Thursday, June 22, 2017

Perils of the Writer: The Novel Refractory Period

How long should you take between novels?

Or, if you have contracts and deadlines, how long can you afford to take?  That's the real question.

Now, at this point, with six novels written, two more waiting for editorial turnaround, one out shopping and one in draft... I've got my methodology down.  That isn't to say that I've got nothing left to learn, because... I've always got more to learn.  But I don't really sit down and ask myself, "How do I write a novel again?"  Nor do I really dither about What To Write Next.  Given contracts and release schedules, that's kind of a given right now.

But how much time do you take in between?

For the purpose of this discussion, I'm talking about going from a polished draft of one novel to starting the rough draft of the next.  The polished draft is "finished" when I send it in an email to either agent or editor.  More work will have to be done, but it's as finished as it's going to be without their input.  And the rough draft starts when I write actual words that will appear in the manuscript.  Outlining, re-outlining, and other "pre-production" work don't count.

Now that I've defined my terms, I can say that, for me,  a two-week gap is about right.  I took two weeks between turning in Imposters and starting Lady Henterman's, and also between Lady Henterman's and Parliament of Bodies.  Those two-weeks are usually spent either on the pre-production stuff for the upcoming project, or doing side-project work to reboot myself. But I definitely don't like to take any longer than that.  Two weeks is plenty.  By then, I'm itching to get going again.

And along those lines, time to hit the word mines.  See you down there.

Monday, June 19, 2017

XANADU: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
Let’s make something clear from the outset: Gene Kelly was a national treasure.  I’m not a big “old movie” watcher, but damn if Singing in the Rain doesn’t hold up to the test of time.  And a lot of that has to do with Mr. Gene Kelly.

Which makes his presence in Xanadu—which ended up being his final movie—somewhat mystifying. He's better than this.  So much better than this.  However, in being so, the man adds a touch of class to a movie that would otherwise be a glorious clusterfuck of holy whatness.

Because this movie does not make a lick of sense, and I think we all know this.  I mean, the plot goeth thusly: an artist (Sonny, played by Michael Beck) is tired of working for the man, and his muse shows up and teams him up with Gene Kelly, and they open a roller disco together.   THAT’S IT.

b05-29bThe more I think about it, the more confused I am by this.  Specifically: given the Point A that Sonny starts at, how reaching Point B at the end is possibly considered a win.  I mean, I get that he’s a struggling artist who just wants to do his art on not answer to the man… that makes sense, in an immature kind of way.  Yeah, he’s having a petty hissy fit about purity of art, but some artists do that.  He wants to paint and draw what he wants, not what those corporate types want to dictate to him!  Fine.  Understandable character motivation.

But what in the name of the nine muses does that have to do with running a roller-disco club?

And, hey, lets get into that whole nine muses thing, since that’s a key element of the story.  Olivia Newton-John plays a literal daughter-of-Zeus muse.  Named Kira.  Now, I know my muses: Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, Melpomene.  No Kira.  Now,  I've seen some claim that Kira is really Terpsichore, but I say that’s retconning bullshit.  Because this movie gives no sign that the maker had any idea that the muses had specific names or roles.  They’re just nine hot ladies in flowing dresses, and eight of them don’t do squat.

Plus when Sonny confronts Zeus, Zeus calls her “Kira”.  So don’t try to sell me that “she’s really Terpsichore” crap.

But who cares about all that?  This movie is about crazy, crazy musical numbers with Olivia Newton-John and ELO.  Muses coming to life from a mural?  That's a musical number.  Shopping for clothes?  That’s a musical number.  Falling in love?  That’s a musical number with Don Bluth animation.

And dreaming up this crazy club that would be run by classy Gene Kelly and not-doing-art-for-the-man Sonny?  You know that’s a musical number.  In fact, that’s my favorite, where Gene is dreaming up a big band number with Olivia fronting an Anderson Sistersesque trio, and Sonny is dreaming up a “hot band” that’s as early 80s New Wave as you can get.  (The Tubes, actually).  OK, it's more correct to say that the Anderson Sisters thing is clearly Olivia singing, but the three girls up there doing the bit are very much not Olivia.  And the “80s” vision is some serious retro-sci-fi nightmare fuel.  But, while the 40s-style song is fine enough, and the 80s-style song is pretty weak sauce… I have to admit, when the two songs come together, I kind of dig it.

Absolutely zero plot is expended in "how will we start a new dance club?".  The idea is brought up, and then they're going to open it.  There really are no roadblocks whatsoever. Gene decided he wants to open a club and told Sonny, “And you’re my partner!”, and they're off to the races.  Done deal.  The only impediment to a perfect opening night is that Kira, being a Muse and subject to the arbitrary rules of musedom or something, has to go back into her painting.  Because she did her job and inspired Sonny—the artist and painter— to open a dance club.
Yeah, I'm not going to let that go.

Zeus lets her go to the opening night anyway, so it really isn’t a big deal.  Clearly the people who made this movie realized there wasn’t a scrap of conflict, so they had to add a touch of drama. I mean, really, this movie has barely a wisp of actual content.  It’s filled with songs and dances, and still clocks in at under 90 minutes.  So there isn’t much time to actually talk or have a plot or anything.

With that out of the way, it's time to get the club open.  And by “get the club open” I mean create a roller-derby fascist zoot-suited nightmare.  Clapping, stomping in unison, matching outfits and shouting “XANADU!” together.  Even granting that its 80-ness has aged poorly, it is deeply, deeply disturbing.  But yet it's exactly the sort of club that Stefan from SNL would love.  It's got everything. Roller-skating tap dance.  Mimes on tightropes.  Sci-fi space queens.  I imagine if someone wandered into this club, they would presume they had stumbled upon a cult.  Which it kind of is, because then it ends with huge TOTALLY INSANE song and dance number with all nine muses where they jump around through different musical styles magically.  I’m not sure who thought having Olivia switching on a dime from glamrock sexpot to cowboy girl was a good idea.  

