Review of HBO's Sharp Objects (has spoilers)

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I'll lead with the positive: the main reason to watch this show is not the murder mystery, but for the execution of how the story is told. (In a weird, obverse opinion of my last review of The Blackkklansman). 

Positives: the performances were incredibly strong all around, but in particular Amy Adams (Camille), Patricia Clarkson (Adora, her soft-spoken but histrionic southern belle of a mother), and Eliza Scanlen (Amma, her not-quite-right wild-child half-sister). I loved the Southern Gothic feel when Camille returns to her hometown, complete with a lovely-but-creepy house with a wraparound porch. 

The thing that kept me intrigued, and the thing I admired about it the most, is the way it was filmed to resemble human memory, as opposed to linear storytelling with breaks to make it easier for the viewer: ie, Camille sees the hingey-thing on the back of the toilet, then we stop the story for a liner flashback of that entire memory so that it's easy to digest. Even though I think they didn't do this because Camille is a damaged, fractured person, I think stylistically how they actually did it is closer to how people experience memory. A scene is interspersed with brief flashes with no explanation, sometimes so momentary we can tell that she's thinking of two things at once. Or even more than two. This felt literary to me, which is why I didn't need tons of intrigue to the storytelling aspect. I'm rewatching the first episode right now and they just showed a brief cut of Camille looking at the hingey part of the toilet--a full 6 hours before we actually see the story of why that matters. I hadn't even noticed it the first time around. 

Negatives: I never thought the show was boring like other viewers apparently did (I didn't mind the somewhat unnecessary Calhoun Day diversion), if you put the entirety of the show together, there's about 20 minutes of Camille driving, listening to music, or drinking vodka out of a water bottle. We get it--she's an alcoholic. I don't think people need to be shown more than two or three times. 

I was a wee bit frustrated with the (first) climax which occurs in the house. Ultimately, Camille is incapacitated with whatever poison her mother has given her, and is feebly trying to cry out to once-lover/cop Richard while she is prostrate on the bathroom tile. Ultimately it is Richard & co who rush in to save the day, arrest Adora, and spirit the sisters away for medical treatment. Was this not agentic enough? Just before this, Camille had made the discovery (..or rather, was given the information by Richard) that Adora had probably been poisoning Marian, Camille's younger sister who had died of a mysterious illness when she was younger. Death by munchausen by proxy so Camille rushes to the house, realizing that Amma--currently "ill" in the care of their mother--is in danger. She encounters a bizarre dinner tableau: a sickly Amma dressed in a white nightgown and a crown of flowers, her mother setting up a massive feast to her and her creepily silent husband. In an interview, Gillian Flynn mentions that she wasn't bothered by the show's decision to have Richard rescue Camille, more or less, because Camille did do something agentic: she takes her sister out of the line of fire by pretending to be sick and taking on her mother's "care" (ie, poison) herself. The action has the duel duty of both proving her suspicion, and giving Amma some time to recover. So she did do something agentic, but I realized this morning what really bothered me:

She runs into the house, thinking that her mother killed her little sister, and is possibly in the process of killing her other little sister... but she enters the house and silently sits down at the table? How about forming some distraction, grabbing your sister by the arm, and running off? What's to stop her? Her mother's in her 60s, and Camille is young. How hard would it have been to overpower her? How hard would it have been to grab that blue bottle of whatever noxious "medicine" and throw it across the room? Flush all the pills down the toilet?

Two practical things: can we please please please retire the female reporter who sleeps with people involved with her investigation thing? And did Camille really have no where where she could stay except for with Adora? No per diem from the paper? How much is a hotel in that small town? Given the high psychological price of staying in a home filled with trauma... why stay there rather than the Motel 6?

My only other problem was with the ending. It bothered some people, but I liked it. I was definitely not expecting an ending that abrupt, but stylistically it made sense to me. And I had already taken my eyes off the screen when the cut-scene appeared during the credits. If the entire story is through Camille's perspective, it wouldn't make sense for the cut scene of the murders to appear in the normal timeline of the show. My problem was that the scene itself was so fast it was sort of incomprehensible. I rewound and watched it 2 more times. While I think the images were great (particularly that really disturbing ending one of Amma) I actually misinterpreted what I had seen. The girl getting killed by the river I got, but I definitely didn't think that the image of Mae, Amma's new friend, gripping the fence was supposed to be her getting killed. I got that something violent was happening, but didn't necessarily think it was murder until I read recaps this morning. 

On the topic of Amma being the murderer (which I suspected the entire time), one plot-holey thing. They find the bloody pliers in Adora's house and it's assumed she was involved in the murders. Yeah, but fingerprints--whose fingerprints would be on those pliers? Amma's, not Adora's. (I doubt she wiped prints off if she didn't bother cleaning the blood off.) This made it a bit unrealistic to me that Camille would be the one to discover Amma, rather than physical evidence catching up with Amma. (who is arrested in the book, and her friend Mae's death is more in view.) 

And really smart to put the trailer for True Detective with Mahershala Ali right after.. It looked so good that I was sold before they even said the words "True Detective" (good advertising, considering I didn't like the first season, and skipped the second.) 

Review of Blackkklansman

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I hate to say it, but here is a thing which started with a great premise, but then failed in its execution. It had everything working in its favor: a great hook and timeliness. A black cop who pretends to be white over the phone in order to infiltrate the KKK. Even the pre-setup: he's the first black cop in this particular precinct, and they warn him that he is going to to have to "be the Jackie Robinson."

It's based on a true story, so I can't fault the story for going where it does which is to say to pretty expected places once you know the premise. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) enlists Flip (Adam Driver) to play the part in person, Flip is conflicted, Stallworth starts a relationship with Black Power activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) only she doesn't know he's a cop (and yes, she would mind.) 

This movie was startlingly long. When I was sitting there I was thinking, crap I wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour. I left the theater and looked at my phone, expecting it to be 11 (the show started 7) and was surprised to see that it was only 9 pm. How on earth does a movie feel two hours longer than what it actually was?? Even while watching it I kept being pulled out of the story by thinking "this scene is much longer than it should be" and I found myself wondering about how established artists can get away stretching their arms and taking up space and making work that is too long but emerging artists have to trim their work to be beyond super-lean. 

So if it felt too long, I have to wonder if there was enough story to fill out two hours. Surely there should have been, but yet it didn't feel like it. The movie could have gone more into depth on both Stallworth's and Flip's characters. What's Stallworth's background, what did he study in college (there's a point to mentioning that he avoided Vietnam because he was in college), what is his family like, and what made him want to be a cop? For about ten seconds, the movie touches on the fact that Flip, while Jewish, grew up without really "being Jewish," and maybe an interesting conversation about identity could have been had here. We are given bonked-over-the-head examples about why Patrice might have been driven toward the Black Power movement, but this movie painfully, painfully lacks in subtlety. What, for example, distinguishes Patrice from any prototype of a young student involved in the movement? (Nothing). Maybe the heavy-handedness of the movie was intended to make it more easy to digest for people who don't know much about that time period. But I would have rather seen scenes putting everything in context than scenes that felt like 40% of them could have been cut without sacrificing anything. 

The unsubtleness of this movie is a mismatch with the sort of audience that goes to see a movie like this. The parallels to modern day America are really obvious--enough so that the obvious nods to the present day could have been written a bit more obliquely or even not at all and we still would have seen them. But if you didn't feel like everything was spelled out in enormous billboard-sized capital letters, there's the ending.. After the movie ends there's a few minutes of documentary footage ramming home the parallels today. As if it needed to be stated. This included the graphic footage of the people being murdered/injured in Charlottesville by a white nationalist plowing a car into them. We've seen that footage--everyone sitting in that theater had. It isn't news to us, and felt weirdly misplaced and jarring, like being hit over the head with a bat while hanging up anti-bat-hitting posters. 

This Stupid Reality TV Show Is The Perfect Demonstration of What Is Wrong with Non-Minority "Progressives."

Sorry to write a serious blog post about a stupid TV show. But in case you missed it, a white woman who identifies as a progressive and part of "the resistance," this season's Bachelorette, picked one man over another and got engaged on last night's episode. The controversy was that after the season premiere episode aired weeks ago (so after she got engaged) it emerged that he had liked alt-right "humor" posts on instagram that implied that feminists are ugly and anti-feminists are beautiful and patriotic; made a joke about throwing migrant children back over "the wall;" made fun of trans people (children, specifically); and accused Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg of being a "crisis actor" (a view promoted by extremist and all around idiot Alex Jones, who promotes conspiracies to sell protein powder and just got kicked off the internet).  

Garrett, the guy who did this, apologized a couple times for doing this, and made it seem like liking something on Instagram is just something that happens by accident. [It's not, incidentally, that I don't think his apology was good enough; it's that I think his apology is irrelevant. Apologies are often what you do when someone catches you doing what you normally do.] He said he didn't mean it, and that anyone who knows him can attest that he's a great guy. And yes, people have insisted that he's a great guy-- previous suitors who have been kicked off the show already, Becca (the bachelorette), Garrett's family, and Becca's family. Becca says, on the last episode, that the two men she has fallen in love with are "the best guys on earth." Notice that all the people involved making this assessment seem to not be noticing that this is fundamentally an issue of values--specifically values that aren't really about them

All of these people insisting that Garrett is a great person are white, and as far as I can tell, have none of these other minority identities- LGBT, migrant, PARKLAND SHOOTING SURVIVOR. Embarrassingly enough, I consume a lot of pop-commentary about the Bachelor, and on a lot of this media, white non-minority hosts dismiss the Instagram scandal as "stupid but not necessarily reflective of him as an individual." 

What is reflective of you as an individual but your actions? Doesn't the fact that you find punching down say a lot about who you are as an individual, morally? (let alone in terms of emotional maturity..) 

If you're progressive and part of the majority--straight, white, not an immigrant, able-bodied-whatever-- the true test of your progressiveness is not at the ballot box. It isn't the bumper sticker you put on your car or what candidates you donate to. Because there are far too many "progressives" who are all about all these things until it comes to anything involving them. [Or on the obverse, they don't care about anything until it involves them--which is behind the hard-to-explain annoyance that some minorities had about the Women's March). If you're white and your boyfriend is racist against blacks, it might not come to a conflict because his racism isn't directed at you--it's just an inconvenience that you'd wish would magically go away. You could confront it, but wouldn't it be easier not to? I think what some people forget is that racist people aren't necessarily all-around assholes who walk around with devil horns spouting sulphur from their mouths. They can be incredibly kind and sweet and caring to you, and to their families, and to their friends. But just because they're nice to you doesn't mean they're nice, or good people at all. You can't call yourself a progressive if you're okay with your significant other having attitudes that while not harmful to you, are harmful in general to minority groups. If you're not bothered by this, you really need to ask yourself what your values are. If you think someone who punches down would be a good father, have fun raising some really wonderful children.. 

Maybe this bothers me in particular right now because I'm not mad at people who make fun of migrants, (because I think they're a lost cause) I'm mad at their ostensibly "progressive" family members. These are the same family members that year after year complain about their "crazy" uncle, of "frustrating" parents-- you push some turkey around your plate, and then go back to their regular lives sharing shit on Facebook to make yourself seem woke. You are the problem. The gay 13 year old in rural America is forced to directly confront his family over and over because he has no choice. This is what has moved the needle in terms of America's acceptance of gays in the past few decades. They weren't doing a public service--they were forced to because their lives and wellbeing depended on it. One version of this 13 year old will somehow manage to convert his family to PFLAG waving allies. Another version will face the trauma of realizing that this family is no family of his, and that he will be forced to find his own non-biological family. Another will move his family some, but not all the way, and will continue to have to battle for years. Another might find it overwhelming--which is perfectly reasonable for a young person with no support in the one place where he needs it the most--and turn self-destructive or even suicidal. People with minority identities were forced to fight this fight with enormously high stakes, and yet some of the people who call themselves our allies are unwilling to even lift a finger in their own houses. 

Rant over. I leave you with an actual image of the couple from the show last night. (And yes, that is him pulling her deeper underwater by the foot, which I guess is supposed to be funny). 

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Is my ex a psychopath? Take this quiz to find out.

