Lightsabers and Surfboards

Stefan A. Slater's blog about whatever's on Stefan A. Slater's mind (e.g., Ewoks, Pipeline and speaking in the third person).

Category: Writing

Why I Suck At Coming Up With Titles

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It’s an issue that’s plagued me since my days at the college paper–coming up with headlines and titles that don’t suck.

The opener is so very important–I mean, it’s the first thing people see when they check out your writing. The headline and that first sentence are like the initial punches in a boxing match; you can’t start off tip-tap-tapping away at your opponent, you really have to knock them flat right from the get go.

Nonfiction is a little easier–all you really have to do is convey the most important info (a why-does-this-even-matter sort of thing, e.g. Dog Takes To The Sky After Accidentally Turning On Jet Pack). Once that’s done, I usually just try tweaking things accordingly until I have something that sounds halfway decent, e.g. “See Spot Fly” or “Jet Packs and Dogs Don’t Mix” or “Ground Control To Major Fido”. Ok, that’s the best I could do on such short notice, please don’t judge.

But it’s completely different with fiction. If I don’t have something set aside right from the beginning (and, come on, when does that ever happen?), then I usually flounder, or I wait until I have the whole thing done before settling on a title (i.e. stick with a “working title” and then come up with something better).

Oftentimes, I like the “noun and noun” title, as in “The Dog and the Jetpack.” Or, I like to go with the title-in-the-text approach, where I say a certain phrase in the text that ends up being the title, like, for instance, in Game of Thrones–I remember the first time that I heard a character say, “play the Game of Thrones,” I practically giggled like an eight-year-old hyped up on pixy sticks.

Any way, do you have any tips for crafting awesome headlines or story titles? Bonus if you somehow tie it back to jet packs and dogs… that seems to be somewhat of a running theme today. And with that said:

Enjoy.

Just_a_flying_dog

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Happy New Year Post: A 2013 Recap

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I know. I know. I’m a little late. Like… a couple of weeks late. But forgive me, please? I was sick–struck down by a vicious, merciless cold two days before New Year’s Eve. No worries though, as I spent the night watching Orange is The New Black with my GF, which is never a bad thing (I did wear a bandana to make sure I didn’t spread a plague with all my coughing–it’s all about being considerate). I was also on deadline, and I have two new articles that just went to print that I’ll be sharing here shortly. But, since it’s a new year and all, I thought I’d go ahead and do two very important things:

List my writing goals, which are as follows–

1) Sell a short story.
2) Write for one of my big goal publications (Men’s Journal, Tor.com, etc.)
3) Go on an epic trip and write about it for one of my big goal publications.
4) Write every single day. Even when I’m sick. 🙂
5) Continue to develop my freelance career.
6) Keep up my surfing. (Work’s been cutting into that, and boy, do I need my surfing to keep me sane.)

OK, that was fun and uplifting. Now, let’s switch over to the fun stuff (i.e., the second important thing I had to discuss with you all).

My favorite books of 2013–

Fiction: This one was tough. And when I say tough, I mean chewing-through-mummified-200-year-old-leather tough. I started reading more in 2013, and it was the first year of my full-time freelance career, which meant that I went through A TON of books. And I’m not saying that to brag–there were still plenty of books that I didn’t get to. So, not counting graphic novels or audiobooks, I went through roughly thirty books. Most I liked. Some, like The Yellow Birds or A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories (Ray Bradbury), were truly moving. Others, like Mockingbird and NOS4A2, were a rolling-bucket-of-monkeys-on-LSD fun (and yeah, that’s a good thing). But if there was one book that affected me the most, it had to be Horns, by Joe Hill. It was both simultaneously torturous and pleasurable, and it hit home in a way that was uncomfortable–the way it dealt with adolescent relationships and perceived wrongs was so very raw and relatable. I lost sleep stressing over Ig’s dilemma–and that rarely happens to me. Have you picked it up yet? Do so. Come on, go on, get up and grab a copy.

You back?

Cool.

