Saturday, January 28, 2012

Good vs. Great

Aesthetic judgments are a matter of opinion. We know this. Everyone has different likes and dislikes. Any given TV show, or song, or movie will appeal to some people and not to others. No one’s opinion is “right” or “wrong.”

We also know that some things, objectively speaking, suck.

And when something bad is put next to something good, it’s really easy to tell which is which. Like when the Wizards play the Thunder. Or when Catwoman is on a double-bill with Iron Man. Or when it’s Domino’s vs. Pizza Hut. I think we even take some comfort in seeing something bad getting trounced by something good, because a contest that features such a wide qualitative disparity between its competitors removes any possibly of having an opinion, thereby relieving us of our self-doubt. (If an opinion is neither ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ how do I know if I’m right?) It transforms anxious theory into calming fact. The Wizards losing by 30 is as reassuring as “1+1=2.”

Good vs. Great is a little different. This is a contest I find utterly fascinating. I love finding clear examples of this distinction. It’s somewhat hard to do because you have to be careful not to let opinion take over. It has to be as clear as Bad vs. Good. This isn’t a matter of thinking Pulp Fiction is good but Kill Bill is great. I’m talking about something so definitive that you can dismiss anyone who has a dissenting opinion as off his rocker. (Like the 10% of critics who think Catwoman is a good movie.)

Caveat lector: Witnessing instances of Good vs. Great doesn’t bring the relief that witnessing Bad vs. Good does. In fact, it can make one downright uneasy. Maybe there’s more tension involved because the contest is more even; the loser will be good—something we were so happy to see beat up on the Bad. But I think there’s something else going on. I think that after a while, a kind of awful realization sets in: The gulf that separates Good from Great is as wide as—or possibly wider than—the one between Good and Bad. And that kind of blows our minds a little. I know it does mine, at least.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of my examples of Good vs. Great…

Donovan vs. Bob Dylan

This is from the documentary Don’t Look Back. Dylan is touring in England and he meets the guy everyone is comparing him to, the singer-songwriter Donovan. Donovan picks up a guitar and plays a little something for everyone (but really for Dylan), a song called “To Sing For You” which had nice lyrics like “When the night has left you cold and feeling sad / I will show you that it cannot be so bad.” It was nice song, a “good song,” as Dylan put it. Then Dylan takes the guitar and plays “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” which had lines like “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun / Crying like a fire in the sun.” Yeah. Dylan, with a smug smile, knew the score, and so did Donovan, if his completely demoralized look at the end was any indication.

Andy Roddick vs. Roger Federer (2009 Wimbledon Finals)

Roddick was a really really good player who was never quite able to be as good as Federer—a tennis genius. Never was this clearer than in the ’09 Wimbledon Finals, which was an epic 5-setter. If you watch the whole match, you’ll see that Roddick played the absolute best tennis of his life…and it still wasn’t enough.

Pre-Bananafish Salinger vs. Post-Bananafish Salinger

Not only is this an example of Good vs. Great, it’s one of the biggest mysteries of American literature. Before 1948, J.D. Salinger was a short story writer who wrote forgettable stories for slicks like Collier’s and Cosmopolitan. Then, after rejecting his stuff for years, The New Yorker publishes what is widely regarded as one of the best short stories of all time by anybody, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” From that point on, Salinger is on fire, writing a canonical novel and highly regarded shorter works. Everything he writes for the next 16 years is collected in books that are still in print today and generally regarded as masterpieces. Quite the transformation.

