Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Weekly Re-Motivator: The Writer’s Diet


Pizza, Lunch, Meal, Food, Baked, Italian, Sliced

I remember a time when I was in college, when money was tight, that I literally ate nothing but pizza for about four or five days. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. I was working at a Papa John’s doing delivery at the time, and there was always extra pizza left over at the end of the night which we’d take home. It was a college student’s dream (free food, say no more), and it almost ruined me for pizza.

Let’s clarify: I love pizza. Maybe it’s the simplicity, maybe it’s the grease, maybe it’s the geometric perfection of a perfectly-crafted pie. Time was when I could eat an entire pie by myself, but (probably for the better) those days are long past.

So to have nothing but pizza for almost a week is one of those things that maybe sounds like a good idea before you actually try it, like a juice cleanse, or a trip to the beach with your two sub-preschool-aged kids. The beginning is fine, maybe even fun. But before long the monotony sets in, then the actual physical discomfort, and before very much time passes at all, you realize what a terrible decision you’ve actually made, but there’s no way out.

By the end of the week, I felt ill, with terrible whanging headaches. I didn’t feel like getting out of the house at all; I had to force myself out of bed for class and work. My friends said I looked terrible. I believed it. I had put on three or four pounds gorging myself on pizza just because it was there and it was free. Needless to say, when my paycheck came in, I rushed to the grocery store to pick up a more equitable spread of staples for the college student (Ramen noodles, cereal, peanut butter and jelly … you know, the healthy basics).

Short of the actual physical difficulties you can cause yourself eating basically nothing but bread and cheese for days on end, the boredom and monotony are even worse. We humans may be creatures of habit, but as has been said before, variety is the spice of life. Until they start selling Soylent Green, our physiology dictates that we need a varied diet. You can’t get everything you need from just one source.

So what’s all that got to do with writing?

Pretty much everything, actually.

The monochromatic writer is as boring (and possibly as hazardous to your health) as an all-pizza diet. The writer owes it to himself to consume a varied diet of literature, as well as to serve up a spread that satisfies a bunch of different tastes. Both in the form (novels, short stories, plays, poetry, or even blogs) and in the substance (the genres, the types of characters, the tone and timbre of the stories).

To focus only on novels is to neglect the elegant brevity of the short story. To write only poetry robs one of the nuance of a finely crafted dialogue.

And if you only read in your genre, you’re sealing up the door of your own echo chamber. It’s much more interesting than reading horror over and over again to read science fiction, explore mysteries, go galloping through YA or coming-of-age stories, and weave into your own writing the little gravelly bits that stick to your brain from those other stories.

Or, you know, you could just eat pizza all the time.

Just don’t come running to me with your blockage issues.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


An Open Letter to the Creators of FreeWrite


I heard about a product a little over a year ago: The Hemingwrite. I wrote a little piece about it then, in which I waffled between two opinions. namely that it would probably help some writers to a) write more and b) feel better about their writing, but ultimately I came down on the side of feeling that the thing was decidedly silly for the price. It was still in development, though, and everything was fair game for change.

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Well, the wait is over, and the discussion is no longer hypothetical: the device is here. You’ve rebranded it the FreeWrite, which is maybe less catchy than the obvious play on Hemingway’s name. I like it, though. The new name taps into the inspiring soul of the idea: they’re branding it as “your distraction-free writing tool.” It conjures up images of writing wherever, whenever you feel like. A lonely beach at sunrise! A breezy mountaintop with the whispering wind swirling about you! The cozy confines of your murder cabin! Er, writing cabin. I meant writing cabin. Take it anywhere, write anywhere. Distraction free!

And I stand by most of what I wrote in my original review. I would love to test-drive one. It’s still adorable. And I can totally see the draw it will have. We writers are a strange lot — what looks odd and useless to the general public can be a source of endless inspiration for us. Having a tool “just for writing,” especially a tool in which one makes a serious financial investment, is almost certain to do two things: remind the author that he has made a commitment to his craft, and remind him that he really should be writing.

Of course, we have Benedict Cumberbatch for that.

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But I see one problem towering above all the rest with the FreeWrite.

The investment.

