Posted in Writing

Why Your Verbs Should Be Active, Not Passive



In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You avoid the passive tense.

The day I learned to avoid the passive verb, my writing got significantly better. For the longest time I wrote my sentence instinctively, not paying attention to such trivial matters as active verbs vs. passive verbs. Not paying attention to the size of my paragraphs or length of my sentences. I just wrote what felt right. What seemed to flow the best.

But then a few years ago a friend of mine pointed out to me the need, always, for active verbs, and I looked over a recent short story I had written, a story that had been rejected more than twenty times over the course of a year. I spent some time reading through the piece looking specifically for any evidence of passive verbs, and, well, I gasped. There were passive verbs all over the place. And while I didn’t change every single one of those verbs to active — I believe you should delete most passive verbs, not necessarily all — active verbs significantly enhanced that story… as they have enhanced all of my writing ever since.

You’ve seen the passive verb. You’ve smelled it from afar, probably. If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve probably seen it all over the place. It’s something that’s an easy fix but that can also make an otherwise interesting story read like death.

Here are a couple basic examples of active vs. passive…

Active: Charlie hated the bully.

Passive: The bully was hated by Charlie.

Ugh, I know, right? Isn’t that first sentence so much better? Notice that the word “was” is often the word that links words together in a sentence with a passive verb, so sometimes you can’t find them that way, but always. Sometimes “was” needs to be there.

Active: The critic wrote a funny review of the movie.

Passive: A funny review of the movie was written by the critic.

Notice “was” again. And notice that this example of the passive verb isn’t quite as clunky as that first example, although it’s definitely still clunky. I could see this second example getting past an editor, getting past your own eyes. But if at all possible, you’d want to write it in the active form. It just sounds better.

Because here’s the deal with passive verbs: they slow down the pacing, and they often reads awkwardly and amateurish. Sometimes when you’re in the zone and writing fast, you don’t catch the passive verb in the act, but when you read through the sentence later, especially if you’ve let the manuscript rest for a few weeks, you’ll often come across a few passive verbs that just pop off the page, and not in a good way. You’ll fix the passive verb to active quickly, before anyone looking over your shoulder could possibly see you put down on the page.

But other times passive verbs can be subtle, not as noticeable. You might read through your manuscript ten times over the course of a year and not catch a couple. I’m currently on the seventh draft of my MFA thesis novel, and I’d bet there are a few passive verbs in there that need to be changed. I’d bet every novel I’ve ever written has ten or more that somehow never got fixed throughout the revising process. Again, you don’t need to change every single one of them. And remember, the passive voice isn’t wrong. It’s not grammatically incorrect. Sometimes a sentence, for whatever reason, sounds better in the passive voice, usually when you want an action to be considered subtle or inconsequential.

But for the most part, for the sake of your writing, you want to write with active verbs, and whether you’re working with active verbs consistently in your first draft or changing passive verbs to active verbs in your later revisions, your writing will get better. And you’ll be well on your way.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Find the Source of Evil in Your Antagonist


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Deliver Us from Evil (2006)

Once in awhile I put a Netflix movie into the DVD player and get completed floored by a movie I know next to nothing about. When I put this movie in, all I knew about it was that it was a well-reviewed documentary. Deliver Us From Evil, written and directed by Amy Berg, is an involving, emotionally devastating piece of work, and one that presents a weird sense of voyeurism into the life of a man who seems completely normal and typical on the outside but deeply disturbed on the inside.

The film is on a basic level the story of Father Oliver O’Grady, who served with the Catholic Church for upwards of thirty years, making sexual advances on young children for most of that time. There were allegations made toward him in the very beginning, but the church never wanted to really deal with the problem. They would just move him around to different cities, sometimes ones just forty miles away from the last. Instead of investigating the man’s irresponsible behavior, the church tried to keep his manner under wraps. The secrets couldn’t stay hidden for too long, however, as O’Grady was finally tried and convicted of sexual abuse toward children and served fourteen years in prison. Today he lives peacefully as a free man in Ireland. Is this sentence fair? Who’s to blame for the conspiracy? And who did O’Grady hurt in the process?

