Movie Review: Do The Right Thing (1989, directed by Spike Lee)

Note: There are spoilers throughout the review. This review assumes you’ve seen the movie and do not need a basic review of the plot.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I watched this movie. I was charmed by the opening credits, which might just be the best I’ve ever seen, by the way — but by the end of it, I was stunned, and like “Cabaret,” I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards.

In my quest to watch all of the movies on AFI’s Top 100 Movies list, I had “Do The Right Thing” on my to-watch. I had never seen it before, but I was vaguely familiar with it — I knew about “Fight the Power,” Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, that it was set on a hot day in Brooklyn. That was about it.

After having some time to think about it, I think this movie really hinges on Radio Raheem (played by Bill Nunn). While Spike Lee and Danny Aiello are the main stars, and main characters, it is Radio Raheem who provides the thematic thrust of the film and is the character with the biggest impact.

When I got to that scene, I could not believe what I was seeing. When the police officers were choking Raheem to death, all I could think of was Eric Garner and “I can’t breathe” — and of the innumerable black men and women killed by police brutality over the years — Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and on and on and on and on.

The movie came out almost 30 years ago, and we’re still having this conversation? We’re still dealing with these issues? When Barack Obama was elected president, and there was talk about a “post-racial society,” I’m pretty sure sensible people didn’t buy that for a hot second, but I did hope that there would be at least some progress. Not a lot, but, y’know, at least an incremental step forward. Just for things to be a little bit better. Like not-worrying-if-this-traffic-stop-is-going-to-kill-a-man better. Or maybe-we-don’t-choke-a-dude-to-death-for-selling-cigarettes better. I didn’t think that was asking for very much, but apparently it is.

The sad truth is that Spike Lee’s film is just as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Let me pause my own review here real quick to point you to a review by Film Crit Hulk, which stands as the definitive review of “Do The Right Thing” (clicky here to go to new window). That review is insightful and profound, and even Spike Lee himself thinks it’s the best one out there. So, go read it. Seriously, I’ll wait.

My own contributions are much more modest. I wanted to explore Radio Raheem’s Love/Hate monologue. It is, obviously, a fantastic reference to a similar monologue from “The Night of the Hunter”:

And here is Raheem’s version:

Radio Raheem says that Love will ultimately win out against Hate, but “Do The Right Thing” seems ambivalent about that. It has been argued by some that Love wins at the end, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

Yes, it is Mookie (Spike Lee) who shouts, “Hate!” when he hurls that garbage can through Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria, setting off the destruction of that shop. But it’s not Mookie who is filled with Hate — it is Sal. Although Mookie and Sal come to something of an understanding in the ruins of the pizzeria the next morning, it sure doesn’t feel like Love winning to me. For example, if Sal’s son Pino (played by John Turturro) was at that scene the next morning, it would have gone very differently.

Pino had been overtly hostile towards Mookie throughout the movie, to say nothing of their customers and the people on the street. If Pino was there when Mookie asked for his money, there would have been another explosion of Hate. Pino would have only seen Mookie as the guy who threw the trashcan at their shop and destroyed their livelihoods, and nothing more. Pino, frankly, doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand the series of events that led to that confrontation, and thus, represents the outwardly racist segment of the American population. In a way, it’s easier to deal with Pino’s overt hostility than it is Sal’s own complicity.

But let’s back up for a second. In the course of reading reviews and reaction pieces to this movie, I realized that there was a lot of discussion about why Mookie threw the trashcan through the window.

Why did Mookie throw that trashcan? I’m a white person, and I was raised in a white suburban neighborhood in a fairly conservative part of New Jersey, so I get why white people ask that question. And just to be clear, I asked that question, myself, when thinking about this movie.

After all, Sal had just told Mookie that he was like a son to him. Sal cares about Mookie, doesn’t he? But, as we’ll see, Sal didn’t truly Love Mookie as much as he thought he did. I have no doubt that Sal liked Mookie in his own way, but Sal was engaging in a little bit of self-deception about how he really felt about being a pizzeria owner in a black neighborhood, and thus his relationship with Mookie is colored through that lens.

In large part, this “why did Mookie throw the trashcan” reaction from white audiences is compounded by the fact that Sal’s Pizzeria feels like a character — if Mookie had thrown that trashcan at Sal himself instead of his store window, it would have felt just as assaulting. But asking why he threw the trashcan means not asking “why” to a million other little things that came beforehand.

Why didn’t Sal just put up a picture of a black person on his Wall of Fame? That would have cost him literally nothing (well, maybe $2). Smiley (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) was right there — all Sal had to do was say, “Hey, lemme buy one of those photos of yours” and put it up.

Would putting up one of Smiley’s pictures have satisfied Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito)? Probably not, but it would have gone a long way towards defusing the situation. Instead, Sal flew off the handle, calling Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and Smiley n-words and destroying Raheem’s radio.

