Monday, December 21, 2015

Spare Me Your Thoughts & Prayers (NSFW)

Photo: Danielle Buma via Flickr
There was a period of time back in the early 90s where the albums, "No More Cocoons" and "Fear of a Black Planet" were in heavy rotation on my CD player. Both Jello Biafra and Chuck D were (are) prime examples of what first came to mind whenever I think of "Slam Poetry".

At the time, it was new to me. The anarchic spitting of some of its finer authors who felt the constraints of society through verses that could barely contain their rage, let alone a classic structure, spoke to me that there was more to poetry than couplets and iambic pentameter. It signaled to me that poetry wasn't just empty drivel in a greeting card. Poetry could love, be passionate, and rage in more ways than I thought possible.

Although I am a fan, I'm not a practitioner. What I would sweat for hours over a notebook page for was done so much better, and more effortlessly by my heroes.

Recently though, I've been feeling it.

I have committed to myself to write on a more regular basis these days. If I'm going to be an author, I need to practice every day. And even though I'd like to sequester myself from society so that I may accomplish my lofty, literary goals, it doesn't seem feasible when there is a toddler that needs your attention.

So, I write when I can.

Sometimes, it's real life that gets in the way. Sometimes, it's my own fear and doubt. Other times, it's what's happening in the world, and the feeling of helplessness when you feel you can't do anything about it.

For the record: Politically speaking, I lean to the left, although I am in closer alignment to the Green Party. What does that have to do with anything? Nothing.

These past few months have been building up to a personal crescendo for me when I see which way the wind is blowing in terms of social and fiscal accountability from our elected officials, our reasoning when it comes to choosing new elected officials and who is getting more exposure for the wrong reasons, and of course our endless obsession with violence.

I should watch more Netflix and less cable news. I should spend more time on Cheezburger than Twitter. I should focus more on making my kids happy.

Instead, I get sucked into it.

With apologies to Jello, Chuck, and everyone else who spits, slings, screams their own voice of revolution, here's my release. And by release, I mean "release me from thinking about this so I can move on to other things..."

You seem confused when it comes
To protecting the ones
Who elected you to do so.
The streets are filled
With raised fists
And raised voices
Screaming and waiting for protection
And for you to follow through, so
You vilify and separate.
Intellectuals are Enemy of the State.
Brown skinned people on TV feed your hate.
Anything to justify using the gun you bought.
Everybody else’s Freedom is an afterthought.
Hundreds dead from the fear you wrought.
I can’t feel sorry about your sinking yacht,
When all you do is rearrange the chairs.
The bodies pile up, and all you give are thoughts and prayers.

Who’ll clean up the oil spills?
“More guns!”
How ‘bout our health care?
“More guns!”
What about our homeless and hungry and disabled veterans?
“More guns!”
Not every issue can be solved
With guns blazing.
You forget that we’re all responsible
For the children that we’re raising.
Or, does it not matter anymore
Now that it’s not in the womb?
Children are a statistic
That are groomed to consume
All the crap that they see on TV
And then, BOOM!
Twenty dead kids are presented as fictional ruse?
Twenty dead kids is not a lie.
Unless the one who pulled the trigger was an "alien",
All you get are lifeless stares.
Unless the kids that got shot
Are related to a Senator or a celebrity, no one cares.
We’ll tear down your school,
And put up a prison
That’s built on thoughts and prayers.

Stop me if you heard this one.
A man walks into a church,
Kills everyone inside.
A man walks into a theater,
Kills everyone inside.
A man walks onto a campus,
Kills everyone in sight.
That’s alright
Cuz their white.
They get taken in alive.
Meanwhile a black kid gets gunned down for
Crossing the street.
The poor, the sick, the huddled masses,
Get turned out on their ear
Because they don’t meet
The Christian Criteria for our homegrown terror.
They are ones who should be feared.
Not us, we’re the good guys, remember?
They walk down stairs, alone and in pairs
and slaughter in the name of their god...
You won’t even acknowledge the blood on your hands
Because that’s not what your so-called holy leader demands
He commands you to make sure his empire
Expands and expands
Along with his profits and shares
At the expense of the lives of innocent kids
I could give a shit about your thoughts and prayers.

You say you see the problem
You say you know the solution
Arm the babies
Arm the teachers
Turn every neighborhood to a “Guns and Ammo” Theme Park
Because the problem isn’t us.
It’s never been us.
The problem is not that we’re poorly educated
Easily influenced, easily intimidated, easily manipulated
Overprivileged, trigger happy, flag waving, Bible thumping, diabetes prone,
Armchair Jeebus Freaks.
The problem is just over our border,
Over our heads
The danger of the unknown
The terror of the other.
It’s those brown people, black people, yellow people,
People who worship different gods, eat different foods,
Sing different songs.
You say you see the problem
You say you know the solution
And so its shut down our borders,
Lock up anyone who doesn’t look like you.
Sell more guns, spread your hate,
Shoot anyone who doesn’t worship your god
And deport the rest
Because, fuck ‘em, right? They’re never going to learn English anyway.
We don’t want to listen,
And we don’t want to learn.
It’s our fault that we can’t help ourselves, as far as you’re concerned.
It’s hard to have empathy
When your head’s up the ass of billionaires.
We need to protect us from ourselves.
Spare me your thoughts and prayers.

