Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for April, 2010

Next week, I’m taking my dog and heading to northern Michigan, a chilly land of tall pine trees, cottages by the water, and tall friendly people, or as I like to think of it: Sweden II. I’ll be spending three weeks cut off from the world in a rustic cabin, feeding the stove with wood and getting started on my next novel, Kingdom. Solitude, dark woods, morning mist on the lake… it will be oh-so “writerly,” in a Hollywood sort of way.

I’m especially looking forward to the quiet, because one of my favorite places to work in DC—the second floor of the local Starbucks, a lofted space in a beautifully restored old building—has become almost unusable over the past few months… ever since the “crazy guy” arrived. I’ll call him Bob. Bob arrives at Starbucks as soon as it opens and stays until it is closed. He is there seven days a week. And to be clear, Bob is not crazy like the “wild and crazy guy” played by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live. Bob appears to suffer from schizophrenia. Like John Forbes Nash, Jr. (the subject of A Beautiful Mind), Bob sees people who are not really there, and he carries on lengthy, very loud conversations with them. These conversations mostly consist of angry, profanity-laden attacks on the wide variety of people and institutions who have conspired to ruin his life: the government that first refused to let him kill the people he knew needed to be killed (Bob was, or believes he was, a contract killer for the CIA) and then betrayed him and left him to die in a foreign country; the companies—Microsoft and Apple most prominently—that stole his patents; the bookstores that refused to carry the book he wrote; even the Obama administration, which refuses to heed his sage advice. A sample: Bob flips open the paper and sees a story about bin Laden. His eyes widen. He shouts: “They should have killed that fucker! They should have let me kill that fucker when I had the chance.” (Waits for a response from invisible friend.) “No! I told you! I told you! I had him in the crosshairs. I could have taken bin Laden down.” (Waits for another response.) “Look, it’s all in my book. Didn’t you read the book?” If I were a character from one of my novels (all set in the Middle Ages), I would probably think that Bob was either possessed by or communicating with devilish spirits.

However, I like to think of myself as (if only slightly) more enlightened than that. I realize that Bob is suffering from a mental disorder, and I don’t want to make him seem like a bad guy. He’s actually rather congenial when he’s not talking to invisible people. And he’s smart. In his rants he displays an impressive knowledge of politics, world events, and business. That said, he is more than a little distracting. All his talk of murders and conspiracies can make it hard to focus on the murders and conspiracies I’m trying to write about in my novels.

So I’ve been faced with something of a moral dilemma. On the one hand, every time I go to Starbucks—which is less and less often of late—I sincerely hope that Bob will not be there, that he will have found some other place to haunt. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to complain about Bob to the management. After all, he needs the Starbucks a lot more than I do. There are other coffee shops where I can write, but how many places welcome a schizophrenic guy who carries on a non-stop, profanity-laced dialogue with an invisible friend? I’m just glad that Bob found a welcoming place where he can get out of the weather and get some coffee. On the rare occasions when he stops talking and curls up into a chair to sleep, Bob looks downright happy. I wouldn’t want to take that away from him.

And so I’m off to Michigan, to fulfill another stereotype by writing in a lakeside cabin in the woods. I know it’s trite, but what can I say? It’s a good place to write. And the only crazy person I have to deal with there is me.

Next week: Californication (on what it’s really like to be a novelist)

When I tell people I’m a novelist (which even now, I still feel a bit odd/gleeful doing), their reply often goes something like: “Cool.  I’ve always wanted to write a book.”  Indeed, I have a suspicion that just about everybody who has ever read and enjoyed a novel has thought about someday writing one.  Here in the States, it’s part of the American dream: right up there with owning a house, winning the lottery, and becoming a Hollywood star.  I know that I dreamt of writing a novel long before I actually did so.  And while I was writing it, I couldn’t help but think how unbelievable it would be to someday hold the published version in my hands.

