yes I can

I got an interesting email the other day. And although I’ve hemmed and hawed about whether or not to share this, I decided to do so because I suspect others might benefit from my experience.

The note was from someone who claims to be an editor. Someone I know of through social media. Someone who had, on the advice of “high ranking writers” — we have ranks? I had no idea! are there medals? sashes? a dental plan? — decided to take a chance and see if this new guy — me! — is as good as they said he is.

The verdict?

I suck.

And, in their opinion, not only do I suck, but my work was LITERALLY unreadable. (Btw, that was in ALL CAPS in the email, so I REALLY feel the need to be consistent) Like, they couldn’t EVEN — again, ALL CAPS — get four pages in before they threw it across the room.

Now, what’s interesting about this isn’t the criticism — it comes with the job and I’ve heard much worse — it’s the list they kindly offered me.

Yes! A list!

Whoops, forgive me. I meant THE LIST. You know, a gentle reminder of what I can and cannot do as a writer. A little something to help me out — paraphrasing here — before I go back to school and take a ton of seminars and learn how to actually write a book, etc and so on.

So, this list of “Can’ts” included

  • I can’t structure my sentences the way I do
  • I can’t break formatting and ignore punctuation
  • I can’t ever, ever begin a chapter with dialogue
  • I can’t blend past and present in a narrative
  • I can’t ever start a chapter in the middle of action.

It was a very generous list. An exhaustive list. I needed a cookie and a nap after navigating, like a less-ambitious, slightly disinterested version of Marco Polo, this list. A great deal of thought went into this list.

Toward the end of THE LIST I found myself envying their free time.

Of course I responded and thanked them for writing and wished them well. I did not apologize for my work and I did not apologize for the way I write.

Because my answer to that list of Can’ts is

Yes I Can.

Again, the criticism is not the issue. Art is subjective and, hey, everyone has their own opinion. What I do is sometimes unique and it won’t always be to everyone’s liking. And that’s okay! No harm, no foul, right?

I’m just gonna do what I do regardless because it’s who I am.

What is the issue is an industry – which this person had decided to speak for, I guess – that actively bemoans everything sounding the same and the lack of new voices taking risks and then, when someone does find the courage to throw a curve ball, smacks them down because it breaks their rules. Raps them on the knuckles, brands them with the He Can’t Write label and pushes them to the back of the line until they “learn how to do it right.”

Well, even if it slows my ascent, I’ve never really paid attention to the rules. Hell, I can’t imagine a life (which is limiting enough, thank you very much) where I choose to limit MYSELF by quieting my voice by following rules.

Because you know what?

Those who do well, and I mean those who do well enough to break down walls, destroy boundaries and flip the script when it comes to how society see things, don’t do so by following the rules. They know the rules, understand the rules, know the limits and have worked within the limits. They’ve mastered building castles in that sand box and now spend their lives slowly pushing, testing, forcing these rules to stretch and bend and change.

But when they do this they put a target on their backs for all those armed with Lists lying in wait to bury them in an avalanche of Can’ts. And they endure that, all while paving the way to Freedom for everyone else. They go unread and misunderstood and discarded so the next crop can come in to find those earlier boundaries changed. And these new voices then build their castles in a bigger, somehow better sandbox.

Those who, supported by the rules, then decide to break them do this understanding the path they’re agreeing to walk. But do so anyway because their need to create the way THEY want to is stronger than their desire to be the Flavor of the Month.

So, if I write something that’s roundly rejected by Those Who Follow the Rules, that’s fine.

No, really. It is.

Listen, I have a voice, a unique voice, which often results in interesting stories uniquely told. That’s not going to change and if the bending and breaking of those rules disturbs someone’s sensibilities, I’m okay with that.

Because, truth be told, I spend my days surrounded by people telling me No, You Can’t. And, every day, week after week, year after year, my answer has been and will always be

Yes, I Can.

the hungry shadows of deepest dark

Occasionally, just occasionally, someone will pepper me with questions for which occasionally, just occasionally, I’ll offer somewhat cogent, intelligent, dare I say “witty” answers.

This was one of those times.

What attracted you to writing horror?

In my opinion, horror lets you write your own rules. I can create a haunting something out of a forgettable nothing in horror. A speck of dust, a loose thread, a glance in the mirror. In other genres, those everyday things are just that: everyday things. In horror, at least for me, they’re jumping off points for the total unraveling of a life, of one’s sanity, of one’s grip on reality.  For me, they’re the necessary first step into the hungry shadows of deepest dark.

For the rest of this fascinating — occasionally, just occasionally — read, head on over here.

You’ll also see why I believe my friends Paul Tremblay, Lucy Snyder, Josh Malerman, Mercedes Murdock Yardley, Brian Kirk, Lisa Mannetti and Chesya Burke are writers to watch and read and get to know.

Because, as I also said,

in my opinion, the more I dig, the more I realize we’re in a bit of a Golden Age when it comes to fantastic writers.

Yeah, I know, right? Good stuff!

So, take a look, have a read and enjoy.🙂

Jonathan-Interview(Sept16)

Jonathan Winn is a screenwriter as well as the author of Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast (Crystal Lake Publishing), the full-length novels Martuk … the Holy (A Highlight of the Year, 2012 Papyrus Independent Fiction Awards), Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche (Top Twenty Horror Novels of 2014, Preditors & Editors Readers Poll), the upcoming Martuk … the Holy: Shayateen and The Martuk Series, an ongoing collection of short fiction inspired by Martuk …

In addition to Forever Dark, his award-winning short story in Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2, his work can also be found in Horror 201: The Silver Scream and Writers on Writing, Vol. 2, all from Crystal Lake Publishing.