©2015 The Writers Bloc/AA Payson

Friday, October 23, 2015

Top 5 Horror Movies From A Guy Who Doesn't Like Horror Movies

You heard right, I can't stand horror movies.
"Has anyone seen Torgo?"

Not entirely for the reason you might suspect, which is: "Heh...I knew that guy was a sissy." In which case, you might be right.

Maybe it all started from being traumatized at a young age watching some Anthony Perkins hosted, 70s era montage show about horror movies (I was 6, and completely unprepared). Maybe it had something to do with watching "Trilogy of Terror" on Halloween, and not being able to cope with it for months (little bastard freaked the hell out of me!).

Maybe it had something to do with growing up in Maine, and the ghosts that we live with are so much more realistic, yet slightly less terrifying than anything Hollywood could produce.

The monsters that existed just outside of the glow of the flashlight?

If you grew up in the part of Maine where it's slow to catch up with the rest of the world, you know that they're there.

They've always been there.

Maybe it has something to do with with growing up with an appreciation of a proper ghost story. Regardless if it was the "Man With the Hook" story that someone always brings with them to the campfire, or any given musing from Edgar Allen Poe that we had to read in school. Somewhere along the way, I learned that what happens in your head is much worse than what happens in reality.

Maybe it's because I've been watching 'reality' unfold on a nightly basis in the form of another school shooting, another family ripped apart by violence, and somehow some straight-to-video splatter-fest seems pale in comparison.

Maybe I'm old and jaded.
Maybe I'm Keyser Soze.
...Maybe I'm a Chinese jet pilot...

"Did you just use my line, Screwhead?"

Halloween Horror Nights, Haunted Hayrides, Sideshow Haunted Houses, I have never been a willing participant in things that are designed to make me scream like a little girl while making me pee myself. At best, these things do what they're supposed to do and scare the bejeebus out of least for a while...then it tends to get boring. Predictable. Mundane.

Oh, look! It's another Leatherface knock-off with a defanged chainsaw looking to use my scrotum as a murse...yeah...that's what the last one said...and the one before that...

The scary doesn't seem so scary when it's the norm. Being surrounded by a bunch of clownish, chainsaw wielding Summer Stock actors maniacs might have an initial shock value when you walk into the park, but it gets a little old when you're trying to get a funnel cake. Come to think of it, I've seen plenty of occasions (especially around the end of the night) where the actors in these horror themed parks, have more or less clocked out before their shift ends.

"Rawr! I'm going to eat your braaaaaii..wait, is that funnel cake?"

This is harmless make believe, and sometimes, it gets old. I used to feel the same way back in the Golden Age of Blockbuster; looking at all the titles in their horror section quietly muttering to myself, "seen it, seen it, boring, seen it, miss it, miss it....oh, what the hell is this? Co-ed Zombie Cheerleaders vs. Alien Vampires from Mars?"

I fear that we may have reached an epoch as far as what we, as a society, think what the boogie man looks like. Real horror is your country being bombed on a regular basis because of religious reasons. Hollywood horror is all about making money. I'm not a fan of either.

Not to say anything bad about the Horror Movie industry in general. On the contrary, from a certain point of view, it's good business. To make an instant hit, you don't need that much money. All you need are a couple of friends, a camera, a place, a few maxed out credit cards, and pure will. And whether your little horror movie is universally panned, or embraced by fandoms, more than likely, the possibility of making a decent profit is pretty high. Although it is not a guaranteed formula (from a studio's perspective), it has worked quite well, especially for a few notable first time directors.

My problem with horror movies isn't box office draw, my problem is an oversaturation of a formula that has been pervading the genre for quite a while now. My problem is that I'm seeing these travesties presented through the lens of a storyteller. Since the dawn of the "Slasher Flick", the horror movie has been less about actual horror, and more about formulaic exploitation. How many "Saw" movies do we need? How many Nightmares on Elm Street are we going to have to go through before we wake up? My problem is that Hollywood is out of ideas. I mean, it goes without saying, but nothing says, "I got nuthin', but it doesn't matter because you're going to see this turkey, because it has blood, guts and boobs, and you're going to make me stinkin' rich anyway" more blatantly than a cheap slasher flick, or a remake of a slasher flick, or a reboot of a remake of a slasher flick...

...sorry, what was I talking about?

These days, it's less about "horror" and more about "exploitation". It doesn't seem so scary when it's the norm. And that's kind of dangerous.

