Friday, June 28, 2013

Boy, You Gotta Hammer That Nail

I am tired of rejections. That's all I have to say about it right now.

Recent reads include the fifth Chelsea Cain thriller, Kill You Twice, which was as awesome as the rest of them, if not more so; Tana French's first book, In the Woods, which didn't commit as much Olympic-level emotional archery as Faithful Place but which was very nearly as good; Lorrie Moore's Anagrams, which was genuinely interesting but not something I'd necessarily recommend; Douglas Starr's The Killer of Little Shepherds, which was fascinating and well worth reading but stopped just short of being ah-may-zing; and Elyn Saks's The Center Cannot Hold, one of the best books about mental illness I ever hope to read. Remarkable in more than a few ways, and gave me a far superior handle on schizophrenia than I'd had before. Also, I finally finished Ghosts by Gaslight, and what a mixed anthology. Some of the stories bored me silly, and others were so captivating I wanted to read them again when I was finished.

I know there are more books I've finished recently, but I neglected to write them down. Do you guys want me to link to Amazon for this stuff? I could, but I don't figure I have the kind of influence where you want to run right out and buy a book that I've loved. (Plus, four of six of the books above came through my library. Love your libe!)


Okay, so maybe that wasn't all I had to say about rejections. I reread my New Year's resolutions this week, and one of them was to be in beginner's mind when writing. I think I'm succeeding at this, slowly; trying to just write well, make each story better than the last, and zip up any consideration of anything else. I get frustrated with the question of how good it has to be before I get a bleeding acceptance, of course, but attempting to write well for the sake of writing well feels good.

Nevertheless, when I am certain I'm improving, when I've read stuff in the market that's exactly like the stuff I'm sending, when I just want to be thrown a bone, it's depressing.

Too, this has been on my mind a lot lately. Go skim it and come back.

The list of mags that's rejected him and the number of times they've done so (near the end) just will not leave my head. 13 tries at one magazine? I never ever would have thought of being so persistent. After five tries, I'd probably say "okay, their style and my style don't mesh" and move on. But no, not this guy. And I note that he has piles of publishing credits, all over the place, and I think, well, obviously he knows something I don't know. And I think the thing he knows that I don't is PERSISTENCE, which is a different quality than persistence. (I'd like to pin this on gender, but that doesn't seem like a wise idea.) The latter is just continuing to try and get published, sending stuff out to market after market; the former is hammering at the same nail until it goes directly into the concrete.

I don't know about that, though. Aren't you just going to bend the nail? Further thought is needed.

On Sunday I drive north to Big Sur, to Esalen, where I'll be at a week-long workshop with Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. I am looking forward to this so much that I'm jealous of myself. So, until next week (or perhaps the week after), adieu.

Monday, June 24, 2013

How to Read the Same Thing Twice

Three weeks ago I read a 1963 book called The Story of the Misfits by James Goode. (The Misfits in this case being the 1961 film starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift.

Not the punk band, 

nor the rival band

of Jem and the Holograms.) The book was more or less a production diary of the overlong, over-budget shoot that resulted in one of the oddest letdowns of that period in cinema. I don't know what I was hoping for from this book; more dirt and gossip, maybe, or a clearer window into the potent personalities involved in the film (John Huston directed and Arthur Miller wrote the screenplay) and how they bounced off one another. Whatever I wanted, I didn't get it.

Throughout the parts of the book that involved Marilyn, I kept having the feeling that this wasn't like I remembered it. No, I wasn't there - my mom turned two that year - but I was recalling the stories of these events from my main source for Marilyn inspiration and knowledge: Donald Spoto's exhaustive biography of her. It presents a whole woman, flaws and all, and offers carefully sourced versions of events in her life that aren't in many other books about her.* After finishing Goode's book, I reread the sections of the Spoto book involving The Misfits, and I was amazed at how different a picture was painted.

For example, Goode's book mentioned from time to time that John Huston was doing a lot of gambling throughout the picture's lengthy location shoot in Reno. If you asked me what Goode intended to convey by talking about this, it would be that Huston had a man's habits and a fool's luck at the gambling table, but boys will be boys. Something Goode failed to mention but Spoto pointed out was that Huston was gambling with the production money. Tens of thousands of (1960) dollars of it. Which he had to call around to Hollywood friends to try and replace before the shoot ended. I don't think that Goode's book tried to pin all the production problems on Marilyn instead, but it lovingly described her huge entourage of assistants and groomers and repeatedly brought up how her lateness made things more difficult and expensive.**

The Spoto biography also put into perspective that Arthur Miller continued to alter Marilyn's role in The Misfits as their marriage situation got worse and worse, twisting Roslyn into a character with less integrity and more flooziness, more of a soft female foil to Clark Gable's incontrovertible masculinity, as the shoot wore on and on. Goode did record that scenes were being rewritten all the time, but didn't mention any character shifts (not that he had access to such subtleties; if he even saw that Marilyn and Arthur's marriage was failing, he didn't say anything). He also spent a lot of time quoting Miller, who sounded to me like a pompous, conceited sourpuss, but I can see how you would mistake that for intellectual giantism if that's what you expect.

