Friday, October 26, 2012

NaNoWriMo, take three.

November, as many of you already know, is NaNoWriMo, or "National Novel Writing Month". It is an online challenge to write 50,000 words in thirty days. This will be my fourth year participating in the challenge. Both of my novels started life as NaNobooks, so I obviously am a big believer in the challenge as an excellent motivator toward getting your first draft out of your system. I recommend the challenge for any aspiring writer, to help develop a writing habit... for more info, check out

A Few solid tips for surviving NaNoWriMo...

1) 1600 words a day really isn't all that much. (It's like 2 pages, or six solid paragraphs) Depending on how fast you write, most of us only need an hour or so a day to meet that goal... and when you are on a roll, you will write more than that.

2) Take advantage of the week one momentum. That first week, you are pumped. You are psyched. Use that energy to get ahead on your word count. I AM TERRIBLE AT THIS. I always tell myself that this will be the year I pad my word count, but I never seem to do it.

3) Understand that NO ONE writes every single day for the entire month. Your life will get in the way, but it's not insurmountable. Give yourself permission right now to lapse on game day or whatever. It will help keep you sane. (Particularly when you're trying to write and your spouse starts screaming "WHO DAT!" at the TV in the next room every time the Saints gain a yard.) Just also give yourself permission to come back to it the next day.

4) Understand that not all of your friends and family will understand your need to do this, or accept "I can't baby-sit/go out drinking/cook dinner/second line, I have to get my word count up" as an excuse. This is particularly relevant when your uncle wants you to help him fry a damn turkey for the first time.

5) Give yourself permission to be crappy. Bad writing comes hand in hand with good writing. It can also lead you in funny, clever directions you never expected. Think of it as your mind suddenly ducking into a seedy bar in the Marigny to avoid the rain, only to find that it's the coolest place you have ever been in your life.

6) Take advantage of our local food culture. We NolaWrimos have a distinct advantage over Wrimos in other cities in that we have great, pre prepared meals on every street corner. Seriously... there are entire sections of the national forums dedicated to casseroles and crock pot recipes for NaNo. Screw that! Get a Shrimp po-boy on your way home and call it a win!

7) Take advantage of our local meet-ups. I can't speak for everyone, but nothing gets me typing like Shannon and Suzy glaring at me about my word count. Knowing that tehre are others around you facing the same hurdles in plot, protagonists, and squirrels of mass distraction WILL help you finish.

8) (Suggested by Shannon, the NOLA ML) Don't underestimate the power of small writing times. Five, ten, and fifteen minutes really add up over the course of a day.

Good luck, WriMos! See you at kick off!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Writing Prompt...

This is the first in what I hope will become a new series in which I pick a writing prompt from my various sources online, and then do it... The writing prompt is a great exercise for even the most experienced writer because it forces your brain to think in different directions than it might be used to. It's also a guaranteed way to get your daily words on the page by giving you an "assignment" to write about. I have the hardest time forcing myself to write on Fridays, so it seemed like the logical day to do it.

Today's prompt: "Close your eyes, turn your head to the side, and count to five. When you open your eyes, write about the first thing that comes into focus (for at least ten minutes)."-from's iPad app.

The dark blue Kia sat quietly in the parking lot outside the bank, its silvery undertone picking up the bright sunlight and scattering it in all directions. The polished chrome roof rack glinted a reflection onto the nearby office buildings, blinding at least a secretary or two. Its short rubber antenna jutted harshly up just above the rear hatchback, the stubby afterthought of a Hipster car designer that listens to all of his music on MP3 instead of the barbaric practice of pulling frequencies modulated through the atmosphere. While the unused roof rack spoke quietly to the world of outdoor adventure and trips across the Sunblessed warmth of the American plains, it was obvious that everything about this midget of a sport utility vehicle was put in place to cut its occupants off from the world around them. Tinted windows, climate control, suspension, and plush leather seats all intended to make your transition between location and destination as unnoticable as possible.

I was blessed to grow up in a time in our history when every trip in the car meant feeling the sights, smells, and character of each neighborhood you passed through on the way to your realitives house. If I was to lie down in the back seat, I could tell by each bump, turn and sound around us where we were in the city. Traveling was different then. Now, my kids largely ignore their surroundings, their faces buried in whatever technological contrivance they currently favor, their memories of the journey replaced by images of Spongebob and Minecraft.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

CONtraflow 2 and the Fermi Paradox

This past weekend, I was a guest at CONtraflow here in New Orleans. (More specifically in Kenner, less than a mile from Casa Cerio) And had an absolute blast. The folks at CONtraflow really know how to throw a good, fun, literary convention.  I was on a number of panels, including one about my participation in the 48hr Film festival, and the ever-popular "Super Heroes and the Law" panel. The highlight of the con for me, however had to be the fantastic panel given by Author guest of honor Vernor Vinge, Tom Trumpinski, and NASA scientist Les Johnson about the Fermi Paradox. Mr Vinge, for those that don't know, is one of those guys that the government calls when they need a "Futurist", and to hear his ideas about it was facinating. Tom Trumpinski has written a lot about the subject, and Mr. Johnson's view on the topic from having worked with NASA just made for a killer panel about a subject I love hearing about.

