Over-worked

NOT meaning I have too much to do. The artistic kind of over-working, where something is touched up with a fine brush until it loses its brio.

I spent my vacation in a seaside town, which meant I got to visit lots of galleries of seaside art, both by amateurs and professionals, and what struck me most was the difference between over-worked art and confident art. Confident art identified the most important aspects of the image and put them on the canvas or paper with skilled, straightforward strokes, left to stand on their own. In over-worked art (like most of my own paintings) you can see where the artist went back and corrected, corrected and corrected again, usually with a too-fine brush.  Instead of a shape caught on paper, the painting becomes about the paper itself and those little tiny brushstrokes.

The same thing applies to writing, especially to characters – and most especially to protagonists, and most of all to female protagonists.

I just finished reading a book which I enjoyed a great deal, mainly for its brio. Its dangerous beasts moved so fast you could feel their speed as they slashed open their prey! Its villains struck before you could think, and the consequences were real and drastic. Its settings were blocked out just enough to show their beauty and difference, its secondary characters surprised me in delightful ways… but its female protagonist was over-worked, doubtless in the interest of making her likable.

Villains, dangers, settings and secondary characters are, you see, allowed to be what they are; but female protagonists must be Good and Likable. You can see the teeny tiny brush strokes all over them. Has she considered her own class and how it advantages her? Let’s have somebody give her a little lecture on it. Did she pay any attention to the plight of the servants? Let’s have her future self look back at her attitude with condemnation. Shouldn’t a good woman have tried to get to know the people in that village? Let’s add a subplot in which she realizes they would have benefited from doing so! Did she really kill things to study them? Yes, and her older self will explain why that’s acceptable. Is she sexually liberated? Let’s put in an aside about her prudish editors.

Little by little the woman’s shape is obscured by all this tinkering and improving and what could have been a fascinating character becomes a surface of little brushstrokes, where the author’s attempts to fix what probably never needed fixing are more noticeable than the original idea. So I end this novel not sure if I want to read the sequel, because I really don’t understand who the protagonist is or how she might grow and blossom.

If only she had been put down in broad, confident strokes, allowed to stand on her own and take whatever judgment the reader made!

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Seeing vs Reading

I bought sketchbook for my Kindle Fire, and all last summer I messed around with it. I can’t say I made much progress. This Xmas, though, I took the kindle to Texas with me and because the weather was lousy I had much time to sit around with it. I was not happy with my work, so I began googling other artists to figure out how they painted the same scenes with better results. I started copying the stuff I liked, and what a difference it made!

This is a copy of a Rockport Center for the Arts ad, which is itself a clipped version of a poster by Al Barnes.

This made me realize how much harder it is to apply the same approach to writing, and how time-intensive and laborious reading is compared to seeing. I can spend two days reading a novel and at the end decide there is nothing I want to take away from it so far as technique is concerned. Whereas if I go to a mid-sized gallery, I can pick out the three or four pictures I want to pay attention to in half an hour. And if all that attracts me is the horse in the background, it doesn’t take more than a minute to realize it – and I can spend my sketching time focused on that horse alone.

Other folks have pointed this out, for instance in discussions of why it’s harder for self-issued books to succeed than for self-issued songs. It’s the difference between a three-day investment of time and a three-minute investment.

When I was younger, I was delighted to have a pile of new books. I wanted to be pulled into their worlds. Have I changed, or have the kind of fantasy books out there changed? When I read books that are lauded for their world-building nowadays, I feel so tired. There are all these social structures and multiple universes and diplomatic conflicts and political situations. Where’s the wonder? Where’s the beauty? Where’s the just plain living? And where’s the one thing I want to take away from it — well, it may be that description on page 342, and I will never get that far.

More and more, I depend on the author’s voice and on what is in those first five pages to tell me whether I will find anything I want in a book. Which means that more and more, I find myself gravitating towards short fiction. Which may be a very good thing, since it appears that nowadays there is a lot of short fiction and nobody is reading most of it. Perhaps this will be the year in which I read short fiction from obscure and unpopular magazines, and become educated enough about it to have something to say.

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Shop talk, AARRGGHH!

