C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

What Birdman got right (and what it says about writing books)

If you haven’t seen Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, you’ll find no spoilers here. It’s a very unusual film and there is a lot to love in it, not least of which is the cinematography. It’s also one of those rare films I’ll need to see again before I can figure out how much I like it.  Today, I want to talk about what I loved (and how it might apply to writers and books.)

1. The movie is a tutorial in acting without self-consciousness.

Many of us are too self-conscious to try something bold in our writing. That’s too bad, I think. I like bold choices in books. The expected is too ordinary and easy. The expected is…expected. You’ll also love the instruction on the power of motivation, emotion and brevity.

2. The film is comfortable with ambiguity.

As much as I enjoyed the summer romp that was Guardians of the Galaxy, there was no need to discuss it by the time we got to the parking lot. Birdman leaves so much ambiguity, you’ll find a lot of people arguing over clues in the film. What happened and what did it all mean? That could irritate you, or you could decide it’s finally a film worthy of discussion.

3. Birdman is working on several levels.

You can take it for what it is or you can take it for what it might be and, no doubt about it, this is a story that demands some patience from its audience if they decide to try to decode it. I like books that are doing one thing while you think they’re doing something else. That’s the rich depth I look for in my reading and writing, no matter how superficial an entertainment you might expect. (For instance, shocker: This Plague of Days is less about zombies and more about you.)

4. Birdman is Art (capital A) that defines its audience.

If you’re an optimist, you’re going to want to interpret the story one way. If you’re a pessimist, you may have less fun in the movie but you’ll enjoy the discussion over coffee after the movie.

5. Pop culture references.

The movie is front loaded with some contemporary references that are pretty funny. The movie isn’t afraid to define itself by a particular time with those pop culture references. Publishers have long run screaming from books with such references for fear readers won’t get it and the book will be dated too fast. Here’s what I’ve found (especially from feedback about my crime novels): Lots of readers love pop culture references and readers don’t scare off so easily when you’re showing them a good time. Will it get dated? No. That’s just a label and what you call a thing is not the thing. (Don’t buy that? Okay. How about this: eventually, everything is a period piece.)

6. The movie talks a lot about what it means to make Art and struggle with commerce.

What we all do as artists is kind of a brave thing to do. Maybe not storming-the-beaches-at-Normandy brave, but we’re taking risks and putting ourselves out there. It’s nice to see that affirmed somewhere instead of mocking entertainment as an effete thing to do when you could be out drinking and brawling or doing nothing. I believe Art matters. So does Birdman.

7. The movie criticizes and acknowledges the power of social media.

That’s surprisingly evenhanded and grounds for more discussion about what matters and how to get to what matters. Many of us are divided on the power of Twitter and the distracting lure of YouTube. I don’t think the answer is an either/or binary, so, through the ranting, the movie has a very thoughtful core.

8. Any artist will appreciate the critique of the role of the critic: how easy, risk-free and shallow it can be.

I heard a couple of professional critics mock this aspect of Birdman. Clearly, they weren’t listening closely or their egos got in the way. Whatever else you may dislike about this film, if you’ve written a book, you’ll love that exchange.

9. Birdman is, in part, about legacy and relevance and striving.

We can all relate to that, can’t we? If you can’t, get out. You’re taking a squat in my church.

10. By turns, Birdman looks like a French art film somebody dragged you to in college, one of those movies only film students pretend to like while they’re really thinking about Star Wars.

Then Birdman does something different. In other words, if it were a book, it would be cross-genre. It’s a film that isn’t easy to categorize and define. Therefore, it’s harder to sell. They made it anyway.

Filmgoers have been crying out for films that are refreshing and different. Audiences have been moaning at Hollywood for years, “Oh, for God’s sake, give us something besides another empty sequel and come up with an original thought!” Well, you asked for it and Birdman is what the answer to that request looks like.

You know what? I take it back. Now that I’ve written this list, I can see it now. I did like Birdman a lot. I think I might love it.

 

Filed under: movies, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I screwed up. I’m going to need a bigger boat.

