Every hour should be Earth Hour

My daily commute takes me past a small farm with a field where sheep graze every afternoon. Lambs walk with their mothers beneath the sunshine and play at the edge of a small pond where geese paddle lazily and shake droplets from their feathers. No matter how rotten a mood I’m in, how intense the tribulations of the day’s labours past, the innocence of this little place is unfailingly soothing, like visual yoga for the soul. Tonight we are asked beginning at 8:30 pm to turn off our electronics and live in that same silence and simplicity for an hour. Communities around the globe have thrown down the gauntlet to see who can outdo the other in terms of the biggest percentage drop in power demand. The ostensible goal of Earth Hour is to raise awareness of what the consumptive attitude of humanity is doing to its only home. But it behooves us as a species to be aware of the earth every hour of every day; of the treasures it holds and of the unparalleled, impossible-to-duplicate magnificence in something as small as a blade of grass waving in the breeze. Just pause, for one cleansing breath, before we climb back in the SUV and crank up the thousand-megawatt subwoofers.

This is a tough time for our planet. The human population has surged past 7 billion, and shortsightedness and greed on the part of a wealthy few has led to extreme poverty for the majority. And when the economy slows down, it is left to the earth to make up the difference. Dirty industry flourishes in the interest of quick growth; environmental review processes are gutted to get factories moving fast. Moneyed interests push misinformation about climate change into mainstream accepted thought. Anyone who suggests we slow down and give less destructive alternatives their due consideration is pilloried as a job-killing, tree-hugging, pinko Communist (Stalin’s and Mao’s lasting legacies being their keen environmental stewardship, naturally). The Lorax, the recent movie based on the fable by Dr. Seuss, was trashed in certain segments of the press for pushing an undesirable agenda onto kids, because it dared to suggest that levelling all the trees in sight wasn’t necessarily a good idea. We are in an era of reverse ecology – it has somehow become “cool” to hate the earth, and morally sound to sacrifice it on the altar of the GDP at every opportunity. As a result, turning one’s lights off for an hour one Saturday night a year feels like shouting into the winds of a rising storm.

The ad hominem counter-arguments will no doubt come fast and furious. “Oh yeah, well, why don’t you give up your car and your computer and go live in a cave somewhere, you stupid eco-fasci-socialist.” I’m not suggesting that the world shut itself off and return to a purely agrarian existence; that’s fantasy. Surely human beings are clever enough to figure out a way to have our toys and clean air too. As Al Gore said in An Inconvenient Truth, what is lacking is the will. How do we change our collective attitude from hungry consumer to responsible warden of a suffering world?

Maybe it begins with taking that moment to watch the lambs in the field, to reconnect with the innocent. To recognize that whatever you believe put us here – God, evolution or random chance – also gave us the capacity to appreciate and cherish beauty in all its forms, and an abiding wish to not see beauty destroyed for selfish, temporary gain. If it is indeed our duty to leave to our children better than we ourselves have inherited, then we owe each of them the chance to experience the forest, the ocean and the snow-capped mountain peak as we have. This can be the nobler purpose to which we aspire. We can start making the hard choices that reflect both our individual and societal commitment to achieving that purpose – saying no to the cheap and easy solutions and the leaders who peddle them, and embracing our human responsibility to tend the garden of our unique home. For all the beauty present in the world is of the earth, and as the earth dies, so does beauty. No matter our political stripe, we can agree that beauty is worth saving. And it is a solemn obligation that extends far beyond the dying seconds of Earth Hour.

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This is not a post, it’s a preview for a trailer for an upcoming post

Xzibit, you are all too knowing. Memegenerator.net.

It’s been said that we live in an age of lowered expectations; schools expect less from students, audiences expect less from television, voters expect less from their leaders.  But every time you think we’ve bottomed out at the nadir of what is meant to impress us, someone finds a way to dig further down and underwhelm even more.  Recently, we’ve seen the rise of a new low in the aspirations of marketing, like a badly mixed soufflé sputtering to inflate itself in an oven with the fuse burnt out:  the movie trailer trailer.  And that’s not a message from the Department of Redundancy Department.

Yes, studios have decided now to capitalize on an audience’s hunger for any tidbit of information about an upcoming blockbuster by releasing trailers not for the movie itself, but for a more detailed trailer about the movie.  Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s enigmatic sci-fi prequel to his 1979 classic Alien, got the ball rolling last month, and in the last few days we have had a trailer for the trailer of the unclamored-for remake of Total Recall.  Honestly, if there was any more recycling going on they would have to pack film reels in blue boxes.  Faced with an appalling glut of unoriginality, studio marketers have decided to double down by trying to create buzz not for the projects themselves, but for the very ads promoting the projects.  There is a very popular Internet meme involving Xzibit and Pimp My Ride which comes to mind, an appropriate variation on which would be thus:  “Yo dawg, I heard you like trailers so we made a trailer for a trailer that you can watch in your trailer while you wait for the new trailer.”

