Saturday, March 30, 2013

Monsters under the Bedroom

I watched Jurassic Park III last night.  My son had never seen it, and though it's the worst of the three, we happen to have the entire trilogy on blu-ray, so what the heck.  It's short, fast, and relatively convincing dinosaur-wise, so it wasn't a bad way to spend a Friday evening.

It's also, however, evidence of Hollywood's fascination with reasserting male power and prerogative, particularly in the family circle.  I commented on this in an earlier post on Oz, the Great and Powerful; I comment on the same phenomenon at length in my analysis of the first Jurassic Park in my book Framing Monsters.  It's one of the recurrent themes in Hollywood fantasy film (and, for all I know, in other genres; I don't watch much else).  As such, it's worth discussing.

On the surface, Jurassic Park III is about two things only: dinosaur attacks and cool special effects.  (That's really one thing, I know.)  But look a little closer, and you'll see it's also about a broken family that has fallen apart because, as the movie sees it, husband and wife have been playing the wrong roles.  She's the aggressor, the sexual predator; he's the wimp, the milquetoast.  They've been divorced for a year when the film's action starts, and we have every reason to believe she's the primary motivator of the marriage's breakup: her son is para-sailing with her new boyfriend when the two catastrophically crash on the island of the dinosaurs, an event that sets the whole rest of the plot in motion.  She's reckless, thoughtless, careless: according to her own report, she totaled three family vehicles during the time she was married.  In other words, she's a homewrecker--or, in the fantasy terms of the film, she's a monster.  Thus, though it makes no story sense that the female velociraptors would identify her as the one who's stolen their eggs--we the viewers see that she had nothing to do with the theft--it makes perfect thematic sense: this woman who has failed as a mother and nurturer, who has pursued sexual activity outside the sanctioned bounds of the family, must be humbled by the film's true monsters and, relinquishing the eggs that don't belong to her, return to her proper role within the family unit.

But monstrous women, the film also insists, only exist where weak men allow them to.  Thus the husband must be represented as his wife's polar opposite: prissily careful, incapable, anything but the strong, heroic male figure of Hollywood legend.  He owns a bathroom fixture store, which connects him to the home in a subordinate, "female" role: in Hollywood, it's women who make the toilets sparkle.  He gets his clock cleaned by paleontologist Alan Grant--no impressive male specimen himself, though in the first Jurassic Park he does claim the father's scepter by helping two abandoned children find their way across dinosaur-infested territory.  (Interestingly, in the end Dr. Grant chooses the study of raptors over the charms of his female companion, so that by the time we see him in JP III, he's a childless bachelor, "the last of his breed.")  It's only when the husband begins acting in a more appropriately macho way--lighting fires, operating heavy machinery, saving his wife and child from dinosaurs--that he recovers his lost family: in a completely nonsensical scene, the woman who divorced him a year previously screams hysterically, "You can't leave me!" when she believes he's died defending her from a dino attack.  Perhaps the most interesting moment in the film occurs when the father smiles in grim satisfaction at his son's rejection of his mother's coddling: in the film's terms, the son too has become a MAN, someone who keeps a firm hand over women rather than submitting to them.

I've wondered for many years why Hollywood seems so obsessed with telling such stories, but perhaps the answer is simple.  Along with the corporate boardroom and the political arena, Hollywood remains one of our culture's bastions of traditional male authority: it's a place where almost all the important decisions are made by men, while women meekly obey.  Yet that kind of power never comes without anxiety that someone--Barbra Streisand, the feminists, NOW--might strip it away.  So the film industry neurotically imagines the opposition in the form of female monsters, only to restore male power in the end.

It makes for some interesting analytical moments.  But it also makes for a lot of films that really bite.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Query Me This

I'm hosting a publication workshop later this week in Pittsburgh (feel free to come if you're in town), and one of the things I'll be talking about is writing an effective query letter.  I don't know if I'm the world's greatest authority on this, but I did write a letter that got a fair number of agents interested enough to ask for the full manuscript, so I thought I'd offer my two cents.

