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David Swindle’s African Odyssey

Travel DAYS: Sunday, July 2 – Tuesday, July 4

The flight from LA to Dubai went across Greenland and produced memorable views like this one:

A view of the permanent sunset at the top of the globe, from my plane ride from LA to Dubai yesterday.

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The flight on Emirates was among the best I’ve ever had. In addition to tons of new movies, TV shows, and albums, they also had some classics, so I thought it appropriate to rewatch Casablanca given that we’ll be there in a few weeks:

I picked up my first Thomas Pynchon novel on Saturday, Inherent Vice, for the plane rides, primarily because I liked the movie and have been studying the genre (LA Detective mystery ala Raymond Chandler):

Summer travel reading: Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Fantastic so far. #Mystery #detective #fiction #novel

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Essential Authors #1: Andrew Klavan

Two years ago, I joined Liberty Island Media, a start-up book publishing company focusing on genre fiction, as their West Coast Editor and began acquiring and editing novels. I also started writing my own novels and helping other writers develop their stories. Now, in this ongoing series at Smash Cut Culture I’m going to start highlighting the authors who I’ve returned to most often in working with writers. As I’ve studied and met both fiction and non-fiction writers over the years these are the ones with the most depth, originality, and humanity. Reading their books and understanding the ideas that matter to them has helped change my life for the better and I hope it can do the same for you.

Andrew Klavan has worn many writer’s hats over the years: hard-boiled thriller novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, essayist for The Wall Street Journal and contributing editor for City Journal, longtime new media innovator in blogging, hilarious YouTube videos, podcasting at the Daily Wire, and now celebrated memoirist with The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.

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Calliope Authors Workshop: Deadline Extended!

Writing tends to be a lonely pursuit. Hours spent writing characters and imagining storylines doesn’t exactly count as social interaction. Plus, how is a writer to know if their manuscript is even working? The answer can be found in a strong writerly community. But if you are a writer that cares about liberty, free markets and the founding principles of America, you’ll find that your options for community are quite limited. Last year, I stumbled upon a little saving grace: the Calliope Authors Workshop, a program dedicated to fiction and nonfiction authors who share an interest in liberty-oriented themes.

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Tea and Tape: A Review of Better Call Saul’s “Mabel” and “Witness”

Jimmy McGill is my favorite character on television.

There. I said it.

But throughout season one and two of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s wildly successful Better Call Saul, I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why.

Was it the fact that I used to work at a law firm as a legal assistant and had the satisfaction of stumbling through the legal world with Jimmy, fully able to agree that yes, Interstate Commerce is a bitch? Perhaps. Was it the fact that he’s loveable, despite his centrifugally flawed nature? Also possible. Hell, maybe it was that nose thing I mentioned earlier. Either way, I comfortably went along, aware of my not-so-specific reasoning. I mean, I could always divert by talking about how brilliant the show was in other aspects.

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For the Love of Pete: Why “Crashing” is one of the Best Comedies on TV Right Now

Full disclosure, I fell in love with Pete Holmes the moment I saw him show up on my screen like some gangly white ray of sunshine.  I stumbled onto his show Crashing by accident, scrolling along the homepage of my HBO GO app until I saw a photo of a man sitting on a couch in the middle of the street mock-screaming directly into the camera. “I don’t know who this guy is,” I thought, “but I have a feeling he gets me.” Long story short, it was a show about a comedian, I’ve done stand-up a handful of times, and I’m a regular sucker for guys whose noses are of the Adrian Brody variety. I gave it a go.

My love of comedy about comedians started with Jerry Seinfeld. For me, he was the first comic to use serialized television to tell an audience the ins and outs of being a working comedian. Yes, I realize this dates me as a ’90s child – I’m sorry about it, too.

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$10,000 Film Grant Available – Make a Short Film This Summer

As an independent filmmaker, the single biggest obstacle to getting your film made is: paying for it.  You can have all the other elements you need lined up: a great story, a fast and efficient crew, talented actors, and your aunt has even agreed to let you film at her vacation home in the mountains, (as long as you pay for the maid service afterwards,) but if you don’t have a budget to pay for it all, you will not make your film.  This is where Taliesin Nexus’ Liberty Lab for Film program comes in.

The Liberty Lab for Film (or LLF) is an advanced program for those who have filmmaking, screenwriting, and/or producing experience and want an opportunity to work alongside liberty-minded creatives under the guidance of seasoned professionals such as Daniel Knauf, (co-executive producer, NBC’s The Blacklist) Adam Simon (creator of the FOX series Salem) and screenwriter David H. Steinberg (American Pie 2)  in developing, writing, filming and editing your short film or web series idea.

Jessica Stroup (FOX's The Following) discusses her scene with LLF filmmaker and director Nick Delgado on his film Freedom HUD
Jessica Stroup (FOX’s The Following) discusses her scene with LLF filmmaker and director Nick Delgado on his film Freedom HUD

If you and your treatment are selected, you will receive a grant for $10,000 to fund your project and be paired with an established industry professional who will mentor you through a 100 day process.  At the conclusion, Taliesin Nexus will host a gala showcase screening in Los Angeles where your film will premiere along with your fellow LLF participants’ projects.

