I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta.
Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you? Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more
The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more
Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes. You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here.
Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more
On New Year's Day, I did some surfing through various Twitter feeds and came across this article by Caroline Pruett. Titled, "Talking to Our Daughters About Violence Against Women in Comics," she speaks to the issue of "women in refrigerators," a term for using the death and/or brutalization of female characters as devices to motivate male heroes. It's a Read more
Recently I caught up with the cast recording of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. As a longtime fan of Mellencamp's, and an admirer of King's (there's a difference, and I'll explain it shortly), I was curious to see what they'd come up with working together, and in a form neither had tried before.
The results, Read more
Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes. You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here.
Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Stone), and as the first film of a series, it sets things up nicely. Moreover, it offers two strong female characters (Stone and Nicola Posener) who drive the action and motivate the plot without devolving into cliche or romance.
Now Arrowstorm has slipped me five copies of Mythica to give away. If I’ve piqued your interest, then just leave a comment below telling me about your favorite fantasy heroine for a chance to win one of these. Deadline is Sunday, February 14 at midnight.
On New Year’s Day, I did some surfing through various Twitter feeds and came across this article by Caroline Pruett. Titled, “Talking to Our Daughters About Violence Against Women in Comics,” she speaks to the issue of “women in refrigerators,” a term for using the death and/or brutalization of female characters as devices to motivate male heroes. It’s a concept that’s been covered in great detail elsewhere.
The panel that gave the trope its name.
As I read Ms. Pruett’s article, I thought about my own daughter, and what I’d tell her if she were older (she’s three right now) and asked me about this. It struck me that writers might answer this question differently than readers or consumers, since we have a unique viewpoint into the creation of these sorts of tropes. So here’s what I’d tell my daughter:
Honey, each of these characters was created by someone, but that creator is not the only one writing about her. In comics, different writers come along and tell stories in different ways, and some are better than others. Editors are supposed to make sure everything stays consistent, but they change, too. So occasionally you get people who just aren’t that smart, making decisions they just haven’t thought out. And just like in real life, that’s when people die.
So, it’s reasonable* for her to ask, why do those writers think that way?
Well, sweetie, I think part of it is tradition, part of it is immaturity. The “women in refrigerators” trope has been around for a long time, and it’s awfully omnipresent in our popular culture, not just comics. How many stories of revenge begin with the death of someone close to the hero, usually a woman?
Beats me, Dad, I’m just a kid.
It’s a lot, trust me. And when you start to write, in any format, you first write the stories that surround you (hence fanfic). Then, with time and practice, you learn to write your own stories.
I’m not saying comic writers are inherently immature, nor am I criticizing the medium as a whole; I do think that by its nature, mainstream superhero comics appeal to a core demographic that, due to age and other factors, seems to coddle immaturity. And most of today’s creators have come from the ranks of fans: they may have internalized this immature appeal without moving past it. Also, most of them are guys.
What does that have to do with it?
Because of the way the entertainment industry works, and who it tries to appeal to, these guys are essentially writing to impress other, similar, guys. Many of them have likely never experienced the death of someone close to them, so the only way they know to depict it is through the examples they’ve encounter in popular entertainment. And that’s how the trope is perpetuated.
So how do we change it? I hope she would ask.
By writing the stories you want to read. By connecting with readers who also want to read those stories. By supporting the people who already create the stories you want to read, who don’t reduce women to plot points and cliche’ motivations. Art isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a marketplace, and you have to convince the people who produce it that these old tropes are no longer as profitable as the new ones. That’s when the girls will start to have a bigger voice, and the boys will have to grow up.
Can I write those stories?
You bet, honey. And get all your friends to do it, too.
* Reasonable in the sense that this is what I want to write about next.
Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn’t find anything.
Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus.
No, I can’t explain the title, either. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, but as far as I know, it’s gibberish. It was also released under the even worse generic title, The Possession of Emma Evans.
But don’t let that throw you. The film is wonderful. It’s about a possessed teenage girl, and her uncle the priest who tries to help her, and yes, that’s about as basic as it comes. But as with many horror movies working in well-established genres, the fun–and the originality–is in the details.
The movie is set in England, and despite being a Spanish production, is performed in English. Teenage Emma (Sophie Vavasseur) is, along with her brother Mark, homeschooled by well-meaning but oblivious parents (Richard Felix and Jo Anne Stockham). Right off the bat this is interesting, because the kids are not homeschooled out of religious beliefs, but out of a sense that the public schools are inadequate. Emma wants to attend regular school with kids her own age, since her only friends are her cousins Alex and Rose. She’s an unhappy, isolated but basically good girl whose possession is unexpected and, as it turns out, surprising for a number of reasons.
