Archive for the ‘ Amateur Psychology ’ Category

On Deadlines

I’m not shy about being a creature of ritual, but it’s really coming home to roost this week.

I’ve been working overtime a lot lately — not as much as some co-workers (my work-life balance is fairly inflexible), but a lot. I came back from vacation into a maelstrom of overtime that is just now letting up (and possibly only temporarily, based on how my next project is looking). The worst part is, with system delays and impromptu meetings and the ensuing long periods where work can’t actually get done, it has thrown my schedule into utter disarray. My coffee break isn’t happening at the right times; my lunch is often off-set from its usual flow; I don’t always go home at the same time; it’s not great. I’ve been made of anxiety for a week now.

Two good things have come of the darkness, though. One: I now know I have mastered my worse anxiety impulses. I have not had the kinds of meltdowns I used to have before I recommitted myself to mindfulness and self-care; there have been periods of neat-freakishness, of stuttering, of grumpiness, but nothing explosive like there used to be. So, while I don’t like testing the strength of steel by running over it with a car, it’s nice to see that the material is resistant. (That metaphor needs some work…)

Two: I know, for sure, that it feels good to be writing on a deadline. I mentioned that, post-New Novel, I found a superhero-related open call that is due mid-September? I’ve been routinely getting 1000+ words down on that every day this week, even skipping one of my two writing days off to keep working on it. I was worried, as the overtime came rolling in at the Day Job, that I would burn myself out both doing that and trying to make a writing deadline, but the truth is, it’s helped. I’m more energetic, more creative, and more focused with a deadline staring me down, and I’m outputting higher-quality material than I might have were I just noodling. Not that there’s anything wrong with noodling — I plan to do some after I’ve submitted to Behind the Mask and before New Novel comes back to me — but after months of editing, to reach into my creativity and pull out some gems, even uncut ones, is a really good feeling.

Besides giving me a highly productive avenue for self-care, this has also taught me a lot about how to judge freelance creative work moving forward. There are times when creating is hard — I have no doubt that “Good Fences” and I will see those dark days soon, possibly during first-round edits — but there is a difference between “hard” and “actually a bad idea.” That’s where things re changing.

See, the concept of “bad idea” can be extremely difficult for me to pin down; an idea can be bad in multiple ways, not always obvious. Sometimes, a project is a bad idea for logistical reasons: the deadline is too soon for the work required, or the material too far outside my area of expertise (to the point where I will be faking my way through the content). Sometimes something about the environment or the conditions rubs me the wrong way: the market/client is squirrelly about pay rates, or the contract is oddly worded, or they have expectations  that seem odd in one way or another.  And of course, sometimes, the story idea is bad on my end: it hinges on a contrivance, or it’s problematic when examined for subtext, or it is simply something that I am not currently capable of executing with the skill and care required to stick the landing. Seeing the way I am reacting to a tight deadline but a good story concept is helping me do some emotional echolocation. I’ve already had an idea for a story that I looked at and said “OK, so this isn’t a story yet. That’s fine. I can work on this later after I’ve done some research!” Five years ago, I’d have swan-dived into the story, floundered around for a week or so, and then declared myself the Worst Writer Ever and cried myself to sleep. (You may think I exaggerate, but…)

So, bottom line here is, it’s been a rocky August, but for the improvements to myself I’m seeing, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Man, two blog posts in one week? I’m a rock star!

On Focus

One of the few rules I’ve been taught about blogging — besides “avoid religion and politics” — is “don’t call attention to the fact you haven’t been blogging for a while.” So yeah, I just broke that rule, because this post is about why. Don’t worry, it’s all good news.

I recently took a one-week vacation from my day job; my vacation time was in serious danger of maxing out, and I was kind of crispy anyway, so I figured, why not? The vacation started with two family plans: a board game day with my parents, and a day at the beach in Santa Cruz with Sonya’s family.

Zoom in. At the beach day, I wind up spending a lot of time with my niece and nephew(-in-law). One of them is hitting the early teenage years, and is experiencing the horror that is middle school, and in discussing Pokemon Go and anime with them, they confide in me that they sometimes feel weird about admitting to the things they like, because they feel like it’s “silly” or “too young” for them.

Being me, you can imagine I didn’t take this comment lying down. I told them: “As long as you aren’t hurting anybody, you can like whatever you like.”

I can now say I both stunned a teenager into contemplative silence, and was told that I said something inspiring. That’s a nice way to start my free time.

Zoom back out. This is where that conversation becomes an ironic echo.

In the process of this vacation, I realized three things: I actually like being a house-spouse, a lot; I am capable of a truly monstrous amount of creative productivity if that is my only “job,” even if I am also being a house-spouse; and I have been badly oversocializing myself.

I used to think I was an extrovert, and in many ways, I am, but lately I’ve become more introverted. Some of that is me embracing the fact I have a social anxiety disorder and socialization costs me mental energy; some is me getting treatment for said disorder, and realizing how much of my socializing was a need to feel included and accepted; and some is just me getting older and being a busy adult with many important things to do. At the start of my vacation, a friend messaged me about doing something over the vacation, and I locked up and realized that doing something social — with anybody, not just them — sounded like the worst thing in the world.

So I spent my vacation alone, except for some IM conversations and the company of my wife (and one Pokemon Go hunt, because heck yeah Pokemon Go). Every morning, I drank my caffeine (sometimes with a walk to the local coffee shop first), read part of Marvel’s Annihilation Omnibus, and got down to creating and cleaning. I played video games and board games when I was done. And I came back to my day job the next week, feeling more refreshed than I have in months.

I altered a teenager’s worldview by saying that liking whatever they want is not wrong, but I didn’t apply the same idea to myself until I really listened to what my brain was telling me. Games and wrestling help me look at different ways of telling stories while also relaxing me, and let me see the problems of a creator from a new viewpoint. Cleaning and cooking make me feel productive, and quiet the capitalism-fueled anxieties that both insist leisure is a societal ill and that art is not a worthwhile pursuit. Comics are not only a great way to experience stories, but are also easy for me to focus on and digest in large amounts, which is perfect for days where my anxiety is bad enough that I do not have any attention span. Being alone whenever I need to be alone is a valid way to spend my time, and I actually don’t like having too many plans. And whatever people tell me about developing my platform, it’s OK if I don’t blog for a while.

