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Building Character

“What made you decide to make him gay?”

Huh?

It took me a minute to understand the question, which was a minute longer than it should have taken, but I sometimes forget not everyone is a writer, and those who aren’t sometimes have strange ideas about how writing is done.

“I didn’t build him out of LEGOs or anything,” I said. “I don’t create characters by using a blueprint. Maybe some writers do, but I don’t.

“For me, creating a character is like meeting someone new. They’re already who they are, complete. They might be blond, they might be short, and they might be gay.

“Peter Stoller is gay because he’s gay. I didn’t ‘decide’ it. That’s just how he is.”

Popularity v Infalibility

I’ve worked with enough high-power types in the industry to have begun noticing an interesting trend: once they become popular or have a popular film or television program, they begin to equate being popular with being right. Infalible. That they can do no wrong. They cease to feel any need to listen to reason and ignore anything and anyone who might even have helpful or constructive criticism.

The issue in large part stems from the fact that the entertainment industry equates popularity with success. Well, popularity is success because popular things make money, and at the end of the day that’s what the biz is all about. And there’s this weird kind of cycle to these things, where once you’ve had a big hit (or a few, but sometimes it only takes the one—really depends on the size of the hit), people begin to pander to you and fawn over you. You start to get what you want pretty much all the time. No one tells you “no.” And you begin to believe their own hype. They want to believe it. Who wouldn’t? That you’re perfect, wonderful, the best thing to ever happen (at least this week or month or season).

It’s one thing to be pleased that people like you and your work. It’s another entirely to be pleased with yourself about it.

And it’s easy to say, “Well, if all these people like me and my work, then the people who are saying otherwise just don’t know what they’re talking about.” But I’ve learned something about this way of thinking. It’s facile and self-serving. Because to be popular really means that you appeal to the lowest common denominator of society. In the entertainment industry, serving these large swaths of patrons is generally a sure way to win success, when success is measured by ratings and box office. BUT . . . The bottom line is, this also means that your potential detractors are probably a tad more sophisticated. So those few people pointing out the flaws and problems in your otherwise “perfect” show or movie or career? They might actually know what they’re talking about. Or at least more than you give them credit for.

Entertainment is a democracy in that popular “votes” (ticket sales, television ratings) win the day. But just look at how well these people manage politics and you’ll see their favor isn’t always a sign you’re as wonderful as you think you are. It’s really the jester on the sidelines—the one who sees the truth behind it all—you should aim to impress.

“Lightning Flashed”: 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest

Today is the 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Blogfest. Entries must begin with the words “Lightning flashed” and cannot be longer than 300 words. Mine is exactly 300 words:

Lightning flashed and minutes later the rain came in one full curtain, falling straight as hair from clouds to pavement. Annise stood at the tall windows and watched the world turn from color to shades of grey, listened as the leaves on the trees in the park across the street tintinabulated with the patter of a regiment of angels’ tears.

He would never come now.

He would never come in this weather, no, the sidewalk was vacant as all who’d been out sought shelter. The cars parked along the curb remained idle. Nothing moved through the streets.

Though it was mid-afternoon, the street lamps flickered on, set off by the dimness brought by clouds—heavy, but no heavier than Annise’s heart. The angels did not have tears enough for her disappointment.

As if to raise the stakes against her, the rain came harder and the clouds rolled in darker than before. Annise was all at once very aware of the silence of the apartment with just her in it; aside from the low hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen and the steady hiss of rain outside, there was no sound. She could not even hear her own breathing.

Or was she holding her breath?

Annise stared at the park, what she could see of it through the downpour, watched the bright pink and white flowers that lined the fences duck their heads against the weather. Much more of this and they’d lose all their petals, all their hope.

The bright sound of the buzzer cutting through the quiet jarred Annise from her thoughts.

Someone was at the door.

But it wasn’t possible; she’d been watching, hadn’t seen anyone on the pavement.

The buzzer rang again and Annise hurried to the intercom. “Yes?”

“Annise, it’s me.”

She unlatched the door.

Summary: “The Reichenbach Fall”

And so of course I must post my various thoughts on the final episode of Sherlock Series 2:

  1. Initial Thoughts
  2. Talking Points
  3. Sneak Peek at “The Empty Flat”

Additional considerations:

Let me get clear on the series of events I’m expected to believe have led us to this pass: (a) Mycroft and Co. (including the American CIA agent?) snared Moriarty off the streets in pursuit of the technological skeleton key they believed he was in possession of. (b) To tempt Moriarty to talk, Mycroft fed Moriarty’s obsession with Sherlock by slipping him tidbits of personal information about his little brother. (c) And even though Moriarty failed to give them the key—and showed only signs of growing psychosis—they released him back onto the streets . . . Where Moriarty would use the myth of the key to target Sherlock and surround him with assassins, and use the information gathered from Mycroft to discredit Sherlock and force him to suicide.

