Writespiration: Love thy characters (via @angiecthomas)

I should be editing the full manuscript of my book, Omaha, before sending it out to my beta reader book club, but I’m not. At first I thought my procrastination was out of exhaustion — I dedicated the entire month of November and first week of December 2017 to it, and since then have burned out on it. It happens.

But then I read this tweet from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas:

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This was the second time I had seen her refer to the love she has for Bri — even going so far as to say she likes her more than The Hate U Give‘s main character, Starr. I remember feeling that way about some of the characters I wrote back when I was penning books while pretending to be taking notes in freshman year of high school. But with Omaha, I can’t say the same.

The fact is, none of my characters evoke my love. Or any feeling, for that matter. Omaha, Plunder, Varsity and Flax are like the people I hung out with in middle school: Now that the obligation to stick with them is over, they bore me and I have little to say to them (or make them say to each other, as the case of writing has it). It’s not a tangible feeling like hate or dislike, but one of indifference, which is possibly even worse because it means I have to build emotion from scratch instead of just tweak it from one thing to another. Unlike when I used to write in high school, no amount of dream casting has helped — though I’ll admit it’s a nice diversion envisioning Samira Wiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Beatriz and Lin-Manuel Miranda armed to the teeth with skill-enhancing microchips in their brains and running around post-exodus Chicago streets.

So thanks to Thomas, I’m going back to my draft to see where I became numb to these characters and figure out ways to fall back in terrible, conflicted love with them. How can I expect readers to feel something for them if their own creator is indifferent?

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Excerpt: “Lacers” (from an untitled, undecided project)

As if driving a rig wasn’t cool enough, I’ve got my best bitches in the cab with me, packing three guns a piece and making sure anyone who tries to take our cargo ends up being a fresh coat of paint on the trailer.

There’s Cinn, face painted with the cinnabar that earned her the moniker, sitting shotgun as she cradles one in her lap. Dag, flying her arm out the window so the dagger tattooed on her bicep catches a breeze. And Stitch, threading a piece of fishing line through the latest ear she’s claimed as a trophy. This one has a ratty fringe earring dangling from it, clumpy with blood.

“Hey, Gears,” Cinn shouts. “On the left.”

I flip the rear view mirror and see one of the Flora’s distinct bikes coming up close. The thing about their little buzzbombs is that they’re fast and small, but easy to push off the road if you’ve got a big enough rig.

Which I do.

“Nice!” Cinn affirms as we watch the Flora take a sharp detour down an alley to avoid being smeared along the brick walls of Lower Wacker. “Wacker? I hardly know her!” my dad would joke. I still don’t get it.

“They’ll be back,” Dag says, pulling her arm in and checking her rifle one more time. “We should get up top.”

I pull up a street that used to be called Garland, going the wrong way according to the faded signs, and emerge onto a street roofed by elevated train tracks.

“Well that’s new,” I say, nodding to the hole blasted into the building in front of us. “Floras?”

“Nah, probably Sparklers,” Dag says. “That’s got glitter bomb written all over it.”

“Fucking Sparklers,” Stitch spats as she ties the ear around her neck and adjusts it so it hangs in the middle of her chest tattoo spelling out “Lacer.”

That’s what we are in this post-apocalyptic world: Fucking Sparklers. Lacers. Floras. Fuck Mel Gibson in his desert wasteland. After Armageddon hits, the buildings are still here. Kids between the ages of 14 and 19 are still here. And with the patriarchy-pushers now just ashes in the wind, we girls have risen to the top while the boys are too busy doing dick-measuring contests in their underground Boys Only clubs because society tucked them in each night with a kiss and promise that they would inherit the Earth without having to do much to earn it.

Well move over, because we might run like girls, but we also run this world. We’re driving the gas rigs. We’re trading protein packs and solar lamps. And we’re not sacrificing our feminine sensibilities to fit some patriarchal bullshit that fits the narrative Hollywood decided would be most profitable to share in sequels upon sequels of special effects movies.

