Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: March, 2014

Toying with Fun

Recently I discovered this virtual LEGO builder. It’s perfect for those who don’t have the money or the space to buy a bunch of LEGO bricks.

LEGO was one of my favorite toys while I was growing up. Basically, I had all these building blocks and I could build any damn thing I wanted. I was only limited by my imagination. Most of the other toys I had were what I considered to be gender neutral. A robot, wooden models of dinosaur skeletons, stuffed toys, a light microscope (which turned out to be somewhat prophetic as I still use microscopes–for work). At one point, I also had some My Little Ponies although nowadays, one could make the argument that those are gender neutral as well.

Another time, I had somehow convinced my parents to buy me a gigantic purple makeup case. I was fascinated by it because it had all these compartments inside. But being me, I didn’t use it for makeup storage at all. Instead, I turned it into my personal curio case which I had stuffed with minerals, shells, miniatures, and other assorted odd things. Eventually I had so much stuff, it overflowed into a large green case that was supposed to be for art supplies but, well, I certainly wasn’t going to use it for its intended purpose as I wasn’t the arty one in my family.

Dolls and action figures were another matter. I didn’t like toys as representations of people. Was I a budding misanthropist? I don’t think so, but I’m sure back then, I probably couldn’t have been able to articulate exactly why I disliked those sorts of toys. In hindsight, it had far more to do with my personality and my priorities for play rather than cultural baggage or any feminist notions.

So what the heck do I mean by “priorities for play”? It means my reasons for playing with toys. I wanted to have fun, of course, but my idea of fun involves imagination and curiosity. Robots and microscopes and, yes, even ponies are toys built for imagination and/or curiosity. Dolls (and to some extent, action figures) don’t fit those two purposes so well. When you’re playing with a doll in the typical way (and not setting fire to it to figure out its combustible properties), you are mimicking real life. And personally, when I play, I look for the extraordinary, the wonderful, the fascinating. Not the mundane.

Other people might find dolls extraordinary, wonderful, and fascinating. And that’s fine. I’m not saying that when they’re playing with dolls, the fun they’re having is quantitatively or even qualitatively different than the fun that I’m having with my stuff. But I suggest that sort of fun they’re having is possibly different than mine. Do they activate different parts of the brain? I have no idea–but it would be an interesting study.

I have no problem with what people play with as long as it’s their own choice to play with that toy. Toys are for fun. It’s only when certain toys are forced upon a kid or are marketed towards a certain segment of the population that I think toys cease to be fun. Instead, they become tools to either enforce or break social norms.

So, back to the toy that started all this–LEGO. I’d say, go, play with it because it’s fun. And if you hate LEGO, then go play with something else! The whole point is to not let others dictate your play. Listen to yourself and play what you want to play.

The Shiver Down The Spine

Unsettling, weird adventures is what I would describe the sort of mysteries I like to read–not really mysteries in an Agatha Christie sense but “mysterious” in a thematic way. I’ve been thinking back to the mysteries I read as a kid, and I admit I started out with Nancy Drew just like everyone else. But it was only after a few books that I began to wander off to other literary locations.

It’s been a long time since I read The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder but I recall it was one of the few books I really enjoyed because I reread it a couple of times. It was weird and unsettling and, well, I just loved that. I wasn’t sure what the other kids were reading, but it definitely wasn’t this. It might be a Newbery Honor book, but no one was recommending it. In fact, I had originally stumbled upon it in the back of the library stacks where no one bothered to go. And with my fond memories of it, I’ll probably track down a copy some time soon and read it again despite the fact that these days, I rarely do rereads.

That positive experience with that genre was probably why I also got sucked into Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. It had a similar unsettling weirdness that really hit the spot with my fiction cravings. And then later it was H.P. Lovecraft–I wasn’t introduced to him until I was already in college. It’s probably also why I tried writing in the genre the first year I participated in NaNoWriMo. After all, why not write in a genre that you love?

Yes, I’m aware that there are similar, more famous books out there. But they simply don’t have that unsettling/weird style. Some of them are clever, of course, like The Eight and The Fire by Katherine Neville, but I like them because they are clever–the style isn’t really unsettling or weird. And as for Dan Brown, I don’t find him unsettling, weird, or clever. It’s less about the fantastic in fiction and more about crackpot ideas pulverized for mass consumption.

Anyways, in the same vein, I’ve been trying out some gothic fiction in the hopes that I can find more books in that same unsettling/weird style. Recently, I’m inching along The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Unfortunately, I keep getting distracted by other things.

The Death of the Review

I’ve been reading a few discussions about book reviews and how author and reader behaviors are shaping the content, quality, and bias of reviews. And I’ve come to two basic conclusions for why I find most review sections of sites like Amazon or Goodreads unreliable: increased reader-author interaction facilitating the view that anything “bad” should be suppressed and the belief that “good” reviews is a factor in driving sales.

