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.) 

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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. 

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. 

The Absurd Economic Fantasy That is 50 Shades And Why Doesn't Anyone Ever Want to Write About Work?

I won't cover all the well-trod territory that has been written elsewhere about how ridiculous this series is. I just watched the second movie because, well, it was there and it was raining outside.  I wanted to talk about money, but first one small sidebar: how on earth do you make a movie about sex where Jamie Dornan is hotter as the serial killer in The Fall than he is as the male lead in the aforementioned sex movie (which is to say, not at all)? 

So here's the "economy" of these movies. You stumble out of college with ostensibly no real skills and accidentally come upon a job opportunity (unearned) interviewing this business guy. Despite you being exceptionally bad at this interviewing gig, business guy falls in love with you, and is of course fabulously wealthy (never mind the stalking and stuff). You would never have to work. You would never have to worry about making decisions--about what to eat, what to wear, how to have sex--because he likes to control everything and your only question is whether or not you're down with that. 

--Short interlude--you break up because you dislike and felt emotionally abused by his main way of getting his kicks. You've got a job at a publishing house--you go girl! Movies/book like these never seem to have any comprehension of what work, let alone work in publishing, is. Work is generally a topic that is often glossed over in fiction, which is crazy if you think about it. People in America work 40, 50, sometimes even more hours a week. We spend more time at work than we do at home, if you subtract the time we spend sleeping. Depending on the week, sometimes I see colleagues more than I see my friends.  Work, that is, what we do with the majority of our lives, is such a huge part of who we are. It is, at a minimum, the thing we occupy our minds with most of the time, and at a maximum, is heavily tied into our identities. I wish there were more compelling stories that were focused on work, rather than work being the background for "grander" stories--about romance, about mystery, or whatever else. I don't think there is a word for it in English, but I've noticed that people really enjoy watching other people be really competent at the thing they excel at--it doesn't matter what that thing is, but the level of expertise and interest of that person is for some reason fascinating. I recently watched The Post, and rewatched All the President's Men and Spotlight, three movies about journalism that despite their dark content, are a joy to watch. You see people at work, and the relationships they have with people at work, and it's incredibly compelling. 

End tangent, back to this bad movie: 

But in this thin fantasy, your job involves vaguely doing office work for an attractive and obviously about-to-to-sexually-harass-you older man. (No sense of the long hours of work that actual people in the publishing industry have to work.) You move papers around a desk, because the person who created you has no idea of what this sort of work is, or how someone might actually care about it or be engaged by it. Your paramour doesn't want you to have a job so he can control your economic independence. Your paramour buys the company you work for. 

That scary work situation? The sexually harassive boss? Don't worry, you'll barely have to deal with it, because your paramour will get him fired.  Somehow, you will just fall into the position of senior editor to replace him, because, gosh, no one else knows what to do with the empty slot, or with your untrained unqualified ass, for that matter. (Never mind that under these absurd rules of "well someone has to take this job lol" the black woman in your office was there for longer and has more work experience.) How terrible fiction sadly attempts to address the topic of work: newbie sits at the meeting with the big guys and makes a startlingly brilliant observation that NO ONE has ever had before. You mean we should publish the big sellers AND take a chance on new authors?? MIND BLOWN!  The other way bad fiction deals with work, specifically people who are supposed to be billionaires: they sit in fancy offices and they have very attractive female receptionists. You might get some jargon thrown at you if the author spent a few minutes on Wikipedia looking up "hedge fund." 

Work is there, humming in the background. There when you need a B plot. Your biggest problems will instead be relationship problems, which we all know are more interesting than all other problems in life. (This is not to say that relationship problems are not interesting, but that I would prefer to see a more holistic view of a human being.) 

You know what I would wish someone would write? A literary novel like The Office only not a comedy, a really character driven saga that follows however many unrelated people working in an office and how they change over time. Can someone do that--? Thanks. 

Is unplugging selfish?

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I try to pick something once a month to work on--either something about myself, or my environment, to try to make my life a little better. For January I worked on making my apartment look more like an adult lives there (getting rid of my college-era mismatched dinnerware, a minor renovation project in my bathroom, buying glasses instead of drinking out of cleaned out Classico tomato sauce jars. Pictures of the "renovation" are forthcoming! 

At the end of January I decided that my thing for February was to unplug more. I have a news addition which is pretty unfortunately: I can't not read the news because I need to be very well informed for work. On the other hand, I consume way more of it than I need to, in addition to "news" peripherals, like thinkpieces, and thinkpieces about thinkpieces. And tweets. And angry Facebook posts. 