I spent my entire life not caring about The New Republic, or The National Review, or whatever it was called. But now something or other has happened to it, and that’s upset a lot of journalists, and my feedly has been full of ponderous posts about it for a week. I know that journalists are a topic dear to the heart of journalists, but after deleting the twentieth article about TNR from news outlets that I really hoped would send me y’know, news, I enter a state of AARRGGHH!

It’s like when you want to take a picture of something outside, but your camera keeps focusing on the cat nose prints on the window.

Because I always overthink things and stretch them out to cover way too much of human experience, this has made me think about shop talk in general and how much it gets in the way of the thing it’s about. And I think this is one reason everything gets to feeling alike on the internet. The same internal shop-talk dynamic seems to surface no matter what the topic being discussed: romances, feminism, social justice, knitting. People are often more interested in ourselves being interested in the topic than we are in the topic. Whatever the view outside the window, we end up focused on the flyspecks.

Something that makes me love my day job is that by no stretch of the imagination can I make it all about me, or even about why I’m interested in it. Plus, of course, what’s outside the pathophysiology window will kill us all eventually. That puts flyspecks into perspective.

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Gained in Translation?

I can't find the source for this, but isn't it great?

Coming from a family of Danish immigrants, my mother had some European odds and ends associated with Christmas. Nothing elaborate – some ornaments of dwarves with chenille arms and legs, seated on alder cones and playing musical instruments; one of those balsa-wood whirligigs that ran on the heat from candles, spinning wooden angels around and around. But we only saw them at Christmas, and in between times I built these up into marvels in my mind. By the time the balsa-wood gizmo came out of the box, I expected it to have reindeer and holly boughs and little woodland creatures peeping between its vanes at every turn. But no; it was the same wooden angels with perfectly round heads, going in the same lackluster circles for the same few minutes that we remained interested.

vintage wooden christmas pyramid

You too can own this - it's waiting for you at Etsy.

I never learned, though. Fifty years later, I retain my belief that European=enchanted, and whenever I enter an import store at Christmastime I expect to be whirled up in a dream of deer and woods and starlight.

So I was a sucker for Krampus when I first encountered him in videos of an Austrian Christmas parade. Here, at last, was the irruption of wilderness, of woodland magic, into a domesticated santa-centered, primary-colored holiday. Here were the deer and pine trees at last, breaking through the balsa-wood angels. I hung all my longing for something that united nature and Christmas on the mysterious furred, horned figures.

Of course I bought Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus as soon as I could get my hands on it. And as soon as I did get my hands on it, it met my expectations. The cover image is delightful and this is a beautiful little book in weight and design and feel – World Weaver Press has done a fine production job.

The stories inside vary tremendously. There are stories about people who find themselves working for Krampus, gathering up children; people who find themselves gathered up by Krampus; people who fight back and either conquer Krampus or are conquered by him; even one chilling tale of someone who falls in love with Krampus. Some are modern horror and some old-fashioned folk tales, some extremely dark and some extremely pastel. Krampus is real in most of them, but not in all. Some have heartwarming morals and some have none. My favorites were the Victorian-styled A Visit by Lissa Sloan, which had a Dickensian feel to it and a satisfyingly wicked Krampus-victim, and Caren Gussoff’s Ring, Little Bell, Ring, which was the most thoughtful of the stories and gave me the most to mull over.

In general, though, these stories made me question my original enthusiasm for Krampus. There was very little of the irruption of woodland magic in them, and very much of Santa Claus’s enforcer, ‘an evil monster punishes bad people.’ Is that all there is to Krampus? My images of woodland magic, of nature pushing into and through our vision of Christmas and making it into something deeper, may be my very own creation – like the Christmas whirligig that existed only in my mind.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving them up, though. Perhaps I’ll just have to write the story I want to read — and a book that inspires people like me to imagine their own stories has, in its own way, broken through the surface of Christmas into something deeper.

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Mother Cats, Teachers, and Buzzwords on the Internet: a tortured analogy

cat on keyboard

If she could spell 'dudebro,' she'd have her own blog

Fredrik deBoer is on a righteous ranting roll this fall over the failings of the online left. In particular, its desire to sort the world into good and bad based on buzzwords and its deer-in-headlights bafflement when someone who is GOOD according to some buzzwords turns out to be BAD according to others, or when BAD people learn to use GOOD buzzwords.