And now on to my favorite graphic novel/comic book of 2013: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. It’s brilliant. I could go on and on, so just do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. In second place, East of West by Jonathan Hickman. I’m a sucker for revisionist westerns, and this one was particularly inventive and original. Who knew that Death could ever pull off a Stetson so well?

Nonfiction: I didn’t read much nonfiction last year, and that’s something that needs to change this year. But the top two have to be The Devil in The White City by Erik Larson and Sweetness and Blood by Michael Scott Moore. Both understand their subject matters well (World’s Columbian Exposition/H. H. Holmes and surfing history, respectively). Check ’em out.

Ok, thanks for reading, everybody. I’ll be checking in a little more regularly in 2014 with updates on my writing and stuff. Take care, and happy belated new year. Stay stoked and keep writing.

My Article for LA Weekly: The Problem With Owning L.A.’s Closest Ski Resort? Yeah, You Guessed it

Mount Waterman, Courtesy of Beth Metcalf

Mount Waterman, Courtesy of Beth Metcalf

My Dad loves the snow, and he’s been skiing… when did Sputnik 1 go up? No, scratch that. When did WWI start? No, no, that’s wrong. Ok, when did the first scaly, slimy fish-thing crawl forth from the primordial ooze? Yeah… I think he started skiing sometime around then. Anyway, one of the first places that my Dad took me to ski was Mount Waterman. It’s a beautiful–albeit tiny–ski resort that rarely has snow, mainly because it’s only a couple of hours from sunny and smoggy downtown L.A. I wrote an article about this unique little resort, and all the trying challenges that its owners face every year, for LA Weekly. This was a fun one for me, and I hope you like it. I posted part of the article below, but to read the whole thing, you’ll have to head on over to their site (you’ll find the link at the end). Thanks and let me know what you think!

It’s been more than two years since Mount Waterman was last open.

The small, three-chair ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains, roughly an hour from La Cañada Flintridge, hasn’t had enough snow coverage for two winters in a row. Other SoCal resorts, like Mountain High or Bear Mountain, fire up snowmaking machines to offset their lack of the natural stuff, but Mount Waterman’s co-owners, brothers Rick and Brien Metcalf, are still working on acquiring snowmakers. That leaves their family business wholly dependent on the often fickle Southern California winter.

Yet every December since 2006, the Metcalfs make weekend treks from San Diego to Los Angeles to prepare their resort for a ski season that may never come.

On a recent Friday evening, the owners’ sister, Beth Metcalf, 45, works alone at the Mount Waterman booth at Ski Dazzle, an annual ski and snowboard consumer event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. She passes out lift maps, fliers and assurances to more than a few people that the mountain will finally be open this year.

“This is all professional, corporate money,” she says with a wry smile, gesturing at the other resort booths around hers. Snow Summit’s booth is modeled to look like the interior of a cabin — complete with a fireplace and a flat-screen TV. The massive Mammoth Lakes Pavilion (nope, not a booth — it’s a “pavilion” of booths) boasts stubby pine trees sprinkled with fake snow, and a lone chairlift with a mountain backdrop set up for photos — “#MammothStories” is printed on the backdrop in a large, snowy font.

In contrast, “This is family-run and oh-my-God-how-fun-is-this,” she says, pointing to the compact Waterman booth. Its backdrop proclaims that Waterman is “L.A.’s Closest Ski Area.” This year the Metcalfs brought in a strip of artificial grass for mini-golf; they’re also holding a raffle. The winners receive lift tickets, cups and pens featuring the Waterman logo — a cartoon skier, which Beth calls “cocktail napkin art,” doodled years ago by one of the Newcombs, the family that originally opened Mount Waterman to the public back in the late 1930s.

Beth works the ticket booth at Waterman and helps manage the employees when it’s open. “The last two years we’ve heard, ‘It’s not going to be a good year,’ but this year we’ll be good to go,” she says confidently.

