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(Review) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reading 150The most shocking thing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is how pleasantly it presents its dystopian setting. The World State as it exists in AF 632 (or the year 2540 as we know it) is a paragon of monolithic stability where nearly every aspect of life is manipulated by the government. Human beings are lab-grown, given chemicals that will assure their development into one of five separate castes. Once their development is complete, they’re immediately indoctrinated into the beliefs the World State wants them to have: that they are glad of the caste they’re in, they like the activities appropriate to their castes, that consumerist pleasure (sexual and otherwise) is the ultimate goal in life, and that all troublesome feelings are to be deadened through the liberal use of soma, an opiate drug. Everything that could inflame the human spirit — like art, literature, religion, even monogamy — is seen as ridiculous and savage by the enlightened citizens of the World State. 

One man, at least, is not satisfied by this blissful status quo — Bernard Marx, an Alpha human who nonetheless doesn’t conform to the physical or emotional standards of his class. He’s shorter than most Alphas, and his depressive nature exacerbates an inferiority complex stemming from that. Instead of seeking out company and casual sex, he prefers his own company and melancholy thoughts. Lenina, a fetal technician at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, seems to like him anyway — even though his insistence on being sad is something she can’t understand. 

Bernard and Lenina travel to a “Savage” reservation on holiday and find a World State expat who disappeared decades ago, now quite advanced in age and with a strapping young son. Lenina is horrified by the simple living, different cultural morality, sickness, infirmity, old age, and poverty; Bernard is fascinated by it. When he learns that John, the expat’s son, is the illegal offspring of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Bernard is all too happy to charitably bring both of them to London for a family reunion. 

It really doesn’t work out well for anyone. Linda, the expat, was so devastated by culture shock and the subsequent rejection of her native society, that she disappears into a soma hole. John, her son, is much like Bernard. They’re both disaffected outcasts failed by society, with no emotional outlet to even begin to understand their longing. What’s interesting, though, is that while John rejects the World State that wants to embrace him, Bernard abandons his dissatisfaction as soon as he gets that taste of fame and acclaim. John is determined to remain true to his personal experience, even in the face of alienation and suffering. Bernard starts blowing his social capital like he’s won the lottery, confusing his luck as a mandate to tell the world the way he really thinks. 

The World State rejects Bernard, ultimately exiling him to an island where he can’t participate in society any more. John, however, remains stuck in its suffocating grip to the very end. Both men are ultimately broken by the monolith they rail against, and what’s worse — nothing is changed by it. The vulgar orgies and soma abuse continue. No one treats them as anything more than a curiosity.

And that’s because neither Bernard or John are good advocates for their anti-society stance. Both of them have been emotionally stunted by their background in different ways, and their inability to express the difficult emotions roiling them end up isolating them from anyone who might be able to help. Bernard, to me, confuses his depression for depth in the manner of high school and college kids everywhere but lacks the courage of his convictions to really explore the root of it. Instead of examining his emotions, he turns his unhappiness outward on anyone he feels deserves it. His dissatisfaction isn’t borne out of idealism or empathy; ultimately, it’s selfish and self-serving. 

John, on the other hand, is self-focused because he was never given the opportunity to actually join a society. He was an outcast on the reservation and wasn’t allowed to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that marked his maturation into manhood or the connection to the land that all of his fellows shared. His own mother was too entrenched in her own pain to guide him through his, or to teach him how to work with his ideals. What results is a rigid and miserable man who clings to the devil he knows, unable to find any kind of balance that he might be able to work with. 

Contrasted against the relatively happy (if vapid) citizens of the World State, Bernard and John feel more like warnings about the dangers of individuality than anything else. Citizens are conditioned from “birth” to be satisfied with their lot in life, given jobs appropriate to their predetermined abilities, and allowed their choice of leisure activities. All they have to do to keep society humming along is what, if the conditioning holds, would make them happy to begin with. No one even misses high art or literature. As far as dystopias go, the one in Brave New World is almost seductive in its completeness and effectiveness. It’s actually disturbing to me that it feels that way.

Because, looking around in this day and age, doesn’t it feel like all people want is some way to feel marginally meaningful, occupied and content, with no reason to think any further than their own pleasure? What have free thought and expression provided for us? If the only way to stabilize the human race and ensure its survival is through biological and psychological manipulation, wouldn’t that be better than the suffering and war we have now? 

Brave New World was written in response to the popular utopian novels of the time, a kind of parody to the shiny optimism that had taken hold in post-World War I Europe. Huxley was concerned by the overreach of government, the radical shift in industry brought about by Ford’s assembly line, social manipulation through media, and how the short-term pleasure of people could be weaponized as an element of control. Scientific and cultural advancement is purposefully stunted by the World State in favor of stability and unity; technology as a disruptive influence is simply unheard of.

