so what do you do? me? i’m a writer

Going to try some visual aids. Don’t get used to it.

Sunday was an extremely busy day, involving a great deal of socializing far beyond anything I’ve done since college. Technically, the socializing was all business related but at my level of filmmaking, the notion of networking-by-hobnobbing makes it hard to tell the difference.

Trust me, we are all working hard.

Trust me, we are all working very hard.

Let’s see… meet with a hip-hop artist/producer, check. Then meet with a fellow filmmaker/assistant director, check. Follow shortly after by birthday dinner at an upscale (by my standards, anyway) restaurant with people I’ve never met before, check. And wrap up with an impromptu pre-production meeting at a friend’s house. Oh, and there may have been falafel and nausea-inducing hookah somewhere in there.

like here

like here

Sunday was a twelve-hour day, chockfull of all sorts of interactions and project planning that I imagine a full-time filmmaker does when he’s not filming. It was exhausting and emotionally terrifying for an introvert like myself. And with the exception of a few social hiccups, I loved every minute of it.

these guys may not have exactly observed the love

these guys may not have exactly witnessed the love

It was a day of introductions like “I’m a musician,” “I’m an actress,” and “I’m a producer.” And while I’m 99.9% sure none of us actually do those things for a living, what we said is absolutely true because we were describing our true selves. It was the first time I ever found myself in such an environment, where everyone was so unafraid to reveal that much about who they really are. We spoke of ourselves as we saw ourselves. As creatives. As artists.

Maybe I’ve been a writer and a producer all along. Maybe I’ve just let society, internet trolls, and my own negativity tell me otherwise. That I’m an office temp, or a security guard, or an unemployed sad sack. It’s that old argument of when a writer can call himself a writer. Does he have to be published first? Does he have to be paid enough to support himself? Or is he a writer when he gives himself over to the craft–and writes?

I think… well, no, I want to believe that it’s a matter of belief. I am what I believe myself to be, not what I do to earn a paycheck. Of course, there are probably some exceptions (I’m not an astronaut, for example), there are some caveats. And, in the case of writing, elitists and jerks the world over will be quick to judge and strike down anyone who dares assume the mantle of “writer” in the name of professionalism and butthurt. You know what I’m talking about. Friends and family members who want you to be more practical, think more practical. Mortal enemies who say you haven’t jumped through the right hoops yet.

No, I’m not a paid writer, or a published writer, or even a professional writer. But I’m a writer, dammit. I remember a moment at that dinner when a young woman asked me what I did. Without even thinking about it, I told her I was a writer and producer. And I didn’t feel the least bit silly or phony.

writers, directors, musicians, oh my!

writers, directors, musicians, oh my!

Because that’s my true self.

Oh. And here’s some cheesecake from the dinner.

because cheesecake

because cheesecake

same as last time

Writing is an art.

“Duh,” you say. “Shah,” I reply, to quote my favorite high school English teacher. Here’s my point. Writing is not a science. It lacks quantifiable rules and hard absolutes. We like to believe that distinguishing good writing from bad writing is obvious and universal. Hemingway and Thoreau good. Meyer and Paolini bad. You won’t find me in disagreement about those examples, but this notion of determining the quality of writing stands on shaky ground. It’s completely subjective. True, there is a craft to writing well. One needs look no further than Campbell’s monomyth, but we’re describing cross-cultural truths and themes, not laws.

I love, love the works of R. Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson. I think they’re exceptional writers, true masters of the craft. I aspire to shape my storytelling like theirs: non-traditional, epic in scope, rich in philosophical nuance. But a lot of people would disagree with me. Patrick Rothfuss and Christie Golden have legions of fans defending their every word, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading them too. I’m convinced they’re glorified hacks.

Damn. I’m starting to sound a little resentful, aren’t I? This isn’t the direction I want to go, so allow me to get back on track.

Writing is subjective. There.

Ultimately, only you can decide if you’re a good writer or not. (Or if your preferred author is good or not, but I’m going to focus on “you the writer,” not “you the reader.”) Only you have the power to say if your story works or not. No one has the power to tell you that your stuff is weak sauce and be right. Because writing is, pardon my language, fucking art. It’s not some geometry proof where you missed a step and messed it all up.

