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. 

 

Literary Markets for Novellas and Long Short Stories

As someone who has had the misfortune of writing longer short stories/ novellas, I sympathize with anyone who has tried to publish them because I have spent so much time scouring the internet screaming WHY WONT YOU TAKE MY MASSIVE TOME THAT ISNT QUITE MASSIVE ENOUGH TO BE A NOVEL. Below is a working list of literary magazines, contests, and small presses that publish longer short stories and/or novellas. This is a list for literary fiction, not genre fiction and of course those lines can be blurred but if you've written something that can be considered genre you should probably familiarize yourself with the magazine because these markets are indeed different than the stuff I see in genre magazines. This is not a exhaustive list, it is a working list I will update, and mainly includes magazines I know to be well respected and presses I have seen with my own two eyes. (I have submitted to many of these.) 

Magazines and Small Presses

Alaska Quarterly Review, up to 50 pages. One of my white whales! A great magazine that has been beloved for so long. They only take hard copy submissions. 

A Public Space doesn't list an upper length limit, and specifically says "novellas and novel excerpts are always welcome." 

BatCat Press takes stuff of any length. They publish weird, beautiful books; this is not a standard market--I think they are looking for stuff that is "out there." 

Blackbird is a well-respected online magazine. If you have a piece that is 8k or over, you can query first to see if they're interested. (that said, the magazine sometimes is on the higher end of how long it takes to get back to writers.) 

Boulevard takes stories up to 8k

Conjunctions is one of the most well-respected magazines out there. It has no official restriction on length, but does not take simultaneous submissions and submissions are hard copy. 

The Collagist (a magazine run by Dzanc Books) takes stuff up to 8 k

Online magazine failbetter says they publish novellas, but given that it is online, I would page through to see how long their stories actually run. 

Fiction is old-school respectable. Their website says they prefer under 5k, but would consider longer works. (read: long shot)

Gettysburg Review up to 10k. Interpret as you may: "We do not publish genre fiction—mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and the like—but are certainly not opposed to considering work that self-consciously employs the tropes of more formulaic writing for more sophisticated literary ends." They take about half a year to get back to you, but are a great market. 

Malahat Review up to 8 k, Canadian lit mag that discourages simultaneous submissions. They also run a novella competition every other year for submissions 10-20k

Massachusetts Review takes stories up to 8 k, but they also have a digital release program called Working Titles that has a 7-25k limit. 

Missouri Review "While there are no length restrictions, longer manuscripts (9,000 to 12,000 words) or “flash fiction” manuscripts (2,000 words or less) must be truly exceptional to be published." Extremely competitive market. 

One Story 3-8k, this should be one of your top markets. Given that they only publish one story per issue I wish they would take longer stuff :( 

Paris Review does not have length restrictions; that said, they take hardcopy only and I don't know anyone who ever got in there off the slush pile. 

Ploughshares Solos 7,500-20k, extremely competitive market

New England Review 20k

Nouvella Books 10-40k. They publish beautiful little (literally) books. This isn't run like a standard literary magazine (because it isn't one), but they view their novella line as a way of investing in and launching emerging writers. 

Puerto del Sol, up to 10k

Seattle Review is specifically looking for longer works--stories over 40 pages--yay! The bad news is 1) they don't take simultaneous submissions (BOO.. although they did only take 1.5 months to get back to me), and 2, they go out of their way to say they won't take genre. Clearly there are stories that are intended for Clarkesworld but there's also literary writers out there that write weird stuff, and seeing restrictions like that makes you hesitate to submit. 

Tin House up to 10k. A top market but I don't know anyone who's ever got in off the slush pile. (for the magazine- for the blog, yes.) You can submit, but it's one of those "submit it and forget it." Seriously. You might not hear back for more than a year so it's not a "they're taking a while so I must be making it up the decision chain!" thing. 