What makes this film work, and puts it leagues above the many other films that feature a similar plot, are the acting and the demonic manifestations. Every performer is spot-on, creating low-key, complex characters. You believe them as individuals, and as a family. When things fall apart, they do so with believable emotions: there are only a few moments that don’t ring true.
We’ve all seen The Exorcist, so we know how possession usually manifests. Most of those tropes are here, but instead of being cranked up, director Manuel Carbalo dials them way down: when Emma levitates, it’s only about a foot off the floor, and when the demon takes control and makes her do things, they’re small and insidious, not grand gestures of evil.
And the plot, by David Muñoz (who also co-wrote Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) really doesn’t go where you expect. The first exorcism session occurs pretty early in the film, so you know immediately that the story is about something other than the standard good versus evil. I won’t spoil it by giving away more, but trust me: although the initial build-up is slow, the payoff is worth it.
Currently, Exorcismus is streaming on Netflix. You can find the trailer on YouTube, but if you really want to be surprised, don’t watch it: since, as I said, the movie is so low-key, they’ve had to cobble together a lot of the high points.
And if you do see the movie, come back and tell me what you thought.
If you’re a parent, particularly of a daughter, then you–like me–have probably seen/heard/experienced Frozen more than you ever thought possible. But this is not a post about the ubiquitous “Let It Go” song, which now even Pearl Jam have referenced. No, this is about the one element of the movie that I just can’t make up my mind about.
Hans is the villain, but you don’t know it until just before the end. Up until the big reveal, he not only seems like a decent guy, he seems like a great guy. He steps up and holds down the fort in Arendelle while Anna goes off to find Elsa, and that includes keeping the population safe and calm. He even saves Elsa from assassins, which ultimately seems counter-productive. In fact, although the movie goes to great pains to remind Anna that it’s a bit insane to plan to marry someone you’ve just met, we’re led to think that Anna might be right after all. Hans is awesome.
Until, of course, the big reveal that he’s not. And his moment of Blofelding, where he explains his evil plan.
“Oh Anna, if only there was someone out there who loved you.”
Now, I (and every writer I know, and a huge number of fellow bloggers) have wondered about this moment ever since. Was this on purpose, and part of the deliberate design, or did the decision to make Hans the villain come so late in the game that there wasn’t time to drop clues earlier in the film?
I’ve done extensive (i.e., half an hour while the kids were eating breakfast) online research into this, and it does seem that the change in Hans was intrinsic. From Wikipedia:
“…according to Hyrum Osmond, one of the supervising animators for Hans, Hans is this handsome, dashing character. The crew wanted the audience to fall in love with him and the relationship he could have with Anna. Then they’d get to turn him around towards the climax and make it a big shock. According to Lino Di Salvo, Hans is a chameleon who adapts to any environment to make the other characters comfortable.”
Okay, fair enough. So why didn’t the filmmakers tip their hand earlier? Why not give us hints that Hans is secretly the bad guy?
Perhaps Stanley Kubrick has the answer.
In this interview on his film Barry Lyndon, Kubrick says:
“You could have had Barry give signals to the audience, through his performance, indicating that he is really insincere and opportunistic, but this would be unreal. When we try to deceive we are as convincing as we can be, aren’t we?”
Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon. The template for Prince Hans?
This was actually the very first thing I thought of when reflecting on Hans’ betrayal. And the whole Hans plot is so refreshingly anti-Disney that I hope I’m right, that it was a deliberate choice from the git-go, and not a last-minute tweak to provide a villain.
And if so, perhaps that inspiration goes back to Shakespeare:
Alice (Milla Jovovich) posing in Resident Evil: Retribution.
Recently I binge-watched all five (so far) Resident Evil films. I saw the first film back on its theatrical run in 2002, and wasn’t that impressed, so I didn’t keep up with the series. But after stumbling across the first three for $2 each at Frugal Muse, I thought I’d give it a shot.
You see, every time I read about the Underworld series and its hero, Selene (who I’ve written about here and here), someone always compares her to Resident Evil’s Alice (Milla Jovovich, which thanks to the commentary tracks I now know how to pronounce). It made me curious to see how similar they really were.
Alice in Resident Evil: Extinction, the third and (IMO) best of the series.
