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Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Puzzle of Abigail

For this year’s Clarion Write-A-Thon, I decided to pull the trigger on a story that had been gestating for some time, a novel called Sleepwalkers. It was originally my idea for a TV series based on Changeling: the Dreaming, and evolved into a series of novels instead. Since White Wolf ended C:tD along with the rest of their World of Darkness setting, and since the world of Changeling had pretty significant issues anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to use it more as inspiration for a modern fantasy and make my own rules about the fae. I realize that every part of this last paragraph is pretty geeky, but this is what the post’s about. So I’ve warned you about what you’re in for!
My main character, Abigail, was fairly clear in my head only as far as what happened to her goes. I didn’t really know much else about her — what she wanted, how she’d react to her situation — and in the first three chapters I wrote over the course of the month that lack of knowledge quickly became painfully obvious.

In the first chapter, Abigail is introduced as a school-aged girl who has trouble with math and an imaginary friend. There really isn’t a whole lot of time to get into her head before I introduce the world, and then quickly shatter it because that’s what I imagined would make a gripping opening to the book. The next time we see her, she’s in a mental institution and her imaginary friend advises her to wait to be rescued.

As soon as I realized the situation I was writing, I knew I had a big problem. In the beginning Abigail isn’t an actual person — she’s just a tool that I’m using to introduce the concept of the world. Later on, I struggled to give her some sort of agency, a bit of conflict that would force her into action and make her an engaging character. The last of the third chapter was spent delving inside of her head a bit more to form that conflict, and in the end she makes a choice that actually will have consequences. However, it all comes down to “she was rescued, but not by someone she’d like to stick around with.”

This is a huge issue for me. I’m rather sensitive to the fine line I need to walk as a man writing a female main character. I don’t want to make her “just one of the boys” but at the same time I don’t want to diminish her by making her inert in her own story. It feels like the first three chapters lay the worst foundation possible for having Abigail be vibrant and active, so chances are I’m going to scrap the whole thing and start over.

I still want to use the scenario I’ve created in the first three chapters, because I love the idea and I think I have a good handle of the setting. But there needs to be a more thorough exploration of Abigail and who she is before the first page is even written. What does she want? Where does she come from? How does she feel about the things that have happened to her leading up to this story?

Once I know who she is and what she’s like, I can start identifying weaknesses in her personality or ideas of the world, and that’s where I can start building the arc of her story. Unfortunately, I can’t really move forward with the novel until I discover that, so the ideas and broader themes will have to remain vague for now.

More as this story develops. Chances are I’ll be posting small snippets of stories that try to nail her down. But first, what do you guys do to get inside the head of a character? Or is that even a concern — does that come through writing, outlining, or producing the plot? Do characters tend to spring into your heads fully formed?

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Writing

 

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But Why Furries?

 

 

 

 

 

If you haven’t guessed by the fact that I’m using an alias that uses the last name of “Rabbit,” I’m a furry. I assume that for the most part you already know that if you’re reading this blog, but before I dive in to my post for the day I’d like to take a minute to address that. If you’re new to the whole furry situation, just let me say that I know it might seem weird, but I’ll do my best to cover furry topics in a way that makes sense to fellow enthusiasts and folks who have no knowledge of the fandom alike. If you’ve got questions, I’m more than happy to answer them! I can’t speak for the entirety of the subculture, but I’m glad to give my perspective. If you’re not quite clear on what a furry is, I recommend this page. It should tell you everything you need to know.
We’re all on the same page (nyuk)? Good! Here we go.

There was a pretty interesting discussion over on Flayrah a couple weeks back, concerning Fred Patten’s review of Roar #4. He mentioned that a lot of the stories were mediocre, mostly because they were “barely furry” — which meant that the anthropomorphism of the characters really didn’t account for much in either the setting or character mind-set. This prompted a controversy that I’m surprised still rages. Writers are still struggling over the idea of whether or not a story’s quality should be tied to how well the furry concept is used. There seem to be two camps in this argument — one says that it shouldn’t matter whether or not a character’s “furriness” is important to the story, that it should be considered on other basic strengths; and the other says that a story that ignores the “furriness” of its characters is automatically lessened.

I’m not going to beat around the bush here; I’m in the latter camp. But before you scroll down to the comment form to tell me how wrong I am, hear me out! I’m going to try to make my argument as flamelessly as possible, because I think I’m right but more importantly because I think it’s important that we have a reasonable discussion about this. I want to prove that what I’m saying is true, yes, but I also want to do it in a way that doesn’t make the people who disagree with me feel like their work or ideas are diminished in the process.