The World State is a strange hybrid of the worst excesses of capitalism and communism, with its strictly-defined castes and coercion to consume material goods above all else. People are straight-up brainwashed into being agreeable, discarding their own thoughts and feelings to keep the peace and happiness of the group intact. But the craziest thing is that, for the most part, the society works. Even the people who aren’t on board, for whatever reason, are given a place where they can be who they want to be without the pressures of groupthink. 

The effectiveness of the World State is what sets Huxley’s work apart in the canon of dystopian fiction. Most authorities rule through oppressive fear, secrecy, or a more incompetent social manipulation that cannot hold. Seeing an authoritarian society that has somehow managed a (more or less) contented populace forces us to really think about why the World State is a dystopia and not a utopia. Is it simply that our cultural values are so far removed from theirs, or is there some fundamental aspect of the human experience being violated? The citizens of the World State are free to do as they please — only the State has conditioned them to be pleased by State-sanctioned activities. Is it really freedom if society has programmed us to make specific choices? If not, can we truly be free in any form of social structure? 

This is the thing that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the ‘Savage’ in Brave New World. The World State really forces you to think about the value of the individual over society, and what one would be willing to give up for stability. It’s disconcerting to face those questions in a way that makes you reconsider the answers, but that’s precisely what the book invites you to do.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2019 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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Iceman, Vol. 1: Thawing Out (Review)

Reading 150If you’re one of the original five X-Men and your name isn’t Jean Grey or Scott Summers, chances are you’ve got a bum deal. Angel is mostly known for having his wings torn off and replaced by cybernetic ones as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Beast was arguably most popular during his stint with the Avengers team in the 70s and 80s before rejoining his old team and curing the Legacy Virus in the 90s. Iceman, however, doesn’t even have an iconic storyline or fan-favorite supervillain to boost his street cred. Mostly, he’s just known for…well, being a member of the Original Five.

Writers have spent years looking for ways to make Bobby Drake more distinctive. He was classified as an Omega Level mutant sometime ago, but unlike others with the classification (like, say, Jean or fellow X-Man Storm) he’s not one of the first names you think of when an extinction-level threat rears up. Several writers have put work in justifying Iceman’s designation, but nothing’s really stuck in the popular consciousness. More recently Iceman made headlines when a past version of himself was outed as gay by Jean, which raised all kinds of questions. How could he have been gay for this long without any inkling from anyone else (including readers)? Especially when he’s had a bit of a reputation for his love life?

During one of their many recent X-Men relaunches, Iceman was one of the two Original Five X-Men to get a solo series. (The other — of course — was the time-displaced Jean Grey.) The first five issues debuted back in 2017, and I have to admit I gave it a pass at the time. It wasn’t a great time to be an X-fan, and the constant upheavals in the status quo with subsequent relaunches didn’t give me much faith that this title would last. Sure enough, it was cancelled after 11 issues, renewed months later, then cancelled again after six more issues. In this particular age of Marvel, 17 issues is a decent run — but what about the story that was told in that space? The first collection of Iceman, Thawing Out, establishes the “new normal” for Bobby Drake as he tries to figure himself out and live up to his Omega-level potential.

iceman

He’s smiling because he’s finally figured an ice-based gay pun

If I had to describe the first five issues of Iceman in one word, it would be “accessible”. Writer Sina Grace has the unenviable task of making sense of Bobby’s controversial status quo while also providing readers with a compelling reason to see him as a potential ‘leading man’. Iceman has never felt like a big deal; for the ongoing to work, the first arc really needs to establish him as someone capable of anchoring stories as well as Spider-Man or Captain America. However, Bobby’s recent embrace of his sexuality means that he might need to seem like the “same old Iceman” so he doesn’t further alienate a vocal contingent of the comics fandom. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and for various reasons it feels like Grace and the editorial team made a series of choices that put the title into a place that doesn’t appeal to anyone who might be willing to give it a shot.

In the first arc, Iceman struggles to come out to his parents as gay — which makes sense, since they still haven’t fully accepted him as a mutant. The whole affair is complicated by an appearance from the Purifiers and a dust-up with Juggernaut, but when the dust settles there’s at least hope that the cold war between Bobby and his parents can thaw given time. Grace wisely echoes audience sentiment — “Who IS Iceman, really?” — within Drake himself, who states from the jump that his legacy isn’t very strong and he doesn’t have a well-defined self-image. By bundling the audience questions into the narrative, Grace acknowledges the challenge directly while offering an implicit promise we’ll get an answer through Bobby’s journey of self-discovery.