Incidentally, and I'm thinking of one magazine in particular, don't submit anywhere that has a $20 or higher submission or reading fee. Magazine submission fees and contests are two different things. Submission fees are controversial, but a few bucks doesn't seem unreasonable to me given how literary magazines are struggling. For more than a few bucks--you do the math, it isn't ethical.

Prizes

All of these prizes are yearly or close to it and have entry fees. There are of course more contests than just these, but these are the ones I know of that I would call good. (ie, the entry fee/ prize ratio isn't eyebrow-raising, the judges are well known literary writers, the winners go on to do well in their careers). Maybe this is an obvious tip, but if you're submitting to a contest you should wait until a few days before the deadline. When submitting simultaneously, if you submit to a contest in January that doesn't have a deadline until March, there's a chance your piece will get picked up somewhere else first and then you can't get your entry fee back from the contest when you withdraw. Submitting early doesn't help you in any way. 

Big Fiction Knickerbocker prize 15-40k

1888 (formerly Black Hill Press) Plaza Literary Prize, 10-40k (you have to dig through their terms and conditions page to find the word count). They publish beautiful books--I love the artwork they use. 

Black Lawerence Press  small press that publishes full length novels, poetry, collections, anthologies, etc. The Big Moose prize is for "novels" but their submission guidelines say 90 to 1,000 pages--90 pages would put you within the range of a novella. 

Miami University Press novella contest 18-40k

Texas Review Press Clay Reynolds Novella contest 20-50k

AWP is like being in a human slushpile

This was my first AWP and I felt like moderately sleep-deprived lost child during much of it. There were some ups and some downs and very very long days and a hotel room where the AC kept rattling. I heard someone say that 12,000 people were there--I'm not sure if that's an exaggeration, but officially speaking, it was a shit-ton of people. For some reason, just seeing them all this made me feel vaguely threatened. All I could think is "every single person here is a writer...?" with the overall feeling of, well, I guess you're not very special are you. It seemed like every single person had a book coming out and tons of awards and fellowships, although a friend pointed out to me that everyone feels that way at AWP. I definitely feel better when I'm in an active writing phase (mine go fast and hard) rather than and admin period (time between projects where I send things out and apply to things) so maybe that contributed to it. I don't feel this way at psychology conferences, some of which are even larger, but perhaps that's because I feel more settled in my other career. 

The panels were hit and miss--some people are just more engaging speakers. A couple standouts were a panel on failure and another on diversity (or lack thereof) in publishing. The best point of the former: that the Thing that you think is going to make you might not be the thing, some other side thing might actually be the thing. Don't write a book for the sake of writing a book, a couple of the novel writers said--write it because you love it. In the latter panel, there was a lot of discussion about increasing diversity in publishing houses and literary agencies via hiring. This is perfectly reasonable and should be done. Two of the authors there referenced god-awful things they had been told by editors that were extremely cringeworthy. At the Q&A I asked if anyone in the industry circled back to talk to editors when they make comments like these. What I didn't add, for lack of time, is that this ends up feeling like it's your burden to deal with, and maybe you're tired of doing this, or don't feel that you should have to, but then again if you don't do it, who will. (The question was answered with interest--that perhaps the method that makes sense is to be informal about it, given that writers don't have any power in these situations.) 

The two best highlights: One was a reading from Nafissa Thompson-Spires from her upcoming book Heads of the Colored People. I went to this reading because I was exhausted and lazy and it happened to be in my hotel's bar and maybe I didn't want to be in my room for that much time (there was a millipede situation--a story for another day). I have never laughed so hard at a reading. I might have even clapped (singularly, at particular jokes), which is somehow encoded in my DNA as an Indian person.  Really looking forward to her book coming out. 