So… why, then, does it hit us so hard when the feedback we get isn’t the feedback we were hoping for? It’s not that we wonder if our writing sucks. Okay, it’s not only that we wonder that. It’s that we want our work to be understood. At least that’s how it is with me. In a way, yes, I’m referring to the old adage that our writing is personal and comes from our own experience. I don’t care if people think/say/write that my writing sucks. I’m confident and comfortable enough to know that it doesn’t. And I really don’t care if my writing is appreciated, because I write for me. I don’t write for validation, kudos, or Kit-Kat bars. Because in my heart, I firmly believe that writing is about communicating. And I think everyone wants to be understood.

The editor who has been working on my manuscript is very good. Excellent, even. I can clearly see in her notes that she’s intelligent, intuitive, and a skilled communicator. The work she’s put into my manuscript has been exceptional, and I would eagerly refer other writers to her. Still. I’m not sure she really understands what I’m trying to do. Or maybe she does, and my manuscript really needs a lot of work. It’s something she and I will have to discuss.

As I said in my last post, I have not been the best at identifying weaknesses in my own storytelling efforts until long after the fact. I guess it’s not so unusual to say that we writers have some blindspots when it comes to our work. But that’s not the case with my manuscript. I went into it knowing that it would lack certain elements traditionally considered essential or, at least, desirable. Telling stories in medias res requires some adjustments. The reader needs to exercise some patience and have faith that, by the end of the story, their initial questions will be satisfied in one way or another. It’s a common technique, in literature and film, but mainstream films tend to rely heavily on flashback sequences to fill in the blanks. I wasn’t going to do that, at least not in the same way I’d seen it done. My manuscript would ask more of the reader, and I’ve succeeded for the most part. Maybe too much. My editor may think so, and so maybe my blindspots persist.

I’m also hyper-critical. Of myself and others. I’m very good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) at identifying weak points in others’ stories. Camera angles look that look askew. Lighting that distracts. Acting that doesn’t convince. Dialogue that falls flat. Plot choices that strain credulity. (Yeah, all cinematic stuff. I’m a little gentler with literature.) And with my own work… well, I’m extremely nit-picky about my choices. (Not so much here in the blog, though. I work hard to stay relaxed.) I agonize over every character choice, every twist in plot. It all has great meaning. And I want to be understood.

when the feedback you’re hoping for isn’t the feedback you get

No, no clever title this time, though I admit this may still confuse some people.

When I went to film school, I had a lot of big story ideas I couldn’t wait to translate to the screen. I’d been writing for so many years, fantasizing about my stories appearing on TV or film. I’d spent days, then weeks and months developing characters and story arcs… maybe I was a little light on theme, but the hope of further developing my ideas pushed me to step way outside my comfort zone twice and move across the country to attend film school.

If you ever hear someone say that filmmaking is a collaborative art, it’s completely true. And in some ways it isn’t. Unless you’re gifted with superhuman speed, stamina, and masochistic tendencies, you need other people to work alongside you–a cast and crew. When we’re talking professional (Hollywood or “indie”) productions, there’s really no way around that. You just can’t make a film by yourself. But when I say that filmmaking isn’t collaborative, I mean that as the designated “filmmaker,” the person with the vision and the need to make this film (whether that makes you the director or the producer), it’s really all on you to push and make sure you succeed. Like with writing in general, it can be kind of a lonely road. Your vision guides the shape the story takes. Your perseverance steers the project through the inevitable tough times. (Yes, I know all about the studio system. Let’s not pop open that particular can of worms.) It may be that you’ll invite others to participate in your storytelling process, of course, but the product should reflect what you want. Don’t look to someone else to make those final creative decisions, because you’re the filmmaker. (There’s a really great text called The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide: Financing, Shooting and Distributing Independent and Digital Films
by Jon M. Garon
that describes this concept of a “filmmaker” in its opening chapters.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t take this lesson to heart while I was at film school. Despite all my hard work, I never fully “owned” my productions, and the quality suffered for it. And for as long as I was in school, I never really understood why. I never even noticed the problems on set, or during post-production, not until it was too late.

