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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Best Contemporary SciFi (Reminder to Vote)

What is the best science fiction book (or series) written in the last ten years? 

From your nominations we have constructed our poll. Now we need everyone to come vote. Only ten days remain to get your choices on record for our new series of polls where the results will stay posted until the next such poll (likely years later).

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

[Note- We are currently only $70 dollars towards our fundraising goal. I know people think maybe I ask for money and it just floats down like manna from heaven or I click a button and hundreds of dollars shows up in my Paypal that day, but that's NOT how it works. While I would love more patrons, right now I am just trying to make $600 ($530 remaining) to fix the laptop I do my writing on and have enough to cover my taxes. If you've ever thought that you can't be a patron, but wanted to make a One Time Donation, now would be a great time.]

Monday, March 18, 2019

Vera's Sick, No Summer School, Molasses, and What Now? (Personal Update)

Seriously though this is what a broken
black back piece looks like.
Hi everybody,

There was going to be a guest blog today, but the author is taking some time on...uh kickstarting their Kickstarter and so their promotion tour is pushed back a little. We'll still get it (and I think it's going to be awesome), but it might be a couple more weeks.
That left me hanging a little, but it makes for good timing. Because I have some news....


If you've been around Writing About Writing for a while, you may know that every year in the past, I went and taught summer school for six weeks because I needed the money. It was an extra thirty hours or more added to an already overcooked schedule and my posting here usually broke down around week two. There may have even been some sobbing during that period.

In the past couple of years since I added Patreon, I have used the six weeks to run a full court press of asking for donations and patrons. Each week for the six weeks, I cannibalized a post and instead made an increasingly intricate plea for financial support. There were plans for future income and all the bellwethers we'd passed so far and a little thermometer showing how close we were to hitting a goal.

Not this year. I'm not teaching there anymore. I kind of don't need that money (though it'll be a little tight without). But really the reason is more petty. My boss used "Think of the poor children to whom we give scholarships" to try and shame teachers into not asking for their agreed-upon raises or any materials budgets, (plus they were cutting more and more corners every year), and I wasn't really okay with that. So I'll be writing a regular update schedule during that time when this summer rolls around.

HOWEVER, we do have a fundraiser.

I need to cover the increased tax burden of a freelancer who can't write off anything this year, and the cost of repairing and replacing some of the things I moved out with three years ago are starting to break down. Many of these things I can just learn to live without (Apple watches are fun, but entirely too expensive to try to replace on my salary), but the computer that I write on needs to be fixed.

It's been SLOW going on Patreon. Almost every month involves the TINIEST of net gain, but the needle moves glacially slow. Usually before the month ends I end up with a couple of dollar raise, but not before a bunch of people cancel or modify their pledges down and then a slow crawl back to where I was and maybe a little more. March has been particularly hard. It doesn't take much backsliding to wipe out such incremental change.

We've been moving like molasses to our next set of goals––the very next one that was supposed to cover the increased price of health insurance and the fact that my income counts as freelance and I can no longer write anything off. (Yep, basically covering the cost of life under Trump.) I'm still over $100 shy––well $121, now.) Given how my friends who've filed THEIR taxes have been howling, I'm not optimistic. After the insurance/taxes goal, the NEXT goal was supposed to be to start helping with all the little things that have begun to to break and need replacing. A cost I didn't have to deal with when I first moved out with all new stuff, but which eventually catches up to you when you live in a system that depends on engineered obsolescence.

Right now my overall life is okay. I can still make a budget stretch with the best of them, and starting in April there are nanny hours that will help give me a few more years to hit those Patron goals before I have to decide whether to add advertising revenue or renege on my commitment to keep everything I write available for free. 

And, of course, what I would REALLY love is more Patrons. (Even a dollar or three a month helps create a firm "ecosystem" of small patrons so that I don't lose 10% of my income if one of my big patrons can't keep paying––not that I don't love my big patrons to bits.) They let me budget and schedule and plan in ways that flat donations don't.

But in the meantime, I'm trying to fix my computer and get my 2018 taxes covered.

So every one-time donation helps. paypal.me/WritingAboutWriting

The back plastic of Vera, my writing laptop, has a crack in it, which means the hinge has stopped working and the monitor part sort of "flops" back. Right now I have some Trader Joe's Pita Bite Cracker boxes keeping it at a 90-degree angle so that I can work.  Unfortunately, like everything with Macs, it's some laser-precision cut piece, and my research suggests I'm looking at $380 to replace it. Between that and taxes, I'm hoping to raise about $600. Every dollar helps.

And then hopefully before next tax season or the next thing breaks, I will have molasses-on-a-glacier crawled to the next Patron goal with my actual INCOME, and won't need to do this again.

Note: AS ALWAYS these posts do not do particularly well on their own merits in social media proliferation. If you want to help me, this blog, and my writing, and do not have the money to spare (or do have the money to spare but want to help me twice), please consider liking, commenting, or sharing this post so that it can be seen by more people who might have a dollar or five to spare.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Hi folks.

Just a quick post that won't be going up on social media. For those of you who see posts directly through blogger updates or email notifications or a subscription service like Feedly, I wanted to warn you of some updates coming that I won't be putting on social media, but that you'll see through those various updates.

This post: 25 Narratives We Hear After Every Mass Shooting (And Why They're Total Bullshit) is about to get a new look (and a polish). Each of the 25 arguments is going to become a link to its own section, and those I'll be writing on WAW's off days, probably one or at most two a week. It'll take a while to get it all done, and I just wanted to let everyone know it was coming.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

BioShock Infinite: Your Argument Is Invalid (Conclusion)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is part 6 (and the conclusion) of a multipart article, and I’m jumping in with no recap. You can go back to Part 5 or all the way back to The Beginning

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers.

And so…here we are…at the end. The Art Snobs are electrocuting Video Games with force lightning of elitism, but what they don’t realize is that the “dark lord” standing next to them is a geek with a degree in humanities who is going to use what he learned to turn on them.

Time to toss this “video-games-can’t-be-art" argument down a strangely placed bottomless shaft.

Someone needs to stop throwing a tantrum about who gets to be special.
It's time for your nap and a baba.

There is so much more I could analyze about BioShock Infinite. More themes, more subtext, more elements that work to reinforce the vision, more failed topical social justice attempts. Each one of the parts of this could be telescoped out into ten more articles of examples. One could write a masters thesis on nothing but the idea of redemption as a driving motivation for nearly every character, or fill fifteen articles with careful analysis of all the symbolism without even breaking a sweat. I suspect a PhD dissertation arguing the inclusion of video games into the annals of art could be made with nothing but this one game.

However, my point was never to do an exhaustive critical analysis, but simply to show that it CAN be done. I don’t need to show all the symbols to prove that at least one exists. I don’t need to examine each element of video game design to show a couple that are working with the themes. I don’t need to examine every theme to show how they play into B.I.’s overall experience as art. I don’t need to unpack every critical review to demonstrate that the analytical tools being used to analyze B.I. are the same ones we bring to the table when we’re talking about film or literature (both “real” art forms).

I actually have the easy job here. I need only ONE solid example to disprove the claim that video games can't be art. I can kick my feet up, chomp some bonbons and write a (relatively) short article that illustrates my point. That is because I merely need to get the artistry of ONE video game on record. You don’t even have to agree that B.I. is “real art,” you just have to agree that it had the ability to be, so even the opinion that they fell short is, in and of itself, a success.

You see, in the final analysis, BioShock Infinite’s gestalt as legitimate art echoes its sociopolitical shortcomings. If the worst criticism leveled against it is that it failed in its ambition, then the medium’s potential must be acknowledged. A piece of art that has failed to live up to its potential must have had the potential to be art.

Checkmate, dillhole art professors.

The position that video games can’t be art is quagmired from nearly three decades ago in the medium’s technological infancy when it literally did not have the ability to be artistic. (At least not in a way recognized by the ivory tower. A case could be made for the tension between impact and intent existing from the moment two rectangles and a circle were meant to be a game of ping pong.) And every moment since the 90’s has seen that claim become more and more absurd. Sure, there are disposable entertainment games, and no one is arguing that Modern Combat 27 is “real art” or that Navy Seals Commando 23 has engaging character arcs, no matter how breathtaking their graphics become. But the same continuum of artistic quality exists in every medium—there are literary books and throw-away books. There are engaging shows and mind-numbing shows. There are great films and Adam Sandler movies.

We can still be hard on games that are shallow, vapid, and unconsidered. Twitch-oriented offerings to the “hard core gamer” are seldom interested in symbolism or themes. But some games—some games—are rising above.

BioShock Infinite has a quadruple layering of almost every scene. The ostensible moment, the foreshadowing within the plot of the fact that Booker is actually in an infinite loop and everything is happening exactly as it has before, the sociopolitical implication of the cycle of violence (flawed as it may have been portrayed), and the thematic exploration of free will and the idea that we have any true moral decisions.

