Friday, March 29, 2013

Through the Jungle, Through the Dark

This week I took a short trip to Minnesota - a state I'd never visited - to meet a longtime over-the-internet friend. It was a relaxing visit, and interesting, and I got to spend time with two sweet dogs and see Tremors for the first time.

I also got a good amount of reading done. I'm going to a writing workshop in July with Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston; the original partner for this workshop was Steve Almond, so I dutifully read a couple of his books, but he dropped out due to (I presume) pregnancy (his wife's, not his). Houston replaced him, which meant I needed to pick up her books, too. I read her Waltzing the Cat (short stories) last weekend, and then a novel, Contents May Have Shifted, over the course of my trip. They were both books I appreciated but that I wouldn't necessarily have chosen to read, and the novel was frankly a pretty frustrating experience. I liked the short story book better. I also reserved her memoir at the library, because it seemed to me through reading both of these books that that's what she should have been writing all along, and I'm curious about what the shift in medium will bring to her work.

I read some more of Ghosts by Gaslight (last mentioned here), and I'm glad to be over halfway through it. Some of the stories have taken my breath away but some of them have been tedious. On a friend's good advice, I'm only reading a story or a couple of stories every few days, instead of reading it every day like I do with a normal book. I feel dumb that I never knew how much easier anthologies were to read if you take your time.

I tried to read some more of Irene Iddesleigh, which I've been reading snatches of here and there in the last couple of weeks, but reading it on the plane was too difficult. To appreciate Ros's badness you really have to be sitting in a quiet place, preferably with someone nearby to whom to read aloud the worst bits.

And finally, I read Chelsea Cain's third Sheridan/Lowell book. I raced through the previous one and mentioned to Matt how much I was enjoying it, and he said "This is a series, right? How many of these has she written?" and I said "NOT NEARLY ENOUGH," because the answer is five, and now I've read three. There could be fifteen and it would probably be about right. Evil at Heart was a little bit...messier than the first couple, more haphazard (in my opinion), but I loved it anyway. These are great characters and it's a blast to spend time with them. Amazon indicates that another one's coming out in August, but its title is Let Me Go, which says to me that it might be the last one. :(

I missed California even during the four days I was away. Not just because of the weather, but because of the California-ness of it. The essence of being here. On the plane I read two issues of The Sun, and one of the "Readers Write" columns was about the theme of home, a concept that my mind turns to often. I think my next writing exercise will be on the topic, because there's so much I wish to say about "home" and what it means to me. In truth, it might be an exercise that begins now and takes me the rest of my life to complete.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Poor Billy Myers

Since this post, I've written two more exercises, neither of them especially good. After some thought and a reread, I thought I would post the first exercise I wrote, just for fun.

I'll note again that I don't do humor so well, and I'm doing it deliberately here, which means it's probably all the less good. Also, before I hear from anyone telling me I don't write especially well, this is an exercise, not a finished piece. I didn't edit it really at all in the typing.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sundry Adventures with Salt-N-Pepa

I have something completely unrelated to writing to tell you about today.

In October of 1993, Salt-N-Pepa released Very Necessary and I turned 12. I had a friend named Karen Reed during my middle school years, and her mom was a bit more permissive than mine about the kind of music Karen was allowed to listen to. She had a cassette of the "Shoop" single, which included a bunch of remixes, the square and educational song "Let's Talk About AIDS" (as a companion to their hit "Let's Talk About Sex"), and the B-side "Emphatically No".

I borrowed the cassette from Karen and listened to it A. LOT. Because "Shoop" was an awesome song (and I dare you not to find it so even now) (the outfits are a little dated, but the model around the 2:30 mark makes it all worthwhile), and as it turned out, so was "Emphatically No". The title is kind of all you need to know; a dude propositions the sweet ladies of S-N-P and S-N-P turn him the hell down repeatedly. I have now had this song in my head on and off for nearly 20 years, and when I was 12 was the last time I had any access to it.

