Tuesday, December 27, 2016

More Powerful Than You Could Possibly Imagine...

It’s always a little weird reacting to celebrity deaths.  After all, these are strangers who (with few exceptions) we have never met.  It can seem trite and disingenuous to mourn them as we would family or friends.  Yet, we do mourn, because they are both.  Who hasn’t heard a song and been pulled from the brink of utter despair?  Who hasn’t read a poem and found in the words the purest distillation of your own soul?  Who hasn’t watched a movie that is more than a movie—that is a portal to times past and the people there?  Only in art can we find our true selves.  So the artist becomes more than creator—she becomes a part of our life.  She becomes family.  She becomes a friend.

The past twelve months have seen no shortage of celebrities gone too soon, but I can think of no more personally tragic note upon which to end this surreal year (…assuming that it is the end.  Please, may it be the end…) than today’s news that Carrie Fisher has taken her place among the stars.  There have already been numerous tributes to the woman best known for her portrayal of Princes Leia Organa (including a particularly poignant one from unashamed Star Wars devotee Kevin Smith, who eulogized Fisher with his usual, pitch-perfect mix of humor and heart).  I don’t know that my words will add anything to the conversation, but they are words that I need to share.  For me, Leia was a connection to family, an inspiration, and an education.  And Carrie Fisher herself was a reminder that we’re all a little broken, but that doesn’t have to mean we’re beaten.

My earliest memory—Ever.  Period.—is laying on a blanket and watching Star Wars with my uncle, Robert.  I missed the original film by a few years, but have seen every other entry in the series sitting next to him in the theater.  To say that Star Wars defined my childhood would be a cliché—who from my generation can’t claim as much?  But my connection has always gone a little deeper.  To me, Star Wars is synonymous with “family.”  And Princess Leia is a part of that family.  We spoke of her as if she were real.  She, her friends, and their adventures are part of the common language we still share, and knowing that I can always watch those films and feel a connection to my loved ones—long after they have become one with The Force—brings me great comfort.  Leia’s story is my story.

Star Wars may have been the first, but it was far from the last movie I watched with Robert.  He remains a rabid cinefile, and passed that love down to me.  As I grew, I realized it wasn’t just flickering images that I had fallen in love with—it was stories.  From the first moment that I saw Princess Leia hunched over R2-D2, I knew the power of storytelling.  Who is she?  What’s happening?  And then what…?  My hunger for stories has become so insatiable that I even play at telling them myself.  Every time I sit down before a blank screen and begin typing out my latest, half-baked idea, I can trace it back to that image of Leia in a dark, smoky hallway, slipping a secret file into an unassuming droid.  If I ever create a scene half as inspiring, I will have accomplished more than I ever hoped.

Just as I wasn’t the only kid whose childhood revolved around Star Wars, it wouldn’t be terribly original to admit I had a crush on Princess Leia.  As first-loves go, a kid could do far worse.  Yes, Leia happened to be beautiful, but she didn’t have time to be admired—she had a rebellion to lead.  And if some slug was stupid enough to dress her in a bikini and treat her like an object, you could bet he’d live to regret it.  Despite being captured in the opening moments of Episode IV, she was no damsel.  And when the rogue and the farmboy managed to bungle her rescue, Leia just rolled her eyes, grabbed a blaster and rescued them instead.   Born into the most powerful Jedi family in history, she had no interest in being “the other Skywalker.”  She chose her own path—that of leader.  But she also taught me that “tough” and “vulnerable” are not mutually exclusive.  She looked tyranny in the eye without blinking.  She mourned a dead planet.  She fell in love with a scoundrel.  She fought tirelessly for an ideal.  She commanded with compassion.  She was a friend to furry, woodland creatures.  And, before you start harping on that ill-advised, fraternal kiss—hey, don’t blame the character for a writer’s poor planning (yeah, I said it).  Leia is one of the richest, most complex characters in all of fiction.  She’s an inspiration to women, but she was an illustration to me—an example to be admired, and a lesson in respect.  It is through this lens that I look at the “fans” complaining about girl-power in the recent Star Wars films and have to ask “Are you all half-witted Nerf-herders?!”  Leia Organa paved the way for Rey, Jyn Urso, and a host of others.  She is the blueprint for a strong, female character, and her influence can be felt both within fiction and without. 

