Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat? Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.
--Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93
I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more
When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more
Since I now have another two-year-old, I'm back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I'm here to talk Read more
One of my favorite and oft-quoted bits of writerly advice comes from novelist/filmmaker Nicholas Meyer: "Art thrives on restriction." Meaning that if you don't have enough of something--usually money and/or time--you're forced to compensate by being creative.
Here's a story that shows how that works, at least for me.
I've never written steampunk. I honestly don't even know if it's a Read more
Homegrown in Salt Lake City, Charlie Holmberg was raised a Trekkie with three sisters who also have boy names. She writes fantasy novels and does freelance editing on the side. She's a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukelele, and owns too many pairs of glasses. Her first novel, The Paper Magician, is now available. Follow her on Twitter for Read more
I need your help. Specifically, I need the help of my Appalachian-area fans.
I’m putting together the release trailer for Wisp of a Thing, completely different from the pre-release trailer you can see here. It’ll have all-new music, and all-new video. And it’s basically done. Except for one thing.
I need one shot of the mountains, something similar to the pictures below. More specifically, I need five seconds of scenic video, because believe me, there’s nothing in Wisconsin that can stand in for the actual Smokies. Sure, I could buy a clip from iStock or somewhere, but I hate to do that. It wouldn’t mesh with the hand-held style of everything else.
So here’s my deal: e-mail me (at firstname.lastname@example.org) five seconds of scenic video showing the mountains. It can be shot with a phone camera, if that’s what you’ve got, as long as it’s shot horizontally, and even from a moving car. If I use it in the trailer, you’ll get a Tufa Gift Pack that includes:
1) A signed mass market paperback of The Hum and the Shiver;
2) Either the ARC or a final copy of Wisp of a Thing, depending on what I have on hand, also signed;
3) A mix CD of tunes referenced in, and/or used as inspiration for, the books;
The photo above is a page from the in-progress Red Reaper novel I’m writing with Tara Cardinal. The print text* is the first draft. All the notes are corrections for the second draft (or first revision, if you prefer).
This passage had some interesting challenges. Tara wrote it before she turned it over to me. Since this story is being told in first person by the character Aella, the voice has to be consistent throughout, and my first job was to try to do that. Since Tara created this character and her world, she’s the final arbiter of what’s properly “Aella-ish,” but I’ve tried to find my way to the same voice without simply mimicking her writing style. After all, if I was just going to do that, she might as well write it all herself, which she could do quite handily if she didn’t also have to, oh, make movies like Scarlet Samurai: Incarnation.
At this stage, two things are foremost in my mind: clarity, and rhythm. Clarity is simply knowing what point you want to make with the scene or passage, and tweaking the words to reflect that. Rhythm is trickier. It’s about finding the story’s (and in this case, the character’s) natural voice. The best way to do that, especially when you’re doing something in first person, is to read it aloud. At points where you stumble over words, you’ll usually find that your rhythm is off. It’s as simple as that.
Scanner issues prevented me from producing this image in full color, but the corrections are done in red ink, just like they say you’re not supposed to do in school anymore because it might hurt someone’s feelings. One advantage of this, in conjunction with the use of such a small font*, is that it gives you a quick visual idea of how close you are to a final draft. When there’s lots of red on a page, you still have work to do. When there are only one or two red marks, and they’re for minor things like commas or single words, you know you’re close to the end.
So, this is what part of my process looks like. Keep in mind, though, that every author does it differently, and every author’s process is valid. The only thing that counts is what ends up on the final page, in front of a paying reader. How it gets there is almost beside the point. Which is the way it should be.
*Yes, it’s in 8 point Times New Roman. I’ve worked in that size since I had a job proofing legal contracts, and realized I could read 8 point type fairly easily (one of the few practical values of near-sightedness). It saves both paper and ink.
I met Vanessa Magowan Horrocks at TeslaCon three years ago, at a seminar she gave on homegrown filmmaking. She was sharp, dedicated and had a clear artistic vision, and listening to her describe the travails of independent film production, I also realized she was funny and entertaining. So when I heard she was financing a new feature film through IndieGoGo, I invited her to answer some questions about it here. And note: there’s still time to get in it, by following this link to the fundraiser or the one in the video at the bottom of the article.
AB: One of the first lines in your funding video, “Home isn’t some special magical place. It’s just a word,” really registered with me. For a large part of my life, I’ve never felt like I had a “home” in the sense that everyone else seems to mean. How much of this is your own feeling as well, and why is that such a crucial part of the story?