And we get an idea of why it’s so difficult for Bobby to reconcile what makes him different through his parents. It’s clear that his parents’ inability to accept him for who he is makes it hard for him to accept himself; he’s torn between who he feels he is and who his parents want him to be. Anyone who’s spent some time being closeted in their family can relate to this. The tension that comes with weighing your desire to be a part of your family against the need to be true to yourself is so hard to reconcile. But it also feels like Bobby should have pulled the trigger on a decision about this by now. He’s been living this way for years at this point, and he’s been his own man for long enough to decide for himself who he is.

I think that’s one of the reasons why this first arc doesn’t quite work — it feels like it’s speaking to a dilemma we’ve gotten past as a society. Folks who don’t accept LGBQTIA people aren’t likely to be swayed by this story, and the folks who are LGBQTIA don’t quite see themselves in Bobby’s situation. Those still closeted under their parents’ roof don’t have a team of superheroes to lean on, no superpowers to save themselves (or their family) from bigots, no external threats to unite their family. The resolution with Bobby’s parents feels at once too small a win to celebrate but at the same time too easily achieved — he hasn’t really learned to address the flaws keeping him from a resolution, and his parents haven’t really budged from their vague disapproval or dealt with the reasons they have such trouble accepting their son.

Iceman’s core conflict doesn’t drill down into the specifics that would make the story more compelling and Bobby Drake a superhero worth rooting for. We still don’t quite understand why Bobby decided that he didn’t want to be both gay AND a mutant, especially since Northstar is around; we don’t understand how being forced to confront his sexuality is connected to living up to the potential of his mutant powers. Instead, we’re left with the idea that the process of accepting himself has begun and that’s satisfying in its own way.

Sina Grace has spoken out on his Tumblr about his experience writing Iceman, and it is not pretty. According to him, he had little support on the title itself and with the cultural fallout that comes with being a lightning rod in the industry. While paying lip service to the potential to tell diverse stories, Marvel apparently asked him to keep things relatively beige to help its slight chances at being a hit. More assertively gay stories were dismissed, and the arrival of a trans superhero named Shade was not given any publicity. I could easily see Grace being hamstrung from telling the kind of story he wanted by a nervous editorial group, which is a shame.

Because Iceman really does feel like a half-measure on Marvel’s part, telling a difficult story with a series of mis-steps designed to reduce offense instead of speaking truth. It simultaneously acknowledges the hard truths of being gay while diminishing how hard they can be to cope with; it still thinks that featuring a gay character is enough to be progressive. The fact of the matter is they were going to take heat from the same corners of the comics world no matter “how gay” they made the title; it would have been better to take a big swing than the sacrifice bunt they ended up with.

Still, there’s enough to recommend Iceman as a title — especially if you’re a fan of the X-Man himself. It’s just too bad it’s yet another example of a Bobby Drake story that fails to live up to its potential. It’s decent enough, but not nearly what could have been.

 

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(Review) Miles Morales, Vol. 1: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Reading 150The runaway success of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse raised the profile of Miles Morales in a big way. Created by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011, Miles became the second Spider-Man of an alternate Marvel universe after a cataclysm took the life of that reality’s Peter Parker. It’s been an eventful eight years for Miles. He was a controversial figure during his debut, but has won over fans with amazing stories. He made his way over to the “main” Marvel continuity in 2015 after a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-type situation that destroyed — then drastically reconfigured — the multiverse, and since then he’s been a key figure of the emerging ‘young superhero’ community. When Into the Spider-Verse dropped, Marvel thought it might be a good idea to give Miles a fresh look with a new ongoing title and a new creative team. Thus, Miles Morales: Spider-Man was born.

For his fourth(?!) solo series, Marvel brought in Hugo Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron. While it can be a bit of a risk to bring an unproven talent to a new title, here it’s an absolute genius call. Ahmed clearly loves Miles Morales and, even better, knows how to write stories that speak to his multi-racial experience while also being an incredibly fun superhero book. Unlike Bendis, who often came across like he had a ‘dad’s’ understanding of what kids are like these days, Ahmed’s writing feels relatable enough to play in middle America while also providing an authentic window into the life of a 15-year-old New Yorker. If you’re looking to jump in to Miles’ further adventures after Into the Spider-Verse, the first collection of his solo series — Straight Out of Brooklyn — is an excellent way to do it.

Miles Air

Ahmed has a natural talent for comics pacing, quickly establishing Miles’ status quo. He’s a student at a boarding school called Brooklyn Visions, where he shares a dorm with best friend Ganke Lee (who knows his secret identity) and a poet named Judge (who doesn’t). His parents both know about his after-school job, though it appears secrets run in the family — his father, who Miles thought was a cop, revealed himself to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while his uncle Aaron was unmasked at the super-villain Iron Spider. He’s holding down his grades as best he can, but being Spider-Man doesn’t give him much chance to sleep, so his schoolwork is suffering. But he’s sweet on fellow student Barbara, so things aren’t all bad.

