Inlandia Literary Journeys: Interview (VIDEO)

Inlandia Literary Journeys is a video series produced by the Inlandia Institute and The Press-Enterprise. Watch the interview below, then go a little bit below-er and read how it came about.

HIGHLIGHTS:

@ 3:29 I discuss independent publishing

@7:40 I discuss the genesis of Inside the Outside

@ 14:49 I read Chapter 18 of Inside the Outside: "The Inland Empire"

In 2006, Heyday Books of Berkeley published Inlandia: a Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire, which is a wonderful anthology that showcases poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and other literature about the Inland Empire. I picked up a copy of the book in 2007, while I was working on the first draft of Inside the Outside. As a lifelong resident of the Inland Empire, I was overwhelmed and inspired by the rich literary history of the community. I decided that I also wanted to contribute to the history of Inland Empire literature, so I wrote "Inland Empire," which became Chapter 18 of Inside the Outside.

I had no publishing deal in place and wasn't sure if Inside the Outside would ever see the light of day. I liked to imagine, however, that not only would my book one day be published, but the folks behind Inlandia would discover my love letter to the Inland Empire inside of it.

In 2007, the Riverside Public Library and Heyday Books worked together to create the Inlandia Institute, as an offshoot of Inlandia's success. The Inlandia Institute endeavors to recognize, support, and expand literary activity in the Inland Empire with the goal of deepening people’s awareness, understanding, and appreciation of this unique, complex and creatively vibrant area. They envision "an inclusive and collaborative enterprise that promotes writers with a regional voice and that stimulates a greater awareness of the area’s diverse literary, artistic, and cultural heritage."

For the last two and a half years, since publishing Inside the Outside, I've worked very hard to ingrain myself within the literary community of the Inland Empire. A large part of that effort has always been fueled by the initial inspiration I got from Inlandia, so I was thrilled when my friend and fellow author, James Brown, told me that Cati Porter of the Inlandia Institute asked him to put us in touch. Cati is an acclaimed Riverside poet and editor, as well as the Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute.

She told me they were planning a Self-Published Authors Faire and asked if I'd be the keynote speaker. I couldn't say yes fast enough. A few weeks after Cati and I spoke over the phone, we met in person for the first time at an author eventin September 2013 at the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library in San Bernardino. That was the last time we spoke, until about a week ago, when she sent me an email to update me on the progress of the Self-Published Authors Faire, as well as invite me to do an interview for Inlandia Literary Journeys.

So, on Tuesday morning, at around 10:30am, I arrived at The Press-Enterprise headquarters. I was about a half-hour early, so I sat in my car and read a couple of comic books (Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 and Batman: The Court of Owls, if you're curious), until it was time to go inside. Soon thereafter, I found myself sitting down with Cati Porter, John Bender, and  Orlando Ramirez in the Inlandia Literary Journeys studio.

It was such a terrific honor and I look forward to collaborating with the Inlandia Institute for years to come.

Origin Story: How I Became a Novelist (PART 1 of 2)

PART ONE | PART TWO

How in the world did I ever become a writer?  It wasn't exactly a straight line, I can tell you that. When I was a kid, all I cared about was drawing. That’s all I did. A blank piece of paper to me was an invitation. I can remember countless experiences of eating out at restaurants and asking my mom or my grandmother or any other nearby adult for a pen or a pencil, then I’d then turn over the paper mat that was usually set on the table and I’d start drawing. What did I draw, you might be wondering?

Superheroes mostly. I was obsessed with superheroes. Superman started out as my favorite, mostly because he could fly. I also loved that he had super strength and he wore a cape. A superhero without a cape always seemed like a lost opportunity to me. I don’t remember when I first discovered Superman. Much like Jesus or McDonald’s, he always seemed to be around, just an ubiquitous presence for as long as I can remember. I know for certain I watched him on television in Adventures of Superman, the 1952 TV series starring George Reeves (in syndication, of course, as I was born in 1977). While I loved the TV show—despite my inability to remember a single episode, only snippets of Superman jumping out of windows—I adored the original 1978 Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve and directed by Richard Donner.

My brother, Greg, had a large comic book collection when I was growing up.  I remember them on top of a shelf so high it nearly touched the ceiling. You couldn’t get them without climbing on some furniture.  The fact that they were so hard to get made them all the more tantalizing. I used to read the comics from his collection all the time and Superman was always my first choice, though he had a wide variety of heroes from both the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe. When I was about nine or ten and my taste in superheroes became more sophisticated, I decided that I just couldn’t buy into Superman anymore.

I mean—so what?—he could fly and he was super strong. In my mind, anybody could make up a superhero with those powers. It was so simple. In need of a more complex hero, I turned to Batman. Batman was great, because he had a cape and he didn’t need superpowers. He was just a dude who was really smart and worked really hard—and, of course, he had millions of dollars, but that part never captured my imagination as a kid.  He also had a TV show starring Adam West and, like most kids, I had no idea it wasn’t a drama. Much like Adventures of Superman, I can’t really remember any specific episode of Batman, but I do know that I loved it and I watched it every time I saw it on TV.

So, anyway, I loved drawing as a kid and, in particular, I loved drawing superheroes. I spent countless hours trying to mimic my favorite covers, usually of Batman.  For years and years, Batman became my subject of choice. In fact, if you can find anybody who knew me from around fourth or fifth grade through high school, they’ll likely remember me as the kid who drew Batman all the time. My dream was to be a comic artist. I couldn’t think of anything better than drawing superheroes for a living. I practiced and practiced and I drew and drew and while I got better over time, I was never good enough to satisfy my own barometer of excellence.

Other people thought I was very good (some might even say I was terrific, but I suppose you'll have to ask them yourself) but I always knew that I'd plateaued at a very young age. I understood that I was never going to get much better than I was and, if I had any real chance of drawing comics, I’d have to be better. The problem was no matter how good my drawings were, they never looked like the pictures in my head, which was horribly frustrating. I kept drawing anyway and I took a bunch of art classes in high school and by the time I graduated I was burnt out on the whole thing.

I just didn’t love it anymore, which was a weird feeling, because, for the whole of my life up to that point, being an artist was central to who I was. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life anymore. In the mean time, while I floundered in the purgatory of broken dreams, I enrolled in Chaffey College, which is the local community college where I grew up in Rancho Cucamonga.  My first year there, I took two classes which changed my life forever.

PART ONE | PART TWO

Origin Story: How I Became a Novelist (PART 2 of 2)

PART ONE | PART TWO

The first class was a U.S. history course. I’ve never been a very good history student and that class did nothing to change that. However, we were assigned three novels to read that semester, the first of which was The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This was pretty scary, since I’d never really read a full novel before. Unless it was a comic book, I could never make it to the last page. The closest I ever came to reading a full novel was the novelization of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie by Craig Shaw Gardner. I don’t really count that, though, because, even though I read the words, I didn't really take the story in. I hadn't yet unlocked the code for truly reading a book. Also, I knew the movie would soon be in theaters, so I wasn't exactly motivated to give it my all.

The Jungle was especially intimidating, because it was about 400 pages and the font was super small and it was super single spaced, so I saw no way I could finish that book in a month, which was how long the professor gave us to read it before the test. I knew that I couldn’t afford to drop that class, because I’d need it to graduate and I also knew if I was going to make anything out of my life, it was going to come by going to college, so I had to figure it out. I tried to approach it logically, breaking down the number of pages in the book and how many days I had to finish it, and coming up with a certain number of pages per day to read. I think it was about fifteen, which seemed reasonable.

My first day reading it was a disaster. I could hardly make heads or tales of what was happening and since I’d hitched my whole future to finishing this book, I basically felt like I was on the verge of failing life. The next day I picked up the book again and started reading, though I had little hope of understanding it any better. I read and read and read and, without warning, something magical happened.  It’s going to sound corny, but I swear I’m not making this up. The words went away and it was as if the pages began projecting a movie into my head.  And it was such a wonderful movie, dramatic and exiting and sad and triumphant.  I was following Jurgis , this poor Lithuanian  immigrant, who was trying to provide a life for himself and his 15-year-old wife, Ona, and the conditions were horrible and the wife died and he worked in a terrible meatpacking plant…and on and on…

And then I stopped and I realized, “Holy shit! I’m reading!  This is reading!” And I was so mad at myself for stopping, because I worried I’d never be able to get that movie back in my head.  So, I started reading again, fingers crossed, and, after a few minutes, I got the movie back. I finished that book in three days. That’s when I learned I loved to read. I remember going into a bookstore after that and looking at all these books and thinking to myself, “You mean to tell me there are movies hiding in all of these books and all I have to do is read them?” It was a revelation.