I decided to take all social media off my phone--I still have the accounts, just no access on my phone. I'm also trying to cut down on how often I check the news when I'm at home. The first think I noticed, even within a day, is how often I just idly reach for my phone for something to flip through. Why? What's the point? All the major things that are going on in the world are going to go the way they're going regardless of whether or not you are obsessively reading about it or feeling anxious about it. This doesn't mean choosing to be ignorant: I'm still very well politically informed, and I still do what political actions I can and engage in long convos about stuff. But do you really need to know something right away? Do you really need to read a second, third, fourth article about whatever rage-inducing thing happened? 

And social media. Yeah, I liked keeping in touch with my friends. But right now a huge percentage of social media is people being enraged about something that I am more or less impotent to do anything about right now. (I did, incidentally, decide in January that every time I heard something that enraged me rather than posting about it on social media, I would just send some money to help with whatever issue.) And as someone who reads a lot of actual news, the amount of dubious information passed along on Twitter is more than disturbing. Just because someone says something doesn't mean it's true. Even if you want it to be. 

I guess we'll see how it went at the end of the month. There's a line somewhere between actively choosing to be ignorant about the world, and giving yourself an ulcer--I don't think it's a fine line that's hard to find. You just have to commit to it. 

Review: The Disaster Artist

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Every now and then you're at a movie and you can just feel the joy of the audience in the air. This was one of these movies. This movie currently has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes--beaten out only be Coco, which apparently makes people openly weep in their seats (I've been meaning to get to that one this week.) 

This was a movie that was clearly made by fans, for fans. The Disaster Artist is fiction, based on a nonfiction book, about the making of a movie called The Room. The Room, if you haven't seen it, is quite possibly the worst movie every made. It was written, directed, produced, and stars this guy Tommy Wiseau, who then featured a huge picture of his face on the movie poster. The Room is badly written with a hackneyed plot that doesn't really make sense, badly acted, awkward, bizarre, unintentionally funny--but strangely, has a high production value. It presumably was intended to be serious, but then turned into a cult classic. DC is one of several cities that has midnight showings where people interact with the screen ala Rocky Horror. You drink, you throw spoons, it's good fun because it's so ridiculous, especially after a few cocktails. 

The Disaster Artist tells the story of how the film was made, starting with how Greg Sestero, a hopeful actor, meets Tommy in acting class. Tommy has long black hair, a clearly eastern European accent that his claims is from New Orleans, and massive amounts of money with mysterious origins. Greg gloms on to Tommy's relentless pursuit of an acting career despite not having any talent, and the two agree to make a movie. 

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Ultimately, the film is about the friendship between a relatively normal guy trying to make it in the acting world (Greg), and a bizarre, emotionally needy, possibly borderline possessive friend (Tommy). There is real emotional content in the movie--about friendships, about how hard it is to make it as an artist, about what happens when your friends pass you by--but really, it also explains how this incredibly weird movie got made and it's just so funny. It's probably funny even if you haven't seen The Room, but my theater in particular (this was a limited release screening in DC) was filled with people who clearly had seen it and could quote from it. 

The film has tons of throwbacks (stay for the clips at the end!) and a surprising number of celebrity cameos. James Franco is amazing and needs to win all kinds of awards. He embodies this person in total--the weird unplaceable accent, mannerisms, even physically (I can't tell if Franco was squinting one eye for the entire movie, or if maybe they injected him with something, but in either case, damn.). After a rough weekend, this movie was just pure joy. 

Review of Justice League: "It's not that bad."

The couple next to me in the theater said this just as the credits began to roll, and I agreed. 

If you walk in with the expectations of seeing a mediocre big budget movie where not a lot of care went into planning it, you'll be fine. The movie had so many things working against it that I almost feel sorry for it. It's not the movie's fault it has to live up to these enormous expectations set years ago when people read the Justice League comic books. Related to this, one of the issues I continue to have with superhero movies is that sometimes things just don't translate well from the pages of a comic book to the big screen. (eg, Apocalypse in X:Men Apocalypse was ridiculous in every way, but mostly in the way he looked).  I don't know how they could have rendered parademons in a way that didn't look stupid. We're told the end of the world is coming and it's in the form of mechanical demon fairies? Um, okay. The Big Bad--Steppenwolf-- is rendered entirely in CGI. And not good CGI, but the distracting kind. Probably a better decision that having a person with tons of prosthetics on their face, but maybe they could have went another direction. In contrast, Hela in Thor has full blown antlers but somehow pulls it off. 

Elsewhere I saw a reviewer say that the movie seemed tonally off and I agree. Barry Allen (the Flash) is mainly there for comic relief.  There were one-liners that took away from what should have been a darker tone for a movie which is about the destruction of the world after its protector has been killed, plunging the world into darkness. Sidebar: actions/adventure movies in the past ten years have grown consistently bigger so that every single movie is about saving the entire world. It starts to be meaningless as an individual act if that's always the scale. Often because it's missing that component of heart: when the stakes are "save the person you love" we get it, maybe even the city you love, but saving the world over and over, especially when we know that of course it will be saved, then threatened in the sequel, starts to feel meaningless.  