Frankly, there were very few good ideas in this movie.  Save giving Gene Kelly a dance number with Olivia dressed in a WWII Uniform. That was excellent.  Because that man was a national treasure.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Value of Video Promotion

So, I've mentioned before that I don't think Book Trailers, as they are typically done, are effective marketing for a book.  Frankly, they're rarely going to get the attention of anyone who wasn't already interested, and at best they probably won't detract from audience interest.

And that's because translating "movie trailer" style to promoting books doesn't quite work.
But I've been putting some thought into how video can be used, if not for book promotion strictly, then as part of author branding (there's that thing again).  And, I mean, I do have a degree in Film & Video Production.  So I know something about how the medium works.

So I'm putting something together, teaming up with my son (who is pretty gifted in the video arts, see below) which should be fun and dynamic to watch in its own right, and just possibly inspire some book sales.  We'll see.  Watch this space, because stuff is coming.  (And in case you missed it, earlier this week we dropped the cover to Lady Henterman's Wardrobe.  Check it out.)

Monday, June 12, 2017


We have a cover for LADY HENTERMAN'S WARDROBE, the second Streets of Maradaine novel, coming out in March 2018.  If you're anxious for more Rynax brothers after reading THE HOLVER ALLEY CREW, here's their next adventures.  (And if you haven't picked up THE HOLVER ALLEY CREW yet, get on that.)

Mixing high fantasy and urban fantasy, the second novel of the Streets of Maradaine series follows the Rynax brothers' crew of outlaws as they attempt their biggest heist yet and restore justice to the common people.

The neighborhood of North Seleth has suffered--and not just the Holver Alley Fire. Poverty and marginalization are forcing people out of the neighborhood, and violence on the streets is getting worse. Only the Rynax brothers--Asti and Verci--and their Holver Alley Crew are fighting for the common people. They've taken care of the people who actually burned down Holver Alley, but they're still looking for the moneyed interests behind the fire.

The trail of breadcrumbs leads the crew to Lord Henterman, and they plan to infiltrate the noble's house on the other side of the city. While the crew tries to penetrate the heart of the house, the worst elements of North Seleth seem to be uniting under a mysterious new leader. With the crew's attention divided, Asti discovers that the secrets behind the fire, including ones from his past, might be found in Lady Henterman's wardrobe.

Lady Henterman's Wardrobe will be released on March 6th, 2018.

Amazon and Goodreads pages for Lady Henterman's Wardrobe. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ego Check

The topic this week from the SFF Seven is "How do you keep your ego in check?"
And I'm just thinking-- pretty much by being a midlist fantasy writer.  Frankly, I can't imagine anyone getting too big of a head doing this work.  
More to the point, you have to get in the absolute top levels of this industry to even be in danger of getting a big head.  Unless you were already the type of person for whom any level of success would inflate your ego.  To an extent, that's some Dunning-Kruger territory.  
Look, I don't want to give the sense that I'm not thrilled, absolutely thrilled that this is my life, and that I'm incredibly fortunate that my hard work has paid off as well as it has, that I get to tell the story of Maradaine and all the champions within that magical city.  That I get to keep telling it.  It's amazing.
But aside from a few brief moments, rarely does anything in this business actually charge your ego up.  It's far more of a Keep Your Chin Up So They Don't Grind You Down sort of industry.
I still love it, though.  I love the work.  Time to get back to it.   

