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

Write and publish with love and fury.

The one critic who made me weep

We often don’t think deeply about the good that criticism can do. The kids are watching the charming movie, Ratatouille, over and over. For reasons of my change in occupation in the last year (i.e. writing full-time) I paid more attention to the review within the movie, a voice over by the character of the demanding critic, Anton Ego. It’s a fun movie, but this one bit about criticism? Hearing it afresh in new circumstances and caught by surprise, the speech moved me to tears. Not a lot of tears, but definitely misty.

“The new needs friends.” Oh, my, yes.

Here is Anton Ego on the good critics can do:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

See the movie again. It might get to you, too.

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

Ultimate Blog Challenge: The Dumb Reviewer’s False Standard Failure

There’s a certain sort of critic who really bugs me. As much as I enjoy the Slate Culture Gabfestpodcast, there’s an issue

English: Salvador Dali with ocelot and cane.

English: Salvador Dali with ocelot and cane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

that crops up from time to time which itches like pink insulation on a sweaty naked body in a summer attic. It’s a response that tries to intellectualize the visceral and make a good thing into a bad thing. Here’s the quote that gives me headaches:

“We liked it, but should we like it?”

So much waste of tuition money is revealed in that reaction. It’s a response to art that tries to detour around the heart and isolate the brain. It’s a dishonest afterthought. It’s snooty and, in trying to sound intelligent, is stupid.

I enjoy the movie Roadhouse, for instance. By some people’s standards, I suppose I shouldn’t. However, turn it on and try not to get sucked in. It’s not in the “So bad, it’s good” category, though some movies overshoot the runway and actually manage that. Roadhouse is fun and ridiculous and has a lot of funny lines, mostly intended. It’s just so watchable. It’s a visceral reaction. Can’t I enjoy it without the self-appointed cultural elite’s disapproval?

Art that achieves what it set out to do and entertains its audience is good art.

So says me, anyway. I could list dozens of silly movies and books that demanded little of me that I still enjoyed. The latest victim of this critical chaos appears to be Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.  I just read fellow blogger Jordanna East’s takedown of a bad review here. She’s not the only one to point out misguided reviewers complaining about historical inaccuracy in the movie. Good critics go to action movies with the expectation that it’s not meant to be a historical document. If it’s not a French movie in an art cinema, do not review it as if all movies are French movies in art cinemas!

That said, I’m all for elevating material. It’s a treat to run across sparkling dialogue that mocks expectations. (See the movie The Guard with Don Cheadle, for the best of that phenomenon in movies.) In my book, Bigger Than Jesus, I set out to challenge expectations, too, and not just in terms of plotting and surprises and reversals. I’m talking about getting at real emotion. There are consequences spread amongst all those jokes. The heroine’s fascination with the life of Salvador Dali means something to her, to the story and ultimately to the reader. I set out to make my roller coaster travel through unexpected places without slowing the pace. Elevating material can be done. It doesn’t have to happen all the time for everything, though.

Dalton’s reply to the big bad bouncer in Roadhouse serves equally well for bad reviewers. The bad guy turns up his nose and says, “I thought you’d be taller. You don’t look like much t’me.”

Patrick Swayze, as Dalton, smiles wide and says, “Opinions vary!”

Then bop ’em in the nose if you want to.

~ Like my flavor? Listen to the first chapter of my crime thriller, Bigger Than Jesus. I’m podcasting the book through the summer. Enjoy! (Or be a hero and just click the cover to grab it. Thanks for reading!)

Get Bigger Than Jesus

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Emma Stone movies & embracing cliches

We’re often told to avoid clichés like the plague.

That’s good advice, except when it’s not. 

I was thinking about clichés after seeing two Emma Stone movies in quick succession: Crazy Stupid Love and Easy A. I have to say, I enjoyed both films and they did one thing the same way: Namely, they called attention to rom-com and John Hughesian clichés and made fun of them. The screenwriter  pointed at them (some call this writing technique “hanging a lantern on it”) to let us know, proudly, we know this is cliché and we aren’t apologizing. It’s not dumb if you know what you’re doing.

In Crazy Stupid Love, Steve Carell gets into an argument that destroys him. As soon as it’s over, he’s left alone to sulk and it begins to rain in buckets. “How cliché,” he says. Wink!

