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Starting Over?

Lately I’ve felt that my life is in transition. We’ve recently moved house, renovations are in the offing, and the kids start school on Monday. Much of my time and energy has been focused on domestic things. I haven’t written more than a couple paragraphs in months, and I can’t seem to settle on any one project. Nor have I felt the particular drive to write.

Part of me wants to tear it all down to the studs. Dump my Twitter, my Facebook, this site. Unpublish everything I’ve put out there. I don’t even know why I feel this way, except that there’s a desire for a clean slate.

And then what? I’m not convinced I’m going to continue writing. I have a long list of half-begun projects and a number of works that really need to be edited and re-launched, yet… zero motivation to finish any of them. I suppose I could just leave everything as it is and still walk away, but taking it all down feels like the equivalent of tidying a room; leaving all my books and sites up makes me feel like I’m leaving behind a mess. I don’t like to do that.

So I don’t know what I’ll do. I won’t scrub my stuff until I’m sure it’s what I want. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing stuff around the house and with my family. There are far worse ways to spend one’s time.

Books: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

You may have noticed from my reading history that I have an interest in the Romanovs. Mostly that interest has been focused on Nicholas II and his immediate family, but when I found this book at the library, I decided to go back a generation. Sure, it’s historical fiction, so I spend a certain amount of time reading a book like this with historical references in my other hand (not to undermine authors of HF, but because I’m a curious person and find I often want to look up facts and information about historical personages as I read fictional accounts of them). In particular, when historical fiction is centered around a well-known, well-documented figure, I feel the author must work harder to hew to the facts while still creating a compelling narrative. If the author chooses to, er, elide a few things for some reason, I do say it gives me pause. I have to wonder why. To make the story more interesting somehow? I suppose some readers would value a punched-up story over accuracy, but I’m not one of them.

I’m not saying Gortner does that here. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the subject at hand to judge, and maybe that’s what makes me a tad uneasy about the novel. I’d almost want to go read a biography for comparison.

But before I get much further, a quick synopsis: The Romanov Empress tells the story of Dagmar of Denmark, who became Empress Maria “Minnie” Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III. It’s told in first person, which gives fair insight into Minnie’s thoughts and feelings, but necessarily means that anything she is not present for must be explained in dialogue scenes where she and Someone (usually Miechen) discuss politics or whatever. In fact, while the novel started strongly for me, by a little more than halfway through it began to founder for lack of tension, pace, action. Lots of terse discussions as the Russian Revolution built up around Minnie and the Romanovs. But nothing much else until the final few pages of being held by the Soviets and getting the bad news of her son’s family’s execution.

I almost wish the book had gone on a bit longer and shown some of Minnie’s days in exile. There is a solid afterword in the book that discusses where she and others ended up, but I might’ve liked to have seen it depicted. Another reason, perhaps, to pick up a biography.

This isn’t a bad book. I counted it as average on Goodreads, probably 3.5 stars but not quite worth rounding up to 4. I’d maybe try another Gortner book.

20 Questions

It’s a fair bet I’ll never be featured in my graduate school’s magazine… or any magazine, for that matter. But I can pretend by answering the questions my alma mater asks of people anyway.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Wandering a new city or place I’ve traveled to.

If you could study any field aside from your own, what would it be?

I really enjoyed all the psychology classes I took, and I’d possibly pursue that.

Whom do you most admire?

Queen Elizabeth II, I think. She has such grace under fire and has lasted through so much.

What are three adjectives you’d use to describe Emerson?

“Expensive”? Seriously, though, “connected” comes to mind. Also “purple” because all the banners were that color.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I say “sure” way too often. And any other filler words: like, so, etc.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Having my short play produced twice and then turned into a short film. (I know I’m supposed to say my children or something like that, but I want to be honest. I adore my kids and am proud of them, but I don’t consider them an achievement.)

What is your greatest regret?

When I interned for Lynda Obst, she suggested I go work in her L.A. office and I instead chose to finish my last year as an undergrad. At the time I didn’t really understand that offers like that are not forever. And I feel like that was a huge missed opportunity. Of course, then I wouldn’t have gone to grad school, met my husband, etc.

Who are your favorite writers?

Right now? Tana French, Ben Aaronovitch, Kate Morton. I pretty much buy whatever they publish at the moment. But I love a lot of authors, like Jane Austen and Agatha Christie and Diana Wynne Jones.

Reading on a Kindle or other device: Yay or nay?

Nay. Not because I think it’s a terrible idea—it’s nice to have many books in one handy, portable place—but because I just don’t go looking for a device when I want to read. I’m old enough that I look for a physical book.

If you could have dinner with one person, alive or dead, who would it be?

I think Cary Grant would be a fun dinner date.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Saving animals somehow.