Timbaland’s Slushpile of Beats vs. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”

This is a scene from Fade to Black, a documentary about the making of Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The movie shows Jay going around to all his producers, listening to their beats and picking the ones he wants to use. Most of Timbaland’s material doesn’t seem to impress Hove too much. Then Timbaland plays literally one second of the beat that will eventually be used on the single “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Jay’s ears prick up immediately and in a flash he knows that the beat is something that the others weren’t: Great. His instantaneous recognition of the stand-out beat reminds me of a quote attributed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

The Dark Knight vs. Heath Ledger’s Joker

The Dark Knight is a pretty amazing movie. Everything about it is top-notch: the production design, the music, the look…not to mention the wonderful cast. But whenever Heath Ledger appears on the screen, everything around him seems woefully inadequate. Not only does his performance reach a level that the other actors can’t touch, but every other aspect of the movie suffers in comparison. Is he the best thing about the movie? Not exactly. He is better than the movie. You get the feeling that while the movie would be nothing without him, he doesn’t need the movie. The performance is so good, it can exist independently and not suffer from the movie’s absence. After all, when the Joker shows up, the rest of it turns into a guy wearing a rubber suit playing pretend with a crew shooting Chicago for a make-believe city. That is to say: just plain silly.

Or, at best, merely Good.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

#LOTRinaday Recap // The Oscar Nominations // Considering A Universal Book Award

It was quite a day yesterday. It took almost exactly 12 hours to get through the LOTR movies consecutively with only a few short breaks. (The disc changes were actually great for going to the bathroom or grabbing a quick snack, as long as I was up.) I had seen all three movies when they came out in the theater and a few times each on DVD but had never watched the extended cuts until yesterday. I enjoyed the extra scenes immensely and thought they nicely filled in the story. It’s weird to say that the whole thing didn’t seem too long, but it really wasn’t—the story progressed naturally and no scene dragged or seemed superfluous or was boring (well, except for when the Ents are deciding whether or not to join the war, but I think that was the point).
It was really great to see the whole story all at once. You really get to see all the relationships and political machinations unfold in a comprehensible way. When there were long gaps between the movies, it was always a struggle to keep track of who and where everyone was.
It was such a good experience, I started thinking that it’d be nice to tackle another movie trilogy back-to-back-to-back. But now I’m thinking that doing so would be such a letdown. Yesterday’s viewing experience cemented it for me: Lord of the Rings is hands down the best movie trilogy of all time. A big reason for this is the way they made it—they filmed it all at once, with the same actors and same creative team. So it doesn’t have the variations in tone, cast, or quality that other trilogies or franchises suffer from. Examples: Harry Potter’s first two movies are completely different from the rest (plus there’s a different Dumbledore). The Mission Impossibles don’t tell one story. The Matrix wasn’t meant to be a trilogy so the storytelling isn’t the best. The third Godfather sucked. Empire Strikes Back was so much better than the other two movies, and the prequels just messed things up. It goes on and on. There’s always something you have to overlook to enjoy a 3+ part movie.
But not with Lord of the Rings.
Everything in those movies is pretty much flawless. I can’t imagine anyone ever again filming three movies on that scale all at once. And if you don’t do it all at once, you risk those annoying inconsistences I was mentioning. So it’s a trilogy that will probably never be rivaled. The only two possible contenders I can think of are the current Batman movies (we’ll see if the third one this summer can wrap things up satisfactorily) and the Toy Story trilogy, which was pretty good. But as live-action movie trilogies go, nothing has ever matched the artistic accomplishment of Rings, and nothing probably ever will. It’s no wonder the series garnered 30 Oscar nominations and won 17, including 11 (out of 11 noms) for The Return of the King.
Speaking of the Oscars, the nominees were announced on Tuesday. If you were paying attention to all the hype there were very few surprises. It looks like it’ll come down to The Artist and Hugo for best picture. War Horse won’t win because Spielberg got snubbed for directing, a minor shock. I was also mildly surprised that Moneyball snagged some major nominations: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor. Brad Pitt and Clooney are going to have so much fun on Oscar night, what with their movies being nominated all over the place. Clooney will most likely win, even.
I was very pleased to see that The Tree of Life got nominated in the major categories (Picture, Director, Cinematography). It was by far the most amazing movie I saw last year, the most beautiful and thought-provoking and emotional. I was also happy that Rooney Mara got nominated. She’s kickass in Dragon Tattoo. Let’s see, what else…oh yes, Gary Oldman got nominated FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER. That’s kind of shocking.
Looking over the list, I was struck by the variety of movies that are up for awards. Movies as diverse as a black-and-white silent movie and a 3D kid’s movie were nominated…and they’re in the same category.
It reminded me of the Grammys. This year, Rihanna is up against Adele and Foo Fighters for Album of the Year, The Band Perry will battle Nicki Minaj for Best New Artist, and Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” and Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave” will vie for Song of the Year. Some of these guys couldn’t be more different from each other. It made me realize what a unifying force these award shows are for their respective mediums. Sure, there are some really esoteric things that get ignored—a non-narrative, Brackhage-type of experimental film will never be nominated for an Oscar, and the Grammys don’t pay attention to anyone writing Classical music these days. But for the most part there seems to be something for everyone, which is why millions of people watch these award shows.
But it got me thinking: What about books? Why isn’t there a book award that has as much diversity (and clout) as the Oscars and Grammys? There are all these niche awards for books—the Newberry, the National Book Award, the Nebula—but there isn’t one award that recognizes general excellence, regardless of type. It’s almost as if nobody thinks there is a cross-pollination of readers of different genres, that a person who reads horror novels cannot possibly read historical fiction, etc.
Most readers I know read pretty promiscuously, and what they read during the course of a year has as much diversity as the music on their iPod. Having a prestigious book award that reflects a normal reader’s multifarious interests would not only foster impassioned discussion, it would also be a celebration of the entire medium, uniting everyone who considers books to be culturally important while at the same time obviating the pointless arguments over whether Chick Lit is “better” than Literary Fiction. It’s such a false division…good is good, regardless of genre. (It’d be like people voting for Moneyball because all they like are sports movies. Ridiculous.)
Imagine if an award like this was around in 2007. Call it the Boty, and pretend it’s big enough to attract all the authors to the award show. The nominees could’ve been: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling; Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult; Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson; Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson; and I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert.
That. Would. Have. Been. AWESOME.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadly Reflections: Creating The Cover

