writing

Acknowledgements from the pages of “Home Street” – The First Preorder Update

The majority of you who have come to see this update are my friends and family at this point, so I thought it appropriate to help you see just how many of you have been instrumental in the making of “Home Street.”  Please keep in mind that context is key, and a lot of the references you’ll find here will make more sense once you’ve read the novel.

If you would like to preorder “Home Street,” simply go here and do so.

Without further ado, I present…

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

Legend has it I’ve been working on this book since I was seven years old.  The thing about beginning anything at such a tender age is I’m not entirely certain it’s true.  I know I began not long after we moved to Florida.  Seems about right, but just like Paul, my timeline can be confusing.

There’s a lot I can say that about: “Just like Paul.”  I could go into detail, writing dissertations on what’s a memory and what’s pure imagination, but that’s not the point.  The goal here is to thank those who’ve inspired, motivated, and aided in the creation of this book.  Still, the legend is important.

Truth is I have so many people to acknowledge in this affair it’s practically criminal.  One of the reasons I’ve embedded so many names in the narrative is to purposefully pay homage to those folks.  If you’ve known me at any point in my life leading up to the publication of this work and there’s a character with a name similar or identical to your own, it’s a pretty good bet I’m full of thanksgiving our paths have crossed.

The legal department would prefer I add a disclaimer.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

That is an important statement.  Not just because it will keep me out of court, but also – while I’ve been inspired by real individuals, these characters are pure fiction.  The characters on these pages are here to serve the story and not to be mirror images of complicated flesh and blood individuals.

The original stories – which were the spiritual precursors of this tome – were mainly screenplays, and my full intention was to film them.  I learned the format from reading old Three Stooges scripts.  Instead of hiring actors, I would cast my friends and family.  By doing so, the roles I created were greatly influenced by their personalities.

The very first story was called F.B.K.I.S. (or Federal Bureau of Kids Investigations and Stuff).  That cast included an assortment of elementary and middle school acquaintances.

I say acquaintances, because I didn’t have many friends in those days.  Certainly, there were some who were more.  There was Kyle, whose last name has been lost to history.  He was my first and only friend from the time I moved to Florida until the time he moved away.

When Damon Matrocos came to town, I saw a new opportunity.  Despite the fact no one else in school wanted to play with me – that I was the punchline to so many jokes, I would earn this new kid’s friendship.  This was after my fervent prayer in the tub but before I discovered “Weird Al.”  I was still learning to craft my charm into a tool.  I’m happy to say Damon became my friend and was a part of that original cast, as were Michael and Benjamin and my best friend throughout my life, my brother Andrew.

We would go on neighborhood adventures, sometimes searching for Old Mr. Green in the woods.  On one occasion, we investigated a real-life predator in the neighborhood.  That was the day Damon suggested we start a club.  That was the day that inspired me to start writing.

After my parents divorced and we moved to Ohio, I became further influenced by the people I met while briefly going to the private school where my mother taught.  Christian Hodges, Michael Smail, and Jacob Lees would sit with me at lunch, listening patiently as I told them about the script I was writing for us all.

I moved into a trailer park and started going to school at Big Walnut.  That was the first major shift in the overall story.  It became a study of the kids in my neighborhood.  They were trying so hard to grow up while I was desperately clinging to childhood.  Some of them were turning to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, petty crime, and sex.  I was witness to arson, incest, and brutal violence while living there, and two of my friends from school were prototypical Dylan Kliebold/Eric Harris types, building pipe bombs and threatening to one day come to school with guns.  Not to be contained in a single volume, I typed out a film trilogy under the banner Debt 2 Society on our first family computer.

By this point in my life, I was the class clown and on the opposite end of the popularity totem pole.  I’d already laid down the groundwork with classroom antics during eighth grade, but what really put me over the top were two events.  First, I accidentally pushed Joel Reynolds through the fire extinguisher glass on the first day of our freshman year.  The second thing happened the very same day.  We were in the orientation assembly when the vice principal opened the floor for questions.  I raised my hand and asked if a public display of affection could be counted if it was just one person.  When asked to clarify, I specified that I figured this guy was probably alone in a bathroom stall and could unwittingly create a slipping hazard.