I suppose it might be forgivable if the advertisements being advertised (God, the mind implodes at that) were anything of substance.  The complaint used to be that trailers gave away too much (Cast Away, I still haven’t forgiven you for giving away that Tom Hanks gets off the damn island!), now, they are a big pile of nothing.  The Total Recall trailer trailer tries to entice you by showing everything you’ve seen before:  Colin Farrell being strapped into the same machine Arnold Schwarzenegger was 22 years ago, Kate Beckinsale looking hot and carrying a gun, futuristic cars flying around, some stunt guy leaping out a window.  Even worse than this is the teaser for Breaking Dawn – Part 2, the ultimate Seinfeld of a trailer whose big draw is a shot of Kristen Stewart wearing the same facial expression she’s used in the previous four Twilight movies, only this time with red eyes.  Oooh.  (Of course this movie is ad- and critic-proof as its legions of worshippers will show up at theatres even if the movie is just Stewart and Robert Pattinson staring at each other for two and a half hours – oh, wait, that’s exactly what it is!)

Naturally, we have only ourselves to blame.  Collectively we’re like the kid shaking his presents three weeks before Christmas listening for the telltale rattle of the Lego set inside, in our obsessive need to know every last detail of a movie before it ever opens – who’s in it, what changes they made from the book, what the characters look like, what stars are actually dating off the set, the shape and substance of every major action sequence down to a beat-by-beat plot description and excerpts of dialogue.  There is a theory among movie marketers, the people who actually cut the trailers together, that audiences won’t go to a movie unless they’ve already seen the best parts.  But thanks to entertainment magazines and Internet gossip sites, we already have, before a frame of actual film crosses in front of our eyeballs.  We know exactly what’s coming, because we don’t want to be surprised – the potential of a surprise carries with it the equal potential of disappointment, and who wants that on a summer night at the theatre?  So the natural response by the people selling these things is to reassure you that you’re going to get exactly what you’re expecting, and it’s why they make trailers for trailers.  It’s a mere taste of the pablum cooking on the stove before Mom spoons out an entire bowl for you; warm, comforting and utterly without flavour.  There is no there there, so all they can sell is hype.  And if you lap it up and buy a ticket to the movie anyway, two hours later that’s all you’re going to come away with.

As a new day dawns

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just to follow up quickly on yesterday’s news:  while yesterday was all about me, today is about you.  Specifically, everyone who drops by to read what I have to say; friends, family, accidental visitors looking for porn.  Writing is really only ever entering one half of an equation, and it’s the reader who supplies the missing element to make it into something truly special.  When I started this journey a little less than a year ago I had no idea what to expect.  I know I did not expect what it’s become, and that is something that has exceeded my hopes at every turn.  With our words we are sending a single beam of light out into the darkness, reaching, hoping to connect.  In The King’s Speech, when he is exposed as having no credentials, Lionel Logue talks about how with speech therapy it’s more important for the patient to know that a friend is listening.  I think of blogging in much the same way.  That you are taking precious time out of your busy lives to listen to what I have to say makes you a friend of mine.  And I’m forever grateful.

On that note I want to say a special thank you to everyone on WordPress, in particular those of you who are following me and always providing encouraging comments, folks like East Bay Writer, Tele and Samir – people I’ve never met or spoken to in real life but who have become friends in every way that matters.  I love reading what you have to say on your own blogs and I’m delighted every time I see a like or a comment from you.  I look forward to keeping our dialogue going as we all move forward in our writing ambitions to the bright futures I am convinced lie ahead.

Okay, enough of the mushy stuff.  There’s writing to be done.

In which we pause for some shameless self-promotion

I’ve got some exciting news to share.  This is an excerpt from the list of The Huffington Post’s alphabetical list of bloggers.  I have highlighted a particular name.

Further up the list is another name, just added today.

Yep, that’s me!  How cool is that?  Just goes to show you, never be discouraged – if you believe you can do it, you can make it happen.  Wonder if I can convince Mr. Sorkin to collaborate on something?

We can’t stop here, this is bat country

Las Vegas - little fear, some loathing.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to use that line for the title of a post for a long time.  Then it occurred to me that it might be best applied to a review of the locale it is describing, and thus a new category is born.  The reality of life and limited vacation days mean that my better half and I don’t get to see as much of the world as we’d like, so we treasure our infrequent voyages abroad and try to pack as much sightseeing into them as we can while setting aside sufficient downtime – no point coming back from holiday feeling more tired than when you left.  Las Vegas, which we visited four years ago, is obviously not a place to lounge around (unless it’s a specific type of “lounge” we’re referring to).  If New York is the city that never sleeps, Vegas is the city that can’t sleep because it’s on a perpetual crack high.  In Hannibal, Agent Starling comments about a letter from Dr. Lecter postmarked Las Vegas that it must be from a remailing service, as Vegas is the last place the cultured killer would ever be.  There is however a culture here; it’s the culture of affluenza in the backyard of the one percent, oozing wealth and fortune and gobs of excess at every turn.

