Are you Hawthorne or Fleming?

If (of course, I mean, when) my manuscript is published, it will be clear to everyone who reads it that I watch more movies than I read books. This sets me apart, and it may very well put me at a disadvantage. What I write has always been influenced by the films I’ve watched, but how I write was shaped by the (relatively few) books I’ve read…the ones I was forced to read…the classics on every school’s curriculum.

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VERSUS

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Those two disparate educational strands (a love of all things geek and an exposure to no written word younger than a hundred years)  battled it out and battered my first several drafts into an odd and deformed creation. I didn’t know who I was as an author and I didn’t know what kind of book I had written.

My editor and friend, Candace Johnson of Change It Up Editing and Writing Services, set me straight. Through multiple emails and a manuscript evaluation, she drilled into my skull the fact that THE FOUNDING FATHERS (yes, the title still needs work) is an action novel. It took time to sink in, but I think I’m finally ready to accept the mantle and what comes with it.

I simply can’t deny that my book picks up in the second half when the action kicks in.  It always bothered me that the first half moves so slowly.  I thought it shuffled along because I had to set all the pieces in place – and to a certain extent, that’s true – but that doesn’t mean I have to weigh it down with “literary” descriptions, ponderous pontificating, and overly-serious internal monologues.

You know I’m a big James Bond fan. I watch one of the movies almost every week, but the only Fleming novel I’ve ever actually read was his first, Casino Royale.

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Have you ever picked it up? It is shockingly short.  I once thought that a weakness, but now I see that Fleming was just doing what he did best – focusing on the action.  I’ve also been thinking about a famous line from that book:

“Bond’s gun spoke only once.” 

Now THAT is a great line.  It is everything it needs to be and nothing less.  It moves the story along with no added weight and yet it speaks volumes about the character and the author. James Bond is skilled, efficient, emotionless, and brutal. Fleming wants to tell an unvarnished story steeped in an unforgiving world, but most importantly, he wants to tell it without offering a moral commentary. Clean, cold, simple.

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That’s what I’m striving for now.

I wrote THE FOUNDING FATHERS pretty much in chapter order over eighteen months. When I first began, I was very concerned with painting word pictures and blatantly discussing my philosophy of life.  I thought that good writing was describing something to within an inch of its life so the reader could see exactly what I saw in my head.  As I progressed, I not only necessarily became a better writer, but I became more concerned with the story, and, to an even greater degree, with describing the action.  For those two reasons, the book only gets better (especially at the halfway-point when it begins barreling toward the conclusion). This makes revising the first several chapters very tough, but I’m working hard in the trenches, trusting that it will only get easier.

I still love describing things, but I’m trying to put action in the foreground and allow readers to engage their imaginations. I won’t suffer a single sentence to survive if it only serves as description. I will marry every adjective with action. Where I’ve described a character’s thoughts, I will now have him act out those thoughts so readers can see the action for themselves instead of having me tell them about it.

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Maybe I do need to read more.  Everyone says if you want to write you need to read, but I know myself well enough to know that probably isn’t going to happen. There are only so many hours in the day, and I’d rather spend them in front of a screen.  It’s time to own my ignorance. I’ve always thought THE FOUNDING FATHERS was more of a written movie than a proper book. If I’m not going to change, then I have to make that work for me. You can’t see a character’s mind in a movie.  You have to judge by their words and actions.  If I do the same, won’t that make my manuscript more exciting?

ImageImage: From portrait by Charles Osgood, 1841

So here’s the thing: You have to know who you are as a writer. Educational schizophrenia will eventually catch up with you.  I can’t be both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ian Fleming. Perhaps there is a way to marry the two a bit, but I know now I need more lines like, “Bond’s gun spoke only once”.   That might mean cutting a whole section and going a different way (a painful reality I’ve recently experienced) and it might mean having to get out of the editing frame-of-mind occasionally and getting into a creative one to come up with whole new scenes or new twists on old ones.

But the bottom line is that  the (seemingly endless) revision process has finally taught me to not only accept, but to own who I am and what I’ve written. THE FOUNDING FATHERS is an action-adventure, and it is time I proved it.

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Awesome Image: *SHARPWRITER at deviantart.com

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Psychoanalyzing James Bond (and his audience)

I love my wife more than anything in the world.  I love James Bond almost as much.

