Welcome 2015

Chalk up another successful spin around the sun. No earth destroying asteroids. Check. No, global nuclear annihilation. Check. No zombie hordes. (Looks around carefully) Check. So here I sit with the shiny opportunity of another 365 days ahead of me. (Less the 22 1/2 hours eaten up already out of today).

Before I get to plans for 2015, a little retrospective of 2014 is in order. Besides avoiding those world altering catastrophes mentioned above, I did have some highlights worth mentioning.

  • Last Stop PosterIn January 2014 I finished my Playwrights’ Junction Workshop with a public reading of a scene from my WIP by professional actors. You can read more about my experience here: Last Stop with the Playwrights’ Junction
  • IMG_2439In May 2014 I attended a writing workshop with the fabulous Chuck Wendig that was hosted by the Toronto Romance Writers  where Chuck discussed at length his own journey as a writer and helped walk us through some of the things he learned along the way. Great teacher, funny guy, and actually doesn’t swear as much as you would think based on his blog posts at Terribleminds.com. (Fanboy aside: It wasn’t the first time I met Chuck in person, but I did get a great Selfie with him and got to go out to dinner with him and some of the writers from the Toronto Romance Writers so it was an extra special workshop for me.)
  • Fiction Vale - Episode 3 Cover RevealIn May 2014 my short story Second Harvest was published in Fictionvale.com’s Episode 3: A Different Outcome. It’s my first professional sale and a story I’m very proud of. You can get a copy of it here: Fictionvale Store

 

While I’m proud of all I accomplished this past year, I have to admit two of those things – the Playwrights’ Workshop and the publication of my short story – were set in motion in 2013. Not that the lead time diminished the accomplishments, just highlighting the fact that some accomplishments are not finite acts that fit nicely in a calendar year.

So where does that leave us heading into 2015. Well for starters you’ll notice there was no mention of my current novel that I am working on. Let’s just say 2014 may not have seen my best effort on that front. I made some fits and starts on it, but to borrow a phrase Chuck Wendig used during his workshop I kind of felt like I was an old man at the mall, not sure what I had come for when I was working on it this year.

So for 2015 in lieu of specific line item resolutions I am going to pledge one thing to myself:

To Do Better. In All Things.

This includes my writing, relationships with family and friends, health and fitness, my reading habits, and pretty much anything else I can think of. I will strive to do better than last year and not get hung up on what I did or didn’t do previously.

I have big plans for 2015 more of which I hope I can share with you as the year progresses.

I hope 2015 is a good and productive year for all the writers I know out there and whatever your passion is don’t let this precious time slip by. You never know when that next asteroid/zombie horde is due.

 

 

From Hell (2001)

From Hell Poster 2001 From Hell (2001) features Johnny Depp as Inspector Frederick Abberline who becomes involved in the Jack The Ripper case in London in 1888. The film is loosely based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that ran from 1989 to 1996 and focuses on one theory that the murders were part of a larger conspiracy to cover up the birth of an illegitimate heir to the British throne.

Released in 2001 the film also features Robbie Coltrane as Abberline’s right hand man Sergeant Peter Godley, Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, and Ian Holm as Sir William Gull a physician to the Royal family. I originally saw this film in 2001 at the Toronto International Film Festival on the morning of September 11th as the tragic events of that day were unfolding. I always wondered if my feeling of detachment from the film was in part due to the events of that day and my inability to focus on the film. After that screening the Festival annouced they were suspending screenings for the remainder of the day to allow people to deal with the repercussions of the attack and out of respect for the dead and missing.

Re-watching it 13 years later, I found that I still did not connect with the film or its content in a way that I would have expected. The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) do an admirable job directing and the film is stylish and lush to look at, but something is lost in the delivery. The immediacy of the story and the personal stakes of the characters involved never draw me in to the point that I get caught up in the story and forget I am watching a movie. There’s a certain detachment for me that is cross between watching a police drama and a horror story that is focused on the gruesome nature of the crimes.

Johnny’s Depp performance is solid in this movie despite the questionable cockney accent that he employs. Depp’s character Inspector Abberline has visions of the murders that lead him deeper into the conspiracy. Personally I didn’t feel that the visions added anything to the plot and would have been more impressed if it Abberline’s obsession and determination to do the hard detective work was what drove him to solve the case.

