Pandemic Funk

So, confession time. I haven’t written a lot of fiction since the start of the pandemic. That doesn’t mean I haven’t written anything, of course. I wrote several articles for ROUTE Magazine from May through August of last year, and some short stories on the side (sadly, I couldn’t get any of them published). But I put My Shell on the back burner, and there are a couple of major reasons for this. The first is the pandemic, which put a damper on my creativity, as it did many writers. The second is that I’ve recently become much more cynical about my career. Aside from my close friends and family, will anyone ever care about my novels? Actorburg has sold some copies, and I’m glad about that, but not enough copies to indicate any career growth. Is this as good as it will ever get? Does it matter? As much as I enjoy writing for myself, I’d like to think that I could become an author who is read by many. I suppose we’ll just have to see. Never say never, and all that.

On a brighter note, I finally landed another paid editing gig, this time with a company called Optimized Scribes. It’s not full-time, so I can’t support myself from it, but I appreciate the extra income. And I also finally have a reason to finish my first draft of My Shell, since the Writer’s Digest Conference has rescheduled to late July of this year. Not only should I be able to network with writers, agents, and publishers, as well as pitch my latest book, but I will very likely learn how to improve my writing and marketing skills. All in all, the benefits should justify the expenses, and it will be great to commune with like-minded people, especially in New York City. I’ll let you know how it goes.

October Update

Last week, I finally published my fourth novel, Actorburg. After spending a couple of years trying to find it a traditional home, first through small presses and then via an agent, I decided to return to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. I hope that you will still take a chance on it, and I eagerly await your feedback! I still feel that KDP produces a strong product, as the service gave me the option to custom-design a front cover (thanks again to The California Institute of the Arts for allowing me to use a great image by photographer Scott Groller!). So, I’m happy with the final result, despite the circuitous route it took to get there. I’ve taken a break from writing My Shell as I pursue other writing opportunities (and now promote Actorburg), but will likely return to it early next year.

In other writing news, my ROUTE Magazine internship went fairly well, with only a handful of bumps in the road (namely policy violations and sloppy attention to detail, which I will make an effort not to repeat). Up next is a freelance writing opportunity with Screen Rant, and I hope that goes even better.

April Update

As we all know, the world looks much different since my last post.  However, while I now live in quarantine, I continue to write.  Along with my novel, I have also been penning short stories and submitting them to literary magazines (currently only those who pay cash and do not charge a reading fee, though that may change).  No takers so far, but it’s early yet.  In the hopes of expanding my social network, I have also created an online writers community for the Purdue Alumni Association website.  That’s also in its early stages, but has attracted a lot of interest.  You can find it here.  And I’ve also enjoyed contributing to my usual writing outlets, such as the Adventures in Videoland Facebook group.  It’s been good to have a routine, but it will be nice to be able to get out of the house more often (I did spend Easter at my step-uncle’s lake house, which was nice).

And I forgot to mention it last time, but I have gotten some professional writing done in recent months.  The first gig was as an Editorial Intern with Shannon Media, publishers of Chapel Hill Magazine, Durham Magazine, and Chatham Magazine.  I wrote several Weekend at a Glance articles, as well as some wedding articles, and contributed to the Noted and food sections of the magazines.  You’ll be able to find some of them online if you type my name in the search bar of each website, but they are also available in the February/March issues of Durham Magazine and Chatham Magazine (available at local businesses in the area, as listed on Chapel Hill Magazine’s website).  I also wrote an article about Ethiopia’s Oromo people for a nonprofit called Free World Associates, which you should be able to find here.  So, I’m gradually building a portfolio, even if it’s not progressing as quickly as I would like.  Perhaps I’ll have better luck once the world gets back to normal.  I can only hope.

Brief Update

It’s been almost a year since I’ve posted here, so I decided to pen this brief update.

Starting in December 2019, I have begun submitting Actorburg to literary agents in the United States and other countries.  So far, the results have been mixed.  I haven’t received too many rejections so far, but I have also not received responses from most of the agents.  Most of the rejections I have received did not offer any feedback, but one of them suggested submitting to agents who had recently represented dystopian novels.  I very much appreciated that suggestion, and submitted my novel to some of those agents.