Everyone got some time to shine here, but Aquaman and Cyborg felt somewhat incomplete. The former barely had any backstory and the actual concept of Aquaman is so ridiculous that I don't know how it can be sustained for more than 5 minutes. (Fundamentally Jason Momoa serves as a strong guy who can fight with a trident, rather than having any specific power related to the fighting). Cyborg's back story is jammed in--we don't even see how he dies, and YES there is a scene where he says Bu-Yah.

I've never been a Batman fan and Ben Affleck plays him sort of passively. Occasionally, it seemed like the movie was trying to tap into the current zeitgeist of "we're all going to die and there is so much inequality in the world" . . . except that doesn't quite work when one of your characters is Bruce Wayne. His superpower is being a rich white guy, which maybe would have been a funny joke 5 or 10 years ago, but not right now when Congress is voting to raise everyone's taxes but Bruce Wayne's. He also highlights the same problem I have with the Avengers: heroes that are grossly uneven in their powers. Diana is a god right? So, can she die? Does she ever actually get hurt? Wouldn't picking up a nuclear weapon and flying into the bad guy be more effective than a sword if you can't really get hurt? If you think hard enough Barry Allen is a person who could be nearly unkillable. Anything that could kill him would never get to touch him if he would always be faster. (almost)

TOTAL SPOILERS FOLLOW: 

Superman's death doesn't have any real meaning. One because we know he's going to come back, and two because Batman V Superman was so terrible. I wish they had done that moment better.  I remember when the comic book came out with Superman dying when I was a kid and it was a huge deal and there were segments on the news about it. Death in fiction is always handled so briefly that it never has the depth and sharpness that it does in real life. And it certainly doesn't when we know they're going to come back. 

BUT: what made this movie totally worth it for me is the five minute segment when Superman comes back and for 5 minutes, evil and shirtless, kicks the shit out of the entire Justice League.  So satisfying to finally have it acknowledged that Batman is in no way shape or form capable of taking Superman down. Particularly satisfying: Barry Allen tries to get the better of him in his everyone-else-is-in-slo-mo and Henry Cavill turns his head at normal speed and smiles at him evilly. It's unfortunate that this movie was mediocre, Batman V Superman was terrible, and most people didn't seem to like Man of Steel: I like Cavill as Superman. I do hope we get more evil Superman though. (It was also fun back when Christopher Reeve did it). 

Preview corner

Pitch Perfect 3: not sure what this is doing at this movie. I do love a cappella though. Not that I would pay to see this in theaters. 

Star Wars Episode Whatever: apparently I'm the only regular moviegoer that doesn't go ape over these movies. I'll go see it, but I'm not more excited than I am for any other movie. I wish the preview had actually gotten to some of the plot. 

Roman J. Israel, Esquire: A Denzel Washingtion vehicle that shows the entire plot in the preview, which I hate. 

A (Writing) Year in Review

Someone once pointed out to me that I never take any time to celebrate my accomplishments because I am always anxiously, frenetically focused on the next thing I'm supposed to accomplish. The end of 2016 and first half of 2017 were pretty bad for me-- I was sad and didn't quite realize it, and I worried that my obsessively reading the news or working was going to cut into my ability to be creative. I don't think that turns out to be the case when I look back at what I did this year. 

In 2017 I queried two different novels, both of which continue to get requests. Regardless of what happens with them, I still love them both and they're both an accomplishment I'm proud of. 

Although I wrote a sci-fi novel last year, in 2017 I started writing my first sci-fi / speculative fiction short stories. (er.. novellas/ novelettes). Terrorcry is sci-fi noir I wrote as part of the Jenny McKean Moore fiction workshop at GW. Shortly after I finished Guava Summer which I can't really say is a sequel, but has the same characters and gets into some themes about totalitarianism. When I was at Breadloaf I attended a seminar on "Tell, Don't Show" which was SO UP MY ALLEY. I was tired of the parroting of "Show don't tell" in workshops, because sometimes telling is awesome. I became obsessed with the idea of having an entire story that was all telling, no showing. (to be fair I think the line between the two is fuzzy). I wrote Even the Precession of Earth Must Come to an End, which is all telling and takes place over about 7.5 billion years. Then one day I went to brunch and left a little drunk, wanting an ice cream sandwich. I went to this place that has good ice cream sandwiches but when I got to the counter she said they were all out. For some reason I can't explain, this is exactly the sort of thing that would embarrass me, so I ordered a cappuccino which I didn't really want. I don't drink caffeine that often (maybe once a week) because it makes me batshit, and because I don't drink it that often, it has an even stronger effect on me. So then I was pretty drunk AND really wired, and came home and wrote an entire story just based off the title which popped in my head, I Saw Goody McDerry With the Devil. 