Other “Why” questions include, but are not limited to: Why didn’t Sal rein in Pino (more on that in a bit)? Why did Sal immediately go for the baseball bat when Radio Raheem came into the restaurant? Why was Sal so threatened by Raheem? Why didn’t Buggin’ Out ask a little more politely? Why did that one cop not let go of Radio Raheem, when everyone else was telling him that he was killing him? Why are we asking why Mookie threw a trashcan instead of asking why the cops killed Radio Raheem?

Sal’s portrayal is an excellent one, and shows the problem of white relations with the black community in America. Sal seems like a nice guy, but look at Sal’s inability to integrate with his neighborhood. He spoke of the black community as “them”:

I never had no trouble with these people. I sat in this window. I watched these little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. Yeah, sure, some of them don’t like us, but most of them do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food. And I’m very proud of that.

Note how he doesn’t say “us” or “we” but “these people.”

It would have cost him literally nothing to hang up a photo of Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X or any of the people Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) mentioned during his radio roll call (73 different artists, unless I counted wrong). It would have cost him literally nothing to listen –really listen — to Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem and Smiley when they came to make their request.

Instead of reining in his son Pino, who is openly hostile and racist towards their customers, their employees, and their community, Sal half-heartedly tells him to shut up. If he really felt like he was part of that community, he wouldn’t have put up with Pino’s antagonistic behavior.

It’s not the murder of Radio Raheem, or Mookie throwing the trashcan, that started the riot at the pizza shop. The throwing of the trashcan was the culmination of a series of infractions, large and small, that created the tensions between Sal’s Pizza and the neighborhood.

The pizza shop was doomed from the start, but everyone had been living in denial about it. They papered over the Hate: Pino’s overt racism, Sal’s buried racism, the way Sal and Pino alienated themselves from their customers. Once Sal used the n-word, it was game over. Instead of Love, Sal turned to Hate. There would have been no coming back from that. His true feelings towards his customers was exposed at that moment.

Am I disappointed with Mookie for doing what he did? Yeah, I am. But would I have done differently in his position? I honestly don’t know. He just saw someone kill one of his friends, in his neighborhood, and because it was a cop who did the killing, he knows from black experience that there will be zero repercussions for the murder. Think about that for a second. A guy kills another guy in front of 30+ people and will get away with it. If that sounds insane, then you haven’t been reading the news.

Of course Mookie is going to feel angry, and helpless, and afraid. Who wouldn’t be? What was he supposed to do? Throw his hands up and say, “Well, I guess them’s the breaks, huh?”

And remember, it was Sal who initiated the violence by destroying Raheem’s radio.

The title of the movie, I realized, is ironic. How can a person “Do The Right Thing” when nobody has any idea what the hell that’s supposed to be? Further, how can Mookie be expected to do the right thing when just about everyone else, up to that point in the movie (including, it must be said, Mookie himself), has been doing the wrong thing?

The fact that it doesn’t end neatly, where people Learn Lessons, shows the movie’s commitment to how people really react, how they really behave. The two quotes by King and Malcolm X at the end of the movie are, as many reviewers have said, both true. They both co-exist within a person. It’s contradictory, and it’s messy, because real life is messy. There are no easy answers; the right hand of light and the left hand of darkness might be dishing out damage, but at the end of the day, when you’re getting punched in the face repeatedly, does it make any difference if it’s the right hand or the left hand hitting you, when all you feel is pain? Love can defeat Hate, but that’s exactly the point — Sal never truly Loved Mookie or the community he lived in. Had he done so, he would still have a pizzeria. He would have reacted to Buggin’ Out’s request very differently. He would have had black portraits on that wall. And Radio Raheem would still be alive.

Hate only won in “Do The Right Thing” not because it was stronger than Love, but because there was an absence of Love.

And that’s the truth, Ruth.

Book Review: The Year Of Ice by Brian Malloy

A friend of mine recently gave me his copy of “The Year of Ice” by Brian Malloy to read, and it took me no time at all to read it, because I was engrossed.

The story follows an 18-year-old named Kevin Doyle, and it is set in 1978 in the Twin Cities. But what the story is really about is dealing with trauma and psychological wounds, and with secrets.

Let’s start with the trauma.

Kevin is still coping with the death of his mother from two years prior, and he’s also deeply closeted, unwilling and unable to come to grips with his own sexuality. It’s those twin struggles that drives Kevin’s story over the course of the novel.

The author, Brian Malloy, writes with a natural voice and I felt like I was reading someone’s private, inner thoughts. So often, books like these feel like Books, where characters Think and Do Things. The protagonist often has Deep and Profound Thoughts.

That’s not really the case here, because Malloy fully inhabits the voice of Kevin, and it really feels like you’re listening to an 18-year-old’s thought process – often stupid, sometimes maddening, but compelling. I couldn’t wrench my eyes away from the page.

And lest this sounds like I’m damning Malloy with faint praise, let me be clear that what he’s managed to accomplish is a sign of his skill as a writer. Kevin feels real in ways many characters don’t, and so when reading about his pain and heartache, and the process of dealing with guilt, rage, despair, lust, and all these other emotions, the reader is right there with him.

Of course, Kevin isn’t always sympathetic, mind you. He can be a real asshole to the people he cares about, and he takes out his sexual frustration on innocent targets.