Of course, things won’t remain quite so manageable for long. Barbara’s little cousin, visiting from California, has gone missing! While tracking strange, uniformed people committing crimes, he runs into the Rhino — a gamma-irradiated member of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery whose attempts to go straight often fall apart. The Rhino is tracking the daughter of an estranged girlfriend who also went missing; after the initial obligatory dust-up, the two form an uneasy alliance. Even though he’s just a supporting character for the first arc, Rhino is fully-drawn: it bothers him that people make assumptions about him based on his enormous size, and there’s a weary resignation beneath the ‘frienemy’ banter he shares with Miles. Even Eduardo, the cousin who serves as the macguffin for the story, is allowed to have problems completely unrelated to what’s happening. His father was deported, and his mother is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy trying to gain citizenship for her family.

The first arc is just three issues long, enough to get us grounded in Miles’ world and acquaint us with how he handles the frequent conflicts he has to deal with. So much of his character is revealed through how he interacts with other people in his orbit — whether it’s calming down the hot-tempered Rhino or reflecting on how being around Captain America affects him. Miles is determined, laser-focused, principled, but with the swagger of a Brooklyn teenager. It’s the same heroic template that’s been fueling Peter Parker’s stories for decades, but expressed through someone with a different culture and background. If nothing else, it carries the central idea of Into the Spider-Verse — that Spider-Man has become so iconic he can work as an archetype as well as a character — and proves it through practice. The next two stories are brisk — a stand-alone issue further complicates Miles’ world by making Barbara certain he’s keeping something from her, and a two-part story introducing an intriguing anti-hero ends on a nice cliffhanger that bookends the collection really well. Ahmed knows how to work with momentum here, and it’s impressive the way he juggles the personal and professional crises thrown towards Miles. They connect and complicate each other in interesting ways, constantly throwing our hero off-guard.

Garron’s art is a wonderful complement to Ahmed’s art, dense and lively. The composition is a controlled chaos; figures from one panel bleed out into the next, connecting the disparate parts of Miles’ life in a way that confirms how impossible it is to keep his two lives separate. There’s a great blend of expression panels that ground the characters emotionally, mid-range panels that carry conversation and exposition, and huge splash panels that sell super-powered action. But what’s most impressive is how Garron manages to give each character small touches that provide a sense of consistency. Rhino, for instance, is always looming in every panel he’s in; wherever he walks, he stands in small craters of broken cement or floor. Judge’s body language screams bravado and a devil-may-care attitude; Ganke has a geek’s body language; almost everyone is depicted in a pose that speaks directly to who they are.

Even Miles’ different spider-powers are shown in novel ways, from the ever-reliable ‘Spidey-sense’ to his Venom Sting, to the invisibility that comes in handy for scouting and stealth. Both author and artist are in sync, and it shows. The world they’ve created is crowded and chaotic, but always interesting — much like New York. It’s a fruitful pairing that I hope is given enough time to deepen and mature.

Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn is a great first collection for anyone looking to continue this Spider-Man’s adventures post-Spider Verse. While it’s anyone’s guess how long the title will last given the whims of Marvel and its endless appetite for new #1s, this is a story that’s worth investing in. Spider-Man has been given a 21st-century update that allows him to keep being your friendly neighborhood superhero, and we even get to visit neighborhoods that feel a bit closer to the ones we live in today.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2019 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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(Personal) A Writer’s Almanac: July 2018

Self Improvement 150We’re in the second half of the year, and now would be an excellent time to review my progress on my New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not going to do that, though; I know I’ve done a terrible job with what I aimed to do in 2018 and I know why.

So July is going to be the month that I focus intensely on building a consistent writing routine by scheduling at least an hour a day towards working on The Writing Desk or the Jackalope Serial Company. But wait, there’s more! I’m setting a goal of at least 30 minutes a day for reading, and at least 15 minutes a day for meditation. This isn’t an “all or nothing” goal. I realize that there might be some days I just won’t be able to get something done. But this should at least be the minimum of what I’m doing every day as a writer.

The key, of course, is making sure I’m not in my own way. Every Sunday, I’ll take a bit of time to look ahead and see what might cause a problem with reading, writing, or meditation; then I’ll see what I need to do in order to plan around it. Maybe that means writing at lunch or getting up earlier to make sure I get my reading in. Maybe it means cutting out something else to make sure writing, reading and meditation takes priority. No matter what, I want to make sure I’m chaining together writing, reading and meditation days as often as possible.

THE WRITING DESK
This month, the goal is 13 posts here (including this one). I’d like to write ahead as much as possible, making sure that regular posts (like Fiction Friday) are written and edited well ahead of time. That’ll mean front-loading the writing here so that I’m not panicking the night before to make sure something’s done.

