My Curious Case of Fiction Fatigue

writing

I don’t think I’m writing enough about…well…writing on here so here’s a writing post.

Creating fiction is new to me. Well, it’s old, if you count high school and college, but as a serious career path, I just decided to try my hand at it last year. I’d spent a dozen years writing screenplays, which couldn’t be farther in process and structure than a novel. Writing Proxy was a difficult task, one that took longer than it would have a more seasoned writer of prose. I learned a lot, including the fact that my skills were rusty as hell. That you have to get into another mindset; screenwriting is all about showing, not telling, but writing prose, you have to do a lot of telling. Plus, man, there are so many more words in a book than there are in a screenplay.

All of these things I expected, but there has been one side effect from my foray into writing novels that I did not anticipate:

I haven’t finished reading a book in over a year.

I love reading. Not a surprise for a writer, I guess, but I do know several writers, especially screenwriters, who don’t read books. I love movies, television, comics, music, and pretty much every other artistic medium. What makes reading different for me is the quiet. The peace. The zen-like trance a good book can put you into, where all that exists is you and the words.

Few things thrill me more than an expertly crafted sentence. As much as I respect story, what I truly read fiction for is the prose. I love words and love seeing them used in sharp, innovative, and insightful ways. The way Ernest Hemmingway strung words together turns me on more than you want to imagine.

Hardback, paperback, Kindle, doesn’t matter. I don’t care about the delivery system; I care about the words.

I also have a particular reading cycle. First I start with:

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1) A work of ‘literature’. Either a classic novel or a modern piece of serious fiction. I like novels that are challenging, like Faulkner, or epic, like Victor Hugo, or funny, like Vonnegut, or something new and awe-inspiring, like the work of the late Roberto Bolaño. I don’t mind heavy or difficult (although I admit I haven’t been able to crack Proust yet). I want something that is either going to fill in a gap in my literary knowledge or something that will enhance me as a person and an artist. A tall order, I guess.

Then, I move on to…

download (1)2) A history, biography, or other type of non-fiction book. I am a big history nut and find reading about it both enjoyable and relaxing. I usually read a lot about a particular subject in a spree; right now I’m reading mostly stuff about ancient Rome and Greece (which I do believe is a required phase for white men of a certain age). I also enjoy biographies, especially about presidents, but I’m getting ready to start Peter Guralnick’s two volume study of Elvis Presley. The best book I’ve read in the last decade, other than some literary classics, has been Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which I guess is in the category of narrative non-fiction. His books, as well as those of Jon Krakauer, are great reads for people who find regular history too dry. I love reading about real people, real events, the past. Because how else do we learn but by looking back?

After feeding my brain with culture and then knowledge, I quickly pick up something…

 

172621733) Genre. Most would call this category “guilty pleasures” but I don’t believe in that. But this is the slot I use to cleanse my palate and read something of no consequence. Pure enjoyment. When I say I’m a Star Wars fan, I don’t mean I like the first three movies and have a couple toys. I mean that I’ve read every novel, comic, role-playing book, encyclopedia that there is in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I have Wookieepedia bookmarked in Chrome. I know more about the in-world history of Star Wars than most people know about their own country’s.

So, usually this spot is reserved for whatever the latest Star Wars novel is. And, I’ll be honest, most of them aren’t good. But I read them. And enjoy them. Because it’s a place I like to visit, this galaxy far away, and this step in my reading cycle is for sheer escapism and entertainment.

When there’s not a new Star Wars novel sitting on my Kindle, I read other genre things. Some good, some bad. High fantasy. Science fiction. Old hard-boiled mysteries. Robert E. Howard. Jim Thompson. Edgar Burroughs. Brandon Sanderson. Dan Simmons. Raymond Chandler. All the men I listed above are good to great writers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also pick up the occasional ‘Forgotten Realms’ novel, or a book based on a video game. Things where I’m not judging the writing as much as I am just enjoying the story and characters, even if those story and characters aren’t very good.

Then, feeling refreshed, I…

4) Go back to #1.

That’s my reading habit. I don’t always stick to it. I go out of order. Sometimes there are two history books I must read back-to-back; sometimes I’m in the mood for a Star Wars bender. But those are the three types of books that are always in my rotation.

Or, were in my rotation. All this has gone out the window because I went ahead and wrote a book myself.

People often say that in order to learn how to write, you read. In order to learn how to make movies, you watch them. In order to learn how to paint, you study the masters.

And all of that is true, for a while. But I think that at a certain point in your development, you need to embrace who you are and write in your own voice and stop trying to learn from those who came before you. Doesn’t mean you don’t learn. I learn every day. Doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate and enjoy the works of others.

But I no longer watch movies to learn how to make them. I no longer read books to learn how to write them.

Hell, I no longer read books.

I haven’t been able to finish a book in a very long time. I hate it. I don’t want to not read. Like I said, I love to read. It’s one of my favorite things. But I’m just finding it very difficult every since I started my first novel, Proxy, and still, as I write my next one, Dakota Skye. I’ve started dozens, but I never get more than a few chapters into any of them.