This is not for the faint of heart.  You and your partners will be responsible for producing a high quality film. For 100 days, you  must contend with: a rigorous development process, valuable collaboration, working within a budget, and notes & feedback from your mentor and the network.  It’s a process not unlike aspects of the Hollywood system or any independent film production.

To submit, all you need is a one-page treatment of your story idea for a short film or web-series that touches on some aspect of liberty.  Why Liberty?  Taliesin Nexus is committed to helping storytellers, who share a passion for human freedom and diversity, succeed in their entertainment career.

The 2015 LLF Fellows and their mentors in the writers room at the opening workshop.
The 2015 LLF Fellows and their mentors in the writers room at the opening workshop.

One great aspect about applying is, if you apply early, it will give them time to review your application and reach out to you to offer feedback. If they can help you with your treatment even before you make it in to the program, they want to do it.  Taliesin Nexus is committed to ensuring that you and your project receive as much support as possible.

Please follow this link to learn more about the program, the application process, and what to expect when you are selected into the program.  Applications are being accepted NOW and you have until April 15, 2016 to submit.

(Taliesin Nexus is the owner and operator of SmashCut Culture)

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Death Cat

Shady Grove Rest Home promises residents tranquility in their final years.  Instead, it delivers terror in the form of Bingo, a palliative care cat that snuggles up to whichever resident is next to die.  Is Bingo’s power supernatural, or is something more ominous at play?

Death Cat  is written by SCC contributors James C. Harberson III & Frazer C. Rice with the script by Harberson III.  Artist is Stephen Baskerville, a brilliantly-talented comic book, video game, and advertising artist.  He has worked for, inter alia, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Egmont Fleetway, Curve Studios, Asylum Entertainment, and KUJU Entertainment.  He resides in the UK and you can learn more about him here.

Click top right arrows for full screen.

[The NSFW version is available after the page break.]

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Reading For Writing – Fool’s Assassin

th_b_Hobb_foolsassassinUKFool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

An entry in a long-running fantasy series, Fool’s Assassin brings us back to the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, a man who has seen enough trouble and tragedy to fill several lifetimes. His happily-ever-after is interrupted by the birth of a much-longed-for child with his aged wife. But a dark web closes in on the family and the peculiar, tiny little girl who seems trapped into the same courses of fate that have caught her heroic father.

What I learned, Part 1 – The power of exploring different facets of a character’s nature to keep a series fresh. Robin Hobb’s work is my favorite in the genre, and she has achieved something memorable, a world that keeps expanding and deepening with every book. FitzChivalry is thrust into the role of father at an advanced age (though his body seems far younger based on his use of magic), and seeing his happy home-life threatened while he struggles to connect with his strange daughter feels very different from the earlier books of the series.

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Short Film – Jujitsu-ing Reality

If you’ve ever succumbed to the pressures of writer’s block or other type of artistic stagnation, give over 16 minutes of your day to watch this award winning short about a screenwriter with ALS.  In Jujitsu-ing Reality, writer Scott Lew’s words come alive on screen by some notable Hollywood actors in his film Sexy Evil Genius,  of which scenes from the film are highlighted throughout.  We witness the lengths he, his family and assistants go to, to fulfill his creative desires.  Not only does the film display the remarkable perseverance of the individual human spirit, it compliments the advancements of technology, medicine and attitudes towards the invalid.

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2015 Liberty Lab For Film & Calliope Authors Workshop

Taliesin Nexus is proud to announce that applications have launched for two more of their 2015 programs.

Liberty Lab For Film

Get a $10,000 Grant to Make a Short Film in the Liberty Lab Program!

Taliesin Nexus is seeking applications for the Liberty Lab for Film program, which provides grants of $10,000 to seven teams of filmmakers to create a short film or web series with a liberty-related theme.  Each team of two filmmakers will be assigned a mentor from among our faculty of seasoned Hollywood professionals, screenwriters and producers whose credits include hit TV shows like The Blacklist and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and hit movies like American Pie II and Liar Liar (with Jim Carrey).

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Reading for Writing – Story Trumps Structure

the pawhThe Pawn by Steven James

Having read 50+ books on writing I feel this book is the third most useful I have read, after only Scriptshadow Secrets by Carson Reeves and Story by Robert McKee. It examines even basic material in a memorable way which makes you more likely to use the ideas in your work. I highly recommend it. The following ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the insights the book contains.

What I learned, Part 1 – An example of Mr. James’s memorable phrasing is: “the ceiling fan principle.” Obviously any story needs to have tension, but the author posits that “things going wrong” is the prime mover of narrative. He uses as an example the common children’s assignment of “what did you do last summer?” Most children’s lists are mind-numbingly boring, because they are just that, lists. But one student in the author’s class said that “me and by cousins were having a contest jumping off my bunk bed to see who could get farthest. And there was this ceiling fan…” So if any scene you are writing feels flat, find the ceiling fan and you’ll be well on your way to improving it.

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Reading for Writing – Lockwood and Co. – Book 1

lockwood copyLockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud

In a Great Britain beset by a plague of deadly ghosts only fully visible to psychically-attuned children, Lucy and her two other teenaged co-workers at Lockwood and Co. struggle to keep their exorcism business, and themselves, alive after they inadvertently burn down a client’s house.

