(If you've somehow managed to go this long without reading/watching Harry Potter and yet are still reading blog posts about them: there will be spoilers left, right, and center. You have been warned.)
I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
to my son, smiling as he discovered all those moments that delighted me on my first visit to Hogwarts. (My favorite part was shortly after the Sorting, when he asked me, "Mama, is Snape a bad guy?" Ahh, my child, so much virtual ink has been spilled over this question . . .) We're reading them about every six months so he doesn't have to take in the heavier Order of the Phoenix
stuff until he's a bit older, but I didn't want to wait for three years to finish the series, so I promptly launched into my umpteenth reading.
And as always, J.K, you offer a master class in storytelling with these books. There's a simple reason why it's nigh impossible to start a Harry Potter book without inhaling it in one sitting: they're good.
Ridiculously, unbelievably good. I've mentally cited Harry Potter as the absolute best example of "yes, but/no, and
" ever since I first heard the term, and I'm only now getting a full grasp of how well Rowling juggles subplots to keep the pages turning. Just when I start getting a bit fatigued with one storyline and am thinking about quitting for the night, a subplot that really, really interests me will swoop into the foreground and glue me to the pages again. I clearly remember being all ready to put down Chamber of Secrets
at midnight when I turned the page and saw that I was finally
going to see what happened when they tried Polyjuice Potion this chapter . . . but I digress.
It wasn't until this reading, though, that I noticed how well Rowling handles emotional scenes. No, I'm not talking about Harry's chest monster or the CAPS LOCK OF RAGE; I'm talking about the moments where we make discoveries that cause our stomachs to drop somewhere to the region of our feet, whether it's the scene in Prisoner of Azkaban
where Harry overhears Sirius' back story or the scene in Goblet of Fire
where we find out that "Mad-Eye Moody" is a Death Eater. Rowling writes those scenes beautifully--and she does it by holding back on the description.
I've run into the phrase "If your characters cry and laugh, your readers won't." It always seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me, because while I understand that you don't want to be melodramatic, you also don't want your characters to be robots that never react realistically to the situations around them. To further muddy the waters, I've found that TV and movies actually work in the opposite way; I might sit in numb shock after a favorite character dies or a beloved ship gets torpedoed, but I rarely burst into big, cathartic sobs until someone onscreen does it first (I'm looking so hard at Anya's speech in "The Body
" right now). How are characters and readers supposed to cry together?Prisoner of Azkaban
might not let us cry together, but it certainly lets us stare together in numb horror. If you have a few minutes and a copy of the book, go back and reread chapter 10, "The Marauder's Map," when Harry learns that his parents chose Sirius to be their Secret-Keeper. I remember reading that chapter for the first time and feeling my heart pound faster and faster as we learned the "real" back story behind Sirius Black. Harry's heart must have been going at triple the speed of mine--but we never hear about it. All we get is this:
"Naturally," said Madam Rosmerta, with a small laugh. "Never saw one without the other, did you? The number of times I had them in here--ooh, they used to make me laugh. Quite the double act, Sirius Black and James Potter!"
Harry dropped his tankard with a loud clunk. Ron kicked him.
That's all. That's the only reaction we get from Harry in the entire scene. The next chapter opens with about two and a half pages of Harry struggling to process what he's heard, but during the scene itself, we get to experience the full emotional impact because we aren't filtering our reactions through Harry's.
The same goes for chapter 33 of Deathly Hallows, "The Prince's Tale"--Harry undoubtedly had many, many thoughts on what he was seeing in the Pensieve, but all we get is a single paragraph when he learns that he's destined to die at Voldemort's hand:
Harry seemed to be watching the two men from one end of a long tunnel, they were so far away from him, their voices echoing strangely in his ears.
And, again, that's it. We get about four pages of "I don't want to die" and "How could Dumbledore have betrayed me?" at the beginning of the next chapter, but for the moment itself, we're allowed to experience our own emotions. The next chapter is for Harry's feelings; the scene itself is for ours.
If you're a Potterphile and you're trying to keep your emotional scenes from getting melodramatic, don't let those chest monsters stop you from rereading Harry Potter as a source of how to do it right. There's a reason you're emotionally invested in these books--it's because Rowling knows how to make you feel emotion. And that's a darned useful skill for any writer to learn.
My son's elementary school held its career day last month, and because I actually have a forthcoming book to talk about--and one that kids will actually be allowed to read!--I signed up as a presenter. I knew that I wanted to be an author as far back as second grade, and I would have killed to have an author presenting at career day.
Unfortunately, authors are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to adding razzle-dazzle to our presentations. One of the presenters was a police officer who could show the kids his car; another was an architect who had the kids build bridges out of straws and marshmallows. (I consistently followed the architect, and it's a testament to the teachers' classroom management skills that the kids weren't building bridges during my entire presentation.) Maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I couldn't find many career day tips for writers online, either.
Well, starting today, there's going to be one more page with writer career day tips! Here are a few things that went right with my presentation, as well as a few things I wish I'd done differently. I also noticed some trends in what kids of different ages found interesting; while this was a pretty limited sample size, it may ring true in other schools. If you ever had a career day presentation as an author (or any other job that doesn't lend itself well to visual aids and props), chime in with what worked for you!The kids liked an interactive style.
I peppered my presentation with a lot of back and forth: "What might be hard about not having a boss? What do you think is the main thing I do during my work day? How do you think we go from this [holds up pile of printed papers] to this [holds up book]?"
