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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Over The Hill


This is what I think of getting old. I refuse to accept that this is anything but my 28th anniversary of being 12.  A fact supported by drug store employees who say, "I'm sorry. Can I see some I.D?" when my mom sends me to get cigarettes. Awwwww yiiiissss.

Shockingly enough there were no threesomes again this year (groupie or otherwise) but at least Supportive Girlfriend apologized for the egregious oversight.

SG: "I'm sorry I didn't get you hookers and blow again this year."

Me: "That's okay. It's really more of a joke than anything." (Then after a pause.) "I'm not sure I really want to try blow."

Oh and don't forget to vote in the second semifinals poll. Thursday I tabulate the results and put up the final round.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

See You On The Flip Side



Despite the fact that I just got through declaring that I would post something every day, I'm about to close up shop for the weekend. But just this weekend.

You see, Monday is womb liberation day. (Viva la Resistance!) Many solar revolutions ago–in an auspicious year for nerds, for it is when Dungeons and Dragons and Tom Baker arrived on the scene–I began a little journey. You've probably been paying more attention to Jewel, Kate Moss, and Christian Bale, and I don't blame you really, but a few of my friends (who don't actually know Jewel, Kate Moss, or Christian Bale) have decided that there must be shenanigans.


  • Tonight we are going to see Garfunkel and Oates in San Francisco.
  • Tomorrow I have been assured by the criminal duo of Dim and Sum that I may not get much crime fighting done, but I will be thoroughly satisfied. (My mind reels.)
  • Supportive Girlfriend has found some superhero sauna thing where their "Stress Technicians" can even deal with people who are elastic or turn into rock. So that should be cool.
  • (You'll notice there's a tragic lack of groupie threesomes in this itinerary, so if you hurry, I might be able to pencil you in.)
The point being, I'm going to be getting my natal felicitations on, spending some time with some fiction I really want to get a draft of started, fixing a bunch of behind the scenes stuff (menus and old entries that OG has pointed out have errors) and returning on Tuesday for some more Writing About Writing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why is the Publishing Industry so Whitewashed? (Mailbox)

Why is the publishing industry so whitewashed? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Amazingly complex questions will be answered, but only rarely until I get a hookers and blow budget.] 

Diane writes:

Chris, 

Believe it or not, you are the reason I'm taking a literature M.A. instead of a Creative Writing MFA. After a particularly turbulent row with my mother, my sister showed me your MFA article [Writer's note: I'm guessing this one?]. Not only did you earn a fan that day but it was like you were talking right to me. I realized my mom was right but for all the wrong reasons, and an MFA was wrong, but for all the right reasons. I made a deal with my mom that I would take an MA if she would let me have a "ghost" class that was my own dedication to writing. She snapped the offer up like a crocodile. I take six units a semester and spend at least 2 hours a day writing with the extra time. If the MFA's I share lit classes with are to be believed, I owe you big time. Still have room on your staff for a groupie?

I suppose I should get on to my question though. In my MA, we've learned about CRT [Chris's note: Critical Race Theory], postcolonial theory, orientalism, feminism, queer theory, and linguistic deconstruction. I've read more Anzaldúa or Chakrabarty than Barthes, Derrida, or Fry. I'll be honest; I was hoping you were wrong or behind the curve by a few years on how whitewashed the literary and publishing world is. If anything, however, you've understated the magnitude of the problem. Beyond a couple of writers of color like Tan, Marquez, Walker, Morrison, or Cisneros, we are just doing the same dead white guys, and you're right that both literary and commercial publishing is amazingly whitewashed. And don't even get me started on children's literature statistics.

I know this is probably a hard question, but why does this happen? Everyone seems to have their heart in the right place, and it doesn't feel like a good ol' boys club, but then the books just keep being mostly straight, mostly white, mostly male.

My reply:

A position on my staff huh? When you pitch them slow over the plate like that, I almost feel like there's no honor in taking the swing. Must....resist..... Too....easy.....

So you seem to be aware that you've asked a very very very very very complicated question, and I have to admit that I'm wondering exactly how I'm going to get in all the threesome jokes while tackling this in an entry where the question alone is longer than most of my articles. (Oh HA HA HA. Isn't systematic marginalization just totes hilarious.... HA HA HA Ha Ha ha....ha....~sad sigh~)

But I'll try.

And I want to emphasize "try." In the end you could probably get a PhD analyzing data about publishing and eliminating X factors.

First of all, you have to understand the "Feedback Loop™." There are a few factors that feed into a whitewashed publishing industry, but taking any of them in a vacuum won't really do this explanation justice because the feedback loop works to amplify each.

It's like using a sonic screwdriver to amplify another sonic screwdriver. Except with whiteness.

Feedback loops rule.

In broad brushstrokes, if an art form largely excludes a demographic (their culture, their experience, their voice, their interests), that culture is probably less likely to have an interest in that art. This is never always true, as many people enjoy artistic expressions of different cultures, but it can be generally true enough to affect how young, creative people choose to channel their artistic impulses. (The line between culture and race gets negligee thin in these issues, but both are important.) White people are culturally very well represented in literature and consequently there are a very large number of young white people who want to be writers.

If the only movies in the whole world were about Welsh nationalists, most people uninterested in Wales wouldn't go to the movies, would never fall in love with film, would never want to make films themselves. Film would be seen largely as "A Welsh thing."

True distopian horror.

To a huge degree, writing is whitewashed because writing always has been whitewashed.

But before you file that under circular logic or "D" for "Duh," hear me out.

Writing lacks the voices of everyone who never fell in love with reading because they didn't really experience books that resonated with them. They go and channel their artistic impulse into art forms their culture values and is represented in (until, of course, white people appropriate it and make money off of it and make it "legitimate" but that's probably its own article). The absence of their voice means that they are not represented in writing. Which means it's less likely for someone of their culture to take an interest in reading.Which means....

Okay, you can see where this is going without being a brain surgeon, right?


Before you jump on the "those-people"-don't-like-to-read bandwagon, understand that there are tons of voices out there dying to be heard.  But the publishing industry has tamped those voices down. And the skill of literacy is very, very different from the appreciation of literature (especially the whitewashed canon literature). AAAAND...it would be stereotyping to consider this as the only factor when in fact most of it is the publisher's fault, but it amplifies and intensifies many of the other factors.

Like giving a megaphone to an annoying person. It's not the megaphone that's making things so annoying.

At each level, this feedback loop sifts out would-be writers. It's not that no one can punch through–because obviously there are some brilliant authors who aren't white–but the conditions themselves work to filter out non-white voices and leave a more and more homogeneous (white) product.

This is critical to understanding why publishing and the literary world can't seem to just change even as their awareness grows of the problem. The absence of non-white voices in literature is based on a feedback loop that began when there absolutely, positively, unquestioningly WAS a deliberate, conscious, and organized effort to silence them.

Let me write that again (all in quotes text and bold and shit):
The absence of non-white voices in literature is based on a feedback loop that began when there absolutely, positively, unquestioningly WAS a deliberate, conscious, and organized effort to silence them.

For many of the middle managers and book-loving gate keepers in the publishing and literary world, the whitewashing is probably mostly invisible. It's kind of like Lord of the Rings. Ask white people if there was something missing from Lord of the Rings and they will probably scratch their heads and say "I dunno, the scouring of the Shire? Tom Bombadill?" Ask a person of color the same question, and they will say "Yeah. Yeah, something was sure as hell missing."

God, even Star Wars at least had Lando.
However, even when the problems of today are invisible to many, they are based upon a time when they were in your face, come-right-out-and-say-it visible. The publishing industry is not some strange cultural artistic preference phenomenon that has been whitewashed because it always was whitewashed in perpetuity and no one really knows why....

The publishing industry has been whitewashed because non-white voices have been silenced throughout history. Deliberately. By racist hemorrhoid flaps.

And when they stopped being silenced simply because they were non-white, they were still silenced because they threatened the power and the status quo of the kind of people publishers tend to be. This goes to the very heart of the postmodern literary theories you have been studying so much of, Diane–that marginalization doesn't have to be burning crosses, racial slurs, and white hoods to be marginalization. Sometimes it is cultural elitism, lack of relativism, and failing to redress deep seated grievances that have set modern day power dynamics at an imbalance.

