Inglourious Basterds: A decade of revisionist catharsis

File this under “writespiration” — ten years of it, as it turns out. I was shocked to find out that it’s been a decade since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was released on an unsuspecting world.

I won’t take too much time talking about how the revisionist historical look at Adolf Hitler’s demise has gained new gravity since its release in 2009. Back then it was surprising and satisfying, watching Nazis die horrible deaths and Hitler peppered with bullets until his face looks like a cheap Halloween mask. Today it’s purely cathartic, as the very thing Aldo Raine, the basterds, Bridget von Hammersmark and Shosanna Dreyfus blew up in that Parisian theater has returned with internet memes, tiki torches and the presidential seal.

Instead, I want to focus on how Tarantino’s first installment of his revisionist trilogy (the other two being Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) inspired me to start writing speculative fiction. Revisionism and speculation are polar opposites, I get that, but they share the same starting point: Alternate reality.

Inglorious Basterds asks “What could have been?” I like to ask “What could be?”

The latter, of course, is the basis for science fiction, and I suppose I write a lot of that. But with my current project — of which the first draft is done (woot) and awaiting two months’ worth of extensive edits (oof) — I prefer to focus on what our reality would be if tech-enabled vigilantes existed and were widely accepted. Where Tarantino’s film asked what would have happened if a band of rogue American Jews were enabled to massacre the entire Nazi party in one night, I ask what would happen if the Good Samaritan line cooks and taxi drivers of the world suddenly became superheroes…and super-villains.

My hope is that my project says as much as Tarantino did in his film. But because of that movie from 10 years before, I know the kind of emotion I want to draw from my readers: Not catharsis at watching one of the most evil men to ever live get blasted apart like a piñata stuffed with C4, but the same curiosity hinging on the question “What if?”

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#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 4: “The Haunting of Hill House” and a fear of sequels

Followers of this blog know my writing kink is telling tired stories from fresh perspectives. That’s probably why I loved Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, which looks at the lives of five adult siblings who spent a summer surrounded by ghosts and evil spirits. Each character gets an episode to show their experiences how it affected their adulthood, and the way their perspectives link together in the end is a triumph in miniseries screenwriting.

Which is why I hope they never make a second season, though unlike “limited series Maniac,” they haven’t confirmed HoHH is a one-and-done show. I recently read the fourth Millennium series book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and wish the author had never picked up a pen on continuing Stieg Larsson’s trilogy. I love Lisbeth Salander as much as the next closet goth-punk badass who doesn’t know how to code let alone hack, but deciding to continue her story in the way this new author did cheapened her.

Maybe that’s why I’m so averse to writing books that require a sequel — or reading books like that, even. It’s like going to a menu tasting and loving the first thing you eat: I’m in the camp of people who look at the chef and say “what else do you have?” rather than “more of that exact same thing, please.”

This is…NaNoWriMo 2018

Happy Nov. 1, everyone! While Americans binge on turkey, us writers purge on paper in an effort to compose 50,000 words’ worth of a single project in the 30-day period known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Many of us will make it, but we’ll sacrifice sleep, socializing and sometimes sanity to do it.

Last year I worked on my now-represented novel, Omaha, in an effort to get it ready for my agent. This year, I’m settling into a different kind of story — a Chuck Palahniuk-style satire called Nobody’s Hero that examines identity through the lens of an accidental vigilante — and I can’t wait to see what my uninhibited fingers type out.

Like most years, I’m not alone in my struggle. Tim Harnett, author of Reve and my writing buddy of the last three NaNoWriMos, plans to work on the second book in the series he began writing last November. I’ve hopefully convinced Cody Bridges to devote some energy this month to either Gin or The Phrenologist, two books he’s talked about writing for a while now. Partnerships during the month are almost requirements for success: No one quite gets the fervor of the month like someone in there with you. Plus, I’m competitive.

Luckily, those in my life who aren’t NaNoWriMoers also understand how much energy 30 days of creative outpour takes. Last year my friend Ally let me work for eight hours straight at her office in Seattle on Omaha (you could say it was partly born in the same place as Jeff Bezos’ rockets). I have a long list of people who wait to read the final product — though after edits, that means it’s April by the time I’m comfortable with them taking a peek. The Man with Time on His Arm has already offered to spend a quiet “creative day” with me and asks routinely if I’ve been writing. After all, he’s inadvertently helped me figure out a few plot points. Mom and Dad are used to my phone going straight to voicemail some November nights.

This year I plan to post every day on Convincing the Muse. They might be excerpts of what I’m working on or something completely separate that came to me. Maybe it’ll just be a song I’m using to set a mood when writing or a vignette based on a photo I took while daring to take my hands off the keyboard. All I’m saying is, stay tuned.

And let the writing begin!

Writespiration: Sleigh Bells at The Metro

Late last year I started a project working-titled Sparklers that crosses post-apocalyptic dystopia with teenage angst. Think Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mean Girls.

I’m still shocked no one has thought of this yet. If you know about something like it out there, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, projects I work on always have a musical element behind them. Most of the time, it’s a set of movie and TV scores — Omaha was written to selections from Westworld, Man of Steel, Penny Dreadful and Interstellar, for example. Currently I’m penning Nobody’s Hero to a mix of A Tribe Called Quest and the Legion series soundtrack (as well as The Heavy’s song, “Nobody’s Hero,” of course).