Some weeks ago I tried to find "Emphatically No" on the internet to see if it was as cool and funny and empowering as I remembered. All efforts in Google, BitTorrent, iTunes, Amazon, and even YouTube failed. Apparently this song was not available in 21st century media. Amazon did offer the CD single, though, so I thought, hey, I'll bet I'm not the only woman in her early 30s who heard this song as a tween and wonders what happened to it. I'll get the CD, rip it, put it on YouTube, and then I'll get a bunch of poorly spelled comments thanking me for my efforts.

So I ordered the CD. A week or so later, I got a message that the order was cancelled. When I wrote to ask what happened, I was told that due to a UPC scanning error, it turned out they never had the item to begin with.

Okay, no problem. Just order another one. There are a bunch of copies on Amazon. So I ordered another one, even though I was slightly embarrassed to have ordered two copies of a Salt-N-Pepa CD single from 1993.

A week or so later, I got a package in the mail, and when I opened it, I found a copy of the DVD of Identity (2003), starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta.

I wrote the seller and asked what happened, and evidently another UPC scanning error occurred, and that seller never had the single either. And now I had a free copy of Identity and no Salt-N-Pepa.

So I placed a THIRD order for the damn single. And all I could do was laugh. Like, uncontrollable belly-laughing. Because it was just so ridiculous! All for the love of a Salt-N-Pepa B-side.

My third order was cancelled.

(Incidentally, this episode is emblematic of how my March has gone. Nothing is easy and everything is scripted by Samuel Beckett.)

This third cancellation was for the third used copy I'd tried to buy. I prefer buying used items whenever possible, but at this point I'd just had it. I was still dogged in my determination to get the effing song, but I was honestly beginning to believe that every one of the 60+ copies purportedly for sale under the Used rubric was not an actual copy of the CD, but was listed due to an error. So I bought the last "new" copy that Amazon had on offer, via Newbury Comics, for $11.99.

$12 for a Salt-N-Pepa single from 1993.

A couple of days later, a package arrived. I opened it and found a sealed, brand-new copy of Identity (2003), starting John Cusack and Ray Liotta.

I hope you're finding this funny, because I sure as hell did.

I wrote to Amazon asking them for a return and notifying them of this remarkably consistent error. Then I looked down the list of used copies of the single, seeking the first description that a) mentioned the item as a CD and b) appeared to have been written by a human looking at an item, rather than basic filler text inserted by a large-volume independent seller. I e-mailed that seller, requesting confirmation that the item actually existed due to my being burned FOUR GODDAMN TIMES.

He said he was pretty sure he had what I was looking for, and I ordered it in three seconds flat.

And today...

Twenty minutes or so later:

So. Now you can tell me for yourself whether all that absurdity was worth it. Of course, without the absurdity, you'd never know, would you? Because I wouldn't have been able to put the fucking thing on YouTube at all.

By the way, does anyone want a copy of Identity?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Announcement / Music Stuff / Defeat the Inner Critic

BORING BUT NECESSARY ANNOUNCEMENT/REQUEST. I am trying to post fewer items on Facebook. For the last couple of weeks, nearly everything I've posted has been a link to a new blog post. It makes me feel narcissistic and self-promotional to have this be the only sort of thing I post on Facebook, and I'd like to stop having to do it every time. (I'd probably still post links to blog posts I especially want to emphasize for whatever reason.) But I have a suspicion that the way I get most of my traffic is through these links. I'm trying to work out a solution to this that keeps us all happy. If you got here through Facebook, and you want to keep reading these posts, please:

1) Leave me a comment telling me that you love clicking through Facebook to get here and I shouldn't quit posting the links, or
2) Subscribe by e-mail, which you can do in the frame to the right, or
3) Subscribe with a feed reader (although not Google Reader anymore, BOOOOOOO). Chrome has an app which has garnered mixed reviews from me so far. I hear that Firefox has one too. Other suggestions for a feed reader you enjoy using, anybody?

