Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Flash - Variations on a Theme

Last week the good folk at the writing support/guidance/social networking group Literary+ (to be found on the Google + Social network site) ran a weekly Flash assignment: writers' addictions. The request was specifically for lighthearted, fun things; notebooks, pens, and chocolate rather than heroin, whisky, or illicit sex. Black as my soul is, I'd perhaps preferred a touch of darkness but chose to, for once, play more-or-less by the rules. I played a bit with mood and form, sketching a writer's addiction to writing in second-person present tense. Not my deepest or most interesting flash piece, but I liked the first paragraph. Perhaps it's a set of ideas I'll revisit at some point in more depth.

I played this one pretty straight, but I appear to have one of the higher quirkiness levels in this particular group. For the workspace photo contest, for example, most people showed cozy desks littered with pens, ink, pulp, and electronic devices. My photo (honorably mentioned as the most creative)? The very place where I'm writing these words: the 7 Train, westbound towards Manhattan. (Photo is at the Queensborough Plaza station. One stop east of "my" stop at Court Square, but sometimes I hop off early to get in a few blocks of walking).

Your Two Addictions to Writing

You awaken before dawn, to the LCD light of the alarm clock, yellow sodium light filtered through carelessly half-closed curtains, rhythmic breathing from the bed beside you. Take the pen from your notebook, quietly stride in the half-light to the door, gently pull shut behind you. Black coffee. The cat rubbing against your feet. Shards of last nights tangled with yesterday's plans jangle in your head, grinding, streaking, screaming at you. A sip of bitter black coffee quickens your heartbeat as your fingers dance across the keyboard, words and pictures and ideas flowing as the dawn comes, unseen and unnoticed.

You race home early, to the mailbox. Sounds of traffic, your neighbor's dog, the kids across the street all fade very far away. Your breath, your heart pause as fingers rifle through envelopes, for that one SASE even as you flip open on your phone one more time, checking for another review, a blog comment, cheers, applause, attacks. What did they say? Did anyone get it? Will they buy it? Then, to the keyboard, unpaid bills and advertisements and magazines sit discarded and forgotten for the moment. Now will come answers, now will come replies and, maybe, the next piece to send off into the world.

Which are you? Addicted to process, to the flow of words, the alchemy of ideas and experience and coffee and good gin? Or to the result - to human contact, to the feeling of reaching someone, touching someone, changing the world?

Addicted to writing, or addicted to having written?

Interestingly,  Tressa Green mined a similar vein, but relied more heavily on metahphor. You can see her effort (and check out the rest of her blog) here. My first paragraph has almost the same message as her piece, but in vastly different form to dramatically different effect. Does one work better for you?

Next week, I promise a technology post! Until then, thanks for listening. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Slight Change in Aethetics - Guest Post!

I'll be stepping away for the day to give writer Len Berry the reigns of the blog for one day only. Len is the author of the recently published Vitamin F, available for your Amazon Kindle or Nook

A Slight Change In Aesthetics

Writing is not always the simplest art form, especially when you do something that goes against the expectations of most readers.

I had to break a lot of those expectations with my dystopian novel, Vitamin F. This wasn’t because I was trying to be experimental, but because the setting demanded it. In Vitamin F, after a genetic crash, the population has become 88% female. Because of that, most people walking around are female, the world has shifted to a female mindset.

We don’t live in this sort of world, so I had to figure out how to show the differences between Vitamin F and modern society.

The first step is to look at the people in the world. Where a crowd typically means a random mix of people to us, in Vitamin F, it means something more specific. Half of the people in a crowd can’t be men, in fact, if men are around at all, they’re in small numbers.

It goes further than that.

Any time stock people go by—cops, guards, students—most, if not all of them are women. Our minds, shaped by society, don’t see specific groups as being a mix of men and women. We instinctively assign masculine gender roles onto doctors, firefighters, soldiers, virtually every group. True, we might use gender-neutral labels or even feminine labels, but, in our male-centric society, we default to seeing men in basic roles. It’s only when we describe things with greater detail, do we break from these molds.

For this to work, I had to take extra steps. Sometimes describing the shape of a single person would be enough, so long as I related that body shape to the others in the group as well. Other times, I used dialog to have the characters in a scene define gender for me.

After all, why do extra work when you can get characters to do it for you?

