Thursday, June 29, 2017

Growing as a Writer

At each Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA residency I attend, opening night is punctuated with a question that is designed to foster discussion throughout the week. We're supposed to use these questions if we finish our critique sessions and discover that we have time left over. It happens. The question at this residency was especially poignant, so I figured I'd discuss it here too. Quite simply:

How do you continue to grow as a writer?

The question, while directed at the students, is appropriate for every writer. The question actually was "How do you continue to grow as a writer once you no longer have grad school breathing down your neck," but it is appropriate for anyone who fancies themselves a writer. And there were lots of good suggestions. Form a writing group. Attend conferences. Write every day. Everything that was stated was geared toward the writing life and the output for which we all strive. But there was something that I felt wasn't mentioned. Something so simple, most people don't think of it.

Live.

"I'm going on an adventure!" -Bilbo Baggins


Let me explain.

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm a big proponent of primary research, which is a fancy term which means "experiencing the things you write about." It's different from the old chestnut of "write what you know" in that you go and research things. "Know what you write," if you will. It's well-documented that I've done some interesting (silly, weird) things in the name of primary research.  How does this relate to my advice? Simple.

Every experience you have makes you grow as a person.

Think about that phrase for a moment. Every. Experience. Things you love, things you hate, pain, pleasure, fear, exhilaration... They all do one thing: They add to the tapestry that is your life. They give you experiences upon which to draw. They change your perspective, micron by micron. They make your life experience richer, and allow you to know things that others might not know. In short, they help you develop into a more well-rounded person.

Those experiences also make you grow as a writer. They allow you to draw upon the emotions you felt, the revulsion, the joy, the fear... All of it. And they allow you to write with more authenticity. They allow you to reach into your own personal history of experience and distill it down for the world to experience.

So that's my advice to you. Live. Live fully. Live out loud. Live boldly. Have those experiences. Try these on for size:

  • See something on a menu you've never had?  Try it. If you hate it, use the experience. 
  • Make a point to visit a new restaurant every month. One with cuisine you've not tried. 
  • Go camping. 
  • Walk around the city about which you're writing. 
  • Go to a concert for a band you've never heard of. 
  • Take up a sport.
  • Learn to shoot.
  • Learn to ride.
  • Find out what it's really like to walk around in armor.
  • Find out how long you can actually swing a sword. 
Take the back road to your next destination. Stop along the way. Love with all your heart and let it get broken. Talk to people who know about your novel's subject. Here's an example:  Two students this past term (whose names I won't divulge here because I've already bragged on them in public enough) followed this path long before I suggested it. One of them went camping, alone, in the UP of Michigan. Did I mention she went BY HERSELF? Because she did. She said it was the most scared she'd ever been, and now she has an amazing point of view to write about. The other one wanted to know about suspension piercing. While she didn't go to that extreme, she did contact a local BDSM group and had them tie her up and suspend her from the ceiling. She now knows what that's like. How many of you out there know? I'm betting the number is small (though probably larger than I expect). 

So that's it. Live. Live boldly. Explore your tastes, your passions, your emotions. Build your tapestry of experiences, and live without boundaries. And then use those experiences in your fiction. Go out and dare yourself to be amazing. 
I AM AMAAAAZING!!!!


SAJ

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Branching Out

There are times in our lives when we all do things, whether on purpose or not, that limit us. "I only eat" this or "I only wear" that brand, that type of thing. When we label ourselves, we limit ourselves. And, in doing so, we don't grow as human beings, or as artists. Imagine, if you can, being handed the variety pack of breakfast cereals and being told that, whichever one you choose, it's the only one you can have for the rest of your life. Bummer.

This past weekend at StokerCon (in Long Beach California), I met with my agent who did what she is supposed to do... She told me a harsh truth. The markets for horror are flooded. My work, she says, is good, but people just aren't buying it at this time. Horror's not dead, but it is in a state of overexposure. There are seasoned pros out there who haven't sold a book in a long time (me being one of those) because, well, people just aren't buying. I didn't want to admit it, but it's true.  And so the time has come.