First, I think it’s safe to say that furry is a sub-genre of the broader sci-fi/fantasy umbrella. Like other supernatural or extraordinary creatures we love to write and read about in literature, furries have a certain set of traits that have come to be associated with them. Foxes are sly, for example. Mice are nervous. Wolves are easily agitated, so forth and so on. We tend to have a myopic view of our own fandom, and we don’t see where we fit in a broader context, but I’d like to put that out there. Most of us are no different from those folks who love vampires, or werewolves, or aliens. We might take it a bit farther than your general sci-fi/fantasy fan, but I think the basic premise is still there. In the literary world, furry fiction has its place on the shelf quite near modern fantasy, vampire novels, or alien-contact stories.

If we accept that, then we also have to accept the idea that people who read these stories are coming to them to scratch a particular itch. The exact nature of that itch might vary from reader to reader. People who are into werewolves might like them because they represent the barely restrained savagery present in every man, or because they think it’s cool to turn into a hulking, dangerous beast and rip shit up. Your mileage may vary, but fans of certain sub-genres are all looking to get that fix, let’s say.

Furry fans are no different. We come to furry fiction looking for what attracts us to the genre, and for a lot of us that’s the rather distinct blend of anthropomorphism — what would it be like to live in a world where a very wide range of species lived in a society as equals, more-or-less? How would it feel different, physically, to have a thick coat of fur covering your body? Or to have heightened senses? Or a tail? For most of us, furry characters are aesthetically, emotionally or spiritually attractive. There’s something there that draws us.

As a furry writer, you have to understand that. People are reading your story hoping to get a glimpse of a fantastic reality. If you write a story that brings the fantastic down to the mundane, you’re doing your readers — and the story — a disservice.

Think of it this way: imagine someone writing a vampire novel where the main character’s being a vampire has absolutely no bearing on the story. Every once in a while there’s the description of her fangs, or their pale skin, or taking a bottle of blood from the fridge. But for the most part, it doesn’t matter. She walks around in daylight, she can see her reflection, just gets annoyed if you stab her in the chest with a pencil. There’s no inversion of the expected tropes, or any reason why they’re ignored. They simply are. The story is really a slice-of-life tale about four people finding themselves in college.

It might even be a great slice-of-life story, but the fact that a vampire’s been included for no discernable reason is going to be a distraction at best. The same holds true for furries. Making your characters furry and then all but ignoring the fact that they are is equivalent, in my view.

This goes beyond following a formula for your art, or doing something that doesn’t make sense in your story. Most people who want furries to be no big deal state that it shouldn’t matter what species your characters are; their characterization should be the only thing that matters. I’ve heard the argument that tight writing should be the utmost concern in fiction, and I’ll agree there. But here’s the thing; if you go out of your way to describe your main character as a fantastic creature and your setting in a fantastic world, but then promptly ignore it, your writing isn’t tight. If there is no reason for your character to be furry or your setting to take place in a furry world, then furries should have no place in your story. If the real point of your story is the character’s journey or some other thing, why distract from it by adding in the needless complication of anthropomorphism?

Ultimately, this is about standards. I believe that the standards for the fiction we publish in the fandom should be as high as it is for other sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy. Other groups demand a certain tightness to the writing in their genres, and ours is big enough where we should start raising the bar for what we show to the world. We have writers who are more than capable of rising to that challenge, too. It’s a very good time for furry fiction publishing. Why not strive to do the best we can at it?

I’m not saying that all furry stories have to be ABOUT the furriness of its characters. I don’t even think it needs to be a major element of the plot. It does have to be recognized, however, and the physicality of the characters should be acknowledged as a part of their make-up. Small details like a thick coat of fur, a really great sense of smell or hearing, or the awkwardness of a tail in dealing with furniture that hasn’t accounted for it or all things that you can use to give your world and characters weight, and to heighten a sense of realism that helps your audience buy into your setting. Just give them that much, that’s it, and then you can work with the other things that you want to get to.

In sharp, tight writing, the author uses everything that’s mentioned. There’s nothing in a story without a reason. Even minor details, like someone’s green eyes or the smell of old books, helps to give the setting a realness that pulls us into the story and primes us for an emotional response. Something that’s included “just because” indicates writing that isn’t as lean or crisp as it could be, and cutting away the stuff that doesn’t serve your story should definitely happen if you want to bring it to a high standard.

If you include furry characters in your fiction, there should be a reason. Even if you just want to have them in your story, because you find that you’ll care about them more, think about the traits that your character has that endears them to you more than a human version. Use that to hook your audience the way you’ve been hooked. Communicate what you like about your protagonist to your readers, and they’ll have an easier time liking them as well.

I think it’s important to think about every detail you put into your story if you want to be published or viewed as an author. Clarity is the product of that foresight, and your story can’t help but be better for it. If your audience is asking questions that you didn’t lead them to ask (like “Why furries?”), then it indicates your story could stand to be a bit more clear. It’s not easy to gain that level of preciseness over your writing, but that’s part of our journey and learning our craft. It’s a totally worthwhile thing to cultivate.