Another awesome thing that happened? I went to VONA this summer, a writing conference for minorities. My class (genre fiction) was all girls AND THEY WERE ALL AWESOME. I had so much fun getting to know them and had so many conversations at that conference that I haven't had anywhere else. Black poets continue to blow my mind. I ate an entire Philly cheesesteak myself. I had some beers. We talked about how we were or weren't addressing race in our works and I hadn't really thought about it before. We danced really late into the night. Fun was had. 

A story that was accepted last year, The Derecho, got published. It's about a catfish catfishing a catfish, and is part of a growing pile of stories I've written that take place in DC. In other DC news, through contacts I made at various conferences, I started to meet other writers and go to readings in the area. I knew there were writers here, but for some reason hadn't tried connecting with them before. 

On the submission front, I started sending out my speculative stories, and judging from the response I'm getting from them, I'm confident they will be getting picked up soon. I wasn't sure if being a novelist (published, anyway) was necessarily in my future, but when I got back from VONA it occurred to me that I had enough short stories to form a collection. So I did that! And I like it! I'm starting to send it places! For some reason I never thought of putting them together before, but now that I have, it's interesting to see that 1) I have enough for an entire book and 2) how they fit with each other. Some of the themes are the same, even if the content is radically different. Some fit snugly into the standard literary realist tradition and some involve people getting their detached heads reattached. 

Then in the fall came the equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I must have been thinking of the Goody McDerry story. Or this thriller I had written a third of but put down for a while.  It took place in college and I continue to love books that take place in college.  My friend from Boston was visiting and we were walking home and I said, "What if there was like an entire school filled with psychopaths?"  I suddenly wrote a novel. It just appeared, like an unplanned pregnancy, and forced itself out with a really short gestation period. I write really quickly once I have plot figured out. The characters and voice lent themselves to a plot that seemed to write itself. I have to say, it was my first time using Scrivener, which I was initially really skeptical of. (Kind of like how I was super skeptical of anyone who bakes but doesn't mix things by hand. Only last week I bought my first Kitchen Aid). I liked the ability to move scenes around without it being a pain in the ass. The visual representation of scenes and chapters made plotting easier. I'll try it for my next book and see how I feel. The program isn't that expensive, and I definitely don't use all the bells and whistles, but I guess I would say it's worth the cost. 

So now that I think about it, I did get a lot accomplished this year. I plan on chilling out for the next two months. Doing some baking, some editing, maybe beta reading for someone. Relaxing, I guess. 

Review: The Dinner

TLDR: Don't bother. 

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This was a surprisingly bad execution of Herman Koch's novel The Dinner, which I read a few years ago. I enjoyed the book--this even despite it employing one of my least favorite tactics. The novel centers around two couples going to a fancy dinner--a former teacher and his wife, and a promising candidate for governor and his wife. I liked how the book rolled into the scene, quickly making you think that the main conflict is between Paul (the teacher, who is antagonistic towards his brother), and Stan (the politician). As the seemingly unendless dinner unfolds, you find out what the real conflict is: that the couples' children have done something really awful, and now they must figure out what to do about it. There are some reversals here which are interesting. 

Both the portrayal of the characters and the dinner itself are very good. Sad when you have a really competent cast and then give them crappy material. Steve Coogan plays Paul so effectively that I don't think I've ever wanted to scream "Shut the fuck up and let him talk!" at a TV more. He is the obnoxious relative that just can't keep his mouth shut when he has some political opinion, or wants to distract the argument from the point someone else is trying to make. You start out almost being sympathetic with him--a more humble man that thinks going to an ostentatious tasting menu (and then asking for a better table) is what's wrong with society. But then he spirals down from there. The other three actors are also good, Richard Gere in particular. 

The dinner itself is appropriately portrayed in a way that is infuriating. Occasionally you glimpse these super-bougie dishes and have to sit through the long explanations of the dishes. (This reminded me of the incredibly tense scene at the Mexican restaurant toward the end of Breaking Bad--where threats abound until an oblivious waiter pops in to offer guac.). You kind of want to pull your hair out because no one attending the dinner can actually sit in their goddamned seat for more than two minutes: someone is always taking a phone call, storming off, or just wandering away. (I hope they left a very, very large tip.) The dialogue is also good-- people talk over each other, things are alluded to but not explained for the sake of the reader. 