The film answers a lot of these questions and personalizes the story by featuring interviews with the children he abused, all grown up, ready to discuss what he did to them and how it affected their lives. The most fascinating account involves parents who thought of O’Grady as a close friend and took him in on many occasions for discussion and meals. It wasn’t until much longer down the road that they found out that he was abusing their little girl, and they are hurt and humiliated beyond all measure.

The film features interviews with all of these people, and their pain and anger are immediate up there on the screen. These people are shocked that he is living a calm free life in Ireland. The father at one point says that O’Grady is not a pedophile but rather a rapist, that he raped his child. There is a passion and frustration at work in these interviews, and it makes for difficult but compelling viewing.

The most astonishing thing about the movie is that the filmmakers actually convinced the pedophile O’Grady himself to be interviewed. They take him around the city and he talks to the filmmakers and the camera as if he’s on a casual lunch meeting with a close friend. He appears to be completely normal, someone you could feel comfortable smiling at in the street and helping out when in need.

It’s astonishing to think of the horrors this man committed, and then to years later confess to it all and treat it all like it’s just a rotten condition he has to live with, as if he didn’t have control over his sexually immoral tendencies. He is a scary man to encounter because he is so open about what he did and calm in discussing his life-long problem. He seems to be intelligent but appears to have no clue about the harm he caused to so many victims and families.

I really loved this film. It’s the kind of great documentary that makes you forget it’s a documentary. You simply get caught up in the story and forget the means in which it took to put it all together. Script, no script, crane shots, over-the-shoulder interview footage — none of it matters when you have a compelling story. This story is immensely watchable, and it’s put together in a flowing, easy-to-follow narrative that sparks instant controversy and debate from its viewers.

As I said before, on a basic level, this film is about a man who abuses children. But on a deeper level, it’s about what a group of rich, powerful people can do to hide a crime, and how a wrongdoing can culminate into a much larger problem that affects not just the victims but hundreds of people directly or indirectly involved. When the movie is over, the viewer, having learned a thing or two, is left with a lot to think about, and that’s all one can hope for from a documentary. This one’s well-worth seeing.

Watching Like a Writer

This documentary made me think about how to explore the nature of evil in my antagonists. I’ve been hard at work for 18 months now on a novel that features a truly evil young man who seems completely friendly and normal around most everyone who knows him. I always find that kind of person to be the scariest, the one who seems to be a genuinely decent man, who in reality is as sick and disturbed as they come. I never want to write a one-note villain, an antagonist who has no realistic motives or conflicting feelings. I always want to write characters who live and breathe and show both their light and their dark.


Look at the antagonist in your current work-in-progress. Where does the evil in that character come from? Why?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #29: 28 Days (2000)

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

2000 was a productive year for Sandra, one of the best in her career yet. She made three decent to great films in 2000, producing her first feature with Gun Shy, delivering her best dramatic performance to date in 28 Days, and producing and starring in the blockbuster hit Miss Congeniality, which has since become one of the definitive goofy comedies of the early 2000s. She would star in three more films again in 2002, to middling success; in 2009, she also had three films released, but despite starring in two of her biggest hits, she still had to account for the disastrous All About Steve. No, 2000 was a great year for Sandra, and while 28 Days is in no way a masterpiece, it’s a solid film that gave Sandra her most complex role to date.

The best material in 28 Days is its opening twenty minutes, when Sandra, playing an alcoholic thirty-something named Gwen, races to her older sister’s wedding, accidentally destroys the wedding cake, then drives a limo straight into a house. We immediately transition to a significant time later, when she arrives at a rehab clinic. She’s cranky and bitter and hates to be there, but when she faces potential jail time, knowing that both her physical and mental health are deteriorating, she finally starts to change into the person she was always meant to be — a smart, sober person with the capability of leading a happier life.

