July 27, 2012

Taking a stand on taking stands

I've found myself in the bizarre position recently, twice, of having to defend my decision to take a stand on some issues.

First, my nephew questioned me when I told him I would never again eat any food product from Chick-Fil-A because of their wide-open anti-gay policies. (That link is recent, but their policies have been known for quite some time...I haven't eaten there in years.)

"So you'll deprive yourself of something just because you don't like what they believe? That's dumb," he said. I'm paraphrasing, but not much.

To that, I answered: Absolutely.

Then, a couple weeks ago, a co-worker was shocked to learn I'd thrown away all my Mel Gibson movies after his drunken, anti-Semitic tirade a few years back. I'll admit, it was hard to give up Signs and Braveheart.

My co-worker, his jaw on the floor, said, "But what about Lethal Weapon? Any of them? You can't give THOSE up."

To which I'll now say: Give me Die Hard any day, but Mel Gibson can take his movies and shove them up his arse.

So yeah. I'm opinionated. I care about issues. I'll give stuff up if I don't believe in the people behind it.

It feel like lately we're bombarded constantly with issues that require us to make decisions.

Are you for gun control or against it? Show your stance by...seeing or not seeing a Batman movie?

Are you for gay rights, or against them? Show your stance by...eating or not eating chicken sandwiches?

Who are you voting for? Show it by...putting stickers on your car?

I get so tired of having to have opinions.

And it's funny, because I have some pretty strong ones.

But you know what? I have my limits, too.

I've been enjoying The Newsroom lately, the new Aaron Sorkin show running on HBO. And I almost feel guilty about it, to be perfectly honest.

Try this: google "the newsroom women."  Tell me what you see.

Lots of articles bashing the show for its portrayal of women, right?

To a point, I see their point. The main female character, Mackenzie, is supposed to be a battle-hardened reporter, but she can't talk to or about her ex-boyfriend without tearing up.  The smartest woman in the room, with a doctorate in economics, is played by supermodel Olivia Munn, and she spends a lot of time causing trouble.  And the upstart young Associate Producer on the show can't stop thinking about her immediate superior, who just happens to be a Very Cute Guy.

I get it. These aren't necessarily tough, hard-ass women.

But I'll say this: I like them. For the most part.

I'm a girl, and I'm a girl in a professional, technical industry. I have to deal with technical, super-smart men all the time. Sometimes I feel like I'm not strong enough, or smart enough, but I keep on going. And that's what I see those girls on the show doing, too. They just keep on going.

So yeah. I've given up chicken sandwiches. I've given up Braveheart and Lethal Weapon and Signs. I've given up all kinds of things in the name of my own beliefs.

But will I give up a fun new show because maybe it's not quite feminist enough? Because other women out there are mildy offended by its portrayal of women?


Not today. Even I have my opinion limits.

(Also, please note: in order to make this post look decent, after a frustrating copy/paste from Word, I had to hack XML. Me. Hack XML. Eat your heart out, Developers, and look out: I'm learning!)

July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Has Risen...


Walking into the theater yesterday to see The Dark Knight Rises was a bit of a surreal experience. I found it impossible to separate Friday morning's theater shooting from my own movie-going experience.

I'll be honest. Part of me was terrified. But I hate the idea of letting one crazy, evil person win, so I determined to enjoy myself.

So we got there early, and I eyed the emergency exits nervously. Then I watched every single person who entered the theater: as they searched for seats, I searched for something suspicious.

I’m happy to report that my trip to the movies was safe.

But still.  Surreal.  So surreal.

The previews alone were enough to freak me out. The Gangster Squad looks amazing, that much is for sure (Sean Penn as a mobster? Score.), but there's a scene in which people shoot into a theater through a movie screen. I wanted to get up and run.

Instead I took another bite of popcorn, another sip of soda, and slunk down in my chair.

And then the movie started.

And holy ##W%#@, it was amazing. In my opinion, totally amazing. And also...depressing. Sad. Gut-wrenching. It offers a bleak picture of the worst bits of humanity, brought to the forefront of a tortured city by a vengeance-hungry madman.

