Weekly Musing: Free Speech

With today being the 4th of July I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom. In particular free speech, a topic that is dear to my heart not only as an American but as a writer as well. Free speech is always a hot button issue, but over the past few years the argument seems to be becoming more contentious. For some reason free speech to some seems to be about who is right vs. who is wrong. Yet this should be kept in mind: no matter how compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic of a person who think you are, someone out there will find you offensive. Good people offend people just as much as bad people do.

This musing is about what I see as vital to free speech for writers. We shouldn’t feel the need to hold back on language used in our prose. This does a huge disservice to both the story and the characters. Our characters are the ones who tell the story; we are just their vessel.

Yet something I’ve seen twice this week gave me great pause. On two separate days, two different authors asked within a Facebook group I’m in about usage of racial slurs in their manuscripts. One mentioned how her editor wanted her to substitute an historically accurate racial slur for something more politically correct. Many of us responded considering the place and time period of the story, if the word was what was commonly used, then it should be in the story regardless of how offensive it is. What disturbed me most was it was an editor advising the author to sanitize and make the story more in keeping with today’s sensibilities. It made me wonder if this editor had any prior experience with editing historical fiction or if the editor works for a publisher that doesn’t want to rock the boat or even perhaps the editor is allowing his or her own self to be offended rather than looking at the story as a whole.

Unfortunately, just a few days later there was yet another question posted by a different author about usage of racial slurs in their manuscript. This author expressed hesitation over including offensive terms and was curious to hear others’ thoughts. Overwhelming the response was again, if it is in keeping with the characters, the time period, and place, then yes, they must be included. Many advised against over usage especially in the narrative unless it’s first person. I responded that if people read the offensive term and aren’t offended then that says to me they’ve become de-sensitized to such language which is a far bigger issue.

Both of these dilemmas along with numerous online debates I see on a variety of topics regarding what is or isn’t offensive gets me thinking. Being offended by someone’s differing point of view, no matter how vile it is, is not a justification for censorship. With free speech comes the inherent right to be offended by someone else. This is completely and utterly okay. Two people do not agree 100% on everything all the time. Debate is great until it turns into an attempt to shame and guilt the other person. It’s also not the way to go about trying to change someone’s opinion.

When it comes to literature, the fictional world, like the real world, can be an ugly place full of people who say and do things that turn our stomachs and who have different morals and ethics from our own. So why the hell should literature be turned into a sanitized, unrealistic, and inaccurate version of life to appease the majority? And who is this majority? And why is the majority considered to be correct? And why does this mythical majority feel the need to squash stories about individuals, whether set in past, present, or future times, which are considered to be offensive? Our differences should be respected but that is not the same as agreeing with an opinion or action which we find offensive.

What I find the most offensive is when this real life need to suppress, shame, and guilt others dribbles down the literature pipeline. In our real lives we all know plenty of people whose views and experiences are so vastly different from our own that we legitimately wonder what the hell their problem is. We question how they came to what seems such an illogical conclusion. But one of the beautiful things about reading a wide-range of books is through others’ stories we can hope to learn the why behind such illogical actions. And if we are smart, we then apply those lessons to those we come across in our real lives, hopefully viewing them with a little more understanding.

We as writers should always remember to keep the story, characters, and language authentic no matter how repulsive it will be to some people. This isn’t to advocate for going overboard to shock and anger as many people as possible just for the hell of it. Ultimately the reader has the choice to close a book and move onto something that doesn’t offend them.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders

Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders is the first book in the Daughters of Shadow and Blood series as well as Mr. Saunders’ debut book. The novel is a complicated story crisscrossing not only time periods but also countries as well to tell the tale of Yasamin, a former lover or “bride” of Dracula. The story bounces between Berlin in late 1999 and parts of Eastern Europe from 1599 to 1601. The main characters are Adam Mire, an American history professor who is an expert on Dracula and believes he is a real figure. He’s on the hunt for Yasamin Ashrafi who had a long relationship with the famed Dracula yet they parted ways some years ago for unclear reasons. Adam and Yasamin’s paths intersect as both are looking for Dracula’s missing medallion. Adam tracks Yasamin down, thinking she must have it or know its whereabouts; however, she’s just as curious to know its location.

