Monday, July 24, 2017

"The Doctor is a--"

In 1974, Mel Brooks released Blazing Saddles, which is at once a brilliant and intelligent satire of racism and a typical, infantile Brooks film. In the movie, the Attorney General of some unknown state tries to force the residents of a town to sell their land cheap in order to build a railroad through it. After intimidation fails to work, the Attorney General convinces the governor to appoint a black man as town sheriff, reasoning that that will be the final straw. In the scene below, the residents prepare a welcome ceremony for the arriving sheriff (NOTE: one obscured very bad word):

I thought of this scene a lot last week after the announcement came out from the BBC that the role of the Thirteenth* Doctor on the iconic British television show, Doctor Who would be played by...gasp!...Jodie Whittaker, a...gasp...a w-BONG!

I don't travel in the squicky corners of the internet where Breitbarters like Milo Yiannopoulos live, so I don't exactly know what the reaction has been from that end of things--no doubt, it's not all that different from the initial reactions of the residents of Rock Ridge to the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles. The fact is, there are always going to be misogynists out there who oppose it on principle, and there are going to be misogynists out there who cover up their misogyny with, "Yeah, but canon!" Here's the thing: we're not dealing with Batman, or Superman, or Tolkien. Canon is mutable, especially for a show like Doctor Who, which has been making it all up as it goes along. The fact that the Doctor can regenerate at all was due to the necessity of replacing the First Doctor, when the actor's health wouldn't allow him to continue in the role! And speaking of mutable canon, I seem to recall that it was established that Time Lords only had twelve regenerations, and here we are on the Thirteenth* Doctor. The showrunners invent and bend and dodge to serve both dramatic purpose and to keep the money flowing.

The identity of the Doctor in terms of race, religion or gender doesn't much matter to me. What's important--to me--is that the show tell good stories with quality actors portraying all the roles. But I also recognize that as a white man, I've had the luxury of never really having to worry about it, and that I've never been under-represented. And when I see reactions like the one from the little girl in the embedded tweet in this this article, I realize how important it is to other people. (sorry, I'm not on Twitter, so I don't know how to embed that stuff; Youtube is my limit). To the  good folks at Doctor Who, I say "Huzzah! The Doctor is a woman!" Maybe I'll even start watching again.

What about you? Do you watch Doctor Who? What do you think of the new casting choice?

*As far as I can tell, John Hurt's "War Doctor" from the 50th Anniversary special should count as one, and then I'm pretty sure either David Tennant's 10th Doctor or Matt Smith's 11th Doctor kinda, sorta regenerated as himself (maybe they both did it), so we might actually be on more like Doctor 14 or 15 now.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Put a Bow on it

Yesterday (Sunday, the 16th), at pretty much high noon, I pushed back from the computer, the final chords of the Grateful Dead's spirited-but-sloppy "Scarlet Begonias" first set closer from July 16, 1976 still ringing in my ears, and said, "Finished." The latest WiP had been completed.

Not finished finished, mind you. In early evening I sat with my cup of coffee and made some tweaks to the final scene in the manuscript, then searched back a ways to make a couple of changes to an earlier scene that had to reflect that ending. Part of me wanted to wait until Revision, Phase One to make those changes, but it was on my mind there and then, so I did it. Officially, I guess, I didn't actually put a bow on it until just about 8:30 last night.

This one is currently a monster, 471 bloated pages, almost 138,000 words--yeah, I guess Stephen King really is an influence--but I tend to write long and do a lot of cutting during the revision. I believe the RiP was just shy of 400 pages and in the neighborhood of 116,000 words when I called it a first draft. That manuscript went on a crash diet and went out on submission last year a svelte 98,000 words. This story may well be bigger, but I should be able to get it down much closer to the 100,000 mark. For now, it's time to let it stew, and then I'll read it in a few weeks and discover just how bad it is. In the meantime, there's a RiP that has been too-long neglected sitting on my hard drive...

What about you? Do you draft big, or draft small?

EDIT: Just saw that Agent Carrie has the doors open for another Query Critique! If you've got a query you need help with, send her an e-mail and maybe you'll get a critique. See here for full rules.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoughts on the MOOC (Part II)

Well, look at that, me delivering on a promised post! I even went to the extraordinary step of pre-writing a good portion of this post; still, it's just past six a.m. on a Monday and my coffee's not quite ready yet, so there's no guarantee of actual coherence here.