The Metcalf siblings all live in San Diego (all three work in real estate), but they grew up in La Cañada Flintridge, and often went to Waterman on junior high school field trips — though Rick Metcalf was the only dedicated skier of the three.

Even at that point, the mountain was already a long-standing La Cañada winter hangout. Lynn Newcomb Sr. opened the first rope tow on Waterman in 1939. His son, Lynn Newcomb Jr., helped build the first chairlift, which some believe is the first in California, in 1942. On opening day, the lift broke, and skiers had to jump from their chairs.

Craig Stewart, an investor and longtime Waterman skier, shows up to help Beth with the booth. He says, “The story is that Lynn was working on the chair when they bombed Pearl Harbor.” Newcomb Jr. went on to join the Army Air Forces during World War II. “That man did not have soft hands,” Stewart says.

Rick Metcalf, 50, arrives fashionably late, a boulder of a man with thinning gray hair, sporting a dark black Mount Waterman shirt. He says he’d been playing golf with people from Caltrans, trying to woo them into ensuring that Waterman’s lifeline, the winding Angeles Crest Highway, stays open for the winter.

Check out the rest of the article over on LAWeekly.com. Hope you like it!

Why Audiobooks Aren’t The Devil

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When it comes to ongoing debates with my girlfriend, there are only two hotly contested issues that come to mind:

1) I’ve told her that Godzilla is a hermaphrodite, but she doesn’t believe me. Even though Matthew Broderick said so. And the Chicago Tribune did too. But still she doesn’t believe me (or Bueller). I don’t feel strongly enough about it to make her watch all those Godzilla movies, so I have a feeling this issue isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. Alas, on to the next one…

2) She doesn’t care for audiobooks. Every time I play one in the car, she cringes. She tells me to change the radio. Play anything, she says, even country.

I must, I must, change her thoughts on this.

Let’s clear something up before I find myself strung up from my ceiling fan with piano wire: My girlfriend is extremely well-read. She read Lord of the Rings in middle school. And I still haven’t gotten around to it (I know, I know). Out of the two of us, she’s the one who picks up on the latest and greatest comics books. And she reads. A lot. And we read most of the same books too. So there.

But there’s one thing that we disagree on vehemently: the true value of audiobooks.

For me, I’m a fervent believer in taking in your literature via headphones and/or car speakers. It adds a different dimension to the experience, for one, and if a story is really good (and I mean really good), there’s nothing better than cruising along the freeway at a good 65 mph and just fading out and falling into the words. You catch small, hard to miss details when a narrator drags it forth to your attention, thus giving you a different reading experience than whatever you might’ve had on your own. In short, you could read a book, and then listen to it on tape, and have two completely different reading experiences. Isn’t that honestly worth something?

(Hell, Stephen King is on the same page, so that’s got to mean something too.)

But my girlfriend looks at literature as a private experience. The narrator’s voice is her own—or at least one that she’s created herself—and she also creates a distinct voice for each character. She values that tremendously, and unfortunately, that’s something that’s taken away when you listen to a story on tape.

And sure, maybe this is all my doing: Her first introduction to audiobooks was the first Game of Thrones novel during our drive up to Big Sur. She’s already read the first four books, and hearing Roy Dotrice voice every single damn character (I think he held a Guinness World Record for that in 2004) threw her off a bit.

But reading is reading. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how you digest the story, you’re still reading and that’s all that matters. So, with that said, I’m going to push her on this. I think the next book I’m going to try with her will be World War Z—she hasn’t read it, and voice-acting cast is brilliant (Mark Hamill is on there. The Joker and Luke rolled up into one gravelly voice!)

There’s no way she can resist that one.

A Little Art Goes a Long Way: Paintings That Push My Buttons (in a Good Way)

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Sometimes, I need a little extra “umph” to get my creative juices flowing. I could be working on a new nonfiction assignment, or could I be working on an ongoing fiction piece–either way, I need a little “fun” injected into my work, and music or candy-binging or Xbox-marathons just aren’t cutting the proverbial honey mustard. So what do I do?

Well, I look at art.