And I have not been blogging lately, it’s true, but that’s because I’ve been working on fiction instead. Since I last put text to WordPress:

  • I have finished both pre-alpha-reader edit passes on my current novel project (the unnamed “New Novel” that I have been hiding the title of out of nothing but anxiety*).
  • While amidships on the edit passes, I also sent a writing sample to Onyx Path Publishing to be considered for inclusion in a collection of Changeling: the Dreaming fiction.
  • The day after finishing the second edit pass, I hit Duotrope looking for open submission calls, and found a call from Meerkat Press due on September 15th that is right up my alley (I mean, superhero stories? Yeesh, twist my arm…). I despaired of the total lack of possibility that I might make that deadline, right before churning out a story idea and an outline over the next two days. I’m now about 2000 words into my rough draft of “Good Fences,” and am really liking where this is going, though I recognize that the Editing Saw will need to be deployed without mercy to make word count.
  • And…I have preliminary ideas penned down for a sequel to New Novel; the kernel of another short story that is for no anthology or open call in particular; and the very rawest, freshest seeds of another possible novel series that needs some research and development before I start outlining anything.

(I also still kick the tires on comic scripts here and there, though I need to start out with something less sweeping than my The Shoulders of Giants concept. I’m waiting for a short work to appear in my head that would work well in comics instead of prose so I can focus on short, “single-issue” works and perfecting the scripting form before I attempt to do something longer. (I had an idea last night, but I want to let it germinate for a bit.) It’s a whole different way of writing than I’m used to, and taking baby steps is perfectly valid (topical!).

I still have Twitter and Facebook to keep my name out there and boost the signal as necessary — arguably, those are more effective for me than WordPress, judging by the response I got for the No Sh*t, There I Was Kickstarter. If I make myself blog, I’m going to wind up writing endless columns of writing advice someone already covered, or glom onto controversies about which others have already spoken expertly. I might start curating links to those sorts of reports, actually — it’s worth boosting the signal, especially when the voices involved are typically marginalized — but in the meantime, if I don’t have an idea for what to post here, that’s OK. Lessons in self-marketing may teach me that not blogging is dangerous for my brand, but but if I want to talk about fiction writing, it’s probably best if I do some of it..And if that’s what I like, and I’m hurting nobody…that’s OK.

*I’ll reveal the title once I’m shopping it to agents and publishers. Promise.

On Mary and Also Sue

tl;dr: As of today I am going to make a conscious effort to use neither the term “Mary Sue” nor the term “Gary Stu” any longer, as after reading some very smart posts from my very smart friends and colleagues, I believe the roots of those terms to be misogynistic, misguided, and mean-spirited.

Disclaimers:

  • This all got started in my brain thanks to a Facebook post from a friend of mine. I want to give him full credit for inspiring me here, and to say that the root ideas here are his; I’m only not naming him because I don’t yet have his permission to do so, and it’s the Internet.
  • Trigger warnings: mention of violence, rape, racism, homophobia, transphobia.

Longer form commences. It may get a little essay-format in here. I have tried to avoid spoilers and do not mention anything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So.

Mary Sue.

For a definition of the term(s), I turn to the august Web sites Wikipedia and TV Tropes.

From Wikipedia’s entry on “Mary Sue”:

Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities…”Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment…the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting…

From TV Tropes’ entry of the same name:

…the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

Okay. That’s enough to go on.

Let me sum up my feelings: this is garbage.

I say it is garbage not because bad writing and wish-fulfillment do not exist; but because bad writing and wish-fulfillment should be allowed to exist, and shaming people for involvement in them is simple cruelty.

(Well bad writing should not be allowed to exist without criticism…I’ll follow up on that later.)

Life is hard. Life as an oppressed class of person (woman, person of color, LGBT, etc.) is especially hard. Wish-fulfillment, escapism, and fantasy are perfectly reasonable responses to how hard life is, and legitimate ways of coping with getting through the hard parts of life.

We could argue back and forth all day about how much escapism is too much escapism; we can throw around words like “addiction,” and maybe even ableist nastiness about discerning fiction from reality; but the bottom line is that basically everyone, in every culture, sees the value of living and learning vicariously through entertainment, whether that’s a win by your sports team, a painting that speaks to you, seeing a fictional character succeed in the face of adversity that looks a lot like your own, or seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.

Let’s hang on that last line for a second. “Seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.”

You don’t have to look far to see the kinds of venom that are spit daily at women — say, rape and death threats when they criticize any form of media in any way — or at people of color — a potential Presidential candidate calling for all “Muslims” to be banned from the country or forced to sign a registry — or at LGBT people — the entire Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to link to real examples, because those monsters do not deserve the attention, but they are out there and easy to Google or ask your friends about.

If you have to deal with that on a daily basis, you probably want to see a ray of light somewhere, right? Some indicator that it is possible for someone who is like you to be a badass, strong in the face of difficulties, successful in the face of insurmountable odds? Hell, you probably want to see that on your harder days, even if it does not involve being threatened with sexual violence, right?

And you acknowledge the idea of “different strokes for different folks,” yes? You recognize that your wish-fulfillment/stress relief/enjoyment/whatever does not necessarily look like the method of achieving said state that works for spouse, or your best friend, or your next-door neighbor, right? If nothing else, do you understand intellectually that when your team plays the rival team, your idea of “fun” is probably going to look a lot different than the idea of “fun” held by most fans of the other team?

OK. Great.

So, assuming no-one is actually being hurt, and I mean actually being put in an actual negative place that lessens their actual quality of life…

Where do you get off deciding that another person’s way of having fun and feeling better about themselves is bad?

That is one of my three root issues with the term “Mary Sue.” No-one should be shamed for enjoying wish fulfillment. No-one should be shamed for wanting to have a good time, so long as that good time is not coming at the cost of the well-being of others.

