In my latest Writer’s Day video, I share some of my experiences at C2E2 in Chicago, by far the biggest convention I’ve ever attended.
As the release day for the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing, approaches, you can now get the eBook of the first, The Hum and the Shiver, for only $2.99. It’s a limited-time offer, so hurry before supplies…oh, wait, it’s an eBook, they’ve got plenty. But the sale ends June 7, 2013!
I was honored to be the first contributor to this documentary Kickstarter project, and rather than attempt to convince you myself, I asked acclaimed author Dale Short, one of the people behind the film, to explain where the idea came from and how important it is. And please check out the video trailer at the end of his article and consider making a contribution.
We like to think of ourselves as rational people, in control of our destiny by judiciously making the decisions our daily lives consist of—each choice as clearly conspicuous as the pair of branching roads in the famous Robert Frost poem.
We can maintain this illusion pretty well until we start thinking back on how many of those significant branchings-off have struck us completely out of the blue, the results of pure chance that we never saw coming.
My own most recent example is a workshop I was asked to teach for an organization of professional writers/bloggers in the Birmingham, Ala. area. The topic was “Interviewing for Story,” and the group’s program chairman had a great idea: Why not invite a guinea pig…uh, guest…the members could interview afterward, to test our newfound skills?
Our guest was the pastor of a local church: a distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman in a business suit. His tone was friendly and approachable, and I settled in to hear whatever was par for the course, from someone of his profession and background.
That’s not what we got.
Rev. Lawton Higgs told us, in a matter-of-fact style, about a day in 1984 when a routine event changed his life: as new pastor of a large metropolitan church, he was always mindful of recruiting new members. One special focus of church growth was seeking out members of the community whose lives were “in transition”…a new neighborhood, a new job.
So when he saw a moving van at an apartment building near his church, he headed over to greet the newcomers. But mid-crosswalk he saw that the new family was black. His church was white. He stood there, emotionally torn.
Higgs “came face-to-face,” he recalls, “with my history, and my experience, and my struggles with all this ‘racial inclusiveness’ stuff, and my encounter with Martin King in seminary, and I was paralyzed there in the road.”
He says he realized that if he didn’t invite the new residents to church, “then God had no use for me and my ministry in Birmingham. I discovered that my beliefs were incompatible with God’s call to love one another.”
That was the day that the pastor became, as he puts it, “a recovering racist.” He’s since worked to found a multi-racial, multi-cultural church in a city still haunted by its civil rights past. He ministers to the homeless, and works daily as an advocate for the poor.
When our group of professional communicators had heard Higgs’ story, the auditorium was silent for a while. The old phrases “You could have heard a pin drop” and “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house” are sometimes overused nowadays, but in that instant they were unavoidable.
Before the day was out, another member of the writers’ group and I started formulating a plan to bring his story to a wider audience by writing and producing a documentary video about his experiences. With that in mind, we’ve just unveiled a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to bring the project to fruition.
Though Higgs’ life-change as a “recovering racist” is decades old, we’ve found that the story is very much a contemporary one as well. In “walking the walk” of his beliefs, he’s at times a lightning rod for opponents in the community whose views on race and politics are more in keeping with the region’s Jim Crow era.
At a juncture in America’s history when a bitter election campaign has brought to the forefront the deep veins of religious intolerance and racism in our culture, we’re confident that the story of “A Recovering Racist” will be instructive, inspirational, and challenging to everyone who cares about social justice and a spirit of reconciliation.
I invite you to watch our three-minute trailer, share it freely with friends, and consider becoming a supporter of our documentary video.
And if anybody asks how you came to find out about the project, tell them that pure chance sent you.
“Rock and roll is a joke
and the joke is on
audience–who ever takes it for any more than that…”
Writing about music, as I’ve said before, is tricky. The ones who do it well–P.F. Kluge, Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith–take it very seriously. So it follows that writing a parody about music, one that’s simultaneously respectful and hilarious, is even trickier. Writing that parody about the greatest rock and roll band ever, the Beatles, is the greatest trick of all. Yet in 1978, a writer named Mark Shipper did it, in a novel called Paperback Writer, subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion.
