Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Perseverance

Writing is hard. By that, I don't mean writing in the sense of putting down words on paper (or monitor). Creating interesting worlds and populating them with believable characters, devising a plot with twists and turns and logical conclusions, dotting your eyes and matching your conjugations - sure that requires a lot of skill, but that's not the hard I'm talking about. I'm talking about writing as an industry.

Right now I feel quite blessed in life. I have a new job where people appreciate me, a new car that's all shiny and reliable, good relationships with the people I care about, and a plan for the future that is exciting and wonderful. But I'm working harder than I ever have in my life. I'm exhausted on a daily basis and have no down time to ever recover. All because I write.

And it's not even the fun stuff of making up stories. I'm editing. I'm querying agents. I'm researching fonts and trim sizes, studying marketing and building my platform. I'm doing all the things necessary to be a successful author, knowing that even such a title means still having to work another job. All of that on top of the normal things that everyone else in life has to do. It's hard.

I'm not saying to this to ask for any pity. I'm lucky to have such hardships compared to the real difficulties that many people face in life. I'm privileged and I know it. But my life would be much easier if I gave up on the writing. I've been rejected many times in many ways, the world seeming to suggest I should give up the writing. I could just stop and no one would blame me - or even notice.

But I won't. I'll keep writing. Because I've come to realize how much perseverance is the main trait to separate the successful from the could-have-been. I have so much respect and admiration for those who keep at it, whether they've found that success or not, and not a little pride in the fact I'm one of them. I could live an easy life, but what would happen to my stories? Who would tell them? Who would hear them?

I'm a writer, and writing is hard. For all of us. But it's worth it, so write on!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Makes a Soldier a Hero?

American Sniper is turning into a box office phenomenon right now, but not without some controversy. Many call it the story of an American hero, but some question whether a sniper is the best example of heroic behavior. I haven't seen the film (or read the book), so I'm not casting judgment on it specifically, but the question of what makes a hero is something I think about a lot as regards to my writing (which often features heroes of some form or another). I'm not really all that interested in American Sniper because everything I've heard about it suggests that it starts with the assumption that Chris Kyle was a hero and goes from there (maybe I'm wrong, but that's the impression it gives and its fan's support). I want to step back and avoid that assumption and talk about the connection between soldier and hero.

Does the simple fact that someone chose to be a soldier make them a hero? On both sides of any war? Does their individual conduct matter? Their motivations or role in the fighting? How about the reason for the fighting in the first place. Does a just cause create heroes? And who decides what's just?

Michael Moore offended a lot of people when he tweeted that his grandfather was killed by a German sniper in WWII and he was taught that snipers are cowards who shoot people in the back. But is he wrong? Was that Gernam soldier a hero like Chris Kyle? And if not, why not? Both were hiding in the shadows, killing people from long distance while other soldiers braved the ground to advance. One shot soldiers, one shot women and children, both to protect their heavily armed companions. Both were part of an invading force there to topple the country's existing government.

In hindsight we can agree that the Nazi's were evil and wrong, but are we now sure that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was right and honorable? Do the relatives of the innocent civilians who were killed as collateral damage believe that? Does it even matter when assessing the actions of a lone soldier in the middle of that chaos?

I recently read an account of a medal of honor winner who literally threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. That kind of sacrifice seems pretty heroic to me. I think I'd respect a Nazi soldier who did the same, but I'd still hesitate to call them a hero because the term takes in a lot more than a single act. That one moment, even if spurred by a pure motivation like saving others' lives, can't erase a campaign of horror focused on conquering others and wiping an entire group of people off the face of the earth.

At the extremes it's always easier to make judgments, but we have plenty of our own history full of murky motivations and dubious justifications. American soldiers have slaughtered innocents and perpetrated atrocities on the world, so we can't claim any pure moral high ground. We've attempted to wipe out the Native Americans in the name of establishing a democracy based on liberty (but only for those of the right skin color). We've invaded countries to overthrow properly elected governments and gone to war based on justifications that were deliberately fabricated. It's hard to say that being an American insures you are fighting on the right side of history.

To paraphrase an old saying, it's the victors who decide right and wrong, but is that good enough for us? Are we okay with always justifying our actions and those who served to execute what may have been a wrong choice? Shouldn't we be capable of a little more insight than that, and can't we judge individuals based on both their own actions and the motivations that led them to the situation?