The book is a cat and mouse game on multiple levels. The game is not just between the Adam and Yasamin but the people who have brought them together. Adam is chased by several different organizations who want him dead for obtaining information that will lead him to Yasamin and Dracula’s medallion. Another example of the cat and mouse theme is Yasamin’s flashbacks. Slowly the reader gets her story of how she started out as the mouse but later becomes the cat, helping Dracula manipulate events throughout Eastern Europe.

The story is mostly told through flashbacks and letters, a nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In fact there are many nods to Stoker’s Dracula and the original manuscript is treated as being more of a historical text rather than as a piece of fiction. It is also implied that Yasamin is probably one of Dracula’s brides or temptresses as portrayed in Bram Stoker’s novel.

I found myself more fascinated more by Yasamin’s story then Adam’s because hers carried the historical aspects of the novel. I also found her background and circumstances more interesting. Her transformation didn’t feel forced, unexpected, or rushed which I think is what a lot of authors would have done. I also liked Yasamin because she’s threatening in a quiet way and very rarely it seems does she resort to the tricks of mind control and using her sexuality readers often associate with vampires. Overall I thought she was the more complete character.

Adam is just sort of there for me. He’s lost loved ones due to his search although that seems to be more of a minor issue and doesn’t stop him. I wished Adam’s background and stakes had been developed more because it would have added more to him for me as the reader. I think the fling he has with a mysterious woman who saves from him from getting killed the first time was forced.

I appreciate reading a book centered on vampires to feel more like what traditional vampire novels read like. These are traditional vampires so nobody sparkles, walks around during the day (although they may be awake during the day), and garlic, silver, and crosses will affect them. I also appreciate it being set in the parts of the world where the legends first bubbled up and a cast that is non-American and even non-Christian as one of the groups after Dracula’s medallion to destroy it is a Muslim organization.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Even though it was a fast read, it was a bit difficult at times to keep track of the various timelines and locales.  I think it would have been nice for the novel to have had less side characters. It was sometimes confusing as to which secret group was after Adam and what their beef was with him as I think that detracted from getting to know Adam more. I also would have liked to have spent more time in the past especially since I’m personally not as familiar with those. It felt like as soon as I was starting to get immersed in the past, the chapter would end and I would be forward to 1999.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I’d I’d give Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin 3 pencils out of 5 and would definitely be interested in reading the next book.

Weekly Musing: Remake, Reboot, Remix, Re-whatever

Over the last decade plus, there’s been an explosion of remakes and reboots. Sometimes the remake/reboot is a way of updating an older TV show or movie. Sometimes it’s a case of a successful franchise being rebooted probably just so the studio can make more money. Mostly it is at the movie theater where we see these but TV is starting to pick up the torch. In the 2015 – 2016 TV season there will be a limited run of The X-Files and Heroes Reborn will pop up on the schedule. There’s also been a smattering of bringing back shows for a limited run like 24 but by and large, TV has been safe from this remake/reboot fetish.

One of the biggest reasons why remakes/reboots are popular is there is built-in brand recognition. This is coupled with nostalgia you can see why remakes and reboots are big business. Look at how many TV shows and movies from the ’70s and ’80s have already been released or in the works. No matter how truly god awful these things are, still Hollywood makes them because studios make back the stupidly ridiculous amounts of money they spent. But the problem with using nostalgia as a business model is that most people view the past through rose-colored glasses.

This isn’t to say that no reboots/remakes should ever happen. Some have been incredibly well-written and well-received both on the small and big screen. 21 Jump Street was hilarious although it only vaguely resembled the TV show. The Batman franchise on both the small screen and big screen has been wildly success. And the granddaddy of them all, M*A*S*H is probably more well-known as a TV show first then as a movie even though the movie came out in 1970 based on a book that had come out 2 years prior.

So, just for fun, what shows would I like to see come back? Keep in mind this list is purely for fun as there is a huge part of me that would truly shudder if anyone actually decided these were a good idea. And yes, my list is based purely on nostalgia.

Punky Brewster: Oh, yes, this should come back. Although if this were updated, Punky would probably be from a different country, it wouldn’t be an elderly man as her adopted father, the dog would be some messed up breed like a Goldendoodle, and Punky’s awesome bed would disappear. The show would probably be ruined by bring in a love interest for Punky’s adoptive parent and then more focus would be on that rather than the relationship between Punky and her adopted parent.

