Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sticking up for Downers

I need to vent about a disturbing trend. Frequently, the same tiny publishing houses willing to read unsolicited work also seem to want the work they receive to be "life-affirming". (The other variable at play here is I'm often sending work to gay publishers, but I've noticed it's started to bleed out into the mainstream as well.)

Where did this phantom obligation come from? I understand and accept my responsibility to be entertaining, to pull my reader's face down the page. I understand and cope with the fact that in our whiz-bang, lookey-here, squirrelly little world, the moment my story gets too info-dumpy or formulaic, people will be off to play Candy Crush or watch Youtube videos where cats do fun shit. And I understand the need for some kind of takeaway-moral-life lesson-theme-point.

But who says it has to be happy?

Disney and Pixar have to be happy (though admission of sadness played a big role in deepening "Inside Out"). Not even young adult literature exists under this burden. Why are so many of the gateway publishers asking newcomer authors to be artificially bubbly? There's a whole mask on the theater symbol dedicated to frowning. Tragedies are all over the canon.

In the gay publishing world, there's logic behind it, even if that logic is flawed. The idea is we can't be downers because we're already asking our readers to deal with gay, and their tiny little minds can't possibly do two things. But every talented author I've ever talked to about this, gay or straight, has always operated under the assumption that their readers, by virtue of being readers in an instant gratification culture, are fairly sharp people. Like these veteran authors, I'm disinterested in writing for dumbasses. They have coloring books, T.M.Z., and Trump. They're all set.

The music of Joy Division, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, and Nirvana has endured, in part, because sadness is a thing. The tragedy-twinged music of The Wombats, Atlas Genius, and Anberlin is likely to endure for the same reason.

Gillian Flynn's books, and books like "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and "Brutal Youth" are sad as hell. They are indispensable specifically because of their attempts to wrestle with truly scary emotional material. Depression and suicide aren't by-products of exposure to sadness, they are by-products of pressure (internal and external; real and imagined) to hide sadness. Sad work often finds a "life-affirming" message via a back road. If a reader can learn from the success of a hero's virtuous choices, it stands to reason they can learn from the mistakes of weak and even vile characters. The assumption that readers can't handle the long road is cynical and destructive.

So gatekeeper publishers, please open your minds a bit more to characters who don't overcome, settings with all the inherent joy of Snake Mountain in "He-man", and endings where the hero bleeds out while reaching for the magic whatever. This joy requirement thing is anathema to creativity, and ultimately that type of damage to the form can't benefit the bottom line you might think you're protecting.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Why Liberals Shouldn't Rejoice in the Flatlining Republican Brain

So the Republican debate tonight has a certain freak show appeal. Watching it is like viewing a broadcast from some alternate universe where the Bush war in Iraq was a grand idea, Obamer is still a moose-lamb from Kenyer, and the President is also a Nazi who, like all Nazis, believes health care is a human right.

Except one of these assholes could be our president in 2016, so this isn't funny.

Presumably, Hillary won't drop the ball. She was smart enough to send a fundraising e-mail during the debate blasting the whole stage of goons for what they are. But before my fellow liberals get smug, I'd like to point out this bird can't fly with a dead right wing.

From the perspective of winning elections, it's lovely that Republicans have given up on evolution - not just the scientific principle, but every definition of the word. They're still advocating for a giant wall to keep the brown folks out - a giant infrastructure project brought to you by the people whose toxic philosophy won't allow them to invest in any infrastructure whatsoever. Also, they're going to do it without raising taxes or going into debt. Maybe the plan is to have Mexicans build it from the south and then just yell over the wall that we can't pay them because there's a wall in the way. Or maybe they want to continue their grand plan of making our country so shitty that no one wants to come here.

Where is the William F. Buckley? I disagree with his philosophy, but he at least attempted to use facts and figures to justify his agenda. Where are the conservatives who felt obliged to live in a fact-based reality? Where are the brains on the right? I'd settle for a P.J. O'Rourke - a conservative with a sense of humor who's willing to admit when his philosophy falls short.

But he's nowhere. Look at this stage. Reality-show bimbos. Entitled trust fund brats with grey streaks. Bullies having hissy fits, using bluster and volume in a vain attempt to hide their naked ignorance.

