Monday, January 30, 2012

Musical Monday: Tangled Up in Blue

What is it about the Sunday/Monday transition? Last week at this time, I had a severe case of the blahs. That went away as the week progressed. Yesterday afternoon I started feeling a bit scratchy in the throat, which has given way to a raging sore throat. Can’t wait to see what next weekend brings.

Song of the day: Tangled Up in Blue, Bob Dylan
Tangled Up In Blue by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Typically I post songs here just because I like them. Tangled Up in Blue actually has a certain significance to my writing. Here’s the story:

On December 6, 2010 I started the actual writing on the work that has become Parallel Lives. By the middle of the month I had a general feel for the story, though it was still extremely slippery. I essentially had a couple of characters, and a couple of events, but no real sense of where it was going or what was happening. By this time I’d spent less than two weeks actually writing it, and probably another two or three weeks of musing over it and turning things over in my mind while I’d been working on my NaNo in November. One day I drove into town, possibly to go to the bank or do a bit of Christmas shopping run; whatever it was, I got back into my car, turned on the radio, and Tangled Up in Blue was on.

I’m not a total Bob Dylan nut. I think the man is a genius when it comes to writing musical poetry. His best songs are full of vivid imagery that can be beautiful and haunting, and his song structures and phrasing are often downright interesting to listen to – and difficult to sing. It’s unfortunate, really, that his singing was so…well, at times, bad, especially in concert (I’ve seen him three times, so trust me on this). I’ve always liked this song; I think it’s one of his best. For some reason, the song resonated with me this time in a way it hadn’t before. As the song says,
‘Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul’
It was perfect timing. I don’t know if the song tapped into some element of the story that was still hiding deep down inside of me and brought it out, or if it somehow inspired me to do something that wasn’t planned. What I do know is the period leading up to Christmas was spent in a writing fury, and the story really grew and became a whole lot easier to hold after this (On a side note, I popped a blood vessel in my right eye around that time; I sometimes wondered if it was a result of writing so hard, though it must have been something else).

Have any of you had a song that's really spurred on your writing? That’s all for now, have a good week.

Reminder: The Origins Blogfest is coming!

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Unforgivable Sin, Part II

One week later and I don’t think I’ve actually gotten any further along in this thing, hah, and I’m really not sure I’m doing this topic any justice. We’ll see.

It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. - William Munny, Unforgiven

In movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, our heroes leave a trail of bodies in their wake a mile wide, yet we never blink. Why is that? Heroes like Indiana Jones or Han Solo or Luke Skywalker get a pass largely because of three factors: first, we know from the beginning that they’re Good Guys (although Han Solo is a little ambivalent at first). They’re fighting for the Right Side, for Truth, Justice, to save The Girl from the clutches of Evil. We have to root for them, there’s no choice in the matter, so we forgive them for the carnage. It’s justified.

The second reason is this: who are they killing? Nameless, faceless, anonymous bad guys. And Nazis. You can never go wrong if you’re killing Nazis. And when they do actually kill a bad guy with a name, it’s someone who is so bad and so evil you cheer when it happens. Belloq. Major Toht (i.e., That Creepy Guy with the Glasses). Governor Tarkin. The deaths in these scenes are bloodless (with a few exceptions), and they’re throwaway characters, like the red shirts on Star Trek.

Finally, at least in the little clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deaths can be played for laughs. Gunning down a man on the street isn’t funny when it happens in front of your house. When it’s presented in the way it was in Raiders, it is. Funny deaths are forgivable.

We get into rougher territory when we get into the other films, however. In Unforgiven, we kind of root for Eastwood’s little party, because the bad guys in question cut up a prostitute’s face, and the local law did nothing. The women here can’t get revenge directly, so they put money up to get justice. Revenge plays well with audiences, so we’re already on Eastwood’s side at the start. The Schofield Kid, the guy that rounds up Eastwood's William Munny and Morgan Freeman's Ned Logan - up to the point in the film where he shoots the man in the outhouse, has been a really annoying character. He’s brash and cocky and talks trash. He’s scornful and boastful. He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t feel sorry for if he took a bullet, and, if he did, you’d say, “He had it coming.” But…if you watched all the way to the end of the clip, the character is revealed. He was all talk. He’d never killed a man before, and we see what he goes through as the reality of his actions comes home to him, and he falls to pieces. With this kind of transformation, we can forgive him.