In parting, consider two moments:

One— half way through the game, Booker can be made to pick up a guitar and start strumming it. Elizabeth immediately begins to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Think about how much subtext is bursting out of that moment. In the song itself the “circle” is suffering and the question posed by the singer is if there is really a paradise in which there will be no more suffering.  (The fact that it is sung in the basement of a ratty bar in a shanty town right next to a kid living under the stairs is no coincidence.) However, the “circle” can also refer to the Delphian fate of Booker's 123 loops in which he has done the same thing over and over again. But it can also refer to the cycle of violence that perpetuates violence and the fact that Columbia is a city founded by—as well as entered through—acts of violence. But it can ALSO refer to the free will of the characters and their ability to do anything other than their nature and their circumstances predetermine.

And if that isn’t real art, I don’t know what is.

Two— I’ll let you do the analysis for this one on your own. Let the implications seep in (and a chill crawl up your spine) as I leave with the QUADRUPLE layers of artistic meaning in one of the game’s more popular moments—four (see what they did there?) white men standing on a floating platform (at exactly the time Booker gets there), singing in perfectly integrated harmony that God only knows what they’d be without....you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Chris's Fortune Cookie Wisdom for Writers XVII

Editors are like therapists. Some people need to hit an unforgiving wall of heavy-hitting feedback. Some need to find one who knows how to aikido their bullshit. Some are ready for "This totally doesn't work" and some need "I'm not sure what you're trying to do here..." If they're too mean, you shut down. And if they're too nice, your shit doesn't get EDITED––you just feel better about it. Trust me that you can pay a lot less per hour to just get validating compliments. Shop your editors!  

To get those amazing themes that work with the other elements of the story, tease OUT what you find  in revision, don't shoehorn them IN right away trying to be hella deep. 

It's an incredibly frustrating thing to want to be a writer and be told to read more. Unfortunately, it is like doing scales in music or warming up before sports practice. It's a fundamental part of the process. What feedbackers usually mean when they suggest going back and reading a lot more is that there are LOTS of fundamental, core problems in one's writing and it indicates that one has a very difficult time intuiting the difference between bad and good writing.

If you think of a writer's career trajectory as similar to a doctor's for time-to-viable trajectory, you will be in good shape for how much effort it's going to take. You can substitute reading and hard practice for undergrad degrees and MFA's but you have to be The Punisher Season Two brutal with yourself about if you're putting in full-time caliber effort or diddling while you play Total War games until 3am. Four years of undergrad.  Four years of medical school. Three to seven years as an intern/resident years as an intern/resident. That tracks with the five years of solid effort at writing before you're making more than a pittance and three to seven more before you can pay the bills.

You have to read all the time. Trying to just write is like trying to only breathe OUT.

This isn't writing advice, but maybe it's communication advice. If someone's asking about best dates, you should really check and see if they mean best FIRST dates. Because they probably didn't want to know about the threesome and the MDMA even though that's deffo the one.

If you want to dream, dream. Have fun. If you want to reach your objectives, the trick is setting goals that are realistic, within your control and measurable.

You have a relationship with your writing that needs as much emotional labor as a real one to flourish. Although unlike most relationships with people, writing will still be there after you leave for five years, have a spring/fall romance, and buy a convertible. 

You know writing every day doesn't have to mean six grueling hours on your work in progress. Add some sparkle to an email. Make a Facebook post. Write in a journal. Knock out thirty minutes. Just keep your craft sharp for the days when you CAN give it more.

When Facebook throttles your content (and they will), just remember how well you did when people actually saw your stuff out there and had the option to click on it. Facebook wasn't making them click your link. It was just ACTUALLY showing your link to more people. They chose to read it. You're doing better than you think. 

No one will ever give you the permission you seek to go be a writer. You just have to do it.

Human beings tell stories. In really, really real ways, human beings ARE stories. History is a story of how we got here. Politics is a story of who gets what and when. Polemics is a story of what we ought to find important. Most human beings exist as the main character in a story about their lives. Everyone has a story about you they tell other people. When you die, the only thing left...is a story about who you were. Everything is stories. The words that will stay are written down. Writers are some of the most powerful people to ever exist. 

When you see advice you don't like, instead of saying no, unpack WHY your saying no and what you feel like you're risking to give that advice a good-faith try. You often discover something about yourself and what you most need to be doing by considering what you are avoiding.
The seep of culture has some powerful messages that are pretty rough on artists. And that's before the STEM cheerleaders come out and act like the humanities are soft and for losers. Most artists have a day job or three, and the art they do make has its own messages of value (or lack thereof) even if it does not profit them with a monetary value that is easily expressed by how much someone would give them to possess their creations. 

Keep reading. Keep writing. Don't give up. You got this.


Friday, March 8, 2019

I've Lost That Loving Feeling! 15 Ways to Spice Up Your Writing (Mailbox)

I don't enjoy writing anymore! What should I do? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  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. Warning: I will certainly make decades-old pop culture references as if I genuinely believe they are fresh to death.]  

Brendon asks:

Hi Chris

Let me just thank you upfront for the years of encouragement, guidance, and entertainment I've gotten out of your website/Facebook page. I don't believe in muses, but you're the closest thing I've seen to one in real life. So here's my question:

For the past five years, I've been a semi-professional playwright, which, in my case, means getting plays produced by professional theaters and getting paid, but mainly living off the money from writing classes I teach part time. I write every day. I'm pretty sure I've hit 10,000 hours by now. I don't know if I'll ever get to a point where I can pay my bills with writing and I don't care; the act is its own reward, or so I've told myself for a long time now. But in the past year, I've started to feel less and less enjoyment in what I'm doing. Moments of intellectual or emotional stimulation are becoming increasingly rare. I seldom excite myself, and I flat-out cannot make myself laugh anymore (which is unenviable when your writing typically falls into the category of comedy). I've always been willing to slog through the more laborious parts of the process for these occasional moments of joy they yield, but I feel like I'm experiencing those moments far less than I used to. In particular, the last play I wrote was just a total grind. Audiences and critics seemed to enjoy it, but I didn't, and now I'm wondering what the fuck is wrong with me? Am I an addict who has overused his drug to the point of total desensitization? Am I in a marriage that's lost its spark? Is this just temporary burnout, or will it pass? There's a voice in my head that says "if you don't enjoy writing, no one's making you keep going. You could try your hand at one of the billion other, less difficult, ways to live." But if I just didn't have the passion for it, how did I get this far in the first place? I have to believe there's some way to restore whatever it is I've lost here, but I don't know what that is. Any ideas?

My reply:

Me? A muse? That is SPECTACULAR! I've always wanted to be a muse. Well, minus having Zeus for a father, of course. THAT sounds like a special kind of hell. But I never actually talked to my father, so that part doesn't really have to change. And I could probably hook up more threesomes if I were technically a demigod.

No. NOOOO!!!
This has all gone so very wrong.
Image: Muse (the band). 
Joking aside...you're very, very, very welcome. This is kind of why I do this, and it's really nice to hear the good stuff once in a while. You won't BE-fucking-LIEVE how toxic the comments can get over on the Facebook page. It's almost like a million people with Internet anonymity are not always the kindest, sincerest, best faith people that Mr. Rogers knows they could be.

I can really sympathize with the "magic" being gone. People who love writing when the inspiration strikes and stop writing when it goes away may not ever get much published, be famous, make money, etc, but they do get to live in a magical land of unicorn rainbow jizz where they believe it will feel like that forever. For those of us pulling down a paycheck, it's work. And we can love our jobs, but some days we'd rather be doing almost anything else.

Now there's part of me that's always going to be very Kung Fu Master Po about this because no one can tell you how you feel, Grasshopper. But since you're writing me, I'm guessing there's some conflict and confusion and I can at least offer you some signposts to guide you on your own journey.

Drugs and marriage might be better metaphors than you intended, although drugs is going to be making me do my best super stretchy yoga poses by the end, as you'll see. Both suggest that you start out "high" or in the throes of "new energy," but after a while, writing can begin to feel normal and comfortable, even banal at times, and may not give you the exhilaration that it did at first. Oh, you still need it to feel normal and will go into "withdrawal" without it, but some days can begin to feel like work. Worth it maybe, but still work. You settle into a more comfortable groove. You have moments but they are far apart and sometimes require more emotional labor to get there than just showing up or sending a nude selfie of your O face.

Too specific?

What to do when you've lost that loving feeling for writing, though? Well...honestly it's not that much different than the marriage gone stale.

So let's just fucking do this thing ALL THE WAY. Let's make it weird.