Thank you for your attention. Have a nice day.


I am completely engrossed in Revolution in the Head to the exclusion of much else. Since I'm familiar with much, but not all, of the Beatles' catalogue, I'm supplementing the reading with the songs themselves on headphones, which is a treat and a pleasure. If there exists pop that rewards repeat listening more amply than the Beatles, I'd love to hear it. In any case, what a wonderful and valuable and fascinating book this is. It's a must if you're a Beatles fan, but anyone who's bewitched by 1) music studies, 2) cultural studies, or 3) psychology will probably like it.

No other good news, either in reading or writing. After the prior post about writing an exercise every day, I have not written at all. I got a new contracting job on which I was working pretty intensely for a few days which was then cancelled without notice or payment. Then it was a busy weekend of movies and reading about the Beatles. Maybe today I'll get back to the notebook.

If you have a potent inner critic, watch the video below. It is logical and comforting in equal measure. For context, the speaker, Joyce DiDonato, is an acclaimed mezzo-soprano in the opera world, and she was conducting a master class at Juilliard when this was recorded. 

Incidentally, for one of my favorite opera clips ever, go here: Joyce D. in rehearsal. She has a very unique and beautiful warble, like no other opera voice I've heard. I saw the full-on version of the opera she was rehearsing here, and I actually prefer this performance. I got a much better idea of her power and artistry as a singer. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Worth Its Weight in Work

So, the story goes like this. A journalist named Nate Thayer wrote an article that caught the interest of the Atlantic's freelance editor. She offered him the opportunity to distill it down to 1,200 words and have it posted on the Atlantic's website. He asked about payment, and she said the only payment would be exposure, because she had spent all the money in the freelance kitty for the moment. He said (politely enough, but with what felt like major fury under the words) that he is an established journalist and doesn't work for free, and that was that.

And then he posted the exchange on his website, without censoring names or other details. Eeek. Go read it, it's more interesting than my own summary.

The Atlantic then fired back not one but two articles on this matter. One of these sort of generally discusses journalism in the past and now and tries to explain and break down the math...honestly, I skimmed that one, because I didn't like the writer's voice and it seemed a defensive, poorly organized, and hastily written piece to me. The other piece was far clearer, and takes something like the opposing view to Thayer's: working for exposure can be valuable. That's a good 'un, really good reading.

I found this whole exchange extremely interesting.

A couple of years ago, I was talking to my mother about blogging, and - I'm distilling a complicated conversation - she said it seemed foolhardy to write my blog for free, to give away my words, when after all I'm trying to make my living from words. Her profession is very different from mine, but she also makes a living from words, and she noted that she would never, ever write for free. Doing so devalues your work, she said, and that means that the next person to try and buy your work has evidence that she can get away with paying you less. If you don't value your work, she pointed out, no one else will.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

1K Per Day

I wrote a long post about a journalism controversy that peaked at the beginning of this week, but it's...long, and I have this sneaking feeling that it's not especially interesting. So I think I'll save it for Friday or Saturday.

In the meantime, I am dealing with...just...bullshit. Life bullshit. From so many corners. Most of it's meaningless drama bullshit that'll be over in a few weeks, which makes it easier to step back but harder to withstand. You know? 

Despite this, I made a mini-resolution to try and write something every day. Most of my story ideas do not appeal right now, or I'm intimidated by the idea of writing them, so until I'm ready to write something for the outside world I'm writing stuff for the sake of it. It's a great lesson for me, to write with no real likelihood of the work seeing daylight. Something I've needed to do for a long time. 

Yesterday I did a writing exercise from a prompt book I've had for years but never yet used. I wrote 1,000 words about a guy doing an open mike, a guy who was extremely terrible at music but deluded about his terribleness. I rarely do humor and I know I'm not especially good at it, but it was still fun to write. (I was inspired a little by Silver Linings Playbook, which I saw over the weekend and truly loved. Flawed and deluded male characters, generally those played by Marky Mark, have been some of my favorites to know.) 