I was a little worried that this would lead to a free-for-all--I remember times from my teaching days when I would ask a question that the kids liked, and ten minutes later they'd still be yelling out answers to that question--but here, it worked. No one did yell out answers to a very old question, and even if they had, it would have been a good gauge of what they found the most interesting.
(Side note: I told them the main thing I do during my work day was writing. The correct answer is more like "wasting time on the Internet," but that's neither here nor there.)Any props are better than no props. Mother Ghost
isn't out yet, and my physically printed short stories are either inappropriate for little ones or featured side-by-side with stories that are inappropriate for little ones, so I didn't want to bring in any of my magazines as visual aids. I brought in a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
to talk about the publishing process ("Then J.K. Rowling sent it to a company called Scholastic--see, you can see 'Scholastic' on the spine!"), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
to talk about why it takes so long for some books to get published ("This must have taken a long time to write, revise, and edit!"), and Mummies in the Morning
to talk about research ("What did Mary Pope Osborne need to research for this book?"). I wish that I'd had more props, although I don't know what they would have been, but even those three props were a far cry better than nothing.Very young kids need lots of activities.
My presentation was pretty talk-heavy, because again, I wasn't sure what else to do. It worked well with the fourth-graders and second-graders. Predictably, it didn't go over so well with the first-graders and kindergarteners (I wasn't scheduled to present for third or fifth grade). The kindergarteners in particular were about to start vibrating into another dimension, although that was partly because I was the last presenter before recess.
Next time, I'm going to try to find some kind of activity that I can do for all the kids, but especially for the little guys. One possibility is to give them a writing prompt; another possibility is to give them a sample of the text of a picture book with no illustrations, then having them make their own illustrations as an example of storyboarding and making dummies. If any other career day veterans have suggestions, though, I'd love to hear them. My teaching experience is with middle school, so this age group is outside my comfort zone.Early readers are fascinated by the publishing process.
I had more second-grade presentations than any other, and they were all fascinated by the question of how a book goes from a file on the author's computer to a printed, bound, and illustrated volume on a bookshelf. It was pretty clear that they'd never thought of that before, and realizing that someone actually has to make that book was pretty mind-blowing. Nearly all of their questions were about the publishing process--who actually binds the book, how does the book get illustrated, how long does it take, etc. I even had a question about typesetting from an eagle-eyed kid who noticed that the font in Harry Potter is different from the font in Magic Tree House.Older kids want to hear about your failures.
I only presented to one class older than second grade, so again, the sample size was tiny--but the fourth-graders really
wanted to hear about my failures and frustrations. Some of them had started to think seriously about being authors themselves, and they wanted to know that their first rejection letter wouldn't be the kiss of death. They wanted to know if I ever got rejected, how long I had to try before I got published, whether I ever got frustrated as a writer--all of those things that could reassure them that, yes, they have a shot even if they aren't Stephen King right out of the gate.I am so using PowerPoint next time.
The presentation was fine for the second-graders and up, but giving the younger kids something to look at would have been really helpful for them. I like Shawna JC Tenney's page on making a picture book dummy
as a possible visual aid. I may not be an illustrator, but showing illustrations to younger kids will be a heck of a lot more engaging than showing them my rough draft paragraphs, my final draft paragraphs, and my paragraphs after a professional editor got hold of them--although the fourth-graders would have eaten that up with a spoon.
Overall, Career Day was an absolute blast, and I'm definitely going again next year. Has anyone else had experience with Career Day presentations to younger kids? What worked for you?
I'm a sucker for a good "favorites" list, so when I discovered via Eve Tushnet's
blog that this survey was going around, I couldn't resist. Go through the movies that came out every year of your life (presumably with the help of IMDB or Wikipedia) and pick your favorite from that year.
Although filling this out was mostly just a fun diversion and a walk down memory lane ("Hey, look, A League of Their Own!"
), it actually might be a good remedy if you're the type to despair at the state of movies these days. Every decade had at least one year that was an embarrassment of riches (2006 was by far the toughest year for me, although 2015 gave us Mad Max
and Inside Out--
and I didn't even end up choosing either of those); every decade also had at least one year that was richly embarrassing (I'm looking at you, 2002); and years that produced some of my favorite movies also produced some incredible stinkers (the glorious 2006 also gave us X3: The Last Stand,
which is the only movie that's ever made me scream in rage at the movie theater screen). The 80s brought us some great movies. They also brought us Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.So, without further ado . . .1983: Return of the Jedi.
This is my favorite Star Wars movie. I make no apologies for this.1984: Ghostbusters.
And somehow, the fact that there was a remake has yet to ruin my life.1985: Real Genius.
But wow, this is a tough year. Back to the Future, Brazil, Breakfast Club--
and that's just the B's!1986: Labyrinth,
absolutely no question. Labyrinth
may very well be my favorite movie from any
year of my life, or indeed any year at all. (Sorry, Aliens.
I wish you'd come out another year.)1987: The Princess Bride.
Not the most original choice, but hey, there's a reason it's so popular.1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit,
although I might change my mind if I rewatched Beetlejuice.
(I've never seen Die Hard.
I'm sorry.)1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Another trilogy where I have a non-traditional love of the third movie. Sean Connery ensured that whenever I was in the mood for Indy, I was in the mood for this movie. 1990: Ghost,
because I have a second X chromosome.1991:
Whoof. Like the Academy, I'm being forced to choose between the serious apples and oranges of Beauty and the Beast
and The Silence of the Lambs.
Unlike the Academy, I have to go Beauty and the Beast,
but . . . whoof, I say.1992: The Muppet Christmas Carol.