Why? I have a few ideas. Firstly, I don’t want to accidently subconsciously swipe something from another author. I would never do it on purpose, but phrases, ideas, even lines of dialogue, stick with you and I find that sometimes you write something very similar without even realizing where it came from. I want my work to be mine, untainted by what others have done, and just don’t want to risk any of their ideas seeping into my brain and coming back out as something I think is original.

ernesthemingwaywritingdeskAlso, I don’t want to compare myself. This happens most often during Phase #3, when I am reading genre books while writing my own. I couldn’t stand to read science fiction while I was writing Proxy. Because I knew I would judge myself against what I was reading, against my “competition”. This doesn’t happen so much in Phase #1, because if you go into a Hemmingway or Faulkner novel trying to see how your writing measures up, you will never write another word. Those guys are so good, those masters, that if you judge your skill by comparing it to theirs, you will probably want to kill yourself. Which would be, by the way, the closest you would get to actually being like Hemmingway.

But when reading other genre stuff, the stuff where maybe the writing isn’t legendary, like the Star Wars books, or even with some very popular stuff like Song of Ice and Fire, I can’t help but ask “am I ask good as this guy?” “If this is publishable, is my book?” Because if I think they are better than me, I will be discouraged, and if I think I am better than them, my ego will inflate and I start believing I am a genius or something and will not work as hard to hone what I’m doing.

I think it’s best to write in a vacuum. To not give a shit about what others in your given medium or genre are doing and just write your story, your book, your script, your way, in your voice.

The last reason why I think I’m not a whole lot anymore can best be described by using a crude and clichéd analogy:

It’s like being a gynecologist.

I stare at words all damn day while I’m working to the point of eye-strain and headaches.

Then I’m supposed to look at more of them for fun in my time off?

Honestly, after a long day of channeling thousands of words from my mind through my fingers to the keys to the computer screen, I sometimes get sick of them. Of words.

And I love words so much.

I’ve almost made my way through Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. History is easier to read right now because I’m not writing history. Next up is a book about Star City, the center of the Soviet space program in the 60s. Then the Elvis books. Non-fiction is the only thing I can even consider reading right now.

You know what I should be reading? I should be finishing books by my fellow Tesserans (?): J. Edward Neill’s Down the Dark Path and the rough draft of John McGuire’s next book, which I am supposed to be giving notes on. And I’m enjoying both, but they’re fiction, and, while technically different genres from what I’m doing, they’re close enough that they are victims of my word fatigue. I will read them, I promise guys. It’s just taking me longer than I thought it would.

You want to know how bad it is? I have, for many years, read every single Star Wars book as soon as it came out, usually finishing them within a week or less. Today, this is what my Star Wars folder on my Kindle looks like, all of them unread:

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I just can’t do it. I want to. But I can’t.

This probably isn’t very interesting. It’s more of a plea for help. Do any other writers out there have this problem? Any other artists find themselves incapable of processing others’ work while they’re in the midst of making their own? I’d really like to know that I’m not the only sufferer of this malady.

Tonight I’m going to curl up with my Kindle, cue up Star Wars: Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells, read maybe two pages, get frustrated, flip over to read a chapter of Rubicon, then fall asleep.

I miss reading, but not as much as I love writing. I hope this trade-off is temporary, but if it’s not, I will definitely choose to create instead of consume.

There is a bright spot to this. I know that sometime in the future, there is a cure coming down the pipe for me. Something that will make me read, no matter what I’m working on, read voraciously, like I used to:

350px-Marc_Simonetti_Bran_theironthroneJoff

Help me, George R.R. Martin. You’re my only hope.

Caption Contest – Part 1 of 10,000

Who likes free stuff? I know I do.

Who likes captioning random pictures? Yes. Have some.

For the first contest in my ten-thousand part series, I’m offering a sparkly, brand-spanking-new softcover edition of Down the Dark Path. If you win, I’ll sign the inside cover, box it up, and ship it to your house (on my dime) wrapped in a scrumptious bouquet of potpourri and ancient Mayan bone fragments. Ok, that last part is only partly true. The fragments will probably belong to my neighbors. I prefer to shop locally.

Anyway, the rules are simple. Whoever’s caption of the G-Man sporting his new ink amuses me the most…wins. Add your comment in the comments section of the blog, and I’ll choose a winner. All entries must be submitted by Friday, Nov 15th at Midnight. If you win, I’ll contact you somehow (probably by knocking at your door, a la the dead son in my favorite short story of all time, The Monkey’s Paw) and snag your shipping address. No international requests, please. Unless you’re a publisher. And rich. Or if you’re Ken Jeong.

Here’s the photo. G-Man acquired this ink courtesy of All or Nothing Tattoo after a night of binge drinking and building Thomas the Train puzzles:

GTat

‘Got this one in Afghanistan, 2011. Pretty f’n sweet, huh?’

Enjoy, and good luck.

J Edward Neill

Just Finish It

I’ve gone to plenty of writing panels over the years hoping to discover, like Ponce de Leon looking for the Fountain of Youth, the secret formula to their success. How the heck did they manage to get up there with their book, comic, etc? Most of the time I do learn something, some nugget of truth that makes the trip worthwhile (maybe a technique or some obstacle they managed to overcome). But there really is one thing that separates them from those of us in the room:

You want to be a writer?  Then write, sure, but FINISH the task.

