Archive for February, 2013
Waiting is always the hardest part for me.
I don’t agonize over writing. I don’t get twisted up in knots over artistic/subtextual/thematic/philosophical literary quandary. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t groan about finishing things. I just sit down and write and I keep doing that ‘til it’s done.
It’s really not that hard.
Except I fucking hate the waiting.
I think it’s one of the things that ruined me for the traditional publishing industry. Slush piles are purgatory; only when you finish doing your time you don’t go to Heaven, you go to the bank to cash a shitty four-figure check and the back of the bookstore to visit your sad, forgotten tome. You’ll wait a year for this publisher’s reply. And DO NOT send it to any other potential publisher in the interim or we won’t bother. Also, our bi-yearly fiction webzine has a six-month backlog. Our agency’s reading period is February 1st and 2nd between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., but ONLY ON LEAP YEARS AND GOD HELP YOU IF YOU DIDN’T READ THE GUIDELINES STATING THAT FACT.
Yeah, sure. And, hey, while I’m at it I’ll go ahead and send that shit by Pony Express, too.
Because it’s not like a human being’s time on this planet is finite or anything.
The process doesn’t speed up much once you get past the gates, either. Novels will always take a long time to write. Agents will always take a long time to sell. Editors will have their way five times over. Publishers will always take forever to release the goddamn book.
Prevailing technologies can’t kill it all fast enough for me. They really can’t.
Anyway. I like writing screenplays because the entire process moves faster. That’s not to say movies can’t or don’t take a long time to happen. They do. It’s the writing of them that accelerates to phenomenal speed.
But you will never fully escape the waiting.
I finish a new spec script, my first serious attempt at something balls-out contemporary and commercial. I send it to the manager I’ve been working with since last November. I wait. I wait longer because this is a big company and I’m not making them big money yet and there are a lot of others who are and they go first.
I understand and accept all of that.
But I absolutely, positively, cate-fucking-gorically hate waiting.
I’m between freelance projects. I’m waiting for proofs of everything for the new book I’m doing with Murky Depths before I’ll have more to do there. The current big screenwriting project onto which I signed last year is in a holding pattern. I haven’t decided on the next spec I want to write yet.
A few weeks ago I chugged half-a-bottle of 80-proof rum in one gulp for no particular reason. Then I did stand-up comedy for the first time and talked mostly about the most horrible things I’ve ever seen and experienced.
This is me waiting. It ain’t pretty.
I needed something productive to do.
I very rarely think about the things I’ve written. I very rarely reread the things I’ve written, particularly screenplays. So, last week I made this list. It’s a list of every screenplay I’ve written in the last six or so years, since I started down this insane and glorious career and artistic path. The features total eleven (one of which I had to censor the title because I’m still under an NDA on the project). I also excluded non-narrative web content, series, shorts, EPK, and script doctoring.
I broke the list down into screenplays I wrote while I was in Nashville, and screenplays I’ve written since coming to Los Angeles. A matched pair of dollar signs next to a screenplay means I was hired to write it. A single dollar sign means it was a story of mine that was optioned.
None of them have thus far been made into movies. The shorter stuff was produced. I’ve written for live-action and animated series, both web and television. I’ve scripted ancillary content for some pretty big studio movies. But sole credit on a feature film continues to elude me.
A few came close. One came within a well-groomed pubic hair. We had a director. We had concept art. We had a poster. We had storyboards. For a while we had Hugo Weaving.
Then we didn’t have him. Then we didn’t have financing anymore, either. Then we didn’t have a movie.
Here’s a story.
I wrote my first screenplay in 2002. Correction: I wrote my first complete screenplay in 2002. If you want to be technical I tried writing a Street Fighter II movie when I was thirteen or fourteen (it was my way of coping with the Jean-Claude Van Damme Street Fighter). I managed one scene, in which Chun-Li, an Interpol agent, is given the assignment to infiltrate the World Warrior Tournament as a combatant. I thought you had to write every single camera move. I’d write a line of dialogue, then write the camera cutting between one-shots of the characters talking. I also abbreviated “camera” as “cam” and Chun-Li was talking to Cammy and that got really fucking confusing after a page or two…
In 2002 I was living in Dallas, I was still wrestling, and I was thinking more and more about writing. I decided to enter the second Project Greenlight contest (you may remember it as some of the worst reality television ever conceived, but at least it had Ben Affleck and Matt Damon). I wrote a script called Simple Simon, about a day in the life of a little person in New York City who is a truly brilliant actor, but can’t get any serious work because of his stature and his resulting embittered and combative attitude. He’s also a compulsive gambler who owes an obscene amount of money he doesn’t have to a Puerto Rican bookie I based on professional wrestler Homicide.