For those that don't know what the heck I'm talking about, the story goes something like this... one day, a bunch of supergenius physicists were sitting around having lunch and discussing the possibility of alien life in our galaxy. One of them did some quick calculating and realized that with our current understanding of physics and engineering, it would take a Von Neumann style probe approximately 100 thousand years to completely explore our galaxy. At this point, Enrico Fermi said "Well, then where the hell are they?" His point being that if intelligent life is commonplace in the universe, then where are the aliens? Humanity has only been technologically aware for about 10,000 years, and capable of leaving the planet for a little over 50. Surely there must be more advanced civilizations out there by now, right? So where the heck are they?

The question quickly became known as Fermi's Paradox, and is a great subject that all science fiction authors ask one another from time to time, so I loved hearing the insights of men really qualified to discuss the subject. There have been dozens of suggestions as to why the Paradox exists, but I think that it really boils down to what are the top :

1) Intelligent life isn't as common as we think. Meaning that we may indeed be alone, at least in our galaxy. Les Johnson pointed to the fact that it was such a crazy string of events that led to humanity's rise as a technologically advanced species that it may be pretty unlikely that it happens elsewhere. Random asteroid wipes out the dinosaurs, big moon and system gas giant protect us from similar impacts, we develop opposable thumbs and the brains to use them... it is pretty amazing that we're here, when you think about it.

2) The distances are just too great. The nearest star is 4 light years away. The nearest star with anything interesting around it is at least 20 light years away. A light year is approximately six trillion miles, which means it would take our fastest forms of propulsion something like 200,000 years to get there. Those are numbers so large that it's really kind of impossible for the human mind to conceive of them. To put it in perspective, if the sun was a grain of sand on home plate of a baseball diamond, the earth would be somewhere between home plate and the pitchers mound. Dwarf planet Pluto would be somewhere around shortstop, and the nearest star (Alpha Centauri) would be something like the gas station three and a half miles down the road. Gliese 581 would be the McDonalds about 17 miles away (in a different direction). That's a long way to go for a cheeseburger, folks. I bitch to Silverfox when she makes me take the trash down to the dumpster.

3) We're under quarantine. This is my favorite, and I've actually played with this concept a bit in my short stories. It's entirely possible that there are aliens, and they view us as very dangerous creatures, or so different that we could pose a serious problem for them if we found out we weren't alone. I personally think that the aliens interviewed Betty and Barney Hill, and realized us for the war apes that we are. It's also been suggested that they may have a non-interference rule like the Federation Prime Directive.

4) We are the first. This is actually the saddest to me, because I think that the universe is a whole lot of wasted space if this is the case... But it also means that we need to make damn sure we stay around for a while.

Whatever the reasons, it's possible that we will never know the answer to Fermi's Paradox. We will either encounter extraterrestrials or not. It's still fun to consider the question, don't you think? If you'd like to discuss the fermi paradox further, please feel free to hit me up on Facebook!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

If you're not doing anything this weekend...

Hey there friends and fans... this Saturday, I'll be speaking at a writer's symposium at the Margaret Reed Crosby Memorial Library & Cultural Center in Picayune, MS. It starts at 10am, and is free and open to the public. I'll be talking about the challenges involved with writing Sci-fi and Comedy. It should be a lot of fun!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

We interrupt this broadcast....

And once again, the "Cover post" gets postponed. This time, I like to think I have reasonable excuse, though... Hurricane Issac. Right now, I am roughly 1800 miles from Casa Cerio, in the mountain town of New Paltz, NY, staying with relatives.

It's difficult for outsiders to understand the mixed bag of emotions that comes with living in a storm-prone city like New Orleans. In fact, the question I get asked most often during evacuations (right after "is your house still standing") is "Why do you stay?". I hate getting this question, particularly from Californians, who live in a region where the ground is actively trying to kill them with little or no warning.

The fact is that we as a species actually have limited tolerances for the disasters our planet throws at us... our bodies don't handle extremes of temperature, wind velocity, or moisture very well, except for having brains big enough to create protective technology like houses for our fragile forms. If we only chose our living conditions by where the weather is most hospitable to humans, chances are all 7 billion of us would still be living on the African savannah, running from lions. Let me tell you, this fat guy would be the fastest man on earth if that was the case. Ain't no way this guy is going out as lion chow.

As a species, we are explorers by nature. This is primarily because we have learned over the past ten thousand years or so that new lands open up new possibilities in our lives. Outside of Africa, a bounty of natural resources awaited us. Beyond the oceans that divided our planetary land masses, still more splendor awaited the first humans to find it. It's really a romantic notion when you think about it... The first Humans in the gulf region were probably in awe of the fertile soil, the variety of wild game, and the ample building materials. In many ways, the citizens of my adopted hometown still are. For many of us,it's why we return and rebuild after a storm. There is something unique about New Orleans that makes it worth the occasional setback.