Not that those around him are more deserving of sympathy. The other theme, aside from trauma, is how people cling to their secrets, and how those secrets inform their worldview, and the way they treat others. Little by little, secrets are revealed and unveiled, forcing Kevin to rethink his own trauma, his own feelings of guilt and shame, his own emotions towards his dead mother, his deadbeat dad, his fiery aunt, and others.

That said, Kevin isn’t always quite three dimensional, and sometimes the book has trouble maintaining the two threads of thought. Sometimes it feels like it’s on the verge of being all about his repressed sexuality; at other times, it feels more like it’s going to be about his relationship with his parents. Malloy isn’t always successful at balancing the two storylines, and the resolution at the end isn’t quite as fulfilling as I hoped. It just sort of ends neatly, with no real rhyme or reason behind a breakthrough.

(And this is a minor pet peeve of mine, but it is repeated several times in this book: Malloy writes “would of” instead of “would have” or “would’ve” – really? No agent or editor or beta reader caught that?)

Still, this book is very readable, and when it does deal with his trauma well, it’s a compelling read, one that draws a reader in. Recommended to YA LGBT readers, particularly gay ones. It’s an honest, complicated, messy look at the inner life of a teen who’s going through some shit.

Movie Review: Cabaret (1972, starring Liza Minnelli, dir. by Bob Fosse)

Note: While this blog was originally intended to focus solely on books (book reviews and writing advice), I’ve decided to broaden the scope to storytelling in general.

I can’t get “Cabaret” out of my head.

Let’s rewind a second. Back in high school, I used to write a weekly movie review column with Scott*, and for the most part, we were pretty much on the same page for the vast majority of movies we saw. More recently, we’ve been going through the AFI Top 100 movies list, and we’ve been talking about the ones we’ve seen so far. Our opinions are generally the same these days.

When it came to “Cabaret,” a movie I hadn’t seen yet, he told me he didn’t like it. At all. Too much focus on personal drama and Liza Minnelli’s vaudeville performance grated. Given that we’ve been pretty much identical with our views, I expected to come out hating the movie when I finally watched it.

Instead, I loved it.

The opening sequence, a slightly disturbing performance from Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies (and featuring the introduction of the surprisingly hot Michael York) was unsettling. The cuts to those wax-like audience members, and the jarringly unemotional and un-seductive appearance of the Kit Kat Girls, was not at all what I expected, and the movie only grew more interesting from there.

Throughout the movie, there are quick, seemingly random asides that focus on life in pre-Nazi Berlin. Those snippets, as well as a minor subplot featuring secondary characters and two certain songs (more on those later), show the rise of Hitler’s Germany. Yes, there was Liza as Sally Bowles in all her vaudeville glory, and there were overdramatic proclamations of love and lust and angst and personal issues, and the main characters are self-absorbed narcissists. But those two themes are not disconnected.

If those little asides (and subplot/songs) weren’t there, then I’d be inclined to agree with Scott, that the movie focused too much on personal drama to no effect. But because of those little asides, “Cabaret” turns out to be much darker, much more cynical, and pessimistic than I expected. See, all that personal drama is the point – it’s the subtle message that while Liza and Michael York’s characters of Sally and Brian are wrapped up in their own lives, there’s something much bigger, something much uglier, that’s rising and threatening their world, if only they’d take the time to notice and do something about it.

When I looked up who wrote the music, I realized why this felt a little familiar.

Kander and Ebb pulled off this same trick in spectacular fashion in another production, “Chicago.” That play, and movie, is a deeply cynical look at the nature of celebrity worship in America, about how a person can literally get away with murder and be celebrated for it, if they just make the audience laugh. Sure, tap your toes while listening to “All That Jazz” or “Cell Block Tango” but pay attention, and you’ll realize that Kander and Ebb are showcasing our darkest whims and making us cheer.

Take “Money,” for example. It’s catchy as hell, and it got stuck in my head for days, but what a deeply cynical message this is. To the Master of Ceremonies and Sally, it’s not love, it’s not human kindness, it’s not empathy or decency or charity that moves the world – it’s money. Cold, hard cash. For all of Sally’s declarations that she wants to be a big movie star, and for all the Master of Ceremonies’ enthusiastic celebrations of having a good time (read: sex and booze), they’re driven by nothing more than simple greed. Sally’s ardent pursuit of a wealthy Baron underscores this point.

And all the while, outside the Kit Kat Club, there’s an uprising going on. The tide of hatred and antisemitism is creeping over Berlin, casting a shadow the main characters can’t see, because they’re too busy focused on drinking, lovemaking, and chasing money – they’re too self-absorbed to be any other way. And even those who are aware of the rise of Nazism (like the Baron) are deeply underestimating its potency – flippantly dismissing the Brownshirts as a tool to be used against Communists.

Besides the aforementioned snippets, there’s also the storyline featuring secondary characters Natalia and Fritz, who are Jewish, and are suffering the effects of the rise of the Nazis (graffiti, the murder of a pet). The Master of Ceremonies also performs “If You Could See Her,” a meta performance describing his romance with a gorilla, a not-so-subtle allusion to how the Nazi propaganda machine depicts Jews as subhuman creatures. Like everything else Joel Grey does in this movie, it’s unsettling and disturbing.

