Category Archives: Writing

Could Archie Bunker work today?

All in the Family hit TV in 1971 with the force of Cat 5 storm.

The story of the Bunker family — bigoted, sexist blue-collar worker Archie; sweet, daffy wife Edith; college-student son-in-law Mike; and Mike’s wife Gloria — was like nothing ever seen before. Racists had showed up on TV, but they were completely evil villains. Archie was just a regular guy. Unabashedly convinced straight white men should run the world, but as Mike once put it, he’s not the kind of guy who’d burn a cross on someone’s lawn (“but if he found one burning, he’d probably toast a marshmallow.”). He’s the kind of everyday racist profiled in so many of those Trump-voter articles the media have been running since 2016.

A recent Screen Rant article offered Archie as one of the characters TV would never be able to show today. I wonder if they don’t have a point (we’ll soon see — a revival is on the way).

In many ways, Archie’s a horrifying character. Not an otherwise good guy with racist opinions. He’s often verbally abusive to Edith. Quite willing to bend the system to turn a quick buck (in one story he trades his vote for a local business discount). And it’s not just his opinions that are racist, but his actions. In one story, as foreman of the loading dock, he has to fire one of his crew — the lazy white guy, the hard-working Puerto Rican, the hard-working black guy. Suffice to say, he’s not going to fire the white guy. When I watched this as a tween, I knew that was wrong, but it didn’t strike a chord with me. Rewatching it as an adult with a job, I had a much stronger reaction and not favorable.

Now, I might be even less favorable. If Archie’s as racist as ever (he did mellow over time), will people be turned off? Roseanne is a hit, but while both the actor and character support Trump, the character isn’t and wasn’t as bigoted as Archie.

It’s quite possible lots of people didn’t watch at the time. No question it was a hit, but did African Americans enjoy the show? True, Archie the racist was the butt of most of the humor, but watching still requires listening to his bigoted crap. If I were Jewish, Latino, black, would I want to sit through it? I’ve no idea. Now, though, social media guarantees CBS (and the rest of us) will hear what people think.

Of course even if the revival tanks, it doesn’t follow it’s due to Archie’s politics rather than the changes since the days we had three networks plus PBS to watch. So who knows?

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I see stormy storms ahead …

So I made it up to 16,000 words of Southern Discomfort this week, which is well ahead of what I planned for this month. However I hit the first place that requires an intensive fix, and that slowed me down some. So I won’t be surprised if it starts going a lot slower from hereon in. Even so, I don’t think I’ve set myself an unreasonable pace, so by the end of September I should be done. Barring, of course, disasters. Sometimes they happen.

My Screen Rant on Deadpool 2‘s Shatterstar is now live, and it was a lot of fun. How can you not enjoy writing about someone who’s a genetically engineered mutant extraterrestrial time traveler? And also his own grandfather. And who got merged with Starfire in a DC/Marvel crossover to become — Shatterstarfire!

For some reason writing it went a lot slower than usual, which was annoying. Writing it on just Monday/Tuesday still works well for freeing the rest of the week up, but I think the work may be expanding to fill the time available. Which is Not Good.

I submitted a column pitch to The Guardian, without success. And I’m up to 20,000 words in the Undead Sexist Cliches book. It’s much better organized than the last draft, but the next couple of chapters are really fragmentary, so next month may be a lot slower.

No short story work, due to the time put in on Southern Discomfort.

A productive week, though not terribly exciting to write about.

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The first time ever I saw that trope

Some of you may be familiar with the infamous concept  of the “Adam and Eve” story. This is an SF story which ends with a man and women as the last survivors of a nuclear war, or the first colonists on an alien planet. And their first names are … Adam and Eve. So was this set in our future — or Earth’s past?

I don’t know when the first version of this appeared, but it goes back at least to the 1960s or early 1950s. There’s a Marvel short SF story that uses the trope (probably the first place I encountered it), and an S5 Twilight Zone episode, “Probe 7, Over and Out.” And truthfully, I don’t think it’s that horrible an idea. Not deep, but cute enough for a flash fiction story — much less satisfying as the punchline of the TZ episode. The reason it’s infamous is because lots and lots of people write and submit the story (or they used to, back in the 20th century), convinced it’s a fresh idea that’s sure to sell. No Adam and Eve Stories is a staple of “what not to submit” guidelines.