I won’t bother to point out all the problems with this. Instead I’ll only ask: What was Mycroft’s actual goal? And is he working against or with his brother?*

Meanwhile, if James Moriarty were a fiction, wouldn’t that have been discovered during the court proceedings? Due diligence and such?

And why would John, who tag teamed with Mycroft during “Scandal,” suddenly find Mycroft’s request that John keep an eye on Sherlock so ridiculous? Particularly when faced with evidence of so many assassins on their doorstep? Not that John has ever really needed prompting to take care of his frequently errant flat mate.

I found some of the edits to the American broadcast a bit strange, too. Removing the music from the scene in which Moriarty visits Sherlock (in the version that aired in the UK, Moriarty’s tapping was set to the Bach he later references on the rooftop)? The UK cut also gave the distinct impression that Sherlock was more on top of things than the American one—after all, even if Sherlock is being a bit slow, he’s had ample time while waiting at Bart’s to sort out the fact that there is no key, as Moriarty’s binary spells out (why does Moriarty say it was “meaningless” I wonder?). There were a number of other odd differences, like the omission of Mycroft reading the paper featuring Sherlock’s suicide, but the lack of music cue in the one scene was the most glaring.

Way to economize on the headstone, Mycroft! I suppose you figure to put the actual dates on later, when your brother is actually dead? Reduce, reuse, recycle.

And how long has Sherlock been hanging around the cemetery? And to what purpose? Just to see who shows up for a “visit”?

As an aside, can we get Benedict some shirts that fit next season? These ones pull funny at the buttons and leave me to wonder whether John shrank the laundry.

*A theory in Mycroft working against Sherlock: If we posit that Jim really IS just an actor, and that Mycroft has hired him (and later tormented him into insanity, whee!) . . . And that Irene was also an actress hired by Mycroft . . . And that Mycroft [and the government] is working with these CIA agents . . . Molly escapes being targeted because Mycroft does not perceive any true affection for her from Sherlock . . . And Mycroft’s people clean up Moriarty’s body before the police arrive . . . Yeah, maybe that could work.

The Self-Publishing Conundrum

I go back and forth when thinking about self-publishing.

That’s probably not the best way to open a post about the subject, but there you have it. A few years back I had written several short stories, only one of which managed to get picked up for publication. So I compiled them all and made a little book on Lulu.com to give to friends and family. It was even available on Amazon.com for a while. Nothing special, and I hadn’t done it with the idea to make a bunch of money or get my name out there. It was more that I felt like I needed to get those stories out of the way so I could do something else. I wanted them settled.

That book (The World Ends at Five) is no longer available. But I later had trouble when some markets showed interest in my stories, only to drop them when they considered them “previously published” just because I’d made a dozen books on Lulu. So in that light, I have to say I would probably only consider self-publishing again if I couldn’t get an agent or publisher interested first.

But then again . . .

Some works just don’t have a handy niche. A lot of my work is like that. People say, “What do you write?” and I’m like, “A little of everything.” A lot of my stories have a surreal bent. They’re not fantasy in the sword-and-sorcery sense, but they do involve magic or magical realism or alternate universes. It’s a pretty specific market with a limited number of outlets.

And then I’ve also written Sherlock Holmes stories. And a novella about a gay spy. And I’m working on a novel that appears to be a contemporary rom-com with a paranormal twist. (So . . . “paranormal romance” but not any of that over-the-top vampire/werewolf/ghost stuff.) And so some of this stuff ends up being not all that easy to place. And agents ask, “What do you write?” and I say, “A little of everything,” and they don’t know what to do with me. How do you market an author who skips around like that? So maybe self-publishing IS the way to go, not because it’s a last resort, but it’s more or less my only one.

Of course, then there’s the stigma. The whole idea that the only reason a person self-publishes is because they’re terrible writers “real” publishers won’t touch.

The problem with any stereotype is that it becomes a stereotype because it is (or at one time was) in some ways true. So yes, there are a lot of self-published authors who really could use some heavy editing. There are self-published authors who misspell and use terrible grammar and whose sentences hardly make sense for having been put together upside down and backwards. I know they exist because I’ve seen some of their books.

The idea, then, is that “real” publishers act as literary strainers: the good stuff gets through, the dirt and silt and impurities are kept out. But unfortunately, the mesh of the publishing houses is so fine, many good things also get kept out. And sometimes a little dirt gets through anyway. In other words, the system isn’t perfect.