That doesn’t mean we don’t feel the need to bitch slap each other once in a while. There’s no love between us Lacers and the Sparklers, Floras or Prom Queens, but we also have our allies. The GCs — Gold Crowns — provide surveillance in exchange for a share of the loot we bring back from our runs, and there’s tight history between our leader, Golightly, and the chief navigator for the Chanels.

The boys wish they could be us.

“Flora is back,” Dag announces. “On the right, about forty feet behind.”

“We don’t even have the cargo yet,” Stitch says.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that, and she’s not going to wait to ask,” I say, cutting the wheel to cut her off as I hit the breaks. I wait for the telltale thump of her body hitting the back of the trailer, but instead I hear metal dragging on pavement.

The bike slides out from under the front of the truck, slamming into the light post ahead. There’s no sign of its rider as I put us back into gear and pull back out onto the road.

“If she’s back there, she’ll be long gone by the time we get to the pickup point.”

“Unless she’s Indiana Jonesing this thing,” Dag says.

Cinn twists around to look at her.

“Come on, Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Dag says. “Indiana grabs on to the bottom of the Nazi’s truck with his whip so he can keep up with it. No one?”

“I lost interest when my brother forced us to watch Church of Doom or whatever,” Cinn says, looking forward again.

Temple of Doom,” Dag and I say in unison. Cinn looks at me incredulously.

“Harrison Ford was hot in those,” I say. “Much hotter than he was in Star Wars. Definitely fuck material.”

“Nah, I’d much rather do Han than Indy,” Dag says. “Imagine how Indiana Jones smelled.”

“Yeah, but the stubble. And that open shirt, hat and whip combo.” It’s been forever since I saw them, but I remember realizing I liked boys thanks to Harrison Ford easing his shirt off with Karen Allen’s help.

“OK, you might have a point.”

Cinn gags melodramatically and keeps looking into the side mirror for a sign of our potential tail.

 

This is the beginning of an undetermined project (book? graphic novel? film starring Amandla Stenberg and Millie Bobby Brown?) that crosses Mad Max: Fury Road with Mean Girls.

Nonfiction: Reset, then resolve

Why do we resolve without resetting first?

It’s like painting a wall that’s been beat up over the last year with a fresh color, but neglecting to first fill in the angry gouge we made the night we realized we let someone else do the same to our self-confidence. The pin pricks that accrued quietly and subtly as a relationship deteriorated until they became a full cavity. The scattered knuckle-sized dents from when we beat ourselves up over not landing that job, not saying “no” to that cheesecake, not writing all week. It’s easier to ignore the past and try to cover it up.

To make the paint stick and the resolutions work, you need to examine every flaw and determine just how much spackle is needed to fill it in, to heal it. Sometimes you overcompensate: You see a nail hole from a poorly placed priority and glop it on, creating that a swath of stucco that has to be sanded down to get back to the true wall — the true self. Other times you have no idea just how many layers of putty are needed to heal a seemingly shallow dent from a misguided comment, so it takes a few tries. But you do it all thoroughly, and you learn as you go, and promise that next year there won’t be so much to fix.

There will be, by the way. Possibly more. But that’s next year.

Then, only then, can you start to paint with the new color: Resolve to work out more, eat better, drink less alcohol, drink more water, work harder, work smarter, work only 9 to 5, start a side business, invent something, pitch that novel, finish that screenplay, find the one, ditch the loser, spend more time with family, travel independently, read more books, surf the web less, call that friend from college, delete your Facebook. Every resolution completed is another layer of paint, but every failure is another scratch you’re already prepared to fix this time next year.

Poem: “Perfectly Imperfect with a Bottle of Singapore Lager”

During one of our imaginary conversations
She called me “perfect”
And I laughed so hard that the Singapore lager
(which I ordered because it had a tiger on the bottle)
Foamed up in the back of my throat
And made me choke on the joke.

Perfect? I suppose I am.
Perfectly imperfect.
Perfect in the way pi is perfect
Because it makes no sense
On purpose
But still has a purpose.

I’m a manic pixie dream girl
Who is mentally stable,
Weighs 150 pounds,
Can’t fly,
Doesn’t like The Smiths,
Zonks out in the backseat during your road trip to find yourself,
Finds nightmares more worth her time than dreams,
And despises that after earning a degree and two promotions
Is still called “girl” in common colloquialism.