And I get that. It’s cute the first time you encounter it, but never again. But the point I’m working around to is that when someone reads it for the first time, it doesn’t matter that it’s trite or cliched — for them it’s fresh and clever. Maybe not that clever in this case, but it’s not just this case, it’s any case. The first time we read a detective story, a ghost story, a superhero story, watch a rom com it doesn’t matter that the tropes are hackneyed, assuming they’re done with a reasonable level of competence. As the late critic Pauline Kael said back in the 1990s, if you’re a teenager who doesn’t watch a lot of movies, Titanic really may have been the greatest movie you’d ever seen.

It’s very easy to overlook this as a critic. The mere fact you’re watching way more movies than the average person has an effect on your perceptions (I can speak from personal experience after all the watching I’ve done for my various film books). The cliches become more annoying; conversely, stuff that breaks genre convention may seem a lot fresher and better to you than it would to ordinary viewers. Writing Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan I included comments on several films that if it was the first haunted house film you’d ever seen (or cops-and-robots or Christmas fantasy comedy), it might be entertaining, conceding most people wouldn’t have my jaundiced viewpoint (I watched a shit-ton of Poltergeist knockoffs for that book!).

I suspect binge-watching can have the same effect: the Roger Moore Bond films came off much weaker when I watched them relatively quickly after watching all the Connery movies.

I sometimes see this creeping into writing too, particularly comics. The Emerald Dawn series retelling Green Lantern’s origin in the 1990s was a good example: the writer seemed to assume we knew all about the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians, we’d seen them in lots of stories and yeah, who cares any more, amiright? Zero attempt to infuse the story with the sense of wonder the early Green Lantern issues gave me. Conversely, the late Len Wein has said that in every Superman story he’d use the standard tropes such as “This looks like a job … for Superman!” because each story was probably someone’s first and the trope will be fresh.

It’s something to keep in mind as we write, perhaps. Are we writing for newbies? For people who read a lot of genre stuff but still enjoy the old tropes? Someone who wants something new within limited values of “new”? Or someone whose seen it all, written it all and desperately wants tropes questioned and metafictional commentary made? I suspect I’m writing to categories two and three in that list, mostly three. Not that any of them are unworthy to write too, but the same stories may not work for all four groups.

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What is the point of Sherlock Holmes?

One of the panels I attended at Mysticon back in February was on Sherlock, Elementary and Holmes in general. At one point someone raised the question, just what use is Sherlock Holmes in the modern world? Given the scope of police forensic science and surveillance videos, what does he bring to the table?

I forget who responded but their reaction stuck with me: if modern police work can solve the crime, Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be on the case. You bring him in when police can’t crack the case, when the connections or the evidence are something ordinary methods won’t find — you need a genius.

This is not, actually, a new topic. Way back in 1963, detective Ellery Queen came to the same conclusion in The Player on the Other Side: there’s simply no place for a talented amateur detective in the world of modern policing. Over the course of the story, Queen naturally figures out he’s wrong. The killer is a lunatic whose non-linear thinking proves impossible for the cops to anticipate; it takes Ellery’s creative, out-of-the-box analysis to get the answers.

I think that’s generally good advice if you’re creating an exceptional, awesome protagonist. A cozy mystery can work with an ordinary crime because most cozy detectives are just regular folks, like Sarah Winston in my friend Sherry Harris’s Yard Sale series. There the challenge is to make it plausible the protagonist will crack the case (and has a good reason for investigating) when the cops don’t. For Holmes or Queen (or Nero Wolfe or Gideon Fell, etc.) the challenge is a puzzle that the cops can’t crack. This can be because the puzzle is fiendishly complicated; because the police are incompetent (usually not the best approach); or because the police have seized on a wrong theory or wrong suspect (much more plausible — it happens in real life after all).