Well, it turns out that I should have been thinking about other things.  Writing a novel is all well and good, but if you want to be a novelist, then you will have to write more than one (writers like Harper Lee, notwithstanding).  If you even want to get your first book published, then it will help immensely to have a second book up your sleeve.  Agents and publishers are always looking for the next great book, but even more so, they are looking for the next great career.

So while writing your first novel, be thinking about your second.  In fact, you should have a good idea of what you are going to write next before you start writing your first novel.  Why?  Because whatever you write first will influence what you write second.  As a beginning writer, you will need to carve out a niche by writing several books in the same genre and style.  This is how you build an audience.  Better yet, you can write a series—the most effective way to get readers hooked on your writing.

This means that you need to have thought about your career before you even write your first line of your first book.  Let’s say you have two great ideas: an historical fiction novel about the fall of Constantinople and a dystopian sci-fi mindbender set two-hundred years in the future (to pick two not-so-random examples).  Well, these are not going to be your first and second novels.  If you write the historical fiction novel, then you’ll be putting your sci-fi epic on hold—probably for several years—while you write more historical fiction.  And vice-versa.  And if you are choosing between a great stand-alone story and a series, then you should know that it will be easier to find a publisher and sell books if you go with the series.  All that said, the most important thing is that you be passionate about what you’re writing.  Still, it never hurts to plan ahead.  So don’t just pick the story you most want to tell.  Pick the genre you most want to write in.  And pick the story that is easiest to sell.

I was lucky in this regard.  I have more book ideas—from all genres—than I will ever have time to write, but I’m happy to have started in my favorite subsection of my favorite genre: mediaeval historical fiction.  I love writing these books.  But I have to admit that it was luck more than planning that got me here.  I just as easily could have started with that futuristic dystopian epic and landed in the world of sci-fi.  And while there is nothing wrong with sci-fi… I’m still very glad this didn’t happen, if only because while I have dozens of book ideas for historical fiction, I have exactly two for sci-fi.  I’ll write those two books someday, but that day likely won’t come for many years now.  And I’m fine with that.  But just know that when you sit down to write your first book, this is the sort of choice you are making.  You’re not just selecting a story; you’re selecting a genre and a tone.  So plan ahead, and make sure you pick the right one!

As a writer, one’s work is never done.  I feel like I should be writing pretty much all the time.  Nevertheless, I do occasionally stop working long enough to watch a movie or read a book.  What better way to celebrate these fleeting moments of decadence than to blog about them?  For my first entry in this new blog—“Popped Culture”—I’m tackling the movies of 2010, or at least the ones that I’ve seen so far.

I’ll start with a movie that I saw just tonight, an historical epic set in circa 800 BC, which tells the story of mankind’s attempted rebellion against the Gods of Olympus.  When the King of Argos…  And by the way, what do you call someone from Argos?  An Argosian?  Argosite?  Argolino?  I’m going with Argon…  Where was I?  Oh, yes: when the King of the Argons grows tired of the fickle behavior of the Olympians, he foolishly decides to start desecrating temples and toppling statues of Zeus.  If you know your history, then you already know it will only be a matter of time before Zeus bellows: “Release the Kraken!”

OK, so Clash of the Titans isn’t exactly history.  It’s not even good mythology.  Of the myriad possible sources—Pindar, Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides—the filmmakers seem to have seized upon one in particular: the original Clash of the Titans movie.  The result is a watered down version of already watered down mythology.  So, basically… water.  Which is too bad because after watching Clash, you’ll definitely want a stiff drink.

Sam Worthington tries his best to salvage this mess.  Fresh off his role in Terminator as a half-man, half-machine who fights to prove his humanity, he plays a half-man, half-god who fights to prove his humanity.  He’s one role away from being typecast… or maybe he already is, if you count his half-man, half-Navi role in Avatar.  But you know what?  I don’t care.  I think Sam Worthington is the preeminent half one thing, half another thing actor of his generation, maybe of all time.  I like him, even if he did spend most of Clash looking confused.  But who can blame him?  His character’s one defining feature is that he hates the gods for killing his family.  He’s angry, very angry.  He’ll never be like the gods.  He’ll never accept their help… except for when he does.  But even then he still hates them… except that he kind of likes Zeus.  Still, he’ll never join the gods on Olympus.  He’d rather spend time on earth with his perfectly normal girlfriend… who never ages and has been brought back from the dead.  Huh?  I think confusion was the appropriate expression.