When I first wrote about it, I (crazily, apparently) mused that I might be willing to spend $100, maybe $150 on something like the FreeWrite. I also realized at the time that that figure was probably laughably low, and I was right; I checked their website and the price, to my memory at the time, was projected to be in the $200-250 range. That’s frankly too rich for my blood.  I’m a guy who agonized for a month over shelling out $40 for a copy of Scrivener. (Which I love, it turns out, although they seriously need to implement a Track Changes feature for the Windows version.)

So what does $250 get us? A typewriter simulator with an e-ink screen and a wi-fi switch for automated cloud backups and a couple of weeks of battery at full charge (which is pretty cool). No internet connectivity for anything other than your backups (which is, obviously, sort of a core tenet of the idea — no distractions). A million pages of internal storage (which is, in the scheme of computer storage, not actually all that much, but since this is all the thing does, it’s more than adequate). Feels a little overpriced to me, but I guess I would have been willing to shell out extra for the kitsch factor.

Except — surprise! — the price on the current iteration of the FreeWrite is $499.

Four hundred ninety-nine dollars. (Which is a specially discounted, limited-time offer over the apparent original price of $549.)

Look. FreeWrite creators.

I wanted to like the product. I really did. In fact, I still do. I think, conceptually, it’s absolutely got a place among burgeoning, youngish writers like myself. (Sorry, I just had a coughing fit over calling myself a youngish writer. Whoops, it happened again.) I can even envision how I  would use it:

“I’m going out to write!” I announce to nobody in particular, as I throw a scarf around my neck and don my tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and spontaneously sprout a beard. I put on spectacles for no apparent reason (they’re just empty frames and YES I CALL THEM SPECTACLES), scoop up my FreeWrite by its collapsible handle and bicycle off on my 19th-century huge-front-wheeled bicycle (because modern bicycles are so mindlessly corporate, and yes, I use “bicycle” as a verb AND a noun in the same sentence; I’m a writer, whee). Along the way, I stop and pick some coffee beans from the living trees and brew them with my own urine, then I perch in the crook of a mighty elm in the heart of the wood, sipping my coffee and typing away on the next American masterpiece while the fauna of the forest swirl lazily around me.

Seriously, the site features pictures of a bearded dude writing on this thing. So tranquil! So creative! So hip! This is what you’re’re selling to the throngs of would-be writers out there. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great vision. People would buy that! I would buy that!

But — five hundred dollars? That’s almost a mortgage payment. Rent for a month. That’s two months worth of car payments. A university course. Four weeks’ worth of groceries for my family of four. 2500 packets of Ramen Noodles, enough to subsist on for over ten years!

So who are you really selling this to? I have to imagine that any “established” writer is already going to have their routines and favorite tools well-ensconced; they won’t have any need for this thing. Poorish college types will balk at dropping that kind of cash on this thing when they can easily get a laptop — and a damn good one at $500 — to do everything this machine does and more. And middle-of-the-road types like me (my wife and I are comfortable, but by no means flush with extra money) are never going to be able to justify dropping that kind of coin on a unitasker like this.

In short, I feel you’ve priced yourself out of the very market you hope to attract. The only people I can see spending $500 on this device are the very rich who have run out of useful things to spend their money and time on (which may be a bigger segment of the population than I give credit for) or those who believe that the tools seriously make the writer (which I sincerely hope is a minuscule portion of the writing population).

For the same $499, I can buy myself a laptop and a copy of Scrivener (which not only offers a distraction-free writing mode, but will also package and format my book for submission to agents or even self-publishing) or any other free programs that do what the FreeWrite does (q10 and WriteMonkey, just off the top of my head, are two free programs that are excellent for drafting), and still have $200 to throw at the tsunami of credit card debt rising outside my door because of all the frivolous, needless things that I buy.(I’m an American, after all).

I would have loved for the FreeWrite to be one of those things. I love its design and I love its concept.

But I can’t, in any type of conscience, let alone with a straight face, consider paying $500 for $100 worth of hardware and $400 worth of kitsch.

Bleh. Back to doing this thing I love using the tools I already possess — which are more than adequate and don’t make me feel like a stinky hipster in hiding.