When it came time to find an artist to do the cover, I turned to my good friend Patrick Mattox. Not only is he an excellent artist, he’s also got great design sense and a drive to make things perfect. We hadn’t collaborated on anything since we were in middle school, trading comic book pages back and forth. Since then he has honed his craft while I—realizing I would never be even passable with a pen & ink or a brush—switched mediums, turning to prose. I always hoped our artistic endeavors would cross again, and I am delighted that he is involved with my first major work. The cover ended up looking fantastic—I think he did a masterful job.

Just like the book itself, the cover was the result of a lot of hard work. There were months of e-mail discussions, countless mockups, and a complete change of direction halfway through. Now that the book has been released, I thought it’d be interesting to have a casual conversation with Patrick about the process of making the cover and share some of the alternate concepts that were developed before the final version was settled upon. The following discussion should be informative to anyone interested in how the cover was made. Enjoy.

DHS: Hey Pat. Why don’t you introduce yourself first.

PM: Hi everyone. My name’s Patrick Mattox, I’m a graphic artist and designer. Most of my energy is devoted to sequential art, otherwise known as comics, but I do occasional design work for app companies and also for local businesses. And I suppose I also do book covers now, too.

DHS: Had you ever done a cover for a book before?

PM: Never. Deadly Reflections is my first one.

DHS: What were some of your initial ideas about the cover?
PM: Well, we started talking about the project while you were writing the book. I read the screenplay [the book is based on] to get the feel of the story down. But you had very concrete ideas from the outset about what you wanted the cover to look like, so my initial stabs at it were just trying to fulfill your vision of what you wanted.

DHS: I think I had in my head this idea of like an old horror movie poster or something, something with a nubile young girl looking in a vanity mirror with this monster looming behind her.