Earlier this month, I began writing My Shell, my fifth novel.  My Shell tells the story of Michael Hughes, a closeted trans male entering his sophomore year at college.  At the beginning of the semester, he notices a flyer promoting the callout of what turns out to be a white nationalist group called The Good Old Boys.  Tasked by his editor Bobby Reinhardt with writing a series of opinion columns on the group, Michael decides to go undercover with The Good Old Boys, and becomes an official member of their sister organization The Southern Belles.  However, this decision threatens to strain his bonds with his close friends Rohit and Cat, and begins to distort his sense of self.  Is he now Megan Forrester (his alias), Michelle Hughes (his birth identity) or Michael?  Only time will tell.  I’m only thirty pages in, but I’m making good progress, and will notify you all of any major updates.

In other writing business news, I am considering attending the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City this August, especially if I don’t land an agent by then.  I am looking forward to getting feedback on my proposal for Actorburg (and maybe My Shell?), as well as sitting in on several panels and taking copious notes.  Maybe I can even land representation!  I also joined an online writers’ community called Writer’s Cafe, and occasionally contribute to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord service (mostly just for writing exercises).  Regarding my current books, I sold one copy each of Super Cute and Green Alert last year, and gave away a copy of The Burgeoning Heart of Bambi Bazooms earlier this year.  That’s better than nothing, I suppose.  Hopefully, this year ends up being more productive than last year, and I can begin making real progress as an author.  Fingers crossed!

A Lesser Form of Literature?

I have heard several anecdotes debating the merits of screenwriting.  In some of those anecdotes,  a literature professor tells an aspiring screenwriter that screenwriting is a “lesser form of literature”?  But is it?  I argue that screenwriting is merely a different form of literature, with its own rules about form and content.

The word “screenplay” itself tells you a lot about this document’s primary goal–to offer stage direction for a film’s directors and actors, as opposed to those working in a theatre.  However, that doesn’t mean that screenplays can’t work as stories.  A story is still at the center of a screenplay, after all.  However, whereas fiction has pretty simple formatting rules (with dialogue rules probably being the most complicated), the screenwriting format is considerably more complex.

A screenplay starts with the words “FADE IN.”, followed by a scene heading (i.e. “INT. DENTIST’S OFFICE – DAY”).  Next comes a succession of either action lines (i.e. “Bob walks the dog down the street, passing many fellows pedestrians”) or lines of dialogue (i.e. BOB/ Hi, Jane!  How are you?).  A screenplay always ends with the words “FADE OUT.”.   I won’t describe the specific formatting rules here, because you can find them in other, more authoritative online or print documents.  I just want to give you an idea of how instructions govern a screenplay’s format–and also its content.  First, let’s break down the aforementioned screenplay parts.  “FADE IN.” signals to filmmakers that a film is beginning.  Thus, the cinematographer knows what the first shot will be, the editor knows how to introduce that shot (as a fade, rather than an iris or a wipe), and the director knows what shot will begin his or her film.  The director doesn’t necessarily have to film it first, but it does have to be the film’s first shot.  The scene heading tells the filmmakers and actors whether the scene will be indoors our outdoors, where specifically it will be, and at what time of day it transpires.  The action lines tell actors what to do, and dialogue lines tell them what to say.  Lastly, “FADE OUT.” signals to filmmakers that a film is ending.

So, how does a screenplay’s format govern its content?  First and foremost, a screenplay can only describe what the audience can see or hear.  If a character is thinking something, the screenplay must describe it as voice-over.  If a film suddenly moves in time from the present to the past or future, the screenplay must specifically indicate these flashbacks or flash-forwards.  And if a character suddenly moves from one location to another, new scene headings must indicate this travel.  In recently writing a screenplay for an online contest, I learned this firsthand.  Whereas in a short story or novel, a character can move many places within each chapter, a character can only be in one setting during each scene.  The resulting screenplay may not look elegant, but a screenplay is not concerned with elegance.  A screenplay’s primary concern is getting across instructions to filmmakers.

For better or for worse, a screenplay’s format can also hinder creative liberties.  For example, in a novel, a writer can suddenly switch from narrative formatting to newspaper formatting, in order to indicate that a character is reading a newspaper article (the author can also do the same with letters, e-mails, or other documents).  If an author wants to be really creative, he or she can insert photographs, drawings, and other illustrations, either on their own pages or in-between passages of text.  A screenwriter can do none of this.  That’s because a screenplay offers only visual description, and the director is in charge of visual presentation.  Many people say that film is a director’s medium, and this is one example of why that might be true.