Look, I've read a number of reviews and spoken to a number of people who complain about the outlandish story, the numerous plot holes. Their concerns are valid.

But me? I was too wrapped up in the individual performances of actors like Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I have not yet forgiven for being That Annoying Kid in 3rd Rock from the Sun, but who's so freaking good I have to love him) to care about much more.

At least, until Tom Hardy's Bane and his crew marched into the Stock Exchange building and shot up the place. That made me squirm in my chair again, but that was mainly because it felt...so...real. And really effing timely.   

Two other scenes really stood out to me, and they surpassed any plot holes or ridiculousness of the rest of the movie. 

The first was a fight scene between Batman and Bane. The two madmen (yes, I think Christian Bale's Batman is slightly mad, though I love him dearly) pummeled each other, and suddenly I noticed: the score was shut off. The only sound in the theater were grunts and howls of pain, and the dull thuds of fists hitting flesh. It was...to use a phrase I love...scary and intense.

Then, towards the end, a bunch of unarmed cops faced off against a gazillion of Bane's armed thugs. This was a scene about terrorist uprisings, no doubt, with the thugs waving semi-automatic rifles in the air, firing off into the sky. It...gave me chills. Terrified me. Made me want to cry. Can you even imagine standing and facing that? People do that...every day...it was, well....scary and intese.

Seriously, when the end of the movie came, I didn’t believe it had been almost three hours of movie-time.  It flew by, and, for once, left me wanting more.

More! More Batman!  Please! (Not to mention more Joseph Gordon-Levitt and more Anne Hathaway - they are freaking amazing.)

I stood up as the crowd headed towards the exit, and I looked around me one last time.  We were just a bunch of people, out for a little escapist entertainment, and I know I wasn’t the only one who breathed a sigh of relief.

We are all so lucky to have been together, and safe. But I never quite stopped thinking about those who weren't as lucky as me. And I won't stop thinking about them anytime soon, great movie and all.


July 21, 2012

This time, the "other" is us

The news out of Aurora, Colorado continues to shock. To appall. 

Reading of the shooting in the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises is like reading a screenplay for a mystery. There's a smoke bomb. Multiple semi-automatic weapons. Booby traps in the suspect's car and apartment. No apparent motive.

And the fact that the shooting took place in a movie so laden with guns and violence that people in adjacent theaters first thought that's all they heard? That's the icing on the cake, no? The "meta," so to speak.

But the thing is, this is real.

The internet's full of talk about this tragedy. Soon the angry posts will start, both for and against stricter gun control laws.

Me? I'm for them, those stricter gun control laws.

But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter.  Call me a fatalist, but I think no matter how tight gun laws get, crazy people will still find a way to get them.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

I'm here to talk about the fact that, for me, this shooting hit home. It struck a nerve in me that hasn't been struck since 9/11, when I could simply stand outside my apartment on a clear afternoon and see the smoke rising from the suddenly absent towers.

Reading about Aurora yesterday brought me to tears. I squeezed my child so hard it must have hurt her.

I thought about it, for a while. I thought about how rarely a day goes by that there's not a tragedy of similar proportions somewhere in the world.

Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan. There are shootings every day there. People die like this every day there.

And even similar tragedies in our own country haven't set me off the way Aurora did. I was sad to read about Gabrielle Giffords, and I mourned the loss of innocent children with the rest of our country. But I didn't quite feel my heart break the way I did yesterday.

And I think it's because almost every time an event like this occurs, it's easy to think, "Oh, it happened to those other people. Those people who live in an unsafe country. Or those people who frequent weekend political events. Those people who take the bus or ride the train or do any number of other things I don't do. They are the others. And I'm sorry bad things happened, but they are still the others. They are not me. Not my husband. Not my daughter."

But this time? This time, the others are us. They're me. They're Charles. Those kids? They could be Zoe. 