I wrote the below quiz-- which is just for fun--because we've all dated at least one person where, after the fact, we wonder what on earth we were thinking. Some estimate that about 4% of the American population is psychopathic. While we often associate that word with violent criminals, a good number psychopaths aren't violent--they just display a constellation of not-so-great personality characteristics that hang together. Many can turn out to be successful individuals who--to people who don't know them that well--seem to be perfectly normal. Charming, even. But some of us know better.. 

If this topic interests you, subscribe to this blog on your RSS or give me a follow on Twitter. I'm an author and am currently writing a novel about psychopaths. You can find much of my fiction online linked through here

Give Poldark's George Warleggan the plot he deserves

A couple of weeks ago, I blew through all three seasons of Poldark in one weekend, or maybe close to it. I had it on in the background as "period piece background noise I didn't expect to really capture my attention," but it totally did. (Apparently I also weirdly forgot my fetish for 18th century men's fashion.)

Not only is the show filled with lush scenery (waves crashing on rocks beneath dramatic cliffs, people riding horses in haste, etc.), but the writing is really, really good. Particularly in Season Two, with the infidelity plotline, every single character involved responds in a way consistent with their character, and in ways that highlight both their positive and negative traits.) (Well, I'm not sure Elizabeth has any positive traits, but whatever). 

Season 3 had me pondering the fact that the writer's haven't entirely taken advantage of villain George Warleggan. The WETA blog says he is a flatly evil character, one step away from twirling a mustache; I don't entirely agree, but they do have something of a point.  Over the course of the series, George shown himself to be cold and conniving when it comes to both business and life--sometimes playing unfairly. He is weirdly obsessed with taking Ross Poldark down--and what is this based on other than the fact that he basically hates Ross for having what he doesn't: the support of the townspeople, actual love from his wife Elizabeth, a sense of honor. Ostensibly, he has beef with Ross because Ross is "responsible" for inciting the riot that led to the shipwreck being looted (the shipwreck containing some of George's property). But we all know that he 2% cared about the property and 98% just wanted Ross to be tried and hanged--which seems a bit extreme. 

But I just rewatched Seasons 1 and 2 and took a closer look at him. The development of his relationship with Elizabeth is a weird mixture of creepy and pitiable. It's clear he likes her when she's married to Francis Poldark and is already attempting to put the moves on her. When he first propositions Elizabeth, more or less, unless I'm wrong, she didn't seem repulsed but genuinely caught off guard. Surprised, but not "oh God how do I get out of this." I think for her it came out of left field. I do believe, in his own strange way, George loves Elizabeth. (I'm not sure why, because everyone seems to fall in love with her based purely on looks...?) 

Maybe there was a world where Elizabeth and George could have been happy--this makes me sad. Her decision to marry him was both practical and eyeroll worthy. She's a widow and her mom has just had a stroke. Standing beside the drooling mother's bed she asks the doctor, "But who will take care of her--?" then a look of distain comes over her face when she realizes that the caregiver could be her. God forbid we don't have servants to do something, or have to get a job, or figure shit out for a while before she might actually fall in love with a man who wants to marry her. Okay, I realize that's unfair--the aristocracy didn't work back then. Although I did wonder how hard it would have been to scrimp and pinch for a while--sell off some of her crap and let some servants go. Instead, she spots George through the window getting rid of some pesky serfs who want to work her land, which apparently by law is their right. He could take care of her, and she wants to be taken care of. And I never go the sense that he was disingenuous in his offer to take care of her; someone purely evil wouldn't do that. 

She marries him, quickly, and for his money basically, but I got the sense that she had some hope that maybe it would work out. George quickly ruins any chance of this, mainly through his desire to get rid of his Poldark stepchild. Really much of her hatred of him stems from actions he does solely out of his obsession with Ross. (It's more like he himself is a worser enemy than Ross is.) It didn't have to be this way, but he does several things that destroy any hope between them: getting the governess and wanting to send the stepson away, and the trial against Ross which was overkill. A really unexpected turn for me at least was that Elizabeth and George start to become an evil couple together--which was relieving because many many many shows/books/movies fall into the trap of "the first love is the only-est, best-est love." Her turn toward the evil was somewhat satisfying because her unhappiness brought out the nastier parts of her personality and I didn't find much about her redeeming anyhow. 

But George is more interesting to me. Sometimes there's this one grain of humanity in him that makes me feel sympathy or want him to have a turn of character. He suspects that "his" baby with Elizabeth--Valentine--is actually Ross Poldark's but you get the sense that he's almost tricked himself into thinking the baby is his. At least until stonecold Agatha tells him the truth. He seems really broken by this, and I don't think it's just because of Poldark. No matter how despicable George is, Elizabeth wronged him and continuously lied to him. Sure, there were various strictures on women that made life hard for them, but I can't see Demelza making that series of decisions. Sure-- George is pathetic--he gets all sniveling when Elizabeth (lying about the paternity issue) threatens to leave their home, and let's be clear George is dishonorable and nasty and single minded. I don't know why he seems to love Elizabeth, but he does. I truly wondered if he actually loves Valentine and this was a serious blow to him (he doesn't have an heir after all). I love the moment that followed: Ross going out to look for Demelza in the dunes--of course we think he's about to catch her in the act of cheating--but instead he comes upon George, who is dazed with the realization about Valentine. For a split second George is a human, but then he goes back to being George. This moment echoed back to the moment when George found out that Ross's baby had died and for a split second was at a loss. 

Don't blame George for the infamous toad incident in season 3. Oh damn, this show got dark. What started as a funny prank against George--Demelza's brother Drake putting toads in George's ponds--gets hella dark when Morwenna has to marry the gag-reflex-inducing Reverend Osborne Whitworth. At first the Reverend just seemed like a pervier version of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice--funny, foppish, and gross. But then it gets much darker than the tone of Poldark generally with him being physically abusive and a rapist--I kept waiting for Morwenna to be rescued at the last minute. And it's George and Elizabeth--who has now drunk the evil George Kool-aid--who have pushed this marriage into existence. Because it's a "good match." (There's one weird misstep in the plotting here: when Morwenna's weird sister showed up, I thought for sure she would pretend to try to seduce the Reverend and then murder him . . . but instead seemed to like boffing him??) [Another tangent, how on earth is the guy on the left played by the guy on the right??] 

Here's the thing: George has no idea how bad the Reverend is. He knows Morwenna isn't crazy about him, but how many women got to marry someone they were crazy about? You know who does know just how bad the Reverend is? The good doctor Dwight. And while he does try to press the pause on the Reverend's appetites for Morwenna after giving birth--that's all he does-- presses the pause button. George's sin, really, was that he wanted to control Morwenna and family wealth by marrying her off--Dwight's sin strikes me as worse (albeit not outside of what would have been typical male behavior back then.) 

It's clear that Poldark is headed towards more political storylines, and that both Ross and George will be players. The only two things George cares about are himself and Elizabeth and I'm not even sure about the second part. His political identity could easily get tied into his sense of honor; if Poldark wants to keep treading the same waters, we could have Ross and George square off again and again. Or . . .

Make George the villain he deserves to be. George should be smarter than he is on the show. He's made his wealth rather than inherited it, so it's a little unrealistic that his deviousness is pretty consistently ham-handed. I wish they would let him be as full blown smart as maybe a man who's made his own wealth might be. And while Ross clearly has flaws, sometimes he falls too hard on the "good guy who's always right" side (at least when it comes to the shows political plotlines.) Moving the show towards increasingly political plotlines leaves a lot of room for complex machinations--I would love to see George pull off some Cersei-level political maneuvering rather than say, printing slanderous pamphlets. I would love there to be something Ross and George could agree on--a common foe where they would have to work together despite despising each other! Someone who offends George's honor and Ross' political sensibilities-- but I'm not sure the show has that sort of sensibility, particularly after what happened with Morwenna. If Morwenna isn't going to save herself, it would be nice if we just didn't default to Ross saving the day. Too often shows default to "good guys save people, bad guys hurt people, and if bad guys save people they are redeemed." There's a few other options-- like bad guys doing the "right" thing for an entirely different reason. Bad guys responding with a level of retaliation that the good guys wouldn't "stoop" to in a way that is more satisfying to viewers. Bad guys outmaneuvering other bad guys because they are more clever.

A spoiler-ridden review of Hereditary

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Hereditary falls squarely in the center of what I think is an exciting development in horror movies: horror that leans more towards the literary. Reviews of this movie had a lot of "Not since The Exorcist..." language which made me skeptical, along with my friend's text along the lines of "Have you heard the hype about this movie? People are saying it's traumatic." Well that was enough to sell me. 

Hereditary very much reminded me of The Witch and It Comes at Night with some echoes of The Exorcist. I suppose I would consider The Exorcist literary horror, but it does lean more towards overt horror (ie, looking at horrifying and explicitly unpleasant things for long scenes.) The way this movie was filmed--as if the camera is lurking--and the excellent score reminded me of all three: unnerving drones, unpleasant prickly noises, indistinct sounds you can't quite pick out. With the exception of The Exorcist I generally don't find literary horror scary, but I do enjoy it. 

What I found most horrifying in this movie wasn't the supernatural elements, which I doubted the existence of for maybe four-fifths of the movie. There's some indication in a very Rosemary's Baby way that the recently deceased mother of Annie (Toni Collette) was a witch. The narrative does feel like it's headed for supernatural elements, particularly in the way it focuses on Annie's profoundly creepy daughter Charlie. She's unnerving (amazingly well acted by Milly Shapiro), but I thought she was headed for either demonic possession or a diagnosis of psychopathy (there's a scene where she finds a dead pigeon and cuts its head off to keep). But it was easy for me to push the supernatural to the side for most of the movie because an unexpected turn. 

This is the scene I keep thinking about even days later. The teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolf) lies to his mother that a party he wants to go to is more of a school BBQ and she makes him take his sister. He takes her, and leaves her alone for a minute so he can smoke pot with the girl he likes. Charlie eats some cake with nuts in it and starts going into anaphylactic shock. Peter puts her in the family car and hurries her to the hospital, and of course you can see the accident coming. But I was 1000 percent not expecting the way it would go down and how it would be depicted. The accident is horrifying, and it both is and isn't Peter's fault. You could see a teenager getting into this situation from being mildly irresponsible, but not outrageously so. We don't see exactly what happens and it isn't clear that Peter has. There's an incredible scene of Peter just staring straight at the camera for at least a full minute, stunned, and the sense of horror and dread and there's no going back from this is palpable. Alex Wolf, the by way, who I've only ever seen in Jumanji nailed this scene. He heads home, in a daze, lies down in his bed, and there's an extremely painful scene of his blank face as he can hear his mother's off-camera screams as she discover's Charlie's body. Toni Collette's screaming here was more disturbing than any piece of violence or weirdness that occurs in this movie. 

For almost all of this movie but the end, you could interpret it as being about the impossible task of the family dealing with this death. How does a mother then relate to her son? How can he possibly cope with being responsible for the accident? When supernatural things seem like they're happening--Peter and Annie seeing apparitions, Peter's self-injurious behavior--this can all be explained away by hallucinations they are experiencing from intense grief and guilt. There's also the issue of mental illness: Annie's family tree is rife with it, and she rather casually mentions at a grief counseling meeting that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder. Personally I don't believe in DID, and wasn't sure how I'd feel if the movie turned out to be about it. Abrupt changes in Annie's behavior--ostensibly from possession--could be explained by DID if you wanted to take a non-supernatural interpretation of this movie. It was this aspect of the movie--grief as the supernatural--that I found most intriguing. It could have ended ambiguously, and I thought the movie was headed this way, but then it goes full Black Phillip.  

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Black Phillip, if you haven't seen The Witch, is the family goat who at the end of the movie, starts speaking in the voice of Satan. The talking goat is the point of no return, and the same thing happens in the last fifth of Hereditary

We then get firmly grounded in the idea that the witchcraft angle is real. This leads to an ending that was very similar to The Witch with a dash of Rosemary's Baby thrown in. The one thing that left me a little puzzled is why--possessed or not--Annie bizarrely kills herself. Whatever entity that has taken her over (and it isn't clear who exactly) already has possession of the body, so why it needed to end her life was unclear (unless, I suppose, it was a human sacrifice). Overall, grounding it in witchcraft didn't take away the emotional complexity--much like how The Witch was still about all these strictures that were/are put on women. It still raised interesting questions-- was Annie's sleepwalking actually sleepwalking, some supernatural thing, or some form of mental illness? Was what Peter did something he could ever come back from? (I desperately wanted him to just leave the house and not come back.) How can the husband (Gabriel Byrne) draw the line between indulging his wife and allowing her outbursts while also being wary that she might be in the middle of a psychotic break? How can he balance dealing with his own grief while the tension between his wife and his son is becoming worse and worse? 