It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, either. I didn’t make it past the first round.
After I found out I would not be moving on in the contest I took a long, hard look at my screenplay… and promptly did nothing with it. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me to send it anywhere else to anyone else, or even to try again. There was a rare and beautiful window created by this contest, the window closed, and that was the end. I went back to writing and submitting my short stories and thinking about that first novel and which agency should I send it to and all of this other crap I couldn’t give a furry fuck about now.
Every asshole in the world thinks they’re a writer because writing fiction is easy to access. There’s no machinery to operate, no license to attain. If you can read, you can write. If you can write you can approximate a story, and nothing is more subjective in terms of quality and/or validity, especially to the fucking mouth-breathers of this culture, then a bunch of words on a page. They all look the same to the average person.
Screenwriting is, at least, less accessible. It requires you to learn a specific, somewhat scary format and buy industry-standard software and absolutely fucking NO ONE in any position of authority wants your screenplay. Ever. A book is a bunch of paper of varying thickness and some glue, and with the advent of the digital it’s not even that anymore. A movie is a hundred million dollars and thousands of working professionals and celebrities and celebrities are our gods and how can I possibly affect that medium or industry from where I am with these meager tools?
At least that’s what you think when you live in a fly-over state and didn’t go to film school.
I started screenwriting for real in Nashville, Tennessee. I only took a second run at the medium because an Australian producer optioned one of my short stories he’d heard on a podcast and asked me to do the adaptation (I was paid for the option; I wrote the screenplay for free). He optioned a second story. I wrote a second screenplay. Those started circulating in OZ and a year later another producer hired me to work on a project he was trying to put on its feet. Somewhere in there I became a working screenwriter by default.
I had no idea what the hell I was doing for a while, but that’s everyone who transitions from prose to screenplays. The best part was I basically got paid to teach myself screenwriting. It’s good work if you can get it.
The only problem was I working with very dedicated, smart, talented people who just could not get a feature off the ground no matter how hard they tried. I realized if I wanted to take this further (I did) I couldn’t sit in Nashville waiting for well-meaning people in Australia to make it happen for me.
And thus did I venture west.
I had two goals in moving to Los Angeles: break into the industry proper any way I could, and start developing specs to sell for vast sums of money and that would actually be made into movies.
I’ve accomplished the first goal to a promising degree, particularly in the last year. I’ve worked for major studios (read: a major studio) and on more Hollywood projects than in the previous five years of screenwriting.
The second goal is still very much a work-in-progress. But if it was easy everyone would do it.
I realized a couple of things reading over that list, the most obvious being that when it comes to writing features I was paid more and more often living in Tennessee and writing for foreign markets than I have been writing features in the center of movie-making Babylon. But that was expected. I knew I was going to have to start virtually from scratch out here. Working with a few indie producers abroad doesn’t buy you lunch in this town.
The second thing I realized, the far more vital lesson and the harder one to swallow, is this: I am a better writer than the screenplays I have thus far produced.
I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve written. I like a lot of what I’ve written. I’m happy with the specs I have circulating. They got me in the office of an exec in one of the premiere management and production companies in this town. I’m particularly optimistic about the latest one I delivered.
But I’ve yet to write a screenplay as good and as worthy as my best piece of prose fiction.
I need to do better.
I did a lot of reflecting and made a lot of notes off of that list. Those earlier screenplays are better in a lot of ways than a good portion of what I’ve managed here. I’m more technically proficient now. I know a lot more about structure and I’m just a better writer in general. But those early scripts had a purity about them. I wasn’t thinking about their marketability or budgetary restrictions or what anyone else was writing or shooting or releasing and how that affected this project. I wasn’t think about screenwriting tenets or theory or doctrine.