And so there are some good self-published books out there. Even authors who have had success with traditional publishers are trying the self-pub route. And as it becomes easier for authors to do it themselves—therefore enabling authors to keep more of the money besides—there will continue to be an increase in solid self-published material.

The trick will be to find it. The good self-published books and e-books, that is. Now that every author markets themselves on Facebook and Twitter, it gets more and more difficult to weed one’s way through the blitz of status updates and Tweets. I’ll admit I’m still a little biased, still not terribly inclined to go check out a self-pubbed book or e-book unless I read a great review of it or a friend (better yet, more than one) recommends it. There are a lot of books out there, many I want to read, so to earn a spot on my stack, it needs to be pretty spectacular.

Wading through it all is like surfing the Web. There’s a lot of junk. Most of it can be ignored. And there’s more I don’t even know exists and I don’t really want to know, either. I have my select sites that I rely on. And every now and then someone says, “This site is cool,” and I check it out. And if it really is cool, it becomes a site I go back to regularly. The same rule applies to books and authors. I have authors I like, and subject matter I’m interested in, and writing styles I dig. I go back to those things. And if someone says, “Well, if you like so-and-so you’d probably like . . .” or “I read a new book about [interesting subject here],” then I might look into it. But some random person repeatedly shoving their book under my nose on Twitter probably isn’t going to sway me. In part because I’m pretty sure if/when I had/have a book to market, they wouldn’t bother with me, either. (That’s the problem with social marketing: everybody shouting and nobody listening. But that’s another topic.)

Let’s take fan fiction as an example. Years ago, fan writers had to submit their fics to fanzines devoted specifically to their chosen shows/genres. In that way, fanzine editors acted much as traditional publishers; they guarded the gates, made sure the best stories got through, or at least fixed the spelling errors. But then we came to the point where just about everyone had access to the Internet—hell, fanboys and -girls were some of the earliest adopters—and fan fiction began to pop up online. Everywhere. On collective sites like FanFiction.net, or on people’s personal sites, just . . . wherever. And it became impossible to find good fanfic any more because so much of it was just awful. (Sorry, folks, but seriously.) One had to shuffle through, or find a forum that had some recommendations, and those might or might not be any good based on whether you and whoever was making the recommendation had the same taste. (Kind of like whether you and a film critic agree; if you can find one you see eye-to-eye with, you’re in good shape following his or her recommendations on what to see—or not.)

So. Where does this leave self-publishing? Now that just about anyone can make an e-book, just like anyone can post a fanfic, it simply takes that much more work to find the good stuff. And makes it that much easier for an author and his/her work to get lost in the shuffle. I find that frustrating. Maybe because I’m not a marketing person, and so I know if I did self-publish something, it probably wouldn’t get me very far. But then again, even authors who get a traditional publisher might not get very far. It’s tough being a writer no matter which direction you go.

In the end, I wouldn’t rule out self-publishing. I’d like a few more traditionally published or produced pieces under my belt first, though. Credentials. Hey, if we’re now all in the self-marketing biz, I need to “establish my brand.” Or whatever.

Never mind. I’m going back to writing now.

Open Teaching

I have no formal teaching certificate, and only took one class as a graduate student that was designed to turn me into a literature instructor of some kind, though I decided in the end not to pursue a post. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, and not even because I didn’t want to do it, but because—and this is probably a silly reason, but it was (and is) the reason I opted not to teach at our college—I didn’t like the book they’d chosen for the course I would have taught. And I had the idea that if I wasn’t invested in the material, I couldn’t teach it effectively. Which probably isn’t actually true. I could have faked it. I just didn’t want to.

So what did I teach and when? For four summers I taught at an academic camp for middle-grade students ranging from ages 9 to 14. I taught Shakespeare, playwriting, mythology, Parageography, journalism, and special subjects (like vampire literature). And I was told multiple times that I was a favorite of the students, that parents would call and ask, “What is the Shakespeare teacher doing? My kid won’t shut up about Shakespeare!” and usually add, “I wish I’d had a teacher like that when we had to read Hamlet.” Yes, I liked hearing these things. It made me feel good that my students totally grooved on The Bard once we worked past the language. But it also sometimes made me feel like a big phony, too, because despite lots of research and lesson planning, I was really just winging it a lot of the time.

I teach the same way I parent: by open discussion. I don’t know if this is technically the Classical or Socratic method or anything, but I prefer a classroom dialogue to having to lecture for a couple hours at a time. I do lecture a bit—I talk a bit about the subject, but I’m always open to questions and thoughtful remarks. I like to make my students (and my kids) feel listened to. I like to make them feel like they add value to a discussion. I find that if I take them seriously, they take me and the topic seriously in return and are generally less likely to goof off. They become as invested as I am.