The second class that changed my life was a composition course I took with the author S. Kay Murphy. Because it was composition, the purpose of the class was to write essays. The first essay Kay had us write was an autobiographical essay. I wrote about working at Thrifty’s and scooping ice cream and stealing and eventually losing my job. Kay loved the essay so much that she read it to the class. The class loved it too—they laughed at all the funny parts and gasped at all the suspenseful parts and I loved every moment of it.

That alone would’ve been amazing for me, but it was the note Kay left me on the last page of my essay that sealed the deal.  She said, “You’re pretty good at this. You should think about majoring in English.” That’s all I had to hear (or read). I was so excited to be good at something—especially something that seemed to come pretty easily to me—that I decided to study English. I had no idea what that meant or where it would lead me, but I was willing to find out.

Around that time, I remember watching the Academy Awards. I've always loved the Academy Awards, but I remember being hyper-aware of how beautiful everyone was and how well they dressed they were and how talented they seemed to be and how lovely their speeches were and all I knew was I wanted to be a part of that. So, I decided that screenwriting would be my best chance into the world of Hollywood. And so, that became the goal. I was going to be a screenwriter.

I figured that if I was going to write movies, I first needed to learn how to tell a story, so I enrolled in a creative writing class at Chaffey. It was three hours a week on Friday mornings and the professor was a really kind old man who used to be a staff writer on the Smurfs. If the Smurfs connection wasn’t enough to make me love him, then his friendship with Stan Lee certainly was (I wish I could remember the professor’s name, but I’m notoriously bad with names and so, unfortunately, his has become another of my causalities). All that I really remember from the class was that it was fun and I had no idea how to tell a story.

But, as a consequence of that class, I fell in love with the craft of prose fiction. Much like drawing pictures, I knew I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, but unlike drawing, I didn’t feel that same ceiling over my head. I felt like my potential for writing was far greater than my potential for comic book art and that was a great feeling. Even if it wasn't true, I felt like if I worked really, really hard, I could become a great writer. And that's how I found myself on the road to becoming a novelist.

PART ONE | PART TWO

15 Random Celebrity Novels: PART THREE

PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE

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And now, here is the finale of this epic trilogy.  I present to you PART THREE of my list of random celebrity novels, which I present to you in no particular order, as I haven't actually read any of them.

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11. The Overton Window (2010)

by Glenn Beck

Bio:

Glenn Beck is a television and radio host, political commentator, and all around media personality. He formerly hosted the Glenn Beck television program, which ran from January 2006 to October 2008 on HLN and from January 2009 to June 2011 on the Fox News Channel.

Synopsis: 

A plan to destroy America, a hundred years in the making, is about to be unleashed . . . can it be stopped? An unprecedented attack on U.S. soil shakes the country to the core and puts into motion a frightening plan, decades in the making, to transform America and demonize all those who stand in the way. Amidst the chaos, many don’t know the difference between conspiracy theory and conspiracy fact—or, more important, which side to fight for.

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12. The Juliette Society (2013)

by Sasha Grey

Bio:

Sasha Grey is a former pornographic actress. Throughout her adult film career, she was profiled by several pop culture magazines and television programs. She won numerous awards between 2007 and 2010, including the AVN Female Performer of the Year Award in 2008.

Synopsis: 

Catherine, a blossoming film student whose sexuality has been recently stirred, finds herself drawn into a secret club where the world's most powerful people meet to explore their deepest, often darkest sexual fantasies. Even as it opens up new avenues to pleasure, it also threatens to destroy everything that Catherine holds dear. From bathroom stalls in dive bars, to private jets over St. Tropez, Catherine takes the reader with her through a sexual awakening and psychological development, unparalleled in contemporary erotica.

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13. The Gun Seller (1998)

by Hugh Laurie

Bio:

Hugh Laurie is an actor, comedian, writer, and musician. From 2004 to 2012, he played Dr. Gregory House, the protagonist of House, for which he received two Golden Globe awards, two Screen Actors Guild awards, and six Emmy nominations.

Synopsis:

Cold-blooded murder just isn't Thomas Lang's cup of tea. Offered a bundle to assassinate an American industrialist, he opts to warn the intended victim instead—a good deed that soon takes a bad turn. Up against rogue CIA agents, wannabe terrorists, and an arms dealer looking to make a high-tech killing, Lang's out to save the leggy lady he has come to love...and prevent an international bloodbath to boot.

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14. Revenge (2011)

by Sharon Osbourne

Bio:

Sharon Osbourne is an television host, media personality, and the wife of heavy metal singer-songwriter Ozzy Osbourne. She first came into public prominence after appearing in The Osbournes, a reality television show that followed her family's daily life. Osbourne later became a talent show judge on shows such as the The X Factor and America's Got Talent.

Synopsis:

Amber and Chelsea Stone are sisters who share the same dream - huge, global fame. As children they were close, but success has pulled them apart. Both have the looks, the talent, and the star quality - but only one has the ruthless ambition to make it to the very top. And she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

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15. Mirrors (2011)

by James Lipton

Bio:

James Lipton is the executive producer, writer and host of the Bravo cable television series Inside the Actors Studio. He is also dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York City.

Synopsis:

Dancer Carin Bradley, after more than a decade of rigorous ballet training, arrives in New York naively expectant and totally unprepared for the fiercely competitive auditions, the backbreaking rehearsals, and the terror of Broadway opening nights.

15 Random Celebrity Novels: PART TWO

PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE

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As I mentioned before, I have no qualms with any publisher trying to cash in on a celebrity who has written (or "written") a novel. That said, here is PART TWO of my list of random celebrity novels, which I present to you in no particular order, as I haven't actually read any of them.

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6. Shopgirl (2001)

by Steve Martin

Bio:

Steve Martin is an American actor, comedian, musician, author, playwright, and producer. He first became famous in 1970 as a stand-up comic, before branching off into movies, such as ¡Three Amigos! and The Jerk .

Synopsis: 

Mirabelle Buttersfield is a young, lonely, depressed, Vermont transplant named . She sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

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7. Modelland (2011)

by Tyra Banks

Bio:

Tyra Banks is an American actress, author, television personality, and former model.

Synopsis: 

Tookie De La Crème, a young, awkward looking girl, is invited to attend the legendary Modelland for the chance to become an Intoxibella. Along the way, she meets a plus-sized girl named Dylan, a 4'7" girl named Shiraz, and an albino girl named Piper. Together they form a strong bond as they face the trials and tribulations of Modelland.

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8. Sock (2004)

by Penn Jillette

Bio:

Penn Jillette is an illusionist, comedian, musician, and actor. He is best known for his work with fellow magician Teller in the team Penn & Teller.

Synopsis: 

Twisting the buddy cop story upside down and inside out, Penn Jillette has created the most distinctive narrator to come along in fiction in many years: a sock monkey called Dickie. The sock monkey belongs to a New York City police diver who discovers the body of an old lover in the murky waters of the Hudson River and sets off with her best friend to find her killer.

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9. L.A. Candy (2010)

by Lauren Conrad

Bio:

Lauren Conrad is a television personality and fashion designer. In 2004, Conrad came to prominence after being cast in the reality television series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and later, in 2006, she starred in the spin-off series The Hills.

Synopsis: 

After high school, two best friends move to Los Angeles hoping to start "a new and amazing life," but their existence is anything but glamorous. Jane is an intern for a famous event planner and Scarlett is a freshman at U.S.C. However, things change quickly when a TV producer asks them to be in a new reality series along with Madison and Gaby, following their lives as they try to make it in L.A.

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10. Those Who Trespass (2004)

by Bill O'Reilly

Bio:

Bill O'Reilly is a television host, syndicated columnist, and political commentator. He is the host of the political commentary program The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel.

Synopsis: 

Tommy O'Malley, a tough New York detective who has his own ideas about how to keep the streets clean, is investigating a string of murders against the major players of Global News Network (GNN) and miscellaneous others involved in the television news industry. His work—and life—is complicated by the persistence of a charming young reporter named Ashley Van Buren. O'Malley looks like a terrific source to her, and he has to admit she looks pretty good herself.