And, Diane, you must never forget this if you go into the literary world. This is about power, and it's about who gets to say what is beauty and what is "reasonable" and what is "normal" and what is worthy of our cultural attention and what MATTERS.

Published writing is a VERY POWERFUL medium, and it is controlled in the same way so many other media are controlled not by outright propaganda but by limiting who has access and a voice within the medium.

[You recently watched this power struggle unfold in Ferguson as written words like "murder," "thug," or "innocent" carried extreme power to change the perception of the narrative. A narrative that was so important for the police to control that they lied about why they were releasing security footage of the drug store and never really seemed to get that story of the demon charge to quite jive with the forensic evidence. When so many talked about "controlling the narrative" this is exactly the power to which they were referring.]

And publishers amplify the messages they deem worthy, important, and pleasing while marginalize their opposite. Never ever forget that.

What are the factors themselves?

Let's start simple: The foundation of literature is racist, sexist, and heteronormative.

Woah! Did you feel your anal sphincter tighten up? Did I just dis the Billies Lit (Falkz and Shakez) in one line?

Put as bluntly as I possibly can, equal rights are a new concept. "Colorblind" hipsters might roll their eyes at the suggestions that equality isn't a innate state of being, but you don't even have to leave Living Memory Lane in order to get back to Jim Crow or pre-ERA.

The vast, vast majority of literature we hold up as great, canonical, brilliant, was from before concepts like racial or gender equality (never mind unexamined privilege or language deconstruction). Not only was equality not a given, but inequality was a given. And even the most progressive authors were products of their times. So when non-white people look back through the canon, they find mostly white men writing about mostly white men at a time when inequality was accepted. There are a few women, fewer characters of color, fewer characters of non-straight orientations. Those that exist are not portrayed very well.

It's not like there's a shit ton to relate to. I mean seriously have you ever actually read Ethan Frome? Even white people aren't white enough to relate to that.

You don't even have to go back more than a couple hundred years before just being able to write was a matter of elite status. Consider literacy rates prior to the Gutenberg press (or more sinisterly how slaves were forbidden from being literate) or the fact that making a living writing (outside of possibly journalism) is mostly a modern era phenomenon. It paints a picture that writing was sort of a rich white men's art. A thing that most people did because they didn't need a real job and could afford to sit around the house in bunny slippers and a chiffon robe for a few years and futz on a novel that probably wouldn't make much money. While the literary world has opened somewhat, that gravity well is still exerting pull.

So while there are, of course, exceptions, it is no wonder that the fountainhead of this art form resonates less with people who are not a part of that rich white male vibe. They're not in it. It excludes them–in many cases conspicuously and consciously. And they can't get in it because the gatekeepers want that rich white male vibe.

[So, I was totally going to break the seriousness here with a joke here about how few white people have seen Soul Food, Crooklyn, This Christmas, Sparkle, and The Wiz, but not liking black movies just really holds no candle to being written out of other media as a part of systematic marginalization. I sure could use John Oliver's help making this fucked up topic funny.]

Ask 100 English majors what are the most important 100 books in English and you will probably have mostly works by dead white guys. Especially if most of those English majors are themselves white (which....is, by the way, statistically very likely). It's not that English majors are racist motherfucking assholes who want to exclude other voices, it's just that they can't bear to think of whether they should edge out Shakespeare, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, or Fitzgerald in order to make room on the curriculum. When they finally reluctantly push a few Hemingway novels to the side to get some Maya Angelou in there ("but you'll only get 'Hills for White Elephants' from our cold, dead hands!"), it is only after much gnashing of teeth, hand wringing, and some very ironic school board meetings about how this work "might not resonate with young students."

By which of course they mean young white students since that is considered the default.

Oh you want an Asian author too? And then a Latino author? Jesus when will it end? Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It turns out that writing is not just an art form (it's more of a skill). But literature as we know it is an art form. And those who act as arbiter over when writing the skill crosses the Rubicon and becomes writing the art....those people wield the power of that delineation with what they think is aesthetically pleasing. What they think is pleasing is based on a rich, and profound foundation of whitewashed European, Anglo Saxon, racist, sexist, heteronormative literature. What they think is pleasing is literature that doesn't challenge them too much or threaten them too much. What they think is pleasing is literature that never makes them truly uncomfortable.

East Asian metaphors are "too ham handed." Latin storytelling is "too recursive." Post colonial literature is "too whiny." Black literature is "too angry." So what gets through is only what they decide has worth according to their yardsticks.

"Is it racist to acknowledge that only white people can write?
I mean, you guys have the jumping thing, right?"
Even when you have gatekeepers who are themselves in marginalized groups, they are often trained in the traditions of the whitewashed canon. So even when the modern era escapes some of the attitudes themselves, all the old systems and values are still in place.

This is a bigger issue than just writing. The bedrock of everything we do in our culture is founded on grotesque inequality. Our education system is whitewashed. Our history is whitewashed. Our film is whitewashed. Our culture is whitewashed. Our arts are whitewashed. Academia is whitewashed. Literature isn't particularly awful in this regard. It's just floating down the river of unexamined historical oppression along with all the other jetsam.

Let me offer up a few more factors, but don't forget The Feedback Loop™.

There absolutely, positively is a good ol' boys club. Sorry Diane. I know you want to think everyone means well. Not every publisher is racist, but saying that NO publishers are racist is the purest naiveté. You may know some swell gatekeepers or someone who works management at Penguin who isn't a racist, but that doesn't mean everyone on the board of directors feels the same way when they're telling upper management what kinds of books they want to publish. And if you think some of those guys aren't racist (and I mean really, for real, in-deep-dark-places-they-don't-talk-about-at-parties racist), you haven't been paying enough attention.

The ability to control what is written is phenomenal power, and to give legitimacy to other voices would be to relinquish that phenomenal power. People don't have to twirl their mustaches and use the N word to be racists. Overtones about the "right kind of literature" that exist today are chilling echoes of white neighborhoods' housing associations (we want the "right kind of owners in our neighborhood"). The very best, nicest, most generous, thing that can possibly be said about them is that they are breathtakingly ethnocentric.

Consider how long it takes to become proficient enough to be accepted by the publishing industry–or even longer to be accepted by the literary world. You probably have to spend thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of hours writing your emo poems and your Stephen King rip offs without being published to develop the skill set where a publisher would take notice of your wordsmithing. Not only is that an awful lot of time to devote to an art that marginalizes you, but it takes a lot of free time that most people don't have. The GOP's transparent euphemisms for "blacks are lazy" aside, that kind of sit-around-and-be-creative free time is usually found among affluence.

Sadly, my story about a sentient big rig named Christina
that runs around killing people in a pastoral New England town
has not been accepted by Harper Colins. They say they fear it might be "derivative."

Consider the factors which contribute to the ease of writing like writing materials, a desk, alone time, to say nothing of "a room of one's own."All of these things tend to be products of existing financial privilege. The idea of buying a desk to put in the sewing room to write on is redonkulously lavish for most people on Earth.

Consider who gets training in writing. Here in the U.S., our education system is failing the poor and people of color (and especially poor people of color). Going to college is increasingly something only affluent people can afford, and high school graduate proficiency in writing and reading skills correlate with income. The kind of writing most publishers would consider "good writing" almost always involves some measure of formal academic training.

Consider who buys books. The bourgeois ability to spend significant chunks of money on books is largely found only among whites. Literature that caters to their culture, their stories, their perspectives, and their values will have a larger consumer base. Books about people of color typically do not sell as well. Publishers know this and publish accordingly. There are markets for other books, of course, but they are considered niche.

Publishing is expensive. Consider who has the money to publish books, and what their aesthetics are likely to be and what messages they want to perpetuate. What are the values they are likely to reflect when they take a chance on a book they think won't make money?

This is why academia (which has its own issues) can be aware of the problem, but it doesn't get any better: follow the money.

While some of these factors might be more socio/economic on their face, income inequality and certainly wealth inequality are racial issues. The easiest way to succeed at being a writer is to have a lot of wealth already. People of color command six or seven cents of wealth for every dollar that white people do.

