I've learned a lot about how to take rejection by watching Top Chef.
Yes, I said Top Chef. God, I love this show; there's no other reality contest show like it.
It eschews (most of) the drama that weighs down other reality television while being a week-by-week contest that whittles down the chefs to the very best of the best, AND no other contest show, that I can think of, has such thoughtful, debatable and deeply subjective tastes (literally) to divide the great from the sublime. You often hear criticisms that split hairs between wonderful dishes.
The critiques are sometimes furious and always deeply personal. These chefs are craftsmen and women that have dedicated much of their adult lives to making food--a great many thankless hours have been spent in hot, sweaty kitchens to hone their skills.
One thing I've gleaned from the many seasons of Top Chef is that the chefs that win are consistently the most good natured, and handle criticism very well. Not always--Hung from Season 3 is a good example of the opposite--but more often than not, the winners have been at the bottom as much as the top, and they learn from their mistakes. They don't bitch and moan. They take their lumps, recognize their mistakes, and continue forward. Arguably the most talented and successful chef to come out of Top Chef has been Richard Blais, and he didn't even win his season, BUT he learned from his mistakes, took his loss (or rejection) in stride, and eventually returned on another season and WON.
To that end, writers get used to rejection.
Rejection happens. Any writer worth his or her salt has been rejected time and time again. Even those that have "made it"--that is, writers that have been/are traditionally published--have extolled on the realities of continuing to get rejected. I think most of us who have taken up the mantle of "writer" have realized that our work will be rejected over and over and over again.
Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes...and a writer getting rejected.
At the beginning, it's heart wrenching. You go through stages of denial, cry, scream, think about sending a scathing reply to that agent, editor or CP that got it oh so wrong, and then console yourself. Eventually, you blow it off and get back to work.
When your write long enough, it becomes part of the routine. It's normal. Those rejections keep coming. It's even funny at times. Lightly frustrating at others. But you grow thick skin. Callouses. And the rejections that once wounded you, bounce off like nerf darts rather than the bullets they once were.
There's one thing that still bothers me, cuts me open: when agents or editors try to pretty up rejection into something its not, like--as that old adage goes--putting lipstick on a pig. I often see literary agents saying something along the lines of, "I'm not rejecting YOU; I'm rejecting your BOOK. It's not personal."
Look, I understand the sentiment. I can't imagine being in the position of looking over snippets of people's lives--that's what a book, any book, no matter how fantastical, IS--quickly weighing the pro's and con's, and possibly wrecking that person's day with a rejection. It can't be easy.
But don't pretend it's not a rejection of the author, the PERSON, because it is, just as much it's a rejection of the BOOK. To some extent, they are one and the same, because after months, YEARS even, a writer has poured much of him or herself into that book, so much so, that that book is essentially an extension of that person.
There was an agent/former editor of a publishing house who recently tweeted that, "Rejection is a kindness," and then created a thread explaining why it's a kindness. I couldn't help except think that her explanations were nothing other than window dressing for the natural viciousness for the entire publishing process.
The reality is that it's not a "kindness." Publishing is cutthroat and difficult, and often without explanation. It isn't palatable. It isn't even fun most of the time. Sure, there are great friendships and bonds created throughout, but it's difficult, frustrating, and very, very personal.
While I understand the desire for agents and editors to explain it away as not personal or that it's a kindness, it just isn't and the attempts to do so seem somewhat insulting to our intelligence.
Saying all of this is not to excuse the sometimes vicious response from authors that have been rejected by agents. Being rejected should never turn into a debasement of the person who rejected. Rejection is an opportunity to learn, to change, even to adapt. It whittles you down to your essence. It makes you reconsider, reread and further edit.
Rejection isn't a kindness. It's a necessity. And it's always personal.
"Dreams are like roses: beautiful to look at, but clinging too hard will make you bleed."
With all the drama surrounding the Danielle Smith saga, another name has risen to the surface: Mark Gottlieb. I was conned by this schmagent. There. I said it. I've been embarrassed, surprised, fatigued and otherwise felt just about every other desperate emotion through my experience being "represented" by Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group.
I've had something akin to writer's block lately and I think it might (partly) be due to having never unloaded my feelings on being used by this guy.
Truth is, my "representation" only lasted about four months and it was about two weeks in (really, from the first minute, I had an inkling) that I became quite suspicious of Gottlieb's methods and lack of ethics. If you're aware as to why I'm using quotes around representation with Mark Gottlieb, than I'm sure you've already heard a multitude of heart-wrenching tales about Gottlieb's treatment of many authors and their work. Everything I've been privy to completely matches my experience--some a little better and others much worse.
I'll start from the beginning.
It was early September last year--2017--when a pitchfest event through Savvy Authors occurred. There were four agents representing my category at the time (MG Fantasy) and I threw up my pitch just to see what might happen. Why not, right? I actually forgot about the pitch over the next two weeks. An author colleague, from a small community formed out of a Manuscript Academy class, clued me in. I was ecstatic to find that three out of the four agents to whom I'd pitched requested additional material, one of which was Mark Gottlieb.