The point is that none of these things are in there by accident, and one of the strengths of “Cabaret” is the knowledge of what’s in store for Nazi Germany, the fact that tens of millions of people are going to die, many of them horribly, and usher in a bleak era of suffering, pain, and destruction, and if only our main characters could just open their  eyes and look at what’s going on around them, maybe, just maybe, something could have been done to stop all of this. Instead, they’re too busy navel-gazing and worrying about their own problems, their own drama.

But even when they are reminded of how things are going outside the Kit Kat Club, it’s probably too late, as this gut-punch of a scene shows. “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is the masterpiece of this movie. The only song set outside of the Kit Kat Club, in a bucolic beer garden drenched in sunshine, it’s a brightly lit, optimistic scene that’s sinister only because of the viewer’s knowledge of what comes after (and, of course, because of Joel Grey’s knowing, chilling smirk at the very end). It’s a breathtaking scene, precisely because of what it doesn’t contain – it doesn’t contain any sign of things to come, but the horrors are all there in the viewer’s mind. And that’s enough to make this scene one of the most potent in movie history.

As Michael York’s character, Brian, leaves, he asks the Baron, “Do you still think you can control them?” Already, there are hints that the world is spinning beyond their control, but with a shrug, they simply drive away. Only Joel Grey is there to remind you that the bright, sunny scene is a harbinger for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Like “Chicago,” “Cabaret” has some great music in it, and some over-the-top performances. They’re both awash in booze, blood, and sex, but both movies are deeply cynical and dark. In the case of “Chicago,” it’s a critique of celebrity culture. In “Cabaret,” it’s a reminder that no matter how indulgent or decadent the times seem, there’s a world outside the Kit Kat Club that’s on the verge of crashing down on them and wiping the stage clean, shutting it down in an instant – a foregone conclusion that might not have been so foregone after all. It’s a theatrical sleight of hand, and it’s only the viewer’s knowledge of history that allows us to look past the razzle dazzle to see the true heart of “Cabaret,” that it’s not really about Sally Bowles trying to have a good time, but whether the course of history itself could have been nudged ever so slightly in a different direction if any of our characters were a little less self-absorbed. As Sally sings in the titular song:

What good’s permitting some prophet of doom?
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum!

In the end, the whole point of this movie is that life is not a cabaret, old chum. None of the main characters understood this, at least, not until it was far too late. And that is the real tragedy behind the movie.

* Scott, by the way, has a terrific blog himself, called ReelHeartWork. He’s an aortic dissection survivor and has been doing a lot of soul-searching since. He’s also a storyteller, and talks a lot about movies too. You should give his blog a visit.

How To Finish Writing The Damn Book

A while ago, I wrote an entry about how I almost gave up a book, and why that’s okay. In short, the argument behind it was this: If you’re not feeling inspired by your book, or if your book isn’t going anywhere, it’s okay to step away from it. In fact, it could just be exactly what you need – some healthy time and distance away from it, and inspiration could come from unexpected places.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s not the book you were meant to write. In which case, set it aside. In the future, you might come back to it, you might not. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

And that’s okay.

However.

That’s a quick and easy way for a person (myself included) to get caught in a spiral of new projects, new ideas, new concepts…and no finished books.

Look, let’s face it, creative types can be a little flighty. We’re easily distracted by new things, and our project of the day can easily become tomorrow’s garbage in favor of a newer, shinier toy.

But do that long enough, and you’ll soon realize you’ve gone years without finishing a book, and will get discouraged about the idea of ever getting published.

The only way you’re ever going to get a book published is by finishing the damn thing.

The solution, theoretically, is simple – just keep writing.

I’ve gone through, and am still going through, this process, so I know how freaking hard it is to get across the finish line. And here are my tricks that I’ve used to get myself over that hump. I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions, too.

Trick 1: Planning (for architects) – “I’m not inspired by the story anymore”

The writing world is filled with, as George R.R. Martin put it, architects and gardeners. Here’s his full quote:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

One major advantage architects have is they know where the story is going, and gardeners don’t. I’m an architect. I plan out my story from start to finish. I have my inciting incident, my twists and turns, my big fat middle, and the exciting climax. In theory, it means I just need to stick to the plan. But that’s how I, as an architect, get into trouble. At some point, I lose interest in the story. And if I’m losing interest as a writer, then I know the reader will be losing interest as well.

So I become a gardener. I throw out my blueprints, and I start asking myself questions. Not small questions, either. Plot-shattering questions. Evil questions. Questions like:

  • What if I killed off a main character?
  • What if the bad guy wins in this particular scenario?
  • What is the thing my main character is hanging on to the most, and how can I take that away from him/her?
  • What is the worst possible thing that could happen at this moment?

