Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Most Common Writing Advice is the Worst

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“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”
- Ray Bradbury
 
Many writers give awful advice to aspiring writers. One of the most common – “Write what you know.”

Terrible advice. Let’s face it, there wouldn’t be any science fiction or fantasy books in the world if we only wrote what we know. All those overweight housewives self-publishing their horrible trashy romance novels about strapping oxen pool boys certainly aren’t writing what they know. What a shame to deprive their depraved readership of slash fan fiction.

“Write what you know” is a very shitty way of saying, “Don’t try to sound like an expert on something when you’re completely fucking clueless. Do some research.”

Like when you’re 15 years old, you can put a grandfather in your story, but don’t try to write a 300 page novel from the point of view of a 70 year old man or you’re just going to sound like an idiot. The opposite holds true too. If you’re 75 years old, you can put a teenager in your story, or reflect upon what your own childhood was like, but don’t try to write a story from the point of view of a teen today or you’ll botch all the slang and end up looking like a clueless fool.

Take myself. In real life, I’m not remotely into team sports. I don’t care about baseball, football, basketball, hockey or soccer. Basically, any sport involving a ball or a team, is of no interest to me. Athletically, I’m into skateboarding, hang gliding, snowboarding, BMX, mountain biking and sports like that. So, I might put a skateboarder in one of my novels, but I’m not going to put a professional baseball player in a book. Why? Because I need to write what I know and I know a hell of a lot about skateboarding and I don’t know shit about baseball.

I’m also 100% straightedge. Clean and sober since the day I was born. Always have been. All my life. Never drank alcohol. Never taken a single drag from a cigarette or a hit off a joint. Never done any illicit drugs. Not once. Not ever. So I can’t write a story about those kind of experiences, because I don’t have any idea what being drunk even feels like. Once again, I’d sound clueless if I tried.

Writing imaginative literature is about dreaming and exploring the fantastical and unknown. In that sense, forget the advice of “write what you know” because it’s bullshit. Just don’t try to sound like you’re informed about something when you’re not.

Prime example, in his wonderful story “The Deathbird” there’s a scene where author Harlan Ellison talks about a character going down through many layers of the earth. He describes mile after mile of the strata in detail and I remember thinking as I read it, “Harlan is a smart guy, but there’s no way he knows all of this!”

Sure enough, I get to the end of the story and he gives thanks to a geologist who helped with the tale.

I was right. Harlan didn’t know that much about geology. So, he educated himself, then he could write what he knew. “Don’t try to sound like an expert on something when you’re completely fucking clueless.”

The other bit of terrible advice to writers? “Read more than you write.”

What?

That’s ridiculous!

Reading is certainly vital to understand the craft of writing, and reading also provides great sources of inspiration, to see what other amazing authors have composed.

But to read more than you write?

You don’t tell an athlete to watch sports more than they train.

You don’t tell dancers to watch dance recitals more than they step into the studio.

Should musicians listen to more music than they compose? Really? Should they listen to music 5 hours a day and write for only 3 hours?

Reading more than you write?

That will make you a great reader, not a great writer.

Improving your writing is only done… by writing! Duh! What kind of idiot thinks reading makes you a better author? Watching movies doesn’t mean you can direct them. Want to direct movies, then direct one. Attending a bodybuilding contest doesn’t improve your physique. Want to be a bodybuilder, then lift weights. Telling authors to read under the assumption it will make them better writers is like the stupid kids I see at the skatepark who play skateboarding videogames and they think they’ll be able to skate the pool. Then they see me drop in the 11′ deep end and they crap their pants. Fatass, snot-nosed little shits who play Tony Hawk videogames all day aren’t learning how to skate by sitting in front of their computer monitors. You aren’t learning how to write by reading a book.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not telling authors they shouldn’t read. Of course not! I’m a writer! Why the hell would I encourage illiteracy? That would be as senseless as a general claiming to be a pacifist. No. I want you to read. I want everyone to read. I want people to read all the time. I want you to constantly have a book on your nightstand. I write books. I love books. I love reading with a passion. Reading is glorious. But I don’t read in order to write better. My motive for reading is that I love to read. Period. And yes, obviously, I’m often inspired by things I read. I get excited when I read something that’s phrased with sheer elegance. When an author wields the foil of language with the prowess to compose phrases which ring with poignant verisimilitude. When an author has the ability to articulate a shared aspect of the human condition I never heard anyone express before; That’s always the most exciting, and rare, spark for me to encounter in reading. Those are the moments I savor. For me, that’s what reading and writing are all about. Capturing the commonality of those moments. Unifying humanity with the glee of knowing we are not alone and others understand the nuance of our existence. Giving a succinct voice to that heretofore unspoken experience.

