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Writing: marathons vs. sprints

Writing a novel is a marathon. It takes months, if not years. You have to be in it for the long haul.

You have to train for a marathon. If you want to run a marathon you have to gradually build up to it with shorter runs at first. Gradually, inexorably, you find the skill and endurance to persevere. To keep going.

You have to train for a novel. You have to write, and write, and edit, and rewrite. The long form of storytelling will ruin and exhaust a novice. You’ve got to build up to it.

Too many marathons will ruin you. Your body will fall apart. Joints and bones will give up after repetitive pounding against concrete. You can’t run a marathon all the time. But you don’t have to stop running.

You can sprint.

There is freedom in the sprint – the freedom of laying it all on the line in short bursts. No time for boredom. No time to think of giving up. Just go.

Novelists need to sprint sometimes too. Write a short story. Write a screenplay (which, in comparison to a novel, is a pretty short endeavor). Give yourself time to recover and do something that is joyously brief.

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A writer’s take on #OscarsSoWhite

Yes, this is one more post about the lack of diversity in the Oscars. But, hopefully, this one will bring some perspective you haven’t considered before.

Last night I engaged in a spirited debate on Reddit about the merits of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I think I changed a lot of minds, judging by the number of upvotes. So I want to put those thoughts on a broader medium, and hopefully arm others with the points they can use to win their own arguments.

As a writer myself, I create casts of characters that reflect the world at large. Diversity is one of my main themes, because that is the world I see when I go outside and live in the rich metropolis that is LA. But, sadly, many creators here fail to translate these multicultural gifts into their work.

So we know there is a deeply disappointing lack of diversity in the Oscars again. But what’s the cause? How do we fix it? Is this hashtag movement even doing anything?

Let’s try to answer those questions by responding to the most common retorts to the movement.

Don’t blame the Oscar voters; blame the industry

This ignores who the Oscar voters are; they ARE the industry. This isn’t the press or fans voting. These are people who worked (or are currently working) in the industry. Top of their field. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) membership overlaps most with the Academy’s. These are people who have the ability, resources, and influence to help get more minorities into film. They are the exact people you’d want to lobby.

And, unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly white (94%), old (62 and up), and male (74%).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an old white guy. The world needs old white guys. But when such an important body that is supposedly curating the best film contributions of all groups is overwhelmingly comprised of just one group, it leads to a lack of diverse perspective that can appreciate a film or script or actor outside the Oscar “norm”.

There weren’t enough “black” movies out there that warranted nomination

Putting aside the problem with designating a movie as “black” or “white”, this statement just isn’t true.

Just a few of the critically lauded films with majority black casts that were eligible for Oscar noms:

  • Dope
  • Tangerine
  • Chi-raq
  • Girlhood – French film, critically acclaimed (96% on RottenTomatoes), yet never made it to the conversation for best foreign language film (because France submitted Mustang, a similarly reviewed film about pale Turkish girls, unlike Girlhood which is all dark black girls. Just sayin’).

And it’s not just “black” movies here. It doesn’t have to be black movies. Latinos and Asians do make movies too.

Me, Earl, and the Dying girl – diverse cast, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize AND the Sundance Audience Award, directed by a Latino. No Oscar love.

Yeah, but those movies you mentioned didn’t make a lot of money. Nobody saw them

I hear this argument often, and it’s somewhat valid for the industry as a whole, however when it comes to the Oscars it falls apart for one simple reason:

It’s only very recently that many Oscar nominated movies did well at the box office, and even today, a lot of them don’t.

Take Birdman for instance. It was far, far from a box office smash. The only reason it did as well as it did was BECAUSE of the Oscar buzz. It was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever.

The Artist grossed less than 50 mil in box office but it beat out The Help for Best Picture (which did very well, grossing 177.5 million, proving that black women can indeed bring in both money and award recognition if you cast them)

Children of Men? Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. Ho hum at the box office (widely considered a commercial flop).

The Hurt Locker hadn’t even cleared 15 million at the box office until the Oscar buzz started.

So it’s safe to say a lot of people didn’t see a lot of Oscar movies, or were even aware of them until they started getting Oscar buzz. And that’s okay; the Oscars aren’t supposed to be about who made the most money.

But a big part of the discrepancy that is very important in the spirit of #OscarsSoWhite is that movies without majority white casts aren’t getting the “Oscar bump” that pulls them out of obscurity, like so many other movies got (including last year’s best picture winner Birdman).

Yeah but black movies specifically don’t make money unless they’re stupid comedies and that’s why the industry doesn’t make them

Oh really?

  • Creed: 181 million box
  • Straight Outta Compton: 200 Million Box office
  • 42: 97 million
  • The Butler: 116 million domestic alone

I could go on.

Okay, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t more minorities getting roles in these movies

This is the most important question, and there are many theories. Here’s mine.

I live in LA (I can actually go outside, look up, and see the Hollywood sign), and I am dipping my toe into the screenwriting businesses. There is a strong culture of “default white”. Meaning that UNLESS you very specifically make a character a certain ethnicity, the producers and casting directors will just default to white.

And it’s not just me saying this. The ScriptNotes podcast (led by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) is arguably the most famous and influential podcast on Hollywood filmmaking. They covered this very problem in their 180th episode where they had guest Aline Brosh Mckenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada).

Quote from the transcript:

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white.

That doesn’t mean that casting directors are racist. In fact a lot of them are quite nice, open-minded people. But they’re working in a world that has been traditionally white, largely because it was allowed to be that way for so long. Every art looks to what came before for inspiration, but in the case of Hollywood cinema the past was lily white because nobody else was allowed to play.

