Friday, December 26, 2014

Goodbye Middle Earth

The Peter Jackson movies are over. It's been a long walk there and a long walk home. (Eagles, I know you're a proud, noble, ancient race, but can we use you as mystic taxis? Just once?)

I was skeptical in December 2001, when I went to see "Fellowship". I loved the books, but I'd also seen that ghastly 70s cartoon. And we were in the midst of those shell-shocked months after 9/11. Liberal college kids like me didn't know what to do or even how to think. (Am I really a bad American if I don't get behind our anointed twit of a president? Did he actually just waste all that national volunteer spirit by telling us to shop? Is the band Anthrax going to have to change its name? Did some zealot gang really take down the World Trade Towers with fucking boxcutters!?)

Besides being eye-candy, Jackson's first trip into Middle Earth was a needed dose of chicken soup for the nerd soul. Obviously, the film was written months before 9/11 and the books were written decades before that, but Gandalf's telling the balrog "You shall not pass!" had a very specific meaning for those of us who were adults (or adult-ish) at the time. We were watching good successfully stand up to evil. The fact that it took the form of the ultimate sacrifice only made it more inspiring. The fact that those of us who'd read the book (and knew Gandalf would return) still got teary is a testament to Jackson's direction, along with the acting chops of Elijah (Giant-eyed Nooooo!) Wood and Ian (Fly, you fools!) McKellan.

Nostalgia is one of the main reasons Middle Earth has endured, and will endure. We have a certain nostagia for a world where good and evil are very clear and distinct from one another. You could've slapped Groucho Marx glasses on the Black Riders in the first movie and everyone still would've known they were bad guys. They were, all nine of them, dressed like Death himself. Death. Like the grisly reaper mowing. Like the impossibly difficult second-to-last boss in the original 8-bit Castlevania. The Ring Wraiths were powerful and scary, but unlike the dangers we were facting as a nation, they were damn easy to spot.

It's worth remembering the Lord of the Rings books were published in the 1950s. Tolkien's world is one where the noble men of the white, white, almost translucent west, do battle with the dark subhuman orcs and swarthy elephant riders of the east. The west kind of seems like America and Tolkien's U.K. The east kind of seems like countries where people can tan, plus Russia. Tolkien's world is, alas, eurocentric. Tolkien's world is also (equally alas) a sexless sausage party. For these reasons, Tolkien's world is somewhat simple. In this regard, Middle Earth has some of your conservative uncle's dangerous, straight white manly-man nostalgia for a world that never really existed in the first place.

Some of Middle Earth's moral clarity involves leftist messages as well. Anyone cutting down trees to build even the most primative wood-and-water machines is likely to have the trees cut him down in return. Especially if his name rhymes with "Schmaruman". And when the King returns to the city after a life of exile in the wild, he remarks, "there is not enough here that grows and is glad". Even the King's a bloody tree-hugger. Tolkien's romantacism of the Shire underlines this endorsement of pastoral life.

Liberal message two: When Frodo suggests killing Gollum, Gandalf scoffs "Many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Don't be so quick to deal out death on a whim." Sounds like Tolkien weaving in a loud anti-capital punishment message. In fact, the whole story hinges on it, since Gollum's greed, not Frodo's nobility, causes Sauron's fall. It's Gollum's lava lake swan dive that ultimately saves the day.

There's another leftist message in there: greed is no good. It doesn't end well for hoarders in Middle Earth. Ask Gollum, Smaug, and that bald master in Laketown.

Politics aside, there are Middle Earth messages everyone can endorse. Sam proves the value of friendship and loyalty. Frodo proves the nobility of mercy and attempting sacrifice. Sauron proves that the inability of evil to understand goodness can be evil's undoing. It never occurs to Mr. Demigod Visine ad that someone would inherit power and, rather than use it for his own good, endure significant suffering just for the opportunity to give power up, for the good of all.