Reading, for that reason alone, is a delight. As such, reading should retain a mythic delight. You can’t reverse engineer magic. Even a magician doesn’t ask a magician how he does his tricks.

Read because you love to read. Write if you want to be come a better writer.

You really think you can get better at writing through reading, read the dictionary. Improve your vocabulary. Broaden your pool of words. Educate yourself on that.

You want to be a better writer? Write. You want to be a better reader? Read. You want to be a better boxer? Turn off Rocky and climb in the ring. You want to be a better skateboarder, put away the shitty videogame and go outside.

Skaters skate.

Fighters fight.

Writers write.
 
“It is not merely enough to love literature if one wishes to spend one’s life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear.”
- Harlan Ellison

BOOK REVIEW: “The Crow” by James O’Barr

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

The Crow by James O’Barr is a stark black-and-white graphic novel you can’t talk about without mentioning the author’s motives behind writing it. Although the story may be fictional, the soul of the book is painfully real and any proper discussion of the novel has to marry the reality with the fantasy.

James O’Barr grew up like many of us. He was an awkward outcast. Solitary. A loner. Isolated.

When he was in high school, a miracle happened. He met a girl. Not just any girl, but a beautiful, amazing girl who fell in love with him. Beverly Ann.

Beverly was his angel. A radiant princess who was out of his league. The kind of girl he wouldn’t expect to notice he was alive and she picked him. She fell in love with him. At last, the universe had given him hope. Light. At last, the darkness was dispelled.

But of course, as those who are born into shadow know only too well, the universe can be cruel. Brutal. Merciless. Sometimes the light is only made brighter so the shadows can become darker. We are merely the fool jesters of a mad god king.

In 1978, James O’Barr’s fiancée was murdered by a drunk driver.

Those of you who have never experienced the pain of such a loss can’t imagine the silence of hate. Losing the only thing that matters to you doesn’t fill you with sadness. It fills you with a fury no word has been invented to describe. An anger that can extinguish the sun.

The Crow was James O’Barr’s catharsis. This book was his way of surviving and coping with a hurt that no one could ever hope to cope with. He has said himself, in many interviews, that creating the comic was no help. In fact, drawing each page seemed to be dragging him deeper into the darkness he was trying to escape.

He has encapsulated rage and sorrow and gingerly inserted them into the pages like a timebomb. There they sit. Entombed in coffin quiet. Awaiting you to ignite the charge.

The Crow tells the story of Eric Draven and his fiancée Shelly Webster. Both of them are senselessly murdered in a horrible act of random violence. For those of you who saw the 1994 movie with Brandon Lee in the eponymous role, that was an important plot point which was needlessly altered. In the movie, the couple is killed for defying eviction orders masterminded by a gang leader. Although the motive was not justified, there was a motive. In the book, there’s no motive at all. Fate. Destiny. The wrong place at the wrong time. Such a key point makes the book that much more tragic.

The beauty of the Crow is that it applies to the lives of everyone. One day, one horrible, unforgettable day, we all experience the anguish of those we love being stolen from us.

The way we lose them doesn’t matter. Illness. Accidents. Murders. Suicides. In the end, the only thing that matters is the fact that they are gone. That your life turns empty for the loss. That a light was extinguished too soon.

When you live that moment yourself, when that terrible day arrives, a book like The Crow will become the requiem of all the heartache you can’t put into words.

Every line. Every image. The abyss in every drop of ink will become your voice when you no longer have the strength to speak.

There are books in this world that are not about plots or stories. Instead, they stand as testaments and masterpieces to articulate feelings you can’t possibly express. The Crow is a master work of raw and unrefined emotion, giving a tangible form to the unmitigated rage of mourning.