For Fiction Friday this month I’ll be writing about a ‘new’ werebear who finds out he has the affliction of ursanthropy in the most unusual of ways. Werebears are my jam, shut up. 🙂

THE JACKALOPE SERIAL COMPANY
This is another project that I would feel a lot better about if I could get ahead of it. Right now, the plan is to have a weekly serial that’s a bit looser but hopefully entertaining; then, for folks who have been donating at the higher tiers a longer-form serial that drops once or twice a month. First, though, I’ll have to be regular with the weekly serials.

Right now I’m “auditioning” four different ideas for the weekly serials. The next two will be up later this week with voting taking place next week. Patrons will get the most time to vote, with the poll going up on Monday; on Wednesday, the poll link will go up on Twitter; and on Friday, folks who follow me on SoFurry will be able to get in on the action before it closes on Saturday. Over that week, I’ll be doing my best to write ahead for whichever serial gets the biggest boost.

The high-tier serial will most likely start with “Boundaries”, which will run for seven parts at least. I don’t think I should start posting that until August, though — I really want to get into the rhythm of regular release, and I’d love to make sure I have at least three parts written before the first one is released. We’ll see how it goes.

OTHER WRITING
The big theme for this year has been self-rejecting out of a number of opportunities, just because I couldn’t get myself together in time. I’d really love to stop that and get better about writing for periodicals and anthologies I’m excited about with plenty of time to edit and get feedback; that’s going to take regular practice and a better eye on submission windows when they’re available.

For now, I’m using the Jackalope Serial Company as my chance to write towards a deadline on a somewhat regular basis, and to make sure that I’m doing my part to make sure the work gets done on time. Once I’m a bit more confident with that, I’ll start sniffing around to see where the most exciting chances to submit my work are.

READING
I’m reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, and I think I’ll be working on that quite a bit this month. I’ve read the book before, but I’m going through it again because I gifted it to a friend to (hopefully) help with his Anxiety Disorder. I’ve been getting a lot more from it this time, which is a little surprising; I’ve loved the book for a long time now, but I guess the lessons needed a bit more time and experience for their intended impact.

I’m also reading “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse to see if it might be a good novel for the Furry Canon project over on [adjective][species]. I’m not sure it is, but it is a fascinating read on its own merits. The main character presents his existential crisis in uniquely furry terms, and the deconstruction of it reveals a lot about the potential benefits and problems with constructing and inhabiting a furry identity for one’s self. I’m going to keep pretending to be a jackalope regardless, but the criticism helps me to be a lot more mindful of how that self-concept can go sideways.

Beyond the daily quota for writing, reading and meditating, I didn’t want to have very specific goals this month. The most important thing is putting in the time; we’ll see what needs to be worked on next once I figure out that part.

What about you, fellow writers and bloggers? What goals do you have for this month? And how did you do with your writing in June?

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2018 in Reading, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Writing) A Writer’s May

Self Improvement 150The month of April was…not great for me as a writer. I didn’t make much progress on anything of note, though I *did* resume a long-dormant Pathfinder game that I’ll take as my big win. I could attribute the lack of writing to my day job, or family stress, or the general pressures of being an adult with obligations and such…but to be honest, the biggest reasons are fear and a lack of discipline. I didn’t write because writing has become this internal battle between my willpower and anxiety, and I’m just not mentally equipped to win that battle consistently.

It’s possible that I’m simply trying to do too much. In addition to an ultimate goal of three missives a week on this here Writing Desk, I’m trying to find a way to write consistently for my Patreon project, the Jackalope Serial Company; I’m working on a Pathfinder game that, at this point, is firmly mid-level and I’d like to take to level 20; I’m starting another Pathfinder game that aims to be more of a loose pick-up style campaign; I’m trying to write short stories for two anthologies that I’d love to be included in; I’ve been asked to contribute to other fandom projects and while I’ve said yes I have yet to take any concrete steps to do so. Then there’s the Udemy courses that aim to teach me more about blogging and tech, the Rosetta Stone course for French I’d like to get back to, SO MANY comics, books and short stories I want to read, the clarinet I want to practice, the cleaning and paring down of all my stuff I’d like to get to, the TV and movies I’d like to watch (and maybe review)…

I’m not sure that ADHD/anxiety is a big reason why I commit to so much and achieve so little, but it really can’t help. Because our executive function is compromised, it’s really difficult to set proper priorities and stick with them when we’ve been interrupted; splitting our attention just can’t happen, because we need to be rooted in one thing or else we go flying all over the place. That’s why off-loading your executive function to things like to-do lists and routines is so important; we have to find a way to make an instinctive internal process external and conscious.