Confession time: I’m not some closet art historian. I like art. But I’m not a snob: If you and I were to take a little afternoon trip to the local art museum (and maybe share a cheese plate and a bottle of wine afterwards if you play your cards right), I wouldn’t lecture you on whatever we were seeing. I’d stop and read all of the info cards. I’d ask questions. I’d bother the security guards and ask them for their opinions (despite the annoyed glares they’d probably give me–security guards are paid to protect art, not learn about it). Then I’d buy one of those guide books in the museum store on our way out so I could learn all of the facts and on the drive home–and only on the drive home–would I chew your ear off as I talked about everything we saw. But just because I don’t know much about art, doesn’t mean I don’t respect everything that goes into it. And so, oftentimes, when I’ve hit a creative road block, I find myself cruising Google Images for classic pieces of art to admire and learn about.

Most of the time I come up empty-handed (or some how end up on Imgur). But other times I hit a total jackpot, and I discover some piece (well, they’re new to me at least) that really poke all of my creative buttons. For instance, the piece above is one that I stumbled upon a while back: It’s by Francisco Goya, and it’s titled, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Wikipedia says that the piece represents Goya’s opinion on the corrupt nature of Spanish society during the 18th century. (And now you’ve learned something today, huh? Unless you’re an art history major… and if that’s the case, good for you, your major finally came in handy for once.)

And with that said, here are few art pieces that I really enjoy. They’re a total mix too: Some famous and dark, some obscure, and some are just totally fun:

3039935-batman_villains_022 I thought I’d start this off with a light-hearted tone: This panel is from The Long Halloween, which is a Batman comic written by Jim Loeb. The art’s courtesy of Tim Sale, and while most comic book art doesn’t really hit me too hard, the work on display in The Long Halloween is an exception: Seeing every Batman villain in a single room, each one more menacing than the last (with a partially obscured villain in the background–guess who?), brings on a rush of anxious adolescent fear that I rarely experience anymore.

Trench Warfare

This is called The Trench Warfare, by Otto Dix (1932). Dix was a veteran of the German Army, and he served during World War I. This piece, in my opinion, is only comparable to All Quiet on The Western Front in terms of properly capturing the horrors of static warfare.

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Howard Pyle’s Marooned doesn’t need much explaining. This particular pirate is lost and completely alone, and there are few other paintings that have ever pushed me to feel so very lonely.

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Dean Ellis did this painting for Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. I don’t know much about it, but I love its seriousness.

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This painting, another one by Francisco Goya, is titled The Dog. From what I dug up on the Web, Goya never meant for it to be shown publicly (it was painted on one of the walls in his home). To say it’s depressing is an understatement–from the viewer’s perspective, the dog is  in the midst of being swallowed up by a dark mass of sorts, and there’s little hope that the animal will live. But I included this piece because it stirs something in me (I don’t really know what, honestly, but it’s dark in its origins) and I hope it does the same for you.

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Goya’s a little bit of a downer, so I thought I’d send some Degas your way to end on a good note: The above piece is titled The Star (Dancer on Stage). I know very little about it, but I appreciate Degas’ sense of movement, and his ability capture the dancer’s grace, as well as the innate sense of light that she brings to the stage. And there you have it. Those are just a few paintings that I enjoy checking out when I feel like I need a little creative boost. Are there any pieces that you enjoy in particular? Post some suggestions in the comments section below! Also, and just for a little added fun, here’s a painting of a T-Rex with a lightsaber by Sam Nielson. Why? Because why not?

SNielson_DarthRex

My Essay for LMU Magazine: Why Word Balloons Matter Today

When Joe Wakelee-Lynch, the editor of LMU Magazine (the utterly awesome mag of my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University), asked me to write a piece on why comic books matter as an art, I said, “Abso-fricken-lutely!” or something equally professional like that. The average reader, in my opinion, should look upon comics not only as a vital visual medium, but also as an important literary medium, as well. So whenever I’m asked to defend them, I’m always eager to accept the challenge and toss out a few words. Check out my essay below:

I’m a writer, so I read. And I read quite a bit.