What I learned, Part 1 – Resonance. I found this concept in the writing tips of David Farland (who has an excellent newsletter). The idea boils down to this: don’t be afraid of actively placing your influences into your writing, chances are that someone who likes the same things you do will enjoy your story all the more. Additionally, it can be an effective shortcut to making the reader experience your exact tone. Lockwood and Co. is an outstanding book, and from the first paragraph I felt it resonating with Sherlock Holmes. Lockwood and Sherlock, obviously have a connection, but beyond that, the list of failed “cases” from that opening text sound like they easily could be taken from Doyle’s writing. This dovetails perfectly with the fact that though the protagonists usually would be simply fighting the dead with silver, iron and salt, they end up embroiled in a 50 year old mystery.

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Reading for Writing – The Neddiad

51iEr0WWlDLThe Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater

In the late 1940’s, a boy and his quirk-tacular family take the train from Chicago to Hollywood. Along the way the boy, Ned, is entrusted with a sacred turtle and the fate of the world. Only “the guy with the turtle” can stop the machinations of a demon, present location the La Brea Tar Pits, who seeks to reverse time and bring back the age of the dinosaurs.

What I learned Part 1: It is possible to write a successful book with a passive protagonist and without tension; but brevity, wit and charm become paramount. From the get-go every line of the book lets you know that it will end well (as does the subtitle), still each moment feels so alive with fresh, weird details that it keeps you reading. An example, the family’s entire move from Chicago to Los Angeles is predicated on Ned and his father’s desire to eat regularly in “a restaurant shaped like a hat.” I would highly recommend this book as a case study of an author breaking core storytelling rules and getting away with it.

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7 Most Wanted Pilot Scripts

blacklistStephanie Palmer over at Studio System News has compiled the seven most wanted tv pilot scripts for writers to download.  One of the best, easiest, and most fun ways to refine your own writing is to read other scripts, especially if they have been produced and as well received by critics and audiences alike.

Last year, Palmer assembled a similar list of 10, which included scripts from Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Office. With Mad Men about to join the other two in television’s retirement home, she has compiled a brand new list of seven current television hits.  Among the collection are pilot scripts for House of Cards, Masters of Sex and The Blacklist… 

… As for how The Blacklist came about, Bokenkamp said, “I was kicking around ideas with John Fox, a friend who’s also a producer on the show. He brought up an idea. Whitey Bulger (Boston organized-crime kingpin) was in the news then. What if a Whitey Bulger-type criminal was captured? What if you had a TV show that flashed back on where Hoffa was buried, who shot Kennedy? A bad guy who knew all the secrets, hopping around in time and place. I spent about three months developing it, coming up with a pitch.” Everybody passed on the show but NBC.

At the upfronts, Bob Greenblatt of NBC said Blacklist testing results were, “better than all other 125 NBC drama pilots in the past decade.”

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Reading for Writing – Under the Dome

UTD+New+packshotUnder the Dome – Stephen King

One beautiful autumn morning, a small town in Maine becomes inexplicably surrounded with an impenetrable force-field. Cut off from the rest of the world, the town falls prey to the machinations of its morally-challenged Second Selectman and his deputized army of thugs.

Things I learned, Part 1 – “Clustermug.” – Stephen King is a master of dialogue. The main villain pretends to be religious and never swears, instead cloaking all his horrible thoughts in beautifully constructed euphemisms like ‘clustermug.’ Just that one word tells you so much about the character.

Things I learned, Part 2 – Prophetic dreams work wonders if they’re justified in source. Very early on in the book the children of the town begin having seizures and seeing visions of an awful event happening on Halloween. This gives the reader a climax we are waiting for, and hangs an air of desperation over the actions of the heroes who don’t know what might be coming. Because of the mysterious nature of the force-field the dreams come across as plausible and not a narrative cheat.

Things I learned, Part 3 – Ideas aren’t as important as execution. I avoided reading this book for a few years because it reminded me of the plot of The Simpsons movie and I thought I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously. But then my wife bought the books and within the first page I stopped humming “Spider-pig.” I think the takeaway is not to limit yourself if you have an idea that seems similar to something that already exists. If you love the concept and work hard to put your own stamp on it you should be fine.

Sacrifice

Reading for Writing – The Sacrifice

the-sacrifaceThe Sacrifice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A fantasy novel about the invasion of a peaceful island kingdom by a magical race, the Fey, well on their way to conquering the world. But a bloody stalemate ensues when the islanders discover that their holy water can disintegrate the Fey on contact.

What I learned, Part 1 – If you think you may want to publish traditionally please examine the cover of this book. This is a cover that the author fought against tooth and nail to no avail (this original cover makes the story appear to be about crudely drawn elves in love). I am the target audience for the novel (magic, battles, political intrigue), but I never in a million years would have picked this off the shelf. The only reason I bought it was because I am a fan of the author’s blog, she writes especially insightful things about the business of publishing.

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Reading for Writing – Because Every Story Has Something to Teach

The Iron Ring1305: by Lloyd Alexander

This mythic tale is set in India, following a young king who loses a bet to a tyrant from a far off land and is forced to become his slave.  When the tyrant mysteriously disappears the next morning the hero feels obligated by his word to journey to the tyrant’s homeland to meet his fate (which may be death).

