Thursday, September 24, 2015

One poem, then another

I heard a reading of a poem last night on NPR. It was called "A History of Everything Including You" by Jenny Hollowell. (Link is to a video. I found a copy of the text here.) I liked the beginning, but eventually the simplistic boiling down of all human history irked me. It felt pessimistic, like it was mocking humanity instead of representing it.

My college edition of Byron's Poetry
The last part, in particular, about a marriage that's American Beauty meets Everybody Loves Raymond depressed the hell out of me. The message I was left with was, "Life sucks. It's meaningless and 95% ugly but hey, what else is there to do?"

The experience brought to mind a similar poem. It doesn't chronicle the beginning of human history, but the end of it - Byron's "Darkness". Byron's poem is about the apocalypse and the slow, awful death of absolutely everything. (Alternatively, it's about a volcano in Indonesia, but that's a matter of interpretation.) Here are the first few lines:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air

How is it that this doesn't depress me? To the contrary, I'm drawn to it like I'm drawn to Tim Burton movies and Edgar Allan Poe and Vegetarian Vampires by Remedios Varo. (No good link to Varo's painting. Google or look it up on Pinterest if you want to see. It's worth it.)

So why is this? Is it dark humor or the romance of death or something? Maybe it's the absoluteness of darkness and death. The people in Byron's poem are doomed. No doubt about it. Beetlejuice was dead before his movie even started. The narrator of A Cask of Amontillado was incurably insane.

There was no hope in these stories, but there was surety. They're black and white, not gray. Hollowell's poem is gray. I always think of literature as a whole as gray, because it's open to interpretation. If you can state a thesis and point to evidence in the text to support it, you're right. That can be a wonderful thing. But gray also leaves a lot of room for moving about. It's not stable.

I think that's it. It's got something to do with stability.

Reality is unstable. It's the epitome of unstable, isn't it? Life is a never-ending battle against darkness and evil. Every choice is a swing at the ethereal enemy. It's exhausting.

Have you ever thought about how you'd react if your plane was going down? I mean, going down hard, with no hope of survival. Don't judge me, but I have thought about this. There are really only two options for how to react in this situation. You can scream your head off, fighting and ranting and raving to the end. Or you can be Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, which appeared spontaneously in the air, already plummeting to its death.

the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again.

In other words, you can accept that the plane will crash and ride it out nice and calm. I like to think I'd do the latter. Dylan Thomas might disapprove, but perhaps not. There's dignity in serenity, in acceptance, in not giving in to fear.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite images from Byron's Darkness, and a hope that you've enjoyed these existential ramblings as much as I have :-)

The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal : as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Predictions for Game of Thrones Season 5 Finale, OR How I Wasted My Morning

UPDATE (6/19/15): Correct predictions highlighted for my satisfaction. That word's a stretch, though. Despite accurately guessing the best-case-scenarios for 6 characters and the worst-case-scenarios for 4, I have found this entire season to be so unsatisfying that I'm glad it's over.

Warnings
Trigger - Mentions of sexual violence
Spoilers - All the spoilers*
*I wish! These are really just guesses, but they include spoilers from previous episodes + the books

So, I don't know about you, but I've been incredibly distracted thinking about Sunday's season 5 finale of Game of Thrones. To help me let this train of thought go, I thought I'd outline all of my worst fears and best hopes for the characters below. Worst-case scenarios (WCSs) come before best-case scenarios (BCSs), obviously, because it's GoT.

I have so little hope.

In ESSOS

Daenerys
  • WCS: Wandering the Red Waste 2.0
  • BCS: She gets really good at riding Drogon. She begins the process of leaving Meereen for Westeros.
Tyrion
  • WCS: He dies. From anything. This would be catastrophic. I would cry. Or Jorah kisses him and he gets greyscale.
  • BCS: He becomes the dragonrider of Rhaegal or Viserion. His dragon burns some bad people up. Judge me all you want, but I love watching bad people die by dragonfire, especially when the event is preceded by the word dracaris.
Jorah
  • WCS: His greyscale is revealed and he's banished from the city for a third time, which would be boring and repetitive.
  • BCS: He dies an honorable death before he can infect anyone else or be banished some more.
Daario + Missandei + Grey Worm
  • WCS: The Sons of the Harpy take over the city and kill or imprison them. Or Jorah gives them greyscale.
  • BCS: They sit quietly and wait for their queen to return.
Arya
  • WCS: Meryn Trant rapes her (I'm sorry, but given the show's history, it's not impossible.)
  • BCS: She kills Meryn Trant. Also Jaqen blinds her because right now her storyline is boring and some temporary blindness would spice it up a bit.
Varys
  • Is he still on the show?