I generally like Depp in period pieces such as Dead Man, Sleepy Hollow, and Sweeny Todd to name a few, but for some reason From Hell didn’t click with me and sadly falls fairly far down my list of Depp films.

Blow (2001)

Blow (2001) with Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, and Franka Potente, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens, and Ray Liotta

Blow (2001) with Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, and Franka Potente, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens, and Ray Liotta


Blow (2001) features Johnny Depp as George Jung, a hustler and drug dealer who ultimately became responsible for most of the cocaine flowing into America in the late ’70s and early ’80s from Columbia.

The film boasts a great cast with Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths as George’s parents, Franka Potente and Penlope Cruz as his love interests, and Paul Ruebens and Jordi Mollà as his drug dealing partners to name but a few of the players.

TRIVIA Even though they were cast as George’s parents, Ray Liotta is only 9 years older than Johnny Depp while Rachel Griffiths is actually 5 years younger than Depp.

The story is told from George’s point-of-view and we quickly learn that he doesn’t want to live the boom and bust cycle that his father, Fred, lived during the 50s. Fred explains his life philosophy to a young George as “Sometimes you’re flush and sometimes you’re bust, and when you’re up, it’s never as good as it seems, and when you’re down, you never think you’ll be up again, but life goes on.” For George this isn’t good enough and that he’s driven to succeed where his father failed.

A young 20-something George and his best friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee) migrate to California in the late 60s intent on putting distance between him and his middle-class up bringing and to live the easy life of a beach bum. It’s there that George gets a taste for imported weed and soon hits upon a scheme to become drug dealers and middle men.

The business quickly grows exponentially and “Boston George” is soon transporting drugs from the West Coast back to Boston via his stewardess girlfriend. While doing time for transporting drugs across state lines he encounters Diego Delgado (Jordi Mollà) a car thief with important Columbian connections. It’s through Diego that eventually meets Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, who entrusts George and Diego to begin transporting cocaine to the US for distribution.

Once George’s rise to fame in the drug world reaches it climax, the tables begin to turn. The once shiny life of a drug dealer begins to sour as everyone he once loved turns against him.

Depp brings to George the prerequisite amount of swagger and confidence benefiting a hustler of George’s nature and Depp immerses himself in the role as only he can. Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths almost match Depp with their ability to age with the characters of George’s parents and only being minimally affected by George’s bullshit and lies. During this re-watch of Blow I found myself imagining George’s story told solely from his parent’s perspective and what a different and interesting story that would be.

As with all films “based on a true story” you have to wonder how much liberty was taken with the facts for dramatic purposes. More so in this case since the source material is based on George Jung’s autobiography and he tends to paint himself in a favourable light compared to some of the other characters. As George’s world collapses and he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the life he’s built for himself, he tends to paint himself as the innocent, injured party and all his ills are caused by others.

Johnny Depp as George Jung in Blow (2001)

Johnny Depp as George Jung in Blow (2001)


I enjoyed Depp’s performance in this film. His ability to get inside the head of the character and embody that person while he is on the screen is something to behold. For the role of George Jung, Depp reportedly met with him in prison and interviewed him. Below is a quote from Depp that highlights his process of understanding the character’s he portrays.

“George Jung is a lot of things. He’s a complicated guy. But first and foremost – what I was really happy to find out – was he is just as human as can be. There is no evil. There is no malice in him. He’s not greedy. He’s just a good man who recognized his mistakes and has to live with his sort of devastation every day. I saw a strong guy when I met him. He’s very strong, kind of ironic, funny, broken man. My opinion is that George Jung has served his time and paid his debt to society. He’s not doing anyone any good rotting away in a prison cell. The guy is rehabilitated. And I’m not sure the system rehabilitated him. I think he rehabilitated himself based on the hideous thoughts he’s had to live with and realities he has had to deal with. I think he has paid his debt to society. I think he could do much more good on the outside. He’s doing work with the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program right now. He could, potentially, go on the road with DARE and teach kids the dangers of drugs. And he could also pay his debt to his daughter and try to give her a father.”
–Johnny Depp (Reel.com)