Too much I get caught up in the idea of writing. Make sure that I get my WORDS in for the day, or make sure that the latest chapter gets revised.

w-b-park-finish-it-why-would-i-want-to-finish-it-new-yorker-cartoon

 But at some point you have got to get to “Pencil’s Down”. This is something I have only just now begun to understand, and I am not even close to where I want to be.  I have only scratched the surface of this for myself and constantly have to fight to get there.

There is a difference between “Wanting” to be a writer (nevermind the great) and “Being” a writer.

It is the “Doing”.

In everyday life there are people who WANT to do, be, have something.  How many of them take the time to sit down (or stand up as the case may be) and actually do it?  How many distractions can one person have before their WANT simply becomes their DREAM and then later their REGRET.

Dreams Road Sign

 

This is the mantra I have to keep telling myself over and over. When I get tired or don’t want to sit down at the computer, I repeat it.

It seems so simple. It seems like one of those things that you read and say “Of course. What else would you think you needed to do?”

Even knowing it isn’t enough. It’s never that easy. How many ideas do I currently have sitting on my computer or flash drive that are waiting for me to finish them?  Dozens.  How many are finished?  Not nearly enough (not by a long shot). So why can’t I get there every time? What’s the hold up?

Sometimes it is the FEAR. The FEAR that what I’m writing is not going to be liked. I’m just as worried that by finishing said story or script or novel or whatever that people will read the FINISHED product and not like it and then where did my work get me?  What a waste, right?

ed-dans-ed-wood-de-tim-burton-10967401cmebh_1713

Really? Worst film you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better.

I have to convince myself that it isn’t a waste. That with each word that I write (and rewrite and edit and then even the ones I cut) means I am one inch closer to where I need to be. I get to that million words and beyond.

So that unfinished thing is doing you so much good then?  Sure, you can’t get hurt if you don’t finish it, but I have to say, putting that final word down on the page and knowing that you have actually completed something.  That’s got to be worth something.

Right?

When somebody posts their finished piece of art or script or whatever, they are 1 million times ahead of me with my dozens of unfinished products.  It doesn’t matter how much better of a writer I THINK I am because they have already lapped me 4 or 5 times.

I know plenty of people (I am one of those people some times) that start a project and get bored and then jump to another project, get bored, wash, rinse, repeat.  At the end of a year they have enough stuff that you’d think they’d have a Finished Product, but instead it is spread out over ten different things. Ten different UNFINISHED things. Ugh.

It’s an odd thing that really in the last year I feel like I’ve started to have real successes on the writing side of things, but even those are still not quite finished. Sure, issue #1 of The Gilded Age is complete, but I think I allowed myself about 5 minutes to enjoy that it existed in a tangible format before my brain started spinning on when the next issue would be finished. Same with Tiger Style #1.

The greatest thing about comic books is that it is a collaborative process. You need a writer and an artist and maybe an inker and a colorist and a letterer and an editor before the whole thing is ready and done.

The worst thing about comic books is that it is a collaborative process. And that you need to have those other people because when any one point slips, the whole process comes to a complete halt. I don’t get the artist the next issue’s script, well I guess that is going to delay the book. The inker doesn’t get the pencils by the deadline… now we have another delay. And so on.

It can be maddening. It’s one of the reasons I started writing a novel in the first place. Finally, something that is totally on me and only me to get done.

Only. On. Me.

Gulp.

Yeah, so now who do I get to blame when my next chapter isn’t written yet? Who do I get to blame when that second draft is still waiting to get done?

Oh, that would be me.

Even now as I seemingly crawl through the last bit of editing on my first novel, The Dark That Follows, it doesn’t really exist until it is done. Before that it is just another unfinished project hoping for me to put the time in and get it out the door. The serial I’m working on with J Edward Neill, Hollow Empire, has many chapters completed in various forms (some in needed of editing, some ready for a read through, etc.), but until Episode 6 is complete and edited and out the door it just is another thing “I’m working on”. The next issue of The Gilded Age or Tiger Style or whatever else is coming down the pipeline.

So I repeat my mantra and put my butt in the seat and start typing.

Dark Moon Daughter (An excerpt)

Greetings everyone. The following is an excerpt from the final draft of Dark Moon Daughter, Book II in the Tyrants of the Dead trilogy. The chapter this text appears in is named Dance with the Dead. It has long been of my favorites.

Please enjoy:

Three Skulls

Andelusia awoke when night was at its deepest. The air was cool, the breezes gliding like ghosts over her skin, and the trees still and soundless. The moon, though nearly full, spilled precious little light into the forest, its glow barely bright enough to glaze the topmost limbs with a sorrowful, sallow light. She expected to be blind in the dark, but when she blinked away the last vestiges of sleep she found she could see as though it were early twilight beneath an open, cloudless sky. She did not ask her eyes to do as much. They just do, she thought. They work the way they were always supposed to.

She took a moment to gather herself, brushing the dirt and bone gristle from the front of her pants. Her terror was gone. Her heartbeat was steady and strong. She did not know it yet, but her hair, once the color of rubies and red wine, had turned blacker than pitch during her sleep, while her eyes were the blighted hue of spent charcoal. She was altered beyond her own understanding. I am more alive than ever, she knew. Though not by any natural means.