There are a lot of grey areas in war, and it makes a very interesting line of questions to pursue that delve deep into human nature and the values of society. Soldiers are necessary to protect the freedom of the innocent. Defending oneself and a fair and democratic society might involve hurting (and killing) people, some with evil intentions but some with the noblest of intentions. I can accept that. But I'm not sure when necessary evil rises to become heroic.

It makes an interesting discussion and that makes it a good topic to explore in fiction. I've written several soldier characters, most in fantastical settings, but to some extent a soldier is a soldier, whether they use an M-16 or a scimitar or laser rifle. The ones who do not want the job, who are forced into acting and hate what they have to do are the ones I find the most heroic. One my characters was actually bred to be a soldier and during his immortal life has fought in countless wars. Despite the personal joy he takes in excelling at the fight, even he hopes the world will outgrow the need for him and his skills. A hero doesn't just do the right thing, there needs to be some awareness of what is right and wrong and making a choice.

One of the traits that helps to separate the hero from the anti-hero for me is their personal viewpoint towards the violence that they commit. Those that enjoy the violence, that actively seek it out for whatever reason, always come across as less heroic. It doesn't matter if they're fighting for the right side - people who take any pleasure in killing others, even the bad guy, lack the compassion that I feel is necessary for any true hero. On the other hand, those who feel remorse, even when their actions are fully justified, have a humanity that makes them much more sympathetic and someone who I would look up to.

I'm sure there are a lot of heroes among today's soldiers, on any side of any fight, for reasons both large and small. But I find it hard to believe that in any group of so many people, any profession dedicated to violence, everyone is noble and pure. Like the rest of the population, soldiers include the petty, the bored, the casually cruel and downright evil. Hero is a big thing, an important concept. I'm afraid if we don't think about and discuss it, if we just hand out the title of hero as a blanket statement, we're on a path to devalue the word and disparage those who truly deserve it.



Saturday, February 14, 2015

V-Day - Absolute Write Blog Chain

It's been a while since the Absolute Write Blog Chain has happened. But it's back, and I'm happy to be participating again. I wrote up a little story to match the month's theme. Check out the links at the end to find and follow the other links in the chain.

Setting History Straight


"No, no, no. That's not it at all."

Emanual gesticulated wildly from his perch on the divan, wine splashing in drops to stain his silk chemise and splatter the white marble tile. He kicked his feet in tiny spasms as if they could fan away the papers in front of his companion on the floor. "You have no sense of romantic love. Only ridicule resides in your heart."

The accused raised his quill from the parchment, his face white with too much powder and his shabby wig askew. "In oure humour we touche uppan the truth. My love is endeleas, and if mine words aheald hit is only to ahydan my fragyl herte." 

Emanual guffawed, spewing a burgundy mist that settled on the unfinished scroll. "Geoffrey, my dear, there is not a soft part of you other than your delightful arse. You can pout all you want, but I know your soul is as hard as this flooring and your wit sharper than your wisdom."

Geoffrey pursed his lips further, but he couldn't prevent them from twisting into a smirch. "But thyn love is min, is hit ne?"

Setting the now empty glass on the floor, Emanual leaned forward and stroked Geoffrey's cheek. "Truly it is, but if you wish to show your delicate feelings to the world, I would take it askance if you did so in your customarily biting manner. Perhaps you can slip in a sentiment of meaning that would inspire instead of infuriate."

"Biddan, what would hastow awritan?"

Footsteps echoed in the chamber, the heavy clod  of Geoffrey's manservant who appeared from some unknown vantage point. His knack of replenishing supplies of liquor just when needed endeared him to Emanual, if his surly countenance did not. He placed the freshly uncorked offering on the writing desk, too crowded with half empty vessels and remains of a feast to be used for it's designed purpose, and stopped to retrieve the empty bottle that had rolled to a rest beside the mantle. He left without a word, or even a glance at his master.

"Thank yow for thyn service, oh most dutyfil troglidyt," Geoffrey called after him, his courage always greater with no face before him.

Emanual bent down to tap the paper in front of Geoffrey. "Fragile is your ego, if not your heart. But stay upon your purpose."

Geoffrey turned his attention back to his present company, reaching for Emanual's hand, but too slow. "Again, what werds maest soote and satisfying would yow stelan fro me?"

"If I dictate, then what honor lies in that? Your tongue is the one of talent - many talents if sooth be told - and upon it lays the burden of devising lines of lasting merit. Perhaps an ode to a memory of past, a symbol to inspire those simple sods who follow your tales knowing not your meaning."

