Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Stirrings of Dissent

It's a peaceful morning. I sit with my entire day ahead of me. Speakers, set at a low volume, hum with Lightning Hopkins and Skip James. The coffee in my cup is the way I like it, strong. Oatmeal, for my morning meal cooks slowly on the stove. I am surrounded by what I will do today: my journal, my composition notebook and the two books I'm currently mired in, Richard Arlington Robinson's The Man Against the Sky and Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.
My mind wanders.
Outside hundreds of cars and buses and trucks pass the intersection of SW Vista Ave and SW Main. It's a gray day, but are the days of Portland, Oregon this time of year. I live in a gray city.
I'm free. I will leave the table today. At some point later, I will walk through the Southwest neighborhood all the way to the US Bankcorp tower, Ol' Pink, where I will punch a time clock. And in the meanwhile, I am alone with my thoughts, my musings and my writing. In short, this is the way I spend my days, my life. And I am free.
My thoughts go out today to another writer. Oddly enough my thoughts are not with Robinson or Ishiguro. No, my thoughts go to another writer, who, separated by language and one very vast distance. I have very little in common with this writer. We do share many views, I'm sure of this. We do not share a common language. But what we do share is the compulsion to write, to think, to be left alone with our musings and ultimately to produce a product for others to read.
Chen Xi.
Chen Xi, it is not right what they're doing to you. Chen Xi, it is not right that the world, yes, the entire world is not rallying outside your prison cell lobbying for your release. It is not right that your government has not only imprisoned you, but they have taken away your pen and your notebook. It is not right that some bureaucrat has stopped you from writing. And to think that you are Chinese, and your people have produced a volume of writers surpassed by none in the history of human scribblings.
Chen Xi, with tears in my eyes, I say this to you: “Your words will only gain more power now. Any injustice done to you will only weight your words more.”
Chen Xi, I long for a world where writers can write. Chen Xi, I long for a world where readers get to read. It is the only thing that separated us from the ghastly beasts so many are so hell bent on becoming.
Chen Xi, you are with me, or should I say, I am with you. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Last Licks

We've been in the planning of our pursuit of publication for 8 weeks. Eight weeks. Time flies. At this stage, there is no reason not to jump into the process. The definitions of ourselves, our work and our goals have been established, refined and understood. Hopefully, with all of this, there is a level of confidence that will enable us to endure the months ahead. The hardest work is now what we face.

Rejection
I remember when my friend Foot got a girlfriend. She was pretty, fun, a real catch. He dated her for about two months. Then she stopped calling. It tore the poor guy up. I felt for him, I did. I know what that's like. After he'd been heartbroken for a few weeks, I had to intervene. “Foot, it's over, she doesn't want to see you anymore,” I said. “I know,” he said. “I just want to know why.” “It's probably best to just let it be,” I said. “Easy for you to say,” he said. He was already bored with the conversation, and he wanted to stay in a wrecked state of heartbreak. “Foot, let me ask you: how long did you see this girl?” I asked. “Two months,” he said. “And did you have the benefit for sleeping with her?” I asked. “Yes,” he said smiling now. “And did you have a good time?” I asked. It was becoming rhetorical now. “Yes,” he said. “Then what's your problem? Keep it for what it was,” I said. “Easy for you to say, how many girls have broken up with you?” he asked. “What?” I said. “Foot, all of them.” And that's the long a short of it, they all have. It's a simple way of thinking about it, the rejection. Yes, rejection hurts, but that's all part of living life.
This is perhaps the worse part of it. If it's not tough enough to simply put our work out there for magazine and book editors to read, we face countless rejections. I don't find the rejections so bad. Many times it's a form letter rejection which leads you to think that the magazine didn't read your story at all. That's sad too. But there are the rare rejection letters that are personal, and these are rejections nonetheless, but they are a treat to read. Umbrella Factory Magazine got started because of a lovely rejection letter I got from Jason at Fiction Weekly. The long and short of it, don't be disheartened by rejection. It really is nothing personal. And if you've done the right research, the rejections will be less.

Burn-out
Burn-out is more insidious than the rejections. Whereas rejection is expected, burn-out is not. Getting burnt-out happens to everyone. When you don't see noticeable or even tangible results to your efforts, and you feel overwhelmed with all the tasks at hand, you might expect a level of burn-out. My advice, just keep working. I have said since the onset of this pursuit that the most important thing is focusing on the new material. I don't have any reason to believe that this is the cure, but new material is certainly more exciting than the grind of letter writing and hopeful thinking. The anecdote? Well, when I was in the Army and stationed in Germany, getting letters from home was very important to me. I wrote endless letters home to my friends and family telling them in boring detail my daily activities in my post war adolescence. The mail room on our base was on the distant outskirts in an old telegraph station. It was quite a hike, especially when the mailbox was empty. It got to the point where I was writing a letter everyday and if I didn't get one everyday, I became bitter. So, rather than stopping my letter writing pace, I decreased my trips to the mail room. It was burn-out. So, rather than stopping the writing of letters, I simply went to the mail room twice a week. Same thing here, keep your pace and don't obsess over the results. Try to stay focused on the task, and the results will follow.

Record Keeping
Keep track of what you've sent and to where. Some magazines permit simultaneous submissions. This means that they're okay with you sending one story to fifty magazines. This is an all right tactic if you can keep it all straight. Should your piece get accepted somewhere, then you must tell the others. I hate simultaneous submissions as an editor. As a writer, I don't need to do this, and I won't. Either way, one story to fifty magazines, or fifty stories to fifty magazines, keep records. Since I use the 3 by 5 card system for my short stories as well as my magazine research, it's pretty easy to paper clip them both together and date them.

Good luck in this endeavor. I hope it's a rewarding process.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Winter Reading List: December 2011

Well, after deciding not to read in the autumn, I've decided to go back to my old system of the reading list. The fall was terrible. Actually, now that I think of it, the summer was a bit terrible too. In the last six months I read next to nothing. It was terrible. I wonder if I'm the kind of reader who needs a list, and to further that one pace more, am I the kind of person who needs a list?

At any rate, it's about the reading list now and again. I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road last week, and what a great read. I had been a little reticent to read it because of some personal baggage. I read some Kerouac a few years ago, enjoyed it, but I never messed around with On the Road. There really is no excuse why. But, in the opening chapters of part one when Sal (the narrator) is on his way to Denver, I really got so homesick for the old place. Aside from all the places in the book that I have shared: Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, Tucson and Mexico City, the story was frazzled, jazz like, Catholic, American, and love filled. At any rate, it never occurred to me what I share with Sal, and ol' Kerouac himself: Catholicism, war veteran, love of jazz, contempt of the masses, hedonism, and a search for the face of God which can happen at any moment in a skirt, a travel trunk, or the blue skies over the Rocky Mountains. This book sparked something in me. The drive to read more books.

So, there it is. It's time. The winter reading list:

Tropic of Capricorn Henry Miller
Naked Lunch William S. Burroughs
Bad Monkeys Matt Ruff
The Dogs Rebecca Brown
In Cold Blood Truman Capote
The Rum Diary Hunter S Thompson
Poetry:
Howl Allen Ginsberg
Collected Edwin Arlington Robinson

So much of this list is inspired by Kerouac, which is kind of funny. Anyhow, there it is. I hope as you build your reading list, you have as much fun. And if you're in a dark place, like Portland, Oregon this time of year, keep in mind that the days are getting longer between now and then.

As always, good luck and happy reading.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Plan (Goal Setting and Work Mode)

I'm dumbfounded at the process. Any process. For instance, several years ago I thought of writing as something that I could not share with anything else. It was in the fall, 2004, I think. I was with Eric Driskell, and we had been drinking whiskey at the bar. I don't remember exactly how we made it back to my house, but there we were. My house was the obvious place to be because there was even more whiskey there waiting for us. But once we got there, I was without my house key. You never realize how far you've come in the world until you're drunk and climbing into your bedroom with your attorney. Fortunately, once inside the house we could get back outside again. We took our whiskey and headed into the garage. We looked at my old VW and talked about life. What else can you do with your friend Eric after a night like the one we had? I remember specifically telling him that I was planning to leave my job and do my best to write full time. “What the hell for?” he asked. I tried to explain it to him. “Naw man, come on, don't quit your job,” he said. “You got a great job, you can do it all. And look at this car.”