PM: I immediately grasped what you were going for. Like you said, it would’ve been like the ads for movies like Friday the 13th, or even the campier ones like Chucky or Leprechaun. I also thought of those old teenage horror books I used to read by guys like Christopher Pike.

DHS: We quickly abandoned that idea.

PM: Well, the problem was that to do a design like that effectively, I felt like it couldn’t be done with anything except paints, or watercolors, specifically. To achieve that classic atmospheric imagery you really need a nice, smeary gouache. And, well, my painting skills aren’t the best, to put it bluntly. (laughs) So if that was definitely what you wanted, I would’ve suggested you get a different artist.

DHS: I think I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted. I knew that the classic imagery you’re talking about has always been effective and I think I wanted to tap into that a little. But I think I realized two things: 1—that the line between it being genuinely chilling or laughable camp was awfully thin and it would’ve been an incredibly slippery slope. And, more importantly, 2—I realized that while the screenplay had some incredibly campy moments (it was probably way more of an homage to that sort of bad teen slasher flick), the book’s story didn’t have as many of those elements in it. It was a little more serious, so that cover would’ve been totally inappropriate.

PM: Having had a chance to read the entire book, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m glad you didn’t pursue that initial inclination, even with an artist that would’ve made it look really good as a piece of art, while being not so much a fitting cover for your book.

DHS: Let’s talk about fonts for a second. Regardless of what the cover of the book was ultimately going to be, I remember you wanted to design the font of the title.
PM: We talked about wanting the title to “fit” into the cover image somehow and be inseparable from the image. I have an interest in typography and felt this would be a good project to stretch those creative muscles. But after some fiddling around, I decided that established typefaces would give us a lot more flexibility, especially with the overall design being in flux for a majority of the time we were working on it. 

DHS: After doing away with the campy horror movie version of the cover, we went for a more minimalistic look to the whole thing.
PM: I was showing you a lot of samples of other books in the genre and we both agreed that a less direct, more suggestive rendering was the right direction to go in. The question became: What one image from the story could be used to represent the book? I thought the recurring glowing red eyes that keep popping up in mirrors throughout the book would make for a striking image, so I started to do a lot of mockups incorporating that element. Having the glass of the mirror be cracked or shattered seemed to strike the right metaphoric note as well. There were also a few attempts to include the chest that is imprisoning this murderous creature. I think that might’ve been extremely effective if we had decided to go in that direction…it’s so evocative and creepy, and of course everyone would wonder, “What’s inside this box?”

DHS: When did the breakthrough of deciding to use a single mirror with a frame come?
PM: I was creating all of these jagged images—shards of glass, broken pieces, mirrors that were intricately cracked. After looking over everything, I realized that the most effective designs were the most basic. Instead of making everything really messy and chaotic, having one framed mirror—or part of one—struck me as interesting. I was taking my cue from one of the nightmares the old man has in the book, where he approaches an ornate mirror. The mirror could still be shattered, but the solid frame would provide an intriguing juxtaposition. After you signed off on this approach, I did a bunch of sketches to determine the layout of the cover and help us decide how much and which part of the mirror would be in the image.
DHS: We eventually settled on the bottom left of the mirror.

PM: Yes. I believe the thinking was that this way the top frame of the mirror wouldn’t overlap the title in a distracting way, and with the title presumably being in the mirror part of the image, we could potentially fracture the typeface in interesting ways if we wanted to. Once we settled on the composition, all that remained was burnishing the mirror and frame, adding as many design elements to it as I could, making it look as interesting as possible. At least, I thought that was all that remained for me to do. (laughs)

DHS: We got as far as picking fonts for the final “locked” version of the cover when you decided we needed a complete overhaul of the whole thing.

PM: After taking a long, hard look at what was supposed to be the final product, I decided it wasn’t working. While the concept was sound, the art wasn’t evoking the right mood. On impulse, I grabbed my digital camera, dug some stuff out of my garage, and starting shooting these scenes with a mirror in them, both exterior and interior. It became immediately clear that this was resulting in superior imagery. I sent these photographic sketches to you and you quickly agreed with me. The deadline for the final cover was rapidly approaching, but you had the courage to say, “Stop working on the other one, do more stuff in this direction.” It was basically starting over from scratch, which was frustrating, scary, and exciting, all at once.