I couldn’t agree with him more, but I have a slightly different take on buzzwords from being an educator and a cat owner. What if these buzzwords are training tools? What if Fredrik is observing not failings of the left as a whole, but of people who refuse to graduate from an intro class — kitten leftists?

Allow me to expand my analogy.

Ever owned a mother cat? Then you’ll remember this cat-call. Mrrrwrow!  Mrrrwrow! It starts outside, coming closer and closer to the cat-door. It’s a muffled, throaty sound, because her mouth is full. Sometimes the prey’s wriggling adds an extra warble to it.

“Oh listen,” a clueless visitor might say, “there’s a tomcat yowling!” But your heart sinks, because you know this sound. You can translate it. It means:

Look what I have for you, children! I’ve broken one of its legs for you, now you do the rest!

You know what will happen if you let her in. Fun for the kittens, torment for the prey, an eventual corpse under the bed unless you catch the poor thing yourself and put it out of its misery. Why, you ask yourself, do I give houseroom to these amoral predators? You get up and shut the cat-door or fetch the broom.

I haven’t had a mother cat for thirty years, but recently I developed flashbacks. I would be sitting reading the internet peacefully, and at the edge of my senses I would hear that sound. I would open twitter, and within ten tweets I would be asking myself Why do I give houseroom to these amoral predators?

It first happened when I was reading a conservative blog and the host began to repeatedly mention ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ and ‘Stuff White People Like.’  These buzzwords were cues to us, I realized. We didn’t have to be fair to anything tagged with these terms.

Look, children! I’ve broken its back for you! Bite it, bite it!

In progressive circles, the terms ‘problematic,’ ‘privileged,’  and ‘dudebro’ often serve the same purpose.

This is prey, children! That’s right, pull off its wing!

– and in jump the commenters and retweeters, like so many month-old kittens around a wounded bird.

The thing is, though, buzzwords are inextricable from learning. A student’s presented with a complicated problem; which parts of it are relevant? Can those be used as cues to identify similar problems? There they are — buzzwords, whether you meant to present them or not. You’re lucky if the buzzword the student takes away from your case study is ‘aortic stenosis’ and not ‘forty-five-year-old.’

Teachers should be in the business of helping students to see below these surface features, but there’s always the temptation to simplify our lives by using buzzwords on purpose. My buzzword when I started was ‘Doctor Bob.’ He was the person in my case studies who put in heart valves upside down, or mixed up vasoconstriction and vasodilation. When my students saw a problem with ‘Dr. Bob’ in it, they knew that this was something they should evaluate critically – as opposed to most of the stuff I tell them, which they should write down and memorize.

Here you go, children, I’ve broken his leg for you!

But what were my students learning to associate with critical evaluation? The ‘Doctor’ part? The ‘Bob’ part? Was I training them to substitute buzzword-prompted suspicion for habitual, routine analysis? There’s a reason that ‘sophomoric’ is an insult, and we teachers are partly to blame for it.

Nowadays I have a lot more fictional characters in my classes. Doctor Bob is still there in one question, but the rest contain patients and nursing students, experienced nurses and aides and med students. The people correcting them in my case-study scenarios, or suggesting the sensible treatment, also vary. Eventually, I hope, my students will take the same attitude of careful evaluation to all of them — even me.

I hope they will be just as careful in other interactions, and not let buzzwords substitute for analysis, data, and making up their own minds. In fact, I hope they develop their own alarm bells to warn them when prey is being pointed out — when they’re being invited to act like a mess of month-old kittens instead of independent, thinking adults.

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Authors Behaving Badly

Seriously? An author traveling to another country to track down a reviewer who panned him, and attacking her in a grocery store? An author stalking a negative reviewer, going to her house and looking into her car?

This is bat-shit. Authors need to speak up and say to each other, “GET A GD GRIP!” If bad reviews make you crazy, don’t read them. And yes, I realize that leaves reviewers in the power seat. Much as I hate the fact, once a book is published the people who buy it are in the power seat. All the author can do is turn their eyes away and start working on the next book.