The other highlight was the bookfair, which I think is 50% of the reason for going to AWP. It is a booklover's greatest dream and nightmare combined into one--so many books and at healthy discounts. I like to support small presses but don't necessarily like ordering online, so this was a great opportunity to get my hands on books from a bunch of presses and to awkwardly make eye contact with people I "know" from Twitter. I came home with about a dozen new books making my carry-on painfully heavy, including stuff from Small Beer Press, Press 53, Red Hen, Sarabande, Vandalia, Louisiana State University Press, and ECW Press. My first go around (it takes several sessions to go through the whole fair) I noticed a book which had a blurb likening the book to The Children's Hour, a play about two closeted lesbians at a private school. I noticed it because I have a friend who is obsessed with The Children's Hour. I wanted to take a picture of the book to send it to him asking if he wanted it, but the bookseller was hovering (there is a lot of hovering..) and I didn't want them to think I was taking a picture to go buy it on Amazon or something. So I left it, but then it haunted me, causing me to return and to hurriedly search for the book during the very last hours of the fair. (To no avail- I still don't know what book this is, and I haven't been able to Google it). Ah, the lack of closure is painful. (on the off chance that any of my .7 readers know what this book is, drop me an email.) 

One thing I could not help noticing that made me want to gouge my eyes out. (Okay, two things if you could the millipede). The vast majority of women asking questions at Q&As were unable to ask a question without a significant amount of apology or preamble. Least offensive version of this: "Um, how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" worse version: "Um, so one of the things I was thinking about listening to you is how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" eye gouge version: "Um, so, this panel, listening to all the panelists, and thank you for being here, it's been so great, so I was kind of thinking about like um, with my novel I've tried and I've done things, and, you know, how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" 

Um, ladies. For the love of god, stop apologizing for existing. (also there's a limit to Q&A time). 

What Bubbles Under the Surface of MTV's Catfish

Why do I continue to love this show? Despite the fact that it's formulaic--and continues to be after years of being on the air. Despite the fact that it's fake. Despite the forced moralizing that occurs at the end of each episode, wherein the catfish is supposed to feel bad for catfishing but often doesn't. Despite the hokey "hosts being adorkable" thing (I like Max, but not a fan of Nev). 

It's the same story over and over. A youngish person ostensibly contacts the show with a story about how they have been in love with someone for several years that they met online, but they have never met in person. The other person--the catfish--refuses to videochat/ has a broken phone/ lost their truck and therefore can't meet the catfishee. Nev and Max arrive with their high tech investigative skills (ie, they look on Facebook and Instagram and do Google image searches, which apparently no one else has figured out). They contact the catfish when they've collected enough "evidence," and the catfish always miraculously agrees to not only meet up and be filmed (show spoiler: typically the catfish actually contacts the show, which is why they never run into a catfish who refuses to meet). Despite the fact that it's the same thing over and over, I find myself completely riveted during act three, the moment when they're knocking on the catfish's door and you have no idea of who is going to come out. I will run out of the kitchen in order to not miss the reveal. (NB: I am never sitting in front of a TV and just watching it, so when I actually have my eyes on the TV for more than 3 seconds, someone has done something right.) 

Forty percent of the time, the catfish is someone who is LGBT but closeted, often in a small town where no one ever says, "Wait, which gay bar with the roofdeck and the bartender with the arms?" (#DCLife). Forty percent of the time it's just someone who used the pictures of a (culturally-dictated) more attractive person because they're insecure. The remaining 20 percent is a grab bag of more interesting cases: pure sociopaths, best friends who were secretly in love with the victim for years, and one recent rarity: and old gross dude trolling for young women. (sidebar, why doesn't that happen more often? And I can't even think of an instance of the catfish turning out to be married.) 

