Happy New Year: They’re Not Resolutions, They’re Just Things I Try to Do

goodbye-2013

My wife asked me a few days ago if I had any New Year resolutions. My answer, as it has been just about every year of my life, was no.

I do, however, maintain a mental list of things that I always want to do differently or better. Naturally, with the rollover of the calendar, those things fall under the spotlight a bit more, but they really don’t change much from year to year. Continue reading → Happy New Year: They’re Not Resolutions, They’re Just Things I Try to Do

The Story On Toy Story

With the Thanksgiving holiday and school out for a long weekend, there’s been lots of kid TV on around the house. And with all the junk that’s out there, I’ve been reminded of what gems the movies of the Toy Story trilogy are.

Such gems, in fact, that when Toy Story 2 came out, it was cited as one of the few films that represent the “golden ratio” of film – that combination of factors that make for a perfectly balanced screenplay.

Another great thing that the Toy Story movies did was free animated film – and specifically Disney-produced and distributed animation – from the bonds of musical featuring princesses and rehashed fairy tale stories. Nothing against musicals – they certainly have their place in the world, and even in genre film.

This happened once before, if you remember, in the 1950s when Walt Disney (the man) got consumed with creating his eponymous theme parks and left the studio animation division to others. It’s funny how you can tell exactly when that happens – it’s when stories based Grimm brothers tales diminish and the number of plot contingent musical numbers decline or are replaced by those that swing rather than soar.

Eventually – whether because of laziness or because of perceived saleability – the Mouse decided to go back to fairy tale musicals and began following a pretty strict formula that Pixar animator and director Andrew Stanton details in this TED video.

Pretty soon, you could recite in your sleep what each new Disney animated feature would entail – a trite retelling of a tried-and-true childhood story that would be girl-centric without abandoning the Mouse’s ever-present princess fantasy of a happy ending married to a handsome prince. For a while there, Disney just gave up.

What Pixar chose to do, Stanton explains, is to take that formula and throw it in the trash. They created original stories that, while appropriate for children almost from the moment they can understand that they’re watching a movie, are universal in their appeal and cut no corners in the level of their quality or storytelling. They were built from the ground up – no source material from the 18th century or designed to appeal to a particular demographic.

So what does this have to do with your writing in novel or short story form? It’s a great example of how you as a writer aren’t bound in any way by what people (or your genre) might expect or suggest you should create your work.

In this day of entire bookstore sections devoted exclusively to subgenres like “Teen Paranormal Romance” – also known as the “sexy teenage vampires in love” genre – it’s easy to think that the best way to have success is to write something that fits into a specific box. You can even see it in book titles, particularly among the indie e-book market, where nearly ever title seems to contain either “shades” or “grey” – or some combination thereof – to in an attempt to somehow capitalize on the success of the ubiquitous erotica phenomenon Fifity Shades of Grey and its sequels.

If all you want to do is sell some books, it’s easy to ride another’s coattails or cram yourself into a pre-existing pattern that someone else has created and others have replicated.

But keep in mind that he most renowned writers are the ones unafraid to toy existing structure or form. Some of the most popular are the ones who decide to willingly cross boundaries of style or genre to create something truly amazing.

In other words, don’t try to fit into a box for which someone else has already set the dimensions. Instead, create your own box, work within the parameters you create and don’t worry about the hot genre of the moment.

Knights of the Roundtable

A few weeks ago the Codorus Press crew – represented by me, founder Wayne Lockwood and editor/forthcoming author/master of promotions Tom Joyce – traveled up into the Appalachians for the Western Maryland Indie Lit Festival, put on by Frostburg State University’s Center for Creative Writing.

It was a bit of a hike for us, as we do our best to keep our book festival trips within relatively close range to our homes in New York, southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, respectively.

But the lure to Frostburg was twofold: First, there was the appeal of an entire event dedicated to the pioneering spirit of the indie publisher. Second were the invitations Wayne and I received to participate in two roundtables each.

In a couple of years of doing book festivals around the mid-Atlantic, this was the first time we’d been asked to share what we’ve learned about writing and publishing with other aspiring writers and indie publishers, and we knew we had to jump on this opportunity. Boy, am I glad we did.

Splitting our time between selling and speaking made for a busy day, but getting the chance to talk about what we do on so many levels was an incredibly rewarding experience. The roundtables were intimate – no more than 15 people in each, including the panelists – which made for a great, salon-like feeling to the proceedings.

The participants were genuinely interested in what we had to say and all had great and insightful questions. They were also polite and patient with our (cough*my*cough) occasional tangents, which, of course, eventually led to their own insights (or at least that’s what I kept telling myself).