We deserve better.

And there's another reason this is no good. When Wall Street sees these amateurs for what they are, they pollute the Democratic party with their money, seeing us as the only adults in the room. We wind up with centrist Democrats who won't stand up to Wall Street when it matters, along with frothing, infantile Republicans. Then everyone loses faith in elected government and falls for the big lie: the private sector can do it better. This is how democracy slips into oligarchy.

If you're a Republican, have the dignity to be ashamed of these men. Your party deserves a fact-based candidacy. This country needs a legitimate adult candidate from both parties. I didn't support Obama when he was wrong about T.P.P. and torture. I worry that Hillary is too close to Wall Street. I know that Bernie, who I love, is unelectable. We have to be honest about the flaws our leaders display.

And if you want political comedy, try "The Campaign". Like most great comedy, it isn't totally joking.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why You Should Still Love Game of Thrones

Hating Game of Thrones is the new loving Game of Thrones. Sometimes, I swear I don't want to keep up with our disposable culture.


The most delicate balancing act in writing fiction is the one between realism and optimism. Get too real with your work, and people will be bummed out and stop reading or viewing. They have more entertainment options and less leisure time than ever, so they don't want you to depress them. They can be depressed at work.

On the other side, if a writer is too bubbly, they're irritating and not credible, but that's never been the extreme Game of Thrones was in danger of reaching.

I have two theories about Westeros: It's either a glorious metaphor for that too-real human inability to band together even in the face of annihilation, or George R.R. Martin hates Ren fairs and wants us to know. Let's explore the first theory.

The White Walkers are a metaphor for corporate greed, climate change, or if you're a conservative, the more whimsical "perils" of gay marriage and paying your fucking taxes like the rest of us. All the bickering, back-stabbing, and abuse of honorable people on the show is just a terrible reflection of a society unable to pull together to face a force of destruction that threatens everyone equally.

So that's a bummer. But as a viewer and reader, I don't care, because it rings true. We are, in fact, fucking the world right up. We are, in fact, paralyzed about what to do about it. Good for Martin and the television writers for wrapping this important call to action in an entertaining package.

I think realism should forgive a lot of the perceived sins of this show and book series. That Sansa scene that had everyone I know barking at one another over their draft beers at liberal dinner parties? I feel like the writers were in a bind. If you focus on the rape, you're exploiting peoples' pain. If you cut away to another character who's (technically) male, you're making it all about him. The only change they could've made would've been one of those "let's focus on this random candle" shots. And that's cliché, the worst crime in a world we apparently have to remind ourselves is fictional.

The feminist argument neglects the fact that Dany was exactly like Sansa at the beginning of the show. She was powerless, beautiful, and not particularly wise. But she learned and fought and got a little lucky with her friends. Isn't that how everyone makes it? They work hard, get lucky, and have support. Sansa is a hard luck character with very few resources at her disposal. She would be victimized in this world. Realism ought to forgive the perceived sin.

And let's give the television writers and directors some credit: all those "boring" early episodes built up to the best 1-2-3 punch HBO has had since the last three episodes of The Sopranos. (The point of the diner scene was that the family was always going to be waiting for the sword to drop, and I submit to this day it was brilliant.) The climactic action was great specifically because of the slow boil that preceded it. How many times did you re-watch the battle of Hardhome? How about Drogon and Dany in the arena? And Brienne finally avenging Renly!? The show might be doing a better job of resolving storylines than the book at this point.

On the other hand, look at all the people alive in the books but dead on HBO. I love that Martin was secure enough to let the show be an independent vision of his world. Yes, I know he's receiving roughly nine trillion dollars in return, but as a control freak, I still salute him. And I hope Stannis wins in the book and the two visions diverge completely. I would find each one entertaining.

As for the Ren fair thing, I was only half-kidding. Maybe Martin wanted to skewer our odd romantic re-imagining of Medieval England. Why did we ever look back on that age with any sense of whimsy? Plagues, rapes, poverty, pollution, death. That's our past, and it will be our future if we can't get our shit together.