All right, I think I’ve rambled long enough, which is a terrible thing to say after giving a lecture on clarity. But hey, I’m still learning! Now, let’s hear from you: what do you think about how furry characters should fit into a short story? Do you agree that it’s a fundamental issue of writing good fiction? Or do you think I’m some pretentious wannabe who’s full of it? I look forward to your (respectful) comments.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2012 in Better Living Through Stories, Furries, Writing

 

Robot & Frank (2012)

Robot & Frank (2012)
Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden
Directed by Jake Schreier
Written by Christopher D. Ford
Frank (Langella) is a man who has difficulty with relationships and also his memory. His daughter is travelling the world, helping people in third-world countries. His son is a success, but visits Frank once a week more out of a sense of duty than a deep, familial love. He’s been separated from his wife for quite some time. He lives in a small house a good way out of town, in a fairly rural patch without close neighbors. He spends most of his days alone.

His son, Hunter, sees that the situation is untenable and is faced with two choices — either put him in an assisted-living home or buy him a robot who’ll do the chores and keep Frank on a tight schedule that makes sure he’s keeping himself up. I’m thinking he decides on the robot because it makes him feel less guilty. He’s giving his dad a present instead of admitting defeat and that he wants to visit him a lot less. Prickly Frank doesn’t appreciate the gesture, but it gets the plot going. Amazingly, the robot idea works. Slowly but surely, Frank begins to re-engage with life and he forms an odd, sweet bond with the robot. Of course, that re-engagement brings its own messy set of consequences.

I think that’s about all of the plot I can give without actually giving things away, but I think it is safe to say that Robot & Frank is a welcome addition to the spate of small, smart sci-fi movies that have been produced over the past few years. It uses one, spare element of science fiction to deepen the study of Frank’s character and explore what relationships do for us. Even when those relationships begin in impersonal circumstances, we can’t help but develop personal feelings there. It’s just our natures.

The robot himself never falls into the cliche of being an antagonist. It never tries to kill Frank in his sleep, and it never acts outside the range of its programming. It’s there to be a facilitator to Frank, for better or for worse. It’s that kind of unwavering support that he needs, it turns out, to help him step out of his shell and the tangled soup of his memories, to remember the life he had and who he was before old age started chipping away at him. That’s a fascinating idea to me; even though the robot is essentially an incredibly advanced appliance, it manages to fulfill this basic human need for connection, for interaction. And that does an incredible amount of good.

It also allows us to delve into Frank’s character in a way we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. There’s a reason his relationships have fallen apart that have nothing to do with his failing mind. He’s manipulative, selfish and a bit of a hedonist. He does things that make him feel good without regard of the consequences. That hurts everyone around him, but in ways he either doesn’t consider or doesn’t see. Despite that, he’s actually not a bad guy; he cares about his family and the one friend he has — the librarian he visits frequently in town (Sarandon). But when he tries to do something nice, it comes from this flawed place that, well, warps the gesture quite a bit.

Langella is great here. He imbues Frank with enough complexity to carry the film and make the character breathe beyond it. There are a lot of instances where you’re not sure if he’s making a mistake because his mind has failed him or he’s abusing people’s perception of him to fly under the radar. He’s grumpy, sly, vulnerable and earnest, and endlessly fascinating to watch.

The world that Frank inhabits is billed as a ‘near-future’, but it’s a stylized suggestion of one more than anything. There are touches of neat tech here and there, like the ubiquity of video phones in a believable, off-handed way. Robotics has come a long way, but not too far. And Priuses are just old enough to be considerably beaten jaloppies, which is a nice touch. Still, the world is given just enough weight that the characters feel real living in it, and nothing more. The film’s unwavering, close-up focus on Frank relegates world-building to an afterthought.

And that’s something I don’t mind for the most part. The other characters suffer a bit, though. James Marsters and Liv Tyler aren’t given much to work with as the exasperated children, but that actually works a little since Frank doesn’t really see them as people but as a means to an end for most of the story. It would have been nice to see a little more of the consequences of Frank’s behavior borne out in his son and daughter, but it’s hard to imagine how that could have happened without taking away from the core relationship between man and robot.

All in all, Robot & Frank is a smart, funny movie that I definitely recommend. Chances are you’ll catch it on DVD before anything, and I think that’s just fine. If you like your sci-fi mixed in with indie characterization, you’ll definitely like this.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Movies

 

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In Defense of The Newsroom

Like most gods-fearing liberals out there, I’m a huge fan of HBO television. I’ve seen every episode of Six Feet Under, Oz, The Sopranos. I watch Game of Thrones, True Blood (so help me), and Boardwalk Empire. Worse than that, I’m an evangelist. I’ll tell friends who rave to me about shows I’ve only heard about that they should watch the series-du-jour that I’m obsessing about, and then go into a pretty strong sales pitch for it. I’ll go to the mat defending a lot of these shows, even when I know a lot of them go off the rails in their later seasons. The only thing keeping me from being a full-fledged HBO cultist is the fact that I’ve never seen an episode of The Wire. That’s a story for another time, and believe me, I’m working on it.

