When I go to schools I find myself comparing being a writer to being an athlete alot. Which is probably weird since I'm about the furthest thing from a sports fan as you can imagine. But I was thinking about this again today as I was editing Dog Soldier (which, by the way, is not going to be called Dog Soldier much longer. Not sure what it will be called instead yet. Stayed tuned) and I came to a scene that was just not working. I came at it from one direction after another until I finally realized that the problem was that I had absolutely no idea what one of the two characters in the scene wanted. I had no idea why she was there. That, my friends , is that the sporty folks would call a problem with my fundamentals.

See, when you think about it, baseball comes down to throwing a ball, catching a ball, hitting a ball and running. As you move higher up in the sport layers of strategy and complexity are put on top of that but the foundation is always throwing, catching, hitting and running.  Look at pro athletes, no matter where they are in their career they are still practicing those fundamentals. It's the basis of everything they do.

I think with writing, especially after you've been doing it awhile, you can get too wrapped up in the complexities of things and, like I did in that scene, lose sight of the fundamentals. To move forward I had to stop thinking about theme or character arcs or any of that stuff and simply ask myself...why is this person here? What does she want in this scene?

Of course this raises the question of what exactly are the fundamentals writing wise? Opinions absolutely vary, but for me at least, I think they are....

  • What need is each character trying to fill?
  • How do they go about trying to fill it?
  • What gets in their way?
  • Specificity and clarity of language.

I'm curious. What do you all think are the writing fundamentals?


Magisterium is a Junior Library Guild Selection!!

Hi all! Not alot of detail yet and nothing to link to, but I can tell you that MAGISTERIUM  has just been made a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2012!!

This is super exciting! If you don't know the JLG, their mission is to help libraries wade through the mass of books published every season and pick what's best for their collections.  They review thousands of upcoming titles and pick just a few as their official selections in several categories.

So happy to be a part of it! Thanks to the Guild!!

Things I Learned About Writing From Prometheus

Just as a heads up, this brief posts assumes you have either A) have already seen Prometheus B) Haven't seen it, don't plan to and therefore don't care about spoilers. If you answered B, well, all I can say is that after having seen the movie I wish I had made the same decision.

Don't get me wrong, there was some good stuff in the movie (Pretty much the beautiful visuals and Michael Fassbender) but there were also things in the movie that are really great object lessons for people who write. Namely:

Don't set up that your characters are all brilliant and then make your plot dependent on them acting really really stupid: Honestly this is the movie's worst failing. Sure, no one says that the crew are all geniuses or anything, but hey, they're scientists good enough that a company is sending them a trillion miles from earth in what may be the greatest scientific expedition of all time. They've probably got some game, right?

Well, if they do then one would think they wouldn't:

  • Remove their helmets on a completely alien world. Sure, we know the air is breathable but how can they possibly know that there isn't some alien super flu (or whatever) just floating around ready to make their innards into soup? I mean, wouldn't it  pay to be a little extra cautious when you're the first person ever to step onto an alien world?
  • Stuff alien artifacts into ziploc bags and the take them onto the ship to examine them without bothering to put them into some kind of isolation before you do it. (Also, why were they in such a hurry? Sure there was a huge storm coming but this stuff had been sitting there for thousands of years and I don't think the dead guys head was going anywhere. Again, a little caution was called for.)
  • See a bizarre alien cobra thing floating around in an icky black lake and think "Hey! I know! I'll just go ahead and touch it!"

Now sure, smart people do dumb things all the time and maybe these people are overcome with, I don't know, space madness or something, but if that is the case the audience needs to be made aware of it. I need to understand why they're making these decisions or else I just wonder why the mega corp sent the  Three Stoooges on a trillion dollar mission

Don't do things just because they're convenient for your as a writer:  Ok these drove me nuts as well. Three things. Fassbender using his weird helmet thing to see Rapace's extremely exposition heavy dreams,  the incredibly convenient but baffling Engineer holograms we see running around inside the ship and Rapace's magical de-aliening surgery.