In DORNE

Jaime
  • WCS: Nothing happens. He isn't in the episode.
  • BCS: He's in a fight. He or Bronn dies. They're all boring at this point.
The Sand Snakes + Ellaria
  • WCS: They continue being useless.
  • BCS: They kick some ass like they were always supposed to. Or one of them dies and this gets Doran off his butt and motivates him to do some political damage.
Myrcella + Trystane
  • WCS: They go to King's Landing. *yawn*
  • BCS: They make out some more. This show needs more making out.
Doran
  • WCS: He's not in the episode, or he continues to do boring things that make me lose hope that he ever had a master plan to take down the Lannisters.
  • BCS: He unveils a master plan to take down the Lannisters, which is pretty much just Cersei at this point, although Doran may not know that Tommen isn't evil.

In THE NORTH

Jon
  • WCS: Olly kills him, and his death is clear and finite. They burn his body and he doesn't even survive the flames like a Targaryen. He never gets to ride a dragon or meet his awesome aunt (presumably). He never learns the identity of his parents. GoT loses its last swoon-worthy hero. Besides Daario.
  • BCS: He lives and Olly dies from something random. I'm tired of that kid's dirty looks.
Sam + Gilly
  • WCS: Sam throws himself in front of Olly's knife to save Jon but dies himself.
  • BCS: He kills Olly and saves Jon. He and Gilly have sex again. Or get married!
Stannis
  • WCS: He continues marching to Winterfell but doesn't get there by the end of the episode.
  • BCS: He conquers Winterfell (because the Boltons need to go) and dies from something super mundane, like falling off a tower. OR HE GETS GREYSCALE!
Melisandre
  • WCS: Stannis wins the battle exactly like she hoped and she continues to believe she knows everything. Maybe they need some more luck so she burns Sansa for being related to the King of the North.
  • BCS: She watches Stannis die and I laugh hysterically as she realizes she was wrong about everything.
Selyse
  • WCS: She enters a conquered Winterfell and acts like a queen.
  • BCS: She quietly kills herself for allowing her daughter to be viciously sacrificed.
Davos
  • WCS: He's not in the episode. Or he stands up to Stannis and Stannis lets Melisandre burn him.
  • BCS: He abandons Stannis or kills him. 
Sansa
  • WCS: She's pregnant with Ramsey's child. Her hellish life continues.
  • BCS: She gets to watch her husband die a horrible death. Also her father-in-law dies and Littlefinger dies, too, because I no longer believe he has good intentions for her. Also Stannis conquers Winterfell and makes her Wardeness of the North. (Although if he did, what would she do? She has no idea what to do with power.)
Brienne
  • WCS: Ramsey or Roose or Stannis kills her.
  • BCS: She rescues Sansa and kills Stannis, Ramsey, Reek, and/or Roose. 
Ramsey
  • WCS: He kills Stannis and continues to treat Sansa and Reek the way he has been.
  • BCS: Most of the episode is devoted to his slow, agonizing death. Sansa gets to watch and smile. Fat Walda burns the papers that legitimized him before his dying eyes.
Roose
  • WCS: He wins the battle against Stannis.
  • BCS: He dies painfully but quickly. I don't want to waste a lot of time on his death, I'd just like to be assured that it happens.
Reek/Theon
  • WCS: He continues living his wretched life.
  • BCS: He kills Ramsey and/or helps Sansa escape. Or he dies. I am so done with this character.