My problem is that the genre is at risk of becoming stagnant. Is it me, or is every other horror movie some variation on "Found Footage", or zombies, or both? Kind of like how YA Fiction has almost become synonymous with pouty vampires.

Personally, my definition of Horror falls closer in line to how Alfred Hitchcock defines it, rather than the blood-soaked, prepackaged, uninspired slaughter fest that gets cranked out year after year.

What are we up to now, "Saw 19: Jigsaw files for Social Security"?

The scariest stuff happens when things are implied. Great filmmakers know this. You want to freak the hell out of an audience? Have the action happen off screen. Leave just a little to the imagination. Did we see Mr. Blonde cut that cop's ear off? Did we see the needle go into Mia Wallace's chest? No, we didn't see it, but it doesn't mean that audiences didn't cringe, or in some cases, faint.

There needs a little left to the imagination. There needs to be a little more substance. It can't all be jump scares and zombies. Not for me.

Just to clarify, I'm not down on the genre as a whole. There are some notable exceptions that try to elevate and move the genre forward. For a while, Italy seemed to be taking the horror movie to a higher art form. These days, that distinction seems to be claimed by the Far East.

I loved Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners" and Benecio Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth". Both are genuinely scary, and wildly, giddily imaginative. Not a chainsaw or a zombie to be found in either of them (I'm presuming that there won't be any in the just released Crimson Peak either). These movies are scary, but they are gorgeous. They activate the imagination, rather than bum me out and exhaust me.

These are my top picks. These are the best horror movies, presented by someone who kinda doesn't like horror movies.

5. Poltergeist

I don't know if there's a word for it yet, but there is a handful of movies I just have to watch if I'm just flipping through the channels on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Tobe Hooper's flare for the gruesome coupled with Spielberg's trademark ability to make a movie shot from the POV of a child so friggin' terrifying, makes this an enduring classic; a nice re-invention of the haunted house story.

4. The Shining

Speaking of classics, I'm not sure if Kubrick was the originator of the slow build, but he certainly was the master. He was a photographer before he became a film director. Maybe that would shed some light on his long, unflinching establishing shots. Stephen King based this book on a trip he took to Colorado. It's also a very personal story, because he also bases the story on recovering from alcoholism. Kubrick's version to interpretation. 

Do a Google search on "meaning of The Shining", you'll see what I mean.

Here is an example of horror where the monster isn't waiting beyond the shine of your is already inside all of us, and is waiting for that right moment to wake up.

That, plus Jack Nicholson is the manifestation of nightmares.

Also, Kubrick was pretty slick at setting the tone in the trailer...*shudder*

3. The Blair Witch Project

The concept of "Found Footage" has already been established well before this movie with Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust" in 1980. However, the style never caught on, except for a few low budget Indie's, and I presume that it was done so unironically. 

So much derision has been poured on this movie. It was almost universally panned. "The shakey camera almost made me puke," one reviewer would say. "I have no idea what's going on," said another. The horror in this movie was folded in layers of fear; fear of the dark, fear of the unknown... The horror was all in these three tenderfoots slowly getting lost, and slowly losing their minds. Simple, and still effective.

Every so often, a convention or a style gets broken or turned on its ear. Up until this point every movie, including Indies, had to be shot a certain way, or else it might be mistaken as a 60 minutes segment or something; all dolly shots and what have you. Here comes a movie that was made by a couple of unknowns for almost no money, has no Hollywood stars, no soundtrack, no script, and is completely stitched together with footage shot from several different cameras. The end result confused, confounded and angered many critics, because it wasn't what they were expecting. The end result was that it was the most profitable horror movie of all time. Sheer audacity.

Flash forward another 10 years, pretty much every horror movie WITH a huge budget, WITH Hollywood stars, WITH a soundtrack has finally adopted the style, and somehow it's cool now(?)

Anyway, I've always been a fan of this movie, both in its approach, and it's ability to successfully advertise almost entirely utilizing the internet. It might be considered the first viral hit.

2. Jacob's Ladder

I...I can't even...

*takes deep breath*
*regains composure*

There is a very short list of movies I will never watch again after the first time. Mostly because the majority of them were unapologetically bad. A couple of them, including this one, I will never watch again because the subject matter, as well as the style in which it was shot, kind of hit a little too close to home in the old brain pan. I won't get into detail as to how, should I put this...???

Okay..."Leaving Las Vegas" was a pretty accurate portrayal of what it's like to slowly kill yourself, right? Well, "Jacob's Ladder" is a pretty accurate portrayal of what a bad flashback is like... of hands, who knows what I'm talking about?
Let's just leave it at that.

1. The Babadook

Yes, a relatively new one on this list. Even though I'm not a true blue fan of horror, I saw the trailer for this, and I was quite intrigued with it.

The movie did not disappoint.