Soon, the debates will begin once more about the futility of living in a disaster prone region, with many suggesting that we clear the Mississippi delta region of human habitation for their own safety. They will say that the profit exceeds the cost of keeping a city like New Orleans safe, without having lived there or experienced the things that make living there such an incredible experience. During these talks, no one will suggest evacuating the cities on the San Andreas fault, Tornado alley, or the blizzard prone cities of the great lakes.

Disasters happen, and always will. It is the Human will that allows us to rise above them that should be our focus in the coming months, not our Human stupidity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

We interrupt this blog to interrupt your your collection...

I know that my next post held the promise of being all about cover art for Indy Publishers, but I wanted to take a break and discuss/rant at length about a show I caught last night on Syfy... "Collection Intervention" from the show's Syfy website:
"Collection Intervention follows Elyse Luray, former Head of the Collectibles Department at Christie's, as she helps couples, families and individuals whose pop-culture memorabilia collections – from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica to Catwoman and Barbie – have become damaging obsessions, creating financial strife and a huge strain on their lives.  Elyse will create a strategy that helps these collectors curate and showcase their collection by assessing where the true value lies and then allow them to decide what's worth keeping and what they can sell.  These massive collections include dining rooms stuffed with 30,000 comic books, a garage filled to the rafters with Catwoman memorabilia, and an almost uninhabitable house filled with Transformers.  For each collector, parting with some of their collection may free up some much needed space in their home, provide cash windfall to get out of debt, or even just allow a  couple to become more focused on their relationship."
I tuned in last night, curious about the show... and was absolutely horrified by it.

The big problem I had with this show was how they presented the collectors. Don't get me wrong, I know that to some degree, being a collector of specific geek culture items requires a certain level of obsessiveness, but they presented both collectors last night as being downright emotionally unstable. There were two stories of 'intervention' presented last night, but the one that really galled me was the Catwoman Collector.

This guy loves Catwoman, and has been collecting Catwoman items his whole life. His wife does not understand this obsession, and just wants the crap out of her garage. She refuses to let him display any of his collection in their house, and complains for most of the episode that he needs to sell all his crap and get them out of debt. I kept thinking "how on earth did this guy marry this woman?". I understand wanting a loved one to sell some of a valued collection to help pay the bills (shortly after Cheri and I married, I sold my near mint set of original "Watchmen" comics) but this woman was basically belittling his hobby, and insisting that he not only get rid of things that he personally loved, but do it so she could be more financially secure. Again, not all that unreasonable... but the way it was presented was like the wife was sane, and the collector was nuts for wanting to hang onto any of it. It came to a head when they went to sell some stuff at a local comic shop, and the wife sold a bust of Catwoman that the collector said was one of his favorite pieces. He protested, and the wife is all "but this guy is offering us money, what's the problem?"

[begin rant]

THE PROBLEM IS HE LOVES IT, YOU BITCH! YOU WON'T EVEN LET HIM DISPLAY A THING HE LOVES IN YOUR HOME!!! And then... then... (Jesus, this made me angry) he buckles and lets her sell it. They then heap praise on him, telling him that he's "turned a corner" and how proud they are of him. WTF IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE!!!! I understand needing space in a home, but the dude just kept his stuff in the garage because his wife forced him to keep it there. I even understand selling some of a collection, but the show kept making the point that having emotional attachments to any of the things you collect is a little bit nuts! WHO THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE TO JUDGE!?!

The second story, about a Star Wars collector was no better. She even explained that the action figures in particular had special meaning to her, because of how they represented her father's sacrifice to get the perfect gift for Christmas morning, and a lonely geek childhood where these toys were her best friends. Then they make her sell them, insisting "it's for her own good". When in tears she finally gives up an Ewok action figure, they say "see that wasn't that bad, now let's get rid of more of this crap", COMPLETELY IGNORING THAT YOU PRACTICALLY TRIGGERED A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN IN THIS WOMAN!!! YOU GUYS ARE ASSHOLES!!!

[/end rant]

Okay, now that I've got that out of my system... the obsession to collect is one I understand, and to some degree share. I collect all sorts of things that have no real value to anyone... they are things that hold special meaning for me. If someone, (particularly a loved one) insisted that there was something wrong with me for wanting to keep and display something that I have an emotional connection to, I'd have a long talk with that person about the nature of our relationship. As far as "damaging obsessions, creating financial strife and a huge strain on their lives" goes, that's really realitive. My wife is a collector, and I know that even when our bank account is running the ragged edge of disaster, buying something like this...
it's a purse.
does something emotionally good for her. That to me is not a financial burden, it's an investment in my wife's sanity. If that makes her crazy, it means I'm crazy too. I would never ask her to sell her Muppet/Star Wars figurines, and she would never ask me to sell my starship models. Part of being in a relationship is accepting the other person's flaws, and learning to appreciate the things that make them smile.

But I guess that would make for poor television.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Indy publishing for dummies part 3- the mechanics of it all...