I was just writing. Trying. Putting whatever I had of myself with value into the work.
I was also working with a lot more people, producers and potential directors. I was forced to rework and rewrite and rework and rewrite. I gave away dozens of free drafts, something I would never do now, but I needed that back then. I needed the practice and the education. When you’re working on a spec or working with any kind of autonomy you have to police and push yourself. No one else is going to do it.
I love the solitude of writing. I don’t function well in a group dynamic. But I also can’t deny the value of collaboration.
Recently I’ve been attending these workshops downtown where my friend and colleague Earl Newton is staging his new screenplay in fifteen-page chunks with a group of aspiring and working actors and writers. They do a deep morbidity and mortality Q&A afterward where everyone gives notes and discusses what they saw. I’ve watched it transform and improve his script a week at a time. And I usually balk and/or vomit at the idea of a room like that, finding it purely masturbatory.
If you’re going to break through the walls and ceilings of this thing you’ve got to use all the resources at your disposal. I haven’t been.
I also dissected what was lacking and why in my screenplays to date, attempting to boil it down to the bare essentials.
Essential #1: Conflict.
Conflict is everything. Whether it’s emotional or psychological conflict or conflict derived from the plot, it’s the nucleus of a good screenplay; a good movie. I haven’t focused enough on wringing genuine, evocative conflict from my scripts and making good and damn sure it’s peppered throughout the story and the relationships between the characters.
Cool things may happen. Cool lines may be delivered. Clever plot twists may develop.
Unless conflict is at the wheel driving that bitch you’re just careening awkwardly and everything becomes a blur.
Essential #2: That damn prose writer.
I still overwrite my scenes. The crazy thing is when I begin a screenplay I have no fucking idea how I’m going to make it past page 90 into feature-length territory. It seems like crossing hundreds of miles of frozen tundra in a Speedo; impossible. By the time I reach page 90, however, I’m laying pages down so fast that the last leg of the process becomes a cage match to keep the thing around 120 (the rule is one page equals one minute of screen time). I feel like I’m missing a lot transition scenes and elevation because I’ve filled too much with description and more dialogue than I need. I need to leave more room to develop that conflict.
It all comes down to this simple dictum: I can do better.
Which is always true. It will never stop being true. It’s true no matter what you write or how long you plug away at it. But you need a plan to get there. Knowing isn’t enough. There’s no better teacher than the work you’ve already done. Each piece is several dozen compressed lessons in and of itself. Together they contain all you’ll ever need to know to take the next step.
You can’t get to where you’re going if you don’t know where you are and how you got there.
That’s trigonometry, son. Protractors aren’t just for stabbing a bitch.
None of this will decide what I write next, of course, but I am determined that whatever I do write next will address everything I’ve laid out here. It will be better than I’ve done and as good as I can do. I’ll dig into each aspect with a scalpel and keep pulling until I extract pure viscera and I’ll balance those new discoveries with what I already do well and that’s how I’ll win.
Unless, of course, this new script sells.
Then I won’t give a fuck about any of that.
Black Lesbian God bless Hollywood.
Last November I dropped my novel THE FAILED CITIES as a self-published ebook. It has sold better than I ever could have hoped.
Still, from the moment I announced the ebook I’ve been getting tweets, e-mails, and Facebook static along the lines of the following…
I have yet to please that final cross-section of fiction fans. I’ve locked down the audiophiles. I’ve appeased the ereader fetishists. But the good, old-fashioned lovers of cloth and wood grain-scented paper books?
They still haven’t experienced The Failed Cities.
You asked. I answered.
On May 17th, 2013, British publisher The House of Murky Depths will release my novel THE FAILED CITIES in a phantasmagorical limited hardcover edition.
It is the first time for THE FAILED CITIES in print. It is the first time for THE FAILED CITIES in hardcover. It is the first time THE FAILED CITIES has broken free of the digital and been made flesh.
And it’s going to be beautiful flesh.