Not a zombie or a vampire, or a frame of found footage to be seen any where near this thing. Yet, it still made my skin crawl, yet I still walked away from it pondering and asking questions...

Yet, I found it hard to go to sleep that night...

Believe the hype. This movie will find a way to crawl under your skin and stay there. Good stuff.

Are you like me? Are you picky when it comes to scary movies? Let me know what your list is in the comments below.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Changes, Updates, Declarations and the Future of The Writers' Bloc

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by Liza
Yep, it's all about the change around here.

Leaves are falling, school is well under way, another year crawling to an end. 

It's the time of year where I turn my face towards the sun, reflect on where I am, take a deep breath of crisp, autumn air and think, "How the fuck did I get here? No seriously, where am I?"

Late last year, I made an almost exact replica of this blog on WordPress. Were you to ask me at the time why I made two blogs with the same name, I would have answered with full bravado, and just a tinge of desperation that I wanted to see which platform would have been better in terms of views. To say nothing that it's probably not the wisest decision in the world to do so. The initiative to self-start was so strong that I kind of blinded me to other things, such as unwittingly confusing followers and diminishing the impact of whatever I write by posting it twice. These are the lessons learned after the fact.

I wasn't thinking clearly. Then again, it's hard think clearly at all when I had another child on the way, I just got laid off, and given my age, facing the possibility of starting over again for the umpteenth time, shrank like Wilson vanishing into the horizon in Cast Away (what? I like that movie) as each day passed. Put another way, I have been in full panic mode for a while now.
"You miss me?"

Anyway, not unlike Tom Hanks giving up on his little buddy as he watches him helplessly fade away...

...sorry, need a moment...

There eventually came a point in a moment of solitude where I had to pull myself together, take a deep breath, and take an inventory of what I have. Starting with these twin blogs.

In the past couple of years, I have started 5 blogs. These days, it's down to 4; one of them is the carbon copy of this one, another one has long since been removed because it shall I put this... boring as hell, a blog for my t-shirt business that has seen it's share of hits and misses (see all those designs on the right hand side? Those are all for sale. Just sayin'), a YouTube channel and an accompanying blog. I have established myself in several social media outlets. I am poised to effectively market myself and what I have to offer.

However, given that I don't have anything tangible to sell, save for the t-shirts and stickers, what I'm offering is a tougher sale to close. Essentially, I have a bunch of shiny venues with not a lot going on. Kind of like a shopping mall where the number of "For Lease" signs are slowly taking over the number of actual stores.

"Well, what have you got?"
"I have t-shirts, and a strong desire to be Word Monkey-for hire."
"I see. So, are you an expert in your particular field?"
"I don't even have a field."
"Well that's...tragic... I'll take 2 shirts, please."

It took me a little while, but I'm closer to figuring it out...

For the record: Yes, I know about SEO. I'm far from being a guru on the subject, but I'm confident that I know more about it than some people. Yes, I understand that great and engaging content + keywords + actionable guidance = more traffic. My intentions, my main goal is to be a successful blogger so that it may facilitate in the process of landing future freelancing gigs (Yeesh, could I sound more like I'm padding a resumé? Let me try this again: ME WRITE GOOD! ME NEED JOB MAKE INCOME! NEED FOOD THIS MONTH!) .

The problem that has been staring me in the face and fogging up my glasses for years, is that the application of the SEO formula only works if you have something real to sell or services to offer. If I'm not selling, offering, promoting, or teaching, then I'm just another schmuck yammering to himself online. This is the cold, hard truth that I had to figure out on my own is that I have a t-shirt business with a handful of forgettable designs, and a few blogs that are about nothing in particular. I have been focusing more on the end product, rather than the process of getting there.

...If you need me, I'll be the crazy, unwashed dude at the end of the bar dressed in a cheesy t-shirt mumbling something about conversion optimization...

Things had to change.

I had these things in motion, these blogs. These unsharpened tools of SEO. I'll be the first to admit that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing in order to make myself more marketable however clumsily, but these things I am using needed to become more...well... useful. Things needed to get streamlined.

So, after thinking about it, I decided to keep this blog as my personal blog; A rickety old soap box that I stand on when I feel the need to reflect, bemuse, commentate, commiserate, and bitch. Also, throw in the occasional Top 5 List to... you know... keep the masses happy?

My YouTube channel and corresponding blog will more than likely be an extension of that.

The t-shirt business will be getting a better website, preferably one with a user-friendly storefront.

Which leaves my sister WordPress site...

I came to the conclusion that one of these needed to be taken behind the barn Old Yeller style.

Sorry...need another moment... damn allergies...

At least for a while. I couldn't keep the two of them. It's like owning two Starbucks on opposite sides of the street, and turning one of them into a Stuckey's because I felt the need to diversify. One of these had to go. But why get rid of one when I might be able to better utilize it in the future? So, it all came down to this: Keep this blog personal for those occasions where I need to rant. Change the name of my WordPress blog, and reserve that one as a place to write and sell my fiction. Also, as the big, swrily, fuck off obnoxious signature to my own personal declaration, I'm setting a personal goal to finally buy a domain this year.

