Category Archives: Writing

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.

 

The Cost of Being Independent

The May 2017 issue of The Writer is chock full of helpful and interesting articles! Since I’m working to pay off debt incurred from e-publishing Perceval’s Secret, I was particularly interested in the article, “Going Rogue: Is Self-publishing right for you?” In this article, Kerrie Flanagan compares the traditional publishing model and the self-publishing/independent model, covering all aspects of production, publication, marketing/promotion, and distribution. I recommend this article highly, highly, highly — especially for anyone who believes it doesn’t cost much at all to self-publish.

It depends, of course, on what you want. If you just want to publish an e-book, your costs may not be that high compared to a paperback or hardcover.  I took the advice and suggestions of others, some were writers I knew who’d been successful with self-publishing, and made certain that I found a good-to-excellent editor and a collaborative cover designer for my e-book. Editors can be expensive, anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on what you want and who it is. Shop around, but also shop local if you can. I’m fortunate to live in a literary urban area full of colleges and writing resources. The cover design for me was actually the least expensive cost. I went with a designer who’d done a friend’s book covers. There are writers who are talented in design also, and they can design their own covers, saving money there.

My next expense was to turn my Word document into ePub and Mobi files for Kindle and other e-readers.  For me, this was a painful learning experience. Fortunately, I found an excellent and very patient formatting company, BookNook.biz. Because I had not cleared my Word document of all icky formatting glitches, and Word is notorious for them, there were all sorts of issues with the electronic formatting that cost me more to fix than it would have if I’d cleared the Word document at the beginning. I didn’t know. I paid for my ignorance.  It won’t happen again.  Some writers know a lot about formatting or aren’t scared off by the conversion process. They will save some bucks by doing the conversion themselves.

Flanagan doesn’t go into the cost of ISBN numbers, registering your novel with the US Copyright Office, and marketing/promotion costs.  The last can cost you significantly more than producing the book, depending on what you want, of course.  I worked in advertising at one point in my life and know a bit about marketing.  The most important thing about marketing that you need to know is that unless you are famous or have an irresistible platform, it’s going to be very difficult making yourself heard in the cacophony of promotion at any given moment. In the US, at least 50,000 books are published every year. You’ll be competing with all of them for readers’ attention and hard-earned money. Adjust your expectations for sales accordingly.

With traditional publishing, the writer has no up front costs as with self or independent publishing. The writer also doesn’t have the control that she has as an independent publisher. Traditional publishers take over all the production, with some limited input from the writer about covers, titles, and then proofing galleys. They will also provide very limited marketing and promotion, but are honest with writers that they depend on them for the bulk of this work. It can take up to 2 years for a traditional publisher to publish your book.  If you do it yourself, it can be done in 3-6 months. Perceval’s Secret took 8 months because I slowed the editing and revision process at the beginning.

Photo: aliyasking.com

There is one important thing that traditional publishers (and literary agents) do that writers cannot really do on their own. That is: tell a writer if a book is in publishable shape or not. Even before I contracted to work with my last editor, I’d already been through several edits including a really close line edit. I knew that there would be no major changes or issues for that last edit. There was polishing, however, and that is an important process also. In the last few years, I’ve been asked to read self-published books on occasion. I love helping out a fellow writer, especially if a book is truly worth the attention my review might be able to get for it.  But in all cases, the books were in such terrible shape with grammar, language, sentence and paragraph construction, narrative structure, and in one case, checking facts,  I was shocked. How could a writer allow their work to be published like that? So I’d caution anyone thinking of going the self-publishing route to be absolutely certain that their writing is the best it can be, and do not depend on self-publishing services to provide competent editing for you.  Find your own professional editor.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m still paying off the debt I incurred for publishing Perceval’s Secret in digital form.  I’m coming up on the end of the promotional period on July 1 for the 0% interest rate from the credit card I transferred the debt to (it was originally on another credit card with high interest). I set up a GoFundMe project to raise the funds to pay off this debt, so if you’d like to help out, every $10 or $20 will be a big help. It’d be great if I could raise another $600 in the next couple weeks.  The GoFundMe page is here.  Thank you!  Or please buy Perceval’s Secret at Amazon or B&N, and leave a review there after you’ve read it.

Taking Perceval to the Next Step GoFundMe Page

What makes a writer?