So, you have your polished manuscript, and you're confident you can find an audience. What do you do now? This is the part of self publishing that separates the men from the boys, after all. Readying a book for print is a daunting task, but our modern world has made it much easier than it once was. Most computers ship with the necessary tools to turn your manuscript into a nice looking book... It's just a matter of learning a thing or two about layout.

Now you could sign up for a learning annex, go to the bookstore and drop a few hundred dollars on 'how to' books, or if you're really desprate pay someone to do it. Or you could do what I did. I picked one of my favorite books off my shelf and did my best to make my manuscript look like it in Word. What I learned is how to make a title page, a copyright page, a dedication page, chapter pages, and everything else. I sat there with a ruler, measuring font sizes and white space until I was confident it looked good.

I know I'm making it sound easy, and that's because it is... If you can make a document in word, you can layout a manuscript. After you've got it looking pretty, you export it as a PDF.

This is where it can get a little tricky... Ideally, you'll be using a Print On Demand service as your publisher, and different sites have different rules about how to submit the files. I chose Createspace for my books, primarily because their package includes a listing for your book on You'll be asked a few things about your book when you start the process, including what size you want your book to be. Before you export the PDF file, it's important to set your page size to match whatever you've told your POD service your book size will be. Again, I picked mine by measuring a book on my shelf I liked the look of. It's also important to set the page settings of your file to "custom postscript" before you create the PDF, or it will default to 8 1/2" x 11". Not good if your book is 6"x9".

Then you upload it (the PDF file) to the publisher's site. You now have an interior for your book! Congratulations! Next up, Cover design...

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Indy publishing for Dummies part 2- quality control.

Getting a book to print is absurdly easy. Getting a quality book to print is an altogether different animal. One of the reasons that self publishers get such a bad rap is because there really is no quality control involved... Basically, if a writer thinks it's ready, there's little stopping him from taking the plunge and printing off a few copies.

As a writer, I think it's important to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that. This brings us to the self publishing prime directive:

Don't write in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that it is imperative that someone other than you reads your manuscript before you get it out there. It might be hard for your ego to accept, but you need other people to tell you if there's anything wrong with the work. Find one or two friends that won't spare your feelings, and let them give you notes on it. This is a very hard thing for any writer to do, but it is essential to putting out quality work.

Don't believe me? Let's talk about a famous writer, without mentioning names. In the mid seventies, a talented writer created a script for a science fiction film that was revolutionary. It was also crap. When he sold the idea to a major studio, they had people give him notes. He took them to heart, and came out with a better product. The film did fantastic at the box office, and so he was asked to write sequels. The problem was that because of his previous success, he was granted more "creative control" and the movies started to go downhill. Still good, mind you, but not great. Then he moved on, starting his own media empire... After around twenty years, he decided to come back to the story, but was now one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. With his fame came a bubble around him of people that were all paid to kiss his ass. As a result, he cranked out three more movies in the franchise with no notes from anyone, and complete creative control.

The point is, without negative input to keep him in check the resultant movies were a huge disappointment for all involved, and led to endless debates on the Internet about whether the writer was now on crack.

Now, this is an extreme example, but shows how important feedback can be for even the best of us. Get others to read what you've written, and take their advice to heart. Rewrite it until you have a product you are insanely proud of. Then and only then will you be ready to take the next step. I have three readers that I hand my finished manuscripts off to, and I consider each helpful to my writing in a different way...

Reader 1 shares my sense of humor, and will generally tell me if a plot point or a gag doesn't really work. Reader 1 is also one of my biggest supporters, and loves my writing, so I pay careful attention as to where that reader stops reading for whatever reason... I know that this reader only puts down my books when the plot flags a bit, and so I take a careful look at whatever she marks as her put down points.

Reader 2 is my science/continuity nerd, and I rely on them to tell me if something makes no sense in the context of the world I've built. This reader is also a avid follower of my genre, and will generally tell me if a plot device is overused or confusing.

Reader 3 is my spelling, punctuation, and grammar Nazi. I am embarrassed to say that the first edition of Dimensional Games went to press with a lot of simple capitalization errors, and I was lucky that reader 3 stepped forward to help me with the issue.

Then I go over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb myself, incorporating all 3 readers comments. It's my process, and it works pretty well. I don't get nearly as crazy about my short stories, thank goodness, but putting forward your best work is essential for any writer.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Indy publishing for dummies, part 1- Why?

As many of my regular readers know, my first book, (and soon my second book as well) was self-published. As a writer, I often am amazed at how easy the process of getting a book out on shelves has become in my lifetime. When I was first trying to be a writer (long time ago... Think Reagan administration...) the options for an independent author trying to make his voice heard were few and costly. I would often hear tales, particularly at sci-fi conventions, about authors going through the "vanity press" process and the results of their independent forays into publishing. Invariably, they were cautionary tales of thousands of dollars spent, with only a garage full of unsold books to show for it.

Publishing independently, I had often been told, was the kiss of death to any writer's career. After all, if 'real' publishers had no interest in your work, then surely your work must in fact suck... That's why you had to pay to get your name in print, and the only reason you did that is because you're an egomaniac.