These early moments — of Gwen drinking and going wild, and of dealing with the early aftermath of her painful detoxing — allow the actress to stretch her acting muscles more than she ever had up until that point. In Love and War was Sandra’s first starring role in a drama, but the film didn’t allow her to create an interesting character, while Hope Floats was the first drama she made that allowed her to showcase highs and lows of emotions on screen. But 28 Days is arguably the first film Sandra made that showed us what she would be capable of down the road in films like Infamous, The Blind Side, and Gravity.

One of her best scenes in 28 Days takes place in front of her counselor’s office. Director Betty Thomas allows the action to play out mostly in one long take, as Gwen shakes and begs the man (a low-key Steve Buscemi) to let her stay at the clinic and not be transferred to the local prison. It’s a heartbreaking scene that rings true. She’s also fantastic in a brief, well-constructed scene that finally brings her and her older sister (Elizabeth Perkins) together, with her trying not to cry until she can’t hold the tears in anymore.

The movie as a whole, however, never fully comes together, and too much of the later half falls flat. The movie is chockfull of great actors, especially, as her eccentric British boyfriend, Dominic West — with whom Sandra has terrific chemistry. Unfortunately, when the film enters its second hour, there’s too much going on, with Gwen flirting with bad boy Eddie (Viggo Mortensen), a long-ish subplot that goes nowhere, and Gwen trying to enrich the pained life of her soap-opera-obsessed roommate (Azura Skye), a subplot that ends in tragedy but then is never referenced again. While the opening scenes are fresh and funny, so much of the later part of the film gets bogged down in too many storylines and characters and revelations, and after awhile it all starts to look and feel like a TV movie, especially with the corny happy ending involving Gwen raising a horse’s hoof.

28 Days has its flaws, and, like Gun Shy, the movie hasn’t aged very well. But it’s entertaining enough, especially the first half. If you can survive the never-ending Mortensen subplot and the longwinded and lame soap opera spoof, you’ll enjoy one of Sandra’s more effective dramatic performances. The material could have been stronger — a surprise given that Susannah Grant, who wrote the fantastic Erin Brockovich, penned the script — but 28 Days is still worth a second look for Sandra fans.

Best Scene: Sandra crashes a limousine into a house.

Best Line: “I’m having the worst damn day of my whole damn life! So if it isn’t too much to ask of you people, will you back the fuck off!”

Fun Facts

Sandra won the 2000 Bambi Award for Best Film — International.

Sandra spent time in a rehab clinic to prepare for this role.

Sandra drank a triple espresso before any scene that required her character to have uncontrollable shakes.

Posted in Uncategorized

How to Write a Video Game Adaptation


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

This has to be one of the most difficult tasks in the history of movie lists. Looking at the sad line-up of movies based on video games in the last twenty years, there are only a handful that are barely tolerable, let alone any good. Shall it be called the Video Game Movie curse? There has been only one decent video game movie, and still it’s not a very good one. But here are the best I could muster…

5. Super Mario Bros (1993)

The first film based on a video game, this one does everything wrong. From the banal plot, to the awkward pacing, to the bizarre creature effects, to the godawful special effects, this film fits in that so-bad-it’s-kind-of-enjoyable category. Probably the best thing about this film is the casting, but not even Dennis Hopper as the villain can save this mess. Still, though, there’s more accidental entertainment value to be had here than in films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, Doom, Max Payne, Prince of Persia, and countless other video game adaptations!

4. Resident Evil (2002)

This long-running series definitely has its highs and lows, but the original has the most genuine tension and suspense, as well as creepy atmosphere. While the second film, Apocalypse, deserves points for including more elements from the games, this first entry is the most successful as an overall movie. The rest that I’ve seen become all about the action, all about the drop-kicks and the gunfights. At least there’s more going on in the 2002 original.

