Friday, November 3, 2017

The Griffin and the Moon

Can't believe it's been August since I last posted, but then again, my stacks of stories and ever-lengthening novel is proof that I've neglected this page. If anyone's wondering, Front Stroke will continue once I have sufficient time to plan an film another episode.

Meanwhile, a harmless foray into my recent thrifting trip.

HA! Who knew those jokes were around even then?

The remaining pictures were taken from a different yearbook. The Summit, 1955.

Got these for 25¢ each. Yes, my car is that old, and I know there's a cassette player at my parent's house somewhere.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Typographical Mind

One of the best books I've read recently is Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. - Foreword.

Cover of my paperback
Written in 1985, the book was meant to be a scathing critique of the then-dominant TV culture. Sadly, Mr. Postman died of lung cancer in 2003, so we will never know his opinions on the internet. I've been unable to find any quotes attributed to him, but we can extrapolate his views by this quote from another book, Technopoly: [in a technopoly] the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.

From the same book: Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.

Anyway, back to Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The book was very easy to read and comprehend, so nobody should be afraid of picking it up, despite your education background. The chapters that fascinated me the most (besides the one on TV preachers) were chapters three and four, entitled Typographic America and The Typographical Mind. But first, a synopsis.

In the first chapter, Medium is Metaphor, Postman argues that " every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself." To illustrate this, he points out that eyeglasses, invented in the 12th Century, were the first tools man ever used to overcome the limitations of old age and natural wear-and-tear. With mediums of information, he postulates that every medium of communication contains inherent characteristics of what message will be sent, regardless of the actual words used.

There is a lot to take in when reading this book, such as the history of show business and how politics is now a form of entertainment. But the section I want to focus on in this post is about pre-electric America and when the decline of public discourse began.

According to Postman, the pre-electric American colonies were rife with books. Reading a book, after all, requires that one know how to read and already have some grasp of the subject at hand. The whole book must be read to fully understand the subject, or the author's position on said subject. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 were among the shorter sessions the two men had together (at only seven hours). And yet, as those two great statesmen argued their positions on the most terrible moral quandaries our nation has faced to date, ten years had already passed since four infamous words were transmitted by a means other than speech and paper:

What hath God wrought.

That's right. According to Postman, the telegraph was the beginning of the decline in our public discourse. Why?

Because the telegraph was the first time in history when information could be presented without any context. He quotes Henry David Thoreau, "We are so eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some few weeks nearer to the new, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

Postman continues to argue that once the newspapers were able to combine headlines from around the world with photographs, people no longer needed to read the entire paper to get a good feel for the subject matter. TV, he says, is news from nowhere directed at no one in particular, but it started a long time ago and was a gradual process. TV (and by extension, the internet) is only the end result.

In my opinion, this makes more than a little sense. Why do people claim the Bible is littered with contradictions? Because they compare select verses without reading anything before, after, or anything in between. Why do police officers have to wear body cams? Because the public wants access to the full context of every deadly encounter. Why are traditional news outlets considered shameless liars? Because they omit pieces of information that will undermine their case, i.e. "selective reporting."

Postman is not a Luddite, though he was accused of it many times. His cautionary work is meant to highlight how society is in danger if they allow themselves to be controlled by technology, but not that technology is inherently evil. Like Socrates allegedly said, all things in moderation.

In 1516, Thomas More coined a new word for a fictional island he had invented: utopia. It was constructed from two Greek words meaning "no-place," and in its original etymological use, refers to any society that does not exist. Only recently has it come to mean a veritable paradise.

Today, we have created a "no-place" parallel to our own society: cyberspace. Our entire legal system is shifting on the idea that what happens in this "no-place" can affect people in reality. People go to jail for sending the wrong text messages. Rants posted online are taken as serious threats. Some people will devote thousands of hours to a virtual world like World of Warcraft or Stardew Valley, and even have relationships that only exist online (even romantic ones). Traditional TV as I knew it in the 1990s has ceased to exist, and everything is powered by the Web. Every time I think I have a good idea for a fictional treatment of these issues I'm knocked down a peg or two because the topic is so overwhelming in its breadth and the far reach of its implications. This blog post is hardly doing it justice.