Monday, June 5, 2017

MODERN PROBLEMS: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
I have a bit of a confession to make on this one: Modern Problems might very well have been my first Cinematic Anticipation Obsession.  By which I mean that, at the tender age of eight, I saw the commercials and trailers for this movie and my reaction was OH MY GOD THIS MOVIE IT MUST BE MINE.  Just based on commercials of Chevy Chase glowing green and things flying around him, I had already decided that THIS MOVIE WAS AWESOME and nothing would brook my opinion of this idea.  Had there been an internet in 1981, I would have been on it, exclaiming my excitement and anticipation at 24bpm.
I didn’t end up seeing it until at least a year or more later when it finally showed up on HBO or so.  Because I was eight, and in 1981 a PG rating really meant, “Seriously, parents, think about this first.”  I'm pretty sure it did not interest my parents in the slightest, and they were likely even less interested in bringing their eight-year-old son.  But I was excited about a movie with green glowing telekinetic effects, so once I could see it, I did, and I kept seeing it.
But let’s make something very clear: the green glowing telekinetic effects are more or less the only reason this movie exists.  I mean, the plot is quite thin, so I’m pretty sure the decision to make this movie boiled down to a conversation of, “This effect is something we can do now.” “Then let us make a movie in which we do this effect.”
The plot is basically this: Chevy Chase plays an embittered air traffic controller who is certain his girlfriend (Patti D’Arbanville) is cheating on him.  He is spiraling into deeper amounts of awful with his jealousy and bitterness and the lack of power he has in the world.  After an evening of indignities, the roof of his convertible gets stuck open, and he drives home behind a toxic waste truck.  Said toxic waste splashes onto him, and he gets telekinetic powers.
As you do.
Once he gets a handle on what he’s got, he starts on a little gambit of petty revenge against coworkers and rivals, as well as winning back Patti D’Arbanville, all while becoming more confident in his life in a deeply toxic way.  This involves making stuff fly around Air Traffic Control, giving Patti's suitors power nosebleeds, and inflating a ballet dancer’s crotch.  I'm really not sure what the inflating crotch accomplished.  But he wins her back, and then of course, he's telekinetically giving Patti D’Arbanville mindblowing orgasms from the other room.
As you do.
Seriously, it’s about three minutes of Chevy puttering around in the kitchen, making a smoothie in the blender or something, while Patti is going full Chernobyl in the bedroom.  And I have to admit, in my youth I expended far too much brainpower trying to make direct correlation connections between Chevy’s smoothie-blending actions and what he might be specifically doing to her.  Perhaps because Patti hits a crescendo of fever pitch that seems to match pouring from the blender.
Then it gets just plain odd.
The back-half of the movie seems to have been imported from a previously-written script that didn’t involve telekinesis, as it is a complete left turn from where we've been.  Chevy and Patti drive out to a beach house for a getaway weekend with friends.  In this whole part you’ve got Mary Kay Place, Dabny Coleman, Nell Carter and Brian Doyle Murray in a wheelchair.  Why is Brian Doyle Murray in a wheelchair?  He just is.  Maybe it’s a metaphor for Chevy feeling frustrated and powerless despite being perfectly healthy, while this guy is totally laid back and easy-going, despite being in a wheelchair.  But it’s a big reason why I think the whole “beach house” part of the movie is imported from some other script.  Plus: Dabny Coleman shows his bare ass.  For reasons.
Dabny Coleman really is above and beyond in this movie, and gloriously so.  There’s an utterly random scene where he’s standing on the beach in a bathrobe, tape recorder strapped around his neck, where he recites a “partial list of his favorite things”.  Why?  I don’t know, but there’s not a word that comes from Mr. Coleman’s mouth that isn’t delightfully absurd.   “I’m a goddamn good-looking man!”
Things come to a head as Chevy goes from “confident due to his power” to “overconfident” to “batshit crazy”.  It's a whole escalation where he floats up Dabny Coleman and drops him in the mashed potatoes.  Shit goes crazy, and Nell Carter—with absurd Haitian accent—tries to exorcise him with her “demon powder”.  This gives us the signature scene, where Chevy floats around the bed and snorts up all the demon powder like it was super-cocaine, and cackles, “HAHAHAHAHA I LIKE IT!”
And then-- on a dime-- he freaks out and says he’s a monster and heads to the roof.  Patti D’Arbanville talks him down, but not before he’s hit by lightning, which transfers his power to Nell Carter through the TV antenna.  And then everything’s great as they watch the sunrise.
One of the things that always sort of troubled me about this movie is the way it tries to have its cake and eat it with Chevy’s power.  He does “fun” petty things to vent his frustration, and the movie treats it like he’s winning.  It pretty much makes getting back together with Patti D’Arbanville the prize that he’s earned.  But then he acts just plain crazy, and the movie wants us to believe that it’s not him, but the power itself.  Yeah, it’s funny that Nell Carter treats him like he’s possessed by a demon, but he acts like he’s possessed by a demon.  And then when he loses the power, he’s “cured” and calm again.  Because when you think about it, everything he does is pretty horrible, but the movie wants you to feel like that’s not really him doing it.
Like I said, it feels like some other movie—more dramedy than comedy—is living inside this movie, that’s just about an ATC who loses his mind, and the telekinetic stuff got imported onto it.  I mean, it takes twenty-five minutes—a full third of the running time—before we even have the empowering toxic waste incident.  I wonder if that might have actually been a better movie.
But it certainly wouldn’t have earned an eight-year-old’s fanaticism.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On editing and editors

So, I had a few different angles I considered taking on this.  Do I talk about my editing process?  I considered that, but that's largely only useful to you if you think my nuts-and-bolts method is something you can use.  Do I talk about the value of beta-readers & editors and getting other eyes and opinions?  I could, but you know that.  Or, rather, if you're looking for writing advice of any kind, you've already seen that, and have absorbed it, or it's bounced off you and nothing I say will change your opinion on the subject.
Instead, let's talk about specific editors.  Namely, my editor, Sheila Gilbert, who I adore. She won the Hugo for Best Editor Long Form last year, and she's nominated again this year.  Now, you may say to yourself, "Hey, she won last year, should she really win again this year?"  I say: hell yes.  And that sort of thing is hardly unprecedented.  Heck, in the history of the Best Editor Award, before it was split into Long and Short, over thirty years there were only nine different winners.  NINE.  And after it was split, Patrick Nielsen Hayden won three times, and David Hartwell won twice in a row.  So there's plenty of precedent for Sheila to win twice, and she totally should.
Now, you're going to ask me, why should she, Marshall?  What does she do that puts her above the rest of the crowd?  (The rest of the crowd is 80% excellent, of course.)
The obvious answer is, she publishes my books.  This makes me biased, certainly, but it's an important point from my point of view.  But you want something a bit less subjective.
So, let me put something else on the table, in terms of What Editors Do, since it often seems so very nebulous.  I often go to conventions, meet other authors, do the barcon thing, and so on.  There's a lot of in-the-trenches horror stories.  Stories about editors butchering manuscripts, demanding changes that would fundamentally alter the story.  Stories about copy-edits that went outside of the bounds of the copy-edit.  Stories about horrendous covers that the author got stuck with, deeply unhappy with how their books were going to look.
These horror stories are part-and-parcel with the industry.  I've heard them from big names and midlisters and newbies.  
And I don't have one.
I do not have one of those editorial horror stories, and that's because Sheila has been there to keep me from having them.  Even when I've had cover art come in with problems, she's right with me saying, "Yes, let's fix this."  That's what makes someone a Best Editor, in my book.  All five books, in fact, with the sixth, seventh and eighth on the way.
(Speaking of, I have editing to do on that eighth one.  Off to it...)

