In my last post, I talked about how much Habitica has helped me to actually sit my rear end in the chair and get some writing done. This time, I'd like to talk about how I managed to get past the "write one sentence and call it a day" phase, because if all you have on your daily list is "write," you can get away with that. (To reiterate: if you're just now trying to make any time whatsoever to write, you might still be in that phase. That's OK. A sentence is better than nothing. Once you're consistently getting that sentence written every day, though, it's time to step up your game.)

For me, the best way to use Habitica was through a combination of dailies, to-dos, and checklists. If you haven't used Habitica before, dailies are the habits that you have to check off every day or on certain days of the week in order to get your reward; if you don't check them off, you take damage. To-dos don't have a specific due date, so they can theoretically let them sit on your list for years (I have a few untouched to-dos that are nearly as old as my daughter--*cough*updatingbabybooks*cough*), but you don't get rewards from them until you check them off.

When I first started using Habitica, I just had "write" on my dailies. It got me writing that sentence a day, which was an improvement, but I started getting the sense that I could manage more than a page a week.
So my next step was to set myself a weekly writing quota. Knowing something about your own work ethic will be tremendously helpful here. If you're the kind of person who does the absolute minimum that you can get away with, you'll want to push yourself with a relatively high quota. If, like me, you're the kind of person who will get discouraged and quit after a few weeks of failing to meet your quota, you'll want to start yourself off easy. I think my first weekly quota was three pages, although now I'm at five for rough draft writing and ten for revising (since that comes to me more easily).

When you set yourself a weekly quota, use the checklist function so that you can check off each page individually. Habitica gives partial credit for uncompleted checklists, so if you write two pages, you'll take less damage than you would if you hadn't written at all.

(On the left is a picture of the screen where you edit the daily to add the checklist; on the right is a picture of the checklist itself when it's been saved and added to your list of dailies. As you can see, mine is due every Sunday. It's gray on the right-hand picture because I didn't take this screenshot on a Sunday, so the task wasn't due yet.)
That worked for a while, but I started to get discouraged whenever I exceeded my weekly quota. If I wrote seven pages instead of five on the week of September 3, I didn't want to check off two pages and give myself permission to write just three pages on the week of September 10; I wanted to write at least five more pages to keep my momentum rolling, regardless of how much I'd written the previous week. But how could I reward myself for being extra productive?

One possibility would have been to use the "habits" column. Good habits are things you can do multiple times a day to get a payout, like taking the stairs or eating celery. If you want to, you could make "write an extra page" a habit.
I was having this issue right as I approached the hundredth page of my novel draft, though, which probably explains why I went for a method that better memorialized big writing milestones. Instead of using habits to reward myself for exceeding my quota, I used to-dos.

To-do checklists work differently from daily checklists. If I have three of my five pages checked off on the day they're due, I don't get any rewards, but I only take 40% of the damage that I normally would (since I didn't accomplish 40% of my goal). With to-do checklists, though, every item on the list increases your reward; a five-item checklist gives you five times the reward of a standalone item. 

I started giving myself a to-do checklist for every ten pages. When I reached page 100, I got to check that off along with all the other pages, then add "page 110" as a new to-do. (Don't ask me why I've apparently written pages 92 and 93 while skipping 91 in this screenshot. Accidental unclicking is a harsh mistress.) 

Kablammo--when I complete ten pages, whether it's this week or next week, I get rewarded for each individual page. And that's on top of the reward I get for meeting my weekly quota.

Now that I'm doing revisions instead of my rough draft, I'm going by chapters instead of ten-page chunks; that just makes more sense to me. If you scroll up to my first image of my screen, you'll see that my checklist is for completing chapter twelve, not for reaching a certain page. If I were in my rough draft, of course, I wouldn't know exactly how many pages chapter twelve was going to be, so I wouldn't be able to make a checklist for it.