3. Street Fighter (1994)

This, like Super Mario Bros, is pretty rough stuff, but this piece of over-the-top craziness has something no other video game movie has — Raul Julia. He makes an otherwise confused, mediocre action film worth watching. Making his final film appearance (!), Julia plays the big bad named General Bison, and he upstages everyone else in the movie, including Jean-Claude Van Damme and pop singer Kylie Minogue, in one of her few (and mostly forgotten) film roles.

2. Mortal Kombat (1995)

Paul W.S. Anderson (the director of Resident Evil and many of its sequels), appears again here, in what is arguably, still, the best video game movie ever made. While it has nothing in terms of substance, the film moves at a brisk pace, featuring one awesome fight scene after another, and it captures the spirit of the game exceedingly well. Cameron Diaz was meant to follow up her role in The Mask with this film as Sonya Blade but had the pull out due to a broken wrist — now that could’ve been interesting.

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Is this cheating? It might be, but a great film based in the world of video games should appear somewhere on this list, and this documentary is nothing short of excellent. Directed by Seth Gordon, who went on to direct Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses, the film takes the viewer into the lives of diehard video game players competing to set the world record score on Donkey Kong. This is one of the most thrilling, entertaining, and uplifting documentaries I’ve seen to this day.

Watching Like a Writer

This list overall makes me think about how I’d adapt a video game I love into a piece of fiction. My favorite game growing up was Donkey Kong Country, and I’m not sure what the hell I could ever do with that. But what about my second favorite, the Mega Man series? As absurd it would be, I’d love to take a crack at a short story about that small heroic figure.


Pitch an adaptation of your favorite video game in one or two sentences. What would be the storyline? What would be the conflict?

Posted in Books, Film

How Delightful is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?


I didn’t initially intend to review this. I didn’t initially intend to watch the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory again, and all the DVD’s bonus features. No, originally, I passed by the loaded, awesome books on film section at my local library and found a copy of Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, by the film’s director Mel Stuart, and Josh Young. Stuart passed away in 2012 at the age of 83, and what a legacy he has left, with what I still today consider the best children’s film of all time (even though, really, it’s a movie as much for adults as it is for kids).

By the end of perusing this incredibly detailed and fascinating account of the 1971 film, I felt like I had been transported not just to the movie’s set, but like I had traveled to the magical chocolate factory rooms themselves. The large hardcover book is filled with interesting anecdotes and gorgeous full-color pictures.

Here are some of the interesting tidbits I picked up in the book (most of which is also on the 30-minute documentary on the DVD):

  • The director Mel Stuart’s daughter came to him one night and told him she read and loved a new children’s book — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — and told him he should make a movie based on it. Boy, if every film adaptation was that easy!
  • No film studio funded the film. Quaker Oats did! They made the movie to promote a new chocolate bar.
  • Joel Gray, from Cabaret, was the initial choice to play Willy Wonka. He would have been great, but nobody could have been better than Gene Wilder!
  • Stuart knew Gene Wilder was the perfect choice for Willy Wonka, before the actor even opened his mouth at the audition!
  • Peter Ostrum, who plays Charlie, went on to become veterinarian. He never acted in another movie again.
  • Stuart originally didn’t want songs in the movie, but later, thankfully, changed his mind.
  • The script ended with Grandpa Joe yelling “Yippee!” Stuart did not want his movie to end on such a trivial note, so he halted production and waited for the uncredited screenwriter David Seltzer to come up with a better ending line. He did so right there, on the spot. And it’s a great one!
  • After filming ended, the negative of the whole movie was flown from Europe to the US. If the plane had crashed and not made its destination for whatever reason, the whole movie would’ve been destroyed!
  • The movie flopped in its initial release, only making 4 million in its entire run, but of course has gone to be one of the most cherished family films of all time.

Back when I was in high school and a total nerd (well, let’s face it, I still am), I made a list of my top ten films of all time. The list included (and still does) Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, Defending Your Life, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And down the list, at number seven, was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It simply is one of the great movies ever, an enchanting story, a perfect cast, memorable songs, magical production design. When I closed the Making-Of book, I knew I had to watch the movie again (it had been a few years), and I was once again transported back to Wonka’s chocolate factory. I still love the movie now, at age 33, just as much as I did when I was a kid. And I can’t wait to show it to my kids some day.