While Blow is a solid film with great visuals, storytelling and compelling acting, I found I was more critical of it on this re-watch. I found the veneer of false nostalgia wore on me more this outing than the first time I saw it. Compare it to a similar period piece like Donnie Brasco, where the time period seems ingrained in the characters and the story whereas in Blow I felt it was more for show. That the choice of wardrobe, set dressing, cars, and especially music were all done with careful deliberation to illicit the most nostalgia out of the audience whether or not they have any first hand experience with the given time periods. The other thing that bothered me more on this outing was the selling of George’s story as some corrupt version of the American Dream. George’s story never feels like a cautionary tale to me (whether it should or not is another debate). The first 2/3 of the movie feels like the director wants us to cheer for George as the underdog and the guy who’s exploiting the system and making good. The final 1/3 of the film film feels like its George’s “woe is me” tale where he rages against the injustices of the system and the harshness he is treated with by his friends and family. While I am not expecting Blow to be some documentary on the horrors of the drug trade in America while, all I am saying is that I was more critical of the glossing over of such issues this time.

Mostly Harmless

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

I rarely go back and re-read books. There are just too many books in this world I haven’t read yet to spend time re-reading the ones that I have. Having said that, there are a few I make an exception for.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide tot he Galaxy is one of those books. (The fact that it clocks in under 200 pages doesn’t hurt either)

There are those books in my life that have touched me as a great work of art might make an imprint on you the first time seeing it in all its glory hanging on a gallery wall and you just can’t shake the image that it leaves you with. Or there are those books that you read at a critical stage in your life where they just connected with you at that moment and it becomes part of you. And of course there are those stories that are so beautifully woven that you can spend hours (and maybe this is the writer talking) admiring the craftsmanship and editing that went into pulling it off.

For me Hitchhiker’s has a bit off all of that going for it.

Before I get ahead of myself, perhaps a bit of an overview for those of you who might not be familiar with the author Douglas Adams or his great works of art that is the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy*

In a nutshell Douglas Adams cut his teeth writing sketch comedy and radio plays in the UK in the 1970s and came up with the idea for the story while he lay drunk in a field starring up at the night sky while in Austria. He was reportedly carrying a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, and he had the epiphany that somebody should write a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. He ended up pitching the idea to the BBC as a radio series that debuted in 1978 and second series ran in 1980. During which time the story had been turned into a book and then developed as a mini-series that aired on TV in 1981. It would eventually get the Hollywood treatment in 2005. I first discovered it via the BBC mini-series when it aired on PBS in North America in the early to mid-1980s.

The story involves a hapless 30-something Arthur Dent, who discovers that his friend Ford Prefect is an alien stranded on earth doing freelance work for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ford reveals his true identity to Arthur moments before Arthur’s home is demolished by the town council to make way for an express way, which – coincidentally -is also what the Vogons are about to do to Earth. Ford rescues Arthur and thus they begin their adventures as stowaways on the Vogon ships sent to vaporize earth.

Adams keen sense of humour and biting satire is something to behold. It’s also one of the reasons it’s probably quoted and revered by geeks the world round. I could probably write a graduate thesis on the comedic brilliance of this novel and I’m sure more than one person already has. I most recently re-read the novel this past spring (It took me more than a month because I was SAVOURING IT, not because I’m a slow reader.)

It’s nearly impossible to single out any one line or verbal exchange to sell someone unfamiliar with Adams’ work to sell them on the novel, but Arthur’s reaction to learning what the Hitchhikers’ Guide had to say about Earth is priceless.

Aboard the Vogon ship, not long after the Earth has been vaporized, Arthur has a bit of an existential crisis as he realizes all that he knows is gone and that he is the only known survivor of an entire planet. Arthur demands that Ford show him the entry in the guide on Earth and what it has to say.

‘It doesn’t have an entry!’ He burst out.

Ford looked over his shoulder.

‘Yes it does,’ he said, ‘Down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just under Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple breasted whore of Eroticon Six.’

Arthur followed Ford’s finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it didn’t register, then his mind nearly blew up.

‘What? Harmless! Is that all it’s got to say? Harmless! One word!’

Ford shrugged.

‘Well there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy and only a limited amount of space in the books’ microprocessors,’ he said, ‘and no one knew much about the Earth, of course.’

‘Well for God’s sake, I hope you managed to rectify that a bit.’

‘Oh yes, I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but i’ts still an improvement.’

‘And what does it say now?’ asked Arthur.

Mostly harmless,’ admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.

Mostly harmless,‘ shouted Arthur

Adams level of absurd humour and comedic timing are impeccable, not to mention his turn of phrase. Adams, during his lifetime** was a notoriously slow writer and had to be locked in hotel rooms by his editor to get him to finish works and as a result we have only a handful of written novels to appreciate his talent.