VMH: I think this sentiment reflects my own feelings that living someplace, calling some place your home doesn’t make it your home. In my own experiences, after I left my parents’ home, my home to go to college, I felt perpeturally out of place. I moved around a lot, and found that I never called my dorm or my apartment home. I also spent as little time there as humanly possible. Of course eventually I came to that cheesy Hollywood realization that home has more to do with being happy and surrounding yourself with people who love you, but it’s still a toss up for me. I still call my parents home, ‘home,’ and my own apartment my ‘place.’
As for the film, we have a lead character who was a foster kid, and made her own way in life. Being isolated is a great way to never feel at home. The other characters tease her, calling her a weary traveller and things like that, but one of the journeys she takes in the film is to find that sense of belonging associated with the word ‘home.’ I think you have to be so certain of yourself to know that you’re ‘home’ and what that really means.
The title, Her Tragedy, promises a rather grim experience, and you reference Tennessee Williams in the funding video, a writer certainly not known for happily-ever-after. Is that your intent with the story? What other films cover similar territory?
I definitely am not a fan of happy endings, mainly because endings aren’t a realistic concept. More accurately, they could be called, ‘stopping points.’ If your film has a happy stopping point – the second you cut to black things will change. Happy is not sustainable in the way that films would have you believe. It’s not that I don’t believe that people can be happy, its just that I don’t think its very interesting. Similary, sad endings can feel heavy handed or simply aren’t worth the tortuous journey the audience took with the characters to get there. My favorite type of ending is bittersweet – or more accurately, realistic. I think the most interesting endings are the ones that are realistic – the guy doesn’t kiss the lipstick off the girl, but maybe they hold hands, or stay up all night talking. The soldier doesn’t return from the war and see a little girl with a flower and suddenly feel A-OK, but maybe he gets a coffee and takes a sip and and looks out into the street and reflects. He’s not A-OK, but he’s okay.
The ending of Her Tragedy was very difficult to write. We had to figure out how to balance not leaving the audience completely depressed while not giving them the Hollywood ending. I think that endings like, Winter’s Bone, Closer, and The Romantics are good examples of what we were going for. As for the content of the film itself – I think it is really different than most of what’s out there. As for the synopsis, “a young woman returns to…” it sounds like just about every indy dramedy ever, but that is part of why we let the title be a giveaway of the content. We don’t want people to think the film will be “a heartwarming romp” or some such thing.
Even though you’re a low-budget film funded through IndieGoGo, you’re putting forth the effort for a full-crew production, with designers and all the other big-budget positions filled. How does working on this scale affect your artistic choices? How does it compare to your other feature-length films?
As for the effort we’re putting forth, I think it is our first attempt to put forth our best. Our first feature, called Anatomically Incorrect, was a bit of a train wreck. We tried to do too much too soon, and it got way over our heads. It was, however a completely invaluable learning experience. Our next project we went into with the mindset that we just wanted to keep learning. That one, called Interlaced, yielded terrifically interesting results. It was an experimental project, which helped, but we did some big stuff in it – a funeral, a wedding, a dream sequence. It was important for us to get back in the saddle after Anatomically Incorrect or we would have lost our confidence permanently, I think.
After Interlaced, we did some shorts, mostly Hunger Games fanfilms because I am a huge nerd, but suddenly we realized that our work had made a really terrific leap forward. We felt ready to try another feature, so we collaborated with a local stand up comedian to make a film called He Gave Her His Phone. That one is in post-production and, though we went in with very little expectation, we worked very hard, and it turned out really excellent. We didn’t have the full crew like on this one, but we had more than we had worked with on Interlaced and our shorts. Here’s the link to the trailer, because it’s cool to see what we did with no budget.
Finally we came to this film idea – which we had been rolling around in our heads for a few months when the opportunity came up to team up with the South Carolina team we are working with. I think it is the first film we have gone into with any expectation really – we think that this film will help us make an impression in the community. It’s excellent film festival bait, and we have assembled an out-standing cast. We just thought the crew should match the quality of the script and the cast, so we went out on a limb and contacted people to do things like music, costumes, and artwork. Everyone has responded incredibly well to the script, and so has been more than willing to jump on board. We have been incredibly fortunate.