Coffee or tea?

Tea. Chai, specifically.

Beach or mountains?

I’m more of a meadows/hills/forest kind of girl. Someplace secluded, but where I can still get food delivered.

Broadway or Hollywood?

Hollywood.

If you could spend 48 hours in any city around the globe, where would you go?

I really want to go to Japan. I don’t even care which city.

What song are you most embarrassed to love?

My friends will tell you I have terrible taste in music. To hear them tell it, I think should be embarrassed by any of the songs I love.

You’re stranded on an island. What three possessions would you not be able to live without?

My notebook and pen (does that count as two?) and at least one book, I guess.

What is your motto?

Well, per my logo: “From words to worlds.” But I don’t think I really have a motto per se.

What’s the best thing about Emerson?

Emerson got me the internship at Houghton Mifflin that started my publishing career. It’s got a solid reputation in the business and a string of accomplished alumni. I feel fortunate to be able to say I got my M.A. there.

Walt Disney World 2019

I’ve been away for a bit, off on vacation at Walt Disney World (and then we tacked on a short Disney cruise as well). But we’re back now, and I’d like to give some overall impressions of WDW. I’ve been a few times, including my honeymoon. We were last there in 2010 for Alexander’s fifth birthday. So of course a lot has changed, but… I wouldn’t necessarily say for the better.

As someone who enjoys Disney (and particularly Disneyland), but not someone who self-identifies as a Disney fan, I still have come to expect a minimum standard from Disney’s parks and resorts. Disney prides itself (or did) on the “magic” it creates. That used to mean spotless theme parks and warm interactions with cast members (Disney’s preferred term for its employees). It meant a seamless experience as visitors moved from resorts to parks and back again.

But not this time.

I chatted about this with my parents, who were with us. They go to WDW every 12-24 months, so they are definitely more well versed than I at what counts as “normal” for these parks and resorts. And they agreed that something was very off about, well, everything.

While we did, as expected, have a number of lovely interactions with cast members, we just as often had, not rude, but stone-faced and indifferent service. And the parks and resorts were not as clean as usual either. I found cigarette butts and gum on the ground, mushrooms growing in green spaces… The un-retouched paint on some of the buildings was shockingly noticeable. Parts of some of the parks simply looked and felt rundown.

My sense is that Disney is so focused on their shiny new stuff that they’ve begun to neglect the older stuff. Disney is all about its Star Wars world (yes, yes, I know it’s actually called Galaxy’s Edge), its Tron coaster, the new Guardians ride that’s being built at Epcot, the new resorts, etc. I suppose the company is banking on these attractions bringing more money (as if they need it)… Meanwhile, the parks are already overcrowded, and Disney does nothing to enforce the rules against line jumping etc. Ticket prices continue to rise, and people keep paying it, which means the patrons behave terribly because they feel entitled, after spending so much money, to do whatever they want.

The buses were especially bad during this trip. Though billed as running every 20 minutes, they were consistently late and overburdened. We used the Minnie Van service quite a lot, which of course costs extra. One suspects Disney wants to nudge people toward that service, though they can’t get rid of their free transportation without causing a riot.

Magic bands didn’t entirely work as they should, either. In particular, they didn’t open our hotel room door and we had to hike down to the lobby and have them reprogrammed. We stayed at Coronado Springs, which I think exemplifies what I stated earlier about Disney being more interested in its new things. All focus at this resort was on the brand new Gran Destino tower; meanwhile, those of us out at the older parts of the resort felt a bit abandoned and like second-class citizens.

This isn’t to say we didn’t have fun. We did. But these fissures in the bulwark that is Disney were impossible to ignore. I did not get the experience I expected (and paid highly for). And I don’t feel any pressing need to return to WDW any time soon. Hopefully my next visit to Disneyland will restore my faith in Disney magic.

IWSG: August 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.

Q: Has your writing ever taken you by surprise?

A: I’m mostly surprised by my characters when they do something I didn’t plan on (but that, in hindsight, makes perfect sense). But I’ve also been surprised more than once by agents responding 1+ years after I queried, asking whether I’m repped yet. Usually in these cases they’d either like to (a) see the rest of the manuscript, or if they had a full they (b) are suggesting an R&R (revise & resubmit). Unfortunately, none of these have ever resulted in representation, so… But it’s nice when an agent shows interest or is encouraging.

Don’t Tell Me

There are a couple of things I hear/read periodically that I find absolutely infuriating. These are false statements that pretend to be encouraging but that actually undercut a writer’s confidence and motivation.

1. If you want it badly enough, you can achieve it.

Not true. You can want something, you can try every possible avenue, and still not achieve it.