DHS: I really like some of the pictures you took, even though we didn’t use them. I especially like the ones you digitally manipulated.
PM: I was lucky that it was a time of year when you could find certain areas of the woods that still possessed that very sad and ominous autumn feel. A lot of the pictures required no tweaking whatsoever. But a few of the images required a little push in some way. For example, I took some interior shots of a mullioned mirror in near pitch-darkness. Using GIMP (a powerful graphics editor) I turned up the brightness on these images but also ramped up the contrast in order to keep the blacks solid, and it resulted in this fascinating image in which the frame and crossbars of the mirror are ghostly white, appearing to almost glow. On one of the exterior shots, I liked everything about it except I accidentally caught a bit of blue sky in the mirror, which seemed out of place for the cover of this book. So I manipulated the palette of the image, squeezing out most of the color while managing to retain the visibility of the frame, giving it a cold, deathly cast…it almost looks like it’s made of bone. Also, I like in this image how the trees are all black against a stark white sky and the branches look like paint spatters, making it look like a Jackson Pollock painting. It was a fascinating and fun process. It was interesting that what I thought we needed all along—a shattered mirror—turned out not to be necessary. I took a few pictures with a broken mirror and it never looked right. But for the most part I was getting good results, which was really gratifying.

DHS: Did you immediately know what you had when you took the picture that would be used for the final cover?

PM: It was definitely not the last picture I took that day. There was no hopping up and down, shouting, “This is it!” (laughs) In fact, it required a fair amount of imagination to realize there was something special in that image because it was taken in this bright, green, verdant field. But when I got home and loaded all the pictures I had taken that day, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Something about the composition spoke to me…the way the mirror was covered with the grass and leaves was just perfect. It seemed half buried in the earth, half trying to escape out into the world. It became impossible to dismiss. So I set about doing the massive digital alterations that were required to make it a viable cover image. At one point I applied a red tint to the entire image. That looked ok, but it verged on entering that campy territory we had talked about wanting to avoid. It took a few weeks, but to make a truly long story short, I arrived at what we know today as the cover of Deadly Reflections.
DHS: The one last thing we’ll talk about is the last thing that was settled on: the title font.
PM: That was a case of coming almost full circle. I experimented with fracturing the title but it never looked right. I went back to a font I had used in some of the earliest designs and used it for the “Reflections” part of the title. I always liked it because I felt it evoked an old or ancient quality, which was part of what I felt The Terror embodied—an ancient evil. The “Deadly” part of the title is in a stately, seriffed typeface. The juxtaposition was interesting and I thought it would subliminally suggest the modernity of the people in the story clashing with this ancient monster.
DHS: Pat, thank you for taking the time to discuss how the cover was created. I think it’s a work of art and I can’t wait to work with you again.
PM: Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to do the cover to your first book, which I think is amazing. I’m honored to be the cover artist, and it’d be my pleasure to do the cover of your second book.

UPDATE 11/01/12:

DHS: So Pat, how did this cover evolve?

PM: Well, you had some mandates right off the bat for the second cover. One: you wanted to fracture the text somehow. Two: you wanted the overall design to be less austere than the first cover, a little more adventurous.

DHS: Yes, I wanted to get back to some of the original ideas for the cover that we discarded, like fracturing the text. I really felt that doing that would subtly convey some of what happens in book, as well as represent its thematic concerns, if I could be a little highfalutin here.

PM: You also wanted it to be more bright somehow…basically everything the first cover was not.

DHS: Don’t get me wrong, I love the first cover. I think it worked well as an introduction for Deadly Reflections. It has a very classic look and a timeless quality, like a hardcover that’s been on the shelf forever. But I thought with the book being out for close to a year and being put in front of tens of thousands of readers, there was enough of a familiarity about the book that we could get a little more wild with the “paperback” release.