Thanks to Vanessa Horrocks for speaking with us today. Remember, if you (like me) are tired of what passes for movies these days but aren’t actually a filmmaker, the only way to change things is to support the people like Vanessa who are trying to do it differently.
I think it’s important for a writer to read outside his or her own genre, so that their work doesn’t sound like everyone else’s. So I’m always on the lookout for something, which means I read a lot of back cover text, searching for that elusive spark of interest. I understand the purpose of those descriptive blurbs: to tell potential readers what they’re getting, and to intrigue them into dropping their (on average) twenty bucks. But sometimes, in my opinion, they play too tightly to their genre.
On a recent trip, I was scoping out books in an airport and came across Dream Lake by Lisa Kleypas. She’s a best-selling author, but I wasn’t familiar with her work; still, the title and cover illustration got me to pick up the book and peruse the back cover. Here’s what it said:
They say that opposites attract. But what happens when one has been devastated by betrayal and the other is so jaded that his heart is made of stone? Enter the world of Friday Harbor, an enchanting town in the Pacific Northwest where things are not quite as they seem and where true love might just have a ghost of a chance….
Okay, so far, so good. Call me a wuss, but I enjoy Alice Hoffman-esque magical realism. I understand that love is often at the heart of a magical-realist story, and that’s okay, too. So I read on:
Alex Nolan is as bitter and cynical as they come. One of the three Nolan brothers who call Friday Harbor home, he’s nothing like Sam or Mark. They actually believe in love; they think the risk of pain is worth the chance of happiness. But Alex battles his demons with the help of a whiskey bottle, and he lives in his own private hell. And then a ghost shows up. Only Alex can see him. Has Alex finally crossed over the threshold to insanity?
Again, so far, so good. Better than good, in fact. I like the idea of a troubled hero with a ghost only he can see; one of my favorite TV shows, Slings and Arrows, played with exactly that conceit. And one of my favorite tropes is the idea of the cynical, bitter hero reclaiming his idealism (if you don’t believe me, check out any of my own Eddie LaCrosse novels). Again, I read on:
Zoë Hoffman is as gentle and romantic as they come. When she meets the startlingly gorgeous Alex Nolan–
And that’s where it lost me. Because honestly, I have no interest in the stories of people who are startlingly gorgeous. It’s so far outside my experience that I just can’t identify with it. In our society, gorgeous people are a breed apart, treated like royalty and held to different standards. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the book’s target audience probably eats that up with a spoon, and it may in fact be a terrific novel. But I’ll never know. (Addendum: in the interests of fairness, I’ve decided to read this book, and put it on hold at the library. 27 people are ahead of me, which says that my problems with it are far from universal.)
This got me thinking about other things that immediately put me off. For example, I love horror movies, but if I see the words, “a group of teenagers,” “a group of college friends,” “a dozen young people,” or anything similar, I move on. Experience (and the SyFy Channel, and the Chiller channel) have taught me that this is short-hand for “there will be lots of meaningless victims,” and (depending on the rating), “there may be breasts.”
How common is this trope? Here’s the results of just fifteen minutes of scanning the horror new releases on Netflix:
“Six young travelers check into a shabby hotel…” The Child’s Eye, 2010
“Six friends venture into a forbidden part of town…” The Hunters, 2011
“Miriam and four college friends run afoul of….” Evil Things, 2009
“A fun-filled weekend getaway turns into a nightmare…” Don’t Let Him In, 2011
“College kids travel to a small mountain town…” Madison County, 2011
“When a tour guide and her friends investigate…” The Haunting of Whaley House, 2012
“A weekend of beach house debauchery turns into a nightmare for a group of friends…” Shark Night, 2011
“A group of kids takes an illegal tour…” Chernobyl Diaries, 2012
“Four London art students living as squatters…” Spiderhole, 2010
“A group of indie rockers seek solace…” Don’t Go in the Woods, 2010
So what back-cover copy turns you away from a book, movie, or TV show?
Jennifer Thomas is an award-winning pianist, composer and performer. In 2012 alone, she was nominated for thirteen various award, winning five.
Jennifer Thomas at the office.
She is also, like me, the parent of two small boys. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on balancing an artistic career with the demands of parenthood.
When I was a little girl, I had dreams of becoming many things when I grew up. One of them was becoming a concert pianist: I would be on stage, dressed in all sorts of beautiful dresses, playing the piano for thousands of people.