Because these people? They were just watching a movie. A movie, in fact, that I'd have gone to see at midnight Thursday myself if we didn't have a four year old who can't stay home alone. A movie we still plan to see tomorrow.

This time, that could have been me, or Charles, or any of my friends.

This time, the others are us.

And for me, that means I'll watch the news a little more closely for a while. I'll mourn a little more deeply for a while. I'll hug Zoe and Charles and tell them I love them.

Because when the others are us, life gets a little more real for a while.

July 16, 2012

Want to write? Don't forget to read.

No matter where I look for writing advice, I always find one thing in common: they all tell me to read, read, and read some more.

I've always understood it, on some levels. But now that I'm three books and several significant stories into my writing career, I really get it. 

When you read, it sometimes happens that you get yourself so immersed in a world or three, they become a part of your own mind, your own stories to tell. And even though this immersion can sometimes be disruptive, well, it's still a good thing.

Take last night, for example. I was reading in bed. I found myself suddenly hanging out in New England, in a creepy old house near the ocean.  I could smell the salt air, see the birds, hear the water crashing. When it snowed, I shivered in my bed.

I'm reading Locke & Key again, you see. (Read it...you'll thank me.) Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez can pull me into their world in a heartbeat, and keep me hanging on for every word. Their freaky little world of magical (and frightening) keys has depth. Sight, sound, touch...it's totally creepy, and fun.

But setting the book down is a jarring experience.

Oh, you mean I'm in my room? How'd I get here? From there? What happened?

I had some crazy dreams last night.

I also recently read two books by sci-fi author John Scalzi, almost back-to-back: Old Man's War and then The Ghost Brigades. Those books are fully immersive; it's hard to leave their futuristic, brutal world behind, and I'm almost aching to get started on the third in that series. 

All of these books keep showing up in my writing now, in odd ways.  

Hill and Rodriquez are teaching me tons about tone and setting; I see it coming through in my own descriptions of an imagined future of New York City.

Then, while reading Old Man's War, I realized that an author can enable any crazy plot point they dream up, so long as they have some semi-reasonable science to back it up. In Old Man's War, it's nano-bots, which can be used by genetically engineered soldiers in the future to do almost anything Scalzi needs them to do. 

Need to stop bullets? Sure, use some nano-bots.

Need a fountain of youth? Nano-bots are your answer there, too.

This knowledge came to my rescue while I've been stuck on my Frankenstein girl story; I have a plot point that I know is a stretch...but now I know I just need to find my nano-bot equivalent that makes it somehow plausible. (Note: not possible. Just plausible.)

Also, recently when I was working on a short story about telepaths (clearly my writing is NOT based in reality these days), I had an image fly into my head. I pictured one telepath pushing their feelings, their emotions, their very being over to another.

This was exactly what I needed for my story.

The origin of the idea? It came from The Ghost Brigades. I made it my own, to be sure, and it looks a lot different in my story than it does in Scalzi's concept of "integration" between his soldiers.  

Would I have gotten there on my own, had I not been reading Scalzi? Maybe. But maybe not, you know?

So yeah.  If you want to write, you have to read. Immerse yourselves in other worlds. Learn them. Live inside them for a while, however temporary.

There's no other way to see all the possibilities fiction has to offer.

July 10, 2012

Author Interview: Ben H. Winters

It's July 10, and I'm a little excited about posting my first author interview.

Aaand...it just so happens that my interview is with Ben H. Winters, whose book, The Last Policeman, hits shelves today.  If you care to refresh your memory, my review of this book lives here.  (Spoiler: I enjoyed this book. Quite a bit.)
 
I was nervous about contacting Ben with my interview questions, but he was super-nice and gracious, and didn't even make fun of my sillier questions.  (Well, ok, maybe he teased me a little, but that's fine by me.)

So, without further ado, meet Ben! Seriously - he seems like a nice guy, and now I REALLY need to re-read On the Beach and re-watch Life Is Beautiful, even though I know I'll cry...again.

**********************

I love how you turn one genre (mystery) on its side with the injection of another (sci-fi/dystopian world).  Is that always how you envisioned this story, or did that come once you started writing?