Both men paused in thought, though perhaps not matching in subject or spirit. After some time, Geoffrey asked, "What symbel would hold sich power ofer the gat-tothed swearm?"

Emanual held in his smile, knowing a serious question meant his plan had fruited. "Do you know the story of Saint Valentine?"

***

Some time later, deep into the night, Emanual emerged from the servant's entrance at the back of the estate. A sliver of a moon hung low on the horizon and a few steps - stumbling, inebriated steps in case anyone observed - carried him into the darkness of the trees where his sudden dematerialization went unobserved.

He reappeared in bright sunlight, on a field of impossibly green grass beneath a temple of indescribable beauty. His garb changed from silken pantaloons and a flowery blouse to a one-shouldered robe tied loosely by a braid of gold. Walking straight and true, he made his way towards a pool of clear water where nymphs splashed gaily under the watchful eyes of dryads, all serenaded by a cloven-hooved piper. Every being turned at his approach and a small human with a feathered hat rushed to his side.

"Were you successful, my lord?"

The man who had gone by the name of Emanual smiled, a pure smile that filled all it touched with love and desire. "Of course. The seeds have been sown and in time this day shall become mine, with uncountable numbers worshipping at my altar whether they know it or not. The rest of my brethren will continue to fade, but Cupid will be remembered as long as the race of man survives."

***

Hope you liked it. In case it wasn't clear, the theme for this month was Valentine's Day. And if you don't know, many believe the holiday owes it modern incarnation of celebrating lovers to none other than Geoffrey Chaucer, who included a few references to Valentine's Day in a number of works. Made me wonder why he did that.

Here are the rest of the links - check them out as the links go live over the course of the month.

Participants:

Angyl78 jelyzabeth.com (link to post)
Forbidden Snowflake www.vinjii.ch (link to post)
LeighAnderson http://leighandersonromance.com/ (link to post)
Layla Lawlor http://www.laylalawlor.com (link to post)
Ahe├»la http://thewriteaholicblog.wordpress.com (link to post)
Kohuether www.kathmarketing.com (link to post)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Good & the Bad: Ice Cream

If you're on Facebook (everyone is but we all secretly wish we weren't), I'm sure you've seen the many 'tests' that float around the newsfeeds. You know the ones, where after a couple questions they'll tell you what your real color is, who you were in a past life, or what Harry Potter you should date. No one takes them seriously and I don't have the time to bother. But then one popped up that claimed to tell you what kind of ice cream you are. Now it's personal.

Ice cream is a large part of my life and I take it very seriously. I grew up on it. I have very particular standards and very set likes and dislikes. From generic brands that surprise to premium to all-organic flavors that trigger waves of ecstasy, I try everything and rate it all. I once made it a goal to have ice cream at least once every day for an entire summer. Not when I was ten, but when I was thirty-five. I succeeded quite easily.

So when some silly internet meme claims it can tell what kind of ice cream I am, I have doubts. But I take the test anyway and it tells me I'm an 'Everything But the Kitchen Sink' ice cream. What? First, that doesn't even exist. Second, that sounds awful. So let me set the record straight.

The Good


My favorite flavor has changed over the years, but these days nothing beats a plain old vanilla. Not just any vanilla, but a real smooth and creamy vanilla bean flavor. Breyers recently changed their vanilla bean to 'natural' vanilla, but it's still my favorite. Alden's Vanilla Bean is right up there, but it tends to cost twice as much. (As much as I love ice cream, I still love not spending a ton of money on it even more).

As a kid, mint chocolate chip was my favorite. I still remember when the new neighbors moved in and first introduced me to the flavor. My whole life changed that summer day. Dreyers was the standard - as a kid I didn't have as discriminating a palate. These days, the best way to recreate that sensation is a Coldstone's Mint Ice Cream loaded with white chocolate chips - can you say sugar overload?

Recently we've been making our own ice cream at home, using all natural and organic ingredients, including eggs from our chickens. The flavors have been outstanding (Newman-O's Mint Cookie was a genius decision), but it's been hard to get the consistency perfect. It takes just the right temperature during the mixing, and then the freezer has a tendency to be a little too cold because it's a little too cold (with more than ice cream - lots of frozen veggies, I swear).