The show often sends the hosts to meet victims in places where reality TV typically doesn't go: Oklahoma, small towns where one can apparently be the only LGBT person in their entire class. You see small houses and trailers, and tons of people of adulting age that live with their parents and yappy dogs and work regular jobs. It seems a stark contrast from the constant parade of TV/movies/books that focus on New York City, LA, London, places where people who would be poor in real life live unrealistically opulent lives (not to use a dated reference, but it's beyond laughable that we're supposed to believe that Carrie Bradshaw can afford all those designer shoes when she's a freelance writer). Every so often on the show when the host takes the victim to meet the catfish, they find out that the victim has never actually been on a plane before. In some cases, they've never even left their hometown. The hosts often respond with a chipper, "You've never been on a plane before?" How quaint! Median income in Oklahoma is (let's ballpark it based on this dated website) is $45,000; in my hometown of DC its $93,000 (to be fair DC has one of the highest median incomes in the US, and using the median rather than the mean glosses over the income disparity the city has but whatever). There's even been cases where it clearly seems that both the catfish and the catfishee were faking just so they could meet each other (maybe just to get on TV, or maybe so someone else can pay their airfare.) 

I wish the show would get more in depth about the psychology behind this incredibly weird phenomenon. In between the movie and the TV show, the concept of catfishing is so well known that they added the new meaning of the word to the dictionary over at Merriam Webster. People on the show know what this is, but still fall for it. Or maybe they don't fall for it at all-- maybe they know the whole time that these relationships aren't real. Sometimes the people involved are somewhat isolated--just in general, not just in terms of not being willing to pursue other romantic relationships because they are spoken for. Sometimes they are approached by other would-be mates, but turn them down in favor of a relationship that is purely electronic. In either case, they've settled for an electronic facsimile of a relationship: no physical presence, not even videochatting, just a stream of texts, phone calls, emojis, and maybe an occasional picture stolen off Instagram. 

We don't really talk about loneliness in this country. Usually we're kidding when we are: making fun of cat ladies and "Oh no I'm going to die alone LOL." Even for introverts, the desire for companionship is so fundamental to what it is to be human that being denied companionship can often be lethal. Suicide is the tenth largest cause of death in America--it's right up there with cancer and heart disease. Even amongst people who can both articulate their feelings and are willing to do so, they're far more likely to say they are "sad," "bored," or "depressed" than to say that they are lonely, or lacking in human companionship. Some turn inwards toward depression (self-directed hate), some turn outwards. We always talk about lone wolf mass shooters. They're "lone." I don't feel bad for them, but I wonder about the power of the sickness that is loneliness, not feeling part of a community, or not feeling validated. 

Last week I was at a speakeasy (#DCLife again) with some friends and one lamented that he wanted to move into a commune in the woods and just not deal with anything. Easy to feel that way when the news is pretty stressful, but we were also talking about how the very structure of life--at least here and now in America--is isolating, overly focused on work, overly focused on nuclear families. In this scifi thing I'm writing, there's this character from a planet that has been destroyed that is often described as a utopia. People sitting on porches calling out to each other, a town where everyone knows your name. One thing I based it off of (here's a knife in your heart) was something one of my Arabic teachers told me about her childhood growing up in Damascus: a large house that is more like a compound, shaped like a square with a courtyard in the center, the whole extended family living in the same house so closely that the cousins are like brothers. So . . . not sure what it says about me that I had this planet destroyed. 

 

Money, that awkward part of the MFA vs no MFA argument I wish more people were talking about.

When I'm rubbing elbows with writer types at conferences and the like, sometimes the breakdown feels like 80% "full time writers" and 20% "other." The full-time writers include no one who writes full time (as only the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world actually sell enough to do this.)  More likely, these are typically MFA or PhD students; people who teach creative writing full time or part time as adjuncts; people who work in publishing in one form or another; or people who are writers but are more or less subsidized by family wealth. The 20% "other"--of which I am a part of--is a motley crew--some are people who hate their "day jobs" and are just doing them to pay their bills, some are people who have a career that they like or love but who also write. I'm in this last category.