When I wrote about this previously, I gave some idea of how the course works. I'll try not to repeat myself as I give my overall impressions now that the course is over.

It was pretty intense. The course began officially on May 15, with the first assignments posted about two days later. The final assignment was posted on June 22, with all course materials due on July 3 (July 4, for those of us in the eastern time zone). Because I started late, I was playing catch up from the get go, and put in a lot of work. I eventually did catch up, though I admit I also fizzled toward the end--I submitted my final assignment about two hours before the deadline.

I enjoyed the course quite a bit, despite what's going to come in the critique section, which might make it look like I hated the course! Positives included a lot of reading, widely. Each week our required reading assignments typically included one or two pieces of fiction and one or two piece of nonfiction (there were usually three readings per week). The readings were high-quality works of fiction or journalism, no wild esoterica that leaves you scratching your head and saying, "WTF???" There was also a long list of optional reads, though I confess I did not quite have time for getting into all of those (I wish I had). Each week, guest authors provided a video mini-lecture (typically 20 minutes long, give or take). Guest lecturers came from all over the world and included scifi authors, journalists, memoirists. It was a nice balance. The instructors themselves provided interesting topics for discussion related to the weekly topics. Finally, there was the opportunity to meet and read authors at all levels of the writing journey from all across the world.

Holy non sequitur, Batman! One of the other things I really liked about this? In the video mini-lectures, when the authors wanted to illustrate a point about technique or weaving in social issues, they referenced...books! Not movies. Not TV shows. Actual books. This may seem like a small thing, but think about the number of times you read a blog post and the author says, "For a really great example of characterization, watch Forrest Gump" (or something like that). It was refreshing.

Back to the course. There were problems. Some of these, maybe most of them, stemmed from the technology the course was built on. It was hitchy. Jumpy. On several occasions, I started to type in a comment and found that the first five letters on line one disappeared. Or I'd actually hit the post button, and my response would be missing the last half a line. If I clicked 'edit,' Instead of having my entire post there, waiting for me to re-type the first five letters or last five words, I'd have...nothing. I resorted to typing comments out in a word document and pasting them in. I also tried switching to Chrome, and it seemed a little better, but I don't like Chrome and I don't want to have to switch to Chrome. Firefox is still used by a huge number of people, and if you say this program works well on Firefox, you better make sure it does.

The other problem, and this was a big one, as far as I'm concerned, is that there was little actual discussion that I could see. Each week, the instructors posted thoughts for discussion, and asked for our thoughts/comments/experiences. But the interface itself did not really promote discussion; it promoted individual commenting. For one thing, you could not see all the responses to the main discussion, you could only see the last five. You'd have to click 'show previous comments' to get more. Also, on the few occasions where someone replied directly to a comment on the main discussion thread, you had to click a tiny little icon at the bottom to see the reply. Instead of a discussion where people responded to each other and freely shared ideas back and forth, what you had was more of a 'stop and drop' situation, with people stopping in, dropping a comment, and moving on. This is partly a product of the fact that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of participants, along with the fact that you got credit for posting and commenting. I think sometimes people were just aiming to do the bare minimum to get credit.

Along these same lines, course participants were able to set up their own discussion groups. I mentioned joining one or two of these. But again, there seemed to be very little actual discussion. Instead, when people posted assignments, they'd share them to the discussion groups and ask for feedback. (True confession: I didn't actually start any discussions myself within these groups, so I guess I can't complain)

Would I do it again? Yes, yes I would. Despite my complaints, I was exposed to a lot of different writers of all backgrounds, as well as a lot of different ideas, and some lessons on craft. I was able to revisit old works and new (the opening to PARALLEL LIVES got a workout here, as did both the WiP and the RiP), and anytime you are forced to think about your writing is a good thing, I think. I also met a few people who could become good crit partners/sounding boards/beta readers, and have already critiqued a piece for one of them.

This post has already gotten kind of long, so I will say farewell for now, leaving you with this piece of music from Pete Yorn. Though I have not heard it for years, it worked its way into my thoughts yesterday when I was sketching out this post. Enjoy, and see you next time. Please share your thoughts below!

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part II)

Happy Independence Day (early) for my American readers! Happy Canada Day (late) for my Canadian readers! And happy [insert appropriate holiday here] for my [insert appropriate nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. here] readers! Whew, I think I covered it.