I guess that’s kind of a given for a writer. But I also read because, honestly, I like to, and because reading helps me become a better writer. The key is reading: exciting tales, engrossing yarns, great stories — the kinds that keep you up at night. And when it comes to fresh, original and moving stories, comic books and graphic novels have them in spades.

Artwork by Ward Sutton

Artwork by Ward Sutton

For most people — including writers — if a story is told via cartoon panels and speech bubbles, it’s branded as childish, immature. If an author wants to tell a serious story of the literary variety, it’s best to keep the print tiny, the paragraphs long and the setting mundane. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to remember that the medium used to tell a story doesn’t denote the quality of a story.

Take “Maus,” for example, by Art Spiegelman. In his graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, a Polish Jew, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. But the twist is that all of the people are depicted as cartoonish animals: Jews are mice and Germans are cats. It’s serious subject matter, but by juxtaposing grim events and illustrations associated with children, the content becomes all the more unsettling and visceral.

Graphic novels — and their smaller-page-count brethren, comic books — deal with weighty, but ultimately human, stories.

“Saga,” by Brian K. Vaughan, tells the story of two soldiers, each from different warring factions in an interstellar conflict, who marry, have a child and spend the entire series trying to outrun the war. The sci-fi setting serves as framework for a story about a couple raising their first child and dealing with the frustrations, arguments, scares and wonders that newlyweds and new parents experience day in and day out.

Then there’s “DMZ” by Brian Wood: A young photojournalist documents the Second American Civil War from New York City, which has been declared a demilitarized zone and where suicide bombings, civilian massacres and shoddy journalism run rampant. Wood takes our nation’s post-9/11 fears and the conflict in Iraq, mixes everything together, and drops the concoction right in a battle-scarred Times Square.

“Sandman,” by Neil Gaiman, revolves around an immortal character named Dream, who rules his realm, the world of dreams, nightmares and waking fantasies, and thereby shapes reality. “Fables,” by Bill Willingham, depicts classic fable characters as living in a New York City apartment complex, trying to blend in with us “mundys.” Each character is modernly human: Snow White and Prince Charming are divorced (infidelity on Charming’s part), Cinderella runs a failing small business (a shoe store), and Pinocchio copes (poorly) with never actually hitting puberty.

Classic comic book heroes are human, too. In Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” a retired Batman is forced to confront aging and an addiction to vigilantism. In the recent renditions of two DC Comics’ standbys, main characters are gay: Alan Scott, whose alter ego is the Green Lantern, and Kate Kane, Batwoman. Comic book heroes are strong and independent, and represent all walks of life — these are characters that we can not only relate to, but look up to as well.

Great comics and graphic novels deal with approachable stories. Simply because
a story is told using illustrated panels doesn’t mean the subject is any less serious or relatable. From “The Dark Knight” to “Maus,” these are moving, emotional stories that help explain who we are as people. And isn’t that the point of literature to begin with?

If you missed his link above, check out Ward Sutton’s site to see more of his stellar artwork.

Workday Distractions Part II: When the Internet Dies, What Do I Read?

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Having recently returned from the land of redwoods and kelp-infested surf (aka Big Sur… don’t worry, I’ll save the trip photos for FB), I feel like now’s a pretty good time to delve into the second part of my Workday Distractions series, which I’ve decided to title, Stuff I Read When the Computer Kills My Eyes Or When The Internet Vanishes.

As a writer, my computer is my best friend. I spend most of my day sending emails and pitches, surfing the Web for story ideas or general news, promoting my work, staying in touch with other writers, and… well, blogging. Put I also play online games and hang out on Imgur and Youtube way too much. So, with that said, sometimes I need a break from the computer and all things electronic—sometimes it’s because I’ve hit a little productivity slump and I need to mix things up, and other times it’s because my eyes are ready to pop out of my head like bloody Champagne corks due to the fact that I’ve been staring at the computer screen (aka Screen of Death) for hours on end.