I've looked up half a dozen or so real marriage articles, created a composite list of a few different actual heteropatriarchal, gender essentialist and not a little bit sexist listicles to come up with 15 Ways to Spice Up Your Marriage Writing.
  1. Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder- Unlike a real marriage, if you "take a break" that isn't code for one of you is TOTALLY cheating, and you're not ready to admit how over things are yet. Have you tried taking some time off? Maybe a week or more? Do you miss it when it's gone or is it a sick relief? If you miss it think hard about WHAT has become a grind about your current writing. Maybe it's the deadlines and not the writing itself. Or the content. Or responsibility.
  2. Maintain a Family Calendar- You and your writing have a relationship that is going to work best when everything else is taken care of. If you're cramming it in because of a feeling of obligation, it's going to feel like an obligation.
  3. Make Little Gestures- Add things into your writing that really make it feel special. If it doesn't make you laugh, think about what does and try adding that or something like it to your writing.
  4. Do Unexpected Things- Have you tried writing something that wasn't what was on the agenda? Maybe a short story or a poem. Try writing for yourself instead of your work. Just do some free writing for fun. Journal. Start a blog. But still put 110% into it. 
  5. Take a Snow (or Rain) Day- Spend a day when you would normally write doing something else, at the very least not your normal work writing. Break out from your chore-like routine. You may even find by relaxing, you find some new ideas.
  6. Adjust Your Mindset. Make Sex a Priority in Your Mindset- Uh.....well....um. Okay, DON'T have sex with your writing (unless that's your thing––I don't want to kink-shame).  Um....but what you can do is to....uh....forget about everything else and just write one scene that's been in your mind. Write the one moment you're dying to write. Learn to kind of make love to the words again. Yeah, that's the ticket.
  7. Take a Week Without the Kids- What kind of privileged ass fuckery is....? Who gets to actually DO this? Okay, okay. I'm cool. I can make this work. By "kids," of course, we mean all the obligations that have come out of your love of writing that make it more obligationy and less running-through-the-fields-in-slow-motion-towards-each-other-y. Try taking a break from those obligations. In your case, Brendon, maybe stop writing plays for a week or so.
  8. Create Intimate Moments- A lot of our feeling of the magic being gone isn't because anything is objectively different, and it's not because (like drugs) we actually develop a physical tolerance. It's because we start taking the good shit for granted. ("Oh ho hum. I wrote for two hours straight. Big whooptie dealio.") Take a moment when you're on a tear and see if you really feel dead inside or if you feel pretty darn good and you've just gotten used to how that feels. 
  9. Try Hotel Sex- Uh......oh no wait, I got this. YES! A change of scene is really good especially if you are trying to break your routine. Go someplace new. You might even try pounding out some love in public if you're feeling daring. Um.....anywho. "Hotel" might be a metaphor for a coffee shop, library, just out on a park bench, or any change of pace or scenery, but the change could do you good.
  10. Never Stop Courting Each Other- You can probably make words do what you want them to pretty easily without much effort. But give writing some effort. Bring your A game. Give it the ol razzle-dazzle. Try extra hard, and when you really fucking NAIL it (uh...your wordsmithing, I mean), you will probably feel some of that old energy come back.
  11. Focus on the Rights, Not the Wrongs- Take a moment and think about the good things writing is providing you. Sometimes reframing is just as easy as realizing what you've got BEFORE they pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
  12. Try a new position- Uh.....maybe it might help if you wrote in a new chair or standing (or sitting if you normally stand) or in bed. Or doggystyle where you're pulling your writing's hair and giving it that smack in the ass that sends it right over the edge...um....*clears throat.* Or on an exercise ball! Or rather than just the position of your body, try a new position of writing. What would your play be like from someone else's perspective? What's something you haven't written about before? If you don't need the money, maybe try something completely different, like writing a novel.
  13. Try Something New- Remember the end of The Nightmare Before Christmas when Jack has all these new ideas for how to be scary because of having experienced Christmas. He was in this shitty rut and then found out that all he really needed was to see snow or some shit. Well, without seeming like I'm endorsing incredibly harmful appropriation of another culture and the inevitable fallout and redemption arc, that's noooooooot a bad idea. Get out of your head. Completely fuck your routine for a bit. Go see someone else's funny play. Watch some theater from another culture completely. Watch some films. Check out some other art. Go freshen up the landscape of your brain with some new fodder for ideas. Preferably while on a break. ("What's this? What's this? This blogger's making jokes! What's this? He's entertaining folks. What's this? I can't believe my eyes he's kind of pervy. Wake up, me. My inspiration stokes. What's this?")
  14. Remain on the Same Team- Erm....so if you are working AGAINST your writing, you're going to feel that in a loss of catharsis, pleasure, and joy. Take a moment to realize that your writing is only a thing you should do if you want to do it. It's not going to make 99.999% of us rich or famous. The only reason most of us do it is because even the worst days writing are better than the best days without. If writing no longer makes you happy, you shouldn't struggle against that. (But be brutally honest with yourself about getting nothing from it because there are always going to be tough periods.) There's something called The Sunk Cost fallacy––where you don't give up on something because of how much you've already put in. (Like how you totally won't hang up on customer service, even after three hours of a robot telling you how important your call is.) Maybe you shouldn't be writing so much, so often, for money, or possibly at all for a while, or possibly at all permanently. Here's the beauty of it: unlike most people with relationships, you decide your level of involvement and you can try doing it less or taking a break without having to go ride-or-die. In relationships, the other person usually has a few opinions about such things. But it's really okay not to write.
  15. Give It a Full Body Sensual Massage With a Happy Ending- I can't. I'm sorry. I can't do this one. Maybe I could have worked with just the "happy ending" for fiction, but come ON! COME OOOON!!!!

Brendon, I know that losing the spark is hard, and I've slogged for longer periods than one year, but I didn't doubt that it would come roaring back, and it seems like you do. So it's kind of hard to tell someone else for sure if they should stick with it or maybe take a break....or a slowdown.....or shift gears to something more fun.  If I knew more details about what's going on in your life and what writing isn't fulfilling, I could maybe make better armchair pop-psyche recommendations, but in your case I think just doing some real soul searching and keeping in mind that writing absolutely IS like a relationship that you can take for granted and just sort of exist in (rather than appreciating and enjoying) may help your decisions going forth––or not––to at least be deliberate and considered.

And here's the best part Brendon. Doing this with drugs would be ill-advised. And doing it with a relationship would be selfish, manipulative, and a little bit abusive if a partner ever put up with it at all. But with writing...you can leave it, discover you miss it, and come trotting back. Perhaps you'll be a little rusty with your craft, if you've taken months or years off, but you can blow the cobwebs off and get back the sparkle. The point is, writing isn't a person who will go marry and have kids with someone else if you reject it. It'll be RIGHT. THERE. WAITING. FOR. YOU.

Just where you left it.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Social Justice Bard and The Curious Case of the Anti Identity Politics

Image result for identity politics importantJust a little reminder from your local Social Justice Bard about the narrative that you hear around you every day like muzak in a shopping mall. A narrative that (much like the ability to see Kilimanjaro "rising" from the Serengeti despite 313 kilometers and the curvature of the earth) can be plucked out and examined––which we social justice bards love to do.

We love plucking and examining narratives.

Snarking about identity politics is a popular pastime. It's not just limited to Trump and bigotry cultists either. The moderate left loves to hate identity politics too. Remember what moderate white Democrats said after Clinton got torpedoed by James Comey, endured a sustained campaign of misogyny, was targeted by corporate media something like three times more than the guy with mafia ties who wouldn't release his financial reports, WAS THE TARGET OF RUSSIAN PSYOPS TO GET TRUMP ELECTED, and still won the popular vote by 2.7 million votes.

I remember. It was: "We would have won if not for your fucking identity politics!"

The problem here is that demanding identity politics be stripped from any discourse IS identity politics. It just involves a little misdirection and some inveigling language. It's just like most shitty things done by folks with privilege: it is surrounded by a cultural invisibility cloak, fueled by hypocrisy, and fully charged with a double-standard field. The minute you stop and critically unpack it, it's as easy to parse as that Kilimanjaro thing. Everything any group of any kind has the temerity to mention particularly affects them or affects them in a particular way is considered "identity politics." The anti-identity politicos refuse to acknowledge for starters that everything is political and that fighting for a status quo is itself a political act. But more so they refuse to acknowledge an even bigger glaring fallacy in this labeling.

Consider this, what do you get as you strip away those "identity politics"? Strip away racial politics. Sexuality politics. Gender politics. Ability/access politics. Neurodivergent/disability politics. Who is it whose concerns remain?

The answer isn't "no one." It also isn't "normal" people. Or "regular" people. Or "everyday Americans." There IS an answer, but it isn't "default humans." When every marker of "identity" is removed, there is a group left over that now gets to talk about what it wants to without so much as considering the issues of anyone else.