As I pass by good opportunities
I wave at them
With the same lolling wrist-roll
As royalty regarding subjects out a foggy car window
Just before the cavalcade careens off a cliff.

I choreograph zombie chases
To Stevie Wonder hits
While I walk to work.

I wait for text messages that never come
But refuse to make the first move
Because I’m stubborn
(but not really),
Because I like being chased
(but only by people I want chasing me),
And mostly because I’m terrified of appearing too aggressive
(even though I am).

My neighbors know my real-time reactions
To reruns of Designing Women
Not because the walls are that thin
But because I’m that loud
In my passion for Annie Potts.

It took me an inexcusable amount of time
To learn that Britney Spears wasn’t the original artist
Behind “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
And I felt betrayed by my elders
When I finally found out.

I expect too much and not enough all at once.

(I stole that last line from a Fall Out Boy song.)

I write poems that suck
Paragraphs that suck
Short stories that suck
And then post them online
And anxiously await comments that say they suck,
That say they don’t,
And that try to sell me all-natural male enhancement hormones.

The smell of Jack Daniels makes me gag
Because it reminds me of fumbling hands, slippery tongues and blurry faces
Encountered during dim nights in college,
And also the death of Janis Joplin.

I fall in love too fast
Because I imagine conversations with people
That make our relationship seem stronger than it is,
That make them seem more interested in me than they are,
That make me seem more perfectly imperfect than I am.
Like this one, right now.

Writespiration: Best TV and Movie Viewing of 2017

In Part Two of my year-end wrap-up, I’m looking at the scenes from this year’s television and film debuts that had a particular influence on my writing. Note that like my music list, these aren’t all my favorites of the year — Get Out, Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde and Stranger Things Season 2 are noticeably missing — but these are some of the scenes that really got to the writer in me. It also only includes releases from this year, not discoveries: Otherwise Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Arrival would have probably dominated.

Television

“Feeling Good” from Legion (FX)

Nina Simone’s opening vocals during this part because could only mean one thing: smouldering mischief. Bassnectar’s remix of her classic song has always been a favorite, but watching Noah Hawley’s use of it in his X-Men adaptation — and Aubrey Plaza’s decadent interpretation of it as mind parasite Lenny — showed that a smart writer/showrunner can inject a borderline burlesque number into anything.

Note that the entire season of Legion could be added to this list because of its smart, adventurous take on the superhero origin story. Not only did it carry with it complex female characters, but it also blended the absurd with the expected into a series that left the viewer feeling both confused and intelligent.

“Unfair,” A Handmaid’s Tale Episode 1.6 (Hulu)

Hulu’s series stretches Atwood’s novel to fill a series — and a second, coming in April 2018 — and in doing so indicts even more of today’s culture that reflects its dystopia. When Aunt Lydia asks certain handmaids to return to the van because their injuries and disabilities (most of which are the result of her punishments) aren’t attractive enough to present to the visiting Mexican delegation, it’s a reminder of how even in our fiction we tend to “clean up” our casts unless a particular disability plays a role in the story.

Of course, not every author does this. John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down looks at a teenage girl with an anxiety disorder but focuses on her story, not her mental health; Mad Max: Fury Road features a protagonist with a prosthetic that’s rarely a topic of discussion. But in less than two minutes of television, writers are asked whether they’re as guilty of ableism as Aunt Lydia.

“Paterfamilias,” The Crown Episode 2.9 (Netflix) **SPOILER**

I just saw this last night, but it’s going to stick with me for a while. In Season 2’s ninth episode, we learn a terribly sad backstory about Philip that explains some of his awful parenting skills: The death of his sister. Instead of letting it be a static, quiet moment, however, the show thrusts audiences into young Philip’s thought process as he imagines what it was like for his favorite sister, who was afraid to fly, to give birth mid-flight and then die in a plane crash. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score and a cadre of imagery as 16-year-old Philip explores the chaotic wreckage and hears his sister’s cries in his mind shows how showing, not telling, is critical to the storytelling process.