15 Random Celebrity Novels: PART ONE

PART ONE | PART TWO PART THREE

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It's a common practice for celebrities to write autobiographies, memoirs, cookbooks, and most any other form of non-fiction prose, but rare is the celebrity who tries their hand at writing a work of fiction (and, no, lying about their age doesn't count— though it probably should). Such celebrities get their novels published primarily on account of their name recognition, which, considering how difficult it is to sell books these days, is completely understandable.

So, let it be known: I have no qualms with any publisher trying to cash in on a celebrity who has written (or "written") a novel. That said, I've compiled a list of random celebrity novels, which I present to you in no particular order, as I haven't actually read any of them.

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1. A Shore Thing (2011)

by Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi

Bio:

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi is an American reality television personality who is best known for being a cast member of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore.

Synopsis: 

It’s a summer to remember . . . at the Jersey Shore. Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti and her cousin Isabella “Bella” Rizzoli are going to have the sexiest summer ever. While they couldn’t be more different—pint-size Gia is a carefree, outspoken party girl and Bella is a tall, slender athlete who always holds her tongue—for the next month they’re ready to pouf up their hair, put on their stilettos, and soak up all that Seaside Heights, New Jersey, has to offer: hot guidos, cool clubs, fried Oreos, and lots of tequila.

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2. True Story (1994)

by Bill Maher

Bio:

Bill Maher is a stand-up comedian, political commentator, and host of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher.

Synopsis: 

Set in New York, circa 1979, in the late-night, neon-lit comedy clubs when the comedy boom was just heating up, True Story features five would-be comics, their shticks, their chicks, and their rampant egos. These guys are desperate for celebrity, desperate for money, and—what else?—desperate to get laid, which means they're also required to become "road comics," shacking up in low-rent condos provided by sleazy club owners as the comedy scene spreads to the heartland in the early '80s.

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3. Star (2004)

by Pamela Anderson

Bio:

Pamela Anderson is a model and actress, best known for her role on the television series Baywatch.

Synopsis: 

Aspiring cosmetologist Esther Wood Leigh, nicknamed "Star" as a kid for her irresistible charm, is impossibly naïve, untenably good-hearted and utterly pneumatic when a marketing exec from Zax beer discovers her, um, magnetism at a football game. In remarkably Anderson-like fashion, Star goes on to grace the cover of a Playboy-like magazine, land a role in a Baywatch-like television series and get entangled with a string of Tommy Lee– and Kid Rock–like rock stars.

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4. Actors Anonymous (2013)

by James Franco

Bio:

James Franco is an actor, filmmaker, and teacher. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 for his role in 127 Hours.

Synopsis: 

Actors Anonymous is unsettling, funny, personal, and dark, a story told in many forms, from testimonials (in the style of Alcoholics Anonymous) and scripts to letters, diaries, and more. Franco turns his "James Franco" persona inside out—sometimes humorously, often mercilessly. The book brims with profound insights into the nature and purpose of acting, bawdy satires of the high life, as well as deeply moving portraits of aspiring actors who never quite made it.

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5. Dollhouse (2011)

by Kim, Kourtney, and Khloé Kardashian

Bio:

Kim, Khloé, and  Kourtney Kardashian are American reality television personalities.

Synopsis: 

Nothing is more important than family. Just ask Kamille, Kassidy, and Kyle Romero, three beautiful, loving, deeply loyal sisters. Their mother has remarried and their new stepfather, a world-famous all-star baseball player, has come complete with two stepsiblings. Life in L.A. is pretty typical for this newly blended clan. Then everything changes overnight when one sister becomes magazine-cover, fashion-icon, headline-making famous. Suddenly, new issues are complicating their lives: jealousy, backstabbing friends, fix-ups, plastic surgery, and paparazzi run-ins—not to mention a televised wedding, crazy nightclub parties, forbidden step-sibling attraction, and a huge secret that threatens to break even their tightest family bonds.

10 Movies That Weren't Adapted From Novels: PART TWO

PART ONE | PART TWO

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I'm big fan of films adapted from novels. A few of my very favorites are Let the Right One In (based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist), Wonder Boys (based on the novel by Michael Chabon), The Ice Storm (based on the novel by Rick Moody), and Thank You For Smoking (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley).

When a great film is adapted from a great novel, it means I get to enjoy the story in my two very favorite storytelling mediums. It also means I get to see the author's original intent in comparison to the filmmaker's vision of that intent. I'm not sure if that sounds like fun to anyone else, but, for me, there are few things I enjoy more. But, sometimes a film has such a literary feel to it, I'm fooled into believing it was adapted from a novel.

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6. Boogie Nights (1997)

I'm pretty well convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson is a novelist disguised as a filmmaker. Boogie Nights is the deceptively literary tale of Dirk Diggler, a young man with an intolerably tough relationship with his mother, who, consequently, finds a new family in the porn industry. It's something of a coming-of-age story, not unlike The Catcher in the Rye, if Holden Caulfield was packing twelve inches. Dirk Diggler's life in porn—from the glowing success of the early years to the painfully dark period of the final years—is so textured and authentic, I can hardly believe it didn't first exist on the pages of a brilliant novel.

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7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Charlie Kaufman is arguably the most talented and original screenwriter in Hollywood, as evidecned by the fact he is the only person to appear on PART ONE and PART TWO of this list. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a love story told in reverse, involving an inventive sci-fi element that allows people to erase the memory of someone they loved from their minds. When Joel Barish finds out his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski, has had him erased from her memory, he decides to seek revenge by doing the same thing, but in losing her he realizes how desperate he is not to forget her. It's got the sort of layers and complexities that are almsot always the exclusive terrain of great literature; and it's director—the imaginative and innovative  Michel Gondry—weaves it together like a masterful author.

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8. Se7en (1995)

David Fincher, one of the most succesful directors in Hollywood has adapated several movies from literature, including The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Fight Club. So, it's ironic that Se7en, the one movie on his résumé with the most literary flair, was not adapted from a novel. On the surface, it's a relatively simple story about a rookie detective named David Mills who is transitioning into the position of retiring detective William Somerset. In the midst of their professional transition, they work together to hunt down a serial killer who murders his victims in accordance with the seven deadly sins. The film unfolds like a gritty detective noir novel that I desperately wish existed.

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9. (500) Days of Summer (2009)

(500) Days of Summer is a delightful film that tells the story of Tom Hansen, a young man doomed to love a sweet gal named Summer who—through no real fault of her own—is incapable of ever truly loving him back. The story, told in the sort of nonlinear fashion that is more commonly reserved for literature, jumps about their 500 day relationship, juxtaposing the good times against the bad. The story reverses the cultural stereotypes of men and women, as Tom wants hopelessly to fall in love and be in a relationship, while Summer is aloof and non-committal. Despite knowing before the first scene begins that Tom and Summer will not work out in the end, the movie still manages to seduce you into believing they will live happily ever after.

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10. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Despite Joel and Ethan Coen's affinity for film adaptations (i.e. No Country for Old MenTrue Grit, and O Brother, Where  Art Thou) their most literary film, The Big Lebowski, was not an adaptation at all. The film is a quirky masterpiece about an unemployed slacker and bowling enthusiast named Jeffrey Lebowski known as The Dude. When a millionaire, also named Jeffrey Lebowski, learns his much younger wife has been kidnapped, he recruits The Dude to help get her back. Aside from it's tightly woven plot and colorful characters, this film probably feels like a novel because the Coen Brothers were inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler: "We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story—how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that's ultimately unimportant."

The Evolution of "Peppermint Breath"

Somewhere between the years 2004 and 2005, I began working on my first novel, which had several working titles, including The Wishing Game, The Relevance of Morality, and The Completely True Story of Reed Jackson.  As it goes with many authors and their debut efforts, this first novel of mine was not very good and, ultimately, went unpublished.

Fans of Inside the Outsidemy official debut novel—might be surprised to know that there is no blood or death or horror of any sort in that unpublished novel. It was an earnest attempt on my part to write something literary, in the vain of The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, only with strippers, prostitutes, and a morally conflicted middle-school teacher named Reed Jackson. The most difficult part about writing that novel was the fact that I had no idea how to write a novel. I'd been writing short stories for years—a couple of which I was even proud of—but, despite having been a reader and lover of novels, I quickly learned that writing one was a wholly different animal.