The answer is ABLE-BODIED NEUROTYPICAL CISHET WHITE DUDES. They consider themselves default humans, and much like kind of grooving along to Toto without really considering why the fuck dogs have some oxymoronic desire like "solitary company," these assumptions are rarely questioned. Cishet able white men are the identity that gets 100% of their concerns addressed when all other "identities" are stripped away. They consider THEIR identity politics to be an absence of all identity politics because they consider themselves to be default humans.

Of course, class politics might be addressed in this vacuum (assuming an actual good faith concern with class politics and not a sophist "what's wrong with the world today"), but of course, not as they intersect with any other identities. You get lots of "we're all just humans" in ways that BREATHTAKINGLY ignore other forms of oppression. These conversations sidestep the way capitalism so predictably relies on other identity markers to "justify" its treatment of a perpetual underclass––the one it needs in order to form its inexhaustible supply of exploitable labor. Not in a way that recognizes how different forms of oppression often dovetail and magnify each other. Military politics. Global climate change. The prison industrial complex. All of these things affect different groups in different ways but stripping out the "identity politics" centers the concerns of white men.

Besides, suggesting that nothing matters as much as economic inequality and that economic equality would suddenly solve all problems is strangely a position held mostly by people at the top of social hierarchies––particularly white men. Only they can see that it's all about class and nothing else matters.....for some reason.

It's like fucking Scooby Doo. Pull the mask off, and it's an white dude making everything about him every time. In an act of sheer irony, they will even make HOW identity politics hurt them IN PARTICULAR into their own brand of specific identity politics concerns. ("White men are the most hated.....")

They've just made everything about them with a little sociolinguistic magic trick that makes it sound like they're doing exactly the opposite, like they have mankind's best interests at heart when they ignore any group that has any other identity.

You can't see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti. Dogs don't want solitary company. And shrieking "no identity politics" is just a way to make sure that the identity politics stay focused on one particular identity.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Best Contemporary Sci-Fi (Reminder to Vote)

What is the best science fiction book or series from the last ten years?  

The nomination process is over, but now we need votes in the poll you all helped form. Our poll will not go on as long as the nomination process did. I will post the results (no matter what) on Friday the 29th. Even if you missed getting a nomination on the poll, come vote for the first of our resilient polls.

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

BioShock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 5- A Swing and a Miss On Social Poignancy)

Three [Four] reminders:

One - I’m jumping right in from the previous articles with no recap. You can go back to Part 4 or all the way back to the beginning.

Two - this article necessitates spoilers

Three - this article is not concerned with decoding the plot itself.

[Four- This article was rescued from another blog, and is little less about writing than our usual stuff. It's also pretty dated, but that's pretty much business as usual.]

I have some bad news.

I’ve spent about four parts of this article lulling a growing audience of geeks into a false sense of security—making them think that I would do nothing but heap praise on one of last year’s most popular (mainstream) titles—and now I am going to turn on them.

Because BioShock Infinite fell on its face.

You see, despite the technical execution, the subtext, the examination of the deep philosophical themes, and the artistic elements that reinforce the theme, there were things BioShock Infinite tried to do that simply failed.

And I don’t mean it failed like Jake in Chinatown. I’m talking more like the dire fate (complete with hallucinations of great success) that Sam Lowry suffers in Brazil. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I need to give myself time to get to an undisclosed location before the mob finds pitchforks and torches, so let’s start with the criticism.

For starters, let us consider Tevis Thompson’s scathing review of BioShock Infinite. Like most torpedo jobs of this caliber, it has salient criticism that an open-minded gamer would be foolish to blow off as trivial; considerable umbrage that amounts to little more than Tevis's personal taste in games; and a few “kitchen sink” items thrown in to pad the list list, which are a bit absurd.

Yes, Tevis, we’re all impressed that the game is too easy for you unless you put it on hard, and then it’s too hard. How unlike other games that must have seemed. 

The article is quite long (though well worth the read) but let me give you just a couple of extended quotes so I can work with them.

Now geeks…before I get into this. A moment over here next to the Doctor Who posters if you don’t mind? This will only take a second. I want to ask you a favor—especially if you have enjoyed the article so far. In Geekdom we have a bit of…(what’s a delicate way to put this?)…a reputation. Our ability to maybe accept that sometimes great things have bad parts or that we like something that is in any way problematic isn’t, in a manner of speaking, always demonstrated by our outwardly decorum when we discuss our fandoms. In fact, it is fair to say that sometimes the reason intellectualconversations about geek culture go on around us, and we aren’t invited at all to sit at the table, is that we can be a little…hmmmm.....strident in our defense. So I’m going to ask you to stick with me through the end of the article and see the point I’m making, and if you still want to be “those fans” when it’s all over, I’ll understand. Okay? Okay.

So let’s look at Tevis's criticism:
  • "Elizabeth may clear the very low bar set for women in games, but she’s not a complex character. She’s a companion cube in a corset. For most reviewers, this counts as a real person. Or near enough….She gradually loses her clothes over the game until she is finally re-damselled and etherized upon a table, mo-capped, fully formed. She also flicks coins and supplies at you, just to remind you she’s still there. She is otherwise invisible to the rest of Columbia, despite being its most wanted citizen. She exists only for you, a marvelous tool, an extension of your strapping self….This is all by design. Irrational head Ken Levine wanted the player to forge an emotional connection with Elizabeth but not have her be a burden. Because lord knows, relationships are never burdens.”
  • “Why are the Vox capable of just as much cruelty?….Is it because history is full of examples of bloody rebellions and reigns of terror? But then that ignores the actual historical context in America that Infinite claims to care about, where the long struggle for civil and political rights was remarkably non-violent (at least on the side of the disenfranchised). They wanted to make a point about how any extreme position is dangerous. Even if that position is racial equality, fair wages, or medicine for your daughter dying in Shantytown….Infinite creates a clear moral equivalence between Columbia’s oppressors and oppressed. Both Booker and Elizabeth voice versions of this ‘one no better than the other’ logic, in case you miss the point. Such false equivalencies are beloved by the lazy, the aloof, the cowardly….The straight, white male gamer could in fact find no better home for his high-minded non-politics than BioShock Infinite.” 
Thompson might be one of the most long-winded voices, but he is far from the only one. Here is a link to ten critical responses of B.I..

A few gems from this link:

  • Infinite doesn’t know how to humanize the white citizens of Columbia and make their vile perspectives comprehensible. Instead, it dehumanizes minorities and laborers so that everyone is a monster.”
  • “When your super-liminally racist society ends up being destroyed by the only black characters in the game, who are depicted as violent, white-people-hating, child-murdering savages, you're just confirming the racist white people's ideas about black people and presenting them as true.”
  • “With all of the discussion of misogyny in the industry lately, from sexual harassment, to "if you cosplay then you ask for it" mentality to the Tropes Vs. Women question of "Why's it always the damsel in distress?" I'm dying to know what the women of the industry think of the depiction of Elizabeth. I actually wanted to see her "tear things up" in another way more often.

The long and short of it is that B.I. took on a few sociopolitical topics, with the intention of being enlightened and edgy, and ran afoul of a lot of criticism pointing out that they failed spectacularly in their efforts. In fact, it’s a little bit hard to ignore how consistently the criticism breaks down along exactly those lines with which B.I. was attempting to be “edgy.”

I already know some of you are racing to your keyboards and stimulating your bile ducts. How dare anyone not see this the same way you did!

Yes. Good.

The hate is flowing in you now. Take your nerdrage weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it. Give in to your hatred and your journey towards the unthinking, rabid fandom will be complete.

Gamers and geeks sometimes have trouble with the idea that media have aspects, and that it’s sometimes okay to like problematic things. Instead, we are intensely driven to have an all or nothing attitude towards those media, an attitude that (ironically) exacerbates the struggle to achieve legitimacy among the snobby assholes high art sommeliers. However, it is absolutely vital to be able to embrace this duality with BioShock Infinite, because its triumphs and its failures are both equally dramatic. For everything B.I. did spectacularly well (and there were many such things), its portrayal of racial struggles as being morally equivalent to racial oppression, and depending only on which side happened to be armed were BREATHTAKINGLY fucked up—in some places (like showing the leader of the movement for equality as a child killer) so OUTRAGEOUSLY so that it almost defies credulity. When that happened, my jaw hit the floor with how white, upper middle-class, silicon-valley-dudebro-who-just-got-yelled-at-on-Twitter-for-writing-a-screed-that-privilege-isn't-really-a-thing the narrative's false equivalence had come. And I made a note to have a nice, long talk with the person who had insisted I would love this game.

