Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Week 1 Recap— 90-Day Challenge Gone Disney

WARNING: The following text-chat recap of my 90-Day Creative Challenge contains scenes and images of intense Disney-fication. May be too saccharine for more cynical readers. How this element crept into my blog is unknown. Perhaps it is a natural result of bringing together two people who met in an animation studio. I, however, blame Holly and her blog. She is a pernicious influence.

Reader discretion advised.

Holly Myer: Hello!

James Sie: "I will find my way
I can go the distance
I'll be there someday
If I can be strong
I know every mile
Will be worth my while
I would go most anywhere
To feel like I belong..."
HM: Hercules?

JS: I thought I would freak you out by quoting a Disney song, Ms. Frozen. And, 
this morning for some reason I could not stop watching youtube videos of this guy named Chris Villain singing Disney. He dressed up as a mermaid and sang “Part of Your World.” I was horrified and yet I could not look away.

HM: Hmmm. Sounds like an incredible person.

JS: As you can see I am making productive use of my time.

HM: How was the first week?

JS: So, my week? Well, I sprang out April 1st full of energy and I got an INCREDIBLE lot done. Felt like all this bottled creative effort was finally shaken and sprayed out. 

By the third day, I was thinking, "Is 90 days over yet?"

HM: Hahaha. Pace yourself! But at least a strong start is a good sign!

JS: I have to say, against my better snarky judgement, that this book is very helpful. It's having me write around the plot without diving in, like tinkering at the edges, so that I can be open to all possibilities. He keeps talking about holding the story loosely at this point.

HM: I can see the strategy there, to figure out how little things work in that world before you get wrapped up in bigger events.

JS: Exactly. I have to do all these exercises, like imagining the worst day of the antagonist's life, or the thing that the protagonist loves above all else, or something she has never told anyone...

HM: Those sound like fun assignments!

JS: Fun? Sometimes. Sometimes I get impatient. But it also helps because you're not thrown into "Write! Write your book NOW!" I'm not allowed to actually write pages until next month. It’s like productive procrastination!

And you? I see from your blog there are lovely pictures popping up, like crocuses in Spring...

HM: The first week went well! I am on track with 7.5 drawings. 

JS:  Nice!

HM: It's been really interesting trying experiments with color--I'm already moving past the idea of having an outlined/black&white version of each…because I like the colors!

JS: Is it manipulation of photos?

HM: No, I'm drawing on layers on top of a photo, then I remove the photo.

JS: Ah… very cool. And do they pair with your writings?

HM: Some do so far. I'm going through the GIFs I've used on the blog, and choosing a frame (or two) to study to create the individual image. Plus, I've been going through family photos and using the same technique. It's a very thoughtful process, looking at all the little details of someone's face.

JS: How long does each one take?

HM: The more monochrome style takes about an hour, full color takes longer. And with some, I'm adding the background, which adds another 30 minutes.

JS: Wow. You're really putting the time in! I love the frowning, direct-to-the-camera one. I see a book cover!

HM: Ha, thanks! I'll take that into serious consideration!

JS: Are you surprised that you have somehow found the time?

HM: Yeah, actually. I spent a lot of quiet time this weekend working. I also tried drawing at Republic of Pie, a local coffee/live music/study hall place I love.

JS: That is a great place-- good tables. And good pie.

HM: A caught a lady looking in the reflection of my glasses to see what I was drawing…then the lady started talking to her friend about Marilyn Monroe.

JS: I'm afraid I'm a Starbucks man, myself. Mundane, I know, but habitual.

I HIGHLY recommend Bose noise-canceling ear bud headphones. They are made by magical elves. Costs more than a Luxury Suite at the Venetian, but worth every penny. They tune out most everything. 

HM: I imagine. Perfect music is important to creative work!

JS: Yes. I have found that playing "Da Pacem" by Arvo Part automatically makes my writing sound 200% more compelling.

JS: Are you looking forward to this week? I am terrified of not sustaining.

HM: I'm a little nervous about keeping up with my solid start, yes. But definitely looking forward to more coloring time. I'm four [years-old]. But I get excited to draw, like when I was four. So that's good.

JS: Very good. And you have images to plaster around and remind you how good it is.

HM: Yes. Thank you. And now, thanks to you, I have "Go the Distance" on repeat.

(the Lucas Grabeel version, obvi.)

JS: Oooh. Sorry. It was meant ironically.
 So, good luck on the week. See you on the flip side!

Thanks. You too!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No April Fools— 90 Day Challenge Begins Today!