The first thing I discovered about writing a query letter is that, like the manuscript itself, it's very much a work in progress.  You can (and should) revise, refine, and even completely rework it as you go along, based on the responses it's getting.  This is one reason it's important not to query every agent in the world at once; if you send 100 queries with a letter that's not working, you're left with nowhere else to go.

My first-version query letter, for example, went out to roughly 10 agents, and generated exactly zero interest.  It was the first query letter I'd ever written, and not surprisingly, it wasn't my best.  Looking back at it, I realize it was too formal and formulaic; it didn't sound as if I was excited about my book, so why should anyone else be?  It was long, packed with information, and in consequence dull; it was as if I didn't trust the manuscript itself, so I tried to tell the whole story in the query.  It also had a totally unnecessary introductory paragraph, one that began: "I am seeking representation for my Young Adult novel...."  There's no reason to include that; why else would you be sending a letter to an agent's query inbox?  The point of the query is to hook the agent, to get the agent excited about the story, not about the fact that Unknown Writer #20,000 is writing to them today.

So I did a little online research, found some good advice and some good models, and rewrote my query from scratch.  In my new approach, I followed two pieces of advice that all writers know:

1. Begin in the middle
2. Less is more

So in the new query, I plunged right into the story with an opening sentence that I hoped would intrigue the reader enough that s/he would read on.  And I trimmed the letter down to its bare bones, eliminating unnecessary sentences and modifiers, planting hints but not giving away too much, resulting in a descriptive paragraph that's fewer than 10 lines long.  I felt that this query was much zippier and catchier than the first; in the manner of a back-cover blurb, it sold my story, leaving the reader tantalized, rather than trying to tell the whole thing.  I sent it out to another 10 agents feeling much more confident in its success.

And sure enough, the day after I sent it out, the first request for the full manuscript arrived.  Other requests followed.  A month later, I had representation.  (There's a much longer story behind that, which I'll tell in another post.)  Maybe I just got lucky, but I think it was the new query that did the trick.

So here, for your enjoyment and/or edification, is my query for Survival Colony Nine.  Again, I make no claims for its greatness.  All I know is it achieved its objective.


Dear [name of agent]:

In a near-future world of dust and ruin, fourteen-year-old Querry Genn struggles to recover the lost memory that might save the human race.

His story is Survival Colony Nine, a futuristic Young Adult novel that follows a small band of refugees as they fight for existence in this hostile land.  The narrator, Querry Genn, suffers from traumatic memory loss induced by an encounter with the Skaldi, alien antagonists that swarm the wasted planet's surface.  Unable to recall his past or his identity, Querry is both protected and tormented by the colony's authoritarian commander, his father Laman Genn.  But there is a secret in Querry's past, one that makes him at once a target of the Skaldi's wrath and a key to the colony's future.  The discoveries Querry makes about himself, his father, and his family will change his life--and the fate of humanity--forever.

Survival Colony Nine is currently complete at 74,000 words.  I have begun drafting a second installment in a possible three-book series.  The story told in Survival Colony Nine, however, stands on its own.

I am the author of the book Framing Monsters (2005), a survey of classic and contemporary fantasy and science fiction film.  In addition, I have published numerous short stories in the fantasy and science fiction genres; these appear in such publications as A cappella Zoo, Niteblade, Farspace 2, and Cover of Darkness.

I have included a synopsis and the first ten pages of Survival Colony Nine.  Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.




So there you have it.  I hope this model is useful to others, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and impressions.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Just the Facts?

Though the big news in my writing life of late is the acceptance-for-publication of my futuristic YA novel Survival Colony Nine, I'm also having a run of luck publishing creative nonfiction (under my moniker of J. David Bell).  To wit:

Late last year, two of my essays came out: "Watershed" (about a family excursion to sweep our local stream) appeared in Kudzu Review, and "Body Parts" (about illness, my own and others') was published in Blood and Thunder.