One of the nicest surprises about the entire event was that I got to sit as a panelist on the sci-fi/horror and fantasy panel with fellow University of South Carolina grad and Gamecock student newspaper alum Andy Duncan. Like me, Andy’s early work history took him through the world of southern newspaper journalism, and he eventually began to dip his toe into writing short fiction.

Since then, he’s been published in some of SF’s most storied magazines and a lot of fine anthologies, as well as come out with a few himself. Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, his first collection, won the World Fantasy Award – no mean feat – and his second, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, came out earlier this year.

In a lot of ways (at least in my own mind), it was a bit like me, as a sometimes actor in community theater, being asked to talk about the craft alongside Robert DeNiro. Not to be too self-deprecating, I have a novel to my name and Andy has lots of truly fine stories. I knew when I saw that we’d be seated on the same roundtable I’d have the opportunity to learn some things from him.

What I learned was a lesson I really already knew – there’s little productive in being star-struck. If you meet someone in your field for whom you’ve got lots of respect, it’s rarely helpful to gush and fawn and always better to spend your time conversing with them not necessarily as equals, but at least as peers. True, I don’t have the awards and accolades Andy can boast, but we’re both writers in the same genre drawing from many of the same places in literature, geography and culture.

Truly, most of the other writers I’ve met who are far more successful and well known than I am have been modest, kind and generous folks who truly enjoy talking to other writers about writing. And I always remember that when I talk to other writers who are still working on their first books or stories and (heaven help them) look at me as an example of what they could be.

Keep It Short

I’m proud to say that I’m a member in mediocre standing of a great writers’ group, the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, that regularly features great and informative guests at its meetings. My mediocrity stems from only being able to make about half of their monthly meetings thanks to my wife’s rotating work schedule.

So when I was able to attend the November meeting with no elaborate scheduling shifts or kid hand-offs required, I was pretty excited (of course, it might have also had something to do with the meetings being held at a great Irish pub with Guinness on tap, but that’s neither here nor there).

The speaker that night was Dennis Tafoya, a writer of modern noir who lives in another part of the Philadelphia area

Dennis Tafoya, author of crime thrillers

and whose novels include Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park. The vibe at BVWG meetings is pretty informal, much like a dinner party where one guest is allowed to hold forth and everyone else gets to eat, drink and be educated. Dennis was very gracious in sharing with us his process of writing, his literary philosophy and what drives him to do what he does.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that his success in mainstream publishing can be directly attributed to his having short stories published with a few online journals, then discovered by a West Coast film agent who steered him in the direction of an East Coast literary agent. It’s that magical publishing kismet that you sometimes hear about, then hate having the knowledge that this apparently really happens to some people.

My first response to this was surprise that Hollywood folks, who only seem able to rehash old crap or generate new crap these days are actually trawling through online fiction journals looking for great stories and their authors. My second thought was, “Wow … I’ve really got to up my short story game.”

That would be, at this point, a game that doesn’t really exist. Approximately 20 years ago, I managed to bang out and finish a nice little story that was published in the University of South Carolina literary magazine, Portfolio. Please ignore that it was at the same time I happened to be the fiction editor. Really … that had nothing to do with it. I swear.

Anyway, that story won an honorable mention in a statewide competition, which was very cool. Since then, though, I’ve been stuck. No nice little awards – not even honorable mentions, mainly because there haven’t been any stories.

See, my trouble with short story writing is that A)  the things I begin working on intending them to be short stories morph into full-scale novels that end up taking 20 years to finish (please see Immaculate Deception), or B) I have great ideas that I get started on but never actually finish.

As I speak, I have between 10 and 15 half- or 1/4-complete short stories sitting in a computer file awaiting my attention after months or years. If they were people, they would have given up and moved on long ago. Even though they’re just stories, I still imagine them tapping their feet and looking at their watches impatiently, wondering when I might return.

Yeah, me too, guys.

I try doing a little self education every so often, attempting to get myself into the short story groove by re-reading collections like William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and even the hefty (especially in paperback) collection of Mark Twain’s shorties hoping that some of their excellence at brevity will rub off on me. I like to think that rather than soaking it up right away, I’m slowly processing and absorbing it in the hopes that at some point it will blossom within me and I’ll be able to easily crank out some stellar (and short … and entirely complete) piece of fiction.

So far, though … nothin’. Well, that’s not true. I did start something the other day, but if I had a nickel for every time I started a story I didn’t finish I’d have … um … it looks like about 75 cents.