So, I did my best to learn on the fly and what followed was a mostly mediocre manuscript with flashes of potential. Despite my overall dissatisfaction with the novel, there were a handful of sections that I felt good about. One such section was the opening paragraph, which you can read below:

"I’d been stealing my students’ money for almost six months. Technically, it wasn’t their money and technically I wasn’t stealing it. That’s the truth — just not the honest truth. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, my story that is, trying to figure out where to start and what to tell. There’s just so much and it all seems so random. There’s the brothel in Mexico and the whore who reminded me of my mother, the pornographer named Luscious and the movie he coerced me into performing in, the fight in front of Baby Doll’s and my first introduction to Burgundy, my missing wife and our unborn child, my road trip to Graceland, the three bald cannibals, and the stripper who rescued me from the depths of loneliness before single-handedly ruining my teaching career, which brings me back to my students’ money, which I’d been stealing for almost a six months."

There were two things that came out of my unpublished novel that I was later able to make use of. The first (which fans of Inside the Outside may have noticed from the excerpt) was the character of Billy D. Luscious, who, in that novel played a relatively minor role. I found a new home for Luscious in Inside the Outside where I fleshed him out, making him a very important central character.

The second thing that came out of my unpublished novel was a scene in Reed Jackson's backstory. It involved Reed as a little boy, growing up in a small apartment with his mother who was a prostitute; Reed, of course, didn't know what his mother did for money. In the scene, he wakes up in the middle of the night to the phone ringing. He goes into the kitchen where he finds his mother talking. She later takes Reed with her to a 24-hour diner where she is meeting up with a client.

That was one of the last scenes I wrote for the book and I became quite fond of it, so I was always sort of sad that it would get thrown out with the bathwater as a result of the book not being published. Sometime later, I decided to extract that scene and salvage it into a short story. I didn't spend too much time on it, however, and, as it was with the novel it came from, I eventually scrapped it. I didn't look at it again, until last year when I was approached by Will Entrekin, Creative Director of Exciting Press, who wanted to know if I had any unpublished work sitting around.

One of the stories I decided to show him was that former scene from my unpublished novel, which I hadn't even titled. Right before I sent it to Will, I titled the story "Peppermint Breath." Will said he wanted to publish it, along with a few other stories, so contracts were signed and my once-scrapped-story was about to get a new lease on life.

A few days before Exciting Press was set to publish "Peppermint Breath," I re-read it and decided that it wasn't quite ready for public consumption, so I asked Will if he wouldn't mind letting me toy with it a little bit before he published it. With Will's blessing, I spent a day or two adding about 2,000 words to the story (amongst those 2,000 words, the character of Luscious makes a cameo along with Timber Marlow, the heroine of Inside the Outside).

I sent Will the updated draft and on December 16, 2012, "Peppermint Breath" was officially introduced to the world.

An Ode to Book Bloggers

NOTE TO READER: This article first appeared on BiblioBabes.ca courtesy of Kat and Cara on August 23, 2012

So, here’s how it went down.

My brother, Greg, and I were at my place having a writing session, working on the screenplay adaptation of Inside the Outside. I was on my desktop, while he worked on his laptop. We were taking a short break, each of us wasting a bit of time on the Internet, when he turned his laptop towards me.

“Have you seen them before?”

“No.”

I was looking at Kat and Cara, The BiblioBabes.

“You should send them your book.”

My initial instinct was not to bother. They were cool and smart and sexy—and, well, I was just an indie author. And, having recently published my debut novel, I was hanging onto the bottom rung of a very tall and slippery ladder.

While I expected not to hear back at all, I went ahead and contacted the BiblioBabes. And, a few days later, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back from them when they kindly asked me to send my novel their way.

And that was the beginning.

The BiblioBabes have since, in the world of book bloggers, become my biggest supporters. And I’m not so sure they completely realize how important they are to me. In fact, book bloggers everywhere play a supremely important role in the rapidly evolving world of independent publishing.

In the world of traditional publishing most authors have agents and publicists to go along with the support of their publisher. Very often, this is enough to get them exposure in newspapers and magazines—and, for the very fortunate, interviews on television and radio.

But, for indie authors, we have access to virtually none of the aforementioned outlets. So, we rely primarily on the Internet, where we can use social networks and blogs and personal websites to bring attention to our books. But, even then, we can only do so much for ourselves. At some point, we need other outlets to not only spread the word, but to help validate our existence in the eyes of potential readers.

And this is why book bloggers are so important to indie authors. Book bloggers are not associated with publishers or corporate media outlets; generally speaking, they’re just regular folks who love to read books and write about them. It all seems so very simple, but what they do for indie authors is absolutely invaluable.

When I initially published Inside the Outside, my experience with book bloggers was sort of hit and miss; I had no track record, no other published works of note, so I could hardly blame them for not wanting to take a chance on me. Generally, when I contacted book bloggers, I was often met with no response at all or, sometimes, I’d get a polite “thanks, but no thanks.”

A very small handful of book bloggers did, however, agree to read my book. Amongst them were the BiblioBabes.

A few weeks after I sent them my novel, I received emails from Kat and Cara, telling me how much they were enjoying it. And, a few weeks after that, they each wrote glowing reviews (HERE and HERE) about it for their website.

Around that same time, most of the other book bloggers who’d read my book also wrote  wonderful reviews. And it seemed that the more positive attention my book got, the more other book bloggers became willing to read and review it. Pretty soon it all seemed to take on a life of its own. And now, a year later, I have what feels like a burgeoning career as a writer and independent publisher—and, for that, I will always be grateful to the BiblioBabes.

So, to all the book bloggers out there, please don’t ever forget how important you are to all of us indie authors. You are not only our readers, but our advocates. And we thank you for it.

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

A few minutes ago, I read that Roger Ebert died and I can't help but feel like I've lost a good friend. I never met Ebert, but he's been richly engrained in my life for the last eighteen years, just as he has with many other film lovers for much longer than that. I was eighteen years old in the summer of 1996, having just graduated high school, when my family first got the Internet in our house. It was dial-up, of course, which, by today's standards, is painstakingly slow, but in 1996 it was the most amazing technological innovation we'd ever had the pleasure of hosting.

It was on the Internet where I first met Roger Ebert. I'd always known the name Roger Ebert, but I didn't know much about him beyond being the chubby counterpart to Gene Siskel on the widely syndicated film-criticism program Siskel & Ebert At the Movies. With the addition of the Internet to our household, I soon discovered his prolific genius.

I've grown up my whole life with the movies and can't remember a time when I didn't absolutely love them. With the Internet I discovered that I could read all about the movies, learning the sort of intimate and little known details that were never written on the back covers of my VHS tapes. Somewhere along the way, I came across a Roger Ebert movie review. I can't remember what the movie was, but I do remember being spellbound by his insight, his wit, and his elegant prose.  The website I'd discovered contained many of Ebert's film reviews for the Chicago Sun Times, which he'd been writing since April 3, 1967.

"[Marlon] Brando's performance is a skillful throwaway, even though it earned him an Academy Award for best actor. His voice is wheezy and whispery, and his physical movements deliberately lack precision; the effect is of a man so accustomed to power that he no longer needs to remind others."

-Roger Ebert, review of The Godfather

Discovering Ebert on the Internet was like discovering a new best friend, one who loved movies even more than I did and knew how to talk about them in a way that I'd never even considered. Ebert could break a movie down to it's essential elements, from story and character to set design and cinematography, doing it in a language that was both technical and accessible.

Even when he hated a movie, he made you understand why. And when he loved a movie, his reviews bordered on poetry. I went through countless ink cartridges and sheets of paper printing out my favorite Ebert reviews, as I was absolutely certain that somebody somewhere would soon figure out the value of this treasure and it would all be taken away.

I spent hours and hours reading Ebert's reviews for movies I'd seen and movies I hadn't seen, movies I loved and movies I hated.  When Ebert loved a movie I loved, I felt validated. When Ebert hated a movie I hated, I felt vindicated.  And when we disagreed, I learned to appreciate his point of view, while still maintaining my own (this, however, took several years for me to get the hang of, such was my reverence for him).

Ebert posted reviews every Friday, like clockwork, talking about all the latest films.  I soon began measuring my calendar by the days leading up to Ebert's latest batch of Friday reviews. Thanks to Ebert, I avoided films that I might otherwise have toiled through and, better yet, I fell in love with films that I might otherwise have missed altogether.