The Strip at night.

Monty Python has a bit where Michael Palin, playing a priest, goes on at length about how “incredibly huge” God is.  Your first sight of Sin City from the runway at McCarran International Airport is misleading – you can see the hotels in the distance, but your mind, accustomed to the size of hotels from your hometown, can’t comprehend the sheer scale.  You think, “oh, well it won’t take that long to walk up and down the Strip.”  That is, until the steroid-enhanced architecture of buildings like the MGM Grand, the Luxor, Caesar’s, the Bellagio and so on along Las Vegas Boulevard puts you in your place.  This is the pinnacle of capitalist triumph, built on inconceivable mountains of debt, what the Egyptian pharaohs might have crafted with their armies of slave labor had they been fond of slot machines, gin and neon.  By any measure of sustainable or even logical urban planning, Las Vegas should not exist – it makes no sense to drop a metropolis in the middle of the desert.  But once it’s there, why not go full tilt – let’s have trucks spew diesel fumes up and down the Strip for twenty-four hours straight carrying ads for gentleman’s clubs, let’s install ubiquitous misters to spray what’s left of the Colorado River on sunburned heads, and let’s run enough air conditioning to sear the ozone layer to a crisp.  Of course, that’s part and parcel of the Vegas allure – that with a few lucky hands at the blackjack table you too can afford your own $500-a-round golf course (or, at the least, not blink at the idea of a $6.50 glass of orange juice).

Taxes and gratuity not included.

There is plenty to loathe about the idea of Las Vegas; the excess, the waste, the glorification of wealth as mankind’s most noble ambition, the destitution of the ones who have bet the house and lost.  However, something about it tempts you to say “the heck with it,” set the moral issues aside and plunge yourself headfirst into the Vegas experience.  You can spend a week there, never set foot near a gaming table and still see something different in every passing minute.  Each hotel has its own custom Cirque de Soleil (or Cirque de Soleil-knockoff) show, and any Beatles fan wandering through won’t want to miss the Mirage’s presentation of LOVE, a collaboration setting the spectacle of Cirque to the timeless music of the Fab Four, which will never sound better than it does blasting remastered from a hundred speakers inside the theatre.  If you want kitsch, the cheesiness of “classic Vegas,” well, there is still the topless girlie show at the Tropicana, the men of “Thunder from Down Under” at Excalibur, and “Sirens of T.I.” at Treasure Island, where the spectacle of a pirate ship sinking before your eyes every half hour has been enhanced with a lot of busty, scantily-dressed women.  If you want something you can safely show the kids, take them to the M&M’s exhibit to say hello to a lifesize Red and Peanut, then wander across Las Vegas Boulevard to watch the dancing fountains at the Bellagio and re-enact the final scene of Ocean’s Eleven.  And speaking of fountains, only in Las Vegas will you turn a corner in a casino and stumble across something like this:

A living statue at the Venetian. See the water pouring out of her fingertips?

Would I go back?  It shames me to admit, in a heartbeat.  Mainly because I feel like I still need to figure Las Vegas out.  I can sneer at its over-the-top opulence in one breath and revel in its eternal party atmosphere in the next, and for me that contradiction is endlessly fascinating.  There is art and joy to be found beneath the layers of gouda and heartbreak; sensory experiences to be relished, regal comforts to be absorbed.  Perhaps the karmic way to do Vegas is to pledge an equivalent amount of reading Shakespeare and doing charity work for every day you decide to spend under the Nevada neon.  Or, at the very least, tell yourself that the allure and seduction of Lady Vegas will not change you nor what you hold dear.  For bat country may be a nice place to visit, but you probably don’t want to leave your soul there.

Why I’m sick – literally – of shaky cameras

We went to see The Hunger Games yesterday.  I haven’t subscribed to the phenomenon of this newest teen read-turned-franchise (the premise of kids forced to kill each other for food strikes me as a tad dark for the age group it’s appealing to) but it’s good to see the emergence of a strong, brave and loyal heroine who isn’t whiny, unrealistically pretty or overly unfeminine, or dependent on the obsessive love of an emo vampire for her self-worth.  With that in mind, bravo to Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen and the actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence.  Bravo too to writer-director Gary Ross, who doesn’t make movies very often but never fails to craft a thought provoking tale when he does (Dave, Pleasantville).  And indeed, healthy kudos to all involved in putting together an entertaining if surprisingly low-key adventure.  My only major complaint is, did the camera have to be so damn shaky throughout the whole thing?

Th-th-the H-h-hun-ge-ge-ger G-g-ga-me-me-es.