However, as I mentioned in the first two paragraphs, a story is still at the center of a screenplay.  A screenplay can still feature settings, characters, and a plot (but not necessarily all three, especially for the more experimental filmmakers).  If a screenplay features solid representations of all three story elements, it can still convey meaningful ideas and themes.  It can be challenging to communicate these messages in the screenplay format, especially for neophytes (like myself).  However, with practice and confidence, I believe that a screenwriter can produce as screenplay that is as fine a piece of literature as any short story or novel.  Because a screenplay still requires words, the writer can establish a unique voice through action and dialogue lines.  If that voice is unique enough, readers might even be able to determine authorship just by those lines alone.  And who knows?  One day, you might find your screenplay in bookstores, alongside Quentin Tarantino and just a few shelves over from Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor.  Different mediums can shape stories in different ways, but they don’t necessarily have to lessen the impact of those stories.  So, is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane a great piece of literature?  Of course–just as much as any classic novel.

Gendered Language

“You’ve really got me by the balls.”  “Grow a pair.”  “Cold as a witch’s tit.”  “That job was a bitch.”  I’m sure that you’ve heard one or all of these phrases.  But why do we so frequently and casually use such gendered language to get our points across?

Gendered phrases are a part of the lexicon.  Men use the first two phrases–and others like them–to define their masculinity, or that of other males.  Their genitals seem to define them in a way that women’s corresponding genitals do not define women (“that took some ovaries” or “big swinging clit” don’t quite have the same ring).  They can use these phrases and terms to describe positive or negative events, to insult as well as praise.  But ultimately, male genitals–especially testes–define their worth.

As for the second two phrases, they are clearly negative.  Overwhelmingly, phrases and terms that denigrate women (and their anatomy) experience more use than those that uplift them.  Women’s bodies represent negative worth or events, to be avoided at all costs.  Men use such terms to insult, and rarely praise (“that was tits!”–meaning “that was great!”–is one of the few exceptions).

But why is this?  And why use gendered language as colloquialisms when proper terms will do?  I think it all comes down to cultural experience.  In most cultures, being manly is important.  Consequently, genital-derived words become synonyms for strength, bravery, confidence, and other important positive attributes (both physical and emotional).  And because these cultures are male-dominated, inhabitants view traditional female attributes–like nurturing, submissive, or meek–as the antithesis of the ideal.  When women try to adopt male attributes, both men and women may accuse them of betraying their gender, or at least trying to adopt male personas.  So, women mostly lack corresponding genital-derived words to define their positive attributes–because the culture does not view these attributes as positive.

Is this good, bad, or just the way it is and has to be?  I’ll leave that to the historians.  I just wanted to take this time to point out how a gendered life perspective can impact everything, down to the words we use in everyday writing and conversation.  Will we ever see positive female-gendered words experiencing such commonplace use?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it sure would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

Cult of Personality

As we approach the third year of the Trump presidency, I have been thinking about why his tweets so effectively influence his most ardent supporters.  They’re not especially well-written, and their content is bombastic and mostly false.  However, I believe that Trump writes with such authority and conviction that he easily wins over impressionable minds.  How exactly does he do this?  I’ll enumerate a few ways.

  1.  Capitalization and punctuation marks:  Trump frequently uses all-caps to emphasize his words, and loves using exclamation marks at the end of sentences.  Although I think that this punctuation suggests that he is shouting all the time, I can see how some readers might appreciate such emphatic statements.  These loud declarations demand attention, and they are only too happy to grant it.  Plus, I can’t deny that such tactics make the tweets more visible and memorable, and I’m sure that Trump is counting on this.

2.       Sacrificing proper grammar for simplicity of message:  Trump often passes off     sentence fragments as full sentences, just to quickly get his point across.  This is probably a good idea for tweets, since Twitter restricts character count.  And while I think that such writing comes across as simple-minded, and more appropriate for a newspaper headline than a sentence, such shorthand closely mirrors colloquial speech.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump’s followers feel that he is trying to relate to them in this manner.

3.  Frequent misspellings:  You may be asking yourself, “How can this be good?”  The answer is that if journalists spend too much time criticizing Trump’s spelling, along with his grammatical mistakes and abuses, his followers might feel that they are nitpicking just because he is a Republican.  Many followers might see these misspellings as endearing rather than egregious, and admire him for his failings.