I’ve also been a big fan of Aaron Sorkin ever since I saw the amazing first season of The West Wing. That show was a liberal dream of what government could be, and it was wonderful, intellectually-stimulating comfort food for me in the darkness of Bush II. So when I heard that Sorkin was working on an HBO show(!) that offered a fast-paced behind-the-scenes look at a cable news show(!!), I was intrigued. As more and more information leaked about the show in the year leading up to its premiere, I got excited. And when The Newsroom finally premiered earlier this summer, I was delighted.

How do you fix a broken TV show?

Critics, as it turned out, weren’t so much. I’m not sure of the reasons The Newsroom took a beating when it premiered; maybe the cultural and political landscape had shifted too much from Sorkin’s salad days, or maybe we’ve just gotten wiser to his writing flaws. Maybe cable news and the way the media conducts itself is naturally more controversial. Whatever the reasons, I was genuinely surprised by the great national sniff at this new series, which was then promptly dismissed. The show has its issues, and a lot of the criticisms have some legitimate weight behind them. Even still, The Newsroom is really good television, and we should be talking about it (or certain aspects of it) a lot more than we are.

Sorkin makes no bones about what his show intends to do. He wants to portray newsmen who aspire to the ideals of journalists of old, with a responsibility to inform the public of the facts as best they’re understood. A lot of that, in this climate, includes calling out public figures who distort the facts or mislead their audience to serve another agenda. Will McAvoy, the anchor at the head of this fictional news program, finds himself at odds with just about everyone when he decides to go this route, and in those skirmishes we see just how far actual news is from upholding those ideals. It makes for engrossing television, but it also brings up important questions about the way our national discourse is being handled. Is the news actually informative at this point? Or is it merely another form of storytelling, spinning events to fit the narrative of the world we already have? Isn’t the news supposed to challenge us? When was the last time that happened?

The choice of the writer’s room (really, Sorkin and a host of assistants) to ground the show in the near-past is an inspired one. A lot of these big events are still fresh in our minds, and we remember the way they were reported. By showing us the kinds of reporting decisions that are made behind the scenes — and the way McAvoy’s colleagues in the news world react — we see how someone driving towards the truth of the situation handles the story and we can compare it to our memories of the news surrounding the event. We can then dissect the mistakes of the media, and possibly have another perspective on which were unavoidable and which were made in the service of other interests. It’s a great device that serves Sorkin’s premise well. McAvoy and crew don’t always get the story right, but the important thing is that they try. That shows through the reporting we see in the series, and we can use that as a contrast to the news we see all around us.

This isn’t an easy mission. Sorkin writes Will and his staff with a wide range of experiences and perspectives, and none of them have navigated the mythic terrain of ‘true news’ before. There’s a lot they get wrong. And while there’s a lot of bloviating and monologuing from these guys, they’re not so arrogant that they don’t recognize a mistake when they see one. A lot of The Newsroom, thus far, deals with the errors we make and how important it is to recognize them and fix them as best we can. In this age where admitting you’re mistaken and changing your mind is seen as some sort of cardinal sin, this is nothing short of amazing to see. I love that these guys are stumbling in their pursuit of their ideal, getting back up and finding better ways to reach it.

The consequences of their mistakes dog them through the episodes as well, so there’s never a sense that these screw-ups happen in a vacuum. Will’s arrogance at a New Year’s Eve party makes an enemy that dogs him through most of the first season; a relationship that his executive producer, MacKenzie, engages in results in an ethical dilemma that’s used to discredit them; the decision to go after several Tea Party candidates who go on to win their elections causes headaches for the news networks corporate owners who, in turn, cause headaches for Will and company. The folks there are going against the grain of the machine, and the machine is fighting back on all sides. There’s a siege mentality that forms, and the stress follows these guys around. It’s not easy, and it’s not immediately rewarding, but these guys dig in their heels, support each other and do whatever it takes in service to their ideals. It’s incredibly inspiring stuff.

What makes the high-mindedness of the premise easier to take is how these ideals affect the people who aspire to them, how it informs their relationships. Will’s saddled with MacKenzie after blowing up at a Northwestern student for a question he saw as inane (“What makes America the greatest country in the world?”), and his former EP jumps ship for the show airing at 10 PM. MacKenzie and Will have a history, of course — they’re exes who had a bad end to their relationship, and neither really expected to see the other again. Through the first half of the first season, their friction comes from this, and Sorkin spends a great deal of time justifying the work they do together. Even though they really shouldn’t be together considering the circumstances, MacKenzie believes that Will is capable of doing a legitimate news broadcast, and moreover that Will wants it. Over the first several episodes, he’s coaxed into admitting it and realizes that she’s the best person for the job.