So, without further ado, here’s the list:

Books and comics: Ok, this is probably a bit of a no-brainer for most of you, but you’d be amazed by how many writers don’t allocate enough time to reading. Even if I’m busy, I try to allot a certain amount of time to the need-to-read book that I’m trying to work through, which means that I have to pass up on other, sometimes more entertainingly thoughtless distractions, like Adult Swim cartoons or Xbox games. And yes, I’m not trying to throw out some tried platitude in the same vein as one of CBS’ The More You Know commercials, but the old school reading and writing rule is still the best one: The more you read, the better your writing will become. So, with that in mind, I try to read it all: Genre fiction, literary fiction, comic books, pamphlets, take-out menus and crumpled-up coupons—if it’s written halfway decently on a piece of paper that isn’t sopping wet and or on fire, then I’ll read it. Though I have to say, I’m not perfect: I’m not one of those writers who will tout that, “Oh, I can’t wait to curl up with my copy of War and Peace before I go to bed.” Yes, it’s absolutely important that you read the weighty classics, but I still like to read the fun genre stuff. Give me an issue of Y: The Last Man, Saga or a good King short and I’m set for the night. It’s all about balance: Read the heavy stuff, but don’t be afraid to switch over to some light reading too—as long as the story is decent, anyway.

Newspapers and Magazines: Reading TIME.com and Tor is great, but since I’m currently a freelance magazine writer (yikes, that does make me sound a bit old), I do my best to read some of the best works that I can find in today’s newspapers and magazines. I’ll read the local stuff (local city mags, LA Times, LA lifestyle websites, etc.), but I also make a point of reading print publications from outside of LA, two of the best being The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times (those are two very different beasts, I know, but they both offer up some of the best feature writing in the country). Most people look at mags and newspapers as struggling dinosaurs that are wheezing and slumping along as they try to keep up with the super-evolved, ultra-fast electronic mammal we call a “website,” but that’s not entirely accurate. Yes, newspapers and magazines will never, ever be a main source of information in the 21st century, but the print medium is perfect for one thing: Telling the ideal long-form story. The Web is designed for short spurts of information—short blurbs that are meant to get across the key bits of a story. But a print feature can meander a little more. It can spout off important details—such as physical descriptions, longer quotes, and so on—that web editors would cut out in a heart beat. A print story still has to be relatively concise, but the story can takes its time and mature a little, which is honestly something that’s rarely seen online.

Pen and Paper: I do most of writing on the computer. But sometimes it’s nice to break out the old pen and paper. I only started writing in a notebook (either jotting down short stories or quick notes) consistently a few months ago, but I’ve already noticed a few things about my electronic writing: I rely on spellchecker and Google way, way too much. Plus, when you’re writing on your comp, the distractions (especially the web-based distractions) are hard to ignore. But with simple paper, it’s a little easier to focus on the task at hand. I don’t write in my notebook as much as I should, but it does have its perks, and I recommend it to any other writers out there.

Anyway, that’s my list of non-web related Workday Distractions. Thanks for tuning in! If any other writers out there have any suggestions on non-web things to do when I need a break from my computer (but still want to improve my writing skills), let me know.

Workday Distractions (AKA Things That Keep Me From Going Insane): Part 1

I’m a freelance writer (aka freelance penmonkey, word-slinger-for-hire, ink-thrower and whatever else you can think of) and I work from home. Sometimes, my office–also known as my bedroom–feels like my happy little sanctuary. But other times, my office feels like an unproductive dungeon–a kind of dark, muddy pit of despair that just so happens to be full of Punji sticks made from sharpened bamboo sticks and putrid hopelessness. So, when those debbie-downer days come a-knockin’, I try to find a way to break the monotony. For the first portion of Workday Distractions, I’m going to list a bunch of online distractions that I like to check out for quick 5-minute breaks during the workday. These items are pretty simple, and they help me out when I’m feeling down, under the weather, or caught up in the daily grind.