Spoto takes every opportunity to sympathize and empathize with Marilyn, to show the reader the events from her point of view. I appreciated this enormously when I first read the biography, because I felt like I'd sat and talked to Marilyn herself for the length of the book, rather than reading about her at a remove. However, next to Goode's reportage, the style seemed downright simpering, as if Spoto was overly interested in making her sympathetic rather than serving the facts. I always felt that his biography was pretty neutral, not fawning, as he doesn't hesitate to talk about her mistakes and how her character failed her. But I no longer had that sense when reading about the same events from a different point of view.

All this is to say: I am astonished at how wildly disparate the same events - sometimes the same actual quotes coming out of the same person's mouth! - seem in different hands, in different contexts, with different attitudes. This long but fascinating article, which is about this very issue applied to a John Belushi biography authored by Bob Woodward, demonstrates this particularly well.

It's also the very thing I plan to get at in the wikibook. (I think I'm too ambitious about theme in this project, because I also want to get at how life on the internet works on people.) The central purpose is to write about how the real version of events, when the participants aren't talking or can't be trusted or all tell different stories, can never truly be known. How our perception of events determines what we consider the actual nature of those events when we are reading about them; how the unbiased reporter can (unwittingly?) become the biased storyteller. Rashomon, sort of, but with more petty arguments between Wikipedia editors.

So not that different at all, really

I'm trying to write a little on it every day, in no hurry at all. I expect this book will take me in the years rather than in the months. It's a much more meticulous, cerebral project than any of the book-length work I've done before. Last week went okay with it, but all spring I've been much more adept at avoiding it than writing on it.

In case you're interested, I was inspired by the death of Jean Harlow's second husband, Paul Bern. He probably killed himself, but we'll never really know.

*She never slept with Robert Kennedy. She probably slept with JFK once. She died due to gross negligence over drug dosages/combinations on the part of her doctor, Ralph Greenson, not because she overdosed on purpose or the Mafia killed her or whatever. Stuff like that. I tend to believe Spoto's versions of these disputed events, because he clearly spent more time on Marilyn than most of her other biographers did. 

**For those of you who don't know much about Marilyn Monroe, she was pretty much always late for casting calls in the last years of her career, sometimes by a matter of several hours. I.e. if shooting was supposed to start at 10 AM, she might not show up until 1 PM, with no explanation. Spoto indicates that she was insecure and suffered from atrocious stage fright, and her lateness resulted from not being emotionally ready to perform. She also had serious sleep problems throughout her whole life, which meant that in the morning she sometimes had trouble shaking off the sleeping pills she took. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

It's a Revolution, I Suppose

I got a rejection last week that I described on Facebook as the wussiest ever. Here it is, in entirety:
Dear Writer: We don't know of anyone who hasn't had work returned at one time or another, but that certainly doesn't make it easier. We hope you will find consolation in the individuality of editorial tastes and in the assurance that with persistence, good work will be recognized as such. Thank you for trying us. The Editors 
You may note that never once in this missive do the editors actually reject my story. They're just speaking in generalities. Matt suggested that I reply with "So when can I expect payment? This doesn't explicitly say my story was rejected, so that must mean it's an acceptance, right?"

I swear, I swear, I swear this is not sour grapes. Since I started thinking about rejections as returns, I tend to shrug about them and try for the next market. This market in particular was a shrug, the story kind of a long shot. I just find it weird that they couldn't say outright that my work wasn't a good fit for them. Or something. Something other than platitudes.

Last week I wrote a story that I'd describe as "supernatural noir." I wrote it in overbaked Raymond Chandler voice-over, which was just a barrel of fun. The story has to do with a voodoo lady who sets zombies on our hero and his client. I got the idea from this dream I had: I was at a party where someone had hired a shoegazing emo band, and after midnight, two members of the band suddenly turned into zombies and attacked us. When I woke up, I thought this was hilarious, because how could you tell the difference between shoegazing emo musicians and actual supernatural zombies?