My own life has a lot of strange connections to the Crow. In 1993, I was a stand-in for Jeff Imada on the film Double Dragon. Jeff had been the stunt coordinator of The Crow motion picture starring Brandon Lee as Eric Draven. Marc Dacascos, also a cast member of Double Dragon, went on to play Eric Draven in The Crow television series.

While writing my first novel, Michelle, the first girl to ever claim she loved me, committed suicide. Less than a year later, I discovered The Crow. Shelly. Michelle. Eric Draven and Eric Muss-Barnes. We were not so different from each other. Sometimes, on bad days, it could be difficult to remember which one of us was real and which one of us was fiction. Which one of us didn’t exist? Exist is a nebulous term, is it not?

20 years later and sometimes it’s still hard to tell.

This isn’t a book review like you were expecting but The Crow isn’t merely a book. The Crow is quite literally the personification of bereavement. Lamentation given a tangible form.

The Crow will be a story you can relate to like no other. Someday. If you haven’t lived through the torture of losing someone you love, it will happen. Next year. Next decade. Twenty years from now. But sooner or later, that day shall arrive for you, as it arrives for all of us.

On that day, Eric Draven will become your dark angel too. Your pain will be the razors he carves into his skin. Your heartbreak will reflect back into your eyes through the black wings of The Crow.

On that fateful, fateful day…

The Crow won’t be a book.

The Crow won’t be a story.

The Crow will be your salvation.

And sometimes, just sometimes, The Crow can bring your soul back, to put the wrong things right.

The Chosen Ones

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There is an immense proliferation of novels geared towards a prepubescent and college audience with the exact same plot: Awkward outsider meets attractive and charming member of the opposite sex and awkward outsider discovers they are secretly “The Chosen One” destined to do great deeds. Oh, and if the Chosen One is female, there’s often two-guys vying for her love triangle attention.

You don’t need to take a high school psychology class to understand the simple reason for the appeal of this story. We all feel like awkward outsiders at that time in our lives, we all wish that we shall become something special, and we pray we never resign ourselves to settling for a mundane existence. In short, we hope to accomplish great things and we fear to become our parents. Because goodness knows, they never accomplished anything! All they ever did was give up all of their dreams when they had you. As for the love triangles – obviously those stories are all written for horny virgin teenage girls who would love to have multiple studpuppies fighting over them.

This is why I hate those stories.

We honestly believe in what we read. Some of us do. The magicians. The witches. The wizards. Those of us who possess the power to conjure these realms. Those of us who have always been meant to change the world by melding two universes together. We honestly think we can become mutant superheroes. Every kid awaiting puberty thinks maybe, just maybe, our generation will be the first. Maybe the mutations have already begun. Maybe we will be one of the illustrious “Chosen Ones” and maybe these makebelieve stories aren’t so makebelieve after all! Maybe these authors are in on the secret. Maybe they are trying to tell us something. Maybe we are being sent these stories by the universe, because the universe is trying to prepare us for something. For the change. For the great convergence of that world shifting moment.

I have a confession to make. I still believe. I still hope. Sometimes, I read a book or watch a movie and I think, “Oh, please. Let me be part of that world. Let me become something great. Let me make a difference.” Maybe the universe is trying to prepare me for my own moment of becoming a superhero.

Or maybe not.

Maybe the world is just full of crappy writers who can’t come up with an original story idea! There’s no clandestine secret society trying to prepare the new generation for their eminent destiny. No. All these stories being repeated is not a sign of some impending fate. There’s no meaning behind it at all! Just a bunch of dumbass braindead hacks churning out trite novels and screenplays and the same pathetic comic books because they don’t have two atoms of originality in their bodies.

When you begin to realize that, it really starts to piss you off.

When you reach high school and discover puberty didn’t leave you with a single superpower – other than needing 30 minutes to take a shower – you feel furious. You were betrayed. They promised you something! Well, maybe they didn’t promise, but they sure implied it! And they didn’t deliver.

Then in high school, you never meet that supernatural guide. That new girl or new guy never moves in to your neighborhood. The mysterious stranger doesn’t start attending your school. No one shows up to tell you about your otherworldly family lineage. You never get a letter. By the time you reach college, you find out nothing is going to happen at all.

Turns out you won’t grow up to be a superhero or a Chosen One. The old wizened mentor will never show up to teach you the ancient ways of your ancestors. You’ll never get the girl who is out of your league. The hot guy will never talk to you. The Lady of the Lake will not bequeath you Excalibur. The spaceships aren’t going to come and pick you up. You won’t find the Golden Ticket and you won’t inherit the chocolate factory.