But I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's very timely and the arguments still hold true, despite being thirty years old. I had many thoughts after reading it, and will probably have to go through it again, but the one that kept coming back to me was...

The Typewriter Revolution must continue.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

An Important Lesson About Importance

Work is going to be unmercifully hard this month. While a novella rests with a trusted beta reader I've begun a new book, a children's fantasy, and all the while writing short stories. I'm also reading a lot, and ever so often I will read something that strikes me as a brilliant and important story. You know the ones I'm referring to, the ones that make it onto the Top Ten or Top 100 Best Of lists, maybe into English curriculums. For me, important works include Jurassic Park, which served as a cautionary tale against abusing the power of a force––genetics––that we had only begun to explore. Important works include I Am Legend, a novel that entertained what a difficult transition it would be for humanity to evolve into a new species. And of course, important stories like Brave New World which correctly predicted that, at least in America, amusement and thunderous applause is how liberty and free will would die. These are important stories because of the subject matter, narrative style, or a writer's unique perspective. Some might say that a story can be important simply because it made lots of money. One of my great failings as an artist is the desire to write "important" stories, ones that will make people stop and think differently about the world around them, about the future. I've been trying that for a long time with books like The Jolly Rogers, because isn't it obvious that any technology that could help us erase our memories would spark social disaster?

I wrote one story with that in mind, a science fiction piece called That Gentle Night It began as a 900 word flash fiction piece and then was expanded to 4000. Set in 2100, the story shows a grim future in which most people have never seen the stars except in pictures. Night time has effective been abolished, thanks to improved green energy and efficient lightbulbs. After being ravaged by a fungal plague, ultraviolet lights are used everywhere, even outside, to keep the public's fears at ease (this was based on my own memories of the anthrax scare of 2001). The street lights are so bright that people have to wear sunglasses at night (a nod to the Oz books). It addressed the fact that thousands of songbirds are killed every year because of unrestrained artificial light pollution that distorts their navigation and I extrapolated the idea that they might even become endangered. I gave a nod to Isaac Asimov's wonderful story Nightfall and had a quote from Arthur C. Clarke at the beginning to set the tone.

And most people on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio who read the story didn't get as excited as I had been. They didn't hate it, but neither did it have the desired effect, despite the average score being 7/10. I have yet to sell the story.

Then one day last week, on a complete whim, I recalled a passage from the Bible: Revelations 20:13 "...and the sea gave up her dead..." This turn of phrase is also used in the Anglican's Prayer. Reflecting on the countless myths that personify the ocean, I thought to myself, "What if the sea was a person who cared for all of the dead people that had drowned? What if God decides to end creation and she doesn't want to give them up?"

With nothing better to do, I dashed off a 2000 word story called Eventide. Despite writing by hand it took a few hours, probably the fastest I have ever written a complete piece except The Curse of Horace Jonah. Minimal editing, a few words added on the second draft, and I figured there wasn't anything to lose and put it online.

The response was overwhelming. 

In less than a week I've had five reviews and the score is holding at 9.2/10, the highest any of my stories and I've submitted twenty-three for workshopping since I joined in 2013. There were plenty of generous comments, praise, and congratulations. But the most important review came from a fellow user, a young woman who has led a very troubled life, whose writing is so graphic and raw I never thought she'd care for my work. Besides called it "exquisite" and "luscious," there was one part of her review that really hit me: 

I spent the night drinking and writing a difficult poem about my life, all of which depressed the hell out of me. But it's Taylor to the rescue. I'm happy again, now, and feeling up (Somehow!!!) for a very long run on this beautiful day.