Except of course, that none of that is true. I would think that there are a good deal of fantastic writers out there that have simply never found an audience. Editors and publishers are only human, after all... And there acceptance is purely based on their own tastes. For instance, I love the works of Clive Cussler, but not many people I know do... I think his brand of adventure writing is a bit of an acquired taste. Had his first publisher not seen the potential in his writing, I may never have read any of his stuff, and that would be tragic.

A lot of times in the publishing world, brilliant work gets passed over for an easy sell. If something is hard to categorize (sci-fi comedy anyone?) or a bit odd in its bearing, it gets passed over for stuff that obviously fits in a section at the local Barnes and Noble. It's not really hard to see why this is... New writers are an unknown quantity. New writers in experimental/weird genres doubly so. Every publisher is only as good as its hottest writer. In short, hot, easily sellable writer= hot, profitable book= hot profitable publisher.

Of course, the hotness of a writer has nothing to do with their looks, because several of my fellow struggling writers would be household names by now if it did. What can I say? I hang with some very good looking people.

So, the struggling writer is left with a question. Do I toil away in obscurity, Banging my head against publishers doors until I burst through like Jack Nicholson in 'the Shining', or do I put my work out there and try to sell it myself?

For me, the choice was obvious... I have known for a long time that being a writer won't make me rich, but a story untold strikes me as a very tragic thing. After trying halfheartedly to get my first novel published, I made an investment in myself and self published. It was the second smartest thing I ever did, right behind marrying Cheri.

The fact is that self publishing has never been easier, or a better way for an independent author to be heard. This is largely due to the way technology is changing how we read. The biggest risk you face in the endeavor is to your own ego.

I am currently working on bringing my next book to market, and over the next few weeks, I'll detail the ups and downs involved for those that are curious about such things. I hope y'all will find it entertaining, at least... And if the next book crashes and burns, there should be some really awesome dark comedy there somewhere.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why I don't do fantasy football leagues....

I hate fantasy football. There, I said it. It's not something I'm especially proud of, because I love Football. (note the capital 'F', people...) Nothing beats watching your favorite team beat their rivals into submission by ramming into each other like drunken goats. I love the strategy involved in Football, I love the watered down beer and bland hot dogs at the Superdome, I love the smell of a freshly mowed gridiron, and I love screaming at the television when the quarterback throws an interception.

What I hate is sports statistics.

As a result, there is a good deal about modern day sports coverage that piss me right the fuck off. I don't watch ESPN, I don't read the sports pages, I only go to if it's during a game and I don't have access to a TV, and even then, I don't really care about the yards rushing, yards passing, yards spent pinching cheerleaders, or anything else... Is the team winning? Did they do it with style? Great!

I have hated sports statistics for a very long time... I remember vividly in grade school, while all of my classmates were ga-ga over baseball cards, I was the kid who didn't see the point behind them. You couldn't play a game with them, the art was sub-par, and the little piece of pink plastic masquerading as gum that each pack came with sucked. I'll stick with collecting Star Wars cards, thank you. RBI's? Scuse me, but you spelled 'RIBs' wrong...

Fantasy football is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of. I love my friends that enjoy it, but I absolutely hate the thing. Every year, I have friends that try to goad me into participating. They say things like "you're just chicken" and "it's just another RPG! You play those all the time!" To that I say, "have you actually ever gamed with me?"

When I game, I do so as an exercise in improv. I get into character, and burst forth upon the story with reckless abandon of common sense, the GM's wishes, the dice, and any goddamn ability modifiers. If I'm gonna fantasize, I'm gonna really get into it... I always wanted to be a super hero, a maniacal despot, an insane scientist, and a bard, so it makes sense to me.

I can honestly say I never wanted to work in the front office of an NFL franchise. It might be someone's fantasy, but it sure ain't mine.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Finding your space...

Well, I completed my first Script Frenzy, and came out the other side with a fairly good screenplay. Now if I could just get good enough with the Query letters to actually sell one of the 4 full length screenplays I have under my belt, I would be set. For any Hollywood types that find themselves here by accidentally using the search string "Dogs & Atlantis" (and my more curious readers) the four (and their loglines) are:

GeoHunters- A group of misfits takes on their rivals in a high-tech scavenger hunt.
Criminal Wischief- A dying child's wish is to pull off the perfect crime (2009 Slamdance semi-finalist)
Lake Monster- Two slackers pull off the Hoax of the century; is it brilliance or are they just two idiots in a canoe surrounded by chicken wire?
The Moderator- (an adaptation of Dimensional Games) Jake Price keeps interdimensional LARPers in line and somehow keeps his dignity intact.

But enough self-promotion. Today, I thought I would write about an important topic that doesn't really get much screen time... Your writing space. Having a consistent place that you write is one of those tricks you can use to induce a Pavlovian style writing response in your brain. It doesn't have to be fancy, beautiful, or even quiet... it just has to be a place that when you sit there, you're showing up to write. To do that, you really only need two things... a comfortable seat and something to write with.