Once Will buys in (after an ultimatum from MacKenzie, of course), their commitment to this shared ideal goes a long way towards untangling the messiness of their past. This being what it is, the ultimate resolution won’t come for a little while yet, but part of their ethical stance is making sure they face the consequences of their personal mistakes and find some way to make peace with them. It’s not easy, but it makes them better people, and watching them fumble towards it is another fascinating part of the process.

Will’s relationship and reputation with the rest of his staff also bear a good hard look, and that re-examination yields great results. He realizes what his personality does to other people, he hates it, and he works to change it. This means going easier on his former personal assistant Maggie, no longer ignoring or scoffing at the assistant who controls his online presence, and compromising with other points of view. Neil, the writer of his blog, is especially interesting given Sorkin’s well-known disdain for the internet. The character started as a thinly-veiled imagining of the typical internet denizen (he’s an adamant Bigfoot believer), but as the episodes tick on and he gets rounded out, he presents a better face, an idea of how powerful the Internet can be and the good it can do.

So, in a show about personal and professional reinvention, about striving to be the best person you can possibly be, what’s not to like? Well, according to Sorkin’s detractors, an awful lot. I’m not sure where this got started, but he’s developed a reputation of being a…problematic writer for women, to put it most gently. In the early episodes, the female characters received a lot of attention for how ditzy they are — even when there’s a lot of big talk about how they excel in their respective fields.

MacKenzie, for example, is introduced as a hard-hitting producer who just came back from covering the war in Afghanistan. She’s tough, determined, incredibly smart and one of the best in her field. At the start of the series, though, she spends most of her time sorting out her feelings for Will in the Bridget Jones-iest of ways and one plot point pivots on her not being able to figure out her company’s email system. She actually sends a private email to the entire corporation, which is a double-whammy of shamefulness. First of all, who uses that plotline past 1995? Secondly, you’re telling me an award-winning, brilliant journalist would be that…careless?

Sloan and Maggie are both messes in different ways; Sloan is probably displayed as the most competent, professionally, but her personal life and read of other people is a total trainwreck. Maggie, on the flip side, is just terrible. Her romantic entanglement with a boyfriend who doesn’t treat her all that well and her saintly, easygoing boss is easily the least-entertaining plot of the series, and it’s mostly because so much is sacrificed in the name of holding it up. An ongoing plot where MacKenzie takes the inexperienced Maggie under her wing to teach her the ropes of the business would be an elegant way to elevate both characters and address concerns about hapless women being constantly rescued by gruff and confident men, but far too often it’s MacKenzie’s assistant Jim who covers for her.

Still, for the legitimate criticism, I feel that Sorkin deserves a bit of a break. The first episode to actually pass the famous Bechdel Test is episode four, where Sloan and MacKenzie actually talk to each other about an economics panel MacKenzie will be speaking on. It’s only a couple of minutes, but it’s two women, speaking about a topic other than a man. Usually the dialogue begins about the work and ends up wandering over to relationships. Here’s the thing, though; those scenes play out the same way regardless of the gender of the characters. Will speaks to his boss about MacKenzie, MacKenzie will talk to Sloan about Will, Maggie and Jim will talk about her relationship with her boyfriend Don, so on and so forth. This is a show fairly obsessed about romantic entanglements, often to its detriment. Yes, women appear boy-crazy on the show but I’d counter that all the men are fairly woman-crazy. With a couple of exceptions — I’m looking at you, Sam Waterston.

While the women are hapless and most of their storylines are imbued with comic relief, the men carry the heavy issues on their broad shoulders. Will McAvoy is Sorkin’s most frequent mouthpiece, railing against the evils of the Internet, the petty meanness of our tabloid culture, the ideological cliff that the right is driving towards. People see Will and they see a pompous, self-righteous man arrogantly assuming that he knows the way towards civilization if only people would stop talking and listen to him in awed silence. And you know what? They’re right.

But here’s the thing: Will slowly realizes what an intimidating, unlikable blowhard he is once MacKenzie forces him to look beyond his own nose. Once he sees the effect he has on people, he tries to change. The change comes slowly, in small increments, in gestures and words said and not said. Instead of admiring Will’s flaws and good intentions in one whole package, I think we’re supposed to deconstruct him. We aren’t supposed to agree with how he goes about things, because that would make us just as bloated and off-putting as he is. Here we see a genuinely unlikable person, incredibly smart, wake up and realize that his intelligence makes him right more often than not, but it also makes him very difficult. And Will has to decide what to do about that — can he have it both ways? Can he have standards and expectations while still being a reasonably decent man?