Later this year, my essay "The Last Days of the Frog Prince" (about my career catching frogs) will appear in the environmental journal Snowy Egret.  It's been a long time coming--it was accepted for publication back in 2011--but I think it'll be worth the wait, as I believe it's one of the best essays I've written.

Also later this year, my essay "Moon Man" (a love letter to my son, who was seven at the time I wrote the piece) will appear in The Lindenwood Review.

And finally, I just got word that my essay "Racist Like Me" (about my early experiences with race and integrated education) has been accepted for publication by a journal named--I kid you not--Toad Suck Review.

My guess is that my productivity in this genre will dwindle as I buckle down and focus on Survival Colony Nine and (with luck) other novels to follow.  But I really love the challenge of creative nonfiction, which requires the writer to tell the truth in the garb of fiction (as opposed to fiction proper, which requires the writer to make stuff up yet give it the aura of truth).  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps; maybe even two sides of the same brain.

Or simply two parts of what makes us writers, what makes us human.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How Do I Know It's Good?

My most recent post was generally well received, but a few people asked me (in private--come on, folks, post to the blog itself, or better yet, follow it!), "How do I know what parts of my writing are good?"  If, in other words, I'm recommending that writers approach writing and revision from a strengths perspective, how does one recognize one's strongest material?

That's obviously a much bigger question than I can answer in a single post (or a hundred).  But I thought I'd offer an anecdote that at least speaks to the question.

On the second day of the semester in my first-year composition classes, I give students their first assignment (a personal essay that asks them to write about an epiphany they experienced in the natural world) then have them freewrite for ten minutes or so.  When they're done, I instruct them to read over what they've written and choose the single sentence that's their best.  Then, using that sentence as the starting point (and setting aside everything else), I ask them to write a new draft.

The results?

Without exception, students report--and having looked at both versions, I can confirm--that their rewrites begin in a better place than their original drafts.

How to explain this?  Bear in mind that I teach students who, until a few years ago when our director of composition eliminated not-for-credit remedial courses, would have been placed in just such courses.  Virtually all of them hate to write; most of them struggle to read with comprehension, much less with insight and delight.  And prior to the point that I give them this assignment, zero writing instruction has taken place; I've spent day one going over the syllabus and administering a diagnostic exam.  Yet somehow, 100% of these students, writing under these circumstances, are able to identify a sentence that is their best and use it as the basis of a new draft.


Well, if I could answer that, I'd be a millionaire.  But I can speculate, and here's what I think is going on.

First: the assignment is very low-pressure.  We end up looking at their papers in class, but it's not a graded assignment, and the graded version won't be due for weeks.  So performance anxiety is at a pretty low ebb.

Second: by asking the students to identify their best sentence and to disregard everything else, the assignment removes the stigma of "bad writing."  There is no bad writing in this assignment: there's only good writing and everything else, which isn't bad but simply not utilized.  (The good sentences are usually deep into the first draft, and when we start talking about theory, I encourage students to recognize that they probably couldn't have produced their good sentence if they hadn't first produced all the rest.)  Liberating writers from the fear of badness, in other words, gives them the ability to perceive goodness.

Third and finally: the assignment is empowering, because it has nothing to do with what I consider good and everything to do with what they consider good.  The whole thing would blow up in our faces if I went around the room and told them what's good (or bad) about their writing.  But I don't, and neither does anyone else.

So there you have it: low pressure, positive reinforcement, and self-direction enable writers who lack confidence in their writing to pinpoint what they're doing well and improve their papers on the basis of it.

I won't lie to you: not every class session is so upbeat as this one.  There's a time for criticism and tough choices.  But the point here is twofold: first, it's important to start from a strengths perspective; and second, when one does so, one finds that every writer has the capacity to identify what they're doing well and to build on it.  This doesn't mean all my students will become accomplished (much less published) writers, any more than they'll all become rock stars, CEOs, or supermodels.  But they'll all become better writers, which is what I'm paid to help them become.