He requested my full manuscript. I promptly sent it over.
Like anyone in the writer community, I'd heard about Trident Media Group. TMG is on every top literary agency list and the owner, Robert Gottlieb, is a veteran of the industry--having led the NY literary branch of William Morris for decades and representing major talents like Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy and many others. The fact that Gottlieb's son requested material seemed like a big deal for me--I was (am) essentially a nobody in publishing.
After submitting to him, I looked up everything I could on Mark--Absolutewrite, Query Tracker, as well as googling multiple articles, and anything I could find about his publishing history. Everything seemed like gold. I followed (and still follow) so many authors and agents in the publishing community and nothing had ever come up as negative about the guy. Nothing. Not one thing.
So, only a few days after I sent my manuscript to Gottlieb, he messaged me back. I was surprised, but I'd seen on Query Tracker that he was a very fast read, so I wasn't THAT surprised. He really liked my book, he told me, but felt that it was a little long and could be "punchier." He asked if I could trim up the word count. My book was still out with a couple of other agents, but like I said, Trident seemed like the golden ticket, so I was nearly gasping at the possibility of being one of their clients. I did it. I took about two weeks and went through every line, paragraph, and chapter with a fine-toothed comb, cutting anything even remotely extraneous.
I returned the revised copy. And this is where things got weird.
Another two weeks went by before I heard anything from Gottlieb. It was an excruciating two weeks. Was my revision too fast? Did he like it? Did I cut the wrong things? Did I cut the right things? I went through every possible scenario about ten times over, and then I recycled them over in my mind again.
And then, finally, he responded:
"OK it’s out on submission. Let’s give it 3-4 months, at least."
I read this sentence more times than I can remember.
"OK it’s out on submission. Let’s give it 3-4 months, at least."
Was it code? Some sort of literary speak that I wasn't privy to? I'd never been represented before and had only written one other book at the time, so I wasn't the most connected writer, and I'm still not, but it seemed like he was saying that my book was literally on submission with publishers. I was certain that's what he was saying, but there was one problem. One, VERY BIG problem.
He wasn't my literary representative yet.
Everything up to that point indicated that he liked my book and I was feeling very positive that he might offer representation--but he hadn't actually offered up to that point. My book had still been out with two other agents at that point, so he was jumping the gun a bit.
Just to be certain I wasn't crazy, I emailed Gottlieb back with the most obvious, clarifying question:
"Does this mean you're offering representation?"
"Yes," he responded. "I was under the assumption we were already working together."
My mind was reeling. I had a couple of disparate thoughts right then. The fact that he submitted my MS prior to an official offer was a major red flag, BUT this was the son of an industry veteran at one of the biggest agencies on the planet. He wouldn't do anything to sully his reputation and birthright. RIGHT?
So I thought. So I thought.
I assumed a lot. Too much. And honestly, I should have demanded more from him, but there weren't the warning signs at the time that are now available all over the place. Right now, Query Tracker, Absolute Write, and Twitter are all littered with horrible stories of how Mark Gottlieb mismanaged books and careers. But then, in October of 2017 by that point, none of that was out there.
So, at that moment, in reading his message--"OK it’s out on submission. Let’s give it 3-4 months, at least."--all I could think about was TRIDENT and MY BOOK IS WITH PUBLISHERS. It seemed like a dream. After conversing with Gottlieb on the phone, I willingly retracted my book with the other agents who'd requested it and I started envisioning my book on the shelves of my local libraries and bookstores. I was certain that it would sell. Certain.
This euphoria lasted maybe two weeks (although there was always this inkling that something wasn't right with the guy) until another author on Twitter, one who'd been represented by Gottlieb, posted a blog about how bad his agent experience had been.
Curious, I reached out to the guy and got more of the story. In short, Gottlieb was a nonexistent agent. He never helped with editing on the guy's book, sent it out to publishers without ever including the author on the selection or progress on the submission process, and never initiated contact. Gottlieb would always respond to emails--with very short, unclear messages--but wouldn't ever reach out first.
I chalked up that author's experience to a clash of personalities. That's what I told myself. But, as time went on, my experience with Gottlieb was exactly the same, the only difference being that I never "chose" my representation, although I went along with it. Sure, I thought about cutting it off with Gottlieb or asking him to withdraw my manuscript, but I felt in doing so, that I could possibly burn a major bridge and offend a powerful player in the publishing industry--and all for what? That one author had a bad experience?
I swallowed the information like washing down a shit sandwich with piss water, but I fooled myself into believing it was a filet paired with fine wine.
