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On Decoding

Monty Python had a skit in which Graham Chapman was a guest on a talk show, and when he was introduced as “Raymond Luxury Yacht,” Chapman gently corrected, “It’s spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’.” It’s a funny punchline not only because the names are so ridiculous but because it’s seemingly out of nowhere; who reads ‘Luxury Yacht’ as ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’? Those letters don’t make those sounds, not even in a liberal interpretation. Right?

I promise I’m not changing subjects when I mention that, in getting a degree in cultural media studies, we talked a lot about encoding and decoding texts (“texts” being our word for any film or television, whether a scene, an episode, or an entire series). It’s simple, if narrow-minded, to say there’s only one correct way to interpret something. It’s facile, however, to say there’s no wrong way to do so. You can’t [reasonably] look at ‘Luxury Yacht’ and decide it really means ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.’

Almost anyone who went to school has a story of a lit teacher who had very fixed ideas about the symbolism or imagery in a book or poem. Something they’d been taught, or something they especially felt invested in for whatever reason… Maybe they’d read a biography of the author and had drawn a conclusion based on information about the writer’s life. Whatever. Film and television fans can be just as aggressively rigid about how they see and interpret what they watch. And the more they love a show or movie, the more they dig in. At least in my experience. If and when another viewer, or even a writer or actor or producer on the show or movie, contradicts them, these fans double down. They insist that their reading of the text is valid. (Sometimes they insist that theirs is the only valid interpretation.)

The wonderful thing about books and films and television programs is that they are open to a variety of insights, and once they leave the authors’ hands, the writers (and actors, and directors, and producers) no longer truly own them. What’s encoded is one thing, but what’s decoded is truly personal and therefore necessarily biased. This is why fans fight so hard—because validation of their reading is a kind of validation of self.

BUT. As with Luxury Yacht vs. Throatwobbler Mangrove, not all interpretations are reasonable. In this day and age, when people readily consider their personal opinions to be as valid as hard facts, this statement can be difficult to swallow. Yes, you are allowed to see whatever patterns you like in the wallpaper, but sometimes the patterns really aren’t there, no matter how much you insist they are. You’re desperate for the wallpaper to be yellow stripes—you love yellow stripes—but if it’s pink flowers… Trying to convince others it’s really yellow stripes is a waste of time and energy. You’re only going to end up frustrated and angry because you’re trying to turn what’s there into something that it isn’t.

This is, one supposes, where the joy of fan fiction comes in. When writing fanfic, one can change the wallpaper and make it whatever one wants it to be because there really are no rules. If you want to pronounce Luxury Yacht as Throatwobbler Mangrove, in fanfic you can. You might even find other fans who will nod and say, “That’s a neat way to read it.”

As for the primary text, the source text, whatever you want to call it… There are rules. They’re pretty flexible, but they do have limits. In sketch comedy, you can turn Luxury Yacht into Throatwobbler Mangrove. But if you were watching an actual news program and someone said that? It wouldn’t fly.

Why I’m Leaving Kindle Unlimited

Used to be, I made most of my money from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. I made as much—often more—from page reads as direct sales, so I kept my books in KU. But in recent months that has fallen off considerably to nearly nil. Therefore, I think it’s time to broaden my horizons and put my books out in wider form.

Amazon continues to have a stranglehold on the market, but it also makes it nearly impossible to be discovered. If you’re not already a known name, people aren’t looking for you or your books. And if you aren’t published by one of Amazon’s imprints or don’t pay them big bucks to advertise, you get buried.

That said, any new releases will get an initial KU launch. But if that ends up not making financial sense (as it no longer does with my existing catalogue), I’ll find other outlets. And of course I’ll continue to put my books out in paperback as well. The K-Pro is going to be re-edited and reissued, and I hope to have Peter edited and available again soon as well.

Movies: Hereditary

I don’t particularly like horror movies; I have a very low tolerance for gore. But I’d heard this one was good and not too bloody, so…

It still had some pretty gross moments, let me tell you. But it was interesting, and fairly intense if you like that kind of thing.

Toni Collette plays Annie, whose mother has passed away. Then her daughter also dies in an accident. As Annie grapples with these tragedies, she meets a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd, somewhat typecast) in her grief group. Joan shows Annie how to contact the dead, and things go from there.

Annie is also an artist who creates disturbing dioramas. The movie hints at her mother having been crazy, and so maybe Annie has inherited (get it?) whatever genetic disposition made her mother a nutjob.

Then the question becomes how much of what is happening is actually supernatural, and how much of it is Annie.

Which would have been great if the movie had left it there. But it insists on going a bit further and answering these questions. And while I can appreciate the final result, I think a bit more ambiguity would have actually made the whole thing more compelling.

As it was, however… Yeah. Pretty damn creepy.