Hand-held camera work has been popular among filmmakers for some time.  I first became truly aware of it when NYPD Blue premiered in the early 90’s – couldn’t figure out why the camera work was so sloppy!  From a critical standpoint, taking the camera off its mount and letting it bounce around invokes the realism of documentaries, placing the audience member right in the middle of gritty, cheap life and death and not in the safe, million-dollar air-conditioned artifice of a soundstage.  “Shakycam” in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan helped to convey the rawness and bloodiness of the D-Day invasion the way the bolted-to-the-floor approach of the 60’s John Wayne war epics didn’t.  And low-budget horror movies like The Blair Witch Project use shakycam to build tension so that those of us watching feel as unsettled as the characters wondering if the axe murderer is lurking beyond the doorway.

But there is a major difference between being creeped out by a movie and contracting motion sickness from it.  I’m not sure if the shakycam work is becoming more intense these days or I’m just getting old, but the first hour of The Hunger Games had me longing for a barf bag – a reaction I’m certain wasn’t the intention of Gary Ross or his director of photography.  (Luckily once Katniss and Peeta reach the Capitol the camera settles down a bit.)  As much as I loved The Grey, I had the same problem with it.  I could not watch at least half of The Bourne Ultimatum in the theatre; I remember sitting there staring at the back of the seat in front of me hoping my stomach would calm down.  And Blair Witch made me so ill I had to walk out of the theatre twice – and I was 13 years younger then.  As the sensory experience of movies intensifies, with surround sound, digital projection and 3-D, the more shakycam messes with our inner ears, and the more difficult it is to sit through a movie without tossing the candies you just scarfed down.  My question is – the moviegoing experience has become miserable enough with smartphones going off and other audience members yakking at each other and at the screen, do we have to keep adding nausea to the reasons to stay home?

Shakycam has become so ubiquitous that it pops up in movies where it’s completely inappropriate.  One of the worst recent offenders was Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s story of the pursuit of John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.  Mann made the questionable artistic choice of shooting a 1930’s period piece on digital video with plenty of 2000’s shakycam, which pulled me out of the story.  I never believed I was in the 1930’s – the camera work made me feel I was watching a reality show with a bunch of celebrities playing cops and gangsters.  I can’t imagine actors are very fond of it either, particularly if they’re trying to convey nuanced emotional moments while the camera is zipping around their face like a drunken mosquito.  One of the most beautiful elements of The King’s Speech was that the camera work was almost invisible, letting you focus on the words and actions and reactions of the characters.  The anchor of a fixed camera immerses you in that world because you forget the camera is there.  If the aim of a movie is to give the audience an escape, then directors should not erect barriers to losing oneself.  Shakycam does exactly that, even if it doesn’t make you physically sick, by reminding you of the camera present in the room with these characters, and that whoever is operating it probably should have eaten more protein with his breakfast.

My friends and I made a no-budget, feature-length action comedy in our last year of high school, using my family’s video camera.  Fortunately one of my pals was able to procure a tripod, which we considered a godsend, because the last thing we wanted for our little epic was the unprofessional look of an unsteady camera.  Even in Hollywood, an unsteady camera used to be lambasted as the shoddy workmanship of a bad director; now, those same studio hacks jerk the camera around to up their artistic credibility and are summarily praised for their realistic approach.  Personally, I’m tired of just hoping I’m going to make it to the end of the movie without my stomach leaping out through my mouth.  I think it’s time we thanked the shakycam and packed it off to the realm of the intertitle and other cinematic techniques long since abandoned.  Either that or start selling Gravol at the snack counter along with the Skittles.

The clown princess sings the blues: Dee Dee Bridgewater live

Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Jazz can be too serious.  Images of the angry Charles Mingus, the intellectual Charlie Parker and the humorless Miles Davis haunt the genre.  The blues themselves draw their name from the stories of heartbreak and misery along the Mississippi in turn of the century America.  And there is perhaps no greater jazz tragedy than the too early passing of Billie Holiday at the age of 44 in 1959.  Yet jazz, as I’ve noted before, is a palette of many colours, and as much virtue as there is in the emotionless pursuit of perfection as exemplified by some of the artists noted above, to me, jazz’s most endearing feature is its capacity for fun.  The joy that can come from jazz is deeper, because it does originate from a place of pain.  It is a cathartic release from a soul that has walked through the fire and emerged with a smile, recognizing that the hardest part of life is in the rear view mirror.  Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre last evening paid tribute to the late Ms. Holiday, is someone who knows how to find the fun inside the sorrow, how to wring it from the pores and swing it across the stage in golden platform shoes, while occasionally getting caught on the microphone cord.