But what helps Leia transcend fiction is that the woman behind her was just as complex, just as inspirational as the character herself.  Carrie Fisher was born a princess—Hollywood royalty, and heir to the pressures that came with her station.  She struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction for most of her life.  But Carrie never ran from the drama, nor did she hide behind it.  She embraced her demons with humor and aplomb.  Through writing and interviews, she showed us that, hey, we’ve all got problems, but that’s okay.  She didn’t make excuses, but she wasn’t ashamed, either.  She laughed at herself without becoming a joke.  As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, and a dozen minor tics I can’t even put to name, Carrie was a shining example that nobody’s perfect, but those imperfections don’t have to define you.  

This has been a rough year for many, and there is an uncertain year looming on the horizon.  This latest blow has been especially hard.  As I struggled to process this loss, nothing helped so much as this potent rallying cry from author K O’Shea, who reminded us that both Carrie and Leia were fighters.  

Fight on the front lines. Strangle fascists with the chains they would have you wear. Be a motherfuckin' general.

I started to title this post "A Great Disturbance in the Force."  But that's just me mourning Carrie Fisher the person.  The truth is that she leaves behind a legacy, and her spirit will be with us.  Always.

Goodbye, Your Worship.  May the Force be with you.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ophelia's Revenge

 Click to view the Kickstarter campaign!

For those of you who don't know, I currently have a Kickstarter Campaign ongoing.  I'm working with my friends at Red Stylo Media on a one-shot, horror-Shakespeare mash-up titled Ophelia's Revenge.  Alex Clark (The 27 Club: A Comic Anthology) is handling the art duties, with Jan Velasquez (The Star Thief).  This is my first time collaborating with Alex and Jan, and I could not be happier with the results!

Laura Guzzo's painting that inspired it all.

The project took shape when my friend and Red Stylo Publisher, Enrica Jang, planted the seed of a story based on Laura Guzzo's magnificent cover to the Shakespeare Shaken anthology.  I have always loved Laura's painting, which conjures the feel of EC Comics and B-movie horror classics.  Her Ophelia was a beautiful and terrifying creature with a story begging to be told.  Using this image as a jumping-off point, I wrote about a jilted lover seeking vengeance against a loser ex-boyfriend.  But, as is often the case, things get out of hand, and our woman scorned conjures Ophelia--the tragic victim from Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Reborn as a swamp demon, Ophelia wreaks havoc on a Renaissance Faire, with gleefully gory results.  Ophelia's Revenge allowed me to scratch a few itches--there's a little Swamp Thing, a dash of Creep Show, and even a hint of a message about personal responsibility hidden among the blood and guts.  I am very happy with the book, and excited for it to see the light of day.

Ophelia rises! A side-by-side of Jan's colors over Alex's pencils/inks.

Unfortunately, these things take money, which is why I turned to Kickstarter.  If you can lend your support, Alex, Jan and I would greatly appreciate it.  If not, just spreading the word means a lot to us. There are plenty of cool rewards--from digital/print copies of the book, a chance to be immortalized in the comic (right before you're horribly dismembered) and even a trip to a Renaissance Faire with Alex and I.  Hopefully, my next update will be to shout about how Ophelia's Revenge has been successfully funded.  But we need all the help we can get to make that happen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

NaNoWriMo Postmordem

Yeah, so I slacked a bit on the blog, but only because I needed to devote time to NaNoWriMo itself.  And I finished!  51,000 words, in the can.  Is it a novel?  Oh, child, heavens no!  But, it’s the makings of one.  A lot of it may never see the light of day in its current form, but it was still valuable work.  More than anything, it helped me figure out what my story was about, which is, you know, kind of important.

There’s an old cliche that states “How do I know what I think until I see what I have written.”  More than anything, that is what NaNoWriMo always becomes for me:  a way to figure out what I’m actually writing about.  Whenever I start a story, I have an idea in mind.  Sometimes it’s as simple as an image (a man who would not shake hands) or as complex as a concept (a second-rate super villain trying to get out of the business).  As I write--and especially if I write with the freedom that NaNoWriMo provides--I figure out who my characters really are, and what my story is about beyond the nuts and bolts of plot.  

That discovery is always the coolest part of the process for me.  I don’t quite buy into the romantic idea that writing is this magical process and that authors are just conduits through which the muses speak.  I think that diminishes the work we put into it.  I have always preferred Stephen King’s analogy, in which he compares writing to archaeology.  Writers have to dig up the pieces, dust them off, see how they fit together, and construct a narrative of what they find.  Much like real archaeologists, writers don’t always know what they are seeing at first.  Is that a weapon or an ancient medical tool, a Macguffin or a piece of character development?  Sometimes you find something (a bit of dialogue, a pithy phrase) that doesn’t really fit anywhere--the only thing you can do is tuck it away and hope it makes sense somewhere else.  