Now, let me offer a hypothetical tweet to make my point.  “DEMS denied funding for Wall, and now they COMPLANE about Federal Workers going broke!  Can’t have it both ways!  Pay up or shut up!”

The fallacy here is that the Democrats should shoulder all of the blame for the government shutdown.  In fact, Trump previously said that he would take the blame for the shutdown–only to backtrack when it was politically convenient.  Also, eight House Republicans recently voted against Trump’s border wall.  That’s not many, but it’s still enough to prevent unanimous support.  Moving on to sentence construction, we see that he is brief and emphatic.  The capitalization draws attention to key points, and the exclamation marks lend authority to the statements.  The misspelling is obvious, but relatively unimportant given the rest of the tweet’s contents.  Lastly, this hypothetical tweet once again targets Democrats as enemies and deflects attention away from himself.

So, should Democratic leaders adopt Trump’s writing style if they want to win over supporters?  I would advise against it.  Not only would such mimicry appear to be blatantly mocking Trump, but most Democratic supporters would feel that such statements would mock their intelligence.  However, it might not be a bad idea to project the same level of authority.  Don’t distort or ignore the truth, and don’t paint your opponents as enemies of the people, but write confidently, angrily, and with purpose.  Call your supporters to action, and convince them that your way is the only way.  It might seem uncouth, but we might be past the point where decorum matters.  Going high doesn’t necessarily mean going properly.  If speaking LOUDLY and carrying a big stick is what it takes, then by all means do it.

Personal Politics

With today being Election Day, and as I near the completion of the first draft of Actorburg (a very political novel), I would like to discuss how my personal politics influence both my writing and how I see the world.  Strong political advocacy has always been important in shaping authors’ voices and communicating their beliefs, but perhaps it has never been more important than it is now.

I am a registered Democrat, and I am not afraid to admit it.  However, just because I regularly vote for Democratic candidates (because I cannot in good conscience vote for Republicans), that does not mean that I agree with all of their policies.  On abortion, I wish that the party’s pro-choice message was more nuanced than what I have heard, since abortion can be traumatic for the women who undergo the procedure. Even if a woman feels that she needs and wants to abort her fetus, she might not be happy to do so, and is likely conflicted about her decision.  However, I agree that a woman has the right to decide if and when to have a child, because she is the one who has to carry and bear that child.  On guns, I support the Second Amendment, and believe that the government should not control access to guns.  Rather, it should work harder to regulate the sales of firearms, as well as monitor the activities of those who use them.  It’s not that I don’t trust anyone who owns a gun.  It’s just that I am very concerned for public safety, and would rather err on the side of caution than offer blanket freedom to the owners of potentially dangerous weapons.  On the economy, I favor some sort of welfare system, because I am aware that too many citizens lack the abilities and/or aptitudes to obtain high-paying jobs.  Access to wealth is not solely determined by hard work, as some might have you believe.  It is also determined by circumstances of family history, race/ethnicity, sex, location, and other factors.  However, taxes and wages cannot be so high (or low) that they bankrupt companies or individuals.

So, how do those beliefs impact my writing?  Simply put, I view the world through rose-colored glasses.  I believe that everyone should be able to satisfy their personal needs and wants (within ethical reason), and that changes and differences can be positive.  In my past writing, these beliefs have manifested themselves in characters who fight against oppression, discrimination, and an imbalanced social system that heavily favors the rich and powerful.  In my future writing, they might inform the ethical ramifications of unchecked freedoms, or the difficulties faced by underprivileged minorities.  For as much as I am an optimist, a strong cynical streak runs through my life perspective, and consequently my works of fiction.  As you may have noticed, none of my novels have traditional happy endings.  While the characters may triumph over their adversities, they do not vanquish their oppressors.  They must learn how to live within their means, and be happy with what they can personally accomplish.  This is because I believe that certain power structures are so tightly woven into the societal fabric that it is difficult if not impossible for someone to enravel them (or even change them in any meaningful way).

Does that mean that there is no hope?  Of course not.  There is always hope.  However, I believe that the world cannot change for the better if we do not embrace the beliefs of others.  We must work together to create a world that respects everyone, offers real opportunities for their emotional and financial successes, and creates some parity between groups from disparate social spheres.  Needless to say, such achievements will require compromise and sacrifice.  I know those are dirty words, but the solution is not to accept the status quo–nor is it to create a radically different status quo.  The solution is to find a balance between overly conservative and overly liberal.  That won’t please everyone, but bear in mind the old saying–“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.  It will be a start, and at least that’s something.