Sounds like Tokien was advocating for the redistribution of power to the masses. But then how can Mordor be a stand-in for Soviet Russia? Maybe Middle Earth isn't as simple as I thought. Still, the point of all this is, I'm going to miss it. Nerd hugs and nerd love to you all. Happy Holidays as well.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Fascist Ex (and what I'm up to now)

Rather than do my typical summer routine this year (driving myself crazy for not having time to write). I gave myself a pass and took the summer off. And then I wound up writing a lot. It's amazing what you can do when you aren't kicking your own ass.

New Projects:

The Fascist Ex – David Hellman is the American Hitler. He’s rising to power as head of the homophobic Patriot Party, and the only man who can stop him is Adam Ford, David’s college boyfriend, who no one in the Patriots knows about. Much of David’s rage stems from the fact that Adam viciously broke his heart. To save his country, Adam will have to out David - ruin his ex-boyfriend’s life for the second time - and Adam has never stopped loving him.

Love Lines – A scientist creates LP9, a formula that allows one to see love. The market potential is unlimited, he reasons, because who wouldn’t pay to see if their crush, or girlfriend, or spouse loved them, or someone else? The potential for abuse, blackmail, and chaos is as unlimited as potential sales.

Projects that are coming to fruition:

Femorph – Children can change their gender at will, until their bodies calcify on their eighteenth birthdays. Michael’s is coming up in six days. He’s spent half his life as his femorph, Michaela, because his best friend Aaron is in love with her. Michael is also in love with Aaron. When Aaron realizes he can bring the opposite morph to the surface by relaxing the dominant one with an orgasm, he knows he has the power to take Michael’s choice for him. He must choose between what he wants and what's best for Michael and Michaela.

(I finally had that magic moment with this piece where I slaughtered my darlings to get it under 7,000 words for Saints and Sinners.)

Eagle Eye – A sniper is injured and psychologically scarred in one of our endless, amorphous foreign wars. (I wrote it before the rise of the ISIS boogeyman.) He returns home to be dicked around by a newly-privatized V.A. He comes to the conclusion that men who profit by keeping soldiers broken are terrorists. He becomes the sniper of the 99%.

(This one was suffering from a too-quick ending. I’m told that’s a common struggle among men my age.)

Projects I’m shopping around:

Jesse Rules – A closeted grunge-era Holden Caulfield seeks fame, to get his mind off of his unwanted feelings for his guitarist. At the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, he concludes that nothing gets attention like murder.

(My first novel can’t seem to find a home. It isn’t life-affirming in the least, so gay publishers are balking. It has a gay character, so straight publishers are balking. I tried something different and submitted it to a contest that turns unpublished novels into movies. My character is an amoral fame-hound. Hollywood could be the home my grungy bastard child needs.)

Rise of the Paramancers – In the earth kingdom Gorge, Karth trains to become a geomancer, a sorcerer capable of manipulating the earth. Gorge and the other three elemental kingdoms of Axis are threatened by the arrival of a paramancer, a sorcerer capable of manipulating all elements. An arms race ensues, and apprentices will have to quickly become masters if Gorge is to survive.

(I have a good publisher checking this one out right now. The main thing was, in my world, I didn’t want magic to be Harry Potter point-and-speak. It’s more like yoga – physically and spiritually demanding. I wanted my sorcerers buff and haunted. The characters are facing changes that overwhelm them, so it’s relatable as can be. Karth is straight but his master and best friend are gay, so I’m really going for all audiences. An X-box Kinect game and line of action figures can be in the works as soon as I can convince just one person with clout to care.)

That’s all for now. If you see me with a faraway look in my eyes, it’s because I’m constructing or deconstructing some fantasy world in my head, or dreaming of an ally with marketing connections.
-James Russell

Monday, August 4, 2014

Cliche Retirement Party

Summer movie season means we story-lovers are treated to some outstanding storytelling. Also, we’re bombarded with clichés. Let’s take call some out, in the hopes of shaming them out of the collective writer’s toolbox.

That thing where a character dies with their eyes open and another character closes them. I get it. Character A died and Character B wants to be all charitable and make sure they can enjoy death’s peaceful slumber. Or something. Actually I’m pretty sure Character A’s new full-time job as a dead person means they can’t tell you shut their eyes with your fingers. I know what it’s supposed to do: show how humane and grief-stricken Character B is. But it doesn’t work anymore. Retire it.