That set it off.  I became a legend.  At least in my own mind.

My cast had swollen, including people who succeeded in making their impressions felt and a handful of legitimate lifelong friends.  There was my high school community (Jeff Murdock, Ann Gentile, Jes Antolik, Shawn Page, Dan Strohl, Jamie Cox, Erin Sayers, Elizabeth Grooms, Nicole Butz, Mandy Detty, Erica Roche, Naomi Kresgi, Janet Dougherty, Barnabas Boehler, John Copley, John Stankowiz, Seth Rogers, Adam Govoni, Danielle Conklin, Anya Velasquez, Bethany Whittington, Tiffany Evans, Jamie Sumner, Stephanie Heckler, Julie Thompson, Jennifer Schirtzinger, Maria Lynch, Steve Tack, Steve and Julie Murdock, David Gentile, Eric Antolik, Trent and “Bubby” Carter, Valerie Popovich, Beth Trusler, Emily and Alex Beard, Ethan Whitney, Leela Bean, Melissa Kopp, Jayson Hummel, Geoffrey Miller, Mindy and Jason McComas, Stacey Mullins, Travis Garrabrant, Shaun Decker, Brad and Kelly Wolfe, Jesse Haines, Mitch Fry, Ben Edwards, Damon Frentsos, Heath Stickney, Andy Kerr, Steve McDonough, Chris Smith, Roy and Robert Merchant, Andrew Hartley, and Jill Ceneskie), my Camp Lazarus family (Kent “Dingo” Keister, Chip Burke, Dave Hudler, David Brant, Josh Steele, Barbara Lovell, Caty Peters, Kyle Allen, the English twins, The Leonards, Eddie Wilson, Daniel Anschutz, Jason “Cookie” Cook, Ian and Nathan Cheeseman, Tony Marrazzi, Brian Roy, Anna Haas, Charlie Adams, Matt Long, Chris and Bridget Link, Jennifer Councilman, Martha Channell, Laura Henry, Maggie and Tim Smith, Clark Schwenke, Jeff Westlake, Eric Fox, and Brian Canini), and my Camp Blue Ridge kids (Drew Lerman, Larry Zinn, Ian Kay, and Josh Blum).

Suddenly, tragedy struck.  My classmate, fellow camp counselor, and dear, dear friend Bill Tack took his life.  Writing silly, disconnected stories focusing heavily on action and cartoony violence wasn’t what I want anymore.  I felt compelled to write more personally.

In college, my focus shifted to describing what it’s like to take tentative steps away from childhood.  The original Home Street featured two protagonists: Paul (who represented my my more introverted aspects) and Bill (who exhibited my extroverted tendencies).  Paul was stuck in the past.  Bill was stuck in the future.  They were both returning to their hometown for the wedding of Tom and Jen.

Bill aspired to shake off the dust of that crummy little town and make his mark on Hollywood, but first he would have to confront the shadows of his father’s physical abuse.

Paul hadn’t spoken to anyone in the four d since they graduated from high school.  He was there to see everyone one last time before he disappeared for good.  The complication, of course, was his high school sweetheart, Gayle, who despite having moved on with her life, was obviously still in love with him.  The major dramatic question: Can love save a life?

This was easily the longest series of revisions in my history of long running revisions, having lived in my memory, in dog-eared copies handed off to friends, and table readings for two full decades.

So many people from my college years at Kent State became prototypes.  Amanda D’Angelo, Ian Crossland, Leslie Diamond, and Eric Van Baars.  Even more people from this period have influenced this novel.  Nate Hodges, Mike Maletic, Kariem Marbury, Leigh Ann Miller, Carl Gannon, Jes Kreusler, Ryan Davis, Brian Massolini, Cat Kenny, Peggy Elliott, Jef Snopel, Kat Savering, Melissa Wintringham, Kenny Bentley, Tarah Hamilton, Kate Sopko, Marya Bednerick, Sukriye Yuksel, and Holly Magnani.

