Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Living La Vida Sitcom

We may need to tweak the definition of reality TV. I’m beginning to think reality has become television, and that I’m living in a sitcom.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound too bad. You get to have a bunch of zany friends and hijinks are always ensuing. People speak in witty one-liners, the day ends with all the plot threads wrapped up in a bow, somebody delivers a closing zinger and we all fade out on a laugh. Sounds like the good life, huh?

Not quite. Consider, if you will, the dark side of the sitcom: no matter what happens to you, good or bad, there’s always a reversal, so that at the end of thirty minutes (or twenty, if you’re zapping the commercials) everything has reset to zero and you’re right back where you started.

That might be okay for the Bundys and the Simpsons and Jerry Seinfeld and his posse, but some of us might want to improve our lot in life. That’s tough to do when life’s rubber band keeps snapping you back to square one. That’s the sitcom formula. Nothing changes. Nobody falls behind, but nobody gets ahead, either.

For those of you who read my post about my adventures in the workplace (“T Minus 36 and Counting”), that’s what I’m talking about. My entire work history consists of a series of jobs that started out great, went bad and then ended, usually in layoff, within an average of two to three years. This happened regardless of position, company or industry. At one point I had a home typing job for a local printing company, a stringer job for a business newspaper, and had just gotten my foot in the door at a greeting card company, all at the same time. Within two years the greeting card freelancing dried up (I think they got bought out by a larger company) and the typing job went to India. I tried to go full-time with the newspaper but they wouldn’t hire me. I ended up having to start over at a full-time job that was totally different from all three of the jobs I’d been doing. Typical sitcom plotting, except this is my life.

(In fact, sitcom families have it better. Sitcom dads work at dead-end jobs that still somehow pay enough for them to own a house, two cars and raise a family even though the wife doesn’t work, and they manage to hang on to these jobs no matter how incompetent they are. I can toss off one-liners and be incompetent. Why can’t I get these jobs?)

It even goes beyond work. True-life adventure: Several years ago I was sitting at a red light when a kid who wasn’t paying attention rear-ended my car. Cost to repair the car: $150. Payout from the kid’s insurance company: $1700. (This is why your insurance rates are so high.) Even after getting the car fixed, that was still well over $1000 in my pocket. Party time!

Um, no. Soon after the check arrived I developed pain in my jaw. My teeth had turned on me. I ended up needing a double root canal, to the tune of $1300. Between that, fixing my car, and paying the rent that month, I actually lost money on the deal. No party for me. This is a sitcom. Everything has to go back to exactly the way it started.

It just happened again. I’ve blogged about my recent financial luck: a hefty tax return, bonus work from my current freelance employer, royalties from recent ebooks. That was last month. The tax return went to pay my last fuel bill of the snow season, and the extra money I got from writing-related work got eaten up by the medical bills incurred from a doctor visit and tests for what turned out to be acid reflux. (Quickie side rant: one of those bills was for “discharge.” I assume that means discharging me from the hospital. My “stay” lasted for roughly an hour, while they were taking the X-rays. They charged me $45 to tell me they were done and I could leave. I thought health care reform was supposed to stop things like that. What exactly did Obamacare “reform”?) I never got the chance to get even a little ahead. I’m right back where I started.

That’s it. I’m done with sitcoms. I’m jumping ship over to episodic dramas. Get myself a story arc where I come out the winner. Better still, a miniseries. Those tend to end on an upbeat note, with the implication the protagonist goes on to a better life. I don’t live in Hollywood, so I stand a better-than-average change of landing a happy ending.

As long as I don’t get canceled. Then it’s syndication and reruns into eternity. No thanks. Been there, done that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Idea Machine

Where do you get your ideas?

If you’re a writer, or trying to be, sooner or later some wide-eyed civilian is going to ask you this. The standard answers are, “Everywhere,” “I don’t know, they just come to me,” or “Schenectady.” (This last is a famous joke among science-fiction writers. I believe it was Harlan Ellison who started telling fans he got shipments of ideas from some guy in Schenectady in exchange for a monthly fee. SF fans, who on the whole have no sense of humor, started demanding the guy’s address. I’ll bet some enterprising person in New York State made himself quite a mint with that scam before he got found out.)

For myself, I’m going to have to go with answer #2, or maybe a combo of #2 plus #1, because sometimes I honestly don’t know. I’ll be reading something, or watching TV, or overhear something while standing in line at the supermarket, and all of a sudden I’ve got a new character or plot.

Sometimes nothing happens with these creative snippets. I jot them down in a notebook for resurrection when I have a dry spell. Either I get back to them or I don’t. Sometimes the idea demands I go to work on it right friggin’ now, and I end up writing the story. Sometimes a couple of these ideas mash up together and create a whole new story.