How did this happen? How could something that required so little effort have such a strong impact?

I learned an important lesson in these first cool days of August: words have power, but not every word has power over everyone. 

One more reason why the key to writing is to write. There are a lot of words inside one's self.

Power to the pen, and may you always have the strength to wield it even on your worst days.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Fox and the Hound and a Whale Named Monstro

One of the members on ATC posted to FB that he was giving everyone permission to buy an affordable typewriter. There weren't any listed that I wanted...until this behemoth came up for sale.

I have a love/hate relationship with electric machines. On one hand, I like the fact that it keeps you away from the internet, but still lets you compose with blinding speed (if it's needed), and if you're using a good ribbon, quality print is almost guaranteed (perfect for folks with weak hands). Yet, you can't relax your fingers on the keyboard, lest you accidentally push too hard and make a mistake. I've only bought five in my history of collecting: A SCM wedge, a SCM Electra 210, a Selectric 71, and an Olympia daisywheel. If I had bought a new, refurbished Selectric, this Olivetti might not have appealed to me. But my Selectric doesn't work right, yet I bought it anyway because it's red. I was able to get most of the problems fixed with help from Vern, but it still bunches up letters on the left hand margin and sometimes it takes several minutes for the machine to get into gear so I can use it.

I was also lured by the measly $5 price tag. Then I read Steve K's post on the model here.

In a rural county awash with Royals, Remingtons, and Underwoods, it was nice to see something exotic and obscure float to the top, so after talking to the lady on Facebook, I decided to take the plunge. The lady was very kind and told me she only bought the machine at an estate sale because it came with a desk she really wanted. Nothing was said about the previous owners or what they might have used the typewriter for. As you can see, it came with a lot of extras.

Gotta love state pride!

Let's start with the obvious: the Lexikon 90 was one of many attempts to capitalize on the phenomenal success of IBM's Selectric line with its revolutionary "golf ball" print element. Earlier Olivetti electrics, like the Lexikon 82, brought this concept to a small, portable machine. The model 90's element is completely different, and it lays on its side. Looking at the little gem, I'm reminded of an egg for some reason. Mine is a 90C, since it features the correction ribbon. 

There are three differences between the Selectric and Lexikon 90 that I have observed after a casual typing session (and reading the booklet).

1) The Lexikon 90 has a traditional carriage that moves from left to right. This might annoy devoted IBM fans, but I'm not bothered. I actually prefer the traditional carriage, as it's easier on my eyes to follow what I'm typing. 

2) The Lexikon print element is much easier to change out that the Selectric ball. It doesn't use any plastic parts that can get broken. You just pull the little triangular tab to the left until it clicks and then lift straight up. Reverse to insert a new one. Mine is labeled 12 Cicero, but I'm not sure if that means 12 cpi or something else. Wouldn't mind having a second one if there are any around.

3) The biggest advantage of all: the Lexikon 90 can use fabric and carbon ribbons without any special modifications to the feed mechanism. The Selectric can't do this. You have to have one or the other, and a Selectric II ribbon won't work on a model III and etc.

Advantage #3 sounds good in theory, but reality isn't so simple. The Lexikon 90 was only produced from 1976-78, which means there is a definite shortage of supplies available on the second-hand market. I consider myself extremely lucky to have three unused ribbons and a good carbon ribbon already in the machine. You can find off-brand ribbons for this model on eBay for fairly cheap, but I couldn't find a single machine for sale. As far as I know, Steve K and myself are the only ones in the Typosphere who've blogged about it. Yet, since the machine will also use fabric ribbons, it might be possible to re-purpose the plastic cartridges one day and re-ink the fabric, should the need arise. 

Serial # El8-2409160. Approximate date of production: 1977-78.

And now one of Olivetti's famous ads featuring this very model.

(Seriously, did secretaries really get that excited about new equipment?)