As I’ve aged, Paul has aged, and even while I’ve focused on other things, Paul’s story has been alive, festering in my mind as I’ve experienced more and more of the world.  This novel has taken several years to write, mostly because like Paul, I’ve had obstacles which have held me back from fully pursuing my dreams.  While working retail (and never, ever stealing from the till), I’ve made movies, recorded albums, and wrote plays and comic books.  I’ve done music videos, sketches, web shows, and talked to a few of my heroes about storytelling.

I never stopped believing.

People like Richard Baker, Jason Nestler, Jaz Williams, Godson Chamberlain, Kurt Braun, Elizabeth Jackson, Debra Plante, Mark McKinney, Peter John Ross, Yochanan Sebastian Winston PhD, Kathy Robbins, Cristina Leduc, Elaina Pajimula, Angela Lynn Cousins, Carl Gannon, Jesse Dillon Sorrels, Holly Elswick, Tawny Whaley, David Shoemaker, Charles Castro, Dominique Gilbert, JeanCarlo Mendez, Chase Pado, Paula Stead, Jason Mank, Ryan Spratt, Jim Larkin, Michael Magnuson, Jessica Nigri, and Andrew Nielsen have fleshed out the characters herein.  A school teacher who shopped at my store invited me to speak to his class and emboldened me to claim myself a writer.  Thank you for that Anthony Poggiali.

While this story’s about Paul’s family and includes entirely fictionalized events, the spirit of my own family is ever present.  I must thank Nana and Pop (Walter and Louise Grant), Grandpa and Grandma Ball (Orville and Maxine), Great-Grandma Lemley (Ilabell) and her lover Baxter, my mother (Deborah Ball), my father and step-mother (Greg and Jackie Grant), my sister and nephew (Elizabeth and Gabriel), my brother (Andrew, again), my uncles and aunts (Dad’s side: Steve and Pat, Tim and Pegi, Marilou and Earl; Mom’s side: Dan, Mark and Chris, Pam and Ron, Mike and Brenda), cousins (Dad’s side: Stephanie, Matthew, Jennifer, Shaun, Nicole, Rachel and Rebecca, and Nathan; Mom’s side: Ashley, Josh, Jessup, Shelby, Justus, Nathan, Alicia, Anita, Annalee, and Sean), my beloved baby sweets (Stella Ingram), and her parents (Dennis and Estrella).

Of course, there are parts of Paul’s life I never lived.  These are experiences essential to the story I wanted to tell.  I’m sure it comes as no surprise to read these were the most difficult parts for me.  Writing about a war you did not fight is not an easy thing to do.  You go to the history books, to names and dates.  It’s dry, confusing, and distant.  There are some excellent frontline accounts on record.  I particularly liked On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story by Cdr. Richard Jadick and Thomas Hayden, Combat Corpsman by Jonathan P. Brazee, House to House: A Soldier’s Memoir by David Bellavia and John R. Bruning, We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah by Patrick K. O’Donnell, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah by Bing West, and Surviving Twilight: A Soldier’s Chronicle of Daily Life in Iraq by Shane A. Bernskoetter.

The more I learned about the war, the men and women who fought it, and the sacrifices made, the deeper I felt my responsibility to tell this story with dignity, truth, and accuracy.  I had to get this right for it to be meaningful.  It had to hurt.

If I got any part of the experience right, it was due to the brave men and women who told me their personal stories and answered my absurd, obsessive questions.  A heartfelt thank you goes out to Sgt. Trent Fellur (3664th Maintenance Company, Army), Sgt. Kristopher Chan (166th SOC, Army), Muhamad Dea’a Jassem (an Iraqi citizen who worked as a procurement officer for the U.S. military), and MCPO Frederick Berry, who suggested Paul should be a corpsman.  Fred also went above and beyond the call of duty, agreeing to read through this novel and correct as many of my military facts as possible.  Talk about honor, courage, and commitment!