Last week, I wrote about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I'm in, and the promise to finish that job is still there, but since the course is still technically open until tomorrow, I'll hold off until next week. And since we just closed the second quarter of 2017 on Friday (seriously, how is it July already???), it's time to share my reading material for the quarter, in case you find it of any interest. Here we go, in order that I read them. Some with editorializing, some without:

Feed (2002), M.T. Anderson. A future with wifi built right into our heads. Good concept, good book overall, undermined (for me) by the really annoying "teenage voice" of the protagonist/narrator.

Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower, book IV) (1997), Stephen King, re-read. This was always my favorite of the Dark Tower series, and a treat to read again.

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower, book V) (2003), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time.

The Song of Susannah (Dark Tower, book VI) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read. This is where King may have lost a lot of readers, as King introduced a new character into the series: Stephen King.

Fates and Furies (2015), Lauren Groff. Irony: I started reading this one right after my semi-coherent thoughts about time. This book made me question the whole premise of that post.

The Lifeboat (2012), Charlotte Rogan.

The Sleepwalker (2017), Chris Bohjalion. Both this and Lifeboat were interesting while being read, but quickly forgotten. And I'm a Bohjalion fan.

White Fang (1906, though the one I read was published in 1971 or so), Jack London. I think I'll be skipping Call of the Wild.

The Dark Tower (Dark Tower, book VII) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time (and I think I had only read it once, unlike some of the other entries in the series). Authorial insertion aside, this is a good read and a satisfying conclusion to the series. Does it make any sense at all? That would take many multiple posts.

That's the list. Three months, nine books completed, which is more than I thought, as it seemed like I went through long periods of not reading during that time. I suspect the fact that four of the books were re-reads (though only Wizard and Glass is a book I've read more than once) sped my reading up a bit. I'm also happy to say I'm still making progress on the WiP and even a bit on the RiP.

So--what have you been reading? Anything good?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on the MOOC, Part I

Sounds like some sort of bizarre memoir, doesn't it?

A few weeks back, I believe I mentioned that I had signed up for a MOOC (i.e., Massive Open Online Course). The MOOC in this case was called The Power of the Pen: Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction, offered through The University of Iowa's International Writing Program (that's a lot of words to name a program!). Though the course is technically still open until July 4, I'm in the final stretch and thought I'd share some of my impressions about it with you. Of course, time is short for me this morning, and I have pre-written none of this (of course), so this week I'll just give an overview of the course and next week, or the week after, I'll give more of my impressions on the course.

I've never done a MOOC before, so I have nothing to compare it to. Pretty much all of my formal learning has been done in a classroom, so this was a little different, and I liked a lot about how the course was structured. After signing up and getting confirmation, you were directed to a course outline and information page, which in turn was subdivided into sections, with each section being used to summarize how the course worked, how to access discussion groups, and an optional assignment that involved reading several short pieces and participating in discussion groups with course instructors. Also, there was an initial push to get participants to form and join their own discussion groups. After surfing through the (long) list (remember, I started a week and a half late), I chose to join the "Literary Fiction and Creative Nonfiction" group, which has twenty members at the moment.
I should probably re-read my User Agreement before posting this, but...

Each week, new content was posted, based on a specific theme, such as "Establishing and exploring identity and community." Content included usually three video lectures by an author (usually around 20 minutes each); three pieces of required reading, which generally consisted of one fiction, one personal essay or memoir, and one creative nonfiction piece; a menu of optional reads; instructor-led discussion groups related to the week's topic; and a writing assignment. Assignments would be uploaded, critiques given and received--and credit given.

Course credit was received for participation: upload an assignemtn, receive six points. Participate in one of the weekly, instructor led discussion groups, receive two points per comment. Provide feedback to fellow participants on their assignments, two points per comment. The maximum number of points was 100; passing the course required 74. (There are maximums in certain categories, so you can't get more than 32 points for class discussion or providing feedback; this is to push people into participating as broadly as possible, and not allowing them to get by just making a lot of comments) There is also a certificate of completion that can be received. This requires successfully completing the course, plus paying a $50 fee. Perhaps this looks good to agents and editors when establishing credentials; I opted for the cheap option.

So. I signed up, filled out my profile, and went through the course overview. At that point, it was time to play catch up. Next time, I'll share actual impressions of the course. That's all for now!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mental Health Day

That's what I'm on.