In KING'S LANDING

Cersei
  • WCS: She does her walk of penance but all the focus is on her sexual crimes (because she's a woman and it's GoT). A million people call her a whore (so sick of that word). She gets to the end and Robert Strong rescues her. I know he's coming because they showed him on Qyburn's table but I don't want him to do anything useful. Cersei has been in power far too long.
  • BCS: She does her walk of penance and the focus is on her real crimes, like arranging King Robert's death. There's no Robert Strong and she realizes she's alone. She goes back to Casterly Rock a broken woman so I don't have to look at her anymore.
Margaery
  • WCS: She dies in prison. Or she stays in prison and slowly starves. Or she isn't in the episode at all.
  • BCS: She does some minor penance and gets free of the stupid Sparrows. She returns to her husband and teaches him how to be a real king and they start kicking ass. (Likelihood of happening: <1%.)
Olenna
  • WCS: She's not in the episode. Or she dies and House Tyrell loses its mastermind.
  • BCS: She gets her grandchildren out of prison and eats cotton candy while she watches Cersei's walk of penance.
Tommen
  • WCS: He continues being useless.
  • BCS: He dies. It's time. He's proven himself to be entirely useless with no potential whatsoever. It's time to get Cersei's prophecy moving, and her children have to die for that to happen.
The High Sparrow
  • WCS: He gains more power and his zealots spread beyond King's Landing.
  • BCS: He slips on a banana peel and dies.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Vindication!

Source: SB*Nation
I used to teach 6th grade English, so I find myself particularly susceptible to grammar pet-peeves, but less vs. fewer really gets my goat. With one line, Stannis Baratheon bumped himself up onto my list of favorite GoT characters. If it weren't for Daenerys Targaryen, I might even back him for the iron throne!

UPDATE (6/7/15):
STANNIS IS NO LONGER ONE OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Defensive Writing

A few weeks ago I finished a major rewrite/revision - those words mean pretty much the same thing to me at this point - and I hope that'll be the last one for this book. (Oh, look, I already lied. I intend for there to be one more after my sister reads. But THAT is the last one. Hopefully.)

After I finished the rewrite, my husband read for me and gave me some very excellent feedback. I dubbed last week Overdrive Week because I was determined to apply all of his feedback in five days.
AND I DID IT.
Usually my deadlines are optimistic, but I killed this last one. I was done by 11AM on Friday, at which point I looked around, trying to remember what people do when they're not revising books.

Now that I've caught you up, here's what I wanted to talk about: Defensive Writing. This is a term I made up last week when I was going through Derek's notes. Basically, there were a lot of points in my novel where I would over-explain or justify a situation in a way that disrupted the narrative. I didn't know I did that, but I know exactly why.

I love to read and discuss other people's books, and just like how everyone at a party gets drawn to the kitchen, book discussions are drawn toward the holes. The tropes. The missing character motives. The deus ex machina. The "Why didn't the character just do this? It would have been so much simpler" etc.

I look for these holes in books and I've been on Goodreads enough to know that everyone else does, too. And it's not because we're jerks, trying to tear each other's work apart. We're lovers of literature. We look for the weak points not because we want to find them, but because we don't. We want to search and think and discuss and come to the conclusion that This is a Great Book. For me, finding a single great book I can recommend to everyone is enough to justify reading a dozen books that are just meh and one or two that I donate because I can't stand the sight of them.

So the problem is not that readers look for holes in stories. The problem is that when I wrote the draft Derek critiqued, I had written it like a reader. I saw all the places where people might poke the plot with a stick to see if it collapsed and I added a few extra sentences to prop it up. There were a lot of sentences in that draft along the lines of,
MC knew this wouldn't work because A and this wouldn't work because B, which meant C was the only option.
Derek pointed out quite rightly that 90% of the time, such justifications for my choices are unnecessary and they come across as defensive.

I've spent the past few days thinking about how to avoid this pitfall in the future and here's what I've come up with: I'm not going to try to avoid it at all. I'm going to let myself trip into the pit because that's what drafts are for.

I don't ascribe to the idea that stories are like dinosaur skeletons waiting to be unearthed, but I do believe it's necessary to write a whole lot of crap before you realize what a story needs. For me, defensive writing is part of that crap, part of my process, and now that I know about it, I can make later drafts that much stronger.