I'm nearly ashamed of myself in that I still consider his counsel, and I'm finally putting it to use. I wonder if he remembers that night, and if he does, I doubt it was a life changing experience for him the way it was for me.

But he was right. I could do it all. Just not then. I can now. Let's consider things for a moment. Over the last several weeks we've talked about this pursuit of publication as an important part of our careers as writers of fiction. I still consider myself a writer of fiction despite my last couple of publications being poetry, and the most success I've ever experienced was the writing of screenplays. In these weeks of preparation and thought, we've come to define ourselves, our work, and our mission. It really is a can do it all sort of thing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Research

Here we go.
In the recent weeks, we've prepared ourselves for the flooding of the free press with our words.  We've taken an inventory of our publishable work.  We've spent some time refining who we are as writers and distilling our short pieces of fiction into manageable hook and synopsis sentences.  We've tried our hand at the cover letter.  And we've defined our schedules to fit in the arduous hours of the work life, home life, writing life and the research associated with publication.

Now down to the wheel.
A few places to find possible markets:
1-go to your local library and leaf through magazines, journals and reviews.
2-try www.newpages.com  and spent hours at this site.  Each one of these reviews of magazines will take you to the magazines' sites.  Please read everything you can, read the magazine, read the reviews, research the writers, the editors and follow the magazines' guidelines exactly.
3-try www.doutrope.com following the same protocol as above.
4-if you use Facebook, try to "fan" or "follow" as many magazines there too.
5-if you're still in college, submit to your college literary journal.
6-find all the literary magazines in your town.  For instance, I live in Portland, Oregon and I know that both Tin House and  Burnside Review are up and running in my neighborhood.  You'll be surprised at the literary community even in the smallest of towns when you simply look for them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Daily and Weekly Schedules

At this stage of our preparation, we must develop the habits, the deadlines and mode of time management for the work ahead of us. Procrastination is unacceptable. To continually put off this pursuit of publication will result in exactly what is, put off.

In rehash, at this stage, we know our work, we know ourselves, at least in theory. Now, we've delved into an examination of our work habits. We've kept the new material generation in the forefront of our schedule. We've found the “other” hours. Now what?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Time line

A brief rehash of what we've done during this project: 1) we took an inventory of our body of work. 2) We took stock in ourselves by making a personal statement and defining ourselves as writers. 3) We practiced the task of writing cover letters.

Now, we'll start thinking in terms of the time line. What is it that we want to achieve? Since this is the “Pursuit of Publication” portion, we'll assume that we want to publish. Why the time line? Well, this will quantify our efforts. I think having a time line is a great way to get things done. After all, if we had all the time in the world, eternity, what would be the incentive? The time line is not meant to rush things, it's just meant to help achieve the goal. Publication.

Only you know your work. Only you know what you have, and so only you will know what you can do.

During the inventory exercise, I found that I have approximately 30 short stories ready to send out. This is pretty impressive. With this kind of volume, I will probably not have to submit things simultaneously. This is good, because as an editor, I hate the added stress of a writer who has sent out one story to fifty places. I digress.

Next, what do I logically think I can do? Do I send a story a week? Do I send them all out at one time and hope for the best? What do I think? I prefer a lower intensity over a longer duration. I think it will probably be different for everyone.

So, I'm choosing a lower intensity and a longer duration. What is the duration? A year? That's about one short story submission every two weeks. This seems okay, after all, a two week period will give me ample time to research each publication and take great strides in editing and revising my story. This is the slow and steady wins the race tactic.

Completely arbitrarily, I'm going to pick an end date for this endeavor. My end time is August 31, 2012. Basically, nine months. That puts me at about one short story submission per week beginning in December. Now, I have a confine: I start today, and I end this project at the end of next August. As an aside here, the end date is not exactly arbitrary. I have other obligations in life, we all do. Between now and then, my life (barring any unforeseen circumstances) will remain essentially the same. I do plan to make a life change in August once my student loans are paid in full. The life change may or may not included such an active pursuit of publication and development of new material. Only time can tell. That said, I have my confine, and I urge you to do the same.

Now, we have a time line. We know that the beginning of the process takes preparation, which is what we've been doing these late weeks. Getting prepared, and having the time line established, we now face the task of developing our schedule and work habits.

Here it is:

1-we take our work and prepare it to share with a magazine editor.
2-we research, and I mean thoroughly, our potential magazines.
3-we follow the guidelines, write a cover letter and send out our work.
4-we spend time doing our record keeping.

Now, we know these are the things we need to do, but when do they get done? With family and financial obligations which we all have, we know there is a finite amount of time in the day. I think writers need a certain amount of time alone to get things done. After all, writing is solitary task. If we put all of our effort into life, when is the time for writing? And if we put all of our energy into this pursuit of publication, when do we have the time to generate new material? These are also things to think about.

My suggestion:
Set a work week for yourself. If you work nine to five, then your writing work week may be on Saturdays. Whenever you have the time for writing, this will now have to share your energy with this pursuit of publication. It's my belief that the generation of new material is more important than anything else. Work on your new material when you're still fresh. At the beginning of your session, focus on the new. When you tire a little, and your energy is lowering, this is a good time to do the research, do a little copy editing and letter writing. It takes less energy to read a few good short stories than it does to write them.

For me, I generally get a solid three hours a day, everyday, to write. I'm lucky. I generally plan my whole week on Sunday night when I get my schedule from work. When I consider my new material, I set goals with how much I want to get done. I try to write 5-10 thousand words a week. I write early in the day before I go to work, or before I start to think about the maintenance of life. I write before I check the email, read the paper or leave the house. I know what I want to get done, and I know how long it takes.

Keeping in mind that the new material is important, when is it appropriate to start other tasks? I don't know. But I know there are “other” hours in the day. How about the late night hours when I get off work and go to the bar? I don't want to write that late at night because I'm tired, but I can certainly read at that hour. This is an example of the “other” hours. Should I read a magazine before bed rather than drinking beer, I haven't sacrificed my precious writing hours. And I know that we all have these “other” hours.

At the beginning of the week plan for everything including time for research, letter writing and submissions.

Your task this week:
1-Pick a time line
2-Draw up a proposed weekly schedule for yourself
3-Find those “other” hours when you could be doing your research
4-Write down your goals

Good luck.
Next time: The daily and weekly schedules.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Prerequisites

After spending a couple of weeks with our volume of work, we've come to understand our writing. Hopefully, spending time with the short stories, novels, poems, or whatever was time well spent. In all likelihood, reading and rereading brought some ideas of vision and revision. Just having this understanding of our work is not enough. We now need to find and refine ourselves as writers, authors, poets, whatever.

Now, we'll answer these five items:
-A personal statement
-A list of three writers who our work resembles our own or writers we aspire to write like
-A list of our three favorite writers and three of our favorite novels (or poems, short stories)
-Briefly describe our course of study and any professional accolades, if applicable
-A list of former publications.

Here's mine:

Personal Statement: I am a professional writer striving for continual improvement in my work by use of all educational opportunities as both participant and instructor, and persistent pursuit of publications. I believe in the independent press, small or large, as the best representation of modern literature in America and the ideal place for my work.

List of three writers who I share themes, style or feel: The short stories of William Kotzwinkle, Paul Bowles and Etgar Keret.

My three favorite writers: Haruki Murakami, John Steinbeck and Aimee Bender. Three favorite novels: My Antonia, The Virgin Suicides and The Street of Crocodiles.

Course of study and professional accolades: MFA of Goddard College. Fiction editor of Umbrella Factory Magazine.

Formerly published in: Metrosphere, Sherbert Magazine, Bananafish Magazine, Curbside Splendor and Sophia Ballou.