Nancy made stated it very well in her comments to last week’s post:
“it's all about the journey the character goes through both before he does The Terrible Awful Thing, as well as afterwards, and how he acts on his remorse and regret.”
And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? The journey, the impact, the transformation.
One of the great things we can do as writers is provide subtlety and shading to our characters. We could go for the broad brush strokes, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, but it’s more interesting to have characters with depth and complexity. Nancy’s character shocked me with his actions. It was a sharp turn that I never saw coming. Once he made that turn I really had to wrestle with whether or not what he did was ‘in character’ or not, and if I could forgive him. Best of all, it made me think. There's a place for the fast riding thrills in books and movies, but I like to think.

Have a good weekend, all.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Weekend Update

Happy Monday. I'm sitting here waiting for the coffee to hit my system. No formal post this morning, so just some rambles off the top of my still-not-very-awake head.

My writer's circle met three hours earlier than usual yesterday. I'm not sure if it was the change in time that did it, or something else, but it was a disaster for me. How bad was it? I changed pens in an effort to spark something - and wrote about it. My best line of the day: "He touched the match to the corner of his notebook and let the night take all his thoughts away." That shows you where my brain was at yesterday.

I was feeling fine yesterday, too, until I left my writer's group. I had to stop at the store for a few items. By the time I was done, I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. Totally exhausted, and with a back ache. I don't feel sick, exactly, but I feel worn out. Blah.

During the weekend I finally started reading The Great Gatsby. For whatever reason, my teacher never had us read that one (we also didn't read any Dickens, or The Catcher in the Rye - that's another one I've got to get one of these days). I remember kids complaining about Gatsby, but so far, I'm loving it. Unfortunately, I can't get the image of Robert Redford out of my head as Gatsby, even though I never actually saw that movie. As you may recall from an earlier post, I used to live in this building, which was the summer home of Marshall Field, III, and was part of that whole Long Island Gold Coast scene depicted so vividly in Gatsby.

Last week I made some headway on revisions to Parallel Lives, and made a lot of headway on the new, still untitled WiP. It's very strange, thinking in terms of a 'new WiP'. And I've thought a lot about the things you all have said (I Need to Know) relating to the new WiP. I'm still skirting that issue.

That's about all I've got for today. The coffee's kicking in, but the body still isn't feeling so hot. Blah, again. I'll leave you with this rather subdued bit from Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorites, and rather appropriate given my mood today (3 and a half minutes).

Have a great week, see y'all on Friday.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Unforgivable Sin, Part I

SO, I stuck my foot (or maybe my fingers, since I was typing) in my mouth once again. Earlier in the week, in response to Nancy S. Thompson’s post (When a Character Does the Unforgivable) I said “I don't think I can adequately order my thoughts on it here in this tiny little space. If I can get my act together, maybe I can make my own post on this for Friday!” I should know by now to keep these thoughts to myself, because I can never get my act together in time, and this week is no exception.

I spent a couple of hours at odd times this week trying to get my thoughts in order, and what I’ve got is not acceptable. I could keep pounding on it today, but I really want – no, need – to get on with revisions to Parallel Lives, and fresh writing on the currently-untitled WiP. Here comes the cop-out portion of this post, where I leave you with a few clips and quotes, and the question: Is this forgivable?

Situation 1: Indiana Jones has been racing through the streets of Cairo vainly searching for Marion Ravenwood, (still the best Indy heroine ever, in my opinion) who has been kidnapped. He’s been brawling his way through a dozen or so ‘thugees’ who have been trying to thwart him, and then this happens:

This drew a big laugh in the theater. Is it forgivable?

Next up, 5-second sound clip from Pulp Fiction (surprisingly safe for work): Jules and Vincent have just recovered Marsellus Wallace’s mysterious briefcase. Brett tries to apologize and explain how sorry they are. “We got into this thing with the best of intentions…” Jules turns and guns down ‘Flock of Seagulls’ on the couch.