There is one thing about this movie that I did not like and found unfairly gratuitous: WHY WHY WHY the dog. Come on man. Any horror movie or thriller where there is a family dog, it is basically there for four-legged cannon fodder. Towards the end of the movie the dog isn't particularly present and I probably would have forgotten about it . . . Except then there is a one second scene that just shows the dog's body cast aside in the garden, it's murder, apparently, occurring off screen. By someone. For some reason. THIS WAS A SENSELESS DOG DEATH. WHY. It did nothing for the plot, and the dog did not get to fully develop his character arc as a result. 

Trust me, the morally reprehensible things I say and do aren't reflective of me as a person.

In the past two weeks, what looks like what is going to become an increasingly common “scandal” occurred surrounding the show The Bachelor. (Or The Bachelorette, to be more specific). During the season premiere a guy named Garret clearly became one of the frontrunners for Becca, this season’s Bachelorette. While the show skirts as far away from politics as possible, it’s known from her social media that Becca considers herself as part of “the resistance” and voted Democratic in the 2016 election. In this article by two women who also host a podcast about the show, one of the contestants, Garrett, was outed as having liked a bunch of morally reprehensible posts on Instagram including ones that made fun of: the Parkland kids who survived the school shooting (calling them crisis actors), undocumented immigrants, feminists, and trans children. (He immediately deleted the account once this was exposed.) 

There's a chance that the producers of the show did this on purpose--knowing that Becca is at least a somewhere left of center, and that this would lead to conflict and therefore good TV. I imagine this is what happened when they had their first black Bachelorette and included a contestant who compared the NAACP to the KKK on not-too-hard-to-find social media posts. We could work under that assumption of wanting drama, or assume their background checkers are just lazy. 

But would this even lead to conflict? Becca publicly responded, in as much as she can, (because I'm guessing he was one of her final few..) in an interview by saying she would address issues as they come up, but that "I can't fault anyone for what they believe, and who's to say that anyone is truly what they believe in if they just double tap . . . I am a strong woman and I do believe in certain things, but again, that's what's so great about our country — everyone is entitled to their own opinions." This is a really, really different response than the reaction of the black Bachelorette--Rachel--had when confronting the contestant who said racist stuff. Her response wasn't, "Oh, he's  a good person who just kept accidentally saying terrible things--lay off him would you!" Garrett responded with the typical "I didn't realize the things I did were hurtful / I need to learn/ this isn't reflective of who I am as a person" apology. ("I need to learn/ go to rehab" is definitely a great all purpose excuse for just about anything, isn't it?) But we're not here to talk about him. 

We're here to talk about the Beccas. The straight guy who cringes when his father says something anti-gay at the dinner table, but doesn't say anything. I want to talk about the white girl with the white boyfriend who grits her teeth when he says something racist against blacks. It doesn't really affect the straight person at the dinner table because he isn't gay, or the white girl because neither she nor her boyfriend are black. The ignorant views of their loved ones don't directly negatively affect them, but are seen as more embarrassing than fundamental conflicts because I guess, to them, their values don't constitute a dog in the fight. 

Why can't you fault someone for what they believe? We make decisions about who we want to surround ourselves with, and sometimes people come into conflict with those values. On the one hand you want a partner you have chemistry with who also wants the same things (a house, a picket fence, a family), but then there's this pesky thing where he says something profoundly ignorant about another group--but don't worry--you're not part of that group. You can just sweep it under the rug. 

You can just say, "Well you don't know him." You don't know him like I do! Indeed, I will never know your racist boyfriend the same way that you do if the two of you are white and I am brown. Your boyfriend can be caring and kind and considerate to you, while at the same time thinking that gays are disgusting or that migrants aren't human beings with inherent dignity. You just don't know him like I do! Indeed, I don't. 

 

Like many people caught in the apology chamber, Garrett responded in an Instagram post "I am a sincere, genuine, loving, light-hearted, open minded and non-judgmental individual." I'm willing to bet that Garrett has never met one of the Parkland kids, who not only survived the mass murder of their friends and classmates, but are pushing through with activism despite grown adults feeling the need to attack and threaten them despite their being children who were almost just murdered. I'm willing to bet that if quizzed on the situations in El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and other countries that led to migration, he would not be able to tell you much and in all likelihood couldn't find most of these countries on an unmarked map. You've never met these people, but have hateful things to say about them (at worst), or at best, you don't really hate them but think their situations are funny and should be made fun of on social media. Call me a square but I don't find devastating earthquakes or drug cartels funny. 

Is it really fair to judge people by their social media accounts? It's true, your finger can slip and you can accidentally like a post promoting a conspiracy that the victims of a mass shooting are in fact actors rallied by a vast left wing conspiracy to seize the guns you use for mass shootings. To be fair, I do think there are instances where people take things out of context, like the movie that puts on its poster that a reviewer said "This movie is fantastic!" when they actually said "This movie is fantastically stupid!" And I do think its unfair to dredge up Livejournal posts from decades ago and point out how un-woke someone was, when in reality only some of us have documentation of how un-woke we are, and, let's face it, collecting points for pointing out unwokeness is sort of tiresome. 

Here is an exhaustive list of the past handful of things I did on Facebook and Twitter: a request that they make a movie out of cockygate; an interest in attending a poetry performance; 3 likes to UPS Dogs, a Facebook group where UPS drivers post pictures of their favorite dogs on their routes; a comment that news media "controversial comments" instead of "racist comments" suggests that there is a legitimate debate underlying the idea that racism is bad; 3 comments about whether or not the robot from Netflix's Lost In Space is sexy or not (it isn't); a Twitter moment about peacocks stopping traffic on a highway wherein I commented "cockblocking;" and this, which can only be described by looking at its awesomeness. This is actually a pretty accurate representation of who I am. Not a complete representation. But no one who knows me would be shocked that I liked/said/tweeted any of these things--they are all pretty run-of-the-mill for me. So if you were known to be an open-minded, kind, considerate person who's on social media, likely connected with friends, wouldn't your friends be shocked if you posted something morally reprehensible? Does the fact that they're not shocked say something about you, and something about them?

Whenever this cycle happens--an insulter says something insulting, there's negative publicity, then an apology--we are told, "Wait, get to know the real person, you don't know them like I do." We are asked, again and again and again, to get to know this person, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to assume good intentions despite the data before us. And yet those who insult are never giving the benefit of the doubt to the Parkland kids, or getting to know the migrants or their situation, or assuming that the person they are deriding is an actual human who might be as sincere and open-minded and loving as the insulters claim to be but aren't. In other words, "Treat me fairer than I treat you, otherwise you're being unfair." Sadly, an argument that keeps being made over and over. 

Review of Picnic at Hanging Rock

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1. What in god's name was this show?

2. I could not stop watching it. 

There aren't too many things I'm willing to watch that are willfully confusing--or artsy for the sake of artsy. But this definitely falls into this category. 

Worth watching for Natalie Dormer's wardrobe alone. 

Picnic tells the story of a sketchy woman, Ms. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) who flees from a mysterious background to start a finishing school for troubled girls in an absurdly beautiful estate. Like when you have fantasies of living in some Harry Potter boarding school, this is the estate you're thinking of. Three girls disappear during a picnic and the rest of the series attempts to cover what swirls around this scandal. Were they murdered, did they disappear, or did something mystical happen? 

Honestly, the plot is interesting enough to keep things moving, but the plot wasn't really why I kept watching. The series has interesting themes about the ways in which women are bound, sexuality, and class. But ultimately I watched this for the visuals and an arresting score. The visuals are dreamlike at times, and the scenery varies from this sumptuous estate where the school is, to these scenes from the landscape at Hanging Rock itself. The score is sometimes intense and deliberately unnerving (reminiscent of The Witch). 

I think the lower reviews of this show (currently 6.3 stars on IMDB) are due to the fact that the show didn't really ever intend to be about a neatly tied of mystery when people wanted it to be. The original Picnic at Hanging Rock was a popular Australian novel which the author occasionally implied was actually a true story. The novel's last chapter wasn't published with the original book, leaving it with an inconclusive ending. An . . . interesting decision. (In case you want the spoiler: the ending which was pulled from the book, then published later, also has a somewhat inconclusive ending. The girls disappear into some sort of void and time travel or another dimension may be implied.) 

 

Writer's Block Exercises (1-10)

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1. Pick a guilty pleasure sort of story that you like--buddy cop, vampire romance, couple adopts a wacky misbehaving dog. Write five pages of the most deliberately bad text you possible can. As hackneyed as possible. The story does not have to have a beginning middle or end--the point of it is to be as ridiculous as possible. [This is to untrain you from the idea of "I can't write unless it's good"]

2. What is the last movie/TV show/book/restaurant that you hated so much that every time it comes up your friends cringe away from you a little because you get so heated? Write a really compelling review of this thing, whatever it was. It has to be well-articulated in terms of its analysis. [This is to flex your critical thinking skills without creativity being as central.]

3. Write an approximately 100 word description of the room you are currently sitting in, making sure that you capture not just what it looks like, but its mood as well. Once you're satisfied, cut it down to 50 words while still retaining the same components: a sense of what it looks like as well as a sense of what it feels like. Then cut it to 25 words. [This is an editorial exercise to make you think about conciseness.]

4. Make a list of your top 5 to 10 villains, listing adjectives that describe each. See if there are patterns that emerge. [Gets you thinking about characters, or if there are implicit patterns underlying what appeals to you.]

5. Put the word "Aleppo" into Google image search and then write an essay about first world problems. [This is to put things in perspective. Writer's block is not a disease, it's a choice.]

6. Take a horoscope from three different signs and write a scene where each person is dealing with a situation described in one of the horoscopes. No one can explicitly say what their problem is, however. [This is to get you focused on a scene, not a larger work, and how you can do things indirectly. ]

7. Write a query letter for your book/ story, even if you have no intent of eventually using it. [Query letters are awful to write, but actually make you think about where your book fits in in the market and what the essential nugget about it really is.]

8. Write a synopsis for the thing your working on. It has to follow the rules of a good synopsis: ie, is not a "first this happened, then that happened" list. It should explain the plot, but be entertaining, and carry to essence of the story. [This is because a shocking number of books have enormous plot holes that authors don't realize until after the book is written and then they are really resistant when readers try to point them out.] 

9. Write a completely serious letter (multiple paragraphs) to a company about a product. I wrote a letter to Batiste (the makers of the best dry shampoo out there) questioning why they carry three colors (brown, red, and blonde) but do not carry black when black is the most dominant hair color on the planet Earth. [This is to not take yourself too seriously, but to still work your ability to put together sentences in a way that is compelling.] 

10. Write a good ending for the TV show Lost. [Because someone should fucking have to.]

What do I do if someone says my pacing is off?

 a glacial pace...

Maybe an agent said your pacing is off. Or an editor, or a reader did, and you're not sure exactly what they're talking about, or more importantly how to fix it. 

Pacing is something that is difficult to detect in your own writing.  It requires an ability to look at your own work from a psychological perspective that's far away, which is difficult to do when you are literally sitting in it--kind of like detecting your own B.O.  Happily, other people will point it out for you if they are kind, or at least, really blunt. 

Although sometimes people sense pacing is off but can't quite articulate it as the reason--they might just have the sense that "the middle lagged" or "the ending felt rushed" rather than knowing to pinpoint the word exactly: pacing. 

If someone tells you the pacing in your book is off, that it's too slow, in particular, the first thing to do is look at your word count.  If you are over 100,000 words, in any genre, I think you want to take pacing very very very seriously.  Every book that I have beta read/ edited that was over 100k could have been a lot tighter and all had pacing issues. There are good books that are legitimately over 100k words, but there's also a very good chance that your 100k+ book doesn't need to be that long, and if you're book is really long, pacing is a bit harder to sustain. Sometimes length is justified--when I saw the run-time for Avengers Infinity War I assumed it would just be wallowing around it it's own wealth, but that movie is super-tightly plotted and well-paced. Which is why people say "that didn't feel like 3 hours." 