None of these factors is an insurmountable barrier to a love of reading or writing. A determined bibliophile can get to a library. A dogged artist will work at the living room table. It's just that they act as filters–peeling away a few who might otherwise be interested in ways they don't tend to do so to most whites.

While most of the individuals involved are not excusing racism with a wink and a nod. They are just systems that perpetuate themselves. As long as the publishing and literary world are not taking extraordinary pains to incorporate other voices, things will stay whitewashed. As long as they do not, I've opted out of traditional publishing.

That's also why I'm so excited about non-traditional routes like blogging is because so many voices can bypass gatekeepers and find their own audience and get better while they make money and sidestep so many of these issues. The playing field is far more level when you take out the rich white guys who get to decide what gets published.

Funny how that works.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Poll Result/New Poll: Semifinal 1 Best Y.A./Semifinal 2 Best Y.A.

I'm going to make this quick and to the point. These are the titles that will be going on to the final round. Everything from To Kill a Mockingbird up will be on the final poll.


Since there was a tie for fifth place, I'll take both titles. A last minute spat of voting brought Ender's Game into the fold.

Our SECOND round semifinal poll is already up*! It will only be up for a week, so don't delay. As before you will all get five (5) votes and the top five titles will be going on to the final round. The poll is in the lower left.

*Please take a quick look for mistakes since I just cut and pasted from the nomination page, and last time that led to a couple of mistakes.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Memo: To W.A.W. Staff

MEMO

To: All staff of Writing About Writing (sans cheese guy)

From: Cedric

Re: Stepping up our A Game

It has come to my attention that Chris has recently reorganized the posting schedule (again), and so I'm going to threaten you all with bodily harm (again) if you don't start taking your jobs here at Writing About Writing seriously.

Sci Guy and R&D- We are still under attack from the Evil Mystery Blogger. If your security systems are inadequate, maybe you should spend more time doing your job and less time trying to find a dimensional reality in which the Pretentitron has not been destroyed so you can clone your dead girlfriend. Kthxbai.

Guest Bloggers- Play time is over. Ima Lister has been the only one among you in any way carrying his own weight while Chris has been distracted. I know we've all been having a grand time living on the grounds and eating, but as of tomorrow I'm going to start "forgetting" to issue paychecks if you keep "forgetting" to turn in your guest blogs. Plus anyone who isn't a martial arts master might be getting an eight tentacle smack down.

Grendel and Mom- Seriously there are foods other than Manwich sloppy joes. And while we all enjoy honey mead, other beverages exist. Check into them.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Reorg You Couldn't Care Less About

If you've been following Writing About Writing for a while, you know that we've struggled over the last year to find an update schedule that works.

I'm not sure exactly what it was that happened a year ago that...

(From the next room.) "I AM NOT!"

Oh yeah. That's right. Slight minor life adjustment.

Unfortunately weekly updates are causing a lot of grief. Because so much of the posting schedule is "locked in," it means that there isn't much room to get all the other things we have planned written up. Our brief flirtation with two posts a day drove us to the brink of a psychotic break.  (Seriously, Ima Lister popped an embolism from stress.) Days were filled with scrambling to get not one, but two posts up, leaving no time at all for fiction and precious little time to read. Perhaps worst of all, our readers (some of W.A.W.'s most die hard fans) couldn't keep up.

No, that simply won't do.

I can count on one hand (even after having an encounter with a thresher go horribly wrong) the number of people who actually pay attention to our update schedule and also aren't me. I'm the only person around here who ever flips the table if we don't get a "major" article up on a Wednesday or if the Mailbox for the week sneaks up on a Saturday. But for the sake of posterity...

The main change you can expect from here on out is that there will be one update a day. Every day. Even if I'm cleaning an old post or straightening up a menu or redoing one of the tabs at the top of the screen, that's all I'll be doing. I will also do a post every day, even on the weekends. (This doesn't account for sickness or baby emergencies, but I'll try to keep up with it.) Content is still king.

Writing About Writing will be shifting to a two week rotation. It will give us the chance to finish some of the articles we just weren't getting around to while locked into a one-week rotation, which sadly, includes some of the more zany and goofball stuff I've enjoyed writing.

Monday will still be a personal update, but only every other week. (Seriously, not that much happens in my life for a weekly update. This is for the best.) On the alternate weeks I will work in writing prompts or link dumps.

Wednesday will continue to be a day I try to get up a major update, but every other week I'm going to hand the floor over to one of our guest bloggers who've been coasting by on good will for far too long. I'm also going to try to commit to letting no more than a month go by on serial posts (like Skyrim or Starting Your own Blog) before I write the next installment.

Fridays will continue to be the Mailbox days, but I'm going to make sure that every other week (at least) is dedicated to writing. I know the question about my personal life always do a little better–especially the hate mail–but I'll make at least half an effort to stay on point.

Sundays I will continue to post fiction (with the caveat that, as the most time intensive posts, they are most likely to succumb to the forces of my week and be missing). My current serial post of fiction should be up at least every other week, interspersed with other fiction and or well-needed breaks.

Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday will continue to be "light days" when poll descriptions, poll results or end of the month posts go up along with any meta information that might be going on.

Saturdays will involve cleaning up an existing post. Every other week will be a revision of an old article and the alternate week will be cleaning up a tab at the top of the screen or an existing menu.

Tuesday and Thursdays may have a lot of fluff, if for no other reason than I can't crank out full articles day after day without my eyeball twitching and becoming addicted to crack, but I also want to attempt to engage in my old shenanigans at least once a week. Not just goofy plot posts with evil bloggers and crazed cephalopods either, but also book reviews, product reviews and more. I'll try to get at least ONE good review up every fortnight.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

CoE: Section 1

Source: wikimedia commons
Previous Section

or

Table of Contents 
(Disclaimers and copyright info there.)



Clearly I don’t shy from melodrama, right? I’m just getting started and the human race is already doomed.

But it really did happen that way.

Sean Mason didn’t mean to doom the human race. It wasn’t as if he woke up that morning thinking that dooming the human race would nicely round out the day. I'm pretty sure he woke up that morning thinking that he'd been a jerk to a friend who didn't want to sleep with him, and he ought to be better about that. Although it may have also involved a pair of Asian cheerleaders who were getting a D in his accounting class and would do anything to pass. But like most things that Sean touched, he began with pedestrian—perhaps even noble—intentions (not the cheerleader thing, but the other one), and just sort of fucked everything up on the way to executions.

Really, this is a story about Sean's fucked up executions. There were a lot of stories in the war, but Sean's was, in a way, the story. He lived at the epicenter of it all–often was the epicenter of it all. But also Sean and the war…they defined each other. They foraged each other. Sean wouldn’t have been the same without the war. The war certainly wouldn't have been the same without Sean.

Sorry. I don't mean to go to Cliché Town on the Cliché Express.

The story doesn’t begin with Sean condemning the human race to its own destruction. Well…I suppose it did begin there because that's where I began it, but that’s not really where it starts. I watch too many movies. Mr. Melodrama, that’s me. However, to really tell this story, we should back up. Because it really begins a year prior.

So let’s back up. Chunks of earth swirl inward to a single focal point, form into mountains, valleys, plateaus, ravines and other landscape features; a swell moves through the earth—a twenty-foot tall wave through the rock and soil converging to a central point; it shrinks inward toward a two-mile wide crater in the jungle floor; the wave lurches for a moment, and then spits out a cyan ball of crackling energy; foliage sprouts out of the scorched earth—twisted and black, flaming as giant green leaves burn into existence, flames repair the damage before winking out, and then the jungle is pristine with thick green foliage, bugs the size of tennis balls, brilliant multi-colored birds squawking, all bathed in an electric blue light that fades into darkness.

The ball hurls away from the surface of Earth, sails out into space and zips towards a massive warship, with a giant weapon barrel; slides perfectly into the impossibly huge proboscis, and is swallowed; a blue glow in the barrel fades to darkness.

Faster now: the sun slips behind the shadow of the Earth, sailing backward against its normal course, and the night deepens as it moves; near the planet a soft blanket of large ships undulates and writhes, occasionally a burst of light precedes the sudden reassembly and appearance of a new craft. Still faster: The Earth spins backwards faster and faster, undertakes its journey around the sun in reverse; round back to very nearly to the same point that it took off, almost a year before.