I have a long and cherished history with Terry Martin and The House of Murky Depths, beginning way back when Terry first published Murky Depths as a fiction and comics quarterly. I was an editor for the ‘zine, and from the first issue I saw that Terry had a gift for packaging original and innovative content in the highest quality presentation. Murky Depths, the quarterly, was one of the best all-around magazines I’d ever seen.
Terry has transformed that magazine into The House of Murky Depths, one of my absolute favorite specialty publishers in the entire damn world. For years Terry and his crew have been creating the most beautifully and fully produced novels, anthologies, comics, and graphic novels out there. I own half-a-dozen of their books and comics myself. They’ve teamed with top-flight storytellers like postcyberpunk maestro Richard Calder and World and British Fantasy Award winning author Lavie Tidhar, and artists like veteran sci-fi cover creator Vincent Chong, Neil Struthers, and Luke Cooper.
I wanted this book to be amazing. I wanted it to kick the shit out of every Subterranean Press hardcover I own. I wanted it to be your favorite thing on your shelf.
Terry and Murky Depths have committed to producing that book.
This beautifully bound edition is going to feature custom endpapers, a dust jacket with Scott Pond returning to expand his original ebook cover, and Terry is also signing on a slew of insanely talented artists to create original character illustrations and artwork just for this edition. The design and construction behind every aspect of this thing will be art.
It will also include all of the extra content from the definitive edition ebook I released myself. You’ll get all of the extra stories, the novella, and the commentary.
Each copy will be individually signed and numbered by yours truly.
Our goal is to create a book you will love to read, and a collectible you’ll love to own.
THE FAILED CITIES will be available for pre-order beginning on March 12th. Terry and I are still brainstorming on exclusive incentives and extras that will ONLY be included for those who pre-order the book. There will be more info on that as it solidifies.
I would really love to see the whole run sell out when it goes up for pre-order. It would mean a great deal to me, and Terry would feel a lot better about signing on for this bloodbath of a mission, too.
So please come out on March 12th and pre-order your copy of THE FAILED CITIES.
When I rule the world you’ll be able to put your kids through college selling that shit on ebay. I promise.
Hardcore Weekend: How I Bled Until I Saw the Future and Why Texas Is A Madness-Inducing Forever Machine
In 2004 I was at the tail end of my pro-wrestling career although I didn’t know it yet and I traveled from Dallas to Mineral Wells, Texas on a Saturday night to take part in a hardcore three-way Texas Death Match.
I no longer remember the name of the company/promotion. After a number of years they all tend to blend together into an endless and spastic DNA sequence of three-and-four-letter initials.
Those are all real, by the way.
Some of you may know the following. Some of you won’t. Some of you will think you do, but trust me you do not.
Texas is big.
Texas is big and flat and it goes on that way goddamn forever in every goddamn direction.
The weekend in question the sameness—the oneness—of Texas was finally threatening to overwhelm my mind.
Every two weeks I drove a flat burn from one end of the state to the other to wrestle in a converted movie theater in Corpus Christi. It was nine hours of slightly varying shades of exactly the same flat fucking thing, over and over, until you wanted to paint the landscape with your own entrails just to see some color and stark contrast.
IT’S THE SAME THING. ALL OF IT. NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU SEEM TO GO.
You drive nine hours and it’s still the same thing as when you started. You don’t cross state lines. You aren’t welcomed to somewhere new. You accomplish nothing. You are still in motherfucking Texas because Texas never ends. In particular, that last leg between San Antonio and the gulf is a void. It’s forever. It’s nothingness squared. It is a flat, featureless, indistinctive expanse of sandy limbo. And the more you drive it the more you are starkly aware of that fact and the longer the miles take to psychologically traverse. Even speeding along at eighty miles per hour a weak man may go mad.
Company helps keep you sane, but that’s about it. I was riding with “The Hardcore Kingpin” Scott Phoenix and his wife, who was also his manager/valet, Lady Draven. They were as good as any friends I made during my time in Texas, and I didn’t make many of those. I’d crashed at their place because we’d worked the night before in Denton, Texas, where we wrestled every week for another promotion that ran out of a space in a strip mall with ceilings you could reach up and touch while standing in the middle of the ring.