When Janet refers to the stationary print element, listen carefully to what Betty says at 00:09--"Mine runs all over the place." Nice jab, Olivetti.

That's all I have to say for now, but I'll post more as I get familiar with it.

There's another fox I want to talk about, one I've been hunting for awhile.

Those who've read this blog for awhile know that Bambi is one of my all-time favorite novels. Since then, I've been looking at other authors who focused their stories in the natural world (Richard Adams, Beatrix Potter, Tad Williams, E.B. White, etc). Some of these are borderline fantasy while others are as close to the real critters as you can get. Mannix is one of the latter, known for meticulously researching his subjects (though his writing career covered all sorts of strange things). I stumbled upon a Reader's Digest volume with a condensed version of The Fox and the Hound. Unsatisfied, I was determined to find the real thing.

I was surprised how fast and how lucky I was. I snagged both of these books for a mere $75. The other first edition copies of TF&TH were going for at least $130. I haven't read either of them yet. Still working through Tailchaser's Song, but I have high hopes. Fine additions for the collection. They just don't put the same about of heart into a book's presentation anymore (unless it's a cult phenomenon best-seller that goes through a million reprints).

In writing news, I've just hit the 40,000 word peak in my science fiction novel. I'm seriously considering stopping where I am and taking a break. I've been so close to the material for so long that I'm beginning to lose perspective. Instead of staggering ahead through two more sections that I only have a vague idea of and whose importance to the story is questionable, I might need to step back and reassess it later. Most of what I wanted to say is now on paper, so it'd be a matter of finding what's missing and cutting what doesn't belong. I'm seriously considering expanding one of my short stories into a novel-length work for children. It's been getting a lot of praise from my critique group. 

Finally, Front Stroke will continue once I get settled into the new routine. We've hit the busy season and I've got a six-day work week coming up. My off days are never consistent from month to month (and sometimes week to week), so dedicating a day to film when I could be writing...well. You see the dilemma. 

Power to the pen!

Friday, April 21, 2017

The SM9 Who Got a Second Chance

This was my second ever typewriter purchase off of Facebook Marketplace. The pictures from the seller did not adequately convey the condition of the machine, and when I'd driven thirty minutes to meet him, I was a little uneasy. The machine was dirty, and carried upside down in the box. To make it worse, the guy (smoking, covered in tattoos, who showed up in the parking lot in a Chevy truck that looked one bad bump away from falling to pieces) kept going on about how it was passed on from his ex-girlfriend and he'd never had time to mess with it.

I almost didn't buy it. The carriage kept hitting the frame when released. The carriage stopped entirely if you typed past the halfway point. The clear tab button wasn't working at all, just hanging there limp. When he saw my hesitation he lowered his price to $15 and I took it, feeling a little sorry for him. After my debacle with the Lettera 22 I was very unsure of myself. Could I fix it?

As you can see, yes. I did.

The rail issue was caused by rubber grommets on the underside of the frame. One was missing, and one had a loose screw that cause the outer frame to wobble. The carriage rides straight now, even though the machine's a bit lopsided. The clear tab button only had a disconnected link. It looks good now, but still won't work right and actually clear the tabs. Funny, my $10 SM7 doesn't have a working tabulator at all, but this one does.

As you can see, it types just fine. The only other defect is that the ! key slug was cut off. Why? Who knows? Why are there gashes all over like someone took a knife to it?

The only question now is what to do with it. I can't fix the missing slug (though...a custom made slug with my initials or some other symbol would be nice...), and I don't particuarly need another SM9 when the other I have is just fine. Trade bait? Sell it? Still thinking about it. For now, I'm just glad I was able to fix it to the point it works reasonably well.

Sometimes the damage isn't as bad as you think.

Power to the pen.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lettera 22 Link Help!

Snagged a Lettera 22 off CL last week. The carriage wouldn't hold because the escapement was gummed up. Nothing a little PB Blaster couldn't fix.