Guilty Parties: Even recent masterpiece Snowpiercer is guilty of this bullshit.

Exemption: You can use it if the villain opens Character A’s dead eyes back up to show what a sick, sacrilegious twat he or she is. Christopher Walken did it once and it was the only bright spot in a lame film.

Inspirational speech by a dude on a horse. Braveheart did it. Lord of the Rings did it twice in one movie, but that was decades ago now. Here’s how it goes: Army A is small, but heroic. They’re up against Army B, which is comprised of Orcs or Imperialist Englishmen, as if there’s a difference. They have a massive numeric advantage, heavy cavalry, trolls with giant bass drums, crooked teeth (and that’s just the English har-dee-har!). So Army A is pooping in their kilts or armor or kilt armor, until their hero gets up on his horse and goes “Schmamedy Schma-schma Doobeedoo” (I see them and I’m scared too). Then he gallops a bit and goes “Dippidy Doheckadeedron Schmamedydoe” (But I refuse to give in to fear). Then he raises his sword and goes “Schmadoopiddy Da-doo-bah Teabag!” (To Hades with their numbers. Let’s kill them all and teabag their corpses). They rally. They win. Yawn.

Guilty Parties: See above + every movie with an underdog army

Exemption: You can use this if Army A listens to the speech, runs bravely into battle, and gets completely eviscerated. That would be a wonderfully realistic surprise.

The night is darkest just before the dawn. I love you Dark Knight, but holy cliché, what were you smoking when you shat this line into an otherwise glowing script? I know, a line isn’t a cliché, but the philosophy behind this one is. Night isn’t darkest just before dawn. It’s darkest in the middle of the night. When things are all wrong and the Joker is killing judges and blowing up Rachel despite Batman’s best grunting inquires of “Where’s Rachel?!” there’s still a lot of work to do to get out of the darkness. In fact, putting things in order takes a lot longer than destroying them. This horse shit quote implies that just sticking it out passively is a good plan of action. This line is the equivalent of that kitten poster that says “Just hung in there.” Wrong. Irresponsible. Improvement requires a ton of work. This cliché isn’t just corny, it’s a dangerous lie.

Guilty Parties: Pretty much every action movie.

Exemption: None. This line and the philosophy behind it are pure ass. All forms of it should be violently torn from all scripts henceforth.

Wise and moisturized Abercrombie Elves. I feel like I’m picking on LOTR a bit, but there’s a reason Tolkien’s world has become cliché – it was amazing so a billion people copied it. That said, I’m dying for a fantasy where the humans and the race of comic relief dwarves/goblins/gnomes come upon the elves in an hour of dire need. And the elves, instead of being wise and perfectly moisturized orgasmic hair gods, come out of their huts with beer bellies and warty noses and go “Deerrrrrrrrrrp, me dunno how too halp yoo!”

Guilty Parties: All movies featuring the vain, pointy-eared bitches. Sorry Orlando Bloom. And call me.

Exemption: See above. It’s time for ugly dumbass elves.

A Rom-com that doesn’t end in an airport, train station, bus depot, or wherever they gather hovercraft. I like a good Rom-com in part because they’re so rare. "Friends with Benefits" was great despite ending in a train station. But most of them are so formulaic that watching them is pointless. I don’t have the answer, but I can tell what I don’t want. No more confessions in the rain. No more last minute wedding objections. And please, for the love of Justin Timberlake and Channing (sigh) Tatum, no more confrontations at places where people get on things to go elsewhere.

Guilty Parties: Every fucking Rom-com.

Exemption: Maybe if the grand gesture fails, but then the two people run into each other months or years later and they decide to give it another chance for an actual, adult reason. "Enough Said" did a nice job of this. It was a plus that the actors looked human, rather than trim L.A. robo-beauties.