Did I break your concentration?
Is it forgivable?
Or how about this, from Unforgiven, which might be the greatest western ever made? (stop it at about the 1:00 mark, though the scene between Eastwood and the Kid in the aftermath is brilliant)

And finally, the story of ‘the offer he couldn’t refuse’, as told by Michael Corleone to Kay Adams in The Godfather:

Are these acts forgivable? Why or why not? I promise, there is a point to all of this. It will just have to wait until next week.

In the meantime, I figured I’d mention something I will be doing in the near future:

The Origins Blogfest. Word of this came to me yesterday via Matthew MacNish. Since I’m a sucker for creation stories, I thought, “Why not?”

Here’s the dirt, from the blog of DL Hammons: On Monday, February 13th, you should post your own origin story. Tell us all where your writing dreams began. It could be anything from how you started making up stories as a child, or writing for the school newspaper, or even what prompted you to start a blog. How about stories about the first time somebody took an interest in your writing, or the teacher/mentor that helped nudge you along and mold your passion, or maybe the singular moment when you first started calling yourself a writer. It all started somewhere and we want you to tell us your own, unique, beginnings.

You can sign up at DL's site, linked above.

This is kind of cheating, because I’ve already told part of my origin story, somewhere in the past, but I’ll find a way to embellish it, hah hah.
So there you are for this week. Some clips, a cop out, and a promise for next week, and beyond. Have a great weekend, all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Required Reading

I'm breaking with my usual Monday-Friday thing because I think this is important enough to warrant it.

Donna at Musings of a Penniless Writer posted this the other day. I then went and found the thread where all this stemmed from. Essentially, it was an author and an agent ganging up on reviewers over at Goodreads. The behavior, as Donna has said, is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

Exploring the threads and things led me to a few other places, so instead of writing, I was reading. But I think it's worth reading. Two very thoughtful posts, one hysterically funny. (This is the funny one, go through all five days)

It's a lot of reading, but well worth it, in my opinion.

Most of you who read this blog are in the same boat as me, somewhere on the journey of writing and seeking publication. Some have agents, some do not; some already have book out, most don't. We all hope to be published some day, and when we get there, and the reviews are (hopefully) pouring in, know that some will not be good. Think before you act, folks. The internet gives us the luxury of cooling down before we hit 'post message' or 'send'. Use that time, and remember that what you say will follow you around, like one of those really embarrassing Youtube videos of that time you were drunk....

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Need to Know

First, a little music, from one of the Ugliest Men in Rock and Roll

It’s amazing to think of how long Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been around. The nice thing is, the album he released in 2010 (Mojo) is excellent, and they still put on a killer show that mixes old hits, new material, and some quality cover tunes.


Government and military organizations are famous for operating on a ‘Need-to-Know’ basis, where information is carefully controlled and parsed out only to those who need to know it. In theory, this keeps sensitive information from getting out into the wrong hands, where it can potentially compromise operations. As writers, we are the ones sitting at the top of the knowledge pile. We know what happens in our stories. We know the crucial backstory, and why characters behave the way they do, and it’s our job to parse that information out when and where it’s needed.

 The subject of ‘need to know’ came up yesterday at my Writer’s Circle. During the ‘free write’ portion of the afternoon, I penned a short bit that continued something I started a week ago. The rough idea has been floating around in the back room for a while, and decided to come out front, though I’m not sure why. Anyway, this looks to be the new WiP (yeah, I was working on something else that was supposed to be my new WiP, but I really wasn’t feeling that one. I wrote a fair amount of it through December, but to be honest, it never really took off for me. This new one has. I’ve written 12K words on it this week), and I’m pretty excited about it. The reaction in my group last week and this week was pretty positive, but the question of Need-to-Know reared its ugly head.

Without going into too much detail, the story involves life in a world shortly after some World Changing Event occurs. Said event pretty much wipes out a lot of technology – computers, phones, electricity. In other words, the sort of stuff that’s been done over and over again, but I’m doing it differently, dammit! Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the story focuses on one family living in one small corner of the world. It’s not a sprawling, post-Apocalyptic epic on the scale of The Stand, for example.