Seriously? The dream helmet thing? It was used once in the whole movie simply to communicate a piece of exposition that A) the robot could have known in many other ways and B) could have been simply communicated in a line or two of dialogue. (For brevity's sake we'll ignore the fact that it really wasn't an important piece of exposition anyway)

And the Engineer hologram thing? I grant you that it looked neat and all but, why would it have existed? I guess the aliens were recording everything they did on the ship in hologram form. Why would they do that? Seems awful convenient for our heros. And our writers. Again, ultimately I guess this was done to communicate some exposition to us and the team but man, it was a pretty heavy handed way of doing it.

And the surgery? Ok, we sometimes have to fudge the timeline on things a little, but seriously? She has what is essentially a C-section, while awake, and then she is stapled up and running through the ship literally minutes later. I think, at most, she winces once. Now honestly, it's not so much that it wasn't realistic that bothers me, it's that the writers put a character in a huge and interesting predicament and then solved it with what is essentially a punt. "Eh she gets magic surgery and she's fine. Whatever. Let's move on."  That's just weak writing. I think if you embrace the difficulty of a problem and the seeming impossibility of solving it, you are forced to come up with  better and more creative solutions.

Shut up already: I had this same problem with Dark Knight Rises. Too often writers think that if characters spend alot of time talking about big heady issues--like faith or the responsibility of creators to their creations--then it means that the movie is about those things in some significant way. It's not. A story is about, say,  faith when we see the ways in which faith, or the lack thereof, effects a characters actions, when it creates conflicts, when it is the engine of the story. Not when people talk about it. This is a classic show vs. tell problem. Don't talk about your ideas, show us your ideas in action and let us make the connections.

How about y'all? Anybody see this and take other lessons from it?

Movie Style Ratings for YA Books?

So have you guys seen this? Basically there's some talk that there should be movie-like ratings created specifically for YA books. On one hand, I get it. I'm not a parent but I can get why parents would want a hand figuring out which books do and do not conform to their values.  There are alot of books out there so asking for  a simple way to look at a book and it's content isn't out of line.

But I think my problem isn't so much it being done, as it is how it would be done. Any rating system is going to be based around a list of flagged content, right? In movies its nudity, language, violence, smoking, drug use, etc. When it comes to books some board will have the job of deciding what deserves to be flagged. Langauge? That one is pretty cut and dried. Violence? OK, but how do you deal with the way violence is depicted? Is it action movie type glorification? Is it critiqued? Does it matter? And what about sexuality? Will hetero sex be flagged in the same way and to the same degree as gay sex, for instance? How about the way religion is handled in YA books? Could "blasphemous content"  become an issue thats flagged? I can sure bet there are people who would want it to be.

And once a list of flagged content is determined  how do we weigh these instances and arrive at a rating?

The MPAA, the group that does movie ratings, is frequently challenged for it's tendency to allow astonishing acts of violence in a PG-13 movie, but will slap an R on something that has a tiny bit of sex or a few bad words, no matter the context. Or, in another recent controversy the anti-bullying film Bully, a well reviewed film and an important one for our time, was given an R rating for using a bit of bad language. (As an aside, the MPAA is primarily made up of former big movie studio execs and, in what I'm sure is a total coincidence, the board tends to be much harder on indie films, even when they have similar content to studio films.)

And all of this brings us to the huge economic issues that will be at play. If a book is rated as being for more mature teen readers will B&N carry it? Will Target? Or Wal-mart?  Now, buyers may read a book and decide that despite challenging content it's an important book and deserves to be on their shelves. Once you start putting letter grades on things suddenly it becomes very easy for corporations to make a blanket statement that they won't carry anything with this or that rating, no matter the context. Saves them from being criticized. And once buyers say they won't take them you'll see publishers stop publishing them.  This ends nowhere good for books.

So in some ways I'm at a loss. I get some parents desire for this but I just can't think of how this can done in a way that doesn't get hopelessly tangled up in politics and doesn't ultimately hurt publishing and deny readers good books.

Any wisdom out there on this?

Quick Recs for Lovers of Well Told Stories

I'm definitely in the camp that says we're in the midst of a golden age for TV. As a novelsit I hate to say it but you'd be hard pressed to find more consistently great writing than on TV. If you love to consume stories, and if you love to be schooled by folks who really know what they're doing,  I can't recommend Mad Men and Breaking Bad more heartily. They are without a doubt the best dramas on tv right now. Absolutely masterful writing.  I know I'm far from the first person to mention these but it bares repeating.