I think this might be a useful insight beyond detective stories. Like the old rule about the hero needing a worthy antagonist, we have to give them an adventure they deserve. If an ordinary warrior can save the day, you don’t need Conan. If the Special Crimes Unit can take down the supervillain, you don’t need Superman (Superman does stop a lot of ordinary crimes and help out in minor matters, but it isn’t the focus of the story). One of the perennial challenges of comics is trying to provide heroes with challenges without simply turning every story into an apocalypse.

It doesn’t have to be exceptional power or intellect that makes the difference. Sometimes it’s just their spirit. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is neither mean nor afraid,” as Raymond Chandler put it. And there are lots of stories where the protagonist isn’t supposed to be exceptional, just an average (wo)man on the street/cop/reporter.

But if the hero is exceptional, the challenge should be too.

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Embrace the disorder, learn how to bend

(Title adapted from the theme song of Psych).

Sometimes my 1,000 words of fiction a day rule needs adjusting. A week and a half ago, when I accepted the Vampire Diaries romances list from Screen Rant, the due date was this past Tuesday. To get that done and get in my Leaf articles, I had to focus on them Monday and Tuesday and forget about fiction (I’ll do the same next week, with my article on Shatterstar). Under the circumstances that was okay, so long as I made up the extra wordage later in the week, which I did.

Without the demands of doctors and plumbers that bedeviled me last week, this was a productive five days. I got in my Leaf work and the Screen Rant. Plus about 4,000 more words on Undead Sexist Cliches. It’s definitely easier to make my chapters coherent when I have a big block of time to work on it.

On the fiction side, I went over No One Can Slay Her for a final review and it’s done … subject to any feedback from the writer’s group in a couple of weeks. I redrafted Angels Hate This Man; it still needs a lot of work, but I think I’m finally getting somewhere. I finished The Cheap Assassin‘s first draft and started rewriting a story called (for the moment) Neverwas (time travel, bookstores, the apostle Luke — it all makes sense!). I didn’t get any further with Southern Discomfort, but I’ll be back on that horse next week.

I also found a cover for Atoms for Peace. I’ll post it soon.

It took me over my usual 35 hours a week (or is that my theoretical 35 hours a week?) to get it all done, but I didn’t feel stressed. So yay.

#SFWApro. Image is George Frederick Watts’ Chaos via Wikimedia commons .

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Publishing, one way or another

So last week I began the search for someone to draw my book cover for Atoms for Peace. It’s slightly nerve-wracking (what if I pick the wrong cover and destroy the book’s chances?) but it needs to be done. So I’m pleased I’m taking a necessary step.

But it also makes me appreciate why so many writers are adamant about not going indie. This is me, spending money up front with no certainty I’ll ever make it up on the back end. Making decisions about cover art which is not my forté, even given I got lots of ideas from writing friends on what to include/not include. Admittedly Atlas Shagged turned out okay visually, but finding an image is different from ordering one up.

A writer discussed the money side recently on Twitter. To get the income she needs, she has to go traditional, with more than one book a year. Spending money on cover images, marketing, etc. isn’t affordable. If it were, say, 10 years ago, I wouldn’t afford it either (this was back when Freedom Communications was getting real cheap with us employees). Even now, there’s a limit to how much I’m willing to spend on a cover. I’ve yet to spend any money on marketing. And it looks like changes at Amazon will reduce the royalties on CreateSpace paperbacks which doesn’t help.

Which is why while I’m self-publishing some stuff, I’m still going to submit Southern Discomfort to a trad publisher when it’s done. The same for The Impossible Takes a Little Longer (when I finish it) and for the nonfiction Space Invaders (assuming I do go ahead with it).  As I said back in March, the copy-editing and proofreading required for a major film book are more than I should take on myself. I’ve never finished a book that McFarland didn’t have to correct errors. I suppose I could hire someone, but that’s more outlay on my part.  Questionable Minds will probably be self-published as I think I’ve exhausted the publishing options.