Monday, May 29, 2017

VIBES: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
It’s probably hard to imagine here and now, but there was a point in time where the conventional wisdom was that Madonna was a flash-in-the-pan artist, and Cyndi Lauper would be the one to stand the test of time.  This, of course, did not turn out the be case, but as Cyndi Lauper’s music career was losing steam, she decided the best course of action was to follow Madonna’s path and supplement it with an acting career.  Somehow this led to her starring in Vibes, a movie that probably wouldn’t have been made without the novelty of putting Cyndi Lauper in the lead role.  But, mind you, “Cyndi Lauper in the lead role” never became a common sentence in pop culture.
This is a pretty wacky, surreal movie, involving psychic powers and Incan ruins, and unless someone was trying to capitalize on a late-in-the-game Ghostbusters kind of thing, I don’t know how this movie was made.
So: Sylvia (Lauper) and Nick (Jeff Goldblum) are both psychics.  Sylvia's powers are that she has a spirit guide named Lucille who communicates with the dead or astrally projects her, or otherwise does roughly whatever the plot needs Cyndi Lauper to do at any given point.  Goldblum is a psychometric, meaning he reads the history of objects by touching them.  Sylvia is crass, coasting through life, and generally something of a loser, though its worth pointing out that she specifically doesn’t use her powers for cheap profit or screwing people over.  She’s a loser with a heart of gold.  Nick is more educated and refined—because he’s Jeff Goldblum—whose powers are more in the gift/curse territory.  He’s not taken seriously in his job at the museum, where he’s expected to do party tricks.  And he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him when he picks up her underwear.  (“This underwear was held by another man.” “My brother did my laundry.”  “Your brother scored two goals that night?  And an assist?”  “I knew I should have burned that pair.”  There’s something fundamentally hysterical about Goldblum’s delivery of “And an assist?”)
The two of them meet when they get involved in a psychic study run by Julian Sands, where they’re the best two in the group. Meanwhile, Sylvia gets contacted by Harry (Peter Faulk), who wants to hire her to help find his missing son in the Andes mountains in Peru.  Sylvia doesn’t think she can do it alone, so she convinces Nick to join in.  Given aforementioned party tricks and cheating girlfriend, Nick’s in.  And it’s adventure time!
They get to Peru, and things get hairy.  First they spot someone else from the study, which leads to awkward, “So, what are you doing in Peru?” “What are YOU doing in Peru?” stuff.  Then a half-naked Elizabeth Peña tries to kill Nick.  Which leads Nick and Sylvia to say, “Maybe this isn’t about a missing kid”.  After Harry tries to muddle through some lies (which doesn’t work well, because: psychics), he fesses up to really being a treasure hunter, looking for an Incan “Room of Gold”.  This whole middle bit is coupled with some wacky sequences involving Goldblum and Lauper dancing, and Lauper channeling an assassin’s dead mother so he won’t kill them.
Eventually they’re on the path to the hidden Incan temple, but then they come across the other psychic from the study again, and he’s travelling with Dr. Julian Sands.  Julian Sands turns out to be the bad guy here, which is not a shock to anyone who’s seen Julian Sands in anything.  He kills Harry, mostly because he’s a jerk.   Seriously, for two thirds of the movie, Harry is sort of this lovable scamp, as only Peter Faulk could pull off, and then BAM.  Julian Sands kills him dead just to be a jerk.
So Sylvia and Nick are brought to the Incan temple at gunpoint, where there’s a pyramid of raw psychic power, and shit more or less goes down.  You get Jeff Goldblum saying, “Of course I know how to handle a machine gun. I was the captain of the machine gun team in high school.”  You get Cyndi Lauper possessed, saying things like, “This is the tip of God’s arrow.”  Bad guys are routed (or vaporized by pure psychic juju), and a bit of romance is tacked onto the end, and everything ends up as best as could be hoped for.
The romance really is tacked on, which is a shame, since Lauper and Goldblum actually have a rather nice platonic energy between them.  There’s a rather nice bit in the middle—when they’re at the hotel—when they both have spotted attractive people that they're interested in (the aforementioned murderous, half-naked Elizabeth Peña in the case of Goldblum), and rather sweetly help each other score their potential paramours.  Nick then screws up Sylvia’s, but only because he presumed it was going to turn as murderous as his own did.
Given that the movie’s primary writer mostly only has episodes of “In Search Of…”  and “Ancient Aliens” in her writing credits, I think she took this stuff pretty seriously.  There was probably a movie somewhere in there that was a serious thing about psychics and ancient Incan power, but it got retooled to star Cyndi Lauper, and there you go.  Though, in all fairness: Cyndi Lauper’s acting is fine.  I mean, she’s playing a part that’s more or less in line with the Cyndi Lauper persona (and Goldblum is at his most distilled Goldblumian), but it’s not something she does a bad job with.  But it’s nothing special, and by 1988, “Starring Cyndi Lauper” was not going to give your movie more credibility.
Vibes kind of fascinates me, though, because this is the kind of movie that could never, ever have been made any time other than the ‘80s.  You would never see a movie like it today.  Well, scratch that: you would, but only if they were explicitly making a remake of this movie, starring Ke$ha or something.
Dear Hollywood People: I would totally watch a remake of Vibes starring Ke$ha.  Many, many, many times.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop

For the past few years I've been running the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop, and in the years before I was teaching it, I was a student in it.  The first chapters of The Thorn of DentonhillA Murder of Mages and The Holver Alley Crew all were workshopped there, and I believe it's an incredibly valuable resource, especially for the cost.  Plus, it's a great SFF-Lit focused con, especially for prospective writers wanting to turn professional.  This year Rebecca Schwarz is taking the reins of the workshop, and she's going to do a fantastic job.  Check it out.
The ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop has become a major event for aspiring SF/F writers. It meets on Friday morning before the convention opens, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The curriculum is designed for beginning and intermediate students. Workshop participants will have their work critiqued by instructors who are professional editors and writers working in the field today.

The morning panel sessions will cover a wide range of topics from managing craft elements such as style, plot, theme, and characterization to the dos and don’ts of preparing your work for professional markets and different approaches to publication (e.g. traditional vs. independent). During the afternoon breakout sessions, participants work together in small groups along with two instructors to exchange critiques in the Milford style. Each participant will receive a personal, in-depth critique of their work from both the instructors and their peers. Learning to receive – and to give – a meaningful critique of a work in progress is an invaluable skill for writers who would like to better assess and improve their own writing.