See, for the longest time, a horror writer was all I was and all I wanted to be. I've only been good at a few things, and scaring the shit out of people is one of them, so I embraced it and ran with it. Hell, my website URL was AmericanHorrorWriter (both .com and .net because reasons). But back in the day, I had an inkling this might happen. So I registered a new domain name:  http://www.creepylittlebastard.com. It still sounds like horror, but there's now wiggle room as to what I actually write. Which brings me to the point of this blog:  What do I write?

Horror is still my first love, and I'm never stepping away from it. That's a fact. I will write horror until the day I'm dead, and probably even after that because that would be really creepy and awesome. But now, I'm branching out into four categories. The first two should surprise no one: Science Fiction and Dark Urban Fantasy.  The Stanley Cooper Chronicles, as you may know, is not straight horror. I've always billed it as "Dark Urban Noir Fantasy," so that's no real big stretch. Science Fiction has long time been a love of mine ever since I picked up the works of Phillip K Dick and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was a kid. So those really aren't the ones that are scaring the hell out of me right now.

See, I'm of the belief that we should always do things that frighten us. We grow that we, gain new skills and confidence, and we experience new and amazing things. So I'm doing just that. I'm going to be writing a novel in a genre that scares the ever-loving hell out of me under a pen-name.

YA.

You read that correctly. Young Adult. I will be writing a YA-horror-dark-urban-fantasy very soon under the name William Strange. Go ahead. Get your giggles out now, but I'm going to do it.

"But wait," I hear you saying. "You said four genres. That's only three. What's the fourth?"

You really want to know? Okay.

Poetry. I'm coming for you, Wytovich.

I'll keep you informed of the latest.

Until next time...

SAJ

Monday, April 10, 2017

Side Missions

Okay, hotshot, here's the situation: You've finished your manuscript. You've done the mandatory edit, revise, edit, cry, rage, edit, revise and revise again dance, and now it is finished. Finally. Truly. Finished. All that's left now for your newly birthed child is for your agent (or you) to sell it for a suitcase full of cash and promises of questionable moral behavior. So what do you do now?

Conventional wisdom says to do exactly what I'm pretty sure you're thinking right now: Start the next novel. But then you sit down at your keyboard and nothing comes. The pressure mounts as the damned cursor blinks at you from the screen, and every idea you have seems trite, seems stupid, seems worse than the book you just finished. It's frustrating. It's maddening. And you start to have those same negative creeping thoughts that burrow into your skull.

"What if I'm out of ideas?" "What if this is it?" "What if I'll never have another novel to write?" "The world is meaningless!" "I'm a hack!" "I may as well just gorge myself on Oreos and pizza and turn into a swollen toad and die!"
"Fuckoff... I'm stuffed...."

First off, calm down.

Second, there's something you can do. Instead of screaming and crying and throwing yourself on the couch in a fit of self-loathing, go on a side mission.

But Scott, I hear you say, what the hell are you talking about? So glad you asked.

Your imagination, according to the late, great, Ray Bradbury, is like any other muscle. You either use it or it atrophies and dies. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The less, the weaker. So you, as a writer, need that particular muscle to ply your trade. Think of it in terms of a professional athlete. A pro fighter goes into a training camp for each fight. It's an intensive workout designed to make him the best he can be. But what does he do after that fight's over? Does he stop working out? Does he quit fighting completely?  Not bloody likely. No, they do light workouts. They do maintenance workouts. They keep the muscle memory fresh, keep the joints moving, keep the timing up. Why? Because they want to be ready when the next contract comes in.
Massive power poop in 3...2...1...
Just like you.

Once the big fight (your novel) is over, you want to keep that momentum going, but you don't necessarily want to climb back into he ring for the next fight (you're new novel). So you go on side missions.