Over the next weeks, more and more stories like that author's experience popped up. I talked about everything that had transpired with several colleagues; they were all shocked and pushed me to fire Gottlieb. At the same time, Victoria Strauss posted on AbsoluteWrite.com that she'd been receiving many complaints about Gottlieb. I reached out to her, but she wasn't comfortable revealing anything specific to me, given that I was a current client at the time. I thanked her anyway and at that moment, I resolved to get specificity from Gottlieb--one way or another.
Since I was already two months into the process--it was mid-December/2017 by that point--and I decided I would cut everything off by the four month mark: by late January/early February, I resolved to hound him for specific publisher information until I fired him or he fired me. Come hell or high water, I wanted resolution.
So, in late January, I sent email after email to get publisher info, editor responses, a pulse on where we were at and he responded each time, but he was always too busy or out of town and didn't clarify when he would get me the information I wanted.
Finally, on the fourth or fifth message within a two-week span, he attached all of his, my and publishers' correspondence on my book, along with a "we should part ways" comment. Reading that last part definitely wrenched something inside me. It was like a dream breaking off like unrooting a blossoming plant. His treatment didn't rob me of my dreams or desires to publish, I knew that, but it was still painful. It was like cutting off an abusive relationship--there's so much pain that you didn't even realize that cracks open, palpable and real.
I even had a written statement prepared for the inevitable moment that I was supposed to fire him--he just preempted my side of the "break-up."
I still sent him my message. It felt good. To distill it down to its core message, I told him that he needed to stop gambling with writer's dreams. He was (is) in a enviable, powerful position and he treats manuscripts that folks have slaved over, for years, as if they were darts being thrown at a dart board.
That's honestly the best analogy I can think of for how Mark Gottlieb treats his "clients." Darts at a dart board. He hits the bullseye from time to time. In fact, there was a release just a couple of days ago that some writer he picked up inked a six-figure contract with Blackstone Publishing.
To that writer, Gottlieb is a GOD now. No doubt, to some extent Mark Gottlieb thinks of himself that way, but like the God of the Old Testament, how many perished so that a few could make it to the promised land? According to Query Tracker, there are dozens. I'm sure there are many, many more.
I'm one of them.
It was painful to read over his correspondence with various publishers. It was messy. He essentially put his name on my query letter and spammed it out to around thirty editors. No specific names. He treated editors in the exact fashion that all of us authors are instructed NOT to treat agents--it may as well have been to one editor with the other twenty-nine cc'ed. In all, only about five or six responded to him. I take solace that most of them didn't take the time to deal with him. Folks are aware and growing tired of his tactics.
So, after all this, how can I better protect myself in the future? Better yet, how can I help to prevent others from falling prey to Gottlieb-types? The short answer, not much. Like I've stated, there was literally no dirt on Mark Gottlieb when our relationship began. All available information was positive. So, if there WAS another agent like Gottlieb (or Danielle Smith, for that matter), I don't know what you could do to protect yourself from such an agent.
Luckily, there are very few people in a position like Mark Gottlieb. Very few who have parents that own literary agencies.
Most folks behaving the way he has (and does) probably won't have fruitful careers. With advents like Twitter, there's very little that people get away with anymore--information travels fast so keep your ear to the ground and keep channels open.
It would be nice if this post could signal a warning sign to some. I can only hope. To those writers, I say: Your hard work deserves better than a gamble.
When I saw the horse, it struck me as odd.
I was driving down the road, my two boys strapped into their carseats in the back and I looked to the left to the front yard of a house we passed. A horse, a pinto with white hair and large orange spots, jumped and galloped there. No fence contained it. It was a painfully odd and beautiful sight that I kept watching as we drove by, almost forgetting to look ahead. The road was essentially empty, a tree line on one side and houses on the other, but chauffeuring my toddlers in the back demands more attention.
As my mind went through the monumental task of understanding the image of that horse galloping free with the normality of suburban sprawl, that Pinto galloped right onto the pavement next to my car, almost flicking side panels with its tail as if it wanted to flirt with the mechanical beast it noticed. That horse lost interest, quickly, and galloped ahead as I slowed, forgetting the gas pedal. It sauntered ahead to a small, fenced-in lot with two other horses, one solid white and the other solid brown, running around.
The Pinto galloped up to the fence. The white one met it. Their long heads craned over either side of the railing, one nuzzling the other. I kept watching, wondering what that magnificent beast would do next. I wanted to see if one might try to jump over the fence to join the other or if the trapped horses might find inspiration in the Pinto that somehow escaped.
A moment later, as I watched, an old rancher, white haired and grizzled with age, sidled up with a harness in hand. The Pinto jerked a bit, but that assured old rancher wrapped the harness around the horse's neck and led it back home.
For a moment, I saw something wild and free.
New Year. New Books.
I've been rather latent on my blogging. My last post was on October 26th last year, after which I promised myself that I would be more consistent on this page. Yeeesh. That promise went out the window.