I live and die by my Bullet Journal, though that has to be supplemented by other things like Todoist and Google Calendar to make sure I have an eye on deadlines. If I don’t make sure I have some place to put specific information, it’s pretty much gone — but even then, I can write down, say, a submission deadline for an anthology, but unless I take the time to break down the steps I need to take to actually GET to that submission AND make time for it in my schedule it’ll just sneak up on me and then I’m scrambling to meet a deadline. That kind of surprise triggers my anxiety disorder, which makes it more likely for me to just freeze up and watch the deadline go by.

Good project management practice can help with that, but building a project schedule can only do so much when you’re trying to juggle multiple projects at once. When it’s time to put pen to paper (or paws to keyboard in this case), it’s really hard to make productive use of my time. I know that my time with this project is limited, and my goal is…to just get it done. Not to have fun with it, not to engage with what I’m doing — if I’m being honest, most of the time I already have one eye out on the next thing I need to do. That ain’t no way to write.

So this month I’ll have to pull things back a bit and focus on fewer things that I can root myself well in. I have four big goals for this month — write for The Writing Desk consistently; resume regular updates for the Jackalope Serial Company; finish short stories for “The Rabbit Dies First” anthology as well as one other anthology.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll be focusing on Mental Health Awareness Month with posts about depression, anxiety and ADHD from my personal experience as well as the things that have helped me deal with them, or the things that I still need to work out. For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’ll be writing four “first issues” of various possible serials to see what folks take to, then continue on the most popular serial through June. With the short stories, I’ll devote as much time as I can to both of them once I’ve made sure the blog and Patreon are squared away.

I’ll also be working through my sky-high book stack as much as possible this month. I’ve got quite a lot of time off this month and I’ll be doing some international travel, so I’m fairly sure there’s a lot that I can knock out. Hopefully I’ll finish “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke; “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse; “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach; and “The Upward Spiral” by Alex Korb. If I can manage that, there should be a few good bits of reflection out of them.

So what’s your plan for May, writers? What’re you hoping to have finished by the time June rolls around?

 

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(Personal) Accounting for January

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of the year I mentioned how I’d like to hit a few specific goals with my writing: 100 posts here at The Writing Desk, 50 episodes posted to The Jackalope Serial Company Patreon, and 10 stories submitted to various publications throughout the year. In an effort to hold myself to that goal, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look back on what I’ve done over the month previous, figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how I can adjust to make next month even better. So how did I do in January?

The first month of the year was fairly busy right up through Further Confusion: in addition to coming down from the holidays, I put a little elbow grease into preparing for panels at the convention. The highlight, for me, was the “Afrofuturism and Furry” panel — it was pretty well attended and I got a lot of great, thoughtful questions from the folks who showed up. After that, it was mostly a matter of settling in to the new routine: there aren’t any really big events until May (when My Husband, the Dragon and I will be going to England for Confuzzled! Hooray!) so for a few months there shouldn’t be any disruptions. That…didn’t go as well as I’d like.

The Writing Desk
Number of Posts: 11
Most Popular Post: What I Want From White People

If I had kept a full post schedule I would have had 14 posts this month, but still…not bad. I really fell down on Fiction Friday, though; I think the trick is to make sure that those posts are written well ahead of time, so I can tighten them up and make the stories a lot more engaging. Veniamin Kovalenko will have to wait until March to continue his adventures, as it stands — but that’s not a bad thing. He’s a wonderful character and he deserves more respect from me than he’s been getting. I’m committed to having him come back strong next month.

I’ve noticed a trend with my posts: the ones discussing current events in the fandom and the political arena almost always do much better. Not gonna lie, it’s really tempting to shift towards those subjects more often but I know that’s a fool’s errand. Political and fandom posts are the hardest for me to write because I sweat the language in them so hard; I want to make sure I’m clear in what I’m saying and that I’m writing in a way that doesn’t alienate the people I most want to reach. It feels like the effort pays off, even if it takes a lot out of me.

In February I’m definitely going to focus a lot more on reading and writing. You might have heard that Black History Month is starting up tomorrow, and I’ll be joining the #ReadingBlackout then. It’s a lot less confrontational than it sounds — it’s just a project to center black authors as much as possible. It’s an excellent excuse to catch up on a lot of the books on my to-read shelf! I’ll be starting with Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, a crime novel set along a stretch of highway in east Texas that connects so many small towns where people of color have put down roots. It’s really great so far, and I’m looking forward to talking about it. After that, I’m dipping back into a classic: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It was the best book I ever read in high school, and it’s high past time I give it another look.

For Fiction Friday in February, I’m writing bits of fiction in the Br’er setting. I wrote about my designs for it here, and now that I’ve gotten much more experience with talking about where I fit in to my community I think it’s time to give it another shot. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m excited to plunge in.