In other news, I took a trip to Barnes & Noble recently with the intention of buying a couple of children's books, this book by Jess Fink, and a new blank book. I left with none of these things. Everything just seemed so overpriced, and I couldn't find Jess Fink's book. It's probably the first time ever that I went to a bookstore with the concrete intention of buying things and left with nothing at all. I'm a little troubled about what this bodes; if someone like me can resist purchasing at bookstores, I begin to understand why they're going under. Because I went home and bought what I needed on Amazon instead. Saved about $6 on a Moleskine.

Of late, I can't stop listening to "Radioactive." I admitted to Matt that, when something happened the other day that made me feel terrible, I clamped my headphones on, turned the song up as loud as I could stand it, and even tossed my arms over my head to push the music closer to my ears. As I was listening I let the images that came to mind play in my head. I let the music make me feel better. I told him, while explaining this experience, that I felt like I was too old to be listening to music like this. Headphones and Nirvana, or headphones and Garbage, or headphones and Green Day, made me feel better when I was 15. But I'm not a teenager anymore. I'm not even a twentysomething anymore. Am I not too old to let music be the soother of my angst?

On the other hand, it kind of makes me sad the way people generally seem to stop taking joy and solace in music, stop feeling music with seriousness the same way they used to, as they get older. Graduating to Jimmy Buffett and Mahler? Uh, I'll take immaturity, thanks.

The image I saw while listening was of a woman walking through fire. The chorus of the song evokes invincibility to me, and listening to it so close made me want to make a film of it - the first time I've felt this urge in years. Of course, the song already has the best, most delightfully freaky video anyone could ask for, so oh well.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Super Spoileriffic Live Blog of The Happening!

So I decided to work my way through all of M. Night Shyamalan's terrible movies in honor of the fact that he was TOTALLY INVISIBLE on the After Earth marketing materials. The last one I hadn't seen was The Happening, and I decided to liveblog it, just for fun. Aaaand away we go!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Forced to Make Space

I suffer from migraines every so often. These present with pressure, queasiness, mild pain, extreme light sensitivity, sometimes dizziness, crabbiness, and a general inability to function without heroic effort. Before I was diagnosed with them, I thought migraines always involved severe, debilitating pain, and I thought that the mild but doggedly persistent pain that characterized common headaches I had, pain which would last for days or weeks, was an indication of sinus headaches. On both counts I was quite wrong.

Whenever a migraine happens to me, I think about the word "scratch" as it's applied to horse racing. A guy in a gambling parlor reaching up to the blackboard and crossing through that particular horse with a great white X. Because if the migraine isn't that bad when it first hits, and I try to go about ordinary activities, it'll quickly become that bad, and the day is inevitably going to be shot. I can't function under the migraine. Whatever I had planned for that day goes out the window.

Perhaps the cruelest aspect of how migraines present for me is that I can't read with them, but I can watch TV. Sometimes I have to aim my eyes just to the side of the television, but I can still manage. MST3K is usually my go-to. Reading I can't do at all. It's too painful. For me to be "sick" and not able to read is fucking O. Henrian.

On Saturday morning I woke up fully in the grip of a migraine with intense vertigo. It was horrible to continue lying down, so I went to my computer, but reading from the screen made it worse. I sat in my red chair, trying not to close my eyes for longer than a few seconds, until Matt got up and I told him he'd have to do my errands without me. The rest of the day I spent watching MST, staring into space, and sleeping a little bit once the vertigo eased enough for me to recline on the couch. (Sleep is the only cure for a migraine that I know of.) It backed off by millimeters over the course of the day, enough for me to be able to keep my mind on a conversation by the evening, but yeah, the day was scratched. A lost day. No reading, no writing, no Facebook, no work.

That night I was lying in bed, waiting for sleep, when an idea bloomed in my mind. To be specific, it was the central plot line for the second Highbinder book. Not fully formed, but so perfect, so laden with conflict and adorned with puzzle-piece edges that will fit into other plot machinations, that I wanted to yank out my brain and give it a sloppy kiss. I got up and took a page of notes, and then went back to bed with my mind racing, adding all kinds of detail onto the chassis. Eventually I had to take some valerian to go to sleep.

I've been entertaining a passel of little ideas for the sequels since January, when I finished Highbinder, but none of them has stuck very well. This is the first Big Idea I've had, and I'm ridiculously grateful for it.

I couldn't help but think that the reason the idea finally came to me was that I made space for it. I spent an hour just looking at the ceiling on Saturday, waiting for the pressure to loosen. I didn't consume anything that wasn't already familiar - no internet essays, no books. Just MST, so comforting in its same-but-different-ness.