Because the reviews on his website only went back to 1980, I was, for a time, denied the opportunity of reading Ebert's thoughts on some of my very favorite movies, such as The Godfather (1972) or Jaws (1975). And then I discovered Roger Ebert's Video Companion 1996 Edition, which has most every review I'd printed from my computer, plus hundreds more, including films that were made pre-1980.  It quickly became one the more cherished treasures on my bookshelf.

"There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meaning in such an archetypal story, but [Stephen] Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters has to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all."

-Roger Ebert, review of Jaws

While Ebert could talk expertly and with a vastness of knowledge about all things film, his reviews always made me feel like we were having a pleasant and informal conversation and this, for me, was his greatest ability.

And so today I feel great sadness, because I will no longer be able to enjoy my Friday conversations with Ebert, leaving me to wonder what he might've thought of all of the wonderful movies that are yet to be made.  Of course, there are still hundreds of conversations he and I will still be able to have, on account of all the movies I haven't yet watched and all of the books he's published reviewing them.

Earlier this year, I watched a difficult movie called Amour by Michael Haneke. It is the story of an elderly couple in their eighties; the wife has a debilitating stroke and the husband tries admirably to care for her.  The movie is sad and true and, at times, difficult to watch. When it was over, I couldn't decide how I felt about the experience, so, as always, I turned to Ebert to help me make sense  of it.

"This is now. We are filled with optimism and expectation. Why would we want to see such a film, however brilliantly it has been made? I think it's because a film like 'Amour' has a lesson for us that only the cinema can teach: the cinema, with its heedless ability to leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind's eternal audience."

-Roger Ebert, review of Amour

While I never met Roger Ebert, I'll miss him terribly (even as I type these words, I can feel the tears welling up behind my eyes). At his best, he was ever able to fill me with optimism and expectation, helping me understand the lessons that only the cinema can teach, leaping across time and the Internet, showing by his exquisite example what it means to be a member of humankind's eternal audience.

Trolling Amazon: The Dark Side of Customer Reviews

I woke up this morning to an email from Amazon.com promoting a series of 2013 Oscar-nominated movies that were available on DVD and Blu-ray. Those who know me know I love movies and am completely enamored by televised award ceremonies that honor and celebrate them.

Now, I know there is no quantitative means of discerning which film was "best" and that, at best, many of the awards go to those movies and their collective collaborators who enjoy the politicking efforts of their respective studio executives, but it doesn't stop me from having my own rooting interests nor does it stop me from cheering (while eating pizza and chips during the Oscar party I hosted) when my favorite films win awards.

In preparation for the 2013 Academy Awards, I attended the AMC Best Picture Showcase where, over the course of two Saturday marathon sessions, I watched all nine nominated films:

So, this morning, as I marked the first full week of my post-Oscar malaise, I was delighted to see Amazon promoting the Oscar-nominated films.  Wanting only to briefly tap into the good feelings that great movies instill in me, I clicked on several of the movie titles listed.

The first film I clicked on was Beasts of the Southern Wild and, before I saw anything else, I noticed how many customer reviews it had (nearly 800 as of this writing).

While the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, there were some negative reviews. Anytime a piece of art reaches a wide audience, negative reviews are to be expected, so this wasn't anything that caught me off guard. What did catch me off guard, however, was how mean-spirited some of the words were amongst the reviewers, such as:

 "Miserable. I want my time back."

"Ugh, I really hated it!" 

This compelled me to read other negative reviews from the Oscar-nominated films, such as Life of Pi:

"...as much energy and charm as a vibrator with a dying battery..."

"The only good thing I can say about this movie is that it recreates the experience of sea sickness without actually being on the water..."

And Silver Linings Playbook:

"Bradley Cooper has no charisma whatsoever. Jennifer Lawrence is bad girl boring. Robert De Niro has been playing this exact same part forever and physically looks to be morphing into Tony Bennett. And De Niro's wife - well, I thought it was Sally Struthers post-diet making a comeback - but it wasn't her - but whomever it was, all the actress did was stand around looking pole-axed."

"One star because zero stars isn't an option, nor is a black hole icon."

Before I knew it, more than an hour had past of me reading negative reviews for many movies that I have overwhelmingly positive feelings for. And I found that the exercise of reading these negative words served only to upset me and put me in a sad mood. It got me to thinking about the people who wrote the mean-spirited reviews, wondering what their motivations were. If they simply wanted to offer a critique to help inform curious consumers, that's one thing, but their objectives seemed far more devious and cynical than that.

And this all led me to thinking about the culture of social networking and cyber-bullying, how, when faced with a computer screen, certain individuals are filled with the bravery to say truly awful and hurtful things without hesitation or remorse. Such people are, in Internet vernacular, generally referred to as "trolls" and what they do is known as "trolling." What trolls do is enter into Internet communities and speak in inflammatory terms for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional response, like a petulant child who misbehaves for attention. A troll will spend five minutes of their lives trashing art that has taken someone else years of hard work to produce.

As an author, I've seen and read most all of the negative reviews of my novel Inside the Outside. While it never feels good to read somebody's take on why they didn't like it, I've always approached customer reviews with the attitude that the moment somebody pays money to read my novel they're free to say whatever they like about it. That said, I still wish we lived in a more cordial time, where reviewers could share their negative critiques in more respectful terms; I wish they'd assume the artists behind the works they're trashing are actual human beings with hearts, minds, and feelings.

It's all subjective, of course, and everybody is entitled to their opinion, but whenever I see a particularly shitty or hurtful review of a movie or a book or anything of the like, I ask myself: Would they say those same exact words if the artist were standing in front of them?

Unless they're severe sociopaths, the answer is no.

But, because we live in this new and evolving age of cyber-communication, trolls and cyber-bullies are becoming more and more emboldened to fill the world with hatred and negativity. And while I'd like to think this is just some passing phase, I suspect it will exist  for as long as we have the Internet, which, barring some sort of apocalyptic event, will be the rest of our lives.

On the bright side, we can only be affected by trolls if we empower them by reading their words, which means the obvious and simple solution is to ignore them.  And that's exactly what I plan to do.

10 Movies That Feel Like Novels: PART ONE

PART ONE | PART TWO 

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My two great loves in this world are books and movies, so when a great book is adapted into a great movie, I am generally left in a state of euphoric bliss. I love when, during the opening credits, some version of "Based on the novel _____ By _____" turns up, as it means that somebody's already put in the hard work of writing a novel and getting it published, then somebody else read the novel and decided to go through the trouble of adapting it into a movie, so, by virtue of its journey, by the time the film reaches the big screen the probability of me loving it has gone up exponentially.

The most recent book adaptations that I saw—and loved—were Silver Linings Playbook (based on the novel by Matthew Quick) and Life of Pi (based on the novel by Yann Martell). A few of my other favorite films adapted from books are Jaws (based on the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley), The Godfather (based on the novel by Mario Puzo), The Shawshank Redemption (based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" from the collection Different Seasons by Stephen King), Slumdog Millionaire (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup), and 25th Hour (based on the novel by David Benioff).

Sometimes, however, I'll watch a movie that tells a story with such literary flair, I simply assume it was based on a novel. And when I discover that movie was not based on a novel at all, I'm left feeling appreciation and disappointment. Appreciation for a story well told and disappointment for the wonderful novel that does not exist. There are several movies that I've watched over the years that felt like they were adapted from novels; in some cases the feeling was so strong, I nearly checked my bookshelf to read a particular passage that only really exists on celluloid.

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1. Almost Famous (2000)

Watching Almost Famous in the theatre was like watching a movie that was made just for me (and, considering how poorly it did in the box office, it may very well have been). It's a coming-of-age story that is screaming to be a novel, especially since it's the semi-autobiographical tale of the writer/director Cameron Crowe who penned the novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as well as its subsequent screenplay adaptation. The story is about William Miller, a 15-year-old boy who loves rock n' roll and dreams of being a music journalist. He lucks into the chance of a lifetime when Rolling Stone Magazine (completely unaware that he's not yet a legal adult) hires him to go on tour with rising rock band Stillwater for a feature story. Even film critic Roger Ebert senses the literary nature of this story, as he writes in his review, "It's as if Huckleberry Finn came back to life in the 1970s, and instead of taking a raft down the Mississippi, got on the bus with the band."