Using this information we've found out about ourselves, we'll start to craft a few cover letters. These cover letters are meant as templates only. Each submission means an editor, a set of expectations as well as the submission guidelines. Each magazine, or editor we solicit deserves our best work and our best research.

These are the two letters we'll write for this exercise: 1) formal and professional. And 2) Simple and professional.
A few don'ts:
1 Never write a confession! “This is my first time submitting.”
2 Do not write a sales pitch. “This story is the best for your magazine because a, b, c.”
3 Do not write the personal. “I am x years old and neighbor said xyz and and and.”

Much like the process of the inventory, this letter process should help out with the knowing who you are as a writer and what you hope to achieve.
The professional formal letter:

In this letter, use the aspects of the list above that highlight your academic and professional experience. For instance for me, I might included my MFA, my appointment at Umbrella Factory Magazine and a few of my former publications. I may even include some of my personal statement.

Dear Editor,

Please consider my short story for publication in up coming issues of your magazine. “My Story” is (insert the pitch and synopsis). I'm a (insert your accolades here). Your magazine appeals to me because (insert your statement). I can be reached at:
Sincerely,

As an example a letter I wrote to Curbside Splendor:

Dear Editor,

Please consider my short story “Ocean into Cotton Candy” for an up coming issue of Curbside Splendor. “Ocean into Cotton Candy” is about Wilhelm, a traveler, who wanders into a hotel bar in Tucson, Arizona and orders a glass of straight gin to the bartender's dismay.
I'm a graduate of the MFA program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. I currently work as the fiction editor at Umbrella Factory Magazine. My short stories have appeared in Sherbert Magazine, Bananafish Magazine and Sophia Ballou. Curbside Splendor appeals to me because I believe in the independent press, small or large, as the best representation of modern literature in America and the ideal place for my work.
I can be reached via email at anthony@ufm.com
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Anthony.

A model for a less formal letter, and this may appeal to you if you don't have much experience in publications, may goes as follows. Include your story's pitch and synopsis, some writers you admire and your personal statement.

Dear Editor,

Please consider my short story “Ocean into Cotton Candy” for an up coming issue of Curbside Splendor. “Ocean into Cotton Candy” is about Wilhelm, a traveler who wanders into a hotel bar in Tucson, Arizona and orders a glass of straight gin to the bartender's dismay. I admire the short stories of William Kotzwinkle, Aimee Bender and J.D. Salinger. My favorite novelist is Haruki Murakami because he's able to fold the supernatural into the neighborhoods and streets of modern Tokyo. Curbside Splendor appeals to me because I believe in the independent press, small or large, as the best representation of modern literature in America and the ideal place for my work.
I can be reach via email at anthony@ufm.com
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Anthony.

In both situations I've kept the letter professional, respectful and short. I know from my experience at Umbrella Factory Magazine a cover letter may be the deciding factor for a short story's publication. I have read cover letters that were so poorly written, condescending or obnoxious that I never read the submission.

Your task:

-Write out the list of five things.
-Using the sentence you wrote for your short stories during the Inventory exercise write a few pitch and synopsis statements.
-Write two cover letters for each and address them to a generic editor.

Next time: The timeline.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jack Kerouac and Edwin Arlington Robinson

The days are noticeably shorter.  Very much so, too.  It's November after all and I'm closer to the north pole than I am to the equator.  This is the nature of autumn, and it's certainly what's in store for winter.  As I walk down SW Morrison St past the Jeld Wen Field and over SW 19th Ave to the Max Station, I walk under the Honey Locus trees.  I love these trees because they remind me of Denver, a place I greatly miss.  Even now, marching into the second week of November on Veterans Day, these trees still hold onto a few of their leaves.  I walk under them and think about other things.
I've moved into Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The only two things I have to say about it: 1, Jack missed Denver too. And 2, "He said we were a band of Arabs coming in to blow up New York," (p. 112).  Strange.  Do you think Kerouac was prophetic, or did people always think there would be a band of Arabs with the idea of blowing up New York?  Weird thought, I know.
Then we come to Richard Cory.  I drink booze.  This is no secret.  I often think of drinking less, but then I realize how terrible life would be without it.  I still like the bar.  Although I have very little in common with my barmates, they are still important to me.  So, there we were, in the Commodore and listening to Simon and Garfunkel's "Richard Cory."  I asked Bobby, "Who is this Richard Cory?"  He said, "Mr. Sickwater, if anyone should know it, it should be you."  And indeed it should be.  The Simon and Garfunkel tune is macabre, yes.  But so is the 1897 poem of the same name by Edwin Arlington Robinson.  I'm shocked and amazed that I had never heard of this Edwin Arlington Robinson before yesterday.  Did you know he won three Pulizer Prizes?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: The Inventory Wrap-up

As writers of fiction, I feel we enjoy so many more freedoms than we know. For instance, whether it is the short story or the novel, we can write pretty much untethered. As long as we write for a reader, and I mean within the confines of structure, we can truly write whatever we want. We can pose in one genre or another. We can wander over the lines too. Imagine a horror story with a sci-fi bent set in the old west and make the whole thing a romance, and further still make it realism. I don't know exactly how it works, but it can, it just need writing.

Last week we discussed the prospect of leaving our desks, offices or junk heaps. I mentioned that I have been quietly writing for years with no real pursuit of publication. I also hinted that there must be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands out there like me who want to send out their words. There are others who want to enjoy the ego of publication and revel in the idea of readership.

The last task I set up for all of you, myself especially, was to take some stock and write out an inventory. I suggest an inventory of everything you've ever written, ever, and then move on from there.
With each piece we were to write this:
1-title of the piece
2-the location of it
3-the word and page count
4-what type of piece it is: short story, novel, poetry
5-a description of it in one or two sentences

Using me as an example here, this is what I came up with for this exercise:
9 novels
21 chapter books of poetry, flash fiction and memoir
60 short stories

For sake of our investigation here, I choose to leave the novels and chapter books aside for the time being. Both of these forms have their own set of circumstances involved in their publication.
That leaves us with the short story. I know for myself that all (or almost all) of these 60 short stories I wrote since leaving Goddard College in January of 2009. This means that they're all new, or at the most three years old.
The other given I know being an editor of Umbrella Factory Magazine, short stories are a quick “sale” or exchange. There are many, many, many magazines who read, run and represent the short story. I also believe the short story is a good way to get started. This is a good way to learn about letter writing, research and a way to build the CV.

Of my 60 short stories the breakdown is this:
31 are ready for publication and it's time for them to go.
14 others are okay. I'm not embarrassed by them, but they are not my best work. I say this objectively. It's sad in a way because I have some strong emotions connected with a few of these stories. Despite my feelings, these pieces will not be as well received as the former 31.
9 of these pieces have no business leaving my desk. We'll forget about these 9 outright. If I don't forget about them, I should.
6 stories, to my delight have already been run or published. This, of course, was a pleasant surprise because it means that ten percent of my workable material has already been published. Nice.

I mentioned a few ways you might like to list or inventory your work. I used a spreadsheet. I also used note cards. I found in this portion of the exercise that the spreadsheet was a nice way to look at the whole of the project. With the note cards, I used one card per story. This was an ideal way for me to focus on a single story. Plus, I wrote my description sentence on the card. When the time comes, I'll put the date of the latest revision on the card, where I sent it and what became of it.

Needless to say, I feel well organized.

I hope your inventory process has gone well. Take more time doing this. This will make you familiar with your work, your body of work and get you ready for the next step.

Next time: the prerequisites. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pursuit of Publication: Part one, the Inventory

We've spent a great deal of time over these last several months talking about reading and writing. We talked about the writing of the short story, the writing of the screenplay and the writing of the novel. I have spent countless hours ranting and raving about the life of the writer. I have urged all of you, not to mention myself, to simply go out there and write. And there it is. Just go out there and write. Now what? Good question.