With the holidays, the normal daily grind of being a stay at home father and all that that entails, and the rather ambitious goal of writing a first draft of a new book during the month of November (the first time participating in NanoWrimo) followed up by the promise of a second draft by the end of January...what can I say? As the saying goes, something's gotta give. Almost daily, the website would be at the back of my mind or scream out at me whenever I happened to check in on Twitter. And I felt really bad. Every time.
But never bad enough to actually post anything.
Well, I'm happy to announce that I stayed right on target with my new book. I completed a first draft by the end of November and took the next two months to increase overall word count, polish the prose and really understand the storyline. Now, with a pretty good draft on hand, I'm letting that sucker sit and marinate for the next month while I figure out my next book and work on a couple of short stories I've had at the back of my mind.
I feel good. It's been a great year so far and I feel accomplished on what I set out to do when my wife and I sort of swapped familial positions one year ago.
Here's to 2018!
I recently had a difficult decision.
I won't divulge any specific details, but suffice it to say that I had to make a rather quick decision that could alter the course of my career. With such an enormous choice, I put out feelers to some people in my similar position in order to hear their thoughts and make a more calculated decision. I listened, considered the pros and cons, and tried to see it from all the various angles.
Then, I pulled the trigger and made the choice that made the most sense to me.
Yet even after opting on my particular direction, I had a couple of people frantically tell me to reconsider, that it could be very bad for me and tried to halt my course. I calmly listened and essentially said that my decision was made, thanked them for the advice and that we'd see where my decision went.
As much as I felt secure in what I'd decided, that I'd taken the time to see it from the different angles, weighed the separate ways I could have gone, this one particular person's frantic cries for me to stop and reconsider really weighed on me. It ate at the excitement I felt in the decision I'd made. It bothered me.
There was that idea that I was risking everything by choosing my particular route. You're risking everything. You're risking that people might not like you anymore. You're risking something you've been working on. You're risking other opportunities. You risk! You risk! You risk!
But I came to a conclusion: Everything thing in life is a risk.
You risk everything when you wake up. When you leave the safety of your house. Everything around you is a risk. Literally everything. Some minor. Some major. Many lie between these polar opposites. Yet all is risk.
More specifically, I've been dwelling on the idea of dreams--DREAM job. DREAM career. DREAM life--and how much you should risk in order to achieve those dreams. Because you will HAVE to risk something to grab those dreams, whether it's a portion of your free time, less sleep than you'd like, certain expensive expenditures, or even a stable income.
When you have a difficult to achieve dream, people will tell you that it's not a good idea, that it's too much of a risk to sacrifice a real career for something that won't happen.
But you know what? By getting that realistic diploma or that realistic job or that realistic home in that realistic neighborhood, you're making a risk, too. Maybe a more comfortable risk. But it's still a risk. And in that case, you're risking your deepest dreams.
And those elusive dreams will haunt you.
A friend of mine is a very successful businessman who lives in Napa Valley and is a part-owner in a fantastic winery. On one of our trips to wine country, my wife and I were lucky enough to stay at his home and one night, at dinner, I leaned forward and asked him a very simple question: "To what do you attribute all of your success?"
He sort of chuckled, no doubt having been asked this question more than once and he, quite honestly, chalked it up to one particular thing: the ability to make choices. I was somewhat stunned. It wasn't what I expected. He believed he was a smart man, but not exceptionally smart. He'd had a fine education. His family wasn't poor, wasn't rich. He was a hard worker, but so were many people.
As he saw it, his success came from his ability to pull the trigger and see things through.
He admitted that he hadn't always made the right choices, but he always stuck it out until its end. He learned from the wrong choices, resolved to make better ones in the future. Too many of his peers were stifled by difficult choices, he said, and his superiors always noticed his ability to face those hard decisions and see them through.
I thought on this for quite some time and realized something very specific. In life, you have to make choices. They're not always easy and there often isn't a clear path or road signs to direct you. There will be risk no matter what, but the one aspect you can control is the type of risk that is worth it.
You must choose your risk or the risk will choose you.
Short story: I've just accepted an offer of representation with Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group.
Long story: Nine months ago, my wife and I took a big risk. We reversed our familial positions.
Since the start of our relationship, following into our marriage, each of us have always had full-time jobs. She's been a flight attendant. I worked in the wine industry. We moved to New York for a couple of years, then returned to our home in Texas; I changed managing jobs from a small, mom and pop operation in Manhattan to a massive nationwide company called Total Wine in Dallas.
Through it all, I had this nugget of a dream to be a full-time author.
It always seemed like a pie in the sky type of dream, the type you're chastised for as a kid because you need more realistic options. As the years progressed, I couldn't let it go, so on subway rides to work, any spare pocket of time at my job, I'd jot down notes for a book. I wrote my first book while living in NYC, submitted it to literary agencies...and got nothing in return.