The requisite examples: I’m currently on the second draft of a mashup story. A couple years back I toyed with the idea of a M/M romance between a rancher and a shapeshifter posing as a mustang. Nothing came of it until last year when I was trying to get a romance between two motorcycle enthusiasts to gel. It didn’t work until I made one of them a werehorse with a love of bikes. I made his boyfriend an ex-Army man suffering from survivor’s guilt and it practically wrote itself.

In another case I was reading an interview with a comic-book writer and how his childhood obsession with the Wild West, Wyatt Earp and Universal’s monster movies eventually morphed into the Wynona Earp comic and TV series currently airing on SyFy. Out of nowhere I got a flash of a comic book writer/artist with a crush on his neighbor who uses the guy as the model for a superhero character. The comic book takes off, much to the neighbor’s chagrin. I’ll get to that when I’m done with the other six ideas I’ve got waiting their turns.

Sometimes it gets weird. I’ve been reading a lot of ménage and erotica lately as part of my freelance job. In one book a restaurant owner offers the BDSM heroes banana splits, “made special, just the way you like them.” Instantly I pictured big mounds of ice cream with nipple clamps on the cherries. I didn’t say all my ideas were good ones. This one’s good enough for a laugh on the Shapeshifter Seductions blog, where it will be appearing tomorrow.

I’m beginning to think some people are just wired this way, to be idea machines. Their brains mis-hear words, make jumps in logic, smoosh non-related notions together and create something entirely new. How many dozens of patents did Edison file in his lifetime? Or Da Vinci. Did the man ever sleep?

Closer to home we’ve got the legendary Jack Kirby. If you’ve seen a Marvel movie in the last five years, you’ve seen Kirby’s creations on screen. Thor. Iron Man. The Fantastic Four. Captain America. The Hulk. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Ant-Man. The Black Panther, comicdom’s first black superhero, is about to make his big-screen debut in Civil War. He first appeared in the Fantastic Four comic, as did Galactus, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom, and the Inhumans (who Marvel is pushing until they can get back the film rights to the X-Men—another Kirby co-creation, by the way). Not Spider-Man, though. That was Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Although it’s rumored Kirby may have helped design Spidey’s costume.

You want to see an idea machine running at full throttle? Look at Kirby’s output during the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m pretty sure he never slept either.

It’s debatable how many of these concepts were Stan Lee’s or created in conjunction with Lee, and how many may have been pure Kirby. But consider this: Kirby left Marvel for DC in the 1970s. While at DC, Kirby debuted his “Fourth World” series—four different comic books, each with their own brand-new characters and concepts, that when read together told one huge, overarcing story, something unheard-of back then. He also did a couple other new books on the side. Stan Lee did not create any new characters for Marvel after Kirby left. Eventually he moved into the publisher’s chair and stopped writing altogether.

I’m not saying all Kirby’s ideas were good ones. And his execution sometimes left a lot to be desired. His writing, for instance. Kirby’s dialogue tended to be “stiff” and “stilted,” with a lot of phrases in “quotation marks,” which made the “word balloons” look like “this.” Like William Shatner talking, but in prose. As an artist, he set the standard for years. As a creator, he was more prolific than anyone this side of God. As a writer … eh. They can’t all be winners, folks.

That’s the other problem with ideas. You can’t always go with the first one that pops into your head. Sometimes they just need to sit and ferment for awhile. You may have to mix two or three together in order to create a plot or characters that work. Or maybe the idea’s okay, it’s your execution of it that’s not working. Hand that one off to a writing friend and move on to something else.

If your idea machine’s running, you won’t have to worry about running out of inspiration. In fact, you could make yourself a nice little sideline selling the extras to aspiring writers, like that guy in Schenectady. I’ve got a dozen ideas right here to get you started. Just send me $10.95 every month …

Monday, April 11, 2016


I wasn’t planning on watching Fox’s new crime show Lucifer. And not because I have any moral objections to the Devil being portrayed in a positive light. Bad guys are usually the most interesting characters in any given fictional story (see: Darth Vader). My problems with the show stemmed from the pilot, where Lucifer confronts a dying shooter who’s just murdered an old friend of his and fails to ask the most obvious question: Who hired you? Yeah, the show would have been over in the first ten minutes, but that’s no excuse for a lapse in common sense. Besides, I prefer the version of Lucifer on Supernatural, where he’s a deliciously over-the-top bad guy. Currently Misha Collins is playing him, doing his best Mark Pellegrino impression, which only adds to the fun. Last week we got both Misha and Mark, playing the same guy. Wins all around.