I lean pretty strongly towards the "Don't get an MFA" camp. It's not that I don't think writing can be taught--I definitely learned a lot from the workshops I've taken. But generally speaking, I think such classes can make a good writer better, but not make a bad writer good. I also think there are diminishing returns from workshopping. After you've done it enough, I'm not sure how much you're gaining from it. For me, going to a workshop/conference/retreat is more about making connections, reading and critiquing others' work, shoptalk, etc. But mostly where I'm learning at this point is by reading a ton, consuming media in all forms, and writing, of course. I also find that sometimes people take workshop (or the advice of their mentors/teachers) too seriously: at some point you have to be able to send a story out without workshopping, at some point you have to be able to completely disregard something someone smart said after reading your work because there's a voice inside you that just knows they're wrong. Don't keep going to workshops because you don't trust your own judgment and need some validation.  

People who are smarter and more well read and a whole variety of other things have already written about attending an MFA program while being a minority, so I will skip over that. But some of those arguments tie in to things I'm about to say about money. 

There are two main arguments (other "I want to be a better writer") for people who are considering getting an MFA. One is that they are imagining a career track in academia, and the other is that they are specifically not imagining a career in academia but just want the time to focus solely on their craft/writing. Let's take this conversation away from the arts to the sciences for a sec: I finished my doctorate pretty close to when the Global Financial Crisis reared its ugly head. Tenure-track jobs that had been listed started getting pulled. People were panicking. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I went to a top-rated doctoral program for my field. This is how it shook out for my cohort, and I can tell you with hindsight now that a good number of years have passed.  None of my friends from my program are unemployed and destitute. All of them found something one way or another. But what happened was that the hierarchy of candidates shifted down and was spread more broadly across time. Golden students who normally would have gotten tenure track positions--maybe even a choice of them--ended up postdoc-ing, then looking for a job afterwards. Postdocs sometimes did more than one postdoc. Then the freshly graduating PhDs couldn't really compete for the tenure track jobs because they were being compared against people who had been postdoc-ing for a while and therefore had better publications and connections. So everything got shifted back, timewise. What also happened is that tenure track positions that wouldn't have been appealing to top candidates a decade ago were now desirable. If this was happening at a top-rated program, imagine what was happening far down the line at programs that weren't as competitive, didn't provide funding, and didn't have as good connections. What I told undergraduates who were thinking about getting a PhD in psychology was this: If you can get into a well-rated program that's very competitive and has good funding, go for it. There won't be a pot-of-gold/ tenure track position waiting for you at the end, necessarily, but your prospects are reasonable for something if you're going to a competitive program. Sadly, academia has continued along the path of offering fewer tenure track jobs and just hiring adjuncts and lecturers that they don't have to provide benefits for or who sometimes do not even have the right to unionize. I've seen people in both the arts and sciences struggle to piece together their finances with adjuncting and no health insurance. I feel for them. 

Here's my bit about the "I just want the time" argument. After leaving your MFA program, you are never going to have "the time" in your life for writing--you might as well start learning how to write without the time right now. Having the time to focus solely on your writing is romantic and lovely, like taking a gap year to travel the globe. It also exists on an economic plane of existence that does not make sense to me. Worst case scenario: you go to a program that doesn't fund you and rack up 30-60k a year for 2 to 3 years. Teaching afterwards will be super- competitive (if that's what you want to do) and you'll be competing for jobs against people who went to programs that funded them. Best case scenario: you got funded--great. Most people think of this in terms of gained benefits-- you gained "the time" for free and got 2 to 3 years of time to focus on your craft and the connections you make there. ***

**slight tangent. Notice that the benefit of going to the program is the time to improve your craft, but one thing I did not mention is anything related to the business side of writing. Yes, there are grad degrees in publishing, but I'm talking about MFAs in writing. Not a single person I know with an MFA says that they received decent training or guidance in submitting or selling their work, getting or dealing with agents, business networking, marketing, or paying taxes and the financial side of the publishing world. In fact, several of them have complained that they wanted their program to cover these topics and were annoyed that they didn't. I guess this is based on the idea that one does not want to sully one's art by thinking of how one will pay the bills. Here's the reality: we all have fucking bills. For some reason, the artistic world likes to pretend that money does not exist. Female writers do not want to acknowledge their corporate income husbands. No one talks about money management. There's a lot of hullaboo about the small percentage of writers who get six-figure advances, but not much about the cost of being one of the people who don't. end tangent ***