So let’s retire these tropes. They served us well for a while. Then they grew stale through repetition. It happens. We just need to acknowledge it and act accordingly. Who knows? Some of them may even reappear in a decade or two, in a fresh context. Except for that “Night is darkest” bullshit. I really can’t get over that one.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2014

Here's a mix of absolutely shameless self-promotion and a new thing I'm trying: promoting others! The latest collection features my work and the genuinely queer work of other proud + loud lunatics. Here's a synopsis:

Voodoo John by James Russell (Warning: I'm talking about the stories in the same order they're in the book. The fact that I'm discussing my own story first is based on this, rather than being an intentional act of vile douchebaggery.)

A ne'er do well inheritance baby on extended holiday in Nawlins faces a mysterious voodoo curse that drains his finances, wits, and (gasp!) his good looks. To break the curse he must admit he believes it's happening and admit he needs help, before he is drained completely.

Mum's the Word by Jeff Lindemann
Jeff's characters live in a hyperbolic caricature of the South that almost needs subtitles. (Yew = you, whut = what, etc.) The genuinely unhappy characters have a lovable quality that reminds me of Peanuts: you know the football is getting pulled out from underneath them, but you can't help root for them anyway. This year's story takes an awesome left turn at the end, one I won't spoil.

Eleusis by Robert Hyers
Surrealism was an unofficial theme this year. Hyers' story begins with characters gay readers will recognize: raver boys being cunty with one another. From there, it gets trippy. Hyers deals with a truth gay authors are sometimes reluctant to tackle: sometimes, victimized people become quite vicious. (I've never taken "vicious queen" as a compliment.) The protagonist Adam's journey takes him to the source of his viciousness: a past he hasn't made peace with.

Sample Day by Jerry Rabushka
I was happy to see Jerry back in the competition this year. The first year I entered, he won (meaning I didn't), so naturally I wanted to hate his story (2012's "Wasted Courage") but it was a fucking masterpiece, as is this year's entry about a broken vet trying to learn to love again. It's a shame how topical the story is, but that's the fault of people a lot more powerful than Jerry. (No disrespect intended, his prose is buff and hairy and will take advantage of your purdy mouth.)

Stinkbug by Rich Barnett
A struggling Rehobath Beach author is visited by Truman Capote reincarnated as a stinkbug. If you aren't reading based on that, there's something wrong witchu brain.

If on a Dark Night Two Strangers Should Come by William Hawkins
The surrealism continues in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We follow the speaker and another drag queen named Brazil on a quest for poppers and amusement among the ruins. The generation gap figures greatly in the failure of these characters to treat each other with basic human kindness. The story unapologetically rails against the notion that disaster brings people together. These characters are on a demented Dover Beach, alone on a darkling plain, beneath failing levies.

Corset by Sally Bellerose
An addict has to choose between her lover and the addiction that has her as tightly bound as the title object. Surrealism again figures heavily, as you can't help but root for broken people against steep odds. This was the winning story, and you'll see why. Bellerose is completely unafraid to let her characters act and interact on the page with zero author interference.

The Dark Symphony by Eric Andrews-Katz
And then we travelled to Victorian England, where a gay love story suggests the origin of some of history's most twisted monsters. The viciousness of a victimized character is once again a theme. I'm underselling this one in the hopes of not spoiling some fine twists.

Love Thy Neighbor by N.S. Beranek
Tolerance is a struggle. Beranek's story reminds us of this, as gays in various states of closeted and half-closeted work to understand (or simply avoid) one another in claustrophobic small town U.S.A.

Beanstalk by Clifford Henderson
Jack and the Beanstalk + forbidden lesbian romance. Again, if u not readin', check u brain.

Rhinestone Magic by J.R. Greenwell
Tackiness and glamour clash in the best possible way as change creeps, rather than sweeps, across a western Carolina town. Another reminder that tolerance is something we all struggle with.

The Red Coat by George E. Jordan
It all starts with a chance encounter on the streets of Nawlins. I know it's been my drinking game word, but surrealism pops up one last time, as this Nawlins tale is set during whatever passes for winter in the Crescent City. The main characters have an innocent genderless nature that hides another fantastic plot twist I won't spoil.

I was honored to be a part of this collection for the third year in a row. (Reading it afterward keeps me off the ledge as I return to my pedestrian, bill-paying life.) This was my first paid gig as an author and my first time placing in a national contest, so I'm waving my Bronze (or Silver? We'll flip for it N.S.?) with unabashed pride. Below is the link to buy. See everyone at Tennessee Williams in 2015!