But really, either you’re selling books or you aren’t. If you’re selling them, a negative review will not change that. If you aren’t, a negative review will not change that either. Or it might; after someone blew her top about one of my books I complained to my neighbor, who was so curious to see what kind of atrocity I’d produced that she bought the book.

We all know the best response to negative reviewers is no response. When authors make reviewers afraid to post their opinions, we all lose. How are any of our books going to become known except through reviewers?

Meanwhile, how can the community of authors make it more forcefully clear that we don’t view this as acceptable, without giving the perps the bad publicity they apparently seek? SFWA maintains a ‘preditors and editors’ list. I wonder if anyone maintains a ‘violent authors’ list, or if it’s time to start one. I hate the thought that someone might decide to not even look at my book because some jerk I never even met attacked somebody else in another country.

There used to be ‘certified harmless hitchhiker’ signs. Maybe we need to bring them back for authors.

image by Robyn Shaw, Spring Valley Labs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit#mediaviewer/File:Whiterabbit86-300.jpg

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A New Story!

My creation myth ‘Great Light’s Daughters’ is in the Third Flatiron Press’s “Abbreviated Epics” anthology. Go forth and read!

It can be purchased at
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/478247

and Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NRA6A2W

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A Rant About Followers

Someone reposted a few paragraphs from Quinae Moongazer’s very excellent essay on toxicity and abuse in online communities. They just happened to be paragraphs about the backlog of unpublished blog posts she had written:

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

This was written in January when the debate over internet toxicity was going strong in online feminism. Moongazer’s blog post hit home with lots of people, not just because it’s so well written but because most of us who have opinions about online feminist issues have a pile of blog articles we don’t dare put on line – not because we’re afraid of individual bullies, but because we think the online feminist community as a whole stands with the bullies who claim to speak for it.

Every now and then a bully apologizes. But do we ever see that bully’s followers apologize? Do we ever see them acknowledge that a bully only really matters when enough people follow him or her to reshape the community? I don’t mean to give bullies a pass here. What I’m tired of is seeing followers give themselves free passes.

I belonged to an online community once that included lots of very established, powerful people in the field, lots of mid-level and new people, and one toxic bully. Whenever the bully hassled lower-status people, the established people made excuses for him. From their point of view, he was harmless; even amusing. Why were the rest of us overreacting? Why couldn’t we see the good in him, and ignore the toxicity? Why were we so focused on his tone, when he was making so many good points? It wasn’t until a visitor blew her top and said she’d never join an organization with such a toxic atmosphere that the folks in power recognized they had a problem.

Whenever accusations of toxicity start flying, people give themselves credit for not being actual bullies. Whoop-de-f**ing-doo. Being followers — supporting a bully because you’re big enough to ignore somebody’s tone, or because the content’s really what matters, or because it’s fun, or because you don’t want to be a killjoy, or because you enjoy being part of the in-group, or because they’ve been right other times — that’s worse. When you find yourself saying:

Yeah, s/he’s stepping over the line, but some of his/her points are important…

or

It’s abusive, but it’s funny as hell…

or

That was over the top, but so well-written…

or

That’s just the way s/he is, don’t take it seriously…

Then it’s time for you to ask what your responsibility is for the community as a whole. Because it’s that kind of complacent amusement or dispassionate approval that’s reshaping the community, far more than the bully is. And that amused, unthreatened commenter/retweeter/reposter/reinforcer is the person who will never, ever, take responsibility or apologize.

Update: I’ve never been so glad to be proved wrong — behold a bully’s follower – and a true gentleman – apologizing! Every now and then I read something that reminds me why it’s worth poking around on the internet, and I feel better about humankind in general. Thank you, Inverarity!

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Let’s Outsource Breathing While We’re At It

Here’s the most irritating quote I’ve seen this year.

“Do not publish any author who does not understand or is disinclined to co-operate with the notion that they are your most important salesperson, no matter how important what they have to say might be.”

I won’t say who said that or who sent it to me without a trace of irony, in the interests of protecting the guilty. Nor will I say who sent me a contract including the boilerplate phrase “the publisher will do no marketing beyond maintaining a web page,” or something of the like (I’m not looking it up, it would only make me cross). But it made me think about marketing and the author’s role in it from a new perspective — its importance for the publisher.