I started playing the piano in real life when I was five years old and became quite good at a young age. It was my release into a secret world all my own. But the words of my mother throughout my teenage years always came to mind. “How are you going to be a concert pianist and a wife and mother? You won’t, so I think you should think of something else to do.”
But here I am in my thirties, married with two young children at home, and I am living my dream. And not only have I released three successful albums, but I’ve been able to perform onstage in beautiful dresses for thousands of people, walk the red carpet in Hollywood, and win some pretty neat accolades. And through it all, I still take my kids to the park, make them sandwiches for lunch, love them and tuck them into bed at night.
I sometimes look at other professional musician moms and wonder how they do it and keep it all together (because it seems they do a much better job than I do), and then I realize that they are just as human as I am and I feel much better. I have come to accept the fact that I don’t have to be good at every little thing. There was a time when I thought I had to be the perfect pianist, the perfect housewife, as well as the supermom who handcrafted activities every day and made perfect cookies, all the while getting in my hours of practice time, while looking amazing.
I would get so down on myself for not being all of these things! And then a very wise friend told me, “You can be a great mom, and you can be a great musician, but you can’t be great at both 100% of the time.”
She was right.
A more accurate depiction of my life would be that on some days, I am a really excellent mom. I take my kids to the park, we go on picnics, play games, engage in meaningful conversations and are extremely happy. My four-year-old will be up to speed on his alphabet and numbers, and my two-year-old will get lots of snuggles and books read to him. But I probably didn’t do an ounce of music on that day.
On other days, I will get my practicing in, emails done, projects started or mapped out, and my kids probably got to watch way too many movies on Netflix while I tried to get a good solid block of time to compose and orchestrate. I will get caught up on some music projects, be on my computer editing quite a lot, or at the piano. And on days like that, I would say I was probably not the best mom. But I got a lot of music done.
How do I do it?
Well, I have learned to excel at the things I am good at, and not stress over the things at which I’m not perfect.
I have learned to accept that it takes me longer to write music and finish projects now than it did before I had children – and I’m okay with that.
I have learned I can be a good example of hard work to my children, and I try to include them in my practice time and in my concerts as much as I can.
I have learned methods and ways to do things that work for our family. For example, I can practice and compose with my children around (sometimes even sitting at the piano bench with me), but I can’t record or orchestrate with them there (they tend to push buttons they shouldn’t). So my husband and I have formulated our schedules to accommodate uninterrupted “music time” for me each week. I have also learned that sometimes I may need to lose sleep in order to fit in that music time.
I have learned not take on too many projects where my family will suffer, and so I am much more choosy.
I am always making adjustments and learning as I go and yes, there are days when I feel I may go crazy, but this I do know: Music careers come and go, but my family is constant and I always try to put them first priority in my life. And I would say I am a better musician because of them, not in spite of them.
Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her thoughts with us. Be sure and check out her music at her website.
Back in November of 2009, I stumbled across a teaser trailer for the fantasy film, The Legend of the Red Reaper. It promised to be an action-adventure fantasy, and starred an actress I’d never heard of at the time, Tara Cardinal. As I watched the trailer, I realized that whatever the standard fantasy tropes on display, this was also something new and compelling. Here’s part of what I wrote to Tara back then:
“One of the things that bothers me most about fantasy films is the persistent notion that wispy, willowy girls can stand up to large, large men in a physical confrontation. I’m all for strong women characters, but at some point you have to acknowledge the laws of biology and physics…In the trailer, you look like you can stand up to the male warriors. You’re not the size of a pipe cleaner, your arms aren’t sticks, and you’re not dressed like an S&M show refugee (not that there’s anything wrong with that). You’re depicted as a warrior, and from what the trailer shows, you behave like one.”
If you’ve read this blog for very long (or endured one of my rants at a convention), you’ll know that one of my pet peeves is fantasy’s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, namely the Ass-Kicking Waif. Buffy is probably the best known, but there’s also Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, Summer Glau in Serenity, Scarlett Johansen in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, and so forth: all tiny, busty, girl-women who appear to have just graduated from high school. Individually these characters are valid within their worlds, and there are always justifications for them (supernatural power, science gone amok, etc.). Cumulatively, it seems like this is an excuse for male creators to have their feminist cake and eat it, too. So to speak.