I also owe a great deal of gratitude to Fred for reassuring my fears.  “Don’t worry about making it political,” he said.  “You can’t write it without it being political.”

One of the common challenges I’ve heard about those who serve is when they get to the V.A. for help with their PTSD, and the psychologist is someone with no combat experience.  It’s not comfortable for them to share their feelings – to expose themselves and their frayed thoughts – to someone who doesn’t understand what they’ve been through.  I’m fully aware in the context of trying to cull information, I was playing the role of neophyte.  It’s the major reason I owe so much to those who chose to speak with me.

I sincerely hope I’ve contributed something meaningful to the conversation.  To those who fought, I hope this book brings some clarity, compassion, maybe even closure.  To those who still fight the demons of war, I hope this book inspires you to ask for help.  And to those civilians like myself who stoked the home fires, I hope this book helps to make the cost of freedom something a little more personal.

To me ‘Home Street’ isn’t a war story.  It’s not even a Christmas story.  It’s a ghost story – a fictionalized memoir thirty years in the making.  It’s a deeply personal story and something I’ve been compelled to work on for almost as long as I can remember.

This leaves me with one last acknowledgment.

Thank you for picking up this book and allowing me to tell my story.  Thank you for taking the time to read it.  Thank you for reviewing it online, spreading the word, and recommending it to the special people in your life.  In that way, you’ve shared a piece of your life with me too, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

 

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What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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Prologue – Would You Read this Book?

This is one fucked up way to end the holidays.

Those were the words that entered his mind in that moment.  If he had believed they might be the last words he ever thought, maybe he would have something else to say about everything, but as it was, it seemed a fitting enough way to sign off.

No more words.  No more deeds.

As a boy, he had never been able to open his eyes underwater, but somehow he was looking around without any burning. All around was murky, muddy water, shady and blue. If he couldn’t save himself, he would breathe it all in, filling his lungs. The world would darken around him, and he would sink into the quagmire at the bottom. He would have to act quickly if he wanted to live.

Only, he wasn’t sure he wanted to live.

No more dreams. No more nightmares.

And to think. . . I actually shaved for this.

He had had enough of this world, and it seemed to know he thought so. After all, it was the earth that was trying to kill him.

Bubbles rose from his nostrils as he looked up at the thick sheet of ice above his head. He couldn’t see a break to the surface, but he knew if he looked hard enough, he’d find the opening his body had made that landed him in this silent, frozen hell.

No more debts. No more harassing phone calls from creditors.

Where’s my left shoe? I don’t remember losing that.

There was no telling how long he had been in the cold water, but he knew there couldn’t be much more time before everything would start happening. Already, his fingers and toes were numb. Already, his chest and stomach were crying out for warmth. Yet he found serenity in it all. Maybe it was God’s hush bringing this calm. Yeah, maybe that.

Or the head wound.

No more tooth decay. No more hair loss.

Did I remember to pay the waitress?

Blue hands hung in front of him. They reminded him of the limbs of a tree, blown lightly by a passing summer breeze. He knew they were his, but he couldn’t feel them anymore. It struck him funny that this was all there was left. Just to float. And then to die. No fanfare. No trumpets or a flickering film of his life passing before his eyes. Just this.

Just water and cold and pain and death.

No more sunrises to break the dawn. No more stars burning overhead.

I wonder if they’ll ever find me down here.

He forced himself to recall the events of his life, to the moments that led to his demise. He conjured the faces of those he loved into the dusky bog. It almost made him feel criminal to do that; to bring them down here with him. So he closed his eyes. Life had just one last lesson for him:

How to let it all go.

No more fading memories. Just. . . no more.

Wait a second! I wasn’t the only one that fell in!

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