Worthington is surrounded by actors who do their careers no favors.  The merry warriors who accompany him on his quest are distinguishable from one another only by the varying amount of eye-shadow they are wearing.  Only Mads Mikkelsen stands out, but not in a good way: his fake tan and pony-tail make him look like a skinny version of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, only with bad teeth.  Liam Neeson glows in his role as Zeus.  Literally.  He glows.  Maybe he knocked the role out of the park.  I wouldn’t know.  It’s hard to concentrate on someone’s acting when they are glowing.  As for Ralph Fiennes, who I usually love, he plays Hades as if he’s channeling Voldemort playing a drunken Nic Cage.

In the end, Clash is epic only in the extent of its utter crapitude.  Not even popcorn could save it, although God knows I tried my best to improve the on-screen offering by eating an heroic amount.  I ate so much popcorn that an hour after the movie, I almost fainted while walking my dog.  Alas, all that popcorn was in vain.

The clear winner in the 2010 Battle of the Greek Mythology Movies is Percy Jackson and the OlympiansPercy isn’t exactly rigorous in regards to mythology either, but in this case, that’s exactly the point.  The movie plays with mythology in a way that’s fun and refreshing, especially when compared with the mindless Hollywood garbage dished up in Clash.  It’s not a great film, but with a little bit of popcorn to help it along, it is definitely worth seeing.

But the fantasy film of 2010 (so far) is definitely How to Train Your Dragon.  It is the best dragon movie I have ever seen.  (Unless you count Avatar as a dragon movie.)  More than that, it’s one of the better animated films I’ve ever seen.  Unlike Clash and Percy, How to Train Your Dragon seems to have actually gone through more than one draft before filming started.  It has well-developed characters with clear story arcs and motivations.  In fact, the characters—for all that they are animated—come across as infinitely more real than anyone in Clash.  And the story works.  It’s actually rather moving.  I had to fight back tears more than once, and the group of six year old kids sitting in the row in front of me were all balling.  You’ll thrill, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry… ladies and gentlemen: How to Train Your Dragon!

On the other end of the fantasy spectrum is another book adaptation: the new Alice in Wonderland.  I left the theater shaking my head and wondering what in the hell had happened to Tim Burton.  Granted, this is the man who thought strapping missiles to penguins (Batman II) was a good idea, but still, he’s never produced anything so insipid and frankly incompetent as Alice.  The setup is actually quite good, but once Alice arrives in Underland—and by the way, changing Wonderland to Underland was a) never explained and b) stupid—the film becomes a succession of truly awful action scenes.  I could live with turning Alice and Wonderland into an action movie, but the action in Alice is not just mindless and repetitive (three separate characters get stabbed in the eye), it is shockingly incompetent.  In particular, the anti-climactic final battle scene looks as if it was directed by someone who had never stood behind a camera.  Did Burton suffer some sort of debilitating personal crisis in the midst of filming?  Did he let his assistant take over while he was out getting coffee?  I don’t know, but I do know that these are the sorts of questions that were running through my mind during the last thirty minutes of Alice. That is not a good sign.

For a more enjoyable trip down the rabbit hole—or hot tub, in this case—check out Hot Tub Time Machine.  Now, you may think that this move looks juvenile, ridiculous, and incoherent.  And it is!  But gloriously so.  The plot makes no sense—nor does it try to—but it wrings plenty of humor out of its sheer nonsensicalness.  It also gets the most out of its ‘80s setting, playing not only with the fashion, music, and general goofiness of the decade, but also with ‘80s film conventions.  And who better to do so than ‘80s teen star John Cusack?  All in all, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Hot Tub.  But I don’t expect everybody to like it.  If you hear the premise—four men get in a hot tub, travel back in time to the ‘80s, and relive a wild weekend at a ski resort—and think it sounds terrible… then Hot Tub is probably not for you.  If you hear it and think hell yeah… well then, you’ll walk out of the theater shouting hellz yeah!