 

 


Terrible Reviews: Deadpool


I can’t say I was dying to see Deadpool. It wasn’t even necessarily on my list of films to check out when they hit DVD. But it was Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife and I had the kids out of the house for a few days, and we needed something to do in public that made us feel like adults.

Short of going bar-hopping and ending with our heads in the gutters, there’s not a ton of stuff for a couple of crazy kids like my wife and I to do without driving to downtown Atlanta, which is not a thing we undertake unless we must. We decided to check out the latest Marvel offering instead. The reasoning went thusly:

(One of us, can’t remember who): I guess we could go to a movie.

Wife: What’s out that’s worth seeing?

Me: I dunno. I’ve heard interesting things about Deadpool.

Wife: What’s that?

Me: The new Marvel superhero movie. It’s about a guy who basically can’t die or something, I think.

Wife: Who’s in it?

Me: Ryan Reynolds.

Wife: SURE WE CAN SEE THAT

And so we ended up in a packed house the day before Valentine’s Day seeing the most buzzworthy film since Star Wars. And we really should have done some more research first. Not because we couldn’t handle the film, but because we weren’t properly prepared for it. You know how you like to have an idea that it’s fifteen degrees out before you crack the front door? Not because you can’t handle a blast of cold air to the privates or anything like that (what, you don’t open your front door naked in the morning?), but you want to know what you’re stepping into.

Deadpool is not for the faint of heart.

Here’s a film that knows exactly what it is, and exactly what it’s trying to do. It’s raunchy, irreverent, self-aware, and it pulls no punches. There’s gratuitous and excessive filthy language. There’s boobs and butts and … let’s just say unconventional sex. There’s straight-up murder perpetrated by the “hero” (though he does disclaim himself as “not a hero” pretty immediately). And I have no problem with any of those things! I just wasn’t prepared for it as I bought the ticket — I hadn’t even known it was rated R.

Which is entirely my own fault. And I do have some thoughts about Marvel suddenly releasing such a balls-to-the-wall, potentially offensive movie like this, when most of its product lives squarely in the PG-13 arena, but that’s a post for another time. For today, we’re here for the review, so let’s dive in.

This is the part where the review gets spoilery, so be forewarned. I’ll also disclaim that I know nothing about the character or the story outside of the film. I don’t read comic books. So if I’m missing out on some of the inside jokes … well, whatever.

What’s Good:

The writing and the central construct. Deadpool (the character) knows he’s starring in a movie. He regularly breaks the fourth wall to speak with the audience. He knows our expectations for the superhero movie we’re watching and he takes great joy in subverting those expectations. This little device could easily turn campy were it a thing the film simply dabbled in, but the writers don’t dabble — they throw us into the ocean. The film pretends to be about a guy who finds himself imbued with superpowers who must then go on to right a great injustice and save his girl into the mix, but it’s really about the sharp-witted protagonist taking us on a wild ride and messing with us every step of the way. It’s different, it’s fresh, and it works.

Feminism! One of the film’s central heroes is a young recruit at the X-Men academy (yeah, it’s a crossover, I didn’t know that either). She’s not gorgeous, she’s not troubled and fighting for revenge, she’s not that blightedly cliched Strong Female Character. She’s a grouchy teenager who’s a lot more interested in her phone than in saving the world; she just also happens to kick a serious amount of ass when she jolly well decides to feel like it. Likewise, one of the antagonists sort of fits into the same mold. Essentially she’s a lab assistant to the big bad, which lends itself to a certain set of traits by default. She’s nastyish and unsettling, but it’s not like, “oh, this is a woman who’s filling the role of a sadistic torturer,” rather it’s just “That character is messed up … I wonder what horrible thing she’s going to do next.” And then she ends up beating the hell out of a dude made of metal — with her fists.

So many films looking to get good female characters in there (as well they should) feel the need to justify every aspect of the character. This is why she’s strong, this is why she’s not afraid of men, this is where she still gets together with her girlfriends to get good and sloshed on a weeknight after she’s done saving the world. And that’s fine — but it often comes across as too much. Paper Towns was a good (or rather, abominable) example of this. They worked so hard to make the central female compelling and interesting that it all felt forced and ridiculous, ultimately stretching my credulity until I wanted to use the DVD as a drink coaster rather than finish the second half of the film. (I still finished the movie, though, because apparently I’m a glutton for punishment.) The women of Deadpool — with one notable exception — just are who they are, and that makes them so much more compelling.