Her new power pounded through her veins and into her skull, a thousand shadows whispering in her mind. The feeling was fresh to her, too fresh, and at first she felt dizzy with it. When she tried to take a step away from the tree she had slept beneath, she staggered. When she looked to the moon, its light was as blinding as the sun.

After she gathered her feet beneath her and shook the moonlight from her eyes, she stood beside the tree, flexing her fingers and staring into her palms. What can I do with this power? She wondered. So many things.

She shut her eyes and let the night take hold. The world became a murky place, half real and half dream. All sound drained away. After a few breaths under, she opened her eyes and swished the flat of her hand like a dagger through the air. It worked as she knew it would. She felt her skin fade into shadow, rendering her invisible, her body becoming more ghost than woman. I can do this anytime I desire, she knew. If only I had known…

With a flick of her wrist, she snapped her palm above her head. When she did, the moonlight blazing on the nearby limbs vanished. The thickets around her fell into impenetrable darkness, a black darker than any ink, though she could still see through it. I can create night. She smiled. No more broiling beneath the sun. No more light creeping into my bedchamber. The world shall be as black as I dare to ask for.  

And then she tried something else.

The idea slipped like a moonbeam into her mind. She cupped her hands as if to catch water from a fountain, and when she did a dark fume began to broil between her fingers. Hot enough to melt iron and burn bone into ash, the black flame smoldered and smoked, and yet she was unscathed. The ebon tongues of fire felt as mutable as clay in her grasp, and more dangerous than any substance in the world. It danced wildly on the tips of her fingers, threatening to leap into the trees until she closed her fist around it, snuffing it out.

When the black fire fled, she quaked and stared wide-eyed at her fingers. What was that? She felt stunned it had not slain her. The voices. I remember what they said. ‘The weapon,’ they whispered. One touch can kill a person. Much more can kill thousands.   

She had no more time for experimentation, she knew. She did not understand why her magicks had chosen this moment to awaken, but it does not matter. This night has been long in coming. I have what I need to defeat the Uylen. I must find the Pages.  

She left the ancient tree behind. She became one with the shadows. Like a slip of winter wind, she glided effortlessly between the trees, who dozed like the dead, heedless of her passing. She made no sound where she floated, no crunch of dry leaves or snap of sharp twigs, for she was only a passing shade, a blot of ink, a shiver in the night. She might as well have been a spirit, for no living creature heard her, not the crow whose tree she flew beneath, not the bats, not even the Uylen, several of whom she floated treacherously near to.

The darkness was her playground. She roamed an hour deep into the forest, then two, until she came to another clearing riddled with Uylen totems. Ten skulls hung from a thick strand of human sinew, their empty gazes falling upon her like a morbid audience. She was not afraid. She emerged from the shadows and walked right up to them, clicking several with her finger. Everyone in Thillria will look like this, she imagined, if the Uylen have their way. 

And then she saw them, five Uylen dozing beside the blood-mottled trunk of a nearby tree. The creatures had a campsite, if it could be called as much. She glimpsed their filthy blankets spread across the wet the loam, a pile of dust-covered pillows, and three white jugs filled with a nameless liquid. The Uylen were skeletal, so emaciated that their flesh puckered between their ribs, which were countable even at a distance. Even as she tapped the last of the totem skulls, their eyes, as useless in their heads as river rocks, snapped open. They are aware of me. She froze. They can smell me.

The Uylen creaked and groaned and rose to their feet. The moonlight shined upon their faces, white on white, their skins livid as dead men. She knew she could escape any time she wanted, so she stayed right where she was. They sniffed the air and clicked their daggerlike nails. Watch this. A foolish thought came to her. Standing in the clearing’s heart, she teased them into coming closer with a snap of her fingers and a cluck of her tongue. Their knees popped and their jaws fell open. They came within ten paces, but then halted. They lost me, she laughed inside. They need me to make another noise.

She exhaled, and the Uylen moved three steps closer. My heart. They can hear it beating…

* * *

Dark Moon Daughter – Kindle and Paperback versions to arrive in early 2014 – Prologue and First Chapter currently available on the Tessera Guild Downloads page.

J Edward Neill

More ‘Man’, Less ‘Child’

 

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Here are some things that I like lots: comic books, Star Wars, the Muppets, Chuck Taylors, video games, porn, Star Wars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, pop culture T-shirts, sports, technology, angsty music, white tube socks and Star Wars.

Here are some things that I actively dislike: neckties, hiking, auto repair, guns, mornings, cheap scotch, fine scotch, neckties, most sitcoms, plumbing, meetings, sushi, yard work, trying to understand my health insurance, keeping track of my finances, and neckties.

I am rapidly coming up on 40 years old.

I state these things up front so that if anything I say after this comes across as hostile, recriminating, or insulting, you know that I’m one of the injured parties. I am of two minds about all of this. So that when I say something like…

My generation needs to grow the fuck up…

…That I’m talking to myself.

There’s nothing shameful about being an adult (I can no longer dodge that title) who likes any of those things that I like. Except maybe the porn. And the last decade of popular entertainment has provided me with plenty of content to satisfy said list: a seemingly endless barrage of superhero films, a good many of them quality, featuring A-List talent, a new Muppet movie made by someone with genuine affection for those little felt pieces of happiness, games like Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us that take video games into realms I never would have dreamed while playing Yar’s Revenge and Tempest as a kid, the MLB Network, dark chocolate peanut butter cups, white chocolate peanut butter cups, Big Cup peanut butter cups, mini peanut butter cups, and, the asshole of them all, the Reester Bunny, a sword-and-sorcery adult fantasy television show with mainstream appeal that doesn’t betray its genre roots, and a man winning an Oscar for playing the Joker.

