Monday, September 30, 2013

From escapism to building stuff

Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue shared some thoughts about how escapism can be a useful tool for reinvigorating and refocusing one's energy on The Tasks At Hand.

In the middle of a rough patch, Chambers turned her energies to building a Minecraft house based on one of her favorite game environments. What's really exciting (besides the house, which sounds like a trip) is how she managed to turn the experience into something that gave her verve and stamina for the workday.

Chambers thought about what she liked when she went a-sandboxing. And then she thought about how she could recreate it with the tools at hand. Adding structure and introspection to play can create a fun and fulfilling learning experience.

She also took some time off from the issues that were dominating her. Spouse always says that the best way to decide on something is to get all the information, sleep on it, and let the unconscious brain do the heavy lifting. It's amazing how much the conscious mind can get in the way.

Most importantly, Chambers channeled the search for satisfaction into her regular work. Escapism can be a distraction when it becomes the end goal, but at its best, it's a tantalizing hint of something bigger. Productive, creative, and original work is difficult yet exciting.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Book Week, censorship vs. criticism

This is Banned Book Week, a time to recognize (and read) some of the nation's most challenged books. The list is often surprising: topping last year's was a series called Captain Underpants, and classics like Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men regularly feature.

It's easy for me to roll my eyes and wonder how people could really think that challenging those books is a reasonable step, but Kyle Cassidy points out that if we're criticizing these attempts at censorship, we should also be critical of censorship efforts that prevent some books from ever reaching shelves.

It's a sensible point, but the examples he raises give me pause: the cancelled tell-all from a juror on the George Zimmerman case and also cancelled Kickstarter-funded Above the Game, a book about creepy (and arguably illegal) seduction techniques.

Kickstarter (in one case) and the juror's literary agent (in the other) responded to online criticism and protest against their respective projects. One could argue that these entities, in responding to public criticism, were merely acting the way business-oriented entities should. Nobody is required to represent a project (or client) that they believe to be unprofitable or objectionable, and nothing prevented the authors from publishing their projects elsewhere.

So, in a free and open society, what avenues are required to be available to give someone a voice, even if their message is objectionable? Banning criticism is another form of censorship, and yet criticism will inevitably lead to some projects being cancelled or amended, and not necessarily without good reason.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Comics and the perpetual second act

Except for this one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures issue I mysteriously had around the age of seven, I've never really read comics, nor have I had much of a desire to. As much as I enjoy speculative fiction, the superhero genre* has never been at the top of my list. Maybe it's the all-caps sound effects, or maybe it's the costumes. I've never understood why serious crime fighter-types like Wolverine and Flash dress up like traffic signals, particularly when superheroes seem to value their anonymity.

Perhaps this is one reason I loved the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy so much.

But every once in a while, particularly in the wake of a new superhero movie, I'll look up details about the longer storylines and character arcs for some of these franchises.

Somewhere between the second death and resurrection or the third identity crisis, I get lost.

Thom Dunn of sums up the issue nicely. Comic books dig their heels in at the second act and stay there. Even when big, third act moments happen, they can be undone when the broken back heals, when someone is brought back to life, when the secret behind the secret is revealed, or when the series is rebooted. And like greengeekgirl, I find it difficult to get invested when that's the case.

Maybe sticking with something you love through various iterations and reversals is just another kind of enjoyment. It's just not for me. But then again, I generally don't re-read books or re-play video games I've finished.

I haven't read The Dresden Files yet, but people gush about it. One of the key praises is how Jim Butcher keeps raising the stakes in each novel. That he's managed to do that over fourteen (and counting) novels is impressive, but I suspect it would all mean a lot less if the big events could be reversed in the fifteenth. The series will end some day, and that's part of what makes it compelling.

*Caveat: Plenty of graphic novels have nothing to do with superheroes. Saga was part of my Hugo packet this year, and I loved it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

WTFriday: Kids these days

The Huffington Post ran an article (complete with stick figures) about all the spoiled Gen-Y brats with unrealistic expectations and no work ethic. Some people really liked it.

Journalist and late Gen-Xer Adam Weinstein had words for those people, and many of them rhyme with "tuck."