Diagnostics: what does "your pacing is too slow" even mean?

Problem: There are too many segments where nothing is happening.  Sometimes something appears to be happening when actually nothing is happening.  I have a method for telling when nothing is actually happening that I will get into a bit.  My sense is that this often happens for scenes that purely exist for characterization's sake, for the sake of world building, or for the sake of looking at your own pretty words. 

Solution: This is tedious, but it works (and I have written about this here). You get an index card for every single scene. Draw a line down the middle.  On the left, write (briefly) what happened in this scene that actually moved the plot forward.  On the right, write the auxiliary stuff that was also in the scene that has to be in the book somewhere, but doesn't actually move the plot forward.  A plot point (on the left) could be that Frodo announces to the Council that he will take the ring into Mordor.  The fact that he does this somewhat reluctantly is characterization--stuff that goes on the right.  Even things that are almost entirely character driven still have plots.  It's hard for any type of writing that requires a lot of world building because that stuff just takes of so much space.  But you know when you are reading something and you get to a huge chunk of description or history--an infodump?  That's what happens when there's nothing on the left side of the card, and all world building on the right side.  Another thing that might be auxiliary--even though it is really important--is to show an important relationship.  That X and Y don't get along. 

You might do this exercise and discover that there are a lot of cards that have nothing on the left.  (If, for example, we had one scene where Frodo agrees to take the ring to Mordor, then a separate scene that consists solely of him worrying about this decision). Any true plot point can be written in a scene in such a way that you can fold in all that auxiliary stuff.  A scene where a CEO sacks every single person in the company (plot) can be combined with the fact that Becky and Miranda are besties (demonstrating relationship), the fact that the CEO is a crazed visionary who thinks technology will destroy the world (characterization), or the fact that this is a company that manufactures fax machines in 1995 in Detroit (world building).  Ok, not very interesting world building-- say it is a company where they illegally manufacture pencils, because writing is outlawed in the future. You don't need a big chunk about the legality of pencils.  It can be interspersed throughout the scene, a scene which is moving forward. When I'm editing someone else's stuff, the most dominant problem that contributes to pacing that is too slow is too many scenes where technically nothing is happening. 

Problem: Too many examples of the same thing. Say you have one card where Becky's terrible husband does something terrible, and she forgives him.  Then you have another.  And another.  We get it.  If you did it right, we got it the first time.  The best example I can think of this is when I tried to read Les Miserables.  There's a scene (it might even be multiple chapters) about a a bishop (Monseigneur Bienvenu, if I remember correctly) doing something really kind.  Then another scene about him doing something kind.  Then a third.  Point being, that this is the religious man who does something incredibly kind for Jean Val Jean in a moment when he could have punished him.

Solution: I would argue that you could jump straight to the scene where Bienvenu does the thing relevant to the plot--helping Val Jean--because otherwise a scene where he is just helping some random person serves only to characterize him, and not to move the story forward.  (Les Mis is a great story.  It is nine million pages and ain't nobody got time for that.  My favorite musical though.). If there is one scene of Becky's husband abusing her and her staying with him, and then another scene where that happens, there needs to be something substantially different and/ or meaningful about that second scene in order to justify its existence. The second instance could be combined with some other plot point. You might think "piling more on will make this more intense." It doesn't--people want to move forward, not down. (NB: Be aware that if cyclical behavior is part of your plot (a woman who keeps going back to her abusive husband) the plot will feel meandering unless you are able to somehow instill a sense of forward inertia.)

ProblemToo much physical space has been spent on the page for the amount of things occurring. You know when a bad Saturday Night Life sketch overstays its welcome? Don't do that. (Go back and watch Key and Peele instead: these guys get right what SNL still can't. Not only do the sketches end at a reasonable amount of time, but they often end on a weird, out-there funny hook rather than a slow descent towards "Okay, I'm going to run to the bathroom while this winds down..") 

You write dialogue that goes on and on.  Cut out the sentences that don't actually move the conversation forward.  Cut out the stuff that repeats.  For the love of god, cut the "As you know Bob" speeches. Unless you are really, really good at dialogue, use it sparingly and efficiently. 

A relatively small plot point is dragged out.  This is kind of hard to tell on your own, in part, because it is related to the pace of things that come before this.  If you're entire book is written at a fast clip, like an airplane thriller, and then you get to a part where someone gets in her car and takes a phone call AND THIS TAKES FOUR PAGES people are going to pull their hair out.  You need to keep reasonably true to the rules of pace that you have set elsewhere in the book.  If it's a small plot point, it doesn't need tons of space.  And the fact that it doesn't take much space doesn't mean it isn't important.  I would rather have one tiny chocolate truffle packed with flavor than a large cake with that same amount of chocolate in it.  If you have trouble telling how long a scene should be, figure out some sort of score: a combination of how important a scene is (1-10) and how complicated it is (1-10).  The higher the number, the more space it gets.  Every line is real estate, and real estate is precious. 

A scene is physically or logistically complicated.  This is hard.  Really hard.  Because you don't want to be so scant as to be confusing, nor do you want a blow by blow of every little thing.  I think this happens most when writing action scenes.  Action scenes are hard to write without being confusing.  People either say too much (way too much detail, like four paragraphs describing in detail how someone falls to the ground) or not enough (reader gets confused and doesn't know where things are physically or what has happened in the literal sense).  Think about size.  If you're writing the major bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed, which the entire movie has been building to, you can do the blow-by-blow.  If you are, however, writing about an entire battle with thousands of people, you can't really do blow-by-blow.  If you've read the original Lord of the Rings books, there's tons of battle scenes with lines like "Aragorn slew an orc."  For a scene that has a lot of action, but is supposed to be suspenseful. I'm deeply flattered that several people told me I write action sequences well. If I had to guess, this is how I would say I do it: 1. You increasingly build the tension as you get close to the big action scene, which then justifies the amount of space it takes up. But the pace must be at a fast clip. 2. Literally nothing can be confusing. No ambiguous language. Read the text for unintended double entendre. Pronouns and you're not sure who they refer to. Passive voice. 3. View the scene in your head as if you were watching a movie. Then write what you would want the reader to see from the camera's perspective. "Cinematic" writing works really well because we've all grown up watching TV and movies. I like to think of actions scenes from the perspective of a director: what do I have to show so that this makes sense to the viewer? Related to this... 

what about pacing that is "too fast"?

Problem: Reader is confused or feels cheated. I think the former happens with action scenes when it isn't clear what has happened. The latter is when the reader feels emotionally cheated--this is often because of a mismatch between set-up and pay-off. If you've spent an hour of movie time hyping up the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, and the fight is Apollo punching Rocky twice before Rocky falls unconscious, people are going to be annoyed. This lack of pay-off might be the point in some particular cases, but this would still violate expectations. Sometimes this is done well in meta-fiction. An excellent example of this is in the movie remake of 21 Jumpstreet. The two cops have several instances of small collisions (a car hitting another car) where they then cringe, waiting for the huge explosion that would normally occur in a movie even though it likely wouldn't have in real life. They comment on how weird this is. Later on, something does inappropriately and unexpectedly explode, and it's really funny. But more commonly, this is something unintentional, where the writer wanted the reader to feel the pay-off, but the pay-off wasn't full enough. A good example of this is Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War. She spends the entire novel building the potential of this couple, you're really rooting for them, and you are just waiting for that moment for them to finally declare their love/ be together. . . but it just sort of happens. Like, "oh, we're together now." Especially in context with some other things that happen at the end of that novel, you needed a big emotional pay-off in their finally getting together. This is also the perennial problem of the "will they won't they" romance. If they get together it often isn't satisfying for some reason--the reason for this is the amount of tension put into the equivocating far outweighs the emotional pay-off of them actually being together. (I actually don't think there's a solution to the "will they won't they" problem-- I think people like seeing the perpetual tension.)

Is writing the best form of therapy?

No.

Imagine a guy gets into a horrible car accident and breaks a leg and some ribs and had blood coming out of his face. People see the accident and watch him drag himself home. No one calls 911. No one tries to help him or even attempts to assess if something is wrong. They just assume he is okay and that he can splint his own leg, cure his own punctured internal organs, and wipe the blood off his face without wondering what’s causing the bleeding or if he's even capable of doing any of these things. Obviously this is stupid, and in this situation we would call 911 and be morally outraged by a bystander who refuses to call 911 because they think this guy should fix his own broken organs and body parts. For some reason a broken leg is seen as “injury that should be attended to by a professional” but mental health issues are not. Not only do many people believe that mental health isn't a part of physical health that needs to be attended to in the same manner but also that professionals need not be involved. Maybe this has something to do with how many shootings we have in this country? (One large mass shooting at the time I’m writing this, sadly more will have happened by the time I post this).

I have a rotator cuff injury. At no point in time has anyone ever snorted at me and said “why don’t you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?” It doesn’t matter if the problem is genetic (I can rotate my arms further than most people) or created by something I did (I lift weights a few times a week.) here’s a problem- it hurts and it won’t stop hurting and I need to see a professional. 
I think writing can be very therapeutic but it should never take the place of seeing an actual professional (as in "I'm going to journal out all my feelings and figure this shit out on my own.") I don’t know why people snort at the idea of a therapist. Look at the statistics about mental health and come talk to me. US soldiers are more likely to die of suicide than they are to die in combat. At least once a year a young man walks into a crowded area and commits a mass killing. People unable to cope with something turn to substance abuse or self destructive behavior or to abusing others. 

For some reason, psychologist and therapists are viewed with more derision than are MDs. Because “anyone can just listen to someone talk.” 1) "Listening to you talk" isn't what therapists do, 2) seriously, no one listens to you fucking talk anyway, so what are you complaining about? No, really, being serious. Many people literally do not have someone who will listen to them. Or there are people who ostensibly listen, but really, we know they are not: the are judging, screaming at us, using the information against us, etc. So yes, you do need someone to listen in the particular way a professional would, but that isn't all they do. (If what you think they do is so simple, please apply to a MSW, PsyD, or Clinical PhD program, get in, succeed in it, do your internship, then come talk to me about how simple it is.) 

But I went to a therapist once and they sucked! Therefore therapists don't work! Why would you think therapists would be any different from medical doctors, handymen, or chefs? Some are going to work for you, and some aren't. One does not represent all. In the case of therapists, the type of chemistry you have with that practitioner is a lot more important than for say, a dentist. You need someone you can trust. You need someone who is capable of seeing what you're going through, and calling you on your shit. You need an outside perspective, because sometimes you can't even see the hole you are digging for yourself, and sometimes some part of you is really, really committed to digging that hole as deep as possible. 

Where does writing fit in? Journaling, or writing through your feelings, or whatever, is fine, but will never take the place of seeking professional help if you really need it. Writing can be a tool you use, but much like I can't write away my rotator cuff injury, you can't write away your depression. 

Where writing can be really useful is if you're someone who has a hard time articulating their feelings. Things can get lost in the chain between heart and words: sometimes people are not even aware that they are feeling something at all. This can happen when someone has emotional numbness. There's something under the numbness, but it hasn't come up to the surface. Or they might be aware that they are feeling something, but not what it is. Some people experience depression by feeling so dejected they cannot leave the house--others who are depressed can still go to work and go about their daily lives, but still also be depressed. One of my anxious friends has described the feeling of anxiety to me as feeling so stressed about social interactions that they are avoidant of them. I sometimes have an adverse reaction to caffeine that makes me extremely anxious but it looks really different: I still go and do whatever it is I have to do but I feel an intense panic, like I might go crazy at any second. Not everyone would think to label that emotion as "anxiety."

Where writing is really useful is when someone doesn't do a lot of emotion regulation, or isn't really self-aware or articulate about their emotions. Not everyone will realize that the bad day of work made them yell at their spouse, but writing it down and looking back at it might help you see the connection. Not everyone will see that a pattern in their behavior is occurring until they see it written down over and over in their own handwriting. Articulating emotions is hard, particularly if you are not articulate in general, or are not in touch with your feelings, or are not a very verbal person at all. It is a skill set, and one that writing may help, particularly if you find it easier to work out exactly what it is you think by writing, as opposed to just talking or thinking to yourself. Writing can help you see patterns and help you work out what you actually think or feel about something, which can be useful for treatment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a number of practical exercises you can do in written form, like challenging negative cognitions. But if you need treatment, don't diagnose yourself and just assume "if I sit down and think hard enough, I can solve this on my own." 