I’ve done it. After a massive assist from my illustrator, Sungyoon Choi, the manuscript of Still Life Las Vegas has been delivered to my editor Sara at St. Martin's Press. Nothing so hefty as a giant stack of papers boxed up and shipped, just a digital PDF Dropboxed over the internet, but it's a weighty milestone nonetheless. Godspeed and a safe voyage, oh little book!

Now, what do I do with the year before it actually makes it to print? I can think of nothing better than to begin something new, and I'm getting my ass in gear with the help of a book called “The 90-Day Novel. 
(Incidentally-- what's up with all of these 90-day improvement programs? Novel in 90 Days, P-90X,  90-Day rehab— it seems one can do ANYTHING in 90 days. Has "90 days" become the new "40 days and 40 nights" for our non-biblical times?) 

I’ve finished the prep from the book, which included writing about my fears (chief amongst them being the urge to throw the book across the room) and what I believe most strongly in (pot pies). I’m ready for my start date of today, April 1st. 

I’ve decided to document this process (misery loves company) and I’m joined in my 90-day odyssey by Holly Myer, writer of the blog “Unemployed on Purpose,” who also has a project she wants to get off the ground. This 26-year-old, unrepentant optimist has agreed to regularly check in with me, just so we can keep each other honest. Here’s the text transcript of our initial Facebook chat:

James Sie: Okay, before we begin: which character from "Girls" do you most identify with?

Holly Myer: I'm 1/2 Hannah and 1/2 Shosh. I've thought a lot about it.

JS: Excellent answer! You pass the first test.

So... let's talk about our projects, shall we? You first.

HM: Okay. I want to make at least 100 illustrations for my based-on-blog book.

JS: What kind of illustrations, and in what medium?

HM: Digital drawing/painting via Photoshop.
I hope to have a black/white and full color version of each one.

JS: 100... it'll be a little more than one a day, then, yah? Will you feel like Julie whatsername going through every one of Julia Child's recipes?
Does that make me
Meryl Streep? Yay

HM: Yeah, at least one a day. And yes, I do rather see myself as an Amy Adams-type in this situation. If only Chris Messina were my husband.

JS: We'll work on that.

HM: Great. I wish I could say I was planning to study the works of a legend like Julia Child, but I'm just going through my own essays to think about them again, with a more visual perspective

JS: I, for my part, am writing a novel about coyotes. Real ones, not smuggler ones.

HM: I'm hooked, tell me more!

JS: I'm hoping it's going to be like Game of Thrones, but with canis latrans. And set in Los Angeles. Lots of nudity. With fur. Or let's say... "Watership Down" meets "The Sopranos."

HM: That's an incredible mashup. Sounds like it has HBO written all over it.

JS: There are coyotes in our neighborhood, and when they pass me and my dog  on our walk they stare at me as if to say, "Man, are you working on that thing yet?"

Holly, thanks for pushing me to do this. And I'm sure your boundless optimism will be equal parts infuriating and inspiring.

HM: You're welcome! In sixth grade, I won the Initiative Megaskill Award, and it's one of my proudest accomplishments.

JS: I’m frightened.

We have two people who may be joining in. Grace is working on a screenplay, and Wendy is wanting to do a daily kind of journal, but still unsure about the parameters. They're down with the 90 days. So, a variety!

HM: Wooo! WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER [Note: “High School Musical” reference]

JS: Though I keep feeling like this is "Ten Little Indians" and we'll be whittled down one by one. [Note: this has already happened, as Grace has unfortunately had to bow out]

Do I lose you with the "Ten Little Indians" reference?

HM: No, I get that one! And I refuse to be whittled.

JS: So, Thelma, ready to rev the engine and go over the cliff?

HM: Yes, Louise!
(Thelma and Louise, right?)
Holly would have made a GIF.
I just... can't. 
JS: Very good.

HM: (I've never watched the whole movie)

JS: Shit. Sorry for the spoiler. WATCH THE WHOLE MOVIE, FOR CHRISSAKE!

HM: It's okay. Troy Bolton goes to Cal at the end of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.” Now we're even.

JS: Maybe we should just leave it there. Check on you next week?

HM: Yes, please!

JS: Good luck! Happy April!

HM: To you, as well!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I'm a Twit, and Other Revelations

So, first thing: I’ve joined that adult ball pit of ampersands, hashtags, and bad abbreviations: Twitter. Can U blieve it? @SieJames

Twitter has all the self-absorption and addictive monitoring of Facebook, but with fewer words. Smaller chunks of creamy indulgence, kind of like bite-sized Three Musketeer Bars. Love me. Love me! LOVE ME! my @ pleads, scanning the twitterverse for Followers. I’ll like you if you like me! I’ve made a platform! Come sit on it! Listen to my words! LISTEN TO MY WORDS!
This is the book you're
gonna have to go g


In more productive news, I’ve decided to tackle my need for a writing deadline head-on by imposing one on myself. I’m going to follow the directives of a book: The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within. It’s written by Alan Watts, bestselling author of Diamond Dogs. It’s all the rage out here in Hollywood, with friends of mine involved in 90-day screenplays, 90-day stage plays, and, for all I know, 90-day haikus. In his book, Watts wants you to write fast, without any left-brain criticism or revision, just to get the story down on the page. He’s got the whole three months mapped out, and by the end of it, you’re supposed to have a first draft. What could possibly go wrong?