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Next Plateau

Chasing a dream means hitting certain plateaus. I was worried for a while that maybe I'd hit my peak as a writer. This week, I'm happy to hit a new high.

My story "Voodoo John" was a runner-up in the 2014 Saints and Sinners fiction contest. That means I'm number two. Not poo. More like silver medalist.

I'm happy about it. Fuck that "second place is the first loser" negative high school coach adage. It isn't easy to earn a silver. This is my first time placing in a national contest. This is my sixth published short story. This the first significant money I've received for my work.

"Voodoo John" is about a trust fund ne'er-do-well named Jack, a perfectly muscled and moisturized manwhore living on eternal holiday in the French Quarter. I meant him to be a skewering of the gay 1%, mostly out of jealously that they're always presented as the sum total of the gay community. There are a lot of us who can't afford to live in cities. Most of us wear jeans and have jobs.

Of course, I wound up loving Jack. If I had the money, I'd take an open-ended holiday. There's a ne'er-do-well in all of us.

Someone puts a voodoo curse on him, and poor Jack has to find out how to stop it before he loses his wealth, his wits, and (gasp!) his looks. Finding out who did it is complicated: Jack has a long trail of broken hearts in his rearview.

The collection, Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2014, will be available on Amazon in June. The 2013 and 2012 editions are available now, and also feature stories of mine. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Escape to Elsewhere

I haven't blogged in a bit, but I have a good excuse - I've actually been writing! The first draft of my second novel is done. Rise of the Paramancers is about an arms race in a fantasy realm, featuring characters who break gender norms, dogmatic thinkers vs. those thirsty for evolution, and a world of elemental magic inspired by classic video games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger.

(I also have good publishing news to announce soon, though I can't yet. Stay tuned.)

Escaping the mundane is a wonderful reason to read. Otherwise life can wind up being a series of hassles and bills. Consider some of my 99 cent stories to aid in your escape:

Friends and Pyromaniacs - To Tom, fire is a revelation, proof that life never ends, only transforms. His best friend Bill just thinks it's fun to burn stuff. Tom goes to extremes to make Bill see his vision in the flames.

Equality Chair - After the fascist takeover of our public schools, there is a wave of experimental classroom devices used to maximize efficiency. One such device straps the teacher in, rocketing them from student to student, ensuring equal time. Side effects include vomiting, seizures, dehumanization...

Eagle Eye - A sniper returning from war can't get care for his broken mind. Undaunted, he focuses his efforts on convincing the manager of his H.M.O. to put humanity before profits. And of course, if that fails, he is a trained killer.

Graduation - An eighth grader ad libs her graduation speech, ruining the evening for oblivious parents and a despotic administrator uncomfortable with her unfiltered truth. As a side-effect, she inspires a ne'er-do-well son of privilege to do the same.

Period Three Damnation - Exasperated with their dogmatic religion teacher, Chris and Kevin decide to start a war of words. They don't expect their war to have casualties.

I'm also editing a ton of newbies. Here's the link to buy.


Monday, February 3, 2014

A.D.D. and Opening Lines

So, we all have a big fat flaming case of A.D.D. If it isn't the chemicals in the air or water, or the polar vortexes (I hate that that's a term now.) it might just be this: we have more demands on us at work and more entertainment options away from work than ever before. As comedian Patton Oswald pointed out, we've become a race of Roman Emperors, declaring, "You Tube, I want to see something fall or poop! Bring it to me!"

This presents issues for authors.

The days of methodical building seem pretty much over. The days of the Russian novel that spends the first 300 pages detailing the awfulness of Russia are over. Now, we grip the reader by the face with our first sentence, or we don't grip them at all.

Working under that premise, I've decided to present some opening lines of my own and of others that I think work well in this regard. Check them out and feel free to comment.

"All this happened, more or less." Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Announcing an unreliable narrator from the get-go was a gutsy move. As a reader, it put me on edge. I analyzed everything to try and guess if I was being lied to. That (and a hilarious and poignant story) kept my attention all the way through.