Of course, whenever anyone shakes his cane at the youth of today, I think of that old Socrates quote...
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.
People will always wring their hands about the young 'uns who will one day manage their pensions. Expectations will change as young folks evaluate the world around them, the choices their parents made, and how those choices worked out. And conditions (economic and otherwise) will change, and opportunities will change, and everyone will pat themselves on the back for being so much tougher than the young punks who have never experienced a world without anesthesia/power steering/indoor plumbing/social security.

Via GalleyCat.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Man Booker Prize opens to 'Mericans

In 2014, American authors will be eligible to win the Man Booker prize. This new rule admits "novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author" whereas the award has historically been restricted to citizens of "the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe."

Surprising no one, most of the commentary across the pond has been negative. The only British author (so far) to speak out in support of the change has been Kazuo Ishiguro, a previous Booker winner and author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

I'm sympathetic to the concern that the admission of American authors connected to well-established American and multinational publishing houses will make it that much harder for non-American authors to compete. It's an honest and reasonable concern, particularly when the Pulitzer and the National Book Award are only open to authors from the U.S.

But when figures like Jim Crace, Melvyn Bragg, and Colin Midson complain about the prize losing its "focus," "distinctiveness," and sense of "a Booker book," I have to ask: what does that mean?

Until the rule change, the Man Booker Prize has been open to authors from most corners of the English-speaking world... except for the U.S. The winners and nominees have hailed from a variety of countries and written on a variety of topics. The Remains of the Day is about an English butler. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is about partition in India. Nominee Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London but raised in the U.S. and is arguably better-known as an American author than a British one. What is the "character" of a "Booker book," and how can someone argue that any English-speaking writer except an American-born one is capable of writing it?

I couldn't resist.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bob Mankoff on selection and rejection

Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker, gave a charming and humorous TED talk about the process for selecting cartoons. The magazine receives a thousand submissions a week and only prints around fifteen. Near the beginning of his talk, Mankoff mentions that he submitted 2,000 cartoons before The New Yorker accepted one.

Yet even with those acceptance rates, he knows that not everyone will be pleased. In humor, he says, a 75% satisfaction rate is quite good.

In his discussion of The Rejection Collection, he notes that choosing cartoons isn't just about how funny they are on their own, but also about how they would fit within the context of the magazine. There's a continuum of edginess and benignancy, and "idea drawings" in the magazine occupy a particular sliver.

All in all, it's a pleasant reminder that those of us who have received rejections are in good company. It also highlights that there are many reasons why submissions are rejected, not the least of which is the tastes of the particular market.

 Also, the short "Being Bob" will bring a smile to anyone who's ever gotten a rejection slip.

Friday, September 13, 2013

WTFriday: Comics controversy

Someone at DC thought it would be awesome to recruit potential artists by having them draw Harley Quinn naked and on the verge of suicide.

It seems I'm behind the times in just now reading about this, but if you're in the same boat, we can pick our collective jaws off the floor together.

I don't know what's more telling: that someone found this tasteful, or that when the tastelessness was called out, the official response was, "Oops, sorry we forgot to explain why you're not supposed to be offended."

Read more about DC's PR goofs at The Outhouse.

It's kind of like the "satire" defense of the "Blurred Lines" video. It's hard to claim when the supposed parody is indistinguishable from the trends it supposedly lampoons.

On a tangentially related topic (Metal Gear Solid 5), I love how this person picks apart arguments commonly used to defend overly eroticized portrayals of women in video games (much of the same could probably be said for comics). I particularly applaud her response to the "sex sells" argument:

  1. Only to a particular demographic, which is not the only group gaming nowadays, and 
  2. Have you played Skyrim, Call of Duty, or anything featuring a chubby plumber?


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Questionable ideologies of unreliable narrators

In another life, I might have been an academic. I love picking things apart and hashing out "implications" and "context."

That's why I was pumped about a WorldCon panel in which Liz Argall, Jo Walton, Laurie Mann, and Lee Martindale discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, how it spoke to readers in 1969, and how it speaks to us today.

The panelists' reactions were fascinating and varied. I'd recently read it for the first time (and loved it) for the story, the writing, and the way Le Guin develops the "stranger in a strange land" theme.

So when one panelist described it as heartbreakingly sexist, I was intrigued.

One of the great things about great books is how they often evoke different responses from different people. And with a book as rich and idea-laden as The Left Hand of Darkness, there's plenty to talk about.