SIDENOTE for those unaware---there are various levels of gatekeepers on the path to publishing a book. The first, and possibly most important, gatekeeper is securing a literary agent. Kind of like wanting to act in movies, you need a guide, confidant and someone that knows the ins and outs of the business. For an author, this is a literary agent. To get a literary agent to represent you, you essentially need a finished, very polished book and a query letter. There are other aspects, but for simplicity, I'll leave it at that.
So you query into a "slush pile" along with hundreds, possibly thousands of other writers. Suffice it to say, the odds aren't great that you'll get through and it typically takes a long time to secure this first gatekeeper.---
My first attempt was a bust. (There's more to this story of my first book, but I'll detail more on a later blog.) It was frustrating. I'd put in a ton of time and effort and I couldn't get more from an agent than a form letter rejection. Only NO. NO. NO.
So, after moving back to Texas and working at my new job, I started working on a different story, slowly on the side, writing notes and ideas and over the next couple of years, I pieced an entirely new book together.
At the same time, Cam and I found out we were pregnant. Cam took off time from work, took a long leave of absence, returned to work for a few months, and then we found out we were pregnant again. Another year off, to focus on our growing boys. It was an amazing time.
My dream still needled at me. It was tough. The way my schedule fluctuated and lack of free time with raising these two new, blossoming lives, it was impossible for me to form any type of regimented writing schedule. So, I continued to write in spare pockets of time, on long car rides or between naps, but nothing ever regular.
Yet, very slowly, I wrote that second book.
I queried again to agencies with zero success. All form rejections AGAIN (other than one agency, but that, too, turned into rejection). I was frustrated, distraught, and just had that feeling that my dream would never be realized.
I was (am) married to the love of my life, had (have) two incredible boys, had a stable job with a steady income, but when there's something you dream about, it just continues to needle at you no matter how much you try to push back. The dream haunts you.
So, this past January, we had confronted by a choice. Cam was due to return to work, but we'd always desired to have one of us at home full time with the boys. Between Cam's ever changing schedule of flying and my crazy schedule at the wine job, it would be very difficult to stick with both, raise the boys and still have one on one time with each other. We'd done it once, for about five months prior to finding out about our second son, and it was really stressful; we rarely saw each other.
So, the question we had: does Cam quit her job or do I quit mine?
Cam essentially made the choice for me. She knew that I hated my work, coupled with this intense dream clinging to me, and pushed me to leave my job. At least being home with the boys, I could have the regularity to truly focus on writing. So, that's what we did.
I left Total Wine, set up a routine of writing for about two hours during the boys' nap times, squeezing in more words here and there and started writing a brand new book. At the same time, I hired a published author of eight books in my same genre and age category, who also provided editing services on the side, to look at my second book.
I worked on a third book, something new, while my second book was in the editing hands of the published author, and by April, I was provided with extensive notes, with which I totally overhauled my book. I joined a writing group through Facebook, and by May, I was querying my second book again, noticing a significantly different response from my two previous attempts.
This time, I was getting numerous requests to read my manuscript. I still received rejections, but many of these were personalized rather than form letters, some with light feedback. I took the feedback and continued editing, all leading up to this past September when it started to feel as if my momentum was really picking up. I felt incredibly positive like it might really happen. I had two agents that both seemed very interested, providing feedback while still requesting more pages--just more correspondence than I'd experienced.
As this was going on, I was checking my email minute-by-minute, biting my nails, nervously anticipating the inevitable rejection that would follow. When you have such a seemingly impossible dream (the odds of publishing are not in my--or anyone's--favor) you prepare yourself for failure. At first the rejections sting, but then those ego callouses build around you like armor. You become impervious to it at some point because you're so accustomed to the "NO's" and you just expect it.
Then, this week, I found out that one agent felt so positive about my work that he was ready to submit my book to publishers immediately. We talked after he emailed this message to me and I almost had no words. Right now, my book is in the hands of every one of my dream publishers and we're waiting for their responses, which could take another couple of months.
I have accepted an offer of representation from Mark Gottlieb with one of the top agencies in the country, Trident Media Group. My ultimate dream is not yet fulfilled, but it's just around the corner and I feel as though I finally leaped over the biggest hurdle.
For those unaware, Schrodinger's Cat was a thought experiment devised in 1935 by it's namesake, an Austrian scientist named Erwin Schrondinger. It essentially assumed that if you placed a cat inside a box wired with various mechanisms that could both kill and/or prevent its death, prior to opening the box again, the cat was both alive and dead at the same time.
It presented a paradox. This is how I currently think of my writing career.
Right now, at this moment, I have my manuscript with three different literary agents. Two of these three agents seem like they could have positive outcomes for me, that they might offer representation for my book, which means it would have a chance of getting published.
These two particular agents have been in more contact with me than I've ever experienced before. Typically, in querying agents, it's a straight form rejection, a rejection with a bit of feedback or it's a partial or full request. Pretty straight forward. It's several more steps for me this time, where they've asked me a few more questions: about my background, feedback on certain elements yet still requesting pages. Things like that.