I screwed up

I had a publishing schedule and a plan. I committed to ship books on time. As Seth Godin says, “Artists ship.” This is business, so make a good plan and Cool+People+Podcast+Finalstick to it. But what if the plan sucks?

Time to adapt

Adaptation is what a small company can do that a big company often can’t. Big companies have committees and hierarchies and approval processes. I’ve got me and a couple of freelancers and an ad hoc committee of friends and allies I bounce ideas back and forth with. All the decisions, blame and reward go to me. It’s time to take blame and make new plans.

The Excuses Not to Ship

Six+Seconds+copyI had stalled out on writing fiction for a couple of weeks because of time management issues and sickness: My daughter got sick; I started a new podcast; I wrote a book about Vine. All those things were necessary to deal with and I have no regrets. I’m rather fond of the sick kid, so there’s that. I’m excited about adding another podcast (the Cool People Podcast!) to my tiny empire. Six Seconds, The Unauthorized Guide to How to Build Your Business with the Vine App, was a fun exercise that could actually help people get more attention to their brands with a new social media tool. Diversifying helped my other books’ sales, too. As diversions go from the main war plan, these are pretty good ones. However…

The Reasons to Adapt

My production plan was off target because I need to launch a new series to get more attention to my other books. I try not to think too much about all that I have planned for this year. If I try to grok it all at once, my cerebellum pounds my brain pan until I lie down clutching an Advil bottle.

The core issue is the crime fiction I write is hardboiled, but funny. That’s a tough nut to crack. Many would call sardonic neo-noir Bigger_Than_Jesus_Cover_for_Kindlea forgotten niche. The reviews of the Hit Man Series (Bigger Than Jesus, Higher Than Jesus) are great, but I realized I had to diversify to get the whole line of books more attention.

Self-help for Stoners, for instance, sells the best consistently, but it’s also been around longest and by some people’s lights, it’s experimental fiction, too (or at least weird and maybe challenging). The Hit Man Series would be considered experimental by some. I don’t agree. In fact, I think that’s a bit silly, but who cares what I think when I have numbers to evaluate? I have to diversify to get the tide to raise all the boats.

The Original Plan

I was going to write the third book in the Hit Man Series, Hollywood Jesus, next. I’m already more than halfway through it and I love that character and his story. The book after Hollywood Jesus will be a real twist, too. I’m going to revisit characters from the original book. My pitiable assassin, Jesus Diaz, will share the book with…ahem…no spoilers yet…but the twist will make that series achieve lift off in a huge way, I’m sure. I can hardly wait. However, in publishing Six Seconds, I’ve seen how one book can help other books in surprising ways. By giving new readers a surprising book that delivers in a more conventional way in a comfortable genre, I’ll open them up to trying my other brands of inspired lunacy.

The New Plan

Higher than Jesus Final NEW copyI have a post-apocalyptic, coming-of-age plague thriller that’s already written. It took me a year to write. I’m revising it now. It’s 125,000 words and ripe for serialization. This book has some strange elements to it since much of the action is seen through the eyes of a boy with Aspergers. I’m going to publish the Aspergers/plague book next, instead of Hollywood Jesus. Though the subject matter can be strange and wonderful and scary and terrible, it’s an adventure story told in third person, limited omniscient. In other words, it won’t scare anyone off because it feels “experimental”. Strange at times, sure, but it’s ultimately about a family and family relationships strained by a crisis. In the Hit Man Series, there’s a lot created to make you laugh. In this series, you’ll take me seriously.

I will deliver the plague thriller in two months. Anybody who wrote me off as too weird for them just because I write stuff that challenges preconceptions of how stories should be told? Buckle up. I’m coming for you and I won’t even have to shanghai and coerce you up the plank to my party cruise. You’re going to want to be a passenger on my pleasure boat. I’m making it bigger, just for you.

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Author of Cybrgrrl, Maxwell Cynn

“You will laugh your ass off!” ~ Author of Cybrgrrl, Maxwell Cynn

Game on.

~ Chazz’s author site is AllThatChazz.com where you can find out more about his books or check out his rants and author readings on the All That Chazz Podcast. His new website is CoolPeoplePodcast.com. The first episode features horror author Armand Rosamilia in conversation about zombies, The Walking Dead and writing more books, faster (among other things.) Check it out. 