But there's still one more major problem left that I've been unable to solve: the ribbon vibrator will not stay at rest, and therefore, I can't use the machine because the ribbon blocks my view of the text.

Compare the image from the Olivetti repair manual (courtesy of Mr. Munk) with the image of my machine's link #34. It's not the right shape, so it doesn't work correctly. The vibrator will stay in the elevated position as if I was pressing a key. The spring next to link #34 is keeping it under constant tension.

The link snapped when I tried to bend it back into the correct shape. I need a new one, so if you have a Lettera 22 parts machine please get in touch. I'll even pay for the stupid thing. I'm was so close to getting this back up and running properly.

Thanks in advance.

Monday, March 20, 2017

You Can't Make Art With A Checklist. Part 2

Last time we tackled the issue of "sensitivity readers" being hired to screen manuscripts for big publishing houses. It should raise valid concerns about censorship. As I've always said, you cannot make the kind of world-changing art people love with a checklist of dos and don'ts.  However, they aren't the only ones restricting artistic freedom.

Today, we look at the other side: the checklist of Christian fiction.

Before we get started, we have to define terms. What is Christian fiction? You could go all the way back to stories like The Divine Comedy and Pilgrim's Progress. To make this easier, we're going to stick with the modern publishing trend, which seems to have emerged around thirty to forty years ago. Sometimes a friend or relative will ask "Have you every considered writing Christian fiction?" Yes, I have, but it's fraught with the problems, in a similar vein as angelic fiction.

One topic that's been on my mind for some time is the legalization of gay marriage nation-wide. My generation was raised in a very black and white home. Sin (in all manifestations) is bad and you shouldn't do it. By the time I grew up and got into the world, the world had changed in such a way that I didn't know how to engage. I started meeting gay people online through common interests of writing and typewriter collecting. The question popped into my mind "How can one with absolute religious beliefs reconcile with the laws of the land where they live? How does one walk that line between Jesus' love and God's sense of justice and righteousness?" I believe it's a topic that demands a Steinbeckian treatment.

Maybe I'll write that book someday, maybe not. Still very unsure of myself. Regardless, I started looking into the Christian market to see if such a story might be received. What I found was a bit...disappointing. A lot of people had a lot to say about it.

This guy.

This gal.

This guy. 

This girl.

And even this girl.  

There were several others, but the consensus was the same: Christian fiction today just isn't good.

That puzzled me. How could an entire slice of fiction be that bad? Even if you apply Sturgeon's Law (the idea that 90% of everything/anything is subpar), there's got to be some good stuff out there, right?

I'll leave that one up to you, since we're dealing with censorship. The articles that I found the most helpful were "Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction" by Simon Morden and "Why Christians Can't Agree About Christian Fiction" by Mike Duran.

In his essay, Morden delves into the background of the biggest Christian publishers operating today and the aims of their work, namely to entertain and inspire whilst providing a safe alternative to secular fiction. All well and good. You can teach kids how to treat others with kindness by showing them Zootopia rather than Twelve Years a Slave. They aren't ready for the heavy stuff.

But that nobility starts to break down when you look at the submission criteria these companies allegedly use: the protagonist must be a Christian or become one by the end of the book, no cursing, no depictions of drinking, smoking, sex, drugs, and almost no violence.

Half of my library falls well outside of those guidelines. As Morden points out, such rules would easily disqualify most works of the best-known Christian writers of the past: Tolkien, Lewis, Tolstoy, Sayers, Dostoyevsky, and Chesterton.

And here's where we come to the defining break: the works of the above-mentioned were more Christian-inspired than overt vehicles for evangelizing that you see in bookstores today (despite the obvious moral messages in some of the former). And when you get to that point, you'll lose the reader.