What I learned Part 1: The power of the open question to drive you through a story.  Lee Chi, the hero, isn’t certain whether the tyrant was real or a dream, and the dread of what he will face at the end of his journey keeps you reading.

What I learned Part 2: The power of myth.  This book introduces a great number of allies for the main character and side-tracks in the plot. It also follows the Hero’s Journey story beats very closely. But it feels very much like true Indian folklore (which it may or may not be), and this mood combined with the open question carries the book through.

Literature You Should Know: Take Me Out to the Ballgame!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when jerseys and caps are the height of fashion, hot dogs haut cuisine, and peanuts and popcorn the staples of diet, when the crisp autumn air bears colorful leaves and the roar of the crowd as the umpire cries, “Play ball!”

Yes, my friends, it’s time once again for OCTOBER BASEBALL!

After clinching the NLDS yesterday, it remains to be seen whether my beloved Cardinals will get their chance for a twelfth World Series win this year.  But given an assertion made by one of my former creative writing professors that every American poet has at least one baseball poem, I figured it was time to take a quick look at some of my favorite celebrations of the Great American Pastime.

Don’t think ladies should be writing about baseball?  Let me introduce you to a venerable young lady by the name of Katie Casey:

And speaking of Caseys….

Finally, who could forget—well, I don’t know, but probably not; they’re both pretty reliable infielders—

So what are some of your favorites?

Literature You Should Know: Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter

1132279How could free people willingly subject themselves to a monstrous tyranny?  That’s the question Swiss author Max Frisch tries to answer in his 1958 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated variously as The Arsonists, The Firebugs, and The Fire Raisers).  A grotesque reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s novels, Biedermann bears the subtitle, “A Morality Play without a Moral.”  And in many respects, it does what it says on the box.  Frisch intended the story as an allegory of how the Nazis came to power in Germany, but it functions just as well on a literal level, and even the allegorical level has applications far beyond its post-war setting.

The play’s protagonist is Gottlieb Biedermann, a middle-aged CEO who could easily be described with The Kinks’ “A Well-Respected Man.”  He makes cynical business decisions, such as downsizing an impoverished scientist whose hair tonic (of dubious worth) his company manufactures, and talks tough about an ongoing wave of arson attacks.  Yet he and his wife Babette pride themselves on being modern, open-minded, and nice; Biedermann even insists to the maid that he’s not a monster, despite what the inventor’s ailing wife claims.

Max-FrischBiedermann’s bluster falls flat, however, when a homeless former heavyweight wrestler named Josef Schmitz politely forces his way into Biedermann’s house and asks permission to spend the night.  Even though Biedermann has just read a newspaper article stating that the arsonists’ MO always begins this way, he’s too terrified that Schmitz will hurt him—or worse, think ill of him—to throw Schmitz out or call the police.  Schmitz even gets material for emotional blackmail when the inventor asks to see Biedermann and Biedermann tells him either to sue or to kill himself.  Using a mixture of sentimentality, flattery, and appeal for trust, Schmitz manipulates Biedermann into letting him sleep in the attic and hiding the fact from Babette.

But Schmitz is one half of the firebug team, and his arrival isn’t simply a search for room and board.  It’s a scouting mission.

As the play continues, the Biedermanns repeatedly try to work up the courage to take back their lives, only to fail at the last moment and be pulled further into the machinations of Schmitz and his partner in crime, a sophisticated former head waiter named Wilhelm Eisenring.  In one scene, for example, Biedermann goes to the attic to complain about the ruckus Schmitz had made the night before but is shocked by Eisenring’s arrival and dumbfounded by the discovery that the pair has packed the attic to the rafters with drums of gasoline.  They even admit openly that they’re arsonists, but Biedermann can’t bring himself to believe that they’re telling the truth.  And when a policeman turns up to inform Biedermann that the inventor has indeed committed suicide, Biedermann loses his nerve and lies about who and what his attic holds.  As Eisenring tells him later, “A joke is the third best disguise. The second best: sentimentality…. But the best and safest disguise, I find, is always the utter, naked truth. It’s funny. Nobody believes that.”

8641098486_4b84b2846fThe local fire department serves throughout the play as a chorus, commenting on the action and even breaking with classical convention to speak directly to Biedermann and warn him of his danger. Despite the ominous tone of their contributions, however, their point is that the entirely foreseeable end of the play is also entirely evitable.  Even when Biedermann has to admit his suspicions to himself and to the audience, he clings to the desperate false hope that if he just stays on the firebugs’ good side, they’ll spare him. But then he turns the tables on the audience at the end of his soliloquy by asking, “What would you have done, dammitall, if you were in my place? And when?”

Biedermann’s willful blindness and frantic attempts at appeasement, while comical, also prove his undoing.  Yet by refusing to have the chorus state an explicit moral to the story, Frisch invites the audience to give Biedermann’s question serious thought and explore its applications.  On a personal level, are we too worried about being nice to protect ourselves against criminals?  In domestic politics and foreign policy, does fear of popular opinion keep us from doing the right thing?  But if we accept that, as Alfred says in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” how do we stop them in a way that’s both just and merciful?  Frisch doesn’t offer any easy answers—but it’s a conversation every generation needs to have.

