Can I Ask a Question?

Yeah I know, I already DID ask a question. And since by continuing to read you’ve effectively answered yes, I’m going to ask more questions, this time without requesting permission. The author flexes his rhetorical muscles, the charming innocence of the uncluttered mind. 

Joynell Schultz has posted a tw0 part series on how to solicit feedback for one’s writing. She describes a number of options, even those she does not pursue for her own work, and offers practical advice for writers who haven’t experienced the anxious joy of having their work critiqued.

For myself, I’ve participated in a number of peer reviews as a technical writer, both as reviewer and author, and have taken the core rules to heart — as the reader you are to critique the writing not the writer, and as the author you  focus on the analysis rather than the emotion with which it is conveyed.  But with fiction, I haven’t participated in peer reviews since my college days, far too many years in the past — and now that I have complete drafts of stories and seven chapters for my novel on this blog, it’s time for me to show what I’ve accomplished to a larger group of readers.

Which leads, finally, to my questions — what techniques do you employ to solicit feedback on your writing? Do you use online resources, or engage with in-person peer reviews? If you use a combination of both, what have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages of each? Have you asked your family and/or friends to review your work, and have they offered analysis that wasn’t provided by online or peer reviewers? In your experience, do fellow writers make better reviewers than actively engaged readers who don’t write on their own? Have you ever paid for a reader or editor, and did you feel that was money well spent?

That’s a bunch of questions I just asked, and I appreciate you reading through them. Please leave me a comment with any insight or experience you have with soliciting readers for your work.

Smart car 10 AUTOpsy

Fiction about cars fascinates me. When drafting my novel, many of the scenes I’ve enjoyed most have taken place within automobiles; some dynamic exists in those moments (the occupants can’t avoid each other, there’s a shared destination, a finite amout of time to kill, and limited options for distraction) that make them ripe for meaningful conversations. I’ve also used car ownership within the novel to reveal character — Coach Dan’s sedan (beat up and durable), Double-J’s coupe (flashy and loud), Jimmy’s van (creaky and utilitarian), the Hutchinson’s Cadillac (large and stately). Occurs to me that somebody needs a pick-up; maybe Butch’s family.
Thoughts such as these make me curious about other uses for cars in fiction, and that curiosity is in part what leads me today to Doug Hawley’s recent story on Nugget Tales. This isn’t a conversation within a car, but a conversation with a car, and an engaging parody of artificial intelligence and the “smart car” concept. I seriously doubt there will be communicative cars in my novel, but it’s an idea I may pursue in a short work such as this. 

Aunt Marisa, and Geek Culture’s Ambivalence with Elderly Women

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” opened in movie theaters this weekend, and I believe it’s deserved the rave reviews and tremendous box office receipts it’s earned. Rather than adding another voice of praise, I want to analyze one of the minor moments of the film, and its implied comment about geek culture. (Mild spoilers ahead; if you’re planning to see the movie but haven’t gotten around to it yet, you might want to check back here later.)

As a confrontation with Captain America and his allies becomes evident, Tony Stark/Iron Man decides to recruit an “enhanced human” he has recently discovered — sixteen-year-old Peter Parker, who apparently had been bitten that radioactive-or-whatever spider six months ago and has been captured on YouTube videos swinging through the streets of New York in a hilariously crude homemade costume. (Why Stark would recruit a kid who’s only fought burglars and car thieves into a superhero battle is a question for another time.) The lad comes home from school one day to find Stark sitting in the living room of his apartment — but Parker’s surprise isn’t as big as the surprise generated by the actress sitting next to Robert Downey Jr.

AuntMay-Comics

Aunt May in the comics

Aunt May is arguably the most important supporting character in the Spider-Man story. Typically portrayed in the comics as a frail septuagenarian, May has been a major influence on the nephew she’s raised since childhood. (Peter’s biological parents, along with the how-when-why of their deaths, have never been adequately detailed.) While frequently used for comic relief, May also has a strong moral code, and is never afraid to admonish her nephew when he fails to live up to his obligations; her guidance early in a Spider-Man story arc often directly influences Spider-Man’s decisions later in that same narrative. May’s presence since Amazing Fantasy 15 has reinforced the notion that Spider-Man’s power comes as much from within as from his wall-crawling abilities.

AuntMay-Harris

Rosemary Harris as Aunt May

Prior to “Civil War”, Aunt May’s casting in Spider-Man movies has been largely consistent with her portrayal in the comics, with Rosemary Harris portraying her in the three Tobey Maguire films, and Sally Field playing a younger yet still visibly aged version of the character in the two Andrew Garfield movies. Both of these wonderful actresses portrayed Aunt May’s inner strength along with her charming cluelessness, and delivered memorable performances with limited screen time.