So I figured I wouldn’t be tuning in to the crime-busting, semi-good guy version of Satan any more, unless I heard the writing got better. Then another week rolled around. I wanted to watch TV and nothing better was on. The writing hadn’t improved by much, but the actor’s cute and he has a British accent. That’s enough to rope in most women, me included. Though I still prefer Supernatural’s Satan. Maybe the networks will do a crossover.

While we’re waiting for that, allow me to clue you in on a little something I noticed about the show’s credits, and who’s getting paid—and who probably isn’t—for this.

Fox’s Lucifer is an adaptation of a DC Comics/Vertigo title. Yep, the Lord of Lies had his own comic book series for a while. He was HQ’d in Vegas in that one, which makes more sense for the Devil than the Los Angeles of the TV show. I didn’t read the comic, so I don’t know who came up with the idea, or who the originating writer and artist were. (Note: It was writer Neil Gaiman who introduced Luci in the Sandman comic. Thank you, Internet!)

Familiar with how comic book creators tend to get the shaft when characters they created get the big-screen (and big-bucks-earning) treatment, I kept a close eye on the opening credits. There’s the usual cluster of producers, the episode writer and the director. And a single “Developed for TV by” credit for somebody. No “Lucifer created by” credit for the original writer and artist. Not even a “Based on the comic created by” or “Inspired by” credits anywhere I could see. Maybe the acknowledgement to the original creators is crammed into the closing credits, which flash by at Warp Factor 12. There’s an eyeblink shot of the DC and Vertigo logos right at the tail end of the closing credits. That’s the only hint you get that the show started life as a comic book.

Something tells me the original writer and artist aren’t getting paid for this. That happens a lot in the industry, especially now that comic book adaptations into movies and TV have turned out to be so lucrative. All those billions of dollars generated by Supes and Bats and Spidey and all their amazing superfriends have to go into somebody’s pocket, and somehow it never seems to be the creators’.

Which could be tricky in Lucifer’s case, seeing as how he was created by God.

Maybe that’s the excuse they’re using. “We can’t pay you for creating the comic because you didn’t create the character.” True. Lucifer previously appeared in another famous book. The Lucifer in the Vertigo comic is too derivative of that character to earn royalties for his creators. (This excuse was actually used in regards to the Barbara Kean character on Gotham. Here’s what Babs’ creator, Alan Brennert, has to say about it.)

So that’s why there are no creator credits on the show. Though a “Lucifer created by God” credit would have been polite.

Which leads to other problems. You get on-screen credit, you’re owed money. That’s why these credits are so important. If God created the show’s lead character, shouldn’t He be getting a cut of the take? Where would you send the royalty checks? The Vatican? Does the Lord have direct deposit? We know for a fact He’s got tons of cloud storage, but what about a bank account? There’s also that Lucifer on Supernatural. Is God double-dipping with his characters?

But aha, say the corporate lawyers. The Bible was produced before copyright laws. The Bible and all its contents are in the public domain. This particular version of Lucifer is copyrighted and the property of Time-Warner. We can do whatever the hell we want with him, pardon the pun, and we don’t owe You a cent.

So God, creator of everything, doesn’t get jack squat. He winds up in a bar on the outskirts of Hollywood, where Alan Brennert buys Him a beer. “Welcome to the world,” says Alan.

Now that’s true evil. You don’t suppose Lucifer is on the board of directors at Time-Warner, do you?

I know for a fact he works for Disney. Everybody works for Disney.

Now the question arises: what happens if Lucifer gets cancelled? Will it trigger the apocalypse? Will the world end? Will Mark Pellegrino and the guy who plays the Devil on Fox have to fight it out? Either way, the writers and artists and deities who created the heroes and anti-heroes we’re watching won’t see so much as a dime. Remember, kiddies, always read a contract all the way through and make sure you understand all the clauses before you sign your rights away. Don’t let this happen to you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Here We Go Again

Let me start off by saying it’s not my intention to single-handedly bring diversity to the world of M/M romance. Or romance in general. Or any genre currently dominated by straight white characters. I myself am straight and white, so that’s my default position. As with a lot of businesses and institutions in the U.S. of A., publishing tends to be dominated by straight white people. I almost wrote “men,” but I recall reading somewhere that there are more women than men involved in the publishing industry, at least in editorial. Somehow I suspect it’s a man sitting in the CEO’s chair. It usually is. Men are obsessed with sex and money, while women would rather read a book. That’s right, sweetie, she’s faking it. You’re nowhere near as good as she’s making you think you are.

That’s neither here nor there, however. We’re talking about diversity.