Brilliant, eh?
It's only taken me...what...a few years to figure this out?

A sense of urgency to do this has taken over the better part of my attention these days because, as some of you already know, it's that time of year again...

It's time. 

I've been on the sidelines for years now. Which is okay by me, because, again, I had nothing to offer. I had other things on my plate. This year though, I got the ball rolling on something, and I'd like to see where it goes. I mean, for real this time, not just write a few posts and abandon it. This year, I intend to finish what I start.

This year, I am joining NaNoWriMo. My goal is to reach the lofty, damn-near-impossible-goal-for-a-noob 50,000 word level (we'll see how that goes), finally stop talking about it, and actually try to get published.

I go into this feet first and fresh faced like my first day of school. Although the rules are self explanatory, I can't help but feel that might be cheating. As of this post, I already have a head start on my manuscript of about 2000 words. The rules state that I can either start with a blank slate, or prepare in advance with tons of notes and research material. The rules say nothing about starting with a second draft of the first few pages of an you go. I can't help that it feels like cheating. But on the other hand, with the added challenge of writing a novel while being a stay-at-home dad, I'll take any Mulligan I can get.

Honestly, I'm excited. Before I signed up, I had very little knowledge about the NaNoWriMo community, other than what I could glean from authors and other blogs I follow. But after spending a few moments of getting acclimated to the site, I can't help but get the warm and fuzzies recognizing that I might be in good company. Hopefully. 

So, this is my official Declaration to commit to NaNoWriMo. I will be sharing snips, previews and maybe the occasional chapter over at WordPress, any thoughts, musings and inspiration regarding my current project will be ending up here.

I'm off to gather more research material like the squirrels that are currently tearing up my yard.

If you have a moment, or if you're interested, please subscribe to my WordPress site to keep up to date with the progress of my current project.

Hugs and Kisses...

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Steal This Post! Personal Thoughts on Originality, And Hero Worship.

I learned to play the piano at a young age.

Not that I was a prodigy or showed any sort aptitude for composition whatsoever. I wasn't born with chops. What I did have, was an ability to find a tone and mimic it, which is normal development for children. Most parents drill words into their children's brain through repetition. Mine played music. I remember sitting in the middle of the living room while my mother would tidy up with the noisiest canister vacuum on the planet. While it ran at decibels that are comparable to an average, modern day shop-vac, or leaf blower, or jet liner takeoff, it did run at a specific note. Which I would hum. Loudly. Which confused my mother at times. You know that moment when you tune an instrument, and the sonic wavelengths from the tune-e and the tuner match perfectly? Kind of like that.

Again, it's not because I wasn't that musically inclined. At first, I just thought it was kind of neat that I could sound like a vacuum cleaner, because I was toddler, and I was easily amused.

It was at that moment where it was noticed by the folks that I have this ability, and was quickly shown sheet music and my grandmother's upright piano, and given a brief lesson on finding notes on the keyboard, and how it correlated with the black dots on a page. My childhood was mostly taken up with learning the notes on the bass and treble clef, time signatures, and making sure that my left hand keeps moving.

In high school, I moved to brass instruments, and flirted with the bass guitar for a while. Childhood piano lessons took a back seat to other activities like sports, marching band, finding a part time job, girls. The interests of a teenaged me had me going in different directions, but I would never stray too far from a keyboard. Which is to say, I've gone through my "chopsticks" phase, and was quickly bored with trying to come up with something new. It wasn't that I fell out of favor with it and refused to touch one ever again, it was more like I reached a plateau, and was satisfied where I was with it. Had I the head for composition and structure, the piano and I would be bosom buddies to this day. I'd be neck-deep in librettos for Off-Broadway productions. I'd have a successful "Jingle" factory where I would teach the world to sing in perfect harmony (perfect're singing it now, aren't you? Don't deny it.) I would have collaborated with the greats. Gone Platinum. Dominated the Billboard charts. Hear Casey Kasem say my name on a weekly basis. Sadly, none of that ever happened. Unfortunately, my teenage self could never see that far, and only concerned himself with playing what was in front of him. He was more concerned with getting it right, rather than try and experiment, and play with the knowledge he accumulated.

Still though, like most habits that are ingrained into children, the need to play, or write, or sing, or express something was always there. When it came to music, I had this thing, this habit, this need to mimic something I heard; A small nugget of my toddler years that never left. It wasn't for any competition, like any sort of one-upsmanship because I had this need to be known as "That Guy Who Could Play ______" (okay... maybe it had a little to do with competition), I heard a melody, it flipped a switch in my head or something, and I had to see if I could play it. Play it, not interpret it. I understood that music was a language, and since it's important to communicate, I thought it important to at least know what I was talking about. I was a competent fake, and for a while, it was good.