Bottom line: writers know what's good.  They just need the chance to prove it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

6 Things That Are Right with Your Manuscript

I don't want to turn into the guy who trashes literary agents' advice, but I must admit I'm getting a bit tired of the industry (and yes, I think we can safely call it an industry) that thrives on making writers feel bad about their writing.

I was thinking this when I read an agent's recent post titled "6 Things That Are Wrong with Your Manuscript."  The ostensible purpose of this post was to help writers identify weaknesses in their manuscripts before submitting them to agents, and thus, presumably, to help writers acquire agents in the first place.  I'm sure no offense was intended; I'm sure this agent is a wonderful person and a stellar advocate.  I'm also sure she does blog regularly on "the great things writers do and how they surprise me all the time with their wonderful prose."

But I'm not talking about all that.  I'm talking about this particular post, which is all about the terrible things writers do and how they confound her with their horrible prose.

The advice itself isn't bad: start your story in a strong place, differentiate characters through distinctive dialogue, avoid "info-dumping," etc.  But as a teacher, I'm troubled by two things: the apparent assumption that you can simply tell writers what they're doing "wrong" and make them start doing it right, and the corollary assumption that writing instruction is primarily a matter of "fixing" a set of issues that writers get "wrong."

If only it were that simple.

The reality is this: writers don't learn from being told what they're doing "wrong."  One of the agent's own rules, in the very same blog post, is: "Show, don't tell."  And there's a good reason for this advice, in writing instruction as in writing: writers learn much more from doing than from listening.  And while they're doing, they learn much more from being shown what they (and others) are doing right than from being told what they're doing wrong.

("Right," of course, is a very large and flexible term, which is another problem I have with the sort of restrictive advice that assumes there's a simple "right" or "wrong" way to do anything in writing.  But that's another issue, which I addressed in an earlier post.)

So for what it's worth, my advice to writers is to look over their manuscripts and find 6 things they've done well, 6 things they're proud of themselves for doing.  That list might start with:

1. You wrote a complete, book-length manuscript.  How many people, really, can say they did that?

And it might go on from there:

2. You've got an interesting main character.
3. There's a scene in the middle of the book that's really intense and well-paced.
4. There's a lovely phrase on page 234.
5. The description on page 13 is haunting and perfectly worded.
6. The dialogue in chapter 15 crackles.

There's probably more to be proud of, but let's start with these 6.  Now, go back through the manuscript and find the stuff that doesn't equal your best, and work on making it so.  Learn from your strengths, not from your weaknesses.

And one final word: spend more time making your writing better than you do reading about all the things that make your writing bad.

Friday, March 22, 2013


It seems as if Oz is in the air this week.  No sooner did I post yesterday's piece on Oz, the Great and Powerful than I learned that my short story "Scarecrow" has been published by Untreed Reads.  It's a retelling of the Oz story from the Scarecrow's point of view, and I think you'll be surprised to discover what's inside the straw-man's mind.  The story is downloadable for a very reasonable price, so enjoy!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

I saw Disney's prequel to The Wizard of Oz today.  My initial reaction was that it had some interesting effects--particularly the well-rendered china doll--and characterizations--particularly the winged monkey who aids the neophyte wizard--but that it didn't pack anywhere near the imaginative punch of the 1939 classic.  Like so much of today's big-budget fantasy fare, Oz, the Great and Powerful seemed more interested in spectacle than story: instead of deepening or extending the Oz mythology in interesting ways, what we got was a lot of green-screen action sequences (many of them looking like bad 1980s video games, and some of them clearly included only for their 3-D possibilities), an overly familiar tale of a scoundrel becoming a fatherly saint (think Real Steel and X-Men: First Class, just to name the two that popped first into my head), and a painfully familiar tale of evil women (wearing black and showing lots of cleavage) duking it out with their angelic counterparts for the love of a man.