Two days ago I wrote a flash piece for a real live idea that I've been kicking around for a couple of months. I wrote it basically as a straight-up tell, a "this is what happened" from start to 75% through, and such a blatant violation of the rules means that it might not go anywhere (or that it sucks). I'm letting that one sit and might ask for readers on it in a couple of weeks. 

I marked many more exercises in the prompt book, and I hope to do those every day until the juices are flowing enough for me to write something significant. Matt floated the idea of posting them here, for your amusement and subsequent tearing-apart, but I shy away from that idea. Why would you be interested in my unpolished, ungood writing exercises? 

That's all I have today without lapsing into talking about music. Oh, except I'm reading an incredible book about the Beatles, Revolution in the Head. Such amazing insights into the 1960s and into the band, and I've only read the prefaces and half the introduction so far. In that spirit:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Query on Query

The past week has had more than its share of disappointments. Let's just pass over them, because generally life ain't bad and RiffTrax may just get the chance to riff Twilight live. 

After reading a LOT of QueryShark archives, and most of the articles linked from this extremely helpful page, I pumped out a query and a synopsis for Highbinder on Thursday. The best bit of advice I found on synopses is to read and take example from Wikipedia's plot summaries for movies or books. After I read that, I relaxed. That matter-of-fact here's-how-it-went style is honestly one that I adore reading, and although emulating it isn't as easy as it looks, I was able to write the synopsis without flop sweat after considering it a Wikipedia summary. I don't know that I did it well, but I did it. Just have to let it sit for a while.

Wanna read my query (as it stands)? It's short. Critiques welcome.
Berra Thorntree wants to go straight. After she was left for dead by her boyfriend and her boss a year ago, Berra retired from her career as a highbinder - a specialized assassin - and opened a flower shop. As a half-gaiad, she’s as good at growing things as she is at running fearlessly from rooftop to rooftop. But then she learns of Greenheart, the city government’s plan to harness a new energy source. Such a project will lead to the genocide of Berra’s people, and she just has to step in.
Unfortunately, the only person Berra can turn to for help is her former boss, Leori, the head of the most dangerous gang in the city. Naturally, Leori has plans of her own. Berra must weigh the needs of her people against her own urge to walk away from her murderous past – and there’s always the possibility that if the city’s operatives don’t kill her, Leori just might.
HIGHBINDER is urban fantasy, with touches of steampunk and alternate history, and is approximately 96,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration. 
Now that I've drafted this, the only things left to do are a) wait for book feedback, b) revise the synopsis obsessively, and c) find another freakin' project already. My anxiety hasn't let me do c), even though it's the thing I most need to do. Maybe today's the day.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The $128,000 Answer

Following up on the last post: I watched Dark Victory, and Bette Davis was plenty clipped. I win. Depressing (but redemptive, I think) movie, very melodramatic, and the usual gang of Warner Bros.' DVD film experts gathered on a featurette to talk about why Dark Victory stands next to the rest of 1939's (stunning, never-equaled) crop of movies. They were wrong, but it was a valiant effort.

Following up on the prior post: I remembered an interesting secondhand story the other day that ties in to my point. A friend of mine - much older - told me about this time in the 1970s when he was in film class, and his professor asked him what his favorite movie was. He answered Wild Strawberries, an Ingmar Bergman film. Perfectly respectable answer for someone getting an advanced film degree. The professor proceeded to ask my friend the name of the last movie he'd seen in the theater. Star Wars, of course, was the answer. The professor noted that there was a small theater around the corner doing a Bergman retrospective, and that as the professor recalled, Wild Strawberries was part of the bill. Had my friend gone to see Wild Strawberries during this special event? No, he'd seen Star Wars again, instead, probably for the fourth or fifth time. Why did he choose to see Star Wars instead of his nominal favorite movie, the challenging and beautiful Wild Strawberries? Well, that, my friends, is the $64,000 question.