My classmates saw it but if they knew the real reason why, they didn’t say. Despite that, they still saw more clearly than I did. They pointed out the obvious, of course. (Obvious in hindsight.) Visually, a lot of my work was a mess. I couldn’t argue with it. But I was sure the story, the script, was solid at least. Feedback on that part was minimal. Neutral. Needless to say, I was crushed. It wasn’t until I switched from a Directing concentration to Screenwriting that I finally started to received the kind of feedback I was looking for.

Except it wasn’t the feedback I was hoping for.

My professors–and especially my thesis committee–and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on my scripts. Technically and lyrically, they had nothing but high praise. Thematically and otherwise, well, I can only hope that they just didn’t get what I was trying to do. Whether they did or not, though, the feedback was discouraging. In the words of one professor (whose opinion means a lot to me), “It’s beautifully written, but I just don’t see why I should give a shit about these characters.”

Those words, even now several years later, have never left me.

it’s a wrap… sigh

Yes, I know it’s cliche. Forgive me.

This past weekend was crazy, stressful, exciting, tiring, sweaty, and truly productive. We shot and wrapped my film company’s first production. A short film, some might even call it a skit. I call it a milestone. I was sure up until the day of that something would go awry and we’d have to cancel it. And with the one exception of a missing piece of equipment, it went off without a hitch!

Yes, friends. I am in that post-production (but not yet post production!) glow, and now it’s time to kick my social media campaign into gear. With that said, here are some key links I hope you all check out and decide to follow:

http://www.facebook.com/dancingwombatproductions

http://www.vimeo.com/dancingwombatproductions

http://www.instagram.com/dancingwombatpr

http://www.twitter.com/dancingwombatpr

By the way, my company name is Dancing Wombat Productions. 🙂 Why? Well… the short answer is I like wombats. Look them up. They’re odd and adorable and can probably claw your face off if you’re not careful. The longer answer is that the “Dancing” part of the name is a dedication to a friend of mine who died not long ago. She had dreams and hopes, and we worked together briefly on helping each other pursue those dreams and hopes. I never want to forget her, and I want my efforts with my company to help honor her.

Finishing principal photography on this project is the culmination of months of work, despair, wallet-emptying, and stepping way outside my comfort zone. I made a lot of connections with people I never thought I’d meet. A talented and easygoing director. Fantastic actresses. A jack-of-all-trades musician and production crewer. And other people have supported me in this endeavor in so many ways. My mother, various friends, even some co-workers. There are so many people who deserve credit, without whom I would never have gotten to this point.

Hah. This is starting to sound like an acceptance speech at an awards show, isn’t it? Alright.

This whole thing is all the crazier considering the writing projects I have going on at the same time. My work on my manuscript is being taken to the next level with a very skilled editor. Plus I’m working on another manuscript I hope to self-publish sometime this year. It’s been such an uneven month for me. I’m a pretty impatient person, and sometimes it’s felt like I haven’t been doing anything or getting anywhere. And there’s plenty of areas in my life where that is still the case. But in this one area, this creative area, I’m beginning to see results and I can barely believe it. Of course there’s so much more work to do on this first project alone, but… no one can ever tell me I haven’t done anything ever again.

diversity or agenda?

Maybe it’s not the best title, but I didn’t want to get stuck on picking one. The idea came up when a friend and I were discussing a new manuscript concept of mine.

I like diversity when it comes to my characters. I’m not the biggest fan of “young white male protagonist.” I have nothing against it. In fact, most of the books I read revolve around a YWMP. Hell, I even confess that most of the time I write Caucasian characters. I guess it’s habit. That’s usually the reason, isn’t it? Habit. And probably familiarity. Although I’m half-Mexican, I had a thoroughly American white upbringing. My father was Caucasian, and in my house we embraced his culture over my mother’s. So I guess I’m mostly familiar with a “white” perspective, and I don’t often think much about other perspectives.