But Sparklers is the first project I’ve worked on to only one artist: noise-pop powerhouse Sleigh Bells. The attitude and volume of their music fits the demolition diva derby vibe I’m going for with the characters and environment, so they provide perfect audio inspiration.

But then I saw them live.

I’m a concert-going animal, but I usually stay out of the fray. Thanks to getting to Chicago’s Metro early, we had third-row standing spots for the show, which quickly became third- to first-row moshing spots, as the crowd never stood still. (I did capture this video of “Rainmaker.” And this one of “Blue Trash Mattress Fire.”)

Like I said, I usually refrain from getting too up-close-and-personal because I enjoy listening and watching bands more than participating in hand-to-hand combat with those around me. But this show was different, in that the sweat, screams and jumps fit perfectly into the mania of the world that Sleigh Bells’ music has helped me begin to create. You better believe that when the end of the world comes and the majority of survivors are teenage girls, there will be raves like these.

There will be neck-breaking headbanging to “Infinity Guitars.”

There will be group-hug swaying to “Rill Rill.”

And “Rule Number One” will be that pop rocks and coke make your head explode.

Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, gets down with the audience at Chicago's Metro on Aug. 17, 2018.

Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, gets down with the audience at Chicago’s Metro on Aug. 17, 2018.

Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.

Writespiration: “An Object of Beauty” and voice

I’m finally getting into the annals of unread books on my shelf. Last week was An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. It’s a fun read full of details on contemporary art and modern masters, but more interestingly a glimpse into the world of collecting, dealing and appraisal.

There’s one sentence that keeps sticking out to me. It’s on page 120:

“Lacey’s solo entrance into Boston was less important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, but not to Lacey.”

I can’t get the sentence structure out of my head. Why write it like that — stating the obvious, then capping it with the payoff — instead of how I would have put it: “To Lacey, her solo entrance into Boston was more important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.” Maybe that’s because my stories usually focus on the characters’ perspectives first, then the social norms they’re breaking. Or maybe it’s because I’m not as creative as Steve freakin’ Martin (which I’m totally OK with, by the way).

In the end, I realized it comes down to voice. Martin is famous as a comedian, and as a writer he’s able to translate that sense of humor into stories that aren’t necessarily side-splitting but still carry a sly smirk with every sentence. Although I’ll never list An Object of Beauty as one of my favorite books, I enjoyed getting a wider look at his talent, as well as being forced to examine my own voice as a writer.

We should all be so lucky to write seemingly mundane sentences that make such an impact on others.

Writespiration: Tell the whole truth, or nothing but a little of the truth?

Today is a hot one in Chicago — the kind of wet electric blanket heat that flash-steams your lungs and makes a hot yoga studio more comfortable than out on the street. Plus, at least you know every vinyasa is toning your triceps and there’s no self-consciousness because everyone around you is sweating, too.

Well, almost everyone.

While most of us were risking our lives doing crow pose and Warrior II in puddles of our own making, the woman next to me didn’t let a single drop of sweat fall from her skin. She was perspiring, but instead of leaving it all literally on the mat, she was coated in a glossy sheen that made her look like she had the same perfectly golden skin as a roasted chicken.*

*I hadn’t eaten anything in 16 hours when I went to class, in case you were wondering.

And then I remembered something my friend Aya said — or maybe it was something I said to her, or maybe it’s something I thought I should say to her:

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class.”

Right now I’m working on a book that’s going to have a couple twists and oh-shit moments, and even though I know where they are in the plot, I have no idea how I’m going to get there. When I thought of that line of dialogue this morning — whether spoken in my real life or not — I figured out an important piece of that journey. Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class: And it just so happens this one character never comes out of the studio looking damper than she did when she went in. It’s the clue the main character needs to crack the mystery wide open.

 

Funny, how adapting small quotes or details from life seems to be a lot easier for me than actually writing a full story of something going on in my life.

A week ago I started mentally writing the intro for a non-fiction book that I want to write one day. It describes meeting someone who’s now a large part of my life, and if all parties involved give me permission, maybe I’ll publish it on this blog. It’s the first time as an adult that I’ve written about a relationship in my life without disguising the names or weaving it into a story about characters that only exist in my head.

The writing part was easy because I’ve told the full story to enough people verbally that I’ve had time to perfect the language, pace the plot, time the jokes and edit out the parts my “audience” finds boring. It’s like I’ve been working on an invisible draft of the story for months before even putting pen to paper.

But the actual act of committing the story to a page with the intention of someone else reading it? That takes moxie — and a bit of monstrosity, according to Anthony Bourdain:

“If you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it — it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.'”

And I think that’s what it is. I don’t like putting stories from my life down on paper because it feels like my ego is getting in the way of my judgment of what makes a good story. I’m comfortable thinking “That line about not trusting people who don’t sweat at yoga is great for a book,” but not comfortable thinking “That journey about how I hated all forms of physical activity until I found yoga at 19 would make a great nonfiction piece.” Everyone has a story like that, and I guarantee more than one person has written it down — and well, too.

But I think I’ve found a story worth telling now. And so we’ll see how going from “fiction with a smattering of truth” to “truth that reads like conventional rom-com fiction” goes. I think I might be ready to sweat it.