Additionally, a lot of these people grew up in WASPy environments with not a lot of diversity. So they stick to what they know, and everything ends up default white, until you challenge them on it.

Perhaps the best example I can think of here is the casting of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Marion Dougherty, legendary casting director who blazed trails in her own right as a woman, read the Lethal Weapon script and talked with director Richard Donner. And the convo went something like this:

Marion: “What about Danny Glover?”

Donner: “But he’s black!”

Marion: “So what, he’s black. He can act. The script doesn’t say anything about Murtaugh’s race.”

To his credit, Donner had an epiphany, questioned his own prejudices, and cast Glover (and became good friends with him). Donner talks about this in a speech he gave awarding Glover some award (I can’t find it now, but it’s in the great movie Casting By).

Moral of the story: nothing changes if we don’t call it out consistently and vocally. Many times people aren’t even really aware of what they’re doing, or they’re working off of outdated beliefs about what can work in the industry.

As long as we keep calling the industry out on it, things will change. We need more Marion Dougherty’s.

*header image courtesy of Lee and Low books (blog.leeandlow.com)

Lonnie G. Johnson - Inventor of the Super Soaker
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Redefining Black Friday – Celebrating Black Inventors

It’s the day after Thanksgiving in the US again, also known as “Black Friday”. In recent tradition, this has been a day of rampant, unapologetic commercialism. Hordes of eager shoppers rush to stores to kick off the Christmas shopping season and spend money they don’t really have. Well, I’m tired of it, as many of you are (including outdoor sporting goods chain REI, who announced their anti-Black Friday stance with much fanfare). So let’s change it. Let’s make Black Friday something meaningful.

Let’s talk about brilliant black people.

It might surprise you to learn that, as a kid growing up with a strong interest in science and technology, I actually had a lot of black role models in those fields. My schools in Detroit did a great job of exposing me to the great African-American scientific minds like Charles Drew (father of the blood bank), Mae C. Jemison (first African-American female astronaut), and of course George Washington Carver (the peanut guy). But once I got out of Detroit and started interacting with my white classmates and co-workers, I realized that they hadn’t received the same education I had. Their knowledge of non-white scientists was sadly, sorely lacking.

Today I took to Twitter to spread my message of #BlackFriday tech entrepreneurs.

This is just meant as a starting point to incite curiosity and plant a thought seed. I’m sure I missed a bunch. Feel free to add some in the comments.

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else
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Living the writing life

My poor, lonely blog has been neglected for a while. It’s largely because I’ve been focused on finishing my new screenplay, thinking about what I’m going to do with my latest novel, and the usual various tasks that a man in his 30s has to take care of. Ironically, I’ve been so busy writing I haven’t had time to write in the blog.

But, in a way, that’s a good thing because it shows that I’m so absorbed in my work that few outside forces can take me away from it. I’ve had an incredible run of creativity over the last 6 months and I’ve finally produced some stories that were percolating in the back of my mind for years, and others that were totally new ideas I didn’t even know I had in me. It’s fulfilling work, more fulfilling than all of my other accomplishments.

That’s why I keep doing it. It’s lonely, not financially stable, oftentimes frustrating, and sometimes humbling work. But it’s the only thing that really makes me feel alive.

So I keep writing.

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Death of a fan

Today I learned that one of my faithful readers, Randy, has died.

He had been disabled for a long time, and mostly confined to his home. But he used social media to connect with people around the world. He knew he was not long for this world, so he had arranged for his family to post a Facebook message to all his online friends. It was one of the most moving things I’d ever read.

I’m not a hugely popular author, but I do have a number of people I’d call “fans”, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to have them as supporters. I always say that writing a story is only half the work; the other half is finding people who care about it. Whenever I find someone who genuinely cares about what I do, I cherish them and I do my best to care about what goes on in their lives too.

Randy and I were friends on Facebook, and although I’d never met him in person, his posts were a constant source of entertainment in my feed. He read voraciously, and often supported indie authors (I found more than a few interesting reads because of him). He was an unapologetic and fierce Democrat, and although he was even further to the left than I am, his passion was genuine and informed and I never felt like I needed to disagree with him.

It is often said that the online era has made human relationships distant, cold, and devalued. Sometimes, that is true. But it is also true that technology has enabled ways for us to connect with people across vast distances, and through difficult circumstances. I never met Randy in person, but I knew him in a small way for many years, and I know that the people he met online helped ease the pain.

Rest in eternal peace, my friend.

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My new novel is in Kindle Scout, and you can help it win!

My new novel, Nightcrafters, is now participating in the Kindle Scout program. If I get enough nominations, Amazon just might officially publish it! And, if you nominate and Nightcrafters “wins”, you get a copy of the eBook for free! So please get your clicking fingers ready and nominate my book. It only takes a second, and I’ll love you forever!

Nominate Nightcrafters on Kindle Scout

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Sneak Peek: My new novel, Nightcrafters

At last, I can reveal what I’ve been working on for over a year. My latest sci-fi/fantasy novel is Nightcrafters, and you’ll be able to read it soon.

Synopsis:

Kal Kai was once a nightcrafter-in-training until he learned the cruel truth of the craft. Every time someone uses magic, they lure dangerous creatures into our world. After his mentor expels him from the nightcrafter ranks, Kal meets a high-ranking government official and a flirtatious scientist with a modern theory of magic. Together, they have all the skills needed to stop the nightcrafters for good. But Kal’s greatest opponent will be the same man who taught him everything he knows.

Nightcrafters- fantasy and science fiction by Ramsey Isler