Unfortunately, Irrational tried to draw attention to how damned enlightened they were being and it backfired. Don’t get me wrong, the social commentary fit into the thematic exploration we’ve been discussing for the past two articles. (“Isn’t it amazing how this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ stuff ends up being just a product of external circumstances, and we’d all do the same thing in the same political circumstances. It’s like there isn’t actually any choice in the matter!” Subtle, right?) But with both the racial plot arcs and Elizabeth, Irrational bragged so vociferously about how differently they were handling things than other games that they also drew attention to the glaring flaws.

From the grotesque image of having a murder of crows feast on a person of color, to the entire polemic of “they would be just as bad if they had the guns,” to Elizabeth being nothing more than an ammo dispensing machine in the fights who otherwise stays out of the way, the whole game has the feel of someone who thought they were being "hella woke," but who didn’t stop to actually get a lot of input from people who knew or understood the struggles, contexts, and history into which the story plunged itself head first. Accurate or not, I got the distinct impression that this is what a group of mostly white, mostly male, largely middle-class and generally apolitical gamers thought was a deep social exploration of race relations, and that they really hadn’t spent a lot of time running the likelihood of the history they insinuated into their alternative timeline past anyone but themselves.

I do think B.I. has a sort of value even in the places it came up short. I would recommend it with the same impetus with which I would recommend someone read Huckleberry Finn. It isn’t a realistic, accurate, or even generous portrayal of what it’s attempting, but rather it reveals the social mindsets of the time—in this case OUR time. It shows how people can sort of be facing the right direction, have great intentions, be technically on the right side of big problems like racism, and still really lose the plot when it comes to any nuance. B.I. reveals early 21st century perceptions of racism as a hyperbolic horror from our past, but obtusely (and rather ironically) fails to consider its own set of modern-day insensitivities or how privileged its narrative comes across at times. Irrational’s attempts echo (with an almost spooky harmony) the sentiment espoused by many whites: that they already understand oppression without having experienced it or engaged with those who have, and that "angry" equality movements are just as bad as the oppression against which they struggle.

All this is pretty demonstrable within the game's plot and frame......

However, in addition to of focusing on what B.I. did wrong, and the many many many places it stepped on its own toes in its sloppy attempts to pursue lofty social ideals, let us also return to consider not only the criticism itself, but the intense discussion that it has sparked, all the different opinions, and even the way it has opened the door for some people to become aware of things like privilege and microaggressions because of the larger conversation around B.I.’s ham-handed portrayals.

As people raced to criticize BioShock Infinite, and others raced to defend it, something happened within that crucible—a conversation.

Across a bazillion forums of the Internet, and even a few places in meatspace, that conversation changed people. People in power learned why the sophist polemics of B.I. were hurtful. Marginalized voices had a touchpoint and context with which to discuss broader social failings. A million bits of art or entertainment every day are ignored despite all of the problems B.I. had (and worse) because they’re just not compelling enough to people to bother correcting. BioShock Infinite created something so poignant that folks who took umbrage stood up to point out what was devastatingly wrong.

Take this last quote:

“Its commentary on racial segregation and civil rights; its sheer violence; the lifelessness of its world – these have all fascinated and concerned players. And that is where the discourse comes in. Because it refuses clarity, for good or bad, BioShock Infinite has inspired a huge range of impassioned and conflicting responses.”

Discourse? Feminist theory? Critical race theory? The appropriateness of violence in the setting? The portrayal of turn-of-the-century race relations? Commentary on civil rights? The fleshing out of characters? Wardrobes following male gaze instead of empowerment arcs? Inspiring impassioned and conflicting responses? A crucible of social commentary?

Folks you don’t see this kind of discussion about Centipede or Burger Time.

This isn’t your typical “9/10 Graphics 8/10 Gameplay” reviews. These are the kinds of criticisms and analytical tools we bring to the table when we’re looking at literature and film.
These are the kinds of criticism and analytical tools we bring to the table when we’re looking at “real art.” 
Look, I firmly believe geeks need to have some of their golden calves tipped over, but this also works as one more of my “video games can be real art” proofs:

Even if B.I. crashed and burned (and it arguably did) in its attempt to be edgy and deep with racism in Columbia, the worst criticism that can be leveled at it from an artistic point of view is that it failed.

No one is making a (non ironic) argument that Galaga failed to portray race relations in the 80’s, because there’s no way Galaga ever could have succeeded in doing so. No one applied feminist theory to Contra that was any deeper than “Look—another side scrolling shooter game with two ripped dudes.” Neither Dig Dug nor Q*bert sparked a discourse.

The fact that BioShock Infinite took on such huge topics and got raked over the coals is only proof that had it handled things differently it would have or could have done better. In other words, if the worst thing you can say is that they got it wrong, you must admit that the medium of video games has achieved the point where it is possible to “get it wrong”—or conversely to “get it right.” And that means they have reached the point where they can tackle extremely complex and sophisticated issues.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Working Artist and Exhaustion (Personal Update)

Credit to:
Exhaustion hit today. Hard. For me, exhaustion is usually a little like being sick except that there's no symptom other than being so tired you can't think straight, and after a nap, it only takes about an hour or so before I'm that tired again.

I should say that that's what it looks like these days. Believe it or not, this is the "much better" version. I've been doing much better. No sleepwalking. No physical illness brought on by lowered immune system response due to stress. No falling asleep at tables in the middle of meals. No doctor putting their hand on my arm and saying, "I need you to hear this. You're killing yourself. You're just doing it slowly and pretending it's virtuous hard work. But this is a form of self-harm." If you've been following me a while, you know that I'm not always great about getting quite enough sleep, and that the cocktail of reasons includes some avoiding emotional pain from a bad break-up, some absurdly high-level work ethic instilled by a mom who sent me to school actually sick more than a couple of times, and the messages of a world that our value as humans has to do with how "productive" we are. I've been trying to be kinder, gentler with myself. I made some lifestyle changes. It's a process.

I'm not sure why I ended up with a sleep debt that prefers kicking open the door and smacking me on the head with a sledgehammer instead of just those rings people get under their eyes. Still if I stop paying attention to whether I'm getting eight hours a night like clockwork, a few minutes a day can add up fast.

The world we live in has some powerful cultural messages that are pretty rough on artists. And that's before you have to walk past six gagillion employers and government officials saying "I only really care about STEM" on your way to a humanities class. At every turn art and artists are devalued, or valued only for their ability to convert their work into monetary gain.

I could go on a tear about capitalism (trust me), but I'll tuck that into my pocket for another time. Suffice to say that without a universal basic income or at the very least a budget for art endowments that is bigger than forty cents a year per person (that's here in the US), most creative folks are not being creative. They're not out there making the world a more cultural and beautiful and entertaining place for you and me to live. They're not nourishing their souls. They are working a day job (or two) to meet their very basic needs.

The art they do make has its own messages of value (or lack thereof) if it does not have a monetary value easily expressed by how much someone would give them to own their creations. And the gulf between art that can't make money and that can is often a Grand Canyon expanse. Thousands of hours of effort that might not be "worth it" because of what that even means: to give up one's precious downtime from the toiling required to survive for years, perhaps decades, in the singular hope that one might build up a skill to the point where it is monetizable.

And if they are working artists, chances are if they are not trust-fund babies or independently wealthy, they are probably working hard.

I'm in that second category. I work 40 hours a week just writing, have two main side gigs (one sitting for pets and the other nannying for kids) and do tutoring, editing, and freelance writing any time they come up. I pull in enough to afford a discount room that I found through sheer luck with a person who could easily pay their rent without me, but happens to like horses and ends up needing an extra several hundred a month for their upkeep. The bills get paid, but after a perfect storm week, I'll have worked 70+ hours.

And you can love what you do to the fucking moon and back, but that's still an ass-kicking schedule.

And I STILL spend a lot of time worrying about how productive I am. Am I doing enough to gain Patrons and retain them? Am I entertaining people enough? Was that post too fluffy? When's the last time I did some good writing advice? A product review? Social Justice? Wait...am I doing TOO MUCH social justice? I know damned well that I wouldn't be making the money I do if I weren't weren't working so hard; thus, even after I agree to three posts a week, I almost always try to do four.  And yes, I know I write BETTER when I'm well-rested, but that feeling that you're not doing enough to do right by the people who are PAYING you (and for your worthless ART no less)....that's a tough cultural message to deprogram.

I wish I had some great way to turn this into writing advice. All I can say is two things. 1) The Internet has restored some ability for artists to make SOME money in that gulf between pure hobby and "I can quit my day job now." It's "non traditional" and it might feel less legitimate to those who want a book contract and a gatekeeper's nod, but it is there. You don't have to struggle penniless until you get "the call" anymore (and then still probably for years more until royalties start being more than advances). 2) One of your most important attributes is going to be tenacity. The world shits on art and artists, so the people at the finish line are going to be the ones who refused to stop. You have to just keep writing (or arting in whatever way you art) for YEARS without making money until there's a chance you do. It's a hazing process that has nothing to do with talent or creativity or sometimes even skill. Those things all matter, but not to whether you have the sheer dogged determination to slog through. And in the end your sheer ability to keep suiting up and showing up ends up being just as important.