The ArmadilloCon Writers Workshop is committed to diversity
Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds. For this reason, the ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop actively seeks to include students, faculty, visiting scholars, and volunteers from a variety of backgrounds including, but not limited to: race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, and ability.

This year we are pleased to offer a limited number of sponsored seats to writers of color. If you would like to be considered for a sponsored seat please complete and submit this form. If you have any questions contact the workshop coordinator at

How to Enroll
Pay the workshop fee, $90.00, which includes the full ArmadilloCon convention membership.
Submit your original, unpublished work of science fiction, fantasy, or horror fiction. Maximum length 5,000 words. 
Manuscript Deadline: Sunday June 11, 11:59:59 p.m.

Nisi Shawl
Trevor Quachri
Don Webb
Martha Wells
Nicky Drayden
D. L. Young
Christopher Brown
E. J. Fischer
Jessica Reisman
Marshall Ryan Maresca
Stina Leicht
Rebecca Schwarz (Workshop Leader)

Monday, May 22, 2017

PLAYING FOR KEEPS: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
Way back in the early days of the Internet, there was a little thing that went viral called “80s Movie Ending ”.  It was riddled with clichés: mismatched group of losers saving some house, an impassioned speech, some rich fuddy-duddy gets beaten and humiliated, love is found (and every pairing that can be paired is paired), some slacker proves his worth.
Playing For Keeps is the quintessence of what this short was parodying.  It is the avatar of what the platonic ideal of "generic 80s movie" is.  If you didn’t know better, you might think that "80s Ending" was the end of this movie.  If you’ve heard of it at all.  It doesn’t exactly have notoriety.  But it does have a little.
It’s first claim to fame: this is the Weinstein Brothers one foray into directing.  No one who has seen this is shocked they didn’t stick with it.
Its other claim is it’s Oscar winner Marisa Tomei’s earliest role.  Really. The opening credits even say, “Introducing Marisa Tomei”.  Her part isn’t minor, but it’s not especially significant.  I think she’s the girlfriend of the Jock Guy. But it's clear they knew even then that if only one aspect of the movie was going anywhere, it was going to be her.  Sometimes you just know when you're around someone who is going to be huge.  So you better believe when the movie got a VHS re-release in the 90s, it was with a cover that featured Marisa prominently.
Of course, it should be noted that when I saw the first trailer for My Cousin Vinny, my thought was, “Hey, it’s that girl from Playing for Keeps!”
Anyhow, here's the plot, which is about three young guys.  We mainly focus on a Dreamer Guy, fresh out of high school (where he was class president, but yet gave a graduation speech of “screw school, man!”) and yet with no prospects on the horizon.  With his friends Jock Guy and Music Guy (yes, these characters have names, but do they really matter?  No, no they don't.), they seem to have a whole lot of nothing to do.  Oh, except playing some sort of strange urban game that’s half hide-and-seek and half kidnapping-your-frenemies.  I really cannot describe it any other way: it’s like capture the flag, except the other team are the flags.  They’re in downtown Brooklyn and grabbing each other and stuffing each other in dumpsters and car trunks.  I can’t imagine this happening without cops getting involved.  Anyway, the point is: losers.  But they’re literally 18 years old with nothing better to do.  Fortunately, destiny steps in and Dreamer Guy discovers he inherited a hotel from a distant aunt somewhere in Pennsylvania.  Seriously, he just opens a box in the kitchen drawer, where the deed is just sitting there.   This movie doesn't even bother having it come in the mail.  It's just SITTING THERE.
So he’s all, “I guess I own a hotel now, let’s go” and loads up Jock Guy and Music Guy into a van and they drive out.  Of course, it’s a disaster: the place is falling apart, thousands in back taxes are owed, and the townsfolk are horrible people.  Really, townfolk believe that they, themselves, are good decent people who don’t want city kids messing up their town, but no.  They are just legitimately terrible human beings. Three guys beat up Music Guy and Jock Guy in the diner just for walking in, because they're “city trash”.  The grocery store literally won’t sell them food.  Why?  Because they are city kids.  They get thrown into jail for jaywalking.  They’re a “bad element”.
Because nothing says “bad element” like kids fixing a broken down old hotel so they can run it. The nerve of these kids.
Plus—and I can’t believe I’m not making this up—there’s an evil industrialist who wants the land so he can make it into a toxic waste dump, and there's also a town council guy WHO WANTS THIS TO HAPPEN.  Can you get anymore mustache-twirling evil?
Dreamer, Jock and Music Guy have a dream, though: a rock-and-roll party hotel for teens.  Now, I’m not one to mock people for their dreams, but it strikes me as poor planning to deliberately target a demographic that doesn’t have a whole lot of expendable income to go way out to the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania just for a "rock-and-roll" party.  But this was before Burning Man was a thing, so maybe they were on to something.
Tthe movie gets somewhat coming-of-agey, in that Dreamer Guy grows up a little, in that he learns how to work with the bureaucratic roadblocks the town puts in his path.  So he’s got to figure out how to open a bank account, pay a tax bill, and convince friends to give cheap labor.  He’s got a month to get the building up to code, and the hardest task involves getting leech field dug for the septic system.
So with more music montages than you can shake a stick at, these kids clean up their act.  And the hotel.  And they break into half the places in town to cause general chaos, but that's just as a diversion to get a backhoe across town and over a dangerous bridge so they can dig that leech field.
Seriously, that’s the whole back half of the movie: the town fucks with them, and they fuck with the town.
Including, and I’m NOT MAKING THIS UP, kidnapping the town elders.  But that’s so they can be listening in secret when the Evil Town Elder reveals his part in the “sell out to toxic waste” plan.  He monolgues about his part in the evil plan in a darkened room with a bunch of closed curtains, and then Dreamer Kid pulls down the curtain to reveal he’s caught.
And then there’s a big party.
The 80iest ending big hotel party EVER.  Every one of the main characters and their minor characters gets their “thing”.  There’s aerobics.  There’s pastel décor. There’s a video arcade.  There’s feel-good synth music.  And there is an inexplicable crowd of teenagers who drove out to some hotel in the middle of nowhere for a party.
Maybe those townspeople had a point.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