I think Breaking Bad is probably the best long form charcter study I've ever seen. That show deals with characters being transformed right down to their core and manages to do it in a way that's riveting and absolutely believable. And on top of all that it's a kick ass crime show. Genre story telling at its best.

Mad Men has moved into a time when you can tell the writers are just masterfully in control of their abilities. They can do straight up relationship drama, Non-linear LSD freakouts, comedy, drama, whatever, and tie it all into the idea of the 60's as a transformative time in American society--for the country, and individuals and families. The world of the show and the characters are working in perfect harmony to explore the 60's as a time and as a kind of state of mind. It's incredibly sophisticated, and entertaining stuff.

Any recommendations from you all?

101 Uses for a Brick (Or a Ghost)

Hi all! I'm coming off a pretty intense few days of book events and have now caught myself a bit of a cold. But before I finish up my tea and put myself to bed I wanted to put together a short Halloween related post. If you haven't seen it yet, Nova Ren Suma (Imaginary Girls) is doing a great series of Halloween themed posts on her blog. Mine will be up there later today. By all means give it a gander. But I also wanted to talk about one of the other posts in this series that went up last week. Nina LaCour (Hold Still) wrote up an awesome true life ghost story that, in addition to being supremely creepy, illustrates an important writing principal.

From here on out there are going to be SPOILERS so before we go any further, read the whole story. Don't worry it's short. I'll wait....

Read it?

Ok. Wow, spooky right? A few nights after I read this I flew into Los Angeles late at night and as soon as I got myself settled into my big empty hotel room this story came rushing back to mind and I got properly freaked out.

Now about the writing principle I think this illustrates. For me, this story works so well because of the twist at the end, where Nina theorizes that it wasn't some kind of ghost taking the pictures but the girl herself waking up in the middle of the night as this malevolent "other person" and taking the pictures. There's just something so chilling and unexpected about that interpretation. That there's this other person living inside you that lives to terrify and undermine you. Nina could have easily left this story as just a creepy occurrence, maybe it's a ghost, maybe not, and it would have worked perfectly fine. That she takes this extra step to come up with a novel interpretation of the event is really what does it for me.

One standard test of creativity is to ask someone to list as many different uses for a brick as they possibly can. You know, you can hold a door open with it, you can crack a walnut with it etc etc. Generally when people do this the first few uses they come up with are the most obvious ones and then the longer they go the more outlandish and surprising the uses get. The idea is the more credible uses you can come up with for a brick the more creative you are. To me, this is what LaCour did so well with this story. She didn't stop at the most obvious explanation for the occurrence, a ghost, she kept going until she found something that had the shock of surprise. She found a new use for a brick.

This is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I work on my new book. If a character needs to get out of a tight spot, I don't want to stop with the first gambit that comes to mind, I want to come up with as many options as possible and pick one that feels fresh and surprising. It's the same thing when it comes to interpreting a character's behavior, or exploring their point of view, or describing a feeling or an image.

Our first idea is not always the best, often it's simply the most conventional, but if we keep pushing we can get somewhere really surprising and, in this case, scare the hell out of people.

What about you all? Do you make a point to push past your first ideas and find new ones?

Are Movies Killing Books?

Over the last few years we've seen a major transformation in the publishing industry. No, not talking about digital books this time, I'm talking about all the ways the publishing industry is coming to mirror the film industry.

There are some surface similarities of course, the film industry survives on the blockbuster genre series, now so do we. Movies do trailers; now we do trailers. How many times have you heard a new book refferred to as being X meets Y? Harry Potter meets Twilight? The Hunger Games meets Sweet Valley High? That all comes from the film industry.
But most importantly, when people talk about books these days, especially when they give advice on how to write one, what I hear sounds alot like Screenwriting 101: 
  • Use a 3-act structure that includes a very early inciting incident, major plot reversals at the end of each act and a couple mid-act turning points.
  • Focus on character arcs where a character must grapple with and overcome a personality defect in order to succeed.
  • Create very clear protagonists and antagonists.
  • Skip descriptions and backstory whenever possible.

Now screenwriters didn't invent any of this--the 3-act structure has been around since Aristotle--but structuring a story around points like these has become the standard way of writing a screenplay, and since film is the dominant storytelling medium at the moment I suppose it makes sense that these points have come to to dominate other mediums as well. And, hey why not? It works and everybody likes a tight, well-structured story.