To sum up, I’ll leave you with my up-to-the-minute movie rankings for 2010:

1)  How to Train Your Dragon
2)  Hot Tub Time Machine
3)  Percy Jackson and the Olympians
4)  Clash of the Titans

Alice in Wonderland doesn’t get to be on the list.  It’s just too awful.

Now, back to writing.  I’ll be back soon to pop more culture.

Yesterday, as I was heading to the coffee shop to do some writing, I passed a woman walking a golden lab.  When they reached the street corner, the woman asked her dog to sit, and when he did, she gave him a pat.  “Good boy, Zoloft!”  I couldn’t help but smile.  A dog named for an anti-depressant… brilliant!  After all, what better way to brighten your day than with a canine thereapy?

Last week left me feeling like I needed a little Zoloft—preferably of the canine, not the chemical variety.  (Unfortunately, my dog Barley is not nearly so nice a walker as Zoloft.  Barley thinks it is imperative that he chase—or strain mightily against leash in an attempt to chase—every squirrel that he sees.)  I was planning to write about sequels for last week’s blog.  I wanted to discuss the importance of planning ahead, of thinking of what comes next even before you finish your first novel.  However, before I got around to writing my blog, events intervened to change its course.  Ironically, it all happened because I failed to plan ahead…

The Thursday before last was a beautiful day here in DC.  The sky was clear, the weather warm, and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.  I woke up early and strolled over to my favorite coffee shop, Peregrine.  I got a delicious latté and sat down, ready to put in a great day’s work.  I pulled out my computer, plugged it in, and hit the start button.  The computer turned on, began to hum, and then… nothing.  The screen was black.

My chest tightened.  A knot formed in my stomach.  I took a deep breath and fought down rising panic.  I turned my computer off, then on again.  Still only a blank screen.  In normal circumstance, this is the point when I would have started cursing.  But I like Peregrine and wanted to come back, so I held my tongue.  I took a sip of coffee and forced myself to breathe.  I found myself wondering: when was the last time that I had backed up my files?  Two weeks ago?  Two months ago?  I had written hundreds of pages of notes and two chapters of the history book I’m working on since then.  I took a deep breath and tried turning on my computer one more time.  No dice.  This is when it would have been nice to have Zoloft (the dog) around.

I was facing a disaster of truly epic proportions.  (Well, not really, but that’s how it felt at the time.)  I’m not very sentimental about possessions.  Every time I move, I throw out most of what I own.  But my computer is different.  I spend most of my day with it.  My entire career is on it: notes on hundreds of books; outlines of dozens of stories; drafts of books.  Last month, the fire alarm went off in my building.  I took three things: my wallet, my passport… and my laptop.

I—like most people, it seems—have become ridiculously dependent on my computer.  I use it to find out how to get where I’m going, to keep in touch with my friends, to get my work done, to organize my pictures and music, to keep my schedule, to order everything from books to furniture to food.  I don’t have a television, so I even watch all my movies on my computer.  All in all, I spend a rather disturbing amount of time with it.

So last week was nice in a way, because I was forced to take a break from my computer.  It was very old-school.  I looked up movie times in the newspaper.  I consulted a map.  I even wrote with pen and paper!  And luckily, all was not lost.  I was able to recover the files off my computer.  I installed a new hard drive and voilà, my computer was a good as new.  Actually, it worked a little better than new.  A crisis was averted, and I was left with a new determination to break the chains that tied me to my computer (after I finish this blog, of course) and also to start backing up my files more regularly.  Because if I can’t have Zoloft, then I had better have backup.

Next week, I’ll get to Sequels (on planning ahead).  Until then, I encourage you all to step away from your computer for a moment… but only after you back up your files!



"The greatest battle the world has ever known is about to begin!"

Buy Now
Copyright © 2021, Jack Hight. All Rights Reserved.