If you have any suggestions–trust me, I’m always open to suggestions on these kinds of things–feel free to post some stuff in the comments below.

And with that said, let the Internet Distractions commence!

Games:

Sometimes I need to turn off for a few minutes, so I’ll grab my iPhone and play a quick round of Jetpack Joyride, or I’ll go over to Addictinggames.com and play Steampunk Tower Defense for a bit. I do have an Xbox 360, but I’ve learned that I need to be super careful with it: I used to have it setup in my bedroom, but since I also work in here too (and I NEED to make monies), I can’t afford to camp out and play Call of Duty for five hours. On a side note, I’ve also given up my Xbox Live account, and I’m not buying any new games either (ditto on getting any new gen consoles… sorry, but I don’t have the funds for something that frivolous). Sometimes, just playing some insipid shooter on my phone can help preserve sanity, even if it is for only a few minutes or so.

Online Reading:
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Ok, yeah, I take time to read the important, grown-up stuff that’s on CNN, BBC or TIME (of all of these, TIME is the one I spend the most time clicking through), but I also check out a few sites that deal with entertainment, speculative fiction and video games. TOR is the best for speculative fiction and nerd culture, and I like to read reviews on IGN and The Escapist too–sure, I can’t actually afford any new gen games, but that doesn’t mean I can’t watch or read a review and pine away, right?

Imgur and YouTube:

These two are the real dangerous distractions: Imgur is fun to check out for a quick minute, but if you’ve ever spent any time on the site, you’ll know that once you see one funny dog gif or epic drunk fail it gets pretty hard to look away. It’s sort of like that scene from Raiders when the Nazis open the Ark–you sneak one quick peek, and then your life is completely sucked away. Same goes for YouTube, as evidenced by the clip above from the Craig Ferguson show (I dare you not to laugh. I DARE YOU). These two sites are so easy to pull up for a quick distraction, but they’re almost too easy if you catch my drift–I have to regulate my time on them, and it’s surprisingly difficult to do so.

Anyway, this was the firs part of my Workday Distractions list. On the second-go, I’ll list the non-electronic distractions that I like to check out when my brain’s feeling a little fried.

I Was Late to the Comic Book Party

Confession time: I wasn’t into comic books when I was younger. Yeah, I said it.

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As a writer, I feel guilty for admitting something like that—deep down it honestly feels like I just announced to the world that I enjoy hurling verbal insults at puppies (e.g. “Your paws are disproportionately too large compared to the rest of your body”) or that I’m a diehard Nickelback fan (I’m not… seriously. Don’t even try to spread that rumor).

But back to comics—yes, it’s the truth. My friends in middle and high school weren’t into them all that much. Neither were my friends in college. No one in my family, even my extended family, collected or read them. It wasn’t until graduation—in those early, tumultuous, drifting-in-between-jobs-as-I-try-to-figure-out-how-I-will-make-the-Monies years right after LMU—that I started getting into comic books. Part of the credit is due to my girlfriend, who encouraged me to break out of my words-shouldn’t-be-in-panel-form snobbery and try reading a few illustrated classics, namely The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. But that was also a time in my life when I was looking to understand how to tell a good story, and the best way to discover that answer, as I eventually found out, was to read everything… and I mean everything.

So, now I read all sorts of comics, ranging from urban fantasy yarns like Fables to gritty odes to terribly realistic urban warfare like DMZ, just so I can digest as many different kinds of stories as possible through a medium that’s unlike my usual everyday fare. I want to grow as a writer and a reader, and that’s the best way to do that.

It’s also doesn’t hurt that comics are a blast to read too.

Case in point: I’m reading two newish comics by Jonathan Hickman that are pretty unique, extremely clever and more fun than a barrel of monkeys gorging themselves on banana splits laced with volatile corn whiskey.

Nightly News is a limited-series comic about a cult that attacks journalists who are responsible for shoddy reporting that inevitably ruined the lives and careers of innocent men and women.