So let's say you got funded and went away for 2 to 3 years and had a great experience. But there's an opportunity cost associated with that time. My incredibly unsexy proposal: you could have spent those two or three years getting a degree in something else that would result in stable (or at least more stable) work in another field, one that would get you jumpstarted into a career in a way that an MFA might not. (hold on a sec before I get to the "artist as a singular sole-focused thing" argument). 

An adjunct lecturer could have a 2-year masters or a 6 to 8 year doctorate (and may or may not have 5- or 6-figure debt) and make about 24 k, likely with no health insurance. An editor at a New York publishing house is probably someone with a BA, but possibly a Masters as well. According to this article, the average salary for an editor at a a New York publishing house can be about 55 k-- the editor in chief positions are in the mid-70s. Here are some other salaries for people with Masters-level education (these are medians): Electrical engineering 121 k, Economics 114k, Com Sci 109k. All my degrees are in psychology, which people think of as a "soft" science (maybe it is, but I've done well for myself and minored in quant.) 

giphy-downsized.gif

 

You can hope to be James Patterson, but, statistically speaking, you probably won't be. It would be nice to get a tenure-track teaching job, but are the odds in your favor? (they might be! they might not be.) If you're going to teach piecemeal, or freelance, or work in the publishing industry, you had better really really love the work. The people who do it, do it because they love books, and from the sounds of it editors and agents are taking home stacks of manuscripts with them at home at night and working long hours. Editing and agenting aren't writing though--you would be working in a related field, but one that is demanding of a lot of your "free time" outside of work to catch up on reading. 

When I first started getting interested in speculative and science fiction, several people told me I had to check out the Clarion workshop. It sounded like a great opportunity... except it costs 5 thousand in change (not including travel). They offer scholarships, but they average at 1,500. Beyond that IT'S SIX WEEKS LONG. Yes, I love the dream world were you could go off on a six-week eat, pray, love, sci fi thing, but who the hell has six weeks off work to spare? People who don't work but have a lot of money I guess from being independently wealthy? People who are being financially supported by a loved one? People with unstable work who can squeeze the workshop in between one contract or gig? But very few people with a standard 9-to-5 in a country where we don't even get maternity leave are going to be able to swing six weeks away from work to write sci fi. It's a dream. Thus, you end up with a really specific population of people who can attend. 

Like many second-generation Asians, I was pressured by my immigrant parents to pick a career which would involve a graduate degree followed by relatively high income work. I didn't fit into the standard doctor/lawyer/computer science mold, but I did make my way to getting the Asian parent stamp of approval. This did not result at me toiling away at some soulless job that I hate. It didn't result in my giving up my hopes and dreams of becoming a writer--I have a genuine love of psychology and methods and there is a certain satisfaction I get from solving high-level problems that, as much as I love writing, I do not get from anywhere else. I've noticed that when I'm at writer's conferences there's very little conversation about people's "day jobs." I get the sense that this is because the "day job" is not considered a career, and the thing that truly defines you is your identity as an artist/ writer. There's an unstated feeling--at least in my opinion--that the art is the higher thing, and the other thing is just the unseemly thing you do to pay the bills. Work is what takes away from your ability to be a writer. I really strongly, ardently disagree with this idea. 

First let's talk about the thing that's terrible. We live in a country that does not have a good social safety net and what little safety net we have is increasingly being taken away. Like the adjuncts I mentioned above, more and more stable work is being transformed into contracting work that's less stable and offers few if any benefits. For some reason millions of people in this country don't think that health care is a basic human right. The cost of this lack of safety net is debilitating. Do the thing you love and the money will come?? The people writing those inspirational articles have apparently never had to pay for cancer treatment. They are, I guess, unlike the average American, who is  one $2,000 emergency away from serious financial problems. 