In person, Dee Dee Bridgewater is a striking, unusual, inescapably jazz figure – tall, leggy, elegant and glamorous, without a single hair atop her head.  Her background could not be more different than my jazz crush Emilie-Claire Barlow, but they are cut from the same cloth – seasoned performers possessed of extraordinary talent disciplined by impeccable timing and skill.  Bridgewater’s background includes a Tony win on Broadway and work with jazz royalty like Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon, but even to a modest crowd (that should have been a capacity house – shame on you Burlington) she gives it her absolute all, demonstrating tremendous vocal dexterity by flitting between the notes of Billie Holiday’s best in a flawlessly choreographed dance that with lesser chops could have been a catastrophic mess.    It’s not just a glorified karaoke night – where Billie Holiday’s take on these numbers was one of sorrow, Bridgewater rightly forges her own path, transforming them into songs of power and triumph while still paying tribute to the melancholy voice that originated them.  (Bridgewater can actually do a flawless and spine-chilling impression of Billie Holiday’s voice, but apart from one brief, jaw-dropping demonstration between numbers, rightly steers clear of imitation.)  Songs like “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Lover Man,” and “All of Me” become musical romps.  “Mother’s Son-in-Law” is a sassy double act between Bridgewater and her bass player as she vamps goofily like a way-past-her-prime burlesque madam.  One truly remarkable moment in “Fine and Mellow” sees Bridgewater performing a slide trombone solo – without a trombone.  It borders on comic, even silly as she mimics the movements of the slide, but she captures the sound of the instrument with only her voice, like a jazz Rich Little.  And in “A Foggy Day,” her quartet of piano, bass, drums and sax are each given their moment in the sun, proving that they share Bridgewater’s talent and ability to locate the kernel of joy inside each teardrop and spread it across the stage.

Improvisation lies at the heart of true jazz – bending and twisting the melody this way and that, playing themes to their outstretched limits.  But as Dee Dee Bridgewater shows, that improvisation doesn’t always have to be so goshdarned dour.  She and her band fuse ad libs, missteps and outright screw-ups into a smooth cocktail of pure entertainment.  Unlike her younger contemporaries, Bridgewater is looking back at a long career and understands that she has nothing left to prove – at this point, she’s doing it for the sheer love of music.  It’s a privilege to spend a few hours in the company of such a genuine performer, and one hopes that should Dee Dee Bridgewater pass through these streets again soon, that many more people will avail themselves of a priceless opportunity to watch a true professor of the spirit of jazz show them what it’s all about, and leave them smiling for their trouble.

This is your brain on digital media

Arianna Huffington addresses the Toronto Digital Media Summit, photo by yours truly sitting four rows back.

Johnny Mnemonic features a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as a “futuristic” (I put the quotes around futuristic because many of the movie’s concepts have grown quite out-of-date) courier whose packages of data are uploaded directly into his brain.  Eager to take on a high-paying job, Reeves’ character agrees to carry more information than his brain can handle.  I find myself in a similar situation after two days at Toronto’s 2012 Digital Media Summit, having assimilated the insights of dozens of expert speakers and panellists, including representatives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft, on what this whole concept means and where they think it might be going.  The key word there is “think,” because digital media is progressing too fast for the majority of us to simply keep up, let alone predict.  Today’s phenomenon is tomorrow’s relic, and what seems like a ludicrous concept this morning might be a smash success this afternoon.  The statistics are cosmic in their scope:  2 billion people on the planet access the Internet as part of their daily lives.  52 billion pages indexed on Google, 1.3 million articles on Wikipedia, 100,000 years’ worth of YouTube video shared on Facebook in 2011 alone.  Futurist Michael Tchong, one of the featured speakers this past weekend, refers to it as an ubertrend, which he defines as “a major movement, pattern or wave emerging in the American lifestyle that ripples through society leaving many subtrends in its wake.”  Although opinions on how to harness these ripples are numerous, one fact that seems to be shared is the idea that all of this is fuelled by the human need for connection – and kinship.

Associated with that need for connection is the humorous acronym FOMO, that Tchong suggests is behind much of the social media explosion – Fear Of Missing Out.  When so much flies by at lightspeed, billions of times every nanosecond, we are terrified that we might not see all of it, whether it be the latest updates from our friends and family, infinite funny cat videos or actual breaking news.  Texting and driving, Tchong says, happens because some of us have decided that being in touch is more important than being alive.  Perhaps, if one can venture down the garden path of existentialism, for many people being in touch is being alive; this idea of ambient awareness that I have discussed before.  But it is far more than simply wanting to know what’s going on – it’s wanting to know.  Arianna Huffington, who gave the closing keynote address yesterday, referred to her early book The Fourth Instinct, which suggests that beyond the usual human needs for survival, sex and power, there is a hunger for spiritual fulfillment and meaning; to answer that fundamental question of Life, The Universe and Everything (yes, Douglas Adams fans, I know it’s 42, but stick with me here).  Digital media is a sublime leap towards the realization of this answer, because it brings people together in a grand unified search.  This is why I put no stock in the philosophy of every man for himself; the mere existence of the ubertrend under examination here suggests that we are inclined towards a sense of community, of belonging, and that the reason why the technology of information has been the fastest to progress (instead of jetpacks) is because it reflects what we want most as a species gifted with intellectual curiosity.