And then I do it. Now, granted, I think through the repercussions of my answers first, and weigh them against what I’m trying to accomplish in the story, because there’s nothing worse than writing 10,000 or 15,000 words only to realize that I have to delete it all. So there is a bit of planning that still needs to be done, but being outrageous makes the story interesting again. It makes it compelling. Nobody likes reading a story about characters who are happy. We want our characters to be happy, but as soon as they are, they cease to be interesting.

So make them miserable, you evil puppetmaster, you. And then the story will be fun again, and you’ll want to keep writing it. Problem solved!

Trick 2: Planning (for gardeners): “I have no idea what happens next”

Yeah, this is a pickle. Sometimes coming up with a plot is hard, y’all. On the one hand, you can expand the advice I’ve given in a previous entry, (“Help, my scene sucks, and I don’t know why“), which is basically summed up to:

  • Your character wants something. Bad.
  • Your character has to move mountains to get it. The more effort s/he puts in trying to accomplish his/her goals, the harder it is to attain them.

So that ties a bit into the advice I gave in the previous section (just figure out what your character wants most and take it away from him/her), but that’s not the whole story.

I’m sorry to say, but gardeners, you’re gonna have to start planning.

Yes, yes, cue the gasps of shock and outrage and pearl-clutching.

But here’s the thing – gardeners actually do plan. Growing up, my parents had a vegetable patch in their back yard, and wild growth in their front yard. Wild growth sounds like it should be just letting whatever randomly grows grow, but that’s not really true.

They still had to pick the types of flowers they hoped to see grow. They had to pick certain types of vegetables. They still had to arrange the soil, lay out the vegetable seeds, put up chicken wire, water the plants, weed the garden, and so on. Sure, they had no idea what the final result looked like, but they planned.

And that’s what you need to do. If you’re stuck in your novel, you’ve probably progressed far enough to start planning for an ending. Think about what that’s going to look like. What’s your big, badass climax? What’s the ultimate resolution? Who lives, who dies? You don’t have to get into architect-level detail (though honestly, it helps), but you need to have some idea of where you’re going in order to get there.

Once you have that, then write towards it.

Trick 3: Preparation

We all hit this point in most of our books, where we have a major hump to get over. Plan for it. Know it’s coming. Know what your weak spots are, and anticipate tricks and tools to get yourself over that hump. Is the middle part of your book giving you shivers of dread? This usually happens if you have a banging idea for a beginning and a great climax, and not much in between.

So come up with something epic for the middle. Something as awesome as the climax. Obviously, it can’t be triumphant – it has to be a gut punch for our hero and the reader. But relish in that. Devise newer and crueler ways of making your hero suffer. Make it grand, theatrical, whatever, as long as it gets you excited.

Presto. Problem solved. You have your kickass beginning, your kickass middle, and kickass ending, all things to look forward to. Apply that logic to whichever problem it is that makes you not want to write anymore.

Trick 4: Passion – “I just don’t care about this book anymore”

Yeah. This a toughie. This requires introspection. If you’re at this point, you’ve already asked yourself why you don’t care anymore, and you may not know. If you don’t, then think about what excited you about this story in the first place.

Why did you even want to write this book? Was it a certain scene? Character? Premise? Concept? Theme?

Get back to your roots, and once you’ve figured out why you came up with the idea in the first place, retrace your steps. Where did the book start to deflate for you? If you can identify that, then you will probably identify where things started to go wrong. For example, if all you had was a single scene, then you probably needed to flesh out things more. If you had a theme, you probably didn’t think about coming up with a compelling enough character. And so on. Either way, knowing why you stopped caring will inevitably lead you into the solution for caring again, whatever that will look like.

Trick 5: Passion – “I have another idea I really love and want to focus on that!”

Write down whatever ideas you have for that other project. Don’t start writing the new book, mind you. Just whatever ideas you have. Characters, concepts, scene outlines. Let yourself stray for a few days or a week. Once the fever passes, put those ideas away in a safe space, and forget about them. Finish your current book first, and then you can go back to those feverish ideas.

If you don’t finish your current book, you’ll descend into a guilt spiral of not finishing it, and you will almost inevitably have learned nothing about finishing books. At some point in your new passion project, you’ll lose interest in it and come up with yet another idea, and here we go again.

There’s a lot to be learned by finishing a book, and at some point, you’re going to have to learn how. Think of it as preparation for that passion project – by finishing this book, you’ll be able to make your passion project that much stronger with the knowledge you’ve gleaned by writing a complete book. Then you’ll truly be doing justice to the book you supposedly really care about.

And besides, you’d be surprised at how much you’ll want to change once you revisit those ideas you’ve set aside. What seemed awesome during that fever dream might turn out to be pretty pathetic. So, finish the current book first, and your passion project will be much better as a result.

Trick 6: Self-doubt – “My writing sucks”

Another reason why people give up is because they think their writing sucks. There’s only one remedy for that: keep writing.

Seriously. Just keep writing. You can’t get better if you don’t do it. Roger Federer didn’t spring from the womb a perfect tennis player. He practiced a hell of a lot to get to where he is.

Besides, a dirty secret in the writing world is first drafts are supposed to be atrocious. If you saw a pro writer’s first draft, you’d probably be shocked at how bad some of them turn out to be. You’re not alone. Editing is your friend.

