Top Nine Posts of 2013

Before 2013 ends, I wanted to highlight what posts I feel most proud of for the year.

Kurzweil’s Future? No thanks . . . : I challenge the assumption that increases in technology will make us happier in the future. While advances in science bring about improvements in our lives, they inevitably create new problems never imagined.

So You Want to Write a Novel . . . : This is my approach to novel writing. I also discuss the challenges writers face when tackling their first novel.

One Dead Child is One Too Many: After the Newtown massacre this year, I felt morally obligated to weigh in on the gun debate.

The Heroic Nude: Attitudes toward the unclothed body have changed drastically throughout history. The Ancient Greek concept of the ‘heroic nude’ helped shape and advance their culture and the human race as a whole.

Who is God?: The title speaks for itself, but the answer is not what people of faith expect, nor quite as simple as what atheists contend.

The Missing Surah: After my trip to Morocco, I reveal how extreme attitudes regarding nudity and the female body in Islamic society harms women.

I am Walter White (and so are you): Of the greatest shows to grace the television screen is also one of the best works of fiction. I weigh in on the character of Walter White and the hit series Breaking Bad.

Amanda Todd, Bullying, and the Power of Naked Shame: In this age of social media, the nudity taboo has become a tool for bullies to use against impressionable teen girls.

Why We Love the Hobbit: I discuss the works of Tolkien but specifically The Hobbit in an attempt to unveil the secret behind its popularity.

The Writer’s Disease: Parting Thoughts of 2013

I am sitting in my wife’s H3 in the parking lot of my kid’s dance studio. As my nine year old daughter practices tap, I suggest to my mother that I sell the restaurant. Her response is typical, the same it has been for the past twenty years,

“What are you going to do when you sell it? How are you going to pay your bills? You’ll starve.”

She knows I hate the restaurant business, hate it with every fiber of my being, and yeah, I know that’s a cliche but nothing is more apt for how I feel. “I’ll have a million dollars, Mom. The restaurant is worth that, at least.” I have no idea if this is true, but I say it anyway.

“You can’t live your whole life on a million dollars.”

“It’s more than most people make in a lifetime. It’s fifty-thousand dollars for twenty years.”

“So what are you going to do your whole life? Nothing?”

This is what infuriates me. She knows that from the time I was six years old, I have only wanted to do one thing. I am embarrassed to have to say it, but do so anyway. “Well, you know, I am going to write.”

“Nobody makes money writing,” she says, even though she has never researched the subject, nor does she know a thing about the publishing industry. I have to pull out my iPhone to show her the numbers.

EL James – $95m Random House; erotic romance
James Patterson – $91m Little, Brown & Co.; crime thrillers
Suzanne Collins – $55m Scholastic Press; YA fiction (sci-fi)
Bill O’Reilly – $28m various publishers; various genre
Danielle Steel – $26m Random House; romance
Jeff Kinney – $24m HarperCollins; children’s
Janet Evanovich – $24m St. Martin’s Press; romance, thriller
Nora Roberts – $23m Penguin Group; romance
Dan Brown – $22m Simon & Schuster; thriller, adventure, mystery, conspiracy
Stephen King – $20m Simon & Schuster; horror
Dean Koontz – $20m HarperCollins; sci-fi, but crossing genres
John Grisham – $18m Knopf Doubleday; legal thriller
David Baldacci – $15m Grand Central; thriller
Rick Riordan – $14 million Disney-Hyperion; fantasy, and detective/mystery
J.K. Rowling – $13 million Bloomsbury; fantasy
George R.R. Martin – $12 million Simon & Schuster; fantasy, horror, and sci-fi

These are the top earners for the year 2013. I give this data to my mother to make a point, but in truth, I could not care less about making it rich and never will. However, I need to make a living, otherwise, I’ll be stuck asking people what they want on their pizza till the day I die.

The problem with my job isn’t how bad it is, even though I half-jokingly posted, Why My Job is the Worst in the World, the reality is that I am a fish out of water, am suffocating. I was meant for other things. Yet here I am, approaching my 40th year, my life’s final chapters. If I cannot make something happen soon, there will be a nihilistic ending to my story; I’ll be an old man bereft of dreams and purpose, forced into an unbearable existence that never suited me. Whatever the agents and publishers may think of me or my queries, I know one thing with certainty, I was meant to write, goddamnit. People not meant to write do not wake up looking for their smart phones to keep sentences from becoming fleeting memories. People not meant to write do not become physically ill (I am not kidding) due to lack of writing. Stories collect in my brain like tumors that I can only expunge via word processor.