Literature You Should Know: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

4934An adequate summary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is far beyond the scope of this post.  There are too many plots, subplots, side plots, twists, and turns, too many characters with a long list of nicknames, and even—I must confess—parts that I, as a 21st-century American and forensic science nerd, simply couldn’t get through.  (The fault is mine, not the book’s.)  Rather than giving an overview of the whole book, therefore, I want to focus on one of its many themes, presented in a single recurring quote:  “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”

Middle brother Ivan Karamazov, an intellectual cleric having a crisis of faith, wrestles with this idea throughout the novel.  He discusses his philosophical objections to belief in God and the afterlife with anyone who will listen, primarily with tender-hearted youngest brother Alyosha and the family’s epileptic cook Smerdyakov.  Alyosha’s only answer to Ivan is love, with the acknowledgment that some questions can’t be answered by anyone but Jesus.  Ivan counters that such a response doesn’t resolve his doubts.  And Alyosha, in turn, briefly experiences his own crisis of faith and runs away from his monastery when reality doesn’t meet his expectations—only to be shocked back to faith when he discovers he’s misjudged the town prostitute as well.

Smerdyakov, on the other hand, readily agrees with everything Ivan has to say.  He’s not interested in philosophy as an intellectual exercise, however.  He sees far more practical applications for Ivan’s thesis.  The child of a mentally handicapped woman allegedly raped by patriarch Fyodor Karamazov, Smerdyakov is already notorious for torturing cats and similar bad behavior.  But then Ivan leaves town, and eldest brother Dmitri has a violent argument with Fyodor and strikes a servant with a pestle on his way out of the house.  Sensing an opportunity, Smerdyakov graduates to murder.  Not only does he batter drunken, abusive Fyodor to death, he does so with the pestle Dmitri has left behind and steals the money that was the subject of the argument, effectively framing Dmitri with circumstantial evidence.  When Ivan confronts him, Smerdyakov confesses his crimes but argues that Ivan shares the culpability, both for leaving the scene of a murder Ivan suspected might occur and for giving him the moral justification for the act:

If there is no God, everything is permissible.

Smerdyakov then kills himself, not out of remorse or fear of being apprehended as the real murderer, but because he can.  And thus the frame is complete.

c6a4468caefdff2ae99c2439b2932ee0Already fighting a fever and crippled with guilt over seeing the logical, practical consequences of his philosophy, Ivan suffers a major psychotic break.  Alyosha nurses him through the night, but when Ivan finally appears at Dmitri’s trial the next day, he’s so incoherent that even his revelations of the truth are dismissed out of hand.  Without another witness to confirm any of what Ivan says, the peasant jury convicts Dmitri, and the judge sentences him to twenty years in Siberia.  Ivan has already arranged for Dmitri to escape to America, and he tells Alyosha he could never kill himself; but his repentance has come too late and at the cost of his health and sanity.

In this storyline as in the rest of the novel, Dostoevsky is careful not to give any one character the last word or to present any one perspective as definitively right.  Even Ivan’s fate is left ambiguous in the epilogue.  Instead, by structuring the book as an interwoven group of dialogues, Dostoevsky leaves topics like this one open for the reader to ponder, allowing each of us to form our own opinions… and grapple with their ramifications.

Literature You Should Know: Browning’s The Ring and the Book

867406Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is widely regarded as the quintessential cinematic study in perception.  But ninety years earlier, Robert Browning found fodder for a similar study in the records of a real-life Italian murder trial.  Knowing a good story when he saw one, Browning decided to turn it into a group of his famous dramatic monologues.  The result is The Ring and the Book, a twelve-book epic that explores not only questions of truth and subjectivity but also of human depravity and the mercy of unflinching justice.

Certain facts of the case were never in dispute.  In 1693, Guido Franceschini of Arezzo, an impoverished, middle-aged nobleman, married 13-year-old Pompilia Comparini, the only child and heir of an elderly upper-middle-class Roman couple.  Accusations of abuse abounded from the beginning, worsened by the behavior of Pompilia’s… alleged parents.  In truth, Violante Comparini had illegally adopted Pompilia, a prostitute’s daughter, and manufactured a miracle to trick her husband.  Now they renounced the fraud and tried to reclaim Pompilia’s dowry, and lawsuit after lawsuit followed.  Then, in 1697, Pompilia ran away with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Guido claimed they were having an affair; both Pompilia and 432px-Robert_Browning_by_Herbert_Rose_Barraud_c1888Caponsacchi denied it.  The court sent Pompilia to a convent in Rome until her health failed a few months later, then allowed her to return to the Comparinis’ house.  By December, however, the reason for Pompilia’s flight and breakdown became clear:  she was pregnant.  The Comparinis arranged for friends to hide the baby, fearing Guido’s reaction.  And on the night of January 2, 1698, Guido and three accomplices broke into the Comparini villa, killed the Comparinis, and fatally wounded Pompilia.  The attackers were arrested later that night, caught literally red-handed.