That's all for now. Good day - or good morning, or good night...good afternoon?

What time zone are you in?

just kidding

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Scalzi at Vroman's

Tonight Derek and I went to Vroman's (link to tweet w/ pic) to see John Scalzi talk about his newest book, Lock In. I was anxious about this event for a few reasons: 1) My anxiety has been getting the better of me lately, a problem I credit to being socially oversaturated the past few weeks; and 2) I wondered if it would be better not to meet someone I've admired from afar.

People often say, "Don't meet your heroes." That resonated with me because Derek and I recently met an artist responsible for a huge, beloved photograph that hangs in our home. She told us about the creation of the photograph and afterwards, I felt a little let down, like I had been happier not knowing the technical details. It wasn't a huge disappointment, but I felt that by meeting the artist, I had made a preventable mistake, and I was eager not to repeat that mistake so soon.

However, I had already bought the Scalzi book earlier in the week, and I wanted to fight my anxiety by being brave. So I got dressed, put on my make-up, liked what I saw in the mirror, and off we went.

By the time we arrived - 10 minutes early - the event was standing room only (link to tweet w/ pic - I'm in that cluster in the back left). I didn't mind because I actually had a good view, and I was standing next to shelves full of fancy soaps that smelled like heaven, and I ended up, through some stroke of serendipity, standing with "the cool kids". John Scalzi entered the event space through my cramped corridor and he stopped to talk to several friends, all of whom were standing close to me. He gave Derek and I a brief, puzzled look, perhaps wondering if he knew us, too. I assured him that he didn't know us, but I was very happy to meet him.

So what was this particular hero like in real life? Well, shorter than I expected. When I read Scalzi's tweets and blog, I picture him as this wizard-of-oz-type floating head, issuing tweets like decrees in a booming, amplified voice. Seeing his normal-sized head on shoulders was a little weird, but nothing disappointing. Beyond trivial details, he was more cheerful than I expected, humbled by how many people were there and by how many old friends and schoolmates had come to see him. In general, he walks an artful line between confidence and humility. This was definitely going better than my introduction to the artist.

Scalzi read to the crowd, not from Lock In, but from an unpublished work; a treat, he said, for those of us who made the effort to come to the signing. I had never seen an author do this before. The result was fantastic. He read a whole chapter, and he had my attention completely. As he joked afterward, the chapter was about a conversation between four people sitting around a table, yet the dialogue was so engaging and clever that I wanted to hear what came next!


Finally came the Q&A. He got some good questions about what inspired him to be a writer (encouragement from teachers and friends + the realization that writing gave him a voice he might not otherwise have), whether he'd write more books in the world of Lock In (that depends on Lock In's success), and whether he could talk about the TV shows and video games based on some of his earlier works that are currently in production (a producer there stated he could not).

One woman who was called on admitted that she didn't have a question. Instead, she wanted to thank Scalzi for the topics he tackles on his blog, saying that his words meant a lot to her. This resonated me with deeply. Here's a confession: To date, I have not read any of John Scalzi's books. I plan to, but I went to the signing tonight primarily because I have read his blog and followed him on twitter for years, and everything I read makes me admire him more.

In the midst of the recent misogynistic chaos plaguing the gaming world - neck-beards threatening violence against female gamers and those who speak up about the way women are portrayed in and excluded from gaming - people like Scalzi roll their eyes and shout that the men who oppose female voices in gaming are being sexist, plain and simple. Scalzi admitted that he has several advantages which allow him to say such things with impunity. He's male, white, straight, and respected in his field. He does get backlash when he supports people like Anita Sarkeesian, but the backlash he gets is, "I'm not buying any more of your books," a consequence which does not bother him because he knows he has plenty of other fans who will. He knows that if he were a woman and did the same thing, the repercussions would be far worse, probably along the lines of what Anita and others like her are facing now: threats of violence beyond the scope of what most people would believe.