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2. Bull Durham (1988)

Written and Directed by Ron Shelton, Bull Durham is easily my favorite sports movie and one of my all-time favorite films period. While it's not based on a novel, it has a smart and sultry narrator in Annie Sevoy, as well as some interesting things to say about the overlapping interests of sports and religion. The story is about two minor league baseball players: Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, a young pitcher destined for the major leagues, and Crash Davis, a veteran catcher who's smarts and savvy were never quite enough to get him into the big leagues.  Crash resents Nuke both for his physical gifts and his inability to fully appreciate them. But, more than that, he resents him because they both want the same woman: Annie.

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3. Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan is probably my favorite Woody Allen film. It's the story about a 30-something man name Issac, recently divorced and currently dating a 17-year-old high school student. Issac quits his well-paying job as a TV writer in order to pen his first novel. The movie actual starts with a voiceover from our protagonist, Issac, as he attempts to compose an opening passage for his fictional novel. "Chapter One. He adored New York City," Issac starts, "He romanticised it all out of proportion. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin." My goodness, how I'd love to read the rest of that book!

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4. Good Will Hunting (1997)

In 1997, I probably watched Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting at least five or six times; and, a couple years later, it would become the first DVD that I ever owned. This one has novel written all over it.  It's about a 20-year-old  mathematical genius, Will Hunting, who works as a janitor at MIT by day and drinks with his knucklehead buddies by night. Will is an orphan who suffered severe physical and emotional abuse from his foster dad. He's never really had a father figure in his life, until, after getting in trouble with the law, he's forced by the court to go to therapy. He's eventually paired up with Sean Maguire, a widowed psychology professor who—like Will—was once a boy genius growing up on the wrong side of town. Oh, I can practically feel my fingers turning the pages when I think about this movie.

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5. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich not only feels like it was adapted from a novel, it actually feels like that novel was written by Franz Kafka. The story is about Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer who, in need of money, gets a miserable office job on the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building. Hidden behind a filing cabinet, Craig discovers a portal into the head of world-famous actor John Malkovich (who, being a good sport, plays himself in the film). The story itself isn't simply a gimmick, either; it explores issues of personal identity and self, as each character, at various points in the film, pretends to be somebody they're not (usually John Malkovich) in the hopes of gaining love and acceptance from people who they worry (sometimes rightly so) would neither love nor accept them for who they are. If that's not the stuff of literature, I don't know what is!

10 Moments I Thought Signaled the End of the World

NOTE TO READER: An alternate version of this article appeared on "Pressure Points" in May 2011 in lieu of Family Radio Worldwide's failed end-of-the-world prediction.

The apocalypse is upon us (again)! Thanks to millions of conspiracy theorists and their excruciatingly uninformed understanding of the Mayan calendar, December 21, 2012 has become the latest in a long line of destined-to-be-wrong-end-of-the-world predictions. Of course, we're in fighting shape for this false alarm, as it was only last year that Family Radio Worldwide got the world's attention with their prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011.

At the time, Family Radio Worldwide seemed to take pleasure in the fact that they'd beat the Mayan's (or at least their calendar) to the apocalyptic punch. But, like so many before them, they were sent away, disappointed that the world remained exactly as it was. When this latest apocalypse prophecy turns out to be wrong, the current crop of crazies will have plenty of company—including Haley’s Comet in 1910, Heaven’s Gate in 1997, Y2K in 2000, and any of the countless times Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the end of the world (1874, 1914, 1925, 1941, 1975…etc.).

Of course, there've been plenty of moments in my own life where I thought the world was coming to an end. So, in honor of the world still being here on December 21, 2012, here are the top 10 moments that previously led me to believe the world was coming to an end...

10. Buster Douglas (1990)

When James “Buster” Douglas knocked out the undefeated Mike Tyson in Tokyo, Japan, becoming the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion, I was convinced that the apocalypse was upon us.

However, eight months later, in his first and only title defense, Douglas lost the belt to Evander Holyfield. And the world kept on spinning.

9. Benedict Hogan (1994)

In 1993, Hulk Hogan effectively “retired” from the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which was a day I had long dreaded. It wasn’t until 1994, not long after testifying against Vince McMahon, the WWF Chairman, in a federal steroid trial, that Hogan went all Benedict Arnold on me and signed with rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW). It was then that I knew, without question, that the end was nigh.

Because Hulk Hogan will make two appearances on this list, the world clearly did not end.

8. Chasing Amy (1997)

In 1997 I sat in a movie theater with a relatively packed audience watching Chasing Amy, the most recent example at the time of Kevin Smith’s inability to make a decent movie. When the credits rolled, the audience began to cheer and applaud, making it clear that I was the only person in the theater who hated this movie. I was convinced the world was coming to an end.

Of course, the world did not end and, to prove it, Kevin Smith would go on to make seven more films—of which, I have watched none.

7. Dawson’s Creek: Season 3 (1999)

Following the end of Dawson’s Creek’s second season, Kevin Williamson, the creator and head writer, left to work on his burgeoning screenwriting career, leaving the show in good shape with a tension-filled sort-of-cliffhanger. Then the third season began. From Jen becoming a cheerleader and the gay dude playing football to that terrible actor from Hediwg and the Angry Inch being featured in way too many episodes, I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that the apocalypse was upon us.

But, as it turned out, the world did not end and Dawson’s Creek went on to complete three more seasons—of which, I’ve seen every episode (at least twice).

6. Steve Nash MVP (2005)

In 2005, a small, white, Canadian dude named Steve Nash, in a league full of superior African America athletes, was named the MVP of the NBA. Clearly, the world was coming to an end.

But, the following NBA season went on without a hitch, putting an ease to my apocalyptic fears.

5. Steve Nash MVP (2006)

In 2006, just as I was getting comfortable with the thought that the world wasn't coming to an end, Steve Nash won his second consecutive MVP award.

Moments after it was announced, I stocked up on bottled water and duct tape.

4. No Inko’s (2007)

In 2007 I got my first Costco membership. It was a glorious day, made better when I discovered Inko’s White Tea in the beverage aisle.

But when, upon my second shopping trip to Costco, I found they had stopped carrying my drink of choice, I could think only of how unbearable the suffering would be when the fire fell from the sky, ending us all.

3. Hulk Hogan and Brooke (2008)

I had quietly reconciled with Hulk Hogan after he made a brief return to the WWE (formerly the WWF) and all seemed right with the world. Then, it turned out he had, what appeared to be, a creepy relationship with his daughter, Brooke.

After seeing my childhood hero rubbing lotion on his daughter, I took my temporary blindness as a sign that the world had reached its expiration date.

2. Mo’Nique Wins Oscar (2010)

As one-named comedians go, Mo’Nique is arguably the least talented. And after she starred in Phat Girlz and Soul Plane, I was certain the market would bear this out.

But, in 2010, when Mo’Nique won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in Precious, it was clear that, after years of false alarms, the apocalypse I had long feared had finally come.

1. Hulk Hogan and "Brooke" (2010)

I had only just barely recovered from the sight of Hulk Hogan lotioning his daughter, convincing myself that I was reading far too much into it, when news hit that the Hulkster™ had remarried.

This was good news, since, clearly, Hogan didn’t have inappropriate feelings for his little girl. When, however, I saw that Hogan’s new wife bore an uncomfortably close resemblance to Brooke Hogan, I knew that our days on this planet were numbered.

*          *          *

So, here we are on December 21, 2012, and the world is still here. If you're curious as to why, just ask NASA. Of course, if I'm wrong and the world did end, then there's going to be a lot of questions in need of answering; not the least of which, how in the world did you manage to read this retarded top 10 list?! Either way, this Mayan calendar nonsense wasn't the first doomed-to-fail-end-of-the-world-prediction and, as surely as Hulk Hogan is married to "Brooke," it won't be the last.

The Plan: A Short Short Story

Way back in 2004, I began working on my first novel.  It was a terrifying prospect, since I'd no idea how to write one. It seemed like the next logical step to take in my writing journey, however, since I'd been studying creative writing as an English major at Cal State San Bernardino, while also writing several short stories. In the summer of that same year, I was invited to attend the Squaw Valley Community of Writers annual fiction workshop.