PM: This is often the case with traditional publishing: the hardcover will have an iconic, prim, staid look and the paperback will be more experimental and audacious.

DHS: Exactly. That’s what I wanted for Deadly Reflections.

PM: So pretty early in the process, we decided to go with photography again. But the question became what to photograph.

DHS: I initially thought we could do something with broken glass….

PM: Which turned out to be a dead end. Well, not so much a dead end as an infinite road spiraling endlessly into the horizon. There were just too many options and variables with broken glass. We could fiddle with images for the next three years, literally.

DHS: It helped that I didn’t really respond to any of the pics you took. But we were saved one day when I spotted this crystal container on your desk.

PM: It’s this thing I’ve had forever that I keep odds and ends in: notes, erasers, just everything. I’d ceased really seeing this thing that had been a fixture on my desk for a long time, but when you pointed it out I began to see the possibilities. There were all sorts of interesting angles and bevels in it that I could tell would refract light in interesting ways. So I began to shoot it, over and over.

DHS: I must have seen at least 200 photos of this thing.

PM: At a certain point I started working exclusively with its removable top. I seemed to be getting the best results with just this one piece.

DHS: I loved how it looked almost like a cage at times. It’s nothing like the box that contained the monster in the book, but it’s almost suggestive of it somehow.

PM: So from there we nailed down the design. The cover would be divided into thirds, with the top part devoted to the blurb, the middle reserved for the title, and the bottom having the author’s name. There’s a spotlight or shadow image playing over the entire cover, but the picture containing the title is overlaid on it in a very blunt way, which made for clear demarcations between the thirds. This is a very modern look, something you see on a lot of covers these days, though it’s something I wouldn’t automatically gravitate toward. But for this one I was perfectly happy to tap into my inner Chip Kidd. (laughs)

DHS: I was basically happy with whatever you were doing. After a few weeks, we had it narrowed down to three equally compelling covers.

PM: They offered you three very distinct choices. One played more with shadows, one played more with light, and one was a little off the grid and weird, which is of course the one you chose.

DHS: Well, it was a hard decision. I went back and forth many, many times. The shadowy one was the cleanest design and would’ve been an unimpeachable choice. But that rebel part of me kept saying I would be artistically spineless if I chose what I couldn’t help thinking of as the “safe” cover. After all, didn’t I want something completely different than the first cover?

PM: The new cover is definitely that.

DHS: There’s no doubt that it was the most daring choice, but the more rational part of me was asking whether it was the right choice. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking something is better just because it’s riskier. I have to say, I’m still not sure if I made the right decision.

PM: Well that’s what’s simultaneously great and awful about this thing we call “art”: there are no right answers. You just go with your instincts and hope for the best.

DHS: I really do love the cover, how the light looks almost ghostly and how the reversed “e” is this really lurid red. It’s creepy, and in a completely different way than the first cover was.

PM: I’m pretty happy with it, too.

DHS: It’s a great cover, Pat. I hope we can do this again someday.

PM: It’d be my pleasure, as always.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On STEVE JOBS by Walter Isaacson

I had no idea that Steve Jobs was such a big Bob Dylan fan. He owned a bunch of Dylan bootlegs—on cassette tapes—back in the ‘80s. He described meeting Dylan as the only time he’d ever been nervous meeting another person. And remember that digital box set available on iTunes a couple years ago, comprising all Dylan’s studio recordings and other official releases? That was Jobs’s doing. The CEO of Dylan’s record company didn’t want to do it, so Jobs went directly to Dylan with the idea and it eventually got done.

There were of course indications that he was a fan. During the presentation for the first iPhone, he scrolls through the music on the demo device, stops on Dylan, and says something complimentary. The thing is, this is something any CEO would say to curry favor with Dylan aficionados—it is easily construed as a spurious display of enthusiasm which all salespeople have to adopt to sell their products. But Isaacson’s book reveals that Jobs was rarely disingenuous about the products he endorsed, and his enthusiasm was always genuine.

