February 3, 2015
I recently retired after forty years of service in the Federal government and quasi-government. With extra hours to fill, I took the obvious step of signing on to Netflix and catching up on TV shows I’ve been missing. I overlooked a lot of them while I was working, since my default viewing choices at night always tended toward live sports.
Nothing entertains me more than shows that remind me of the world I recently left behind, especially if they make me glad I did. I revel in the commuting horrors and stressful situations, such as rivalries with colleagues, remote bosses, occasional shady practices, and last-minute, impossible assignments. Most of my fun times at work were had when I was young, fresh, and felt like a vital part of the team. Things got less fun and more stressful as I got older. I’ve heard from enough aging employees to recognize that age discrimination is rampant in the Federal government, and probably in the private sector too. Managers tend to treat gray hair as a sign of approaching senility. They compound the insult by counting on us not to even notice that we’re being minimized.
Not too surprisingly, one of my new favorite shows is “The Office.” It’s a hilarious spoof on business life, featuring a clueless, obnoxious boss leading mostly bored employees at a paper company that is rapidly being overtaken by a digital world. Another favorite of mine is “Mad Men,” which presents situations that are nearly the opposite. The work of an advertising agency on Madison Avenue is much more creative and stimulating, but also much more cutthroat.
Are these office dramas realistic? I’d say they are. There’s no lack of drama in the average office, although most of us find out about the juiciest events second-hand. That’s what rumor mills are for. I used to hear talk about an affair that went on for months on a desktop after hours, until it was abruptly discovered. I also heard about a drunken party offsite where an employee pulled off her boss’s toupee and tossed it in the punch … not the greatest career move ever, as it turned out. Those incidents may well have been exaggerated, but there was a well-documented situation in which an employee spat at his boss in an argument over taking too much leave. That one became enough of an issue to be investigated by the Washington Post, since it led to the “punishment” of being placed in a prolonged, money-wasting leave-with-pay status.
I was tickled by a recent Federal Radio interview with Martha Johnson, the head of the General Services Administration at the time of a Las Vegas conference that included expenditures for such necessities as a mind-reader and a commemorative coin. (Interestingly, since her removal from her position, Ms. Johnson says she’s taken to writing novels). Unnecessary travel is fairly rampant in the Federal government, but I suspect that this case hit the fan because the GSA is supposed to be the watchdog for other agencies. For many years my agency was involved in an annual conference held at various tourist-friendly spots all over the country. It centered on a topic that was really only relevant to one office, but that for some reason drew attendees from almost every office. This became a particular irritant for me when I got stuck with covering my own office during one particularly unnecessary and untimely junket to California. But at least my conscience is relatively clear; I can say I never wasted taxpayer money by basking on any beach. It feels good to be free to travel on my own dime.
January 9, 2015
A free society thrives on controversy. Writers and artists must have the ability to express themselves without fear or restraint, regardless of whom they might offend. The public is equally entitled to take offense at what they see and read, and to say so forcefully. The ensuing debate, if respectfully conducted, is a healthy thing.
The more controversial the subject, however, the more difficult it seems to achieve a balanced debate. One of the riskier challenges a fiction writer faces is portraying villains as real people. I grappled with this in a small way in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball when I put bigoted opinions in the mouth of a character whom the heroine nevertheless found attractive enough to sleep with. The topic has come up in a much more threatening way in attempts by some school districts to censor the greatest of American classics, Huckleberry Finn, because much of its language reflects the racial prejudices of its time. This is a blatant example of people policing what they read, instead of attempting to understand it. They are not reading the book, but only reacting.
That said, there are some works of art that are so explosive that they put the most ardent anti-censorship advocate to the test. One example is The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera depicting the 1985 attack by the Palestine Liberation Front on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and the brutal murder of a Jewish-American passenger. It has been controversial ever since it debuted in 1991, and efforts are continuing to this day to suppress it. At one point, revisions were made to the opera in an effort to stem some of the criticism. In the opinion of some critics, the revisions actually made matters worse by robbing the piece of important depth and context.