And sometimes you expect to find one thing but discover something else.  The Dance-Master’s Lady (my first NaNoWriMo attempt) started as a story about a hangman falling in love.  By the time I hit 50k words, I realized it was about people who would rather die than change their way of life.  The story about the bumbling super-criminal turned out not to be a novel, but a series of them.  I’m still not sure what it’s “about” in the broader sense, but I know it’s going to take me longer to tell the story, whatever it ends up being.

This year, a crazy story about talking animals took a very dark, very unexpected turn.  No artist works in a vacuum, and so recent ugliness in the world no doubt helped nudge a traditional “Hero’s Journey” tale into a broader examination of terrorism and how certain people respond to it.  Pretty heavy stuff, right?  No one was more surprised by this development than me.  

But, fear not!  I plan to maintain the funny, off-the-wall insane tone I had always intended for the story.  There will still be cats in jet-packs, evil donkey masterminds, and luchadores.  But humor is sometimes the best way to deal with serious issues.  Without my unexpected detours into the dark alleys* of NaNoWriMo, I never would have known how serious my absurd little story would end up being.  

*Attentive readers will realize that I carried through the “dark alley” imagery from a previous blog-post.  Hey, you’re dealing with a professional here!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tangents, Trips to the Bathroom, and People You Meet Along The Way

I began NaNoWriMo with a very clear idea of where I was going.  “You could say that Stewart Festivus was a special child.”  That’s how the story began.  Then, I would go on to tell you why Stewart was special, with a series of humorous anecdotes.  I planned to build this clever refrain motif, always applying a different word to describe my hero (“special” would give way to “unique,” which would lead into “odd,” etc.) with each section getting progressively more bizarre and (hopefully) humorous.  Finally, I would reveal that Stewart was just flat out “weird,” and then I would spend the next 50,000 words telling his quirky little story.

I think I made it all the way to the end of the first sentence before I caught a glimpse of that first tangent, shining just out of the corner of my eye.  Like a cat with a laser pointer, I pounced, taking my orderly opening right off the rails.  16,000 words later, I’m still not back on track.  Honestly, I think I lost sight of the tracks about 3,000 words ago.  Oh well.  Cest la vie.  Welcome to NaNoWriMo.

Sometimes, tangents can be a writer’s best friend.  Think of them like exploring an unfamiliar city.  You’re walking down the busy streets.  There are street signs, store names you recognize, perfectly normal people sharing the sidewalk with you.  In other words, there is safety (or at least the illusion of it).  But what’s that, twinkling down that side alley?  Should you investigate?  I don’t know, man.  Looks a little sketchy.  But the neon in that shop window looks pretty cool, and you think you can see something totally kitschy on display. What if there’s an adventure waiting down that alley?  There’s only one way to know.  You take a deep breath, make the sharp right turn and stroll into the darkness.

Sometimes, there really are monsters in the dark.  When you’re writing, and you take the chance of following a tangent, those monsters are called “doubt,” and “regret” and “frustration.”  We met them during my last blog post.  They keep saying you have no idea what you’re doing, that you’re a terrible writer, that you should just quit.  “You  just got to the bottom of a page, and it’s crap.  All of it.  You wasted your time.  You can’t even stay on track, how can you expect to tell a story that anybody would want to read?”  Those monsters can be scary, but they can be easily vanquished.  

“You’re right,” you confidently reply.  “I don’t know where any of this is going.  That’s precisely why I’m going there.  You talk a big game, monster-man, but you’re just afraid.  Afraid to have  an adventure now and then.”  That usually shuts them up pretty quick.
Sometimes, there’s not much to see down that alley.   Sometimes, you spend two pages describing a character’s trip to the bathroom--and not even the gross stuff that happens once she gets there.  I mean, I spent two pages writing about Mira walking down the hall on the way to the bathroom.  But even that was an adventure, because she met someone along the way.  Turns out there’s a strange old coot living in her apartment building.  His nickname is “The General,” and I’m pretty sure he has no business being in this story.  But, I think he belongs in some story, somewhere, and I never would have met him if Mira hadn’t spent two pages getting to the bathroom.  