What concerns me though is that if we adopt the language and techniques of screenwriters will we lose a sense of how a book is a fundamentally different experience than a film?

All mediums (fiction, film, poetry, theater, non-fiction etc) have particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to storytelling. So when you choose to write a story you have to decide which medium's strengths and weaknesses work most to your advantage. You ask yourself "This idea I have, is it a book? A movie? A poem? A play?"  You can only answer if you know what the strengths and weaknesses of each are.

So what are the strengths and weaknesses of fiction vs. film? 
To speak in a few ridiculously broad generalizations, I think a book excels at being an immersive experience. We'll spend days or weeks poring over a book, while we'll generally spend no more than 3 hours with a movie. Because of this a book is good at doing a deep, sustained dive into characters, relationships, and worlds. Books are great at historical sweep and complex multi-layered stories. Fiction is also better at presenting ideas and character's inner lives. 
Film, due largely to time constraints, is a more compact medium. Films tend to have fewer characters and settings and take place over a shorter time frame. They also need to get to the point very quickly and keep the action at as brisk a pace as possible. For this reason film has really embraced the 3-act structure we talked about above. It's a structure that's all about keeping a story tight and moving. 
Now, if this is true, if our talks about writing fiction have become overwhelmed with talk of film structure, a structure that maybe serves another medium far better, what do we do about it? How do we talk about writing differently? Do we?
I have no answers here so I'm eager to hear any of your thoughts.  Are we fiction writers veering too much into a film world? Do we need to make our books more...booklike? If so, how?

Thumbs up for Rock N Roll!

Ok, everyone may have seen this at this point but there's some truly timeless wisdom here. 

From now on if anyone asks me my thoughts on pursuing writing or publishing I'm just sending them to this video.  Sometimes we adults make things too damn complicated and it takes a kid who just learned how to ride his bike to put things into perspective.


Ok folks, here we go! It's just become clear to me that at some point last week my friends at Scholastic started shipping my book out to bloggers, setting off a chain of appearances in people's "In My Mailbox" posts. The first one I saw was the below. Definitely watch the whole thing, but you can see the bit about The Eleventh Plague at around minute 5:40.

As you can imagine, when she reads the bit from the letter my editor David Levithan wrote in support of the book, I was kind of floored.

At this point I've seen my little green book show up on several blogs, Goodreads status updates (My favorite? "On page 111. Uh Oh.") and random tweets and it's always amazing. The idea that my book is out in people's hands after all of this time feels like approaching the very top of the rollercoaster. You know? When that low click. clack. click. clack. vibrates up through your body as you ratchet up to the crest of the first hill where you'll be perfectly suspended for a split second before--ZOOM!

It's super exciting and--I won't lie to you, friends--more than a little terrifying. In any case, it's out of my hands now. All I can do now is focus on the 2nd book and hope for the best.

Hope you guys like it!

Holy Crap Suzanne Collins Blurbed my Book

And I have a cover! And I'm doing my first ARC GIVEAWAY!

Thanks to everyone at Scholastic, especially the awesome Phil Falco for the beautiful and foreboding cover.
And of course, a very special thanks to Suzanne Collins. As a writer published by Scholastic I had the fleeting thought that maybe they'd send my book to Ms. Collins, but I never thought something like the above blurb would actually happen. The day I got the email saying that not only had she read it but that she liked it was was willing to tell the world that...well, that was one of the most amazing days of this entire publication journey so far.

Thanks to everyone who helped make this real! Ok! On to the important stuff. With this picture came a stack of advance copies of my book and they're burning a hole in my pocket!  Want one? Just leave a comment on this blog for a chance to win!

And hey, while you're at it, I'd really appreciate it if you became a follower of this blog and/or followed me on twitter. 

5 (ok, 7) Thoughts on Critiquing

So after that post on revision, I thought I'd take a look at the other side of things and talk about the process of giving feedback. I'm no expert or anything, but here are some things I've noticed are helpful after years of telling people what I think of their writing either in a classroom setting or one one one with felow writers.

