Thursday, June 29, 2017

Perils of the Writer: Writing on the Road

Let me put this out there: I kind of love writing while on trips or on vacation.  Mostly because "vacation", for me, means I don't have to do household-y things, so I can relax, and relaxing for me is actually being able to get my work done.

Now, I've been blessed that my "regular" job ("day job" would be inaccurate) has given me the ability to go to Mexico several times in the past few years, and those vacations were also incredibly productive, writingwise.

Also, for road trips, now my son is driving (and he loves driving), so I don't have to drive.  A few weeks ago we went out to Big Bend, and I could sit in the back with a laptop and write as the long miles of Texas passed by.


For me, a "vacation" is a writing retreat, plan and simple.  It's a way to recharge and activate that creative energy.

Now, writing while at cons?  Nope.  Almost never happens.  Sometimes I get a bit done (especially if I end up staying at a different hotel from the con proper), but most of the time: that weekend is a wash.  Well, maybe not on the flights (if there are flights involved).   I can write on planes pretty well, also.  I'm pretty sure I finished the rough draft of The Holver Alley Crew (way back when) on a plane.

On that note: next weekend is kind of writing-retreat-staycation.  I'm hoping to get a lot done.  Fingers crossed.

Monday, June 26, 2017

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad MoviesSo in my teenage years, I was a fan of The Doctor Demento Show, where he’d play a whole slew of novelty songs, and it was there that I first became familiar with Julie Brown.  She was most known for her song “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun”, which was about… well, it’s right there in the title. There isn't much more to say about it.  While she had quite a few songs that were in regular rotation on Doctor Demento, that was far and away the most popular.

Diving deeper into the Julie Brown canon, there was a ditty called “Earth Girls Are Easy”, in which Julie sings about get seduced by a horny alien.  I liked the song, but it was pretty damn obscure-- even by "Songs by A Novelty Act On Doctor Demento" standards-- so it was quite surprising to see that Julie Brown was producing a movie of the same name.  At this point, Julie's visibility was slightly bigger, that she was a personality on MTV (but not to be confused with Downtown Julie Brown), but she was still a novelty-act comedian.  Getting a major motion picture at all was a coup, especially starring two of Hollywoods biggest upcoming stars.  I mean, for modern context, imagine if Rachel Bloom had, instead of making Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, gotten a deal for a full-length feature version of "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" AND gotten Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to play the leads.  That's kind of what we're talking about here.

I mean, if the movie is remembered for anything, it's for being the follow-up for then husband-and-wife team Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, who were super hot and marketable after The Fly.  Needless to say, for them to cash in that capital working on what would never be more than a cult movie—after all, a musical alien-sex-comedy wasn’t exactly going to be the sleeper feel-good hit of the year— was definitely a strange choice.

This means that Julie plays second banana in her own movie, casting herself as the best friend to Geena.  Geena plays a hairdresser with severe romantic problems, despite the fact that she looks like, well, Geena Davis.  He attempts to surprise seduce her fiancĂ© Doctor Love (played by the late Charles Rockett) reveals that he’s been cheating on her with his nurses.  So she kicks him out of the house and electrocutes his fish, while lip-synching a ballad that is clearly, clearly not Geena Davis singing.

The movie IS a musical, but most of the musical duty is provided by Julie Brown herself.  The biggest indulgence along those lines is a completely extraneous number of “Because I’m A Blonde”—another one of her hits on the Doctor Demento Show-- in which Julie performs in blonde wig.  Here she's playing someone who has absolutely nothing to do with her regular character in the movie.  The whole scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Seriously, saying it comes out of left field is an insult to scenes that legitimately come out of left field.  One of the other characters randomly mentions there's a beauty contest on the beach, we cut to this musical number, and then the movie comes back to the plot.


Oh, right.

So while Geena Davis is bemoaning her romantic woes, three furry aliens are surveying Earth in their spaceship.  And by “surveying”, I mean spying on Geena sunbathing in her bikini.  This causes them to crash their spaceship in her pool.

(There is a small bit of business involving shrinking and growing when entering and exiting the ship, probably because they wanted to commit to the idea of crashing an alien spaceship in a pool, and had to justify it being that small.)

Anyhow, after some wackiness and miscommunication, Geena makes friends with the aliens, and then takes them to her hair salon (the “Curl Up and Dye”) to make-over them to Earth acceptable.  Shaving and dying the aliens turns them into Goldblum and pre-fame Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans.

The rest of the plot is largely negligible, as the aliens party on Earth, hook up with girls, and Geena and Jeff fall in love.  Doctor Love tries to get Geena back, and starts some sort of fight with the aliens.  It’s neither memorable or relevant.  The point is at the aliens have to leave Earth, and Geena goes with them, because why not?

Really, plot isn’t the point.

The point is Julie Brown got to milk her fifteen minutes and make her movie with sexy aliens and goofy songs and a future Oscar winner, and it got released on the big screen.  For a performer who was entirely a novelty act, that’s pretty much a big check in the W column.

And, yeah, I’m probably being kinder to this movie than it deserves, but it’s got no illusions about what it is.  I can respect that.

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...)