Easy A is a witty story with smart people saying funny things (so it’s the opposite of reality TV.) Stanley Tucci and Emma Stone are father and daughter and, in wordplay, are the same smart, funny person. The jokes are often about clichés that the protagonist recognizes are worn out repetitions, but she longs for them anyway. She wants her life to be like an ’80s high school movie. (Is Emma Stone old enough to get the reference to John Cusack with a boom box outside the dream girl’s window in Say Anything?)

Easy A is fun because of the clichés. I haven’t enjoyed a high school movie this much since Ten Things I Hate About You, so all those hanging lanterns didn’t hurt the movie a bit.

It’s okay to use clichés as long as you do so consciously and cleverly. In a rom-com, the couple are going to get together in the end. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. A few self-deprecating nods to the demands of the form (mixed in with original surprises and charming characters we care about) can make a rom-com much less cloying than it might otherwise be.

When forced to succumb to cliché, you can use the opportunity for wry dialogue and a wink at your audience through the fourth wall. Do so clumsily and your second draft will have a bunch of strokes through the too familiar and the repetitious.

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

Publishing: Ownership

Ever see the follow-up to Get Shorty? It was Be Cool with Uma Thurman and John Travolta. While generally entertaining, there was a sour note and just didn’t feel at all right. It’s a problem with a lot of artistic gestation.

Uma’s character confesses her life’s ambition. She wants to turn on the radio and hear one of her songs. She says, “A song I produced.”  But she’s not talking about a song she wrote or sang or drummed or strummed. She’s talking about the bureaucracy that brings the art out and to the masses.

Producers talk about “their” films, “their” writers, “their” stable of talent. Like they own that talent, or at least rent it. When I hear an editor or agent refer to “their” writers, entitlement and ownership creeps into their tone. “I tell my writers…” “My books….”

But they aren’t your books, films and music, are they? Bureaucrats, like the rest of us, are each the star of their own movie. Money and access has been the root of that uneven power relationship.

Key words: Has been. Now agents and publishers are struggling harder to justify their roles. Why do you need an agent for access to digital publishing when you can DIY? Why should an author only get 25% for ebooks? (Or Harlequin’s egregious offer of 8%!) Meanwhile, some agents are morphing into writing coach services, expanding their offerings to stay in the role of taking care of authors. Some authors want to be taken care of. That’s fine, as long as they know their options.

The writer has been the last to get the cash. The writer has written on spec and often been a “speck” in the way they’re treated. It’s upside down. Writers are content providers. We make up things from nothing.

If you still feel powerless before the system, a small cog in a great machine, a serf among lords, a peon The Man pees on—now you’re just doing it to yourself. Take ownership of your ambitions and destiny.

Don’t blame them.

If you want power, don’t ask permission.

Just go take it.

I did. I’m now president and chief bottle washer, turd polisher and executive in charge of toilet paper replacement and Creative Arts at Ex Parte Press. Boo-ya!

Filed under: agents, authors, Books, DIY, ebooks, Editors, getting it done, Useful writing links, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

Writers: What I learned from Kevin Smith about AUDIENCE (they don’t own you)

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@RChazzChute

The other day I was feeling feisty and I said something about DIY on Twitter (full of bravado):

Burned bridges with a blog I wrote tonight. Fuck the bridge. I’ll swim. Go indie. Live free or die hard.

Someone shot back with a sarcastic:

Proudly alienate those who are not your fans. Awesome.

Well…yeah. People who don’t get me are not my fans. Why should I chase people who don’t like me for me? I have a particular voice and point of view, in my fiction and non-fiction and my blog, that will appeal to you or it won’t. If it doesn’t, no hard feelings and I hope you find something you do enjoy. However, when I dilute my voice, I lose the little tribe I have and any hope of real fans in the future. I’ve heard the quote attributed to a couple of celebrities, but basically it goes like this:

I don’t know what the secret to success is,

but to guarantee failure, try to please everyone.

Which brings us to my personal icon for all things indie, director Kevin Smith. For years, he argued with people who didn’t love him. If you look at his old tweets, he had a serious anger (and sometimes still does) for media, critics and haters. He would do battle with them and, despite all his success and wealth, would still end up arguing with some loser living in his parents’ basement. People who complained about what he did in his career—sometimes about everything he attempted—really bothered him. (Think on that a second: Some people wouldn’t even give him credit for getting something right once in a while even by accident!) Mr. Smith engaged in flame wars while his lovely wife looked on perplexed saying, “You have a wonderful life and live in a mansion! Why do you care?”