When I was younger, the things I like came in these forms:

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And now, they look like this:

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It’s been great to be a ‘geek’.

But this recent slate of Summer films as culture in general have got me questioning whether all of this is a good thing. As I write this I’m still angry at Man of Steel, a film that feels like it’s made by a bunch of teenagers trying to be ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘adult’. But that’s a rant for another day, another time, another blog post.

I am most familiar with film; it is my first love and the medium in which I am most well versed. So I will use it most heavily to illustrate my point.

Oh, and I’m just talking American film here. To travel to foreign soil would make this already too-long piece way too-fucking-long.

In the 1960’s, the Hollywood studio system collapsed. The result was, in the 1970’s, the greatest decade of film so far in the history of the medium. Not knowing what to do, they threw their doors open and let the first batch of film school graduates and their peers, the ‘film brats’, take over Hollywood. It is commonly said that in the 70’s, they let the lunatics (and they were indeed lunatics. Brilliant, ballsy, genius, visionary lunatics) take over the asylum. This time is known as The Hollywood Renaissance.

The lunatics in question? Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, Kubrick, Allen, Malick, Friedkin, Frankenheimer, Lumet, Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdonavich, Cinimo, Pollack, Polanski, De Palma, Penn. Not to mention the numerous producers, cinematographers, and writers behind the scenes. The actors of that generation are among film’s finest: DeNiro, Pacino, Hackman, Keaton, Gould, Hopper, Hoffman, Keitel, Nicholson, Streep, Foster, Burstyn, Sheen, Walken, Duvall, Rowlands, Spacek, and two personal favorites and underappreciated icons: John Cazale and Warren Oates.

taxi-driver-taxi-driver-06-1976-08-02-1976-8-gThese folks found inspiration in every film made before them, from the silents to John Ford westerns to John Cassavetes to, most prominently in some cases, the amazing work being done in France, Italy, and Japan in the post WWII era, and they created a New Hollywood that transcended the starry-eyed golden age of movies and turned the form into a true art. They (for the most part) made serious films about serious things. Uncompromising looks at life the way it really was, not how they wanted it to be. They were the perfect people to come along and create film for the Vietnam generation.

And the fact that they appeared together makes the me the most impressive collection of American revolutionaries since America’s actual revolutionaries.

Their reign lasted 13 years.

pulp_fiction_uma_thurman_jack_rabbit_slimsIn the 1990’s we got a new wave of fascinating moviemakers, inspired by the work of the New Hollywood movement. It seemed a new Renassiance was upon us. Tarantino, Smith, two men named Anderson, Fincher, Linklater, Payne, Rodriquez, Jackson (okay, not American but English language), Russell, Soderbergh, Egoyan (yeah, also not American). The Coen Brothers came into their own. A lot of these men were associated with the independent boom of the 90’s. I would call them the Miramax Generation. They breathed new life into film, pushing past the entertaining but someone stale cinema of the 80’s. They wore their influences on their sleeves. They pushed limits when it came to violence, language, and just what constituted a ‘film’. Some of them reveled in the profane and immature, but they had something to say, most of them, and made great films that stand the test of time. Several are still making great, relevant films, twenty years later. This is the generation that inspired me to become a filmmaker.

Their reign lasted, by my estimation, about 8 years.

Who are the hot-shot, super-star filmmakers of today? The ones that get the most attention, the ones the studio hands the biggest budgets, the most coveted properties?

Zach Snyder. Chris Nolan. Guillermo Del Toro. Marc Webb. Rian Johnson. Duncan Jones. Joss Whedon. Edgar Wright. Peter Berg. Jon Favreau. James Gunn.

Many talented men in there. (Yes, men. I lament that there is only one major American female film director right now. I do. But it is a fact. One I’d love to see altered. But you want to see a boys’ club? Look no further than Hollywood.) I am a fan of many of them in one way or another. Some, like Whedon and Wright and Jones, I adore.

But this is a filmmaking generation of man-children.

I’m not a person who laments the current state of film often, but looking at the Summer we just came out of, I am forced to. I’m not going to go film by film but I will use one particular film to make my point:

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Pacific Rim.

I like Guillermo Del Toro. As a person. He’s ‘one of us’. A real geek. As a filmmaker, for me, he’s hit and miss. I think the less money he has, the better. His projects with considerable budgets, namely the two Hellboy films, have been lifeless, poorly told stories with good effects, even if the Hellboy II creatures seemed to be cast-offs from the overrated Pan’s Labyrinth. He is one of those filmmakers, like Tim Burton before him, who is much better at the visual and the concept than the story and the characters. Which would be fine, if he wasn’t making narrative films. But he is. He is telling stories. And if he isn’t bad at it, he is at the very least lazy.

Pacific Rim is no exception.

I know I’m supposed to love Pacific Rim. I love Gorjira and Robotech, why shouldn’t I love this? Like my beloved peanut butter cups. Two great tastes that blah blah blah.