And here is where we stop our backwards motion through time, and begin to move through space.

A loosely assembled fleet of ships floats out beyond the fringe of the moon. Three large battleships shift along the perimeters, each oblong in shape and haphazardly blanketed with an eclectic blend of turrets of every size and shape sticking out like a porcupine.

One battleship at the center of the fleet, larger than all the others, also oblong, and white from bow to stern except for faded patches, dramatic scorch marks along the aft, and series of dark, identical cuts that run nearly the whole length of the ship in the lower portion.

The ship is the size of a city—even bigger than most cities, and the cuts are rectangular openings along several of the lower decks—openings into a massive hangar that runs the full length of the vessel. Each is thirty meters tall and three hundred meters wide, the launching point for thousands of smaller ships that berth inside: power-hog weapon platform destroyers more efficient to keep offline between battles, multi-person crew corvettes, and oversized bomber craft—but the vast majority, stretching literally kilometer after kilometer down the hanger, are rows upon rows of small, one-man fighters. Some are boxy, some sleek, some angular and pointed like stinging insects. Thousands upon thousands of them.

The tarmac is an explosion of motion and sound. People race in every direction. The actions of any one of them are sensible—they are going from ship to ship to check drive pattern integrity or inertial dampener compensation power, directing launching ships to avoid collisions, or talking to groups of pilots who then disburse to their crafts–but like a city street or a subway station–when viewed from a distance the tarmac feels like senseless anarchy, bodies hurling in every direction, each with utmost urgency.

Amidst this whirlwind of motion stands a solitary figure in a white flight suit. On his hip is a tiny white holster with a grey weapon so small it looks like it would barely fit in his hand. He almost defies description with the average-ness of his looks, he is neither tall nor short, fat nor skinny, not particularly handsome or homely, his nose is neither beak-like nor flat, his lips neither particularly thin nor thick, he has short brown hair and a tanned, light leather complexion that hints at an indistinct/distinct origin.

Perhaps his only feature of note is his eyes. Not the color, for the color is a heavy-flecked hazel that seems to reflect whatever color he is looking toward at the moment. His eyes are big and always on the move, gazing about. They are not large naturally but held wide. And it is not a nervous dart like some soldiers’ paranoid glances about, but a curious gaze of wonderment like a young child’s. As if he is seeing the world for the first time. He constantly looks round, taking it all in.

He holds in his hand a white helmet to his flight suit.

This is Sean Mason. And this is where our story really begins.


A reaction of negativity must best be discussed in terms of degrees. There's the negativity a child shows after their first encounter with lima beans, the face someone one makes when televised space shuttle launches is the only thing on television, there is the soul crushing horror that crosses a face when one sees an art installation made of paper mache, peat moss, and thin filaments of wire to create an exact replica of Pol Pot's scrotum, and then there is the look that Sean was giving his fighter. Disgust seeped from his features like bile oozing from a bloated liver. He couldn’t even look at it without his lip unconsciously curling into a sneer.

The offensive systems were sub standard. The defensive systems were sub-sub standard. Even the standard was sub standard, having been lowered after the designers lost track of which "sub" they were on when they talked about the sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub standard systems. As Sean waited for his security handprint to register, something bulky and metallic fell from the fuselage to the tarmac with a heavy, metallic crunch. Sean was fairly sure it was important.

Scrambling pilots buzzed about the hanger like a swarm of white insects, most of their uniforms undecorated and unadorned at this end of the hangar. The occasional mechanic in a red jumpsuit or tech in green threaded between the ships, checking out something or another, and every so often a pilot with adornments on their flight—rank insignia, commendations, or just mission stripes—would move through, looking like a neon sign in a shanty town.

“No!” someone yelled, their voice cracking. “Suicide is against my religion! I won’t go!”

Sean glanced across the tarmac. A pilot in all white struggled against two men in black (security force) cradling high powered rifles as they eased him into his cockpit with their feet. Sean couldn’t hear them, but their faces looked very similar to Sean’s Aunt Patty when she used to try to coax her cat out from under the bed and into the carrier to go to the vet. One security officer tenderly strapped the pilot in with a plastic smile while the other punched up the initial pre-flight sequence. Once the first officer had the man strapped in, he stroked his rifle like a pet. The bigger of the two security officers—one with a chest that Sean guessed might be an actual barrel—looked up at Sean, who stood motionless in front of his craft. Barrel’s eyes narrowed. Sean pointed at his hand and handprint, and Barrel turned back to what he was doing without a word or a nod.

Announcements came across the PA three and four times a minute. Most directed at some group or individual who was not Sean, but every few times it was a canned safety message. (“Don’t forget to check your instruments—space flight speeds make flying solely by visuals virtually impossible.” “Your artificial intelligence will reallocate your power systems by voice commands so you don’t need to use the fold out keyboard.” “Your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device. Of course, where you’re likely to crash, you will be floating just fine all on your own.”)

Behind the various announcements, a requiem played softly, echoing throughout the hangar. The dirge tunes of this particular requiem reminded Sean of teen-agers wailing about their prom dates cheating on them. Sean thought requiem before they had even launched was in poor taste. Rumor had it that Penelope, the woman in the morale office who was in charge of music, had herself a pretty raging drinking problem. The last time anyone had seen her without a lavender cosmopolitan sloshing about in her left hand, humans had held Earth.

As the security computer buzzed away in its process of approving Sean’s handprint, he lifted the helmet in his left hand and looked at it. Masking tape cut across the front of the helmet above the face plate with the word “Wanker” written on it in black marker. Commander Witherspoon had assigned him his call sign after Sean’s first simulation performance report. Witherspoon said that the name just came to him when he thought about what Sean “must have been doing in there to get a score like this one.” Sean picked at the tape while he waited for his cockpit to open, eventually got a purchase on it, and peeled it off. Only smooth, white dura-plast remained. He ran his finger over the smooth spot where the tape used to be, buffing out some of the tape’s residual stick and chewed on his lower lip.

He could see himself reflected in the visor. The lights in the hangar were the sort one might find at a grocery store or hospital—brilliant and white, diffused so they seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, and so unmercifully bright that they cowed all vestige of shadows into the furthest recesses, nooks, and crannies. The curved angle of the visor twisted him like a funhouse mirror. His frame looked skeletal, and the face that usually got him pegged for ten years younger, stretched like a ghoulish corpse and gazed back at him with sunken ovals.

Sean suddenly wondered what the stress of flight missions would do for his complexion. It probably wouldn’t be good, whatever it was. Or worse he would get wrinkles, and his hair would go white like in horror stories. Or he would get those stress pimples that liked to sit right on the border of lip and had no other purpose but to hurt like hell or huge pustule blemishes on his forehead like a teen-ager. The ones with massive whiteheads staring out from bloated red bumps. In any case, Sarah wouldn’t find him attractive. He’d probably worsened his chances of ever being with her by signing up, and it was because of space acne.

Though, of Sean's worsened chances with Sarah, he really had no doubt. She wasn’t likely to be impressed by him when he was blown into crystallized shards across Earth’s orbit.

“You know that’s what happens if you’re blown out of your ship, right?” Witherspoon asked in that hard Scottish accent. “Your body freezes into crystals and you shatter like glass, and then the little, tiny bits of you just float around in orbit for the rest of time. That’s right lad…the rest of tiiiiiiiime.”

Sean didn’t like Witherspoon very much.

He didn’t imagine Sarah was the type to cream herself at the sight of whatever was recovered of his body sitting in a small jar on a countertop—even if the jar wore a little leather jacket and copped crystallized attitude. Women could be superficial that way.

Sean looked at his pathetic craft, and shook his head, thinking of the way the situation had spiraled downward into what were sure to be the last few minutes of his life. If he had left well enough alone, he could be doing the Winter’s taxes right about now. He would have made a nice fat fee of ration-chits and credits and easily been able to hire a Sarah look-alike who was stripping to put herself through law school to come to his quarters, coat herself in coco-butter and shove her breasts in his face.

Sean doubted very seriously that his next few hours would compare. There was likely to be a lot more flame, a lot more crystallizing, and a lot less breast.

