I May Be Getting Paid to Write Soon

Well, after my latest article, an analysis of the criminally underrated Halloween III: Season of the Witch was released, it has done pretty well for itself, topping 1300 views. Now for most that’s not a lot. For me that still ranks as one of my most read pieces, and that has been most thrilling.

Since this article and the one on Manhunter have done so well, I was invited to take the next step and be one of the sites partner contributors. All I need to do is complete a few exercises, and I may, for the first time ever, be getting paid to write.

It probably won’t be a lot, a little bit per article, but hey! Getting paid a buck for a written piece will be a first for me, and hopefully a milestone the rest of my life may build on. Here’s hoping this goes well.

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Ride the Reading Rainbow

Ever since Saturday, I’ve been reading. Sometimes a page a day, sometimes a whopping 120 pages, but I’ve been reading. Even as someone who read nonstop in High School and moved away from books in college, I had no idea this is what it was like. Reading is like a dream you have that you catch vague details of, but try as you might you just can’t remember it in the morning.

But I remember it now.

A tip I had constantly received in my writing was in order to write, you had to read. I tried to wiggle my way out of it, saying if I did that it would take valuable time away from my own work. Yet I still had time for movies and the occasional video game so go figure.

In preparing for my 6th draft of my first book, I was willing to try anything to get some inspiration. A friend told me if nothing else seemed to be working, I should just pick up a book and read. I ordered a couple of books and haven’t put them down since.

I’m already a third of the way through Stephen King’s On Writing, and aim to finish up another large chunk of it before the start of my shift. Most importantly was his debut novel Carrie. Carrie is a short book at a mere 180 pages, and in spite of that I had never read it. I was aware of the differences between the DePalma film and the book, but never thought to read it.

I had been picking at the book for a few days and started Tuesday on page 60. Then the evening came and I just couldn’t put it down. I finished the book in three days, a new personal record which I hope to break soon.

What surprised me most about reading was just how much it tickled my brain. Every line it seemed rejuvenated my burnt out writing circuits. Ideas started coming on how to fix my book, I re-learned the language of prose and instantly picked up on the things in my work that so bothered me.

I didn’t consciously know the issue I took with my work, but there was that feeling while editing it. A feeling not of excitement but of boredom. I was bored editing my chapters because lets face it. They were boring. Now as I re-outline my work, the ideas that come don’t seem so boring.

This next draft may be a good deal shorter, but It will be so much sweeter.

Up next I’ll be reading Salem’s Lot, and that one I’m really looking forward to because I haven’t seen the movie. I’ll be just as surprised as everyone else.

Reading has changed my apprehension and despair about my book into hope and optimism. For the first time in so many months, I think this book may actually have a chance at being something special, and all because I finally got the courage to hop on the Reading Rainbow.

I intend to ride it all the way to Oz.

My First Writing Success

A few months back, someone took notice of my modest little blog and invited me to contribute to their website, where various academic and pop culture related articles would be promoted and showcased on the information highway.

Since then, I’ve written eight articles for them dealing with some of my favorite films. I’ve written articles on Manhunter, The Terminator, Predator, as well as a little nod to that time Pokemon stole music from a slasher film.

Though creative fiction in prose and screenwriting will always be my first love, I do enjoy writing articles on books and films. There’s something very liberating about professing your feelings on a piece of art that moved you, be it in a positive or negative way.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll be talking about a little occurrence involving the article for Manhunter. For those of you who don’t know, Manhunter is the first first hannibal Lecter movie. Based on Thomas Harris’ chilling novel Red Dragon, Manhunter is often overshadowed by Silence of the Lambs and all subsequent adaptations of the Harris books, which is sad because it really is one of the absolute best in the series.

In my article I offered high praise for actor Tom Noonan’s performance as the tortured and dangerous Francis Dolarhyde. Noonan is an actor I love a great deal, him appearing in several favorites of mine such as Wolfen, Last Action Hero, Eight Legged Freaks, and The Monster Squad.

My last article had done respectably with some eight hundred views. I figured this would be a fun write. It went online on the 19th of October. Cut to Friday the 21st. I’m at work for a quick shift of four hours and am off in thirty minutes. I had a few extra minutes so I decided to check my Facebook feed, and what do I see but Tom Noonan, who I followed, has a new post.

Tom Noonan had posted my article.

I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell all my friends what happened. One of my first ever articles outside of my blog and I’d managed to grab the attention of one of my favorite actors. What to do in a situation like this?

Noonan said in his post that he was embarrassed at putting the article up, but he shouldn’t have been, because he made my Friday. I left a comment offering my compliments to his work and my deep thanks for his taking notice of my writing. The rest of my day went by pretty quickly.