The story is thus less whodunit than whydunit.  Guido pled that he’d acted within his rights as a husband to kill his unfaithful wife.  But Caponsacchi still swore that Pompilia wasn’t unfaithful; she’d begged his help to escape her abusive marriage, he claimed, and Guido had framed them with forged love letters.  And Pompilia lingered for four days, ample time to give her own deposition confirming Caponsacchi’s.  The court therefore convicted Guido of capital murder.  Then Guido played his trump card:  he had taken minor clerical orders before his marriage and was entitled to appeal his case to the Pope.

Browning builds the story to this point in a series of monologues, each from a different perspective.  Book I gives an account of his finding the court documents and an overview of the case, in which he admits his own biases but promises to give all sides and let the reader decide among them.  Books II through IV showcase three schools of popular Roman opinion, one siding with Guido, one with Pompilia, and one attempting to stay neutral.  Book V portrays Guido’s deposition, Book VI Caponsacchi’s, and Book VII Pompilia’s, and Books VIII and IX present fictionalized writs filed by Guido’s and Pompilia’s lawyers.  With this circular structure, Browning highlights the idea that there is an objective truth to this matter, even if the he-said-she-said nature renders a straightforward approach impossible.

49153The climax of the poem is Book X, in which the Pope reviews the case.  He admits that none of these narrators are reliable, but their testimony has revealed enough about their character for him to discern the truth.  Thus, he acquits Pompilia of infidelity, praises Caponsacchi for his courage, and denounces everyone who failed to help Pompilia.  He then confirms Guido’s death sentence because he sees no other way for Guido to understand his soul’s peril and repent.  And in Book XI, once Guido’s alone with the friendly priests who’ve come to hear his last confession, his mask comes off, revealing the unrepentant sadistic psychopath beneath.  Not only does Guido renounce his faith and confess to having hated Pompilia all along, he even rages against the idea of his son supplanting him.

Book XII returns to Browning’s point of view and presents both fictional and factual accounts of Guido’s execution and the fate of Pompilia’s son and estate.  Among these, however, Browning includes a sermon on the Scripture verse “Let God be true and every man a liar.”  This lesson allows him to conclude with an even broader moral:  since no human narrator can be completely reliable, objective truth sometimes has to be told obliquely, especially through art.  Precisely what truths Browning wants the reader to discern beyond the mere facts of the case are nowhere stated, but there are more than enough of them present to make the book worth many re-readings.

Should You Self-Publish?

The short answer is yes, you should start getting your work out there and building an audience. This applies not only to novelists, but musicians, filmmakers, theatre artists—all creative fields.

unnamedBut let’s focus on books. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.

Advances in technology mean we don’t have to follow the conventional wisdom of decades ago. Traditional publishers are still relevant, important, and deserving of respect, but they don’t have to be the sole gatekeepers of the literary world. Readers can do an excellent job of that, too.

If you’re a writer who yearns for a career in fiction, self-publishing should be your proving grounds. Show the world you’re capable of developing a professional-quality work, and demonstrate the thick skin of letting readers form their own opinions about it. Make connections with other authors, and conduct yourself as a professional.

But becoming a self-published author is not for everyone. Here are just a few considerations, and this list is by no means exhaustive:

1 – Can you resist the temptation to rush to publication? You don’t want to publish prematurely. Readers will see the plot holes and typos, and unless your book has other qualities that are so incredibly amazing that they’ll forgive any other flaws, they probably won’t pay any attention to anything else you publish. So make sure you’re willing to take the time to revise, revise, and revise several more times. Finish the manuscript and put it aside for a few months. Let other people read it and offer feedback. Make more revisions. Are you still excited about the project? Then hire a professional editor. Then proofread again. You’ll never get it perfect, and eventually you’ll need to take the leap, but patience will improve your product a thousandfold.

2 – Are you at least 25 years old? Along the lines of #1, I’d advise against self-publishing until you have at least 25 years of life experience. Even if you’re an incredibly talented 19-year-old, just think how extraordinary you’ll be with those additional six years of practice before you make your first impression on the world. So promise yourself: “I will not self-publish before I turn 25. I will use my early 20s to sharpen my skills, make a bunch of mistakes, and learn all I can.” Of course, still make sure you’re writing constantly. The earlier you start practicing, the better.

unnamed3 – Are you willing to invest your own money? True, Amazon charges you nothing for putting your book up for sale. But unless you’re also a talented graphic designer who also possesses the rare skill of being able to objectively edit your own work, you’re going to need to engage the professional services of freelancers. Be ready to shell out hundreds of dollars for editing, and at least another hundred (probably more) for a quality cover. And then you’ll probably want to set aside some money for marketing, too.

4 – Will you bother to market your book? Whether you publish independently or traditionally, you’re going to have to be involved in the marketing process. By going the indie route, most if not all of the work will fall on your shoulders. Be prepared to embrace social media platforms, get a table at book festivals, and constantly seek creative opportunities to spread the word about your book. The good thing about self-publishing—it’s just your own money on the line, so no one’s rushing you to achieve immediate success. A trial-and-error approach is fine as you figure things out, provided you don’t alienate any potential fans along the way.