Thanks. And yes, that is always how I envisioned the story. I knew I wanted to do a detective story, with an almost pathologically conscientious hero, and the end of the world seemed like the perfect background against which to watch such a hero find his way. That’s where it came from—more from the character idea than the story idea, at first. 

Are you a planner/outliner, or a seat-of-your-pants writer?

Like most writers, I go back and forth. I almost always start with an outline, and it almost always ends up being completely abandoned or revised. But especially when you’re writing detective fiction, with lots of clues and reveals, you’d be nuts to not have at least some idea of how things are going to turn out, before you get going.

In the book, a giant asteroid hurtles towards Earth, and people are told they have less than six months to live.  Many of their reactions become patterns – suicide, stay-the-course, or go fulfill a bucket list.  Let’s assume neither of us would be suiciders….are you more of a bucket-lister, or a stay-the-courser?

Oh, definitely I’m a stay-the-courser. But I am also very, very lucky in that I love what I do, and I would keep writing til the world blows up. If I had a less satisfying job, I would probably stop doing it immediately. I also really love my family, and would spend as much time as I could with my children, while bending over backwards to hide the truth from them—like Roberto Benigni does in that movie where he’s in a concentration camp with his kid.

When I’m immersed in writing or editing one of my stories, particularly those of a zombie-nature, I find myself eyeing crowded rooms warily, always aware of where my closest exits are. (Not kidding – I really do this.) Did you find yourself with any strange behaviors while writing The Last Policeman? Maybe eyeing the sky nervously? Stashing cash under the mattress, just in case?

Well, first of all, Leah, paper currency will do you very little good when the big meatball comes down, so get that cash out of your mattress and put some canned goods in there. But no, I didn’t really modify my behavior all that much. I don’t think the world is going to end, and if it does, well, you know, what are you gonna do? Having a working flashlight and a couple bottles of water just won’t help all that much. The magnitude of this kind of catastrophe really defies preparation.

I have to ask – you treated the dog , Houdini, so kindly and gently, and J.T. Toussaint was so concerned with making sure the dog wouldn’t face the end of the world.  Do you have any pets?  What would you do with them, in the event of a major world disaster?

Thanks. Yeah, Houdini is based on my brother-in-law’s former dog, a cute, fearful little thing named Wylie. The whole thing is also a bit of an homage to On the Beach, in which there’s a haunting sequence where a woman carefully prepares her cat for the end. I don’t have pets myself, but I’ve got three kids and we just moved to a new house with a big yard, so I definitely see a dog in our future.

Now, my first purely selfish question: Great names!! I always struggle with character names myself (it took my husband and me the better part of five months to settle on a name for our daughter, so I guess it’s not surprising).  What’s your process for finding names? Or do your characters come to you, already named?

I have no process. I just sit there and try things out until the right name comes to me. I have definitely, definitely submitted manuscripts in which the name of a character changes a couple times over the course of the book, because I kept changing my mind about his or her name.

My second: Any advice to writers just starting out in the industry? You’ve been around the block already – any stumbling blocks about which you can warn us?

I’m old-fashioned in my belief that persistence and discipline will carry the day. Write and write and continue to write; read a lot, and learn to interrogate your own opinions—if you like something, ask yourself why you liked it, and if you didn’t, ask yourself why not? Work on your writing craft (what kinds of stories do I want to tell? how does one structure a long story to remain engaging?) but spend just as much time developing your writing process (where do I write best? at what time of day? with what materials?).

All-time favorite book? (It’s ok if you have to pick more than one – I can never quite narrow it down myself.)

Rosemary’s Baby and Middlemarch.

All-time favorite movie? (Ditto.)

The Blues Brothers.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been approached by a fan? I saw Stephen King speak earlier this year and he told a story of an elderly bathroom attendant approaching him, while he was otherwise disposed in a stall, to tell him he loved his novels and wanted an autograph (this was back in the 70s, I think…nowadays, the attendant would be arrested for that!). Any similar stories?