Nightly 2

It’s thoroughly provocative, and touches on the believable concept that mainstream media (e.g. CNN, Fox, etc.) might have an agenda in mind that benefits their budgets more than their viewers. As someone who dabbles in journalism, the premise is definitely interesting and engaging for me, and I’m looking forward to finishing it up.

I just finished East of West, and if you’re a fan of weird westerns, then it’s a must for you. The plot and setting are a little complicated: Basically, the Civil War never ended, it’s sometime in the mid-21st century, and the Four Horsemen have arisen to put a bloody end to the President of the United States. In all honesty, this is a story that might be too complicated for traditional novel-form, but since Hickman can dedicate an entire page-sized panel to exposition, it helps the story flow a bit more.

East_of_West
So, in short, if you’re a writer, read comics. Read everything, of course (history textbooks, non-fiction bios, newspapers, take-out menus, you name it), but pay a little extra attention to comics. Some of the most original and thought-provoking stories and characters are coming out of comics these days, so it’s important to keep a steady flow of comics on your to-read bookshelf.

Storytelling vs. Politics: Why I Pick Storytelling Every Time

I’m what Chuck Wendig (the undisputed king of the leech-infested Writing Rainforest) calls a “Freelance Penmonkey.” In other words, I write about all kinds of worldly stuff, like homemade submarines, or music shops that sell rare $10,000 Gibsons (the guitar, not multiple clones of the director), or bathroom-themed restaurants. Sometimes these topics are assigned to me. Other times I come up with the idea all on my lonesome. It’s a freelance game of cat and mouse: Each and every day I do all sorts of creative things to keep my bank account from slipping into a cosmic void (i.e. insufficient funds).

Speaking of assignments, I have two different articles out this month: One on gun control in the San Fernando Valley for Ventura Blvd, and one (more of a profile) on the Gracie family for Southbay—the Gracies are the originators of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the UFC.

The gun article was one I pitched (my girlfriend’s family is into hunting, so doing something on gun control has always been knocking around my head), while the Gracie article was assigned to me. One deals with an extremely sensitive political topic. The other is about a family that’s made a career out of beating people up (for entertainment and confidence-boosting only).

Photo Credit: James Acomb

Photo Credit: James Acomb

Can you guess which one I enjoyed writing about more?

The gun control article was an extremely interesting process for me, but due to the sensitive nature of the story, and out of respect to the people I interviewed (some of whom were survivors of shooting incidences), I didn’t have a lot of leeway on how I was going to tell the story. Right from the beginning, it was about the facts, which was fine… until politics start getting dragged in.

I’m not into politics, and writing this article without making any statements about Republicans or Democrats was difficult. The point of the story was to highlight two different local viewpoints on this debate—that’s it. I wanted to show that, even in a place like the San Fernando Valley, your neighbor could be a survivor of a mass shooting… or they could be a professional skeet-shooter. But inevitably, interviewees brought their personal viewpoints on politics (either that the conservatives were responsible for bringing more guns into CA, or that liberals were stifling a longstanding firearm tradition in this country), and it was challenging to keep the article fair and balanced. I believe I accomplished the task… but ultimately that’s up to you to decide.

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Photo Credit: Michael Neveux

Now the Gracie article was different: I had a lot more room to choose how to cover the story… and, in the end, I actually got the chance to tell a story. I got to experience jiu-jitsu firsthand (I had a sizeable man sit on my chest… always a good time) and I got to walk the readers through the collective history of an engaging group of people—their ups and downs, the entertaining bits, everything. As a writer who’s working on publishing fiction, being able to bring storytelling into my non-fiction work was really entertaining… and rewarding.

I’m glad I covered a sensitive journalistic subject, but it wasn’t something that I found truly compelling. Telling a story, however, even if it wasn’t really my story to tell (i.e. I didn’t make it up), was enjoyable.

So, all in all, I can safely say that this Penmonkey is a non-political Penmonkey.

I’m just one of those old-fashioned, storytelling Penmonkeys, and I think I prefer it that way.