Trick 7: Motivation – “Do I really have to?”

I get it. Sometimes writing feels like a chore. And the answer is, of course not, you don’t have to finish it.

But then you won’t have a book.

What would you rather have, the peace of mind that comes from not needing to write every day (and you should write, or try to write, every day)… or a finished book? A published book?

Whichever you care about more, go pursue it. If it’s the former, then way to go, you got your life back. Don’t feel bad about it – being happy is hard enough as is, and if not writing makes you happier, then congratulations. Seriously.

If you really do want to have a book, then you need to regain your mojo. The single best way of doing that is by clearing your head before sitting down to write. Take some time to do that before you start writing. Don’t watch any TV, don’t play video games, don’t read another book. Put away your damn phone.

Do something mind-numbing. Go for a walk. Clean your kitchen floor. Work on a jigsaw puzzle. Exercise. Yoga. Something that allows your mind to wander, something that doesn’t require too much concentration. The more boring, the better. Give your body something to do.

My way of clearing my head is going for bike rides.

Do it for at least 30 minutes or so, or however long you need. Once you’re done, you’ll feel refreshed mentally, and hopefully, your mind wandered on to the story you’re supposed to be writing, and you’ll be ready to get some stuff done.

Now, go finish your damn book.

Book review: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a retelling of the story of Achilles, from the perspective of a character a lot of people forget about…except those who interpret it in a certain way.

Warning: There is a minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph, but since the spoiler in question is 2,750 years old, perhaps not that big of a spoiler. But hey. If you’re not familiar with the Iliad, and don’t want a certain plot point revealed, you can skip to the paragraph following.

For many, when reading the Iliad, or some adaptation of it (looking at you, Troy), Patroclus is just some random side character, one who dies, and his death so enrages Achilles who then becomes the hero we’ve all heard of. In other words, Patroclus dies so Brad Pitt can have his epic fight scene with Eric Bana, and that’s all we really care about, right?

But many readers of the Iliad saw the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as something deeper than just mere friends (or, in the case of Troy, cousins). Achilles was haughty and arrogant to all, except to Patroclus, to whom he was affectionate. Some interpret it as simply a deep, platonic bond, but many see romantic undertones to it, including William Shakespeare and a whole host of classical and Hellenistic experts, of which Madeline Miller is one.

Her book is told from the point of view of Patroclus, and explores his life and relationship with Achilles. It’s a beautifully told story, tender, and with clear, explicit scenes depicting their feelings for each other. We also get to meet some wonderful side characters, including the centaur Chiron, wily Ulysses, ruthless Agamemnon, and so on.

But make no mistake, this is the story of Patroclus and Achilles.

The biggest flaw I could see in this story is a relatively minor one, and that’s the fact that Miller sort of hurries past Achilles’ interest in Patroclus. She does a great job of showing how Patroclus first notices Achilles, and how his feelings slowly grow over time, but the same can’t be said for the reverse. They have one conversation and suddenly, Achilles likes him more than the other boys. It’s a little abrupt, to say the least.

Having said that, their relationship with each other deepens in real, meaningful ways after that sequence. It then becomes wholly convincing that the two don’t just have affection for the other, but that they truly love each other. And it is here where the book is strongest. Aside from their hurried introduction, Miller luxuriates in the two boys bonding with the other, and using their relationship to see the famous stories surrounding the Trojan War from the narrow point of view of Patroclus.

The story is, as I mentioned, beautifully told and deeply heartfelt.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Is Major Queerbait, And That’s Not Good

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out recently, touted as the 8th Harry Potter book (despite the fact that it is neither a book nor was it written by J.K. Rowling). Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany devised the story, and Thorne did the writing.

Overall, it was pretty good. For those unused to reading scripts, it was probably a very jarring and upsetting experience, but I have no doubt it translated well to the stage, minus a few little tonal inconsistencies.

My big problem, however, has to do with the treatment of two characters. These characters were great individually and together – exceptional together, even. They had verve, they had chemistry. They clearly loved each other – yes, loved, and they would be the first to admit their feelings for each other.

But they never got into a relationship. Why?

Because they were both males.

Had this been a heterosexual dynamic, they would have gotten together (had they not gotten together, that would have been criticized to no end for being totally unrealistic), but because they were both males, the script shoehorned arbitrary heterosexual “attractions” that, had they been completely removed from the story, would not have changed a single thing.

This is the ultimate in queerbait.

BEFORE I GET INTO ALL OF THIS, WARNING: MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

If you want to be surprised by any of the developments in the story, STOP READING. I am not kidding. Spoilers ga-freaking-lore ahead.

Still here? Okay, good.

I am, of course, talking about Albus and Scorpius. Albus, Harry Potter’s son, gets sorted into Slytherin and becomes best friends with Scorpius, Draco Malfoy’s son. What follows is a collection of direct quotes from the script. Individually, each of these could be seen as subtle hints. Taken together, however, it is comprehensive evidence of the love and attraction they felt for each other.