Scott and I worked (read: wrestled) each other all over the state for half-a-dozen different wrestling promotions. We were comparable in size, had good chemistry, and I didn’t mind him pummeling me with any and everything that wasn’t nailed down, which was kind of his thing at the time.
He once dropped a steel shopping cart on top of me.
It hurt. A lot.
Coincidentally the previous night’s match in Denton had been another hardcore three-way dance. Scott had gotten color. Our third man in that contest, Hugh Rogue, had also worn the proverbial crimson mask.
I hadn’t juiced/colored/gigged/bled. Largely because my mother had come to that show and I didn’t want to freak her out. She never saw me bleed profusely in a match, and that’s probably for the best. There’s also something slightly perverse about cutting yourself open in front of your mother, at least for me. I’d had my eyebrow busted open a week before and I told Rogue if he could open it back up with a punch that was fine (fifty hard-knuckled shots to the brow bone later not a drop, by the way), but I wasn’t going to blade that night.
I would not get away with that two hardcore nights in a row, and I knew it.
We got there; Mineral Wells, not much to say about it other than inexplicably we passed a good-sized movie studio outside of town (that’s what we in the trade call “foreshadowing,” kids). We set up the angle for that night at the top of the show during a big battle royale, which is a bunch of wrestlers in the ring at the same time all trying to toss each other over the top rope in order to be the last man standing, and thus the winner. I was barely paying attention when Scott back body dropped me over the top rope and nearly busted my knees and my skull simultaneously. I think the point was I yanked him out of the ring after and we brawled to the locker room, and that set up the conflict for when we took each other on later, but that whole part is hazy in my memory.
I do remember hitting the concrete from about sixteen feet up. I also remember landing wrong and realizing I was only halfway tuned in to the proceedings.
Neither my head nor my heart was in the thick of things at this point.
The concept of a Texas Death Match is fairly simple and classic in the Aristotle sense: your goal is to knock your opponent down so they’re unable to answer the referee’s count of ten. Beyond that there are no rules, and many bludgeoning weapons would be involved. I had a tiny razor blade concealed under the top fold of the athletic tape around my left wrist.
The third participant was a burly, jovial middle-aged man with the ring name Sensei. He wore a gi and was supposed to have a legitimate martial arts background, although I can’t say as I noticed during the match. He also made it clear he wasn’t going to color, which put added pressure on me to deliver the juice, which people absolutely expect to see during a hardcore-style match.
We came out somewhere in the middle of the card and went to work. There were bamboo canes, chairs, frying pans, assorted and industrial-looking pieces of metal of varying rigidity.
Everything in pro-wrestling hurts to some degree, weapons or not.
Getting hit with a forged piece of steel hurts a lot.
I ended up outside the ring. I took a sufficient shot to the head with an object I can’t recall offhand. I half-rolled under the ring apron (an amateurish and purely lazy way to hide your actions, and not something I would have contemplated a year before). I unsheathed my teardrop-shaped razor. I put a three-inch slash in my forehead.
I understand cutting. I did it a lot in those days. I did it with a purely utilitarian psychology. I did it for money. But I still experienced it. It doesn’t really hurt, at least not superficial cuts. Initially it’s cold in a soothing way. The blood flow, by contrast, feels quite warm. Your body releases endorphins and for a moment you don’t care about much at all.
It only lasts for a second or two, especially when you’re in the middle of a match, but this time it was different for me. That night in Mineral Wells a curtain of blood dropped down my face and I couldn’t hear the crowd anymore. I felt cold, then warm, then extremely calm and serene. I very much wanted to stay coddled in that moment. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to come out. I just wanted to lie there and bleed and not face the reality I’d cultivated around myself since I was fifteen years old.
I thought about the endless loops through the phantom zone that was Texas and how one more trip would probably drive me insane. I thought about everything that had happened in New York and why I wanted to leave. I thought about the thirty dollars I was being paid that night and the twenty dollars I’d been paid the night before.
I thought about all of these things and I decided I’d rather just rest.
I couldn’t, of course. We had a match to finish.