That's how I used Habitica to go from "write every day" to "write every day and make sure it's a substantial amount on a regular basis." I'd love to hear about other things Habiticans have done!
I was recently in a conversation with a friend who is having difficulty finding the time to write, and I found myself rhapsodizing about my favorite productivity app like a LuLaRoe seller trying to rope in a new subordinate. Then I realized that I've given this exact same speech to every other writer who's struggling to get butt-in-chair time, so it's probably time that I just share my love with the world.

I love, love, love Habitica.

The usual disclaimers: I have absolutely no affiliation with Habitica beyond being a satisfied user. I get nothing if you join. I got nothing for writing this blog post. Habitica's owners have absolutely no idea that I'm writing it at all. But it's one of the three things that got me from writing a 4,000 word short story every year to finishing a novel draft in seven months, and I want everybody else to have that kind of progress. (The other two things are a regular writing partner who can hold me accountable and a supportive spouse, but those are a lot harder to find than useful apps. More's the pity.)

If you haven't heard of it, Habitica is a general productivity app and website that applies the Skinner-box addictiveness of online games to your to-do list. You make your list of daily or weekly chores, as well as some to-dos that don't have a specific deadline. Every time you check off a chore or a to-do, you get experience points and gold, which you can spend on armor and weapons to dress up your cute little customizable avatar. If you don't check off a chore that you were supposed to do on that day, your avatar loses hit points. The more daunting the task, the more damage you take and the more gold and XP you earn. It lets you get that same little dopamine rush that you get from something like Candy Crush--but you get it after you've checked off your writing goal for the day.

I'll write about the way that I maximized Habitica's usefulness for myself next time, but right now I want to focus on why it was the absolute best app for me as someone who was barely writing and who had two kids who were still in diapers--and why I'm still getting use out of it as someone who's made a habit of writing every day.

You can use it if you write longhand. This, for me, has always been a major stumbling block with online writing tools. I write my rough drafts longhand; I've tried typing them, but I just haven't been able to make it work. That cuts me off from a lot of tools that monitor how much you're typing. I love everything I've heard about Write or Die, for example, but I would only be able to use it for revisions, not for the rough draft--and rough drafts are where I need the most motivation. With Habitica, though, you aren't typing directly into the website or app, so you can use it to monitor your progress no matter what medium you use.

(By the way, if you use Write or Die and have been able to make it work with longhand writing, PLEASE let me know in the comments. It looks awesome.)

It isn't just for writing. Because Habitica is a general productivity tool, I put all of my daily chores on there, from writing to cleaning the litter box to practicing my German. That may not sound important, but it was actually crucial because it meant that I couldn't just avoid going onto Habitica when I wasn't writing. I don't know about you, but if I have an app for a single habit that I don't track as well as I should *coughweightlosscough*, I eventually just avoid using it altogether because I don't want to confront how badly I've been letting my that habit slide. With Habitica, though, even when I wasn't writing, I was still logging on every day so I could get my XP from doing laundry and making the kids' dentist appointments and remembering to take my meds . . . and I was seeing exactly how much damage I was taking from not writing, and imagining how much gold and XP I'd get as soon as I checked that sucker off. It got to the point where I would write a single sentence every day just so that I could check off that I had, in fact, written. And that made it easier to write another sentence . . . and another . . . and another.

It's (mostly) free. I played Habitica for over a year before spending a dime. It does eventually get a little repetitive at the higher levels if you don't change classes or start buying quests (or both), but both are incredibly cheap; I currently spend maybe a buck fifty a month on quests and particularly adorable extras like black and orange Halloween pets.

It allows you to have accountability partners who aren't writers. If you create a party on Habitica and go on quests, your unchecked chores will do damage to your party members as well as to you. My husband isn't a writer, so I can't set up writing dates with him, but I know that he'll take damage when I don't write, and that makes me want to write something so that I can check it off.

Unfortunately, this is where the "mostly" free part comes in; you need quests in order to have accountability with your party, and only a handful of quests are free. That said, they only cost a dollar and only one person in your party needs to buy the quest, so it isn't going to be a huge money sink. Our three-member party only gets a new quest every two weeks or so.