ImageImage: 3D4D on deviantart.com

I still remember the first time I heard his name.  I had been roaming the neighbor with some friends on an unseasonably warm December afternoon.  I returned home to find my father in front of a television filled with foreign and florid images.  He turned to me and asked if I had ever seen James Bond.  I shook my head, transfixed by flashing pictures of beautiful women and a man with a gun.

My father gestured for me to join him.  He hurriedly explained the plot and then we both sat in a happy silence for hours on end as one film flowed into another.  When I returned to school the next day, I found that my friends had watched the movie marathon with their fathers too.  In that one night, James Bond had connected generations, uniting men and boys in an intoxicating desire to join his world.

TBS continued to run “The Fifteen Days of Bond” every November and December through my junior year in high school.  It was around that time I realized there was something deeper in its appeal than action, intrigue, gadgets, and gorgeous girls.  A film series can’t survive for fifty years without being willing to change, and it is that very adaptability that makes James Bond a great character and his series such an engrossing collection.

But first, we must understand that he is no a hero. He’s a villain on the right side of the law.  That’s part of the appeal of his adventures – you can’t help but count yourself fortunate that such a man is on our side.

Nearly every actor to take up the mantle has made 007 his own. Diversity is the series’ greatest strength.  Though each actor is playing the same man who has experienced the same things, their particular portrayals shed light on the different facets of Bond’s personality and encourage the audience to examine and embrace their own disparate strands.

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As the first of his kind, Sean Connery laid the foundation for the character, but in many ways, he was simply a cypher for director Terence Young to put his singular stamp on the cinematic interpretation of James Bond.  Through Connery, he built 007 into a Greek hero, a demi-god whose physical strength and intellectual prowess made him a match for any foe. Connery’s Bond was not infallible. His mistakes were born of virtue, rooted in a stubborn (even brutish) will to accomplish his goals at any price.  And he made the mistakes work. His failings were like a hammer (or a “blunt instrument”) used to crack open a case.

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Unlike most Bond fans, I don’t hold much reverence for George Lazenby or his single film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had lost one of the most bankable stars in history and I think they tried to press the Connery mold on an actor unsuited and unprepared.  After arrogance and bad advice sent Lazenby on his way, Broccoli and Saltzman paid Connery a-then-record $1 million dollars to return one last time. Then they began looking for another Bond.  The settled on the obvious casting choice, but decided on the bold strategy to let him chart a new direction.

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Awesome Image: DangerousMinds

Roger Moore’s 007 has been called “The Deadly Comedian”.  It’s an apt description.  Moore’s Bond is a man with sure dedication to his job, but obvious distaste for it.  Sean Bean’s villain in Goldeneye would later taunt Bond by saying, “I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed…or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect.”  Moore’s 007 indulges in these distractions more than any other, but his tonic of choice is humor.  He hides behind quips and a “caviler attitude towards life”.  But when the steely edge comes out, it’s all the more chilling for it.

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Photo: Licence to Kill (1989), EON Pictures

Timothy Dalton’s 007 has an equal distaste for the job, but his is tinged with bitterness  In The Living Daylights, he shoves off a potential rebuke by saying, “If M fires me, I’ll thank him for it!”  He still shoots off some quips, but he seems to do it only for the benefit of his Bond girls in an effort to soften the blow of the world’s harsh realities.  His is perhaps the most complex interpretation – cold, hard, and hidden.

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Photo: Goldenye (1995), EON Pictures

By contrast, Pierce Brosnan is the most emotionally accessible Bond, and he strikes the best balance between the mirth of Moore and the menace of Connery.  He doesn’t exactly wear his emotions on a tailored sleeve, but he’s easier to read since triumph and tribulation play clearly on his face.

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Photo: Casino Royale (2006), EON Pictures

Daniel Craig is Bond at his most brutal.  His 007 doesn’t seem to hate his job as much as his predecessors, even if he doesn’t always understand or appreciate the reasons behind the mission.  Even so, he can’t bring himself to completely embrace the brute.  He hides too.  He hides behind the finer things in life, almost as if in an effort to civilize the beast, wearing his suits “with such disdain”.

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Photo: Casino Royale (2006), EON Pictures

Though each actor has brought his own personality to the malleable role, the films still fit together in a loose (and often contradictory) continuity. How many Bond movies feature ski chases, sharks, or fights on trains? It’s an oddly specific formula, but it holds things in place. It’s familiar.  It’s comfortable.  It’s comforting.