In one respect, though, I found the film interesting: its self-referential nature.  When a film culminates with a showman projecting images of himself onto a screen to dominate the masses, one can't help thinking that the film is making only a barely disguised appeal to its own technological and cultural operations.  (The film does, in fact, refer to Edison's early experiments in moving pictures, so the self-referential nature of the effects cannot be chance.)  The 1939 film, as I've shown in my book Framing Monsters, was itself very much interested in the nature of film and film technology, so there's a nice continuity between the two movies there.

The difference, however, is that Oz '39 was quite skeptical about the power of film as a cultural force; set against the backdrop of 1930s Hollywood's attempts to monopolize the technology, bust unions, and force independent producers and exhibitors out of business, the original film was anything but enthusiastic about film's immense cultural power.  (It's the wizard's cinematic exploits, after all, that are revealed as humbugs.)  But Oz '13 represents the deceptive qualities of film as an agency of salvation: the wizard cows and defeats the two witches through the power of the cinema, and the citizens of Emerald City are liberated, not shanghaied, by this power.  I sensed no irony in the wizard's triumphant use of cinematic illusion to ascend the throne; judging by this film, it seems that little compunction remains in today's Hollywood about the industry's cultural dominance.

And really, why should any such compunction remain?  Film is so pervasive as to be all-but-invisible.  It's everywhere, and as such it's nowhere.

Which is about as good a definition of ideology as you're likely to find.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wake Up and Smell the Novels

I recently read a troubling blog post by a well-respected—and, I have no doubt, quite capable—literary agent who specializes in YA fiction.  At the top of her list of how not to begin one’s novel, she wrote the following:

Waking up: DO NOT.  DON’T.  Don’t even think about it.  Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up.  Why are you making this choice?  Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation.  Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up.  And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it.  Make them awake.  Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today?”

I found this post troubling for a number of reasons, foremost of which is that my debut novel, Survival Colony Nine, a futuristic YA, has just been acquired by a very reputable publisher and begins with . . . the main character waking up.

Now, granted, in my novel, the MC is woken up in the middle of the night by another important character (his father, with whom he has a rather contentious relationship); and he’s woken up because a mysterious, unnamed enemy is advancing on their camp; and he’s suffering from amnesia, so he doesn’t know what’s going on; so immediately you have interpersonal conflict, dialogue, tension, mystery, scene, all that good stuff.  Still, my point is this: the novel starts with a character waking up, and I think it was precisely the right way to start this particular novel.

Nor am I alone.  Quite the contrary, I’m in very good company.  One of the finest fantasy novels ever written, Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, begins with a character waking up.  Rick Riordan’s YA fantasy The Lost Hero, first in a wildly popular series, begins with a character waking up.  And then there’s that little YA novel that begins with the following four words: “When I wake up.”  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  It’s called The Hunger Games.

My guess is that the millions who bought the book aren’t going to be demanding their money back.

As a final example, another of my favorite fantasy novels, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, begins with . . . a character walking down the street.  Awake.

You see my point.  For some novels, starting with a character waking up is the right choice.  For others, it’s not.  But I would no more tell writers never to start a book with a character waking up than I would tell them always to do so.

The larger point is this: writing is complex.  There are no rules so absolute that they cannot be broken.  There are rules, yes.  And there’s good writing as well as bad.  There are also personal preferences, which we all should respect.  If you’re of the no-character-waking-up preference, that’s fine.  But that’s a preference, not a doctrine, and it should never be presented as the latter.  To thrive, literature needs to be willing to take risks, to try something that’s not been done before, to challenge and upend what’s considered desirable or even do-able.  Otherwise we end up with cookie-cutter books, and both reading and writing are debased in consequence.