I’m going to tap into that last statement in a moment, but I want to finish up my issues with “Mary Sue” first. My second issue with the term “Mary Sue” is the inherent gendering of the term. Yes, we have now come up with “Marty Stu” and “Gary Sue”; yes, people talk about how the term is not gendered; but, as TV Tropes says, “The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character,” and if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

The term grew out of Star Trek fanfiction (specifically, it “comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’” [Wikipedia]), and it’s an accepted if not concretely observed notion that fanfic writers were, initially, largely female. It is also overwhelmingly applied to original female characters who get to be as important as canon male characters — and as it has grown into a term used in fiction at large, it has continued to be disproportionately used to describe female characters. The only male character that I hear routinely get called a Sue/Stu is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation; other male characters who are just as obviously given a disproportionate chunk of the spotlight (e.g., Wolverine and Cyclops from the X-Men franchise) or just as obviously get to save the day when the chips are down despite not being the only ones canonically capable of same (e.g., Batman in any DC universe fiction), either do not get slapped with the label despite qualifying, or get the label alongside so many jabs at either their “feminine” traits or their sexuality that it’s hard not to see this as being about shaming women for wanting to have rad protagonists available to them.

And that’s gross, people. Gross.

And now, my third and final issue with the term “Mary Sue”…it is generally used as a hallmark of bad writing, right? We are all agreed on this point? Well, bad writing needs to exist.

Writing bad stories is the only way you figure out what doesn’t work and get to good stories. Just like every hockey player (except maybe Wayne Gretzky) had to play some truly terrible games of hockey before they figured out how to reliably play well; just like every baker’s first-ever batch of chocolate chip cookies was likely inedible; just like if I went out today and tried to run a marathon, I would wind up calling someone to come pick me up in my new superhero disguise as the Human Cramp; every writer has to write bad stories. Most of us even keep doing it, because everyone has their off days!

Even if something is bad, it may represent the absolute best a person can do right now, not because they are in any inherently bad, but because they are still learning how to be good. Criticism is a part of helping that person to grow, but dismissive criticism may snuff out their fire while it is still just sparks. Also, not everybody is ready to be put on blast just yet; that’s why I don’t publish every rough draft I ever write on my blog, and that’s part of why fan-fiction communities exist. We need safe spaces to figure out how to be the best us we can be. Why invade and dismiss that just because you don’t think my How to Train Your Dragon/WWE crossover fic is the next Aenead?

Now, there are forms of (or elements present in) “bad art” or “bad escapism” that are truly, objectively bad. Those that uncritically glorify rape, racism, murder, or other forms of violence and hate. Those that reinforce negative and problematic social narratives, like the idea every rape victim “kinda enjoyed it” or that a person of color is “asking for trouble” by behaving in a certain way. Those that stir up hatred toward a real-world group. Those that encourage hateful and destructive urges rather than offer a catharsis that prevents the need for actualizing those urges. In short, things that actually hurt actual people, even if only by making it seem OK to hurt those people. And those do need to be taken out behind the woodshed sometimes, and called out as either “problematic” or even sometimes outright hate speech.

But…

Don’t deride people for doing their best, just because their best isn’t the same as somebody else’s best.

Don’t deride people for liking things that aren’t hurting anybody. Liking things is cool.

And don’t ever forget that everything is problematic in some way, and that criticism and dismissal are not synonymous.

Like stuff. Make stuff.

Figure out how to be you.

Figure out what doesn’t work.

Figure out how not to hurt people.

The world will be a better place.

That, in a 1700 word nutshell, is why I will never, ever again call any character a Mary Sue.

On Mementos Mori

Hi, I’m Tyler, and I’m terrified of death.

I’m not terrified of it in the sense that it’s imminent; I’m not wounded, I have no terminal diagnosis or indeed diagnosis at all, and with the exception of probably needing to lay off the red meat and Cheez-Its a little I have a pretty healthy diet with an attempt at regular exercise. I’m terrified of it in the sense that I want it to never, ever come anywhere near me or the people I love.

It’s to the point that I lose sleep over it. There will be nights that Sonya will hear in my breathing and my movements that I’m tense, and being the person she is, she’ll check in on me, and all I say anymore is that I’m having my existential crisis, because I have so thoroughly exhausted the topic beyond any sane person’s capacity to tolerate that there’s no need to elaborate further. But it doesn’t change that I worry. I worry about cancer, and car crashes, and heart attacks, and the thousand ridiculous no-shit story ways a person could just suddenly die. I check myself for tumors so often I’ve actually caused skin irritations. It’s pathetic, a lot of days.

Death terrifies me because I don’t want this to end. I feel like I’m just really becoming a real person, like I’m just getting a handle on big concepts like good and evil and the balance between “adulthood” and mental well-being and how to tell a good story and the idea that everyone is gross sometimes. I want to keep growing, and learning, and improving. I want to refine myself into a sparkling diamond, and raise kids who get to refine themselves into sparkling diamonds. I want to have the time to save up the money to buy a house, to raise a kid in an environment we know is ready for it, to write every novel that pops into my head, to read all of Terry Pratchett and every Superman story and build a house and try out pro wrestling and…

As Roy Baty once said: I want more life.

I don’t know what happens when we die, and I wish I did. When I’m awake at night, eyes screwed shut, listening to the highway growling and the occasional detonation of late-night parties, I find myself hoping for an afterlife, but also terrified of what the afterlife could be. What if the afterlife is eternity in a cramped box, alone? What if it’s always like I’m having trouble breathing? What if it’s just blackness and contemplation with no filter to keep that from being exactly like my current consciousness would experience it? Will Sonya be there with me? What about my friends? What about any of my cats?

I know, I’m supposed to take this as a sign that I need to seize the day and really drink deeply of life. I try. But at the end of the day, it’s a thought that always haunts me, waiting in the wings for when the joy and the laughter and the sweat and the tears all subside, asking me questions about what comes next. It’s the one question I can’t know the answer to, and the one question I have to hope I just get more comfortable with as my life goes on.

I don’t have a concluding point on this one. I don’t have any kind of revelation. I’m also not looking for an outpouring of sympathy. But I’m hoping, maybe, someone who reads this finds some comfort in it, or something interesting. Because if nothing else, that’s one more life I know I touched on my journey across this weird suspended ball of mud.