His chances were grim, but the war needed pilots. In modern space combat, fighters were critical. They were the bread and butter–the meat and potatoes. Sean knew this from the introductory video he saw his first day of training: “Your Death Dealing Space Fighter and You.”

"We need you pilots!" the announcer said."Small snub fighters almost always determine the outcome of space warfare, and you, could be the grain of rice that tips the balance. Or at least the grain of rice that slams their fuel and explosives-loaded fighter into something mildly important, making your death non-trivial. Or at least less trivial than being hit in the face with a Falingash orbital bombardment weapon."

Sean was pretty sure the narrator of the film was the same guy who did all those gory videos for driver’s education where they try to scare teenagers into not being maniacs by showing them footage slightly more graphic than most of them spent money to see the Friday before—his voice had that same melodramatic edge when talking about anything. “That’s why fighters are vital,” he’d said. “That is why you, as a new pilot to the Earth Defense Force, are so important. Only an actual, living person can pilot a fighter through extensive AI and signal jamming counter measures.”

"Fighters are critical for their ability to get into a larger ship’s shield bubble." Sean was sort of starting to fall asleep at this point, so he didn’t catch a lot of the details about how–something about energy ratios and frequency calibration.

"Once inside the shields, smaller ships can attack discreet targets like sensor clusters, heat exhaust ports, weapon systems, shield generation nodes, power distribution modules, bathroom skylights, smiley face balls on the end of antennas and other critical resources. Fighter superiority often determines the course of a battle, and that is why fighters are the most important ship in any fleet. They clear the way for delicate and vulnerable ships with unbelievable firepower to do the real work of kicking ass."

"That's why you are so important, beginning pilot. Well....not you specifically because you have absolutely no skill whatsoever. But pilots. You are the grunts of space warfare. No army can have too many. Even though your individual value is minuscule, your aggregate worth is incalculable. Now let's take you though a few of your fighter's basic functions..."

Sean lost consciousness right around then. He was actually the last one in the room still awake.

As "space grunts," pilots experienced the same spectrum of equipment and training that grunts had throughout the history of war. There would always be the elite corps, equipped with the most sophisticated and technologically advanced weaponry and equipment available, whether it be steel blades, repeating rifles, or the latest in body armor. In the conflict over Earth, such “equipment” went by the name of the GX-1200 Panther, the best fighter in the human fleet. Its energy generators cranked out a power output cap higher than a small destroyer. The photon shields could run at the equivalent of 25.5 meters of tritanium at full power with dovetailing shield screens, and a redundant ensconcing system. Twenty-five high-output lasers sliced anything in the Panther’s path like a Christmas ham. It was the only fighter with two plasma ejection units and an ion blaster for cap-ship assaults. Six computer operated swivel turrets gave hell to any pursuing craft. Five missile pods for configurable missile payloads to match a mission. Six S.P.A.M.M. missiles auto deployed as a counter-measure to sentient plasma. This was a fighter.

And just as there would always be the elite and equipped, there would also always be the guys like Sean. The guys with the weapons dug out of the armory from the last war. The guys with the guns notorious for how they jammed. The guys riding on horseback into battle against a Panzer division and the mission objective of "maybe you can slow them down a little." The guys bringing farm implements to fight The Knight of the Severed Peasant and his personal cavalry guard.

Sean’s particular bit of inferior equipment went by the sobriquet of the GT 03 Mosquito. American economy class auto makers cranked out Mosquitoes by the thousands. A Mosquito was not much more than a pre-war F-28 Firefly jet fighter made space worthy. The armor consisted of four layers of dura-sheet tritanum “foil” that most pilots used to keep their food from getting freezer burn. The shield system was a joke–no really, it was actually a joke: the guys that designed shields had been kidding around when they made the prototype, had a good laugh, and went to lunch; when they came back, still snickering, they found the prototype in full production. The main armament, a dual laser cannon, had a power output so notorious for its weakness that most pilots called it “The Ultimate Obliterator” out of that same charming sense of reverse irony that gets bald people called “curly” and seven foot tall men refered to as “Midg.” The ship’s only rear-facing swivel deterrent was manual control and basically amounted to a handgun glued to the aft roof. The Mosquito didn’t have a configurable missile pod, and only came with six darts missiles. When Sean had asked a tech where the S.P.A.M.M.’s deployed from, she’d laughed herself into a trip to the infirmary. Something about popping an embolism…

A pilot from Rose squadron, sealed inside a Panther, took mechanics two hours with a precision arc laser, a diamond bit drill, retro grappling hook, and the uber-jaws of life to get out. The same thing happened to someone in a Mosquito the next day, and they retrieved him after eight seconds of banging on a “bendy part” with a crescent wrench.

A positive chirp from the handprint security pad interrupted Sean’s thoughts. The hood hissed open. “Well, how do there, sir,” a Bill Paxton voice said (from one of his slimier roles). Sean could hear the gritting behind the fake cheer. “What can I do ya’ for, partner? You like this one? She’s a beaut, isn’t she. And I think she likes you too. Oh yeah…you and this girl were made for each other. Listen, it’s the end of the month, so I can go out on a limb today to help us make quota—just today you understand. What would it take to get you leave the lot in this baby right here….today…right now? I got the paperwork in the office. Let’s make it happen.”

Sean pressed his eyes closed, and the image of him shattering into infinite orbit that blazed on the backside of his eyelids actually soothed him a little. He swallowed, ignored the voice, and started to climb the ladder to the cockpit. His vision fuzzed a bit at the edges.

On the first, and what would be the last, day of flight training, Witherspoon had given the pilots a short, but intensely personal questionnaire. It asked deeply probing questions about sexuality, past relationships, favorite sitcom, preference of cheese, favorite feces throwing primate, and more. Sean answered honestly for about the first third. Then, as he went on, he started to get self conscious. He imagined Sarah reading it. Gouda and Baboons? she would think. What a loser. So Sean started adjusting his answers to try and be cool. Before he could go back and change the old, un-cool answers, Witherspoon told them they were done, and uploaded the info from their pads.

Later, Sean found out that the forms were the latest in cutting edge psych profiling, used to determine each individual pilots’ ideal match for their onboard computers’ artificial personalities. Most of the men got sultry females incapable of saying anything that wasn’t in some way a double entendre. Most women ended up with a deep male voice that sounded like a cross between Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart: “Baby, grab my stick and engage!” A few got a matter of fact sounding electronic voice that stated facts with utmost brevity. A couple got a wacky-sounding cartoon voice.

Sean got a used car salesman.

All around him, Sean heard honeysuckle voices crying “Oh hi, big boy. I’m so happy to see you again. You ready for a ride?” As Sean strapped himself into his seat his computer also greeted him. “Well, sure we can test drive her, partner. Why don’t we give her a spin and you see how she responds to you. We have a number of payment plans that could have you flying out of this hanger in just a few minutes. Today. Let’s make it happen. Carpe diem, right? Seize the day. That’s all about today, right? It’s not Carpe tomorroum…”

As the ship systems powered up, a small screen next to the primary heads up display lit up with a woman’s face. “Okay Lilly pilots,” she said, “remember your preflight checks.” They’d all been told about Gloria, the flight coordinator, whose job it was to relay all the orders of command to the various squads, but this was the first time Sean had actually seen her. She looked matronly, with a rounded face (despite rather tight food rationing) that framed a warm smile. Her eyes crinkled at the corners the way his mother’s used to when she made her “concerned” face about some damned fool decision Sean made.

Sean looked for a few minutes, running his hands over the many buttons and switches, trying to remember where the right one was, then finally finding what he was looking for, he flipped on the display monitor. A skeletal picture of his ship lit up with an innards display of each of his systems. A pale green outlined everything.

“Computer,” Sean said, interrupting the computer’s ongoing pitch, “give me a full diagnostic.”

“You got it, bud,” the computer said. “Listen, there’s this little tiny…it’s not even a thing really. It’s just that the aft inertial dampener is three percent off on calibration. But unless you plan on flying backwards at full speed, you won’t even notice. Plus the port side running lights are flickering. Other than that, this girl is primo cherry. And hey, are you going to let a little problem like running lights get you down? This baby’s got it where it counts, and that’s all that should matter. Oh and just between you and me…” the computer lowered its voice, “…this is about pussy right? This ride is a babe magnet. Mag-net. One look at this, and the chicks will be crawling all over you for a ride, if you know what I mean. You know what I mean right? Right? Right? Right?”