But I do write female Caucasians more than anything else. And I think I feel most comfortable with strong female protagonists now because the most important person in my life is my mother. My father died when I was very young, and my mom raised me. She’s the one I still turn to for advice, for comfort, for encouragement, for wisdom. My mom is a very capable, very formidable woman. And I admire her so much for all she’s done and all she’s taught herself to do.

I digress.

It annoys me when I observe constant evidence of Hollywood’s failure to promote diversity. Both in front of the camera and behind it. Why, we just saw today (or was it yesterday) how the nominees for the major Oscar categories are white. (The only exception being Alejandro G. Iñárritu.) Really? No love for Will Smith? Straight Outta Compton? Michael B. Jordan? Idris Elba? Of course, women aren’t much better represented. The Academy can’t take all the blame, though. After all, how many Hollywood films can even claim much diversity?

But this isn’t a conversation about race. Not this time, anyway.

I’m much less familiar with books. I cannot begin to speak to the issue of diversity when it comes to literature.

Tonight, during my conversation with my friend, I mentioned a choice I was making about my lead protagonist. She (yes, she) is going to be a lesbian. Why? my friend asked. At which point, I realized I wasn’t sure. It just seemed like the right choice. No, the character’s sexuality isn’t central to the story, but for the romantic subplot it does have some impact. After all, if she falls in love with one of the male characters, she can hardly be gay. But she could fall in love with a male. She could be straight. I would just have to change that element of the story. But I don’t want to. Why?

It made me wonder about the bigger picture. Why does my character need to be a female? Why does my character need to be Cuban? (Half-Cuban.) Why can’t she be a white dude? A straight white dude. And that’s what I joked to my friend about. Maybe all protagonists should be young, straight white males. Amirite?

Obviously not. Diversity is important to me. But it’s not necessarily because I want to show other perspectives or cultures, although that may happen sometimes. I guess it’s because I don’t want to ignore the non-white, non-straight, non-female population of the world! I’m not sure it’s any more complicated than that. And that should be enough, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t it be enough that I want to write a female character instead of a male just because I want to write a female character instead of a male? It seems like it should be enough. For this manuscript project, I also want my SFC to be gay. End of story. I don’t really intend to include any particulars of the Miami gay subculture. It’s just a character choice, and it feels like the right one.

Or does there need to be more?

buck the trend

It’s been a while. I know. I’m really awesome at putting things off, but I’ve gotten a lot better at not doing that lately.

In fact… I have some ridiculous news. I am starting a production company. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve started it… or I will be starting it shortly? Not sure how that works. I have not yet registered it as an LLC, but I believe I have found a lawyer who is going to take me through that process as well as some other legal necessities. But I have bought equipment. I’ve assembled a slate of projects.

It’s all been part of the process of the… the new me. Or maybe the old me coming out from a decades-long hibernation. But I’ve been fighting my fears, and I’ve been pushing through a lot of them. I feel more confident. A lot of things have taken a turn for the better.

It’s strange, for a cynic like myself, to feel hopeful and positive.

It’s even stranger to feel excited about something. To feel sociable—though still not all the time—a lot more than before.

There’s a lot of work to do still. I have to learn Twitter. Or find someone to handle my company’s social media. I need to finish my demo reel. (I think I’m about 80% there.) I need… to either hold a casting call or find an alternate first project. And I need to figured out a schedule and budget.

And somehow, I can’t wait to dive into it.

nano… achieved

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

So today I validated my word count, and woo hoo I have indeed reached the 50k milestone and then some!

But I’m not done yet. As tempted as I am to kick back and call it a year (and believe me, I am very tempted), I’m gonna keep going this month. Just… at a much more relaxed pace. After all, I’m planning to attend a buddy’s end-of-nano event, and I’m told there will once again be bacon chocolate chip cookies! So, it was a good nano. I’ve gotten a lot done on a new book. Is it the book I want to be working on right this moment? Of course not. I’m still eyeing to finish with my previous one. But this is a book that I’d have to write, anyway, no matter how things go with the other one.