  • Before you read their work, ask the writer if there's any particular sort of feedback they're looking for. Maybe they only want broad over-arching notes on story arcs and such. Maybe it's a later draft and they want more granular notes on language, individual moments and scenes, etc. Try to remember that when you give someone notes it's about what the writer needs, not what you want to say.
  • Read what you're critiquing at least twice. The first time read the work straight through without taking notes to get the overall sense of the thing. Ask yourself what the story is about on a plot, character and thematic level. What is the writer trying to achieve? What are they trying to say? Your goal is to help them, through your notes, achieve these things. Once you've done that, go back and reread taking careful notes throughout.
  • When it's time to give notes start by talking in detail about what was working in the book. What  you liked. What intrigued you. What you'd like to know more about.  It's important that you let the writer hear what grabbed you about their work. You may surprise them!  Remember, vague praise reads as false praise; if you want the writer to know you really liked something, be specific.
  • Again, what every writer wants is different, but in general terms I think it's good to then offer a few key over-arching notes in rough order of importance and then work down to smaller ones. (What's an over-arching note? Something that effects either the entirety of the book or at least a major section or act. Think the arc of the plot. Character and relationship arcs. The world of the book. Things like that.) Getting feedback can be overwhelming, so giving someone three key  notes can sometimes be better than a hundred small ones. Lots of times I'll start big and then ask if they want to hear smaller notes. Sometimes they don't, and that's fine.
  •  A note on tone. Starting notes with "I thought..." or "I felt..." or "I wondered..." is less confrontational than taking the tack that you know best and are going to instruct someone on what to do. Some may think this sounds mealy mouthed, but being strident or acting like the authority can make the person getting feedback shut down. Try to say things in such a way that the person can hear and understand you, not feel threatened, belittled or talked down to.
  • Ask if the writer has any questions about your notes or about any aspect of the book you didn't touch on.
  • Lastly, the big no no in my book is to offer a writer solutions to the problems you see in their work or suggestions about where the work could or should  go. Even if you have an idea that you're sure would make the book so much more awesome, keep it to yourself unless the writer specifically opens the door to such comments. Remember, your goal is to help the writer write the book that's in their heads, not the book in your head. It's about them, not you.

Ultimately, I think you want to leave the person you're critiquing feeling like they understand the rough points in their work but that the challenge ahead of them is manageable and even exciting. A well done critique, even one that is very plain about the problems present, should inspire the writer to immediately go off and write.

I'm sure I left out a few things. How about you all? Any critiquing words of wisdom?

5 Thoughts on Revision

So while working on the recent revision post for the League of Extraordinary Writers I realized I had more to say on the subject than could fit on one post. 

Here's the deal. I'm deep in revisions now, trying to turn a rough draft of a new novel into something I won't be horrified to show to someone else (namely my wife/agent/editors) so I'm a little revision obsessed right now.

Over on the league blog I wrote about approaching revision like triage. Start with one or two of the most central changes you need to make and then work down from there. I also had a few other random thoughts about revision I thought might be worth mentioning.

1. Don't be afraid to ask people what they liked. Too often I see feedback seekers asking people to "be brutal" and to "tear their work apart." They seem to regard getting praise as ego stroking. It's not. Sure, it's important to get unvarnished opinions about your work, but if you want a clear and balanced understanding of what you've written you need to know what's working just as much as what isn't. I can't tell you how many times I've had people point out some aspect of my work really resonated with them and it was something I never would have guessed. Finding out that an unexpected element in your book is really working can take you in new and exciting directions. Added bonus: if you know something is awesome you won't make the mistake of cutting it. 

2. Ask one question. When asking folks for feedback I have one question that I ask every single time without fail. First, I write down everything they have to say and then I ask:

"If you could give me only one single note, what would it be?"

I find the question forces people to think deeply about the work and weigh major and minor concerns. I think the answer to this one question can really help focus a rewrite. 

3. Run Away! After you receive feedback put it, and the book, away for as long as humanly possible. The best scenario is to get involved in another project entirely while you're mulling feedback. Write a short story, start a first draft of something else, pursue a hobby, anything that will take up all your brain power. In an ideal word you'll come back to your work in progress and it will seem just slightly alien to you. You want distance, from your writing and the notes you got on it, so you can approach a rewrite objectively.