But the movie definitely falls flat when it comes to the fundamental skeleton of the story. For one, it's too long and there are parts where you wonder "why is this here?" There are also parts where I wondered "why did they cut this out from the book?" (SPOILER: mainly, they definitely made it seem like Paul had some mental health issues, but did not explicitly draw the connection to his son via the test results. Also the movie version of his wife says that his medication makes him "numb" and that she prefers the real him, but in the book this definitely comes off as more sinister/ fucked up, and less like "maybe we should try a different prescription. Also the ending, ie, the book had one). There's some scenes about the Civil War that were so long that I fast forwarded. 

Then the end, where it falls flat. It literally ended in such a place that when the credits started rolling I went back and rewound, thinking there was something wrong with my TV. A movie with no ending is worse than a movie with a bad ending because at least you feel like you got to a destination. 

Dear creepy guy at the gym

1. I'm wearing headphones. 

2. Above-mentioned headphones are an indication I am not interested in talking. 

3. I am half your age. 

4. Why do you always seem to be in the vicinity? 

5. Does my completely flat, businesslike attitude focused entirely on gym equipment not convey a lack of interest? 

6. Do you realize my trainer has moved me across the gym floor because your creeping was so obvious to everyone but you? 

7. You're staring at me when I do squats and deadlifts which is the most awkward thing ever. 

8. I'm going to do them anyway, because that's what I came here for. 

9. Stop trying to catch my eye. I'm legitimately going to get a towel, and it's not an elaborate excuse to be near you, and actually if you were paying attention you could tell that I took a long convoluted way to not be in your vicinity on the way to the towels. 

10. I know if I were a better person spiritually I would have some compassion for you, but that particular chakra is closed for business at the moment. 

A petty list of unrealistic things that frequently appear in fiction that drive me crazy...

1. Incredibly intelligent characters who lack basic reasoning skills.
There's a draw to having whip-smart characters, but readers get pissed when the aforementioned brilliant characters miss obvious clues or repeatedly make dumb decisions for no other reason than serving the plot.  This does raise two interesting questions: 1) How do you write a character who might be smarter than you? [hint: you need to have a mystery that is actually difficult to solve and have your smart character navigate through it reasonably] 2) Why aren't there more books about people who aren't whip smart?  How about Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights solving mysteries? (Billy can help... when he's not getting in the way.  Twist: Jason Street turns out to be the killer.) I am, by the way, writing a whole other post about the overpopulation of brilliant people in contemporary fiction.  More on that later..

2. Buff characters who never work out. 
Buff doesn't grow on trees.  You have to schedule a lot of your life around the gym. You book hotels based on whether or not they have a gym.  Active people feel uncomfortable if they go several days without being active.  Corollary to this: thin women who never seem to work out and eat a lot of junk food because they just happen to have a high metabolism--I think this is a feeble attempt at being girlpower by not wanting to depict a woman who watches what she eats. But if you want to be progressive by not having women want to change their bodies, you don't get to also default to always having thin characters. There are people of all sizes who go to the gym, ones that don't, people who watch what they eat for whatever reason, people who don't. Real women in America, or at least a lot of them, talk and think about food in ways that are deeply fucked up.  Some of these women are strong, intelligent, complicated, and interesting.  There's nothing wrong with showing that.

3.  Scholarships don't exist.
Non-rich teen has no money and/or screws up their chances for a single scholarship by winning the spelling bee/ sheep-shearing contest/ ironic beauty pageant, so now they can't go to college!!!!  Their life is ruined!  Actually, it's called a FAFSA.  You can go to college, but welcome to the world of student debt we all live in.

4. Character is a CEO / high-powered attorney / neurosurgeon but never seems to be working.
This shit takes time.  And often times, lots of schooling.  Son who inherits company from his father and is a lazy ne'er-do-well--? More believable that Mr. Career awesome who never works.  

5.  Characters don't use cell phones the way they are actually used.
That is to say, to look up just about anything.  Realistically, the introduction of cell phones and the internet in general is a massive game changer in any mystery, horror, or danger type situation.  This is related to why I've been disappointed in horror movies in the past 15 or so years: the villains got smarter but the protagonists didn't become more clever. 

6.  Lame excuses for not telling the authorities/ cops/ parents when a dead body is discovered. 
Please provide a reasonable explanation as to why these people wouldn't just tell their parents or call the cops.  Remember HBO's The Night Of? If that ever happens to you, don't run away from the dead body, then go back, break in, get your keys, and then try to keep it a secret. He probably should have just stayed exactly where he was, touched nothing, and called the cops.* Lots of people don't actually trust the police, for legit reasons, but too often the excuse is, "but we can't call the cops because we can't!"  (*On second thought, if your name is Riz Ahmed, maybe call your dad and a lawyer first, and I guess I would say when a chick wants to play that knife-hand game, it is time to say you're going to the bathroom and run far, far away).

7.  Newbies handling guns with amazing accuracy and no fatigue, often holding them with one hand sideways.  Guns are heavy and hard to handle and even people who are highly trained professionals miss their targets. 