The goal for February is twelve posts — three every week.

The Jackalope Serial Company
Current Serial: Boundaries (Episode One)
Episodes This Month: 3

The Jackalope Serial Company hit the same roadblock it usually does: I get to a place where I feel I can really dive in and take off with it, and then end up burning out. After two revised episodes put up for free at the Patreon, I managed just one additional episode before promising another one and…never releasing it. The pressure of deadlines hasn’t been the incentive towards completion that I had hoped.

There are a few reasons for this. I couldn’t get ahead as much as I had wanted before Further Confusion, and after that much of the free time I had was taken up with a few other things. There are so many projects I’ve fallen behind on, and collective guilt over each of them makes it harder for me to move forward on any of them.

One of the big issues with the JSC, however, is the lack of engagement. I should be grateful that there are a couple dozen people out there willing to give me money to write erotic serialized fiction for them — that’s a niche offering if ever there was one. But it’s also really difficult to get folks to open up about the stories I’ve been posting, and at this point I wonder if folks are supporting me financially but not reading the stories themselves. There’s been no feedback on most of the stuff I’ve published so far, so I can’t even tell what’s working and what’s not — what people would like to see more of, and what experiments aren’t really panning out.

At some point I’m going to have to muscle past that expectation for feedback and just write what I’m passionate about. I’ll also need to work on being a lot more consistent with releasing episodes; one of the things that drives me crazy with web-based creatives is the stutter-start nature of the release schedule, with no strong idea of when new stories come out. Either they promise updates and don’t deliver, or drop off the radar entirely. Over the course of the JSC Patreon, I’ve done both. It’s not a great feeling.

In February, I’m implementing a new rule: the Marshmallow Ranch Gazette goes up every Tuesday, but if I don’t have the next episode of the serial completed by the previous weekend I won’t say that it’ll be posted on Thursday. I’ll use the JSC Twitter to keep patrons appraised of progress. I’ll also shorten the release window to the general public for stories; I wanted to have the serials Patreon-only until they were all finished, but now I’m thinking a month-long lag is plenty of time. I’ll also double back and edit previous serials so they can go up on SoFurry, but ONLY once I’ve written ahead for the current one.

Next month, my goal is to post five new episodes — that’ll finish off Boundaries and free me up a bit to work on a couple of short stories before I dive into what comes next.

Other Projects
I had hoped to finish Bluebird, Bluebird this month, but alas it did not come to pass. I did get a lot of reading done, however, as a slush-pile judge of sorts. That totally counts, right? One of the things I really liked about the project was getting to think critically about why a story did or didn’t work for me and how I can transfer discoveries that stemmed from that into my own writing. All that advice about writers needing to read in order to become better writers? Totally true, you guys.

I’ve also been serving as the editor of another project that’s finally, hopefully getting off the ground again. If momentum holds, I’ll be able to talk about it in a few months and you’ll be able to read it by the summer. Fingers crossed!

Ultimately, getting better about time management and managing stress so I can avoid burn-out are the things I should be doing for the next month or two. I could always be making better choices about how I spend my time, but I also really need to set aside time for relaxation and decompression; life is incredibly stressful even without the ambitious goals I’ve set, and making time to rest is essential in replenishing energy. In the scramble to get things done, it’s all too easy to forget that.

I hope all of you have a wonderful February! What are you plans for the next month? What was your biggest success from this month?

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2018 in mental-health, Reading, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Fiction Friday) X-Men: The Mutant Era, Part 1 – Control The Changes

Writing 150I’m a huge fan of Marvel’s X-Men, who have been having a rough time of it lately. The mutant corner of the Marvel comics universe has been consistently pared down as Xavier’s students, allies and enemies have been consistently brought to the brink of extinction. Supposedly, the new status-quo will be starting up in a few months, allowing the X-Men a bit of time to settle and get back into the hero game again. It’s about time, I say!

Anywho, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would do if I were writing the X-Men, rebuilding them from scratch for a modern-day audience. I can’t guarantee that I’d do any better than, say, Brian Michael Bendis or Jeff Lemire, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about the possibilities of prospect of telling the story of Xavier’s first class from the ground floor.

So, I’m thinking that writing a snippet of comic every week would be a good exercise for a little while. I’ve been a little obsessed about tracing out arcs and pacing stories for a weekly, serialized distribution model — obviously, because of the Jackalope Serial Company. I dig the idea of treating each of these snippets as a “digital comic” that is then collected every month into a print issue. And comic stories can last anywhere from 1 issue to…well, 12 or so. Marvel’s been really big about treating each year or so of comics as a “season” for a title, but I digress.