The last few days I’d been losing hope. Maybe this writing thing wasn’t for me. Maybe it was something i liked but something I just wasn’t that good at. Then this happens and I start thinking ‘If Tom Noonan could take notice of my work, maybe I do have a shot at this after all.’

Since Noonan’s boost, the article has surpassed 3000 views. To me, that’s on the moon.

So, Tom Noonan, if you ever read this, I must thank you again. You’ve given me the strength to write on.

I Just Read the Greatest Short Story of All Time

Greetings all.

You know, it has been a most interesting week for me in the way of words. One of my articles on MoviePilot has gone viral and even gained the attention of a prominent actor, my first batch of new books arrived early and I’m already almost a third of the way through one of them, Stephen King’s On Writing.

Stephen King was the first of several authors I chose in order to brush up on the craft of writing, but he is one of many. The second author I found myself gravitating towards was Kurt Vonnegut.

Even though I’ve never read Vonnegut’s work, I had seen many of his lectures. He has a very fascinating way of speaking about stories, such as this wonderful lecture he did during his days as a teacher, talking about the shapes of stories. He not only unearthed the simplicity of narrative structure, but he did it with great and engaging humor.

After watching this and many of his other interviews and lectures, I deduced that I could learn much from this man and his skills in The Craft. His most well known book, Slaughterhouse Five, was high on my list of must reads, but as I trudge along to save up the money for my first collection of Vonnegut’s works, I just couldn’t wait. There had to be something out there for me to read right here, right now.

I found it in what may be the most brilliantly conceived short story ever written. It is a poignant and moving tale of intimate love and humanity’s last desperate reach to touch the stars.

The name of this story, The Big Space Fuck.

In this future where giant man eating lampreys have taken over the world, humanity isn’t doing so well. Children can sue their parents for bad parenting and the government gives you extravagant gifts for getting abortions. Knowing that the Earth will soon be unable to bear them, humanity fills a massive rocket with sperm and shoots it into the Andromeda galaxy in hopes it will hit something and allow their life to spring anew.

The story is told from the point of view of a couple being sued by their daughter who watch the proceedings on TV, watching politicians speak of this wonderful event while wearing rocket shaped cod pieces to celebrate The Big Space Fuck. They hope watching this event shall rekindle their hope, but are sadly eaten by one of those giant flesh eating lampreys just before the rocket launches.

I swear this is true, and it really was written by Vonnegut. I do offer my highest compliments to this story with complete honesty. It really is brilliant. From the first line to the last, the story tears one belly laugh out of you after another. The humor here is beyond relentless. Everything in here is a joke, right down to the world building, and every joke pays off in the final few paragraphs of the story.

Vonnegut is smart. He keeps this little apocalyptic/pornographic farce short and sweet, probably to avoid having the reader smother to death on their own laughter. Vonnegut, you are a dirty man, and I love ya for it.

I eagerly await reading more of this man’s work, though He will be hard pressed to top something as genius and sticky as The Big Space Fuck.

I Forgot What Reading Felt Like

I’ve been so busy writing the last few years that I neglected to pick up a book. Last night that changed when a few books I ordered arrived early.

The first book was Stephen King’s On Writing and the second was a collection of his works, Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining. I aim to read them all in between focusing on my own work.

Blew through a lot of Carrie last night. I’ve gotten so used to watching my fingers dance on a keyboard, I forgot how good it feels for my eyes to dance across a page.

Time to ride the Reading Rainbow.

Happy 111th to Groucho Marx: King of Snark

Back in 1998 when I was just 10 years old, I saw a movie that changed my life forever. It was an old black and white film I thought would be of no interest to me, but my mother promised it would be great. It was one of her favorite comedies she said. That movie was Duck Soup. She pressed play on the VCR, and I never stopped laughing since.

Duck Soup is a work of insane genius, thanks entirely to its cast, the vaudeville team of The Marx Brothers, wise cracking Groucho, dimwitted Chico, silence and insane Harpo, and the straight man Zeppo. Today we’re here to talk about my favorite of the group and a personal hero of mine, Groucho.

Born Julius Henry Marx in 1980, Groucho was one of a kind. He and that black smear of paint on his upper lip always stole the show with his clever wit and putdowns of perfection. A raunchy and rude comedian, Groucho’s comedy is as fresh and funny as it was back then, inspiring many comedians like George Carlin who specialized in insulting their audiences in such a way, you couldn’t help but love them for it. The black paint smeared visage that was Groucho’s face has been described as follows. “Groucho’s face said ‘I may look like an idiot, but you ARE an idiot.'”

Groucho always went against the crowd, even for his time. His television show was canceled after an especially raunchy joke where a guest told him she’s had 22 children with her husband ‘because she loved him.’ Groucho’s immortal response was “Well lady, I love my cigar but I take it out every once in a while.” Later in life Groucho became a fan and good friend of singer/songwriter Alice Cooper, much to the surprise of his fans. Knowing Groucho, he probably sought the singer out figuring ‘if this guy upsets so many people, he’s my kind of guy.’