Filed under: book marketing, Books, ebooks, podcasts, Publicity & Promotion, publishing, What about Chazz?, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

NSFW: Make stuff

As you regular readers know, I love Kevin Smith. Here’s another reason.

(And yes, this applies to books, too.)

Filed under: publishing, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In writing dialogue, what sounds real?

This week, as I listened to some NPR folks talk about writing on a podcast called Culturetopia, I found myself getting agitated. They were coming down hard on Diablo Cody for her dialogue in Juno. The

Diablo Cody, writer of the film Juno

Image via Wikipedia

complaints were variations on a theme: teens don’t talk like that. They grudgingly admitted that some of the dialogue was funny, but added it was the actors’ charm that sold dialogue that wasn’t “real.” (Whatever this reality thing is…but that’s another post in which I discuss quantum physics, multiple earths and Twinkies.)

How charming do these critics imagine actors can be if they’re mute? Do they really believe the charm oozes off the screen just because actors walk onscreen? (In my experience, that only happens in porn where dialogue is tertiary. Primary? Looks. Secondary? Action (and, equally, the presence of umbrellas open indoors…but that’s my fetish.) In so-called real life and on film, actors have to speak the lines in the script (and possibly throw in some improv) to sell a performance. JK Simmons is a great actor. But if he played the dad in Juno as a mime bereft of Cody’s dialogue, I would have to kill him. (As is my mission with all mimes.) What I’m saying is, Juno as a silent movie wouldn’t work nearly so well for me.

There are so many lines from that comedy I loved:

“It’s a pilates machine.” 

“Great! What’s it make?”

And the teenage mother played by the wonderful Ellen Page tossing off the reaction of her peers to her advancing pregnancy:

“They call me the cautionary whale.”

Cody’s critics were even cheering her “failure” with her second movie, Jennifer’s Body, to teach her humility (presumably so she can write another, more banal movie that’s not so threatening to their self-image and worldview.)

There are three answers to this line of attack on Diablo Cody:

1. It was a comedy. Lighten the fuck up.

2. “Teens don’t talk that way”: Really? All teens? Everywhere? Ever? Every teen and every adult must conform to one sound, one point of view, one CLICHE?! Ellen Pages’ character was a smart, glib kid who spoke in one-liners. Sometimes I speak in one-liners and the only writer working for me is me. Maybe the critics don’t know any smart people who are funny at the same time. They need to meet more comics because that’s what some of them can sound like on and offstage. Maybe after giving up her baby to Jennifer Garner, Juno went off to work the Comedy Store. Or she took up particle physics. Funny and smart at the same time is possible, at least in the form of Juno.

3. Critics: Don’t be so damn churlish. I’m thinking of two words. The second word is “you.” The first word is not “thank.”

Filed under: publishing, Rant, Rejection, reviews, scriptwriting, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , ,

#Editors, Readers and Critics

Painting The Writing Master by Thomas Eakins

Image via Wikipedia

Earlier this week in this space I contributed to the Internet shredding of a thieving editor (see below) so it’s time to balance things out with a happy story. 

About My EditorLast night someone asked me what my relationship with my magazine editor is like. 

The short answer is, “Terrific.” The long answer is that we joke around. A lot. We have a lot of fun and have rarely disagreed. We are reasonable people. We’ve never met in person though we plan to some day (and almost made that work this summer.) We talk about projects on the phone on occasion, but mostly we email back and forth. We’re both incredibly busy people, so emails allow me to say something funny without intruding too much on her crazy schedule.

Of course, we have disagreed. Most of the time (98 percent of the time, not 51 percent) I figure out immediately or soon after that she was right. She’s held me back from saying a few things that, on sober second thought, were kind of out there. When I’ve stuck to my guns and presented a cogent argument, she has capitulated. A good editor is always trying to make the writing better (and occasionally has to protect the writer from himself.) As with dealing with any great person, when we’re finished talking or writing back and forth, I feel valued.