And, sometimes, you find exactly what you were looking for, whether you knew it or not.  Two of my characters stepped off the boat from Ireland, and met a dock-worker.  He was just a throw-away character.  I didn’t even give him a name.  But somehow, he just kept popping back up.  Before I knew it, my Irish couple had actually conned this poor fool into letting them share his apartment.  I realized that this dude was going to play a bigger part in my story than I originally thought.  So I welcomed him fully into the story with a little joke--something like “Well, this guy obviously has a bigger role to play than I thought, so I guess I should tell you that his name is Phineas Lockheed.”

And Mr. Lockheed does play a big part in the story.  I can already see the scenes taking shape.  I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and this unassuming dock-worker is going to help me get there.  Wherever “there” ends up being.

Friday, October 30, 2015

NaNoWriMo: Just Write

It’s that time of year.  After skipping last year, I’m once again diving headfirst into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the cool kids).  Starting November 1, I will be tap-tapping away, trying to churn out 50,000 words in 30 days.  Along the way, I’m also going to try blogging about the experience, hopefully updating once a week or so.  My thinking is that talking about it will make sure I actually DO it.

And that’s really the biggest draw of NaNoWriMo for me--the fact that it motivates me to actually sit down and write.  The discipline of writing has always been my biggest stumbling block--just doing the work day in and day out.  There are a lot of factors that play into it.  Some of it is just unadulterated laziness.  Look, writing ain’t digging ditches.  I get that.  But it can still be hard, frustrating work.  When an idea really clicks and the words are flowing, there is no greater feeling.  But there is nothing more daunting than staring at a blank page and wondering how the hell you’re going to fill it.  Most people who want to write actually just like to think about it.  Coming up with ideas, spit-balling with friends, talking about how you could rewrite someone else’s story to make it really good--that’s the fun part. But the actual writing is hard.  And like any job (especially one you aren’t getting paid for), the less fun it is, the more likely you’ll just find other things to do.

There’s also lack of confidence.  Even after being published several times and having a circle of trusted friends/critics encouraging me, there’s still that little gremlin in my head whispering that I’m not really good enough, so why waste my time?  I firmly believe that you should write for yourself first.  But very few would-be authors want to keep their ideas locked away forever.  The act of putting a story down on paper says you want to share it with someone.  And what if that someone hates it?  If someone rejects your art, that means they are rejecting you--at least that’s how the mind of a writer works.  Who needs that kind of anxiety?!

And that thing about “writing for yourself” is a double-edged sword, because I guarantee there is nothing anyone could say about my writing that is worse than what I have thought about it myself.  I just told you that writing doesn’t always come easy.  Objectively, I know the importance of revising, and that it sometimes takes a while to figure out what your story even is, much less the best way to tell it.  But, somehow, I just can’t remember those sage lessons when I’m in the act.  I’m a writer, dammit!  Everything should be perfect, pulitzer-worthy, mega-best-seller material the moment it hits the page!  Sometimes, you have no choice but to step back and say “Wow.  That sucks.”  And it hurts just as much coming from the mirror as it does coming from someone else.

But NaNoWriMo is about letting go of all those excuses.  It’s about giving yourself permission to write just for the sake of writing.  The ideas aren’t flowing?  Just type gibberish and keep plowing through.  Afraid of what others will say?  Once your word-count hits 50k, just delete the whole file and nobody has to know.  Every word you type is worse than the last?  So what?  At least you're writing.

At least you're writing.

See, the thing about just writing--the part where the magic comes in--is that things have a way of falling into place once you let go of those excuses.  Yes, it is hard, but like any task, the more you do it, the easier it gets.  Never easy, but easier.  Not everyone will like your story, but someone just might.  At best, you will entertain your audience.  You might move them.  You might even inspire them (That’s the big one, because the world needs storytellers.)  And you will undoubtedly turn out some grade-A crap.  But there will be something you can use.  Sometimes, it’s a single line of dialogue.  Maybe you discover an unforgettable character that would be more at home in another story.  Or, just maybe, you end up with an entire novel that, with a little work, could really be something special.  A turd can’t be polished, but it can be revised.

Maybe you just want to enjoy stories.  There’s nothing wrong with that--people like me depend on you. But if there is even a small part of you that wants to tell them, I invite you to join me for the next 30 days.  Forget all of those excuses and embrace the madness of NaNoWriMo.  You don’t need experience, a plot, or even an idea.  All you have to do is write.  Just.  Write.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dancing with Harvey

Poetry has never been my forte.  I don't even know if this is poetry, but I have always been proud of it.  I wrote it several years ago to capture what is, to date, my favorite memory.  Having just sent Harvey across the Rainbow Bridge, the clearing at the end of the path, the great unknown mystery, I felt compelled to finally share this.