Yes, I am aware there is such a thing as being straight and having an extremely close relationship with someone of the same sex. Platonic love, bromance, brother from another mother, whatever you want to call it, I get it – those are very real. You don’t have to look very far for examples (Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon come to mind).

This is not one of those relationships.

Why does this matter, some of you may ask. It matters because LGBT representation in popular media is underserved. It matters because the depth of feeling that Albus and Scorpius have for each other is blindingly, stupidly obvious. It matters that, despite such obviousness, the script still finds a way to contort itself into nonsensical dimensions, as if to say, “Ah ha, no gay action here! No, sirreebob. None of that queer stuff, wink wink nudge nudge.”

It matters because there are many LGBT people, especially kids, who could really freaking use heroes and role models in major media, and stories like this do an utter disservice to them. It matters because, as you’ll see with the quotes below, the evidence is there but the story willfully taunted its queer audience rather than celebrating it. It matters because J.K. Rowling, who retconned Dumbledore into a gay man, should have known better and insisted that maybe, instead of having a subtext, we make a gay relationship the text for a change.

It matters because, frankly, there is an embarrassing reluctance to make LGBT characters the heroes of stories like these.

But don’t take my word for it. Take it away, Cursed Child! Show us the signs that Albus and Scorpius are totally into each other:

Albus and Scorpius meet for the first time. Note Scorpius gets flustered upon seeing Albus. (Act 1, Scene 3)

Albus: Albus. Al. I’m—my name is Albus…

Scorpius: Hi Scorpius. I mean, I’m Scorpius. You’re Albus. I’m Scorpius. And you must be…

Rose: Rose.

Scorpius: Hi Rose. Would you like some of my Fizzing Whizbees?

Rose: I’ve just had breakfast, thanks.

Scorpius: I’ve also got some Shock-o-Choc, Pepper Imps, and some Jelly Slugs. Mum’s idea. She says (sings) “Sweets, they always help you make friends.” (He realizes that singing was a mistake). Stupid idea, probably.

Harry, worried about Albus. (Note that the “as long as you’re happy…” line is one often trotted out by straight parents to gay children) (Act 1, Scene 4)

Albus: But I don’t need a Ron and Hermione. I’ve—I’ve got a friend, Scorpius, and I know you don’t like him but he’s all I need.

Harry: Look, as long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters to me.

First mention of physical contact. (Act 1, Scene 10)

Albus hugs his friend. With fierceness. They hold for a beat. Scorpius is surprised by this.

Scorpius: Okay. Hello. Um. Have we hugged before? Do we hug?

The two boys awkwardly dislocate.

Later, same scene, Scorpius willingly follows Albus, no matter what.

Albus: I’m going to do this, Scorpius. I need to do this. And you know as well as I do, I’ll entirely mess it up if you don’t come with me. Come on.

He grins. And then disappears ever up. Scorpius hesitates for a moment. He makes a face. And then hoists himself up and disappears after Albus.

Scorpius starts to realize the depths of his feelings. (Act 1, Scene 19)

Scorpius: My point is, there’s a reason we’re friends, Albus—a reason we found each other, you know? And whatever this—adventure—is about… [he then notices a clue for the puzzle they’re trying to solve]

Scorpius feels intense jealousy upon seeing Albus talk to a girl. Worth noting that, later in the scene, he convinces the girl to stay behind while he and Albus move ahead, alone. (Act 2, Scene 4)

Scorpius appears at the back of the stage. He looks at his friend talking to a girl—and part of him likes it and part of him doesn’t.

Scorpius isn’t enjoying the Delphi-Albus double act.

Scorpius tells Albus how much he means to him. (Act 2, Scene 6)

Albus: And then you got [to Hogwarts] and it turned out to be terrible after all.

Scorpius: Not for me. All I ever wanted to do was go to Hogwarts and have a mate to get up to mayhem with. Just like Harry Potter. And I got his son. How crazily fortunate is that.

Albus: But I’m nothing like my dad.

Scorpius: You’re better. You’re my best friend, Albus. And this is mayhem to the nth degree. Which is great, thumbs-up great, it’s just—I have got to say—I don’t mind admitting—I am a tiny bit—just a tiny bit scared.

Albus looks at Scorpius and smiles.

Albus: You’re my best friend too.

When Harry tells Albus not to see Scorpius anymore, it is devastating to the both of them. And it’s obvious to others. (Act 2, Scene 9)

Albus: Just—we’ll be better off without each other, okay?

Scorpius is left looking up after him. Heartbroken.

Even Draco sees it. Think about it – Scorpius CRIED TO HIS DAD ABOUT ANOTHER BOY. SO MUCH TO THE POINT WHERE DRACO WILLINGLY CONFRONTED THE MAN HE HATED THE MOST ON THIS EARTH. If this doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will. (Act 2, Scene 13)

Draco [to Harry Potter]: I’m not here to antagonize you. But my son is in tears and I am his father and so I am here to ask why you would keep apart two good friends.