Another factor, as countless indie authors have pointed out, is that what they’re doing is running a small business. Of course that’s true for every writer; every one of us, traditional or indie, is the sole proprietor of our own business. The indie end is just a lot more businessy. Being boss of myself is one thing, but dealing with (potentially) marketers, artists, editors, etc? To paraphrase John Rogers of TV’s The Librarians, lots of talented writers don’t have the skill-set to manage that kind of business, or the money to pay someone to do it. As the publisher of Falstaff Books put it, that’s why he started the company — he’s willing to take on those details and let writers get to writing.

This is a kind of rambling post as I don’t really have strong opinions yet. The stuff I’ve self-published has generated a little revenue, but nothing that makes me feel this is where I should put all my chips. So who knows? Not me, apparently.

We shall see if I figure it out.
#SFWApro. Book cover is mine, image is Sargent’s Atlas and the Hesperides.

 

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Filed under Atlas Shagged, Atoms for Peace, Nonfiction, Southern Discomfort, Writing

Vampire Diaries Screen Rant out

It includes couples that were good for the show like Jo/Alaric, above—

And Matt and Rebekah—

And those that weren’t, such as Silas/Amara, which massively and awkwardly complicated the mythos’ backstory—

And Stefan/Valerie, which added nothing to the show (I’d much sooner have seen them bring back his bestie, Lexi, and go on the run with her).

You can find the whole list here.

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One waitress works, another doesn’t: Idea vs. execution

My of-necessity delayed birthday gift from TYG was a trip to the musical WAITRESS at Durham’s performing arts center on May 6. We loved it. Later TYG streamed the Keri Russell/Nathan Filion 2007 movie that inspired it, and that rewatched as poorly as it did the first time I saw it (TYG didn’t care for it either). The concept and most of the plot is the same, but the execution is different, and the musical executes it better. Like Hodgson’s The Night World, it proves that execution is as important as concept.

The central character is a waitress, Jenna, stuck in an emotionally abusive (maybe physical — we never see anything but it feels like that), loveless marriage, pouring her repressed feeling out into her pies at the local diner. As the movie opens, Jenna discovers she’s pregnant, having lapsed and slept with her husband. She’s not happy to bring a baby into this relationship. Then it turns out her doctor just retired and now she’s stuck with Nathan Filion, a married out-of-town doctor who’s immediately smitten by her. Before long they’re having an affair. In other plotlines one waitress meets a rather stalkery guy online and marries him; the other, older waitress is knocking boots with the fry cook (they’re both married, but for various reasons, neither one is having sex). Finally Jenna ends her affair and walks out on Earl. Her wealthiest, crotchetiest customer (Andy Griffith) dies and leaves her the diner, so she’s able to start a new life on her own two feet.

As I said the first time, it’s a generic Quirky Southern Town film (TYG called it “typical indie chick flick”). The characters are not particularly likeable — everyone seems pissed and miserable — and they’re not very distinctive.

(The curtain from Waitress)

The musical does a much better job. First off, it’s a musical, and the singing and dancing are good. That automatically makes it more fun.

Second, the characters seem much more likable and much more distinctive. Dawn, the waitress who meets someone online, is just a shy, insecure young woman in the movie. In the play, she’s a history nerd who watches the History Channel all the time and has appeared as Betsy Ross 27 historical re-enactments. She also has a great song expressing her insecurity (“What if I like what I see/And he knows it?/What if I open a door/And can’t close it?”) which works better than anything in the show. Her persistent beau doesn’t come across as stalkery, and they’re a more believable couple (“The turtle and the elf — an epic love story!”).

In short it’s solid proof that execution is at least as important as concept.

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Life vs. Art Round Two: This week it’s a win-win!

A very busy week, but very productive. Wisely when I saw the IRL stuff I had to do, I asked if I could skip a Screen Rant (normally I do one a week) which freed me up to concentrate on other stuff. While I’ll be back on the job next week (a Vampire Diaries list), it really paid off for all the other stuff I do.

But first, the IRL. Tuesday, I had a dentist appointment. Nothing serious, just a regular checkup; my teeth are fine though they’re starting to edge toward gum disease again. If I’m not in better shape next time (I will try — gums actually respond to heavy cleaning) — it’ll be a round of scaling, where they clean all the way under the gumline. Not pleasant — it has to be done under anesthetic. I’d rather avoid it, so positive thoughts toward my gums are welcome.