We were working in a rodeo arena, the floor of which was covered in these brittle wood chips that were now dyed red in my blood and smelled like a gas chamber and I’m facedown in them and the reality of the situation hit me harder than any of the foreign objects hurled and battered against my head in the last ten minutes.
I suddenly knew the following. I didn’t fully realize it yet, but I knew it.
This wasn’t working; any of it. It wasn’t going to work. Not the match, you understand, but everything I was doing. I was almost ten years on in this business, I had neither the body nor the charisma to move beyond my current mired level, and worse than all of that my desire had waned. Professional wrestling is a shitty business. It really is. Blue chippers are few and far between held against the number of workers who take a serious shot at making it. The majority of us toil long and fruitlessly and we wreck ourselves in every conceivable way a human being can. We push ourselves for years, decades, every season of every year.
The point is you have to do it because you love it or it will kill you. Once you no longer have the business in your heart, especially at the indie level without a six-or-seven-figure career to think about, you’re done.
We all have the ability to glimpse the future, even if it’s only ever the possible future. In that moment the next ten years rolled out before me and I knew I wanted none of what I saw and I knew I would have to step from the path that would carry me through all of it.
First things first, however. I got up. I finished the match.
We eliminated Sensei. Scott was booked to go over (i.e. win) that night, but the finish was left to us. We decided on the Rocky II ending. We’d knock each other down at the same time and then slowly race against the referee’s ten count to our feet, with Scott managing a vertical base at the last possible moment while I slumped back down to the mat, winning in grand and histrionic fashion.
Unfortunately the referee was some kid who didn’t know his asshole from a warp zone in Super Mario Bros. and though we’d explained the finish of the match to him beforehand he still managed to fuck it up. Scott and I came at each other armed with folded steel chairs, whapped each other upside the head simultaneously, and took our double fall. The referee counted. Scott dramatically and with Herculean effort forced his beaten form back up to a standing position just in the nick of time while I pancake back to the canvas in a heap…
… and then the referee started counting again, this time just for me.
I should have gotten up and we should have improvised something else, but I was beyond giving the barest molecule of a fuck so I just lay there and took another ten-count.
It was, to the say the least, anti-climactic.
Minutes later I sat down in the back, every part of me not covered in blood covered in sweat. A few feet away from me veteran Bullman Downs was hunched over, gray-haired and gray-bearded and two hundred pounds overweight and chain-smoking although he could still go for a solid half-hour in a match and he’d been in the business for decades and wrestled all over the world and was finishing his career doing the same indie shows as me while supporting his family by working for the city of Irvine.
“Good color,” he commented through a puff of smoke.
Some other twelve-year-old working behind the scenes for the promotion agreed and wanted to snap some pictures before I cleaned myself up.
I stood against a wall and the kid asked me for a pose, and then a different pose. I had nothing. I just stood there. I tried to make a mean face that instead came out pained and slightly constipated (as you can see for yourself in the photo).
Because at that moment I knew that I would have to go home and figure out what the fuck to do with the rest of my life.
I just wasn’t ready to deal with it yet.
I wrestled a few more matches before I finally came to Jesus on the whole thing, and my final match a long time later was a wholly unremarkable event, but that’s another story and not a very good one.
I traveled to hundreds of towns, to different states and different countries. I worked thousands of shows, wrestled thousands of matches. But I think about that night probably more than any other in my career. Lying on the floor of that rodeo arena bleeding from my forehead is one of my most vivid memories of being anywhere at any time in my life.
People change jobs and careers every day and sometimes it’s a huge deal and most of the time it’s not. I get that. Pro-wrestling was more than a job for me. It was my way of life, my culture, and my biggest dream.
That night I realized for the first time I had to let all of it die if I was going to survive.
I hope you love whatever it is you’re doing. Short of that, I hope you’re content with your choices and love the life they’ve facilitated.
If not… I don’t recommend heavy bloodletting as the turnkey of personal epiphany. At least not before you’ve had the training and years on the road to put it in the proper context.
I do recommend you take a look at your life and the dreams on which it’s based with new eyes and a hard, pragmatic heart. Ask yourself if the time you’ve put in is worth the time you have ahead of you.
You may decide you have to leave it all in the ring.