Advice and Strategies for Submitting Short Stories

This post is specifically about submitting to literary magazines, so some of this would not be applicable for genre markets where things are a little different. 

Know the Markets: This seems obvious but apparently it isn't because I've heard multiple editors say they get submissions they wouldn't even consider (ie, poetry at a journal that doesn't publish poetry, a genre horror story sent to an uber high brow literary magazine.) So assume you're smart enough to not do that. Beyond this, there are different aesthetics to different magazines. You should have a sense of the differences between markets by reading the magazines. You can subscribe, read content online, or just go to the library and page through an issue or two. Some markets take stuff that is experimental, some take stuff that is more pop-culture friendly, some only take work with a specific theme. For example, I have a few stories that are kind of funny. I never see stories like these in what I think of the more old fashioned literary magazines (think university funded, white cover, with a picture of abstract art on the cover.) Some of the more quirky magazines do take stuff like this. I write some stories the straddle the line between literary and sci fi-- just because sci fi is in the equation that doesn't mean they're a good fit for Fantasy & Science Fiction. I think over time I've gotten to high rates of positive rejections because I have a better sense of the market--this way you're not wasting your own time, or the editor's. 

Submit simultaneously (sending the same story to multiple markets at the same time) when you can--don't when you shouldn't: I can only think of a handful of literary markets that don't take SSs--and some of them are very good--but weigh your options. If you're planning on pocketing a few publications while you finish your novel so you can possibly have some pubs when you start querying agents, you might want to avoid those magazines. (if the probability of being rejected is still 95%, there's no point spending extra time just to get rejected). But if you have time, or if there is something specifically desirable about that market, you could wait it out (as I mentioned in a previous post, if you're trying to place a very long story, you have fewer markets, so you might not have the luxury of avoiding no-SS magazines). If you submit to a magazine simultaneously when you're not supposed to and you get caught, you can get blacklisted from that magazine. There's a fair probability that if you did it you wouldn't get caught, but if you did, consider that the literary world is small. I know someone this happened to and they got an irate letter (it might have been a phone call??) from an editor. 

Tier markets: When thinking about what type of story you have, start putting together a tiered list of desired markets. You don't want to submit to Best Market on Earth and Meh Market at the same time and have the latter get back to you first. (Standard practice is to go with whichever market gets back to your first. You can't say "I'm waiting to hear back from Magazine X," -- you're going to come off like someone who doesn't know anything about the business and that editor would hate you.) Don't submit anywhere where you wouldn't, on second thought, want to be published. It's sometimes hard to do the calculus about where the top tier should be. You can submit to places that are extremely prestigious and hard to get into (<1% acceptance rates), but do so only if you think your story is that good, AND with the knowledge that it's going to take time waiting to hear back. In other words, if you're out of your league you may be waiting a really long time to get a rejection from a magazine you had no hope of getting into. Not a big deal if it's a mag that takes two months to get back to you. Definitely a big deal if they take a year (not naming names..;) 

A note about being timid for people who are timid: there are some people who won't submit somewhere because they assume their work isn't good enough. If you have enough feedback to suggest you are a good writer (feedback from people who are not loved ones), don't assume you aren't good enough for a competitive market. Back when I first started submitting in college, this was when all submissions were via snail mail, and if there was a substantial web presence of magazines on the internet, I had no idea of it. I certainly didn't know any other writers. If I had known that it's really desirable and hard to get a piece in Glimmer Train, I would have never submitted there. Glimmer Train was my first acceptance--I had no idea I was even in the ballpark because I only knew the magazine from actually reading it, not hearing anyone talk about it or reading statistics. The stories seemed accessible, there was a train on the cover, and from reading their rather generous "About the authors" section, it was clear they took emerging (read: never published before) authors. So on the one hand you have clueless, terrible writers who think they are amazing, and on the other you have good authors who assume they are bad. You need to have a good sense of what league each of your stories is in. 

How many simultaneous submissions do you send?: My standard was to have one story out at three markets at a time. Then I went to a writing conference where there was a roundtable of editors who said do five to ten markets at a time for a single story. That astounded me. I think ten is excessive because most people don't know enough markets where you would be targeting submissions well and you could be burning potential markets if you have multiple stories out at the same time. (Some markets only want you to submit once a submission period and will notice if you do more.) I settled on five and that seemed to work well from me when I was submitting aggressively. When I got a rejection I would send out to another market so I always had five active submissions per story. Now that I'm less focused on publishing stories, I'm not really doing five at a time, and I'm more patient about waiting for some markets. 

Stagger fast and slow markets: Say you're sending out a story to five markets. I like to have some of these be markets that get back to you more quickly (3 months or under, say) and to mix those in with those that take longer. Sometimes you get feedback (of some sort) from the faster markets that would influence your decision making, and also I like to keep things rolling. This gives you some time to research potential other markets. 

Calibrate based on feedback: If you sent a story to five different markets and got back five form rejections, and no positive rejections, you might want to think about if the story isn't working. (This assumes I'm not talking about five markets that are impossible to get into, in which case rejection isn't a reflection of how good you are.) A positive rejections is anything that says "No thanks on this, but please submit to us again/ we'd like to see more from you/ send to us at any time." Any positive personal note is a positive rejection. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say "well I didn't think they meant it" while also hearing editors say "YES WE MEANT IT." Assume that a welcome mat is a welcome mat. So anyway, when I'm getting positive rejections, I keep sending to other markets without changing anything about the story. I'm not a big believer in editing something when I don't have a secret gut feeling telling me there's something wrong with it. 

Keep meticulous records: I use Duotrope, which you don't have to, but by itself it isn't enough. I have an Excel file where for each story it will have every market it has been submitted to, when it was sent and when it was rejected, what kind of rejection it was, and the ratio of positive rejections to overall number of submissions. This is helpful for a variety of reasons: it's essentially a ledger of all your relationships with different magazines. Have another tab in the worksheet where you keep a dated list of all magazines who have sent you a positive rejection. These are good markers to hit again, but don't overstay your invitation. Unless you have specifically heard otherwise, I don't think you should submit more than once in the same submission period to the same magazine. An exception would be if the same magazine opens a themed issue or you received particularly encouraging notes from the editor. 

When to nudge: By nudge I mean send a "Hello, it's been several months and you have not responded about my submission." Don't do this unless 1) the magazine says on their website to nudge if you haven't heard in X amount of time or 2) an excessive amount of time has gone by with no response (and maybe you have info that other people have gotten their rejections back). What is excessive? One month of waiting is not, neither is six. If you're on Duotrope you have some sense of what is an abnormal amount of time for that market--it might be the case that your submission was lost, or it might be that you were shortlisted and they just haven't told you. 

Take what editors say at face value: I'm repeating myself, but if they said they'd like to hear from you again, they aren't kidding. They have specific form rejections that say "Thank you for your submission but no" and form or personalized rejections that say "try us again." They mean it. If you meet an editor or someone who works at the magazine who expresses an interest in your work, assume that they are not just being polite. 

Things that should be in your cover letter: I think people stress about this too much. Bare bones is fine. Don't include anything cute but don't leave out stuff relevant to forming an advantage. 

Dear [Editor/s / Editor's name],

I am submitted a short story, "Storyface," (1,200 words) for consideration at Bumbleboo Magazine. [If relevant include any of the following: You welcomed additional submissions from me last year after I reading a different story, "Whatever."  / A previous story of mine, "Whatever" made your shortlist last year / I spoke with you briefly at AWP and you encouraged me to submit. / This story was an honorable mention/finalist in the Some Story Contest in 2017 {obviously this is only the case when you received an honorable mention or finaled, but were not published by the other magazine} it is okay if you have nothing to put as a second sentence in this paragraph-- plenty of stories get picked up from no where]

My fiction has also appeared in Magazine X, Magazine Y, and Magazine Z. (list in order of prestige, not date of publication. listing more than 3 or 4 starts to get weird). My essays/nonfiction have also appeared in Magazine Q. (include relevant publications, leave off academic publications unless the content is related, leave off blog posts unless you run a very popular blog. If you have received honorable mentions or finaled in contests for other stories than the one you're submitting that did not result in publication, mention these. If you have an MFA or have been to a juried workshop, you can mention it, although this is a lot less relevant. If you have no other publications it is fine to have just one paragraph and maybe throw in a line of bio. Don't sweat this--everyone who ever goes on to get published at some point did not have publications). Thank you for your consideration. 

Name

Nothing cute. Nothing about your family or adorable pets. nothing about the themes of your work, a summary of your work, or what you think it is about -- let the thing speak for itself. From reading various blogs it appears that business correspondence often stresses people out particularly if they are detail oriented. It's not a query letter for a novel, it's a business letter-- it's okay to keep it short and simple. 

Submission fees: There are strong feelings about whether or not literary magazines should charge submission fees. (if you're not familiar with the debate, this and this show the general debate). There are markets that charge them and markets that don't, so if you really don't want to pay them, you don't have to. Some people think the fees are outrageous because writers often don't have much money, and if you send a story 5 places, that could be $15. Say you have seven stories-- that can add up. The part where I agree with magazines that charge fees: 1) it is about the same amount as postage used to be back in snail mail days 2) most of these magazines have people who either work for free or very little 3) there are way more writers that want to get published than there are writers who want to get published who support other writers by purchasing magazine subscriptions. With some exceptions, literary magazines are not money-making schemes. They are a niche market with not enough people support that market. Although it is interesting: consider a comparison to some of the top sci fi magazines: no submission fees, they pay professional rates, and turnaround time for submissions is ridiculously fast (at Clarksworld, something like 0 to 7 days). At that particular magazine, the readers are remote volunteers who pass good stuff up to senior editors who give a second pass. How is that so normal for scifi, but so uncommon for literary fiction? I don't know the whole story (and I'm super curious), but I think a main reason is that sci fi (and other genres like romance) have really really, strong, loyal fanbases. I think your average romance fan buys, consumes, and supports romance writing far more than a specific subset of literary writers who are more or less only interested in their own writing.

One thing about fees: a submission fee of more than 4 dollars is unusual and should be avoided. Contest fees make sense to be higher, but submission fees themselves don't need to be that high. 

Contests: Three things about contests: assume you are not going to win them, the entry fee should make sense, and time when you enter them intelligently. Maybe I'm wrong, but I treat contest submissions as slightly less viable than regular submissions. (You're also a lot less likely to get personalized notes for contest submissions). So don't spend a lot of time waiting to hear back from a contest--submit to multiple magazines and assume that you won't win, unless there is some extenuating circumstance. A decade ago, entry fees used to be 10 dollars, maybe 15, but they really have been creeping up lately. I almost never see 10 dollar ones, and rarely 15. 20 is pretty standard, but do the math: if they are charging 20 per entry, but only offer a 200 dollar prize, something is fishy. A 30 dollar submission fee for a short story or series of poems seems excessive (unless the prize is enormous and maybe they offer 1st through 3rd place prizes)-- however, that number is pretty normal for a contest submission of a novel, short story collection, or full-sized poetry chapbook. Don't enter a story that's been rejected by that same magazine already (even if it's been revised). Lastly, if you enter a contest with an entry fee, do so the last week before the deadline. If you've been sending that story to multiple markets, there's a chance you might get an acceptance from another magazine after paying the entry fee to the contest market, so basically you just wasted your money (because you will have to withdraw from the contest with no refund). And given how long the time lag is between when contests open and when they close for submissions, there's some chance you might want to change something in your work during that period of time. There's no benefit to submitting early (or at least one I can see). 

How long does a "try us again" invitation last? I include this because I found out that I'm not the only person that anxiously worries about this: Say you get a positive rejection from Market A. You submit to them again the following submission period (say 6 months or a year later) and you get a form rejection that doesn't specifically ask you to submit again. Does this mean you've been uninvited from being invited to submit again? I think it's okay to use the positive rejection a couple more times, but if you keep getting several consecutive form rejections in a row, you might want to rethink of the market's even a good match for you. (Also there are enough markets out there that you don't need to hit the same market over and over.) Editors do remember people in both positive and negative ways. I don't think it would be strange for you to submit to the same market once a year if you aren't get straight form rejections over and over--that said, there's enough markets out there that you should be able to cast a broader net. 

