We Are Not Afforded the Luxury of Being Average in #Waves

High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.

I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.

Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be loved and understood on film.

Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences – teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel my eyes from the screen.

One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

#ThenCameDarkness One Year Later

Then Came Darkness Front Cover

It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since I released my historical thriller, Then Came Darkness. I dove back into self-publishing not only because I thought this was a novel worth sharing with others, but also because I desired to test the waters again, a long twelve years after the release of my last novel, The Thief Maker. I had nothing to lose thanks to the democratization of self-publishing—literally anyone can do it now…for free…through Amazon KDP, which is both a blessing and curse.

Overall I’ve been pleased with the reception. One always hopes for more (more reviews, more sales), but I can’t complain when some readers and reviewers clearly “get it” and the audience organically grows little by little.

Here are some of my favorite reviewer quotes from the first year:

  • “The catharsis of emotional writing in this book was incredible…I laughed. I cried. I had to take breaks because some scenes tore me to pieces. It’s dark, gritty, and I love it.” – Lo Potter Writes
  • “A page-turner with a dark slant, morally gray characters who were flawed yet likable, realistic and multi-faceted with certain twists I didn’t see coming.” – Jenna Moquin, author 
  • “Tense and brooding…like (The) Grapes of Wrath, only creepier and with a lot more murder…a delightfully dark read.” – Margaret Adelle, booktuber
  • “Historical fiction at its finest. D. H. Schleicher is a master with words…I found myself holding my breath several times.” – Gina Rae Mitchell, book blogger
  • Gritty, Real, Fiction…Schleicher thrusts readers deep into the early part of the twentieth century, with real people living real lives and experiencing a thrilling, suspenseful tale….the rising conflict and relationships between characters reminded me of one of the classics I read in high school, but this time, I was reading it for pleasure!” – C. D. Tavenor, author and co-founder of Two Doctors Media

In the hopes this might help others considering self-publishing, here are some lessons I learned over the course of this year.

  1. ARC’s are Our Friends – When I release my short story collection next year, I want to send out Advanced Review Copies prior to the soft-launch. The first reviews are always hard to come by, and it took me awhile to find the right audience and support for Then Came Darkness. Doing the leg-work in advance and finding a select group of book bloggers and fellow writers already familiar with or open to my work to send ARC’s will hopefully get the buzz building quicker next time.
  2. The #WritingCommunity is Great, But is There an Echo in Here? In Here? – The #WritingCommunity on Twitter is what you make of it, and it can be wonderful. Through this ever-expanding community on Twitter, I found my “people”—the book bloggers and fellow writers who wanted to read my work and who were genuinely supportive. I also discovered some great indie writers whose work I immensely enjoyed and I would not have found otherwise. But be warned, it can be overwhelming at first, and yes, a large portion of the community is locked into a bizarre “let’s get the biggest number of followers and retweets we can” mentality that leads to a very loud echo chamber. Be selective and strategic and look for those genuine connections—the good people are out there. It was also hard for me as most writers were pushing genres I don’t write or typically read: romance, erotica, sci-fi, fantasy, YA. But I eventually found those doing literary fiction, historical fiction, thrillers, suspense, and noir. You can also find a bevy of professional service providers (book cover designers, editors, etc…) and indie literary magazines (I found a home for three short stories), but just be careful and do your research to make sure they are legit.
  3. I’d Never Join a Club that Would Have Me as a Member! – If you join the #WritingCommunity, you’ll likely find all kinds of #IndieAuthor groups and networks who (some for free, and some for a small membership fee) will make you an author page on their site and blast tweets of your work to thousands of followers. While most of these are well-intentioned and are truly trying to provide a book promotion service to indie authors, the majority of their followers seem to be other indie authors…not readers…and thus its becomes a social media screaming match where books are constantly on blast to a bottomless echo chamber. There is also no filtering of the good stuff vs. the bad stuff and very little audience segmentation. It’s a maddening free-for-all. For me, I found these quickly to be a waste of energy (and sometimes…money). 
  4. It’s a Racket, I Tellz Ya! – Contests are a numbers games you likely can’t win. With The Thief Maker I had some luck with contests, garnering honorable mentions in a few. I thought I could rinse and repeat with Then Came Darkness, and though I was able to score an Official Selection in the Suspense/Thriller category for the 2019 New Apple Summer E-book Awards, a lot has changed in twelve years and there are more contests and more independent and self-published writers entering them than ever before. Most have some kind of entry fee, and some pay handsome cash awards and/or provide free marketing. There are others out there in the community far more well-versed than I am about which ones are legit and which are scams. All I know is the odds of winning, even if you have a great book on your hands and the contest is legit, are slim. It’s a simple numbers game, and the odds are not in your favor. I’m likely not going to waste my time or money on contests the next go around. It would be better spent on very targeted marketing.
  5. Treat Your Neighbors Well – If you know what you are doing, some controllable spending on very targeted digital marketing (FB ads, Amazon ads, targeted e-mail lists) can work if you keep realistic goals (we’re talking small incremental sales, folks)…but the best way to build buzz and find readers is to pound the pavements. For me, this was the digital pavements of social media (through real engagement and not just “buy link” blasts, which are okay if solicited), and the physical pavements of my neighborhood which is blessed with a plethora of #LittleFreeLibraries. I’ve dropped many personalized signed copies into these neighborhood nooks of knowledge and entertainment, and many I have had to restock. The one at the end of my street has been restocked half a dozen times. Which means when my family and I stroll downtown or around the neighborhood, there could be a passerby who has read my book, enjoyed it, and I would never know it. And that’s the greatest feeling in the world for a writer.

Buy the paperback from Amazon.com for $11.99.

Download a copy to your Kindle for $4.99, or always free with Kindle Unlimited.

Ask your local indie bookstore to stock their shelves through Indiebound.

Keep up with all the latests news, read excerpts, and get a behind the scenes glimpse of what inspired me to write it at the official website:

ThenCameDarkness.Com

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do in #Harriet

There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.

There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.

The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.

Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

For follow up, check out the Variety article on what drove Kasi Lemmons to direct Harriet.

Spilling the Beans and the Plight of a Seagull in #TheLighthouse

*Potential Spoilers Ahead*

When Robert Pattinson’s character finally “spills the beans” to Willem Dafoe’s character in Robert Egger’s grim, grimy and sea-battered The Lighthouse, he claims to be a former timber worker who killed his boss, wrestling now with his guilt at the remote coastal outpost of the film’s title. I thought, however, that he was more likely the soul of one of those dead sailors Dafoe claimed are living inside seagulls. A particular seagull, with one eye, is one of the key antagonists (along with Dafoe), but all three characters (young man, old man, and gull) might very well be one in the same in this Persona-like decent into male madness.

There are elements of The Lighthouse I admired: Dafoe’s over-the-top salty seadog ranting, the claustrophobic aspect ratio, the Nova Scotia setting, the bleak black-and-white cinematography, the seagull, and the surreal visions (a harpy of a mermaid, a slithering Neptune).

There are elements of The Lighthouse I could’ve done without: the focus on bodily functions, the insular white male insanity, the fate of the seagull, the seagull’s ultimate revenge.

There’s nothing that was particularly scary, but certain scenes and images were fittingly disturbing. Some parts were played so absurdly straight (a seemingly endless fall down twisting stairs) as to elicit laughter.

I could’ve used more story…more characters…more of the sea.

Much like Eggers’ first film, the equally grim The Witch, I can’t say I liked the film, nor would I recommend it to anyone. But I know there are many out there who would watch this and relish every stinking bit of it. So if you’re one them, enjoy.

Written by D. H. Schleicher