8. Cities devoid of minorities. Actually, this isn't petty but serious.  I can't stand when I read a book that takes place in a city I've spent a considerable amount of time in and the actual racial makeup of the city is depicted as wildly off.  California has a ton of Asians.  The real Beverly Hills High, from Beverly Hills 90210, has a large population of Persians, as does Los Angeles in general.  New York City is not just filled with 20-30-something aspiring hipster writers having epiphanies. If you want to write about an all white city, pick one that actually demographically looks that way.  Writing and talking about race is super awkward; at least we are at the point in time that we are starting to have the conversation. I admit I'm cautious about bringing up race in my own writing, both because I'm afraid of getting something wrong, but also because even being explicit about it sometimes makes people uncomfortable. I'm working on this. 

8. People die for literary sweeps week.  Remember on TV when you knew good shit was going to go down because it was sweeps week?  Similar to this, I hate how death is always a plot device in books.  Someone only dies if it serves some dramatic purpose.  In reality, sometimes death is a random wrench thrown into a machine that was originally headed in a different direction. I think this would be a really awesome way to get rid of Frank Underwood in House of Cards.  All this intrigue is going on where the journalists are closing in on all the shady stuff he has done. Chess pieces are being moved. Then, in the middle of everything, he up and has a heart attack, or his fucking rowing machine breaks, sending the fan part directly into his face and impaling his brain. Claire becomes president. All Claire all the time!!!

9. "As you know Bob" dialogue in general. NCIS is a perfect example of this. One biologist explaining to another what DNA is. One thing I loved about The Wire: there was absolutely no hand holding. 

10. No one ever has their period. Or almost never. And it's too often used for comedy rather than this thing that is there for a huge segment of the population. 

Review of Thor: Ragnarok

Worth seeing. This is what big budget movies like this are supposed to be: fun. 

Cate Blanchette steals every scene she's in--it's worth seeing just for her. The movie is self-aware and makes fun of the franchise. Also makes Thor less boring (let's face it he's one of the more boring Avengers.) Chris Hemsworth is legitimately funny and I don't think he had a chance to show it off in the previous movies. (also, it was recently brought to my attention that there is more than one Hemsworth. I thought they were all the same person and just dyed their hair sometimes. Mind blown. I do not read US Weekly unless I'm lying on a beach, which hasn't been for a year or more.) 

I'm a little skeptical about what's over the horizon for Marvel. One of my issues with the Avengers, however fun it is, is that it's a hodge podge of people (or beings) with grossly different levels of power. So when they're fighting I'm not sure what meaning there is. Like if a dinosaur steps on Thor, and he's a god, does he actually get hurt? (Clearly he CAN get hurt.. but what exactly does it take if he's a god? Does Odin actually die, or is a more like an Elves leaving Middle Earth by sailboat kind of thing?) 

Yet again had to sit through the trailer for Justice League. I'll show up just for Jason Momoa and Wonderwoman, but I'm super skeptical after the cringefest that was Batman V Superman. (Oh Henry Cavill, can someone please give you some good material??) They also showed the trailer for The Last Jedi, which I have never seen before. I guess Oscar season is rolling up, which means I will be hitting the independent theater a lot more. 

Review of Alias Grace

We're living in an awesome time where both Margaret Atwood and Stephen King--two of my favorite writers--are getting tons of love. 

I completely forgot that Netflix was turning Alias Grace into a series until it popped up on my TV. I originally read the book in 2002 and apparently I devoured it so quickly that I forgot the ending. One thing I love about Margaret Atwood is how lovely her prose is--she can take even outlandish premises and deliver them seriously. But the thing I love more is that she is the antithesis of what I'm currently disliking in literary fiction: a hyper focus on delivering a true representation of "realistic" life. (If I have to read another book about an upper middle class marriage falling apart with no larger commentary about the world, I may die on the spot). Writers like Atwood and King seem to have no bounds to what their imagination can dredge up. 

The series is incredibly well-filmed and acted. Grace is rendered with enough depth that she keeps you wondering. Like the Handmaid's Tale, you can't walk away from this series without thinking about all the constraints women are forced to live under. Creepy bosses, creepy neighbor boys, the complicit woman who sabotages you because the creepy boss you're not even interested in wants you. The bed as a place of violence. The ending of this killed me. I mean, of course it wasn't going to have a happy ending--I should have known better. (I went to go see Thor: Ragnarok after, mainly because I heard it was funny.) 

Also, slight aside: books often translate better to series than they do to movies. They have more room to stretch out and give people some backstory. 