And as expected, many fear the undiscovered country it is leading us towards.  Misguided approaches to regulate digital media, such as SOPA, ACTA or the Vic Toews nonsense going on in Canada, are the last refuge of an old guard longing for the simplicity of the era when everything could be explained as God’s will.  Ironically, that fear comes from the very same place as the curiosity that drives the democratic exchange of ideas as exemplified by digital media.  When information rested only in the hands of a few, those few were respected and admired as learned leaders.  The more the truth spreads, the less those people are needed – the influence they have built for themselves, out of this same, basic longing for community, diminishes as others cease to listen to them, until they are finally left alone, and forgotten.

So what then, in a nutshell, could you say is the biggest takeaway from my massive data intake of the last two days?  Certainly enough thought to chew on for the conceivable future (and more than a few blog posts I’m sure), but above all else, reinforcement of the notion that a global community, a global family, is not just a pipe dream of a few starry-eyed prognosticators, it is a place we are going whether we like it or not.  Our existence as individuals in a population of 7 billion mirrors our tiny earth adrift in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and just as each of us longs to find meaning as part of a family, our entire race hungers for meaning within the endless dark.  Why are we here?  Maybe Cousin Phil has an idea – check his status update.  Connection, knowing that we are not alone, is tremendously liberating – it reassures and emboldens us to take the next step.  Host Rob Braide of Galaxie Radio kicked off the conference by invoking the analogy of a drunk who drops his keys on a dark street and wanders to the safety of a street light instead of looking for them straight away.  The connection provided by digital media is that light.  And the more light the better.

Ten Things Amateurs Do To Annoy Literary Agents (That Seem Like Easily Avoided Mistakes)

Writers can’t live in a vacuum.  You have to know your industry:  keep abreast of trends, understand how things operate and who the players are.  Twitter can be a great resource for passive solicitation of the wisdom of literary agents.  I follow more than a few myself.  To an unpublished writer, an agent is a mythical figure; unicorn-like in elusiveness, keepers of the keys to the magical kingdom of the printed word (and the accompanying royalty cheques), their reputation for granting lifelong dreams rocketed to the heights of Midas or the Fairy Godmother by tales of the agent who plucked the hausfrau from obscurity and made her a million-dollar book deal.  Yet the vast majority of agents are ordinary working folks like you and I, who need copious ventis to make it through the 9-to-5 slog.  Still, they love reading and can be enchanted by a wonderful story as much as any person out there.  One erroneous assumption I think a lot of beginners proceed under is that agents are embittered, failed authors predisposed to hate 99% of what they’re submitted.  Gene Roddenberry once said that a TV producer would stand in the driving rain for days in exchange for one decent script to shoot, and the same mentality applies to agents.  They want the next big thing as much as you want to be the next big thing.  The difference is, they know the business.  It’s their job.

Securing a literary agent really is like landing a job.  It has to be a good fit for both of you.  The agent isn’t just a one-off middleman who is sending your book to publishers for a cut of the profits, it’s someone with whom you’ll be forming a partnership, working with them for a long time to develop your career and hopefully carry you to that second, third, fourth book and far beyond.  So I must admit I’m surprised to see agents complaining with resigned regularity about the same mistakes made by people who submit manuscripts and proposals to them.  You have to think of your submission as a resume, and the agent as HR.  They are getting thousands of applications a year, and there has to be a way to winnow that behemoth of an in-box as rapidly as possible, lest a plunge over the Cliffs of Insanity result.  As the applicant, you have to do your damnedest to ensure there are as few reasons to toss yours from the pile as possible.  And there are a few “don’ts” that no one who’s serious about writing professionally should ever succumb to, which I don’t believe you need to be a professional to figure out – they’re just common sense.  I’m not an agent, I don’t have an agent, I don’t know any agents.  But based on my observations, here are my Ten Things You Should Never Do When Pitching An Agent, and the reasons why they should be self-evident:

1.  Lie

The first and most obvious, but again, you’d be surprised how many agents complain about this.  Lying about yourself may work on the hot girl in the skinny jeans after she’s had a few tequila shots, but again, think of what you’re aiming for here – long-term relationship, not one-night stand.  In the age of Google it’s even harder to get away with Catch Me If You Can-esque deceptions.  If you’ve never been published, don’t claim otherwise.  The agent will appreciate your honesty more than they will a couple of made up credits which they’ll be able to find out are B.S. in less time than it’s taking you to read this sentence.  You won’t get away with it.

2.  Exaggerate Your Awesomeness

“My mashup of The Da Vinci Code meets Spongebob Squarepants, which calls to mind the masterworks of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, is guaranteed to be an Oprah’s Book Club best-seller and a blockbuster motion picture.”  Oh, where to start.  Firstly, as far as I know Oprah isn’t doing her book club anymore, and it’s long been a rule among agents that dropping Her Highness’ name in a query is a trigger for an instant form rejection.  Secondly, while it’s better to be proud of your work than to shuffle it forward reluctantly like Fluttershy begging for approval, humility over hyperbole is a safer bet.  When you compare your book to literary big guns, you’re lining yourself up for a spectacular crash and burn.  Don’t put yourself in their class until you’ve earned it.  And don’t ever, ever, talk about sales potential or mention the dreaded Holly-word.  That tells an agent you’re not really serious about writing, that you’re more interested in walking the red carpet with Angelina Jolie on your arm.  (I think she’s taken, by the way.)