So I'm not hopping off the bandwagon just because someone decided that's the trend. I love this world on television and in literature and if it ends with Dany and Tyrion failing to stop the White Walkers I'll stand up and salute the courage of writers who refused to pander to their audience just because hope sells. When Littlefinger said "There is no justice but what we make", that rang true to me. Perhaps if we evolve our expectations as readers and viewers, we'll get something better than predictable franchises and inferior reboots. Despite the trend toward huffy disapproval, I can't wait to see what dark place Game of Thrones takes me next.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The "Becomes Pitch"

The pitch for "Breaking Bad" became almost as famous as the show in writing circles: Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. I call this the "becomes pitch". Writers tend to praise brevity, and whether you find the spoiler-ish nature of this approach off-putting, it's hard to deny its power as a writing exercise. The becomes pitch is a great test for whether or not you know what the heart of your novel or short story is. You can then potentially use it to quick sell your story.

This method has its drawbacks. You have to link your existing protagonist at both the beginning and end of the novel to a character or public figure just about anyone could immediately identify. If your potential publisher doesn't recognize one of them, your pretty little query gets recycled. Also, it doesn't allow for those truly original characters who can't be linked to an existing archetype.

I feel confident about selling my first novel, "Jesse Rules", because it passes the becomes pitch test: Holden Caulfield becomes Leopold and Loeb. I'm kind of cheating on the end there, but it's hard to identify one of those sneering psychos without the other. And I'm disinterested in a publisher who doesn't know those names.

Of course, this is an exercise in reduction, but what else could one call taking your big, beautiful, nuanced piece of art and selling it in a one-page cover letter and synopsis? Some writers are probably turned off by the very idea of taking their wonderfully complex machine and limiting it to the protagonist's main arc. But given limited audiences and publishers, reduction is a necessary skill.

I can't reduce my fantasy novel to a quick tag yet, though I'm leaning toward "Frodo becomes an atheist Martin Luther". It needs work, in part because the hero's journey is the most typical part of my fantasy novel. I'm also completely ignoring the villain's journey, because I have no idea which archetypal figures to link him to.

The becomes pitch can be oddly addictive. "Gone Girl" can be "Every missing white girl becomes Satan's bitch puppeteer". Tyrion's journey in "Game of Thrones" can be "Useless drunk dwarf becomes heroic drunk dwarf". It could be a party game for demented English majors. Or a way to kill time at the asylum.

Try it and see if it helps you identify the center of your story, or use it to see which of your stories are ready for public consumption.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Best of the Big Bads

The rise of the anti-hero changed television storytelling. It also changed the nature of antagonists. If the hero is a bit of a villain, their antagonist has to be a truly irredeemable bastard.

I teach my students to think of the protagonist as the focal point of the story, rather than the "good guy". In fact, a protagonist struggling with self-destruction (or failing to struggle) might face an antagonist who actually has their best interests at heart. As long as there's a conflict, it doesn't really matter, and most of the best stories don't deal with black-and-white right-and-wrong.

The phenomenon has hit literature as well, with Gone Girl being a good example of an imperfect (to say the least) protagonist - the selfish and philandering Nick Dunne - being made sympathetic by contrast when compared to his wife Amy, who with her rape-framing, media manipulation, and murder is "gone" in every sense of the word. Another good literary example is the journey of Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire - from an arrogant and incestuous would-be child murderer, to one of the last beacons of honor left in Westeros as of book five. George R.R. Martin takes us there by contrasting Jaime against sellswords (The Bloody Mummers in the book; Roose Bolton's henchmen in the show), his ruthless father Tywin, and his power-grubbing sister-lover Cersei. (To be fair, next to that bitch face, one might mistake Vlad Putin or Dick Cheney for mildly human.) Chopping off his hand was a nice touch, because when he couldn't just win with a sword, he had to change everything about who he was.

As for television, I picked three anti-hero vs. big bad battles worth your time and Netflix subscription. Spoilers abound from this point down, so if you have "Sopranos" "Dexter" or "Breaking Bad" on your watch list, read the rest later.

Anthony Soprano vs. Livia Soprano
I gave late-season big bad Phil Leotardo an honorable mention below, but to me, this is always going to be the show that succeeded in making a mob boss look weak while making the viewer cower every time his elderly mother shuffled onto the screen. It's a shame the actress playing Livia died, because it would've been wonderful to see how Tony's giving her stolen airline tickets to see if she would rat him out or not - to see if she ever loved him at all - would've played out. (I know it was also tragic because a human being died, just saying.)