Something else I had to address was the sorts of events that happened in social settings. I could still use trips to bars, but I thought most aggressive sports felt like they’d be too much. Action movies seemed like something that wouldn’t necessarily go away, but would need to change into a more emotional experience. I kept poetry readings, but, since I don’t care for most poetry, my lead characters share my disdain.

I found myself changing things so they might continue on. Some things were little, like referring to Tarzan as a woman, not a man. (There was still a Jane.) Especially since I take the lead characters, Bridgett and Penelope, on a trip through normal life, I made use of a sorority they both deal with. I framed the sorority from a lot of my dealings with college friends who were in those groups, but also from what I know about fraternities. Changing things to adapt to a different proportion for each gender became a small, but important task for selling the reality of Vitamin F.

The biggest shift I had to make to accommodate the story resulted in using one word in place of another. Most of the time, we talk about men and women in modern society. In Vitamin F, men are rare, a commodity, and socially second class. Because of this, I use the word “male” a lot more than I would in normal conversation.

In a way, this change is used by the Office of Genetic Security to make sure men are separate from women, not only distinct, but also not equal. While men are part of regular society, they have to undertake regular physical exams and make an annual sperm donation. It’s the sort of little word shift that Orwell talked about in 1984, so I thought it best to apply it in Vitamin F as well.

In crafting a story, it’s important to keep in mind the complete structure of the setting and the characters. The more unusual and distinct the world, the more it will require description and deliberation on how to approach even the smallest of elements. It doesn’t just paint a more vivid word picture, it also details the story and the plight of the characters trapped in its pages.


Len Berry a lifelong resident of Missouri studied biology before turning his imagination toward writing. In his spare time, Len enjoys drawing, watching anime, and playing an occasional video game. He is the author of the dystopian e-book Vitamin F, now available for Nook and Kindle. Since Len is an active blogger, you can find out more about him and his projects at his blog, Reflections of a Writer.

Thank you Len! I appreciate the perspective, and urge all of you to check out Len's blog and his book. His blog tour will continue tomorrow, and I'll take the reigns back for a Friday Flash and some other upcoming posts.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Political Correctness, Body Shaming, and Breakfast Food

I'll follow up my last AV-ish related post with a writing-ish related post. This week I'll give my take on one of those discussions I can't believe we still need to have: the crazed furor of what I call the "anti-PC police" with their odd insistence that any efforts to avoid offensive and harmful language is the first step on the slippery slope to an Orwellian dystopia.

What does my breakfast have to do with this post?
Read on!
One of the latest forays into free-speech absolutism came from a freelance game-writer and blogger named James Desborough with a post charmingly titled "In Defense of Rape as a Storytelling Device". Now, let me say right of the bat that Mr. Desborough is not a sociopath; he was not defending the act of rape but arguing, for reasons which I don't comprehend, against the idea that careful consideration should be taken  in fictional portrayals of rape and sexual assault. Part of his defense was the same thing I often hear from those who I think of as the anti-PC police; it's a free country, and he has freedom of speech. This is, of course true. The counterargument, of course, is that sexual assault victims have the right to not be re-traumatized by halfwits using rape imagery as a cheap way of creating dramatic tension. (As an aside, it's also true that an inflammatory title is a good way to get attention, but only if your first-grade teacher neglected to teach you the difference between good attention and bad attention).

How far will people go with this kind of thing? As far as we'll let them. At a recent comedy show, professional comedian and amateur knuckle-dragging semi-evolved ape-creature Daniel Tosh joked about how funny it would be if a female audience member were gang-raped right there at his show for saying that rape jokes aren't funny. But hey - he has free speech, right? Need we really be such free-speech absolutists to not think there should be a consequence for someone opining that a woman should be raped because it would be funny? There have been plenty of missing-the-point defenses of Tosh, including this one here, which references George Carlin. The difference is that Carlin knew what Tosh seems to either not know or not care about; that comedy, like all other artistic expression, can communicate deeper messages than making people laugh. He used comedy to attack rape culture; Tosh used comedy to normalize it.

In fact, all of the arguments in favor of so-called "political correctness" follow a similar formula;

  • Using "gay" as  a pejorative accustoms people to thinking of homosexuals as inferior
  • Using "retarded" to mean stupid marginalizes the developmentally delayed and perpetuates the stereotype that they can't be productive members of society.
  • Using "girly" to denigrate a man (as when baseball player Vincente Padilla recently told former teammate Mark Teixera that he should play a woman's sport) reinforces gender stereotypes of  both men and women, with men as unemotional, tough and stoic and women nurturing and gentle but weak. It tells every boy that he shouldn't display emotions and tells every girl that she shouldn't be strong and competitive.