This past week, I had a conversation with a young man who was interested in writing.  He enjoyed working with words when he wrote business correspondence, and he believed he had a knack for finding the right words for whatever he was writing.  He admitted that he didn’t read that much, mostly just what he saw on the internet which sounded like maybe news or commentary sites. I’m not certain what it was he wanted from me.  To tell him he was already a writer?  To tell him how to be a writer?  I suspect that he didn’t know anything about it and wanted me to tell him.  I gave him a catalog of writing classes from The Loft and encouraged him to look it over, see if anything appealed to him and pursue it.

Have any of you had a similar experience?  What do you say?

I’m used to more specific questioning or someone telling me that they are writing a short story/novel/essay collection and they want to know something specific about what they’re writing. This is the first time I’ve encountered someone who was thinking of writing rather than just sitting down and doing it, then trying to figure out what it was all about.

So really, what makes a writer?  Is it publication or is it writing all the time? Is it the compulsion to write?  The need to write vs. the desire to write? Business writing is different from creative nonfiction or fiction, and yet, there are freelance writers who specialize in writing for business, for corporate communications departments.  They consider themselves writers (as do I). And some of them are also writing other things — short stories, plays, etc. Writing is everywhere, if you think about it.  This is the point the inquiring young man made to me.  Yes, it is.  And if he wanted to do that kind of writing, more power to him.  I hope that he looks through The Loft’s catalog and sees for himself that there’s a lot more to writing than he thinks.  He did mention that he thought he could write his own story — autobiography or memoir, I don’t know — but I felt at a loss as to what to say.  Why think about it?  Why not just do it?

What makes a writer?  I have to say that the writers I know don’t think about it, they do it.  Sure, they think about the stories they’re working on, or the ideas that they’re developing for a book or script, but they don’t talk so much about it or just think about it.  They sit down at some point and just write.  And it’s hard. In my confusion, I forgot to tell the young man that it was difficult to do it well.  Yeah, it looks easy — everyone has written something: grocery lists, letters, emails, thank you notes, etc. But to sustain a reader’s interest over a period of pages, that’s something else entirely.

This morning, while cleaning out email (it’s amazing how much it piles up in my mailbox over 5 days), I stumbled onto a note from a writer named Hope Clark — she publishes a newsletter called Funds for Writers that I subscribe to. Her note discussed approaching each day as the best day for writing, even when your writing is going badly.  Even when the writing sucks, it’s still something you can work with to make it better.

Hope Clark quoted Neil Gaiman in an interview in which he talked about what writing is like, and I loved the quote so I’d like to share it with you. It describes accurately, I think, what writing is like:

“The process of writing is not necessarily an enjoyable one. The process of writing is way up there with ditch digging. You write a novel a word at a time. And this will go on for hundreds of pages.”

I’d like to add, that while you’re digging for words in the ditches of life, it’s always a sunny day.

Big Classical Music

It’s been a month full of getting used to a new fulltime job and having no time for much of anything else but eating and sleeping.  I’d forgotten how demanding the adjustment process can be. So, I apologize for my silence, and I hope that will change and I’ll get back to my usual once a week posting schedule in the not too distant future.

But today, I was listening to a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was written in 1953 in a white heat following Joseph Stalin’s death in the spring. It’s big classical music, i.e. the kind of classical music firmly and sublimely evolving out of big emotion and experience.

Shostakovich had a precarious relationship with Stalin’s regime.  He fell out of favor with it when he composed an opera Stalin didn’t like. He regained some favor with his Fifth Symphony, and then enjoyed a great reception for his Seventh Symphony. But when everyone, including Stalin, expected a big, triumphant symphony to mark the end of World War II, Shostakovich gave them a light, quick Symphony No. 9 with a bit of a nose-thumbing attitude to it.  And since his opera’s premiere, Shostakovich had been living in fear of that knock at the door late at night from the KGB coming to haul him off to prison. He was denounced at one point, including by his children at their school.  So, there was no love for Stalin and his regime in Shostakovich.  His Tenth Symphony reveals his experience and his emotion regarding Stalin — the extremely difficult Scherzo is famous as a possible musical portrait of the dictator — and the final movement is a personal statement of victory.  Shostakovich had already used his signature D – S – C – H (the notes D, E flat, C, B following the German spelling of his name) in his Eighth String Quartet and Eighth Symphony.  In his Tenth Symphony, it becomes a loud, victorious statement of Shostakovich as an individual who has survived.  A thrilling symphony to listen to whether recorded or in concert.

And as I listened to this symphony, I began to think about big music, big literature, big art — the creative expression of artists in the throes of big emotion or big experience. It is the kind of music accessible to everyone no matter what their experience with classical music may be. It is the kind of music we associate with earlier times, not today.  Why is that?  Why aren’t composers writing big music today?  And what about big literature?  Are writers grounding their creative expression in human emotion and experience or merely in curiosity?