John Steinbeck was one of America's greatest. His books dealt with very flawed people battling to retain their dignity whilst suffering inhumane conditions. Read about the Dust Bowl. Read about how cruel Americans were to each other. Under those circumstances, anyone's faith in a loving god would start to crack. In his novel East of Eden, two of the characters are discussing different translations of the Bible, specifically the story of Cain and Able. The Chinese manservant called Lee has found that the King James version records Genesis 4:7 "And if thou doest well, shalt not thou be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him." As Lee points out, this is and order. But the Hebrew word in this same verse is timshel, "thou mayest rule over him." Lee declares this "may be the most important word in the world." Man has the power to rule over sin, if he chooses. But as Faulkner said, the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Some people choose not to rule over sin.

Isn't that what the whole Christian faith is about? Making that choice to rule over our impulses? It's brilliant but also a sobering thought, one that fits well with the events of the novel. When Adam Trask finally confronts his ex-wife Cathy (who runs a sadistic brothel and has files to use as blackmail), she's struck by the realization that she cannot corrupt him like her clients.

I can tell you that East of Eden spoke to me as a believer in a very powerful way.

There's another powerful moment in Shogun by James Clavell, which is based on the true story of this guy. As the protagonist, an English Protestant, rises in power and favor with the Japanese, he is granted the status of hatamoto, or "land-owner." He carries the two swords of a samurai. He has life-or-death say over his subjects. Keep in mind, this guy lived around 1600 and is initially repulsed by the Japanese with their liberal attitude on sex. He has a maid, a female interpreter, and has slept with a professional, high-class courtesan (a favor from his lord, that lady was worth a small fortune). One night, as he contemplates his life, he admits: I love each one of them. But how can that be?

That's a great conflict!

So why can't those kinds of books succeed in a so-called Christian market?

Enter Mike Duran's essay. In "Why Christians Can't Agree About Christian Fiction" he outlines the battle: the holiness camp versus the honesty camp. The first group emphasizes the law that Christians are supposed to live by, which governs our conduct. The latter emphasizes the fact that we're flawed, fallen creatures who are always struggling with the command to "be in the world but not of the world."

The main issue seems to be what kind of content is acceptable and does the author sin by writing such things? That's outside the scope of this article, and I don't want to comment on the potential sinfulness of such without using the Bible.

So let's move on with the idea that, no, you can't be overt about it. How do you write meaningful stories with God at the heart? I have always believed that you cannot dissuade people from a life of sin unless you show them what sin looks like. There's a big difference between saying "don't fornicate" and showing what casual sex with multiple partners might lead to (besides the obvious STDs). There's a huge different between saying "don't drink" and showing what Charles Jackson did with The Lost Weekend (the protagonist ends up in an asylum after being arrested for theft to feed his addiction; one patient pees on himself and another is having violent hallucinations).

And there are some classic examples of how to do this in film.

It's a Wonderful Life. Story of a selfish man who berates his uncle for a clerical slip, walks out on his family, goes on a drinking binge, then contemplates suicide before an angel intervenes.

War Room. Story about a man who neglects his daughter, steals from his employer, and almost cheats on his wife with a younger woman.

Chariots of Fire. Story about a man who wants to serve God but is also tempted by the chance to gain worldly recognition as a champion runner.

These films do not shy away from the harsh reality that good people do bad things. The Bible is loaded with that kind of stuff! David was an adulterer. Abraham lied. Moses disobeyed. Eli failed to teach his sons. Esther was hesitant to act on behalf of her people until prodded by Mordecai.

Unfortunately, for every film like the ones above, we get the campy feel-good stuff like Facing the Giants and Flywheel which convey the message of "100% pure prayer! Works in five minutes, guaranteed!" I was saddened to hear critics saying the same things about The Shack. That one had potential, at least in the premise. How to grapple with the unsolved murder of your child is a great question.

I've met a lot of Christians, some who were so sheltered I felt pity. One young lady planned on heading to Egypt (pre-revolution) as soon as she got out of school to evangelize. Without speaking the language. Without a guide. By herself. I hope someone talked her out of it.