AuntMay-Field

Sally Field as Aunt May

But neither of these Aunt Mays are recognizable in the woman waiting with Tony Stark for Peter’s arrival.

For the record, I’ve been a huge fan of Marisa Tomei since “My Cousin Vinny”, for which she deservedly won an Academy award. I also believe she can bring an energy and charm to Aunt May that neither Harris nor Field could match. Her appearance in “Civil War” is brief but engaging, and I’m actually looking forward to what she’ll do with the character given a larger role in next year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Marisa Tomei as . . . as . . . I forgot what I was writing about

Marisa Tomei as . . . as . . . what was I writing about?

But as much as I admire Tomei as an actress, I’m one of many who have misgivings about this casting. I’ll let this tweet speak for one of those misgivings:

I simply can’t help feeling this casting in large part represents Marvel’s cynical exploitation of the juvenile ideal of feminine beauty that’s an unfortunate part of geek culture. It’s part of a larger ambivalence I see regarding elderly characters in fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero fiction; you see the occasional geriatric male, but they mostly comply with the Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore “wizened wizard” stereotype, and the few elderly women who appear are often met with caustic derision from fans, as demonstrated in the response to General Leia Organa in last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” As much as I appreciate Tomei, and look forward to seeing her portray Aunt May in the years to come, I can’t help regret losing one of few (if not the only) strong elderly women in superhero films, and the opportunity to address an enduring ambivalence in geek culture.

In the past few years, the comics industry has placed an emphasis on diversity, with several minority characters taking the mantle of established superheroes; most notably, proto-WASP Peter Parker has been replaced as Spider-Man by Miles Morales, a Hispanic African-American. (They’re all fictional characters; if Marvel wants a trans-gender Spidey, or to have Aunt May played by a knockout, they have every right to do so.) I just hope this emphasis on diversity also extends to characters over the age of 40.

Why The Status-Quo Of American Politics Has Come Under Siege

Joseph E. Rathjen at the The Political and Social Chaos Blog analyzes the surprising rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump The Fraud (hey, this is my blog and if I feels like indulging in juvenile invective, thats what I’s be doin’). A year ago, the idea that an avowed socialist would remain a viable candidate this late into a major political party’s nominating season, or that a misogynistic charlatan could win the other party’s nomination while proclaiming openly fascistic policies, would have been dismissed as preposterous. And yet, here we are.

I’m very curious to see how the parties respond to this year’s campaigns. If conventional wisdom finally holds true in this topsy-turvy year and Trump is soundly defeated this fall while the Senate flips to Democratic control, perhaps the Republican party will finally recognize it is facing an existential crisis at the national political level, having just lost the popular vote for the sixth time in the last seven presidential election. As for the Democrats, a resounding win that ignores Sanders’ continued popularity (especially among young voters) could lead to a disastrous complacency that results in yet another mid-term catastrophe in 2018.

My instincts tell me that this fall’s results will produce a Republican party that openly embraces Hispanic and Latino voters (immigration reform becoming a major component of the party platform), along with a notable increase in Libertarian and Green party membership, especially among the young, as dissatisfaction with both major parties increases. The Democrats will probably have reason to party come November, but the hangover they experience when the party ends will be long and painful.

Languages of Wind

Dream voices sing with languages of wind
A harmony from the eternal whole
While an anxious player with malaprop fingers
Strikes overstrung notes on the neck of soul

Unspoken words illicitly challenge all reason
As the absent audience listens
The player is joined by a self-rightous band
Of loud talkers but poor musicians

And then the song continues stopping
To the satsification of those never pleased
The frustrated player then abandons the stage
To pursue more material needs

Languages of wind speak silent wisdom to mankind
That has a heart that listens with only its mind

The Curious Ambiguity of Having Fun

[I’m contributing once again to the Insecure Writers Support Group day.]

I blog because it’s fun. That last statement is not as straightforward as it might seem.

Fun is often associated with amusement or entertainment, and is, like cool or sucks, an apparently innocuous term that can actually convey a great deal of critical judgment; the question Want to go see that Batman vs. Superman movie? can be answered Sure, that should be fun or Nah, that’s not my idea of fun. But when I blog, I’m not often amused and hardly ever entertained. Sometimes I blog with a great deal of agitation and anxiety, frustrated at not being able to convey what I’m feeling, worried about my readers’ responses (or worse, not receiving any responses at all), annoyed at this compulsion that drives me to post something, anything, every day. When I hit that Post button, I sometimes smile with satisfaction, but am just as likely to wince with regret.