Livia's misery was so all-encompassing, she was less a person than a mobile black hole. Tony's laughably inadequate attempts to get her to enjoy any small activity at her nursing home quickly devolved into her exacerbating his depression, and eventually, her attempt to get his uncle to kill him. Her use of phony tears, revealing secrets at the worst possible time, and 'dementia' to avoid accountability, made Livia so terrifying that we had to root for the unfaithful, murderous career criminal she raised.

Honorable mention: Phil Leotardo was a square-headed old school don in the last seasons. His slow-simmering grudge over being robbed his chance at avenging his brother's death started with tough negotiations, graduated to verbal jabs, and finally led to the murder of Tony's brother in law in the show's best hit (all apologies to Big Pussy on the boat).

Dexter Morgan vs. The Trinity Killer
If you saw "Cliffhanger", you know John Lithgow is an amazing villain. "Dexter" was all about a serial killer with a code. He only killed killers who had evaded the justice system. As a forensic blood-spatter analyst, he was in a great position to mop up after himself. Season four of "Dexter" saw him struggling with balancing a new family with his "hobby". Enter Trinity, a serial killer doing a much better job of balancing family and slaughter. This is becoming a classic anti-hero vs. big-bad combination: Dexter has to face someone who is "more Dexter than Dexter". Eventually, Dexter realizes Trinity is only better at hiding, but then he has to face the fact that the balancing act he seeks might be impossible. By the time Dexter kills Trinity, Trinity has already figured out who Dexter is, and punished him like no big bad before or after. It was the series' dramatic apex.

Honorable mention: There were no other big bads anywhere in Trinity's league, but I give an honorable mention to the executive who ruined the series finale by saying Dexter couldn't die. Seriously, corporate douche, don't tell your writers how to write.

Walter White vs. Gustavo Fring
I love my big bad to be a chess master. Gus Fring from "Breaking Bad" was exactly that. Walt and Jesse had already clashed with lunatic drug lords by the time Gus came on the show, and Gus's calm was a wonderful contract to the mania of the earlier villains. Even when he cut an associate's throat in an agonizingly long scene that followed each and every one of his measured footsteps, Gus never lost his cool. He hid in plain sight, driving a used car and managing a chain of chicken restaurants. Later, they kept him 'untouchable' by keeping him off-camera, with Walt yelling at him through surveillance cameras in Gus's meth lab. Walt's powerless fury contrasted perfectly with Gus's placid domination.

Gus specialized in frustrating Walt by out-maneuvering him. When Walt put a bomb on Gus's car, he seemed to just 'sense' it and walk away. Later, when Walt finally blew half his head off, we were left with the impression Walt got lucky. Gus, cool to the end, walked calmly into the hall with half his head skeletonized and fixed his shirt before dropping dead. It was the series' most gruesome and enduring image.

Honorable mention: Gus's second-in-command Mike was also an amazing big bad, though Walt was actually worse than Mike. When Walt kills him in a cowardly sneak attack, Mike asks, "Jeez Walt, would you let me die in peace?" before slumping over dead. It reminded me of Edward R. Murrow asking Joseph McCarthy, "Have you no decency, sir?"

So here's to the big bads and the big roles they play in the stories we love. You can't have a (good?) anti-hero without one.

***And here's some self-promotion mixed with promotion of others: click below to see the latest collection featuring one of my short stories, along with eleven excellent tales of love, grief, desire, denial, and all the other emotions on my bi-polar to-do list.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

P.A.R.C.C: Failure by Design?

In New Jersey, we're breaking in a new standardized test this year, known as the P.A.R.C.C. As with most standardized tests, or anything new in general, the level of anxiety in my school is high.

There are aspects I like. The Research Simulation Task involves reading, viewing instructional videos, analyzing pictures and graphs, and using the information to synthesize an evidence-based conclusion. It's an honest preview of what students will have to do in college. And barring bugs, the fact that the test is computer-based will save tons of wasted paper.