That’s a great story—although because it’s King telling it, you sort of want the attendant to turn out to be a vampire and eat his eyeballs. But no, alas, though I am very grateful for whatever success I’ve enjoyed thus far in this difficult business, I am nowhere close to the elderly-men-approaching-you-in-the-john level!


*************

Thanks so much to Ben for agreeing to do this interview! I've enjoyed it, and am sure my readers have, as well!

And if you want to know more about Ben, do visit his web site, buy his books, and support an author I admire.

July 8, 2012

In which I shamelessly make fun of myself

Subtitle: Utterly stupid ways in which I have broken bones

Ok. I'm completely ensconced in editing this month. 

Editing takes any creativity I may have towards other projects, sucks it down with a shot of whiskey, then spits it back out and laughs at me. Because, oh no. I cannot write anything reasonable while editing something else. It's too all-consuming. My strange little Frankenstein-girl-character? She's taken over my brain.

So now that you know that...you should also know: I can only edit so much. Sometimes I need to blindly generate content. So here's what's on my mind this weekend.

***********

Last week, I broke my tailbone. My coccyx (which is such a better word than tailbone, except for the part of tailbone that includes "tail" and "bone"...wow...they both sound kind of dirty).

And all I can say is...ouch.

But it got me remembering some really ridiculous ways in which I've broken bones. Unsurprisingly, I've decided to share these stories here. On my writing/professional blog. 

Because of course.

*************

Fifth Grade. During recess every day, boys and girls organized themselves into a grade-level-wide game of tag. Boys vs. girls. One gender was It, and the other had to run for their lives. 

On this particular day, we girls were It. 

I was fast, but not the fastest. Nick M. was the fastest kid in our grade, and everybody knew it. Each Field Day, he'd take the blue ribbon for the 50 Yard Dash. 

I wasn't the fastest, but even then I had some stamina, foreshadowing of a future as a (bad) runner.

On this particular day, I'd zeroed in on Nick M. I was hot on his trail, and I was going to catch him. 

Really! I swear!

I closed in, my chest heaving and my legs cramping. I got closer and closer. 

Finally, I stretched out my hand, ready to tag him. I could almost feel the soft cotton of his t-shirt in my fingers, I was so close.

And then his foot kicked up behind him, caught my middle finger right in the center, and cracked the bone through.

And I spent the next few weeks happily flipping off the world with my splinted middle finger.

**************

Sophomore Year of college. I played lacrosse. I was terrible, but still. I did it. Never scored a goal in a game, never even came close. The one time I scored in practice, the whole team stopped and stared at me. Did she really just do that?  Well, guess what...I did.

Anyway, it was getting on towards the end of the season, and we were warming up for a game.  My friend Tina and I were practicing "checking" each other, which really means we were clanging our lacrosse sticks together like two kids playing swords.

I stopped paying attention for a second, distracted by a flower or a random piece of grass, and my index finger got in between the two crashing sticks.

The bone cracked through.  All because of a flower or a random piece of grass.

****************

Five or six years ago.  I had bronchitis. I thought I was on the mend.

I had a coughing fit outside my mother-in-law's house.

For a second, I thought I was going to die, I was coughing so hard. But I didn't die.

Instead? I cracked a rib on the left side of my body.

When I went to the same doctor who had treated my bronchitis, to see why the left side of my body hurt so bad, he laughed at me.

"Didn't I give you cough medicine?" he said.  

Then, "No way did you break a rib coughing. You're a young, healthy girl. I bet you fifty dollars you don't have a broken rib."

I should have taken that bet. I'd have come away from that office visit fifty dollars richer.

That was the most painful of my breaks, thus far. I couldn't sleep on my left side for weeks. Sneezing was an exercise in severe torture, matched only by sneezing-post-c-section a couple years later.

*****************

Last week. I was home sick from work, nursing a migraine. I felt better, so I ran some errands, trying to keep Charles and Zoe from having to run them on their way home...in the pouring-down rain.

Did I mention the rain? Yeah, it was raining. A lot.