My first step is to commit to the program by telling everyone here that I’m doing it. No backing out; or else what will my tens of readers think of me? The second step is to invite YOU to share in the pain fun. I’m sure that there are some budding authors among you who have been wanting to get a novel out of their head and onto the page. Let me be your kick in the butt! Join me! I’ll check in with you and offer inspiration and/or threats. C’mon! I want to start April 1st, so you have plenty of time to get the book and be ready to go. This is your chance— you could have a first draft by summer!

I’ve already got one cohort, my friend Holly Myer, with whom I worked on Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. She was the casting assistant at Nickelodeon, and is now a casting coordinator at Dreamworks. I discovered that she also writes when I came across her blog, Unemployed on Purpose, which she is now wanting to turn into a book, complete with her own drawings. Holly is kicky and fun. She is also, I should mention, twenty-six, which means she will not get any of my “McMillan & Wife” references. That may be a problem. It also means she’s up on all that social media jumble that pains me so. I bet she LIKES to tweet. We’ll be live-tweeting the whole 90 days! (is that a thing?)

Here’s how I sealed the deal with Holly (on Facebook, of course):

Holly Myer:  So maybe April 1? or before? your call!

James Sie: Hmm... April 1 has a nice ring to it, but maybe that's just me wanting to procrastinate.

Holly:  No, it sounds good! There's an "I'm not foolin' ya" joke in there somewhere

James:  And while it'll probably just be you and me, we'll give it a shot. Forward!!

Holly:  GO US!

James:  Oh, this'll be good. I can already see I'm going to be the crusty curmudgeonly one.
Not sure yet of the format of the reportage... I guess it depends on how pithy we are.

Holly: Gotcha. Well, I'm up for whatever format allows me to properly express unapologetic optimism

JamesOy. All right, grandpa needs his shut-eye. 

Holly:  Thanks! And FB is good! I'm also on Twitter & Instagram @hollymyer
if you want to follow me for on-the-hour Zac Efron updates

James Sie:  (Long sigh)...             yes.

You can tell Holly is young by her lack of punctuation at the end of her instant messages. Call me old-fashioned, I like a good period.

Join us! We can shake our collective heads at Holly’s unbridled positivity. And then she can teach us how to set our VCR’s DVR’s. Take a look at Holly's take on our little challenge here. And let me know if you want in on the challenge by posting in the comments section below, or private message me on Facebook. Or... (long sigh)     you can tweet me. 

update: Holly informs me that, yes, you can live-tweet anything. She once live-tweeted a mixed tape. Clever girl.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Black Magic of Threes

"I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors."
—Hamlet, Act II scene 2

This entire week I've been restless and malcontent. Life has felt dull and blunted; the savor has gone from my existence. I have, of late, lost all my mirth. What could be causing me to skulk about like a Melancholy Dane?  Is it the limbo of a book on the verge of being published, but not yet so? The trepidation of the next project, ever-gestating but fearful of the page? The ending of one series (fond farewell, Kung Fu Panda!) without a new one in sight? Or does the fault lie in our stars, a retrograde Mercury or a Moon void of course?

Or, could I be swearing off of computer games yet again?

Ah yes. It's time for another round of Give up Games for Lent. Last time was a few years ago, and since then I've managed to shed myself of flinging birds, vegetable-eating zombies, words with friends (and myself), even crosswords. In fact, with the exception of the Simpsons: Tapped Out, I've managed to steer clear of almost all games.

Until Threes.
Must. Get. To. 384!!! 

This little, simple app is a quick trifle— push 1 & 2's together to make 3's. Push 3's together to make 6's, and so on. Nothing, right? A quick one-off while waiting in the pick-up line in school, or as my Starbucks soy latte is being brewed. That's what I thought. Then, these tiny gaming sessions, these insidious little grains of 1's and 2's, started expanding and filling up my head like so much digital quinoa, spiraling out of control. Soon, there was no time to read, to ponder the universe, to write; only Threes, Threes with its jaunty little soundtrack and ironic soundbites. Threes, the gateway game that led to me twisting texts, spelling towers and uniting runes. Damn you, Threes!