I am like Frodo Baggins at the foot of Mount Doom, except that this mountain is called Apathy. Mount Apathy is full of naysayers and disbelievers, like my parents, and people who say things like, “Well, you have to get lucky to succeed in that,” or “You have to know the right people.” Like the orcs and goblins of Middle Earth, there are caverns of those who simply do not care to even acknowledge me. My best friends never bring it up, nor does anyone in my family. Nobody believes that greatness can come from someone they know. The Tolkiens and Rowlings of the world live far away, in distant lands—they cannot be born in the same neighborhood you grew up in. My fifteen year old nephew, excited by the Desolation of Smaug, told me this Christmas, “Isn’t it amazing how one guy came up with all that?” to which I had to reply, “What the fuck do you think I do?” When people grow up to realize that they are not special, even though they were taught by their parents and teachers that they were and could become anything they wanted (the Disney motto: Dreams Come True!), when people give up dreaming for more “realistic” ambitions, they secretly detest those who persevere, who keep climbing despite life’s many many many disappointments. Like the corrupted elves, they become dark opposites of the things they once held dear.

Last week I was inspired by The Silmarillion, not by the story itself, which is a great pseudo-mythology on par with any real world mythology, but by the fact that Tolkien worked on it until his death at age 81. That’s what I hope to be doing in the year 2056, sitting at my laptop or virtual reality dictating computer, working on Aenya. The best part is, Tolkien never lived to see The Silmarillion in print, and yet he believed enough to dedicate his life to it.

This sets me apart, I think, because I do not wish to become the next pulp novelist, a Stephen King or Danielle Steele. I have heard of people who do not even write books, only query letters. Once an agent takes an interest in an idea, they spend the next few months shelling out a book to match it. Other people watch the publishing market like literary stock brokers for what’s trending. If vampire romance is all the rage, they’ll be churning out vampire romances; being a novelist simply becomes a matter of supply meeting demand. While that would make my job infinitely less laborious, it has nothing to do with why I want/need to write.

Looking at my bookshelf, I see The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Dune and The Golden Compass, to name a few. What do these have in common? Nothing. As much as agents want to reduce my art to a set of guidelines, the true greats of literature, the outliers, defy convention. I will go so far as to argue that guidelines create inferior fiction specifically because, by taking the roots of the word “guide” and “line”, it narrows what a writer can do and what a story can be. This is why so many modern books look and feel the same, because they are all born of the same mold. No agent in his right mind would have ever approved of The Silmarillion had it not been written by Tolkien, which is why it’s a masterpiece and a joy, a thing to inspire, just as the even less conventional H.P. Lovecraft continues to inflame the imagination of writer-hopefuls decades after his death. I have little interest in entertainment for the sake of entertaining, in distracting people from their everyday lives. Rather, I want what all great art does and all great artists do. I want to change people.

Look at any blog and you will almost universally find the same trend: a slow decline in the number of posts written. More often than not, the blogger starts off strong, with fifty to a hundred posts their first year, and it might go up the second, but by the third year reality sets in. Nobody cares! Nobody is reading this! The comments section is empty! Sadly, blogs don’t last beyond four to five years. They fizzle; they fade; you may see one post from 2010 and nothing after. The blogs that continue strong into their 5th years and beyond are those of successful people: authors with book deals, working agents, etc. When I consider the faith with which successful people pursue their dreams, I am inspired, and realize that if Dostoyevsky or Herman Melville (two authors who no doubt suffered from the writer’s disease) were living in this day and age, their blogs would not fade out like so many others do.

To overcome Mount Apathy, you must have faith. This is where the atheists have it wrong, because sometimes, to achieve something remarkable, you need to believe in your own vision when no one else does, to believe what no one else can see or hear. Currently, I am working on, what I feel to be, my most important work, The Princess of Aenya, an adventure story with action, drama, a princess, a unicorn, and many crazy imaginative things and places; but beyond that, I explore themes of moral ambiguity, redemption, spirituality and religion, and the conflict between a cynical outlook on life and a more idealistic one. I am excited by the results and am already planning new artwork. On top of that, I have started to collaborate with lyrical poets from deviantArt in an attempt to capture an old world tone. If you would like to participate in this project, you can sign up to become a Beta Reader.

Unless I die prematurely, or Google discontinues Blogger, The Writer’s Disease is here to stay, up until 2056, when, as Tolkien with The Silmarillion, I’ll be hard at work, perhaps, on some obscure Aenya reference book. If my blog has a theme, it must be this: There are no paths to greatness, no set formula, no guidelines, there is only the indomitable spirit of writers cursed with the need to write.