3.  Submit Work That Isn’t Finished

What happens if you send in a query letter and a sample chapter and the agent bites?  Do you really want to answer their request for a manuscript with “um, uh… it’s not quite… done yet.”  If they want more, you should be able to send it immediately.  Think of your book as a roast chicken – you would never dare serve it until it’s the right temperature, lest your guests die of salmonella poisoning.  You don’t want your agent’s interest to suffer a similar fate.

4.  Fail To Follow Submission Guidelines

Reputable agents will post what they are looking for in a submission in an easily findable format, usually on their website.  Read it carefully and only send them what they’re asking for – no more, no less.  This goes back to the principle of trying not to get automatically thrown out of the queue.  Sending only what you feel like sending, or putting idiotic stuff in your query letter like “if you want to see more, you’ll have to agree to represent me,” creates the impression that you’re arrogant.  Making a stupid mistake, like forgetting to attach a synopsis if it’s requested, shows that you’re careless.  Publishing is a world with a lot of rules, and agents aren’t interested in working with people who can’t be bothered to follow them – no matter how good their book might be.  On the other hand, providing exactly what’s asked for demonstrates a deep respect for the agent’s time.  A lack of that respect leads to the next fatal mistake:

5.  Submit To Agents Who Don’t Represent Your Genre

If you’re looking for a job as a plumber, you don’t send in your application for an IT position.  Nor should you send your brilliant and insightful 300,000 word treatise on 14th Century Hungarian cabinet makers to a children’s lit agent.  Again, reputable agents will let you know what they’re looking for, and most will also have a list of what they don’t want.  Just do your homework and save yourself an automatic rejection.  It’s all about showing you’re taking it seriously and not just spamming every agent who happens to be listed.  Also, if an agent says they are currently closed to any and all queries, respect that request and leave them alone.

6.  Call Or Otherwise Harass Them

Every agent’s website I’ve seen requests – no, beseeches – that you not call them.  It literally is a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” trade.  Take a lesson from high school dating and recognize that constant calling and emailing to request the status of your submission will not win the fair lady’s heart, but rather get you labeled a stalker.  Remember that you’re not being ignored just because you haven’t heard anything in a few weeks.  The agent wants to love your story and they’ll give you every chance to win them over.  Give them the chance to come to it in their own time, when they’re in the right mood to be wowed.  Forcing the issue doesn’t make you look persistent, it makes you irritating.

7.  Pitch To Them On Twitter

As I mentioned earlier, lots of agents are on Twitter, and they are a great resource even if you don’t interact with them – just following will give you lots of links to blogs about writing, updates on upcoming conferences and the very pet peeves that have led to the creation of this list.  Many of them do this because they like writers and they genuinely want to share their expertise as widely as possible.  They recognize, though, that you can’t pitch a book in 140 characters, and therefore they politely ask that you don’t try.  Actor Simon Pegg complains on his Twitter feed constantly about his stream being spammed with whiny pleas for follow-backs and retweets – imagine you’re an agent, all you want to do is tweet about the dinner you’ve just enjoyed and maybe find out who went home on Idol and you get inundated with book proposals.  This is not to suggest you should refrain from tweeting to an agent at all – provided you’re discussing something interesting to them and it’s not a pitch, you’re likely to get a positive reply.

8.  Use Bad Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation

We hold this truth to be the most self-evident.  Agents aren’t going to represent someone who comes off as barely literate.  Spell check exists for a reason.  Run it over and over again, then read your submission backwards one word at a time so your brain doesn’t skip over errors because it’s putting the words into context.  This rule also applies to knowing the format of a query letter.  If you don’t, learn it and practice.  Agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, while snarky, is a great resource for this.  She’ll critique queries she finds interesting, and even if yours isn’t chosen to become her chum of the week you can learn a lot by the mistakes of others and the suggestions she offers to give your query more punch.

9.  Badmouth Them On Social Media

This is the cyberspace equivalent of taking your ball and going home.  There are a dozen reasons why an agent might not request to see anything further from you, and, assuming you’ve avoided items one through eight, I guarantee that not one of those reasons is because they have something against you personally.  Rejection is frustrating, but it’s also part of the business, and you have to learn how to endure it without a hissy fit.  Just accept your “no” and move on to the next agent.  Don’t write a three-thousand word diatribe about how awful the agent is on your blog.  The Internet is public, and forever, and agents network.  They know each other.  If the one that rejected you discovers your online screed of vindictive retribution, how long do you think it will take for the stench of your douchery to spread throughout the literary community?  No one will want to look at anything a spiteful jackass has written even if you are the second coming of William Faulkner.  Be nice, and if you have nothing nice to say, keep your own counsel – or, in other words, shut the hell up about it on Facebook.

