Monday, February 13, 2012

Writer's Conferences: Not the Best Invention

I just read this guest post over at "Girls With Pens" and it pretty much confirmed what I've always thought about writer's conferences: they're not as necessary as they'd have us believe.

I usually avoid book/writing festivals, but I did once attend one. I was in school at the time and got roped into introducing an author (weirdly enough, the author was none other than Randall Wallace, the guy who wrote the screenplay for "Braveheart"). But I high-tailed it out of there as fast as possible afterwards.

Because I've never completely understood writer's conferences.

Let me back up. I do understand their essential function: to bring lots of authors and agents and book readers together to network. The same way scientists hold conventions in their fields of specialty, etc. I get it. But what I've always resented is how people portray them as ESSENTIAL to becoming a published author.

Don't get me wrong. Most writers I've met are nice people. Actually, they're usually more nice than the average person. I enjoy their company usually. Where I have a problem with my fellow writers is that I'm an ultra-competitive writer, and I assume that any other writer worth his salt is the same way. So it doesn't exactly make me want to jaunt off to my local convention center and hang out with a thousand of them.

It's like the Hemingway character says in Woody Allen's masterpiece "Midnight in Paris" when he refuses to read Gil's novel manuscript, saying that he hates it before he's even read it:

If it's bad, I'll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it all the more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.

It's like this: I've read 16.3 billion books. I've written a few unpublished novels, short stories, and screenplays. I've edited a billion reams of other people's writing. I know, probably better than most agents, what good writing is. Ok, maybe I don't know what the hottest thing on the market is, I don't know how to sell a million copies of a book. But I know what good writing is, and that should be the most important job of any writer.

All that hooey about workshopping your writing? The supposedly conventional wisdom that says you have to fork out hundreds of dollars to get people to look at your work? Not necessary. It's like Cormac McCarthy says about teaching writing (and I'm paraphrasing):

Instead of talking about writing, we should use that time to write.

This is why, in my opinion, self-publishing is such a revelation. No more schlepping across the country dreaming of a chance encounter with an agent at a drinking fountain or whatever. No more pushing your stuff onto other people who won't give you the time of day.

No more desperation.

Instead, you can start working your tail off for yourself, and whether you succeed or fail, you'll have no one, and I mean no one, to blame but yourself. To me, that's the best luck a writer could ask for.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Disturbing Persistence of Star Wars

Listen, I'm a mega-huge Star Wars fan. It hit me at a very formative time of my life, and I've basically measured every other movie--consciously or unconsciously--against it.

But come on, man. All six movies in 3-D? Really?

Ok, I'll admit: it would be cool to see Episodes IV and V in 3-D. I can't deny it. The space battle scenes would be sick--I can just imagine T.I.E. fighters flying straight at my face. And it gives me chills.

But what about the massive pile of stinking wreckage that is Episodes VI and I-III? Does Lucas think the visceral outpouring of bile against these movies was just a fluke?

I mean, I didn't even really like "Jedi" when I first saw it, and that was 17,000 years ago. It has not gotten better with time. And the prequels were just unwatchable. I don't care what anyone says about Ep. III: it stunk to high heaven and lowest hell.

It is no mistake that Hayden Christensen has faded from public view. He's an absolutely atrocious actor, and I will not--NOT NOT NOT!!!--sit through watching his massive dopey pouting-lipped head on screen anymore.

OK, the CGI in Ep. III was OK. Granted. But the story was so derivative, so transparently thrown together as a ploy to make piles of cash, that I welcomed Darth Vader's silly "Noooooooo!" the end as validation that George Lucas had lost his friggin mind.

I have no larger point in writing this. I just barfed a little in my mouth when I saw the preview for Phantom Menace in 3-D during the Super Bowl (can you possibly imagine a more huge waste of life than seeing that movie again?).

But I guess once you get as rich as Lucas, you can surround yourself with vaccuous sycophants who tell you how great you are, even when you clearly lost your mojo around the time of the George H.W. Bush administration.

I'm convinced that we'll be seeing different incarnations of this once great trilogy in every new film format that's introduced over the next hundred or so years (just wait for the hologram version of Star Wars where you can actually get inside of Jar Jar Binks and walk around).