To be sure, my musical knowledge wasn't completely about reading notes on a page. I did in fact branch out once and write my own song in high school (and again in college...different story). It was well received when I performed it at a school assembly, thereby forever cementing my legacy as the Nerdy Weirdo Who No One Expected Anything But Uncomfortable Weirdness From, But Surprised Everyone With A Song In The Third Act That Was So Touching That We Forgot How Nerdy He Was. You know, that old chestnut. It was a stock character used by John Hughes, I think. He used it in his movie, "Somethingsomething Teenage Embarrassment Something." Remember that one? It had Whatshisname McHasbeen in it? It had to have been from a movie, because (full disclosure) The song I wrote was based on something I heard in passing from some After-School Special soundtrack. I heard it once, caught my ear, cranked out something resembling a composition in a half an hour, and ran with it.

I hate myself sometimes...

Do they even make After-School Specials any more?

I just dated myself, didn't I?

Gahd, I'm old.

I wrote a piece of music. It wasn't groundbreaking, or unique. Its chord structure was familiar enough that it was appealing to listen to. Was it "Original"? Hardly. What is "Original" anyway? Is there such a thing anymore?

It doesn't matter if you're a novelist, journalist, musician, actor, chef, if you create, your top priority is to be "Original". Don't copy. Don't Plagiarize. Pick up the mantle that has been dropped by the ones who came before you, and take it somewhere else. Produce something that no one has witnessed before, which is understandable and fair.

But, suppose for a moment that we as a society, at this moment in time, have witnessed, well, everything? We've heard it all before, seen it all before, tasted it all before. We are all constantly searching for something new, while at the same time, not willing to give up on the familiar. There are those of us who find comfort in the old by unearthing a memory from our past, dusting it off, giving it a new coat of paint and presenting it as new. Which it technically isn't: it's an old idea made new again through the eyes of someone else. Is that original? Do we care? Is there really nothing left under the sun? Even as I write this post, I am well aware of the irony that the topic of questioning originality is itself a subject that has been pondered and postulated to death.

Go ahead and Google, "Is anything original anymore?" I'll wait...

While I'm on the subject, why do we love cover tunes...I mean...those of us who know what a cover tune is?
Oldest Daughter: (humming along to music in a commercial) I like this song!
Me: Yes, that's an old Beatles tune.
Oldest Daughter: Who are The Beatles?
This Meme Is Not Original
You have your favorite band. They play your favorite songs. You might even have a record (what's a record? Quiet, you!) of theirs that you play religiously. You see them in concert, they do their thing and all of a sudden, they play an unexpected yet familiar cover of another popular tune, and the crowd goes crazy. Why? We expect originality. We expect to hear the songs they wrote. Why do we get excited when they perform something they didn't write? Are they plagiarizing? Are we encouraging it? I performed a tune that I composed that was based on a few bars of someone else's music. Am I plagiarizing? Am I original? Do we persecute our favorite artists for performing a cover tune? Are they copying for one-upsmanship or monetary gain, or are they paying homage to their heroes?

I would prefer to think the latter.

There is outright thievery, and just to be clear, I am not one to condone such actions. There is also going through the proper channels in order to use copyrighted material. There is also Fair Use. All of which are decent subjects for different times.

Covering a tune is fine. Taking the tune, erasing the songwriter's name and adding your own is obviously poor form.

This applies to all types of writing.


Who was your hero when you were a kid? Spider-Man? Martina Navratilova? Kurt Cobain? Ralph Nader? Who was it? Why were they your heroes? There was obviously some quality about them that made you look up to them in the first place. They saved the day. They stood up for the little guy, They turned the world in its ear. They stood by an ideal. What did we say when we were children whenever we looked up to our heroes?

"I'm gonna be just like her,"

And we would go and do that thing that our heroes would do: Study, practice, jump off the roof of the garage using towels as capes, try to get bit by a mutated spider. Whatever it took, we would try so hard to be like them. Until that day finally comes where we see that we are never going to be that person. That's fact dictating that to you like some boarding school crone. However, the truth is that there is nothing in the world that stops you from being like that person. I mean, not in like wearing your roommate's clothes, styling your hair like hers, and then killing her boyfriend type of thing. It's more like taking your hero's values and incorporating them into your own life. To review: Less Stabby, More Thinky.

I'm no different.When it comes to music, I want to play guitar like David Gilmour, and wail like Bono. When it comes to writing, I want to write like Vonnegut, Bradbury, Palahniuk. I want to write dialog like Sorkin. I want to expand the boundaries of imagination like Gaiman, and Robbins. I want to write like these guys, but that day of realization came for me a long time ago. I could never be like them. Even if I could, it would be crass, rude, self-indulgent and wrong. I would achieve the exact opposite of why I started something to begin with. I will never be my heroes, and I'm okay with that. However, that doesn't preclude me from emulating them. It doesn't stop me from being like my heroes.