I don't think it's possible to read too many books, but I do think I've been generally consuming too much lately. I read a factoid sometime last year that the average American takes in more information in an average day than the average person would consume in a lifetime two centuries ago. I don't know how much truth there is to that (or how you'd begin to determine it, or even if I've got it wrong), but it all does seem overwhelming from time to time. I had hoped that reading widely and ravenously from places like Slate and the New York Times and all the blogs I follow would grant me a more diverse mind, dig me a deeper well of ideas. But I think lately I've just been overfilling my head. Lesson learned: sometimes you need an unasked-for day of space for the well-water to stay fresh.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

This Is Not for You

I wrote and polished the below as a brief essay for a website like The Mary Sue or Jezebel, but neither responded to my queries. Before it gets too out of date, I want at least a minuscule audience to enjoy it. Et voila.

This Is Not for You

I think I'm done with spectacle movies.

You could also call these types of movies "blockbusters" or "summer movies" or "Baystravaganzas" or "movies where you just turn your brain off and enjoy the explosions." But because this demographic has kind of Voltroned in recent years to include superhero movies, sci-fi epics, resurrected franchises from the 80s, movies made from popular books, and other odds and ends, I'm just going to call them spectacle movies.

The last one I saw was Star Trek Into Darkness, and that's mostly why I think I've had enough. Rob Bricken over at io9 said it all about the incoherent plot, but I do have to add that of all the dudetacular spectacle movies I've seen in the past couple of years, this one was the most stunningly noninclusive. STID’s version of the future contains more white men than my average day in 2013. Even in the background, at meetings, they couldn't toss in a few extras of different races or genders? Really?

I'm tired of turning off my brain for these movies, but more than that, I'm tired of turning off my gender. More and more, I don't see where I belong in popular film. I am obviously supposed to identify with the central male character(s), but I don't, because I’m not male. I can't identify with most of the, uh, central? female characters, because they are nearly always sketches at best and cardboard stereotypes at worst. Recently, Iron Man 3 has been getting points for passing the Bechdel test. That's nice, but it's an outlier, and still not anything close to about the women in it. The big movies of late have told me, loudly and clearly, that they were not made for me.
One of these things is not like the others

I've come to the conclusion that many well-meaning men just don't get this. They don't see how the default setting in spectacle movies is for their eyes and their attitudes. (It took a film degree for me to see this.) They don't see that women are required to get over the hump of our gender in order to enjoy the piece, and men are not. I'm not talking about women not enjoying explosions or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as much as men do. A friendly but ill-comprehending man will say, well, of course STID doesn't pass the Bechdel test. It's about a starship crew mostly composed of men. That is precisely the point, I say. All the movies are about groups mostly composed of men.

Where are our spectacle movies? Where can women go to turn their brains off? Jezebel recently put together this revealing chart, showing how romantic comedies have vanished as superhero movies have bloomed. (I place this at the feet of the Farrelly brothers, for dudeifying rom-coms to the point where they're too vulgar and insulting for women to withstand, but that's really beside the point.) I never liked rom-coms much to begin with; they seemed to be about women who somewhat resembled me without really being for us. No mainstream movie about women has really felt right to me until Bridesmaids, and even that had the whiff of Apatow about it in places.

Coming soon are Man of Steel, which has Amy Adams going for it, but otherwise...; World War Z, in which Brad Pitt evidently ditches his wife to go fight zombies; The Lone Ranger, which has a disposable woman or two in it but seems to be largely about Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, and their respective hats; The Wolverine, which is by my count the fifth major release in fifteen years focused on one of the most hypermasculine characters in all of geekdom; and that took me to the end of July, where I got depressed and gave up.

Remember Hanna? A 2011 action movie starring Saoirse Ronan as a kickass girl fighting against a powerful woman? Yeah, not many people went to see it. It had far fewer plot problems than STID, and much more interesting hand-to-hand action sequences, but it came and went with hardly a whisper at the box office. I wish even half the women who unwillingly went to The Hangover II that year had seen Hanna instead. They might have seen someone they could actually identify with instead of feeling shut out.