Yet I’m having fun, no matter how I feel when my daily post flies out into the ether, forever beyond my control.

You won’t find the word energized in the dictionary definition of fun, but that’s the feeling that drives my blogging, inspires me to write on days both good and bad. I feel that energy in my fingertips as they hover over the keyboard, in my mind as it searches or even struggles for just the right word, sometimes in my entire body as it spontaneously rises from the chair, paces around the room whether I’m alone at home or on my lunch break in the work cafeteria (hey guys, how’s it going, soup’s pretty good today). It’s similar to the energy I feel when fencing, that burst of enthusiasm on scoring the hard-earned touch, the scream of satisfaction. (Yes, fencers yell when they score. It’s what we do. Don’t like it — go play golf.) 

Some days that energy is low on amperage, but it never goes inert. I’m not always happy with my blogging, but I always feel some energy when I’m finished.

And it’s a whole lotta fun.

Fun

Been a while since the last update on my fencing career, and while I could take the easy way out and blame my other blogging commitments and otherwise busy schedule — truth is, I’ve been avoiding the topic, because there hasn’t been much progress to report.

Entered two more tournnaments, both E events, since that last update in March. And while I’m well aware of my current ability level, and sensed I had caught some breaks in the March tournament that resulted in a finish above my level, I still expected to continue improving, to come away from the next two events with that same feeling of accomplishment.

Didn’t happen. If anything, felt like I took a step back, losing every pool bout (not scoring any touches in several), and scoring just a single DE victory between the tournaments. My attacks were desperate and spasmodic (think Daffy Duck with a sword), never gained control over distance or tempo; blade work was probably ineffective as well, but the reality was that the touches I surrendered were lost in the engagement before blade action came into effect. In March, felt like I knew what I was trying to do even when I didn’t execute well; since then, I’ve been fencing without a clue, searching rather than competing.

But I’ve got no thought of walking away from the sport this time. It’s hard to have fun when you’re facing another DFL finish, but I’m wondering now if not having fun is the cause, rather than the end result, of these disappointing results. Find it absurd to consider that I’m putting too much pressure on myself, but the reality is that I could feel the tension in my body from the moment of registration at those tournaments, never could get myself to relax. Lost sight of the reason I got back into fencing after a thirty-year absence, how when I’m on strip and trading steel with a competitor who’s trying to stab me with a pointy weapon, how in those moments I feel completely alive, how energy courses through every cell of my being like an energized grid. Not once, even during my lone victory, did I experience that sensation over those last two tournaments, and if that were to continue then I would consider it time to walk away.

So the plan going forward, is to reconnect with that spirit of excitement and energy, so that I’m registering for my next tournament in order to feed that hunger rather than to meet some arbitrary performance goal. 

Another Milestone Reached

Finished the first draft of Chapter 7 yesterday. Last November’s NaNoWriMo experience once again proved invaluable, as it demonstrated how to set and meet a challenging yet manageable goal for the draft. Started with a setting and a very rough outline, and along the way added scenes that had never crossed my mind when I began — and while I certainly had no idea it would end as it did, when the idea came to me I knew it was right. Draft weighs in at 20,774 words, definitely lighter than most of my chapter drafts (Chapter 5 is about 100k words — that will be a bear to cut down to size!), but it still feels complete.

Having reached this latest milestone puts me closer to being prepared for NaNoWriMo 2016. The goal this coming November will be to revise chapters 5 through 7 (January through March), all within those 30 days. Even with 12  days off from work, it’s going to be a challenge to — if each chapter will be 20-25k words, that’s a daily average of 2000 to 2500 words, about 4-5 hours of work given last November’s experience. And that assumes I have a complete, revised outline for each chapter, as well as a plan to cut the loose baggy monster of Chapter 5 down to size, by November 1.

Yikes! Rut-roh, Raggie.

Was less successful this prior month in reaching my secondary goal for CampNaNoWriMo, writing about other topics two days a week. Instead of a 5/2 schedule, I produced at a 6/1 pace, and by the end it was 7/0. Definitely feel that I’ve become a better blogging citizen in the past year, but there’s still work to be done.

Not sure if I’ll return to the novel prior to November. Perhaps I’ll work on a scene or two from the fifth or sixth chapter, in preparation for the major revision project. Maybe some more character sketches, not directly related to the novel but important for its development. But it’s far more likely I’ll pursue other projects during this time. I’ll say it again — one of the joys of blogging is the committment to experimentation, and I’m eager to continue reveling in that dedication going forward.