My Kingdom for a Writer Retreat

Writing is a solitary activity.  It is fundamentally about holing up somewhere and shutting out the world and getting the work done.  This is a job for introverts.  
But promotion, appearances, interacting with the fellow writing community?  That takes extroversion. And I can do that: I can turn it on and get the job done.  But then I want to crawl back into a hole and just write.  
Now, as things currently go, I don't have much option for holing up.  There's no single space in the house that's just for me just to write.  We also run our business out of the house, and due to the nature of it there isn't an area that can be just MINE all the time.  
This past weekend at Comicpalooza, I was sitting with a bunch of writers, and one that I didn't recognize (and because, you know, that's how things go, no introductions were made between us) talked about finalizing his cabin in the woods: isolated, with a great view of a lake (but still only a few minutes away from the grocery store).  The perfect place to be completely disconnected from the world and just get writing done.
I said that sounded like bliss.
Turns out that guy I didn't recognize was Jim Butcher.
If Jim Butcher is only JUST getting his cabin on the lake to write in isolation, it's going to be a bit for me. So I'll keep working out of my bag, using my headphones to isolate myself.  (And reminding my family that Headphones Means Do Not Disturb.)
All that said: if any of you out there has a cabin on the lake or beachhouse or isolated studio or adobe hut in the desert you want to lend me for a week or so?  Let's talk.  I would love to have a place to retreat to, if just for a little bit.

Monday, May 15, 2017

FOR KEEPS: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
If there was one thing the 80s loved, it was a heavy-handed morality tale.  And did For Keeps deliver that in spades.
The basic gist of For Keeps is one the 80s really loved, namely: Teens Have Sex So Their Lives Are Ruined (But You Should Love That Life-Ruining Baby Anyway).
The movie starred Molly Ringwald, America’s Sweetheart at the time, who had spent Sixteen CandlesThe Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink essentially being the good girl.  This made her the perfect candidate for a movie about a good girl who gets ruined by a stupid penis.  Randall Batinkoff was perfect as the stupid penis, as he wasn’t known for anything in particular, or really anything else since, because that’s what happens when you knock up America’s Sweetheart, buddy.
Pictured: Ruined Lives.  And an amazing miracle.  Mileage May Vary.So, Molly is an 18-year-old senior in high school whose life is full of promise and potential.  She speaks fluent French!  She’s gonna go to college!  The world is her oyster, mostly due to the fact that her somewhat batty, over-controlling mother has orchestrated Molly's life to perfection.  Which is why its pretty astounding— even unbelievable— that said mother allows Molly to go visit one of her prospective colleges without any supervision. Molly and her best friend are going to go, just a girls trip, so the mother lets it happen.  Little does the mother know that it’s an elaborate plan so Molly and Randall can have a romantic weekend, where they stop in some field in the rain and have sex, which—as we are explicitly shown—impregnates her.
And that ruins everything.
Seriously, this is where the movie goes.
The first half hour involves them realizing they’re pregnant, fretting for a bit about what to do, telling their respective parents that they are pregnant, and getting kicked out of their homes for it.  BOTH OF THEM. But these crazy kids are in love, and they think they’re gonna make it work, so with nowhere to live, they get an apartment together! 
Said apartment is comically bad.  It’s basically a big, horrible room with a free-standing toilet in the middle.  Because nothing says, “Your life has turned terrible” like having to do your business in plain view of the world.  But they try to make it work, and Randall gets a job while Molly… gestates, or something.  I’m not sure what she’s doing to contribute at this point.  Well, she makes the apartment into something cozy and livable, including putting a tent around the toilet.
And then comes the best scene in the whole movie.
Molly decides the end of the first trimester is the best time to see what this "penis" thing is really all about.Randall comes home to find Molly in the shower, so he decides to be romantic and joins her in the shower.  And she has a bit of a freak-out, because OH MY GOD HE’S NAKED AND SHE’S NEVER REALLY SEEN HIS PENIS.
I swear, people, this scene could ONLY have happened in the 80s.  
Please, let's drink this in deep.  I could easily write a two thousand word essay on this scene alone.  But let’s break this down.  At this point, of course, they’ve have had sex.  Six times.  Even though they’re totally in love, and teenagers, and are sharing an apartment for at least a week to get it as set up as it is, and had a “romantic weekend” and who knows what else, they can still explicitly count how many times they’ve had sex-- which they do in this scene. And it’s in the single digits.   They name all six places, and none of them are “in this apartment”.  Which they've lived in together for, I don't know, at least a week or so to make it livable.
But MORE TO THE POINT, not only can she count how many times they had sex without taking her shoes off-- but however they had sex, and in doing whatever else they did to lead up to sex, she NEVER saw his penis.  NEVER.  Just… unpack that, if you can.  I mean, I know 80s era Hollywood liked to pretend—especially for teenagers—that there is no middle ground between kissing and intercourse, but was the person who wrote this a virgin?  Or are they telling us that these kids really only had rote, foreplayless sex, where Molly more or less closed her eyes and thought of England, and neither of them had any particularly strong desire for sex?  Because it comes off here that they only had sex in the first place because that’s what grown-ups do, and they were playing at being grown-ups, rather than out of genuine interest or attraction for each other.
Anyway, so she finally actually looks at his penis in the shower, and they joke and laugh and it’s sweet and romantic.
Seriously, the rest of the movie is just a tailspin of awful.  Molly gets “kicked out” of high school—not exactly, but she is called into the guidance office and asked to stop being seen as such a shameless hussy.  So Molly has to hide with her shame in night school where decent people won’t have to see her.  Despite this, they still try to Yup.  Cures everything, just by touching it.go to prom, but she goes into labor on prom, and has the baby.  So, yay, baby!  Right?  Wrong.  Molly gets the fastest, hardest case of postpartum depression on record.  It just hits her like a rock the second the baby is out of her, and she won’t even touch the poor thing.  It’s okay, though, because later she’s cured when her would-be-father-in-law comes sneaking around the apartment to give her groceries. Thinking she’s about to be murdered makes her suddenly love her baby, and her depression never comes up again.  THIS IS A THING THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS.
I swear to god, this movie had to have been written by screenwriters who were the equivalent of the guy in 40 Year Old Virgin, based on their understanding of sex, cohabitation and babies.  “You know how when you pick up a baby and it feels like a bag of sand?”
Things come to a head when Molly finds out that Randall has a scholarship somewhere and can go to MIT and be a real person, but he won’t go because said scholarship won’t allow married housing.  So they sit down and work out the best way to make use of this opportunity to maximize their futures together.  I’M KIDDING.  Nothing like that happens.  Instead, Molly decides he needs to go, and uses the only skill we’ve seen her reliably demonstrate: being a horrible person.
Seriously, this is her plan:
Step 1: Be horrible.
Step 2: Randall will run away and go to college.
Step 3: Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite comply, especially when he learns Molly’s Stupid Plan.  At this point he is going to college, but merely a state school instead of the MIT offer (OH THE HUMANITY), and Molly is living with the baby and her mother, and they get back together and everything is “happy” at the end.  “Happy” in the sense that they reached the conclusion that people who aren’t assholes would have managed months earlier without the drama in the middle.
This was Molly’s last hurrah at playing a teenager, and she moved on to playing “dark, edgy” stuff like Fresh Horses and Malicious.  Neither of those movies will ever be covered here by me.  I couldn’t ever sit through either one once, let alone many, many, many times.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Panning for Idea Gold