I suppose for the most part, I can describe myself simply enough. I have lived in some of the world's greatest towns, and I have been living life all the while. I have been blessed, but that might be another story for another time. That said, I have been in this writer's process for nearly thirty years; twenty years of it fairly seriously. For the last three years I've been fanatical about writing, and this was on the heels of a few good years on the academic path. Perhaps this is the place to start.

We've talked about grad school before. It may or may not be for you. I don't think grad school manufactures writers. Rather, I think a writer in grad school learns how to work, and that's a pretty difficult task. As for me, I think the best part about grad school was simply the time it took for me to figure it all out. Yes, I enjoyed my advisers and my peers. I also enjoyed many of the working writers and professionals I got to meet.

I'm fairly certain I've mentioned Betsy Lerner before. She came to Goddard College on hot July day and addressed a room full of students on the ways of the literary agent. She came prepared with useful handouts, witty anecdotes and good advice. But there was one thing she said that I have taken with me and considered every moment of everyday since that afternoon in July.

The workshop discussion was that of fiction manuscripts. Novels and writers and agents and it was a interesting topic for me. After all, here I was in grad school with ample time to write. Betsy Lerner suggested that each of us turn our process up a little. Turn it up. Rather than having one manuscript ready for publication, her suggestion was to have five.

Well, time moves on. So, where does that leave us?

If you've been following me during the last year and a half, I would think you know where I am right now. Yes, so much of what I have here is reading, writing and the teaching of writing. But how much do we know about the pursuit of publication?

At this stage, I am going to assume that everyone out there is in the same place I am. Yes, so much of writing is the act of writing, but a larger, and I daresay more time consuming, is the work of getting the thing published.

I've asked myself over the last several months, how do I begin this daunting task? Where do I start? If you're anything like me, you'll be asking this question too.

First thing first. This week, take a complete inventory of everything you have written no matter what shape it's in. We're going to centralize out effort on this inventory. When I consider that I've had eight computers in the last fifteen years, I have written in composition notebooks and I have papers all over the place, this first step will take a vast amount of time. Yet, it is important, if we have only a dozen short stories, we may not be ready to pursue a serious amount of time seeking publication. However, if you are like me, we'll have ample to work with, form and send away.

The list of information needed for each piece:
1 the title
2 its location
3 word and page count
4 what type of piece is it (play, short story, novel, poetry)
5 one or two sentences describing the piece

Let's look at the inventory aspects: what were doing is locating something, reading it, analyzing it and defining it. This will be helpful very soon as we start writing letters and sending our work out.

You can use an excel spreadsheet, an index card or simply a list on a lined piece of notebook paper. Just formalize the system.

As always, good luck and happy inventory.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Call to Arms

In recent weeks, I've come to many conclusions. One, yes, it's easy to fall into the rut. It's difficult to fight out of it. I've seen many of my co-citizens move into a city sanctioned tent city and protest the inequalities of the world. I've been having conversations in bars during the late night hours after work and before sleep. I feel like I've met some really uninteresting people this fall. It could be age, or that I hold high standards. Who knows? I do not want to paint a picture of modern life, nor the streets of Portland, Oregon in an unfavorable light. Nor do I want to make myself out to be a monster. I tell you, I've been looking for the creative people. I've been looking for the motivated people. I've been searching for the like minded, pursuit pursing people who do what they do out of compulsion, desire and discipline. A few years ago a dear friend of mine, Symphony Tidwell, decided she was going to learn how to play the stand up bass. Okay, cool, right? The woman had never been trained as a musician. She had no money to buy the bass, and furthermore, no money for lessons once she bought the bass. The idea occurred to her in the summer. By summer's end, she had the bass. She played the thing until the strings were stained with her blood. Within a year she was teaching lessons, and just over a year since the purchase of the bass, she toured Europe with Johnny Barber and the Rhythm Razors. I am, and I always have been immensely proud of my friend Symphony. She once told me that the bass was in her blood. “You know my grandmother played the bass, totally in my blood,” she said. “No it isn't,” I said. The statement shocked her. As I waited for her to punch me, I cleared my voice indicating the rest of the soliloquy. “You decide to play the bass, you work extra shifts to pay for it, and the lessons, then you decided to play it fifteen hours a day, and you think this is in your blood? You're crazy, this is all in your mind, in your determination.” “Yeah,” she said. “I guess you're right.” But the truth is, wouldn't it be pretty to think that it's in our blood? It's in our minds, it's in our moods, it's in the fabric, it's makes us do what we do: draw pictures, write poems, play stand-up basses.

My call to arms is simply this: throw it all in, and go do it! I hope you're engaged in the most fantastic artistic pursuits. I hope whatever it is you do, you're doing, not just thinking about doing it. There is no hurtle that keeps you from doing it.

So, there I was. I was six, possible seven sips into the pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, when I got a new bar mate. This new bar mate, name not remembered, begins to sell me on her screenplay. She's got this idea to take Patrick Kennedy O'Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces and make it into a screenplay. I agreed with her, there is potential. As many of you know, I have worked on screenplays before. And many of you know that I don't think novels, especially novels the length of this one make good screenplays. In the situation with a longer work of fiction, the filmmaker must figure out what to cut to transpose a 400 pages novel into a 114 pages script. But, never mind my thoughts, this is about my glassy eyed bar mate who is about to make her way through Hollywood as the greatest screenwriter ever. So, I listen to her. She had passion and a plan. She had a sense of purpose. “Sounds great,” I said. “When will you finish it?”
“Well,” she began. “I haven't started it.”
“Why not?”
“I need a Powerbook,” she said.
“What?”
“A Powerbook,” she repeated.
“What for?”
“To write it,” she said. She was serious too. The statement made me angry. She needs a Powerbook and without it she won't be able to write the best screenplay of all time.
“You don't need a Powerbook to write this,” I said.
“Yes, I do.”
“If you really want to write this, you can write it on cocktail napkins.”
“No, I can't,” she said. She was right, there was no other way. Not for her. As a result whether or not she gets the Powerbook or not, this screenplay will remain forever in the ether. It will never get written. I suspect the saddest part of the script never to be written isn't the product itself. The saddest part is, well, this writer will never begin or enjoy the process of production. I suspect that the rest of her days will be at the bar talking about the greatest idea ever, if only, if only, if only.

There are tools for each of us. For my dear friend Symphony, she needed to buy the bass. Without the bass, there was no future for her as a musician. But the latter case of my bar mate, a Powerbook is not mission essential, nice maybe but not crucial. After all, there is no shortage of paper and pens.

We all get this ideas. We all have these creative ideas. We all need tools. The greatest tool of all, is the one that compels us to do our desired task. The determination to begin a project, work it through to completion is tool enough for accomplishment.

If you have the desire to write, and I hope that you do, just start doing it. It will get easier, this I know. Start small. Start with a haiku, it's seventeen syllables. Just start. Don't worry about the nonessential stuff. Just start to work. Pick up that pen and go. Do not self-edit, self-censor or self-condemn. Just get on it and do it now. When you have a thousand pages, then you can edit.