The formula is at it’s best when it bends.  Break the conventions (like Licence to Kill) and you lose the audience’s sympathies.  Adhere to them too closely (like Die Another Day), and you lose their interest.

That balance of change and tradition attracts an audience.  It’s the reason Bond is more popular now than ever.  The Broccoli family deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to correct course with the times, but they owe their success to a character who can seem uniquely and equally at home at any point in history. James Bond was born a creature of the Cold War, but Goldeneye and Casino Royale proved he was a hero for any age.  His audience longs to be so relevant in a world that can change overnight.

“Back-of-the-book” blurb for THE FOUNDING FATHERS

“What’s your book about?”

I think every author (at least secretly)  hates that question because it’s inherently difficult to boil down the soul, rhythms, themes, and action of your entire novel into a concise synopsis. It’s like asking someone to explain the meaning of life  in Twitter-speak.

And yet, that’s exactly what you must do if you want to get published.  Every query letter you send out requires a two or three paragraph tease.  Literary agents can get hundreds of queries a day, so it is imperative that yours somehow stand out from the crowd, or it’s going in the trash.  Agents are so busy, they are literally looking for a reason to say “no”.

That said, writing a tease is actually easier than trying to summarize your entire story.  Many agents require a one-page synopsis that covers your book from beginning to end.  I’ve been rejected by nine agents so far, and  I haven’t queried any who asked for a synopsis, although I’m trying to craft one now .  I’ve gotten it down to two-and-a-half pages, so I still have a lot of editing to go.

But the verbal pitch is the most frightening, at least for me.  Like most writers, I would rather pen my thoughts than try to form them into spoken words. Still, I’m working to develop a pitch too, in case I ever get to a writers’ conference and have a chance to pitch to some agents there.

With all that as preamble, since one of the major reasons I started this blog was to develop a platform for my novel, I thought it might be a good idea to at least try and give you an idea of what it is actually about.  I like to tell people that when they read THE FOUNDING FATHERS, they’ll instantly know that I watch more movies than I read books.  I see it as Where Eagles Dare meets Willow, which probably means nothing to a lot of people, so here’s what I’ve put down in my query letters so far (without the artwork, of course):

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Thomas Jefferson has been abducted from his apartment in Paris. The author of American democracy holds a secret – a secret the world can’t afford to lose. Desperate to save his friend and defend his newborn nation, George Washington assembles a team of historic heroes and sends them across the Atlantic to rescue Jefferson or bring him home for burial.

Meanwhile, Betsy Ross boards a ship to kill a man she barely knows.  The seamstress who fashioned America’s first flag has already paid a steep price for the nation she served so well.  Now, nearly a decade after the last cannons were fired on Yorktown, her ruthless former employer has discovered a British plot to recapture the continent, and is convinced only an assassin can stop it.  Betsy is still haunted by nightmares, hobbled by the grief of two husbands dead, and burdened by the illness of a third. She’s tried to put the bloody days behind her.  She longs for peace even at the price of ignorance.  But if she fails, every sacrifice she’s made will mean nothing.

The patriots’ mission of mercy and Betsy’s solemn voyage soon collide in a nightmarish battle on the high seas. The few who survive are left to untangle a web of treachery woven through the ageless ambitions of a fearfully beautiful sorceress and the machinations of one of history’s most infamous villains.

THE FOUNDING FATHERS is a 75,000 word work of historical fiction and paranormal action-adventure that delves into shadowy portions of celebrated biographies to examine the insecurities and forgotten failures driving America’s famous warriors and statesmen on a quest for redemption.  But its heart is with the woman who crafted the symbol of the nation for which they gave their all.  Faced with her greatest fear, Betsy Ross confronts her own tragic history with the fierce strength and jealous compassion of a woman determined to honor the legacy of the men she loved at any cost.

ImageAwesome Image: “David Wong’s Image Macros” on Cracked.com

More about me and this blog

I’m a husband, historian, writer, and aspiring novelist.  I write the column “Media Matters” for Parents & Kids Magazine (http://www.parents-kids.com/).

I love movies, TV, and video games, but I love writing about them even more.