5 – Are your expectations realistic? If you think you’re going to be an overnight success, or if you even think you’ll earn an extra few thousand dollars your first year, you’re in for serious disappointment. It’s possible your debut novel will reach the right readers and take off, but assume it won’t. Assume you’ll need to publish several titles before any of them start catching on. The process is a marathon spanning years, with each year full of hard work and perseverance. It’s a crowded marketplace, and readers don’t even know to look for you yet.

Aren’t I a ray of sunshine? I could go on, but that’s a decent starting point. I’m still learning about the world of self-publishing myself. I published my first e-book at age 29 in late 2012 and my first paperbacks in the fall of 2013. My sales are nothing to boast about, even though I’ve gotten some strong reviews from readers and bloggers.

But I can be patient. I’ve got more books planned. What I’ve done so far is only the beginning.

Literature You Should Know: Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse

Civilization is under attack.  An army masses to destroy Christians and their hated book learning, to plunder their wealth and ravish their women.  Unless these savages are stopped, the lights may go out for good… but the Christian forces are few and scattered.  Hope for victory seems dim.

c6352This plot sounds like it’s ripped from the headlines, and it could have been—twelve centuries ago.  The rampaging enemy in this case is the Viking horde, and the story itself is The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton’s fictionalized account of the Battle of Ethandune (read here by Malcolm Guite).  The title refers to the White Horse of Uffington, which now-discounted legend held to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandune.  Published in 1911, this poetic mixture of fact, legend, and fantasy inspired English troops through two world wars and can still bring encouragement to those of us who feel our way of life is under assault.

Book I opens with the state of Alfred’s England, moving from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Danish onslaught against the Saxons.  The barbarians beat back Alfred to Athelney, “and no help came at all” until Alfred receives a vision of the Virgin Mary.  But she has no soothing platitudes for him:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

gkc2001large
G.K. Chesterton

Our reaction would probably be, “Oh, THANKS!”  But not only does Alfred understand what Mary’s saying, Book II declares he does have “the joy of giants, / The joy without a cause.”  His three allies also respond favorably to Mary’s message, agreeing to fight a battle that they seem certain to lose.  Even the White Horse, grey and overgrown from neglect, presents a discouraging sight at the beginning of Book III.  Yet Alfred dares to walk unarmed toward the Danish king’s camp and, once captured, to play his harp and sing of English victory.  The Danish earls mock him and praise destruction and nihilism, since even their gods will die, but Alfred answers, “You are more tired of victory, / Than we are tired of shame…. / We have more lust again to lose / Than you to win again.”  The Danes can only laugh.

This exchange of taunts doubles as a scouting mission, however, and Alfred studies the Danish camp’s layout as he leaves at the beginning of Book IV.  After an interlude where Alfred agrees to watch a peasant woman’s fire, muses too long on the plight of the poor, and gets slapped for accidentally letting one of her cakes burn, his allies arrive to find him laughing at himself.  “This blow that I return not,” he declares, “Ten times will I return / On kings and earls of all degree,” and with that, he leads his army into battle.

Uffington-White-Horse-sat
The White Horse

The fight that follows in the next three books showcases Chesterton’s love of paradox.  First blood is struck by Colan the Celt, who throws his rusty sword to kill Earl Harold and to whom Alfred in turn offers his own sword.  The English take their toll on the Danes, but the Danes drive them back, kill Alfred’s captains, and think the battle is over.  At last, however, Alfred rallies the Saxons with a horn blast and a victory-or-death speech, has another vision of Mary, and leads the final charge against the Danes with the cry, “The high tide and the turn!”  Between the Saxons’ sudden onslaught and a surprise rear attack from the Celts, the Danes are utterly defeated.

But the story doesn’t end there.  In peacetime, Alfred still has to deal with courtiers who want him to drive the Danes out of Britain entirely rather than allowing them to keep the Danelaw, and the White Horse still has to be scoured regularly to keep it white and free of weeds.  And when the Danes again raid the south of England, the aged Alfred warns that barbarians will always attack free peoples and the worst are the ones who come not with swords but with books.  Chesterton closes Book VII with a juxtaposition of descriptions, weeds trying once more to overwhelm the White Horse while Alfred retakes London.

Freedom isn’t free.  Do we have “the joy without a cause” to defend it even when all seems lost?

Tree and Leaf: For Fiction and Non-Fiction

In my last post for Smash Cut Culture, I wrote about the importance of suspension of disbelief and the necessity of internal logic within a fictional narrative universe.

Picking up where I left off, Elizabeth Wolfe wrote another wonderful article, “Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf” elaborating on that idea with quotes and examples from J.R.R. Tolkien. While thinking about that piece, it occurred to me that everything that is true of great fiction story-telling is also true in non-fiction.

Consider my condensed view of Elizabeth’s piece on Tolkien.

 

Nazgul
Nazgul

I’m not the first person to notice this, but his whole approach to writing was rather Biblical. First, he created the world: Middle Earth. Then he created the seas, and the mountains, the forests and the grasslands – he drew maps, and charted geographies. Then he created the flora and the fauna, and filled his world with life – dragons, trolls, Balrogs, Nazgul, and giant spiders; but also pigs, horses, bears, and birds. Finally, he created the people – human and non-human characters with free will and individual agency, histories, genealogies, and languages – and then he wrote epic stories about those people.