End of line.

On Stagnation, Entropy, and Other Change-Related Things

This post is in response to this other post, by my friend Leslie. She has a huge brain full of important thoughts, and you should be reading her posts and everything else that goes up on Black Nerd Problems. In my neverending commitment to progress, I am trying to make sure I boost the range of under-privileged voices, so I would really appreciate it if you would read the entirety of her post first. This is crafted assuming you have done so.

OK, we good?

Great.

(Full disclosure: We do actually know each other IRL and spend time in each others’ company in a friendly capacity. Take note, ye hoary trolls of the Intertron.)

So, first off: I 100% agree with her.

This is a pet peeve we both share; that a community that is explicitly supposed to be about celebrating creativity and inclusion and being weird is so very, very committed to keeping things how they always were.

More particularly, it bothers me that nerds claim to be outcasts, to be the “weird” people, to be against the exclusionary behaviors of the “jocks” or whatever the popular group du jour is, but that the type of “weird” nerd culture is so committed to preserving is a “weird” that is actually a very specific subset of traits and behaviors, that were enshrined in days of old and have not been allowed to change since.

This already erupted, albeit briefly, on a Facebook thread, so I will say it here: no, nerds are not the only people who are afraid of change. No, nerds are not the only people to behave in an exclusionary manner. But we are focusing on them because a. they are a culture that claims to be about embracing that which is fringe and different, but which on the whole does anything but, and b. because that is the topic that is at hand right now. This is not a witch-hunt nor is it a rejection of the idea anyone else ever excluded somebody. Capice?

Nerds are exclusionary about a great many things, and they react poorly to change in general, and they actually have a tendency to pigeonhole certain pursuits as “not nerdy.” You can see this in the “Edition Wars” that crop up whenever a new edition of a roleplaying game comes out (look up arguments about Third, Fourth, or Fifth Edition D&D, or the condemnation of the switch from the Old World of Darkness to the New), or at your board game night, when your group will not play Eurogames or “Ameritrash,” or when someone wants to play Munchkin or Fluxx and people roll their eyes (this happens to my wife on a regular basis).

They also have a tendency to declare media “ruined forever” whenever there is a major shift in their franchise of choice. And there are unfortunate implications, and just outright unfortunate statements, that come up whenever this happens in reaction to media with increased diversity: stories focused on people of color, or women, or LGBT people. And especially stories where those underrepresented parts of humanity replace a white/male/straight version of a character. Like, say, when someone made Marvel’s Thor a woman, or when someone decided to do a new Ghostbusters movie with an all-female cast. There’s even backlash about having non-white characters in fantasy novels at all, saying that somehow it is “not fantasy” if there are non-white people in the story. Yes, really.

It seems so weird to me, and actually enraging, in fact, that, in a culture that has a well-known problem with excluding people, to the point of not excluding toxic and dangerous people, we are so quick to exclude people who do not conform to far less harmful behaviors. And while it’s bad that we try to say someone is or is not a “real nerd” or “real gamer” or whatever based on the weirdest judgments, and that we treat all change as something to shun, it is worse that we are also often being racist and sexist in the process.

Now, the most common defense I hear when these arguments are called out is that race/gender is not the issue. It’s about the change. This argument takes a great many forms. And I would like to go over the most common ones right now, because I want to discuss the ways in which the argument looks problematic, and in which it is possible the argument is a result of problematic cultural programming.

So, without further ado:

Argument #1: The “We’re Past All That”

But there are established female/PoC/LGBT characters in this franchise already; why did we have to add another one/replace a white/male/straight character with one of those?

Why is it a bad thing if there are more now? Why do the majority of characters have to be white, and why can’t non-white characters adopt some of the mantles previously held by white guys? Why does Captain America always have to be white? Why can’t Thor, who has previously been turned into a frog and also had his hammer wielded by an alien horse-man, also be a woman? Why can’t women bust ghosts? We are not erasing the fact that character was white/male/straight before. Why is it a problem for that to change? This goes double if you were also complaining that they have run out of stories to tell with the character in question.

Argument #2: The Appeal to Tradition

This character/franchise is a classic, and to change it is to undermine the original.

Why does having a new version diminish the old one? We’ve done a million spins on Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth and the Ring Cycle, and no-one (well, no sane person) is arguing we have ruined Shakespeare. What is it about Ghostbusters that makes it immune to the same kind of cultural adaptation?

Argument #3: The Capitalism Shield

This change is just about boosting sales and getting ally cookies from the “PC patrol”

So? Comics and movies have done far stupider things than add a black person to boost sales. Also, if adding a black person reliably boosted sales, wouldn’t everything just be black people, all the time?

Or is what you’re saying that they are trying to expand their market to include people who are not represented in the old version? If that’s the case, why does their buy-in have to preclude your own or vice-versa? Why does reading about people who are not you insult or offend you?

Argument #4: The Fascism Parallel

This change is just about the “PC patrol” forcing us to adhere to their views.

We’re actually not asking you to conform to any view; we are asking you to be willing to read about people who are not like you. That’s not really a “view” so much as “a natural byproduct of a global community, and of everyone getting an equal chance to write about/read about/see people who are both like them and different.” See Item #3.

(Also, eat me, Hypothetical Interlocutor; “politically correct” is only a bad word to bad people.)

Now, I did my best to not be inflammatory up there, and knowing myself, I probably failed. So please, if you are still feeling vehement about not wanting the new version of Cap, or the Ghostbusters, or DuckTales, or whatever…please take a deep breath, understand that I am not mad at you, and ask yourself this series of questions:

Is it really about liking the old version better? Are you sure it is not because you have been taught that media becoming more inclusive must necessarily come at the expense of inclusivity toward the people who are represented by the old version? Are you sure it is not because of some other belief you have been raised with, unquestioned, that you may not feel is correct once you do examine it? I have those too, believe me, and it’s a struggle to parse them all out and stop letting them control you. You are not a bad person for all that; you are a person. I just want to help you see what might be going on that is fueling your reaction.