There’s been some squawk among readers and writers about all the straight white males that populate popular literature. Where are the gay, bi, and trans characters? Where are the people of color? Where’s the Asian trans bodybuilder and the asexual black queen of the fantasy realm? I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, but if so, they’re minor characters. The leads and their circles of friends are still predominantly white.

A glaring example: DC Comics. The characters they’re now trying to make billions with in movies were created back in the 1940s. Take a look at any copy of Justice League from the 1960s, during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and you’ll behold a sea of white faces. (Okay, Martian Manhunter’s green, but when he changed form to fake humanity he changed into a white guy.) They tried to course-correct in the ‘90s cartoon by including the John Stewart (a black guy) version of Green Lantern, but now that a Justice League movie is looming on the horizon they’re reverting back to whitebread Hal Jordan. Cyborg, formerly of the Teen Titans, is now part of the Justice League as their sole black member. Welcome to tokenism, Vic.

Marvel Comics has it a bit easier. They came of age in the 1960s, with younger, hipper creators than stodgy old DC. They’ve always had racial diversity. Joe Robertson, editor of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man comics, was always a black guy. Marvel had the first black superhero (Black Panther, born in Africa) and the first African-American superhero (the Falcon). Okay, there was Wong, Dr. Strange’s Asian servant, but nobody talks about him. And Nick Fury wasn’t always Samuel L. Jackson. He used to be a white guy. And almost every prominent character in the first Avengers movie, with the exception of Mr. Jackson and Ms. Johannsen, was white, male, and supposedly straight. (Loki has been a woman in the comics, so he gets a pass.) I never said the system didn’t have its glitches.

The point is, pretty much everybody populating those thousands of books in the Barnes & Noble is a straight white person, probably male. The readers buying those books, however, run the entire gamut of the racial and sexual spectrum. They want to see characters that reflect who they are. Can you blame them?

Just try to swerve off the straight white path if you’re a straight white writer, however. Publishers will smell the possibility of a lawsuit on your manuscript and email it right back to you. Apparently only people of color or different sexual orientation can safely write about characters of same. Then they’re told there’s no market for their books, and the status quo perpetuates itself.

True story: a straight, white male writer of children’s books wrote a story about a biracial boy. It was rejected by the publishers he sent it to, and word leaked back to him the reason for all the nos was because he, the writer, was a white guy. Here’s the kicker: his wife is black. His son is biracial. So it’s okay for him to raise a biracial kid but not to write about one. A point he publicly raised at a publishing conference, in front of an audience and panelists that was mostly white.

What does all this have to do with me and my M/M stories? Nothing, usually. I stick to my Caucasian comfort zone. Except when I find I don’t have a choice.

Like now.

I’ve written black characters before. My last ménage had a brown-skinned lead character, but the book took place on an alien planet so he slid under the radar. I work the system by not calling attention to any character’s race. I’ll drop in a couple of hints that suggest a different ethnicity and let the readers picture them any way they want to.

The problem reared its head when I started my current WIP, which involves a circus populated by shapeshifters. I work on the theory that a shapeshifter’s human ethnicity is determined by their animal form’s continent of origin. Shapeshifters can’t stay animal all the time. They have to blend in with the human population. Therefore a tiger’s human form will be Indian, wolves will be white European or Native American, and horses will be white European, or maybe Arabian. Simple evolutionary survival.

What do you find at the circus? Elephants, tigers, lions, bears, camels, the occasional monkey. Where did those animals originate? Not in the white countries, that’s for damn sure. If I’m to remain true to my personal rules, my white hero is going to walk into a predominantly African/Asian/Native American environment and meet the other hero, a lion shifter. Who I originally pictured as a white guy, but if he’s a lion his human form will have to be African-American.

I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing an interracial gay romance. It just turned out that way. I’ve already given in to panic and made my lion shifter half-human, so he can keep his blond hair and green eyes. (Clearly his mom was a white woman.) As for the rest, I won’t dwell on race. There’s a brief passage where the hero considers the ethnic diversity surrounding him, then it’s never mentioned again. If an editor asks me to delete that scene, I will. Or maybe I’ll just change it to the shifters and the human circus workers eating at separate tables and make that the only overt racial diversity. (Another true story: during the filming of the original Planet of the Apes movie, the actors had to go to lunch in full ape makeup. Within days they began segregating themselves: chimps ate with chimps, gorillas with gorillas, orangutans with orangutans, regardless of the skin color of the human actor underneath the prosthetics. Birds of a feather. We are indeed a strange species.)

With the race problem out of the way, I can concentrate on the important stuff, like my human hero falling in love with the lion man while trying to catch a killer. The killer’s a straight white male, by the way. I’m not taking any chances.