Monthly Archives: May 2014

With Enemies Like That, Who Needs Friends?

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“At forty-two I had come to that point in my life toward which I’d struggled since I’d been a child: a place of security, importance, recognition. The only one from this town who had made it. The ones who had had the most promise in school were now milkmen, used car salesmen, married to fat, stupid dead women who had, themselves, been girls of exceeding promise in high school. They had been trapped in this little Ohio town, never to break free. To die there, unknown. I had broken free, had done all the wonderful things I’d said I would do.”
- Harlan Ellison “One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty”
 

I’m a liar. I’m a fraud. I’m a hypocrite.

For my lifetime of posturing and preaching about pursuing your dreams and making your wishes and hopes come true, I’ve never done it myself. I’ve never even tried.

I know what you’re thinking. “Yes, you have, Eric! You do everything you dream! You became a licensed hang glider pilot soaring over a mile above the earth. You moved to Hollywood with no job and ended up working for Walt Disney. You’re a published novelist. You go skateboarding in California pools with girls who win medals in the XGames. You’re an award-nominated filmmaker. Your photography has appeared in art galleries and you’ve worked with Playboy Playmates and television stars. You date fashion models. You’re an equestrian. A motorcyclist. You’ve been dragged by horses and fallen off motorcycles and you’re badass enough to still be walking and talking about it. What haven’t you done?”

Well, the truth is, all I ever really wanted to do, the only way I ever truly wanted to make a living, was as a novelist. Nothing else. All the other things I have achieved in my life are things I’m happy about, and proud of, and certainly grateful to have experienced, and my varied career choices have been honestly fun and enjoyable. But I have never sincerely pursued my one great passion. I have never even attempted to make a living as a novelist. I’ve never attempted it. I’ve never submitted a single manuscript for publication. Not one book. Not one essay. Nothing. I’ve never queried an agent. Worst of all, in my efforts to self-publish my work, I only spend a couple of months doing any marketing and promotions before I grow bored and just give up on it.

Earning a cushy 6-figures a year as a novelist – as a career, that is the biggest and oldest dream I have ever possessed. And I have never even tried to make that dream happen. Not really tried. Only half-heartedly.

I’m ashamed of that. I feel like such a putz.

Worst of all, I lied to myself. I convinced myself that simply writing novels was enough. I told myself that the act of creation was the only reward I required. But it is precisely because that bliss of creation is genuinely sublime, that it’s not enough. The work must earn a living for the artist, simply as a way to assure the creative process can be maintained for a majority of all their days. The addiction to art must be fueled by the success of the addiction.

That’s why I’m a liar and a hypocrite.

I always tell people to pursue their passions and personally, I have only ever pursued my own passion in a half-assed way.

No one has ever noticed. No one has ever called me out on it. Not until a few months ago, one person brought it up. But no one else ever has. I have written novels. I have published novels. Therefore, I can legitimately call myself a novelist and no one can contend that fact. That’s all I need in order to “fake it” and trick the world. Make everyone think I’m “going for my dreams” when I’m really not.

Often have I complained that friends and family have never had much faith in me. Not that they expect me to fail. They just seem indifferent to the outcome.

Oh, sure, they say the right things. I might occasionally hear a “that’s great” or a “good for you.” But no one who says that ever means it. If they were genuinely supportive, they’d actually purchase and read my books. None of them bother to do that and actions do speak louder than words. Anyone can say they are supportive. Another thing to truly be supportive. Friends of mine have actually posted on websites about other people they know publishing books, but they never bothered to mention any of the numerous books I’ve written. In fact, I knew one girl who was doing a fundraiser for her dance troupe on the Internet and I tried to help her out and I reposted her promotions all over my social media sites. Getting the word out for her as best I could. When I asked her to return the favor and let people know about my latest book release, you know what she said? She said she didn’t have time to promote my stuff, because she had to focus on her own project right now.

See? I’m telling you, I truly don’t have any friends. I have numerous acquaintances and selfish fucking assholes. The friends slot is full of cobwebs.

Heck, I’ve even put some friends in my books as cameo characters, and those people never read my books either. Some people who have been part of the artwork and images in a few of my novels have never bothered to read the book. Obviously, this is not indicative of the quality of the story. Not like the writing is bad, so they can’t stomach reading it. No. They don’t even pick up their copy of the book in the first place. When friends don’t even care enough to read a book you have written them into, are they really friends at all? Perhaps I’m mislabeling mere acquaintances with more credit than they actually deserve.