Even the DAUGHTER OF VOLDEMORT, the guy who knew nothing of love, sensed this. (Act 2, Scene 14)

Delphi [to Scorpius]: You’re best friends. Every owl [Albus] sends I can feel your absence. He’s destroyed by it.

Delphi: That’s the thing, isn’t it? About friendships. You don’t know what he needs. You only know he needs it. Find him, Scorpius. You two—you belong together.

Their reconciliation is the most emotional thing in this play, which includes Harry seeing his parents get killed. (Act 2, Scene 17)

Albus: …you’re kind, Scorpius. To the depths of your belly, to the tips of your fingers. I truly believe Voldemort—Voldemort couldn’t have a child like you.

Beat. Scorpius is moved by this.

Scorpius: That’s nice—that’s a nice thing to say.

Albus: And it’s something I should have said a long time ago. In fact, you’re probably the best person I know. And you don’t—you couldn’t—hold me back. You make me stronger—and when Dad forced us apart—without you—

Scorpius: I didn’t much like my life without you in it either.

Albus: Friends?

Scorpius: Always.

Scorpius extends his hand, Albus pulls Scorpius up into a hug.

Snape, a guy who knows a thing or two about holding a torch, sees this in Scorpius. (Act 3, Scene 9)

Snape: Listen to me, Scorpius. Think about Albus. You’re giving up your kingdom for Albus, right? One person. All it takes is one person.


 

There are several other quotes that I didn’t include here, but this post is getting long enough. One last thing I’d like to highlight is a comment from a person who saw the play:

I saw the play and compared to that, the intimacy was seriously downplayed in the script.

On stage it was way less ambiguous, especially from Scorpius’ side. On the script we don’t get to see the body language, stolen glances, jealousy and all the pining that went on. There were moments after the later hugs where they sort of [disentangled] when still staring at each other faces all close, and the final scene (the Rose one) they were sitting so close to each other they almost were on each other, and that scene had one moment with the boys’ faces just inches from each other.

And the staircase pining scene is just absurdly romantic – it goes on for at least five minutes. The music is on Youtube, it’s an instrumental version of Imogen Heap’s Half Life, that should give an idea of the tone of the scene.

Conclusion

Again, what does it matter? It matters because it’s fundamentally dishonest to draw out the relationship with Albus and Scorpius in such an overt manner, and then not have them end up with each other romantically. Had this been a straight couple, there is no doubt that Albus and Scorpius would have kissed.

But it didn’t happen here, despite the fact that all evidence points to the notion that Albus and Scorpius have strong, deep feelings, and expressed the depth of their feelings in romantic, not platonic, language. As a result, not putting them together is deceptive. It willfully ignores the very real emotional needs of the characters, and worse, taunts the LGBT community with winks and nods when the audience could obviously see through the charade.

These characters clearly belonged with each other. And Cursed Child didn’t give them that satisfaction. Albus and Scorpius deserved better.

Why I Almost Gave Up A Story, And How It Helped

One of the greatest assets a writer has is his or her instinct. A writer knows when something isn’t working. This is different from self-doubt (“This sucks, who’s going to read this?”) – for me, self-doubt usually comes when I’m writing, and re-reading what I’ve written. Every writer has this – and if a writer doesn’t feel this way, well, either that person is the most confident writer who’s ever lived, or is extremely delusional. I’m betting on the latter.

No, instinct is something deeper. Instinct tells you when your story as a whole isn’t working.

For me, instinct came a few months ago when I was working on one of my stories. I planned it, plotted it meticulously. I know the direction of the story. I knew where things had to go. And it worked – for a while.

Then I hit a wall. I just…stopped writing. Stopped caring. No matter how hard I forced myself to continue, I just couldn’t. This wasn’t writer’s block – I knew what had to happen and where I was taking the story. Instead, I was distracted. Mostly, I kept thinking about other story ideas, other books. Instead of writing my book, I was making notes for this other story. Jotting down ideas. Drawing maps. I wasn’t obsessed with my book anymore.

Finally, after a couple of weeks of this, I gave up the pretense of bothering with my original story. I decided I was going to quit that story. Was it temporary, or was it permanent? I wasn’t sure yet, but I knew, on a fundamental level, that something about it wasn’t working, and so I had to set it aside, and forget about it.

I focused for a while on my new ideas, plotting and planning. My old idea had been unceremoniously shoved aside and I hardly gave it a second thought. I moved on. I kept working at my new idea, kept reading books, kept living my life.

Then something amazing happened. I read a book that is totally unrelated to that old story idea (“Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie), and somehow, that unlocked the ideas I needed to make my old story work. When I went back to it, I went back to it with fresh eyes and a fuller understanding of why it wasn’t working. With a few nifty tweaks and some new plot mechanisms, I was back in the saddle. I’ve been writing this book consistently now, and so far, it seems to be working better.

I still need to finish the damned thing, but the moral of the story is: trust your instinct. Sometimes a book won’t work for you, and your instincts will tell you long before your brain realizes it. Every person will have a different way of overcoming their problems – in this particular case, it was my giving up on the story (temporarily) that helped me get it back on track.

You are your own guide to your book, for better or for worse. Let your guide show you the way.