IWSG—Plans for 2018


Welcome to the first installment of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group for 2018!

A total stranger recently misinterpreted one of my Tweets and jumped on me like an attack dog, assuming both my religion and politics. She never apologized after I explained several times I was writing from the POV of a character and that this is a writers’ hop.

I also recently did a guest post about Dr. John Money and David Reimer for 4thWaveNow.

I was recently in the odd, difficult position of having to pass on an offer of interest. Though I haven’t taken part in any trad-pub contests in a few years, I took a chance and pitched the book formerly known as The Very First during the latest Pitch Madness.

I was excited to get one like from the managing editor of a publishing house, but further research revealed this would be a very bad fit. Though I’ve significantly watered down or removed the age-inappropriate content I only included to be controversial, there are still a few spots they wouldn’t consider “clean.”

Removing or radically reworking them just to curry favor and potentially get published would alter the story in unacceptable ways. It would distort and misrepresent my voice.

That publishing house is also an imprint of a very conservative religion’s book company, and has a censorship board. G-rated content isn’t who I am at all. My character Cinni says several times that real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting, and that that kind of life never existed for many Americans.

I thought I only had to finish up my unplanned chapter on The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and do some final polishing, but I instead saw an awesome opening to add two additional chapters after what I always thought was the ending.

Though I’ve carefully edited this book to feel more suited to upper MG, the ending felt too simplistic, easy, sudden, more suited to a younger readership.

The new chapters are about Sparky’s first Thanksgiving, and the experience of being Jewish when everyone around her celebrates Christmas. There’s also an Epilogue in January 1939, at her favorite brother Barry’s bar mitzvah. The new and improved reason for the nickname Sparky will be revealed then.

My guesstimate for the final length is 80K, which is super-short by my standards. The hot mess of a first draft was only 38K.

I also need to finish my alternative history about the rule of Tsar Aleksey II. My initial plan was to release it on what would’ve been his 112th birthday, 12 August 2016, but that obviously didn’t work out. A release date of 17 July 2018 would be so appropriately bittersweet, since that’s his real-life 100th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

Getting back to work on my fourth Russian novel would also be awesome.

My planned blog posts for the year will again feature films and albums celebrating landmark anniversaries, including:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
October (1928)
The Crowd (1928)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Duck Soup (1933)
Thriller (1983)
Colour by Numbers (1983)
The Birds, the Bees, and The Monkees (1968)
The Wedding Album (1993), this year’s feature for Duran Duran Appreciation Day

My October series on classic horror films will include The Invisible Man (1933), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and several Georges Méliès films.

I’m also going to feature the radio play of The War of the Worlds (1938). As I recently discovered, the so-called mass panic was far, far, far less widespread than we’ve been led to believe. It’s also an awesome story perfect for Halloween.

Finally, as you might’ve seen in my second banner, I’ve added an index page cataloguing my posts by nine major topics—book reviews, film reviews, album reviews, misc. book-related, misc. film-related, misc. music-related, historical topics, writing advice, and names.

What are your writing and editing plans for this year?


WeWriWa—1939 becomes 1940


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s lines are the ending of the book formerly known as The Very Next, my chronological second Atlantic City book.

It’s the end of 1939, and Cinnimin Filliard’s family goes upstairs and outside to take part in a local New Year’s tradition of setting off an egg full of fireworks. Two years later, this tradition goes horribly wrong when Cinni’s frenemy Violet stuffs the egg with stink bombs instead of fireworks!

This has been slightly edited to fit ten lines.

A minute before midnight, everyone crowded onto the fire escape.  It was neighborhood tradition to stuff a large plaster egg full of fireworks, light a fuse, and send it plummeting to earth so it would explode at exactly the moment the old and new year changed places.  This year, the Filliards had stuffed their egg with purple fireworks.

Cinni proudly held the egg as Babs struck a long match and held it to the fuse, and at a signal from Mr. Filliard, Cinni let go, throwing it with as much force as she could, to ensure it exploded better than anyone else’s egg.  Her family always won the unofficial block competition, and best of all, this year the Vallis had joined them, so there was one less egg to compete against.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.  Happy 1940!”

The purple fireworks showering in all directions gave Cinni hope the new decade would be much happier than the depressing decade which was now the stuff of history books, no matter how ominous future signs were.  It was like the butterfly emerging from Pandora’s Box and giving the chained, tortured Prometheus hope in spite of everything.  Life is nothing without hope.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XII (Final thoughts)

Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XI (So who did survive the transition successfully?)

In loving memory of John Lennon, who was taken from this life 37 years ago today.

As discussed in Part X, very few actors’ careers were ended due to the coming of sound. There were many complex, complicated factors at play.

But just who made a longterm, successful transition from silents to talkies, for longer than a few years of coasting on earlier laurels?

1. People already trained in stage acting. This includes actors like John and Lionel Barrymore, whose background included vocal acting, not just pantomime. They knew how to use their voices,  and were familiar with memorizing lines.

Left to right: John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, 1904

2. People who were just starting to become big names. In this group are actors like Anita Page, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, and Barbara Kent. They’d become popular, but not for long enough to have become associated with the “old-fashioned” types of characters or way of making films.

3. Huge superstars who had a great deal of freedom to continue making pictures on their own terms. The foremost example of this kind of actor is Charlie Chaplin, who was his own boss and had the luxury of making silents till 1936. Harold Lloyd also continued regularly making films, though neither of them were as popular as they’d been in the silent era.

4. People who hadn’t yet graduated from extra and minor roles. These were actors like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Boris Karloff, and Clark Gable.

5. People who’d been around for awhile, but either hadn’t made much of a real impression yet, or hadn’t had their true potential revealed with the right kind of roles. This group includes actors like Myrna Loy, W.C. Fields, William Powell, Marlene Dietrich, and Fay Wray.

6. People whose talent and appeal was such it enabled them to have successful careers in both eras. These lucky people include Laurel and Hardy, Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman, Rod La Rocque, Bebe Daniels, and Greta Garbo.

7. Foreign imports who couldn’t hack it in English-language films, but did just fine with speaking roles in their native languages after going home. This group would include Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt (who later successfully broke into British and U.S. films after mastering English), and Lars Hanson.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.