The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past.
And fun is most assuredly poked. I’m only going to mention a couple of the jokes, because I certainly don’t want to spoil it, but here are some examples:
Lennon proceeded to explain to the roomful of reporters that his statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” was misinterpreted.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that we are all taller than Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus,” [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein said from the front row.
Or this bit, post-Beatles breakup, when Paul argues with his wife Linda about their group, Wings:
“What’s it gonna take for you to stay in the group, Linda?”
“You heard me. Top billing.”
“You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?”
And the book is filled with alternate lyrics to the best-known Beatles songs:
Mix it with milk
Goes down your throat
Smooth as silk
And this, the bridge for “A Day in the Life”:
Fell out of bed
Tried to get off the floor
So stayed on the floor
All day long
Finally, there are the extended scenes of alternate history, such as Lennon and McCartney getting stoned while writing a song with Bob Dylan, or meeting the Beach Boys and Donovan (“Don’t call me ‘Don!’”) during their meditation phase. And the novel climaxes with what must have seemed inevitable at the time: a Beatles reunion tour that doesn’t go quite as anyone expects:
This is a relatively easy to find book since it’s got a cult following, although as far as I know it’s been out of print since the early 80s. Author Mark Shipper, it appears, withdrew into willful obscurity and has never resurfaced. Still, if you’re a Beatles fan, or just a fan of music in general, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot. There’s real affection in the humor, and McCartney’s final line is something that we all know is true, but don’t like to admit:
“I guess,” McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, “it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.”
Here are a couple of other bloggers talking about this book:
The thing about great art is that it can mean different things to you at different times in your life. And that point was driven home to me this weekend, when on a whim, I put in the 1979 Bob Fosse film All That Jazz.
I’ve always enjoyed this film for its sly self-parody, depicting choreographer/director “Joe Gideon” (aka Bob Fosse, but played in the film by Roy Scheider) simultaneously trying to launch a Broadway show and finish editing a completely unrelated movie. The parallels to Fosse’s life are obvious, but what makes the film work is that they’re also irrelevant; they add a dimension, but they’re not crucial to enjoying the movie. Taken on its own, it’s a funny, sexy, ultimately tragic story of a man who just…doesn’t…care to stop.
Like the real Fosse, Joe Gideon succumbs to a heart attack brought on by a lifestyle of drinking, drugs, sex and relentless work. The last twenty minutes are Joe’s hallucinations as he slides toward Death, here personified by a young, beautiful Jessica Lange. And it’s this element that really hit me in a new, unexpected way.
For those of you who may not know, I recently had a heart attack myself. It was minor, as these things go–like having your chest crushed by a one-ton boulder instead of, say, a ten-ton one–but it certainly got my attention. And seeing Gideon/Fosse’s completely different reaction to the same experience put my own in a new perspective.
Because Gideon, faced with the need to change, won’t do it. Not can’t–he knows what he needs to fix, has at least a minimal support system (daughter, girlfriend, ex-wife), and is certainly still a vital and creative artist. But he’s always been in love with death, which is why he hallucinates her as a beautiful woman, and even though he has some second thoughts (visualized as grand, hallucinogenic and funny production numbers interspersed with footage of an actual heart bypass operation), he doesn’t seriously try to avoid it.
Well, that’s not me.
And that certainty has me thinking about all the other famous suicides, whether short term (Ian Curtis, Ernest Hemingway) or long haul (Raymond Chandler, Jim Morrison), whose work I admire. And it brings up one of the classic artist conundrums: is artistic greatness inevitably tied to fatal flaws of personality? Did these people create lasting art because of their death wish, or in spite of it? If they’d lived longer, or lived sober, would their art have been better or worse?
There’s no way to know.
But as I recover from my own brush with death (which, trust me, did not feel like the caress of a beautiful woman), I find myself pondering it a great deal.
Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.
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:
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.
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.
Visit the IndieGoGo page here.
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.