As the computer pitched on, the cockpit canopy began to slide closed above Sean’s head. When the last safety restraint clicked into place, the hydraulics automatically began to slide it shut with a gentle hum. Sean watched it moving inexorably downward with a growing sense of panic—like a cell door on that first night in a prison movie. It clicked home and hermetically sealed with a hiss, trapping him inside.

“All—” Sean’s voice cracked, jumping three or four octaves. He swallowed and tried again. “All systems go.”

“You’re clear to launch, Lilly squad.” Gloria said, saluting them. “And good luck.” The monitor with her face snapped off again.

Sean felt a shift as the launch pad where his craft berthed shifted across the floor to taxi him into launch position. All around him Mosquitoes blasted forth hurling out the hangar door and into space—the atmoshields shimmering briefly as the mass pushed through. Far in the distance, beyond the launching ships and other craft, a battle already raged. Sean saw the Earth as a golf ball sized backdrop against streaks of brilliant color and flashes of white and red.

“You are ready to launch,” a soft female voice informed Sean. “Please launch your fighter. You are ready to launch. Please launch your fighter…”

Sean took a moment, trying to remember where the thruster controls were—like a new driver looking for the parking break. He reached over to his left and stopped, reached back to his right, grabbed what he was pretty sure was the thrust controls, and then started to second guess himself.

“Please launch your fighters,” the voice said. Sean tried to ignore that it had gained an insistent edge. “You are ready to launch. Please launch your fighter…”

“Sorry,” Sean said pushing the thrust forward as gently as he could. He felt his stomach lurch as the fighter shot forward and out into space, accelerating to nearly 300 kps. Lilly squadron was already in a very lose V formation and counting off when Sean approached. He couldn’t manage to keep formation so he kept drifting forward and back, port and starboard.

“Lilly eight, standing by.”

“Lilly nine, standing by.”

Sean waited until twenty, and gave his own call. In some other squadrons, qualities like leadership, resourcefulness, and coolness under pressure could affect rank, but in rookie squads, numbers were assigned according to skill in simulations and exercises. Sean was ranked 20th in his squadron. Since each squadron had twenty fighters, Sean had the honor of carrying a title marking him as the worst pilot among them. The combat monkeys had even beat out Sean for the spots of Lilly seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, and they were part of an experiment to see how long the Falingash would take to shoot down poorly trained monkeys.

But the really degrading thing was that Lilly squad tested as the worst squad in the fleet, not just below the seasoned squadrons, but actually testing worse than other rookie pilot squadrons. So Sean was basically the worst pilot in the entire human fleet.

And as humans were the newest star-faring race, with the least trained fleet, Sean Mason was arguably the worst pilot in the entire universe.

It was probably going to be a bad day. But at least it wasn't likely to be very long.

[© 2014  All Rights Reserved]

Next (coming soon)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The 17 Rules Of Writing

1. Great writing involves great risk–the risk of terrible writing. Writing that involves no risk is merely forgettable–utterly.

2. When you fail–and you will totally fucking fail–don’t fail to learn. Then you can't really fail at all. That's the best way to approach writing...and life.

3. Follow the three Rs: 1. Read 2. Revise 3. Routine

4. Remember that being unknown is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.

5. Learn grammar rules so you know how to break them properly. This also goes for rules of craft and process. Actually, this goes for the rules of life too.

6. Don’t let a little problem like having to rewrite an entire story from scratch destroy your motivation. (Seriously, you were pretty much going to have to do it anyway.)

7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, don't panic. You can go back and fix it in the next draft. Would that writing were like life in this way.

8. Spend some time completely alone every day. Turn off Facebook. Put down your phone. Your quiet thoughts are your most powerful creative wellspring. Hear them.

9. Open your arms to criticism, but don’t let go of your confidence in the process. This may mean having to fashion your confidence into a cloak or capri pants.

10. Remember that it is only in your silence that others will tell you their stories. Listen. You'll be surprised what others will tell you about their lives when you stop telling them about their lives.

11. Write with all your heart. Every time. 

12. In disagreements with the page, deal only with the sentence in front of you. Don’t fret about the huge changes you'll have to make to the next draft and how much work is yet to come and how the task is huge and overwhelming. Just the one sentence.

13. Share your knowledge. Teaching others to write is the single best way to learn. And it's good for the soul and shit.

14. Be gentle. Be kind. (Unless you have a safe word.)

15. It's okay to keep a few irons in the fire–you don't have to work on one thing at a time–but never abandon something you're working on to do another project. It will become habit faster than you realize. You'll never get anything finished that way. Finish your shit.

16. Remember that the best relationship with writing is as an activity you love. Money, fame, fans will never fulfill you the way the writing itself will. Ever.

17. Judge your success only against yourself from yesterday. Any other yardstick will only harm your soul.


In the interest of full disclosure this is heavily influenced by the 18 Rules of Living found in The Art of Happiness by The Dali Lama. I've changed all of them (most of them substantially), but if they strike you as familiar, that might be why.


If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Mailbox: Those Zany Superheroes

How can I call superhero updates "personal"?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I'll try very hard to be nice if you're not mean to me.] 

Matt asks: 

"I was one of those people who looked forward to hearing more about your life as a writer on Mondays, but I've been disappointed. How can you call it a "personal update" if you're just making up stories about superheroes?"

My reply:

Uh...

Hmmmmm.

Okay okay. Fair's fair. I only weaponize my snark when someone takes the first shot, so I'll play nice. But I gotta tell you for the sake of honesty Matt, I Spock-eyebrowed this one pretty good when it landed in my inbox.

I've gotten a few extra questions in the last couple of weeks (including the dreaded writer milestone "What is your process?") but in order for me to get back to this mountain of dishes, clean the living room, finish the fiction that I want to put up on Sunday, wrap up a very special thank you letter to someone who sent me a Clawdia Wolf doll because "she's a writer like Cwis is," try to catch up on a dozen e-mails labeled "Can't ignore or shit will get real," think about my next post for Grounded Parent or Ace of Geeks before those blogs fire me with extreme prejudice, take The Contrarian for a couple of extra hours because everyone else around here was also sick and needs to catch up on their shit, vacuum, dust the banister, clean my room, and not do crystal meth to get through the day, I'm going to have to keep this one short.

Matt, I never promised factual accuracy. In fact, I kind of flushed it down the toilet before the cops pounded in the front door. And that was my first day of being a writer. What I promised was truth.

Writers lie to tell the truth.

Which is why writers often seem so disconnected with reality because most of the world spends most of its time using the truth to tell lies. They control where the story starts, where the story ends, they only show you certain facts, they ignore the examples that don't conform. It's not that they're wrong (usually). It's just that they have used "true facts" to perpetuate a grander falsehood.

A fiction writer does exactly the opposite. They lie through their teeth to perpetuate a grander truth.

I have even tried to explain the difference. Here at Writing About Writing I have always given you the truth. Sometimes I have given so much truth that the people I'm writing about have narrowed their eyes at me dubiously. One particularly tense moment involved a searing hot spatula, my left nipple, and the words "Did you really just share that with the entire world?"

The thing is, unless you are gushing (and only gushing) about someone, most people don't like their private life to be part of performance art. In my old LJ days (which only my friends ever read), I once literally said ten bombastically awesome things and one minor bit of criticism about an event with someone and got an e-mail thirty seconds after I posted that was like "If you had a fucking problem, why didn't you tell me?" Spoiler alert: I didn't have a problem–fucking or otherwise–but that's what people focus on.

So you either tell people how great they are or you save it for your tell-all exposé.

Thus, it's best when writing about one's life to make sure that loved ones are insulated and that the filter of one's own biases is perfectly clear. Otherwise you risk having your door kicked in by a pissed off friend with a flame thrower who thinks you were talking about them when you made that joke about chlamydia.

That or you end up sleeping on the couch and having a groupie threesome with yourself--which while still fun is kind of disappointing.

Did these events--rooftop battles, superpower blasts, strange psychic compulsions, babies with mind control, and more--really happen? They did. All of them. But you have to drop out of your literal mind. In every event I have described, you have gotten the true, emotional core. Now maybe I jangled a few details, crossed a couple of wires, and slapped up a coat of cosmetic paint to make it a teensy weensy bit more dramatic, but it's all very, very real.