If there's one thing I've learned from playing cover tunes, is that it's not enough just to play note for note. You have to put your own spin on it. You have to take it further than where you found it.You have to make it your own. And by that, I mean expressing what this song means to you, which in turn will give a different interpretation. Which will in turn, make it your own. And making it your own, you've unconsciously broken your relationship to your hero. And in doing so, you have found your own style. If you are very lucky, you can become someone else's hero.

I'd like to think the same way of thinking is involved in how I write. I'd like to think I'm paying homage to my literary heroes, and not copying and pasting. It is, after all, influence; the by-product of being a hero. I'd like to think that with every story or blog post I write, there is at least a shade of Vonnegut, a hint of Bogosian, a healthy dose of Robbins; allusions to familiar melodies that I remember in passing, and making it my own. I want to write like them. It doesn't mean I want to copy them. There is a difference.

My heroes have brought me to this point.

It's up to me to carry it further.

That's the way the song goes...

Monday, September 14, 2015

The 3 Most Important Things An Author Must Include on Page 1 (An Opinion)

I am a born snob.

I'm not particularly proud of it, and it's something that I don't readily admit to. Why? Because, my snobbishness, no matter how much I try to gloss over and conceal it like a ripe pimple in the middle of a forehead, it too will become rather uncomfortably obvious the longer people hang around me.

Personally, I don't think this trait has benefited me in any obvious way. I mean, it's not like it's indispensable for my survival.

Dungeon Master: "As you walk along the forest path, a Level 40 Werebear emerges from a briar of Mulberry bushes with plus 10 armor, and a level 12 Bastard Sword. What do you do?
Me: "I use my Level 8 Wand of Patronizing."
DM: (rolls d20) "I'm sorry, I forget. Did you say you had The Ring of Contrariness?"
Me: "Yes...I"
DM: "Ah, well the Werebear chomps your head off like you were a chocolate bunny, and uses your wand for a toothpick. Wanna order a pizza?"

While being a snob has put me into more sticky situations than has got me out of them, and might in fact be a liability for me, I think it has helped in the development of my taste...or not... I mean, like with most things, there are "at best" and "at worst" scenarios.

At best, a writer can open whole new worlds to legions of readers. At worst, he can be a cantankerous, reclusive troll who lives in his pajamas and only comes outside to forage for walnuts and billy goats (true story).

At best, a werebear is a fierce defender against the forces of evil, and won't bother you too much. At worst...well... you could catch him "in a mood".

At worst, being a snob might be interpreted by other people as being an elitist swine who could give a flying fork about the misery of others. At best, hey... at least they know where the best place to grab a nosh is. At worst, snobbishness won't save your life. At best, it will enhance it.

As it applies to me, I don't care that off-brand mac 'n cheese is 10 for a buck, I will shell out the extra 20 cents to get Kraft Dinner. I don't care if the American pressing of XTC's "Skylarking" is more readily available. I will go out of my way to find the British one, because the arrangement of the tracks make better sense on it. If you've ever heard it, I'm sure you'd agree.

If it's a book that is new to me, maybe I heard about it in passing, and I know I should be reading it. Or, if I'm perusing the new releases at a library or book shop, and a clever title or cover catches my eye, there are a few things that have to be taken into consideration before I make the effort to take it home with me. Like I said before, I'm not particularly proud of my snobbishness, and I should be keeping an open mind especially when it comes to literature, but (I LIKE my comfort zone) I have been burned before. Many times have a bought or borrowed a book based solely on the jacket blurb, only to fall asleep in my own drool puddle before I reach page 5.

I know better now. I have rules that I go by before I read a book for pleasure. Not only do I follow these rules for reading, I try to be conscious of them while I construct my first pages for my own stories as well. If you want to hook me, engage me, turn me into a raging, unwashed fanboy, make me want to get all of your previous work, then you, the author, need to keep these 3 things in mind when making your first page.
Courtesy Writers Write Creative Blog

1. Conflict

I mean, it should go without saying, right?

An argument yelled in hushed tones in some booth in a franchise restaurant.

A gun battle between intergalactic settlers and hostile alien forces.

Someone can't get their car started.

A face gets slapped.

Throw me in the middle of things. No backstory, no set up, no warning. just sweep me up in something and let me figure out what's going on. Having trouble establishing scene one, act one? Start with an argument. Need to set the atmosphere? Start with a bar fight. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Himself, doesn't matter. I would much rather stumble across a fight, than a narrator droning, "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Starting with your climax is always a trusty trope if your story is more motivated by action; (After days of pushing back, the alien horde had us outnumbered and outgunned. We were at the brink of defeat). A slow and steady build works too (Unrecognizable at first. Barely audible over the cheap, classic rock musak piped in through the restaurant's sound system. The steady wasp sting assonance of an angry couple in the throes in their angry game of sticks and stones rose, crested, and fell in the dimly lit booth at the back of the place. Quiet enough to not make a scene, but just loud enough to let everyone else in that section know what was going on. Tonight is their anniversary.) It could be bullets flying, or someone not getting the Pumpkin Spice Latte that they ordered. Show me something being diametrically opposed to something else, it will almost guarantee that I will be coming along with you for the ride.