I remember when teaching Romeo and Juliet the kids began to ask tentative questions about teen suicide. Someone brought up the fact that a friend’s brother had killed himself . . . Someone else mentioned a girl he knew at camp used to cut herself . . . This is tricky territory because I’m not certified as any kind of counselor (though I was a peer counselor in high school), and I don’t want to get in trouble, or get parents angry with me. But I liked knowing my students felt safe enough to want to talk with me about these things. So we did talk about it a little bit, and about relationships that feel so intense, &c. And I was careful to warn the camp director that the students had wanted to explore that a bit so she knew we’d touched on the subject.

Again, when doing Taming of the Shrew, the students began to wonder about abusive relationships. Why was this play supposed to be funny? That was easier to discuss because of the historical context, but it was still a somewhat deep and dark topic. It eventually became an open conversation about human rights, gender differences, and so on.

I found after a couple days of teaching this way, the kids came in armed with questions and topics that had occurred to them. That was always encouraging because it meant they were going home and actually thinking about the material. “Dude, shouldn’t Hamlet have been king?” Well, let’s think about that. Do you think he wants to be king? Is that one of the reasons he’s upset? Would he have made a good king? What goes into making a good leader or ruler?

You see, that’s how I like to teach. Because then you not only learn the material—and believe me, those kids knew Hamlet by the time they were done, knew it and loved it—but you end up learning a bunch of other stuff besides, almost as if by accident. I’m a big proponent of critical thinking skills, so I like forcing my students to consider things, and they like that there’s no right or wrong answer and therefore no condemnation for anything they might suggest (short of hate speech or bigotry, but I never had any problems with that with my students, either).

It’s funny; having just read Quiet, I now realize that, yes, I had several students who stayed mostly, er, quiet in classes. Two or three spring to mind, the types to just take notes on what everyone was saying. Though almost always they spoke up once or twice, particularly if we touched on a subject about which they felt strongly. But a lot of these quiet students would seek me out later for one-on-one conversations instead. And that was fine, too. They’d sidle up to me at lunch or during break and start a chat. And that was kind of exhausting (since I, too, am an introvert), but rewarding in its own way.

I don’t teach any more; I haven’t the time or energy. But I do have children, and I use the same methods with them that I did in the classroom. The other day my six-year-old wanted to know about demons. I have no idea why; maybe something he saw on Scooby-Doo? But we had a very serious discussion about Lucifer being cast out of Heaven, and different ideas of the devil, and fallen angels becoming demons, and whether or not a demon can be “good.” And I think the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn (though I’m so glad to know it now), is when to say, “I don’t know.” Because our education system breeds this idea that we should somehow already know so much . . . That we’re somehow all stupid for not knowing things . . . And certainly there are things everyone should know, and a little common sense goes a long way, but sometimes you have to say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out. Let’s look it up. Let’s talk about it and see if we can figure it out.” And it’s okay not to know everything. So long as you’re also open minded and willing to learn.

Prologue

The torch is the only light in a sea of darkness, and the goddess holding it stands in its glow, beautiful and terrible in the way of goddesses, her hair the same gold as the flame, her dress a marvelous white. She waits, knowing they will come because they always come—there is always someone wanting something, needing a door unlocked, a path revealed.

“Hecate.”

She turns. This is not who she expected, and she does not invite him into the circle of light, nor would he come if she did.

“It’s mine by rights,” he says.

“I need it for my work.”

They stand on either side of the light, and she peers at him, past the flame and into the eyes that are the color of an oncoming storm.

“You cannot keep it,” he tells her.

“I only look to borrow it,” she says.

Even in the shadows, she can sense his frown. “For how long?”

“. . . Indefinitely.”

He reaches for her, but she is too canny to be caught. She inverts the torch, extinguishing the fire, and before he can lay hands on her, she runs.

Open the Channel

I’ve done a few little Tarot readings—and I’m crap at reading cards, I have to use a host of resources to try and work it all out—but several of them have come up lately with this . . . I don’t know, what do readings do? Suggest? Intimate? Declare? . . . Anyway, the long and short has been that I’m somehow designed to take information from the ether and translate it for the masses. Like Moses on the Mount, I suppose. “Prophet” has come up in a few interpretations, and talk of my having “access to the Divine.”

Well, I don’t take any of that too seriously, but it does make me think of my writing. Which isn’t prophetic by any stretch, but I have noticed I have two distinct modes when writing: active, conscious effort and a sort of “other” mode. And when I’m in the other mode, it’s almost like automatic writing or something, except that I don’t feel possessed at all, I’m just tapping into something, like a jet stream of inspiration. Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about their muses, but for me it’s more like an idiot savantism.