The recent controversy over Beauty and the Beast is another good example. It makes sense that there would be gay people in France at the time depicted in the film, just like it makes sense for them to show racial integration. Having seen the film...I still can't figure out which "gay moment" supposedly got everyone up in arms. If I hadn't been told otherwise, I wouldn't have suspected a thing. Way to go, people.

Why do I not write/read about Christians, for the most part? Because I'm interested in other kinds of people, and want to explore how people without my faith get through A, B, and C.

But these other believers want to be in the world without acknowledging anything about the world. Not only are they denying a fascinating aspect of the human experience (an understanding which Paul conveyed in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), they're also, it seems, reading a lot of boring books.

And that, dear reader, is why you just cannot make art with a checklist. You'll make a mediocre product that no one can relate to.

I hope this mini-series was enlightening and helpful. I enjoyed writing them.

Power to the pen.

And remember, thou mayest.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Just a Bit Shameless Marketing

When I moved to Ste. Genevieve in 2015, After Their Kind was the very first short story I wrote on my Olivetti 21 typewriter. Every fantasy magazine turned it down, some praising the writing but noting that anthropomorphic animal characters were too hard to sell.

I found the "Dogs of War" anthology contest by accident last year. It seemed like a perfect market. I needed money. Why not? I never expected a volume this good to come out! Just look at that cover art!

"Dogs of War" has twenty-three stories in it, and opens with a fantastic introduction by the editor about the history of humans using dogs (and other animals) in combat (from ancient times to the present). Each story also has a short intro which helps contextualize what you're about to read.

If you're interested, head over to this link here to pick up a copy! I've been in contact with the editor since it was published in January and he said the first batch sold out before the convention in SF was over (reason why it took so long to get mine).

It's kinda like Zootopia or The Jungle Book with guns and...other stuff.


Part 2 of "Making Art with Checklist" coming soon. Promise!

Monday, February 20, 2017

You Can't Make Art With a Checklist. Part 1

Like many many sermons I've heard, I'd like to segway into this with a good joke. 

With everyone busy attacking Steve Bannon for his remarks on the media, I'd like to direct your attention to this Chicago Tribune article that was published on 2-15. The piece mentions several high-profile authors, such as Joanne Rowling and Veronica Roth. But I'd like to quote someone else who had their own thoughts on this very issue.

"About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solumn Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology...But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book to include more women characters and roles? A few years later I got a certain amount of mail concerning the complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I 'do them over'?Then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks...I sent a play off to a university theatre a month ago. My play is based on the "Moby Dick" mythology, dedicated to Melville and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Space Comet and destroy the destroyer. The university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play, it had no women in it! 

The point is obvious. There is more that one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist/Zionist/Seventh-day-Adventist/Women's Lib/Republican/Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, and the duty to douse the kerosene and light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme."

My my, was this some poor mid-list author being kicked around? Was this a new guy just getting on his feet?


It was Ray Bradbury.

That's right. One of the most iconic writers in modern American history had the PC police after him years after he wrote Fahrenheit 451.

Above quote was taken from his essay, Coda, published in 1979. 

That's four years after Watergate, a scandal that was fought by daring reporters who knew there was something very wrong with the executive branch and risked a lot by speaking out. 

But people were already dissecting the text of Bradbury's work, the very novel that preached so vehemently against it.

He writes:

"Only six weeks ago I discovered that some cubby-hole editor at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students...wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony."

Think on that.

But the list goes on.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly chastised for its portrayal of people of color...even though the story features a white man fighting the system, trying to ensure a fair trial for an accused rapist...who happens to be black.

The Grapes of Wrath caused so much controversy that John Steinbeck had to leave the Salinas Valley and never lived there again. He was labeled a Communist, among other things, and copies were publicly burned.

The Color Purple (book and movie) was ripped to shreds because of how it portrayed black families.