I still had the chocolate factory on my mind yesterday, when I checked into my favorite bookstore in Reno — Grassroots Books — and found, astonishingly, a 1st edition hardback copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the kids section, for 49 cents. You read that right. 49 cents. I snatched it up and headed home. I hadn’t read the book since probably the fourth or fifth grade. Having just read the Making-Of book, and watched the movie for the umpteenth time, I wanted to read the book again.

And let me tell you, while Roald Dahl has created some of the most wonderful books for children of all time — my favorites remain The Witches, Matilda, and The Twits — his masterpiece is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s just such a unique, timeless concept, told in the perfect voice, at just the right length, with just the right amount of perversity. I gobbled up the 162-page book in one sitting and fell right back in love with it. Roald Dahl was a childhood hero of mine, along with the great R.L. Stine, and now that I’m writing my own fiction (much of which is certainly perverse!), I have to give my thanks to the great Dahl for all that he inspires me, still to this day.

It was also fun to read the book, so soon after watching the movie, to catch all the differences between the two. I was surprised to see how faithful the movie is to the book, but there were still some noticeable changes. Here are elements of the book that were left out or altered the film:

  • Charlie has a dad! There’s a Mr. Bucket!
  • The golden tickets are found really fast, like just in a few days.
  • There’s mention of a man named Slugworth, but his scary appearance, and intent on finding the secret formula to Everlasting Gobstoppers, was a subplot created for the film.
  • There isn’t a 5th ticket hoax.
  • Each child with a golden ticket is allowed to bring two parents, not just one, so the other four all bring their moms and dads. Charlie still brings Uncle Joe.
  • Willy Wonka is described as a short man with a high-pitched voice.
  • The Oompa Loompas are described differently, and they sing much longer, more in depth songs after the four other kids’ exits from the story.
  • Veruca Salt meets her end not in a room of golden geese, but nut-making squirrels.
  • You learn what some of the other candy rooms are. I personally would check out the INVISIBLE CHOCOLATE BARS FOR EATING IN CLASS room.
  • We see the other four kids leave in safety in the second-to-last scene. All are alive and well, and all are given their promised lifetime supply of chocolate bars! So in a way, the film is more cruel to these characters than the book ever was.
  • Wonka picks up Charlie’s whole family, blowing their house’s roof clean off, and whisks them back up into the sky in his Wonka-vater!

It was a treat to go back and peruse this fantastic, timeless story, through the Making-of-the-Movie book, the classic 1971 film, and the original, first edition novel by Roald Dahl. I never was a huge fan of his follow-up novel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and I was even less a fan of the wonky, in every way, 2005 adaptation, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. No, for me, it’s all about the originals: the original film, and the original book. These are what dreams are made of.

I’ve suddenly got a hankering for chocolate. Anyone have a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight?

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Shock Readers with the Death of a Major Character


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Monster’s Ball Review

Monster’s Ball, starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, was written by Milo Addica and Will Roskos and was directed by Marc Forster. Forster moved from Switzerland, where he grew up, to New York to study film in the early 1990’s. He then moved to Los Angeles where he lives today. Monster’s Ball had been in Development Hell for years, essentially floating around Hollywood without anyone willing to take a bite. After years of false starts and nearly signed actors (including such notable ones as Robert DeNiro and Wes Bentley), Monster’s Ball finally went into production on May 1, 2001, on a budget of 10 million. It first opened on November 11, 2001 at an AFI film festival. It was then released on December 26, 2001 in both New York and Los Angeles. On opening weekend the film brought in $174,109 on only seven screens in the U.S, and the movie ultimately went on to gross 31 million dollars nationwide, glorious considering the budget (and the subject matter).