This, folks, is the definition of too much of a good thing.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Fiction is the Best Way to Tell the Truth

I've been thinking a lot lately about why I want to be a writer. Or if I even want to be a writer. There are a trillion infinity reasons not to be a writer: it's a massive pain in the neck, it's a lonely thing to write all by yourself, if you haven't published something by the age of 30 people start looking at you like you're a gorgon, etc.

But then I stopped feeling sorry for myself and thought about the reasons why it's great to be a writer.

And nothing came.

Until I hit on this: writing is just about the only time in life you get to be totally honest.

Honesty is the best policy, right? Whoever made up that saying should be thrown into the deep end with cement water wings. Because if you're always honest, you will not live a comfortable life. For instance, people don't want to hear your "honesty" in the office:

"Hey Jane, you look really dumpy today. Did your whiny son keep you up all night because you don't show him enough outward signs of affection?"

No. You will be summarily fired. And you can't even be honest with your own family. Not even about the little stuff.

"Dad, let's drop the charade. I hate Duke basketball."

Your dad will look at you like you just kicked him in the solar plexus. I repeat: you cannot be honest.

Except when you write, that is.

When you write, all of the rules change. You can make the most outrageous, easily falsifiable claims ("Gee Nate, it looks like that asteroid made of gouda cheese is on a collision course with the planet Hamglubla!") and no one can say a darn thing about it.

Not that the above sentence drips with honesty: alone, it's a totally meaningless string of words. But if you couch it in the context of reality--say, if the cheese-filled asteroid is going to destroy a planet where people kill each other because they can't control their tempers--then you know what? It's good that that stinkhole of a planet blows up, because people need to be kind to each other.

Just try saying "people should be kind to each other" to your friends, and watch their faces drop. Witness the awkward silence that ensues. Before long, if you persist in your campaign for kindness, society will force you to go live in a hippy van out in the desert somewhere. Dress your mantra up in an apocolyptic vision of a cheeseball evicerating a whole planet, however, and now you've got their attention.

When else can you get away with such honesty? I'll tell you when: never. This is why you should be glad you're an artist, if an artist you are. Chin up.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Great Shot Kid! Don't Get Cocky

That's the best single line from "Star Wars Episode IV." Luke Skywalker has just obliterated one of the TIE fighters that are swarming around the Millennium Falcon, and he can't believe his luck. He flashes a childish grin and says, "I got him! I GOT HIM!" But in six little words, Solo brings him right back down to earth.

"Great shot kid! Don't get cocky."

I love that scene. So I'm biased. But to me, it's a perfect metaphor for writing. You can write a great turn of phrase, or your main character can do something cool and unexpected that takes your breath away, and there's a part of our brain, a very human part, that thinks it has just seen shades of the next Grace Paley.

Which, let's be honest, is probably garbage.

Take me for example. I had a great writing day today. I mean super-fantastic-megasweet. The words flowed, and I filled up page after page, rattling off sentences as if only by sheer force of typing I would fend off an asteroid headed straight for earth. It was a tremendous writing day. I feel immensely satisfied with it.

Which is why I need to shut my trap and get right back to work tomorrow.

As a younger writer, I would've taken tomorrow off. Basked a little in the afterglow of my achievement. Slept in till noon and then watched basketball all day long.

Not anymore. There's no time for that kind of complacency. You wrote like Toni Morrison on speedballs today? Great. Bully for you. Now get down from your high horse before it bucks you off. Sit your keyster right back down on that lumpy office chair you got at Staples ten years ago for $19.99 and start pounding the keys.

And you can bet that your magnificent contribution to arts and letters from yesterday will soon be a long lost memory. And that's OK. It's as it should be. You take the good with the bad. You take your lumps. Just hang in there and keep writing. And then, some day, you'll be done.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Breaking News: Self-Pubbing Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

I got a Kindle a few months ago. I knew I'd love it, but never expected to fall so hard for it. I love buying good books for cheap and then buying more. There's something inherently American about that, isn't there? Finding a good deal and a good author, all in one fell swoop.

This is what self-pubbing is all about.

Two of my current faves, Kendall Grey and J.L. Bryan, fit this category to a T. If you're anywhere near twitter and plug "indie author" into the search criteria, undoubtedly you've run across them. They're prolific tweeters. I love their brand of writing: incredibly copious attention paid to details and motivations, a mastery of the language, and a great sense of humor.

Alas, if we play the odds, these good writers probably wouldn't have been published by legacy publishers. Maybe they would've, who knows? But odds are, no. They write in genres that are packed with other writers (dystopian young adult/speculative/urban fiction), and they're relatively new authors. Without the kindle and self-publishing, I never would've found them. Or rather, they never would've found me.