Sorkin wants us to think so. And I believe that’s true. There’s a tendency in our culture to believe that having high standards is a marker of arrogance, that striving to be better, even brilliant, is somehow putting yourself on a pedestal. What The Newsroom aims to do is combat that mentality. In order to be a great person, you have to do great things. It’s not something that’s handed to you, that you should expect of yourself. You have to go out and earn it, however you want.

The Newsroom definitely has issues that need to be addressed in season two. Maggie needs to be better written so that her flaws don’t make her so fundamentally broken. The women of the series really ought to become stronger, more powerful characters in their own right. And Will needs to stop talking the talk quite so much; it would be awesome to see him define his own ideal of what it means to be an upstanding conservative and act through those ideals. Oh, you didn’t know he was Republican? I don’t think he is — he just says it to get a rise out of people.

Still, despite the work that needs to be done, The Newsroom is still pretty good. And I think Sorkin knows exactly what the show needs now in order to be great. All of this shouting from the Internet has got to have reached his old, Luddite ears by now. I’m looking forward to the progress that’s bound to be made, and I’m enjoying the experience of watching this imperfect little enterprise lurch towards its full measure.

 
 

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Writing Projects, All in a Line

It’s been just over a week since Clarion’s ended, and since then I’ve taken a small break from writing quite so intently. What’s surprising is that my writing hasn’t slowed down much at all — I’m still averaging about a thousand words a day — but that productivity is suffusing through a number of different projects.

I run a Pathfinder game once or twice a month, and we’re currently going through a small dry spell where there won’t be a game for a while. I’m taking the opportunity to get my ducks in order. We’re coming up to the end of the first big arc, and I want to make sure that major questions are answered in a satisfactory way, a new status quo is settling in so that my players know what they’re working with, and when the first arc is over everyone’s demonstrably grown while there are any number of obvious ways they can progress further. It’s all the structure and plotting concerns of, say, episodic television, but with characters you don’t control.

I’ve played under several good Game Masters, enough to know the benchmark I’m trying to hit. And I have to say, it’s really hard. In a really excellent role-playing game you want a little bit of wish fulfillment for your players, an engaging and entertaining plot, and a surprising, twisty mystery that keeps your players guessing. It’s really hard to nail all three, and when it’s done well it feels like your GM has performed an excellent magic trick that extends for weeks and months.

Some folks are naturally gifted at telling that kind of story. I’m not sure if it’s my inexperience or my inclination, but I’m finding myself struggling with the juggling act. I tend towards being heavy on the plot, which I’m sure is enjoyable, but I constantly worry about making sure the players have enough room to explore what’s interesting about their characters. What happens if people are interested in something entirely different that leads them away from the plot? I’ve never been good at that, but I’m learning.

With that taking up most of my organizational and creative energy, I’ve sunk most of my fiction-writing time into simple stories that will (hopefully) provide a thrill to a few friends. They’re going slowly because I want to make sure I’m using a consistent mood through the story (which is only five to eight thousand words) and that every part of the scene is interesting in its own way. It’s hard to write with confidence, and that timidity shows. Hopefully my friends don’t mind being guinea pigs for a while as I search for a voice that I’m comfortable and confident with.

This year I’ve been trying to focus on getting stuff done and out there, regardless of whether or not it’s good. I’m hyper-sensitive to feedback because I want to be great already, past this whole stage of fumbling for it without any idea of how to achieve it. I like to think that I have such trouble writing because I have such excellent taste in stories; I know when something is done exceedingly well and I want to do that. Never mind that I don’t have the tools or experience yet to get it done. Let me be great now!

But for now I’ll have to settle for being productive now, great later. I have a lot of mistakes to make and learn from, and many of them will come from my role-playing game and my stories.

What about you guys? What are you working on? What writing mistakes have you made lately? This is a judgement-free zone, so feel free to be honest! I won’t tell.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2012 in Writing

 

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Where I Came From

One of my earliest memories is one where I ask a completely random question for no reason and get an answer I wasn’t expecting at all. I was with my family, which was complete in those days — my father was home, my mother didn’t have any errands, and my sister and I were done playing outside. We were all sitting in front of the television one day, watching an old movie. There was this big plot twist where the heroine finds out she’s adopted — and the music swells and she goes into hysterics over it, it’s a really big deal. It was fascinating to me that it should be such a heavy thing. I was watching this girl throw herself on the bed and sob, and I asked “Am I adopted?”

I don’t know where the question came from. I think I was making a joke, just because it seemed funny to me that it was such a big deal. But then the air went out of the room. Suddenly we weren’t watching television any more. Everyone had turned to look at me. My mother took me to another room, and she sat me down, and she told me that yes, I was adopted, and that my sister and I were chosen because she loved us both very much. Looking back, I think I knew immediately that my mother had rehearsed that speech because she just didn’t talk that way. She wasn’t the kind of person to say something to spare feelings, and telling us that we were chosen because we were loved is the exact kind of thing you say to someone who might be feeling a little bummed because their mother had given them up. Either way, it was stunning. The life I knew wasn’t…my life any more. There was this whole deep pile of secrets that was opening up to me.