Halle Berry had started working in films in early 1991, after being spotted by Spike Lee, who put her in her first movie, Jungle Fever. She moved on to making smart career decisions to get recognized, such as starring in the box office hits The Last Boy Scout and Executive Decision. Her breakthrough role in dramatic work was her performance in the TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which won her an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Mini-series or TV Movie. Up until Monster’s Ball, she had never tackled a lead role in a dramatic film and has instead been doing mostly action films like X-Men and Swordfish. After Monster’s Ball she went on to do more action films, like Die Another Day and X2. In the middle of all these big-budget Hollywood films is Monster’s Ball, a film of superb performances from every actor, including Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, and Sean “Puffy” Combs, but it would be the performance by Berry that would be remembered, and ultimately win her the very first Best Actress Oscar for an African-American woman.

Race is seen mostly through the character of Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), who has no real comprehension of the time in which he’s living. An early scene in Monster’s Ball shows Hank scaring two African American kids off his property with a shotgun. This scene makes it clear that Hank has learned his racist ways from his father and might not agree with them as fully himself, but is still under his father’s power and will do whatever he says. Even though the movie is set in Louisiana, it is obvious that these racist ideals are very old fashioned. Times have changed but Hank and his father especially are stuck in the past, and Hank refuses to change what he has always thought.

The idea of the stereotype makes its way through the movie on more than one occasion. When Hank first meets Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry) she is just a waitress who spills his coffee and doesn’t know how to bring him a plastic spoon with his chocolate ice cream. Just this scene tells a lot about the stereotypes that are brought up in this film, racially and of gender. First it is of a woman serving a man, and it is also an African American serving a Caucasian. This is showing that Leticia is at the bottom of society whereas Hank is at the top because not only is he white, but he’s also a man. This gives him the power and is why Leticia is serving him instead of it being the other way around. And not only is Leticia the one serving, but she can’t even do everything right because of everything else that is going on in her life.

This is a stereotype of women being too emotional and not being able to handle things on their own. This is seen throughout the whole movie because Leticia needs the white man to help her with her life. Her life at home before her son died is also extremely stereotypical. They’re the African American broken home. The dad’s in jail leaving Leticia as a single mother with an overweight child who she abuses. They also have very little income especially when Leticia gets fired from her first waitressing job. This is again just showing that women, especially of color, are weak and can hardly take care of themselves, let alone anyone else.

Gender isn’t a theme that isn’t seen as much as race and stereotype in Monster’s Ball, but it’s definitely present. Leticia is shown as a woman in need of serious help and of course Hank, a white man, is the only one that can help her. Before meeting Leticia, Hank regularly had sex with the same prostitute. This shows that not only did he hold racial ideals, but he also seemed to have some disrespect towards women. The scene with the prostitute shows that Hank treats women like sex objects and probably doesn’t think of them for much more than that. This is again going along with the female subservient theme throughout the movie. Naturally then, he is surprised and confused when he finds himself involved in an intimate relationship with an African American woman.

In one of the most talked-about scenes of the movie, sexuality definitely plays a major role. Leticia and Hank have a night of passionate sex soon after they have met. This goes along perfectly with the needy woman theme because Leticia needs Hank to make her “feel good.” This also hints that women can be promiscuous because they had hardly known each other. After they begin to see more of each other, Leticia becomes more and more dependent on Hank to get by. Not only does he give her his son’s truck but he also lets her move in with him after she gets evicted. Without Hank, Leticia would be homeless and have absolutely nothing.

Marc Forster did a fantastic job directing this film. In this case, the directing job is extraordinary not because Forster tackled a film that was different from what he’d done before, but because Forster had only made one significant feature film before it, the little-seen Everything Put Together, released in 2000. Berry is magnificent of course, but the terrific performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Peter Boyle, and even Sean “Puffy” Combs, shows that he is a strong, confident director who knows exactly what he wants from his actors. It’s arguable that the reason Berry is so great in the movie is a result of the direction from Forster, especially in a movie like Monster’s Ball, which has a particular tone that needs to have the right balance.