It's given me a lot of hope over the past month since this new course has been taken. And hope is a wonderful thing. It's wind in your sails. It's a confidence booster. It makes you believe.
My writing career is Schrodinger's Cat right now: I have two high-powered agents interested in my work, a sea of options and publishing success waiting around the corner, AND AT THE SAME TIME, I have two more "not for me" notes to add to a growing mountain of rejections, more editing on my manuscript, and more queries. These are simultaneously my outcomes.
Each day, I check my email in hopes that I've heard from both or one of them yet I'm disappointed to find no response. It's funny, though, because I almost don't want to hear back because as long as I don't hear anything, the possibilities remain endless.
I am Schrondinger's Cat. As long as I don't hear anything.
I do know that in the coming days I'll receive word in my email inbox and one way or another, that box will be wrenched open to find out of Schrodinger's cat is dead on arrival or still has a pulse. We'll see.
I'll come clean up front.
I LOVED Blade Runner: 2049. The all caps on "loved" hopefully conveys the extent of my admiration for the film. In a way, I was programmed to love this film, most prominently due to my admiration of the film's director, Denis Villeneuve, whose string of films over the past few years are unparalleled in their mastery. There isn't a bad one in the bunch. He's gone from good and great films to three masterpieces, three years in a row: Sicario, Arrival (my pick for best picture last year) and now, Blade Runner: 2049.
I was also counter programmed, ready to NOT love it, most prominently because I'm NOT an adoring fan of the original Blade Runner. Don't misunderstand me; I don't dislike the original, but I don't LOVE it either. It has its place in our filmmaking pantheon and I absolutely understand the effect it has had on the Sci-Fi genre, from its ground breaking production design to Ridley Scott's out of the box take with its noir-ish, detective style when it easily could have been a pure '80s, Stallone/Schwarzenegger-style action flick.
The result is far more interesting.
Yet I've never loved the original. I find it dull. Very slow-moving. Some of the scenes are just plain weird. Some of the scenes, however, stand alone as prime examples of the transcendent nature of film, particularly the final scene on the rooftop between Deckard and Roy:
"All those moments will be lost in time...like tears in rain."
Blade Runner: 2049 was a totally different experience. It took the best parts of the original and expanded upon them, fleshed them out to glorious lengths and left you wondering and wandering with the implications. It was such an odd mix of mystery, cerebral science-fiction, a tome on love and life, all told against a massive back-drop of blockbuster proportions.
SERIOUSLY, STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.
The central storyline is quite simple. It's a mystery. Ryan Gosling's K character, while dispatching a replicant on one of his routine missions, discovers the distinct possibility of a child born between a replicant and a possible replicant. Its a discovery akin to that scene in Jurassic Park where a group of hatched eggs are found in the forest. How could these lab-produced creatures reproduce if they were designed not to reproduce? The answer in Jurassic Park is somewhat vague, with the suggestion of evolution inside the statement, "life always finds a way," but 2049 never even bothers to provide an answer, even a simplistic one.
2049 isn't really interested in answering such questions; it's more an excuse to drive the story forward in order to examine more fundamental ideas of humanity. I've boiled it down to three specific facets running through the film that spoke to me strongest: Memories, Life Cycle, and the Meaning of Life.
The use of memory is perhaps the strongest concept playing throughout both Blade Runner films, but it's used particularly effectively in 2049. Memories and how these vague images of our past lives give us the sense of true humanity is possibly the central conceit of Blade Runner.
In the first, it's the very suggestion of certain memories, exposed through rigorous questioning used by the Blade Runners, that reveals a replicant in its true form.
In 2049, it's played through to its extreme implications, driving the K character onto the brink of madness with the idea that his fake memories, as he's aware of them, are possibly real. You see it in his character progression as the walls that guide his path and block him are torn away through the course of the film, and deep, flawed, human emotion seeps through the cracks.
On the whole, Gosling's performance is quite controlled, his emotion accessible within an incredibly subtle approach, which makes the intense emotions breaking loose at moments all the more palpable.
Most notably when he visits a young lady about the truth behind one, very specific, memory does he become completely unhinged for a few moments. He's face to face with a reality that he can't even comprehend. That memory, the one he'd thought was fake, becomes very real to him...until he discovers that it was fake after all.
I got to thinking about my own memories, my past experiences that are supposed to qualify me as human and I find myself grasping at smoke. Think on your earliest memories and it's an elusive thing. I can't remember anything specific prior to perhaps four or five years of age and even those memories are like snapshots, frozen in time.
I often have the distinct feeling that I've made up some of my own memories--I'll bet if you're honest, you have that same sense. There are memories that I can't decide whether I've actually lived or if I've somewhat invented it, sort of like the nanoseconds after waking from a dream.
One way to view the film is through the lifespan of Ryan Gosling's character, K, from his eye-opening "birth" when he initially wakes inside his vehicle at the start, through the wrestling of his identity, all the way to his sacrificial death at the end.