There are aspects I'm reserving judgment about. I don't know for a fact that every radical, union-busting corporate politician is going to use what's likely to be an iffy first year of results to pursue an anti-education agenda. My guess is they'll try, but I don't want to assume people will fall for it. The first year of a new test is traditionally the worst, results-wise. In fact, the state's perceived need for a new test is based in part on widespread mastery of the old one.

I don't know for a fact that my board and administrators will choose to over-react and micro-manage or if they'll feel forced to do so. I refuse to freak out ahead of time. Unlike some of my teaching years, this year I can say I have administrators who have all taught tested subjects for a substantive period of time, so at least they critique from an informed position.

I can say I feel bad for districts who don't currently have supportive or sane administrators. That type of boss will no doubt use the first year speed bump to scare some great people out of the profession. I also feel bad for teachers in districts that don't have the advantages of mine. My students come to school fed, clean, healthy, and (mostly) rested. This isn't the case everywhere.

I would be ecstatic if the results of the test were prescriptive for the student. If the state is willing to tell us a student's weaknesses and offer feedback or a plan of action for next year based on this year's results, that would go a long way toward getting teachers on board. Imagine performance-based cluster groups to teach mini-units based on student needs. Imagine if the test results were used the right way, for the long-term benefit of each student taking it. On the other hand, if it's just a random bad score with no information about why, we should seriously consider helping parents organize mass opt-outs as a means of protest and to affect permanent systemic change. If I'm not allowed to fail a student without explanation (not that I'd want to), the state isn't allowed to do that to its public schools either.

Which brings me to the aspects of this test I hate, and I submit, you should hate them too.

The reading materials are ancient and stuffy, and were selected with the profit motive in mind, rather than giving students a fair chance at success. By now you may have seen the one online sample assessment, featuring ye olde and too far above grade level reading samples. All year, teachers work to find books we believe students can relate to, works that are verbally and thematically challenging while remaining developmentally appropriate. The materials selected by Pearson and friends for P.A.R.C.C. were selected based on being old enough to be in the public domain (in other words, free to use). This will negatively impact the results. Pearson needs to pay for age-appropriate material. They can do so while maintaining their precious profit margin, a concern that the state should've always insistent on being ancillary to genuine student development. I know it's a thought crime, but the profit motive is toxic in many domains (public schools, health care, prisons, highways, etc).

The hardest writing portions of P.A.R.C.C. are in early March, to the detriment of students and for the convenience of Pearson's graders. This lost month is massively important for the average twelve-year-old, and I'm willing to bet my colleagues in other grade levels feel the same. As an English teacher, I understand better than most that grading writing in a substantive way takes time. So why doesn't the state or Pearson or the subcontracted subcontractor grading the responses take the extra few weeks? I'd sooner have the results ruining my Halloween party than have the test rushed and my students a month less prepared.

For many special education students, this is simply child abuse. The paradigm where schools go out of their way to meet students' special needs during the school year, and then the state forces them to take the same test as everyone else in the spring, has never made sense. A harder test without accommidations ranging beyond "more time to climb a mountain with no gear" is going to set these students up for pointless discouragement.

For better or worse, this test will change the school experience for the majority of students in my state, and any other state attempting to align itself to common core in the name of keeping their federal funding. My inner paranoid liberal wants to believe this is a Trojan Horse to destroy and ultimately privatize public schools, motivated by the fascist Koch-A.L.E.C. minority that's done so much damage to so many national institutions in my lifetime (cue Star Wars Empire theme). But I'm not there yet. I've done all I can to prepare my students this year, and I'll adjust my approach based on this year's results. I've yet to see evidence that P.A.R.C.C. is failure by design. Time will tell.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Video Games that Tell Great Stories

You may be an eighties baby like me, in which case you remember being thrown out of the house at some point, bleary-eyed after ten consecutive hours of Nintendo. (You may have also hyperventilated from blowing in the damn cartridges to make them work. These kids today and their DVD games, they'll never know...) If so, you might also remember the first great plot twist in gaming. 1986's Metroid broke ground for many reasons. It was one of the first free-roaming games: rather than running left to right a la Super Mario, the setting ran left, right, up, and down, which was mind-blowing by rubix cube age standards. It was the game that first popularized giving you permanent upgrades and a password system that saved them, so your character evolved. It was also, as you found out at the end, the first game with a female protagonist. Lady gamers are very accepted now, but in the Bea Arthur shoulderpad era, I can't explain how revolutionary this was. The fact that the protagonist, Samus Aran, had a spacesuit that concealed her gender (along with that wonderfully ambiguous name), meant that (at the time, mostly male) gamers assumed they were a dude, until they found out they'd been a strong woman the whole time. Radically progressive for the dark ages of Reagan.