The Not-So-Good:

(Lack of) Feminism! While the film’s peripheral women are outstanding, the central woman is a big swing-and-a-miss. She falls into the “Cool Girl” trap as outlined in Gone Girl: she’s that too-perfect combination of everything guys want. She’s quick with a geek-culture reference, down-to-earth enough to knock back beers with the guys, and just freaky enough in the sack to make you a little uncomfortable. Ryan Reynolds’s character remarks at one point something to the effect of: “did I create you with a computer?” This is maybe a little bit self-referential on the part of the writers, but still. The film’s climax happens because she essentially gets stuffed into a fridge. For a film which seems so savvy about the genres it’s toying with, the character is a bland disappointment.

Where’d that character go? The aforementioned bad ass sidekick woman literally just disappears from the film in its closing moments. One moment she’s fighting with the X-Men, then she gets beaten while Deadpool is up finishing off the Big Bad, and the next moment the film is over and my wife and I looked at each other and said, “but what happened to what’s-her-name?” (I saw the movie a week ago, okay? I’ve forgotten ninety percent of it.) It’s not like she vanished in a ooh-I-wonder-what-she’s-going-to-do-in-the-sequel way, it’s more like the filmmakers forgot to resolve this character in any way whatsoever. An unfortunately jarring note at the end of the film.

It’s Kinda Boring. To be fair, the film is much more about the wise-cracking, fourth-wall-breaking, not-your-average-superhero taking you on a ride than it is about the “superhero story” itself. Problem is, the film is still centered around that “superhero story.” Average guy acquires superpowers. Superpowers are awesome but they kinda ruin the guy’s social life. Superhero must find a way to balance superpowers with the life he wants to lead, and oh yeah, has to deal with a villain who threatens to ruin his personal life further. The tropes are stretched awfully thin, and again, in a film which really delivers in some other areas, for the plot to be so picked-over is a disappointment.

The Verdict:

Shortcomings aside, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s witty and sharp, and pokes fun at itself and its entire genre with hilarious abandon. If you like superhero movies, and you can stomach the f-word in large quantities and more than a few dick jokes and other perversions, it’s worth checking out.

Just don’t take your kids.

To the best of my knowledge, all images above are the property of 20th Century Fox.


Meanwhile, Georgia is Still Fighting Gay Marriage


In other, less heartening news, I woke up to this in my Facebook feed today (yeah, I know, only old people use Facebook anymore, shut up): the Georgia senate has approved a law which “protects religious freedom”.

God dammit.

Here’s a salient central point from the actual bill (which I looked up and read).

Government shall not take any adverse action against a person or faith-based organization … on the basis that such person or faith-based organization believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief regarding lawful marriage between two people, including the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union.

Emphasis mine. The bill in its entirety can be read here.

I’m not a lawyer by any stretch, but I’ve re-read the passage several times and I don’t see where they say that those actions are limited to refusing to perform a marriage, as the header in the bill claims. In other words, you can do or say or believe whatever the fargo you want, as long as you’re doing so because of your religious beliefs about gay marriage.

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Refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple? The Georgia legislature stands with you. Shout and proclaim that gays can’t get into heaven or god hates gays or simply that you don’t feel like serving gays? The Georgia legislature stands with you. Send a homosexual couple a bag full of excrement on the day of their wedding? The Georgia legislature stands with you.

I’m also going to go ahead and point out the idiotic double-talk present in the bill. Up in that section above, see where it says “lawful marriage”? Much as the religious right hates it, chokes on it, can’t stand the thought of it, GAY MARRIAGE IS LEGAL IN THIS COUNTRY. This law, and any law like it, is about prejudice and the denial of human rights, pure and simple.