A side mission is a short project. Maybe it's a short story. Maybe it's just a few paragraphs a day to keep the creative juices flowing. Maybe it's fodder for your idea folder. Side missions can be things you never see again, or things that unexpectedly blossom into full-fledged novels. The point is, they're things that keep you sharp, but don't necessarily have the emotional attachment of a full-fledged novel. They're things that are fun, because, let's face it, if you're not having fun, you're doing this thing called writing wrong. And if you never pick them up again, so what? You had fun writing them. And if they develop into something more, cool, but no pressure, right?
It's casual.
So how does one go on a side mission? First, place butt in chair. Second, place fingers on keyboard. Third, start typing. Pretty much, it's that simple. I mean, sure you want to give yourself a writing prompt. I have shelves in my writing room that are full of curios and oddities that are all story fodder. I pick one (or two or whatever) and think about a past or a future I could give that item, and just start going. That jump drive? What could be on it that would save the world? That weird brick with all the signatures? Who are they and where did it come from? The suspicious bag hanging from a braid of hair in the bell jar? Where'd it come from and what's it for? Then I start writing and just let it jump out of my fingers and brain like electronic vomit. And when I've reached my daily word-count, I get up and go enjoy the rest of my day. Just like when I write a novel.
Lookit this friggin' guy... enjoying his day...
So lets try a quick experiment, shall we? Quick... Look immediately to your right. What's the first thing you lay your eyes on? In my case, it's big metal coffee thermos (I have a problem... I know... Don't judge me). Now, take into account the two basic plot lines that any fiction follows (A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town) and see how you can place your object into that arena. Got the idea in your head?  Now GO!  Type for your minimum word count! And when you're done, get up, kiss your loved ones, and flex your taut imagination muscles at them like the author you are.
BOOM! BOOM!  FIREPOWER!!!
And the great thing about side missions are this: Y'know that genre thing that you stubbornly adhere to? Yeah, you don't have to cling to it. It's an experiment. You're trying it out. You're just giving yourself some breathing room. You tried weights instead of cardio. No big deal. You wrote sci-fi instead of horror. It's okay. You can diversify.

So yeah. Side missions. Get on it.

Until next time --

-=SAJ=-

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Research: Know what you write.

In the world of writers, there's a trite, glib statement that is often shouted at us, and just as often causes feelings of murderous rage:  Write what you know. It's really meant in the best possible way, I know, but it's possibly one of the worst pieces of advice that you could give a writer. "Write what you know."  Why is that so bad? Well, let's look at that statement for a moment. What, exactly, do you know? For most young writers, what you know consists of living with your parents and teenaged angst. And if that's all you write about, where did all the amazing novels about witches and goblins and historical romance and fantasy come from?  You don't know about any of that stuff, do you? Of course not.  Not unless you have a dragon in your back yard or you actually are a serial killer.  In which case, this blog doesn't pertain to you.

I prefer a different maxim:  Know what you write.

Let's say, for example, you're writing about hard science that is based in reality. Internet, nano probes, genetic engineering, prosthesis, bionics, etc. Every one of them are favorites of writers because they evoke the sense of wonder in the reader. They are rife with potential because no one really knows how far the technology can go, and your guess is just as good as the next person's as to what the next stage of technological evolution will be.
I, for one, welcome our robot overlords...
So does that mean that you don't need to research the tech? I mean, really, if I'm writing for the next step, or even several steps, in the future, why do I need to know about the tech now? Of course, you need to research it. How will you know where it can go if you don't know where it is? But, you say, the research is boring and I don't really care about the tech so much as I do the story! Well, here's the thing... If you don't care, why should your reader?
Says the voice of God...
Look, your readers aren't stupid. Your readers are a cagey bunch. If you don't care, they can tell, and there's nothing more off-putting for a reader than to read something where the author doesn't care. And if you don't care, they won't care, and then they'll put your book down. Say it with me:  If I don't care, the reader won't care. It's a truism. And this is where research comes in. If your story features tech of any kind, you owe it to yourself and your readers to have more than a passing knowledge of that tech. I'm not saying you can't create a whole new tech for your novel, but everything follows basic rules and laws. Everything. Everything. Little things like physics and thermodynamics still apply. And, no, I'm not saying you need to have a PhD in either subject to write about them, you should still know how to write about something that obeys said laws, or at least comment on why it doesn't.