"It was a pleasure to burn." Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I love an opener that creates questions. The mind loves a puzzle, and hates a cliffhanger. Why was it a pleasure to burn? What is he burning? Why is he burning it? My attention never wanders because I'm curious right from the start.

"When I think of my wife, I think of her head." Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

It's so easy to be jealous of Gillian Flynn's skill. All the love-hate dynamic of the marriage her novel explores is right here in the first sentence. Is he thinking of her severed head? (Is he hoping to make it severed soon, or is it sitting in his lap as he writes?) Or is it still attached? Does he want to kiss it? Or kick it in? Or both? Again, questions create curiosity.

"Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art; their children called it mischeif." The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson

I cheated a little with the semicolon. Though Wilson's opener is technically two sentences, it's still amazing. The central debate of the book is presented right away. We learn quickly about the Fang parents' strange performance art and how they drag their children into it with little regard for their well-being, or even their desire to participate. As one of the children states later in the book, "Just because you think something is beautiful, that doesn't mean you should do it."

Here are my latest attempts to measure up:

"Like all my nervous breakdowns, this one started with a boy." (Collector)

"Jack didn't believe in flaws; a thing is either whole or broken." (Voodoo John)

"The ad for the experiment was clear: you test our product, we save your marriage." (Bottles of Sara and Ben)

"The boy is a narcoleptic kleptomaniac; this presents problems." (Narco-Klepto)

Like the others, I hope these lines will create curiosity, and also, grip you by the face until you're done reading. Then you can go Youtube the latest video of a cat falling while pooping.

The link to my stories for sale:

Stay tuned for news about my next published piece!

Comments welcome!
-James Russell

Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year, New Story

I love that moment when I fall in love with a story. My newest, tentatively titled "Narco-Klepto" is hitting that point.

Crazy people falling in love is nothing new, so I wanted the disorder to be original. As far as I know, there isn't any link between kleptomania (addiction to stealing) and narcolepsy (falling asleep in random places). What's more, I didn't care. Part of the fun of fiction is telling reality to fuck off.

Here's the beginning. A link to my 99-cent short stories follows. Happy new year to all.


                The boy is a narcoleptic kleptomaniac. This presents problems. He studies a store’s security infrastructure. He finds answers to many self-generated questions. Guards or no guards? Beeping machines by the exits? If so, do they bother to change the batteries? Or, like so much of his country, is it merely security theater?

                He goes to all this trouble to steal. The object is not the objective: it is often something as trivial as a pack of gum. Sometimes he steals tic-tacs because they make noise and it’s a challenge.

The thrill of crossing a perceived line: that is the kleptomaniac’s objective.

                This is where the narcolepsy becomes an issue. Sometimes the thrill of stealing is too much. Sometimes his mind will shut his body down. The boy will fall asleep standing up in aisle five, and when a guard or clerk checks to see if he’s alive, he’s busted. Sometimes they pat him or poke at him, discovering his ill-gotten gains. Other times, he wakes, forgetting the merchandise in his pocket. He walks rather than runs through the machine and beep-beep-beep! He’s caught.

                So, at fifteen, the boy has a record.

                You wouldn’t know it to look at him. His hair is long and heavy metal dark, but he maintains it well – he shampoos and conditions daily. He wears jeans, but none with holes. He does not scribble band names on their legs or allow others to do so. He wears button down shirts, exclusively. Though he will not tuck them in, they are always ironed, impeccably so.

                This is how he looks when he meets the girl.

                She dresses like a mall mannequin. Jeans and t-shirt. Tasteful makeup. A redhead but not head-on-fire. Not goth. Not prissy. No band shirts. Simple lines. Sometimes dots. Color but nothing nuclear green or orange. Nothing overdone. He guesses she isn’t shallow, just planned. This is a costume. She’s built to blend. It’s all by design.

                The first time he sees her, she’s reading US Weekly on aisle four in the local Walgreens. Her other hand pockets a stick of men’s deodorant. Her eyes never leave the page. The boy stands there, watching, in awe of her technique. It takes him a while to realize her eyes are closed. He hears her lightly snoring.

                He falls in love.