I wore an old, treadless pair of Old Navy rubber flip flops because, well, why wouldn't I, right? They seemed perfectly reasonable rainstorm footwear, don't you think?

I'd already discovered that, when wet, these particular flip flops had a tendency to get ice-slick on the floor of my garage. I told myself, over and over again, to be careful.

And still, when I pulled a box out of the back of our Jeep, my feet flew up into the air in front of me. I'm sort of happy I was holding the box - it kept me from placing either of my hands back to catch my fall, which would have probably resulted in a severely busted wrist or two.  That would have cramped my writing style...

As it was, I took the brunt of the fall on my ass. Literally. The shock of impact kept me on the ground for a few minutes, thinking, "I've fallen...and I can't get up."

Suddenly those Life Alert commercials didn't seem so trite.

I haven't been to the doctor for this one. I just...don't want to pay for an x-ray when the treatment of a broken coccyx is non-existant.

But here are some awesome things I've learned about broken tailbones/coccyxeseses...

1. Don't sit on the back side of your butt. Just...don't. You won't like what happens when you do. You just may yowl.

2. Don't carry your 42+ pound kid into the ocean to play in the waves. Seriously. Don't. You'll try to jump or kick your feet while weighted down, and a wave will crash over both of you, and then you'll limp, very pitifully, back to the sand, tail(bone) between your legs.

3. When you have your neighbor's 3 year old kid on your lap and you're sitting on a beach chair on your patio, and a firework randomly shoots off and flies directly under your chair, get the hell out of there, because that's what you need to do. But it's gonna hurt, that whole jumping-up-while-holding-a-terrified-child thing. It's really gonna effing hurt.

**************

So. What does this post mean? Absolutely nothing. But...some advice? Don't break your ribs or your tailbone/coccyx. Just don't. 

Trust me on this one, ok?

July 3, 2012

Book Review: The Last Policeman

What would you do if you knew the world was ending?

What would you do if the date of the world's end was only six months away?

Would you keep working, keep continuity in your life? Would you run away and see the world before its demise?

Or would you kill yourself, afraid to stick around until the bitter end?

The Last Policeman
Ben Winters
 Page Count: 288
Available July 10, 2012
via Quirk Books
Those are the questions you're asked, continually, while reading The Last Policeman, the latest offering by novelist Ben H. Winters, due out via Quirk Books on July 10. (To see the awesome book trailer, go here.)

In it, a massive asteroid tumbles relentlessly on a path that will collide with earth. Physicists can predict the date of impact, and they're working on the area. The world economy has all but shut down; people abandon their job posts in order to enjoy their little bit of remaining life. Martial law is in effect in many places, while guns and drugs climb high on the rungs of the black market ladder.

In this world lives Henry (Hank) Palace, a young policeman who made detective shortly before things started to fall apart.

Hank, though...he refuses to fall apart. Refuses to give up. When a standard-looking suicide case doesn't smell quite right, he flouts the wishes of his superiors and continues to investigate. They frequently remind him he's wasting his time.

The Last Policeman is a traditional mystery/suspense/whodunit set in a sci-fi world, and it was a roller-coaster of a read.

I'm not typically one for the whodunit set, but for me the pull of a sci-fi world at the END of the world was undeniable. Each little snippet of life pre-impact felt insightful. Each time the asteroid was mentioned, my stomach churned a little.

Because...

What WOULD I do? How WOULD I protect my own child from the end of the world? How WOULD I say goodbye to a life I love?

Heady stuff for a whodunit, don't you think?

So, the mystery part was secondary to me, sure. 

But still, it was still pretty exciting. I turned pages compulsively, finishing the story in just a few short days, because I had to know: was the suicide a murder? Why would anyone kill an unassuming risk assessor? And for whom the hell is Hank's bizarre-o sister, Nico, actually working?

The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy, and Winters left enough loose ends that I want to keep reading.  I'll look forward to the next book, and hope to get some answers from it.

In short, this is a great read - I enjoyed the whole experience.