The audience receptivity of the film was interesting in that Monster’s Ball was not a movie that had been hyped previous months before its release. In fact the film had been originally scheduled for a release sometime in 2002, but when the film’s studio Lions Gate Films saw the finished product, they saw chances for awards, so they took advantage of getting the film in theaters by the end of the year. One of the earliest rave reviews was from Roger Ebert, who hailed Monster’s Ball the best film of 2001. The film wasn’t an instant success, but as it slowly unfolded at more and more theaters throughout February and March, the movie gained momentum and more award consideration, all the way through to the Academy Awards ceremony, when Halle Berry took home the Oscar. Her speech was tearful and heartfelt, and with this statuette she proved that the door had indeed become open to other actresses of color to dive into meatier roles in Hollywood and independent films.

Watching Like a Writer

When I think about Monster’s Ball, I always remember that horrific scene early in the film where Heath Ledger, a major star by 2001, dies in a shocking moment of violence. That moment chilled me to the bone when I first saw this movie in theaters, and it still chills me now. You don’t see that kind of death happen to a major star in most movies, especially that soon in the movie, and this makes me think about how such an easy way to shock your reader, surprise your reader, is to kill off one of your major characters early in the manuscript. I used this device over and over in my novel Happy Birthday to You, the third and final novel in a trilogy in which beloved characters I had established over two books I actually killed off in the apocalyptic final tale. When handled right, killing at least one of your major characters early can be super effective to the reader, because it immediately raises the stakes and tension, establishing that nobody is safe in this world.


Look at your current work-in-progress. If you had to kill off one of your major characters in the first half of the book, who would it be, and why?

Posted in Publishing, Writing

How to Choose Between Traditional and Self Publishing


When I wrote my first novel in the summer of 2010, I wasn’t even aware of self-publishing, didn’t have a clue that anything but traditional publishing was a valid avenue to getting my work out in the world. I knew, unless I was lucky, I was going to spend the next few years writing a few novels, maybe five or more, until I could find a literary agent who would represent me and have an idea about how to sell my work.

I was also aware that getting an agent wasn’t the be all and end all, that an agent could potentially try, and fail, to sell my work, and that I’d have to write even more novels and keep trying for my first sale. I queried my first novel in the fall of 2010, then queried my second novel in the spring of 2011. Lots of rejections poured in. A few requests appeared in my inbox, too, but those requests soon turned in to more rejections, or months of silence. By the time I queried my third novel, I wasn’t feeling too confident; in fact, I already felt like a failure.

When my third novel received not a single request from any of the agents I queried, I started to reconsider what the hell I was doing: was I going to spend endless years writing ten, fifteen, twenty novels, with nobody but my mother and a supporting friend to read any of them? I hated the idea of my novels going into drawers to collect dust for decades to come. I knew my early novels, especially my flawed first one, weren’t perfect, but I felt like there were readers out there who would love them, and I started looking in to alternative ways to get them published.

It was this same week that a trending success story about a young self-published author spread through the Internet and promptly showed me a path to publishing that felt right. Instead of waiting for years in the hopes that somebody out there will discover me, I could put my writing career in my own hands and make something happen. In the summer of 2011, I self-published my first novel, and then ended up self-publishing six more over the course of the next year. At the time, I was almost one-hundred-percent confident I was doing the right thing. Now, with a literary agent and a book on submission, I’m not so sure self-publishing was and is in my best interest.

My friend Katie sent me the link to the news report about Amanda Hocking back in March of 2011. Here was a twenty-five-year-old writer who had been writing young adult novels since she was sixteen. She had queried countless agents over the years, and got nothing but rejections. She piled up about fifteen books, all just sitting on her hard drive, as she worked part-time at a nursing home for about seven bucks an hour. One day, she looked into Amazon’s new indie publishing platform, and decided, why not, let’s put up one of my books for ninety-nine cents, and see what happens.