One of the lines I rediscovered from the novel during my re-read this year was toward the end of the novel when Arthur is learning about the original purpose of Earth from an alien named Slartibartfast.

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the ribcage of a  stegosaurus.

Of course most writers would have been content to leave this bit of imagery and move on, but Adams follows it up with a one-two comedic punch. Here’s the whole passage.

He gestured Arthur towards a chair which looked as if it had been made out of the ribcage of a stegosaurus.
 
‘It was made out of the ribcage of a stegosaurus’, explained the old man as he pottered about fishing bits of wire out from under tottering piles of paper and drawing instruments.

I’d be curious to know what novels other people re-read and what they rediscover when they read them.

Do you have perennial favourites that you keep returning to for a fix? Share in the comments.

*The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy actually consists of five books.
**Douglas Adams sadly passed away in 2001 at the age of 49 from a heart attack.

A Voice Silenced – Jay Lake 1964 – 2014

Joseph E. Lake, Jr. / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0Photo Credit: Joseph E. Lake, Jr. / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I never met Jay Lake, the closest I came was spying him across the lobby at Worldcon in Chicago in 2012. (His Hawaiian shirts are hard to miss). I can’t even say I’ve read his work extensively. Despite having several of his novels lined up on my to-be-read shelf, I’ve only ever read two of his 300+ short stories.

I stumbled upon his story “The Righteous Path” one day in 2009 while reading an SF anthology called Time After Time – Edited by Denise Little. It was one of those stories that make you sit up and take notice. The prose was sparkling, the premise unique and I was just floored. I immediately took to my computer to look him up and write him an email. From that day forward I became a fan of Jay’s and not just for his writing.

On his blog he talked openly of his ongoing battle with cancer (He was diagnosed in 2008) and his writing. He was a generous and giving individual and judging from the outpouring of tributes to him today you know he touched a lot of people over the course of his life.

Jay’s work ethic was something to behold. Even in the face of ongoing treatment he was prolific. It was hard to whine about your own “bad day” when here was this guy dealing with all of this and still making time to write.

Unfortunately Jay wasn’t able to overcome his illness. Toward the end, his updates on his blog became less frequent as the disease and treatments escalated leaving him with little energy to function. When word came last week that he had entered hospice care, we all knew the end was finally near.

It’s always sad when someone so young passes – Jay would have turned 50 later this week. Not only was his life with his family and friends cut short, his voice has also been silenced. I’m thankful for the legacy he has left us and I’m confident that people will continue to discover his writing in the years to come.

When writers die in their prime, I can’t help but wonder what might have been. What else might have they gone on to write? On one hand it’s me being selfish as a reader. Wishing I could spend more time listening to their unique voice, their vision, their dreams/nightmares. On the other hand, it’s me as a writer facing my own fear of not getting an opportunity to share my visions with readers. Jay was only 4 years older than me and much further along in his career. How much time does any of us have in this world to make our mark?

A couple of years ago I saw Canadian musician Rich Aucoin in concert and he performed a song called “It”. One line repeated in the chorus is “We won’t leave it all in our heads”. It made me think that as a writer the challenge is always to get your own thoughts on “paper” and out into the world. It became a bit of a mantra for me. When we die the unfinished stories, the fragments, the works in progress die with us. Our voices are silenced.

Today we mourn the passing of Jay Lake and the loss of his voice and vision.

Some Other Tributes to Jay Lake around the Net:

Countdown to “Second Harvest” Release

In just three days my short story Second Harvest will finally see the light of day. To quote Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead – “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

As my first publication, it’s a memorable occasion. My first draft for Second Harvest was completed back in the summer of 2010 and after a few critiquing sessions it was ready for submission. It took eight rejections over the course of nearly 3 years and lots of polishing in between before it found a home with fledgling magazine Fictionvale. Initially submitted for their inaugural issue, that was published in November 2013, I was asked if I would consider waiting until Spring 2014 and their 3rd episode for it to be published. They felt it would be a good fit with their alternate history / far future theme they had planned for the episode and I agreed.

Second Harvest is one of those stories that doesn’t fit in a tidy little box. It’s got horror elements, historical elements, and yes – elements of alternate history. Traditional alternate history often concerns its self with critical turning points in history and focusing on the “what if” things had turned out differently. My story takes place in a world where some elements of World War I are playing out differently than we know to be historical true but it also includes some “fantastical” elements. All of which is played out on a rural farm in Northern Ontario far from the world stage.