A lot of people revered Steve Jobs for the Apple products he is credited for introducing to the world. He also had his fair share of detractors who labeled him a bullying jerk. As with any polarizing figure, you can probably dismiss the most negative things people say about him as calumny, the most positive as idolatry. Isaacson tends to describe everything in a plain, just-the-facts sort of way, which works in Jobs’s favor because the facts, for the most part, are on his side.

Yes, he was directly responsible for all the wonderful products that have given millions of people a whole lot of joy over the last decade+. As for all those things things that paint him in an unfavorable light, well, most of them have some sort of explanation. Like when he didn’t financially support the mother of his first child, letting them briefly go on welfare? Well, the woman was a little crazy, convincing her daughter to sign over the $700,000 house Jobs eventually bought for her, then selling it and going to Paris where she burned through all the money. And the time he didn’t respond to Bill Gates’s request to participate in philanthropic endeavors? Well, he just honestly felt his money could be used in better ways.

He never had any problem with putting his money into things he believed in, things he was passionate about. One of those things was Pixar, a company whose existence would be doubtful today without Jobs’s initial investment in the mid-‘80s. He put tens of millions of his own dollars into the company years before they made Toy Story. Pixar’s movies ended up defining a decade of cinema, just as the film school generation did in the ‘70s and the nouvelle vague did in the ‘60s. I think Jobs really felt that a venture like Pixar helped mankind more than a few one-time contributions to charities…and from a certain point of view, it’s hard to argue with him.

(Just as an aside, I want to mention that, for a guy worth eight billion or so dollars, the money is the least interesting aspect of his story.)

For me, the biggest revelation of the book was that Steve Jobs was a true artist. The endless tinkering with the products, the way he put a handle and slot CD drive on the iMac for purely aesthetic reasons, the 11th hour design change of the iPhone…these are all the actions of an uncompromising artist. Yes, he did openly berate people in his employ when he felt they weren’t giving him their all. He was a perfectionist in the body of a flawed individual, living in an imperfect world, working with imperfect people. He screamed and yelled and cried and generally blew up every two seconds. But the further along I got in the book, the more his assholeishness and hardassery seemed to be in service of an artistic temperament—always with an eye toward making something “insanely great”—and he ended up looking less like Kim Jong-il and more like Stanley Kubrick.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Casual Sunday

Brr. It is cold. If you live in the Northeast, you know that it’s the time of year when the weather takes it as a personal challenge to get colder every night. Only three more months of this and it’ll be back to bearable. Yay?

Responses to Deadly Reflections have been coming in and the reactions are overwhelmingly positive so far. It’s immensely gratifying that the book has connected in a meaningful way with readers and that so many have enjoyed it. I feel like the book is starting to make its own way, taking baby steps toward not needing me to cheerlead for it anymore. (I don’t want to overstate the “It’s like being the parent of a child” analogy that all writers seem to love making…but I have to say: it’s pretty much true.)

The heavy lifting has started on my next book, which will be the first in a multi-volume series. If it turns out half as good as it is in my head, it should be pretty amazing. I’ll be releasing more information about it as we get closer to the fall 2012 release.

Anyone else psyched about the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie? It looks chock-full of quirky goodness. The upcoming year looks to be a good one for movies: a new Wes Anderson, a new Paul Thomas Anderson, and a new Whit Stillman. Very excited for all of them.

So on Tuesday, January 24, I plan on doing something half nuts/half cool. I’m gonna watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy back-to-back-to-back. AND I’m watching the extended cuts. Yep, about 12 hours or so. I’ll start around noon and live tweet the experience with the hashtag #LOTRinaday. Feel free to join me, or just chime in with support. Hopefully it won’t feel like a super endurance test. I’m just excited to have an awesome (in both senses of the word) home viewing experience.