The answer: not much. Both are female characters who lead an action/horror franchise (that interestingly are led by a husband-and-wife director-and-star team), but the resemblance stops there.
Where Selene has a history (hundreds of years of it, in fact), Alice is a blank. Literally at first: in the initial film she wakes up naked (something that happens to her a lot) with no memory. Details are gradually filled in, but they never coalesce into an actual consistent character. It’s impossible to imagine what she’s thinking for the most part–well, except for “Run!’ and “AHH! Zombies!”–and when she shows emotion, it’s generic, never in a specific, Alice-y way.
Further, the RE movies objectify Alice in a way the Underworld films never do to Selene. Both Kate Beckinsale, who plays Selene, and Milla Jovovich are attractive women, but for the most part, the camera never leers at Selene. She is first and foremost a character, and while she does dress in skin-tight black leather, she never poses in it. Alice poses a lot (see the picture at the top of this post). And while Selene is shown naked twice in four films, Alice is five for five.
Alice wakes up naked and disoriented at the start of the first Resident Evil. This happens to her at least once in every film.
One explanation may be that the RE films are based on video games, not known for their subtlety of character. Another could be that Kate Beckinsale is simply a better actress that Milla Jovovich (Milla is much more entertaining when she’s goofing as herself on the commentary tracks). But whatever the reason, only the shallowest perusal could equate these two characters.
Still, there’s a fair bit of fun to be had in the Resident Evil movies. While the first film is pretty standard zombies-in-a-haunted-house fare, the second and third–Apocalypse and Extinction–have their own visual identities, possibly due to new directors (Paul W.S. Anderson, a.k.a. Mr. Milla Jovovich, wrote all five films but didn’t direct the second and third). Apocalypse takes place in the urban environment of Raccoon City, while Extinction occurs mostly in the open, brightly-lit desert. And Apocalypse has Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine, who blasts Milla off the screen in the sexy-tough-girl department (she returns, to much less effect, in Retribution).
Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine.
But there’s no substance to the Resident Evil films, ultimately; they’re all flash and image. Whereas I stand by my assertion that the Underworld series represents the total inversion of the hero and damsel-in-distress tropes.
Although music forms a huge part of many of my novels, I don’t, as a rule, like traditional musicals. People bursting into song, unless it’s played for laughs (as in Cannibal: the Musical, an early film by South Park’s creators), overwhelms my suspension of disbelief. Even something as monumentally clever as Little Shop of Horrors stops dead (and never recovers) for the cliche ballad, “Suddenly Seymour.”
What I do like are movies about musicians, especially rock and roll musicians. They provide a realistic context for all that singing and dancing. And the best ones feature music that tells its own story, that fits seamlessly into the tale being told during the non-singing bits.
Here are a few great ones that you might not have heard about. (I’m not going to get into biopics like Walk the Line, Ray or Great Balls of Fire, or movies where stars play themselves, like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. Those are separate topics.)
Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.
My favorite is probably Eddie and the Cruisers. You can read my thoughts on the novel here. The movie, while shying from the book’s more interesting concepts, presents many scenes (and a lot of dialogue) verbatim, and it does a good job capturing the book’s atmosphere. The music, by East Coast native John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, is also top-notch, embodying the Jersey Shore sound (back when that term had nothing to do with some of the worst people ever to make millions on TV) and yeah, echoing early Springsteen, but if you’re doing a movie about a legendary New Jersey rock star, that’s hard to avoid. Still, not everyone loves it, so I’d recommend making your own decision.
A close second is Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma’s classic glam-rock parody. Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s villain, composed all the songs, and they’re wonderful in the way they reference both the plot and each other (“Faust,” a deadpan parody of serious singer-songwriters, is itself parodied within the film by “Upholstery”). And each musical number is, for the most part, set up so that there’s always “source” music (i.e., an onscreen explanation for where the music is coming from), something you seldom get in traditional musicals.
Grace of my Heart is loosely based on the life of Carole King, from her Brill Building years as a songwriter through her breakthrough as a performer. In an inspired bit of forethought, the music is written by pairs of songwriters: one Sixties veteran working with a newcomer (i.e., Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello). And since the protagonist is also a songwriter, the film gives you a great idea of how these things were (and are) done. The movie itself constantly inverts expectations: for example, Denise (Illeana Douglas at her best) is introduced to Cheryl (Patsy Kensit), another songwriter whom everyone (including the audience) expects to be a rival; instead, they become best friends.