Which, by the way, I feel a lot less worried about. I’ve revised some mid-term goals, and I’m sorta liking them at first glance. After finishing my synopsis and sending out my queries to the agents I’m looking at, I plan to return to a very old story I first worked on as a child. The goal with that one? Self-publishing! I’ve long been opposed to the idea of self-publishing my own work, and I do still fully intend to take this book (this nano one, too, when I finish it) down the traditional route. But I really do enjoy the possibility of promoting this new, self-pubbed story idea. Like I said, it’s a concept I first developed in my tweens, and I’d like to try giving this the adult-me treatment and see what happens.

It can’t hurt, right?

On another, completely unrelated topic, I’ve decided to dip my toe back into an area of life I left behind a couple years ago. WoW. (For the noobs out there, that’s short for World of Warcraft. I know what you’re thinking. What a time sink, right? It can be, sure. But I remember getting a lot of happiness out of that. The people I met online I still keep in contact with (as much I keep in contact with anyone), and I think I’m in a much better place now as a writer than I’ve ever been. Obviously, I’ll have to keep an eye on my WoW investment to make sure it doesn’t overshadow anything else (like my writing).

I’m also excited to possibly, potentially, probably be working with my friend Stephanie on her latest literary project. I’d share the details, but it’s her property, so I’ll let her decide whether to disclose that info on her blog. Suffice to say, it’s an idea I really love and something I think has a ton of potential both in terms of novels and cinema, so I’m gonna do my best to help her get that going.

Obviously, Thanksgiving is approaching. We don’t know yet what we’re going to do as a family, my mother and I. There’s talk of volunteering at a soup kitchen, an experience I haven’t done since I was a teenager. It was a great time, though, serving the needy and hearing their stories. Now if we could just figure out where one is here in the suburbs, that would be great. 🙂

To those of you who celebrate the holiday, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. To those who simply enjoy Black Friday, good luck! I am planning on participating myself–for the very first time. I think, judging by the stories we hear and see in the news, it’s an experience a writer ought to have. 🙂

nano, nano

Yes, I said it. And yes, I’m doing it.

National Novel… something. Writing? Writer? I’m way too lazy to verify which one it is. Month.

I had a different topic on my mind earlier, but I felt I should at least toss out that I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, my third year in a row. Last year was a difficult one, I barely made it thanks to lots of homemade confections and bacon chocolate chip cookies.

I’m working on the next book in my fantasy series, and yeah I know I haven’t finished working on the first one, but this is NaNo, so I’m making an exception as to be as productive as I possibly can be.

I’m excited. My region appears to be quite re-energized with dozens of new participants. I attended the sort-of kick-off event. It’s all looking quite good, except that I haven’t attempted this before while working a full-time job. So it’s definitely going to be a bit of a challenge this time.

Well. At least I know I’ll get something done. Not sure if it’ll be great, but that’s not the point! Maybe I’ll even learn how to be okay with that.

the wall

This isn’t the first time I’ve been here, but it never gets easier. Creatives and non-creatives alike know what I’m talking about: that frustrating inability to (figuratively) put one foot in front of the other. We writers call it (quite cleverly) Writer’s Block. When getting words down on the page is like the spilling of your own blood. If it’s not writing, it’s a homework project, or a career-related project, or a home-improvement project or self-improvement or so on. We run into a wall that seems impossible to get through.

I’m not even creatively dry, though. Ideas constantly bounce around in my skull like a lotto drawing, and I’m just waiting for the first number to pop out. Well, it does, but that doesn’t seem to improve anything. Because I still can’t transcribe any of my thoughts into a coherent narrative piece.

This is my situation, my condition, where I’ve been for weeks. Maybe months. Just… wandering my own personal Sinai. And I’ve looked outside myself. Television, people watching, reading, navel-gazing, scribbling notes, conversation. I’ve collated a ton of information, there’s still a process between acquisition, assimilation, and expression. The divide among those can be as small as a crack in the sidewalk or as daunting as the Grand Canyon.

There’s no getting through the wall.

Until, one day, you get through the wall. When does that happen? Who knows? How does it happen? For me, it’s a mystery, the difference between being healthy and falling victim to a cold. (Which, btw, I am currently experiencing.) How did I catch a cold? I don’t know, it happens.