I work a lot of weekends. Sometimes, the work is just for a few hours, such as when I lead a nature walk for my organization, or take a table full of displays and 'stuff' to some event and talk to people all day. Other times, it's an all-day sort of affair, such as when we're the ones running one of those events. In the last three weeks, my Saturdays were as follows: nature walk on the third (only 3 hours worth of time, total), festival on the 10th (I was "on the clock" basically from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.), and a fundraiser beer pouring at a concert on the 17th, where I was "on" (and on my feet) from 3:30 to about 10:30.

I call this a mental health day, but it's also about physical well-being, too. The nature walk is easy: two miles on a mostly easy trail. The event and the beer pouring, however, were physically demanding, draining. Setting up tables, lugging our own display materials around, being responsible (okay, that's mental) for the smooth running of the event or for wrangling nearly 70 volunteers--that's draining. And depending on what's going on, I'm not guaranteed getting a Monday off for working a Saturday. Sometimes, you just can't swing it, and that's okay. We don't get overtime, but I've got a boss who is humane. As long as the work gets done and gets done well, we have the flexibility to take time when/where needed.

Long-winded way of saying there's not much of a post today. I'm hopefully going to catch up on my assignments for the online writing course I've been taking. Technically, I've already completed the requirements to 'pass' the course, but there's more to learn; it behooves me to complete all the assignments. The good thing is it's getting me going on my RiP again (Carrie will be glad to hear that!) and I may also have picked up another beta reader, hooray! Once the course is over, I'll try to sum up my experiences here. The University of Iowa will be running another beginning on July 17 aimed at poets and playwrights. Also, somewhere down the line I'll explain what the beer pouring fundraiser was (besides fun and exhausting!). EDIT: Oh, and maybe I'll add in my reactions to Wonder Woman, which we saw on Wednesday (Quick reaction: Really good film).

So, I'm out of here, hoping to write, relax, and just enjoy what will hopefully be a good day, weather-wise (had great, great weather for the beer pouring and Father's Day; got deluged last night). In closing, I'll leave you with this song that has been absolutely stuck in my head the last week and a half. Posting it on my personal Facebook page has done nothing to get rid of it, so maybe this will. I'm also pretty sure this same song got stuck in my head last year, too. It's got a great groove. Have a great week, everyone!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Monday Musing: No Real Theme Edition (and no political commentary!)

Random bits and pieces from over the last week, because I've been too lazy/busy to get an actual post!

-Penguins won the Stanley Cup last night. This was a good game, an entertaining series, and a lot more fun to watch in some ways without a dog in the fight. Congratulations to Pittsburgh on the win, and Nashville on a great series.

-In an era where coaching and systems have become so dominant, it's comforting to see talent as the deciding factor. Though the deciding goal wasn't some sort of rink-length, dipsy-doodling rush finished off with a diving backhander tucked up under the crossbar, Pittsburgh's overall talent superiority was evident in them having most of the really good scoring chances. It would be nice to see coaches fill out the bottom six forward lines with more talent over "grit," because the talent is out there.

-A couple of weeks back, I joined a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC; I think that's what the letters stand for) through the University of Iowa. The theme of the course is "Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction" (I always want to hyphenate 'nonfiction'). It's been pretty interesting, good food for thought, good exposure to other writers. The 'discussions' we're supposed to be participating in, however, seem to be mostly individual responses to a question posed by an instructor instead of actual discussion. And there's a lot of quid pro quo critique going on. Of course, there are a lot of people in this course, with a lot of assignments being posted: how many can you read (and thoughtfully comment on) in a week?

-I used a piece of my WiP and a piece of my RiP for a couple of assignments and got some useful feedback. It also got me looking at my RiP, which means I'm actually one step closer to finally doing something with it.

-Downside of opening the windows to let cool night air in? Skunks. Last night, the smell just sort of wafted in, growing stronger and stronger, though it never quite reached eye-watering levels. Pepé le Pew was on the prowl!

-Hit the middle eighties yesterday. I think maybe we're clear of the threat of frost and snow--finally!

-Am I the only person who gets annoyed by this "Focused Inbox" thing that Microsoft is trying to shove down my throat with Outlook? Just show me everything and let me decide what's important, thank you very much.

That's about it for me, what's new with you?