Second, Tuesday I took my first Alexander technique class. My friend, drama teacher/director/actor Laley Lippard, recommended this school of movement training to help me with my voice-straining problems. I finally booked some time with a local teacher. I can’t really describe the training without making it sound dumb, but I think I see how it can help my voice (other things too, it’s a full-body technique). My teacher sent me home with some lessons to work on until I can find time for another class (July, after my Leaf work wraps up and I have more time in the week).

Third, we had three plumbing problems to deal with — clogged toilet, leaking tap, possible gunk leak from another toilet — so I had to deal with plumbers. It went well (though expensive of course): new tap, snaked toilet and the gunk, whatever it was, doesn’t appear to be a leak (yay! One less expense).

Despite which, I got a lot done on writing besides my Leaf pieces and submitting my list entries for the Vampire Diaries article:

The biggest is that I started work on the final draft — and it will be final — of Southern Discomfort. I wasn’t able to print it out at the library last weekend, so our rickety printer churned out the first 10,000 words at home instead. As usual for final drafts I read it aloud, made changes, entered them in the computer. My goal for this month was 10,000 and it’s now done — though I’m not stopping there. This is the part of the story I’ve gone over the most so it’s not surprising it went fast. If I keep going through May it’ll make up when I get to the later parts that need more work. Yay, me!

I made my thousand-words of fiction a day goal, and not just the Southern Discomfort stuff. I also finished rewriting No One Can Slay Her and about 2,000 words of Angels Hate This Man. I resolved the How’s He Doing It question that stumped me last week by deciding yes, Rev. Lennier really is freeing people from Hell. So far it’s working — we’ll see if it steers me to a satisfying end. I also got in a couple of thousand words on a new story, The Cheap Assassin.

I rewrote 4,000 words of Undead Sexist Cliches. Having a solid block of time to focus on it worked really well.

And I tackled a couple of paperwork tasks. I got a question about our state taxes resolved, and I went ahead and commissioned someone on Fiverr to draw up a cover for Atoms for Peace. It’s the first time I’ve commissioned anything along those lines. Wish me luck. And I submitted Schloss and the Switchblade to Allegory—more luck, please!

Getting all that done took a lot of evening work, which I normally dislike, but I’m very satisfied with the results.

Below, a Gervasio Gallardo cover to look at, just because it’s cool (don’t let the HPL name fool you, this was 90 percent Derleth).

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Nonfiction, Personal, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals

So today, Plushie sharted on me. The rest of the week was better.

I’m not sure how it happened. Suddenly Mr. Squirrel was up to something on the deck, Plushie jumped up while sitting in my lap and barked — and suddenly I had stains on my shirt and bits of pooh on my computer. ICK!!!!!! Possibly he just backed into me getting up and knocked off a pooh-stain, but it was as gross either way. I’m pleased I kept my cool about it, though I did have to order him off my lap, which had Plush dog staring at me puzzled. And then I washed myself thoroughly and disinfected the computer.

Due to my trip to Greenville, this was a short week. I didn’t get my Screen Rant article approved until Wednesday so I spent Tuesday working heavily on Leaf articles. I was frankly impressed I could get seven finished in a day without massive errors but I doubt I could keep up that pace regularly, even if I had the time. And finally today I finished my Screen Rant on recastings that saved shows and those that hurt them. This time all my photos came from Screen Rant’s library, so none to show here.

I rewrote a lot of No One Can Slay Her and started grappling with the problems on Angels Hate This Man. The big one is that the plot involves a right-wing minister who’s getting people out of hell for a price. If he’s scamming the people paying him, how’s he doing it? If he’s really getting souls out, how’s he doing it? I’ve been focusing more on the emotional drama and character arcs, so the How question largely flew by me. Now I need an answer.

And that’s pretty much it. And to make up for showing Plush Dog in a bad light, here’s a photo of him being adorable.

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