I’ve just begun to read blogs that provide writing advice, so I’m no authority.  But one of my current favorites is by fantasy novelist Victoria Grefer, who hosts the blog “CreativeWriting with the Crimson League.”  Her blog is low-key, accessible, friendly; she presents herself as a writer writing to other writers, not as an unapproachable sage or pundit.  She never snipes, censures, or chides; instead, she encourages and invites, using her own experience as an illustration, not an ultimatum.  I’m not sure how she feels about character wake-ups, but my guess is she’d be cool with them.

So here’s my advice to writers: start your novel any way you please.  Not every agent or publisher will want it, but if it’s good, someone out there sure as heck will.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Things That Take a While

I wrote my first novel when I was eight years old.

It was titled “The Slowest Runner,” and it concerned the trials of a young man whose chances of winning the big race looked pretty slim.  I’m not sure how I planned to end it, considering I gave up after two chapters (a single typed page).  But I do remember that when I started writing it, I was thinking of myself as a writer, and the manuscript as a novel-in-progress.  I just wasn’t ready to finish it.

In middle school, I took another shot at writing a novel.  This time, having just read The Lord of the Rings, I produced a manuscript that was pretty conventional swords-and-sorcery fare, with humans, elves, dwarves, sorceresses, an Aragorn-esque tracker named (ahem) Nordica, a blue winged pixie named Willidrin (Willi for short), and (I have no idea why) huntsmen who looked like gigantic eyeballs with arms, legs, and feathered hats.  I don’t remember the title, and for all my searching I’ve found only a single sketch that survives.  As I recall, the book bogged down around page fifty, after the sorceress had called all the presumptive heroes together but I discovered I had nothing particularly heroic for them to do.  For the next few years, I drafted several outlines of epic fantasies I planned to write, but the outlines were as far as I got.

I completed my first novel at age sixteen.  Titled To Alter the Past, it told the story of Droman Greywolf, rightful king of a magical land, who is slain on the very doorstep of his castle as he attempts to recover the throne his father lost years before.  Through some magical process, two of the king’s followers bring the narrator, a man from our own world, to Droman’s kingdom.  There they beg him to relive the fallen king’s life in hopes that he will defeat the enemy and change the course of history.  He agrees, of course—otherwise no story—and lives an eventful second life befriending Elves and Catmen, defeating swamp monsters and witches, rescuing damsels in distress and gaining mysterious magical implements from mad hermits, before finally confronting not a mortal man but a demon from the pit at the castle gates.  That prĂ©cis might make the book sound pretty run-of-the-mill, but in fact it shows a considerable degree of imagination and a fair amount of decent writing.  When a family friend who works in publishing agreed to take a look at it, though, he reacted as anyone but a sixteen-year-old could have predicted he would: “Your writing is good, very good.  But is it publishable?  Not yet.”  I was crushed and briefly flirted with vanity publishing—until I read the books the vanity press sent me and realized they were vastly inferior to my own.  I still have the complete manuscript tucked away in my closet.  I sometimes think it’s the best thing I’ve written.

Completed novel #2 came in college, as my senior honors project.  Titled Selfish People (later changed to The S.A.M.E. Semester when I sought publication), it involved the takeover of a small liberal arts college by a group of radical educators claiming to offer the benefits of their new educational philosophy to the students.  The faculty mentor who read it wrote: “This is a very creditable piece of writing.  It shows considerable fictional talent, ambition, scope, perseverance, literary sensitivity, an acquaintance with literature, and many other virtues needed for writing.  But it is not under any imaginable form publishable.”  Turns out she was right: in the years between college and grad school I revised it, found an agent who seemed interested, but then gave up when the agent went out of business and no other responded positively to my queries.  I was gearing up for doctoral study at that point, and while I still harbored the dream that I might return to novels some day, my focus had turned to writing about literature rather than writing it myself.