4. To hell with Faulkner. We all know and love Faulkner's (or was it Hemingway's? Or Twain's? Or Sir Arther Quiller Couch's? ) quote about killing our darlings. The exhortation to find your favorite, most loved bits of writing and brutally cut them sounds satisfyingly bad ass,  but there's a real danger there. Sometimes a piece of writing that seems superfluous in one spot is absolutely essential in another. Or sometimes what looks extraneous only seems that way because you need to build to it better. The point is that, yes, there are times you need to be brutal with your cutting, but don't start cutting willy nilly. If you love a bit there's a good chance your audience will too so try to make it work. Tweak it, move it, build to it differently and then, and only then, if it doesn't work, then you kill it. 

5.You're not a writer, you're a sculptor. Here's a quote by Michaelangelo that I love and always think about when I'm writing a rough draft.

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me... I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it...."

To my mind, when you sit down to write that off-the-top-of-your-head rough draft you're not really writing a book. You're creating the raw material for a book. You're making your block of marble. You'll chip it into a sculpture later. So throw every wild idea you have in there. Over write like crazy. Go down a hundred blind alleys. Be as creative as you can be. Once it'd done and you get some feedback, and you get a little distance from it, you'll be able to see the "lovely apparition" that rests inside. Then all you gotta do is bring it out. How about y'all? Any revision words of wisdom you can share?

Mankind is our Business

Just sat down and re-watched the first half of the 1984 George C. Scott, A Christmas Carol. If you haven't seen it you really should. It's on Netflix's streaming service right now. Scott makes a fearsome Scrooge, but one with a sense of humor and a deep humanity bubbling under surface. This is definitely my favorite version of the story. (With Bill Murray's Scrooged coming in at a very close second, of course) Watching tonight I was struck by this line, spoken, wailed really, by Marley's ghost just after Scrooge comments that he was a good "man of business."

"Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

There's alot of great stuff in these three sentences. The urging to greater charity and mercy is wonderful, but I also like that it isn't unrealistic. Marley isn't telling Scrooge that his trade is meaningless or wrong, he's simply saying that the world, and his responsibilities to it, are greater than that.

Yes, I guess this is the obligatory "Christmas isn't about presents" post. I swear I'll make it brief.

All around us there are people who are cold and hungry and horribly alone. We tend to think of them more around this time of year, which is great, but the trick is to keep those people as a part of our business year round.

Now there are all kinds of ways to do this, but if giving money is your thing, know that giving to charity in the age of the internet is great. Almost any charity you can name has a system in place where you can pledge a small recurring amount, say $20 a month or less. You give them your info, the money comes out of your account every month and, honestly, you will likely never even realize it's happening.

Another tool I love and use often is Charity Navigator.  There are alot of people out there asking for money so it makes sense to learn as much about a charity you're thinking of giving too as possible. Charity Navigator gives you a central place to browse charities and then get detailed info on a charity's finances, their governance, their programs as well as editorial and user reviews. It's a great portal to giving with an unworried mind.

Ok, that's my pitch. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas!

What is Evil?

Just read this great article in Rolling Stone and it got me thinking about evil. The RS article follows the story of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. If the name doesn't ring a bell, he was the guy in charge during the the worst mining disaster in the US since 1970, the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 miners in May of 2010. In the five years leading  up to the explosion this particular mine, overseen by Mr. Blankenship, received 1,342 safety violations. It received 57 in the previous month alone.  Many of these sited the improper ventilation of methane and poor escape routes that were key causes of the disaster.

Needless to say, nothing was done about these violations and there is every indication in the world that Blankenship knew of these violations and did nothing about them. Fixing things would have cost money and slowed down coal production. Money and human lives were put on a scales and guess which won out. So there's bad behavior, there's immoral behavior and then there's this other thing that we call evil, which seems to have a grander, almost mythical connotation. A kind of absolute zero of iniquity. For me Blankenship's actions crossed the line into evil, but I had to stop a moment and think about why.

What defines evil?

For me, I think the root of evil is the absence of empathy. Without some ability to appreciate the pain and the humanity of others, to be able to see them as you see yourself, maybe it's not so hard to overlook a pile of bodies for a pile of money. But simply not caring for others is probably not enough. I think we don't see real evil until a lack of empathy is married to power. Put the two together and you've got Don Blankenship.S

To expand it even further this person needs to live in a society that looks the other way. Sure, Blankenship is the root here, but he couldn't have done what he did without the help of regulators who issue 1,342 safety violations but do nothing to see that actual changes are made. He couldn't have done it without a government and a community that allowed it.