"Your first three ideas are wrong."
This was a piece of advice that came from the production designer I worked with the most in my theatre days, which he got from one of college professors.  While I don't think it's completely accurate, I do think it's coming from a fundamentally correct place.  A lot of the time, the initial idea is flawed, and it takes some work and thought before you get to the thing that's actually going to work.
Now, he was talking about design work-- how you build something that will look and function the way you want it to on stage-- but the principle is the same as with writing.
Around that same time, we both worked with another playwright, and one of the comments made of that playwright was, "He has some really fantastic ideas.  And some truly terrible ones.  And absolutely no skill at differentiating them."
And that's the challenge in writing, isn't it?  Looking at the ideas you have, and trying to crack which ones will work and pay off, and which ones are not worth developing.  I think it's still something I'm working on, myself.  Now, part of my process is a long germination period, where I go from a vague idea to building the roots of it, and then growing it out in outlines and finally writing the story. I know my output speed would seem to belie this idea, but you're seeing the end result of the process which started many years ago and is now bearing fruit.  In many ways, the two trunked novels were a necessary part of the process of the planning and plotting of all the Maradaine novels.  And my space opera project (that is currently shopping) went through so many changes that the only things surviving from the original concept are A. the name of the ship (and the ship focused on is completely different) and B. one character (who in original concept was a stand-out secondary character that evolved into the actual lead).  
Now, I could have stuck to my guns and insisted that the original space-opera concept or the now-trunked novels were how I had to go forward... then I'd probably still be languishing as a writer.  
That doesn't mean every idea is gold, or I've mastered figuring out which are or aren't worth my time.  Just slow, steady improvement on that front.  Always learning.  Any writer who thinks there's nothing left to learn is just stagnating.
A reminder that I'll be at ComicPalooza this weekend.  My schedule is here.  If you're in or near Houston, come say hello!

Monday, May 8, 2017


This weekend I'll be at ComicPalooza in Houston.  If you're in the area-- or looking for a good excuse to be-- come by and say hello.  Or even sign up for a slot on Saturday's Read & Critique for Tex Thompson and I to delicately tear your short story or novel chapter to loving shreds, and offer whatever advice we have on this industry.  Either way: come say hello!  My schedule is below.
FRIDAY, MAY 121:00 - 2:00pm What's New in the Old West  (370E)
Tex Thompson, John Shade, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Doug Goodman, C. D. Lewis
2:00 - 3:00pm Signing- Barnes & Noble Booth
4:00 - 5:00pm Manuscript Makeover: Revise, Rewrite, or Recycle? (370D)
Lev Grossman, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jake Kerr, Mari Mancusi
SATURDAY, MAY 131:00 - 2:00pm Read and Critique (380A)
Tex Thompson & Marshall Ryan Maresca
2:30 - 3:30pm Creative Collaborations - How, Why, and With Whom? (370E)
Marianne Dyson, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ammar Habib, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jessica Reisman
SUNDAY, MAY 1411:00am - 12noon Signing- Barnes & Noble Booth
1:00 - 2:00pm From Pen to Pulse Rifle: Writing Good Military Science Fiction (370F)
Breandan Ó'Ciarraí, K. M. Tolan, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Wayne Basta, Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Also, there's about a month left to register for the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop.  This year's lineup of teachers includes: Nisi Shawl, Trevor Quachri, Don Webb, Martha Wells, Nicky Drayden, D. L. Young, Christopher Brown, E. J. Fischer, Jessica Reisman, Stina Leicht, Rebecca Schwarz and myself.  It should be a great workshop this year, so come check it out. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Illegitimi non carborundum