When I listen to classical music, I want the emotion.  It validates my humanity. And that’s what art needs to do whether in music, literature, painting, theater or other creative expression. When we experience the art, we experience our humanity by the art bringing us closer to it through emotion. I know that in classical music, what I’ve been hearing the last few years has been an over abundance of interesting sounds but nothing that even comes close to big classical music.  And contemporary composers wonder why people don’t want to hear their music again!

Shostakovich composed his music living under a political and social system that oppressed people, oppressed creativity, oppressed free expression of all kinds. He was not free, but he still composed music that endures to this day and will probably continue to endure. Beethoven lived under a monarchy, in an empire, where the aristocracy patronized the arts.  His struggles were more personal, and yet his music is full of emotion and humanity.  Artists need to recognize and confront what it means to be human, what being alive means.

The literature that I love is literature that reveals humanity in all its glorious colors, follies, struggles, and emotion.  The stories of people being human — strengths, weaknesses, flaws, struggles, triumphs. It is also the kind of literature that I do my best to write.

It Can’t Happen Here?

Recently, I finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. This novel has become famous again, as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels that depict life under a totalitarian or fascist regime, because of the 2016 American presidential election.  Lewis’ concern was more about HOW  fascism could happen in America, not with life after fascism was established. According to the very good introduction by Michael Meyer (the English professor at the University of Connecticut, not the actor or the movie character) and the afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, the influences on Lewis in 1935 were the National Socialist movement in Germany, and Huey Long in Louisiana.  Long inspired Lewis’ Senator Buzz Windrip, and how the German people chose fascism inspired his American scenario.

When I was developing the America of 2048 for the Perceval novels, I knew I wanted a fascism in America that was established by a new political party that had arisen when factions from the GOP right and the Democrat right came together in support of Corporate America. The new party, the New Economic Party, participated in free democratic American elections which they won because they promised Americans wealth and security. When they won the presidency and a majority in Congress, they closed the borders, suspended the Constitution, and formed a dictatorship with some of the trappings of a democracy like elections and Congress. Like the Soviet Union, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A military coup would not work, nor would a civilian coup. There could be no forcible takeover of the government. It needed to be chosen by the people.

Lewis agreed with me. In It Can’t Happen Here, the American people elect Buzz Windrip despite all the signs that he would become a dictator: a 15-point manifesto promising people money and then abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court, the creation of his own personal army called the Minute Men, and his emphasis on showmanship rather than substance. Windrip himself wasn’t particularly wealthy, but he had a lot of very wealthy friends, and he had plans to steal from the US Treasury and ferret away millions for himself.  It takes Lewis a good third of the book to really get into the story, but once he does, around the point when Windrip wins the presidential election, it really gets interesting. Lewis lays out the steps Windrip and his administration take to make Congress obsolete, disband the Supreme Court, and restructure both the government and the country, creating 8 provinces instead of 50 states. The Minute Men become the thugs that enforce Windrip’s every wish, and anyone who speaks or acts against the government either disappears, is arrested, and/or shot. An Underground resistance arises, led by the Communists in America (I found this REALLY ironic) and by the man who lost the presidential election and fled to Canada.  Americans flee to Canada in droves, becoming refugees. Production and profits become the determinants of life or death.

It astonished me how familiar this all was.  I had not read Lewis’ novel before, but my thinking for what happens in America to produce my America in 2048 was much the same. Lewis shows how easily a fascist dictatorship can be established in America.  Just elect the right guy. And any fascism would be firmly grounded in Capitalism, i.e. the wealthy would have all the power and control, forcing everyone else to work for their benefit and profit. In the Perceval series, I’m concerned with how such a political system affects the people who live under it, psychologically and emotionally. Especially when violence and abuse are accepted and commonplace.

My May 2017 The Atlantic has arrived and with it reader response to David Frum’s article in the March 2017 issue, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Ezra Klein’s response in a Vox article (published as a letter in the magazine) included the argument that Congress has the power to stop any president from getting too powerful. He writes, “Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.”  Well, yes. But what if Congress agrees with the president and has no intention of stopping him?  We seem to have this situation now in America.  Congress, and the GOP leaders, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Klein writes that the 2018 elections when many of those in Congress face election, could be crucial for stopping the current president.  In the meantime, we are probably fortunate that the current president isn’t nearly as smart or savvy as Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ novel, and that he didn’t think to build his own personal army as Windrip did.