Now I'm sure that definitions of evil may diverge wildly from person to person so I'm curious to hear what you all think.

What is your definition of evil?

I Thought Maybe I'd Feel Like an Idiot a Little Less Often

I knew the world wasn't going to change when I sold my first book. I knew angels weren't going to sing and I wasn't going to magically put bad writing days behind me, but, well...see title of post.

I ended the year with a bunch of leftover vacation days so I thought I'd take the majority of this week off and use that time to write. For the last week or so I have been seriously close to finishing the 1st draft of Magisterium (Book # 2) and I was sure that with a few uninterrupted days of writing I'd be able to type "the end" sooner rather than later.

So my first day off came and I leapt out of bed. I had my coffee. I spent the absolute minimum amount of time on Twitter and then I opened up my Word doc and...

I choked.

I completely freaking choked.

For 7 1/2 hours I stared at my computer screen like it was on the far side of a deep fog bank. My characters were complete strangers. The story I've been writing for months felt like some dim, half remembered thing without logic or urgency or tension. I typed listlessly. I deleted. I typed again.  I was sure I could read the cat's mind from across the couch. "Hey there Mr. Professional Writer Man," she seemed to taunt. "Aren't people like, paying you for this stuff now? Don't you think you better, you know, Get. On. It."

Like I said, I didn't expect angels wings when I sold a book but maybe I thought, I don't know, that somehow the validation would open up a well of confidence I could draw on in times like these. Maybe I thought that given all this time writing, and all that I've learned from editing my last book, I would have solidified some kind of instinctive story sense, some batch of first narrative principals, that could guide me through the rough days.

But that's not how it works, is it?

Just like a marriage license doesn't make you married, a book contract doesn't make you a writer. It does not make you immune to sitting on a couch under the withering glare of an American short hair, feeling like a complete noob. It does not stop you from thinking, despite whatever evidence to the contrary, "I can not do this."

At least this is true for me. Maybe, horror of horrors, there are some writers out there who really do "go pro." Writers who sit down at the computer and see the path in front of them clear as a cobblestone drive.  Maybe.

As for me, all I can do is sit down at the computer each day and hope for the best.

How about you guys?

Cult Film Madness

Back when I was in grad school I TA'd for a professor's cult films class. One of the most fun classes I was a part of while I was there. I became pretty passionate about these films while in this class and think they're something everyone should know a bit about. So we're all on the same page. Cult films are marked by a couple different, sometimes related, qualities. First, a cult film was almost always a commercial failure when it premiered only to gain a rabidly devoted following over time. Whether it was a success initially or not, cult films are generally marked by a transgressive quality, oftentimes depicting transgressive ideas about sexuality, violence, gender and morality. Sometimes what's being transgressed are basic notions of cinematic competence.

A good cult film challenges your ideas about what's possible or permissible in a film. It takes you deep into the odd and sometimes dark corners of an artist's imagination. Whether they'e technically well produced or not, most cult films feel lovingly handmade, a product of a small group of artists' intense passions.

Here are a few of my top cult films with accompanying clips. All of these are definitely worth checking out! Keep in mind though that some of these, even the clips,  are not for the faint of heart.

Rocky Horror Picture Show: If you know any cult film it's this one. It's really the perfect cult film. It bombed when it came out but developed an obsessive following and is full of transgressive sexuality, gender play and a little violence. Is it a good movie? Not exactly. But it has some fun moments, a few good songs and an extraordinary central performance by Tim Curry.

Faster Pussycat. Kill! Kill!: Great art often documents the peculiar obsessions of it's creator. This is absolutely true of Russ Meyer, the director of Faster Pussycat. But where Monet had haystacks and Woody Allen had New York, Meyer's obsessions ran towards amazon women with huge breasts dominating weak men. Hey, give him credit, he had a point of view and he ran with it.

Freaks: This is a one of a kind cult classic. Todd Browning made this strikingly shot film in 1932, with a cast consisting largely of actual circus sideshow performers. It makes a powerful statement about how it is not they but the "normal people" that persecute them are freaks and monsters. Even today there are scenes that have the power to haunt.

Harold and Maude: This is actually one of my all time favorite movies. It's sweet and funny and strange. A quality film. What makes it a cult film is largely it's central transgressive sexual relationship between a death obsessed young man and a much older woman. Funny that we would have very little problem with this if their gender were reversed, huh?