Here's where things get weird:  You owe your readers. Seriously, you do. You owe them the best possible reading experience that you can muster. Why? They're buying your work. If you betray that trust, well, they won't be buying your work anymore, will they?

So, instead of relying on your own limited experience to write something and hoping it's in any way accurate, how about doing a little research? If you're reading this, you have access to the sum total of all human knowledge. It's called "Google." You can seriously ask anything about anything and the answers will appear. Then you can read about it and appear to know what you're doing. But it doesn't stop there. You can actually contact real, live people who know about stuff. For some of these people, the things you write about are, in fact, their jobs. Like, policemen, fire-fighters, doctors, lawyers... And people really like to talk about themselves and what they do. So call them up and ask them questions. It can't do anything but help.

But wait, there's more.
Tell 'em all about it, Billy!
Primary research is such an invaluable tool, I can't stress the importance enough. Let's say for a moment that you want to write a scene in which someone shoots a gun, but you've never fired one. How do you research that? Watch movies with lots of gun play?  No way. They're full of inaccuracies and can't possibly convey what it's really like to shoot one. No, if you want to write about it with accuracy, go to a gun range and fire off a few rounds! Use different calibers. Figure out what kind of gun your character would use, and how it would feel to him.

How about this... You want to write a scene of your POV character getting kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car. What do you do? First off, you call your best buddy, someone you trust, who you hope doesn't have a sick sense of humor. Then you climb into the trunk of his car and have him drive around the parking lot. You think I'm kidding, but I've done this. And now I know what it feels like to be jostled around in the trunk of a car.
Seriously, I've done this. 
There are simple practical things that you can do for almost any situation, and for the few that there aren't, there are experts who can tell you about their experiences. You owe it to your readers to put in at least some effort. And, as an added bonus, you will not just write better things, you'll grow as a person. So do your research. You, and your readers, will be glad you did.

Until next time...

SAJ

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Waiting Game

I'm sitting at my desk staring at the little icon for my email.  When I get a message, it jumps up and down like an excited pug and I get the nervous butterflies in my stomach. But then, when I click on the little hyper bastard and see that the incoming message is spam, my mood sinks just a little bit more.

Welcome to my life.

Actually, it's the life of every writer, agented or not. People who don't do this make assumptions that you can send your manuscript out and, like any other piece of email you send, you'll get a reply back within twenty four hours. But that's not how it works. Don't believe me? Here... Look at this:

Blow that up and what you'll see is a listing from Ralan.com, which a site dedicated to folks like us who write and want to make a living at it.  Specifically, they update submission requirements every day.  See those highlighted areas? Those are listed as "RT."  That means "response time." Notice anything?  Yep.  Some of them are more than six months for a reply. Six. Months. Why? Because these people are professionals.  They are in the business of making money and publishing the very best manuscripts that they can find, which means, of course, that everyone wants their manuscript published by them. One (conservative) estimate is that editors receive about 600 queries per week. That, if my math is correct (and I'm using a calculator... Math isn't my strong suit) is more than 31,000 queries per year.  Now, if each query is, let's say, a 400 page novel, that's more than 12 MILLION pages that these people have to get through. See where I'm going with this? 

Pictured:  Agent/Editor
Sure, your book may be the greatest thing written since the invention of the QWERTY Keyboard, but the agent/editor has to get to it before she offers you gobs of money, and that means wading through all the rest. Fair or not, it's how it works. And, by the way, agents have the same type of wait, just like unagented people do.  They just get to nag when they feel it's appropriate. 