But I didn’t. Because it felt like it was made by a twelve year old. Watching it all I could think of was a little fat kid in Mexico, sitting in his sandbox, bashing his Godzilla toy into his Optimus Prime toy and imagining the epic battles they would have.

Every generation of filmmakers is influenced by (read: steals from) the generations before, but his is different. These guys aren’t ingesting what came before, gestating it in their minds, then making something completely new and original. They’re regurgitating. Pacific Rim, if you ignore the monsters and robots (a conceit, while cool on the surface, doesn’t hold up to one moment of critical thinking; more later), is just one tired ass action movie trope after another tired ass action movie trope that, when strung together, Del Toro thinks constitutes a story.

It is Top Gun. It is Independence Day. It is Gojira. It is “Voltron” and Gundam. Thrown into a blender and called a Summer blockbuster.

It is not a work by a man with any original thoughts or anything to say.

Sorry.

(I also know why it failed. Geeks may have had super-duper hard-ons for it, but I asked a few guys, guys who go to the movies on a regular basis, who had seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek and Fast 6, about Pacific Rim and they said “it looks dumb and loud”. That is why it didn’t connect with the mainstream audience. It looked dumb and loud.)

I walked out of Pacific Rim slightly entertained but unsatisfied, then, two days later, after the smidge of enjoyment it gave me wore off, I realized that it’s a bad movie. Just another case of something that has plagued not only film of the last decade, but art in general.

The 70’s were the New Hollywood Generation. The 90’s, the Miramax Generation.

This is the Karaoke Generation.

karaoke girls

Some people mistake Tarantino for a mimic, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Pulp Fiction is, behind the surface, about three killers who find themselves saving a life. It is about redemption: that’s what’s in the briefcase for me.

That may not be super deep, but what is Looper about? Other than Johnson showing us a bunch of shit that he likes. 12 Monkeys. The Omen. Back to the Future. Blade Runner. I have no problem with wearing your influences on your sleeve, but, for God’s sake, try to come up with something of your own. Stop singing the words scrolling by on the monitor and write your own song.

Two of the bigger films of the year made two mind-boggling choices that I am still trying to figure out.

JJ Abrams’s first Star Trek was, for me, great. Fresh, entertaining. It told its own story and, while respecting the decades of Trek behind it, started its own timeline. That encouraged me. Opened up the idea of brand new Trek stories not beholden to all that canon. So, what did they do for their next tale, Into Darkness?

tumblr_lxclsysdu01qixaveo1_1280Cumberbatch-Star-Trek

They brought back Khan.

Man of Steel was a disaster in almost every aspect, but again. Starting over. Fresh slate. Retelling the origin. Redefining the relationships. Trying to paint a new Clark (one who is a borderline sociopath, but whatever). New look. New feel. New everything. And who was the villain in this re-imagining of one of America’s most enduring fictional characters?

terence-stamp-general-zod-supermanjpg-68906cfa3ba7dee8michael-shannon-brand-new-zod

They brought back Zod.

In both cases the filmmakers, in acts of inane laziness, pilfered the most famous and effective parts of previous films and “reimagined” them into their own. This is especially egregious in Star Trek, which not only recycled Khan, but the entire last act of the film. With, you know, a “twist”.

All the money in the world they can spend. Any writer in Hollywood they can employ. With effects the way they are now, anything you want to show, you can show. Any world you want to build, creature you want to birth. The possibilities are literally endless.

Nope. Khan and Zod. Cool, right?

HPIM5002No. Not cool. Nostalgia isn’t storytelling. Just sit down, have a beer, and wait for the MC to call you up so you can emote your way through “Don’t Stop Believin'” one more time.

Children, playing with the toys of their youth, with no original ideas of their own.

Like I said above, I love science fiction and comic books and nearly all things geek. Hell, I finally crossed over my final nerd threshold, the thing I said I would never do, which was Doctor Who, and it turns out I love it. But come on, guys. Isn’t it time to grow up, just a little?

That may be why I liked The World’s End so much. Despite its robot/alien subplot (which was really the least interesting part of the film), there was an adult story there. About addiction, about the disappointments of life, about the bonds of friendship, and, yes, about growing the fuck up.

Maybe I’m just an old man, but I do miss the filmmaking of the 90’s. Much like “The Love Boat”, it felt exciting and new (which, oddly, was a show that never felt exciting or new). But now, the only films I get excited for are the ones made by people from previous generations: Scorsese, the Andersons, Fincher, The Coens, Ridley Scott, Tarantino, Payne, Russell.

They are the only ones making films for adults. I think we have embraced the man-child, but have done no service to the ‘man’ half of that hyphenate.

G.I. Joe. Transformers. Batman. Superman. Spiderman. The A-Team. The always-rumored Thundercats and He-Man films. New Star Wars films directed by a Star Wars geek. The Muppets. There is no mistaking the age range of today’s most popular filmmakers. They’re my age. But, unlike them it seems, I didn’t stop watching film and television after I turned twelve.

battleship-movie-image-02I mean, come on. Battleship? FUCKING BATTLESHIP?!? Bad enough to make a movie based on a children’s board game (again with the nostalgia), but to make it a Transformers rip-off in the process? This is what studios think people want. FUCKING BATTLESHIP.