Mr. Smith is more relaxed now. Part of his new attitude is the prodigious amount of weed he smokes, but it’s not just that. He’s been successful for so long that he recognizes the pattern: People who are haters don’t do much else. People who don’t write will tell you how to write. People who can’t do, don’t teach. They snipe and snark.

You don’t find your audience so much as your audience finds you. As you try to build your platform and reach out to express your art, you’re going to dredge up some people who are pissed you aren’t what they’re looking for. We don’t do this with things other than art. You don’t go to the pharmacy and get pissed off because they don’t have coconuts in stock. You go to the grocery store for coconuts instead.

Do what you do. Write what you write. Define your voice through your expression and remember that it is your voice. I think harsh critics think they own your art (even if they haven’t paid a dime for it) because, unlike those coconuts, they take what you write into themselves. That doesn’t mean they own it, though. And they certainly don’t own you. They can react to it. They can criticize it. They can argue with it. They can move on (which makes the most sense.)

People who do nothing but hate think hate is art.

They’re wrong.

Art is a creative force, not a destructive one.

What does matter is your core audience. Now if you write and write and produce and put your stuff out there and very few people are feeling any love for it, that’s a different problem. However, if your core audience can be built big enough, that’s all you need. You don’t have to go chasing after the people who are running away from you. No one gets universal acceptance. Don’t even try for it. Expect obstacles and naysayers and pay little or no attention to them if you can. For everything you love, for everything you think is the best, there are millions of people who sneer and call it shit.

Check the comments on any book you love on Amazon.com. See all those nasty reviews? Now, do you really love that book any less because some guy  you don’t know thinks it’s the worst thing on earth since the rise of Hitler and Pottery Barn?

Great people make you feel like you can be great, too.

Haters don’t do that. They don’t even know how to do that.

Now is the time for all good indies to stand up. You now have the technology in your hands to let your unique voice be heard. You can be read when, just a short time ago, gatekeepers could hold you back. There are no gatekeepers anymore. You don’t have to approach publishing or film or any other art as if you’re going to The Man for a job! You can employ yourself and deploy yourself. You can Crowd Source your financing or  convince a fan of your blogged fiction to spend a few bucks for an e-book that costs nothing to distribute. You can grow your fan base without old media’s distribution system and middle man percentages. You can be the boss if you want to be. Your art doesn’t have to wait and you don’t have to ask permission. Make your art and see who shows up. Whoever shows up and stays is your audience.

Remember Chili Palmer in Get Shorty? Some guy tells him how easy it is to write a screenplay. “We can do this…we can do that…” Chili lights a smoke and says, “It’s really that easy? Then I got one question. What do I need you for?”

Here’s today’s message for you if you’re my core audience:

Not sure how to proceed? Resolve to ask questions, learn and try.

When you mess up, resolve to begin again.

If you’re new here and like it, welcome. I’m Chazz.

If you don’t like it, via con dios, friend. I hope you find what you’re looking for.

If you don’t like it and you choose to stay, well, that’s your own damn fault

because you’re looking for coconuts at the drugstore, you idiot!

Oh, and the person who felt alienated by my Twitter post? I saved her some trouble. I agreed with her.

Then, in honor of Kevin Smith’s fine example, I didn’t just block that bitch. I KA-blocked her.

Filed under: publishing, self-publishing, Twitter, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is Your Writing Fresh?

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

Image by illuminaut via Flickr

 

After listening to an interview with Charlie Kaufman, it struck me how formulaic art often is. Kaufman, an iconoclastic screenwriter whose work sometimes gets meta, bucks that trend and makes memorable art that challenges its audience. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Can you say you had seen a film much like that before he came along? Remember watching Adaptation and wondering, “Where the hell is this going?”

I thought a lot about what sets his work apart from so many other movies. My answer? He writes about themes that are important to him.

Are you writing about things that matter to you, or is your plot more like a checklist? As you touch all the bases as you run through your story’s acts, will you have a home run at the end or will you have a story that looks, sounds and feels like dozens of other stories? It’s okay to have a plot that’s similar to other work. In fact, that’s common. But is your take fresh? Are you saying something in a new way?  If not, try rewriting until you do.

I know it’s hard, but that’s how you’re going to stand out from the crowd. Writing isn’t easy. On the plus side, it can (and should) be a lot of fun.

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

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

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An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

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