That was the first game to show me games could tell a story with genuine character development. I tried to get my folks to understand this evolution, but they were still big on the "outside" thing. (At least it taught me how to talk to humans.)

In 1989, a game called Ninja Gaiden ushered in the next big breakthrough in video game storytelling: cinema scenes. After a level of harrowing jumps and frenzied enemy attacks, you'd be treated to a mini-movie showing why your character needed to go to some other dangerous place. It was a giant leap forward from, "We're sorry, Mario, but the Princess in in another castle." This was the first time finding out what happens next was the impetus for playing on.

The first time I ever played a game and realized I would read it as a book was 1995's Chrono Trigger. The story was Sci-fi gold, with arguably the best antagonist in gaming history. The time-hopping quest was centered around preventing the 1999 destruction of the world by Lavos, a godlike alien parasite that burrowed into the earth during prehistoric times and spent centuries draining it dry.

Playing games now involves being a part of an interactive movie, but the first popular game to create this feeling for me was 1998's Metal Gear Solid, which told the tale of Solid Snake's quest to wrestle a bipedal tank equipped with nuclear weapons away from an army of genetically engineered super soldiers.

The first time video games created a setting that was a character in its own right was 2007's Bioshock, which told the tale of Rapture, a city under the sea created as a libertarian paradise where "splicers" could purchase superpowers in exchange for their labor. Of course, splicing featured insanity as a side-effect, so by the time your protagonist arrived, the place was a dystopian theme park loaded with twitchy supermen.

These are traits we take for granted in modern gaming. We expect jaw-dropping plot twists, an interactive movie experience, spectacular villains, and environments that qualify as characters. A game like The Last of Us is better written than many episodes of "The Walking Dead". If you aren't an eighties baby, and happen to encounter any of these games in an emulator, experience them. There is no replacement for a great novel, but the greatest games can offer something like the immersive experience of a book.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Do We Celebrate Enough?

This little blog is all about a dream I'm chasing, and as we move into a new year, I have to be honest: I'm not where I want to be just yet. I imagine many of you are in the same boat, since my audience is mostly other writers, and many of you dream of discussing your genius at length with Oprah, just like me.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate how far I've come and give everyone else the chance to do the same. I have my ritual for rejections: I get sloppy drunk and complain to my husband and cat about how that fifty shades bitch can't even structure a paragraph. I have a one-night pity party, then I resubmit elsewhere.

I don't have a similar ritual for my successes. Actually, when I have successes, I think I get sloppy drunk and summarize my soon-to-be published story to my husband and cat.

I started chasing this dream in 2008, and I've never really taken a minute to appreciate the new places it has taken me and the new people it forced me to meet.

In 2009, I joined my first writing group and mustered the courage to earn my first rejection.

In December of 2010, I enjoyed my first accepted story.

In 2011 I convinced an agent to help me sell my first novel.

Later in 2011, I lost my first agent, but it was the same time as my second published short story. Sometimes, the devious fate angels toss you some charity.

I earned my third and fourth publishing credits in 2012, and was nominated for my first award.

I earned a fifth publishing credit in 2013 and my first paid story in 2014. I also finished the first draft of my second novel.

I've found four supportive writing groups and two great places to read. (Ivanhoe in Paterson and Reststop Rejuvinate in Rockaway.) I'm lucky enough to be a regular contributor at a great literary festival with supportive editors. (Saints and Sinners down in Nawlins.)

I've learned, very slowly, to take longer to be sure a piece is done before sending it out into the world.

I just passed the 10,000-word mark on the first draft of my third novel.

If you share my dream, you may be likely to share my tendency not to stop and appreciate the progress you've already made. Do it. Take a minute to take inventory of your own dream and celebrate the progress you've made towards it, even if that fifty shades bitch didn't leave you any room on Oprah's couch.