My more peculiar areas of interest are tabletop games, movie and videogame scores, survival horror, classic Universal and Hammer monster movies, xenomorphs, and all things James Bond.  Like Hans Gruber, I can talk about industrialization and men’s fashion all day, and Matt Spaiser’s incredibly detailed blog, “The Suits of James Bond” (http://thesuitsofjamesbond.com/), has given me plenty of ammunition.

I’m currently working to publish my first novel, THE FOUNDING FATHERS.  The publishing world is frightening and about as inviting  as Tantooine with a third sun, but I’ve gotten a lot of support from a ton of great people, and I’m not one to give up on a dream.

I hope someone out there is reading.

If you enjoy the blog, please feel free to add your thoughts in any of the comment sections.

 

ImagePhoto: Die Hard (1988), Twentieth Century Fox

The Song I’ve Been Looking For All My Life

I was seven years old and I was sitting in my dad’s RX-7 while he ran into the store.  I turned the radio on, and before long, a song started playing that I had never heard before.  I couldn’t catch all the lyrics, but the chorus melody stuck with me as I hummed it all the way home.

Somehow, even though I heard it only once, I always remembered that song.  As I grew older, I started to search for it everywhere.  I thought the name was “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You” and I thought it was sung by Barry Manilow.  I was wrong on both counts – which explains why the radio announcers never knew what I was talking about when I would call in to request it on Saturday nights in junior high.  Well, that, and I’m sure they couldn’t believe that a teenager was requesting a Manilow song.

Once the internet became a thing, I started checking there, but with no luck.  Then iTunes, but still nothing.

Last weekend, twenty-three years after I heard that song, I finally heard it again.

My wife and I were watching Hit & Run with Kristen Bell.  There’s a scene in a grocery check-out line where Bradley Cooper is going off on a tough-looking guy buying cheap dog food.  “Muzak” was playing in the background and I heard that familiar melody.

I immediately jumped on the computer, checked the film’s soundtrack, and found that the song is called “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” and it was originally sung by George Benson.  Here a link to his fantastically cheesy performance from 1984: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21RVgBu5o2c.

It’s simple and really corny, but I think that’s what makes it sweet.  It reeks of the 80s, but there’s still something about that chorus that sticks in your head.

“Dutch Wings Over Jackson” Documentary airs Thursday night

A short, ten-minute documentary I co-wrote and co-produced will air on Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Thursday, June 6, at 7pm CST.

Here’s the story:

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, driving its government into exile.  The Dutch military retreated to its holdings in the South Pacific, but were forced to retreat to Australia when the Imperial Japanese advanced against the East Indies in February of 1942.  Fearing yet another invasion and facing a shortage of war material, the air forces of the Dutch East Indies Army and the Dutch Navy began searching for a safe place to train their pilots.

They chose Jackson, Mississippi.

Hundreds of Dutch and Indonesian personnel and their families arrived in Jackson by train from San Francisco on the night of May 7, 1942.  They set up camp at the Jackson Army Airbase at Hawkins Field and were quickly welcomed by a curious public.  Speeches and parades followed, along with dozens of dances where some cadets and officers met their future Southern brides. Many of these widows and their descendants still reside in Mississippi today.

The Dutch fliers were patriots without a country, but for a time, Mississippi was their home. Unfortunately, many died in training accidents and were buried at Cedarlawn Cemetery in sacred earth designated as Dutch soil.  In 1943, a monument designed by one of the pilots was erected in honor of these brave men’s memory.

On February 8, 1944, the Dutch lowered their flag over Jackson and returned to the fight in Europe and the Pacific.  As the war waned, many Mississippi brides joined their Dutch husbands in far-flung corners of the earth.  Some witnessed the horrors of Japanese concentration camps in Java while others waded through Holland’s bombed-out rubble.  Little opportunity was left in the old world.  As the Japanese left Java, riots and revolution raged, slowly driving the Dutch from their Indonesian colonies.  Many of the pilots and their families returned to the United States.  Some made their way back to Jackson, and a few even trained new European pilots at Mississippi airbases.

Our short film focuses on our interviews with three Mississippi natives – widows of Dutch pilots who fought in the skies over Europe and the Pacific.  It’s a love story, and at times, a quite tragic one, but it illustrates how true love can withstand great distances in both space and time.

Tune in if you can, and I’ll post the link once the film appears on MPB’s website.

This is just the beginning.  We hope to eventually produce a full-length documentary with national distribution telling the whole story of the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School and the great, enduring friendship between Jackson and the Dutch.