There is no easy way to portray both sides of an issue as intractable as the Israel-Palestinian divide. It would be easier, and even understandable, to regard the terrorists as sub-human. However, in that case, they might as well be portrayed as comic-strip villains, evil just because they are. My sympathies in this debate tend overwhelmingly toward Israel, and I abhor brutal attacks on unarmed civilians, no matter what the cause. But the terrorists are not raging in a vacuum. If they are to be portrayed in a work of art, they must be three-dimensional characters with an understandable mission. Free expression must be given the benefit of the doubt. Any attempt to limit it is troubling.
December 8, 2014
I’m trying to circulate three screenplays based on my novels, and Hollywood has yet to start knocking down my doors. So I thought I’d try posting one of them, Let’s Play Ball, on the Amazon Studios site. The response there hasn’t exactly been overwhelming either, but the site does give aspiring moviemakers the chance to have a little fun. By uploading your script and converting it to Rich Text Format (RTF), you have the capacity to turn the story into a series of storyboards via a new application called Amazon Storyteller.
This is an innovation that allows the aspiring filmmaker to choose from a stock supply of backgrounds, characters, and props to visualize scenes from a script. Each board has a caption which sets the scene and contains dialogue. You can also use backgrounds of your own, which I needed to do in order to get ballpark scenes into my story. The result is more like a graphic novel or a cartoon than a movie. Amazon is reportedly working to add to its stock of graphics–maybe robots and spaceships some day, they say.
The fun part is learning, mostly by trial and error, how to manipulate the scenes to make them halfway realistic. You can move around characters, scale them to size, change their clothes and facial expressions, give them props, whatever it takes to make them do whatever they’re supposed to be doing. But because of the limitations of this brand-new application, what you get sometimes resembles a frustration dream rather than a narrative. For example, I’ve been struggling to get a group of diners to sit at a table instead of standing around it, staring at a bottle of wine. I’d like my heroine to be able to hold a cell phone in her hand instead of making it levitate in front of her. There’s also the challenge of clothing the characters appropriately.
Who knows, maybe I’m conjuring up actual nightmares that ballplayers have about showing up on the diamond out of uniform, or missing the game because they got stuck in the bleachers. Certainly all of us office drones have had dreams about showing up at work wearing safari or beach clothing, or something even more revealing. During one intense scene between an employee and her boss, I experimented with various gestures, including one in which she appeared to give him the finger. She actually looked happy when he suspended her, so a facial expression adjustment was necessary. I’ve also accidentally created a floating microphone at a press conference, and floating sandwiches that literally flew off a shelf.
But perhaps the main thing for achieving realism in a movie: how do you force these stock characters to get intimate with each other? They don’t seem disposed to embrace or to sit down together, much less to lie down. So far, Amazon Storyteller doesn’t appear to lend itself to hot and heavy lovemaking.
November 2, 2014
Women’s liberation was just getting started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A great awakening was taking place for those of us who came of age in that era. We could aspire to do almost anything a man could do, from joining the army to joining a rock band. Yet true equality was still elusive. Women didn’t go into combat, and only a few clamored to. Music, however, was opening up. The great all-girl groups like the Supremes and the Ronettes were giving way to mixed lineups like the Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac. Still, I suspect that even when a woman’s musical gifts were appreciated and utilized, men continued to dominate these bands. They weren’t above treating talented women like glorified groupies.
Handmaidens of Rock, my fourth self-published novel with iUniverse, deals with this theme. My three heroines, high-school girls who hook up with a rock band and go along for the ride, are all ambitious in their own right. Although madly in love with their respective musicians, they are increasingly influenced by cultural trends such as feminism, social protests, drugs, colorful clothing, mysticism, and free love. My heroines are not destined to remain “handmaidens of rock,” however fun and exciting that might seem at first. The rock band proves too combustible to rely on for their own self-worth. When the inevitable explosion occurs, they must rise from the ashes and begin to fulfill their separate destinies, conquering new arenas in journalism, the fashion world, the theater, and politics. Handmaidens of Rock, I hope, strikes a blow for those early stirrings of female power.