Movies: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Screenplay by: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Sony/Marvel, 2019
PG-13; 129 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

I’ve mentioned many times that I suffer from superhero movie fatigue. I’m at the point where I’m not really sure why I’m still going to these movies, except that my family loves them… And then I start to think I’ll somehow miss out if I don’t go too. Truth is, some of them are pretty good. And of all of them, I think I enjoy the Spider-Man ones the most.

In this movie, Peter Parker (Holland) just wants to enjoy his school trip to Europe. He’s hoping to use the science trip as a backdrop for a declaration of love to MJ (Zendaya). All that gets screwed up when Nick Fury turns up and needs an assist with some “Elementals” that have been attacking various places across the globe.

It’s a deceptively simple setup, which is probably why it works so well. So many of these films are convoluted to the point of ridiculousness. And in this one, the after-credit sequences almost trip over that line as well. Ugh. Can’t they leave well enough alone? But no, everything needs to be a little tweak, something to launch the next movie(s). It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to dislike this series of films.

But overall, this is a fun movie. A popcorn flick, as we used to call them. I know so many people who invest real time and effort into analyzing and deconstructing and whatever with these, and hey, whatever makes you happy. That’s the point of entertainment, after all. Get as involved (or not) as you like. For me, comic book movies are more like watch, enjoy, and then pretty much forget them… until I’m told I need to remember a million things for the next installment. Again, ugh. These movies should not be so much work.

Well, whatever. I had fun.

IWSG: July 2019

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced I would continue to participate in this because I’ve pretty much shut down my writing network. I deleted my author page on Facebook, abandoned my Instagram, and have removed my Twitter app from my phone. I left every writing group on Facebook, too, unfriended a ton of people, and muted several more. I’ve had a real struggle with the lack of support from friends, family, and the community at large, and I’m pretty close to giving up completely.

That said, I do have two good writing friends helping through my crisis. So I’ll post this month, for now, and continue taking things a day at a time.

Question of the Month: What personal traits have you written into your characters?

A: I’m sure several bits of myself show up in my characters, but you’d have to ask those who know me (and have read my work) to point them out. I never intentionally put parts of me into my characters. But I can say I’ve shared experiences with some of them. For example, I based some of The K-Pro on my time spent on film sets. There is likewise a story in The World Ends at Five that is extrapolated from an author signing I attended. In fact, I remember thinking that story up as I walked to work one day. Anyway, I’m sure my characters do have telltale signs of my DNA, but to parse that would take no little time.

Intro to Tarot: Major Arcana

I mentioned a while back that a friend of mine had asked me to write a sort of tarot manual for her. Basically, I’ve bought her a tarot deck and have been mailing her cards, a few at a time, with information about them and how to read them. I thought that since my most popular posts on this site are my astrology and tarot posts, I might start posting excerpts from this manual here.

The manual begins with an overview of the Major Arcana, which is what I’m going to share with you now.


The Major Arcana
 
The tarot is divided into two main sets of cards: Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards and explores the journey of the first card in that set, which is Card 0: The Fool. In this text we’ll travel with the Fool through the Major Arcana, but here I just want to say a few things about what it means to have Major Arcana appear in a tarot reading.
 
The easiest way to look at it is to say that the Major Arcana are Big Things in life and the Minor Arcana are little things. Some read the Majors as signs of destiny, fate, or karma. Some read them as things that cannot be changed versus things that can (meaning the Minor Arcana). I hesitate to ever say that anything is set in stone and cannot be changed. I simply don’t believe that to be true. But I think, when you see a lot of Major Arcana in a spread, some big life lessons are—if you’ll forgive me—in the cards.
 
A surfeit of Major Arcana cards turning up means one of two things. (1) This is important so pay attention to what we [the cards] are telling you. (2) You didn’t shuffle very well.
 
Eventually, as you learn the cards and become confident in reading them, you’ll intuit what it means to have many Majors in a spread. What I don’t recommend is reshuffling and asking again. Asking the same question, even rephrased, over and over is a surefire way to irritate the cards and only confuse the issue further. If you feel like you’re not getting the message, set the cards aside. Or if it has been a while since you cleansed and recharged them (more on that later), do that. Then still set them aside for a few hours. The cards, like people, need breaks, and jumping from question to question wears them out.

From Introduction to Tarot: Card by Card by M Pepper Langlinais

If people get interested, I’ll start posting about each card.