Which leads me to my premise: there is absolutely, positively nothing wrong with self-pubbing.

I know, I know. Your mother hates the idea. Aunt Suzy says you didn't pay all that money for college just to publish drivel. Shakespeare is rolling over in his grave. Whatever. Listen, you've got to get yours. You've put a TON of effort into your writing. You've sacrificed sleep and time with your loved ones. You write on the bus and subway when every normal human being is trying to catch a few extra Z's. You've missed all of Season 15 of The Bachelor. And all just so you could put in the extra effort necessary to make your WIP perfect. Now, it's time to reap the rewards.

And I don't mean reap in the sense that you only make 17% on the sales of your book and don't get to choose your cover art.

Um, no.

What I mean is you need to self-pub. Just so you know where I'm coming from, I'm insane. It's taken me almost two years to get to the point where I'm almost done with my first draft! OK? So I'm assuming it'll take me at least another year of editing to get it to the point of where I won't be embarrassing my family's good name by releasing it in book form.

I want to be rewarded for this Hurculean effort. This is only logical.

Even if it only takes you 10 minutes to write a novel, I still say self-pub unless you get some massive advance from a publisher. Just do it. And then use social media wisely (don't tell me about every time you get a drink of water, in other words) and work hard to sell books. This is the advice I'm giving myself, too, by the way. Because we're all in this together.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Getting Smacked in the Face by Woody Allen

That's what watching Allen's latest film, "Midnight in Paris" , was like. A big old right cross. If you're an artist of any kind, do yourself a favor and watch it. You won't be the same afterwards.

On one level, the movie unfolds like a typical Woody Allen hobbyhorse: the main character Gil (played brilliantly by Owen Wilson) is unsatisfied with his very cozy life: he has a beautiful fiance namede Inez (Rachel McAdams), he's a rich Hollywood script rewriter, and, as the film opens, he's visiting his favorite city, Paris. All to the good. But he quickly makes clear that he's bored being a "Hollywood hack" and yearns to finish a novel he started, wanting to give "actual literature" a try.

It becomes obvious early on that he and Inez are ill-suited for each other--she loves the glitz and glamor of Paris, the shopping for expensive $18,000 chairs and dining in chic restaurants, while Gil wants only to walk the city streets in search of that je ne sais quoi that has infected French-based artists for centuries.

And he finds it. While strolling home alone after a dinner date with Inez's former professor Paul (a super-duper annoying Michael Sheen), he's whisked away by a car-full of Parisians dressed like they're straight out of the twenties. From that moment on, Gil goes back in time several different times, meeting some of his greatest literary heroes--Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald--along the way, eventually gaining the confidence to take a shot at his dream.

I like Woody Allen. Ever since I saw "Manhattan", I've been hooked. But this movie takes the cake. I've been in desperate need of artistic inspiration lately, and this film smacked me in the face with it. It's so real-seeming, you so feel Gil's angst over the competing interests of making lots of money and artistic satisfaction, that after the final credits roll, you cannot wait to get back to work on your novel.

Have you seen it? Let me know what you thought of it if so.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Past the Giving Up Point

Well, I've passed that point in the writing process where I usually give up. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment. By this time--that is, towards the end of the first draft if not before--is where I look myself in the mirror and ask the eternal question:

Can I see myself spending the next couple of years with these characters?

The answer, more often than not, is no. If "no" is my gut reaction, then I scrap the whole project. I know what you're saying: So you spent the whole last year writing this novel, and now you're just tossing it? What a waste of time!!

Au contraire. Any amount of writing you do is good experience. It keeps your brain limber and the fire of creativity stoked in your heart.

What it comes down to is this: I believe that if you become bored of your characters and/or story, it translates to the page. And the last thing you want to do is bore your audience. Now, if you're near the end of a first draft that's several hundred pages long, you should not make this decision lightly. If you've written that much material, chances are you cared about your story for a long time before something went haywire, and it's probably worth your time to reverse engineer the thing to see where it went off track.

But if you dig to the heart of your manuscript and still find a rotted pit where the heart's supposed to be, then you're probably wasting your time trying to extract it from the jaws of death.

What's the longest thing you've written but decided to scrap? Mine was 612 pages long. Beat that!

Oh, and by the way: Happy New Year!