Having read the first two episodes released from Fictionvale, I’m confident it will be a good fit with the rich variety of stories they publish. There is definitely something for everyone in each episode.

I want to thank Fictionvale editor Vennesa G. for helping make my story the best it can be. The time and care she has taken to help me polish the story one more time before it reaches your hands was a rewarding and humbling experience. I truly believe its the best thing I’ve written to date, but have been trying hard to repeat the feat.

I hope you will join me this Thursday May 15th in buying and reading the 3rd Episode of Fictionvale and celebrating my story and that of the other 9 authors that appear in the issue. You can check out the Fictionvale store by clicking here. By supporting the magazine you make it possible for Fictionvale to continue to publish stories of new and established authors.

The cover art for episode 3 was designed by AngstyG and I think it does an amazing job of capturing the theme of alternate history and far future.

Fiction Vale - Episode 3 Cover Reveal

Fiction Vale – Episode 3 Cover Reveal

 

 

 

It’s All About Character

I had two opportunities this past week to listen to people that make a living from their writing talk about their craft and how they got to where they are today. The first was playwright Colleen Murphy (www.colleenmurphy.ca) who was in Sudbury to attend the Play Smelter Workshop May 6th to 10th (http://www.patthedog.org/2014/05/07/playsmelter/) and the second was author Chuck Wendig (www.terribleminds.com) at a writing workshop (May 10th) in Toronto.

Despite the fact that both work in very different mediums, both are storytellers and both had some very interesting things to say about characters.

0887545955_1

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

Colleen started off by talking about her background as a young actor in theatre and how she was always frustrated with the characters she played on stage. She said she quickly tired of being an actor and wanted to be a playwright. She wanted to create the characters whose story was being played out on stage. She talked about where her characters come from, how they are shaped and how they shape the direction of her plays.

Chuck during the course of the day long workshop talked about how its the characters that drive the plot and not the other way around. Chuck talked about how the characters are the architects of the story and that as they move through the story they change its shape and often “find new doors” where you didn’t realize there were doors.

kick_ass_cover_500pxwide

The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig

It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but for me it was one of those a-ha moments where I realized I had been looking at a lot of my writing through the wrong lens. I feel like I have been spending too much time considering how my characters react to the plot without giving it enough though about their own agency and how their limitations and strengths shape the story itself. The revelation also helped me think about outlines differently in the sense that in the past I would spend most of my time outlining the “plot”. I never devoted enough thought or time to outlining the characters and their push and pull on the plot.

I am not sure if this makes more sense in my head than it does as I type this in my blog. Perhaps it’s the brain fog from a 5 hour road-trip back from Toronto that is not allowing me to be as articulate as I want in this moment. Regardless, both writers were great to listen to and learn from and I am glad I took the opportunity to attend both their presentations. Thanks to both Colleen and Chuck for passing on their wisdom and I hope I can run with it and apply it in my own work.

Chocolat (2000)

Chocolat (2000) with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp

Chocolat (2000) with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp

Chocolat (2000) directed by Lasse Hallström tells the story of a insular French village in the late 1950s that finds it’s conservative attitudes and morality challenged when a young single mother and her child come to town and open a Chocolateir.

Juliette Binoche’s character Vianne quickly becomes the lightning rod of the community, first by befriending the “outcasts” of the community and drawing the ire of the more “respectable” citizens like the uptight Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) who’s busy trying to protect his public image and the Serge Muscat (Peter Stormare) who abuses his wife Josephine (Lena Olin).

The film does a good job ratcheting up the tension as the forces align against Vianne, culminating with a visit from a group of Irish gypsies which includes Depp’s character Roux. Watching Depp’s performance was bit cringe-worthy for me, not in the acting per se, but rather his accent. The Irish accent sounds somehow mangled to me and in retrospect like a bad parody of Depp’s later character Capt. Jack Sparrow. The chemistry between the two actors (Binoche and Depp) is good and the smouldering attraction between the two characters is well done.

Chemistry_Depp_Binoche

Fire Extinguishers on Standby. There’s some heat happening!

"Let me fix that squeak in your screen door."

“Let me fix that squeak in your screen door.”