And if, after all that, your argument is that it changed, and now it sucks, and race or gender or orientation don’t enter into it…why is change at all bad? Why does something changing undermine your ability to enjoy what came before? Why can’t you just go back and read/watch that other version that you like better, and let other people read the new thing? Or, perhaps even more important, why can’t the new thing be given a chance to be good just because it is new? As Leslie wisely said, if we took that attitude all the time, we’d still be living in caves.

So this is me saying — nerds are supposed to be about inclusivity. Maybe we should consider actually behaving that way.

Now excuse me, I am going to go read about the new Thor and Captain America while I play Fluxx.

On My Week, Featuring Ozzy Osbourne

This has not been a horrible week, and that’s why I want to write about it.

I easily fall into the same trap that many, many, many bloggers do — I write when angry, or sad, or when rote tells me I need to write. I realized I was falling into that with my Progress Friday posts, which is why you haven’t seen any in a couple weeks. Well, that and any weekday is basically the worst day for me to be trying to write a blog post and hit my fiction word count in the same day. I’m trying to decide what to do about Progress Fridays (possibly a Facebook update?), but in the meantime, I am blogging when I want to blog.

But, the point of this post is this: I am happy with where I am right now.

Maybe not literally where I am literally right at this moment, which is at my day job desk an hour early because I got asked very late yesterday to attend an 8am meeting; but in general, where my life is at. It’s not perfect, at all, and there are things I need to handle, but this is so much better than what I used to think was better.

Let me explain that through the medium of talking about Ozzy Osbourne.

I did my undergraduate work at UC Santa Cruz, a beautiful, hilly college with its identity stuck between being a sprawling research university and a loose, let-your-hair-down hippie school. I majored in Literature, which may explain why I find myself having to either power through books or find myself taking aeons to read them because I stop every page or so to examine the symbolism. And of course, this is the place where I forged my identity. So of course, I find myself nostalgic for it. Like a lot. It doesn’t hurt that I had many fewer responsibilities at college than I do now, at least in terms of hours I am specifically expected to be spending in specific places. I still have a yen for the level of socialization I got to do in those days.

Nowadays, my day job is a copyediting gig at a wonderful little technical book company that I will not discuss more here, in case I have fans who would try to come find me. And being a copyediting gig, I sometimes need music or podcasts to get myself through the tougher assignments. Or on days like today, through everything. My iPod is a weird beast, a mix of high-tech stuff and old, old music of mine; my access to a CD drive with which to upload albums and money with which to buy MP3s has been highly varied over my adult life, as cloud storage and media delivery has become more and more prevalent, so a large amount of what is on my iPod is stuff I added the last time I owned a desktop computer with an internal CD drive — which is to say, when I was in college and graduate school. KMFDM. Corrosion of Conformity. Portishead. Ministry. Dead Kennedys. Ozzy Osbourne.

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided to accompany my editing work with a little listen to Blizzard of Ozz. It’s a great album, with some great post-Sabbath Ozzy work, though often on the extreme end of either melancholy or angry. I started up the album, and I heard the opening strains of “Perry Mason,” and I got hit straight in the solar plexus with depression. Not a literal depressive episode, but just a total bottoming out of my emotions. Luckily, my first instinct was to pause, and my second instinct was to wonder what the hell just happened.

I first got Blizzard of Ozz around about the time of my nineteenth birthday, which for an October baby meant my sophomore year of college. In my sophomore year, I hit the well-known slump. Bad. I lived in a dorm that was partially below ground, so I got almost no sunlight except during daytime classes, with roommates who blamed me for the mess of another roommate (and let’s be fair, some mess of my own) and hated me on sight. I took a lot of classes that were general-education chaff, stuff I knew I could handle in the sciences and composition department, so I didn’t feel inspired. Even my Creative Writing class left me feeling terrible, because while the Intro course was great, I was rejected from the Intermediate course (and had to then add a new class two weeks late to keep my financial aid) because they refused to accept genre fiction writers.

Academically, I was troubled, and socially and medically I bottomed out bad. I had two unhealthy relationships and a pair of just-as-unhealthy flings. I slept too little and then too much. I ate mostly junk food, and was so out of shape walking to class managed to hurt. I was a flake, unable to keep a lot of my promises because with my low energy levels all I could deal with taking care of was myself. I was so clingy with one of my best friends that we stopped talking to each other for about two weeks. All around me I watched friends’ relationships implode, barely avoided failing a couple classes, got yelled at by one old friend and cried on by another, and in between, I LARPed to try to take the edge off of how miserable real life was. Because that is a healthy way to handle things. I think around now was when I started being so bad with money that I got yelled at basically weekly by my parents. I remember playing credit card roulette at Jeffery’s Diner in downtown Santa Cruz, with me and my other friends all seeing who had the money to pay for post-LARP dinner that week. I still cringe when I see bad money management on TV, and I always think my own money management is bad. I’m grateful I didn’t have a credit card in those days, because I would assuredly be ankle-deep in debt to this day.

And during all this, during days where I was pretty sure someone had painted a tinfoil glaze over the sky just to make sure the sun couldn’t shine too bright for me, I listened to Blizzard of Ozz. And Corrosion of Conformity (mostly Deliverance), and Faith No More (Angel Dust) and Acid Bath (When the Kite String Pops). And now, whenever I listen to any of those, I become a mess. I tap back into how miserable I was, and how sure I was that there wasn’t a way out.

I don’t say this to get empathy for how much my life sucked. I say this because yesterday, sitting there with “Perry Mason” on pause, I realized, that was the life I was pining for all this time. That was actually how I felt at UC Santa Cruz, and that was actually who I was, when I was still learning to be me.

My life now may not be the most glamorous or the most amazing. But, I’m married to my best friend and one of my all-around favorite people. I have had my writing published, and am working to publish even more. I work at a job that allows me to pay my bills, and save a little, and challenge my brain. I’m running the single best campaign of a tabletop game I have ever run. I get to unabashedly and unashamedly enjoy Sharks hockey, and pro wrestling, and comic books, and Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick and every other amazing author who is now at my fingertips because of modern technology and the amazing media access it gives me. Some mornings are bad, and sometimes my anxiety crashes down on me because I am convinced it is all going away. But most of the time, the large percentage of the time, I’m happy.