I have watched this every Christmas for almost fifteen years, and I still haven't gotten tired of it.1993: Nightmare Before Christmas,
which is Labyrinth's
chief competition for "Rachel's favorite movie ever." (I'm glad Nightmare
came out this year to make my life easier, because Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Jurassic Park,
AND Hocus Pocus?
It's no 2006, but still . . .)1994: Heavenly Creatures.
I'm a sucker for a good story about toxic friendship and for well-done magic realism, so this movie feels like it was made just for me.1995: Rob Roy.
This was what kicked off my lifelong crush on Liam Neeson.1996: Star Trek: First Contact.
This was "my" Trek movie. I was too young for original Trek, and the other Next Gen movies ranged from "deeply mediocre" to "claw-your-eyes-out terrible." I didn't have to convince myself that I was enjoying First Contact
the way I did for Generations
though. It was actually good.1997: Princess Mononoke.
I'm cheating and going with its Japanese release date rather than the American one, because it has less competition here than it does in 1999.1998: Prince of Egypt.
Because it's Prince of Egypt.1999:
I looked at the list and asked myself, "By Grabthar's hammer, why are you making me choose between Galaxy Quest
and The Iron Giant?"
Then I realized that I'd just answered my own question. 2000: Unbreakable.
Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan (and I've said a lot), this movie is frakking amazing.2001: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Before this movie, it was nigh impossible to imagine an epic fantasy where you didn't have to ignore the cheesy special effects. I can't describe the sheer awe and joy of watching this in the theater for the first time.*whispers* But really The Room . . .2002: This . . . was not a good year. Admittedly, I haven't seen Blade II in a while, so that might change things, but I'm probably going to have to go with Spirited Away
(cheating and going with the American release even though I did the opposite for Princess Mononoke
).2003: Return of the King. Everything I said about Fellowship of the Ring to the nth power. (And, like 1993, I'm glad that there was a clear winner this year. Finding Nemo, Big Fish, AND X2: X-Men United? I would have picked any of those for 2002.)2004: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Yes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out this year and it's another great toxic relationship movie as well as being a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and possibly the best movie made in the past twenty years, buuuuuuut . . . The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.2005: A History of Violence, not only because it's an amazing movie, but because it was an incredibly valuable lesson in storytelling.2006: No . . .
Why, why, why did The Prestige, The Fountain, and Pan's Labyrinth have to come out in the same year? My favorite Guillermo del Toro, my favorite Darren Aronofsky, and my favorite Christopher Nolan all at once . . .
Pan's Labyrinth. But this is cruel.
2007: Hot Fuzz. Or maybe I'll whisk myself to an alternate reality where The Fountain came out six weeks later so I can pick that.
2008: The Dark Knight. Again, not exactly unconventional, but hey.
2009: Coraline. Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick? Yes, please!
2010: I'm going to go with Toy Story 3, although I need to rewatch Inception.
2011: The Muppets. You can tell a movie is good when your child wants to watch it every single day and you don't get tired of it.
2012: This is another tough year, but I'm going with Queen of Versailles. This movie could have been three days long and I still would have been enthralled.
2013: As much as I liked Pacific Rim and Gravity, I'm going with The Conjuring. As a Catholic spec fic writer, I desperately want more media like this--something that wears its piety on its sleeve but not in a way that will alienate non-Christian viewers, and is a darned good movie to boot.
2014: X-Men: Days of Future Past. I've been a fan of Claremont-era X-Men for almost twenty years, and this is everything I possibly could have wanted from an X-Men movie. (Plus, unlike the first two, it wasn't competing with Unbreakable and Return of the King.)
2015: Guys, the weirdest thing keeps happening with this year. I'm trying to type the name of that movie with Joy and Sadness and Bing-Bong, but the only thing coming out of my keyboard is Crimson Peak and the occasional stream of hearts.
2016: Doctor Strange. There were other comic book movies in 2016 that gave it a run for its money (namely Civil War and Deadpool), but the visuals were so daggone good, and I was geeking out over the theological implications for weeks.
2017: I haven't seen any 2017 movies yet. I read The Girl With All the Gifts, though. Does that count?
That's 34 years. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go rewatch Pan's Labyrinth. Or The Fountain. I can't decide.
*whispers* But I'm really going to go rewatch The Room.
The announcement is up on Publisher's Marketplace, so I can officially let the cat out of the bag: I have a picture book coming out! Sleeping Bear Press will be publishing Mother Ghost: Spooky Rhymes for Halloween
sometime in fall 2018. Sleeping Bear prints absolutely gorgeous picture books, and I'm really excited to see what they do with Mother Ghost--
especially given the illustrator they've picked for the project. I was aiming for "spooky but not scary," and Roland Garrigue
is unbelievably perfect for that descriptor.
I know that my publication history hasn't exactly screamed "picture book"--everything else I've written has been for adults. But a few years ago, my then-four-year-old was madly in love with both Halloween and Mother Goose; being madly in love with Halloween myself, I wrote him "Mary, Mary, Tall and Scary" and "Zombie Miss Muffet," and the rest went from there. Halloween is the season that brings out my own inner kindergartener, so it makes sense that it would make me want to write for actual kindergarteners!
I'll be posting updates on the project as they come; fall 2018 is quite a while from now!
Like many people who only watch things when they come on Netflix, I finally saw Finding Dory
earlier this month. I haven't been this conflicted about a Pixar movie since I realized how much objectivism lurks beneath the surface of The Incredibles.
There's a lot to like about Finding Dory.
It's funny, it has some terrific set pieces, and the animation shows you exactly how far technology has come since Finding Nemo.