And so it went.  In the twenty years that followed, I published three nonfiction academic books and lots of articles, co-edited another book of academic essays, and pretty much put creative writing on indefinite hold.  I imagined a few new novels—one having to do with baseball, another with Thoreau—but they never got any farther than the fantasy novels I’d envisioned as a teenager.  I’d discovered that I was pretty good at academic prose, and it just wasn’t possible to devote attention to fiction-writing with everything else going on in my life.  So I held onto the dream, but nothing came of it.

That changed in 2008, when I finally decided I’d had enough of academic publishing and wanted to return to fiction.  I took a class at a local college to rediscover the craft (and to force myself to actually write something), started this blog, and began to compile a list of credits in fiction and creative nonfiction.  Feeling ready to try the long form again, I produced about a hundred pages of a novel with a faculty member as its main character, but stopped when I realized it was too close to my own life.  I completed another novel I really liked, a grim, dystopian retelling of the Santa Claus fable, but found that no agent or editor would touch it with a twenty-foot pole.

Then, in 2011, having read many books aloud to my children, I said to myself: “Why not try writing a novel for young adults?”  With nothing more than a name for my main character, I started writing.  The story took off.  My daughter, whom I showed some early pages just to make sure I wasn’t completely off-track, really liked it.  At the tail end of 2011, I completed it and started shopping for an agent.  I found one, revised the manuscript for her, parted company with her when her enthusiasm for the project waned, found another agent who loved the book (Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency), made some further revisions for her, then sat back and waited while she sent it out.  Trickles of interest came in, but no offers.  Liza told me to be patient.  I tried.

And then it happened: on Friday, February 22, 2013, a formal offer for my YA fantasy novel, Survival Colony Nine, arrived from Karen Wojtyla of McElderry Press.  I had turned forty-eight earlier that month.  Forty years after attempting my first novel, forty years after embarking on the dream of my life, I was finally on the road to publication.

Or maybe I’d been on that road all along.

On the day I received the offer, my wife bought me a miniature flower pot topped by Woodstock (in farmer garb) and a small sprouting plant.  The legend on the pot: “Faith is for the things that take a while.”

And that’s no fiction.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Krancer Causes Cancer

In today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I read that there are "45 current or former [Pennsylvania] state officials who have links to the energy industry and gas drilling and fracking regulation, including 28 who have left to take industry jobs."

These officials include our current and past three governors, as well as a bunch of other yahoos.  But my favorite has got to be Michael Krancer.

He's Pennsylvania's current secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.  You know, the department that, like, is supposed to protect the environment.

But Krancer's ties to oil and gas interests run deep.  He was general counsel for a natural gas utility, Exelon, as well as a litigator for an industry lobbying group.  Not surprisingly, his principal activities as secretary have been to craft industry-friendly provisions, to fight citizen attempts to slow or halt the pace of shale gas development, and to make regulation of the industry as minimal and cumbersome as possible.

And then there's his position on global warming, as quoted here: "There is no uniformity within the scientific community on how much the warming is occurring.  And there’s no agreement about how much is attributable to the human part of it and how much is attributable to other factors.”

This is, of course, nonsense.  There's almost complete uniformity within the scientific community on both of these issues.  To those who want to deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming, such uniformity means there's some vast scientific conspiracy to quash dissent and amass lucrative research grants.  This, of course, makes no sense either, inasmuch as the real money lies in working for the oil and gas interests that deny global warming.  But global warming skeptics are a very stupid bunch of people, and they'll say just about anything to try to wiggle out of the facts.

I wrote a letter recently to Krancer, asking him to stop being such a stupid idiot and admit that the science says exactly what it says: that human beings are the main drivers of global warming, and that if we don't take immediate steps to curb it, we may well be living in an unlivable world by the end of the century.  Considering the severity of the issue, I was actually pretty polite; I did not, for example, use the words "stupid idiot."  I got a polite reply from his PR stupid idiot thanking me for my letter.

But since it seems to be Krancer's prerogative to say stupid, untrue things, I thought I'd exercise my own right to do the same.  So for the record: Michael Krancer causes cancer.