Get your Powerbook, your spiral notebook, your paper grocery sack, your old manual typewriter. Start with one work. One work. And go.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Creativity and Unrest, Part 2

Go home and make art. Go home and make love. Not necessarily in that order. If you cannot do those things, then do what your father told you to do and go to work and make money.
I'm delusional.
I still think there is a way to avoid all of this.
This last week we had the “Occupy Portland” rally/protest/riot. I'm still very unsure what these people were trying to accomplish. I still do not understand the fight. From what I gather, there is inequality in the world (by which I mean the US or more specifically, Portland, Oregon). The teachers aren't paid enough. Student loans are unfair. Wall Street fat cats are the end of us all. And above all, the government is really evil.
Who cares?
Standing behind causes is one thing.
Hanging around with others is something else.
But protesting the world because of this, that or the other is odd.
And this whole time, I thought there was a potent potential in all of us to go out into the world and create something, something good. Go forth all of you and leave something behind. Leave behind a random garden of words or herbs in the fields and forests of this new world landscape that will tickle, thrill, chill, elate or delight the one to come up behind you. Go home and make art. Go home and make love, right? There is so little time for all of this other nonsense. Yes, the corporations are evil, yes, the government is evil. Who cares? They do not need you. You want to protest, don't participate. Yes go home and make art, make love. Is this really protesting? Well, you won't be paying taxes to a bankrupt government who doesn't treat your money (or labors) responsibly, for starters. And chances are, if you're making art, you won't be dependent on foreign oil, or paying the salaries of CEOs the world over who squander the money of the poor broken backs of the workers.
No, I'm suggesting this: an entire generation, an entire community, an entire world who has just washed their hands of the old ways and wandered out into the immensity of their universe and begun to repaint, retell, recreate life. I'm suggesting a fearlessness of minds who value creativity and expression more than the system. I'm suggesting a fuck all to convention and in the vacuum of this current disaster, we are left behind in a new day of spent people who have tired themselves out in the process of creation.
But alas, I am delusional. This is not the future of mankind. No, everyday we bring more people into the world. Everyday the tyranny of the individual has made the source of confusion more clearly out of focus. Everyday we get further from the point of art and love I believe we should make. Everyday, I feel like our unrest grows. Everyday, I feel like the volatile combination of population, lack of education, dysfunction of government, imposition of institutions and hodgepodge of ideologies takes us further rather than closer to a solution. It's not making art edgy. It's not make more artists: the writers, the poets, the musicians, the painters and the sculptors. The makers of film, the sketchers of portraits, the singers of ballads, the strumers of guitars, the street performers, the balloon tying clowns remain far and few between. Yes, the artist, in every capacity remains small in this world of occupied tension. The artist is not at home making art and making love. I think the artist is at work, punching a time clock somewhere daydreaming about the next manifestation of their craft. The artist is waiting. I hope the artist is waiting. I hope that the artist goes forth and creates, makes more, inspires more. Let the unrest socially and politically fail. Let the protesting and the government spending and the corporate greed fail in the folds of the books and poems and music to come.
Oh yes, I am delusional. But in my daydreams, the artist emerges from everyone and everyone settles into their muse and creates. In my daydreams, this is what separates us from animals. This is what separates us from the subhumans and the demons we harbor.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ennui

Perhaps there is no real cure for ennui. Perhaps a person is just predisposed to boredom and chronic suffers have no choice.
I've tried over the years to avoid ennui. I feel like many of my peers battle it too. I feel like a high stress job and job title helps to combat it because it provides a distraction. Prescription drugs and reality TV do this too. The pursuit of materialism, hedonism; sports, politics and spiritualism are distractions too. But do these things really cure ennui?
Ennui follows me because I'm only slightly more intelligent than I wish to be and I'm only slightly dimmer that I could be. I figure if I was just a little dimmer I could live like I think some people do, I could gladly chain myself to any number of institutions: work, sports, politics or church. And if I was more intelligent, I could lose myself in some sort of higher thought which I cannot conceive with my current faculties.
That's life.
At this point, what?
Just do what you have to do, these are my words. When I get that feeling of ennui, I mean, what else can I do? The state of my mental health depends on those hours a day when I get to write. I think many people feel the same way. I think it comes down to expression. If it's not writing, it might be painting, or music, or whatever. It's creation. And outside of that, we really don't have much going for us. And as far as the ennui goes, who's to say? Just create something. Make love, make art. Make something beautiful, something scary. Anything. And I bet the ennui shrinks, even if it's very unnoticeable.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Contempt 3: the Detriment

I'm peevish these days. I'm peevish these days because I've been mired in the construction of chapter books. These smaller projects came about as I finished my novel Sand and Asbestos. I wanted to write something new, something different. In Search of Basho was born.
I looked at the chapter book as a new adventure and venue for smaller pieces. I aimed to write fifty pages, I figured the average reader could read this amount in a sitting and move on with their day.
Okay. I also thought these projects as a way to polish up and assemble smaller thoughts and processes. I'm currently finishing up #18 and #19. Twenty chapter books is the goal.
The reason I've become so peevish is because I opted to use old notebooks as the source of the chapter book material. As I read through the notebooks of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 I became horrified at the material, the lack thereof and if that's not sufficient reason for peevishness, I don't know what it.
In 2002, I was acting on advice given to me from a trusted friend. Time would change all of that, the friend and the merit of the advice. I worked then and made good money. I bought a house. In short, I again opted to take the path of the conventional.
There was an artist in my community at that time who was good buddies with the above mentioned trusted friend. This artist spent hours and hours everyday engraving copper plates. I loved him for it and I was genuinely impressed with his work.
Now, the trusted friend told me that I should buy the house, I should think about business and that I should treat writing as a hobby like rebuilding an old car. Incidentally, I did rebuild an old car. His point? He thought our artist friend had so dedicated his life to art that what he gave up was a good money earning, creature comfort seeking, materialistically conventional life. Admittedly, it made sense. This artist lived in squalor. He worked part time as a waiter. He drank heavily. And because of conversations with the trusted friend, I became reticent of jumping headlong into my writing.
Ultimately, I would do what I needed to do. I no longer talk to that once trusted friend. I no longer have a mortgage. Now, I write everyday. Things are good. But it took a long time to recover.
So shy so peevish?
Reading and rewriting old words from that time is tough. At that time I was on the brink of good stuff. I was told advice (which I followed) not to make writing become a detriment to my quality of life. Don't be like the artist. Instead, I let life become a detriment to my writing. In allowing this, I lost valuable time. I lost hours of my day, each day, and I lost the value of the process.
Today, I'm grateful that that time gave me valuable experience in the realm of the living of life. And naturally after compiling old work, I feel peevish.
If it come to this: production of art or the living of life, don't fall victim to reason. Your feelings should help you to decided. If you want to work in copper or iambic pentameter, do it. It will sort itself out. This is life and nothing more. And since you know someday you'll die, why not die trying?

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Contempt: Part 2

I'm not sure where or when the contempt began. I have my suspicions, but nothing is specific. I wonder if the contempt began slowly, unnoticed and small?
The early seeds of my contempt began in 1999 and 2000 when on the advice of older and wiser people, I took to working a stressful job.
Deconstructing that a little, at the time I was young, a recent college graduate and I had just spent an entire year traveling and reading books. These older and wiser people (we'll call them mom and dad) used reason to help me into a decision that I reluctantly made. In those days, I could only see in extremes. I could write or live like everyone else. I ultimately left the job and in the first month afterward, I wrote more than I had in life. The conclusion: don't listen to advice. Don't follow advice from anyone, not even me. (For the love of decency, especially not my advice.) If you want to write, write. Just fucking write and do all those projects you want to do. Write poetry, especially bad poetry. Forget the critics, especially the one inside.
Now, if you find yourself having to work in order to pay the bills, this is my case, find work that does not impede on your writing. After all, this is life and we all know the outcome. Knowing that death is waiting for us does not make the normal pursuits of modern life so meaningful. Why should material possessions and the endless pursuit of money take up so much time? I rather have hours filled with writing and a large volume of work rather than the big TV or the big car or the big gut. Contempt? Oh, yeah! I will never follow advice which takes me away physically, emotionally or intellectually from this pen, this notebook and these thoughts.
I write.
It's creation.
Some folks call is art. If we're not making art, then what are we making? A perpetuation of those things which are opposite of art.
I say I care about only two things. Writing is one. I bet you can guess at the other.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Contempt and Ennui Part 1