2. If you’re talented enough, you’ll rise to the top.

Again, not necessarily true. You can be very good at what you do, but there are other factors. Networking and connections play a big part in success. So does grit. There are many smart, capable people who fail, not for lack of desire so much as lack of motivation. Or even lack of support, since, despite our individualist society, few people are able to make it on their own. And even brilliant people don’t know everything, so sometimes it’s know-how that the person needs.

3. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.

You can’t promise that. Unless you have a specific ability to help the person in question—you have connections, knowledge, etc.—don’t say this. I realize it’s meant to be reassuring, but we already have a culture that falsely believes that only good things and people succeed, that the way to judge something’s or someone’s worth is to see if they (a) make money, (b) become famous. Since we all can point to plenty of terrible rich and famous people, you can see this is a flat-out fallacy. We can point to bad books and movies that somehow still get published and made, which again proves that not everything that rises is cream.

Am I bitter? Sometimes. I don’t think there’s any harm in being honest and admitting that. It can be difficult to keep going when the road seems to be one dead end after another. And so many people say the above things to me, which, while I understand the good intentions, I’d really rather have the help and support rather than hollow words.

Art/Artist

Most media, barring things that are biographical or autobiographical, are designed to be consumed in the absence of the artist. When you read a book, the author is seldom there to explain his or her work. When you watch a film or television program, the actors and directors and screenwriters and producers are not whispering in your ear… unless you’re playing the commentary track, I suppose. The musician shouldn’t have to explain the song’s meaning. Even stand-up comedians, who often pull from personal experience, are editing the stories they tell; as the audience, we laugh, but we never really believe we’re hearing the whole thing.

However, with the rise of social media, and with greater access to authors and actors and comedians, etc.—with the popularity of those commentary tracks, and with the growing sense that the person with the most trivial information somehow “wins” because it proves he or she is the biggest, best fan—we seldom consume media without knowing something about those who make it. Sure, some of these creators remain coy, but many more have embraced Twitter and Instagram and whatever else is popular these days. One can communicate with them, one can chase them and their work all over the Internet, collecting facts and tidbits like squirrels collect nuts.

But what happens when an artist or creator is an asshole?

“Never meet your heroes,” the old saying goes. The unspoken conclusion being that you’re bound to be disappointed by their simple humanity. But when your favorite author or actor is not only human but in some ways seemingly subhuman… What then? Are you allowed to like their books or movies or TV shows any more?

It’s the age-old conflict: separating the art from the artist. Can you?

Art isn’t created in a vacuum; each contributor puts something of him- or herself into the work. Why else do we spend high school lit classes deconstructing things like The Great Gatsby? Every time we had to read a book in school, didn’t we also have to read that little biographical paragraph about the author? And who decides what to tell and what to leave out of those?

Back in the day, it was okay to like Woody Allen movies. Now you can like them, but only if you feel guilty about it. Many more people would rather just not watch than have to feel that way. But they can’t erase the fact that they have seen some of those movies. Do they say, “Well, I watched those before…”? Does watching or reading something by a disgraced artist make you complicit in whatever caused their downfall?

It’s an honest question. I’m not defending Allen or any other condemned creator. I really want to know how people feel about this.

My understanding is, largely, that not buying books by, or watching movies by, artists who have behaved badly is a form of boycott. “Don’t give them your money,” seems to be the underlying notion. Of course, most of them have plenty of money already, so… But what if you borrow the book from the library? Or watch the movie on a streaming service you subscribe to? Are you not meant to patronize these artists at all because to do so suggests tacit endorsement, not only of their work but their life choices?

I, for one, end up having a tough time enjoying work by “bad” artists because I can’t forget what they’ve done (if I happen to know). It lingers in the back of the mind. It taints the things I used to enjoy, like food that’s starting to go off. You might still can eat it—it’s not so far gone—but it tastes wrong. I mean, even if it’s something as minor as having read that this or that author was rude in a situation… Maybe I can excuse them, depending on the circumstances, but if I hear that it happens regularly… When I read a book by them, I won’t be able to not think that this writer is a jerk. And knowing a jerk has written the book I’m reading definitely dampens the enjoyment. Sometimes I might even transfer those feelings to the book’s characters and think they’re all jerks, too, because of course a jerk writer can only create jerk characters, right?

Well, no. Of course not. Writers create all kinds of characters. But knowing something about the author creates an overlay to anything you read by them. Same with actors; suddenly, every role they play is colored by that personal knowledge. Instead of diverse characters, you begin to see them all as similar because they are connected by this mental tint.

It’s enough to make one not want to ever know anything about their favorite authors, actors, etc. Isn’t it?

How do you feel about these things? Do you refuse to support certain artists because of their past behaviors? Is ignorance bliss? Is ignorance even possible in a day and age in which information moves so fast?

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.