In the interim between Q&A and signing, something happened that bothered me. Derek and I ran into an acquaintance we had met at another book signing months ago. I was happy to see him, but I wasn't happy with how the conversation went. He talked to Derek about the tech world, the space program, etc. and asked some half-hearted questions about what I do. I said that I was writing and then he asked me if I'd read a certain book. He told me the author and claimed it wasn't an obscure title, but I had to admit I didn't recall ever coming across it. And then he said, "Well, that just tells me you know nothing about fantasy."

The book I'm writing now is not fantasy; it's YA science fiction, yet YA and fantasy and sci-fi are all worlds in which I feel supremely comfortable. Hell, I have an Elvish tattoo on my back. I've not only read The Silmarillion, I've read it multiple times and I can tell you that my favorite book in it is Akallabeth. Mists of Avalon is one of my favorite books, and I can tell you the mottoes of every major house in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Yet - based on one title I haven't read - I know nothing about fantasy?

I hardly feel the need to argue that the world of fantasy literature is large and diverse, full of sub-genres and countless titles, all of which carry different values to different readers. Most people I know don't read as much as I do, but when they tell me what they do read, I always try to react positively, because at least they're reading something! I might make a recommendation for something else I think they'd like, but even if they said to me, "I like 50 Shades of Gray, so I'm really into romance," I would not react with a comment like the one I heard tonight. I would understand that this person may not know a lot about the romance genre - maybe they haven't read a single other romance book! - but I would not quiz them or lecture them or shoot down their excited claim that they're really into romance. (As I side note, I didn't even tell that acquaintance tonight that I read fantasy. He must have made the assumption that by writing any fiction at all, I must be a well-read expert in every genre . . . *facepalm*)

My general view is that if people are reading ANYTHING, that is GOOD, so I do not like this dismissiveness when it comes to single titles or authors. I know from being a teacher that discouraging a kid from reading a book they like may discourage them from reading for the rest of their lives.

- end rant -

I was relieved when the acquaintance left and it was time for Derek and I to join the signing line. Given that it was Vroman's, the queuing process was very civil. We picked out Christmas cards while we waited and when we reached the front and John signed my book, I barely summoned the courage to tell him that I, too, appreciate what he writes online, and that I'm glad he uses his voice the way he does. Not at all an eloquent speech, but he seemed to understand me, and to Anxious Dani, that's called success.

In terms of John Scalzi, meeting my hero did not at all diminish the admiration I have for him. It DID make me determined to finally read some of his books.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ALS Challenge


While Derek and I were in Michigan for my sister's wedding, my dad was nominated for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by a friend. My sister and I took great delight in explaining how he would have to pour a bucket of ice water on his head. At first he refused, but we wore him down and about an hour before I had to leave for the airport, the bucket came down.

In case anyone reading this is wondering what I'm talking about, here's a brief explanation. (Please keep in mind that we're talking about a viral social media phenomenon and I am not an authority on this subject, if there even is such a thing. This is my interpretation based on the videos I've watched.)

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge:
  1. The purpose of the challenge is to raise money for research into a cure for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Many people know it as the disease that afflicts Stephen Hawking.
  2. If challenged, you have 24 hours to respond.
  3. Responses must be filmed and posted online.
  4. Traditionally, nominees could respond to the challenge by either donating to ALS research (www.alsa.org/donate) or pouring a bucket of ice water on their heads. However, the challenge has evolved, and now it seems the gracious thing to do is donate regardless. There have been great examples of people donating without any ice water involved. (See Sir Patrick Stewart's video.)
  5. Nominees who do pour ice water on their heads get to nominate three new people to accept the challenge in turn.
For his nominations, my dad chose his two sons-in-law and - duh duh DUH - my mom! Her face when he announced it during filming was priceless, and any trepidation she had about pouring a bucket of ice water on his head before the announcement went out the window at that point.