I've recently wondered about all of this: the teeter-todder of a writer's life. There are several aspects to this, so many more than just an up and down sort of motion. The question of “why?” comes up often in my thoughts. Why write? I ask this because it occurs to me, who cares?
At the onset of this blog I wrote Why I Write. I don't think I've changed since then, nor do I think I've changed at all. Why I write is simply that when I'm writing I lose all contempt and disdain for the world around me. The act and the process and the ritual of writing is akin to what I suspect those who chronically meditate, or habitually masturbate or the compulsive yoga doers must feel when engaged. It's a certain level of bliss mixed with mental occupation topped with physical relaxation. The act of writing for me is, well, what I do to fill the hours. I feel productive, I feel free, I feel like I should.
The second aspect of it is when I'm not writing, which is a significant portion of the day, I suffer from ennui. Ennui. It's bad, I've got a terminal case of it too. When I'm not writing, I'm engaged in paying the bills. I work as a waiter. As I always say, the difference between writer and waiter is but one letter.
To further belabor this ennui, I must say that I'm bored with it all. I'm bored with the banal banter I hear everyday. I'm bored with the motions, emotions, premonitions and ambitions that plague me in those outside hours. The hours outside of writing. This too adds to the contempt which a hot breeze on the wildfire of the ennui.
I'm at once a prolific and inefficient writer. I use the old low-fi and tactile system of writing. I write in the old style composition notebooks and I use a fountain pen. This takes time, and it's part of the process. Once the first draft is recorded I take even more time to transpose it to the word processor. That first step is a time waster for sure. I've known writers who work directly on the a computer. For me, doing that, well, I don't. I think of the pen and paper method as foreplay, and when it comes to that I want to make it last all night.
Yet, I've said I'm a prolific writer. I still crank out fifty-plus polished pages each week. I write novels, I write short stories, and in recent months, I've been compiling writing into chapter books.
I'm blessed with time. That's all that it is too. Time.
I have a work ethic. I have a process. I have a strict schedule. This all makes for the prolific nature of my life as a writer. The time is big. It's the large portion of the process. I can get upwards of six to eight hours a day, everyday. That's not a bad way of combating the contempt. It's not a bad way to deal with the ennui. When we change the “r” to the “a” it doesn't sting so bad to be a waiter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Summer Reading List Wrap-up

It's funny. I've decided not to read anymore.
Well, although this is not entirely true, it certainly feels like this.
The summer, has gone by in the normal fashion: hot days, short nights, plenty of work. Oddly enough, this summer has not been the torture for me that most summers have been. As long as we're talking about it, I loathe the summertime. I hate the hot weather. I don't like the hordes of people. Having to hear the flip-floppy sloppy strides of herds of schleppy kids is enough to break the last nerve I have. The summer to me is just too awful. The heat is one thing: the Middle East and Tucson, Arizona cured me of that. The mass of people? Well, the years in the service industry made the reality that there are others in the world for good or bad. But all in all, this summer, the summer of 2011 in Portland, has not been too awful. And sadly, I did not read much at all.

I started out strong. W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil is a great read. Quick. I love Maugham and after reading this one, I know why John McManus (my graduate school adviser) loves this writer so much. This book, wonderfully written, is very much plot driven. Based on Dante, an English couple goes into the Chinese interior to fight the cholera epidemic. It's simply the husband's desire to kill the wife. But what was so striking for me was not so much the plot, but Kitty, the main character. I cannot think of another book where a character changes and grows and takes control so much as Kitty.

James Hilton's Lost Horizon was a grueling read for some reason. The best part of the whole affair was a conversation I had with a bookstore worker while at the bar one night. He associated the book with The Kinks' tune “Shangri-La,” which I thought was funny. The pace of the novel is slow. The long passages of dialogue further slows the pace of the read. As far as 20th century literature goes, there is something 19th century in the narration. Hilton uses way too many narrators to tell the story. Woodsford Green a writer, ultimately tells us about Hugh Conway and his adventures. It reminds me of Shelley's Frankenstein, and Bronte's Wuthering Heights which Hilton himself referred. But I know why the book was a best seller in 1933. It's far-fetched, exotic and fun. It is the opposite of the doldrums of 1933.

Judith Rossner's Looking for Mr. Goodbar? What a cool book. Theresa is a wonderful character, and the book is ultimately her book. Being set in the 1970s the book addresses many old vs new elements: Catholicism and women's lib and the Jewish community's shift from the traditional to pot toking. The backdrop of Vietnam with one of Theresa's lovers is time appropriate. The book is sex, sex, sex. The older sister goes to Puerto Rico for an abortion. Socially speaking, the book is great. I think the book made the impact it did because the subjects were pertinent for the time. It's a wonderfully written book too.


Those three books sum up the entire summer for me. I only read three. I don't think I've ever read so little. I tried to read both Lolita and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but to no avail. I just could keep focus. It's weird. I never engaged in nude beach volleyball; I simply did not read.

I hope your summer reading went better than mine.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Deadlines, Timeclocks and Paychecks, Part II

The sound.  I can't even trust the sound.  There are too many sounds.  There's one of two bus lines populated with buses.  They drive the fat people to work.  There's a timeclock to punch.  I punched one once, for years.  I entered through the employee entrance, punched one.  It was 1987.  It was just yesterday that I punched out.  The men had all died, and the women changed their names. I forgot to write something down.
Inside the lake, a bulging lake called life, we walk on submerged sidewalks.  A young fellow sits at a cafe table, curbside, and types away on a really old manual typewriter.  I would ask him who his heroes are, but I don't care and hums of Lou Reed are overhead.  In the next doorway a young guy sleeps, although by the looks of him, he may be dead.
And a deadline nears.  This shit, and that's really what it is, has to get done.  And should that happen, I hope to collect a paycheck.
Still, we're nowhere close to it, and we are nowhere.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Couldn't cope when she cried, wrote a letter, told a lie.


I've known David Reid for years. I met him long ago when Reagan was still president, the Russians were sure to invade at any moment and the very notion that Haley's Comet was on its way baffled us daily. I love David Reid as much now, if not more, as I did when we were kids. From David, I have learned what it means to be a good friend, a good person and that's says so much. It's a funny thing to have a role model who is a friend, and someone of your own age.
I've been writing letters to Freesia Bradley (Now Freesia Bradley-Modica) since 1986. That's a really long time. Postage stamps have double in price since then. In the early days, my postmarks were from Colorado and hers were from Alaska. Today, we both live in Oregon, and the letters continue.
Katie Albers is wonderful. I think she's lovely. I always have. For a spell we had band practice on Tuesday nights. Now, we write letters. The distance between us is too far.
I've swapped three thousand sentences with Mendy Evans over the years via postcards. The postcards began during the days when we were together everyday. I just read a postcard from her on Friday.
I recall a time, and it doesn't feel all that long ago, when we all wrote letters. It was a joyous task that I engaged in each night before sleep. My days then were the long days of war during my time in the middle east. Later came to days of Scout camp when I wrote letters to friends. I wrote silly letters, letters about the weather and letters of love.
Janice and I corresponded for a good ten years across oceans and state lines. Janice is a wonderful letter writer, and I can say this despite not receiving a letter with postage from her in years. We still write love notes and leave them around our small Portland apartment. I still get a thrill when I read them.
But, who cares? I am just another rambling old man now. I have nothing wise to say about it. I'm merely recollecting a world that has gone away.
It has gone away.
With it has gone away the letter carrier. We have 35 post office closures in Oregon this summer. Soon, all the P.O.s will close. Where is David Brin now?
I write letters to only a few people now. I do it out of love. I do it out of nostalgia. It's my handwriting on white paper. The envelopes are small. The postage? I do even know how much it costs, it costs: forever.
I bring it up today because I recycled almost twenty years of old letters last September. Letters from people who no longer live. Letters from people who I no longer remember. I did it in a moment of purge. It was time to say goodbye to a great many things. I do not regret doing it. But here we are. And here I am. I'm still writing letters. I hope to continue to write letters. Even if it's David, Freesia, Katie and Mendy, here we are. It's 2011, and we're keeping the P.O. ALIVE one stamp at a time.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? I know you're writing email and text message. When was the last time you wrote a genuine letter? And what was the thrill you had when you received the last letter? Staggering thought, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cold Fried Chicken Chapter Five: Sugarhouse