It's the same thing, why I've been watching MST3K on Matt's iPad over the last couple of days rather than writing or watching movies that are more worth my while. I love MST3K. It fills my heart up. It's not as respectable as Bergman, and it's perhaps not as stimulating. But I love it and it makes me happy.

All week I've been nosing through my notes book looking for my next project. There's at least one short story I think I'm ready to write, a literary one, but I'm not sure it's going to come out right. That's no reason not to write it anyway, but it's surely a reason to mentally whine and bang my self-pity drum.

Yeah, well, what legitimate reason did YOU ever have
to feel sorry for yourself, Keller? 

Money-work is nearly as dry as a desert, so the thing to do is write. I even have ideas for essays. There's no reason not to begin, and yet off I go to do laundry instead.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Art Unlike Fine Wine

I've been watching 1930s Bette Davis movies lately, nominally for research. One of the main characters in Highbinder sounded exactly like Bette Davis in All About Eve in my head when I wrote her, but since the book takes place over a decade before that movie was made, I had to see that Davis's elocution sounded just as clipped in the earlier days of her career. I name-checked Davis in the prologue of the book to indicate what the character sounds like and wanted to make sure that was appropriate.

Thursday's was the third I've watched, Marked Woman, after The Petrified Forest and Jezebel. Dark Victory is next, because I've really developed a taste for 30s movies in the last few months, and because three movies is not enough evidence, believe it or not. (She adopted a southern accent in Jezebel, which changed her diction significantly, and she was mushier than I expected in The Petrified Forest. Marked Woman was perfect, just what I wanted to hear. So it's really a tie, so far.)

All of these movies have been worth seeing, and all of them are really problematic, either for one big reason or a scattering of little ones. That seems to be the way with 30s movies. Either they're embarrassingly racist or sexist, or they're off-putting because filmmaking style has changed so significantly in 80 years, or there's something else weird about them such that I can't insist that friends and family sit down with them to see how worthwhile they are. Shit, a movie that's fast rising into my top 10, Footlight Parade, has one bizarrely racist scene - hardly a few seconds of screen time - that means I can't recommend it in good conscience. Even Astaire did blackface after a fashion in Swing Time, by far the best of the Astaire/Rogers movies.

I don't want to turn this post into a discourse on what to do with problematic attitudes in old art, because I am so not qualified to write that. I guess I'm just amazed that I've watched three pretty good 1930s movies in a row that I can't recommend without asterisks. All for different reasons, but still. This is art that hasn't aged well, and I'm very sorry for that, because at times it's phenomenal art. A stirring scene at the end of Marked Woman really didn't make up for the molasses of the first act. A scene in Jezebel that was simply appalling racially also had some of the best acting I've ever seen from Bette Davis, or really from anyone else in that period.

So back to Davis: After all this, three movies and more to come, I told Matt the other night that as good as she is when she's not quite 30, as beautiful and intriguing, she doesn't compare for a moment to herself at 42 in All About Eve. Not even remotely.

In her twenties...
And from Eve

In brief: Youth does not make charisma.

In reading news, I finished By Nightfall, and gave it a big thumbs-down and raspberry. No one is more surprised than me, but this one should have stayed in the drawer. It was static, repetitive, and thoroughly insecure. I couldn't shed the feeling that Cunningham, in trying to show how pretentious and self-obsessed these characters were, only succeeded in showing how pretentious and self-obsessed his own artistic interests are.

I'm presently reading an anthology, Ghosts by Gaslight, a gift from Matt for my birthday [insert shame that it's taken me five months to open it]. It collects Victorian-style ghost stories with a scatter of steampunk. The first story had a good concept but not the best execution, and the second story was reasonably good if paced pretty awkwardly, and that's all the feedback I can offer so far.

I just ordered a book called Revolution in the Head, which is a song-by-song rundown of the Beatles' entire goddamn career. It was excerpted in Slate and given such a positive review that I just had to get it. Stay tuned for more.

Best film quote I heard this week: "Cat dead. Details later." Name that flick?