 

where the big stories are

I recently ran across an interesting – albeit brief – read about the current state of Hollywood. In it, the writers says

Part of Hollywood’s current decay was unavoidable. As a monoculture splintered permanently into niche groups, the idea of a film everybody sees and everybody can’t stop talking about fades further into the cultural past. The rise of cable networks willing to spend serious money on shows like “Game of Thrones” further dents Hollywood’s ability to be the main supplier of big stories.

The article then goes on to discuss how the business model they’ve created has painted them in a corner where heartfelt sincerity is out, out, out and big, big, big profits are in, in, in. Where audiences have, when it comes to summer movie-watching fare, either this superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved -or not) or that superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved – or not).

And if the superhero movies are all basically interchangeable and easily forgotten, where’s the magic in going to the movies? Short answer: there is none. Which is why people are staying home and watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or whatever.

Now, I understand the financial logistics of this. I know foreign markets (China, Russia, Israel, Germany) drive profit. That Hollywood, being a global business – as in the whole world and not just America, a fact we somehow forget here in the States – isn’t necessarily making movies just for the domestic audience which, in truth, feed less and less into their bottom lines.

Really, though, Hollywood knows films that are heavy on action, explosions, dudes in capes and light on dialogue are easily translatable for Chinese, Russian, German audiences. And if your business is making money – and Hollywood’s is – a film that translates easily regardless of borders is, or could be, the way to go.

But they’re forgetting one important fact. They’re ignoring the one thing that makes it harder and harder to get those butts in the seats:

Where are the big stories?

Really. Where’s the frickin’ magic? Why go to the movies anymore? Where’s that one film that slyly incorporates those special effects audiences love while giving us characters audiences care about, feel for and never forget? Because that’s the film this industry needs. Desperately.

Being the relentless optimist I am, I strongly believe you can have action and magic in a film without relinquishing heart and soul.

If you revisit franchises like Harry Potter or even The Hunger Games, those movies ticked a lot of boxes. Centered around strong narratives – remember those? – they both successfully blended the fantastic with emotion. They married action with heart. And they gave audiences necessary, important battles without abandoning reason or hope. Cities didn’t need to crumble, the universe didn’t need to quake and thousands of cars didn’t have to get trampled underfoot for those films to make their point and make an impact on audiences.

You see? If you have a true big story – not just a loud story – you can go simple. If you’re supported by a strong narrative peopled with unique, relatable characters, you can be quiet. And if those people are imbued with hope, heartache, anger, fear, helplessness, frustration, loneliness, doubt, strength, the story they tell, even without the predictable Armageddon, will be unforgettable.

Why? Because no matter how different that person on the screen is from those in the audience, they’ll be speaking the same language. A language which doesn’t rely on translation or destruction or annihilation. A language that can be felt in a place deeper than words.

Emotion.

If you really want to find the big stories in today’s Hollywood, the stories audiences are truly craving – reminder: everyone’s staying home watching cable — that’s where you begin. With what people feel. And if you can bring to life a solid story with a character who is blessed – or cursed – with the impossible and yet is still driven by their hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, disappointments and dread, a person driven by their emotions, that’s where audiences will go. In fact, that’s where audiences will go again and again and again.

I believe if you can reach into someone’s heart, speak to that part of them that wants to feel – it’s why we go to the movies, right? – and reawaken that innate hope we all have being part of something bigger while still entertaining, still dazzling, still scaring and surprising them, they’ll come. They’ll leave their homes, come to the theater, make a night of it and see that film. They will. We’ve seen it happen before. And, god willing, we’ll see it happen again.

But that journey has to begin with the heart.

Because that’s where the big stories are.

 

the importance of people

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t have a lot of people in my life. We writers — heads low, fingers poised over the keyboard, eyes watching (if we’re lucky) all those words skitter across the screen — are usually a quiet bunch. More often than not, our days are spent in silence creating other worlds because that’s what our work demands. Friends, conversation, interaction? For me, it’s often done via email and text. And that’s just how it is.

Again, it’s the nature of the work we do.

So what happens when that work fails you? When the words don’t come? When that silent world you so rely on retreats into shadow?

What happens when you have to look up from your keyboard?

Now, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit this because I have an article published about how to handle this and, because of that, am supposed to be some sort of “expert.” (I’m not) But there I was, the words gone, the sentences resisting, the stories refusing to leave the safety of being single sentence concepts. My doubts about my talent and future and career growing with each passing minute, hour, day, week…month. And having tried every dang trick in the book (see link above) to snap the cycle, I was still at a loss.

So I did something I never do: I reached out.

Yeah, I reached out. To my publisher. To my teeny-tiny circle of real life friends (I can count them on one hand). My entertainment attorney. Even to other writers I know only via social media.

I reached out and said “help”

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Heck, people do it all the time. But I’m not “people” and that’s something I rarely, if ever, do. Like most in my business, I’m self-sustaining and used to pulling myself up by my own boot straps. To show doubt is to show weakness. And in those choppy Hollywood waters, that’s akin to planting your butt in the middle of the buffet table next to the carving knife.

So to do this took chutzpah, it took courage, it took a willingness to admit that, Hey, I’m at a loss and I’m not sure I have the strength to do what I need to do. Doing this took a small, but necessary, admittance of defeat.

And it made all the difference.

How so? Because I reached out and others reached back. They reached back! I know, right? They — well, most of them, anyway — met me in the middle. Showed me I wasn’t alone. Showed me I was cared about and, in some way, mattered. That my work, my words, still mattered.

Point is, when everything else fails, when all those tips and tricks come up short and you’re still left stranded on Writer’s Block Island (also known as Hell Adjacent), reach out.

Just reach out. The answer may be there. Or maybe not. But at least you’ll be reminded that you’re not alone, that people care and, heck, sometimes that small touch of humanity is all you need.

Writing alone doesn’t mean you have to BE alone.

So, reach out.