Pictured:  You.
To clarify, you've just spent four months (or more) of your life writing a novel that is the best thing that has ever been written, and now you have to wait even more? Yes. That's just how it works. Deal with it. But what, I hear you asking, am I supposed to do while I wait? Start the next novel. 
Move it, monkey. 
Okay, yes, take a break. Take a mini-vacation, if you must. But if you are like me, while you were busy hammering your last opus out, thousands of ideas hit your brain and you lamented not working on them then because you had to finish what was already in front of you. So go write them. All of them or any of them, but get back to work while your creative juices are flowing. The point is, once you send something out, there is no point in worrying about it anymore.  It's out.  It's gone. You can no longer tweak it or fix any errors. Now you just have to deal with the fact that your little baby sparrow is trying its wings out. Wherever you sent it, put a mark in your calendar for whenever the response time is, and if you've received nothing by then, send it out again. 
This is your life now.
I'm playing the waiting right now. I'm waiting on word back from my agent about the manuscript for my latest novel, Ungeheur.  I'm also waiting on a reply from another publisher for another manuscript for Bokor Island. And, last but certainly not least, I'm waiting for the yea or nay from Emerson University to see if I got into their MFA program. I hate waiting. Since I'm someone prone to stress and suffer from depression, waiting is really hard for me to do. So what else am I doing? Working on a new novel. Sewing (yes, really) a couple of new shirts. Petting my pug. Paying attention to my wife and kid. I'm trying to let all the anxiety slip away while life happens. Then, if something wonderful occurs, I'll be thrilled. But in the meantime, waiting is all I can do. 

Until next time...

SAJ

Monday, August 8, 2016

Movie Review: Suicide Squad (what went right and what went wrong)

If you are in any way attached to the internet (which, if you're reading this, you are), you've probably seen at least some of the hype surrounding the new DC movie Suicide Squad. Since this movie seems to be very polarizing, I figured it would be a good exercise to take a hard critical look at it to see what went wrong and what went right in it. Why? Because there's a lot to be learned from a movie like Suicide Squad, whether you loved it or hated it. Me?  I'm one of those people who fell squarely in the middle and found it flawed, but entertaining. We'll get into the whys of that in a minute. But, for now, I'd like to focus on picking this movie apart from the point of view of the actors, the plot, and the overall production.

Oh... It should be obvious that beyond this point lay spoilers a-plenty.
You've been warned...
Suicide Squad is a movie about a government official who has the bright idea to take super-powered bad guys out of prison and use them as a disposable and deniable task-force against other super-powered baddies. This is accomplished by asking nicely.  No, just kidding... They put a micro-explosive in their heads that, should they disobey, try to escape, or act otherwise true to their nature, will blow their freaking heads off. So far so good, right?  So let's look at the list of participants, shall we?
My high-school reunion photo...
Left to right:  Slipknot, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, Katana, Rick Flag, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and El Diablo. Right away, I can see at least one major plot-hole. Can you?  It's Harley and Boomerang. I mean, okay, I get why everyone else in the group was chosen. Slipknot can climb anything...Which makes his name kind of stupid. Katana wields a soul-snaring sword with deadly ability. Enchantress is a 6000-or-so-year-old entity with magical powers. Deadshot never misses. Killer Croc... well, look at him. And El Diablo is a pyrokinetic. Captain Boomerang and Harley Quinn, on the other hand, have no powers. Boomerang fights with possibly the most inconvenient weapon on the planet and Harley... Is crazy. With a  bat. That's it. So, in a group of super-powered people, why would they choose a crazy person with a bat? It doesn't make much sense, does it?  Look at the photo again, however, and it becomes evident that she only is part of the group to wear tiny shorts and be psycho-sexy. But, for the time being, let's just accept her and move on.

In the opening scene, Amanda Waller (played byViola Davis) gives us a rundown of almost every character in the show.  It takes a good chunk out of the movie and is a reminder that not all of us in the theater are comic book geeks. See, we already know the characters. Non CBGs don't, so the film spoon-feeds the non CBGs the characters.  As if you couldn't already tell they were bad guys.
It then goes into details of how Batman captured most of them, with gratuitous cameos by Ben Affleck and his stunt double. Not that it's a bad thing... it works in this context. Thrown into the whole mix is Jared Leto's Joker, who really has very little to do with the movie. Which brings us mistake numbers two and three:  Telegraphing and Superfluous Characters. 