This morning, Derek completed the challenge. In the video (below), he mentions our friend Will who was diagnosed with ALS three years ago. Will's wife once referred to ALS as an orphan disease, which means it's under-researched and under-resourced (treatment-wise) because it's rare and because many ALS patients lose their lives so quickly that even if pharmaceutical companies did create effective treatments, they would not have enough customers to make the drugs profitable. Those words have haunted me, and for that reason, I am so glad this fundraising scheme has gone viral. When I made our donation this morning, I was thrilled to see that ALSA reported donations exceeding $94 million in the past 30 days. I hope to see that figure double or triple before the fad wanes.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Two Parties in a Pod

My sister is getting married this summer, and my biggest responsibility as matron of honor was to plan her bachelorette party and bridal shower. I'm pretty proud of the results, so I thought I'd share some of the details here.

Note: Due to so many guests (including my sister and I) having to fly in from out of town, we held the parties back-to-back, hence "Two Parties in a Pod".

The bachelorette party was unconventional. I didn't have a bachelorette party myself, and I frankly would have been useless at planning the traditional type, so with the bride's permission, I based the party on the Midnight Dinners from Erin Morgenstern's novel The Night Circus. In the book, these dinners were sumptuous affairs with very few guests, wondrous entertainment, and food so good that the host wouldn't disclose their ingredients.

Left: I used a red ink pad and a stencil to make envelope liners, and the invitations were tri-fold, held together in the front with sticky-backed ribbon and badges with a quote from the novel; Middle: a wrapped copy of The Night Circus; Right: invitation assembly; I stenciled the backs of the RSVP envelopes and cards and found address labels and stamps that matched the color scheme
We held the party at 7 instead of midnight, but otherwise, I think I was able to capture the essence of those fictional meals. There were only 12 guests and the dinner was held in a restaurant's private room that doubles as a wine cellar. The color scheme was black, white, and red because that's the the color scheme of the novel's eponymous circus, and those colors lent themselves well to a nighttime Victorian dinner. The guests all wore black and white and my sister, the bride-to-be, wore red. Our entertainment was the sweetest violinist who was so good, my sister insisted on keeping her an hour later than we'd planned.


The Details (clockwise from top left):
  1. Chocolate mice favors from L.A. Burdick in NY, apparently the exact mice that inspired Erin Morgenstern when she was writing The Night Circus
  2. Vignette table with framed B&W pics of my sis and her fiance, a framed print of the novel's protagonist, Celia, along with a mat that guests signed, and a Wishing Tree (inspired by a tree from the novel) on which guests hung candles and made wishes for my sis
  3. My place setting, ft. calligraphed placecards and LED tealights inside real wax holders
  4. Boxed favor - L.A. Burdick was kind enough to package the mice in the party's color scheme
  5. Red bows tied around each chair
  6. The complete tablescape (everyone sat together at one table)
  7. I sent temporary tattoos to every guest so we'd all match at the party; you can also see a sliver of my black and white dress and red nail polish in this pic
  8. Close-up of tablescape ft. handmade table runner
  9. (center) Close-up of centerpieces by Red Poppy Floral Design - red carnations and lush black magic roses in mercury glass pedestal bowls
* * *

The bridal shower took place the following afternoon. The theme of this party was rain - a 'rain shower' - get it? This party had twice as many guests and a color scheme of turquoise, navy, and orange.


The Details (clockwise from top left):
  1. Instead of favors, we played a gift-stealing game in which guests had to answer trivia questions about marriage traditions; if they answered incorrectly, they got to open a wrapped present like the ones shown here; if they got their question right, they could open a wrapped present or steal a gift someone had already opened; very few people stole despite my mother's vehement encouragement that they do so
  2. The tablescape - one long table for all the guests ft. a filato paper runner and chair bows
  3. Balloon 'clouds' with ribbon 'rain'
  4. Vignette table ft. framed photos, silk flowers in watering cans, and floating candles
  5. Tablescape again - my mother planted begonias which we used as centerpieces, alternating them with tall glass vases that held parasols and acrylic 'raindrops'; you can also see the banner I made in the background
  6. Calligraphed placecards with a raincloud-inspired stamp
  7. Cupcakes with mini umbrellas
  8. My place setting
  9. (center) A custom-color m&m mix inside tiny pails lined with wax paper
* * *

Frankly, I'm exhausted just thinking about these parties again. They were a lot of work, and while I'm thrilled they went well, I'm also relieved to get back to writing without distractions.