The Idolmaker is Taylor Hackford’s classic story of a guy who’s got everything except the looks to be a star, so he fashions first his cousin, then a busboy, into prefab teen idols. The music was originally supposed to be done by Phil Spector, but (surprise) he proved unreliable, so Jeff Barry stepped in at the last minute. And if this is how Barry responds to pressure, then he should be given unrealistic deadlines more often. Of the five onscreen numbers, three of them are absolutely fantastic in both musical terms, and as scenes in the story.
It’s interesting that all these movies are, from a contemporary perspective, period pieces, some on purpose (like The Idolmaker) and some, though current at their release, through the passage of time (like Phantom of the Paradise). It seems as if movies about or starring today’s musicians, like most modern pop music itself, has lost its passion.
First, let’s get the criticism out of the way. The Mummy Returns is not as good as The Mummy. It’s repetitive, contains far too much CGI (something that would later overwhelm and derail writer-director Stephen Sommers’ career in Van Helsing), and the plot hinges on absurdities that not even genre films can easily accommodate (even I wince when the little boy is referred to as, “The Chosen One”).
But even with all that, it does something extraordinary with its female lead, Evie O’Connell. And few people seem to have noticed.
The Mummy introduced Evie as a bookish, clumsy Brit working in Egypt. She was almost a cliche: the beautiful woman who doesn’t become beautiful to the hero until she later takes off her glasses (and puts on a lot of eye liner). In her first scene, she trashes the entire Cairo Museum library. Later she makes several bad decisions, such as reading aloud from the Book of the Dead, that move the plot forward. But despite all that, she’s a resourceful woman who isn’t interested only in being the hero’s girlfriend: she also wants to be taken seriously as a scholar
A lot of her appeal, of course, comes from the actress playing her, Rachel Weisz. This future Oscar winner projects an innate intelligence and humor that fills in the gaps of the character as written, making her fully rounded (no pun intended) and compelling. To see how crucial this casting was, just check out the third film, where Evie was played by Maria Bello to no great effect.
At the end of The Mummy, Evie has fallen in love with adventurer Rick O’Connell, inadvertently acquired a fortune in treasure, and established (to her own satisfaction, at least) that she’s as good an Egyptologist as any man. It’s a suitable ending for the character as presented, and even though there’s a final clinch between her and Rick, it’s difficult to imagine a future in which the proper English lady and the shady American ne’er-do-well live happily ever after.
Except that’s just what they do, because of the kind of character development that you seldom see in the movies.
The Mummy Returns, although released only two years later, sees the O’Connells eight years after the events of the first film. They’re now married, and have an eight-year-old son, Alex. When the story opens, they’re on an archaeological dig in Egypt.
Already the film’s interpersonal dynamics are completely skewed. Rick, the dashing hero of the first adventure, a man who joined the French Foreign Legion and went off to find a lost city of gold, has apparently been domesticated. Clearly Evie is in charge, and more importantly, Rick is perfectly fine with that. They have a somewhat Nick-and-Nora air to their exchanges, implying that marriage (and subsequent parenthood) has not rendered their relationship stale. (As screenwriter and novelist Melissa Olson put it, “They ignore their kid to make out several times. Including when he dicks around with a supernatural device, leading to his kidnapping.”) Imagine any other hero of this sort of franchise–Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, even Captain Kirk or James Bond–happily turning over the keys to his life.
And throughout the film, Rick is never the one with the ideas. He does plenty of fighting, but he’s never the clever one. That falls partly to their son Alex (who is depicted as a pretty good combination of his parents’ demonstrated traits), but mostly to Evie. She is the scholar, the one gifted with psychic visions, and the one who saves Rick at the climax instead of the other way around.
When Evie is killed, a helpless Rick begs his dying wife to tell him what to do. Our hero, the tough guy who carries the guns, is completely at a loss without his wife to guide him. Again, this is an abdication of the hero’s power you might find in an indie or foreign film, but in a big-budget, big-studio action movie? (And Rick is not the one who brings her back to life; Alex, their son, does that.)
“Tell me what to do!”
But even our first look at Evie in the second film shows how things have changed. Gone is the demure, bespectacled librarian; in her place is a confident woman who doesn’t hide her attractiveness. And think about that for a moment. When’s the last time you saw a movie, or read a book even, in which marriage and motherhood made the female protagonist sexier?