You could remove Marlin and Nemo from the movie entirely with minimal impact on the plot and themes, and there's a bit of retreading the original (when a human rescue team scooped Dory out of the water and Marlin screamed in horror, I actually groaned aloud), but it's not nearly as sequelly as it could have been. It has one of the best treatments of disability I've ever seen in a children's movie--some critics were grumpy about the fact that Destiny's near-sightedness and Hank's missing limb never played a plot role, but I thought it was the disability equivalent of the women in the background of The Force Awakens
. What's more, it made me cry harder than any other Pixar movie, Up
and Inside Out
And that's the problem.
People accuse Pixar of being emotionally manipulative on a pretty regular basis, and it's an accusation that usually falls flat with me. Art manipulates emotion, plain and simple. Some stories do it more skillfully than others, but all stories do it. Horror writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into feeling fear. Romance writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into twisting with anxiety when Guy and Girl hit a rough spot and sighing contentedly when they fall into each other's arms again. Pixar chooses its words and imagery carefully to manipulate you into sobbing like a hungry, colicky, wet-diapered baby with five teeth coming in at once. That's what they do.
But this time, the accusation hit home, because Finding Dory
didn't fully earn those tears. It took me a while to realize why at first, because taken by itself, the actual scene that made me sob my eyes out did
earn copious weeping. I can't say too much without spoiling the climax of the movie, but suffice it to say that Dory and some other characters shared a hard-earned and emotional victory that called back to well-seeded flashbacks from Dory's childhood; it was a part that even the generally dismissive Honest Trailer
credited with "Damn you, Pixar, even your B material makes me cry!"
The trouble, though, was that much of the emotional weight from that scene came from those flashbacks, and those
were an eye-opening illustration of the difference between a masterful tug at the heartstrings and the kind of "emotional manipulation" that gets described with an eye-roll or a sneer. Baby Dory is pure cuteness, all big eyes and adorable voice. Her parents are living avatars of love, support, and positivity. This clip
illustrates the sole emotional beat in their relationship.
Don't get me wrong--as a special needs mom myself, I am absolutely delighted to see a character with special needs whose parents not only give her unconditional love and emotional support, but also equip her with the tools and strategies she needs to live with her disability rather than quoting Hallmark platitudes that somehow miraculously repair her prefrontal cortex. But repeatedly hitting that one emotional beat is overly simplistic and false. There's only one fleeting instant where we get a sense of how frustrating it would be to have to teach Dory these things over and over and over and over and over
again, and that moment is more comic than anything else. Dory seems completely devoid of the anger and frustration that children feel about their own disabilities; her one moment of dejection is played more for "aww, widdle baby Dowwy is just da cutest!"
than anything else. Baby Dory and her parents barely come across as characters; they're little blue machines designed solely to make us sad when they're separated.
Compare that to any other tear-jerking Pixar character. I get something in my eye at the callback to "Daddy's got you, Nemo" every single time my kids watch Finding Nemo.
Riley's arc in Inside Out
is pretty much guaranteed to turn viewers into a sobbing mess. And the first ten minutes of Up
are, well, the first ten minutes of Up.
But none of these hinge on flat, one-note characters for their emotional punch the way that the Finding Dory
flashbacks do. Marlin is overprotective and neurotic and Nemo lashes out against him; that makes me cry more at "Daddy's got you," not less. Even before Riley became a moody tween, she felt like a real kid, not a living pair of puppy eyes. Carl and Ellie's relationship hits a dozen different emotional beats in under ten minutes.
Dory and her parents may be a refreshingly positive depiction of a special needs family, but they're a flat one. She's not quite "The Littlest Cancer Patient,"
but she's close. No matter how hard I cried at the climax of the movie, part of me was angry because I knew I'd been played.
I have yet to intentionally write a tear-jerker, but if I do, I'm going to remember Finding Dory
as an example of how to almost, but not quite, do it right. And then I'll do my darnedest to make sure that the tears come from complex and well-realized characters like Nemo, Marlin, and Adult Dory, not cutesy plot devices like Baby Dory.
In an effort to maintain my New Year's resolution of blogging more often, I'm going to take a page from Leah Libresco
and do a roundup of the seven best books that I read for the first time last year. (She does her roundup in December so people can use it for Christmas gift ideas, which would have been a good idea for me if I'd resolved to blog more in Advent rather than New Year's. C'est la vie . . .)Labyrinth by Jim Henson and A. C. H. Smith.
My favorite read this year, hands down. Labyrinth
is one of my favorite movies (the question of "do I prefer Labyrinth
or Nightmare Before Christmas?"
can be answered with "Which have I seen more recently?"), and I'd always heard that the novelization gives you a ton of backstory that didn't make it into the movie, but it was out of print for years and ran hundreds of dollars. The unkindest cut of all was that in third grade, I actually held the novelization in my hands at the school book fair, but I decided to buy some Ann M. Martin book instead. Choose from a book fair in haste, repent at leisure.
BUT! It's back in print, and it was available on Kindle just in time for my fabulous husband to pick it up for Mother's Day. I'd heard that the conflict between Sarah and Jareth takes on a weird Freudian subtext as you learn exactly how similar Jareth is to Sarah's mother's boyfriend (if you look closely at the vanity in Sarah's room, you can see a picture of an older woman with David Bowie taped to her mirror). I hadn't heard thatthe entire story has overtones of Sarah trying not to become her flighty, deadbeat mother by abandoning a child in her care to chase after an extended adolescence at the urging of a hot guy in tight pants. If you're a fan of the movie, I cannot recommend this highly enough.Slade House by David Mitchell.