I have another memory from my sophomore year. It was spring quarter, the final quarter of the academic year. I had finished up all my gen eds (except two that would have to wait until the next academic year), and I was taking some classes in the major I had just decided I wanted to do — English literature. Among those classes was “Intro to Horror Film,” taught by one of the greatest film/literary theory professors I have ever met, Marsh Leicester, who was taking us from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari all the way up to Aliens, with stops at Halloween and The Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I took the class with Nate, Matt, and Joe, three of my best friends at the time; and after class, in the afternoon when the air was warm with the oncoming summer, we would walk back to our dormitories (or in Matt’s case, the parking lot where he caught the bus back to his apartment), which took us through most of the west end of the UC Santa Cruz campus. We talked about the class, and video games, and the shit-storms we were all going through in our lives; and we found ways to laugh about it.

Twelve years later, Matt, Nate, and I have all stood at each others’ weddings; and Joe was at my wedding with his own fiancee, both ready to hug and congratulate, and soon the two of them should be getting married, too. Trying to be near Nate and Matt was what brought me to Mountain View, which is what brought me into the online dating circle that caused me to meet Sonya, so in an indirect way they helped me meet my wife. I see Matt for games of Wild Talents and whenever else we can fit into each others’ busy schedules, and I have a pseudo-weekly date with Nate and his wife to play whatever roleplaying game we feel like playing that week. Joe comes by for board games and updates me on how his own life is going in his neck of the woods. And we all sometimes reminisce about UCSC, or this or that LARP, or this or that phase of our lives; and we smile, and we move on, and we do the cool stuff adults in their mid-thirties get to do.

And what’s most important to me in that shared history is not that those times were necessarily the best; it’s that without having gone through those times, I would not have known those upstanding men, and gotten to share in their weddings, and gotten to do with them all the things we have done since. And it all started with that awkward pancake breakfast where I met Matt, and with Nate coming over to my house and asking if we wanted to room together at UCSC, and those horrible days in my sophomore year…but those horrible days led to those walks after Intro to Horror Film…and to those weddings…and to today.

So, that’s the way I want to remember UCSC: as a place I walked through on the way to this awesome thing I have now, that I am privileged to call my life.

Letting go of those days being my halcyon days is one of the hardest things for me to do; but I think, just maybe, I’ve finally done it.

Now excuse me, I need to go edit some textbooks and then read about the Avengers traveling through time to stop their ally’s future self. And maybe cry.

On Meaning It

I’ve had this one brewing for a while, so if it seems to trip over itself, my apologies.

Two old friends of mine, Matt and Tyler, are doing a podcast together right now called Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks. Their most recent review of bad fiction was, and you may not be surprised to hear this, Touched by Venom, which has a little bit of infamy following it around. A lot of the discussion centered around how reprehensible and offensive the things Cross describes in that book are, and near the end of the podcast, they come to the conclusion that they have no idea what Cross was trying to say, but she didn’t do a very good job saying it; that the book feels like shock for the sake of shock.  This got me back on this line of thinking.

I’ve many times had the discussion about the moral content (or lack thereof) of art, usually with people who are dismissing the worth of a work because they found something in it offensive (my favorite example being Dollhouse).  In these discussions I always come down on the same side: that art has no moral responsibility.  Art portrays what art needs to portray, and sometimes the facets of our world it mirrors are not the most pleasant aspects.  If art offended you, it may be because it’s doing its job.

But at the same time, there is art that does offend me, and that I am outspoken about being offended by.  The extremely non-consensual overtones Dany and Drogo’s relationship took in the HBO version of Game of Thrones, for instance, or the bratty, immature behavior of Kate on Lost. When I’m called on this apparent hypocrisy, my excuse is, “Yes, but in those cases, the writers clearly supported their behavior.”

I like to call writing the Spooky Art. This is one of those places where I am going to get extra-spooky and wrist-flappy and soft-science-y about it.  I may also spoil a few things.  You have been warned.

So, it’s more or less agreed that stories, in any medium, have what we call subtext. Sometimes it’s innuendo spoken by characters, sometimes it’s the way particularly characters are described or framed visually.  But we all agree that a book, a painting, a film, doesn’t quite stop at the story that we are being told directly.

Part and parcel of this is the question of authorial intent.  Which parts of the text and subtext were put there on purpose, and which parts were subconscious? (Or totally not the author’s fault at all; trust the English major, sometimes we read the weirdest shit into stories – I once in my youth managed to make Kipling sound liberal and anti-establishment.)  This is the question at the root of which media I don’t mind and which media offend me.

As an example, let’s take prime-time high-concept football Dollhouse.  The story revolved around attractive young men and women who could be programmed to be whoever a client wanted.  There was a storyline in the first season (SPOILERY SPOILERS) in which a doll, in her “blank” personality (the personality that is theoretical not a personality at all) was being raped, repeatedly, by the man assigned as her bodyguard.  This storyline squicked and offended a lot of people and was the cause of at least one person I know boiling over into not watching it.  People found it disgusting, horrifying, the darkest and most logical culmination of the exploitative culture engendered by the Dollhouse (an excuse used by the rapist himself when he is caught).

And here’s the thing: that’s supposed to offend you.  That was the writers’ intention.

Dollhouse does not treat what is happening in the Dollhouse as something you should like or support.  Watch the way the most lascivious scenes are handled.  Once you know that the personalities of the dolls are fake and preprogrammed, they are framed as something kind of terrifying.  The camera angles are never quite right or settled; the music is often kind of off, or when it’s on, it sounds a little fake and prepackaged.  The scenes with the doll getting raped and the reveal of that mystery are treated as particularly horrific; they even use horror-movie and crime-drama styles of editing (fast, choppy cuts and dramatic, tense music) to show what was going on.  The show goes out of its way to treat the rapist as a villain, but also treats him like his excuse for his behavior is a transparently bad excuse – this is conveyed with the camera angles, the scenery around him, the music, etc.; it all adds up to “this is a bad guy.”  It also all adds up to the writers of the show once again making it obvious that the situation in the Dollhouse is not meant to be excused, not meant to be taken as a net positive or even neutral.  The show wants you to question the moral and ethical implications of the Dollhouse and has characters on all sides of the discussion.