The writing business is rough.  You put stuff out there, and you kind of have to accept that rejection is the baseline.  That's the thing you have to earn yourself out of.  Success is never a given.  You've got to toughen your skin.  None of this is new information, of course.  If you read any sort of writing advice, this is a front-and-center thing.  
And you've got to allow yourself to be critiqued.  You've got to be able to take your licks and then stand up and say, "All right, what's next?"
But when you're looking for critique, look for critique that is useful.  It isn't good critique just because it tears you down.  (Nor is it just because it fluffs you up, either.)  Choose your critique partners with care, because getting tied in with someone who isn't interested in actually critiquing your work-- or worse, thinks they understand what critique is, but doesn't-- can do so much more harm than good.
Here's my little story: I was on one small, private on-line critique group.  The set-up was pretty casual: upload things to a shared folder, and then critiques are either A. sent via group email or B. also uploaded to the shared folder.  No specific timeline, just put it up and people will get to it or not.  Because of this system, I had some things up there that I wasn't actually seeking critique on anymore.  But I hadn't taken them down, mostly because I wanted the other members of the group to be able to look at the whole body of work/larger plan if they were so inclined.  
And then I got this on one manuscript.
I made it no further than page 5 before nearly chewing my left arm off in the frustration of knowing that a writer with a great imagination, a lot of drive, and most likely a wonderful story to tell hasn't bothered, after all these years of effort, to learn the basics of story crafting. To improve your writing, you need to, at the very least, read some well-crafted books and analyze the plotting, sentence structure, foreshadowing, and subtlety of the writers' works. No one is born knowing how to write or craft a story. Those are skills that take some effort to learn. You could be a great writer. If you don't put in some study time, all your efforts and talents are wasted.
Wow.  That's brutal, no?
That's the sort of critique that could send someone running for the hills.  Heck, that's not even a critique, that's a dressing down.
Fortunately, I just laughed at it, and then promptly deleted myself from that group.
Because the manuscript in question was The Thorn of Dentonhill, which at that point had already netted me an agent and was out on submission.  And it was bought by my publisher just a few weeks after I got this.  I mean, what exactly was this person trying to accomplish with this critique?  I'm not sure.  But I feel like they were trying to just grind me down.
And, like I said, this business is tough, and you do not get handed anything and certainly don't deserve anything you don't earn-- you don't just get handed accolades and awards and film options-- but you need to keep pushing on as they try to grind you down.  Success could be right around the corner, and if you let them beat you-- you let a drubbing like that one up there break you-- you won't get there.
Because there are people who've realized that they aren't going to make it in this business, and then they decide they don't want anyone else to either.  They will try to grind you down.
Illegitimi non carborundum
Don't let the bastards grind you down.

Monday, May 1, 2017

SHEENA: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle
There was a point in time where someone thought putting a fair amount of money behind a movie starring a bleach-blonde Tanya Roberts (of Beastmaster fame) and Ted Wass (later of Oh God, You Devil!—a movie I will probably get to at some point with this), and putting them in Africa to save magic sacred land from gun-toting warlords was a great idea.
Really, the drugs in the 80s must have been fantastic.
I have no idea how a movie like Sheena got greenlit.  But, lord, is it a glorious trainwreck
The set-up has a pair of white, blond missionaries (or something) doing whatever it is they were doing in Africa, until they get killed.  They discover a tribe that has secret, sacred earth that literally is healing magic.  Seriously, the tribe buries someone who is sick or hurt up to his neck, and then they do some ritual, yank him out and BAM, he is ALL BETTER.
So, clearly, it won’t be long before some Stupid Americans just want to, I don’t know, build a mall on top of it or something, just because.
What matters is the blond missionary couple ends up dead, and their little blond daughter escapes the murder, so she can be raised by the tribe and grow up to be Tanya Roberts.
Cut to the present day, where Ted Wass is a journalist who is in Africa to cover some new prince, but he’s tied the warlords or something.  It’s just a set up so he can discover Sheena, the gorgeous white, blonde woman living amongst the tribe.
People, Tanya Roberts is glorious in this role.  She tries to play Sheena as if English is not her native tongue, but I swear, it comes off as if Tanya herself forgot how to speak English and learned her lines phonetically.  Also, she’s not just a white girl who’s been living with this tribe: she can speak to animals.  Swear, she just presses her fist against her forehead, and zebras and elephants come running to help her.  Because this is the 80s, and apparently people believed that Africa is magic.
Seriously, that’s the only explanation behind this.
I should point out that this movie is PG.  But this is, like, 1984 PG, before we had a PG-13.  But even still, by today’s standards this movie wouldn’t even be a PG-13, but a hard R.  Not only because there is a fair amount of gun violence throughout, but because Tanya Roberts is all kinds of naked.
And I’m not talking about a quick flash that movies back then could get away with and still be PG.  It’s, like, three minutes solid of Tanya standing there in the lake to bathe, talking about Ted Wass’s hairy chest, the shot framed so its millimeters away from being full-frontal.  There were honest exploitation movies from that era that had less nudity.  I can only imagine some studio flack fast-talked the MPAA with the idea that it was the same kind of nudity in National Geographic, as opposed to a former Charlie’s Angel.
Sheena and Ted fight the warlords to save the tribe and the sacred land-- honestly, the plot is largely negligible-- but in stopping the warlord, Ted Wass is horribly burned.  Fortunately, he’s saved by said sacred land—and we’re treated to his bare ass when they pull him out of the dirt.    Then the Western World is going to take him back to New York, or wherever, because that's where he belongs and Sheena can't go there because she'd have to wear shoes or something--  but in the end he stays behind to be with the crazy woman he loves.  I think.  Maybe he flies away while she rides a zebra.  My memory is hazy on this point.
Either way, it learns one lesson from Beastmaster: the best way to end a movie is a helicopter shot of nature, animals, and Tanya Roberts.