Data Dive: The Derecho

I've only had a couple moments of my life where I thought I might actually die, and the derecho of 2012 was one of those moments. I was driving some friends home and the weather was perfectly normal, until it suddenly got really windy.  In less than 60 seconds it had gone from "relatively pleasant albeit grey" out to violent winds, torrential rain, and pieces of trees and garbage flying around. We ended up trapped on a narrow road that lets into Massachusetts Avenue that is thickly lined with trees.  All the cars were at a complete standstill because a tree had fallen in the road.  Some people had gotten out and were trying (in vain) to move it--it also seemed like a dangerous move because trees were still coming down.  And this is exactly what happened.  A huge tree branch broke off and fell on the roof of my car, denting it significantly.  It felt like another one could drop at any second and I could neither move forward or backward.  It occurred to me suddenly that I was responsible for all three lives of the people in my car and that this would be a dumb, ridiculous way to die. After all the horrific ways I had pictured my own death, a tree branch hardly seemed a poetic ending.

NASA Satellites Examine a Powerful Summer Storm [video]

NASA imagery of the derecho moving east.

I am also, reluctantly, a huge fan of the MTV show Catfish. Something about the way it is filmed and the topic matter is really addictive even though each show is some permutation of the last. Also, the show is totally fake, and at this point they should push off into new territory--like actually investigating cases without permission from the offending party (ala the documentary Tickled, which if you haven't seen, you should because it is so batshit.) The one thing I do believe is that there are a significant number of people who engage in online relationships (even leading to engagement) with various absurdly improbable aspects. Your girlfriend is a super hot model who can never videochat but has an endless stream of Instagram posts. Your boyfriend meant to meet up with you three times but had an car accident each time. You have to wonder that these people actually know in their hearts that the other person isn't real. But that there's something they still get out of the relationship, and a fake relationship is always better than a real one.

Number of submissions: 7.  Ratio of positive feedback to number of submissions: 57%.  Time from completing story until publication: 1 year, 1 month.

Revising

This is how I revise long pieces. 

1. Finish book. Let it sit for some reasonable amount of time without looking at it at all. 

2. Print out a single-spaced hardcopy. Read it with no line editing- just making general notes like "fix this," "this conversation needs to happen sooner," "cut this?" etc. (Sometimes I do this by sending to my Kindle and reading it there, but it makes taking notes more awkward). 

3. Go back and do plot diagramming (see post from Friday). While doing this I take notes per scene that are more specific (eg, "he should be more suspicious here.") or just general notes that only occurred to me just when I was reading that particular scene. 

4. This is when I would plan major structural edits-- usually I have something I can physically move, like notecards or post-its that represent individual scenes. 

5. Next I make a list of the large-ish things that need to be fixed, drawing from the previous notes, or things I know in the back of my head need to be fixed. (eg, "cut out this character," "there need to be more hints that this person is the murderer.") I don't put in pretty minor things that are confined to one thing only (these are just in scene-level notes.) 

6. When I do a revision, I'm only doing one thing at a time. My original approach to revising was to start from page one and think "okay, fix everything." This is too much to handle at once. I heard this "one thing at a time" per revision thing from author Daniel Torday when workshopping with him once. I thought it was a fantastic idea and have been doing it ever since. Cutting out a character from an entire novel is a major thing--a thread that is probably tangled across different scenes throughout the book.  It's easier to go through the book only looking for and fixing this one thing--how to cut this character out. I found that it really focused my attention on one thing at a time. I did one revision that was about eliminating an extraneous plotline. Another that was beefing up one particular character. When I do multiple POV things, each character gets their own revision--I go through the book only reading their POV sections, making sure their character and voice are consistent, that they appear to have an arc over time. 

7. Final copyedit revision- this involves printing the whole thing out and reading it out loud. This is sort of a pain and hurts your throat, but is worth it. It catches typos and gives you a better sense of when the rhythm of your sentences is off. 

8. Save an extra Word and PDF copy somewhere else safe. Save separate Word files that contain only the first ten pages, first 50, and first 100. (It's easier to have these lined up for when you want to send it out to people, as opposed to copying X pages every single time out of your larger document.) 

Diagram Your Plot

This is tedious, but I'm a firm believer in doing it.  

If you're pre-Millennial the below may look familiar.  These are sentences that have been diagrammed-- broken down to the most basic components (who did what-- Boys (subject) like (verb) games (direct object). Maybe they stopped having kids diagram sentences because they thought it was a useless exercise, but I always liked it and found it helpful. 

diagram.jpg
 Chloe + Yess go to SAE party. Left: C sees Will. Sees C and his girlfriend. Right: SAE house. How calm she stays. 

Chloe + Yess go to SAE party. Left: C sees Will. Sees C and his girlfriend. Right: SAE house. How calm she stays. 