10.  Assume Landing An Agent Is A Ticket To Rowlingville

It can happen, but those phenomena are the exception, not the rule.  Landing an agent doesn’t mean you’re set for life.  As I said earlier, it’s just the next step in your career.  You’re still a nobody and there is a lot to come – getting published, for one, and promoting the hell out of yourself to the point where you hope you will reach that critical mass and generate some positive word-of-mouth and strong sales.  I recall reading that nobody attended J.K. Rowling’s first American bookstore appearance.  If we’re honest with ourselves some part of us does really crave wide readership and praise, but overnight successes take years and years.  If you truly love writing enough, then you shouldn’t need that stratospheric level of vindication to make it worth your while.

I can’t promise that this is a definitive list, nor can I assure anyone that obeying all 10 rules will guarantee you an acceptance.  I prefer to approach it from the position of karma, or the golden rule – treat the agent as you would expect to be treated in return, and put out lots of positive energy, and you’re far more likely to get a nibble.  Horror writer Edo van Belkom once told a class I was attending that in order to succeed in publishing, you need a combination of any two of the following three things:  talent, luck and perserverance.  Add to that a healthy dose of respect, humility and attention to detail, and logically, it’s just a matter of time.

An embarrassment of riches

There's gold in them thar cranial recesses.

Writing is one of the easiest things in the world not to do.  That’s the primary reason most people don’t do it, and why those of us who profess to be writers are always struggling to force the words out.  It’s doubly ironic in that no one is born a literary wunderkind, and like muscles, writing only improves the more you do it – so why do the distractions and excuses continue to mount?  It’s too nice a day outside.  The game’s on.  My partner is lonely.  I was in front of the computer at work for nine hours already.  The new trailer for Prometheus just turned up on YouTube.  I’m just not feeling it today.  I need chocolate.

Here’s the problem, I think.  When you go to the gym, if you can’t do 150 pushups in one attempt, no big deal.  You’re not going to wallow in the pit of failure and whine about how you’re never going to get to that magic number.  You might be satisfied with doing 60.  The next day you go back, and you do 70.  Then 80, then 100, slowly and methodically increasing your stamina until you reach your goal and strut around with pecs and guns like The Incredible Hulk.  And really, although you might feel a little inadequate next to the no neck wonder at the leg press who looks like he’s never eaten anything other than chicken breasts, raw eggs and protein shakes, you’re really only competing against your own physical limits.  And you always have a reassuring notion in the back of your mind that it is just a matter of persistence, that eventually your body will toughen up.

Doesn’t work the same way with writing.  When you write something you know is bad, it’s a bodyblow to your ego.  The pathetic cobbling-together of syllables in front of you might as well have been scrawled in crayon by a three-year-old, you hate it that much.  Off to another blog to find some inspiration.  Wow, that’s really good, I can’t write that well.  Everyone is so much better than I am.  Why can’t I show a penetrating insight into humanity like Jonathan Franzen or be as witty as Terry Pratchett or sound as intellectual as Christopher Hitchens, or even be as effortlessly funny as that 19-year-old girl who blogged about her missing underwear?  Hitchens in particular is incredibly intimidating with his line about how most people have a book inside them, and that’s where it should stay.  If you are looking externally for validation of your self-criticism, throw a stone, you’ll hit some piece of literature that will make you feel hopeless.

We like to mock those daily affirmation exercises where you are instructed to stand in front of a mirror and tell your reflection over and over again how special you truly are, no matter how silly you feel doing it.  I suggest that perhaps there is a writer’s equivalent that isn’t quite so Stuart Smalley.  Because the praise we get from others doesn’t ever seem to crack that veneer of insecurity that is always telling us that “no, we actually do suck.”  When I’m mired in that self-loathing spiral, I like to give some thought to some of the other ideas in the hopper that I would like eventually to put to paper.  As I’ve mentioned, I have a novel that I’m finishing.  I also have its partially-written sequel and, because I cannot tell the entire story in only two books, the eventual third installment.  I have a young adult book that is a reflection on a personal tragedy from my teenage years, of which I’ve penned a single chapter.  I have a premise and outlines for a thirteen-episode television series.  I have what I think is a killer idea for a high-concept screenplay which came to me in a dream a while back.  And I have this blog – this is my ninety-first post and I’ll likely pass 100 before the end of the month.  That’s not an insubstantial volume of work.  And there very well may be more lurking in the corners of my brain yet to be discovered, and I’m kind of excited to find out what they are.  That is enough to keep me going, to silence the voice of Pazuzu ever taunting me with visions of spectacular failure.  To throw the foul-mouthed bastard down the Georgetown steps.

With all due respect to the late Mr. Hitchens, if you think you have a book inside you, then write the damn thing.  Maybe you won’t get past the first page, maybe no one will ever read it but your significant other.  And you know what?  That’s perfectly fine.  It may be gold, it may be merely pyrite, but you won’t find out unless you dig it up.  Isn’t the promise alone worth getting out the shovel?