Film

Wonder Woman (DC/Warner Brothers)

Yep, the whole damn thing. From the “No Man’s Land” sequence listed on multiple best-ofs this year and alleyway fight that shows Diana (Gal Gadot) saving Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a bullet a la Superman, to the improvised conversation they have about female reproduction and sexual needs and 50-something Robin Wright’s appearance as an Amazon general, every moment of this movie made me excited for a future full of female protagonists who have depth, strength, humor, motivation and compassion — and aren’t described only as “bad-ass.”

Every imagination sequence in The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix)

This year we finally got a full-length feature starring former Daily Show contributor and personal hero Jessica Williams. When it ended, I stood up in my empty apartment and gave a round of applause because it’s feminist, honest, inspiring and makes me want to be a better writer and person in general. But the most standout parts of it are the titular playwright’s imagination sequences of her ex confessing his love for her and then dying in increasingly dramatic ways. As a writer, these fake conversations with real people are all too familiar.

The Disaster Artist (A21)

Despite its ridiculous real-life protagonist, Tommy Wiseau, The Disaster Artist never stoops to make fun of him, but rather portray him as the eccentric dreamer who went from joke to legend by making one of the worst films ever made. When Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) leaves the theater where the audience is cackling at his comically bad romantic drama, Franco’s performance and direction turns a ridiculous character into someone who is more than a multiple-belt-wearing, ambiguously accented, mysteriously wealthy eccentric. Suddenly The Disaster Artist audience is shamed for laughing at Tommy throughout the rest of the picture. It’s emotional manipulation at its best since Gone Girl, but instead of viewers feeling betrayed, they feel as if they’ve done the betraying.

Honorable mention: First trailer for A Wrinkle in Time

I watch this trailer once a week and the chills don’t stop. Madeline D’Engel was past 40 when she finally got this book published. Ava DuVernay translated it with a rich, diverse cast that shows the impenetrable flexibility of strong fiction. Is it March 2018 yet?

Writespiration: Best Writing Music of 2017

With all the year-end lists of best musical contributions made in 2017, here’s one specially geared toward writers looking for that symphonic oomph that makes fights, chases, discoveries, deceptions, romance and deaths materialize on the page. Note that this list doesn’t include all my favorites of the year — Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. is a work of art, but not necessarily writing music for this creative (yet) — but covers the best inspiration found pumping through my speakers.

Best Vocal Album:

cropped album cover from "Trip" by Jhene Aiko

“Trip” by Jhene Aiko

Trip by Jhene Aiko: This 22-track album easily tops the list as the best album for getting writing done. As the hip-hop and R&B artist takes her listener on a journey of self-discovery, drug-induced experiences (including euphoria, erotica and terror), maturity and love, the beats are deep enough to drown in and subtle enough to disappear when the writing starts to flow. Notable tracks include: “Jukai,” “Overstimulated,” “Oblivion (Creation),” “Psilocybin (Love in Full Effect).”

Honorable mention:

Synthesis by Evanescence: Not a new album per se but a reimagining of the band’s past work using orchestral and electronic arrangements, mostly for better and sometimes for worse. Forgettable B-sides from The Open Door and their 2012 self-titled album become dramatic character themes that are tinged with beautiful agony thanks to Amy Lee’s undying vocals. Notable tracks include “Never Go Back,” “Hi-Lo” and “The End of the Dream.”

Best Vocal Track:

photo illustration based on the "Wonderful Wonderful" cover art from The Killers

“Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers

“Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers: Blend the right amount of echo, deep drumbeats and Jefferson Airplane mysticism, and you’ve got the titular track of The Killers’ 2017 track that fits the titular character of the project I spent the most time on this year.

Honorable mentions:

“Drew Barrymore” by SZA: Everything from the opening line “Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?” to the refrain “Am I woman enough for you?” sums up the kind of relationship I wrote about most this year.

“Young and Menace” by Fall Out Boy: Forget everything you know about the “Dance, Dance” alternative band of the aught-2000s. Beat drops, high energy, strobe lights you can practically hear: Everything about this track screams superhero/mutant fight with a teen-emo bend steeped in acid.