Matt, I'm not going to hand you a decoder ring because A) there isn't one, and B) if there were, it would completely defeat the point of trying to protect my peeps behind creative nonfiction and superhero realism. When I talk about a character sometimes they are a person, sometimes they are me projecting and sometimes they are life conspiring in ways that fit that character. Do you really think I would ever get laid again, EVER, if I actually referred to everything annoying my girlfriend did under the moniker "Unsupportive Girlfriend"? Or do you notice that most of the time it is actually my own self-destructive habits that get blamed on her influence.

But here are a few hints to make you go Hmmmmm:

Hmmmmmmm.

  • I live with superheroes. Epically awesome people and I am like....a side kick/housekeeper. Maybe that can give you the idea of what I think of my family and how amazing they are.
  • Pay close attention to the super-powers of my cohorts. They may strike you, in many cases, as being very good, marketable skills. Hmmmmm....
  • There is a direct correlation in attacks from the arch-villain known as Miasma (who attacks with nano-bio-weapons) and the posts I put up where I tell people I'm sick and won't be writing that day.
  • I cannot resist Dim and Sum. That one is barely even a metaphor. 
  • OG really really supports me. Really. Perhaps you might go so far as to say she puts me on a pedestal a little.
  • The Contrarian showed up and immediately exerted mind control powers over me. I'm totally his buttmonkey. He wormed into my head and made me feel about him in stupid fairy tale ways I never thought I was going to feel about anyone. Bastard.
  • My nemesis is from the future, and likes to steal my time–the one thing in the world I'm constantly struggling to find enough of. 
  • The big strong, punchy dumb brute character named Wrecking Ball (who hits first and thinks later) shows up primarily when I have been getting too lax with my boundaries or my writing time is being encroached upon.
  • Most importantly, pretty much everyone in my life might have faults or flaws, but they all fight evil, and they all struggle to make the world a better place, and that's why I'm proud to be with them.
I hope that helps you, Matt. It's not an equation that will solve the cypher, but it should help you get at the truth.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Poll: Best Y.A. Fiction 1st Round Semi Finals

What is the best Stand Alone Y.A. Book?  

Our September poll is live!

I knew Y.A. was going to be popular, but I had no idea. Though I was playing with the idea of only accepting nominations with two or more "seconds," the inner council summoned me into the sanctuary room and from their shadowy silhouettes, dictated to me that I was to run a semi-final poll out of all the titles that had gotten a second.

This means the poll proper will run into the nomination part of October. I'm hoping we can all come together and handle such insanity.

No series made it without being seconded. There were some good ones suggested, but they just didn't have any support. Given the popularity of this poll, I'm sure it will come around again in a year or two, so remember that badgering your friends into seconding your nominations is always a great idea.

There's been some umbrage with some of the titles here–either that they are too young or too old to be "proper" Y.A. fiction. Remember that I err on the side of inclusive rather than pedantic.

Disclaimer: This is a vote on the BOOKS. Fully half these books have been made into movies, but this is not a question of whether you liked Gregory Peck more than Judy Garland.

The first round semifinals (This next week)

Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
Ender's Game Orson Scott Card
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith
The Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens
Glasgow Fairytale by Alastair D McIver
The Lightening Thief Rick Riordan
Anne of Green Gables Lucy Maud Montgomery
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
The Graveyard Book Neil Gaiman
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast Robyn McKinley
Are You There God? It's Me, Margret Judy Blume
The Outsiders S.E. Hinton

Second Round Semifinals (A week from today)

Into the Dream William Sleator
The Girl With the Silver Eyes Willo Davis Roberts
Talking to Dragons Patricia Wrede
The Neverending Story Michael Ende
Haroun and the Sea of Stories Salman Rushdie
Little Women Louisa May Alcott
Norby The Mixed Up Robot Janet & Isaac Asimov
Island of Blue Dolphins Scott O'Dell
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien
The Phantom Tollbooth Norton Juster
Little Brother Cory Doctorow
The Westing Game Ellen Raskin

The poll is at the bottom left of the side widgets. It's long and black and we've already made all the jokes about it that can be made. Everyone gets five votes. The top five books will go on to our final round.

While you can take all five votes, there is no mechanism for "ranking" your votes, so you should really only use multiple votes if you can't bear to choose fewer. Each additional vote you take dilutes your best choice. Also, I'm only going to run these semifinal polls for one week each, so they will go VERY quickly. Be sure to vote right away.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sick Writer is Sick

One of the disadvantages of blogging every day (and not having a few fluff pieces in the hopper, just in case) is that if something comes up, it usually interrupts my blogging schedule.

Monday night, I got redonkulously sick. I was so sick I couldn't really even focus on reading or writing long enough to put up a message like this one. I just had to hope you all would forgive me. When one of you eyed the pitchforks and torches, a calmer head would place a gentle restraining hand over their chest and say "Let's give him a few more hours."

Fortunately, I'm currently in a clear patch of lucidity as the antipyretics are doing their job, and no bodily fluids appear to be racing to evacuate my corporeal form as fast as they can. (Ew.)

I'm not even going to try to get something up today. Yesterday, despite 101 fever and a raging headache and a hair trigger reverse thruster on my stomach, I had to watch The Contrarian, who has not yet learned empathy. It was five hours of hell. And since The Brain appears to be infected too, I suspect I'm going to have to watch him almost the whole day today (Wednesday) before I try to drag my ass to work.

On Thursday I will be posting the poll for which you all have nominated so many great Y.A. books. I discussed things with the inner council (my friends on FB) and it was unanimous that I should do a run off semi-final poll. So everything with at least one second will be on there. That means you have about 30 hours to get any last minute nominations up, second any titles you'd like to see go onto the poll, or hector your friends into seconding something that you really want to see make it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kablamo!

Twice this week I have trudged up the stairs into the "junk room," crawled past husks of half built robots, defeated training bots that are never going to be repaired no matter what anyone promises, smashed bits of cinderblock and concrete, various helmets or crests claimed as trophies, martial art DVD's, strategy and small unit tactics books, punching bags with split seams, and for some reason, a deflated yoga ball to the little table at the back of the room where I have set up Vera. I opened her up, and then just stared at a blinking cursor.

If you ever want to know at approximately what point my writing becomes impacted, it's (apparently) about sixty hours a week. Cleaning The Hall of Rectitude and teaching English as a second language usually leaves me enough time to write, but when sixty hours blows up in your face, there's not enough left.

On Monday I heard a gentle and polite knock at the door, and I walked over and opened it without the usual DNA scan/photon shield security protocols. It turned out to be the biggest mistake I've made since forgetting to rearm the Chickadee's missiles before we went up against the Tween Titans–my god but those kids were obnoxious.

The first blast was nearly twenty hours in one hit. I flew back from the impact, feeling the entire week's worth of free time slipping away.

ChronoTron (my nemesis) stepped through the door. His scintillating midnight blue and black cape swirled around him, shimmering with its futuristic textiles. His stoic jowls couldn't disguise a glimmer of sadistic pleasure. "Well well well," he said.  "Chris Brecheen. Imagine that."

"I figured out the problem," he said, dropping a discharged time siphon to the ground. "When I'm stealing time from most people, the power cycle isn't a problem. They just stare at you like dumb sheeple as the siphon whirs up to full power. But you...you know better. You keep getting out of the way. That's why I invented these."

He pulled out two small, hand-held time siphons that looked almost exactly like pistols. "Smaller and faster. They don't steal as much time, of course, but their power cycles are so short that you won't be able to just dodge."

"So you're from like four thousand years in the future, right?" I asked.

"Yes," ChronoTron confirmed. "And we're out of time."

"Yeah, you mentioned that the last time you got your ass kicked. Or maybe that hasn't happened to you yet--time travel plots are pretty convoluted. But here's my question. In four thousand years, no one has realized that 'sheeple' is a stupid word and 'well well well' is a cliche that no one really says."