Most months, my appeals posts go for the hard sell, but given how I started this post, I don't want it to come across like I'm holding a gun to my own health and demanding money. Let me just say that if you want to help this artist and entertainer breathe a little easier about working a little less frenetically in a world with a lot of messages that grind artists into powder, even the smallest ongoing donations over at Patreon (or one time donations to Paypal) make a big difference. Phasing out pet sitting, being able to take fewer hours of nannying, and even not having to jump on those tutor/freelance/editing opportunities will all help me have a more predictable schedule and thus an easier time with my sleeping schedule.

As always these posts tend to do poorly on their own merits so if you want to help but can't spare a dime, giving us some engagement on social media (likes, comments, shares) will help us be seen despite an algorithm that tries to hide original content so that artists and entertainers will pay to be seen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Best Contemporary Sci-Fi

What is the best science fiction book or series from the last ten years? 

Our latest poll is live.

A few fewer titles than usual, but enough to make it work. The books I've read are power houses and the books I've not had the pleasure yet are already uploaded to my Kindle for the next few weekends. Also remember that the results of this poll will be "permanent." (We'll keep a link to the results in a menu until the next time we run this poll.)

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

Friday, February 22, 2019


So when a hawk drops dead of pesticides or a tuna dies of mercury, it's not because they found a big ol bowl of pesticide or mercury and said "That looks fucking TASTY!"

It's called biomagnification.

Tiny amounts of toxins start to concentrate the further up you go in the food chain. The watershed forms a plume, the grass that drinks the water is okay but has a little, the mice that eat the grass and drink the water are mostly okay, but have a little more, the snakes that eat the mice (and drink the water) are usually okay, but have a little more, but the raptors that eat the snakes (and drink the water) get so much from the effect of biomagnification that it's toxic.

The thing is, the animal at the apex of that food web did not INTEND to eat toxins. It didn't wake up thinking "I sure would love some fucking petroleum based pesticides on this fine afternoon!"  And if you could ask them about it, they would just say "Wait...poison? I never ate poison. All I ever ate was snakes." (And that would be true.)

Folks who care about social issues should probably invest in understanding this CONCEPT particularly in light of the active disinformation that is no doubt going to find fecund soil in misogyny, racism, homophobia and plenty of splash damage. It doesn't take one person actively, intentionally being hostile to a marginalized group to create a critically toxic environment of bigotry. They don't have to knowingly be partaking of misogyny or racism or transantagonism or homophobia or any other forms of bigotry to be getting a toxic dose every day.

The news doesn't just get beamed into your brain in fact form. It goes through multiple layers of filters first. A society with largely unexamined double standards, a media with a bottom line that runs stories it knows will sell just a LITTLE bit more, journalists who haven't examined the way they've always written about things and write just a LITTLE bit differently about certain groups than cis-het white men, a social media fueled by the content of friends and friends of friends––some of whom have some thoughts they don't talk about at parties. A few friends who are just a bit quiet in the face of bigotry, a little bit slower to decide some act of sexism or racism "counts," and a little quicker to tone police or demand nuance and empathy when systematic institutions are in play.

At each level there is bigotmagnification for what information ever even REACHES us. We're swimming in an ecosystem where we cannot consume anything that hasn't been tainted. We can gorge ourselves on a poisoned diet without ever intending to consume that toxicity if we don't question the sources and filter and refuse to consume the worst of it. And if we're not careful to filter and purify what we consume first, we will see the world through that double standard and walk out in the world magnifying it further, filled with poison, and filling the world with poison without ever intending it.

And just so you know, there are absolutely people knowingly, consciously, deliberately pouring poison into our watersheds.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Very Best of 2018

Rounding up the best of 2018 presented its own particular challenge. It would be easy enough to just round up the ten posts with the most pageviews (a bit time consuming, but not particularly hard).

This year, I had to account for Facebook's fuckery. If I just took the ten highest viewed articles, they would all be from before mid-October (when FB engaged its hugest algorithmic throttle to date in an effort to squeeze page admins). But what I wanted was the best performers not just the highest numbers, so I had to kind of look at how the posts after the throttling did compared to all the ones around them and pick out the few that performed well relative to the others.

Actual Protip: Don't Do This 
When you work in traditional publishing, it's not a good idea to drag members of the creative team that helps you come up with your final product.

Words Fucking Matter
When the president calls asylum seekers at our southern border "animals" it matters.

The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Gender 
There's the "Hi, we just met" answer, and the one I take the time to explain over club sandwiches.

"Why Didn't You Report It At The Time?"
As a survivor of rape, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings were PARTICULARLY difficult.

Won't Someone Think of the Straight White Males (Mailbox)
The Year of Diverse Polls are over, but boy they pissed some people off.

Duck Shaped Bigotry 
A phail shaped like a duck is not a real duck and no one is fooled that there isn't liquid inside by naming it.

Narrative Distance 
Point of view is just the beginning.

Ten Flavors of Gamergate Fail
A rescue from another blog. A few years old but it didn't keep people from checking it out.

Fake Geek Girl: Misogyny not Elitism
Another rescue from another blog.

15 Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 1)
Get your geek on and learn some valuable writing lessons. It's time to roll for initiative.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

BioShock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 4 Subtext in Art)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is part 4 of a multipart article, and I’m jumping right in without much of recap.

You can go back to Part 3 

Or go all the way back to Part 1

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers. (I’m also going to be doing some minor spoilers for Alien in this post.)

We’ve shown that Bioshock Infinite has a theme that is important to the human condition and that the internal elements of the game help reinforce this theme. We’ve shown that the technical execution of the game is superb.

What about subtext? Does Bioshock Infinite have any of that?

Subtext is one of those things in art that is a little hard to explain, but it is easier to describe.

Imagine you’re watching an old married couple:

"Wanna get something new on your pizza?"

"I know what I like."

"Oh I just thought maybe you might like to try something different for a change."

"You're welcome to get your own."

"I don't want my own....pizza. I'm just tired of the same old thing and never trying anything new."

Now, you know for sure this conversation isn't REALLY about pizza. That's subtext. Deeper meaning. Something beyond what the superficial appears to be. A layer beyond. In music without lyrics, this can be as nebulous as feelings evoked by the minor falls and major lifts and resolving Nimrodian chords or as deliberate as "This is a song about war. It's called Mars, the bringer of War."

Let me give you an example in film: Alien. Alien is a movie about a mining crew that finds an egg and the alien runs around the ship kicking the crap out of them until Ripley, the protagonist, blows it out the airlock and then fires thrusters...in its face.

Sup art world!

And how many times has this plot unfolded exactly in the same way in a million forgettable movies? Horror. SciFi. Scifi Horror. We’ve seen it done over and over and over again. Why is alien one of the most praised horror films of all time?

Because Alien is steeped with subtext about something else—specifically about rape. (Okay so here is the content/trigger warning for the next couple of paragraphs of discussing Alien's subtext, so if you want to meet after the picture of the bunnies below, I’ll see you there.)
Last chance to skip ahead.....

This deepened subtext of Alien not only taps into deeper primal fears, but flips the script gender wise to do so, creating intense anxiety around birth scenes, using crew members to procreate, and causes a shudder when we think about it choking Kane and threatening to kill him if it is removed “before it’s finished.” But even beyond that, it gets into even deeper social commentary when you realize that the ship's name is “Mother” and the thing with that parental name was what forced them into the position to be violated. (OOOOooh what’ll really bake your noodle is if you realize that the gender switching of alien violations means that "Mother" can actually be read as a social commentary on FATHERS and how they put their daughters into danger.) And you thought that alien mouth shooting out was just kind of cool. Its phallic...dripping...mouth. Okay, I think that point's been made!

That is subtext. On the surface it’s a movie about an alien with a second shooty mouth. Under that, it’s about much more.

"Is it safe to come out now?"

Now there is a lot of subtext within B.I. that I could analyze, but again my goal here isn’t to write a master's thesis article about everything going on and put all my readers to sleep. Cages, birds, corsets, free will, religious imagery, and even the writers’ attempts at social commentary (which we will get to next time) all play into a deeper subtext that challenges the ostensible action on the screen. Once you get past the convoluted plot about multiple dimensions and the “what really happened” analysis, B.I. has so much more roiling beneath its surface. But in order to continue proving that video games
have the capacity to be real art, we need really only examine a single successful (albeit ubiquitous) symbol that is pervasive throughout the game.

So let’s talk about water.