2019 So Far

Well, here we are at the midpoint of the year. How has it been for you so far? I have to say, a lot of my friends are struggling with a deluge of incidents and situations. When it rains, as they say…

As for me, this year so far:

  • Put our house on the market and sold it
  • Bought a new house
  • Started a new nutrition plan… then dumped it
  • Had surgery
  • Moved
  • Enrolled two of my kids in their new schools (one of them is staying at his current school)
  • Daughter graduated from elementary school
  • Oldest son celebrated his bar mitzvah
  • Was long listed for a RONE award but couldn’t garner the necessary support to make the short list, so I quit writing
  • Helping my son plan for his student ambassadorship to Japan in October
  • Planning my own trip to Japan for next year with my best friend

I know the RONE thing makes me sound petulant, but it was really just the straw that broke the camel. I’ve been trying for years to get friends, family, and readers to act on my behalf, even just to leave reviews or spread the word about my work. Because if an author can’t get even their closest loved ones to vote for them in something, how can they hope to make it? Over the years it’s become increasingly clear, however, that I can’t get anyone to support me. And since I can’t do it on my own, I’ve shut down that side of my life. Actually, I’m pretty sure my family is happier now that I’m more focused on them anyway.

So then what do I have to look forward to? Well, again, mostly family stuff:

  • Prepping my son for band camp
  • Family vacation
  • School starting
  • Pool renovations
  • Having the house painted
  • Finalizing my son’s plans for that Japan trip

That takes me through October, at least. We may or may not do anything fun for Thanksgiving or winter break. I guess I still have a birthday to look forward to? And some theatre tickets… Also another year of being on the PTA board.

I suppose my career crashing and burning still puts me better off than a lot of people. But I don’t have to be happy about it. And I know filling my time with house and family will only go so far. I mean, I don’t want to be one of those mothers who lose their identities in their kids and then fall apart when all those kids grow up and leave home. (Assuming they leave home, which I certainly hope they do.) But yeah. The year has definitely been one of big shifts, some in great directions, but some… not so much. Guess we’ll see what the back half brings.

Free Book

…in exchange for an honest review!

I’m looking for a few willing book lovers to read and review Faebourne. It’s a historical fantasy with a romantic subplot… But please note that one of the main romances is m/m and may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s clean and sweet—only kissing—but still. Keep it in mind.

I can supply a PDF, .mobi, or .epub file. In return, YOU promise to:

  • read and review the book
  • not share the file with pirating sites

Interested? Leave a comment or drop me an email!

Books: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I have so many feelings about this book stemming from a dozen different places so that it would take a machete to cut my way through them all. But I’m going to try.

First, the setup: Alex is the son of the first female president, who was elected in 2016 (so I guess this is an alternate universe kind of book). His archnemesis is Prince Henry of Wales. He’s taken a dislike to Henry because Henry brushed him off at the Olympics in Rio. But after a publicity disaster at Henry’s brother’s wedding, the two of them are forced to fake an international friendship. That becomes a romance.

Bromance turned romance. There it is.

Now most of you probably know I love a good gay love story. But this one didn’t entirely work for me. I liked the idea of it, just not the execution. I felt like the focus was in the wrong place. But that’s a personal preference. As all reviews must be, mine is subjective.

I enjoyed the start of the book—the sniping and banter. Once the romance became set, things began to drag. The middle of the book is a series of situational hook-ups disguised as Alex embracing his new sexual identity in increments, but at the end of the day, this just makes the book another coming-out story. Hardly anything new. And it seems like the author really just wants to revel in boy sex rather than further the plot at all.

The plot, such as it is, comes into play more than half the book later when—hey, I think I’ve heard this before—a private email server is hacked and Alex and Henry are outed. Political scandal ensues, even as Alex’s mom is campaigning for re-election. And of course Henry’s grandmother the Queen is unhappy as well.

There’s something a little fan-fictiony about it all?

Not that I don’t love fan fiction, but I also believe in calling something what it is rather than trying to pass it off as legitimate.

But again, I’m me. I grew up in Texas—in the very Austin McQuiston writes about, and then later outside Dallas, so I’ve seen both blue and red Texas up close. I went to UT in Austin and got the same mass comm degree Alex’s sister June has in this book. I used to hang out at a friend’s lake house every summer. So, you know, while I can appreciate the love letter to my home state and town, something about it didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the way the author forces all the representation down the reader’s throat: gay people, bisexual people, the blended Latino-American family, the trans secret service agent (male to female but still with a wife), the friend who is Indian… Instead of feeling seamless, it feels more like a giant neon arrow saying, “Look at me being inclusive!” And in the emails between Alex and Henry, the various historical extracts that also feel like a big neon arrow saying, “Look at how I did some research!”

Gah. All this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn’t. I just had some very specific, nitpicky issues with it. Like I said, I enjoyed the start. The middle sagged and the real plot kicked in a mite too late for my taste. I also didn’t love Alex, and since the book is told through his perspective, that wasn’t ideal for me. I mean, he was okay, but ::shrug::

If the focus had been more on Henry and Alex weathering public perception and private pressures, I would have enjoyed it more, I think. Instead, a lot of this book is the two of them having sex in various locations and trying to hide it. That gets dull pretty quickly. For me. Based on other reviews, plenty of people are happy with that kind of thing. But I want more story than sex, so this book counts as “just okay” in my estimation.