So when I hear someone contemplating whether or not to get an MFA, or whether or not to "follow their dream," I can't help thinking, no, do the thing that puts you in a place where you are financially secure, and you'll be all the closer to that dream. You are not a lesser artist because you decided to become an accountant. Consider the financial cost of "taking the time." The longer you delay being at the point where you can save for retirement, or for that $2,000 emergency, the more of a bind you might find yourself in down the road when that social safety net is increasingly eroded.  

Here's the part about "the time" I find mystifying. There's this notion of your day job taking away from your life as an artist. In terms of time and/or energy or, I don't know, artistic street cred. I would argue that it isn't an issue of time so much as efficiency, and the very fact that you even have a day job adds to the richness of someone's writing, rather than taking it away.  Say you work a 9-to-5. This means you more or less have from 5 pm to 10 or 11 pm to find some time to write. Okay, take some time away to take care of the dog, cook dinner, go to the gym, whatever. Writing does not actually take that much time.  I write pretty quickly. I'm not on drugs and I don't really drink coffee. I don't wake up before the sun rises, I don't write during lunch breaks or stay up until 1 am. Generally speaking, when I'm working on a project I finish my work that day, watch about an hour of the crappiest TV possible (The Bachelorette, for example), then I write for an hour or two before heading out to the gym or to social engagements. I write some on the weekends-- ranging from half an hour to maybe 4 hours total, but definitely not more than that. 

How long does it take to write a novel? Say you type 50 words a minute. If you wrote for half an hour every day, you'd have 1,500 words a day--that adds up. How much physical strength does it take to write a novel? You know, because you're exhausted when you get home from work. It's sitting down at a table.. It's not as exhausting as cleaning the house, cooking, or lifting weights or any variety of things one does after one comes home from work. Toni Morrison was a single mother. Stephen King wrote Carrie while working full time as a teacher in addition to doing laundry at an apparently disgusting hotel. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy wrote a motherfucking book by blinking. Might it be a reasonable argument that having a separate career might help you manage time more efficiently? (Let alone, in the case of literary fiction, if more of us had jobs there would be fewer books about English professors having affairs with sexy manic pixie undergrads, because we would have a broader world to write about.) 

Wendy J Fox, in an article in The Millions, writes:

We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

I'm a weightlifter and oftentimes I hear people say something like it's 10% lifting and 90% what you eat. Maybe writing is like 10% writing and 90% dealing with rejection. All I know is that I don't think there are frank, open discussions about money amongst writers, and that I'm eternally grateful that I'm not doing this to put food on my table. Being rejected over and over can be disheartening to the point of depression--imagine if your next meal depended on it. 

wow that was kind of a downer.. Next week: a primer on puppies!

Fiction is not nonfiction

  I don't know how this person types with both rings and bracelets on.&nbsp;

I don't know how this person types with both rings and bracelets on. 

I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately. 

It bothers me how frequently readers/reviewers assume that first person novels are actually autobiographical. I don't do this because I assume fiction is fiction and is very much deliberately fiction for a reason. Surely some novels are semi-autobiographical, but the author made a conscious decision to have them be fiction and not memoir. Last year I heard quite a bit of discussion from minority writers that people assumed that because their book focused on a MC that was [insert minority], that the book was autobiographical. 

It's puzzling to me that an author can be accused of being racist if their character is--all the more likely if the book is in first person. I've read more than one essay about how Lolita is problematic, misogynistic, patriarchical etc etc-- it seems to me that there's a difference between "you must be a disgusting pervert asshole to write this" and "author writing about a disgusting pervert asshole." The character views the world in a sick way, so the author has an obligation to depict him as such, unless of course we want all our MCs to be Disney versions of reality where everyone is wonderful all the time.