My mother-in-law always gets me a literary spec fic novel for Christmas, and this was her pick for 2015. I would have devoured it in a single evening if all those pesky "responsibility" things hadn't gotten in the way; as it is, I read it over the course of about 48 hours, and if you have small children you know what high praise that is. I can't say too much about the premise without giving it away, but it's an incredibly creepy, twisty story that gave me just enough information about Mitchell's weird magical world to make me want to read The Bone Clocks
right this very minute. Mitchell also does a masterful job of writing five chapters that are very structurally similar without being repetitive; just like you can watch a dozen episodes of Phineas and Ferb
and laugh with delight at the new ways Perry foils Dr. Doofenshmirtz while simultaneously frustrating Candace's plans to bust her brothers, you can read this and shudder at the new ways . . . but that would be telling.Revival by Stephen King.
When I saw the title of this book and heard that the "revival" in question was a tent revival, I wrote it off instantly. I love Stephen King, but his Christian characters tend to be a thousand and one variations on Carrie's mom (Father Callahan and Mother Abigail notwithstanding). I wasn't in the mood to read about some stupid evil preacher and his stupid evil congregation being stupid and evil. Then I read Eve Tushnet's review
of the novel and decided to give it a try. I'm glad that I trusted Tushnet's taste, because this is King's best novel since Lisey's Story.
There's an atmosphere of dread even when nothing terribly frightening is happening, it does a terrific job of riffing on Lovecraft without coming across as a pastiche, and it treats questions of faith and doubt with real maturity and delicacy. I've seen some reviewers argue that the section covering the protagonist's adolescence is self-indulgent, and they're right--but would it be Stephen King without a little self-indulgence?Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers.
I. Loved. This. Book. A few summers ago, I read The Stress of Her Regard,
which combines three of my favorite things (vampires, Tim Powers, and second-generation Romantic poets); while I loved that one, too, I found it opaque in parts. Tim Powers is much smarter than we mere mortals, and some of the mythological references can get confusing. Hide Me Among the Graves
is the sequel, with the Rossettis fighting vampires in place of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and it the mythopoeic stew is enough to make you feel like you're in a wonderfully weird, magical world without making you feel like you need degrees in classics, literature, anthropology, and history to understand what's going on. Great stuff.Feed by M. T. Anderson.
Oof, this was a depressing one. It's a YA Internet-based dystopia from before the big dystopia boom; because the Hunger Games
formula hadn't set yet, it has less of a thriller-like plot and is entirely uninterested in having our plucky heroes overthrow the evil dictator and save the day, making it more Orwell than Collins. The thing that most got under my skin was the environmental stuff. The main focus of the book was on consumerism, not environmentalism (although Pope Francis will happily point out how intertwined the two ideas are
), but because the environmental horrors were in the background, no one was commenting on them and they were described in dry, matter-of-fact tones, which made them so much more upsetting. The scene involving one of the last whales could have been maudlin and over-the-top; it wasn't, and it's going to stick with me for a long, long time. Less really is more for your highly emotional moments.A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin.
I mentioned this in a previous post
and I'm mentioning it again here. This is a lovely read for anyone who enjoys Game of Thrones
but wishes it weren't so Game of Thrones
all the time. There are shades of gray, but there's also black and white, with some truly noble heroes and truly hateful villains; the endings are bittersweet, but not bleak; and George R. R. Martin seems to be having fun while he writes them. As a bonus, there's not a single allusion to sexual violence in the entire thing.How to Speak Cat by Gary Wiseman and Aline Alexander Newman.
A sizable number of the books I read are geared toward the elementary and preschool crowd (hi ho, the happy parenting life!), and this is the best children's book I read this year. We adopted a cat in September, and I checked out a bunch of pet care books for the adults and the littluns. This was the best. I don't mean it was the best cat book for kids; I mean it was the best cat book I checked out, period. I was expecting basic "how to speak cat" information (high tail good! bushy tail bad!), but it also included information on how to feed, groom, and care for your cat, how to tell if your cat is sick, how to clicker-train your cat, and pretty much everything else you need. There were even some bits of "cat language" that I hadn't picked up after twenty-four years of living in a cat-owning house. I knew that narrowed eyes were kitty for "I love you," but I had no idea that when the cat narrows her eyes and turns away, the turned head is also a sign of love, because she trusts you enough to turn her back on you.
Honorable mentions go to Joyland by Stephen King
(a perfectly fun thriller), The Martian by Andy Weir
(I really, really needed something lighthearted and funny after I finished Feed,
and Weir delivered), Hamilton: The Revolution by Jeremy Carter and Lin-Manuel Miranda
(so many references in that musical!), and Firefight by Brandon Sanderson
(the only Sanderson I'd read was Way of Kings,
which I didn't particularly enjoy, but Steelheart
showed me why he's such a popular writer and Firefight
was even better). I also loved The Imlen Brat by Sarah Avery,
but if I start including novellas on this list it's going to balloon fast.
That's my list. What are the best books you read in 2016?
Warning: this post contains climactic spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "White Bear." The new season of Black Mirror came to Netflix last week, and I've been working through it in the small, bite-sized chunks that I need in order to keep it from breaking my brain. I didn't start watching Black Mirror until last winter--I heard about the Christmas special's brilliant concept that you could actually block irritating acquaintances from your life the way you block them from your Facebook feed, and I had to watch it--but now I'm hooked on its brilliant, satirical, technophobic brand of horror.