And, goddamnit, that pisses you off!

You are not The Chosen One after all.

The superpower mutations are not starting with your generation.

You’re going to end up just like your parents.

And like your grandparents before them.

What the hell is so special about that?

Why did those stories make all those promises?

One day you wake up and realize that you’re just like everyone else. They lied to you. And that’s not what bothers you. What bothers you is knowing you will always be like everyone else. That this will never change.

That’s the worst part of all. Knowing those promises will never come true. Knowing they were always lies.

That is one of the moments when childhood ends. Some say it ends when you learn you will die. Others say it ends when you suffer that first broken heart. And of course no one ever wants to mention how quickly childhood ends in those who were touched in a way that was far too intimate, at an age far too young. The truth is, no one event ever kills your childhood. Rather it withers slowly through a culmination of disappointments that eat away at your innocence. In moments like the first phonecall that someone has died. That icy telephone voice, when a different gear snaps into the world and nothing ever moves the same again.

There is one great glimmer of hope in all this though.

That is for you to become your own Chosen One. For you to take charge and define your existence. To defiantly cast aside those shackles of mediocrity the world has in mind for you. The moment you refuse to be bound by their expectations, the moment you become the champion of your own legend, you can transform your life.

I can promise you two things right now. I can promise you that everyone who considers those thoughts will aspire to achieve them. And I promise that most of you shall fail.

There is no shame in that failure. Mediocrity is not a crime nor a sin. We can’t all be superheroes. Otherwise, who will the superheros have to save? We need the vanilla beige of mediocrity in the world. And if fate has decreed that be your destiny, wear the mantle with pride. There is no humiliation in living a simple and banal life. You mundanes and neurotypicals live days blessed with a serenity the chosen souls will never possess. You can shut off your mind and watch Monday Night Football and grab a beer. You’re lucky. You never have to worry about waking up at 3am to write down the next chapter of the novel. You never need to stay up for 20 hours on the film set. You’re never haunted by the circuitboard schematics when you go see your kids school play. You can just come home from working 9 to 5 and shut off your brain. That’s a privilege. There is no dishonor in following that path. We can’t all soar or the skies would be a danger to us all. Some of us need to keep our feet on the ground and if you be destined to remain the salt of the earth, then bless you. Be happy with your fate. There is just as much honor and glory in a humble life as there is in a spectacular one.

For the rest of you…

You must jump from the cliff and hope you sprout wings. If you aren’t brave enough or crazy enough to make the leap, you’re going to need to do the walk of shame back down the mountain. For although there be no shame in mediocrity, there is certainly shame in boasting of dreams you never have the courage to pursue.

Fly. The worst that can happen is that you die trying.

And in that defining moment of skyrocketing or squishing, you will find the most powerful realization of all – that the reality they insist you live in does not have to be the one you chose. You can defy the very perceptions they have ingrained in you. You can rise above their reality and never need to look back. And even if you fail, at least you made the attempt to break free.

That is the promise I seek to teach in my stories. I’ll never lie to you with false hopes of Chosen Ones and swordwielding mentors. I’ll never fill you with expectations that a sorcerer may appear on a particular birthday. Instead, I will deliver on my promises by sharing the virtues of tenacity and perseverance. But I temper that with a warning: There’s an excellent chance you won’t be the hero. You may accomplish nothing but defeat. Despite what storybooks tell you, the mere pursuit of your dreams is never a guarantee of success. I will not spraypaint over the horseshit, just to make you think the streets are paved with gold. They aren’t. They’re brick, and cracked, and covered with horseshit. I won’t guide you down a path of lies and claim it’s nothing but primroses. On the contrary, I’ll be the one to tell you the truth – watch your step, because the road you’re on is full of horseshit and flanked by thornbushes. But if you find the bravery to step outside your door and you make it down that path, if you navigate the dark road, ah, the rewards shall be real.

My stories will never seduce you into thinking you’re The Chosen One.

I won’t dash your dreams by filling you with the wishes to be that soul.

Instead, I will show you how to stop dreaming the dreams of others, and point you to the road where your own can come true.

Wear boots. You’re gonna need ‘em.