Therein lies another way in which I’m a hypocrite. So frequently I claim to not care that friends and family show no support. Truth be told, it bothers me a lot. I am always nagged by that same concern: “If the people who supposedly care about my fortune and success, don’t really give a shit, why would anyone else? If these people don’t care enough to read my books, who will?”

Then, I finally realized something.

I finally realized I had it backwards.

I realized I was being unfair. If I truly want to be a successful author, the key is to discover and cultivate fans. To nurture an audience. People who will appreciate my books because of the writing, not because they know me. And that audience must consist of hundreds of thousands of people, not a few dozen friends and family. If I sincerely want to make my dreams a reality, I need to think on a much larger scale and fans are the people I have to rely upon. No one else matters. Not friends. Not family. Not old coworkers. Not former classmates. Those people serve very different purposes in life. Friends and family are not here to help me realize my ambitions. That is not their job. To imbue them with such an expectation is my failing, not theirs.

The people I need to care about are the ones who value what I create. No one else. I used to think successful “marketing” meant I needed to share my literary accomplishments with everyone. All the time. Starting with friends and family. Now I realize that was never the proper attitude. Success stems from sharing your craft with the people who give a damn. Sharing it with anyone else is a waste of time. Regardless of whether they are friends, family, or strangers – if they don’t support and share an enthusiasm for your work, they are useless to your success. Throw those people overboard. So long as they are uninterested or cynical toward your achievements, they have no place in your journey to fulfill your dreams and ambitions. Get rid of them. Banish them from your life.

Perhaps I was wrong all along. Perhaps for some of us, friends and loved ones are never meant to be supportive. Perhaps their role is to play our villains. Perhaps in the stories of our lives, they are destined to be our antagonists. The ones who doubt us. The ones who push us. The ones who test our mettle and force us to hold firm in our convictions. The ones who challenge our resolve and thereby strengthen our commitment to attaining the goal. They are the embodiment of all which threatens to usurp our determination. They are the first monsters we must defeat. They are the teachers who show us how to defy the world and prevail against everyone who opposes us.

To be a writer, you walk the path alone. There are no friends. There are no confidants. No comrades nor compatriots. There are no crowds on the sidelines cheering you to victory. To bear this task is to tread through desolation. To be abandoned. To be forgotten.

On the road to nowhere, you shall cleave no companionship.

How glorious. To gaze about and see you need not tarry for anyone to keep pace, you need not be impeded by any who presume to detour your journey.

The quest be a lifetime. And what a triumphant trail lay before thee.

BOOK REVIEW: “Faeries” by Brian Froud & Alan Lee

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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
 

Faeries by Brian Froud is unique among any books I’ve ever read. The book is part reference manual, part artist sketchbook, part short story compendium, and some would dare say, part anthropological fieldguide. Faeries isn’t a book that can be neatly tucked into a tidy description. Like the author Brian Froud, Faeries is truly in a class by itself.

Written and illustrated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee (mostly known for his conceptual design work on The Lord of The Rings films and his uncredited design of Legend by Ridley Scott), Brian is a world-renown fantasy artist and author of several books featuring his second-sight hypnogogic images of the realms of faerie. In addition to his wonderful illustrative talents, Brian Froud is also responsible for the conceptual design of timeless films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. He also worked on the wonderful Jim Henson television series The Storyteller.

During the summer of 2003, I had the great honor of meeting Brian Froud, two days in a row. The first time we met was at the illustrious Labyrinth Masquerade Ball (which took place in Santa Monica that year) and the next time we met was at a little curio shop where he was doing a book signing, I believe somewhere over in Brentwood.

Wonderful gentleman. At the Masquerade Ball, I hung out with Brian, and his lovely wife Wendy, and I chatted with their son Toby for a time as well. Wendy is an incredible artist in her own right, helping design characters such as Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and the gelflings Jen and Kira in The Dark Crystal. Wendy and I discovered that I actually used to take family vacations up near the little town in Michigan where she was born, Traverse City. We reminisced about that for awhile and had a great chat. We hung out for a good hour or so, just talking. That was when they told me about the signing the next day and invited me to come along. Strangely enough, no one seemed to recognize Brian or Wendy Froud, so they weren’t being swarmed by people pleading for autographs or anything. We were kicking back in a little lounge area, all by ourselves, overlooking a wrought-iron balcony onto hundreds of people who were milling about on the dancefloor and socializing in other parts of the ball.