Some amazing things began to happen for me at the end of my Rocket House days. I got a paying gig writing infomercial scripts for a pharmaceutical marketing firm.
Up to this point, I had never endeavored to write for “the man.” After all, I am a creative type, the kind of writer who functions partly in the vacuum and partly with community. When I was approached by the marketing firm, it gave me new thoughts. New thoughts? That's right. I had never seen infomercials, nor had I ever thought about them. There is no TV in our house, and I have almost always been at work in the late night hours when the programing turns to entertainment stylized advertising.
But this gig paid. Moreover than paying, they treated me in such a way that lead me to feel like a professional writer or advertisement copy writer. I got the job because the gentlemen who hired me had seen Pastrami on Rye and knew someone, Gio I think, over at Rocket House Studio.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cold Fried Chicken Chapter Four: Brotherhood at World's End

As the animators at Rocket House developed and improved their craft, I was doing the same thing with the writing for the short screenplay.
After the first three screenplays, I wanted to recapture the thrill I had during the creation of Pastrami on Rye. To see the simplicity of Pastrami on Rye, I looked at the scene and the characters. I thought, here we go again. I want two characters and one scene. So what, right? Two characters and one scene doesn't seem so bad. If we could do it in Belgium 1945, why couldn't I do it all over again?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cold Fried Chicken Chapter Three: Resort to Ice

Resort to Ice started out as a spoof on the high society, organized crime syndicated and spy movies of the 1960s. At least that's what I wanted to think as I sat down to write it. I sat down to write it with one line in mind: “The last man standing proves to be a woman.” I didn't know why she'd say that. I knew she was a tough as nails, ass-kicking super bad-ass. I named her Linda, which is my mother's name. My mom is a ass-kick super bad-ass.
I also knew that an organized crime caper would need more than a great line delivered by a great character. These types of stories need plot.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Chapter Two: Low Level Mischief and the Rise of the Go-go Zombies

The inevitable return to The Roxy has some baring here, but very little when it comes to the Go-go zombies. I wandered into the place at midday and was grateful for the silent stillness of the joint. David Bowie's Rebel Rebel echoed from the the distant jukebox. A caseworker with a patient a few tables over were the only company in the dining room. I sat in a leopard print diner chair and decided, much to my surprise, to order a cheeseburger rather than a pastrami sandwich. That's right, a burger rather than pastrami. I'm obsessed with pastrami sandwiches and everyone knows it.
In our last short screenplay exercise we investigated the anecdote. We used the anecdote as a springboard to story. We also analyzed scene. After all, when I got involved initially at Rocket House, it was because the director of Pastrami on Rye had the set built. We were in Belgium 1945. Limiting, perhaps, but what I learned was pretty vast: scene as a background or as a major driving force for story is a considerably good place to start.
But there are other springboards for story and there are other elements to story too. Characters, namely.
As we discussed in the short film, dialogue is key. Dialogue, especially in the case of Rocket House products was the primary importance. Where do characters fit in? Well, someone has to do the talking?
After the completion of Pastrami on Rye, there were the associated viewings and parties. It was a wonder to see this seven minute film in public, which I did a few times. I watched the world premier of the film in the basement of St. Mark's Coffeehouse in Denver with about six other people. I saw it again at DUFF (Denver Underground Film Festival) where it won best animated short. DUFF also hosted my student film, New Boots back in 1997. I saw Pastrami on Rye for the last time at the 2010 Vail Film Festival. It was delighted that the film got laughs when intended and I loved that at the moment of denouement the only sounds in the audience were hearts beating and careful breaths. The film traveled to New York where is showed at Tribeca, it traveled to Brazil and it traveled with the GI Joe Stop-motion Animation Film Festival all over North America. Great!
In the wake of the buzz, I returned to the studio. There was talk of subsequent films. Of course I wanted to be on new assignments and a part of new projects. But things weren't so cut and dry. There was no commission this time such as, “it's Belgium 1945, and there are two men in a foxhole.” There was no set, no fresh ideas, and unlimited options.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cold Fried Chicken Chapter One: Pastrami on Rye

I left Gio at the bar. There were the multitudes of thought which always happen to me during the onset of a new project. As for my own work, I had just completed Dysphoric Notions which was an episodic novel about drought crusaders, murder victims, bookstore owners, lackeys, adulterers and those who want to change. The novel was, for all intents and purposes, a grossly realistic realism about people who I thought might be walking the streets of Denver with hangovers. What the novel represented for me was an untethered opportunity to flex my writer's muscle. As the novel's work dwindled and I completed it, I was eager to begin the next novel. The characters in the next piece were not at all dissimilar to those in Dysphoric Notions, by which I mean they were everyday people in an everyday world.
I made it home after the bar conversation with Gio. He wanted to make a short stop-motion film with dialogue, with two characters in 1945 Beligum. The first thought: I'd been to a GI Joe Stop-motion Animation Film Festival. I had that going for me. I had paid attention to the films. Some were very cool. Others? Well, the animation was clever. Imagine GI Joe dolls come to life through a series of still pictures, in some cases, 16 exposures per second of film. In a way, stop-motion is the very roots of film. As I recall that first film festival, I don't remember anything being overtly dramatic. Some of the animators had clever stories, but the dialogue was just as stiff as the characters. Other filmmakers like Hutt Wigley, made wonderful films set to music and great spoofs of movies from where the dolls were spawn.
I had seen perhaps a dozen of these films. Not nearly enough to understand not only the genre, but I barely understood the medium.
Gio had said that it was Belgium, 1945. Two men in foxhole was the second detail. How could I go, as a writer from the novel where anything can happen to a screenplay with two characters? And furthermore, how would I go from modern street scenes to a foxhole in Belgium, 1945?
The added facet, of course, is that Gio had the notion that there were two men, one gas mask and one sandwich. How is that for a premise?
How many writing instructors out there give this advice: write what you know? Many, I guess. Even though I often write about what I don't know, I chose to pay heed to the old advice for this project.
I drew on my experience in the Army. I drew on my experience in war too. Granted that Belgium 1945 was vastly different from 1991 Iraq, but men are men and conversations don't change.
In February of 1991 while with 1/1 Calvary, I rode around the desert in a Bradley, the illustrious M3A3. I was with three other soldiers who were my only friends. During the late night hours of the first or second night of the invasion, Patrick Baty and I watched the missiles around us. We sat on top of our little armored vehicle and watched the war on the front lines like an old couple would watch fourth of July fireworks. We talked about what we were going to do when we “got back to the world.” I was eighteen and I had no answer. But Baty did, he had a notion to go home and comb women's hair. Peaceful thought. This is really a very charming anecdote even if it's a war story. I could put this anecdote in 1945 and it would still be believable, right?
This was the first enlightenment for me about the construction of the short screenplay: the anecdote.
An anecdote is a short-short retelling of an incident, a person, or a time. And anecdote, generally speaking, is the teller and the audience. The anecdote may be interesting and it may even be pertinent with the context of something, but it does not serve was a story.
Let's consider the anecdote for a minute. We all have them, I just told you one of mine.
As I say in my writing workshops: now it's time to write.
We'll do this: we'll pick an incident, a happening that happened to us and we'll tell that anecdote on paper.
Next: same thing but with a person, tell an anecdote about a person you know.
Last: same thing, but about a time. For instance I once listened to two Hawaiians explain the Banana Spider. They one upped one another. The last anecdote was one time, one spider and the outcome as an object of time, it was the sum of his life in Hawaii.
Now, you should have three written anecdotes. They may only be a paragraph or two, which is good.
Next:
There is someone you know who tells a lot of stories. We all have someone like this. My grandfather was like that. Some of his stories I heard so often that I could repeat them verbatim. Others I could tell better than he could. Write an anecdote you've heard from someone you know.
You now have four written anecdotes.
Next: pick one and change the point of view. Change the dialect, the accent, or the order of events.
Success for this exercise is a small number of anecdotes (pieces you've written) which could be strung together, drawn out or developed.
Now, back to Pastrami on Rye.
As I thought about the project, I thought about the confines first. Belgium, 1945, a foxhole. That means little or no movement. I thought about the films I'd seen: all less than ten minutes. I thought about Gio's joke about masks, sandwiches and gas. I then thought about my own anecdote.
The resulting combination came to this nine page screenplay:

REV 05/08/09



Pastrami on Rye


Ext. Ruins. Day.