Me? I'm done. I'll see Man of Steel because Zack Snyder's attitude toward women interests me (I could talk about Sucker Punch all day), but the next time a Star Trek movie comes around, I think I'll stay home and watch my DVDs of Voyager. Janeway could've taught Kirk a thing or two.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Yet More Misogyny and Recent Reads

So there's a big flap going on about the sexist content of the recent bulletins of SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. To be clear, the bulletins aren't just little shitty newsletters, they're glossy printed magazines, and a one-year subscription will set you back $32 for four issues. To be further clear, I don't feel like saying much about this issue is really up to me, as I'm not a member of SFWA and haven't personally read the controversial content in question. So I'll summarize that from what I've read - and Googling and spending half an hour reading blogs and forums seems to be the only way to find out what went on if you don't have access to the bulletins themselves, which is why I'm talking around this instead of speaking to it directly - this is more gender bullshit from entrenched misogynists in the SF/F publishing industry, and it's worth getting pissed off about.

I have looked forward to joining SFWA for years, and now I don't think I want to, if/when I'm on the point of qualifying. E. Catherine Tobler has explained the situation eloquently here, and Samantha Henderson has responded more similarly to how I would (i.e. more weariness, fury, and swears) here. I'm a little disturbed that Scalzi didn't do more to halt this (he's the president of SFWA), but there's too much I don't know to place any real blame on him.

On to the reads.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I flew just under 6,000 miles in three days (yes, my arms are tired), and this meant a lot of reading got done.

Before I left, I read Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a short book by William Styron about his depression becoming a full-blown breakdown. I wanted to read it because I wanted to know what a skilled wordsmith would say about madness, which I mistakenly thought he'd explore in more detail than the (far more familiar to me) business of depression. This brief book unfortunately slimed me a little with the mental ectoplasm of the Great Male Narcissist. I know the essay was meant to be about him and his suffering with depression, but even at that it still seemed overly self-involved. I think this is what happens with depression.

I also read The Quiet Room, a uniquely structured memoiresque book about schizophrenia nominally by Lori Schiller. I walked away with many remaining unanswered questions about schizophrenia, but a better picture of the course of the illness and some of the experience of it. The best part about it was the well-balanced picture of the human cost and tale of schizophrenia - how it affects loved ones over the long term as well as its sufferer. I have a bunch more books about schizoaffective disorders on my TBR list (including one about, get this, identical twins, one of whom suffered from schizophrenia while the other one didn't). It's a mental illness I don't understand especially well, and I'd like to.

On the trip I read Dead Ever After, the final Sookie Stackhouse book. A few shenanigans here and there, but EXTREMELY satisfying (although YMMV if you were an Eric fan, which I decidedly am not). I'm sorry there won't be any more books about her, but I'm also kind of glad. She's in a happy place.

I read the fourth of Chelsea Cain's thrillers about Archie Sheridan, The Night Season, as quickly as the other three. It took several unexpected directions, and I can see how it may have been disappointing for some readers, but I enormously enjoyed it.

And I read State of Wonder, Ann Patchett's latest. It's the first of her books I've read. It reminded me a lot of The Poisonwood Bible, which I didn't particularly like, and I found myself looking forward to finishing, but also reading with enjoyment (Patchett creates narrative tension extraordinarily well). The book seemed limp, dependent on its settings, and much of its plot struck me as outlandish. Yet when I was in the last chapter, I felt like I'd been through a remarkable experience. I looked back at the journey of the novel with amazement and pleasure at what I and the characters had been through. Ultimately I am confused about it.

I felt this way after The Accidental Tourist. Not a book I especially enjoyed, but I'm glad I read it, and bits and pieces of the characters and events kept popping up in my head long after I'd finished. On balance, was this a good reading experience? I have no idea.

I planned to start Redshirts when I got home, and read it halfsies with Faithful Place, a mystery/thriller by an Irish writer named Tana French who was recommended by a blogger I like. I blew through Redshirts in about four hours all told, before I'd even properly started the other book. Rollicking, most excellent fun. I read Faithful Place all last week, and I loved it to pieces. The writing was extraordinary on a sentence-by-sentence basis, witty and delightful, and the character-building and tension were wonderful. In truth, few books I've ever read have made me either laugh or ache as often as this book did. Potent stuff. Off I go to devour French's three other books.

I'm reading more and more thrillers in the last year or so, and I don't really know why. I've read heavy-hitting thriller writers like James Patterson and Scott Turow and haven't especially liked them - they feel pretty blatantly like junk food - and I don't often enjoy standard mysteries of the Christie type. But I keep stumbling upon midlist writers like Chelsea Cain and Tana French and wanting nothing more than to read them all the time.

What I really need to do is get back to my own writing. I've settled on the wikibook as the next project, and its structure is ideal for doing a little bit at a time, a few pages every day, in between research, outlining, reading, etc. But elephant-eating is a difficult business.

Picture credit to Shel Silverstein (obviously)