About My Readers:

I have two beta readers. The first is my wife. She has graded so many students during her time in academia, she’s the one with a sharp eye for my typos (many) and my obfuscations (less of those, I hope. Maybe. I dunno…) She’ll notice a construction that seems awkward, but she’s gentle about it.

The second reader is my oldest friend. He used to work in publishing and has edited a literary journal. Best of all, he’s a writer at heart. He is invaluable for broader editorial suggestions when my idea is almost there but not quite at the destination at which it will finally arrive in the last draft. He can be my biggest fan and, depending on his mood and my subject, my harshest critic.

When I wrote a short story that included a gay protagonist in a military environment, he disagreed with my take vehemently. I ignored him on that one and I thought the story fell apart for other reasons so I never tried to publish it and it’s tucked away on a thumb drive. 

On another occasion I wrote a humour piece for a magazine. He’s funny. I’m funny. What could go wrong? He broke it down for me in detail and ended with this bon mot: “For a humour piece, it’s not all that funny.”

Thud!

I picked myself up off the floor and took another run at it, made the humour more relevant and hit the piece out of the park. I took his criticism to heart and the next draft was so very much better for it. He’s got a great perspective on publishing and I usually end up considering about 60 to 70 percent of his suggestions.

I do not send everything I write through my readers first. Most of my magazine writing is of a kind that I don’t feel I need the extra feedback and it’s all between my editor and me. (She also has a light touch on my copy and I like that she works with me and consults on every change.)

If it’s fiction—especially long fiction—it goes through my beta readers.

When I develop marketing materials or write speeches, only the principles are involved. With short pieces, it’s easier to keep a handle on what’s to be achieved, anyway. Occasionally, with proprietary information, it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring in an outside reader. Also, if you work in a variety of niches as I do, it’s not fair to your beta readers to expect them to have an opinion on something outside their interests.

About Critics:

There are the kind of critiques you ask for. You get those opinions from people you trust, the ones with whom you have a history.

There are the kind of critiques that come at you. Sometimes those criticisms are thoughtful, have substance and bring up a new angle or experience. I love it when I pose a question in a piece and people come forward with interesting ideas and possible solutions. (That’s happening now with a column I wrote. We’re getting a lot of kind letters from people anxious to share their view on a question I posed.)

Occasionally, you get somebody who seems cranky and has an axe to grind. I find this type of critic tends to have their say about what they want to say and if it seems they didn’t really read what was written…well, they didn’t. They just want to be heard and recognized. That’s okay. Everyone gets to have an opinion.

But you don’t have to take everyone’s opinion so seriously. You get to choose who matters to you most and who you’ll go back to the next time you need a fresh set of eyes on your draft.

And you as the author? You get the final say on what appears under your name.

Filed under: Editing, Editors, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , ,

Slap (on) a happy face

I just read some advice for short story writers (from The Writer’s Handbook) where a rather harsh critic slams stories where the protagonist is an unlikeable character and bad things happen to him or her.

Uh-oh. In my stories, that’s my thing. I think just about anyone will disappoint you if you get to know them well enough. That’s my worldview. To be successful by this critic’s estimation, I’m going to need a brain transplant. But I gotta be me.

When a short story of mine won an award, lots of people focussed on the torture. However, the reason it won was that in the last sentence there was a twist of transcendence. It wasn’t about torture. It was about the second chance. Read it here.

 I got a reply from another judge (different contest, same story) who was very dismissive. He seemed not to have read it very carefully, perhaps deciding early on it wasn’t something he would care for so he wrote it off quickly. For instance he said, “This doesn’t make sense. Why would a collection agency pursue dead files?” Because I made it clear the bill collector is a bad guy. If I spelled it out more, they’d call me pedantic. Sometimes you can’t win.

I’ll have to ignore that particular advice from The Writer’s Handbook I guess. I’ll keep on writing about flawed people and I’ll keep doing bad things to them. (Flawed characters make some of the best characters. Examples? Plenty, but off the top of my head, Breaking Bad, Dexter and Battlestar Galactica and Portnoy’s Complaint.)

Filed under: manuscript evaluation, short stories, writing contests, , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

Write to live

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