This is just an experiment to feel my way around how to structure stories towards a steady release schedule. Hope you enjoy!
Charles Xavier hated to speak in public, but not for the usual reasons. It didn’t make him nervous to have a whole room of people staring at him, and he never had to imagine his audience naked. He hated public speaking not because he had no idea whether or not the people listening were hostile; he knew all too well what they were thinking. Trying to organize your own thoughts while reading the thoughts of everyone else around you was an enormous challenge, even with years of practice.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath while Dr. Kavita Rao introduced him, mentioning his qualifications. Instead of paying attention to the never-ending stream of consciousness that flowed through his mind, he imagined it as white noise. The distinct internal voices faded to a background chatter, words becoming unintelligible, images nothing but static. Beneath that, he listened for his own heartbeat and timed his breath to it. His pulse slowed. A sense of calm settled around his shoulders like a cloak. He could do this.

There was a lot riding on this speech. Mutants — ordinary humans with extraordinary abilities — were just starting to make the news often enough to enter the public consciousness, and nobody was quite sure what to make of them yet. This was a civilization that had only now become used to superheroes; the complication of regular folks having these powers wasn’t something it was prepared to face. But it had to. And Charles had to help make that happen. If they didn’t get out in front of this, who knows what could happen? People like himself could be hunted down, rounded up and thrown into a hole they would never escape from — or worse. Humanity had a long history of fearing what was different, and fear lead people to do terrible things.

His name was called, and applause drew him out onto the stage. He walked with confidence and shook Dr. Rao’s hand with the biggest smile.

The room went quiet, and he settled in at the podium. Charles resisted the urge to lightly scan the surface of the audience; he couldn’t be thrown now. Instead, he paused, and began speaking.

“We used to think that our ancient forebears, Homo erectus, fought a bitter war for survival with our ancestral uncles, the Neanderthals. The idea was that the species that eventually became us, Homo sapiens, wiped out all competition in a bid for dominance that we can all agree was a tremendous success. Humanity is now the most successful species in the history of the Earth. We have molded Nature to suit our needs; we have spread to every environment on the planet; we have learned much about our past and begun the important work of shaping our future.

“However, our understanding of history is being adjusted. Recent studies indicate the possibility that Homo erectus interbred with Neanderthals and other closely-related human species. Ancient humans may have even cooperated with other tribes to their mutual benefit. These findings introduce the possibility of a fundamental shift in our idea of what it means to be human. Instead of seeing ourselves as an aggressive and territorial race from our earliest days, we might learn to see ourselves as adaptable, cooperative, even naturally sociable people. This reconstruction of our earliest recognizable human traits could prove to be incredibly important as we face complicated, unprecedented questions about our future.

“Recently we have made peace with the fact that supermen walk among us. Captain Steve Rogers is able to do things beyond the capability of most of us through genetic enhancement and indomitable will. Tony Stark has built a billion-dollar suit of armor to join the ranks of the superhero; we have Thor, the Hulk, and Captain Marvel. The King of Wakanda is known to us not as T’Challa, but the Black Panther. We have come to think of these people as extraordinary figures in extraordinary times, far removed from our everyday lives. We’re going to have to reconstruct our assumptions about this.

“We have recently become aware of a new species of humanity. Mostly, they look like you and me. They ARE people like you and me, with one exception; the presence of a specific gene that endows them with superheroic abilities. This “x-gene”, as it has come to be called, is inert through the early stages of development of life but becomes ‘activated’ during the complex and difficult set of chemical changes during puberty. Most members of these new species have no idea they’re a part of it until then. Because this gene has only been discovered recently, through the study of those few people who have undergone these changes, we currently have no idea how many individuals make up this population of new humans. Our best theories state that the x-gene is present in as few as 1 in every 1,000 individuals, and as many as 1 in every 20. Globally, that would mean anywhere from 700,000 to 3.5 million people are carrying the x-gene.

“There are obvious concerns about this, but there is also reason for optimism and wonder. This is quite possibly the most important scientific discovery in the history of biology and genetics; by studying the x-gene and investigating the factors that may have had a hand in its development, we can learn valuable information about the evolutionary process and how our modern society may be guiding humanity towards its next stage. And by remembering our more nuanced understanding of evolutionary history, we can learn to collaborate with this new species for our mutual benefit. Men and x-men working together to cultivate our abilities to the betterment of all is not just a dream; it is a necessity if we hope to manage this transition and chart the course of our own future.

Charles stared out into the sea of faces staring back at him, pointedly not attempting to read their thoughts. “I would like to leave a lot of time for questions from the audience. If you have any you would like to ask, please form a line in the center aisle behind the microphone stand.”

He was surprised to see half the seats emptying, a murmuring roar rising up in the crowd. This…might be a longer engagement than he thought.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2017 in Comic Books

 

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