An entire life told under three hours.
Within K's life, there is also the birth/life/death of Joi, his significant other. Sure, she's just a hologram, but she is birthed upon K's gift in the new program that allows Joi the ability to move beyond the confines of the apartment, followed by the transcendent moment of her walking outside for the first time, "feeling" the rain, her life of discovery as K follows clues leading to the central mystery, all the way to her death when Luv crushes the computer that holds her "life," thus murdering her.
These allusions abound further with Jared Leto's Wallace character killing the newborn replicant just after her birth, his obsession with finding ways to naturally birth replicants, and of course, there is the central mystery surrounding the child born from one replicant and another possible replicant in the characters of Sean Young's Rachel and Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard.
Even the idea of new life against the backdrop of a future Los Angeles decaying before our eyes, the once beautiful city on the coast, covered by smog and acid rain and slowly decomposing into rot, is quite provocative.
I know, I know, just the suggestion of a discussion on "the meaning of life" opens a neverending can of worms and brings to mind somewhat vague notions of philosophy's greatest mystery. Yet I believe it's a subject coursing through Blade Runner: 2049.
There's a moment toward the end when Deckard has been captured by Wallace, K has had to face the truth of his existence and he has (essentially) three choices: do nothing, save Deckard, or kill Deckard. The decision he makes decides his life's meaning. He risks his life, and sacrifices it, for the greater good of his (replicant) kind. He devotes his life to the cause of a more unified world, even if it means blood and tears in the short term.
He, in effect, creates his own meaning through his personal decision.
And without any great declaration, don't we decide our own life's meaning by everyday decisions on how we spend our days and the way we tackle serious issues? That's to say that there is no ONE meaning, but each of us contain separate meanings within each of our lives, some with bigger implications for the world than others.
Beyond these three branches running through the central trunk of the storyline, I found so much more in every scene. Virtually each frame bursts at the seams with nods to how we live now and how we might progress into the future, with far reaching implications.
Take one scene, about midway through the film, when K is headed to an orphanage in search of the missing child. Every part of this sequence is spilling over with moral quandaries we're dealing with now, but taken to extreme, yet quite realistic, lengths. The San Diego of the future is a massive trash heap, the charred out buildings looking like something out of a nuclear fever dream with roving bands of "illegals," people living on the fringes of society, feasting on the burned-out carcass of a world that once was.
When one of these bandits takes down K's car and he's on the ropes, about to be taken hostage, killed, or worse, a missile suddenly strikes down on top of an assailant. BOOM. He's gone. Wiped from the earth. More missiles follow, taking out--in seconds--a small army of these bandit people.
Cut to a room, a hundred miles away, to the central antagonist, Luv, getting her nails painted and wearing an odd pair of sunglasses. She's not even looking at the person painting her nails, but rather INTO the glasses. It's immediately understood that she is the one commanding the missiles being fired. She is the one playing war games on people she'll never meet. In seconds, from miles away, while getting her nails painted, Luv has killed dozens upon dozens of people.
It's such a compelling idea because as a viewer, you're conflicted by the fact that K has just been saved yet it was accomplished without a judge, jury or trial.
Or take the erotic love scene with Joi inviting the prostitute over and compositing her digital body over the real woman's form. It was an incredible scene, quite moving, as K is able to touch his girlfriend for the first time, his skin on hers. But I started thinking about the way many people invite the digital world into their own home and how it can easily supersede the real people inside, how we all make digital imprints on facebook, twitter and elsewhere and how it takes over our very real life.
There are so many scenes like these, just waiting to be deconstructed, mined for their detail, thought on and argued about. Even if you didn't like the film, just like the first Blade Runner, it is teeming with ideas and thoughts on the world. Quite simply, there aren't enough films released, at this level, with this type of budget, that provoke this kind of meaning.
As is well-known, Blade Runner: 2049 did not fare well on the expectations in terms of box office. I hope that isn't the end of its story. I hope the legs on this one are long, to be played out over the next few decades, much like its predecessor, that it doesn't disappear like tears in the rain.
I've heard it said that if you want to be (fill in the blank), call yourself (fill in the blank) and you are that thing. Easy. I believe it was said in conjunction with being a writer: If you want to be a writer, call yourself a writer and you are a writer. Capital "W."
Of course, this idea can be used with virtually any career, but it's particularly encouraging when it comes to the arts--any field of art--because it isn't easy to make a career. There's no well-worn path. No degree that grants you instant access to publishing, directing, acting, painting. Even if you've proved your worth, you have to continually prove it over and over and over.
Yet even despite the encouraging, possibly necessary, nature of this sentiment, I have to point out something painfully obvious: just calling yourself a "writer" does not make you a "writer" (or filmmaker or painter or dancer) until you're constantly writing (filming/painting/dancing). Every day. Thinking about it. Breathing it. Dreaming it.
You. Have. To. Work.