Much of the discussion yesterday focused on that big, World Changing Event. What was it? Why did it happen? To which I said, “I don’t know.” And that’s the truth of it. I know what the after-effects of this event are, but I can’t tell you why it happened, or what, exactly, happened. In my mind, I’m as clueless as my poor characters, small-town people who find themselves in the dark, with no way to communicate with anyone who’s not within shouting distance. In my mind, the Event is also not really important. Sure, the characters are going to spend some time wondering what happened, but they’re going to quickly become rather preoccupied with little things: staying warm, finding food, and trying to hold on to some shred of society in the face of this catastrophe. In this regard, I’m taking my cue from stories like McCarthy’s The Road and King’s Cell(and in Cell, we know more or less what happened, though we don’t know why. In The Road, we have an idea what happened, but it’s mostly the result of simple logic and putting together a few hints in the story).

So, my question for you all is this: Do you need to know? Granted, it’s hard to answer the question without reading the story (and, so sorry, right now, you can’t!), but would that tick you off? If you picked up a book like this, would you be preoccupied with figuring out What Happened, or could you just accept it and read on?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Can't Get Enough of That Movie

If everything goes well tonight I will be seeing the new Sherlock Holmes film with a friend of ours tonight. This is not a sure thing, for we have a history of sudden cancellations with the person we’re supposed to meet there, and there are some concerns about the weather, since it looks like winter has finally decided to rear its frosty head here, just in time for the weekend.
Our friend has seen this movie multiple times since it came out. I think tonight will be at least her fourth viewing of it by now. It seems a little silly, but then I realized that there are movies that I watch, over and over and over again, too, though I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the theater to do it.
In fact, there are certain movies that I’ll watch all or part of any time they’re on, no matter what. Three minutes of commercials in the first period of a hockey game? Let’s flip through the guide and see what’s on – Oh, look at that! Let me just pop in for a bit…Funny how it works, isn’t it? Or, you have one of those nights where you just feel like vegging out. So, you sit down, turn on the tube, and surf the channel guide (hey, does anybody use TV Guide or the listings in the paper anymore?)….look at that, oh, it’s half over, well, I’ll just see what they’re up to…Next thing you know, an hour’s gone by on a movie you’ve seen a dozen times. I’m sure you have movies that do this to you. Here are a few movies that I just have to watch when they’re on:
Pulp Fiction. During Christmas week, I caught two segments of this while I should have been doing something else. Right before the end of break, I watched it, in its entirety, with my daughter, who had to watch it for her Theater Arts Class. (She loves it so much that she watched it the very next day with a friend of hers who’s also in the class). Pulp is filled with characters who are, let’s face it, reprehensible. Hit men, gangsters, cheaters, drug dealers – but they’re fascinating characters, played to perfection, with some really interesting (and often hysterical) things to say. I’m not big on picking favorites in general, but I think this movie does go down as my favorite.
Goodfellas. Hmm, I think there’s a trend here, as we get another gangster film. There’s a lot less humor in this than in Pulp, and it’s also based on a true story. Ray Liotta’s portrayal of unrpepentant wiseguy Henry Hill is outstanding, and heavyweights Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are also terrific. It’s a fascinating (there’s that word again) look inside the world of organized crime, and I can’t help but tune in if I see it’s on.
Silence of theLambs. Man, I must have some problems. There’s a ton of great things in this movie, but let’s face it, the biggest draw is Anthony Hopkins. His chilling Dr. Hannibal Lecter may be the scariest monster in the history of film.
Okay, it’s not all dark and gloomy and full of blood and gore. Here’s a fun one that I just can’t resist: The Naked Gun. Leslie Nielson is perfect as the bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin, in a film full of sight gags, puns, and outright stupidity. My wife just doesn’t get it. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Just love this sort of thing:

I’m at a loss to say exactly what it is about these films that draw me in so much. Well, with The Naked Gun, it’s probably just for the laughs. And to catch some gag that I’ve probably missed. But the others, they’re not ‘feel good’ movies, not the sort of thing where you walk out feeling warm and gooshy about the human condition. But they’re damn good entertainment, nonetheless. The acting is superb, the story and writing top-notch. And I wonder if it is more the acting, or more the story that does it. I really don’t know.
I’m running off the rails here a bit today. At some future point I'll deal with books I read over and over again. What about you? Anything you find yourself watching whenever it's on? Why? Have a good weekend, everyone.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Blog-o-lutions for 2012 (Sort of)

So, here we are, one week in the books on 2012, 51 more to go. The warm, fuzzy glow of the holidays is behind us, and we’re back at work, back in school, back to the realities of every day life. In my cold corner of the world, people have their heads down, trying not to look too far ahead, as we’ve got the longest, coldest part of the year to get through. Resolutions have been made. Many have been broken.

But not here! Here, I’ve still got to do my Blogolutions, and let me tell you, they’re tougher than I thought.

Last week, I presented my writerly resolutions. They were surprisingly easy to set (and I’ve been able to stick to them so far). Goals for the blog have been surprisingly hard. On the one hand, what’s to know? Increase followers. Increase page views. More comments. There. Wasn’t that easy? And in fact, it might not be that hard to do. Here are two simple strategies for doing this:

  1. Post on a regular schedule. Nothing kills momentum like unexplained disappearances. If you’ve got nothing to say, tell everyone. If you disappear for a few weeks, so will your followers.
  2. Read – and comment on – other blogs. Easy enough. I do this already. And along those lines, there’s an easy way to try to bring people over. My post dates are Mondays and Fridays. I’ll sneakily wait until after I’ve made my posts on those days to go and drop comments. That way, anyone who decides to see what that guy with the funny mustache is all about will come to fresh material. Did I say I was totally above those sorts of shenanigans? Apparently, I’m not.
  3. Participate in the fun stuff! Following 1 and 2, I had a pretty steady increase in numbers from May through August, but the biggest spike came between September (144 pageviews) and October (266 views). What happened? At the end of September, Lisa L. Regan tagged me in the Ten Things  meme (or whatever these things are called - hey! learn the lingo - new blogolution!). My entry appeared on September 26. At the end of October, I participated in the Casting Call bloghop put together by Carrie Butler, Lisa, and Melodie Wright.  The number of comments on those posts was double what I had been seeing before, I got a slew of new readers, and, most importantly to me, I had a lot of fun.
Getting people here is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is keeping you here. A Venus’ Flytrap can snap shut in about a tenth of a second. A Sundew has sticky fluid that entangles an insect. What have I got? Words. Those words have to interest you and stimulate you and make you want to come back. That’s a tough assignment.

If I were the Grammar Guru, or the Query Picker, or the Industry Insider, keeping you here would be a lot easier. But I’m not. I’m the Doubting Writer. And I know that I can easily become like that annoying friend who invites you over for coffee and does nothing but kvetch and moan over how bad life is when it really isn’t. You sit there nodding your head and making sympathetic noises while glancing at your watch and thinking :

Sooner or later, you’ll just stop answering the calls and stop coming in for coffee. And that’s not what I want.

What I don’t know right now is what I’m going to do about it. Blogolutions 1, 2, and 3 are easy. If I were only concerned with driving numbers, I could probably do it without too much trouble. But it's not just about the numbers for me, I don’t want numbers for the sake of numbers. I want you to want to be here.

So, I suppose I'll keep on doing what I do and let things develop naturally. Thanks, as always, for dropping by. See you Friday.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thank God for the Award...

...because without it, I'd be sunk.

I’ve got nothing today, folks.

Actually, I have something, but, for whatever reason, it’s just not coming out. On Monday, I did my resolutions for the year (and thank you for your comments). Today, I’ve been trying to do my BLOG-olutions, and it’s just not working. Everything is up there in my head, and it’s coming out on paper, but it’s just not right. You all know how this is.

So, rather than waste anymore time on it today, I’m going to kill this one off and try for Monday. Or maybe next Friday. But soon.