There is the distinction between "you must be the sickness you write about" and "a person writing about sickness." This distinction is sometimes hard to make, and sometimes people don't make it at all. Context matters, but often words are put into the authors mouth and sometimes they are the same words that they wrote. I have been thinking a lot recently about context collapse, and how this is a problem that is getting increasingly worse with social media. It denies nuance and ignores that the people we are on social media are not really us. 

As modern media increasingly pushes authors into being public/political figures, if your character does something racist, you will have to answer for it as if it were you who was the actor. This denies the space that should exist between fiction and nonfiction. In my opinion, all novels, regardless of person, have narrators and those narrators don't necessarily give you insight into the author. 

A 1st person novel should be imbued with the values and perspectives of the character (which aren't necessarily the same as the values and perspectives of the character). Two different 1st person novels with different MCs by the same author should not feel the same. A 3rd person novel, whether mainly through one POV or many, has a sort of ghost narrator. The author, behind the scenes, is the person moving the marionettes. Things are arranged into order and a snapshot is taken. If the story is about redemption, the narrative will hit on those themes--but this doesn't mean the author believes in redemption--it was just a redemption story. 

I have a story which, thematically speaking, is very much about the power of brotherly love and how it helps the characters transcend their personal trauma. It is earnest, funny, tinged with sadness, but ultimately hopeful. I have another story, "This Isn't Happening Again," which is the bleakest thing I have ever written. There is no hope. The narrator is cruel. It is the only thing I have ever written that is intended to make the reader feel bad. If you read the first story you might assume I'm an earnest hopeful person. If you read the second, you would have a completely different impression of me. Which is the real me? 

Neither really. Each story called for something different--different tones, different values. They are their own thing; just because I created them doesn't mean I am them. 

I was at a reading fairly recently for a 1st person novel that was very much about sexuality. A member of the audience (much to my dismay) asked how autobiographical it was. Did people do this a hundred years ago? Was I the only one who felt the question was salacious and kind of invasive? Part of me thinks that with increased access to authors, we want access inside them.

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" talks a lot about birding, and Jonathan Franzen happens to be into birding himself. Write what you know. The problem with this is the audience thinking that they know what I know. We only know Franzen likes birding because he's talked about it publicly. Birding isn't really controversial, so I don't think anyone got their panties in a bunch about the birding in that book (well I did because I find birding uninteresting.) 

I'm writing this because I've increasingly encountered this idea in reading reviews or cultural criticism where someone is upset about something. Here's a book about a serial killer who targets women because he's a misogynist (this is often true in real life). Some reviewers are outraged about how the book is misogynistic--not the character. Is this unique to writing? When a painter paints a dolphin, we don't assume the painter is  dolphin. WTF.

I feel like visual art gets more credit for being about something-- the distance between the artist and the art is respected. This week the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed. The artist, through his own unique style, says something about Obama--by the expression on his face, the nontraditional setting, the flowers. The portrait is about the person, as rendered through the style of the artist. The portrait is not the artist. It's Obama. 

As a slight tangent, a few days ago I read an article about memoirs of incest. I recall the controversy with Kathryn Harrison's book The Kiss. People attacked her in a way I find surprising. The book, they accused, was salacious--like she was mining her own trauma for gold. Who can call a memoir salacious?  Here's the problem with this--it's Harrison's story. She may or may not have wrote it during a period of time where she was messed up. Or maybe she wasn't messed up, but was writing about messed up-edness. Maybe she was trying to get a narrow slice of what her life was like back then. Not every memoir should have a "The More You Know" PSA message weaved into it--I guess there is pressure for memoir to be this way, because some people think "lessons learned" is the point of memoir. Less so for fiction. 

I have no point to round this out. Just that I've been talking with writers a lot lately who are having trouble writing because they can't get the hypothetical critical reader out of their head. The one that's looking at the author, not the book.