I’ll just have to remember to stock up on the popcorn. J


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Deadly Reflections: The Writing Process

This week I’m excited to share with you a look at how Deadly Reflections was made. Every project has its own unique process, and DR’s was pretty interesting. Believe it or not, it first started out as a 156-page screenplay. I wrote it a few years ago when I was writing screenplays pretty regularly. Nothing ever came of it, but I thought the story was really cool and it always stayed in the back of my mind. So when I decided to turn my attention to writing novels, it was an easy decision to tell this story in my first full-length book and hopefully give it more of an audience than it had sitting in my drawer.

Now, you might think that having a completed screenplay to work from would make things pretty easy. But this was not a case of simply retyping the story and changing a few words here and there. As you will see, screenplays are pretty sparsely written and don’t really have a lot to do with traditional prose. The script was a wonderful blueprint to have—the structure and characters were pretty much there—but ultimately it was more of a very detailed outline than anything else, and it was still a lot of hard work to write the book.


The very original germ of the idea came when I was working at a place with an all-glass fa├žade. It was late at night and I was alone in the store. I thought I spotted, in the reflection on the glass, some movement in the lobby. But I hadn’t heard anyone come in. (This might sound very familiar. J) I walked over and, of course, no one was there. Now, any writer will tell you that the most common phrase running through her mind is “What If?” And naturally I thought “Well, I know I saw something in the glass…what if the thing I saw could only be seen as a reflection.” I think I even facetiously looked back at the glass to see if I could spot it again. I came up with the entire story that night.


This is the first thing that was put down on paper. I don’t always make an outline, but I did for this one. As you can see, I didn’t know the title yet.  I also drew silly little doodles in the margins that don’t have anything to do with the story. Those fanged creatures aren’t supposed to be “mirror monsters”—all the monsters I sketch tend to look like that. The first part of the outline is a list of cool things that the monster can appear on. Then I started writing scenes of the story, and I checked them off as I wrote them in the screenplay. Looking at it now, I’m kind of amazed how much I had on day 1 that made it into the finished product.


To demonstrate the rest of the process, I’ll pick two scenes from the book and show you everything that was done on them. The two scenes are First Date (Chapter 9, location 982) and Finding the Box (Chapter 10, location 1250).


You can see how little the screenplay gives you, especially the First Date section. Movies are a visual medium and information can quickly be conveyed with short little shots. Books are different—you have to describe everything you want the reader to “see,” which requires more of a time commitment from both reader and author. Those who have finished Deadly Reflections know how much the First Date chapter in particular was expanded and—I think—enriched.



Yes, I have messy handwriting. And I tend to second-guess things almost as soon as they’re written, so there are a ton of cross-outs. When something is crossed out and circled it means I didn’t like it initially and then decided it was fine. I’m usually not one to just write and write and go for quantity and worry about fixing it later. I like things to be as perfect as possible before moving on, which results in pages that look like a tornado went through them.



An invisible draft occurs when I type the handwritten draft, making changes as I type. After it’s all entered into a word processor, I print out a hard copy of the whole thing and take a red pen to it, making corrections, fixing mistakes, improving the prose. It’s a fun part of the process for me because I get to read the whole thing as a mostly finished story and see if it works. At this point, the changes are mostly cosmetic. With that said, there were still over a thousand emendations in the galley proof.


I went right from corrected galley proof to publication, which I admit was not the best move. A few mistakes slipped through, mostly due to errors I made typing the red-mark corrections into the final document. With so many emendations in the galley proof, I should have printed out another hard copy and done another line edit. Luckily, Amazon has made it really easy and seamless to upload new, corrected editions of the book. I’m not saying there are no mistakes in it now, but hopefully they have been mostly weeded out.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the writing process of Deadly Reflections. I’ll be sharing more stuff about the book with you in the near future, including an interview with the cover artist and “deleted scenes.”

Take care,