October 9, 2014
Why do some of us (and by some of us, I mean me) allow mere games to assume such life-and-death importance? I’m ashamed of myself every time I catch myself doing this, and then I invariably do it again. For example, the Washington Nationals’ recent eighteen-inning torture-fest, which effectively torpedoed their chances of advancing in the playoffs, produced a hissy-fit of epic proportions. For the second time in three years, my beloved team, touted by many experts as one of the most talented they’ve ever seen, came through the marathon of the regular season with flying colors, only to collapse under the pressure of a short playoff series. Plenty has been said about questionable umpiring and the inflexible decision-making of a rookie manager. But in close games at this level, the victory almost always goes to the experienced team that keeps its composure and executes the fundamentals on both offense and defense.
Gradually our perspective returns, and we remind ourselves that “it’s only a game.” Yet somehow for me, baseball is more than that. The love of that sport in particular seems to be in my genes, and is an important part of my family history. Many of my early childhood memories are associated with local ballparks, from Griffith Stadium on. Well before that, it was part of my parents’ dating life. They went so far as to drive all the way to Yankee Stadium to take in a Senators game. I once had a vivid dream in which I retraced that trip, getting lost on the way but eventually reaching my destination-—probably the only time that ever happened in one of my “getting lost” dreams.
Sadly, the latest playoff failure means that the Nationals will have to go on enduring the ignorant rants and disrespect of “pundits” on the national level. We’ll go on hearing the canards about Washington not being a baseball town, which should have been put to rest during the Nats’ first playoff run, if not sooner. Incredibly, people continue to bring up the Stephen Strasburg shutdown of two years ago, which the team handled in the only rational and moral way possible. Worse, we’ll have to endure the continuing success of our closest neighbors, the Baltimore Orioles, who own the Nationals’ TV rights and are squeezing them in an unfair business arrangement, just because they can. Hopefully, there will be a fair resolution of that matter. But since life, like baseball, is so often unfair, I’m not counting on it.
September 15, 2014
Thanks to my versatile Kindle Fire, I recently explored the tragic story of Revolutionary Road in both movie and book form. It’s a cautionary tale that seems relevant to anyone trying to balance a creative career with domestic and workaday responsibilities. Originally a novel by Richard Yates published in 1961, the story is set in post-World War II suburban America. It evidently resonates with contemporary audiences, as it became a well-regarded 2009 film reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the equally tragic but much-more-in-love couple from 1997’s Titanic.
The film is quite faithful to the book. It portrays a young couple whose belief that they are too talented and special to endure an ordinary suburban existence ultimately leads to their destruction. Many people strive for this kind of balance, and find it difficult, if not killing. To avoid self-destructing over it, one must ultimately come to a more realistic understanding of what’s achievable.
Frank and April Wheeler’s life in the suburbs is prosperous enough, and would be envied by many. They have a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, friendly (although sometimes nosy) neighbors, and two adorable children. Frank has a decent-paying job with possibilities for promotion. What more could they want?
What they want most is not to be ordinary. Frank hates, or more accurately, disdains the job. April studied to be an actress, but failed at it. She depends on her husband to make their lives special, and resents his inability to do it. They both indulge in affairs, which fail to alleviate their boredom. Then they concoct a much more ambitious plan to blast through the ordinariness. They will chuck everything and move to Paris, counting on the city itself to bestow the specialness they crave. What will they do there? It’s not that Frank wants to paint city scenes or write a novel. They figure that April will support the family with secretarial jobs while he looks after the kids and “finds himself.”
The friends with whom they share this implausible plan are mostly appalled at their lack of responsibility, but are mostly too polite to say so. The only person with sufficient courage to spell out the flaws in their thinking is a recent mental hospital patient whose illness seems to spur his honesty. In the end, the Wheelers’ castle in the air comes crashing down, wrecked by the most prosaic of realities, an unplanned pregnancy. How will they handle that? It turns out they can’t.
August 15, 2014
I’ve been at this self-publishing game since 2003, when I published a novel I’d been working on for at least a decade. It’s been fun and rewarding, but not what I’d call lucrative. Luckily, I never expected money or fame. In fact, I didn’t think it was in the cards for anyone who chose self-publishing. Maybe it wasn’t, back then. But now there are enough success stories popping up every day to get any writer salivating.