A famous writer when just starting out (Blanking on who, but I think it was Ray Bradbury), would write at his kitchen table every night amongst his screaming kids, loving wife, and attention seeking dog. It wasn't the ideal space, but it worked. Later, when he could afford an actual studio, with soundproof walls and a nice view, he found he had trouble writing there. Why? He had gotten used to the family chaos as part of his writing routine.

Your brain can be trained to write, and where you write is as much of that training as anything else. this is my writing space at my local coffee shop:
I know, I'm super high tech with the laptop, iPad and computerized stomach of doom. You'll also note that the plate to the right is empty. I have found it much easier over the years to write with a full stomach. (Good nutrition folks... not just a good idea, but the fuel for your creative spark as well!) I also have a notebook where I jot down various ideas.

The iPad has special apps for writing screenplays and blogging, but the laptop is my real workhorse... it's not even a particularly exceptional one either, it's a ten year old Dell Inspiron 6000 that was missing it's "X" key when I got it used from a friend, and doesn't have any battery life to speak of. If it's not plugged in to the wall, it ain't doing jack. I have similar software on it to the iPad, but the bulk of my writing gets done in Microsoft word 2003, which presents it's own unique challenges when trying to format things for publication

Jesus, I really need to upgrade my gear.

The point is, that my set up is far from what you would call the ideal writing space. I often complain on facebook how much the Musak at my coffee shop sucks, how other regulars here often interrupt me to ask what I'm working on, and how they keep the A/C on fifty below zero all the freaking time. (Silverfox won't even join me for lunch here without wearing a parka)

Still, I have written the bulk of three novels, three screenplays, countless short stories and blog entries in this very spot. Part of being successful at writing is simply finding out what works for you, and doing it over and over again until you have a bunch of words on the page. My set up works for me, and I discovered it mostly through trial and error. I once read a book on writing (The inner movie method-how to write a movie in 21 days by Viki King... I highly recommend it if screenplays are your thing.) that had a writing prompt in it about your ideal writing space. I wrote two full pages describing a beachfront studio, with palm trees outside, and a scantily clad intern bringing coffee to me at my antique roll top desk (once owned by Ernest Hemingway, no less...) while I grab ideas from the ether and arrange them delicately on my state of the art computer. When I was done I read what I had written, and could not help but laugh that I had written it longhand in my notebook, sitting in line at the DMV.

The chances of me affording a beachfront villa anytime soon, much less at team of scantily clad interns/barristas serving up an endless supply of coffee, is extremely unlikely... like getting hit by a crashing plane while getting struck simultaneously by lightning unlikely.

The point is that writers seldom have the financial freedom to create the perfect space to write in. Go with what works for you, and what makes you show up to write. My morning iced mocha tends to be tempting enough to get me to show up, but that's just me. Show up somewhere, write, and repeat as often as you can.

Now, if I could just do something about this damned Musak.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Self deprecation and the art of seeming cool...

I make fun of myself a lot. There, I said it. I also make fun of nearly everything else my eyes relay to my brain. Sometimes this ongoing dialog makes its way past my brains "Gahd, that's dumb or insensitive" filter and leaves my mouth to the chagrin of those I choose to share my life with. Sometimes, these little comments about the humorous state of the universe are about me. Recently, it has been brought to my attention that this may not be the best thing for my self esteem or my mental health.

A writer's mental health is a precarious thing to begin with. I can't speak for everyone else, but my process involves a bit of multiple personality disorder. When I write, each character has a different voice and personality in my brain. I imagine that actors have something very similar going on, but I doubt their individual personalities are ever all at the surface at the same time like my writing demands. In addition, good comedy comes from seeing the reality around you from a different perspective than most people.

Anyone can be paranoid enough to believe that their server spit in their food, but it takes someone special to imagine the argument that went on in the kitchen between the chef and waiter about how much saliva was too much for a light tipper... I'm special like that, I guess.

The thing is that I don't usually share these thoughts with others because sometimes, quite frankly, they would gross out or offend whomever I'm with at the time. "Nice purse... Do your add wheels to it on the weekends so fifteen clowns can jump out of it at the circus?" doesn't go over real well in mixed company. I usually avoid this by making fun of the one person around me that I can be sure won't be offended by it... Me.

This tactic has served me well for many years. While it's true I have gotten called out from time to time for being self-deprecating, I generally don't piss off those around me with my constant critique of our shared reality anymore. I also found it to be an excellent defense mechanism over the years in that nothing takes the wind out of the sails of someone about to insult me like me beating them to the joke. I really don't think much about it before cracking a "Rob is fat" joke anymore. Better to be a lovable self-deprecating loser than to be an arrogant asshole that finds something to bitch about comedically every few minutes. Lovable losers are still cool... Arrogant assholes not so much.

The problem is my wife doesn't appreciate the self deprecating humor as much as I do, and I've promised her that I would do my best to stop. What I hadn't realized is that the fat jokes and the lazy jokes were providing a valuable release valve to my psyche. The less I laugh about it, the more it festers inside me. I want to make the wife happy, but I worry that I may be doing more harm than good to the writer inside.