Remember up there where I said almost all the characters got an introduction?  Well, the first one who didn't was "Slipknot," played by Adam Beach. Everyone else gets a detailed introduction complete with snappy dialogue and capture footage.  Slipknot, however, steps out of a van and all we get is "This is Slipknot... He can climb anything." Right at that point, I knew "This character is unimportant, so he's going to die." And he does.  In fact, he serves only to prove that the explosive charges in our heroes' (villains'?) necks could, in fact, take a head off. The poor guy gets maybe 45 seconds of screen time before BOOM... No more head. This is called telegraphing.  This is where you create a thing so obvious that even someone who is only half paying attention can see it coming. It's lazy writing, and it doesn't work well. Which brings me to...
Superfluous characters.  Despite all the hoopla around Leto playing the Joker, the whole movie could've played without him.  Which made his presence in the film seem forced. Sure, he rescued Harley Quinn, but then she turned around and went right back to the group after they shot her helicopter down. Now, had they saved her rescue for the end and only showed The Joker at that point, it would've been better. In fact, it would've been a great moment.  But as it stood, The Joker didn't need to be there, and his scenes made the movie feel even more disjointed. 

Let's move on to the actors and their performances. We'll forget Slipknot since we really only got to see him look pissed off and then die. 


I know you can't tell, but that's Will Smith under that weird-looking mask. Immediate impressions were that Will Smith didn't work in this role. Not that he didn't give it his all, not that he didn't do well with what he was given, but Smith was miscast in this role. Say what you will, but I just didn't buy him as an unrepentant killer. Look, there's a line in this where he says "Every time I put on this suit, someone dies. I like putting it on." And Smith couldn't pull that line off. He seemed full of regret, hesitant to kill, and even angst-ridden over it. Even when attacked by monsters, he still looked less "cold-blooded assassin" and more "dammit, more people I have to kill." Also, the mask was stupid and pointless. The point of the mask in the comics is that it holds his targeting eyepiece. But Smith wore that without the mask. So what was the point? None. Moving on. 
Captain Boomerang
Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang came off as woefully underutilized, and, worse, as a one-note joke. In fact, he came off as completely unnecessary, so another superfluous character.

Katana, played by Karen Fukuhara, had the opportunity to be a wonderful character, driven by revenge and pain. We, however, were only given a one-dimensional view of her. Moreover, we were told her sword stole the souls of whoever it kills, but we were given no evidence of that. 

Enchantress
While the character of the Enchantress is fascinating in the comics, I question the reasoning of her transformation on the screen. Played by Cara Delevingne, the Enchantress starts off as a cool and genuinely terrifying villain, but then is reduced to parody by means of a wiggly-dance she does while constructing her doomsday machine.  Her costume is designed primarily to show off her body, and apart from that, she does little more than chew as much scenery as she can get. 

Rick Flag
Joel Kinnaman gave us another one-note performance in this film, and I don't blame him in the slightest. It was the writers.  They did it. As the government leash-holder Rick Flag, Kinnaman's job in this was to keep the squad in line. As a military leader, he comes across as incompetent, clueless, and, at many points, lost.
Diablo
There were very few characters in this movie that I thought were well drawn, and Diablo (played by Jay Hernandez) was one of them. As the fire-throwing man who was wracked by guilt over the accidental killing of his wife and kids, Hernandez did a great job with what he was given.  Unfortunately, the writers had to go over the top by changing his heroes' journey into a farce at the end. When Diablo attacks the main bad guy, Incubus (who is really nothing more than window dressing), he is sacrificing himself to save the team. But instead of letting him have a redemptive death of dignity, the character burns away his own flesh to reveal (I couldn't make this up) a giant Mayan fire monster. Still, Hernandez deserves accolades for his performance.

Killer Croc
I may be in the minority in this, and I frankly don't care.  I loved Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's portrayal of Killer Croc. The guy owned the role and committed entirely to the beastial nature of the human reptile. Of course, we couldn't even see him under the prosthetics, but that didn't stop the character from coming through, nor did it make his one of the best performances in the movie.  I just wish we'd seen more of him.
Harley Quinn
Margot Robbie owned this role.  Hands down, one of the best performances in the movie, despite the character's inexplicable presence or costume choice (hot-pants and a t-shirt). She genuinely came off as damaged, crazy, scary, and everything that Harley Quinn's punk alter-ego should've been. She also managed to pull off the tragic nature of the character, which is difficult to do.