One of the flavors we copied was mushroom ice cream. Before you freak out in disgust, you have to try it first. Candy Cap mushrooms smell (and taste) exactly like fine maple syrup. Our local ice cream shop, Cowlicks, makes a version that is as sweet as anything and pure heaven for maple lovers. It's not my favorite flavor, and ours came out not quite as sweet, but the fact that we picked the mushrooms ourselves and made a good ice cream out of them felt very satisfying.

The Bad


Contrary to my test results, one of the things I really don't like in ice cream is a lot of different things all thrown together. I don't like fruit in my ice cream. I don't like nuts. I don't like to mix in contrasting flavors (chocolate and rum raisin - eww!). I don't like ice creams where the additives overwhelm the cream.

But there aren't really any bad ice creams, just flavors better suited to a different taster (like books for different readers).

How about you? What's your favorite ice cream? Or have you had any bad ice cream experiences?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Good & the Bad: Sitcoms

Continuing on my series of post to share what I like and what I not-so-much. Let's look at sicoms. Situation Comedies. The name implies that they involve a set-up that is the source of the humor. Funny happenings in common environments, that we can all related to, like a nice guy who works at a boring job full of weird people, or a dad trying to raise a family of lovable, trouble-making kids. Good, light-hearted humor.

The truth is, sitcoms often go much deeper than that. They often use humor to help us relate to horrible situations (MASH), or deal with important societal issues (All in the Family, The Jeffersons). The great shows make us laugh and think a little bit, and for me it always starts with the writing.

I love clever writing. I like to catch the subtleties, the little quirks that make each character into a deep and real person, the quick lines that reference a joke from a season before, and some nice word-play that shows a mastery of language. It doesn't have to be sophisticated (Family Guy has some genius behind it's crudity), but it has to have some wit behind it.

The Good


Let's start with my favorite show of all time: Cheers. Great dialogue? Check. Real characters? Check. Profound social issues? Not so much. What I loved about Cheers wasn't the big picture. The show didn't hold a mirror up tot society, or make me consider hanging out in a bar in a different light. It occasionally had a nice social theme (when Sam's old team-mate turned out to be gay), but those episodes were rare and never the focus. The heart of the show was the family. Not your biological, we have to love each other in spite of our differences family, but your friends are the true family family.

I love that a group of random people bonded together (in a bar of all places) to care about each other in a way that defines family for me. People who stand together no matter what. People who know each other's failings and care despite them. People who tease and laugh and love regardless of what else is happening in the outside world. I loved that about Cheers and can enjoy any episode as I watch it for the dozenth time. And Coach is my favorite character of all time.

More modernly, 30 Rock did the same thing for me. Set in your classic dysfunctional work environment, what made the show stand out was the quality of the writing and over-the-top performances by Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. It was larger than real life but almost every episode came back to these strange people showing their love for each other, the craziness only emphasizing the real humanity at its heart.

Some of my other favorites include: Arrested Development - the very best at continuing jokes and themes throughout multiple episodes and tying things together in unpredictable ways; Archer - beneath the drunken ramblings and crass sexual innuendo, there's some really good manipulation of the English language; Coupling (the British version, not the insipid American fail) - the model for Friends, but with more courage and real life situations. And I'll finish off the list with The Mindy Project - once again a family in practice, but all the characters are new and fresh, and the skewed perspective of modern life comes shining through.

The Bad


On the other side of the coin, what makes a sitcom bad? Sure, there are the ones that completely lack humor (Cop Rock, 2 Broke Girls, Mama's Family), but that's too easy. What about those that do have humor, that manage to last for years and gain a large audience? Some of the most popular shows are also my least-liked, often because the way to appeal to the masses is to be broad. The Big Bang Theory has some good writing and acting, but the humor revolves around stereotypes that are completely inaccurate and rather belittling. Everybody Loves Raymond had a universal setting - the horrible inlaws - but I never connected with people who may have loved each other but in practice treated each other poorly. There's a point where the love doesn't make up for the pain, and that's not funny to me.

A couple of shows really put me on the fence. Every once in a while I catch a South Park episode that knocks it out of the park. Sharp, biting criticism of hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of our popular culture (see what I mean at The Washington Post). Sometimes it's a bunch of uninspired fart jokes. Modern Family definitely has the love between misfit characters working, but somehow it doesn't inspire me most of the time. Maybe it tries to hard to make the quirky fit.

So there are some of my favorite shows, and some that I really can't stand. Do you agree? Any favorites you want to share? Any sitcoms that make you run screaming for the hills? Let me know.