As I was reading over some commentaries on previous episodes to prepare myself for the new season, though, I noticed a theme developing: the question of whether this show, so dark that it regularly crosses the line into misanthropy, is too
bleak. This question seems to come out particularly around the episode "White Bear" and, to a lesser extent, "National Anthem." Both episodes involve seemingly the entire human race participating in heinously voyeuristic behavior, with nary a dissenter in sight. It's unrealistic, some viewers complain in review comboxes and the Fridge Logic section of TV Tropes
. It's grimdark for grimdarkness' sake. Someone, somewhere, would refuse to put up with this.
I have a pretty rosy view of human nature, and I actually agree that someone would refuse to put up with this--in real life. In a show like Black Mirror,
though, including those people would be a disastrous choice.
Before I go any farther, I need to reiterate my spoiler warning. These viewers' complaints revolve specifically around the climax
of "White Bear," which involves a gut punch of a plot twist. If you have any interest at all in the show, go watch "White Bear" before you read this. It's an anthology show; it won't matter that you haven't seen any other episodes.
OK, have we lost everyone concerned about spoilers? Great. Let's continue.
"White Bear" starts off straightforwardly enough, with amnesiac Victoria (I'm screening Twilight Zone
episodes for my six-year-old, and I don't know where horror anthologies would be without amnesia) awakening in the middle of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. A strange symbol has turned most of the people in the world into zombies incapable of doing anything but standing around and snapping pictures with their cell phones; the tiny contingent remaining are either taking advantage of the chaos to wreak as much havoc as possible or struggling to survive. Victoria, getting occasional flashes of memory about a man who must be her partner and a little girl who must be her daughter, is led through a harrowing ordeal with another survivor to reach a place called "White Bear" where they'll be able to undo the damage the symbol has caused.
It's a bog-standard apocalypse with some heavy-handed commentary about those narcissistic jackasses who take selfies while the world burns, right? Except it isn't. When they finally reach White Bear, Victoria is greeted by a jeering studio audience. Baxter, a man who previously tied her up and threatened to torture her with a drill, informs her that she and her fiancé weren't actually that little girl's parents; they kidnapped the girl, and her fiancé tortured her to death while Victoria filmed the entire thing. The name "White Bear" comes from the little girl's white teddy bear, which the media immediately jumped on as a symbol of her purity and innocence. Victoria's fiancé killed himself before sentencing, but Victoria was sentenced to suffer the same fate they inflicted on the little girl: every night she would have her memory wiped to make her confused and helpless, and every day she would be subjected to horrible torment while people smiled and took pictures. In the most chilling detail of all, while everyone who has an actual speaking role in this spectacle is an employee of the justice system, the milling crowd of cellphone wielders is made up of tourists who have come for a fun day of participating in Victoria's personal hell. After all, the coldblooded murdering bitch deserves it, right?
Over the end credits, we see scenes of Victoria's sentence from the other characters' point of view. After an establishing shot of a sign that says "White Bear Justice Park," we're greeted by Baxter telling a room full of tourists the rules of the park: no talking, keep your distance, and above all, enjoy yourself! Among the tourists are a few families with smiling children, ready for a fun day of cruel and unusual punishment.
It's an absolutely terrifying episode, both because it so masterfully changes from a grab-bag of horror movie clichés to something fresh and awful and because it forces us to examine our own voyeuristic and bloodthirsty tendencies. Whether because we'd secretly love to see criminals given this kind of treatment, or because we get a huge kick out of watching people suffer on reality TV, or because we enjoy getting our licks in on the social media witch hunt du jour, we've all smiled and whipped out our cell phones while some real-life Victoria suffers.
I've run into viewers critiquing it, though, not on the grounds that it's heavy-handed or predictable or what have you (everyone's mileage varies on issues like that), but on the grounds that it isn't realistic. C'mon, this clearly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture bill. Amnesty International has to be going berserk over this stuff. When we see the external shot of White Bear Justice Park, where are the protesters? There has
to be someone protesting something this awful!
The easy answer to this is "just sit back and remember the MST3K mantra
," but the problem with this argument actually runs deeper than the idea of refusing to suspend your disbelief. The entire point of dark satires like Black Mirror
is to force us to examine how we're reflected by the show's world. Would we be there in the justice park? If we're quick to say "no," why don't we take a long, hard look at some times we've put that answer to the lie? The only characters we have to identify ourselves with are the ones who are participating in the mob. We're forced to look at that mob and see ourselves.
If, on the other hand, we saw a protester at White Bear Justice Park, we'd have an out.
We wouldn't have to look at the people smiling into their cell phones and see our own faces there; we could let out a sigh of relief, point, and say, "That's me. That's totally
me. Yeah, everybody else would be taking family vacations to White Bear Justice Park, but you know I'm so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd, so I'd be protesting. I'm awesome like that." The show would no longer be the titular mirror, reflecting our ugliness back at us, but just another hammer to bash all the people we don't like while we sit back and marinate in our own smug self-righteousness.
No thanks. As I said, I do have a pretty rosy view of human nature. Black Mirror
reflects a much bleaker world than the one we actually live in. But it isn't the job of satirical horror to reflect the parts of the world that make us feel good about it--or that make us feel good about how much better we are than other people. Sometimes we all need something that inspires us and builds us up--but other times, we need to wonder which side of the cellphone camera we're on.
Ah, October, that blessed month where the Kolar front yard temporarily transforms into a combination cemetery/haunted cornfield and our family tries to juggle every fun-sounding Halloween-related event that we can find. There's one thing I look forward to this month that has nothing to do with the 31st, though, and that's Capclave
. It's held every Columbus Day weekend in Gaithersburg, and while my writer convention experience is admittedly limited, it's easily my favorite con. Here's why it's my favorite; these reasons may make you decide you will never, ever go to Capclave (it has a narrow focus that won't be everyone's cup of tea) or they may make you block out Columbus Day weekend every year.It has a strong literary focus.