Carter (voice-over)

I'll be revising the field manual when we get back to the world.


Med shot. Ruins. Day.
Carter
You know? The field manuals don't say nothing too much, I say.
Bellamy
Dunno, I didn't read the goddamn thing.
Carter
You got nerve! (BEAT) I think you got nerve.
Bellamy
Nerve, you say? What difference does it make? Don't do no good anyway, like you say.
Carter
Of course it does good. I'm just saying it could do a little better, that's all. It could be easier to read.
Bellamy
That's a pretty tall order.

Carter
Some rear eslong dandy does the writing, you know? That means he don't come into the field to test this, if he did, then it would be a true field manual.
Bellamy
When I get back to the world, I'm going to comb women's hair.
Carter
Comb women's hair? What the hell does that mean?
Bellamy
Barbers, all the men in my family—barbers. People always need a trimmin' a shave.
Carter
Sure, I could use one now.
Bellamy
But I'm tired of all that. See, I think after this is all over, we going home and when people are happy again, I'm going to stop the barberin' in the sense of it. (BEAT) And I'm just going to do women.

Carter
Yeah, I'd like to be doing women too.
Bellamy
Yup, I see it like the dames all goin' to be flush by then too.
Carter
Yeah? Sure.
Bellamy
See. They all at the rubber factory in town right now, they're all collecting fat paychecks. (BEAT) Flush. They all flush.
Carter
I sure could use some coffee.
Bellamy
Some in the can. (Points off screen) Probably cold.
Carter
Cold coffee? Too bad. I'd still drink it, yeah.
Bellamy
Why wouldn't you?
Carter
Hot coffee's the best, even tepid it's all right. (BEAT) But when it gets cold, it's oily.
Bellamy
Not this mud, too thin. I think the grounds were used before.
Carter
All the rations are getting pretty thin.
Bellamy
They didn't tell you?
Carter
About the coffee?
Bellamy
To be ready for thin rations.
Carter
Where's the coffee?
Bellamy
(Points off screen) That way.
Carter
Need a cup of mud?
Bellamy
Thanks. No.
Carter
Suit yourself. (Gets up and leaves set)

Far Shot. Rubble. Day.

Close shot. Bellamy. Day.
Bellamy is clearly dead. Shot through the head. It appears he's been dead for some time. The death and destruction around him is vast, gruesome. Anything nasty that could happen has already happened. Artistically here, remember how Bill Waterson portrayed Calvin and Hobbes. In this situation Hobbes is Bellamy who is only alive to Carter.

Ext. Rubble. Night.
(Sounds of residual urban combat)

Med shot. Bellamy/Carter. Night.
Carter
To hell with the field manual.
Bellamy
What?
Carter
I said, to hell with the field manual, I ain't writing it when I get back to the world.
Bellamy
No?
Carter
Hell no!
Bellamy
What're you going to do?
Carter
I'm going to stay out all night and drink a lot of beer.
Bellamy
That's as sound a plan as any.
Carter
Yeah? Sure. Plan. (BEAT) I ain't got no wife, no girl, no family business. (BEAT) This coffee ain't working. It's just sourin' my stomach. (Takes a sip from cup)

Close shot. Bellamy. Night.
Bellamy opens gas mask carrier and removes a deli sandwich. Removes the paper, and starts to eat it.
Carter
What do you have there?
Bellamy
Pastrami on rye.
Carter
Where'd you get that?
Bellamy
They said to pack a lunch.
Carter
Who?
Bellamy
I don't know, they. They said rations were pretty thin.
Carter
So you packed a lunch?
Bellamy
Sure.
Carter
Didja git some cold fried chicken too?
Bellamy
No, just the sandwich.
Carter
Well, give me a bite.
Bellamy
No.
Carter
No? What do you mean no?
Bellamy
No. You know. No, it means no.
Carter
Dog.
Bellamy
Well, I did come prepared.
Carter
Like a Boy Scout.
Bellamy
Yeah, and being mean and calling me names ain't helping your cause.
Carter
Yeah. Sure. I see that, but come on, pastrami and rye.
Bellamy
Yup, and they didn't scrimp on the meat either. Bringing this along was the best thing I could have done.
Carter
Apparently.
Bellamy
Yeah, beats carrying a mask.

Carter
You brought a sandwich instead of your mask.
Bellamy
Sure. I figured if I needed one I could get one off a dead Kraut.
Carter
Sure. Yeah. What if there ain't any?
Bellamy
Well, it was worth the gamble.
Carter
All right. Was it?
Bellamy
Sure it was, the odds are pretty good.
Carter
For a dead Kraut?
Bellamy
Well, sure. Because a dead Kraut is going to have a gas mask, but he ain't going to have a pastrami and rye sandwich.
Carter
Can I have a bite, just a little one?
Bellamy
No.

Long Shot. Ext. Night.
Search lights, heightened sounds come out.
Carter (Voice-over)
They're back, goddamn Krauts.
Bellamy (Voice-over)
You're the last one Carter.
Carter (Voice-over)
The last one?
Bellamy (Voice-over)
Those masks don't work.
Carter (Voice-over)
Sure they do. They don't?
Close shot. Bellamy/Carter. Night.
Bellamy
Put it in your new field manual. The masks don't save you from a bullet. (BEAT) They're getting closer.
Carter
The coffee ain't working.
Bellamy
I'll have a pastrami and rye waiting for you.

Heightened sounds of urban warfare.
Fade to red, then to black.
Carter (Voice-over)
And cold fried chicken?

When that Friday rolled around, I went to Gio's place, Rocket House Studio. I saw the set. I played with the two dolls, and I handed over the script. We read it. He loved it. He cast the movie that afternoon. Total people on the project, six: two actors, sound guy, writer, director and Gio's wife the patient and encouraging Jenna whose input was invaluable.
Within a month, the soundtrack was recorded and by mid-summer the piece was finished. I was then told these words: “Anthony, whatever you write, I'll make.”
Whatever you write, I'll make? Now those are the words every writer wants to hear. I hold no illusions about it, I am not the best writer, nor am I the best screenwriter. After all, this was my first time. It takes time. Seldom will a writer have something like this the first time around.
Here are a few lessons I learned:
a) the short screenplay is just that, short. Make your dialogue concise. Neither character in Pastrami on Rye take up time with long soliloquy. In fact, it's a quick back and forth, it's a dialogue.
b) after you complete the first draft, read it. Chances are you can, and you should cut the lines after the first period.
c) in the brief film, especially if it's dialogue driven, you must make it believable and plausible. With both Carter and Bellamy, they each have a desire: to go home, to drink coffee (or beer) and to do women.
d) think about the premise, think about it deeply and then as you treat it, use the anecdote, use a joke (they come in threes, typically), or use one underlying statement.
e) treat your script as a fluid document. It will change. Film is a collaborative process. Of the two actors in Pastrami on Rye, one held fast to the script and did not stray one syllable. The second actor, well, he changed his portion of the script and he changed it with each take. It still worked and furthermore, his performance made the short film absolutely spectacular.
f) know your filmmakers, their desires, their experience and their limitations. As long as we're on the subject of war, I loved Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I doubt the book would make a good film, I say this because of those beautiful scenes when he writes about the plane and the ride home. That almost mythical account within the story would not have been feasible at Rocket House. However, a conversation about combing women's hair worked wonderfully.
Now, back to you.
You have a series of anecdotes. Let's mold them into a script. From your favorite anecdote, pick out a few characters. Now, as they speak, make that anecdote a part of their dialogue.
Your assignment: a ten pages screenplay. A general rule, one page will equal about a minute of film. In the case of Pastrami on Rye, it was nine pages and it yielded seven minutes.
Good luck and happy writing.