Out of This World: I think I’m probably the only person from my generation who watched this show. It was quirky, odd, and science fiction which I didn’t realize at the time. Evie, the show’s man character, was part human, part alien and could freeze time. Who wouldn’t want that ability? Given how popular extra-ordinary people are this is one show that maybe could come back. Naturally I think the tone would change from gentle, family-friendly to dark, gritty, and Evie would suffer from way more angst due to dad never appearing here on Earth. Also, Evie would probably be written to kick ass and fight crime instead of just being sorta normal. On second thought, maybe this shouldn’t be remade.

Daria: This is one show I truly, desperately wished would come back. Daria Morgendorffer’s biting and highly accurate social commentary is much needed. I’d love to see her as a grown-up, though not necessarily with children of her own, can’t see her as a mother. Instead of being jaded by her fellow teenagers, she would be jaded by her fellow co-workers and neighbors. I also think Daria’s take on gender roles would be refreshing and rational rather than the emotional Social Justice Warrior crap that currently populates the internet.

I can’t honestly think of any other shows it would be fun to “what if” they were remade. By and large I prefer original ideas or quality book adaptions to just digging up what worked in the past. I guess when millions of dollars are on the line, it’s better to go with the safe bet even at the risk of fatiguing audiences.

 

Weekly Musing: Take a Look at This

Book covers are a big deal. It’s what we, the reader, see first and if it’s attractive enough, prompts us to pick up the book. In addition to the basics like the author and title, we spend a lot of our time looking at the cover art.  After all it’s supposed to tell us what kind of book is in our hands. Is it an adventure novel with a ship tossed about in a violent storm? Is it a bodice-ripper with half naked people in awkward positions? Is it a YA book with an emotional teen on the cover? So much information is conveyed just by looking at the book cover, if anything, more than the blurb does.  At least nowadays with everyone having the attention span of a gnat.

With this in mind, I began thinking what personally draws my eye to a book. To be honest, I can’t recall what the covers of my favorite books look like because well, books go through cover changes. When I examine the covers in my own library, I notice what I appreciate most are simple covers. For example, I love these covers for my editions of the Outlander series, Pillars of the Earth, and A Song of Ice and Fire because it’s just a solid color background with an item meant to represent something about the novel’s world. Understated perfect for such sweeping epics. No need to clutter up the front with noise.

And I don’t think this pared down approach to book cover design is strictly for epics, I’m noticing it a bit more on some sci-fi books. The Humans by Matt Haig has an oddly wonderful cover. A human nose against a white background. Intriguing, what in the world is this about? It’s only when you read the book does the cover make a lot of sense. Or Lock In by John Scalzi. Again, very simple design with what appear to be white and red plastic figures. Why are some of them red? Only by reading the book does that cover make a lot more sense.

That’s the brilliance of a well-designed book cover. Don’t crowd it with lots of images or colors. Focus on one thing for the reader’s mind to linger over long enough to grab them. Of course publishing is a business which means they have marketing departments who do their homework analyzing what sells, what doesn’t, what is trendy, etc. when designing a cover. Each genre has it tropes and there are even gender biases in place to supposedly help us readers. Yet when covers stray from the expectation, I think that energizes a reader and cast the net out to a wider audience.

This is something to keep in the back of my mind as I hope to move forward in my writing career. When I get to point where I have a book(s) published, I’d like to see the covers of my book have the simplicity I admire. I don’t want them to fit into the trendy tropes of the time, why should I? If a book is to be hugely successful, its cover should strive to appeal to the general public rather than a specific group.

Simplicity in cover book art also creates this notion of timelessness. How many books have we picked up at a book store or yard sale or at the library with covers from previous decades? Nine times out of ten they look cheesy and dated. Admittedly some have some wonderful artwork and style a niche group appreciates today. However, most look so bad you may stay away from it as a reader. Shallow as it may sound, we humans are a visual bunch and we do judge a book by its cover so let’s keep it simple.

Weekly Musing: Oh, Look! A Squirrel!