My synopsis continues to stare me in the face, mocking all my preparation, notes, and previous draft efforts. Meanwhile, other story ideas have logjammed against the wall. Yes, I’ve considered putting the synopsis on hold, but it seems like a bad idea. The synopsis is all that prevents me from querying agents and publishers. So I really don’t want to put it on hold for anything, even another story idea that’s ready to be hammered out.

I would really love some feedback on this phenomenon. How do some of you respond to it? Have any of you had to just buckle down and weather it until it passed? Leave a comment.

no brains allowed

This is kind of a film review… but not really. I don’t go into the particulars of the narrative. So no spoilers, either!

 

Popcorn, check. X-tra large Coke, check. Contraband M&Ms, check. Logical, critically-thinking brain–whoa. Check that at the door.

A disappointing number of blockbuster films this year have done their best to convince us that they are, in fact, good films. Transformers 4Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even Guardians of the Galaxy. (And I really wanted to love that last one.) The most I can say for any of these movies is that they aim to be fun–but senseless. Plot holes are meant to be ignored. Narrative dead ends are unimportant. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

I can enjoy spectacle. Why, just last month I loved the Fourth of July fireworks. But I can’t forgive this new wave of cinema that insists we not pay attention to the nonsensical story. Should I have expected more from Transformers 4 or TMNT? Of course not. They’re the film equivalent of cotton candy. They’re gum: sweet and diverting to chew, but utterly indigestible. I did–and rightly so–expect more from Guardians of the Galaxy, though, which is currently coasting through good reviews and word-of-mouth on a tide of nerd-love, Star Wars-ian nostalgia, Rocket Raccoon worship, bitchin’ music, and a lot of Marvel kool-aid.

None of these scripts would’ve passed muster in film school–except maybe for the obvious market appeal. Setting aside the fact that these are all franchise cogs, I am hard-pressed to think of better examples of lazy storytelling. Since the aforementioned Michael Bay efforts never had a chance of approaching a coherent narrative, I’m going to focus squarely on Guardians.

Let me be clear. I’m a Marvel fan. I’m a DC fan. I’m a comics, sci-fi, fantastical storytelling fan in general. I loved Marvel’s Phase One. I enjoy Arrow, and I even nerdgasmed over the Dark Knight trilogy. The current adoration over Guardians, however, leaves me nearly apoplectic. As a writer and as a would-be filmmaker, I’m appalled by the shortcuts James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman took. Entire character biographies were dropped in spurts of dialogue like oversized nukes. Songs from the 70s provide the emotional atmosphere, obfuscating any genuine experience we have with the story. Ironically, it’s the surprisingly entertaining character of Groot that serves as a metaphor for the entire process. For a character reduced to only using the same three words as his entire vocabulary, he conveys an impossible amount of information and intent each time he says them. In his case, it works–as a humorous conceit. In the case of the film, I find the conceit too big to swallow.

I saw the movie on opening night with a buddy of mine. I took care to notice the other people in the theater with us. Geeks, mostly, a lot like us, but with a few families and small children. Undoubtedly, the mood of an audience affects the moviegoer and vice-versa. Could it have been my bad luck, then, that those around me weren’t terribly moved by anything they saw or heard? The only time I noticed any significant emotional reaction was when a new song started. After we left, the chatter was subdued and mostly about other topics not involving the movie we’d all just seen. I turned to my buddy and noticed a small frown on his face. “I didn’t really like it,” I said. His frown deepened. “Yeah… me either,” he replied. It was like being told Santa was a lie.

I was so looking forward to Guardians. I’m no hater. And there’s a lot I liked about the film. Chris Pratt was great. Bradley Cooper was entertaining. Dave Bautista was surprisingly good, too. (I had mixed feelings about Michael Rooker, who I normally love to death.) I geeked out over the Thanos moments, brief as they were, and even Lee Pace was great to watch, although Ronan the Accuser is one of the weakest, most one-dimensional villains I’ve ever seen in any film. But the story never captured me, not from the first scene.

Obviously, it’s all subjective. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s total waste of time. 🙂

All I know is, if Avengers 2 doesn’t blow me away, I may need to take an extended break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.