I don’t begrudge anyone their success; quite the opposite. I just wonder how they do it. Some are hitting the jackpot by writing a lot of books, preferably in a series, and doing it fairly fast so as not to keep the fans waiting. I have yet to figure out how to write fast. To get it right takes me endless drafting and rewriting, followed by critiquing and editing, followed by more rewriting. And that doesn’t even include the final touches of line editing and formatting, which are best done by professionals who don’t come cheap.
In order to make anything close to a decent living in digital self-publishing (defined as the magic figure that might tempt an author to quit his day job), it seems necessary to publish a new book no less frequently than once every six months. A shorter interval between books would be even better, especially if it appears advisable to offer one or more for free in order to market the others.
So how do these hot-shot authors get so prolific? It can’t be just because they have more time than I do. I couldn’t pull off the same feat even if I wrote every day, all day. Could it have something to do with genre? Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy lend themselves more easily to rapid writing than the complicated plots and character development that my chicklit-style novels require. There’s undoubtedly a knack to keeping plots simple and improvising on proven formulas. That is not to cast doubt on the quality of such rapid-fire books. As long as they’re attracting readers, their authors are doing something right.
July 23, 2014
Is it possible for writers to get even with various adversaries by fictionalizing them? I’ve met enough snobs in my life, for which I hold long-standing and useless grudges, to populate several novels. If I couldn’t do that, my deep-seated resentments might give me ulcers.
My old college dormitory, way back in the early 1970s, served as part of the inspiration for my 2007 novel The Rock Star’s Homecoming. I imagine it could’ve also given rise to stories like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Mean Girls.” There always seemed to be “popular corners” where the cliques lived together in cozy groups.
I had a rough time as a college freshman because my roommate considered herself socially superior to me in every way. We suffered from basic incompatibility, as I was too academically serious for her. She critiqued my struggles to fit in, but had no real interest in helping me out. We were mostly cordial on the surface, but not being quite the idiot she took me for, I gradually became aware that she was bad-mouthing me behind my back. We broke up at the end of the year when she chose one of the more popular girls to room with the following year. She sprang it on me one day, asking with pretended concern who I had lined up for next year. Her plan, no doubt, was to create her own popular corner with her new roomie, and live happily ever after.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way. I don’t know what happened, but I picked up some gossip about their ugly breakup, after only a few months, during which my ex-roommate reacted like a screaming, jilted wife. Karma, perhaps?
Things like this shouldn’t happen in adult life, but they do, right into middle age and beyond. I’ve encountered “popular corners” in my various workplaces. As I wrote in my office drama, Secretarial Wars, there are “Gigglers” and “Whisperers” in every office. Cliques tend to form naturally, and there is no sense in fighting that. But when supervisors cultivate elite groups within their staffs, issues of fundamental fairness come into play.
The Federal government lacks the drama of “The Office,” with its love triangles, mergers, and sudden firings. We are supposed to have various civil service protections, but discrimination can be subtle and hard to prove. For example, although we’re supposedly protected from age discrimination, I have no doubt my gray hair torpedoed my career.
Somewhere along the line I acquired a new supervisor who claimed to appreciate my abilities proven over many years, but promoted two new, much younger employees over me and spent most of his energy cultivating them. Since he was nice to me on the surface, it took me a while to realize he was saddling me with grunt work and forgetting to include me in the important things. I’m sure the “one percent” syndrome thrives in many offices, a system rigged to ensure that those who are already privileged reap nearly all the benefits available.
The situation upset me greatly, but anticipating retirement, I lacked the energy to look for another job or to fight back much. I exchanged real self-respect at work for an easier life. In turn, my employers missed out on what could have been at least a few more productive years by failing to utilize my true skills and keep me engaged. I read a review of the final episode of “The Office” which summed this up nicely: that the loss of passion for a career can be liberating if it sets you free to pursue other passions.
Even in the adult world, “popular corners” tend to break up of their own accord. They involve flawed individuals, after all. I began to suspect some of the closed-door meetings from which I was excluded weren’t total love-fests. The fact is, privileged workers can easily turn into children who’ve been showered with too many toys. They don’t really appreciate it. When it came to paying the price of fame … which I suppose would have required them to be on call more than they wanted to be … they balked.
Getting back at real-life snobs on paper can give you a psychological boost. But there are times when real life doesn’t need any fictional embellishment … when trusting to Karma works out just fine.