If my somewhat crappy memory is correct, when I first started this blog over two years ago I believed I mentioned something about suffering from what I refer to as Writer’s ADD. What I meant by that is when I write, regardless if it’s an initial draft or revision, I can go along at a good clip then I just stop and do something else for a few minutes. Usually this is to help me think, like staring off into space, but truth be told there are times when those distractions are just excuses to not write. I’m not proud of this and I know the reasons why I allow it. Something I’m trying to work on that since I know my word count and efficiency would go up and shocker of shockers, maybe my anxiety would decrease some.

IMDb: It’d be too easy to say the internet as a whole since in 2015 that’s pretty much what a black hole the internet is. Of late, IMDb is the bane of my existence. Why I feel the need to argue with idiots about TV shows and movies is beyond me. I guess it satisfies my analytical nature and to participate in discussions. I’m also genuinely curious about others’ thoughts and perspectives. However, IMDb really isn’t the right platform for that. So many trolls infest it. Good luck trying to have a rational, logical argument with someone who clearly has the emotional IQ of a teenager who just sooooooo knows they are right. What’s worse is I wind up learning spoilers and have even come to loath a show or movie because of how nutty some of the fans are.

Games on my phone: I play three games on my phone. They manage to suck up my time because I tell myself I’m taking a break to think. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if these game breaks came after half an hour or an hour of writing but I stop after a relatively short period of time. I think it’s a combination of fear, anxiety, and writing gremlins creeping in to tell me to get stuck in a corner on purpose. Instead of just buckling down and tackling the problem, I justify it as a break.

YouTube: More specifically what are known as “crack” videos which are snippets of a particular show or movie people edit together with various pieces of music and dubbed over dialogue for laughs. Usually these videos are about 5 minutes or less which makes them incredibly dangerous. They’re potato chips. One just won’t suffice although if I see one more person using Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” or Dido’s “White Flag” I’m going to through something at my computer. But dammit, the lulz. So much lulz.

Spotify: This is a double-edged sword. I love Spotify because of all the new artists I’ve discovered, the playlists which help me tune out the world, and being able to create playlists for whatever I’m working on. However, dear god when an annoying song comes on and I have to stop what I’m doing so I can skip it. Or if I hear a song that blows me away and I have to stop what I’m doing and save it. And sometimes I just can’t get the right music mix and I get grumpy.

Oddly enough, there are common distractions which don’t suck me in. For example, Facebook. I can easily limit my time on that since most of it is just the same old same old. TV isn’t a distraction either since there is absolutely nothing on TV during the day I care to watch. I could very easily binge watch all the shows and movies I’ve got saved up but if I did that I’d feel so much guilt for wasting time. Same reason why I can resist the urge to play video games. Why those other things don’t feel me with as much guilt I have no idea.

 

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White

This month’s selection, The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White, falls into a category I don’t normally read which is contemporary women’s fiction. After attending a session presented by Ms. Claypole at a recent workshop, I decided to read it since it sounded interesting.

The story is told from two points of view: Tilly Silverberg, a widowed gardener with a young son living in rural North Carolina, and James Nealy, a recent transplant to the area. Despite starting out in rural North Carolina, the bulk of the story takes place in England. Tilly’s mother suffers a fall, breaking her leg, which prompts Tilly to return to England with her son to spend the summer there helping her mother. The other reason is because James keeps hounding Tilly to design a landscape for his house even though she repeatedly tells him no.

The main characters are an unlikely pair since Tilly has chosen to isolate herself from society since her husband’s death three years ago, falsely blaming herself for following through with his living will decision. James suffers from OCD, anxiety, and other crippling mental health issues who has retired from his business at age 45 to work on conquering his issues. Due to James’ OCD, he persists in recruiting Tilly to design a garden even hopping on a plane to England to join Tilly and her son. Throughout the book, the two of them struggle to battle past ghosts which affect their current situation.

I had a hard time finishing this. More than once I wanted to just bag it but kept on reading because there were glimmers it would get better and more interesting. Except then I’d get disappointed as the story would slow down, the characters would become too self-absorbed, and unrealistic subplots would come into the picture.