I remember the film when it was first released being talked about as one of those “hot” Johnny Depp movies, which seemed strange to me at the time. I’d never thought of him as sex symbol, and frankly most of the roles I had seen him in up to that point where not traditional “sexy” roles (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). After watching this movie, a light suddenly went on and I could see what the women were talking about.

Depp’s role, while relatively small in the context of the film, is pivotal. The carefree and almost hedonistic nature of the gypsies is too much for the village to take and the town turns on them. Without giving too much away, there are a number of characters whose lives begin to unravel as they must come to terms with the choices and relationships they have built for themselves.

There are so many great characters and actors in the story. There’s Judi Dench as the ailing matriarch who is being kept from her grandson by the boy’s mother played by Carrie-Anne Moss. There’s the young parish priest, played by Hugh O’Conor who’s own lust for life is being stifled by the Church and the community’s demands of him. There’s also Vianne’s daughter Anouk and the toll the lifestyle they have chosen is having on her coming of age. The movie held up watching it 10+ years later and despite Depp’s accent it’s worth a look.

Penmonkey Gut Check

"Harden the Fuck Up Carebear" - Chuck Wendig

R. Lee Emery from Full Metal Jacket
“Harden the Fuck Up Carebear” – Chuck Wendig

One of the authors I can rely on for a much needed kick in the pants when it comes to writing is Chuck Wendig. Between his blog Terribleminds.com and his collected writing advice – that he has published in a number of books with catchy titles like – The Kick Ass Writer, 500 Ways to Tell A Better Story, 500 Ways to Be a Better Writer, and 500 MORE Ways to Be a Better Writer – I never fail to find something that I can apply to my own writing and situation. Chuck doesn’t sugar coat his advice, he’s like a foul-mouth drill Sargent that isn’t going to hold your hand while he tells it like it is. Picture R. Lee Emery from Full Metal Jacket getting all up in your face. That’s Chuck except instead of a funny hat, Chuck has a killer beard to intimidate you.

Today on Chuck’s blog he posted this:

Time Again For Your Penmonkey Evaluations

I think it’s good to evaluate yourself as a writer sometimes, just to see who you are and how you’re doing — where do you stand and where are you headed? If you’re planning on doing this thing really-for-realsies, sometimes a look at your paths and processes is worth doing.

So, a handful of quick questions. A survey, but informal — no data collection, here.

Answer in comments, if you’re so inclined. If you want to also post at your blog to generate discussion there, hey, go for it. (But please still try to leave your answers here, as well.)

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

Well, despite the fact that he didn’t swear once in that blog entry, totally diminishing my efforts to portray him as a badass, foul-mouthed writer, I thought it a great question and one worth exploring here.

Any other time I would be inclined to spend a few hours mulling over the questions and formulating a carefully crafted answer worthy of a public relations specialist intent on shielding a particularly slimy clients bad behavior, but today I thought I would try to do this reflexively without too much second guessing. Try to get to the heart of the matter without overanalyzing it and attempting to put too much spin on it.

Here goes nothing (and everything!):

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

I’d like to think my greatest strength in terms of storytelling is my own twisted view on the world and the connections my brain makes. By that I mean the lens through which I see the world often triggers weird and wonderful connections that make me sit up and want to explore. Any writer worth their weight has the ability to string together some grammatically correct sentence that makes narrative sense. For me the magic lies in that writer taking you places you didn’t see coming and perhaps in a small way turning you on to their way of seeing the world through distorted lens. The fact Philip K. Dick is one of my go to authors should say a lot about my mindset.

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?
Can I have more than one “greatest” weakness? How about a list? okay I will stick with two.

One, I find I struggle with character description. I am always struggling with finding appropriate ways to tie in description with the story and deciding what is worth describing. I tend to NOT describe characters on purpose to avoid having to address this issue and I know its not cutting it.

Two, I am terrible at plotting and often find myself going in circles in the middle of my stories, especially my longer pieces. I need to get better at either drawing myself a road map or at least pushing through to the end.

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

I’ve finished between 6-8 short stories that I have submitted all over the place. Finally sold one, but still waiting for it to be published – May 2014. Have another half dozen “short stories” unfinished that are way too long for most markets and need to be fleshed out into either novellas or novels. As for books I currently have one WIP on the go that has been lingering and I need to push through on it. No excuses.