Its proponents are predictably smarmy and blind to the double-edged sword they’re creating. Georgia’s lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle said, “We are simply ensuring that no Georgian suffers at the hand of our government for their view on marriage.” (Torres, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) No Georgian, of course, except for those who are denied services or basic human decency because our leaders want to pander and wring their hands and stroke the egos of the religious zealots who want the world to bend their way.

I guess southern hospitality is reserved for those who think, believe, and worship the same way you do. Discriminating against a black person will land you in jail. Discriminating against Muslims apparently might get you elected present. But discriminating against homosexuals? Just say it’s a religious thing, and let the hate flow!

On a personal note, I can’t wait for a Muslim or Jew or atheist business owner to start denying service to homophobic Christians under the protection of this law. Because the moment that happens (and it would be LEGAL under this law), the “persecuted” will be shouting about discrimination and religious freedom all over again, except this time, they’ll be doing it to repeal the law they just got done passing.

The bill hasn’t passed yet, but according to the AJC, it’s just about a sure thing that it will.

As an atheist who thinks most religion is focused on a lot of the wrong things; as a teacher who has to turn around and explain things like this to young minds; hell, as a decent human being, I’m appalled at this. I’m ashamed that the people who have worked so hard to get this legislation passed represent the rest of us to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

In forty years, we’ll be looking back on foolishness like this the way we look back at the shameful history of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Our kids, thank goodness, will think we were insane for having laws like this on the books.

In the meantime, those of us who don’t have our heads up our asses have to live with this crap, and we have to try to explain it to the rest of the world as they laugh their butts off at how bass-ackwards we are.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Mental Contractions


I love a good metaphor ’round these parts, and the SoCS prompt this week plays right into it.

I’ve likened writing to a lot of things in the past. Hiking through a dense, all-engulfing jungle. Dragging yourself through a brutal desert. Rebuilding a car from its component parts.

But my favorites are the visceral ones, the ones with lots of fluids involved. The messy ones. The human ones. Hacking a malformed creature to bits and building a new monstrosity from the leftover gore. Slicing off redundant flesh, vestigial limbs. Draining the narrative of its thick, murky, purple-prosed blood and refilling it with clear, slippery, quick-flowing prose.

Or giving birth.

See, some writers are like insects or even trees or flowers; dropping eggs every so often or scattering spores and seeds around willy-nilly, giving birth to one narrative after another, writing regularly every day, staying productive even as their everyday lives swirl around them in a tornado of accomplishment and fulfillment.

But some of us are mammals. We can’t procreate all the time; we have to incubate, to grow the thing in utero until it’s fully-formed and ready to spring forth into the world. The work is done internally, gestating in the mind, sprouting limbs in secret, growing lungs safe from the light of day. Over months — sometimes even years — the thing takes shape. It kicks and squirms and twists, banging at the writer’s insides like a blind rhinoceros. It becomes all the writer can think about. It becomes as much a part of the writer as her own heart and brain.

And then — when the time is right (I actually wrote “write” when I meant to write “right”, which tells you how sunk I am in the metaphor) — contractions.

The body begins to reject the mostly-formed critter forcefully, urgently. In the space of a couple of hours, every system that worked to protect the young one and keep it safe reverses gears. The incubation is over: now the thing must come out or one of them may die. And come out it does. Amid screams of torturous pain, the expulsion of blood and a host of other unmentionable fluids, and an unending flurry of pushes which seem unproductive, the thing slowly slithers its way into the light.

There are writers like that. We incubate the ideas in the mind, insulating them from the light of day until they burst forth, uncontrollably and with great vigor, scattering the inkblood and amniotic word fluid across the previously perfect blank page.

And we expel this little miracle onto the table/page, where it flops around, taking its first breaths and spreading its wings (or whatever) for the first time.

And it’s … well, it’s imperfect. But it’s a thing we’ve created, and so in a way, it is perfect. And we’ll spend the coming months if not years nurturing it, feeding it, teaching it to walk and talk and influence the minds of the weak.

I’ve lost track of whether I’m talking about a story or a baby.

What are you? An incubator or a spreader-of-spores, a populator?

(And usually I include a picture, but I just can’t bring myself to post a picture of a mother in childbirth. Having witnessed it firsthand — kind of [my kids were born by Caesarean] — well. I just won’t do that to you.)

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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