And thus, the hero finds himself in conflict... The center of any really good story.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My digital afterlife

By now, many of you have heard about the Tupac Hologram that performed at the Coachella music event* and seen the footage on Youtube and other places. I just want to say that the whole thing creeps me right the hell out for a few reasons.

Tupac wasn't the only hologram in attendance...from
For a while now, we've been approaching what I like to refer to as the "Entertainment singularity", a point which actors and singers will not be integral to the entertainment process. At some point, creating TV, Movies, Plays and such will be as simple as pointing and clicking any live or deceased performer into my manuscript, and watching the computer render it. Take Tupac's hologram... while I admit that I don't actually know the source of the voice, it would not be hard to digitize Tupac's performing style and voice with a computer based on samples taken throughout his life. Suppose I could make that hologram say and do anything I typed into my word processor.

And why stop with the dead? A mid-thirties Harrison Ford would make an excellent Jake Price in a Dimensional Games movie, and with this technology, I should be able to theoretically put any words I want into Harrison's mouth. Or how about Rosario Dawson? I could make a ninety minute loop of her saying to me whatever naughty, sexy things my twisted little mind came up with. ("Can I get you a sandwich, Rob? would you like extra bacon on that? Would you like me to do your dishes too?")

My point is, that if they could do this with Tupac, then they could probably do it to anyone that had enough source material. As the technology improves, less source material will be necessary to make a digital representation of just about anyone. Which brings me to the second thing that creeped me out this week... Post-Mortum Facebook pages.

Over the past year, I have had two good friends pass away. Their Facebook accounts remain active, and as their birthdays rolled around, people posted to their pages to commemorate their passing. I understand that grief is a tricky thing, and we all grieve with what we think is appropriate, but seeing the dearly departed pop up as important in my news feed over a year after their passing is downright creepy. I suppose the solution is to unsubscribe their feeds, but that seems heartless somehow. As creeped out as I was by all this, I have to admit that it made me remember my departed friends for the first time in about a month, and I kinda smiled at that.

Where I think that it would become a problem is if you start combining these technologies. Imagine for a second a world where anyone can create a Tupac-style Hologram from the information on your facebook profile. It's not really that big a stretch when you think about it... a computer model of your image can be extrapolated from photos, even aged appropriately if the viewer desires... a synthetic personality could be constructed as well if you post status updates enough. (Snarky? Check. Loves Bacon? Check. Unhealthy infatuation with 80's cartoons? Check.) I would imagine it would be harder to deal with a loved ones passing if you could just whip up a digital version of them to chat with any time you want, or if a friend used their image in a youtube video he thinks is totally appropriate to your loved one's memory. The odds of a video of Grandpa on a skateboard doing a triple ollie into a swimming pool full of lime Jell-o and bikini clad women being 'appropriate' to your Grandma are sketchy, no matter how much you think he would have loved it.

We may come to a point where it will be necessary to bequeath the rights to your digital likeness to specific people on your passing, so that your image won't be plundered by those that don't share your vision of your legacy. Heck, in many ways we're there already. My wife has given me permission, (should she kick first... I think we all know how unlikely that is) that upon her passing I can keep updating her facebook page with her thoughts and impressions on the afterlife. ("Boy, it's a lot hotter here than I expected, and since when does God have horns and a pitchfork?")

*the DOA management admits freely to not being hip enough to really know what this "Coachella" thing actually was.... for all we know, it could have been a Cinderella-type ball for high school football coaches. we also acknowledge that it is equally unlikely that Snoop and Dr.Dre would perform at such an event, much less spend several thousand dollars to have their dead friend perform at one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Finding the time

We've all heard the words before, from better minds than I... "A writer WRITES! To truly be a success at writing, you have to have a body of work for new readers to find!". So, you get up your nerve, open your laptop, brew a pot of coffee, and close your eyes, waiting for the words to start flowing.

Then your youngest child decides to figure out how the dishwasher works by adding an entire bottle of detergent to the machine, your oldest needs help with his homework, and your dog poops on your wife's favorite jacket. As you get out the mop, while balancing a math textbook in one hand, the youngest hops up on your kitchen table and starts typing his manifesto, which looks disturbingly like this:

"It was a dark and stormy night when Dex first saw her... She washiubhbrfrdegtfhhhgufyrxjknkytdrckjniubiun. Cytfuvhgdvhhioinoinoubiulin ihbibibhibijnsoiubdiducyeyebdjfkfk."

The translation is of course, "She was only interested in getting up off her fat butt and buying her youngest child some goddamn juice boxes before he threw the biggest tantrum ever!"

Finding the time to write can be one of the biggest challenges of the writer's lifestyle. It requires a lot of discipline on your part, and a substantial amount of understanding from your loved ones. I wish I knew some magic writers charm I could share with you that would grant you an extra six hours a day in a parallel dimension, with only a word processor to keep you company, but it just doesn't work that way. All of us that are compelled to tell stories have our own tricks and stratagems that get us to that blissful state of productivity every day, but they're just that... Tricks designed to convince our muses that they have our undivided attention for a few short hours.