An example that immediately leaps to mind is Luc Besson's "Léon: The Professional". The movie opens with guns literally blazing, and doesn't let up until about 10 minutes later, where it would be possible, in theory, to end the movie right there. It's a complete action movie, boiled down into a short: Hero enters heavily guarded fortress, gets bad guy, and the day is saved. The movie, for all intents and purposes, had every right to end right there. It was exciting enough, a story was told, good guy wins in the end. It could have ended there...but it didn't. Instead, we get a snapshot of what the hero is like when he isn't shooting people. He's a lonely sort, living quietly, privately, simply. Every so often, taking in a classic movie.

Perhaps were it another character in the hands of another story teller or director or studio, the hero might have spent his leisure time driving expensive, foreign cars at break neck speeds down congested straightaways while snorting coke off a hooker's back as something disgusting from The Offspring blares in the background (it was '94, by the way...getting sidetracked). But that didn't happen. In fact, the action went in the exact opposite direction I thought it would have. And since I, like others who were fed a steady diet of 80s action flicks, did not expect such nuance, it was a welcome was a surprise, and a critical darling. They could have had the protagonist be some misogynist jerk with a gun fetish, but no. He's a quiet man, living a quiet life, drinking milk and taking care of his Aglaonema. It was a character going against type, and I wanted to know more about him. I mean, sure, you could find hints of this character in certain westerns, and a few samurai films, but it was a refreshing thing to see. It's still one of my favorites.

2. Dialog 

"Wait, what? It can't be that simple."
"Dialog? That's it?"
"Yeah. What's wrong with that?"
"Well, geez! Just about every book has dialog on the first page. I was expecting you to come up with something a little more uncommon, ya know?"
"Good point, but I'm talking about a specific type of dialog."
"Oh, you mean like a Tarantino-esque type of dialog where two people engage in a discussion containing long streams of blue language with a crap ton of pop culture references folded in?"
"You know me so well."
"Right? I mean, it's almost as if we were created by the same person."

*stares back at reader*

"No, seriously. The dialog I'm talking about is when it's as if the reader is...what's the word... eavesdropping on a conversation."
"Oh! You mean like where two people reveal who they through conversation without any intervention by the author?"
"Exactly. I mean the temptation is always there for the writer to go on and on with describing the location."
"Not that there's anything wrong with that."
"Not that there's anything wrong with that."
"You're right. I mean yeah, you're going to want to show people around with a few paragraphs or so of descriptive narrative, but it's so much better just to..."
"...just to let the characters do the talking."
"Yeah... so, ready to get the body out of the trunk?"

3. Answer One Question...

Don't get me wrong, you could splatter the entire first page with sparkly objects and pretty explosions. You could have the most interesting person in the world fly off to the most interesting things in the world. It could be the end existence, it could be the beginning of another. It could be a moment of quiet introspection.

Honestly, I might have given the wrong impression here. Every novel I read doesn't have to start with the protagonist strapped down to an operating table while the evil Dr. Whatshisnuts slowly guides a frickin' laser beam toward his junk. I would quickly get bored if everything started off like that. To be sure, I have fallen head over heals with some stories that begin so quietly, and so sublimely that the sheer gravity of the narrative itself pulls me in, and keeps me there. So, if it's not bombastic action, or unattended dialog, what else is important to be included on the front page?

I might sound like I have high expectations, and it might also sound like I hold authors up to very high standards. But that's not true. Everyone gets a fair shot... unless you're E L James, then I'm sorry, I just don't have time for you.

The biggest thing that is important to me that I see on the front page is the author answer to one question:

Why am I here?

Make me care. Give me a reason, or at least a hint of one. I'm not saying to front load everything and not save anything for later. Doing that just lets everyone in the world that you're bad in bed. Your story is important. You made the effort to write it down, edit it, sweat, bleed, and lose sleep over it. You sought out people to help you publish this, and make it a reality. You lost even more sleep in promoting your story. You've bargained your life to be at this very moment. Your story is important, and you need me to read this.

Now, convince me to flip to page 2.

Grab me in the first sentence, I'll see where the paragraph goes.

Take me to the end of the paragraph, and I'll be breezing through the first few pages.

Bring me to page 10, and I'm taking you home.

This is just a snapshot of what how I feel at the moment. Thanks to Writers Write Creative Blog for the idea. To all the readers and writers out there, I'd like to know: what are your 3 most important things?