And of course, Harry Potter has been banned in some schools because it "promotes witchcraft."

Here's the critical difference between the Tribune article and the above examples.

The other books were condemned after they came out by players independent of the publishing world.

But now, it seems, we're looking at the next logical step: prevention.

Here's a snippet from the Tribune piece. 

"This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her 'Truthwitch' series. 'I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage," Dennard said. But, she added, she felt the voice of the character was an important one that wasn't often portrayed, so she hired a fan, who is a transgender man, just to be sure she did it right."

Scared? No! It can't be! It's only their passion and their livelihood we're talking about. It's not like they had to work really hard to stand out among the millions of wannabe writers to get this far.

I digress.

Is this practice in and of itself wrong or unethical? 

No...but it presents a very thin line between constructive criticism and outright censorship.

Before the term "sensitivity readers" came about these people were known as something else: content editors

The last line of that quote, "just to be sure she did it right," seems counterintuitive to every bit of writing advice that I've ever heard.

Write what you know.

Write what you want.

Be true to yourself.

There's only one way I can see this working out. Stephen King is one of my top five favorite authors. He does a good job of showing why his characters behave the way they do, even the bad ones. In Cujo, Gary Pervier is a hard-drinking pig who lives in a dump of a house, and his response to just about every situation is "I don't give a s***!" Why? He was traumatized by his experiences fighting the Germans in WWII. A similar character appears in It: Henry Bowers' crazy dad who hates black people. He spent a lot of time in the Pacific theatre.

IF this is the intent of sensitivity readers, then they have the potential to do a lot of good. 

BUT I think it would behoove any and all publishers who are taking this initiative seriously to use strict guidelines when hiring these folks, and how they're to do their job. 

That's the optimist inside me. The pessimist has grave reservations about the whole thing.

Take a look:

"One reader for hire in Ireland's database is Dhonielle Clayton, a librarian and writer based in New York. Clayton reviews two manuscripts per month, going line by line to look at diction, dialogue and plot. Clayton says she analyzes the authenticity of the characters and scenes, then points writers to where they can do more research to improve their work.

Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. "Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they're supposed to be escapist and fun," she says. They're not supposed to be a place where readers "encounter harmful versions" and stereotypes of people like them."

Has it occurred to anyone that people cling to stereotypes for a reason, and by understanding why we might be able to better address the underlying problem of hatred? William T. Sherman famously said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." He said that because as a young boy in the West he witnessed just how cruel and ruthless the Natives could be when they went to war, and he was completely oblivious to the larger context that drove them to war. 

And while we're at it, why should I be considered an authority on white Christian men just because I'm a member of that group? I can only speak for myself. I've met a lot of people who are like me...and yet very different. I've met Christians who think it's completely ok to drink alcohol, smoke, curse, and pretty much anything else they cannot find an explicit "thou shalt not" verse to contradict them.

Freedom of speech/freedom of the press has been in a news a lot these days. Literature is a wonderful extension of that right.

There are books that are meant to entertain and comfort people.

But then there are other books that slap you in the face, spit in your eye, then laugh at your tears. And many of these books are now venerated as classics. 

They didn't shirk from reality, even though certain authors twist facts and people to show us how they see it.

And through that lens, many of us changed the way we think.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is credited (by a select few, albeit...) with starting a war that led to the abolition of slavery.

Native Son and Invisible Man showed an ignorant America the hard realities of Jim Crow.

Huckleberry Finn showed us that it is possible to coexist peacefully, no matter where you come from.

So why are we building a bureaucracy that could be used to scare people into not expressing their views of reality? Not sharing their ideas by which we could learn even more about ourselves?

Please, don't be this guy.

Is there a magical place where writers never have to fear telling it as they see it? Is there a paradise where good stories can thrive? Maybe outside the mainstream?

I wish there was such a place.

But, as we'll see next time, Christian fiction has its own share of problems.

Power to the pen, and pens for everyone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017