The above, of course, are blatant, obvious examples of poorly-chosen words being hurtful. What about more subtle ones? There are scores to choose from, but today we'll take on an issue close to my heart in female body images. As fellow blogger Katje Van Loon recently pointed out, all of Disney's "princesses" are skinny. In fact, the Sea-Witch Ursula is the only overweight female character I can think of in any of Disney's stories (Van Loon has a tangential point that plus-sized women don't get to be glamorous; you should read her post after you finish mine). Recent endeavors have been better, but many of the "classics" (Cinderella, to pick the most blatant example) use physical attractiveness as shorthand for virtue and physical ugliness for evil. Does the fact that the titular character is beautiful as well as good while her antagonists are ugly subtly steer girls towards tying their sense of self-worth to their appearance? Of course it can. It also leads boys to learn that joking about ugly people is OK.
Which one here is the virtuous one? You can tell by her cute nose!

Which brings me to my last example of the day: The Oatmeal (you didn't really think I was talking about breakfast food, did you?In addition to being part of a nice breakfast, The Oatmeal is a reliably funny online comic strip. When creator Matthew Inman was faced with a spurious legal attack, he responded with this charity fundraiser. Inman deserves all the credit in the world for defending himself in a way that was funny and ended up giving over two hundred thousand dollars to charity, but check out that last bit: the "drawing of your mother seducing a Kodiak bear". 

Not only is a "your mother" joke one of the lowest forms of humor, but drawing her as an unattractive, overweight woman trying to be sexy strikes me as the same kind of "lets ridicule the fat woman" as this classic from adultery-oriented personal ad site Ashley Madison: it's the idea that a "fat" woman trying to be sexy is absurd and should be laughed at. Never mind that a growing proportion of the population actually is overweight and some of them presumably want an active, enjoyable sex life. Let's all laugh at the fat girl who thinks she's sexy. Only skinny girls get to be sexy! We see the wrongness when it's part of a message we're already primed to disagree with (you should cheat on your wife), but should recognize that packaging it with a "good" message (philanthropy > douchebaggery, to use Inman's phrasing) is, if anything, even worse as it normalizes the message of fat-shaming.

"Political Correctness" is not  a set of shackles. It's the idea that we should be cognizant of the messages we are sending and stop sending bad ones.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer Projects

It's been a quiet few weeks here on the blog, mainly because it's been a loud few weeks in real life. Some news on what's to follow:

1) Flash Fiction Fridays - each Friday I'll post a short or super-short here, in this very space. Some might follow a theme, some might stand alone.

2) Technology/AV  - I've finished all of the training requirements for my new Project Engineer position. Hooray! Expect another AV post next week, and bi-weekly from there.

3) Literary+ -- this is a group of writers on the Google+ social network. They share encouragement, writing tips, cross-promotion of work, and even little projects and excersizes. I'll be participating in a serial with them, and will likely write something for an upcoming anthology (theme: The Stranger. I already have an idea or two).

3a) Literary+ Serial. Smoke and Shadows. Start following now. I promise I'll be along soon!

4) Blog-hop collaborative story - Remember Riley's story, co-written with Carrie K Sorenstein, Nicole Pyle? We're starting another one, this time with additional participants. First part is already upon Carrie's blog  here. I'll keep you posted.

There's also going to be at least one special guest poster here this summer! Stay tuned.

Summer Collaboration Challenge!
My more personal summer project isn't going to be on the blog; Chloe and I are working on a shared story together. They've just been learning to write stories in kindergarten, and I wand to give her the chance to practice over the summer so first grade won't be a complete "starting over". Her big passion at the moment is drawing, while mine is writing. So, to step each of us out of our comfort zones, I promised to illustrate each of my pages if she'll write a line on each of hers. The story so far - about a princess and her friend the dragon, is starting to take on a kind of meandering charm. Last night at bedtime when I asked her to name one thing about herself that makes her proud, she said that she's creative. Hopefully we can nurture that feeling.

Tomorrow I'll be back with a post about language, feminism, and breakfast food.

See you then.