Over time, I got to know a bit of my ‘real’ family. I had four brothers — one was an Iraq War veteran, while the other two were in constant trouble with the law. The fourth is a man I still haven’t met. Besides my younger sister I had an older one too. She was actually a model(!) before she was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia. The disease forced her to quit, and then it took her life three or four years ago. I had a grandmother that I had never seen, an aunt who was a lesbian, cousins and uncles who all lived in a part of Baltimore I had never been to. For a few years, my family tree was a strange and bewildering place.

Despite the wealth of information I learned about my immediate and extended family, anything about my birth parents was hard to come by. I only know a few things about my mother, and they’re all terrifying to me. We were taken from her by the state when we were very young, and shortly thereafter she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. I spoke to her only once in my life that I can remember, by phone, and it was an experience that I never want to repeat.

My mother is a sensitive subject in my family, and as such we don’t really talk about my father. I have no idea who he is, where he is or what he’s doing now. The answer could possibly be pretty easy to find, but there are a number of complications that get in the way of all of this.

After I graduated high school, I took a break from education and worked two mall jobs in a suburb of Baltimore pretty far north of where I lived. I pretty much worked six or seven days a week, and most of those were 12-hour days. I think I did that because there was so much to process and I had no idea how to do it. My academic career had collapsed over the course of high school, my prospects for college weren’t looking so great, and I had to reconcile the fact that who I thought I was wasn’t who I was really. There were a lot of pieces to put together.

I wasn’t ready, but I went to college anyway after six months of that. I distanced myself from my childhood faith (Jehovah’s Witnesses), came out to my mother, dropped out of college after two years and then moved to Arkansas after I was disowned. I’ve never been back to Maryland since and I very rarely speak to my mother. My extended and ‘real’ family, though they really want to talk, haven’t heard from me in over ten years.

I’m writing all of this down to revisit the circumstances of my estrangement from my family. This is my personal history, my reasons for not engaging with my family’s history. And by extension, the history of my culture. There was never really a place for me to go and have someone say “You are a part of this. This is where you’ve come from.” Personality, choice and circumstance all lead me to consider myself something other, and the alienation became so complete after I came out that for a long time, it felt like there was nothing left to my past.

A couple things have made me reconsider that. There’s this book I just finished called How to Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston. It’s actually a much better book than it sounds like in this context; it’s a funny memoir and discussion of what it means to be black in this day and age. One of the things I learned from it is how it’s possible to own your “otherness” and present it in a way where you’re not backing down from it, but you’re giving the people around you the opportunity to experience it, question it and ultimately accept it (or not). Being black doesn’t mean embracing the stereotypes that we tend to fall for; it means embracing your history and your nature, and making the best of it.

The book was a birthday present to myself. The birthday present I got from dear husband Ryan was a DNA kit from 23andme.com. If you’re not familiar with it, this thing is exceedingly cool. You send in a bio-sample (saliva) to their lab and they deconstruct your DNA to tell you all sorts of things. They can tell you roughly what percentage of your genetic code comes from various parts of the world, how much of your genes are Neanderthal, what sort of diseases and conditions you have a predisposition for. It’s incredibly exciting, and I’ve wanted to do it ever since I heard a story on (where else?) NPR about a black man who discovered that it was unlikely any of his ancestry was actually African.

I’m not really expecting that sort of surprise, but I am keenly interested to know more about the surprises my mom and dad left for me. The lab results come back in two or three weeks, and when they do I’ll have the first bit of information I’ve ever had about my father. No, I won’t know him, but at least I can begin to shape him in my imagination. At least it will give me something to work with.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the value of your roots. You don’t want them to force you into immobility, but you do want something to connect you to something solid. Up until now, my roots have been something I’ve been completely disconnected from. In some ways, I’ve made that choice. In others, that choice was made for me. But as much as I can I’ll try to reconnect. I’ll talk to my adopted mom more. I’ll call up my grandmother and sister, talk to my lesbian aunt. And I’ll ask questions about the family that I’ve been afraid to ask about. Very likely, when I have new information to process, I’ll put it here as record.

This whole process won’t be easy. There’s a lot of stuff to untangle, and a lot of it will be painful. As I play around with my personal identity, and the public face of it with relation to notions of being a black American, chances are I’m going to be an asshole for a little while. Apologies in advance, feel free to call me on my shit, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if there’s something that needs a little clarifying. I’m happy to talk about this with anyone who’s interested.