If this example seems obvious, it’s because the next one sort of isn’t.

On Lost, one of the main characters is Kate. Kate is honestly kind of a jerk, and a selfish, moralizing jerk at that.

Let’s break it down.  Kate lies to everybody, pretty much constantly.  (Let’s be nice – everyone does this to everyone on that fucking show.)  At first this is justifiable – she’s a convict and is not admitting it for reasons of ensuring her survival in a tense situation – but later on she does it for no reason; she just refuses to explain herself to anybody, at any time, and always acts as though asking her why she is doing things is an unacceptable invasion of privacy.  She is particularly reluctant to discuss her past, and it’s implied that she did something bad, but for good reasons.  Later on in the show, we find out what she did – she blew up her house with her stepfather (who abused her mother) asleep inside it.  She then told her mother what she did, freaked out when her mother called the cops, and became a fugitive.

…wait, let’s rewind that: she decided that her mother would be better off without the stepdad (or apparently their house) and was then shocked when her mother’s reaction was to freak out and call the police.  She made this decision without involving her mother in any way in the decision. That’s world-class stupid, and furthermore it’s really kind of sanctimonious and dismissive of her mother’s emotions – both her probably-conflicted emotions about her husband (common in abusive relationships) and her totally justifiable shock and horror at the idea that her daughter murdered the man and blew up their house.

And the thing is, it comes off like the show thinks this is a positive-if-flawed portrayal.  The music when she meets with her mother is sad, as though we are supposed to be upset about her mother’s judgment of her daughter.  The show keeps giving us close-ups of Kate looking Upset, and framing her in a completely different way than Shannon, who is meant to come off as much more of a bitch in most of her scenes.  The idea that comes across is that Shannon’s emotional manipulation and constant whining (she slowly improves) is meant to be seen as a negative, but Kate’s bullheadedness, constant lying, and total unwillingness to share information with people are meant to be seen as net positives; as proof of a strong, independent woman who has been kicked around by the world.  It does not shy away from the fact that Kate is a thief and sometimes immature, but it does seem to think that what she did is “justice” and the Big Bad World is somehow more terrible for the fact it continues to pursue justice against a murderer who blew up a house.  The writing, in short, agrees with her.

And this is what I was getting at.  Sometimes, in discussions with people about stories, I talk about the work “agreeing” or “disagreeing” with a character.  This is what I mean when I say that: that the way the character or their behavior is framed by the work’s subtext and presentation suggests that the character is “right” or “wrong.” I am not offended by art portraying terrible people; I in fact encourage art to portray the human dark side, or to portray good people who screw up and do bad things. It’s when bad things are portrayed in a positive light that I start to get the heebie-jeebies.

Of course, there is also the issue of a good character doing bad things and being forgiven too easily…or the issue of certain genres assuming a morality and/or ethics that tends to differ from the morality and/or ethics of the people watching them (e.g., the rather cavalier attitude toward murder in action movies)…or the fact that the morality or immorality of any given act in any given work is more or less entirely subjective…but those are all blog posts in and of themselves, at least one of which I might consider writing some day.

For now, my point is this: before you rage against the content of a work, consider how the work treats that content.  If you’re weighing the moral or ethical implications of every single thing everyone does in any story, and moreover weighing each one in a vacuum…well, at best you’re exhausting yourself, but at worst, you’re dismissing the whole of art as irrelevant.  After all, the Lascaux cave paintings depicted murder.

On Reactions

This discussion is germane to writing (well, editing, which is germane to writing), but it starts with LARPing. Also this is unexpectedly germane to some stuff going on in video gaming, so I guess we’re just getting our fingers in a multitude of pies.

For those who do not know, I am part of the San Francisco chapter of the Alliance LARP.  If you don’t have time to click the links, we pretend we’re orcs and elves and stuff and hit each other with big padded weapons.  It’s good fun and pretty good exercise and I recommend you try it, you complete nerd.  This past weekend I was up in the mountains, swinging pipe; and as naturally happens, after I got back down the hill I started talking about the story of what had just happened. Without getting into details and being one of those guys who spits drama everywhere like some kind of passive-aggressive dilophosaur, there was an event at the game that many players complained about, that members of the group running the game defended as having had “reasons for happening.” Being a gossip-monger curious person interested in the human condition, I listened to what I could get of both sides without stirring the pot, and I came to a conclusion that I realized applies not just to LARPing, but to all forms and permutations of the Spooky Art of writing:

Writers who are writing for an audience need to think about what the readers will see, not just what they see when they write it down.

This is probably obvious to a lot of people, and it may even be part and parcel of those Public Speaking and Creative Writing classes I didn’t really have the chance to take when I was doing the school thing.  Let’s pretend it’s not so the other half I realized today makes more complete sense.

When you put something out there for public consumption – more particularly, when you put something out there you actually intend for people to read – you need to be cognizant of the fact that the conditions under which your work will be consumed are not the conditions under which they were written. People aren’t inside your skull any more than you let them be, and so if you are assuming everyone else’s reaction is going to be the reaction you intended, you will be sorely disappointed. I majored in Literature, the human brain is really good at finding patterns and inferring intent where there really was none, and what looks like a metaphor for the German invasion of Poland to you might look like a metaphor for sexual assault to someone else (like my unforgettable gaffe in thinking Kipling was being ironic when he said all that stuff about the white man’s burden).  Similarly, what you think will scare your audience and get them “into it” may actually annoy your audience and take them “out of it” (like my reaction to jump scares, which I despise and which are not horror I’m sorry guys but really).

And it’s fine to not care. It’s fine to keep on writing what you want to write and hang the reactions of the readers and the critics and the whoozits. Some of my favorite works (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ulysses, Barton Fink, The Road ) are deeply obtuse in places and do not attempt to give you any kind of guide to how to interpret it, and all four of those have devoted fans and one or two of those even saw commercial success, so obviously it’s not like “writing what you want to write” is bad advice (on the contrary, it’s good advice). But, if for some or all of the length of your work, your desire is to trigger a certain reaction – if you need the audience to be disgusted by something for the step after that event to work right, if your hope in the next scene is that the reaction will be awe or shock or what have you – you do need to do what you can to ensure that is actually the reaction, and that includes getting out of your own head a little bit.