His reply was to start firing. I tried to evade, but he was right about the time siphons being faster. Every time I ran from one bit of cover to another a few blasts hit me. An hour here. Ninety minutes there. ChronoTron systematically syphoned away my week. My eyes flicked around for something to use as a weapon. But I just kept seeing little pianos or plastic blocks or other baby toys.

That's when the house P.A. system start blasting Miley Cyrus. ChronoTron looked up incredulously. I just smiled and sighed.


Despite the lawsuit, Wrecking Ball has gone right on using the Miley Cyrus song as his "dramatic entrance" anthem. He really works hard to time that first hit right when she first sings "WRECK..."in the chorus. After that, if he can time slamming someone with a sedan or an entire wall of sheet rock, with the same moment in later choruses, he'll try.

In this case he wouldn't need the secondary timing. The fight was over in a single hit. The Herculean impact of Wrecking Ball's anvil sized fists jarred ChronoTron so hard that his contingency time hop assumed he was being slammed by a big rig truck and bounced him several days into the future to avoid the threat. The time stealer is a wily opponent, but not too able to deal with a concerted counter attack.

Or maybe not that wily considering he walked up to the front door of a superhero headquarters and knocked.

"Wow, I don't think I've ever really hit anyone into next week," Wrecking Ball said. "I thought that was just a thing people said."

Then he turned to me."You okay, Chris? I got here as soon as I could."All the heroes around here are pretty dismissive of me until villains start picking fights, and then it's like a little brother thing.

"Yeah," I said, standing up and testing all my various bits for functionality. "But he got most of my week."

"You're still here," he said.

"Yeah, I'm still here," I said. "But he got the time I needed to write a couple of entries. And now I'm behind on everything, including housework and sleep. Hopefully I can catch back up by Tuesday or Wednesday and get back on schedule."

Wrecking Ball sat down next to me and sighed: "Nemesises suck," he said.

Wrecking Ball wasn't exactly the erudite orator of the Hall of Rectitude, but this time he'd said it all. "They really do," I agreed.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense (Part 7)

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Conclusion

What ignites our imaginations isn't realism. It never has been—not through the recorded history of our stories, and all we know about oral tradition.

What ignites our imaginations is that which is just outside our experience. Something rooted in what we know, with just a tiny bit beyond the pedestrian. The power of metaphor, allegory, and parable drew authors of the past and draws authors of the present time and again to write outside the realm of the banal. It is the ability of speculative fiction to bring fresh life to age-old philosophical questions and engage in social critique that gives it such strength.

We learn in reader response theory that no author can avoid a reader coming to the table of their fiction without pre-generated thoughts and feelings. This is more important in the age of identity politics and globalization than ever before. Confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias constantly get truly quality works of literature disregarded because of their message, themes, or even criticisms.

Speculative fiction upsets this balance. A piece written today about gay marriage—no matter how poignant, no matter how filled with concrete details, no matter how expansive, no matter how generous, no matter how honest, and no matter how empathetic—would find mostly an audience of people who’d made up their minds, one way or another, about the issue. That voice is lost and diminished by the preconceptions and prejudices of the reader. Those who agreed would nod their heads and relate. Those who disagreed would roll their eyes and probably never finish.

However, through speculative fiction the themes and relationships and characters and IDEAS can be explored “under the radar” of prejudice. A reader may not realize that the forbidden love between elves and humans is an allegory for same sex relationships. They may not realize that the criticism of class issues and the propaganda of meritocracy that exists in this lunar colony is really a critique of the U.S., even if a direct criticism would have slammed their patriotism-addled minds shut to the concepts by page two. The issues, the inequities, the emotions can all be explored without encountering the preconceptions of the reader. And even when such an allegory is blatantly transparent, it somehow still has power as an abstraction to inform—as a long and full history of the use of metaphors to make points clearly illustrates.

Lewis Carroll’s criticism of Victorian society wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if not seen through the eyes of Alice or written up as expository essays, or perhaps a “realistic” tourist through the world of Victorian idiosyncrasies and political failings—indeed Carroll may have ended up a fair bit shorter and in little need of a hatter himself after such a work.

When gritty realism will get you executed, maybe talking cards aren't so bad.
Shelly’s warnings of science’s proclivity to rush ahead without consideration for consequence would not have been as engaging without a monster in it.

Nonfiction about the communist revolution isn’t particularly interesting. Even a fiction piece characterizing the ring leaders of the communist revolution and delving into their psyche would have fairly limited appeal. But a group of farm animals taking over the farm from its owners captures the imagination with the supernatural. Right or wrong, the opinions of half the English speaking world on the communist revolution are based largely upon the power of Orwell's talking pigs…upon the power of speculative fiction.

Or had we forgotten that Orwell liked to write fantasy and science fiction when issuing the blanket statement that “genre is not real literature”?

My point in playing the Star Trek TNG clip in the previous section was not to show how great Star Trek was or how great Data was or how great that clip was, but to illustrate the strength of speculative fiction. If anything the clip suffers from The Next Generation’s habit of getting a little too preachy when the music starts and Picard begins his didactic-a-thon.

And yet, from this simple clip, we see where science fiction can take us if we give it half a chance. The works of Hume or Descartes are a bit dry, and “realistic” fiction exploring the nature of sentience and philosophical questions so directly would probably come off at least as bad as Ayn Rand exploring the philosophy of objectivism through Atlas Shrugged (the mention of which caused every English major's anal sphincter to slam shut just now).

In the TNG clip however we can see several implications and ideas being explored, not just about possible morality surrounding our ongoing development of artificial intelligence, but also about what it means to be conscious, what it means to have a soul, and why we are sentient. It touches on slavery and exploitation as deep issues of social and cultural morality. All because Data wanted to resign. That is the power that speculative fiction brings to the table--a power that is idiotic to ignore.

If “genre” is going to mean “bad” within literary circles then we have to stop assuming something is genre until we have established its quality, and that judgment must come without regard to a quantum laser, a superpower or prominent canines.

If “genre” is simply going to mean possessing of certain stylistic characteristics or plot elements then we must acknowledge that there can be—and is—good genre, great genre, canon genre. And we must acknowledge that more is still being produced today by superb writers.

In either case, the conversations within the literary community must shift from the mode of storytelling to the effectiveness of the storytelling, and the prejudice against certain elements must be rethought. The alternative is to face an increasing backlash from the speculative fiction community who are upset that they can’t get a fair shake—and who have absolutely every right to be so. Further, the sneering genre-bending by today's avant garde will make such classifications increasingly meaningless mostly because (as has always and ever been the case with academia in the arts) the Ivory Tower doesn't seem to realize that it IS the establishment that modern artists seek to upset.  The dismissive attitude of the literary community to a work, simply because it contains a speculative element (and conversely to shelter the "literary" speculative fiction from the label), must be exposed as nothing but baseless prejudice and rank elitism…and breathtaking stupidity.

I want a world with good, well-written speculative fiction.

I want speculative fiction that engages in subtext and lives up to its potential as an art form with artistic integrity.

I want to talk about what is effective without a prejudice about what “counts,” and let what counts (or not) speak for itself.

I want a world where literary voices are hard on the settings of some authors that add nothing to the story—but that they do so without regard to whether that setting is a starship, a castle, or a rehab clinic.

No not THAT Starship.
Fire the image-finding intern.....again.
How much better would a writing teacher be to engage a student with the idea “that dragons historically symbolizes some human failing that your hero needs to slay,” rather than to simply, flatly demand its removal before proceeding. I want instructions (and instrucTORS) that concern themselves with craft rather than content. I want to discuss fiction, irrespective of its hasty generalization into some pigeonhole.

Further, I want the lit sommeliers of the world to get their heads out of their collective asses and realize that it is not speculative fiction, but literary fiction that is the new kid in town. It is literary fiction that needs to work on its street cred if it wants to be anything but a joke (outside the ivory tower), and that they can’t just dismiss the most powerful storytelling medium of recorded history just by sneering through their monocles.

Speculative fiction is the giant talking Ents that roam the forest where our sommeliers are standing, even as they casually discuss how forests are inferior. Perhaps it is time for them to look around before the Ents grow too irritated with their nonsense.

Forest...trees...you get the precise idea I'm trying to convey about backlash and consequence and seeing things for what they are and how such hubris might be part of the human condition...even though the metaphor has talking trees in it right?