There are plenty of things that I think Tolkien did wrong as a writer, and there are many instances in which he clearly took unnecessary shortcuts (
cough-deux ex giant eagle-cough cough) in his books which stand in sharp contrast to realism of the world; but overall, I believe that his level of sophistication and care in building a believable world is what we should all strive for as story-tellers, regardless of the medium. Showcasing a rich, deep universe, filled with complex characters and interesting stories should not just be limited to fiction.

Recently, I also read an article at Slate describing the current time as a “golden age of documentaries”. As (primarily) a documentary producer myself, I have to agree.

Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles

There are more incredible stories being told through that medium than ever before, and thanks to a handful of our documentarian fore-bearers (Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, D.A. Pennebaker, etc.) and some up and coming greats, I think we’re finally starting to learn how to tell true stories in as creative and sophisticated ways as film-makers have more frequently told the made-up ones. The only real difference is that instead of inventing a universe and characters from scratch, it is the documentary producer’s job to carve away at the shallow outer layers of the subject, and expose the complexities underneath – to piece together a clearly structured story, centered on the actions and emotions of interesting characters who inhabit a believable world.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, the story-telling principles are fundamentally the same. Non-fiction just means you can’t cheat (with magic eagles, for example). I only really came to understand this through producing my last few documentaries, No Vans Land & Locked Out.

Documentary editing is ridiculously difficult. When you’re staring at 60-70 hours worth of raw material and no no script, knowing that you need to cut it all down to a half an hour of clear, yet emotionally moving, cinema; it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed. But if you treat a documentary the same as you’d treat a narrative film that you were writing from scratch, things get a little easier to manage (only a little, though).

When I get stuck, I often find myself referring back to the lessons I’ve learned from writers like Tolkien, along with stuff like Joseph Campbell’s view of The Hero’s Journey which describes broad story structures and character archetypes common across multiple story-telling traditions, and also about Emma Coates’ set of Pixar Story Rules.

Her whole set is great, but even just the first four are simple and valuable:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Most people writing about drama specifically have narrative fiction in mind, but increasingly, I find that they’re every bit as good when you’re trying to figure out how to craft a solid story out of disparate documentary footage.

All the important elements remain the same.

 

Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf

I was already planning to write on J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf this week before I read Sean 394422da6bda916b75635832890205fdMalone’s review of Snowpiercer, but Sean’s discussion of internal logic only confirmed my choice.  If there’s one book every writer of science fiction and fantasy absolutely must read, it’s Tree and Leaf.  Several different editions have been released over the years, but all contain two vitally important works: On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle.

“On Fairy-Stories” began as a keynote address Tolkien delivered in 1937, around the same time he published The Hobbit and began writing The Lord of the Rings.  The first part of the essay addresses what fairy-stories are, though Tolkien gives no more precise definition than that they are stories about Faërie; misconceptions of the Fair Folk; the muddle critics make when discussing the origins of fairy tales; and the modern mistake of thinking that fairy tales are only for children.  Tolkien moves beyond mere criticism, however, when he turns to the topics of how fairy tales are written and why they are worthwhile.  He never cites Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, but his view of literary creativity is in a similar vein.

unnamedTolkien defines human creativity as sub-creation.  Only God can create something from nothing, and Tolkien calls the world God created the Primary World.  Yet humans, made in God’s image, have the right to use our sub-creative powers, defined as Art, to form Secondary Worlds from the material we find in the Primary World.  Here Tolkien quotes from his poem “Mythopoeia,” which appears in full in recent editions of Tree and Leaf.  Written for C. S. Lewis shortly after the famous conversation on Addison’s Walk in 1931, “Mythopoeia” attacks Lewis’ assertion at the time that myths are “lies breathed through silver.”  Tolkien counters not only that myth is a vehicle for truth but also that myth-making is a human right—“we make still by the law in which we’re made.”  And “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien’s only deliberate allegory, celebrates the idea that God may someday grant us the great gift of seeing our Secondary Worlds given primary reality.

Yet Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories” that the purpose of Art isn’t just the author’s own enjoyment.  A well-made Secondary World is one into which author and audience alike can enter.  The Secondary World therefore needs to have “the inner consistency of reality” that allows the audience to believe that what the author says is true within that world.  If disbelief has to be suspended, the art has failed.  Tolkien notes,

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it.  But that is not enough…. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.  Few attempt such difficult tasks.   But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art:  indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien3_01Fantasy is the most difficult genre, in Tolkien’s view, because it’s characterized by “arresting strangeness” and is vastly different from the Primary World.  Yet that’s also what makes fantasy worthwhile and is a consolation in itself.  It carries with it Recovery, not just renewed perspective but renewed mental and spiritual health from “regaining a clear view… ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.’”  Fantasy also allows Escape, not from reality as a whole, but from the elements that stifle our spiritual health and growth, and thus can offer the consolation of satisfied desire.  Best of all is the Consolation of the Happy Ending, the good turn Tolkien calls eucatastrophe:

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Such elements, Tolkien argues, should not be scorned because they take us away from “real life”—for who is more hostile to escape than a jailer?