Best Movie Score:

"Wonder Woman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)" by Rupert Gregson-Williams

“Wonder Woman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Wonder Woman by Rupert Gregson-Williams: Since Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL debuted the Amazonian warrior’s theme in “Is She with You?” from 2016’s Batman vs. Superman score, I’ve been impatiently waiting for it to extend to an entire album. Gregson-Williams doesn’t disappoint and tinsels his own take on the score with just enough of Zimmer and Junkie’s guitar shreds. Notable tracks: “No Man’s Land,” “Hell Hath No Fury” and “Action Reaction.”

Honorable mention:

Blade Runner 2049 by Hans Zimmer: Zimmer stays true to the tone of the original film as well as director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel with a soundtrack full of sustained tones, eerie key shifts and futuristic synthesizers. Notable tracks: “2049,” “Sea Wall” and “Tears in the Rain.”

Best Movie/TV Score Track:

"Supermarine" from Hans Zimmer's "Dunkirk" score

“Supermarine” from Hans Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” score

“Supermarine” by Hans Zimmer: If there’s one thing the German composer does well (and there are millions of things he does well — trust me, I saw him perform live in August), it’s instilling a sense of urgency into his music. Dunkirk’s key track does just this by syncing listeners’ pulses to the quickening beat that acts as a perfect backdrop to a time’s-running-out situation.

Honorable mentions:

“Fauxlero” by Jeff Russo: Technically this is an older piece, “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel, that was reimagined for FX’s series Legion, but the electronic arrangement makes it feel new and much scarier than the fairytale-esque piece from 1928. Maybe it has something to do with Aubrey Plaza appearing in her best Tim Burton attire and squeezing a man to death with her mind.

Favorite Discoveries:

Sometimes it’s worth looking backward. These albums and tracks were released before 2017 but added to my collection this year:

“The Beast” by Johann Johannson: The doom-filled droning of Sicario’s key soundtrack theme picks the heart up and slams it to the floor with every beat.

Penny Dreadful: The Complete Series Soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski: There’s a reason Korzeniowski, whose work also includes the soundtrack for Nocturnal Animals, W.E. and A Single Man, is one of my favorite artist discoveries of this year. Not only was the Showtime series practically made for writers who love universe crossovers, but the soundtrack shifts from simplistic (“Street. Horse. Smell. Candle.”) to the dramatic (“Joan Clayton”) — something for every scene imaginable.

“Think” by Kaleida: Shallow and soulful all at the same time, Kaleida’s track plays ironic backup to one of the bloodiest scenes in John Wick and provides the same quiet but sinister word-per-beat promise of “Think on me; I’ll never break your heart” to any investigation montage or illicit affair scene.

Treats by Sleigh Bells: Here’s some loud chainsaw music that wrecks headphones and amps alike and is the base soundtrack for writing Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mean Girls.

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 27: “Dread and Adoration”

He thought — and then red wine made him say it aloud — that he shouldn’t adore her so much. He dreaded how it would end for him.

The thing about adoration is that it fades fast, like a half-formed idea that’s forgotten among the hustle of a day only to reappear in the dead of night when he rolled over and smell her perfume on his skin, or hear in his head how she somehow could pronounce “literally” as “litchrally” without sounding pedantic. All he’d think about for the next 30 seconds of wakefulness was her: Wonderful, riveting her.

But dread? That’s what kept him up the rest of the night after her perfume had faded and voice had quieted. He studied the book of everything they had said, done, planned, agreed upon, disagreed upon, bonded over or fought over in hopes of calming or confirming his fears that this was a paperback beach read of a relationship. So many nights he stayed up reading and hoping with every page turn that he would find a passage that proved this wasn’t just an author’s cruel joke of a novel meant to make smart readers feel outmaneuvered.

Just as he rounded the 10th or 11th chapter — he had lost count of how many nights he had spent on her porch, on her couch, in her bed — he realized that he had to make a choice. He could keep running his eyes along every curve of every letter of every word, hoping to find a single phrase pointing to this relationship not being a waste of time.

Or he could leave this book, unfinished and unwanted, for someone else to try to decipher late at night. Best wishes to whoever cracked her spine next.