ROCK N ROLLER COLA WARS I CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!

How To Art In Really REALLY Bad Times

Ah, the Salad Days of cultural angst.

When Billy Joel growled out the final words of his 1989 list song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I wonder if he considered for a moment that the 40 years of world events highlighted in his unforgettable primal scream would, in a mere 30 years, come to be seen as “precious.” Yes, I know that was an incredibly long sentence, and no, I don’t give a fuck.

Who among us wouldn’t trade COVID for British Politician Sex? The Climate Catastrophe for Ho Chi Minh? Trump for Rock n Roller Cola Wars? Whoever said, “may you live in interesting times” can blow me…in hell, if the Christian Right is right.

Color me there!

Like many of my sister and brother writers, I’ve been struggling to find artistic purchase in this exceptionally challenging time. My work-in-progress is a YA fantasy, but it’s set in our world. Our pre-COVID world. I’d also started a play – a contemporary satire – in January that no longer seems particularly relevant as we collectively inhale the reality that nearly one million human beings have died from this plague. And there doesn’t appear to be a true end in sight…at least not one that can be achieved by the application of critical thought.

Untitled, Zdzisław Beksiński

The West Coast is on fire. Sally is having a party in the Gulf while other storms circle like a shiver of sharks in the Atlantic. The results of the 2nd most important election in our lifetime (we blew the first one) are already disastrous, and it HASN’T EVEN HAPPENED YET. Giant chunks of the Arctic are turning into a massive slushie. Sahara Dust is on the way. BLM has had enough of our country’s legacy of racist bullshit, and their anger is so incredibly righteous that it’s contagious – in a good and long overdue way. Schools are unbelievably open, and as of this writing, the number of teachers, TEACHERS, who have died from COVID continues to rise.

RIP Rana Zoe Mungin, 30, a graduate of both Wellesley College and UMass Amherst, who died from complications associated with COVID-19. On two occasions prior to her death, her family said, Mungin went to a hospital seeking a coronavirus test but was unable to get one. (THE BOSTON GLOBE)

And of course there’s more. So much more.

How do we function as artists when our collective frontal lobe is filled with end-days shit that none of us had on our Bingo card? The thought of COVID literature/theatre/art makes me cringe. It’s too big, too awful to reduce to the intimacy of storytelling, and yet, how can we legitimately spin a contemporary yarn without it?

Those who fought in WWI were dubbed the “Lost Generation.” Countless soldiers returned to their homes suffering from shell shock, which we now call PTSD. Their wandering, directionless lives were succinctly captured in works like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

Shell shock wasn’t reserved for soldiers, however. The War to End All Wars was too big, too awful, and the artistic response to what was previously unimaginable was a jagged slash through the fabric of what had come before. Dadaism exploded in the art world in Europe and America, and Theatre of the Absurd was soon to follow. The sensual beauty of La Belle Époque that preceded the war became unbearable to contemplate, and artists scrambled – like many of us are scrambling now – to integrate our unimaginable reality into our individual forms of storytelling. Are we becoming a new Lost Generation? I hope not.

“That is what you are…all of you young people who served in the war.
You are a lost generation.” Gertrude Stein

The German Dadaist, Richard Hülsenbeck, described his world thusly:

“Berlin was a city of tightened stomachs, of mounting, thundering hunger, where hidden rage was transformed into a boundless money lust, and men’s minds were concentrating more and more on questions of naked existence… Fear was in everybody’s bones.”

Sound familiar?

The Dadaists, Surrealists, Existentialists and Absurdists saved our species’ artistic asses while carving out a new space in our understanding of art for daring new forms, which sadly seem commonplace today. Will our generation generate a similar eruption in response to the unprecedented times in which we’ve found ourselves? I really hope so.

Outside my window, the world seems unchanged from where it was a year ago. The grass is green. Trees are just beginning to tease with autumnal blush. Herons fly overhead on their way to the Ten Mile River. Our horses graze, unperturbed. But I can feel it. The thing. It’s out there and it’s terrifying. It taints my every thought. I’ve spoken with other writers and know that I’m not the only one trying to push through this malaise. I have no credible advice. Just keep telling your stories. I’m pretty sure that the world needs us now more than ever, because this fire we so totally started.

Stay safe/Wear a freaking mask/Support the ARTS

Skin and Bone

When my daughter, Blythe Beard-Kitowski, was graduated from SCAD a couple of years ago and moved to NYC, I honestly had no idea how she was filling the hours between auditions and obtaining her Graduate Certificate in Producing at NYU.