In the meantime, I do need to thank Nancy S. Thompson, who kindly bestowed the ‘Great Comments Award’ on me earlier this week. The award goes to "those who drop by and comment frequently." The reason I stop by and comment so frequently is that your blog is enjoyable and thought-provoking. I do appreciate the award.

These awards usually come with a string of requirements, such as ‘link to this post, thank the giver, and pass it on to X number of bloggers.’ There doesn’t seem to be anything so formalized with this one, but let me say, ‘Thanks, Nancy!’ (again) and then think…who would I give it to? Nancy has already covered some of the people I would give this award to (Lisa, Carrie, Donna, Peggy, not to mention Nancy herself, of course), but I’ll also call out Robin Kristoff, Cynthia Chapman Willis, Amanda Olivieri, Angela Ackerman, and Cassie Mae. Thanks for dropping in so often and having great things to say, and do not feel compelled to pass this along – no strings! And thanks to everyone who shows up and spends a few minutes, whether you comment or not. Have a nice weekend, all.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A New Year

Wow, where did the old one go? The sad truth of getting older is that time does indeed go faster the longer you're on the planet. It seems like I just got used to writing 2011, now I have to get used to 12. Such is life.

First, I have to say how much I appreciate all of you for stopping by and spending a few minutes with me a couple times a week. I had no idea what to expect when I started this blog back in May. I haven't exactly rocketed to the tops of the charts, but that's okay. If I woke up and found myself in the Nathan Bransford zone, I'd probably panic and go into hiding. Small is good, for now. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to meet you all, and get to know some of you fairly well. I hope I can continue giving you good reasons to come here as 2012 rolls on.

Now, I'm not generally a resolutions kind of guy, but I can tell you what I hope to accomplish for 2012. And because these things require me to take action and be proactive, well, I guess they're kind of like resolutions, aren't they? I don't think they're all that different from many of you (or at least, those of you who aren't agented/published yet). So, here we go....

Get an Agent. Pretty obvious, right? I'm not planning the Renegade's path of self-publishing. I'm going Old School here. So, to that end, I have to do a few things:
  • Finish the damn book. Good news - I'm working on it.
  • Find the right agent. I've been scouring the agencies off-and-on since the summer, making a list, checking it twice. I have more work to do on this front, but I've been laying the groundwork.
  • Killer Query. Like the Great Agent Search, I've been playing around with this one off-and-on for a while. Likewise, I've been trying to create a decent synopsis, too. Schnikies, what a pain!
Write a New Book! Hey, I'm working on that one, too. I'm a little disappointed to say that it still hasn't grabbed me in quite the way I want. It could be because Parallel Lives is still hanging over my head: it's being read, feedback is coming in, and so it's still occupying a fair amount of front brain. I hope that's all it is.

Improve, Improve, Improve. Let's face it, there's always room for improvement in our writing. I am trying to identify my weak points - true weaknesses, not just the sort of self-doubts that give this blog its name - so that I can correct them. This is a life-long process. So, again, a couple of steps to take:
  • Read, read, read. I love to read. I just need to read across a broader spectrum. This will not only help my writing, it will also help me figure out where I fit in in the broader spectrum.
  • Pay attention to the critters. I have taken the huge step of putting my work in the hands of some very capable readers, who are giving me some very good, honest feedback. Now it's time to pull that together and use it.
  • Crit! I've seen people say all over the place (well, mostly on Absolute Write) that critiquing the work of others is a great way to help two people: them and you. It's absolutely true. There's nothing quite like raising a red flag on something in someone else's story to make you think, "Hey, didn't I do that in mine, too?" Pot, meet kettle. At the same time, it is nice to feel like you're helping someone. 
So, that's it. Pretty simple, right? Of course, the overarching goal is to land a deal, sell my book, and get it on the road to publication. That won't happen on its own, I've got to make it happen. And I suppose the real big resolution for 2012 is this: Be resolute. There will be bumps and grinds and disappointments along the way. I'll have to learn from them and be able to move on. Thanks for being here and sharing your time and your thoughts with me, and I'll be back on Friday. Have a great week!