Pink Flamingos: This is John Waters at his best, or worst, depending on how you look at it. The movie involves the hunt for the "filthiest person alive" and includes graphic scenes of sex involving a chicken, a lip synching anus, and Divine,  a 250 pound transvestite, eating actual dog feces.

Why would anyone want to watch this? For me it's that handmade quality I talked about. It feels like a group of like minded friends got together and made this over the course of a few days for kicks. It is the perfect antidote to boring, over-produced and over-focusgrouped mainstream entertainments. The below clip is decidedly NSFW.

Blue Velvet: Another of my all time favorite movies. This is a perfect intro the seriously strange world of David Lynch. The whole thing is a relentless Oedipal nightmare fueled by sex and violence, and featuring an unbelievable performance by Dennis Hopper who plays a demonic small time hood named Frank Booth

Un Chien Andalou: This is a foundational bit of weirdness that still has the power to make people squirm. It was made in 1929 by surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. The entire film is available below.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!: I don't care what anyone says, this movie was seriously ahead of its time. For me, it plays like the movie version of a book Tom Robbins never got around to writing.  How can you not love a movie about a Physicist/Neuroscientist/Rock Star/Race Car Driver named Buckaroo who saves the world from Emilio Lizardo and the Lectroids from the Planet 10? They don't make pulp like this anymore. I'm still waiting for the sequel they promised me.

Plan 9 From Outer Space: This film is famously the worst movie ever made and if you've ever seen it you'd know why. Made by Ed Wood 1959, it was badly shot, horribly written and acted with astounding woodenness. It is the towering achievement in bad cinema. If you can't bring yourself to see it, at least check out Tim Burton's Ed Wood, a well made and fairly touching bio of the director.

Hope you all enjoyed these! There's so much more out there that's worth exploring. You can find a couple good lists of notable cult films here.

You guys have any favorite cult films of your own?

More Spookiness

Happy Halloween everybody! Wanted to put out just a bit more spookiness in honor of the holiday. This little story won a 100 word short story contest a few years ago back in San Diego and it seemed appropriate.

 The Cat
Tom walked right by her on his way to the refrigerator.
Tom froze, staring at beer and milk and oranges.  It was a girl's voice, thin and trembling. Carol was working a graveyard shift.  He’d been alone for hours.
Tom closed the refrigerator.
The girl was pale with reedy hair. Her arms and legs were matchsticks, covered with scratches. Her blue and white dress was torn and muddy.
“There’s a cat,” she rasped. “Outside.  He's…following me.”
She pointed out the window by her shoulder.
Tom looked out.
Trees, streetlamps, night.
When he looked back,
she was gone.Happy Halloween! Would love to hear your picks for best spooky stories in the comments!

Are We in TV's Golden Age?

Maybe this is totally lame, but I've come to think that we're living in a golden age of TV. Part of me is embarrassed to even make that observation. I think deep down I have this ugly little culture snob in me that says talking about and enthusing over theatre and movies, but admitting to liking TV is the hallmark of the ignoramus. (Yes. I know. Lame. But hey I'm admitting it, right?)

Who knows, maybe there was a time when that was even valid, back when TV was a kind of cultural wasteland, but without a doubt it no longer is. I honestly think if you want to see the best dramatic writing going on right now you are more likely to find it on TV than in a movie theatre or on a stage.

In the last few years we've seen, The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Fringe, Breaking Bad, Lost, Terriers. On the comedy side there's 30 Rock, Community, Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Show, Arrested Development, Modern Family.

This is just off the top of my head, but the point is this--there is, and has been for awhile, some really great stuff out there. Work that is ambitious and detailed and superbly well written.

How did this come to be? Why so much quality TV now? I think the biggest reason is because of the huge segmentation of the viewing audience. With hundreds of niche channels on cable plus the internet, we have more choices now than ever. People who produce TV shows are scrambling for our attention and to do that they're more likely to try something a little off the beaten path. Gritty dramas will get a shot as will darker and more absurd comedies. They might not all last but they at least might get a shot. And because it's understood that viewing audiences are smaller now a show can survive on ratings that would have killed a show ten or fifteen years ago. So let's kill those culture snobs dead people! Let's talk TV with abandon! What are you guys watching and loving? What am I missing?