Much to my delighted surprise, our Beast Childe was using that time to write several BRILLIANT short horror screenplays!

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One in particular literally took my breath away when she finally allowed me to read it.  Then known as “Untitled Screenplay,” it gave me an intoxicating peek into the fascinating  depths of this mind that Kevin and I helped to create.  I’ve been writing/storytelling all my life, and was literally blown away to be easily smoked by my own child’s short tale of something terrifying stalking a woman in the OLD WEST!  Western Horror!  Brilliant!

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As previously admitted, I’m addicted to all things horror…but so is my child.  Who do you think is sitting right next to me on the couch when the Ghost Bros Show is playing?

I could slip into a long rumination on the horror genre, but this entry is about Blythe, and her now titled screenplay, Skin and Bone.  She’s submitted it to several festivals, where it’s now an official finalist in the short screenplay category.  I think she’s most excited about being selected by the HorrorHaus Film Festival in LA, where Skin and Bone is an: IMG_2214

Brava, my darling Beast Childe!  Good on you for tuning into the organic relationship between horror and the American Old West, which was fairly horrifying, and creating a short film that I would dearly love to see.  Keep gathering Crying Monkeys – and for the love of all that’s holy, DON’T STOP WRITING!

Nice title, by the way…..

 

 

Too Many Words!

I’ve been writing a fantasy series for Young Adult/NewAdult readers for several years.  What a long strange trip it’s been to date.

Making the switch from playwriting to prose was easy…or so I thought.  When I write a play, I overwrite the hell out of it.  It’s so much easier to prune than it is to encourage growth from soil that may well be fallow.  And so, I overwrote the hell out of the first book in my series, The Seven Tears.

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When I finally – and tearfully – typed “The End” and instructed Word to provide me with a word count, I literally screamed.  I knew it was a behemoth, but I had no idea that I had created a beast nearing 165K words.

And so the pruning began.  This is where playwriting and fiction writing go their separate ways.  Cutting a script down to fighting weight is fun, and generally easy.  It’s like the puzzle app that you love to play but don’t tell anyone about because it was designed for kids.  You just clear the extraneous dialogue and make a clear road for the story.  Sooner or later, Bam!  90 pages.  Still more work, but polishing is fun, too.

But a 165k word long YA fantasy?

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For comparison’s sake, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince weighs in at nearly 169K words.  Imagine the work that JK and her editors had to do to get it down to a mere 169k words!

But here’s the deal:  first time authors, like me, don’t get the luxury of presenting huge books to agents/publishers.  When JK was an unknown, random Scottish woman hawking her hand-scribbled story of a young wizard, she was allowed 77K words for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  The next installment in Harry’s story was allowed another 10K words or so, and then the money came in and JK’s gloves came off.  Order of the Phoenix is over 250k words.

So we earn our word count with sales.  Cool…cool.

The story of The Seven Tears took me 165K words to tell.  Figuring out how to legitimately tell my story without sacrificing character development, plot elements, or darlings that I’m simply unwilling to kill, has been a bitch.  I’ve gone to writing conferences, talked to agents, editors, and manuscript “evaluators.”  I’ve forced friends and family to read it.  I’m a member of a great writer’s community, The Hudson Writers Group, who have listened to me read huge swathes of it.  I’ve begged teacher friends to ask their age-appropriate students to read it.

And…I’ve spent a LOT of time just staring at page 1 of the ms. on my computer.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Jocelyn Beard, All Rights Reserved

Since I really want my story to go out into the world and find a life of its own, I listened to all the advice I’ve received, rolled up my sleeves and killed my darlings.  The Seven Tears now weighs in at a somewhat more appropriate 124K words.  It’s as sleek as I can make it.

This process is exhausting and emotionally draining for every writer, no matter which rung of the ladder you occupy.  But for first timers, the next step is to seek representation, or find an indie publisher who will consider an un-agented submission.

Which brings us to: THE QUERY LETTER.

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The best query letter I’ve seen.  Really.

In a single page, you are instructed to entice and amaze.  You’ve got to generate excitement, dazzle, and dare the reader (some poor intern) not to request the first chapter.  You’ve got to make yourself sound like a potential rockstar with more social media savvy than Yvette Nicole Brown.  Worst of all, in a couple of lines, you have to present your yarn in an easy to swallow capsule.  

I have several query letters that I’ve sweated over creating for The Seven Tears.  They all pretty much suck, as I imagine most do.