My beloved Springfield... surely all
this tapping is teaching me SOMETHING.
So I've stopped games until the Resurrection.  I haven't gone cold turkey, though; I still get to play Simpsons once a day ( I do have a civic responsibility to my little town, after all) but nothing else. Serving as my Methadone is a great language app— Duolingo—which is teaching me Italian (it's free!) and has a game-like interface. I tried to convince Doug that my mind game— Brain Fit— should also be allowed, but he has vetoed it, coal-hearted blackguard that he is. Maybe, just maybe, if enough of you think brain training apps are good and valid and tell Doug, I'll be allowed to play! Post your comments! Clap your hands! BELIEVE! BELIEVE!

Duolingo, Italian: I've still got three hearts! Buono! 
It's been hard. No little pop of excitement to cap off a chore, no endorphin release to look forward to between dinner and dishes. Just... me. However, this morning may have marked a turning point. I woke up (after having sprung forward an hour, no less) clearer in my head. The sky was roiling with white clouds, the outside was still redolent with jasmine, and there was an almost priapic sense of anticipation in the air. Maybe this respite is doing me good. Maybe I'll get something productive done...

Or maybe I'll just conjugate a few Italian verbs.

Che Buono!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reading is Good for You

I’m alone in an enclosed cubicle not much bigger than an old-fashioned phone booth, trying to simulate the sound of a giant hamster farting. This, after impersonating an eight-year old boy, a Midwestern phone operator, a military general, and an eccentric scientist responsible for said flatulating giant hamster. 

Volunteering doesn’t get much better than this. 

I’m at the Hollywood offices of Learning Ally, a national not-for-profit organization devoted to providing support and recorded texts for those with reading challenges. It was founded in 1948 under the name Recording for the Blind, where it originally made audio recordings of college textbooks for GI’s who had been blinded in the war. Years later it broadened its scope and became known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and then, as its clientele grew to include all those with reading challenges, RB&D ditched the ampersands and rechristened itself Learning Ally. If you have difficulties processing the printed word, you can sign up for membership and download books with accompanying audio. 

Does your text look like this when you read, even when you're not drunk? Then you might have a print disability. 

Jesse at Command Central
I’ve been volunteering there about once a week for the last few months. The space is not by any stretch glamorous, unless you consider Soviet-era office spaces glamorous. The narrow hallways, worn carpeting and gray walls have been made even more forlorn by recent cutbacks and the advent of home recording, which have decimated the staff and left behind clusters of abandoned conference rooms and offices. Of the two remaining staff members, the one I see most is Jesse: stalwart, vigilant, mellow Jesse, caretaker of all those empty rooms and recording booths. He reminds me of a park ranger posted at some remote wilderness way station, scanning for forest fires. It is Jesse who manages the different projects,  instructs the volunteers, and tinkers with the aging recording equipment.

I love this place. 

I don’t know what it is, but I can’t wait to come. Maybe it’s my inner librarian who loves to read aloud. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to stretch out my voiceover skills without any pressure. Or maybe it’s the chance to help out my fellow man without having to, you know, actually talk to anyone. Whatever the reason, for an introverted reader like myself this is the best possible volunteering situation possible. 

No they are not tanning beds. They are recording booths. 
When I arrive for my two-hour shift it’s usually me, Jesse, and the usual contingent of old-timers: graying, husky-voiced, exacting veterans, many of them with more than twenty years under their belts. I give a wave to Jesse, pass the plate of cookies  by the coffee machine, and make my solitary way downstairs to the booths, where I run my own sound equipment and direct myself. There are plenty of textbooks they need read, but because of my younger-sounding voice and experience I have so far been assigned fiction for kids. Believe me, I don’t mind missing out  on intermediate algebra or real estate law. And for a voiceover actor, it is a wonderful way to hone your studio work. 

There is a constant deadline— some of these books are meted out chapter by chapter, as soon as they are done, for students who need them in class. We need to be swift, but accurate. For those who aren’t into reading aloud, there are still plenty of volunteering opportunities: marking textbooks into“scripts,” checking files already recorded and editing any mistakes. Tasks perfect for you anal-attentive completists out there. It’s all really low key but very satisfying.

There are offices of Learning Ally across the country, if you’ve a mind to volunteer. And if there’s not one near you? Judging from the decor and cutbacks, I’m guessing the organization could use some bucks this holiday season. Why not drop them a few bones

And if you have a kid who could use this kind of service? Go to Learning Ally and sign up for their services. They have a huge catalogue of books with audio synchronized to the text. And if you're browsing their library, be sure to check out “Monstrous Stories #2: Attack of the Giant Hamster” by Paul Harrison. My little paw prints are all over that sucker. 

Have a happy holiday! See you in the New Year!