It's scalable. As mentioned, when I started using Habitica, I had very poor writing habits and two kids in diapers. If I wrote a page a week, it was an improvement. By the time I started my second novel, I was consistently writing at least five pages a week. Since I'm able to manage that, I'm planning to increase my quota to seven pages a week, then ten. Habitica lets me do all of that. Whether my goal is a sentence a day or three pages a day, I can use Habitica to help me reach it.

But how do you start in on those higher goals with Habitica? If all you have on your to-do list is "write," how do you avoid just settling on a sentence a day for the rest of your life? Next time, I'll get into the nitty-gritty specifics of what works for me.
Between the cost of tickets and the difficulty of wrangling childcare, the hubby and I only go to the movies about once per season. I knew that, unless the reviews were scathing, IT would our fall movie. Like so many other thirty-somethings, I was given an unholy terror of clowns by the 1990s version (not to mention bathtub drains; thanks, Eddie's post-gym shower scene), and for all the scare scenes, rereading the book always feels like visiting with old friends. When I watched the trailer and saw Georgie chasing his paper boat through the storm drain, I literally held my breath; I hadn't known exactly how much power the story had over me until that moment. Needless to say, the reviews weren't scathing, so off we went.

And man, am I glad we did. I can't objectively compare this movie to the 1990s version because I'm not seeing it as a ten-year-old, but it was good. The adaptation felt true to the spirit of the novel while still being fresh; in addition to changing the time period, Muschietti replaced certain scare scenes like the mummy and the werewolf both to give the movie less of a '50s vibe and to surprise book-savvy viewers. The result is terrific; as someone who's given pretty sizable patch of psychic real estate to Derry, Pennywise, and the Losers, I had that nostalgic old-friends feeling without ever feeling like I knew what was coming next.

Speaking of the Losers, they're where the movie really shines. I'd read about how much Finn Wolfhard steals the show as Richie, but I honestly laughed even harder at Eddie (whose '80s incarnation has many thoughts on the surprising ways you can contract AIDS). All the kids do a phenomenal job, though; as my brother pointed out, Stan Uris is never going to be anyone's favorite Loser, but Wyatt Oleff was the best darn Stan Uris he could be. I don't like Skarsgard's Pennywise as much as Tim Curry's (again, this may have more to do with me not being 10 than anything else), but he's properly malicious and off-putting. You also get a proper sense of Derry as not just a bad place, but a BAD PLACE.

Although most of the story changes were either improvements or adaptational necessities, I have mixed feelings about others. There was a damsel-in-distress bit with Bev that nearly made me throw my shoe at the screen, although the movie ultimately handled it much, much better than I was expecting it to (so well that I'm not sure what else they could have done if they wanted to stick to a three-act structure). Poor Mike gets the worst of it; his part was basically gutted, and I hope his adult incarnation has more to do. (I read somewhere that his character really shone in some over-budget scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, but now I can't find that link anywhere. "It" and "Mike" aren't very helpful words to add to your Google search.)

As for the scares . . . well, horror is personal, so it's hard to address how scary the movie actually is. I've heard some people say that it scared the bajeezus out of them, and I've heard others say it didn't scare them at all. For me, it had some deliciously creepy images, but nothing that crawled under my skin and stayed there after the credits rolled. For whatever reason, some of the scenes where It terrified them and let them go felt less like It was playing with Its food and more like It was oddly toothless. It felt more like really, really dark fantasy than horror--although as a fan of dark fantasy, I can't quite be sure that's a bad thing.

Those quibbles aside, I can't remember the last time I saw a movie and so badly wanted more of it. I came out of the theater informing my husband in no uncertain terms that the director's cut is going to be on my Christmas list;  I could easily have watched twice as much of this movie without getting bored. If you like the idea of Stand By Me with a demon clown or an R-rated Stranger Things, I can't recommend It highly enough. Just stay away from red balloons afterwards . . .
(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 and Insurrection, 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 included

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.