What the panelist objected to (in my understanding) was the way the narrator associated feminine qualities with negative character traits. The "landlady," who has fathered several children, is portrayed as feminine for his "prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature." Harth, who is usually described in masculine terms, is decried for his "effeminate deviousness" when the narrator is upset with him.

Additionally, Le Guin uses masculine pronouns and titles to describe the nongendered Gethenians.

Regarding the pronouns, Le Guin herself has stated that she intended for them to be neutral rather than masculine, and she's revisited the issue in later works. Would it have been better to stick with feminine terms? To mix them at random? To invent new pronouns? I don't know.

The narrator's interpretations (and our reactions to the same) are even more interesting. The holes in the narrator's perspective are revealed in chapter 1 when he, an envoy who has studied Gethenian politics and culture for years, grossly misinterprets signals from an ally. It's a reminder that his outlook is still colored by his biases, and it's a red flag (to me) that his observations, particularly those about gender, are suspect.

I thought it was a subtle (and clever) way of calling into question our own culture's assumptions about gender, which typically mirror the envoy's. On the other hand, Le Guin makes bolder statements with Gethenian concepts of kemmer and lineage:
  1. Gethenians experience "kemmer," a monthly period in which they temporarily assume male or female physiologies and become sexually active. Female- and male-phase Gethenians experience kemmer equally, and there are no stigmas or double-standards associated with either gender.
  2. Gethenians assume both male and female phases throughout their lives, and they may become parents in both roles. However, the child that a ruler personally bears (as opposed to the one s/he sires) is that ruler's heir.
Progressive, regressive, or something else? In any case, it's a fascinating and enjoyable read.

Monday, September 9, 2013

To show or not to show?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises writers keep their manuscripts to themselves until the first draft is finished. Ostensibly, the idea is to keep other voices from unduly influencing the work until the writer has had the chance to get all of her ideas onto the page.

But is this good advice for everyone?

A few thoughts.

  1. Some writers need an audience. Some people need the encouragement and urgency that comes with having someone else standing by to read their work. If that's the case, sharing a work in progress may help those people maintain their enthusiasm and meet their word count goals.
  2. Is the work in progress working? Books can fail because of uninteresting characters, unbelievable plot points, and a whole host of other problems. Attentive readers can help writers spot these problems before they're tens of thousands of words in.
  3. A delicate balance. How certain is the writer of his direction, and to what extent do the readers impose their own? There's a marked difference between a reader who says, "this romance subplot doesn't work for me because I don't see how these characters can stand one another" and one who says, "this romance subplot doesn't work for me because romance subplots are boring, and you should really make these two dueling spies."
"We had some thoughts on your first draft."

Friday, September 6, 2013

WTFriday: Preaching to the wrong choir?

Spouse and I saw a show last night. It was funny.

What else was funny? The advertisement on page 15.

I admire the gumption.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bad habits: filtering

Critiques groups are helpful. One of the most useful things one writer can point out is another's bad habits: overused words, gestures, and sentence structures. Recognizing one's own bad habits is difficult, typically because we don't realize how they come across to readers or we don't even realize that we're stuck in them.

After some insightful feedback, I'm working to cut filter phrases. Things like "she saw," "she heard," "he felt." These phrases distance readers from the action, so it's best to get to the point and state what the protagonist saw, heard, or felt. In first-person and close third-person narratives, it's typically understood that the main character experiences the events taking place on the page.

Also, avoiding these constructions helps me vary sentence structure. It's an extreme example, but:
"She ran. She saw the wall looming ahead. She climbed over it. She felt grass crunch underfoot as she landed."
is less interesting than:
"She ran. The wall loomed ahead. She climb over it. Grass crunched underfoot as she landed."
Like lots of good advice, this looks painfully obvious in retrospect. And like many bad habits, my filtering* was an unsuccessful attempt to do something else right. In this case, I was trying to (1) include sensory details and (2) keep the narrative focused on the protagonist's perspective. Filtering diminishes the impact of sensory details and throws reader's out of a character's head, which I now know.

And knowing is half the battle.**

*For the record, it wasn't as severe as the example above. We swears it.
**Red lasers and blue lasers are the other half. Or so I hear.