It didn’t help that I didn’t care for either main character nor did I find the supporting cast very interesting other than Tilly’s son and mother. Why Tilly felt the need to lie about a potential life-threatening situation, only confiding in James, is beyond me. I genuinely don’t understand why her ex or James find her attractive. She’s nice and a good mother but she doesn’t offer much else other than an extensive knowledge of plants.

I found James’ behaviors and lack of impulse control scary more than endearing, while I understand he suffers from OCD and anxiety, a point hammered home ad nauseam, the way he acts from jumping on a plane to England because he can’t take no for an answer, to hiding important information like he has a grown son, bugs me as a reader. I supposed I’m to give him a pass because he’s good looking (debatable at best) and rich. Ahh, that lovely trope of no matter how messed up the male lead is emotionally, if he’s hot and rich, he gets away with it without too much second-guessing.

I suspect I was supposed to love Tilly’s zany best friend Rowena but she felt out of place and a stereotype. Another supporting character was Tilly’s childhood sweetheart who just happens to be going through a divorce at that exact same time and escapes to the village they grew up in. Naturally this creates a (forced) friction between James and the ex both of whom are competing with the ghost of Tilly’s dead husband.

The book is painful in trying to shoehorn in a romantic connection between Tilly and James. It takes too long to get to either of them explaining their feelings and when it does, it’s just awkward and unrealistic. If the book instead focused on developing a friendship between James and Tilly rather than a romance, I think it would have worked better.

Another thing that bugged me about the book was all the overwriting the author did. One of my biggest pet peeves and something I notice more with contemporary women’s fiction is how many questions are asked. For James’ personality it made sense to hear him internally questioning what he said and did since it was part of his personality but when both characters do it, it’s incredibly irritating. A lot of that could have been cut out which would have tightened up the flow of the story. Another issue I had was how inconsistent the author was in resolving twist both large and small.

 

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Unfinished Garden 2 pencils out of 5. It was forced and inconsistent in all areas but at least the scenery descriptions were lovely.

Weekly Musing: Picture This

This week I thought I would do something different. Something hopefully less wordy then my posts of late, a little bit more fun, and something more visual because sometimes that is the best way to express a thought. Or in this case just to brag a little bit about my writing space.

A while ago I found a link with pictures of 40 creative people, most of whom were writers. What’s so neat about looking over these pictures is how these people were either completely messy or completely organized, nothing in between. Granted some of these spaces have been preserved and thus tidied up for tourists.

My own writing space has evolved over the years and continues to do so. In our old house I took over a spare bedroom that overlooked the park behind our house with a boring view of the desert.

Now my writing space is different. When we were looking at houses, one of the requirements was that I had to have my own space and it had to be fairly good size. What I got was a loft all to myself although it is technically considered a bedroom since it had a full bathroom.

As you can see I have not one but two desks. One holds my laptop and is nothing more than a simple heavy-duty plastic table. Messy but still somewhat organized if only for me. It’s odd having a messy space because I’m a pretty organized person and can’t stand to have things out of their right spot. Yet when it comes to the space I spend a good chunk of my day, a little mess is fine. I can still find things including the desk top itself so no harm, no foul. Computer Desk

My other desk, free of electronics, is my actual writing desk. Admittedly, though, there are times I write in other places but this is my primary spot. As you can see, it’s a bit more organized as the space itself is an actual proper desk. I love it and the chair is really comfortable. Although it isn’t open like my other desk, I think the closed in space works well for me. Makes for mostly distraction free writing. I also have on it reference books I use most often. Tucked away in a drawer are legal size pads for when I’m just brainstorming or revising. Writing Desk

Since my writing sanctuary is a loft space, the one thing I didn’t get was a view. All I have are a couple of windows that look out to the side of the neighbor’s house. At least the cat enjoys the view. Windows and bookcases

As you can see I do have somewhat adequate room for bookcases although if I don’t stop acquiring books I’ll run out of space. I also have filled up pretty much every available piece of wall space with various things including 2 white boards, a map of the United States, and a dry erase calendar to help me keep track of deadlines and events. I’ve even tacked stuff up on the closest door but that’s as part of research for a book I’m working on. Corner Whiteboards

There you have it. My lovely writing space. Not my ideal but it’s more than functional especially when I consider the floor as additional work area. I love it for its openness and being completely separate from the rest of the house. Definitely my own personal corner of the world.