Semioticians refer to it as the ground of interpretation – the particular grouping of experiences and knowledge bases that define the connections a person’s brain makes when presented with a sign or a symbol.  Everyone’s ground of interpretation is unique, though there are some common experiences we can more or less count on across all of humanity (getting dumped, fighting with your parents), within a widespread culture (being stuck in traffic when you have to go to the bathroom) or within the subculture that is your target audience (hearing shoehorned-in Firefly jokes at a sci-fi convention).  The key, the Spooky part, is to be sure that your reaction-dependent parts are working from parts of your ground of interpretation that will be similar in other people.

An example I remember from one of my numerous How to Write Gooder books from my childhood is the name of the eponymous villain in Dracula: If Stoker had chosen to call him “Count Cuthbert L. Gooch,” there is a good chance our count would not have seemed that terrifying, even if Stoker had done everything else the same way; but if Stoker had been hospitalized by a beating from someone named Cuthbert L. Gooch, to him that is actually scary.  In my own writing, something that is causing me no end of grief in Done with Mirrors is realizing that two scenes which I wrote months apart actually occur within twenty or so pages of each other and use a very similar method to get to their end narrative result, so what I had written intending to evoke a sense of the main character running out of ideas would actually just be mind-numbing and boring for the reader.  (This second one is actually something I think every writer really needs to be careful of – don’t be repetitive and call it “artistic,” because to your readers it’s just going to look redundant; I need to listen to that one, especially.)  In the LARP example I cited above, there was a disconnect in what the people running the game thought they were constructing and how the PCs construed it when the scenario was executed (which is not to say either side is wrong, only that there was most definitely a disconnect).

So, we’ve talked about LARPing and about writing, now we get to the part where this becomes relevant, right?  Right.

Given the particular cross-section who tends to read this blog (at least the ones that aren’t spambots), I wouldn’t be shocked if you have already heard about the kerfuffle over the ending to gaming juggernaut Mass Effect 3.  The links about the controversy are many and varied, so I’m not going to attempt to link them all here.  The spoiler-free bottom line is: a lot of fans disliked the ending and felt it did not deliver on the promises made by the series, narratively speaking (though at least one person is taking that more literally and attempting to nail BioWare for false advertising). There’s been a huge fan outcry all over the Internet, rebuttal after rebuttal-rebuttal, use of TV Tropes buzzwords in an effort to sound erudite, the works.  There’s even a subset of that screaming horde who has asked BioWare to change the ending and make it better.

I’m about to get loud and opinionated, so please consider yourselves warned.

This is stupid.  Not the part about disliking the ending; the part about people calling for the ending to change.  This is worse than the people yelling at George R.R. Martin to stop working on projects that were making him money (money which he may in fact need badly and need now) to finish books they personally cared about.  In the words of the folks at Penny Arcade’s CheckPoint series, the fans are asking BioWare to do to Mass Effect 3 what they complain about George Lucas doing to Star Wars.

I hate the remastered Star Wars trilogy. I rank the newer three movies in the sextology (or whatever you call it) as among the worst I’ve ever seen. I’m also mad at Michael Bay for making what I consider retarded movies out of my beloved Transformers franchise, I couldn’t make myself finish reading the Twilight series, and I can’t seem to make myself finish the final boss fight in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword because I’m so frustrated with the motion controls. I have seen my share of head-slappingly bad media, and I have known people who I felt (deservedly) asked for their money back after watching part of some movies.  But I have never known anyone who participated in an attempt to get a creator to change their creation, and that’s a good thing, because I probably would have had a massive, spit-flinging, hate-geysering fight with them.

As I said above, the author should consider their audience’s reaction when they look at a scene that depends on the audience’s reaction to work; but the author’s creation is, ultimately, their creation, as flawed or as glorious as it may be.  The audience has every right to worship a story or to despise it or to just not really have a strong feeling about it; however, they have no right to ask the creator to change their creation.

The artist’s contract with the consumer is very limited and very simple: If what they are doing does not cause whatever effect it is you want it to cause, you can stop giving the artist money, and that is your right.  If the work was a commission and not up to your expectations, the contract between you and the artist may include the right to ask for your money back.  Heck, if you bought the art retail you might be able to get your money back anyway.  The artist can maybe whine about it on their blog (though that might not be the best course of action), but that’s it.  Similarly, once you have stopped giving money and/or managed a one-time reversal of the transaction, you can give bad reviews on Yelp or say nasty things about the artist on your blog, but that’s it; your rights end there.  This is about as close to justice as the artist/consumer relationship is going to get, and both sides will still have times they feel screwed by it. I’m afraid that’s what compromise and equality feels like sometimes.

BioWare made a game that had an ending many didn’t like.  I’m not going to argue about the emotional reaction to the ending (for one thing, I haven’t seen it and for another, that’s beside the point).  But the people who claim they are “reclaiming” Mass Effect and demanding BioWare change the ending are working under the worst kind of hubris.  The world of Mass Effect is not “theirs,” no matter how much they may have felt a part of it.  The world, the story, the characters, the bad parts and the good parts are the creations of BioWare, and they have a right to that because they have worked their butts off to produce it.  You don’t have to like it, and if you don’t like it you absolutely should say why, because creators need criticism to become better creators.  But you are stepping vastly out of bounds if you think you have a right to make them change what they already made because you don’t like it.  Someone out there liked it; I know, I’m friends with them on Facebook.  To claim that your dislike, however common an opinion it may be, is somehow an edict is ludicrous.

Art is not government; you aren’t stuck with whatever the majority says they like (though they may affect artistic trends), and that’s part of the beauty of it.  If you want to reclaim something, focus on something that is actually mandatory, actually unavoidable, might actually harm you.  The worst Mass Effect 3 is guilty of is producing a reaction that you did not like, and if you want art that caters to your every reaction, you are going to have to make it yourself.  In which case Mass Effect 3 is guilty of the best crime of all: Inspiration.

Think about that the next time you post vitriol on the Internet.