I’m a crappy marketer, but at least I’ve made a good-faith effort — website, blog, twitter, Facebook. I’ve sent out over a hundred requests for reviews, which netted about 3 actual reviews, and I gave Ms. Mentor at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. no peace whenever she sent out a call for academic fiction recommendations. I’ve done blog interviews, sent elegant promotional bookmarks to all sorts of conventions, and dramatically inclined friends have given readings from my works at others. I haven’t yet taken advantage of my publisher’s new site for posting reviews, but that’s about the only base I haven’t touched.

And you know what? I make more money off the reissued novellas that I haven’t promoted at all, which tells you about how much my marketing skills are worth. Thank god I have a day job paying the rent.

But this post isn’t about me — as I began, it’s about how that quote made me think about the significance of marketing for a publisher. I’m not an expert on publishers, but I doubt that many of them have day jobs paying the rent. If my books don’t sell my ego is hurt, but if a publisher’s books don’t sell he or she goes out of business.

So here you are, the publisher. Your livelihood depends on selling a product. Marketing, and marketing alone, makes the difference between your financial survival and demise. What will you do?

Why, you’ll ask a bunch of untrained authors to do it for you in their spare time, motivated by nothing more than ambition and vanity.

Ambition and vanity are wonderful things, but if my livelihood depended on my books selling I would hire a bygod marketing professional.

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Examples

I was thinking about feminism in the shower this morning. Specifically, I was thinking about the recent videotaped chat between bel hooks and Gloria Steinem, and how it provided a great example of friendship between feminists. But because feminism’s main strength, in my eyes, is the way it encourages us to question things we’d taken for granted, I began to question the most taken-for-granted concept in my own thought, the idea of an example.

checkerboard with checkers

"international draughts" from wikipedia

The MOOC I’m taking  (An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching) has reminded me both of the importance of examples and their drawbacks — that students often find it hard to pick out the important factors in an example. Is the real issue that the man had chest trauma, or that he was 68 years old and a smoker? Is the salient factor in the problem the inclined plane, or the fact that the block has come to rest at the foot of it?

So when I watch bel hooks and Gloria Steinem, am I seeing an example of friendship between feminists, or of women of a certain age? When I try to apply the analysis of examples I gain from science teaching to friendship between real people, its flaws become immediately evident. It depends on taking people as representatives of groups, rather than the unique individuals with whom we become friends.

Yet we are always making examples out of individuals, aren’t we? “That’s how men are,” we say, and Joe or Bob has turned into an example. “My student tried to solve it using this equation;” and student Sally or Jesse is now an example of a particular kind of success or error. The very concept of explanation seems to reward us for flattening the world into examples. I feel my students have explained patient X when they have shown me how his signs and symptoms are examples of hemolytic anemia, the larger concept that I’m trying to teach them.

It’s a constant temptation for those of us involved with specific concepts to treat human beings as mere examples of those concepts. But it must, I think, be constantly resisted. That way lies the doctor who is treating “the pancreas in room 5.” Or worse, the person in authority who decides that Elizabeth or Jose or Latisha must be “made an example of.” Flattening is a lovely verb for it, I think. A three-dimensional person must be flattened to turn them into a two-dimensional example. A person is right to resist and resent the process.

People asked bel hooks and Gloria Steinem a lot of questions after their conversation. And looking back, in many of them I see the tension between treating people as individuals or as examples. There was the young woman who wanted to know about calling-out, and the young man whose attempts to give up chivalry were upsetting his girlfriend. There were a few people distressed by feminism’s image as man-hating. There was a fellow who knew he didn’t have a right to ‘mansplain’ in feminist circles, but wasn’t certain what he then had to contribute. All these people felt the examples drawn from feminism were useful, but seemed to have found something wrong in the flattening process. (Or am I just making them examples of what interests me at the moment? Of course I am.)

How can you have a political movement made up of three-dimensional people? Aren’t they just too hard to move around the board? Or maybe three-dimensional people can make some different moves. Maybe they can reach right across battle lines and clasp hands, up there in the space above all our examples.

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