She sold a few copies in the first week, so she put up book two in the series, then book three. By the end of the first month, she had made a few hundred dollars, and so she put up books four and five. By the end of the third month, she had made thousands of dollars, and within a year, she had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, all based on word-of-mouth of young readers who loved her stories. I thought, if she can do it, why can’t I?

Of course, I didn’t see quite that much money — not even close — in my first year, partly because I put up a few books in different genres. One was an adult thriller, one was an adult horror, and three were young adult fantasy. By the time I put up a young adult horror in early 2012, I think I might have alienated most of my potential readers just because my work is so varied, but I did earn some young fans around the world who loved my Happy Birthday to Me trilogy and wanted to see more from me.

I enrolled in Amazon’s new KDP program and with bonuses from book borrows, I earned more than 5000 dollars in early 2012 from my self-published books. The future looked bright. I knew I had lots more books in me, and I’m one who likes to write a lot, not just pen one novel and then tinker with it for a few years. I was going to stick to young adult for awhile and try to build up my fan base. And while my young adult horror trilogy didn’t bring the same success as my birthday trilogy, I had completed the first draft of an LGBT young adult Wizard of Oz story that I was super stoked about, along with at least three more ideas I was looking forward to starting.

My passion for self-publishing, however, started to temper in 2013. Since I couldn’t find an agent to represent Over the Rainbow, I decided I was going to go the self-publishing route, and not only would I put it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes, but I would also go beyond any marketing I had done before and pay for marketing and ads, as well as advertise the book on blogs and review sites in the weeks leading up to its August release. I tried Kickstarter for the first time to help pay for the marketing, and with the help of about seventy people, I successfully raised $1,600. From June to early August I did everything I was supposed to do to bring awareness to my project. Plus I had fans who had enjoyed my Birthday trilogy from 2011, and my horror trilogy to a lesser extent, so I felt confident something was going to happen with my newest book.

Finally, the day arrived. I hit the PUBLISH button, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. In the first week I sold maybe ten copies, and then in the next month I sold maybe five more. A few nasty reviews of the book were posted on Goodreads, and then it was over. Over the Rainbow died a quick death, and since late 2013, any talk about it vanished. The experience was so painful that I started second guessing self-publishing. Maybe the literary agents and traditional publishers are there for a reason, I thought. Maybe not everything I write should necessarily be put into the world, I thought.

In 2013 I wrote another novel, an LGBT young adult novel called Magic Hour, and I planned, after once again a lack of interest in agents, to self-publish the book in the summer of 2014. But that summer came and went, and now, five years since I wrote the first draft of Magic Hour, it’s still in the drawer. I’ve written seven novels since Magic Hour, and I’ve self-published none of them. I finally signed with a literary agent in 2017, and I currently have a book on submission to traditional publishers. The dream is nearly here, that dream I had way back in 2010.

While I earned a few respectable thousand from self-publishing in 2012, those earnings have all but dried up, especially since I haven’t published any novels in two years, and now I’m lucky to make fifty bucks a month. The main reason I’ve stopped self-publishing is that I’m in a different place now. I just earned an MFA in Creative Writing, and I want to be held to a higher standard. It’s so easy to hit that PUBLISH button on Amazon, but I have to be careful now, especially since I want a level of respectability as a writer; a bunch of self-published novels, particularly ones that weren’t well-reviewed, aren’t going to bring it to me.

If I labored over one manuscript for year after year and couldn’t move on to another project, then self-publishing might be a means to an end, but I’m always writing new books, always keeping busy with new projects, and it’s not painful for me anymore to stick the latest manuscript in the drawer if it’s not working and move on to the next one. Self-publishing will always remain an option in my future, but I’ve decided, at least for the next three to four years, to put it out of my mind and focus on the traditional path. I want to collaborate with agents and editors, I want my book in actual bookstores, I want to connect with as many readers as possible. I’m hopeful, one day, traditional publishing will get me there. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and I’ll keep running as long as I have to.