Bambi Bazooms — The Complete Soundtrack

Now that The Burgeoning Heart of Bambi Bazooms is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I can list the full track list for the novel.  Yes, it is unusual for a novel to have a soundtrack, but it felt natural in this case.  As a stripper, Bambi dances to music, and I wanted to tailor specific music to her personality (as well as to those of Fanny and Cinnamon).  There was other music that I had in mind for certain scenes in the book.  However, in those cases, it was not natural for me to mention them, because they would have been playing “in the background” (as in a movie).  But if Scott Pilgrim (a graphic novel series) and The Atomic Girls (a book) can offer their own song suggestions for readers, I figured that I could do the same.  So, without further ado, here is the track list.  Please note that this list contains story spoilers, so I recommend that if you haven’t yet finished reading the book, do so and come back to this blog post.  Here we go:


  1.  I Want My Fanny Brown — Wynonie Harris (Fanny’s opening dance number)
  2. Snatch and Grab It — Julia Lee (Bambi’s first dance number)
  3. One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer — Amos Milburn (Cinnamon’s first dance number)
  4. Take the ‘A’ Train — Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn (Flashback at the Green Mill)
  5. Baby Got Back — Sir Mix-A-Lot (Fanny and Cinnamon perform during Human Night)
  6. Rag Doll — Aerosmith (Bambi’s performance during Human Night)
  7. I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts — Merv Griffin (Cinnamon’s “jungle-themed” performance)
  8. One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show — Stick McGhee (Bambi’s “jungle-themed” performance)
  9. Jungle Love — Steve Miller Band (Fanny’s “jungle-themed” performance)
  10. Poison — Bell Biv Davoe (Bambi’s farewell performance)
  11. (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You — UB40 (Bambi and Steve make love)
  12. Free Your Mind — En Vogue (Protest in front of the Federal Building)
  13. The Sign — Ace of Base (Bambi arrives at the Kedzie Green Line station for her trip back home)

And there you have it!  If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments :).

There’s no such thing as coincidence?

When Suzanne Collins first published The Hunger Games, many readers complained that it was a blatant rip-off of the Japanese novel Battle Royale–even though Collins herself claimed that she had never read the latter book.  Many people didn’t believe her, and I regret to admit that I was one of people.  The similarities were too obvious for them to be coincidences.  Both books are about children who kill each other in a no-holds-barred survival game, and both games take place in a forest.  The number of participants is roughly the same in each book, as is the number of survivors.  Now, however, I am more inclined to believe Collins, and that is because I have unintentionally “ripped off” concepts from other media.

In my most recent book, The Burgeoning Heart of Bambi Bazooms (which should be published this summer), Bambi delivers a speech to Reverend Franklin that is very similar to one that Roger Rabbit delivers to Eddie Valiant in Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (the basis for the film).  It hits all the same beats about similarities between Toons/Cartoons and humans, and is also a plea for understanding.  Thankfully for me, the exact dialogue differs greatly enough to avoid charges of plagiarism.

The same can’t quite be said for the “coincidences” from my latest book (minor spoilers ahead).  In Actorburg, Jenny Davis and her fellow classmates/inmates live on a relatively isolated campus run by an ultraconservative organization.  They wear color-coded clothing (pink for women, and light blue for men), and at one point perform gender-segregated labor.  If any of that sounds familiar to you, then you have likely watched Jamie Babbit’s film But I’m a Cheerleader.  I swear to you, I had never seen that film before I began writing my book.  Because the plot takes place in a conservative re-education camp, it made sense to have the characters perform gender-based labor (thankfully, the women plant vegetables rather than vacuum a house; the men are still chopping wood).  I hit upon the color-coded uniforms because it seemed so perfect.  If the camp wants to truly debase its residents, why not dress them like babies?  Unfortunately, and honestly unbeknownst to me, someone had already beat me to that idea.  Will I now change those aspects of the book?  I am very reluctant to do so, since the coincidences were unintentional and they fit so well with the story.  However, I will name-drop Jamie Babbit, because he deserves at least part of the credit for putting those ideas into the collective unconscious.  And Mr. Babbit, if you’re somehow reading this, you can be sure that I’ll give you a free, signed copy of my book (along with my thanks for–hopefully–not suing my pants off).