Amanda Waller
I had a real problem with Amanda Waller, played by Viola Davis. Here's a character that should, by all rights, be colder than any of them, more frightening than even The Joker, and ruthless, and she came off in the movie as just... Tired. One-note performances seemed very common in this movie, and none of them were more saddening than this one. Waller should strike terror into the hearts of anyone because she doesn't have a problem shooting a room full of interns to keep her secrets. But instead, we got droopy eyes and what I assume was supposed to be a mean look. She just didn't work. 
The Joker
After months of speculation and anticipation over Jarod Leto's Joker, I can honestly tell you that he comes across as a disappointment.  Not a "beautiful disaster" as some would have us believe. And it's not the tattoos or the capped teeth, though they didn't work (I mean really, who needs "damaged" tattooed across the freaking JOKER's forehead?  Like we don't know he's damaged...).  It was Leto's performance. He came across as more slimy than maniacal. More oozy than chaotic. The Joker should be an agent of chaos. He should anything but what Leto made him. In addition, the laugh just didn't work.  It wasn't The Joker. Nothing about Leto's performance worked for the character. Now, another character might've worked with the same performance but a different name, but The Joker, he wasn't.

Whew... That was a lot, wasn't it? 

Movie made me tired...
On the other hand... I really did have a good time while I watched it. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I hated it, but I didn't. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I had a good time watching it, and I know I'm likely going to buy the soundtrack. As summer movies go, it was a great way to spend two hours, and it's what I like to call a "popcorn flick." I mean, I love the premise, a few of the performances were great, and the movie just overall looked impressive.

So what can we learn from Suicide Squad? Well, for starters, if a character's only purpose is to die, your'e being a lazy writer. Figure out another way to make the point. Second, too many characters can muddy up the plot. Third, and possibly most importantly, you need to make choices in your plot that make sense. Even if those choices only make sense to the other characters, they still need to make sense.  Why would you send a psycho with a baseball bat with a group of super-powered individuals?  She'd be worse than useless... She'd be a hinderance. So it makes no sense to put her on the team at all. It's also not a coincidence that the two most likable characters (Harley Quinn and Diablo) were also the ones with the most depth of character. I'm pretty sure Deadshot would've made that list, but Will Smith just couldn't pull off "bad guy." See, at the end of the story, your characters shouldn't be the same as when the story started. They need to grow and evolve as the story goes. That's what makes them interesting. 

So how would I have made the story better?  First, cut Captain Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana. Their parts could've been absorbed by others pretty easily. Second, cut Incubus as the bad guy and just left Enchantress as the big bad. Third, Different Deadshot. Fourth, give Amanda Waller more range than "I'm pissed off and cold-hearted." And finally, give Harley Quinn a reason to be there, or cut her out entirely (even though I loved Margot Robbie). 

So that's my take.  I give this movie three stars. Not the greatest thing I've ever seen, but also better than a sharp stick in the eye. 

Until Next time

SAJ







Friday, July 22, 2016

Rejection

It's bound to happen.  In fact, if it doesn't happen, you're not trying hard enough.  I'm not talking about the eventual publishing contract that comes with a suitcase full of money and promises of questionable moral fiber. I'm talking about that little thing that comes before. The little thing that can destroy your self esteem, cripple your ego, and make you wonder if this "writing" thing is ever going to happen:  Rejection. And, like it or not, it's just a part of life for whatever kind of writing you do.  So today, we're going to talk about rejection, how to deal with it, and what it means to your career.