You can take entire courses on writing the “perfect” query letter.  There are literally thousands of people on-line who will help, for a price, of course.  As the storyteller, however, I feel that it’s a little above my pay grade to jump right in and slap the query letter reader in the face on Monday with a perfectly branded…thing, that can be turned right around and appear on every Kindle by Thursday.  That kind of manufactured excitement is beyond me because I’m still in the process.  I’m 45K words into the sequel.

What I do have to say is pretty simple:

Dear Poor, Undervalued Intern:

Here’s the deal, I’ve written a lot of plays that have done pretty well for themselves and for me.  I’ve turned my storytelling talents to a genre I love: YA Fantasy, and have created an incredibly cool series that will be loved by young women, 15-25 (and probably older) who love the work of Cassandra Clare, Sarah J. Maas, and Leigh Bardugo.

 

My heroine is snarky and smart, my heroes are dark and light, and the world I’ve built is huge and wondrous.  I’d be ever so pleased if you’d consider taking a look at my first chapter.

Sincerely,

Me

PS:  Yes, I’m on Twitter.  Yes, I blog.  Yes, I understand the hellacious amount of on the ground work that will be expected of me, should someone somewhere say, “Yes!”

PPS:  IT’S NOT A FUCKING MERMAID STORY.

Literally every response I’ve gotten to date has said: “Love your writing, but we’re not looking for a mermaid story right now.”  The Seven Tears has ZERO mermaids.  I’ve gone over my query letters in a forensic frenzy, and cannot for the life of me see why anyone’s takeaway would be, “mermaid story.”

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I’ve considered adding this graphic to future query letters.

So to all writers out there who are struggling to navigate through these waters, I salute you.  Now, go back to work!  Whether it knows it or not, the world needs storytellers now more than ever.

As for me, I’m off to attend a meeting of the Hudson Writers Group, where they know the difference between Finfolk and mermaids.  Mermaids have TAILS, for chrissakes!

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The Legend of Spooky Mama

It seems appropriate to end the year with the dark and twisted origin tale of “Spooky Mama.”

Many years ago, my bff, Melette, knowing that Halloween is my favorite holiday, sent me a huge care package filled with a delightful assortment of All Hallow’s goodies.  One item stood out, however.  A pair of socks.  Halloween socks.  The kind of holiday-themed socks that you’d only wear with a holiday-themed sweater.

Black cats, full moons, witches, and ghosts cavorted with wanton abandon on these socks, mocking me with their diabolically cheerful expressions and vivid colors.

At the time, I was in the company of my other bff, Sean Bagley, to whom I held up the socks and said something much like, “What he fuck?”  He slowly took in the socks, one eye twitching like a German sub commander in a WWII film who knows that he and his crew are headed straight for Davey Jones’ Locker, and then shrugged and said: “Melette must think you’re a spooky mama.”

In that instant, I became Spooky Mama to friends and family.  It’s really appropriate in many ways, and as a nickname, I’ve come to own it.

I suspect that people (who know me) find me scary in general.  Possibly because the governor in my brain was dismantled by the Warner Brothers’ Gremlin long ago, and I’m likely to say anything that I believe needs saying.

Another excellent friend, Mike Walsh, once referred to me as “Jozzgul” in an attempt to liken me to the Nazgul which have been terrifying readers of Tolkein since 1954.  I immediately made that my Instagram account name.

Lord knows what other names float around out there to describe me, but know this: I AM the spookiest of Spooky Mamas.

Don’t the the door hit you on the way out, 2017!

I can’t remember looking forward to a year as much as I’m looking forward to 2018.  2017 was like inhabiting every freaking character in Valley of the Dolls simultaneously for many Americans, but no stay at the Betty Ford Clinic will ever help us out of this particular valley.  I’m hitting 2018 hard and fast, first with a journey to Banff and Lake Louise in January with my beast childe, and then going immediately into pre-production on Young Frankenstein, which I’m directing for Theatreworks New Milford.  I’ve decided that the fact that my manuscript for The Seven Tears didn’t come back from it’s first date with an editor Milo-style complete with sarcastic comments that essentially read: “You’re so stupid that I can actually just sit here and type ‘you’re stupid’ over and over again and you still won’t understand that you’re stupid and your ms. is a complete waste of time,” is a good thing.  All my brother and sister writers, can you feel me?   So, Banff, Young Frankenstein (or steen) and completely rewriting my book should take me to – yep right up to 2019!  In the meantime, I’ma hashtag pretty much everything and keep the terriers close, because it’s freaking COLD.

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