After I write a book, I always diagram the plot in at least one way. It is somewhat tedious but EXTREMELY useful. I diagram every single scene this way, which makes it really obvious to discover when I have extraneous scenes. Plot points go on the left of a notecard or post-it. A line is drawn down the center, and everything on the right is information that is probably needed to be somewhere in the book, but that technically does not move the plot forward. 

An example to the left: the major focus of this scene is that Chloe goes to a frat party. Two major plot points occur: she sees Will, and she sees another boy, Charles, with his girlfriend. These things have to happen to move the story forward. To the right are things that need to be somewhere in the book, but not necessarily here (in this case, it works out well that they go here.) A description of the SAE frat house: we need to know what it looks like, but that description isn't part of the plot. (In other words, I would not have a scene that just describes the frat house and does nothing else). The second point is to demonstrate in this scene how Chloe tends to stay really calm even when a normal person wouldn't be. This is a characterization--her tendency to not freak out--not a plot point. It cannot hold up a scene by itself. 

Here's another example from a different story: 

 Left: Team is kidnapped and offered by Riley a second chance to win their stars back. Tank.  Right: Base move occurring. NASAR (military) training. Intro Riley 

Left: Team is kidnapped and offered by Riley a second chance to win their stars back. Tank.  Right: Base move occurring. NASAR (military) training. Intro Riley 

In the above case I color coded blue to indicate the narrator (blue= Dorian). The team is kidnapped and put into a diving tank rapidly filling with water. Obviously that is a clear plot point. Told along the way is an important setting issue--that the entire military base is in the process of planning to be moved to another planet--but technically that information is not a plot point, just something in the background. The packing boxes are laying around, and people are talking about it. Also relevant but not a plot point itself: escaping from the tank brings to Dorian's mind all the training he has endured over the years and how it could be applied to his current problem. Riley is introduced. His introduction itself is not plot--what Riley does is. 

When I've had to do serious structural edits, including needing to cut down a book significantly, doing these notecards is really useful. If you have stuff on the right side, but none on the left, this means you can take those things and move them to some other place that actually has plot points. Plot is like the skeleton in the body-- it needs to be there for structure, to literally hold the body up. Everything else can be moved around on the skeleton.  I'm of the opinion that there should not be any scenes in a novel that do not move the plot forward. Describing a setting is not plot. Describing a political context is not plot. Characterization is not plot--sometimes it seems like it is, but it should it be. "Bob is an asshole" does not move the plot forward. "Bob gets kicked out of the restaurant (because he is an asshole), getting his wife to realize that she wants a divorce." does move the plot forward. 

If I'm doing a multiple POV novel things get a bit more complicated: 

 Don't bother trying to read this. 

Don't bother trying to read this. 

On the right: You can see chapter numbers indicated on the left. This is color coded for four different narrators. Each row is one scene, each box colored in indicates one page double-spaced. This gave me a sense of how long each chapter was, how much space each character got, and how much stuff happened plotwise in each scene. 

IMG_2719.JPG

On the right: on the left page is the entirety of a book color coded by POV, with one block of graph paper per each page. The right side is the same thing, for the next book in the series. The width is the same for each. The second book stays with narrators for longer segments of time (I switched to only one narrator per chapter for thematic reasons). This gave me a sense of the "shape" of the book, who was getting long segments and where (sometimes this needed to be rebalanced.) 

TLDR: It's useful to justify every single scene, and to physically see your plot with moveable pieces. 

Trope Story Generator

List your five favorite books, movies, or TV shows. 

Cats Eye, Breaking Bad, Shawshank Redemption, Cloud Atlas, Friday Night Lights. 

List the tropes/components  in each that you like. 

Cats Eye: toxic female friendships, relational aggression, girls who don't fit in with their gender stereotype. 

Breaking Badfish out of water, close male relationships, father-son dyad

Shawshank: close male friendships, stoic males, escape plots/ "I Love It When A Plan Comes Together"

Cloud Atlas: revolution, escape plot, reincarnation, notion of doing small good in a world of bad

Friday Night Lights: small town, healthy marriage, earnest learning of lessons

Take several of the things that appear more than once and just put them in the same story. My first novel has some fish out of water stuff with both main characters, an older brother-younger brother dyad, a stoic male (and female), a hell of an escape plan, and the notion of a world of bad and what we do with that. (Is Boston a small town? Kinda.) 

A different book, the one I'm revising right now, was generated this way. I loved when Veronica Mars went to college and just wish the show could have spent years and years there--it's such a perfect environment for mysteries. I'm also a psychologist and have noticed that many people have more than just a passing interest in the field because any person can relate it to themselves. I also like stories that take place in a closed environment. And will-they-wont-they flirty friendships. Thus, I'm writing a thriller that takes place in a college, involves a large-scale psychology experiment (somewhat based on reality), and a toxic dyad at its heart. 

When all else fails, click here and pick three random tropes.