Pictured:  Your dreams...
It has been theorized that a writer must get about a thousand (feel free to add a few zeroes to that number) rejections before ever getting an acceptance. And, unless you're insanely lucky, it holds true. The process goes something like this:  Write the novel, be certain of its ability to make you rich and famous, send it out, wait three months (or more), then get back the rejection and watch your certainty slip just a bit. Lather, rinse, repeat. When the rejection comes in, you read it, then you go through every stage of grief possible. 
  • Denial - No, they couldn't possibly have rejected this!  It must've been mistaken for someone else's piece!
  • Anger - Obviously, it was just too intelligent for those bastards at the publishing company! How dare they reject me? When it gets published, I'll buy this publisher and fire him!
  • Bargaining - Okay... But how could I change it to make it better and make you love it?
  • Depression - Maybe I'm just not good enough. What if I've been fooling myself all this time and I'm actually that guy that all my writer-friends make fun for deluding himself?
  • Acceptance - Yeah... they rejected it. That's their right. It wasn't right for that house, so maybe I'll try sending it to another house.
Again, lather, rinse repeat.

Guess what... You're not alone. So far, I've had thirteen books published. That sounds like a lot, but really, it's been mostly through micro presses and smaller presses. But before that, i got my share of rejections. And I saved them all. 
Pictured: rejection pile
Of them all, I've gotten some really nice letters, some pretty nasty letters, and even a few about which I was certain the sender got me confused with someone else.  My favorite rejection to date was on a torn scrap of paper one inch wide with the word "nope" scrawled on it. Yes, someone actually spent postage to mail me that. Thirteen books later, I still get rejected. 

So how do I deal with it, Uncle Scott?
The short answers are "The best you can" and "With grace." It's easier to talk about what not to do than what to do.  For starters, you don't quit. If you quit, you won't get the acceptance that you're after. You keep writing, keep improving, and keep trying to write that novel that will put your name on the shelves of bookstores. Second, you don't log onto social media and pitch a wall-eyed screaming crying fit. Oh sure, you can pitch a fit, but not where anyone can see you. It's okay to be hurt or angry, but what isn't okay is taking it out on anyone.  If you go throwing a fit, believe me, someone's going to catch wind of it, and it will get back to your agent and/or the publisher. 
BAWWWWWW!!!
But here's the thing... Read the rejections and see if you can get something out them. Take, for example, the latest rejection I got for my new manuscript, Ungeheur:
Thanks for sending UNGEHEUR by Scott A. Johnson. I’ve had a chance to read it, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass. I thought the writing was sharp, and I liked the mounting suspense, but I felt the plot was too standard, and I didn’t think it did anything different with the genre. I also would have liked more backstory on the creatures to elevate them beyond simple monsters. 
This, sent by my agent. So what can we glean from this?  First, this editor thinks my writing is sharp. That's a positive. The editor also liked the mounting suspense. Another positive!  Okay, so there were a few negatives, but this is constructive criticism, and it'll do nothing but make me better if I follow the advice and try to get something published with the same editor, but if I focus on the positives, I actually feel pretty damned good about this rejection.
YOW!
Of course, a lot of rejections that people receive are form letters. Most agents get personalized responses. But when you do get a personalized response, first, focus on the fact that it's personalized. That means that the rejector took the time to write something out. That's a positive. Then pour through it to see if there are any positive notes that you can use. And, whatever you do, don't quit writing. Keep going, and learn from every rejection.  Hone your craft. 

But Uncle Scott, what does rejection mean to my career?
Honestly?  Not a damned thing. I mean, it means you're trying, but other than that, nothing. Want to feel good about your writing?  Take a look at this list of folks who were rejected numerous times:
  • Agatha Christie
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Louis L'Amour
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Zane Grey
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Judy Blume
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Beatrix Potter
  • Peter Benchley
  • L. Frank Baum
  • Madeleine L'Engle
  • H.G. Wells
  • Herman Melville
  • Stephen King
  • Frank Herbert
  • John Grisham
  • Norman Mailer
  • Mary Higgins Clark
  • Jack Kerouac
  • George Orwell
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Mario Puzo
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • William Faulkner
  • Jack London
  • Isaac Asimov
The list goes on and on. You've been rejected?  You're in good company. Look, writers number in the millions.  And there just aren't that many open slots for a new book at any given time. So the absolute best thing you can do is look at the rejection for what it is, and just get over it.  Move on.  Send that manuscript back out, get back on your horse, and start writing the next book. 
Get back to it, monkey!

Until next time...

SAJ