You step into Columbia (having come from a lighthouse in the middle of an ocean) and you are literally inside a fountain. The water spills across the floor in a shallow pool, it flows down the
stairs in defiance of every reasonable safety precaution. There isn’t even a handrail! (I hate to think whose job it is to clean up the blood spatters and twisted bodies of everyone who slipped on this
breathtaking display.) Water covers the floor in not one, but two chapels with spectacular stained glass, and then you go down the stairs along a single walkway of waist-high water with candles floating in it. (Just consider for half a second the pragmatism of the upkeep of something like that.) Throughout the story, despite the fact that you are in a city floating miles above the earth, water is all around you—beaches, traitorous falls, near drownings, and of course the brutal end of several characters.

Let me point that out explicitly. In a game about a floating city—where it would be easier in every way to just leave water out of the game—the game designers took great pains to explain and put it in.
Dismissing its significance is absurd. A case can be made for water as a symbol for life or death or
even both simultaneously. Three major characters die in water. Being “reborn” within the waters of baptism is not only a major part of the plot, but is essential for Booker to enter Columbia (but not without saying he “nearly died”). And of course, there’s the unambiguous end in which both life and birth come from the single act of Booker’s willing but forced asphyxia at the hands of his own daughter(s). However, an even more interesting subtextual meaning for water is as an allegory for choice—the game’s principal philosophical conundrum, and we can track this by paying attention to how deep the water is during any given moment.

When Booker arrives in Columbia, he is confronted with a thin
 layer of water over everything—and there is only one way he can possibly go to enter the city. In fact, he must be baptized within these waters “for that is the only way to enter the city.” Later it is during his plunge into deep water that he almost is free
 of Songbird the first time, but he wakes up, on land and his first words are of Anna.

It is no coincidence that the water kills the songbird at an
 almost comically shallow depth (for a construct of such ferocity). The one part of Booker’s life that he can’t seem to overcome to regain his agency and free will (“Songbird always stops you…”). But the deeper the water goes, the more choice he seems to have. Underneath the water’s surface, his agency is restored him.

Comstock is basically drowned in a few centimeters of water
within a birdbath as a tender waterfall flows near him from some
infinitely recycled source. Indeed, his fate was sealed the minute you walked in the room.

And of course it is Booker being plunged into the waters of
 baptism, but held beneath them (a final moment foreshadowed during his arrival to Columbia), that is the only way to end the vicious cycle of becoming Comstock and building Columbia over and over again. He must let himself be held under the surface to find the only choice he can still make. Like Songbird, he is killed at an almost comically shallow depth (barely over his knees) and in doing so his agency is restored to him.

Even small details within the game mechanics themselves help to reinforce this relationship: the control you can exert over enemies via water with the Undertow Vigor borders on ridiculous.
This is also why in the scene that takes place in the deepest water in the game—a brief foray into the setting of Rapture (an underwater city) – Bioshock’s earlier incarnation – a moment of
truly infinite choice is opened up as Booker DeWitt casually uses a "bathysphere"—the use of which by Andrew Ryan is a major plot point of the original game and a genetically coded device.  (Now go back and look at the little sisters and Elizabeth again.)  In the deepest of water, the full scope of “infinite” within the Bioshock universe becomes clear as it is implied with almost diabolical subtlety that Rapture may be an echo of Columbia. Deepest water—infinite choices. [2019 NOTE: less "diabolically subtle" since the release of the Rapture DLC, but certainly at the time of the original article.]

Consider in this context the imagery with which the game opens. Literally leaving the ocean of choices behind by heading towards a lighthouse—a beacon that is ostensibly land jutting out from the water but also represents the end of Booker's choices and the beginning of Booker’s predetermined path. And in the end, you wind up back at the same lighthouse, walking across water (but unable to enter it) as you go from one lighthouse to another, the illusion of choice revealed not to matter, and the destination right back where you started.

Subtext?  Yeah, it’s got some of that

(Next time, I’ll enrage white middle class geeks everywhere as I talk about some of the ways Bioshock Infinite spectacularly failed in its quest to be politically and socially poignant and what that means to its claims of artistry. )

On to Part Five...

Friday, February 15, 2019

I Need Advice! (But Not "Write Every Day")

See, it's multiple mailboxes since I get
this question all the––you know what, forget it.
Image description: 12 stacked mailboxes and
a package nook
(like from an apartment complex)
I want advice on writing, but not "write every day."

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  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. I have a metric buttload of questions in my backlog, though, so make 'em good if you want them answered before 2031.]

I'm looking at my inbox from yesterday:

Do you have any piece of advice for someone who'd like to write a story/book/whatever? Not the obvious "write every day" type of advice.

There's another one that I got a few days ago that is a little more pointed. "I want to write this. Please don't tell me the only way is to write every day for ten years before I even start."

I get some version of this question on the regular (perhaps a new FAQ question is in order), and sometimes it lands like "I already know and am writing every day, so what's next?" and sometimes it's more like "Is there someone else here I can talk to? Maybe a manager? I want different advice."

It's writing advice, not a goddamned salad bar, people. You don't take what you want and leave the rest when it comes to the fucking wisdom of the ages. You don't come into MY house on this, the day of my daughter's wedding, and tell me my tried and true wisdom is not GOOD ENOUGH for you. Y'all fuckers need to get yourself some basic common fucking––

*hit by a tranq dart*


*shakes head*

Okay, okay. I don't know who did that, but fair enough. I'll take it down a notch.

So before I get into my answers about the next most likely advice, I'd like to ever-so-gently unpack some of this epic fucking Holy Grail advice questing shit that is so cheesefucking BASIC––(*hit by second tranq dart*)....uh, I mean somewhat more ubiquitous than in many other industries.

Naturally this isn't for all of you. It's just for people who want to kind of "get around" that pesky writing every day (or almost every day) part. And for a moment, I need to put on my "Not Amused 'Uncle'" face that I use when the five-year-old won't stop running towards an intersection or kneeing me in my groin while playing Ninjago.

Are we ready?  Okay. I'm srs now. This is srs bzns.

Srs face.
You're NOT going to "make it" without a shit ton of work, and there is a really good reason that "write daily" is at the top of the list of advice that Every. Single. Successful. Author. gives all the damned time to people who want to know how to "make it." Other than reading, no single bit of advice is more ubiquitous.

Let me make an imperfect metaphor and compare being a successful working writer to being a doctor. I'm not talking about a world-famous brain surgeon; I'm talking about your run-of-the-mill doctor. 4 years of undergrad. 4 years of medical school. 3-7 years as an intern/resident. Now has a little practice that makes a bit of money. That's an awful lot like the timetable of your average fledgling writing career. You don't have to have a college degree in liberal arts (particularly English), but a quick scan of successful authors without them shows that it sure helps*. 4 years of additional ARDUOUS unpaid practice honing one's craft is almost universal. And then 3-7 years of very-low-paid, onerous work to establish oneself in a way that might pay the bills. Yep, that sounds about right.

*MFA's are about 60/40 among published fiction authors (with slightly more authors NOT having one), but four-year degrees in liberal arts are around the 95+% range. 

Again, this metaphor is imperfect as most doctors have to be able to read and write competently, but applying a band-aid is where most writers' ability to practice medicine ends; the levels of OFFICIAL training are very different (generally, you wouldn't have a medical doctor who was vaguely incompetent, had an unofficial clinic that scoffed the AMA as a bunch of "fucking prescriptive blowhards," but was really good at social media self-promotion); there are ways to do your "four years of medical school" while getting paid––like jobs in non-creative writing. Plus writers will never quite make that sweet, sweet attending doctor money (unless those writers REALLY hit the bigtime, which has more to do with luck than ability). There are a lot more doctors in the world than professional writers. Perhaps the biggest difference is that tenacity is important, but it isn't the most important thing in medicine. You aren't really the person who gets to decide whether you keep going in a medical program. You either pass or you wash out. It's not a choice every year whether to abandon all your invested effort or keep trying for something you may never achieve. But the long hours and the many years of training kind of line up, so I hope you'll indulge me without too much pedantry.

Now what would you say to someone who said, "I want to be a doctor, but I don't want to have to go to medical school and be an intern every day for years"?

Weird, right? Like...you would suddenly physiologically transform into a character from anime so that you could just stare at them and blink loudly a few times. Very likely, you would REALLY encourage them to maybe possibly perhaps rethink their seemingly limitless passion for that end goal if they weren't willing to go to med school.

And if you were feeling super generous, you might ask them some really tough questions like what they wanted to get out of being a doctor and find alternative paths to the things they found compelling. Like maybe they want to save lives, so being a paramedic would satisfy them and that's a lot less training (though it is not easy or particularly well-paid). Or maybe they want to help people in pain feel better and being a healing massage therapist would scratch that itch. Perhaps they could get on some slow track where they were able to broker a slower-paced education with the administration of the various institutions and not come every day, but it would take them twice as long (nearly twenty years) to get to the end. But if they really wanted to be a licenced medical doctor, you wouldn't see a way around those ten or so years and a lot of hard work.