Fact is, there will ALWAYS be things competing for your attention. When starting out, we all have day jobs, loved ones, pets, and responsibilities vying for our attention. I have come to believe over the years that one of the things that separates the hobbyist from the pro is their ability to manage this problem. The important thing is to try to establish a routine for your writing, just as you do for anything else that's important to you. If you don't, you'll always be the "one day" writer.

For me, the journey to a writing habit was not an easy one, but one I think every writer could learn from. I would break it down into four steps... But not twelve... That would be too creepy. "Hi, my name is Rob and I'm a Writeaholic..."

Step 1: identify a time of day you consistently have to yourself. For me, it was that magic time of the morning between when I drop the kids off at school, and when I need to walk the dog at noon. Before I got married, it was the hour or so before work when I had been going to the diner and reading a book while eating my breakfast. Thus began my diner/coffee shop workplace fixation.

Step 2: make that a time you write. No excuses. Keep in mind, a writing habit doesn't have to be a huge amount of time. The important thing is consistency. Let's say that the block of time you have is the thirty minutes you have lunch... For most people, that's enough time to crank out a page. If you do this for 30 days, you've got a short story. Do it for a year, and you have a novel.

Step 3: meet other writers. Other than the benefits of peer pressure on your writing (accountability is your friend) it can be difficult for your friends and loved ones to understand the whole "muse" thing. Having the support and friendship of other people that know what it's like to try to get words on the page can be huge. There are writers circles in every major city, and NaNoWriMo groups all over the planet. Should that fail, most sci-fi conventions have writers panels, and most of the people in the audience are just like you.

Step 4: cut deals with your loved ones. I am not above promising a day at the park or a romantic evening to my wife and kids to buy some writing time. Life is all about compromises, after all.

"But Rob! What do we do when our loved ones interrupt our writing time?"

Simple. Put down the laptop and enjoy their company, but come back to it after the kids are tucked in, and you've snuggled a bit with your sweetie. Art is never created in a vacuum, and it is our experiences that give our words life. So give yourself permission to go and laugh and love a little. When you get back to your laptop, you're gonna write great pages.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Pizza Gain, or Easter Pie

As a kid, I would look forward to Easter for one reason... A giant chocolate rabbit with my name on it. I could care less about resurrecting messiahs, rites of spring, or pagan fertility festivals. It was all about the candy. A good Easter basket, if properly managed, could last a sugar happy kid like myself all the way through the fourth of July.

Mine was of course, gone by Tuesday.

As an adult, my tastes and understanding of the holiday matured considerably, and along with freaking out my Catholic (with a capital 'C', you heathens) relatives by espousing my personal theory that Jesus was a Vampire, I started to look forward to a traditional Sicilian (with a capital 'S'!!!) dish known as Pizza Gain. I would later learn that the name of the dish was actually dialect-specific to the region of Sicily my ancestors came from. It's 'real' name is Pizza Rustica, or 'Italian Easter pie'.

When I moved to New Orleans, I was disappointed to find that my beloved Pizza Gain wasn't part of the Italian traditions here. Mind you, the Italian parades and St. Joseph's altars make up for this failing, so I let it slide for many years.

Fast forward twelve years. After hurricane Katrina, I flopped around a bit. I was unsure of myself or my identity. No longer confident about my role in the world after having much of my life stripped away. That following Easter, I felt homesick for the first time in years. I wanted and needed to have Pizza Gain on Easter Sunday.

First, I tried to find someone that produced it locally, with no luck. Then I called a bunch of Italian bakeries in NYC to see if they could ship some to me, but turned up nothing. Then I Googled it, and came across a recipe that seemed very similar to Grandpa Ferdinando's. I prepared it, tweaking it here and there to what I remembered my Grandpa doing to his, and it came out really close... but not quite there. Certainly it was close enough for my purposes. I have tried to prepare it every year since, and I really hope that my step kids will one day incorporate it into their holiday traditions.

Rob's Pizza Gain (Pizza Rustica, Italian Easter Pie)

2 lbs of good ricotta cheese (dense, not watery, being the standard here)
1lb of deli ham, cubed (or capicolla if your local deli has it)
1lb of Genoa salami (any hard salami should work... but Genoa has just the right blend of garlic and fat)
9 large eggs
1lb cubed Mozzarella cheese
3 tbs of dried parsley
2 tbs of dried basil
2 deep dish ready-made pie crusts, or 3 regular depth**

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. in a large bowl, mix together the eggs and the ricotta. add all the deli meats and cheese, and the basil and parsley. Pour the mixture into the pie crusts and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the edges turn golden brown. remove from oven and let stand until completely cool before serving. My Mom says that you need to let it age for at least a week... yeah, you just try waiting that long.

**Note- Grandpa Ferdinando's traditional Pizza Gain always had a top crust... I have never gotten the hang of making pie crust from scratch, So if you feel up to it, go for it. Don't forget to do an olive oil wash (not egg) and vent the top.