This was terribly exciting, as two years earlier I'd been placed on the waiting list for an invite, before not getting in.  Squaw Valley has a great tradition of helping along the careers of some terrific writers—among them, Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch, and Amy Tan. So, as you might imagine, I was over the moon. During my week-long stay at Squaw Valley, I met a literary agent who'd founded one of those fancy New York agencies most aspiring writers know about. He took a liking to me and asked if I was working on anything. I told him I was writing my first novel, before proceeding to give, perhaps, the worst book pitch in the history of all humanity.

The agent was kind and patient and, when I mercifully cut myself off, he asked me to send him the book when it was done.  He also told me not to rush. So, of course, as soon as I got home, I started working like mad, rushing my maiden novel into existence. I sat in my room, isolated from the world, and wrote and wrote and wrote for hours at a time. I was making great headway, when I came across a writing contest being hosted by the Inland Empire Branch of the California Writers Club. The contest included a category for short fiction and the prize was $150.

I was feeling awfully good after my week at Squaw Valley and, as a poor college student, that $150 prize sounded nice, so I decided to take a break from my novel to write a story for the contest. The theme of the contest was "Secrets," so I came up with a simple story about a boy and a girl, teenagers each of them. They were making plans for their future, only one of them was keeping their plans a secret.

The story was semi-inspired by Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants," which was about a man and a woman having an ambiguous conversation outside of a train station; the conversation itself, it's been argued, involves the man trying to convince the woman to have an abortion. The conversation in "Hills Like White Elephants" is cryptic and nowhere in the story is it ever explicitly stated that the woman is pregnant. I liked that idea, so I wanted to write a story where a guy and girl were having an important conversation, without ever explicitly stating what they were talking about.

I was also inspired by Kate Chopin's short story "The Story of an Hour," which is about a woman who is thrilled to learn of her husbands death in a train accident, as it means she will be liberated from him; when he returns home that same day, revealing the news of his death to be a mistake, the wife suddenly dies.

"The Story of an Hour" is very short, but packs a huge emotional punch. I'd always been taken with Chopin's ability to pack such a huge emotional impact into such a short, short story, so this also became one of my goals. After three days of writing, I finished a 900 word short story called "The Plan."

I sent if off to the IECWC and got back to work on my novel.  A few months later, I heard back from them and found out that "The Plan" had won first place.

In the weeks before I won the IECWC's contest, I'd finished that first novel I was working on. After rushing it off to the agent whom I'd met at Squaw Valley, I waited for two months, before hearing back. The agent responded with a letter—which I received on my birthday—rejecting my novel.

So, "The Plan," which was only ever meant to be a brief interlude in the completion of my first novel, became the only writing of consequence I did that summer. The novel in question, to this day, has yet to see the light of day. "The Plan," however, not only became the first piece of writing I'd ever earned money for, but now, thanks to Exciting Press, is getting a second shot at life.

In November of 2012, Exciting Press published "The Plan: A Short Short Story" and I couldn't be happier about it.

Healing Halloween: Why Everybody Should Be a Vampire

At some point, perhaps before I was born, Halloween stopped being scary. All these doctors and lawyers, ball players and ballerinas, soft-bellied superheroes and skanky Strawberry Shortcakes. I did Halloween no favors when—in my younger, more naïve years—I dressed up as He-Man, Michael Jackson, and a vaguely Asian martial arts expert I called Karate Man. As He-Man, I wore one of those plastic jumpsuits (sans mask). As Michael Jackson, I wore my red leather jacket, ala "Beat It," as well as a pair of ill-fitting black pants. For Karate Man, I wore a pair a pajamas that reminded me of Bruce Lee, so, in a pinch, I figured they'd do.

While I was certainly adorable, I wasn't scary. It wasn't until about the sixth grade when it occurred to me that there was something wrong, though I couldn't put my finger on it. I'd already discovered the joy of creating my own costumes, no pre-packaged pirates or cowboys for me. A simple mask and wig will work wonders. Or some relatively simple face paint.

One Halloween, I had my brother paint a skeleton on my face; in order to insure accuracy, I brought him the "S" encyclopedia and turned to a page with a photo of a skull (as, of course, this was before the convenience of the Internet). In junior high, I took a Rastafarian hat with fake dreadlocks, pulled it over my face like a mask, and secured it by tying a bandana around my forehead; I could only just barely see through the knit cap, which made trick-or-treating a bit tricky, but, without question, mine was the spookiest costume of the night.

As I've gotten older, I continue to enjoy Halloween, but I've also become more annoyed that this fun, spooky holiday gets treated like a silly little costume party—which, of course, it is. But, it's not just a costume party. It's a scary costume party. It's why we watch horror films and walk through haunted houses, carve pumpkins and spray fake blood on perfectly good clothes. Now I know many of you reading this have sensed the same problem as me, but you don't know what to do about it. You don't know how to fix it. Well, fear not my Halloween loving friend, I've got a simple solution.

Be a vampire.

That's it. Problem solved. Whatever costume you were going to wear, no matter how un-spooky it is, doesn't have to change. Simply add vampire teeth and now, all of sudden, you're a vampire doctor or a vampire ballerina—or a vampire skanky Strawberry Shortcake. You'd almost certainly win the costume contest at your friend's Halloween party, walking away with a Starbucks giftcard worth no less then ten bucks. Picture a costume in your head—anything at all—and then add vampire teeth.

Now, for anybody who knows me, they know this is not a new idea. I've been campaigning for folks to dress up as vampires for years. And, to prove my point, I committed myself to dressing up as a vampire every year for Halloween. That was three years ago. In that first year, I was a Victorian-ish vampire, reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula, whom I called Victus. Before that day was over, I'd already decided that, the following Halloween, I wanted to be a vampire clown. And, for this year, Halloween 2012, I decided to be a vampire farmer. All of these costumes would've been terribly boring and un-Halloween-y, without the addition of vampire teeth (and, of course, some fake blood).

Were you thinking about dressing up as a celebrity for Halloween? That's fine, too, just make them vampires. You wanna be the coolest couple at the party? Show up as Vampire Kim Kardashian and Vampire Kanye West. Or maybe you were thinking about being a historical figure. Imagine how much better your costume would be with fangs. Vampire Hitler, anyone? You can thank me later.

Now, as for the actual vampire teeth, you have some options. There are, of course, the classic teeth which you wear like a clumsy, plastic retainer. You can't talk with them and you'll drool all night, but you can find them for about a dollar or so most anywhere around this time of year. There is the slightly more expensive option, which involves the frustrating and painstaking effort of of molding the vampire fangs to your own teeth. I prefer the latter, but there's nothing wrong with the former. And, of course, you'll find plenty of options in between, ranging in price and level of convenience.

So, there you have it. No more excuses. Halloween is meant to be spooky, so let's keep that it that way. And remember, when it doubt, just add vampire teeth.

The Future Bank Robber: Choices and Consequences in Fiction Writing

Every choice you've ever made throughout the entirety of your life—every good experience enjoyed, every bad experience endured—has led you to this very moment, reading my blog post. I don't know about you, but, for me, that's pretty amazing to think about. Let's say, for example, you're 50 years old and, for the last 50 years, you've made a million different choices. When you were a kid, for instance, you decided that one day to go outside and play basketball, instead of studying for your test. There was also that one time where your cousin was having a birthday party and, since you didn't have any money for a gift, you gave her your favorite teddy bear. Then there was the time where you very nearly got into a fist fight with your boss and, thankfully, you turned your back and walked away.

All of these choices shaped you as a human being, making you into the person you are today. But, more importantly, they also served to carve your path in the world. We float around this life like pinballs and every choice we make sets us off into a a different direction. Sometimes the angles are sharp and obvious, other times they're subtle and imperceptible. Which brings me back to my original point: every single choice you've ever made in your whole life has led you to the exact moment you are currently existing in. This, in a nutshell, is what storytelling is all about.

Choices and consequences.

There's a brilliant scene in No Country for Old Men when the film's antagonist, Anton Chigurh, goes into a dusty, old gas station. Chigurh engages the kindly old man behind the counter in a conversation; the old man quickly realizes there are dire implications just beneath the surface of the words they're exchanging. At the core of what they're talking about is the notion of choices and consequences. The old man's been making choices all his life, choices which have brought him face-to-face with a psychopath. Chigurh prepares to flip a coin and asks the old man to call heads or tails. While Chigurh doesn't say as much, it's very, very clear that the choice the old man makes will determine whether he lives or dies.