I've had this dream of being a full-time novelist for years. I've written two books that I've pitched to literary agents without success. I've written blog posts that have garnered a few views. I've written short stories, published some, but not too many. I've now completely overhauled my second book and sent it out on another round of queries with the most success I've ever experienced.
The path to your dreams is a long one...
The path to your dreams is a long one, often spanning a longer period of time than we anticipate, running in circuitous ways we couldn't imagine prior to embarking. It has taken years of writing, rewriting, listening to advice and I'm still not at the goal I've made for myself.
I live by the aforementioned adage, calling myself a writer even though you (most likely) haven't seen my work. It's important to value yourself. And it's important to see yourself in the role you've envisioned even if you aren't yet there. But it's equally important to work at it.
How much work is needed before you achieve your dream? I think it's impossible to say such a thing. It's probably different on your particular station in life, the amount of time or study you've already put into the field or a thousand other unknowable factors.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he pegged the time needed to become "world-class" in a particular field at 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That would be more than a year of constant, around-the-clock, practice.
Gladwell's number has been refuted by various studies, but I think the idea holds true, that you have to work at it and no one ever is an overnight success. Even the seemingly overnight success stories have been in their dues and worked at their particular craft.
There is no expiration date on your dreams...
I wrestle with the idea that it's too late for me almost daily. In my early twenties, I remember reading that bestselling author, Stephen King, was twenty-six when he sold Carrie. Around that same point, I read that Steven Spielberg was twenty-six when he made Jaws. Just taking in those two, over-the-top success stories, I latched onto the idea that if I wasn't successful by twenty-six years of age, then my chance had expired.
As ambitious as I felt in believing this, I never put in the actual work to achieve this dream. Sure, I'd write here and there, but it was never a consistent, daily routine.
At one point, around 25, I wrote a few short stories, which I filed together with a beautiful cover page and pitched it to an agent at a writer's conference in my home town. I even declared myself the Jack Kerouac of my generation. The agent seemed impressed by my young ambition, even giving me his card for when I completed an actual novel, but he probably laughed privately at my expense. And deservedly so.
Because I hadn't done the research. I hadn't taken the time to realize that it's incredibly rare for a first-time writer to successfully sell a short story collection. I didn't know the market. I didn't understand agents. And I didn't adjust or try to learn, so my failures went beyond twenty-six. I felt depressed for a time because I thought my time had expired.
There is no expiration date on your dreams, though. There's always time to make it happen. Perhaps not in the way you initially envisioned, but there's always time. I saw that Madeline L'Engle swore she would quit writing if, by 40, she hadn't made a publishing deal. At 42, she published her monumental work, A Wrinkle in Time. Frank McCourt was 66 when he published his first book, Angela's Ashes, which went on to win the Pulitzer.
There are more stories like this with folks older and much younger publishing, achieving and seeing dreams fulfilled.
Do. The. Work.
In short, you have to do the work. Period. There is no short cut to success, no easy way to achieving your dreams.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty..."
To realize your dream, have the confidence to call yourself by that title. Then put your nose down and do the work.
Beyond books and writing, my number one passion (of the arts) is film. Movies, flicks, shows, the moving pictures. I love sitting in a movie theater, sensing the lights dim and seeing that projector light shoot through the air and produce a picture on an enormous silver screen. That experience and the sound of an ocean wave as you turn the page of a book (preferably on an actual beach with real ocean waves) just send chills through me. Every time.
Of course, that experience is amplified by a really good movie or a really good book.
I just saw Wind River. It's really good.
It was written and directed by a guy named Taylor Sheridan. I knew this going in and was one of the main reasons I sought out this particular movie. Wind River is Sheridan's first directorial effort, but he's written two of the best (I mean, THE BEST) thrillers in recent memory: Sicario and Hell or High Water. The man's got a gift of writing tense stories that actually move to a proper conclusion while developing really well-rounded characters where there aren't any real winners.
And each of his movies feel like modern westerns that center on a marginalized section of our society. Sicario was Mexicans and women. Hell or High Water was the poor folk. And Wind River takes place on an Indian reservation.
It specifically tells the story of wildlife hunter and a freshman FBI agent searching for the murderer(s) of a young Indian girl found frozen to death in the middle of nowhere. The interesting part is that even though its something of a whodunit, the identity of the killer isn't all that important. Sheridan is more interested in exploring the daily lives of Native Americans, how they cope with being forced onto stretches of land without end, and how the twisted jurisdictions of various law enforcement does nobody any good--especially for the very people they're sworn to protect.
Without giving anything away, I'll just say that there's a particular (very tense and very surprising) scene where no one seems to know who has authority over who. Guns are raised, tempers flare and no one is ready to back down. It takes place in the middle of nowhere and you get the sense that even in this modern age of facebook and iphones, there are still untamed corners where someone could still get away with murder.
Wind River is film worth seeking out. Taylor Sheridan is a writer and director worth paying attention to.