So, here we go. When I get up the courage, I’ll be calling my adopted mom soon. And the DNA kit results will get here in late-August or early-September. I’ll post something then.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The AFI Top 100 Movies: All Quiet on the Western Front (#55)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Starring Lew Ayres, Louis Wolfheim, John Wray
Written by Erich Maria Remarque (novel) and Maxwell Anderson (screenplay)
Directed by Lewis Milestone

It would have been very interesting to watch this movie when it first premiered. The look on the faces of the audience would really have been something to see. It couldn’t have been easy to stomach this; I haven’t seen a lot of film from the late-20s/early-30s, but I can’t remember a more graphic and unforgiving depiction of war from the time. In a lot of ways, this feels like the predecessor to Saving Private Ryan. It really strives to leave you as shell-shocked as the soldiers moving through the war.

Obviously, this is based on Erich Remarque’s novel of the same name. I haven’t read it, I’m afraid, so I can’t tell you whether or not it’s a good adaptation of the book. What I can tell you is that this is a surprisingly great movie that does an awful lot with its material. By now most of us know just horrible World War I’s trench warfare was. But this movie goes beyond that — it gives you the full experience of the soldier, from his idealism and arrogance in signing up for the armed forces, to the variety of experiences that grounds that sort of thing out of him. No matter how clear your vision when you’re heading out to the trenches, your perspective gets severely changed if you spend any length of time there.

It’s the beginning of World War I, and a college professor is telling his students that one of the most important things a man can do is go to war in defense of his Fatherland. One by one, they’re whipped up into a frenzy, and class is abruptly cancelled when they all sign up for the war effort. They leave their hometown with a parade and flag-waving, and there’s a lot of talk of people coming back quickly and victorious.

What follows is a long slog in which the reality of war pummels the naivete out of these kids. They watch their friends die all around them, get wounded and mutilated, go crazy as they try to deal with constant gunfire and bombardment. I’m not sure if the sound mixing on my copy of the DVD had been remastered, but the whistling and explosions formed a constant backdrop to the dialogue that you couldn’t really ignore. It prickled the back of your neck, and I can only imagine how much worse it would be if you were nestled in a bunker knowing that all of that noise represented weapons going off specifically to kill you.

The story unfolds in what’s essentially a collection of connected vignettes. We follow Paul (Lew Ayres) through his tour of duty and his metamorphosis from fresh-faced youth to battle-scarred soldier. When he goes back to his hometown on leave, the bucolic surroundings seem almost simple and quaint. The jubilant chatter of the old men (his former professor among them) uncovers a profound ignorance of how the war is really fought. They tell him to run strategy up his chain of command, as if punching through the lines that have been established is the easiest thing in the world. When Paul snaps on them, there’s a sense of catharsis as he tells them how it really feels to be in the fight and just how much it’s destroyed him.

What’s striking about this movie is how one’s ideals break down in the face of the reality of what it means to defend them. Paul and his fellow students love the idea of fighting for Germany, but when faced with the very harsh conditions under which they have to do so, the enthusiasm is sapped for them. They begin to doubt the reasons for war in the first place. After all, what have they got against the English and the French? They struggle to come up with a reason during a discussion, and there’s even a very striking scene where Paul tries to save a French soldier’s life just minutes after wounding him during the charge. It’s very interesting to me to see someone explore the effects of this sort of philosophy. You’re willing to fight and die for your country? Well here it is. This is what it means.

There is a very wide gulf between the discussion of a thing and the actual experience of it. And I love the lesson in that. This could extend beyond the extreme circumstances of a world war or the lofty ideals of patriotism. This applies to the very small things, to personal experience. You can talk all you’d like about being poor, for example, or being on welfare. But it’s a different thing entirely to actually be there. I’m sure the same holds for being rich. For most of us, it’s easy to imagine how easy it would be for us to do the right thing as millionaires, to be philanthropic and generous to our friends and family. Who knows what it’s really like to step into that lifestyle? Who knows what we would do if we were thrust into it?

It’s difficult to consider that just because we can imagine ourselves in a circumstance it doesn’t mean we actually know what it’s like to be there. We imagine that we know ourselves well enough to know how we’d react in these extremes. What All Quiet on the Western Front tells us is we don’t really know ourselves at all. We don’t know how fiercely we would cling to our ideals once they’re threatened, and we don’t know what would give way to higher considerations we had never thought of before. The people that Paul watches dying don’t go silently and nobly, knowing that they’ve given their lives and bodies to a good cause. They go in pain, doubt and fear, wondering what the point of it was. This set against their sunny optimism at the film’s outset — and the ignorant pride of his hometown elders near the end — makes the tragedy that much starker.

Needless to say, I loved this movie. It was a genuine surprise from start to finish, and I don’t even have to make any qualifiers or excuses for it. It’s genuinely moving, intelligent and compassionate, and it deserves its spot in the top 100.

Rating: 8/10.