If you get an acceptance: First re-confirm that the market is definitely taking the piece. Sometimes the editor will ask "is this story still available?" or say something like "We love Story X and would like to put it in Issue 47" in their first email to you. I don't consider it formally spoken for until I've emailed them back and they've confirmed with me. (It's never been an issue, but just in case the editor flakes out). Once you've confirmed, either use Submittable or email to contact the other editors to withdraw from the other markets the story is also at. Just say that you're withdrawing because it has been accepted elsewhere, be polite, and that's it. You're a dick if you forget to do this. If there's a contract to sign, (often there isn't if payment isn't involved), make sure you read it. There are several decent places that describe the typical rights discussed

Factor the Summer in: This only matters if you are concerned about getting publications quicker, but realize that a lot of magazines are university-affiliated and shut down over the summer. There are markets that are open during the summer, but there are definitely fewer. Make sure to submit handsomely in the spring because if you keep putting it off and then all the sudden it's June, you may have limited options for several months. 

Don't edit while submitting: Submittable now lets you do this, but you shouldn't. I have used Submittable both as a writer and an editor--you can't always tell when editors are actually looking at your piece (sometimes it doesn't say "In Progress" when it actually is). You should be sure it's done before sending it out. 

Don't respond to rejections: Not politely or rudely. You get nothing from either (well, you get a reputation for the latter). Editors are not running an advice service--they don't owe you feedback. 

Throwing in the towel: When should you give up on a story that you keep sending out but no one is taking? If you keep getting positive rejections, I would keep sending it out. If you are tired of the rejections, put the story away for a while and then read it with fresh eyes. If you still believe in it, keep sending it out. Publishing is really subjective--getting a rejection doesn't mean it's a bad story. 

Happy submitting!

Review of A Quiet Place

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This was a solid horror movie, very much not about the thing at the center of it--whatever beasts they may be--but much more about how humans would attempt to survive such a thing. It isn't a It Comes At Night sort of movie (literary horror movie where nothing much happens) but there is more heart to it than a standard horror movie where the characters are more or less cannon fodder for whatever hunts them. It's both well-filmed and acted. This was like the movie Signs was trying to be with some of the better elements of Don't Breathe (except without that extremely fucked up turkey baster part). 

The background isn't so much important: creatures have arrived that are blind but apparently very good at hearing. You make a sound and that is enough to bring them (quickly) to hunt you--and there's no fighting them. One of the most interesting parts of this movie is the inclusion of a deaf character--the daughter. I'm very curious to hear what deaf people think of this movie. The family already knows how to sign because of her and there are some interesting shots that contrast how the other characters perceive the world vs her. (In some ways, she has an advantage: if she can't see it, it doesn't frighten her into making sounds, so she's safe as long as she's quiet.) One of the horror tropes I love is the "hiding from the beastie but you're terrified and have to keep from breathing too loud or screaming." There's a lot of that here, obviously. 

While this is a great movie to see in a theater, it is NOT a great movie to see in a theater if people are talking, whispering, or crinkling wrappers. Like at all. It is largely a quiet movie--there's very little dialogue and long stretches without any loud sounds. (But when there are loud sounds, they are definitely loud.) I actually wish I could have seen this in a theater but with noise-cancelling headphones. (On the one hand, I don't want to be That Guy who shhhhs people, but on the other hand, STFU.) 

Sidenote, whenever I watch something dystopian I can't help "but couldn't they have...?" In this case, placed a speaker in a quarry or large hole, surround it with explosives, turn the music on remotely, press play. Beasties run there, then get killed. Explosion sound draws other beasties who are killed by the secondary ring of explosives. 

Anyhow, I definitely would recommend this movie--I'm frequently disappointed in horror movies because they're the same dumb thing over and over (Insidious, any knockoffs of Japanese horror movies--although I will say I have a soft spot for Paranormal Activity, even though it isn't actually good). I do think something new was brought to the table. 

Recommended watching: 

Don't Breathe

Hush

Who is writing what now..?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Specifically what would have happened if that book came out now, and not in 2002. The book received high praise and won the Pulitzer Prize that year. I read it a long time ago, thought it was well-written, and never really thought much about the identity of the author, other than the fact that he seemed looped in with Greek culture. If this book came out now, there would be open questions about a non-intersex person writing about an intersex main character. On the one hand you have the "anyone can write about anything, otherwise this isn't free speech"sombrero camp and on the other side you have the "should he be the person to write this story?" camp. (Some in the latter camp don't write it at all, while others in the latter camp aren't saying don't write it, but"if you do write it, prepare to be scrutinized," or "write it, but should this get preference in terms of publication?") My gut feeling about this of late is something like, Eugenides can probably write about a variety of things really well, so why write this particular thing, and we can consider that having an actual intersex author writing about an intersex character does two things: it checks the "representation box" in terms of diversity but also--and I wish people talked about this more--they would bring value-added that no one else can, even a smart person who is a great writer and how is really empathic. I'm not arguing that any minority writer writing about their own group--regardless of level of talent--is better than an incredibly talented writer writing outside his group. I'm actually making a point about due diligence, taking up space in a market that has limited space, and just plain demographics. 

I think anyone can write about anything as long as they are willing to do the homework.* Did he do the research? Did he read stuff by and about intersex people? Did he get intersex readers? Did he write responsibly (ie, not falling back on lazy stereotypes) and with good faith (ie, not assuming automatically that he already knows everything there is to know)? If you're writing outside your own group, particularly if you are writing about a minority group, obviously the answer to all these questions should be yes. (*Apparently this isn't yet obvious, given that we continue to see truly cringe-worthy instances of stuff getting through multiple hoops of the publication process with serious issues). 

My take on this is that if your elevator pitch of the book includes the identity, the question isn't "Can I write about this?" but "What do I add to this conversation?"  The elevator pitch of Middlesex literally revolves around the main character being intersex. Does the value-added of Jeffery Eugenides go above and beyond what could have been provided by an intersex author? It's the difference between someone writing about their own real world experience and the very real hardships of their life, and someone who is just imagining it. Someone who is thinking, "Ooooh, you know what would be neat to write about?" Identity as a jacket that you can put on and take off when you're done. But some of us can't take off our jackets. I'm not saying an author shouldn't do this at all--the guys that wrote The Wire were often writing about people who were not like them. But they were writers who really, really knew the environment (one was a former homicide detective and the other a former police reporter), and wrote the characters with multiple dimensions. The problem with making this call--Do I know enough?--is that people who are not competent often have no idea of how incompetent they are

Slide1.jpg

Here's a completely arbitrary diagram about writing outside your identity about other people's groups.

Given that we continue to live in a world where people say "I already have a [insert minority] client" and "I already have a [insert minority] book," I'm going to look at the top left corner here and think, no. I was recently listening to a podcast of people who work in the publishing industry and the hosts were really excited about ARCs of some new books they had just gotten which had diverse characters (they had specifically wanted to read more diverse books). Then a few moments later they realized that they were not books written by people from those groups. It's fine to write about people from other groups if you do it well, but it's not fine for us to be pleased about increased diversity in books if it doesn't mean actually making publishing more diversely (accuracy [sensitivity] readers make money being accuracy readers for other people writing books about the groups they belong to, rather than the industry actually publishing books by people like the accuracy readers themselves). If a book is fundamentally about identity, there's still an issue of "There can only be X number of books about that" in any publisher's given catalogue for year. Are you taking space away from someone else? Is it the case that your book about--I don't know--blackness, written from the perspective of someone who is not black, is a little more palatable to non-black gatekeepers, because maybe there is content from actually black people that might make them uncomfortable, that might be a bit too dark, that might be a bit inaccessible?  I'm not here to read a Toni Morrison book to have everything be accessible to me--it doesn't have to "speak to me"--it's not about me. (Incidentally, there seem to be a lot of fantasy and scifi books where there is some arbitrary category that serves as a stand-in for race wherein the reader, often so someone who doesn't belong to a particular group can learn an important, ham-handed lesson. But at least right now I think there are some very real lessons about real groups in the real world that not enough people know about.)

More importantly, at least consider the question, what is your value-added as an outsider? I am unabashedly a huge fan of all the Rocky movies. So when I heard Creed was coming out a few years ago I was super excited. I didn't want any spoilers so I consumed no media about the movie whatsoever. I'm someone who, when I'm watching a movie, completely gets absorbed in it (as long as some asshole in the theater isn't chewing loudly) and forgets about my own existence. But then something happened that completely broke me out of the reverie. It's a scene where Michael B Jordan is talking to Tessa Thompson and they're flirting. I was completely pulled out of the movie because I suddenly realized, Oh, a black person wrote this. I had assumed that Sly Stallone had written it, because he's written all the other Rocky movies. This isn't a dig about the movie--it's just that I saw the movie with the expectation that Stallone had written it and there was a cadence and feel to the dialogue that was so distinct to me that I suddenly had that realization. The writer was Ryan Coogler, the same guy that just made Marvel nine babillion dollars with Black Panther. Maybe having black people write about black people works? As the child of parents who immigrated to this country from the Subcontinent, there are parts of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss about leaving home and immigration that were so acutely accurate that they were painful, and in a specific way that I think non-immigrants might have just felt "that was sad" and not "you're poking an awl straight into my soul in a place where I can't even articulate." There is stuff about being female in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels that just describes the intersection of all the roles you have to play as a woman so perfectly, I don't think someone who wasn't female could have written those books and I don't think any man reading them would have shouted "Yes!" when they got to those parts. I can always, always tell if an author actually has a dog because they will write about a character with a dog where either the dog does some weird, very specific doggy thing, or its human interacts with them in some particular odd interaction--verisimilitude-- I guess that is the word I'm looking for. There is a peculiarity to verisimilitude, a specificity you can't hit sometimes unless you really really know that life. 

So if you're not in the group, and your work is focused on identity... I have to ask, what is your value-added to this conversation? If the group is small on top of that, who are you displacing? 

The population of America is roughly 325 million. Let's just say arbitrarily that 10 million are writers. Most traits fall into a normal distribution (bell curve) where the bulk of people are average, and a small percentage are exceptionally good. Note I said percentage, not number. Let's take the top 10% of talent and say they are the contenders for publication. (In reality, it's probably more like the top 30%. You have people who are almost universally recognized as talented way at the top, but then you have people that are just good enough to tell a story and sell airplane books.) 

So you have 1 million writers who are exceptionally talented. Let's consider a small population-- Native Americans, 1.3% of the population according to the Census. Assume (for the sake of argument) that they are randomly distributed in terms of talent (ie, that there is no reason to believe that Native Americans are exceptionally good or bad writers.) That leaves you with 10,000 Native American writers who are exceptionally good. So for the 990,000 other exceptionally talented writers, you're good enough to get published anyway, do you need to tell a story that focuses on Native American identity? But then go back and consider that they might not be proportionally represented in the population of writers because of lack of access to good education, health care, etc., which would take some out of the pool of potential writers. So there's even fewer of them. Consider that Native American writing about identity might literally be focused on displacement and erasure. At least consider it. 

The larger the group gets, the more absurd it seems to question whether or not people should write outside their group. Plenty of men write women well, and vice versa. I'm more likely to roll my eyes or laugh when they get it wrong than I am to be offended. (Unless they do a shitty job and people congratulate them on how good a job they did--not naming names here ;) I write male characters, but have no interest in writing a book that fundamentally revolves around maleness. Probably just because I'd be asking myself what I would be bringing to the table. Different if you are literally an expert in that thing: I had a friend once who got her doctorate in history about a very specific period in Vietnam's history on the interaction between the French and the Vietnamese. She spoke French and Vietnamese but was of neither descent. She read historical texts about that time period in three languages. She had lived in Vietnam. Had she been a writer, I'm convinced she would have both done a good job representing the culture and--because she is reasonable--would have gotten herself the appropriate readers. She wasn't saying, "Oooh cute!" and pulling on a jacket. She had her doctorate in that jacket. She did the time, that is to say. 