June 15, 2014
I’ve avoided reading bad reviews for a while now. I’ve heard too many cruel jibes about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, which admittedly has a complicated plot. Recently, via Google, I discovered a couple of not-so-bad reviews. A few readers have had the patience to stay with the story until it resolved itself. At least they admit there is a story. But I recognize that complex plots, with lots of characters, need simplifying if we want them to be made into movies … and who doesn’t?
I submitted all three of my novels to professional screenwriters who attempted to transform them into cinematic products. I was warned in advance that large portions of the original stories would likely end up on the cutting room floor, as movies require a more streamlined plot and cast of characters than novels do. So how much do I miss the parts that had to go?
There was no getting around the fact that Let’s Play Ball needed simplification, although the basics were spared. It’s about a Cuban-born Major League ballplayer who is kidnapped from his own ballpark and transported back to his homeland. His sportswriter fiancée and her fraternal twin sister, sometimes assisted and sometimes impeded by the police, set out to discover who did it, and why. My story involves collusion between two filthy-rich and powerful owners with political connections that reach as far as the White House and the Cuban government. A militia movement assists with the kidnapping for its own racist reasons. The smoking gun is revealed via an Oval Office tape, secretly recorded by the President’s girlfriend as punishment for his perceived betrayal of her. Along the way, there are plenty of other sexual hi-jinks.
The screenplay, by contrast, boils down the evil governments and militias to single individuals with simpler motives than world domination. For example, a mechanic named Ricky tampers with a player’s motorcycle. He has no notion of trying to expose Oval Office chicanery. He’s merely working for a baseball owner whose motive is preventing an embarrassing revelation about steroid use on his team. The evil owner, whose son-in-law is a U. S. Senator, isn’t exposed via secret tapes. Instead, his daughter confronts one of the avenging twins, who possesses damning evidence against her, in the bathroom at a political fundraiser. This leads to the arrest of both owner and daughter in front of a roomful of supporters.
I’m not saying a book should try to be a movie, as they are vastly different animals. But my story became more cinematic by acquiring visual settings: a Congressional hearing room, a press conference, a raucous fundraiser. Eye-catching images were added: a smashed vehicle, a woman throwing out a first pitch, a car alarm that creates a distraction outside a ballroom. Not to mention the hot lovemaking, which I suspect would come across even hotter on the screen than it does in the pages of the novel.
April 29, 2014
I always wanted to be in pictures. I’m a financial backer, in a very modest way, for a Kickstarter-backed film project called “Freelancers The Series.” It’s a fantasy epic produced by Witness Pictures, the independent film company that produced my three book trailers. This series, which has aired four episodes so far, features a strong heroine, and I mean a really strong heroine, named Caitlin.
To put it mildly, she’s a more vivid presence than the “heroines” in my novels, who are doing their best (and often failing) to navigate college dormitories, offices, and the dating scene. Caitlin is a warrior in a fantasy landscape that looks medieval to the naked eye, but has numerous modern touches, such as hip dialogue and flirting. “I think she likes me!” says one of her male adversaries. She is trying to right a wrong done to her family by stealing back a mysterious key. Along the way she steals a lot of other things, and soon ends up on wanted posters.
I have no doubt Caitlin will eventually prevail in her private crusade, even if she has to duel every evildoer who is responsible for her family’s distress. By contrast, my heroines’ idea of victory is not being stood up for the majority of their dates, or getting through a pile of typing before their bosses explode.
My girls, of course, do aspire to more exciting careers. I’ve featured amateur journalists who would prefer to get big stories without having to sleep with their sources, but can’t always manage that. I have a heroine who starts out as a bureaucrat with Homeland Security and ends up conducting a wildcat investigation of her brother-in-law’s kidnapping. My girls would love to lead heroic lives, but they’re not like Caitlin, a true adventurer with the skills of a cat burglar. Dressed all in black, she routinely walks on window sills, climbs up walls, and carries a sword she’ll use if she must, although she regrets shedding blood unnecessarily.
Critics have advised me to strengthen my heroines. Maybe they should take Caitlin as their model as they navigate their workaday worlds. There are, after all, many different kinds of landscapes to conquer.