Capclave's motto is "where reading is not extinct," and they own it. If you mainly go to sci-fi conventions for the literary track and tend to find yourself with a lot of free time, or end up going to panels that don't sound terribly great because they're the only writing or literature panels available for that slot, Capclave is the con for you. I've been to much bigger cons with much more robust programming where I had hours of down time because I'd hit a six-hour chunk where all the programming was about shows I didn't watch, or about anime (which I like, but my tastes are hopelessly out of date), or cosplay (REALLY cool but not something I do), or podcasting (Godspeed to all you podcasters, but I'm not one of you). If you're an anime-loving cosplaying podcaster, Capclave won't have much to offer you.
If you're there for the writing and lit, though . . . yowzers. I'm looking over the schedule
for this year and weeping audibly at all of the conflicts. Why, oh why, must the "Language in Fantasy Worldbuilding" panel, the "Submitting Your Work to Agents" workshop, and the "Alternate and Secret History" panel with TIM FREAKING POWERS be at the same time?!It's small.
Feature, not bug. For one thing, the small size means that Capclave can keep that literary focus because it isn't trying to cast a wider net and draw in every kind of spec fic fan around. It's focused on lit as surely as Otakon is focused on anime, and that's OK.
The small size isn't just a subcategory of "it has a literary focus," though. Capclave has an intimate feel that I like. I've been to some panels with only about half a dozen people in the room, and the audience participated as much as the panelists. It's much easier to get into a workshop that you want, or to run into people that you've met earlier in the con, or to bump into an author that you like (I fangirled all over poor Will McIntosh last year, but he was very gracious about it). At Capclave, I've had panelists come up to me after panels to talk in-depth about a question I asked earlier. I've never had that happen at a larger con.The workshops are free.
Balticon 50 had some spectacular workshops--but I could have gotten good seats to Hamilton
for the price of their premier workshop track. Capclave also has spectacular workshops, and you don't have to pay a dime.The guests of honor are way better than you would expect for a small con.
In case you missed it above, this year's guest of honor is TIM FREAKING POWERS. Past guests of honor
have included George R. R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gene Wolfe, and even Isaac Asimov (Capclave's been around for awhile). It's cheap.
World Fantasy has a literary focus, too. World Fantasy is two hundred dollars. Because Capclave is still a fan convention instead of a professional one, it's still affordable.
Capclave definitely has a niche audience. If your favorite part of cons is cosplaying, or people-watching the cosplayers, or attending the multimedia track, you're going to be bored silly at Capclave, and that's OK. If you're actively looking for a professional convention so you can network with agents and editors, Capclave is going to have too small and fannish a focus for you (although you might still want to come just for fun). If you're a writer looking for a very writer-focused con that's priced like a fan convention instead of a professional one, though, you'll probably love Capclave as much as I do.
Come join me next weekend!
The Kolar household has joined the rest of the Broadway geek world in getting really, really obsessive about Hamilton.
(OK, I'm more of a recovering Broadway geek than a current one, but it doesn't matter what level of geekery you have; this musical is inescapable.) I'm not going to gush about how good it is--much--because if you're in the Cult of Hamilton,
you already know, and if you aren't, you probably feel as though smiling theater aficionados in matching suits and ties are going to start knocking on your door with pamphlets at any moment. The one thing I'll say on that subject is that if you're not interested because you don't like hip-hop, give it a listen. I rarely listen to hip-hop and expected Hamilton
to be one of those things that I appreciated rather than enjoyed, but six weeks after my first listen I'm still sneaking it into the CD player every time I want background music and the kids are out of the room.
This week, our obsession reached the point where we actually started seeking out cut songs on YouTube. Like most deleted scenes, you can see exactly why the majority of these songs were cut. The John Adams diss track
is clever, but Adams is too minor a presence to warrant a whole song; the reprise of "Dear Theodosia"
is heartbreaking and gives us some nice parallels between the death of Hamilton's son and that of Burr's wife, but it doesn't add anything to Burr's motivation and stalls the momentum near the end of the story.
There's one song, though, that I wish could have worked: "Congratulations,"
which Angelica Schuyler would have sung right after "The Reynolds Pamphlet." For those who aren't familiar with the musical, it has a refreshingly mature love triangle with Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and his sister-in-law Angelica; Angelica has loved Hamilton from the moment she met him and is pretty clearly a better match for him than Eliza personality-wise, but reluctantly steps aside because she wants her sister to be happy. The two write to each other frequently, and the song that features their correspondence is packed with yearning ("And there you are an ocean away/ Do you have to live an ocean away?/ Thoughts of you subside/ Then I get another letter/ I cannot put the notion away . . .").
In the musical as written, the Hamilton/Angelica romantic tension gets an OK ending, but it could have been stronger given all the build-up. Hamilton writes a pamphlet detailing his lurid affair with another woman (the Smithsonian has a nice historical summary
). Angelica arrives, and Hamilton thinks she's there to comfort him, but she tells him in a single withering verse that she's there to comfort Eliza, not him. We then transition into Eliza's absolutely devastating reaction to the affair, "Burn,"
where a character who's been passive until this point finally lets out her torrent of grief and rage. It's a tour de force for Eliza, no question, but it left me wishing that Angelica got a bit more closure.