For my own fantasy writing, I’ve been careful to avoid that. In my Eddie LaCrosse novels, I’ve featured women who are actual adults, and if they’re depicted as warriors, they have the physique for it: they’re tall, they’re visibly muscular, and they don’t need excuses like supernatural power. And to me, that doesn’t make them any less attractive. Check out Jane Argo in Wake of the Bloody Angel and decide for yourself if I did it well.
This is the long way around to my announcment that I’m writing a prequel novel to The Legend of the Red Reaper with its creator/star Tara Cardinal.
Tentatively it’s titled, The Cave of Archerode: A Red Reaper Novel, but as always, that can change. This is a spec adventure simply because I like the material and admire its creator’s vision. It’s also new territory for me, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about our progress.
Keep an eye out for more updates as we go. You can read an earlier interview I did with Red Reaper’s director here. And watch for the release of The Legend of the Red Reaper later this year.
In the commentary on her video collection, Stevie Nicks says that the vocal on her hit “I Can’t Wait” is the first take, and that she knew she nailed it as soon as she finished. Bob Seger was called in at the last minute to record “Shakedown” when Glenn Frey got laryngitis; he also rewrote the lyrics, and got his only Number One hit out of it. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in essentially one long session, on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t have to stop and change sheets, with no punctuation or paragraph breaks.
What got me thinking about these three instances is a comment by British author DG Walker on her Twitter feed that said, “Planning is essential to the success of any undertaking and writing is no different.” Because I don’t neccesarily believe that.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should never plan. If you’re a professional (or aspire to be), you have to be able to impose structure on your creativity. But writers use the term “pantsing,” as in “by the seat of your pants,” to describe writing without an outline, and with no predetermined goal or end. It’s something that, usually, can only be done with manuscripts that aren’t contracted for, deadlined or otherwise due in a set amount of time, situations in which you pretty much have to plan. After all, pantsing can lead you far astray from what ultimately becomes your story, and revisions can be a madhouse of slicing and dicing. But it also leads you to some of your best ideas.
There’s another element involved that isn’t mentioned in these examples, although it should be self-evident in the first two. At the time they recorded their songs, both Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger were long-time, successful musicians and songwriters. They had spent years honing the skills that brought them success and critical acclaim. And although he’d had no commercial success, Kerouac, at the time he wrote On the Road, had been working diligently to develop a unique narrative voice, something that had never existed before in American literature.
What does that mean for the rest of us, then?
When I teach writing seminars or classes, I use this example: a world-class athlete practices every day, so that s/he will be ready for the Big Game, which may only come once a year. Similarly, a writer should write every day, so that s/he is ready for the Big Idea. A lot of that writing will be pantsing, chasing an idea that may or may not go anywhere. But that time is not wasted, because the writer is perfecting the technical skills and critical judgment that only come from practice.
Stevie Nicks could nail that song in one take because she’d been singing for years. Bob Seger could step in at the last minute, rewrite and record a song that became his only number-one hit, because he’d been a singer and songwriter for over a decade prior to that. Jack Kerouac had been practicing a new form of writing, a prose version of what was happening in jazz music, for years prior to writing On the Road. All of these people, and pretty much every successful artist in any field, spends a lot of time pursuing ideas that, in themselves, go nowhere. But they lead to other ideas that do.
Planning is important: writing every day, having a good physical space in which to write, and so forth. When you have a deadline, you may have to plan how many words or pages you need to finish a day in order to make it. But never abandon the luxury of unplanned creativity, of literally chasing the dream to see where it goes.
Or, to quote Stevie Nicks, “I sang it only once, and have never sung it since in the studio. Some vocals are magic and simply not able to beat. So I let go of it, as new to me as it was; but you know, now when I hear it on the radio, this incredible feeling comes over me, like something really incredible is about to happen.”
And you don’t want to deny yourself that sort of feeling.
The Hurricane Sandy benefit anthology Triumph Over Tragedy is now available. It includes 41 stories for $6.99 (one of which, “Wrap,” is by me), so it’s basically only 18 cents a story. And all the proceeds go to the Red Cross for Hurricane Sandy relief.
It’s available for the Kindle here, and the Nook here.
Today, instead of my own blog post, I want to redirect you to my friend Teresa Frohock. For the last two weeks she’s been conducting an interesting experiment in which I and several other authors submitted short pieces of original fiction under a genderless pseudonym (i.e., mine was T.J. Breckenridge) to test readers’ ability to identify a writer’s gender based solely on their words. Nearly 80% of the ones who read my piece guessed wrong.