Groucho passed away in August of 1977 after a spectacular career of stage and screen. He was a ripe 86 years of age. There are many personal heroes I’d love to meet for a variety of reasons, Jesus Christ, Carl Sagan, J.R.R Tolkien, so I might be lucky enough to share a few words and memories with them. Groucho is such a hero. I’d love to shake his hand, if only to hear how he’d insult me. With a man like Groucho, you can bet you’ll die laughing.

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Groucho Quotes, as well as this fond farewell. To the man who gave us Captain Spaulding, Rufus T. Firefly, Professor Wagstaff and so many others, I wish you a happy 111th birthday. You once said “I aim to live forever or die trying.” I think the laughter you’ve left behind is proof of your immortality.

The 3 Ps to Avoid in Storytelling

Stories are a very difficult art to master as they require the skilled prodding of emotions and intellect. Some stores strive only to entertain, while the more ambitions aim to promote discussion, put forward profound ideas, and touch their audience in far greater ways than merely killing a few hours of their lives.

There are a few key things that must be remembered about stories, or art in general for that matter. At its core, art is a form of self expression, which is also a form of communication. Since that is the case, generally it’s best to observe the same social etiquette you would in any conversation.

Lets us observe the three biggest which I like to call the 3 Ps. Best avoid them less you PPP all over your hard work. Ba Dum Tss!

That was horrible. I’ll shut up now.

1, Pretentious

Be it by book or film, an author speaks directly to an audience through their chosen medium. Now, a skilled artist will try and make themselves, and their work, approachable. A less skilled artist will indulge in their vanity.

Kubrick was one of the most visionary filmmakers of all time, many of his films working against genre conventions, filled with abstract images, and even dispensing with typical narrative structure. Still, his movies never came across as pretentious. What many forget about Kubrick is he was just a kid from New Jersey who wanted to make movies.

Kubrick was human and subject to the same flaws as the rest of us, and he knew it. Because of that, Kubrick always kept his characters engaging, always made sure the imagery was beautiful, restrained his use of symbolism, and above all else gave the audience a cohesive narrative to belong to. Even his most unusual film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is still entertainment along with art.

The Cell isn’t nearly as good an example. Tarsem Singh’s film is a textbook example of something pretentious. It has characters discuss issues that are supposedly deep and philosophical while showering itself with abstract images that are supposedly symbolic of something deep, but they leave you scratching your head before any discussion can start.

Its as if the director thought of issues he wanted to explore, thought up the most surreal image imaginable, and then put those images into the movie without really making those ideas part of the story. That’s what makes the movie pretentious. It may be wordy and pretty to look at, but under it all it is shallow. That’s the best way to describe pretentious. It’s just pretty, but shallow.

2, Patronizing

Once again, art is a form of communication. That being the case, it may not be the best approach to be rude to your audience. If there’s one thing people don’t experience art for, it’s to be insulted.

Ayn Rand had ideals that were interesting if not always (or ever) ethically sound. Atlas Shrugged tells the story of some poor little innocent billionaires who are subject to regulations by those big bad poor people and who run away from the world and let everyone die out of spite. Great people, right? The book’s crowning moment is a speech by one of the characters that slanders those who would dare subject them to regulations and how those who run industry and business should be the bosses of everything. For 70 pages.

This is bad enough on its own, but it only gets worse when you realize that speech is directly addressed to the reader. Ayn Rand straight up calls her readers subhuman whose only purpose is to be subjugated. As you can imagine, openly being insulted didn’t convince anyone that they should bow to their billionaire overlords.

Carl Sagan and his television Cosmos is a far better example. Sagan, an agnostic scientist, sought to share the knowledge he amassed to the public, and throughout his career tried to find a platform to reach people. That platform turned out to be television. He wrote and produced a 13 episode miniseries exploring the history of science and discovery.

Through it all, Carl Sagan was never condescending. Every moment of his astonishing documentary series showed Sagan wanting to be nothing more than friendly and open. This was a man who didn’t think he was better than everyone else, even if he knew he was correct on certain issues. He didn’t act like he wanted to put his boot to your throat. Rather, he invited you to join him on an adventure so you would be exposed to the same wonders that touched him. It was that friendly invitation that made the show a resounding success.

3, Preachy

This is a big one, in no small part due to it being almost wrong for certain stories not to be preachy. When dealing with themes like war, racism, the environment and so forth, there always comes a time to discuss the issues at hand. There is a fine line between that being preachy and being provocative.

To date, Avatar is the highest grossing film ever made. Director James Cameron is an outspoken advocate for issues of the environment and scientific innovation, things that I agree with on pretty much every level. Too bad I’m not a big fan of this movie.