I wrote a poem in college (don’t know why I bothered to take poetry writing; I can write anything but poetry), and when my instructor handed it back, she’d written this note on it: “Wherever you got this, go back for more.” And I thought, If I could, I would, Sister. But the thing about these flashes or whatever . . . They’re like rides, but they can’t ever be scheduled, and most of the time I never remember them later. I wait at the station for the train. Sometimes I force the issue and jump on any ol’ train but I don’t go anywhere interesting. But when the right train comes along . . . At the end, I’m back home and can’t recall anything about the trip, but I’ve got a bunch of written work as a souvenir. That poem the instructor liked so much? I have this vague memory of being at a friend’s house when I wrote it. And most of the time after having written something like that—something that came from “out there”—I can’t even remember that much about where or when it was written. It’s like I wake up and find it and wonder where it came from.

Of course, the same thing happens to me when I’m on stage. I can’t remember any performance, and so I always feel bad when people come congratulate and thank me after a show.

Maybe I have a disorder. I probably have several, actually.

There hasn’t been much by way of inspiration lately. No trains at the station. So I’m doing it the old-fashioned way, which is to bully my way through the writing I’m trying to get done. Else nothing gets done at all.

First Loves Blogfest

First Movie

My parents have told me my first movie was Bambi. I don’t remember this. And I don’t like Bambi, so even if I did remember it as my first movie, it certainly wasn’t my first love.

The first movie I can remember really having an impact on me—a movie I loved and still love—is Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is, in fact, the first movie I can actually recall seeing in the cinema. I was all of five years old and, say what you will about my parents’ judgment or lack thereof, my childhood would be defined in large part by Steven Spielberg movies, Raiders being just the first in what would become a long list of loves. Raiders introduced me to “movie magic” and made me fall in love with movies as a whole, and in a way that would define not only my childhood but my path in life.

No pressure there, Mr. Spielberg.

First Song/Band

I grew up listening to my dad’s records. By the time I was three or four, I knew how to work the turntable on my own, and there were three albums I played often enough for my parents to want to hide them from me:

  • The Eagles, Greatest Hits
  • Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run
  • Jimmy Buffett, Volcano

I don’t know which of these I’d count as my “first love” in the music category. I’ve always liked music in general. Now, if we’re talking about music I liked well enough to buy for myself? Using my very own allowance? Music I for which I would sacrifice the chance to purchase a brand new My Little Pony? Well, the first cassette tape I ever bought for myself was Invisible Touch by Genesis. That was the first time I liked a band different from what I’d grown up with, what my parents listened to. So that one probably wins the prize.

First Book

Ooooh. Geez. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents are readers, and I was reading for myself at age three. I remember really liking I Can Read With My Eyes Shut by Dr. Seuss . . . I was also known to sit down with my two-volume World Book dictionary and read that. So maybe there’s no accounting for taste.

But the first book I remember really loving, the one that had a huge impact on me, was The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I didn’t know at the time the book was controversial, and I’m guessing either my parents also didn’t know, or else they didn’t know I had a copy, because I’m sure my mother would not have let me read it otherwise. All Snyder’s work had a strong influence in my childhood because, reading her stories (The Changling is another that really stuck with me), I had for the first time in my life the feeling that maybe I wasn’t the only person in the world who felt the way I did, or thought the way I did. Sure, I read my share of Judy Blume, too, but I had a very different experience in terms of “the social,” and so while I understood and enjoyed Blume, her work did not resonate with me in the same way as Snyder’s. The Egypt Game (and The Changling) spoke to the kind of imagination I carried with me and the kinds of games my best friend and I made up and played. It was wonderful to know that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t so strange—or, rather, that my brand of strange was worthy of acknowledgement, and that I had just as much of a story to tell as the popular girl down the block.

First Person

Oh, sweethearts. At the risk of getting existential, do any of us really know whether we’ve truly been in love?

Fine, okay. The first person I might have had semi-romantic feelings for (or maybe just attraction)—and I’m thinking of people in my life, not actors or pop icon crushes—would be Joel. That is to say, he was the first boy I actively sat around (if one can “actively” sit around) and thought about for long stretches of time. I was 11 at the time. But I had also just moved to a new town and had nothing much better to do than read, watch television, and daydream. So Joel may only have been a way to kill the boredom. Thanks, Joel!*

*Joel and I did become a couple near the end of the school year, after he kissed my cheek while we were co-captains at Field Day. But after that year I switched schools and his family moved, so . . .