What I’m trying to say here is, while the ‘geek revolution’ has pleased me greatly, I’m starting to turn on it. I’m tired of films made by grown men who think they’re teenage boys. And I’m one of those men. But I have another side to me, the side that has accepted the fact that I am also an adult that yearns for mature entertainment and art. These guys live in a perpetual state of adolescence and get paid millions of dollars to do so.

This doesn’t just apply to film. The only books anyone seems to read nowadays are Young Adult fiction. Potter. Twilight. Hunger Games. Mortal Instruments. These are adults reading these books. I have read a few myself (Potter and Hunger Games) but that is all some people read. Do you know more people that have read Harry Potter or The Sound and the Fury? Twilight or The Count of Monte Cristo? Hunger Games or Naked Lunch?

Don’t get me started on music. Have you heard that new Katy Perry song, ‘Roar’? The most asinine and hacky lyrics I have heard in a long time, no matter how catchy the track may be. Plus, she rips off Survivor of all things. You can’t drop an ‘eye of the tiger’ into a song. That phrase is taken, lady. It is only acceptable during a corny 80’s training montage. Lady Gaga literally karaoke’d Madonna’s “Express Yourself” for her “Born this Way.” (Or maybe she Weird Al’ed it).

I’m just tired. Tired of being disappointed by artists who I think should know better. Tired of seeing the same things over and over and over again. Much of the hype about Pacific Rim was that it was a ‘new property’ (that’s what we call our films now: properties), but when I saw it, was just a bunch of things I’d seen before strung together with some big, loud, CG things hitting each other.

voltron-775596(About that: why do they hit each other? they have missiles and plasma cannons. there is no reason not to start a fight with those things instead of charging headfirst into a fistfight. any military strategist will tell you: ranged attacks first. has been that way since the bow and arrow. and the sword? we get 75% of the way through the movie and we reveal that the things have swords that can cleave the monsters in half with one slash? either Del Toro watched too much or too little “Voltron” to understand how little sense this makes. form the blazing sword right away, you morons. it works every time. sigh.)

I worry about the state of film going forward, and film is something I hold very dear. It is a great art form that is still in its infancy. We have yet to see a Beethoven or Van Gogh come along. I don’t know what those guys, their films, will look like, but I hope to see them in my life. But as of the moment, the art of filmmaking is in a state of arrested development.

Much like the men making them.

Did I say ‘men’?

I meant ‘boys’.

Oh, and just to show that I’m not just making fun of the guy up top in the Batman hoodie, here is me in my Boba Fett hoodie. I’m part of this, too.

photo (1)

Because I Had To

Ernest-Hemmingway-quote1

For our first posts, we’re supposed to introduce ourselves. So here goes nothing.

My name is Chad and I write stuff. As of this very moment in time, I have written one (produced) feature film and one (self-) published novel. That would qualify me as a writer, for sure, but, at my age, not an especially successful or prolific one. (Although, to be fair, I only decided to try writing novels last year.)

Do I wish I had more movies under my belt? I believe that I will, even if it takes a while longer. And I know there will be more novels coming, because that’s 100% up to me, not producers and executives and financiers.

So has everything gone the way I’ve wanted in my writing career? Not even close. So many rejections, disappointments. So much time wasted on my part, waiting for something to happen as opposed to making it happen, hoping my talent could take care of things while ignoring the hard work it really takes. A ton of close calls. Films that almost had the money, then didn’t. Pitch meetings at major cable networks that went well, but not well enough. A movie that went to several film festivals, but not the right film festivals to get any kind of traction.

I’ve beat my head against the wall. I’ve cried. I’ve distracted myself with things like video games and politics and alcohol. I’ve fallen into several all-encompassing, crippling depressions, each of which threatened to cost me everything.

I’ve also quit. Flat-out quit. “Fuck this. I’m done. Kaput. Blowing this popsicle stand. This is a fool’s errand and I am not a fool.”

And then I would get up the next morning and continue on my errand.

Writing_Quote_20Like a fool.

Why?

Because I had to.

Third grade. (MUMBLE) years ago.

I missed a day of school. Sick. The first time I remember that happening. Don’t know what it was. Sore throat. 24 hour bug. Whatever. I missed a day of school.

I remember the odd feeling of coming back the next day and realizing the harsh truth that my teacher and classmates had had the nerve, the nerve, to go about the school day while I was gone. I know, right? They had gone to recess, done math problems, eaten sloppy joes, ALL WITHOUT ME!!!

Everyone has this feeling, right? This bizarre moment where you realize that life goes on without you? Just like before you were born. Just like after you die. Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or how much money you make or how many children you sire, wars you wage, diseases you cure, or eternally beloved works of art you create, people will still play kickball when you’re gone.

Everyone, right? Or was this just an early warning sign of my adult onset egomania?

Anyway.

One thing that I should have been glad to miss while home sick was homework. But not that day. Because one of the assignments, I found out, was this:

Write a story about a monster coming to the classroom.

“But don’t worry about it, Chad,” my teacher, Mrs. Harrison, said. “It was just for fun. No one’s being graded on it. You can just sit and listen as I read all of the other kids’ stories.”