The next day, I arrived at the book signing about 2 hours early, because I wasn’t interested in getting anything signed, but I simply wanted to hang out with Brian and Wendy again. And it was wonderful because, once again, no one had shown up yet. We had the shop all to ourselves on a quiet Saturday morning and we sat around having a charming conversation in this quaint and lovely little store for a good hour or so. And that was it. I never kept in touch with the Froud family. I never saw them or met them again. On two unassuming summer days in 2003 in Los Angeles, I just had one pleasant evening and one serene morning of hanging out with some of the greatest fantasy artists of my time.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re wondering why the hell I’m talking about hanging out with Brian Froud when this is supposed to be a review of his Faeries book. What does my stupid Hollywood namedropping have to do with the book? Right? But talking about hanging out with Brian Froud does make for a legitimate review of the Faeries book, because his visionary talent ties into who he is as a person, as well as the artwork of the book. When an author like myself is writing a novel, that’s a makebelieve story that may only reflect a fractional facet of my own personality. Faeries is the type of book that reflects an integral part of who Brian Froud happens to be. So, telling you that he and I shared a delightful discussion during a magical moment is very relevant to reviewing Faeries.

Faeries has been in print for over 20 years and for good reason. Faeries is an endless well of inspiration, influencing the imagination of tattoo artists and novelists alike. Brian Froud images have ended up on the hips of beautiful women and the Celtic legends have imbued novels like my own. The stories and faerie tales contained in Faeries are dreamy and compelling and stand as an enchanting combination of newly invented fiction combined with age old folklore. The artwork is enrapturing and every pencil-line, every brush-stroke promises to reveal new secrets each time the book is opened. You will constantly find yourself discovering a treasure trove of images and imaginings you never saw before. Imbued with the magic to constantly unveil itself to you, the book is something you will return to again and again. Because the images hold such richness and detail, everytime you read the book, it will feel like you are opening up to pages you had never noticed before.

Movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Legend are loathed and derided by most of the world because most of the world is filled with zombies and devils and those who are dead to all magic. The few of us who love these movies and these worlds are of a different breed. Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Legend speak to a very particular and peculiar type of person. Those films are still cherished as the favorite movies of certain people, even 30 years after they were made. To me, that kind of ageless appeal correlates directly to the spirit imbued into those motion pictures though the magic of Brian Froud’s vision. Brian Froud sees the world in a way that all of us instinctively understood as children, yet we soon forget. Brian has never forgotten. Brian never lost sight of how the world looked when we were still young enough to know that magic truly exists. Only when we become older do we become stupid and uneducated and robbed of our wisdom. As children, we are still insightful enough to recall what the world really looks like. That is why all of Brian Froud’s artwork looks so familiar. From movies to television to books like Faeries, we have all seen these worlds before. We know them. We remember them. Somewhere in our collective subconscious, we remember when The Crystal cracked. We were there when the Skeksis and the Mystics appeared. We have been lost in that very same labyrinth before. We know those walls. We can still feel their texture.

How is it that we know those things?

Why do we remember that stuff?

How does Brian Froud recall enough to reconstruct those dreamscapes on movie sets and in the pages of Faeries?

Pick up a copy of Faeries for yourself and you’ll start to find the answers. I’m willing to bet the images will all look a little familiar to you. You’ve seen these seelie and unseelie courts before. In dreams. In nightmares. In childhood memories you’re not sure really happened or did you make them up? You know you’ve seen these creatures somewhere before. For some of us, you’ll love a book like Faeries, because it always reminds you of home.

You Have Been Lied to About Storytelling

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“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught.”
- Ray Bradbury
 

The ideas I want to share with you today are an excerpt of something I originally mentioned in the epilogue of my novel, Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about writing, the biggest “secret” was something that no one ever told me. I never read it in any books or heard any teachers talk about it. No screenwriting courses teach it. No writing-advice forums on the Internet mention it.

So, what is the big “secret” I learned?

I learned that the common ideas of what makes “good” writing, and the constructs within which to compose a story, such as the Hero’s Journey or the Three-Act-Structure, are all bullshit.

In truth, the formula to concoct compelling writing requires only two things:

1. Characters the reader cares about.

2. Interesting experiences for those characters to have.

That’s it. Period. Nothing else matters.

Few “professional” writers will agree with me.

Every creative writing teacher on earth will tell you I’m wrong.

I’m not wrong.

I can prove it.

What is your favorite story of all time? Now, hold on, before you answer that, let me quantify the question – I am not talking exclusively about books or movies or television shows. I am talking about every story in your entire life. Which one is your favorite? Think about our most common form of storytelling. What is it? How are our most predominant stories constructed?

It’s not movies. It’s not books. It’s not television.

It’s our friends and family.

Right?

Think about it.

Which story is your favorite? I bet it’s not your favorite book. I bet it’s a story your grandfather tells about meeting your grandmother. A story your uncle has told you about his days in college. The story of you and your brother getting lost in the woods during the blizzard. Those are the most important stories in your life. Those are the stories of who you are.