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

That’s a tough one. There’s been so many pieces of advice that I have received at different stages of my writing life that have helped me move ahead and have that “ah-ha” moment. I think the best general one that I have gotten was to just write and not worry about if that first draft sucks. I know I held back as a writer for many years, because I often felt that a story had to be perfect in my head before I even put a sentence down on paper. I wasted much of youth not writing because of it.

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

I honestly don’t recall any terrible advice that I received. Probably because I tuned it out on hearing it and don’t remember. I think “generic” writing advice like “Write what you know” or “Show Don’t Tell” is pretty worthless unless you back it up when giving it to a newbie. Otherwise they are just more confused and afraid to write.

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

A specific piece of advice I like to spout off about is don’t mistake detail for description. I’ve seen too many published authors include “shopping list” style descriptions or detailed descriptions of places, vehicles, rooms etc. that have no bearing on the actual plot or story other than to draw a very vivid detailed picture. If that is your style then perhaps you’d be better suited to writing catalog descriptions and not fiction. Description should be integral to the story and tied in with the action, plot, character development, and any of a 101 other things going on in your story.

Thanks to Chuck for the evaluation. Its good to take a moment every once and a while to ask yourself some hard questions about your writing and be honest with yourself. Even if you’re not prepared to share it with the world.

The Man Who Cried (2000)

The Man Who Cried (2000)

The Man Who Cried (2000)

Director Sally Potter wrote and directed this story about a young Jewish Fegele Abramovich and her struggle to reconnect to her identity and find her father. The story opens in 1927 in a small Jewish village in Russia where Fegele and her father live. A villager returning from the United States spins stories of how it’s the land of opportunity and that anyone can make a name for themselves. Fegele’s father leaves for America with a number of the other men from the village, leaving her in the car of her grandmother.

Not long after her father’s departure the family’s village is razed during a brutal pogrom. Fegele and some of the other villagers flee the carnage, only to find hardship on the road to safety. Fegele eventually is spirited out of the country, but finds herself utterly alone. Adopted by an English family in the UK, Fegele, newly renamed Suzie (Christina Ricci) struggles to reconnect to her identity.

Music and theatre form an integral part of the story. Before Suzie’s father leaves he sings “Je Crois Entendre Encore” from a Georges Bizet opera to her and its obvious that this musical connection between the father and daughter is strong even from an early age. Later when she is alone and isolated in England, Suzie discovers she can over come her social stigma as an outsider by singing. A teacher from the school accidentally stumbles upon her talent and begins coaching her.

As a teenager she successfully auditions for an opera company run by Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton) that is based out of Paris, France. Suzie is befriend by Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett) who becomes her room mate. Lola quickly ingratiates herself with Opera’s star Dante (John Turturro) as a wayof climbing the social ladder and ensuring a better future for herself. Suzie is drawn to the “gypsy” horseman Cesar (Johhny Depp) who’s brooding good looks, cuts through the scenes when he’s on stage.

The many brooding stares of Cesar (Johnny Depp) in the Man Who Cried (2000)

The many brooding stares of Cesar (Johnny Depp) in the Man Who Cried (2000)

The tension quickly escalates as Germany declares war on Poland and before long the thunder of troops are heard on the streets of Paris. The characters quickly realize that their very existence is threatened and do what ever is necessary to stay alive.

Depp’s Cesar provides an interesting counterpoint to Dante who at one point looks down, literally and figuratively, on Cesar and his fellow Romani making music on the beach and declares to his German hosts that their music lacks refinement. Dante only values material wealth and feels that he has earned his status as he has made something of himself whereas the gypsy and Jews are lazy and dirty in his opinion. Meanwhile Cesar values family and community above all else and is willing to sacrifice his life if necessary to defend it.

The ending of the moving is a bit anti-climatic as Suzie eventually does make it to America where she miraculously tracks down her ailing father in the final 10 minutes of screen time.

As far as a Depp movie goes, it was a decent one with Depp turning in a restrained performance fitting of his character and his role in the story. He shines while on screen with all his usual charisma and its easy to see why Suzie is attracted to him, but he does not overwhelm the picture. I enjoyed the movie even more for the subtlety that Sally Porter infuses the film with. Many of the early scenes are lyrical with moving imagery and music without a lot of dialogue to guide or drive the plot. The audience is given time to absorb the story and embrace the characters. Themes of father figures resonate in the film as does the connection to music and the role it plays in the characters lives.

A fairly obscure film of Depp’s but one worth watching if just for the story itself.