You would react the same way if someone said they wanted to be a professional basketball player, but not practice every day. Or be a paid musician, but not rehearse.

Same goes for writing. If you just want to be published, there are ways. (You might not get more books sold than you have family and good friends, but you can be "published.") If you want that ONE story published traditionally, you can probably get there. (It might take you twenty-five years and a small fortune in editing, but you can probably do it.) Want to be read by millions? (You might have to write smutty fanfic or a blog where you take extreme positions on social issues, but it can be done.) If you want to make a lot of money writing, you can. (You might have to have a day job doing business or technical writing, but it is certainly feasible.)

But if you want to be a successful working creative author, there aren't shortcuts. I'll write until my fingers bleed that you don't need to write every day to be a writer and it's ableist to prescribe daily writing as a metric for "realness," and you alone define what success even means, but you can't get around what working creative writers have in common. There's no "trick" to get you around all those years. There's no way to skip the queue on all that work. It's not like Super Mario Brothers where anyone who wants a shorter game can just pop over to the warp zone and the only reason folks haven't heard it yet is because writers refuse to release the craft version of Nintendo Power. When people try to write and get frustrated by their lack of success, it is almost always because they don't yet have the technical skill or the voice to use the alchemy of their craft to transmute what's happening in their mind's eye into clear, crisp language.

And there's only one thing to be done about that: read a lot, and write a lot. A LOT!

There just isn't any other way. None that I know of. None that other authors ever speak of. None that has ever been whispered at the Working Writer Secret Conferences™ any kind of meetings, not that writers ever have such meetings––and I will swear an oath to that effect. None that I have ever seen  in all the books I plumbed by shockingly transparent authors as I went spelunking for the One True Advice™ that would transform me into a writer.

It doesn't exist.

Okay.....that was long but now I can relax my srs face.

Whew! Being srs for that long is exhausting*.
Time for some threesome jokes!
*Also tranq darts

Okay, now on to the part for people who just want MORE advice. The next logical step. The folks who are "writing daily [or mostly], but now what?"

Write more: Look, you don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. That's why I'm really good at World of Warcraft battlegrounds but epically n00bfail get pwned at Overwatch. I could read Overwatch theory until my eyes popped out of my head, and watch tutorials and talk to Overwatch masters, but what I really need is to practice playing someone other than Torb for a goddamned minute and only him for a couple of games a month. So if you want to get better at writing, write MORE.

Read (or keep reading): A lot of writers stop reading. Like they kind of figure they read all the books they'll ever need early in their life and now it's THEIR turn. Don't do that. Trying to just write is like trying to only breathe OUT. You will be a better reader if you're writing and a better writer if you're reading.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit. A Pushcart anthology. A genre you don't usually dig. Once in a while take a stroll on a new path and see some new sights. You might learn a few things and get some WONDERFUL ideas.

Figure out why you like writing that you like: One of the reasons literature majors and creative writing majors spend about 90% of their time in the exact same classes is because the "close reading" of literature and the "how did the author make me feel this way" of creative writing are basically the same skill––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and word choice and see what made that meaning happen. For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something, press the book to your breast, and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) To be a writer who is reading, though, pause and take a moment to look at that sentence or passage that moved you. WHY THAT LINE/SENTENCE/PASSAGE? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which words? Is it the sound it makes in your head? Is it the imagery? Is it the sentence construction? Or maybe the way long and short sentences weave together? Notice what is going on. Unlock its secrets. Let that author teach you their tricks. Be the ready student and the master that is that writer will reach across space and maybe even time and give you your very own writing lesson. Read consciously.

Practice outside your comfort zone, but also practice writing that plays to your strengths: I love writing dialogue, and really hate trying to write about FEELINGS. So I often pause when I read good descriptions of feelings (above) and pay attention to that and try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft. My more final versions though....TEND to be focused on dialogue because I want to go where I'm strong. Consider some of the writing you do like practicing for a sport. If you suck at speed but are super good at endurance, you want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition, as much as you can, you want to play to your endurance and avoid situations requiring raw speed.

Start wherever (beginning or maybe not): Perhaps the weirdest thing about starting writers is they know but still refuse to accept that they're absolutely NOT going sit down and write their magnum opus book from beginning to end and then just go "clean up the grammar." But they still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. Go ahead and write those disjointed scenes (or even just one). Write that scene in your head even if it's floating in primordial timeline ooze somewhere in the middle of your grand narrative. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. We're an intensely imaginative species, and swells of music and emotion can evoke powerful creativity. The harder part is wrangling those into some form like language (writing). That's why so much practice usually has to happen first. Most of us can do it a little, but it takes a while to learn how to really bring someone else along for the ride. Besides, by the time you have finished writing scene 4, scene 13, and scene 22, you've probably thought of scene 7, 3, and 12. Then you can work backwards, sideways, upside down, or whatever timey wimey way you want.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine if that's possible for you, even if (or perhaps especially if) that routine involves a lot of rest and relaxation. It might be counterintuitive at first, but the more sort of...BORING your outside life is, the more your creative life tends to flourish. That doesn't mean you can't go on a vacation or something (though maybe you still try to wake up and do a half an hour every morning except for the day you're actually GOING to Disneyland). It means you embrace as much routine as you can. If you can come to the page at the same time every day, it's going to turn your creativity up to eleven. That's just the way our brains work. I know it's not possible for everyone. I myself have had to learn a more guerrilla style (and the jury-rigging process is here), so I can sit and write creatively at any time regardless of a certain five-year-old (and now a newborn), but I cleave to routine as much as I can.

Treat yourself well: We treat our brains like they're these psychic entities that live on other planes of existence that can only be reached by astral projection from the psi-vortexes within our skulls but our brains are right there with us not getting enough sleep, hurting from stress, and feeling kind of overloaded after that triple cheeseburger with greasy fries and a shake. Exercise a little (if you can). Eat decently (if you can). Drink enough water. Take your meds (if you can).

Trust the process: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they believe it's got to be perfect and aren't trusting that it will probably be completely different––they may not even keep the entire first chapter.  See, you're going to have to write many drafts. You're going to need peer review. You're going need to change some stuff.  You're not the chosen one who won't need to rewrite your book and make huge changes. You're not the special snowflake who is going to get no feedback that doesn't hurt your feelings at least a little. You are not the messiah of writing who won't have to write a few years before you're good enough that people want to pay you to do it. The process is long, messy, and sometimes painful but if you don't trust it––implicitly trust in all its imperfect chaos––ironically, it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful. And that goes for the larger process too––processes like how many years of practice it's going to take. Processes that must be trusted.

Do peer review: A special shout out to the part of the process people tend to trust the least. It's gonna sting. You won't like it at first. You're brilliant and why can't they see that? Seriously they didn't notice that thing you did? Who are these clowns anyway? But you have to get you some, and even more importantly you have to GIVE you some. In the getting, you will see all the things you think you're doing well that you're not. You'll learn what you need to work on. In the giving, you'll learn more about how to make your own writing deliberate and conscious. Without peer review, you'll skip happily along, thinking you are brilliant until you hit a gatekeeper, your first review, or (if you self-publish) really, really shitty sales. It's not easy, but it's peasy. Feed back some feedback on your....um.....back.

Have fun: Remember fun? Back before the frustration that you weren't published and making money? Back when you just wrote because you loved it? Because books were magic and you wanted to cast your own spell? Go back. Fall in love all over again. Plenty of writing is hard and not fun so try to find joy where you can. Write something you'll never publish. Catch yourself giggling. Play with the words. Toss out a scene and see where it goes, knowing you'll most likely kill it in the morning. Laugh at your own jokes. Have FUN again! Back off all that big-picture pressure about who's going to read it and what publisher might pick it up and for how much of an advance. That's way down the road. For now, just remember that quiet joy that brought you to the page in the first place. Joy is so....joyful and joyous. Joy.

I know this guy who has a blog: Seriously, this is what I do. I write a blog. Look....here it is! Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the shrimp puffs. See if you can watch your cells on the back of your hand doing mitosis like I can. There's LOTS of advice here: writing promptscraft advicemany many questions for the mailbox. I'm still working on a lot of that stuff but it's only been seven years––don't fucking rush me. I do a lot of stuff. But given that this is what I do for a living, and I make enough to live on, I can't recommend me enough. I'll eventually extrapolate on all these things and more. This is some good shit, my friend. Zzzome gooooood shiiiiiiit.

Oh my. Oh, I do apologize.  Well.....if you'll excuse me, I'm coming down off of an adrenaline high, and I can feel this tranquilizer is.... kicking in. So I need to sign off and take a––*thud*