When I write a novel, I try always to be aware of my characters motivation, because that's what drives the choices they make. If, for example, I'm writing a story about a bank robbery, I need to know what my character's motivation was for robbing that bank. Perhaps, the bank robber's child is sick and in need of medical attention, but he doesn't have the money to pay for it. That works for that one moment, but there were other moments—thousands of them—that led to the bank robbery, moments that had nothing to do with hospitals and progeny. Before the child was ever born for instance, the future bank robber was in a bar, having a drink and watching a basketball game. There were two girls in the bar, each of them sitting alone. The future bank robber was single at the time and, while he was never very good at meeting women in bars, he found himself feeling uncharacteristically brave.

He finds both women equally attractive and would like to meet them both, but, for the moment, he can only talk to one. So he chooses. He and the chosen woman hit it off and, almost immediately, begin a whirlwind romance. The romance, while exciting for a brief period of time, ends almost as suddenly as it begins. He doesn't hear from the chosen woman for a number of weeks, until one day she calls him out of the blue to tell him she's pregnant. He'd never planned on being a father and isn't the least bit happy to hear this news. But, nine months later, his son is born and the future bank robber loves him immediately. He holds his boy in the hospital, only a few hours old, and swears that he'll do right by him, swears that he'll spend the rest of his life loving and protecting this child. And then, one day, a few years later, the future bank robber gets a call from the boy's mother. She tells him something about a routine doctors appointment and abnormalities in a blood test and x-rays and surgery and probabilities for survival. It doesn't matter, the future bank robber tells her, he'll do whatever it takes. She tells him it's going to take money. Lots of money. Money that the future bank robber doesn't have. Not yet, anyway.

What the future bank robber is too distraught to think about is this:

What if he'd talked to the other woman in the bar instead?

When I'm thinking about the choices and consequences of my characters, it generally works one of two ways. If for example, I know I have a character who will eventually rob a bank (because I've already decided I want to write that story) then I will work backwards and try to imagine what sort of chain of events might logically lead to that outcome. That's the first way.

The second way is when I have a character who says or does something that I wasn't expecting (which might sound strange if you've never tried writing a story). Say, for example, my character's having a bad day so I put him in a bar to have a drink. I'd like something interesting to happen, so I let him have a conversation with the gal next to him. I had no idea before writing that scene that they would get along so well, but I like the chemistry, so I keep following their story until they have a child who, in a few years, will need urgent medical attention.

There's no one right way to write a story. Talk to 100 different writers and you'll get 100 different philosophies. But any writer worth their salt can tell you that choices matter. If you want to be a writer, be prepared to let your characters make choices. Be prepared also to allow those choices to play out in the most honest and sincere manner you can imagine, even if it takes your story in a direction you weren't originally planning to go.

Write What You Know: The Importance of Research in Storytelling

I was recently watching Breaking Bad, which, aside from being one of my very favorite TV shows, is a premium example of masterful storytelling. If you're not familiar, Breaking Bad is about a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer; already in dire financial straits, he turns to the drug trade and begins manufacturing and selling crystal meth. In the particular episode I was watching, there's a scene where a man is sitting in front of a hospital in a wheelchair waiting for his ride home. While he waits, an ambulance pulls up, sirens blaring, racing to the entrance of the emergency room. When the EMTs exit, the wheelchair man gets a look at the man on a stretcher, injured by gunshot wounds. He gets up from the wheelchair and follows the EMTs as they roll the stretcher through the sliding doors of the ER and down a hallway, before entering another set of doors.  The man stops at the second set of doors, smiling, because he recognizes the gunshot victim—and, more importantly, because he's pleased to see that the man has been shot.

It's a very engaging scene, but, as I watched it, I found myself thinking:

"He's allowed to follow the EMTs that far into the hospital? Nobody needs to stop him?"

It's a mundane detail and one most audience members wouldn't worry too much about, but, as a storyteller, I think about these things all the time. In Breaking Bad, the scene I described is important. The one character needs to see the other character; he needs to know he's been injured, as it gives the audience a satisfying payoff.

For me, since I know very little about hospitals, I notice the little details and, with a show as well-crafted as Breaking Bad, I trust they get most of them right. I assume that someone on the writing staff might have some intimate knowledge with hospital protocol, particularly where it concerns EMTs and the ER (perhaps they were simply big fans of the show ER).

But, as a TV show, I also figure they have a wide range of resources. I can imagine the writers developing that scene and somebody asking some version of the question I asked:

"How far can he go without somebody stopping him?"

From there, I figure there's a production assistant who can make a phone call to a hospital on behalf of the writing staff and get as many answers as they need, delivering them back to the writers who will use the information to craft their scene.

When I write stories, I worry (perhaps to an obscene amount) about getting the details wrong, especially when I'm writing about a particular topic that I don't know very well. That very idea, in fact, is at the root of that ol' storytelling adage: Write what you know.

Which is to say, write about things you're familiar with, because, by doing so, your details will be authentic.

So, what do you do when you don't know about a topic that you want to write about? The answer is simple.

Research.

Research is so important to good storytelling, because one false detail can be enough to derail a story for your reader. As the author, getting the details wrong injures your credibility, causing the reader to come out of that hypnotic trance you'd worked so hard to put them in.

Whether it be in a movie or a TV show or a book, as audience members, we've all had the experience of coming out of that trance and saying (out loud or otherwise):

"That doesn't make any sense!" or "It wouldn't happen that way!"

As a storyteller, that's the fear that drives my research. In my novel, Inside the Outside, several of my most important details concern the fictional cult, which exists in a hidden commune in the San Bernardino Mountains. It was very important to the story that this commune exist off the grid, so I had to figure out a plausible way for its people to exist in a reasonably modern fashion without anybody of consequence knowing where they were. After doing some research, I learned about sustainable communities; this seemed to be the answer, so I bought a handful of books (I prefer owning my research material whenever possible) and learned as much as I could about sustainable communities.  As I did my research, I slowly but surely figured out how my fictional community would function off the grid.

While books are great and the Internet, when properly utilized, is an invaluable source of research, I prefer communicating with a person whenever possible. I like to have a dialogue, so I can ask questions as they arise.

Social networking is a great way to contact folks from the comfort of your computer. Twitter, in my experience, is ideal for connecting with new people. Roam around a bit, find somebody who knows about whatever it is you need to learn (i.e. a cop, a lawyer, a fireman, a chemist, etc.) and send them a quick tweet. Let them know you're an author doing some research and, more times than not, they'll be happy to help you out. One of the most common traits amongst people is we love talking about topics which we're experts in. You can, if they're open to it, communicate via email or phone. And, of course, if they're particularly helpful, you can thank them in the "Acknowledgments" page of your book.

As I work on my forthcoming novel, The Vampire, the Hunter, and the Girl, I've found that one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing about vampires is very few of the major plot points are based in reality, so I'm free to make stuff up without a care to accuracy or authenticity—but that doesn't mean the whole book is free of researched information. For example, one of my main characters, Jesus the Mexican Vampire Hunter, both uses and sells anabolic steroids.

I, on the other hand, have never used nor sold steroids—so, as you might imagine, I had some learning to do. Apart from becoming familiar with the general science regarding steroids, I also wanted to learn how they are taken (i.e. shots? pills?) and how an average user assimilates them into their fitness routine (i.e. once day? once a month? once a year?).

To get all of this information, I used a combination of books, as well as the Internet; I found several bodybuilding forums where, among other things, guys (forgive me, ladies, for assuming they were all men) were having informative discussions about steroids in very informal, easy-to-understand terms. The fact that I was able to read about steroids in the words (and, essentially, the "voices") of the men who used them proved invaluable in the writing of my new novel and, just as importantly, the developing of my character, Jesus.

At the end of the day, my fear is always that my details will ring false. I never want a reader to fall out of that magical trance that happens with a well-told story, because—as an enthusiastic  audience member myself—I know how disappointing and frustrating that can be.

Despite my fears and my ardent wish to avoid the worst-case-scenario, there's not much I can do beyond internalizing the information I research and trusting my storytelling instincts. While I try always to get every single detail exactly right, I know that, despite my best efforts, I'm bound to strike out a few times. So, when it does inevitably happen, I can only hope that the reader will be too engrossed in my story to notice... or too polite to care.