Jonathan Franzen once gave this interview to Slate where he said something ridiculous and people got so spun up about the ridiculous thing that they missed some peripheral things he was saying that were really really important. The part people got spun up about was JFranz saying that he wasn't well-placed to write about race--blackness, specifically--because he doesn't have very many black friends and has never been in love with a black woman. His lack of diversity in friends aside, he also said this: "I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America." This, exactly. Good intentions are not enough. But I also think both of his comments are basically saying this: Don't write what you don't know. And the more controversial the thing is, the more likely you are to make an ass of yourself. All eye rolls aside, I think he's right about the friends thing--not that "I have a gay friend" gives you license to write a gay character, but that you might not know what the fuck you're talking about if you've never had a gay friend. I'm comfortable writing about characters that grew up in mid-Atlantic suburbia, live in a handful of cities I've actually lived in, eat the things I eat and read the things I read--anything else and I'm going to be anxious enough to be doing a lot of research. It takes a certain level of audacity to presume you can write about an identity without actually knowing it. In the literally limitless universe of things to write about, why is that one specific thing the thing you have to write about? I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying ask yourself the question why. 

But going back to the two by two box--the bottom row specifically. I want to make an argument for diversity for diversity's sake in stuff that isn't about identity, even if it's pretty thin. In a perfect world, all characters would be three dimensional. The reality is that some books are airplane books that are fluff fluff fluff and aren't going to talk about serious and controversial issues, and some characters--major or minor--don't have a story about identity to tell. But about that idea of verisimilitude: I have lived in several major cities that writers often write about, and I think it is unconscionable when these cities are depicted as entirely white (or entirely wealthy, for that matter). New York City is insanely diverse across every possible dimension. DC is a black city. A version of LA that does not acknowledge the existence of its massive Spanish-speaking population is absurd, and the same can be said of east Asians in San Francisco. I'm not saying just throw in a minority neighbor or something, but think about what it means if you've written an Asian-less San Francisco. Imagine writing a novel about an NBA player who is white--sure there are white NBA players, so this is fine--but imagine you depicted the NBA writ large as all-white. Why would you specifically choose to do this? 

If a minority character's main purpose is finding the treasure, killing the bad guy, whatever, their minority identity isn't really relevant. You don't need to write some deep treatise on race. I can think of two good examples where racial identity of minority characters was pretty thin and I didn't care. I read a good chunk of "James S. A. Corey's" Leviathan Wakes, which is the first book in The Expanse scifi series. James S. A. Corey is actually a pseudonym for two ostensibly white dudes. Anyhow, they have a multiethnic cast of characters, which makes sense because when the distant future is depicted as all one color, you wonder if a bunch of genocides happened (or at least I do). So there's brown people but they lack race consciousness (IMHO), which is fine because it isn't really necessary to tell that particular space adventure story. This isn't a story about the implications of race played out in the future ala Octavia Butler. 

Sleepy Hollow is a ridiculous but fun show with a very mixed cast. The main female lead, Abbie, is black, but the show isn't about blackness. It focuses on her chasing down various ghoulies with Ichabod Crane, who has been pulled out of pre-Revolution America into the present. This results in some fun fish-out-of-water scenes (eg, Ichabod is outraged by men wearing hats indoors!) At one point Abbie is sent back to Ichabod's era where even walking around is inherently dangerous for her. She could be rounded up at any moment as a random, unaccompanied brown woman, and possibly sold into slavery. The show didn't have her stay there too long--I thought there were a lot of other interesting things they could have explored but didn't. I wasn't annoyed, but if there were some nuanced nod to race, I would have been impressed with the writing. But I'm not expecting to be impressed by the writing on a show like this. 

A note about research and getting readers:

I strongly believe that we should get rid of the term "sensitivity reader." It brings to mind someone rolling their eyes and saying, "Quit being so sensitive!" I'm not being "sensitive" when I'm annoyed when a popular author, writing through the POV of an Indian woman, references the fact that she "speaks Indian" (sidebar: they speak hundreds of languages in India, none of which is called "Indian." A quick Wikipedia search could tell you that.) This pulled me way out of the story in a bad way. It made me think about how the author's readers, agent, editor, copyeditor, and god knows how many other people never bothered to Wikipedia that shit. This is a petty example, but there are worse ones out there. It's the lack of humility and intellectual curiosity to at least wonder, "Hey, did I get this right? Maybe I should ask someone who would know..."

I wrote a novel that takes place in Boston. I visited a few times, took pictures, looked stuff up, poked around MIT. It's called due diligence. If you're writing about cops, you should research ops. For some reason, saying "don't be sloppy writing about cops" is okay but if you're accused of being sloppy writing about race or disability or whatever, suddenly it's censorship and an infringement upon your rights. We all have permission to be sloppy, we just don't have the heart to be criticized for it and talking about these really awkward things is something America is not good at. In fact, we are catastrophically bad at it. On the other side, right now I don't think people have the emotional energy or patience to be kind in their criticism sometimes. Malicious intent is often assumed; I'm not a believer in the "intent doesn't matter" argument because this likens manslaughter to first degree murder. This makes for a lot of skirmishes.

Repeated rejection can be soul crushing, resulting in even exceptionally talented writers giving up. Imagine if on top of that standard level of soul-crushingness you were told "Black people don't buy books" "This book is too gay" or "I already have an Asian book." (Yes these are all things that have actually been said to people.) All of these things are either factually incorrect or subjective judgments not backed up with meaningful data. Not only are they offensive to people in those groups, but offensive to the assumed straight white reader. Straight white people bought The Kite Runner, The Hate U Give, and Sing Unburied Sing by the millions. Are we to believe that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would never sell because there aren't enough bed-ridden eyeblink people to form a market?? 

This failure of imagination is the same reason why we keep having the same dumb movies rebooted over and over while for decades people didn't have faith that a woman could direct a big-budget action movie (like Wonder Woman), or that audiences would be willing to get behind black leads (like Black Panther). Think of all the original material we could have consumed, and that people could have made money off of if they hadn't had that failure of imagination. 

Further reading: 

Kaitlyn Greenidge's essay on this, if you haven't already read it. 

Two articles on this cluster: Vulture and WaPo

One of the most bizarre hoaxes and a case of appropriation, the story of "JT LeRoy" also made into a good documentary you can stream, Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Humorous article about women responding to how men write about women.

Review of Ready Player One

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It took me a while to articulate exactly why I thought this movie was dumb. (spoilers)

Arriving to the general conclusion wasn't hard: I felt myself thinking this several times during the movie itself, sort of cringing in vicarious embarrassment for everyone sitting in the theater. Some particular things that piqued this: The cartoonish villain. The shoe-horned in romance with a John Green-style "cool girl." (The "hideous secret" of her true appearance outside of VR is, eek, that she has a birthmark.) The fact that a massive corporation funding professional full-time game players can't seem to get any players who are better than cannon fodder, or can solve mysteries that a teenage boy can despite all their resources and the fact that some working there might actually have been alive during the 80s--critical for understanding the mysteries. That Wade's aunt gets murdered along with dozens or perhaps hundreds of other people and it's sort of his fault and he has zero reaction to it, moving quickly to the next scene where all he can think about is this chick he likes. 

Yeah I guess it is fun to see a bunch of references to pop culture . . . but nothing particularly clever was done with them. I'm a huge fan of The Shining and yup, it was fun to go into the Overlook Hotel. But like, why? Living in the references felt like bad fan fiction like "We're here for the sake of being here" rather than "we're here because we have something interesting to say about The Shining." Here's some glitter--I'm going to throw it directly into your eyes. 

This is exactly why the movie felt really off to me: it was a middle grade story, starring teen actors, with tons of references to things from my childhood (and I'm almost forty). It didn't have the complexity or emotional depth of young adult/ teen fiction, or even more complex middle grade, so you were left with this weird sense of being at middle grade simplicity but with older actors. But then there are all these references that older people would get--The Shining, Child's Play, that would totally be lost on people who were 8 to 12. Actually, maybe even 15. Naturally, the good guys win in the end. And they share their wealth . . . across the five of them, and everyone else continues to live in abject poverty in stacked trailers in a world that pretty much feels like Idiocracy? Sure, we'll turn off the virtual reality two days a week, but not address anything about how life is so terrible that people want to live in fantasy worlds instead. I don't really expect something intended for middle schoolers to deal with complex issues like class or how corporations hurt culture and government in and endless quest for profit, but I do expect that to be addressed in works for slightly older people. 

Is this depth asking too much in movies that are just supposed to be fun? I don't think so actually. In the past month I just watched Toy Story 3 for the first time, in addition to the Lego Batman movie (for the 4th time). It's really hard to do what these movies did really well: tell stories with heart that are funny and enjoyable for both kids and adults. Nothing in either of those movies made me roll my eyes, despite the former being pretty sentimental. Why exactly is Toy Story good? Well, its unabashedly earnest. It really tries to imagine what it would feel like to be these toys. And seeing their secret world is fun and clever. Any adult watching that movie knows that the toy paradise day care center they end up in is of course going to turn into a hellscape--it was funny anticipating how this would pan out. Lego Batman is a perfect example of how you can reference things, but do it in a meta way that ends up being cute rather than thin. The Joker acknowledging that his longtime antagonistic relationship with Batman is in fact a relationship. The whole "it works at multiple levels" thing. 

Highlight of the movie: Philip Zhao. Lowlights: For the love of god, why would you have the Delorean from Back to the Future and never drive it to 88 miles per hour, throw off sparks, and activate the 1.21 gigawatts of energy needed to travel through time??? (And yes, I know that the answer to this is addressed in the book, but it isn't in the movie). 

Review of Unsane

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TLDR Review: Don't bother--not even sure if't it's worth a 3 dollar cable rental. 

Unsane is a study in how certain people can make mediocre work, have it funded and mass distributed, and have it peacefully go away when it turns out to be unremarkable, not even leaving a blemish on their career. 

The movie's main point of interest is that it was filmed on an iPhone. Um . . . so? the basic heart of storytelling--character and plot--will always be more important than how it's filmed. If Steven Soderburgh's main interest was playing with the iPhone idea, he could have easily plucked a better screenplay of the pile of hopeful manuscripts. This movie is pretty disappointing if you saw Soderburgh's Side Effects and were expecting something of that caliber. 

Unsane focuses on a young woman, Sawyer, who is settling into a new job in a new city. She's fled a stalker and still remains jumpy, frightened that she'll run into him just around every corner. She goes to a psychiatric facility for therapy, only to unknowingly sign forms to voluntarily commit herself. 

What follows it basically a higher-end Lifetime movie. Sawyer is trapped in a hellish hospital written as fairly unsympathetic to anyone who might be in such a hospital for any reason. The patients are played as standard koo-koo extras (violent, laughing and talking to themselves--why do portrayals of institutions never include self-aware people who check themselves in because they're suicidal and want help?) Everyone is consistently unreasonable, from the nurses to the orderlies who seem to think it is appropriate to put men and women in the same collective bedrooms and lock the doors. Everyone, that is, except for the handsome black dude patient, Mark, who turns out to secretly be a reporter. 

Mark provides the plot with a good excuse for a hospital to lock up "sane" people: it wants insurance money and spits out patients once their coverage ends. (This could have been the more interesting focal point--the horrors of the American insurance industry. We trust Mark's story until--twist--we find out with Obamacare half destroyed, there is no insurance coverage for mental health anymore, and Mark is just a crazy patient who thinks he's a reporter pretending to be a crazy patient. )

I digress. Instead, the movie plods down more familiar paths. Is Sawyer crazy, or is her stalker now an employee at the hospital? I never hemmed and hawed about whether she was crazy--I always assumed the stalker was in fact there. There have been a lot of stalker movies but I'm not sure I've seen any that really dig into the most fundamental issues that are the most psychologically interesting. That is, man's entitlement to women and how frequently this leads to violence. (I could be wrong, but I could have sworn I read a review of the movie in The New Yorker right when it came out and it erroneously referred to David, her stalker, as her ex-boyfriend, which he most certainly is not and it is blatantly clear in the movie that they never dated and she had no interest in him whatsoever at any point. I wonder if someone corrected them.) He is a near-stranger Sawyer meets when she is volunteering at a hospice and he takes a liking to her. We don't see a lot of the stalking, but it's clear: she doesn't like him that way and he doesn't know her, but insists that he loves her. This last part often appears in stalker narratives whether real or imagined. The love interest constructed to some extent, which is how she can be the perfect love. The construction is easier to deal with than the reality of a flawed, imperfect woman. 

