,000 words. Yes, if you do the math, it doesn't work out quite right, as I was starting with around 22,000, however, I also chopped a fair amount. Also, because of the way I'm working on this project, using a sort of outline, there are scenes that went in the outline--some pretty well-drafted--that haven't been inserted into the manuscript just yet. Yay, me, right?

Yes, but not quite so fast. A team can sometimes feel such relief at getting a big, much-needed victory that they suffer a let down and get their proverbial doors blown off the very next game. With the pressure of NaNo off my back, it's important that I don't take my foot off the gas. This project is not complete. The ending is still fuzzy (despite my pseudo-outlining ways, I haven't been able to see that far ahead yet). One of the characters is lagging a bit behind the others. There are sloppy points and inconsistencies. A coach or player may stand in front of the reporters muttering platitudes about "compete level" and "giving it 110%", but walk away knowing there's much to be done. That's where I'm at: happy with the victory, but knowing it's a long, long season.

Believe it or not, I'm much more optimistic than I sound. It was a good month. I just need to keep it going.

How about you? How was your month?

*I'm a hockey fan. Hockey players say, "For sure" all the time. I don't know why.

**I sometimes wonder why they even bother with post-game news scrums at all. At least in hockey, you rarely get more than this, unless it's a John Torterella press conference, where almost anything can happen.