    

Why We Love the Hobbit

I actually had this post dated since last year to coincide with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My intent was to explore people’s love for Tolkien and his work, which includes The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. One of my jobs as a writer is to figure out why people enjoy certain stories. But more than anyone I can think of, Tolkien stands out, because he has inspired writers and spawned imitators like no other. While people adore Harry Potter, outside of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, there are not nearly as many boy wizards gracing book covers as elves and dragons. I do not wish to besmirch anyone of my profession, but a particularly successful and prolific author, who I will simply call not-Tolkien, penned a novel about a human, dwarf, elf and a halfling (a small beardless dwarf) embarking on a quest to find the lost home of the dwarves, a mine abandoned after a dragon moved in. If that’s not plagiarism, I don’t know what is! And yet agents and editors continue to give the Tolkien wannabes freedom to Xerox. Tolkien’s greatness so overshadows the fantasy genre, publishers seem to be falling over themselves in a rush to make more of it. My question, ultimately, is why? In 2012, I looked to find an answer, and gave up.

On strictly literary terms, The Hobbit is unremarkable. While charmingly written, it’s no Shakespeare; the plot is intentionally simplistic, as it was intended for children; there is no symbolism nor grand literary themes like you might find in the classics; and even the characters are fairly one-dimensional, with the exception of Bilbo Baggins, who has only a slight a character arc. In the nine-hour documentary accompanying The Hobbit Blu-Ray, Peter Jackson admits that the greatest challenge to making the film was giving the twelve dwarves interesting and distinct personalities, for which I have to ask, wasn’t that Tolkien’s job? How can there be so much love for a book and its author when its twelve main characters are clones of one another? Snow White’s seven dwarfs had distinct personalities for Middle Earth’s sake!

Some people say that Tolkien, as the father of modern fantasy, can be excused of his literary failings, but the genre dates back to Homer, and continued through the middle ages with the Arabian Nights, the Viking and Finnish sagas, and moved on to the Grimm’s Brothers. Shakespeare had a hand in it, as did Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote John Carter in 1912. Other fantasists who predate Tolkien include H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Conan creator Robert Howard (1906-1936).

The greatest praise for Tolkien, of course, regards the obsessive detail with which he created his world. Being a linguist and professor at Oxford, Tolkien was in a unique position to create an alphabet for the races of Middle Earth, not to mention all the wonderfully phonetic names and places. This ushered in an age of “world-building”. To this day, fantasy writers feel it necessary to invent new languages for their characters, whether they know anything about linguistics or not, and the genre has suffered as a result. When Tolkien developed elf speech, it was a sincere effort, but when others do it, it feels contrived and derivative. The same pretty much goes for any elf or dwarf novel I have read (14 and counting). In my view, if you’re going to write about elves, you better have a pretty clever idea for it, otherwise, why not re-read The Lord of the Rings? Fantasy is supposed to free our imaginations, not limit us to Anglo-European mythology. After reading a good book, readers should feel transported, not scratching their heads going, “Oh, this author sure liked Lord of the Rings.” This is not to say that Tolkien’s contribution to the genre is all bad. On the plus side, there is a greater pressure among us writers to create worlds that are convincing. While it is far from necessary to turn every novel into a pseudo-history, it’s a powerful thing when a world is written as though some history predated it. So, has this attention to detail made Tolkien beloved the world over? I don’t think so. If that were the case, the many authors emulating him, some of whom are better story tellers, would be better known.

What sets The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings apart is that they do not feel invented. They fall under a special category I like to call found stories; like Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Tolkien does not seem to have invented Middle Earth so much as dug it up from his backyard. For this reason, it is impossible to imitate him and get the same results, because any imitation, by its very nature, loses that sense of discovery. But people love the worlds of Tolkien, I think, for the same reasons they love Dungeons & DragonsWorld of Warcraft, Dragon Age or Skyrim. Watching Jackson’s The Hobbit, I could not help but feel inspired by the stirring music and sweeping landscapes. The story touches an integral part of our identity as human beings, bringing about what we have long forgotten but yearn to remember, a shared collective memory of swords and wizards and monsters, from a mythical past that never was. Robert Holdstock, author of Mythago Wood, calls these hidden cultural memories mythagos. But this isn’t magic I’m talking about. Doubtless there is quite a bit of paleo-psychology at work. People shown paintings of open landscapes feel a sense of comfort, because our ancestors felt more secure in such places. Goblins, orcs and trolls are remarkably human, terrifying us because they conjure latent fears of our human-like enemies, like the Neanderthal. Wargs are nothing more than nightmarish versions of wolves. More importantly, as a species, we have always been nomadic. How else could we have colonized every niche and corner of the globe? It is not in our natures to sit at home, reaping the rewards of money and progress, but to wander new frontiers, go searching for new challenges to overcome. In this twenty-first century, we have lost a great deal due to the fact that there are no more Middle Earths to discover. We feign contentment, like Bilbo Baggins sitting at home, but what we really yearn for is a Gandalf to come knocking inviting us to adventure.