Mrs. Harrison then proceeded to read through my fellow students’ tales. I cannot testify as to the quality of their prose (although I’m sure it was lacking) because it was (MUMBLE) years ago, yes, but also because I wasn’t listening.

I was too busy furiously scribbling my own story, trying to get it done before the teacher finished reading the others.

Why?

Because I had to.

faulknerWhen Mrs. Harrison put down the last (I’m assuming) terrible attempt at fiction, I raised my hand, nearly pulling it out of the socket, two pieces of wide-ruled paper in my hand.

Instead of being angry at me for not listening to the other stories, she took mine and read it.

I won’t claim to recall the details of it. But I do know it involved some sort of bipedal beast that breathed fire and that he burned a hole in the ceiling of our classroom, through which fell the desk and body of the fifth grade teacher right above us, a woman who would, in two years, become my mortal enemy. That’s all I remember. Hole in ceiling. Teacher crashing down. I’m sure there was other stuff in there, too.

All I know is that it killed.

It got laughs. Genuine laughs. I had used names of other kids in the class. Killed my teacher, the teacher above, and the principal, I think, who came in to save us. It went over so well that my teacher had the fifth grade class above us, the one I had partially destroyed in my story, come down to our room so she could read the story to them.

And, that day, at an age far too young to decide on a career path, I did just that. I had never written for fun before but now I knew I would be doing it for the rest of my life.

Because I had to.

Throughout school, I kept writing. Proxy isn’t actually my first book. In elementary school, on another ‘writing for fun’ assignment, I got out my mom’s typewriter and wrote ten chapters (one page per chapter…barely), drew a cover (poorly), stapled it all together, and handed it to my teacher to read. It was about an alien invasion, I think.

But it is lost to the ages, like Sulla’s memoirs, Love’s Labour’s Won, Hemmingway’s suitcase, and Orson Welles’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.

I think it was called “Zap!”.

Through high school I wrote fantasy short stories, bad poetry (including a Gilgamesh by way of Poe epic), and even some Star Wars fan fiction before I knew there was such a thing as fan fiction. Some of that I still have and no one will ever read it.

In college I decided I wanted to write movies. So my attention shifted away from prose to screenwriting, although I did take some creative writing classes. But mostly I was trying to master (like anyone actually does that) the art of writing for the movies.

Then I moved to L.A.

I did all of this, never looking back, never getting a ‘fall-back’ degree, never considering failure to be an option, because, well…

Because I had to.

And why do I ‘have to’?

tumblr_mi884kaOEf1s07stbo1_400Because my mind is a chaotic slurry of words and ideas and philosophies and characters and voices and chemical imbalances and insecurities and useful knowledge and even more useless knowledge and writing is the only way to keep it at all under control. The only way to keep me sane. I can’t sleep at night if I don’t feel like I expelled enough words that day. The depressions I mentioned before? Guess what I wasn’t doing when those happened. Sometimes I’m not super-pleasant to be around when I’m writing, like most writers, but you should see me when I’m not. When I’m not writing I don’t feel whole and my brain, the loud, non-stop, schizophrenic motherfucker that he is, takes over. And that’s never pretty.

I write because I want to tell stories. To communicate with others. To say things. To make people laugh. To make them cry. And think. To reach for some sort of renown and success. To try to live forever.

Mostly, though, I have to write so that I can sleep at night.

So here I am, introducing myself to you on this new website, this new project I have embarked upon with some friends I have known for over 20 years, some of the only people who have read those high school stories that shall remain locked in the vault that is my hard drive. And every week I’ll be writing a blog post. Some will be short, some long. Some will be interesting, some maybe not so much. Some will be about writing. Some will be about sports, cinema, or television. I have many Hollywood stories, some of which I may share. I’ll be recommending double-bills of films that you may not have heard of, or at least have never seen the connection between. And a whole bunch of other stuff, I’m sure.

I will not be writing about politics or religion. I may do that on my own blog, at some point, or on Twitter, but we’ve decided to avoid that here at Téssera. Which is a good call.

Next week I’ll talk about something, although I’m not sure what. Quite possibly an old man’s rant about the state of Hollywood. I’ll also hopefully be putting up some short stories, screenplays, and other goodies in the weeks and months and years to come.

Writing_Quote_298My relationship with writing has evolved over the years. Vince Gilligan, genius creator of the dearly departed “Breaking Bad”, has often said, when asked if he enjoys writing, “No, but I enjoy having written.” I get that. I really do. Most of the time writing feels like work, because it is. But there are moments in it, when magic strikes, when you hit a zone and hours have passed and thousands of words have been belched out and you don’t even remember typing half of them, when it is still a lot of fun.

I still love it. I just love it in a different way these days. And I’m okay with that.

So in between raising my daughter, taking care of my dogs, maintaining my relationships with my friends and family, tearing my hair out over the Cincinnati Reds, trying to stay healthy, buying records, watching movies, reading history, and everything else that makes up my life, I will also be writing. Novels. Screenplays. Stories. Comics. Blog posts.

Writing. One way or another. For the rest of my life.

Because I–

Well, you know.

Chad J. Shonk
October 2013

PS – I’m also a stubborn, opinionated, and sometimes pretentious prick when it comes to film and writing and art in general. That will be apparent with next week’s blog post. I would apologize in advance, but I stand by every word, so… No apologies.