We are all storytellers. Every conversation we have with people tends to consist of storytelling. The largest and most prolific and influential source of storytelling in our lifetimes comes from our verbal interaction with fellow human beings. The oral tradition is alive and well. Everyone is constantly telling each other about things that happened to them at work, or on a date, or with the kids, or at the family reunion, or going out to the nightclub, or what happened at the bowling alley, or their day at the beach, or the plane ride on their vacation.

Now, I ask you, have you ever listened to your grandparents talk about their day at the grocery store and when they are finished, you say, “Well, that story didn’t have a proper Three-Act-Structure.”

Of course not!

Did you ever listen to your friend tell you a hilarious story of their vacation, then say, “Well, that was a great story, but it didn’t follow the motif of the Hero’s Journey.”

No! That would be moronic!

Critics of books and movies make those ignorant comments, because they don’t understand anything about what makes a great story.

Don’t get me wrong. The Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act-Structure are very legitimate and valid ways to build a story. I’m not trying to undermine the legitimacy of these constructs or imply that the analysis of tales following these motifs are incorrect. I’m simply noting that when stories are diluted into their most raw and essential ingredients, they are far more simple than we have been lead to believe.

Hence, I reiterate, stories require only two elements:

1. Characters the audience cares about.

2. Interesting experiences for those characters to have.

In the grocery store example, the characters are your grandparents. If you care about them, and their story isn’t boring, you will listen. Plain and simple. Their tale will hold your attention. Doesn’t matter what the “structure” of the story happens to be. There doesn’t need to be an antagonist, or a conflict, or a character arc, or any of the bullshit they teach you in writing classes.

You need to have characters people care about.

Those characters have to be in interesting situations.

That’s it.

The end.

That’s the whole of secret of storytelling!

One of the greatest literary examples of this is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The book has no plot. The book has no structure. The book has no antagonist. There is no character arc. It’s a story about a kid wandering around New York City and hanging out. Despite breaking all rules of writing conventions and storytelling, it is one of the most enthralling books you can imagine.

Why?

Why does The Catcher in the Rye work so well, despite being written so unconventionally? Why is it so magnificent, despite breaking the rules?

Because it follows my two rules:

1. A character you care about.

2. He does things that are interesting.

Being a great storyteller requires nothing more.

Now, I do have to add, your technical skill does play a factor. One must be articulate and have a savvy vocabulary in order to obey those two rules. That is how a character becomes endearing and has those interesting experiences. Command of language is vital. Going back to the example of the grandparents and the grocery store, if your grandfather has a crippling stutter, it could make it very difficult to enjoy his story. Even though you adore him and he’s telling something interesting, if you can’t understand his speech, the story still falls apart.

Which leads me to another myth of writing, which I long ago learned is false, and that is when people constantly say, “The story is everything.”

Absolutely not.

You hear writers and filmmakers repeat that over and over again.

“The story is everything.”

“The story is the most important thing.”

Bullshit!

The story is irrelevant! The telling is everything.

Remember the 1985 hit “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head? Topped the charts in Europe and peaked at #3 in the United States? The song is about chess. Do you suppose there was a big demand for chess-themed pop songs? No. The song was catchy. That is why it became a hit. The story of the lyrics didn’t matter. What mattered was the way the song was composed. Good hook. You could dance to it. Storytelling is not about the story, it’s about the telling.

As a writer, you’re not a “story”, you’re a “storyTELLER”.

An audience never “reads a story”, they “experience storytelling”. As a storyteller, your job is to make that experience compelling and memorable. But more than that, because “compelling” and “memorable” are bullshit words your English teacher will use. What you write has to live in people. You are Dr. Frankenstein, giving life to the corpse of words. Sewing them together, electrifying them, making them walk the earth for eternity!

A great storyteller can make a story about drying paint, compelling.

A terrible storyteller can make a story about the first lunar landing, dull.

“Drying too fast in the arid heat, she watched the paint splinter; crevices forming across the surface, like skin on her grandmother’s brow.”

“The spaceship landed for the first time that ever happened before!”

Your telling can ruin anything.

Your telling can make anything beautiful.

That’s the secret to great writing.

The story isn’t what matters. What matters is the way you tell it.

 
“When you’re all alone out there, on the end of the typewriter, with each new story a new appraisal by the world of whether you can still get it up or not, arrogance and self-esteem and deep breathing are all you have. It often looks like egomania. I assure you it’s the bold coverup of the absolutely terrified.”
- Harlan Ellison