"Congratulations" would have given us that closure in spades. It stretches out Angelica's one venomous verse to an entire song that does everything we could want an Angelica song to do at that moment. It gives us catharsis by having a character Hamilton respects rip him a new one. It has plenty of those clever Lin-Manuel Miranda rhymes we love ("You know why Jefferson can do what he wants?/ He doesn't dignify schoolyard taunts with a response!"). It lets Angelica remind Hamilton that while she's been stuck in a loveless marriage, he had a happy one that he willingly flushed down the toilet. It offers a blistering summary of the entire second act: "So scared of what your enemies will do to you/ You're the only enemy you ever seem to lose to!"
It would have given us everything we could have wanted from an Angelica song . . . and it would have done it by gutting the emotional punch of "Burn," a far more important moment than "Congratulations" would have been. One Schuyler sister venting her heartbreak is haunting. Two Schuyler sisters in a row? As good as "Burn" is, it would have been hard for the audience to avoid checking their watches. You can't have two scenes that cover identical emotional beats back-to-back. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for Lin-Manuel Miranda to cut "Congratulations," but he made the right call.
This is one of the best examples of "murder your darlings" I've seen recently. Let's jump back to all those deleted scenes in movies. As mentioned, in most cases, you can watch those scenes and pretty quickly see why they were cut. Not all of them are full-bore terrible (although some are *cough* JabbatheHuttinNewHope
*cough*), but most of them drag down the pacing, repeat information we already know, bloat the budget for no apparent reason, etc., etc., etc. If they make all three of those missteps *cough JabbatheHuttinNewHope
*cough*, they're a slog. Usually, though, they only make one or two. Those tend to be perfectly fine scenes, but nothing to write home about.
In a small handful of other cases, you watch those deleted scenes and can immediately see that taking them out was the wrong call. Whoever cut those Faramir flashback scenes from The Two Towers
needs to be slapped in the face with a fish; they're the only things that lend any motivation at all to his actions. ("Do not trouble me with Faramir. I know his uses, and they are few"? Just call Denethor "Eliza Hamilton,"because that's
a burn.) That scene does
something. It doesn't just give us the warm fuzzies of seeing Boromir again; it makes the actions of a major character snap into perfect focus. Yes, it bogs down the pacing a bit, but the trade is well worth it.
Scenes like "Congratulations," though, have to be the hardest to cut. At first glance, it looks a lot more like a Boromir flashback than an ugly CGI Jabba the Hutt. It does something--a lot of somethings, in fact--and it's a lot better than "perfectly fine." It's almost essential. Almost. But it comes at the expense of something that is
essential, so away it goes.
As I embark on my last round of revisions, I hope I can burn my darlings that ruthlessly.
Writers have spilled a lot
of ink over how to slog through your rough draft when you're ready to throw your computer or notebook out the window in despair. Anne Lamott famously exhorted writers to embrace their "shitty first drafts;"
another writer whose name unfortunately escapes me suggested that writers think of their first draft as a simulation of a novel, not a real novel, to take pressure off themselves. My favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, recently had an episode
reminding listeners to stop comparing their rough drafts to the polished final drafts that they see in bookstores--or, heck, to their own polished final drafts, if their current project isn't their first.
I can certainly appreciate the truth behind Lamott and the Writing Excuses crew--I'm sure that even writers I adore wrote some absolutely godawful rough drafts--and I can see how the "simulation of a novel" advice might be helpful to some people, but none of that was terribly helpful to me when I hit a wall. (Well, to be fair to the Writing Excuses crew, my rough draft was done by the time they aired that episode.) For me, the single most helpful line for enduring a rough draft was from Stephen King. It didn't come from On Writing (although that book is a gold mine). It didn't come from one of his writer protagonists gushing about the joys of writing, either. It came from Adrian Mellon, a character in It who got eaten offscreen by Pennywise before the novel even started. Because it's a Stephen King novel, though, we get a good 10 pages about Adrian's back story, including the fact that he's been idly plugging away at a novel for the past twelve years. Shortly before his death, he pulls the novel out of his trunk and starts working on it again, telling his boyfriend that "it might be a terrible novel, but it was no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel."
I cannot possibly tell you how many times I repeated that line to myself when in the depths of "oh my goodness I am never going to finish this thing and even if I do it will be total crap" despair. (We've all had that, right? It's not just me?) "Shitty first drafts" and "don't compare your rough drafts to other people's final drafts" ultimately paint your rough draft as something horrible to be endured before you get on to the fun part . . . which is certainly true in certain sections of the draft, but not exactly inspiring. When you've been hammering away at something for a year, it doesn't do much to cheerfully remind yourself that it's shitty.
But "it might be a terrible novel, but [it's] no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel"? That made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something. A shitty first draft is better than . . . no shitty first draft, I guess? Again, not terribly inspiring. But being the author of a finished novel, even a terrible one, rather than being that guy who's been idly puttering at the same project for twelve years? That's
an objective improvement. Whenever I would hit a wall in my rough draft, I'd close my eyes and repeat, "This might be a terrible novel, but it isn't going to be a terrible unfinished novel." And then "Eye of the Tiger" would play in my head, and I could keep going.
Technically, my novel is
still unfinished--I finished the first two drafts, but there's still more revision to go. When it's completely done, I don't know whether or not any publishers will nibble or if it has enough first novel problems to truly be a terrible novel. But dangit, the first draft is the hardest, and it's done. I am going to finish this thing. It's not going to be a terrible unfinished novel.
Do you have the first fifty pages of a terrible novel languishing in your desk or on your hard drive? Go finish it. It might be a terrible novel, but it is no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel. Then revise it and make it terrific.