The protection of our environment may well be the most pressing issue of our times, and to open a dialogue about it is important. The way in which the message was delivered however didn’t give me the opportunity to become engaged in the story. That’s the biggest risk of being preachy. If you talk over your audience, you never give them the opportunity to think and discover for themselves. Since dealing with issues like this is largely centered on getting people thinking, the audience should be allowed to do just that, and the best way to engage them is in a solid story. Avatar spends too much time on its message, and not enough time on the characters and how they grow. They almost seem an afterthought.

The Twilight Zone does this job much better. Rod Serling’s series dealt with themes of racism, nuclear proliferation, war, individuality, and remaining civilized int he face of adversity. In spite of it all, it never really preached. Instead, it showed.

Serling and his writers seldom relied on dialogue to get their points across, save the closing narration of each episode. Instead, they showed the things they wanted to talk about. Want to say that nuclear war is bad? Show a nuclear war. Want to say racism is bad? Show racism. The line between being preachy and not preachy is at times as simple as that age old rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. Since The Twilight Zone showed the issues it wanted to talk about, though dressed up in fantasy and science fiction stories, it is much more successful at reaching the viewer.

And there you have it. Three things that a story should never be. Art is the personal ambition of everyone who ever put pen to parchment trying to make a story. Because of that, we all want our day to show off our work, talk about things that mean a lot to us, and indulge ourselves for just a little. The successful examples on this list all had one thing in common. They always invited their audience to participate. Art is a conversation between creator and audience, and a one sided conversation may be fun for the person who’s talking, but the person listening will already be looking for the door.

When to End the Story

The art of the ending. It is a skill onto itself. Almost as difficult as building a world, filling it with characters and making it a complete, fully realized universe, is realizing when the time is right to just take a hatchet to it and lop off the end. Ending a story at precisely the right time is no easy task, for ending it too late or too soon can have disastrous results.

Alien-1979-Poster

Ending before or too long after an emotional pitch is one of the big risks any story can take, regardless of genre. Let’s start with a film that has had a huge impact on me, Alien. Several were considered for this masterpiece of science fiction and horror, one which ended it too early, one which ended it too late, and the final one ending it at just the right time.

The first ending followed Ripley on her flight to the escape shuttle as the Nostromo prepares to explode, and ended right as she shuts the hatch door and blasts free. Problem is the character never really has a final confrontation with the creature, and the abrupt ending feels like a cheat. Another ending had Ripley being rescued from stasis and returning to Earth, assuring the audience the threat had ended. Problem is it took place too long after the Alien had been defeated, so the story only seemed to drag.

The ending they went with is the one of Ripley blowing the alien ‘out the goddamn airlock (who can resist quoting the sequel?) and going into stasis before the film faded to black. It was peaceful, but still ended when your heart was in your throat. Alien ends itself at just the right time.

A common criticism of the final entry in Tolkien’s seminal Lord of the Rings saga was that it didn’t know where to end. The final battle at Mount Doom is incredibly tense, spectacular, and terrifying in all the right ways, but even after the ring is destroyed, it just keeps going. By this point, the quest has ended, so what is the point of staying? I personally would have ended it at the “You bow to no one” scene, which was emotionally potent and created a stunning visual. It was one of the most satisfying moments in the entire series, and it did feel like the culmination of everything Tolkien was trying to achieve, a king bowing before a Hobbit. Can’t beat that.

Still, one can make some really good arguments as to why the story should go on after the defeat of Sauron. One could argue, rightfully, that the point of the saga is not the destruction of the ring but the characters and their journey. You could also argue that he wanted to show the cost that the war had on Middle Earth, and the best way to do that is explore the aftermath. Even with Sauron’s death, there are still forests to regrow, houses to rebuild, and broken lives to mend. The death of the enemy fixes nothing.

Sometimes with an ending, less really is more. The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect example. After the children are saved by their mysterious recluse neighbor, the book ends with the image of their devoted single father sitting by his son Jem’s bed until he wakes up. It does not however show the image of Jem waking up.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, all the characters would have talked about would have been things the audience already knew. They would have just been repeating the scenes we just saw, only not nearly as powerful. Secondly, the book really is about the painful transition from childhood to adulthood. When Jem wakes up, he’s no longer going to be the innocent boy he was. His own neighbor tried to murder him for the sake of racial bigotry. When Jem wakes up, he will be a man. Since this is a book about children, it avoids showing us Jem becoming an adult, because the final page of the book is the end of childhood.

I’ve been thinking about this often in regards to the ending of my own book. I’d written some material in my final 20th chapter that I was really proud of, but now I wonder if it was really necessary. The quality of the writing doesn’t matter if it contributes nothing to the story. Then again, maybe that extra chapter would allow for a deeper exploration of what has become of my leading character by story’s end.

We shall have to wait and see. The art of the ending is one worth endless contemplation.