How quickly things go from I love you I love you to I'll kill you. Sounds a bit like borderline personality disorder to me--funny because people tend to think of that more as a "female" personality disorder. I think women, when humiliated, turn their hatred inwards more often than not. Men don't sometimes. Sometimes the rejected man turns from "I hate myself" to "I hate myself and you're all going to go down with me." (insert reference to any one of the hundreds upon hundreds of shootings that have taken place in the past two decades.) 

The struggle continues on fairly obviously in the movie. Could Sawyer's elderly mother turn out the be the knight in shining armor? No--god forbid and elderly person be portrayed as anything but a victim. 

Sawyer manages to get a weapon and stab David when he traps her in a padded room and then there is an extended chase scene. Why is it that in these scenarios the would-be victims stab once, leave the knife behind, and then scramble away in an uncoordinated run reminiscent of a drunk, newborn giraffe? They never think "this person is actively trying to kill me, maybe I better stab them repeatedly in the brain just to make sure they won't get up with a knife sticking out of them and still run pretty quickly after me, because I am, after all, a newborn giraffe." (The only one who ever handled this right was Jamie Lee Curtis, the original final girl:

Recommended reading:

Loner, by Teddy Wayne

Enduring Love, by Ewan McEwan, or the very capable film adaptation staring Daniel Craig

 

Scientific-ish ways of dealing with rejection

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Lately I've been thinking a lot about something I heard at AWP. One of the panelists, who had gone to the MFA program at Iowa, said that a few years after he graduated, about 70 percent of his class had stopped writing. I had heard stuff like this  before, but it was still surprising.  There's life, and day jobs, and everything else, but there's also the fact that dealing with rejection is a separate skill than writing is. I don't find producing, editing, or the admin part of writing hard-- all of these are doing skills, but I'm not good at the rejection part because basically it is dealing with a ball of unpleasant emotions. So these are some strategies I use to deal with rejection, some of which are at least remotely associated with something science-like. 

1. Label the emotion your feeling right when the stimulus comes (eg, when you first receive the rejection letter.) I'm talking about using very specific words (ie, not "I feel bad") but really try to articulate what you are feeling with the caveat that you are articulating how you feel right now about what happened, but not making an evaluative judgment about who you are as a result. Feelings only --no associated cognitions. Maybe it would be something like this: I feel really disappointed. My heart is heavy. I thought that press was a perfect match for me. I was really hoping it would work out, and how I feel let down. This is okay-- but what is not okay is then drawing radical conclusions: "I must be a shitty writer. I'm a bad person. Nothing good will ever happen. This is just another piece of evidence that I'm a failure." 

Imagine that the emotions are like a giant teabag that has been soaking in water. You have to sit with it. It's sitting on your lap with water seeping out of it and the fact that the water is seeping might be uncomfortable, if you're the sort of person who likes things tidy. This is really a form of mindfulness, where essentially you are saying, "I feel sad and this is where I'm at right now." What goes along with this is the temporal nature of that feeling-- you feel sad right now, you're letting yourself experience it, and it won't last forever. There's nothing evaluative about it. You're supposed to be sad sometimes. Maybe you're like me and you spend a lot of time trying to tamp down on your emotions--or you bad cognitions that run away and you spiral downwards into those evaluative judgments like "...therefore, I am bad." I'm a big believer in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)--where you combat negative and illogical cognitions. But there's other ways of dealing with negative emotions and some ways work better depending on who you are. The "sit with your feelings" thing is closer to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which has some elements of mindfulness to it. I've been doing it for a couple months now and am finding it surprisingly insightful for me. So give it a whirl, but remember--sit with the feeling, but don't jump into evaluations.  Beyond the therapy stuff, there's some evidence from social and clinical psychology that suggests that labeling emotions is a critical part of both understanding them and lessening the pain associated with them. If you're interested you can check these out. 

2. Have an arbitrary trigger for your next move. This is something practical you do right after receiving the rejection. It could be going for a run (I remember sprinting like a crazed idiot after the third consecutive time of coming this --> <-- close to getting an NSF fellowship). It could also be something you do automatically related to your project: get something rejected, send out another submission. Every time you pull back from putting yourself out there, you're one step further out the door. But one thing to note: Do something that has a finite end within one session. "Go for run" has a finite ending in one session; "work on book" does not. The point is to give yourself something productive where you feel completion. 

3. Create a tag or folder in your email. Mine is called "props." When I receive a meaningful complement about my writing, I send it there. No, not positive things editors said in rejections--stuff not attached to rejections at all. My folder includes (each as a separate email) things like: a note from a friend of mine (not a writer) who was a beta reader for my novella who said that it made him awkwardly sob at the gym, notes from my critique partners that were complementary and made me think "I've conveyed what I wanted to convey." Also included are emails I send to myself as a deliberate form of note taking: something someone said verbally at a workshop. An offhand comment someone made at drinks. Anyhow, the point is to have a folder that you can go through and say, oh hey, this is why I do this. This is to take the focus off "success" and put it back on reaffirming a value that you have--that creating something is worth doing. Focusing on publishing, or awards, or fellowships can take away from this. 

4. Stop daydreaming it about making it. This includes imagining other people you think have made it swimming around in their money bin Scrooge McDuck style.  Do you remember The Secret? It was an awful self-help book that came out in the 90s that said if you want something, you just have to visualize it really well, and this helps it manifest somehow. This is very stupid. It is a waste of time and seems outrageously classist. There's even some evidence that visualizing saps away the energy you'd use to actually achieve your goal. Part of the problem with such daydreaming is that there's a part of you that might be thinking "If I just had this one thing everything will be all right" or maybe it's "if I just had this one thing, that'll show them." Or maybe it's about proving your worth. Art isn't a meritocracy, so don't hang your self-worth on it. That thing you just applied to won't make you whole. If you're going to daydream about anything, daydream about what your characters are doing. Or Michael Fassbender. 

5. Side projects, obviously. Always be working on something you care about, that way everything doesn't hang on one thing. 

6. Stay off social media. When it isn't filled with things exploding on the news, it's filled with friends with wonderful news and well-behaved beautiful children and perfectly curated lives seen through Instagram filters where nobody has ingrown hairs. It isn't always a good time for social comparison. 

And for your viewing pleasure, my absolute favorite clip about how to deal with emotions "effectively." 

"The Second Shelf," "domestic" writing, and who gets to be the literary darlings.

First, if you could stop what you're doing and read these articles by Lili Loofbourow and Meg Wolitzer (the former is new, the latter is an oldie but a goodie):

http://www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2018/03/male-glance

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html

Both touch on how the artistic works of women are viewed differently (less seriously) than those of men. They present good examples I won't rehash here. I have seen this happen before: I have read a novel by a male author who is a darling of the literary community and thought, "Really?" Not that it was a bad book, but definitely a "meh" book. (This is not to say I haven't ever been underwhelmed by female literary darlings). But a book written by a female author that focuses on plumbing the depths of familial and romantic relationships is treated as "only" writing about relationships or is labeled as "domestic;" a male writer of the same book (say, Jonathan Franzen) is praised and danced around with critics bowing wildly for a masterful portrayal of suburban relationships in modern day America. I recall reading an interview with a (female) editor at a publishing house where she said she was less interested in women writer's novels because they seemed "small." I don't know what frustrated me more: that she said this, or that the interviewer (or any of the commenters on the article) didn't think to question it. 

I was in a peculiar situation a couple years ago. I had written a literary novel that very much focused on a romantic relationship. Politically, I find myself bristling at the idea of "Women's Fiction." I get that the industry uses the term because it serves a purpose in terms of understanding the market and the fact that women buy more books. But I agree with Meg Wolitzer's commentary about women's fiction being relegated to a second-class shelf, one where on the covers, women in wispy dresses walk in fields of flowers or sassy fonts tells us what sort of book we are in for. My peculiar situation was that my novel was through a male POV--which automatically disqualifies it from women's fiction and puts it into literary. I'm a literary writer--so this wasn't weird--but had I written about the same exact relationship from the POV of the female love interest I could have either pitched the book as literary or as women's fiction (and also run the risk of pitching as the first and being relegated to the second.) It's the same quality of writing, the same writer, the same relationship. Why is one more treated as qualitatively different than the other? 

Because I love gossip, trash, and comment's sections, I was following some of the drama about male writers behaving badly in this SCBWI scandal (the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). Some of the comments were from people who had attended SCBWI conferences who were saying that while the industry is heavily female dominated--not just in terms of the authors, but the people who work in the publishing industry and the organizers of the conference--but the few males who were there would disproportionately receive attention/ awards/ fawning praise from the women in charge of the conference. 

I was reminded of this notion that men will apply for a job that they meet 60% of the qualifications for, but women won't apply unless they meet 100% of the qualifications (alternatively, I've heard this as 80/20). This goes hand in hand with when I hear editors of lit mags saying that their inboxes are flooded with submissions from men. People often view this as men being presumptuous; I'm not sure it is--it could be women not being presumptuous enough. But not only do we not think we're good enough to apply for that 60% job, and "well that magazine would never publish me anyway," but apparently we are also fawning over the dudes at SCBWI and hiring guys who are 60% qualified and shitting on women who are qualified for being bitchy, or unlikeable, or "ambitious" (said with a negative tone of voice.)  

I put this into my calculus whenever I feel like crawling under my duvet and not trying anymore. Everything I've ever gotten has been slushpile style, which requires the crazy assumption of "I'm just as good as anyone else in this pile." 

Further reading: 

Siri Hustvedt's take on Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and the wide-eyed fan who once asked her if her husband (Paul Auster) writes parts of her books for her. 

Editor and writer Kelli Russell Agodon's essay on why women should submit (to magazines) more like men. 

Podcasts to sleep to

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This post is in now way, shape, or form insulting the podcasts I list below (I'm not saying they're boring, because they aren't!) But as someone who has had insomnia that ranges from wretched to occasional-but-mild, I'm willing to do pretty much anything that gets me to sleep. Normally reading can wind me down, but sometimes that doesn't work. 

What does often work for me: listening to certain types of voices speaking in particular types of ways. These are some of my regular podcasts I listen to--on very light volume--when I'm trying to get to sleep. Typically I use the my sleep timer on my phone on for one hour, then it automatically turns off. 

1. Reveal

My top choice. This podcast is from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which does fantastic in-depth stories on important issues. Two recent really good episodes were about racial disparities in lending for mortgages and one on a contraceptive implant and how a company and the FDA responded (or didn't respond..) to serious health issues it caused. The host has a soothing, smooth voice, and there is never any abrupt music or sharp sounds (loud laughter, etc.) 

2. Generation Why

This one may overtake Reveal as my favorite. Not good if listening to stories about murder disturbs you.. so disclaimer there. Each episode focuses on a murder or serial killer. The two hosts handle the content from a research angle that is dead serious (no jokes) and they clearly do a lot of research for each episode. Both the hosts have incredibly soothing voices and both, weirdly enough, happen to talk with this rhythmic cadence that just lulls you. 

3. Teen Creeps

I wish I had discovered this one sooner. The two female hosts are comediennes/ writers who read one teen YA pulp horror novel a week and rehash it on the podcast. I was a huge reader of Christopher Pike and RL Stein-- both of whom are strongly represented. I had fond memories of these books, but boy do they not age well. They rehash the plot but also provide commentary and go on tangents. There is some laughing (quite a bit, actually), but no music or abrupt noises. You don't need to have read the books to follow the podcast. They both have softer Millennial-ish voices that never bother me. 

4. Here to Make Friends

So yeah, this is a podcast about the Bachelor franchise. (They cover both the show and all its spinoffs). Which of course means it's only running when there is a current show, with a new one released about a day after each airing of the show. The show approaches the Bachelor from exactly the same perspective I have on it: it's ridiculous, but often riveting. 

5. This American Life

Only the non-humorous episodes, which occasionally have weird sounds. The ones that cover only one story per the entire hour are best. Just to note that there is some music which occasionally pops up. 

6. Someone Knows Something 

This Canadian podcast covers one incident for an entire season, doing a deep dive into murders and disappearances. It's soothing and understated, never intense despite it's content.