Though I'll admit there's not complete scientific consensus on that.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reading, Writing, and Rambo

In the news: South Dakota has passed a law allowing teachers to come to school armed.  This in the wake of the Newtown tragedy and the NRA's response to it, wherein they recommended putting more guns in the schools to combat the problem of guns in the schools.

But that's the NRA's response to everything: more guns.  The next time a mother shoots her baby--and, given our gun-crazed culture, that day can't be far off--the NRA will propose putting guns in infant formula.

I'd be more optimistic about the potential of guns in schools to halt violence in schools if anyone could show me data that guns anywhere halt violence anywhere.  But I look at the streets, the shopping malls, the movie theaters, the homes (such as the one where Oscar Pistorius and his once beautiful, now dead girlfriend lived), and I don't see the connection.

I suppose you could argue that the reason there's less violence on the streets than there would be otherwise is that criminals are aware of an armed police force.  Or that terrorists are less likely to strike a target if a military presence defends it.  Or (as the NRA did quite callously argue) that no one shoots at the President's daughters because they're protected by armed Secret Service agents.

You could then argue that the ultimate solution is for everyone, everywhere, to be armed.  That's the logic of the argument, isn't it?  That's what the NRA is (beg pardon) shooting for?

But you know, a few years back, I was robbed at gunpoint.  I survived.  Had I been carrying a weapon, someone would surely have been killed.  It might have been the other guy.  It might also have been me.

Had there been an armed teacher in Sandy Hook, the children might still be alive.  Or not.  We can speculate as to what might have happened under those circumstances.

But the only thing we do know is that if the perpetrator had not been armed, those children would most definitely be alive.

And the NRA would be one step further from its hellish vision of a society where teaching to kill and killing to teach are one and the same.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jack the Lady Killer

I took my kids to see Jack the Giant Slayer yesterday.  I wasn't expecting much, and so the movie didn't disappoint.  Once you got past the predictably weightless CGI monsters, the flatulence humor, and the obligatory endless battle sequence, it even had some good moments (most of them provided by Ewan McGregor's cheekily suave captain of the guard).  My son gave it a 7 out of 10.  I'd have put it a notch or two lower.

There was one regard, however, in which I found the movie rather troubling: its (mis)representation of women.  As has become obligatory in children's fantasy films of these post-feminist backlash days (think Aladdin or Brave), the princess heroine, Isabel, was initially presented as a spunky, irrepressible spitfire: bridling at her father's overbearing care, sneaking out of the palace to attend theatrical displays that poked fun at royalty, and ultimately running away to avoid marrying the odious suitor of her father's choice.  But notably, it is this final act of resistance that gets her into trouble: stopping at Jack's humble cottage while on the lam, she's swept up into giant-ville by the beanstalk that explodes from the hero's basement.  From that moment on, she reverts to stereotypical damsel-in-distress, achieving absolutely zilch on her own and needing to be saved by Jack at least three times (once when she's about to be eaten by giants, once when the beanstalk she's riding crashes to earth, and once when the two-headed giant king pursues her into the mortal realm).  If we read the giants as unlicensed authority figures--and I think we have to read them this way, given the fact that their ambition to supplant the rightful king is thwarted by the magical crown that enables Jack to bend them to his will--then the message seems clear: little girls who defy their daddies' orders end up in the hands of evil men, unless they're lucky enough to have a boyish hero to save (and wed) them.

Jack the Giant Slayer struggles mightily to distance itself from its fairy-tale origins: the tongue-in-cheek humor, the framing device where Jack and Isabel read themselves into the story that eventually unfolds in real life, the off-the-cuff nods to the source material (with golden eggs and singing harps displayed visually but never incorporated into the storyline)--all of these devices suggest that the film wants to be not only a retelling but a deconstruction of "Jack and the Beanstalk."  But the portrayal of its female lead suggests how much of a stranglehold the fairy-tale logic of gender relations still has on our collective consciousness.