You rightfully hear a lot of complaints about the way mainstream Hollywood depicts women. That’s why something like The Mummy Returns is so surprising. Whether it was there in Sommers’ original script, brought up due to behind-the-scenes machinations (Rachel Weisz’s career was certainly on the rise, and she may have insisted on a stronger character), or simply inadvertent, the fact remains that in this movie it’s the woman who makes the decisions, outsmarts the bad guys and saves the hero.
When it was announced a few years ago that Joss Whedon would be doing the new Wonder Woman movie, I was of the unpopular opinion that he was dead wrong for it. My main reason was that, in all the shows he’s produced and scripts he’s written, he has yet to show he can write about anything other than boys and girls. Wonder Woman, as her name implies, is a woman: an adult. Whedon’s female characters, from Buffy to River to anyone you care to name, are girls. In my opinion.
Whedon’s take on Wonder Woman didn’t pan out. But ever since, when I’ve watched movies (especially genre ones), I’ve tried to notice if their female characters are actually adults, or stuck in wish-fulfillment girlhood (often those doing the “wishing” are male, but that’s another topic).
Recently my friend artist/filmmaker Lisa Stock (she did the epic trailer to my vampire novel Blood Groove) commented this topic. About her upcoming project Titania, she wrote, “The heroine in Hollywood movies often becomes a warrior, while still maintaining her purity and innocence. It’s unrealistic of course, but a hard balance when movies want their females characters to go all ‘Buffy’ during the big battle at the end of the story. I’m avoiding this in Titania for a number of reasons – first and foremost my heroine is a Woman and not a Girl.”
Filmmaker Lisa Stock
Me: So what, in your view, is the difference between a woman and a girl, character-wise? And why is this important?
Lisa: A woman doesn’t need to prove anything. She’s not figuring things out for the first time, she’s probably tackling them for the 20th time, so not as much surprises her, and she comes to the game with more knowledge of who she is. That doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn, but perhaps she draws more from past lessons and applies them with more focus and confidence.
In genre film and TV, there are few female characters who truly seem like adult women. In fact, only two come quickly to mind: Ripley from Aliens and Alison from Eureka. Who would you hold up as an example of a truly adult (in terms other than chronologically) female genre character?
On TV – I just started watching Continuum on SyFy. I like Kira. She’s a woman, seasoned in her career, and not impressed by the young punks. She’s smart, thinks things through and has patience. In film – I think that Vianne (Juliet Binoche) in Chocolat is my favorite character. She remains true to herself despite being shunned by the townsfolk, and blamed for catering to all their sins. Ultimately, she wins people over by her honesty – a good trait to have. Though that is more magic realism than high fantasy – my work tends to be more magic realism. Michelle Pfieffer has created some memorable fantasy characters, Isabeau from Ladyhawke comes to mind – a true lesson in patience and endurance. And she’s still my favorite Catwoman. ;) I love anything Angelica Houston touches, including Vivianne in The Mists of Avalon - which is a very women-centric story. Morgaine (Julianna Marguiles) is also a true woman to me, not so bothered by the small things, but tackling her larger journey. Particularly, in the end, when she holds on to and recognizes her own beliefs in the “new religion.” It’s their ability to adapt and at the same time stay true to themselves – rather than force change or boast of victory – that defines these characters as women for me.
How will Titania’s adulthood manifest in your film?
She’s already an adult. Like some of the characters I’ve mentioned above, she has a journey to complete. It’s not necessarily going to change who she is, but she’ll call upon all her resources from past experiences and mistakes to overcome her wounds – both physically and emotionally. She’s more in control of her emotions, she’s more introspective, she also has a good laugh at her own expense occasionally. Much like Vianne, she’s a fish out of water, and never sees a situation in which she needs to compromise her own beliefs or be swayed by someone else’s. Not that all girl characters do this – but I find more often than not, that girl’s are up against someone else. In Titania, she’s pretty much up against herself. Perhaps that’s the ultimate obstacle we all face, ourselves. If you figured that out before you were 40, you’re way ahead of me! LOL!
What advice do you have for creators, in all forms, about being aware of the difference between a woman and a girl?
Who is your character, not what age demographic is she? How would you speak to her if you were to meet on the street and start talking? Don’t generalize about either a woman or a girl. The best characters are the ones who are unpredictable and (even in fantasy) facing challenges we can relate to or want to see them succeed in. That has to come internally even if action is involved. Make them honest and they’ll live forever.
Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her website at InByTheEye.
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.
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.