I am really annoyed when people use the phrase “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” as an excuse to suppress bad reviews. That phrase is a call for civil discourse when people mistake it as a ban for critical discourse. Civility and criticism are not mutually exclusive. I know writers pour all their heart and soul into their literary creations, but at the end of the day, the book is not the author or vice versa. So when someone says a book is bad, the reviewer is not saying that the author is a bad person. They’re talking about the book only. The only proper response from the author is to write another, better book. Lashing out at the reviewer will only make the author look like someone who cannot learn and move on from his/her mistakes. (Conversely, a book can be great but the author is morally corrupt. Both author and reader must learn to separate the art from the artist.)

If a reviewer crosses the line from criticizing a book to trashing the author personally, I still don’t think the author should engage. Any retaliation by the author is going to look bad on the author rather than the reviewer for lack of professionalism. The majority of reviewers review as a hobby and so aren’t–and should not–be held to the same standard. Most people will realize that the lack of civility in the “review” itself is more a problem on the reviewer’s side rather than the author. So just leave it and let the reviewer discredit themselves by their own words.

One might argue that there’s a blurry line with reviews that criticize a book using language deemed inappropriate for those who consider certain words taboo. I think this is a case where one must be extremely careful to take the context into account. Saying that a character is an asshole is NOT saying that the author is one. And for some people, it’s simply a style of speaking rather than being derogatory.

As for the second point, I suspect that only soliciting positive reviews to drive up sales is a bad strategy. If every book had five star reviews, all reviews would become worthless. Also, when people discover that the book isn’t as great as what those reviews say, people aren’t going to buy your next book despite the high sales of the first one. With no regular readers, the author is just going to be a flash in the pan.

Books are the bailiwick for free thought and discourse. So I find it really troubling when some authors try to direct and shape the resulting discourse (i.e. the reviews) in order to make a quick buck or feed their egos. Of course writing is a business as well as an art, but that is absolutely no excuse to resort to unethical practices.

Personally, I find the low rated reviews the most helpful as the observed flaws reveal far more about the book than an unqualified fangirl squee. A critical review is often a thoughtful review. On the other hand, I am suspicious of all positive or all negative reviews for one book as it is a possible indicator of someone trying to game the system.

I rarely write book reviews these days, but when I do, I tend towards a more critical analysis. I avoid giving stars or grades. It’s not so much that I like or dislike a book but why. I want to examine why something works or doesn’t work in the book and try to interpret the text to figure out what the author is trying to say with the story. And if an author (or crazed fan club) comes along trying to browbeat me into taking down what they perceive to be a “bad” review? I’d just shrug and keep on going. It’s my opinion. And no one has the right to dictate what it should be.

Old Documentary Recommendations

Even as a kid, I really enjoyed watching documentaries. Especially science and culture documentaries. I’m not sure if my preference for documentaries grew out of my preferences for the topics or simple necessity. There was no cable and going to the movie theater was a rare thing. Most of the time, if I wanted to watch a film, I’d have to wait until the library got the VHS. (Even now, childhood habits die hard. I have no TV and I go to the theater maybe three or four times a year, tops.) I was always pretty excited when Nova, Nature, or National Geographic came on. While I loved reading stories, too, documentaries showed that the real world could be even more weird and wonderful.

Lately I’ve been watching Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (one episode of the former each Sunday, the newest episode of the latter on Mondays). My view of them, admittedly, is influenced by the fact that this is also my first time watching the Carl Sagan series as well as the one hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I enjoy both series and I would be hard pressed to say which one is better. I think both are the product of their times.

Anyways, this has reminded me of some older documentaries that I think still hold up well:

Civilisation. (YT playlist) This series is a pretty thorough interpretation of Western Civilization by Kenneth Clark. It was a huge thing during its day and I think the modern viewer can still see why. (Apparently it also inspired the documentary series America, presented by Alistair Cooke. I haven’t watched it yet, but it’s on my to do list.)

The Tribal Eye. (YT playlist) It’s presented by David Attenborough, need I say more? Besides, has there really been such a keen series on African, Native American, and Polynesian culture since?

The Silk Road. (YT playlist) I first stumbled onto this by accident at the local library. And I just thought this was pure awesomeness packaged as a documentary series. I keep thinking that the film crew must have had some unforgettable adventures as they trekked across the sandy Asian interior.

Antonio Gaudi. (YT link) Simply feast your eyes on great weird art.

The Queen of Trees (YT link) and Deep Jungle: Monsters of the Forest. All right, so these are more recent ones, but I really like these two because they depict how interconnected nature is by using the tree as a central character.

Gearing Up For Camp NaNo

April’s Camp NaNoWriMo session is just around the corner and like every other die hard participant, I signed up for it. I also signed up to do NaNoWordSprints again so I’ll be metaphorically cracking the whip on Twitter to get people writing. In a fun way, of course.

This time, I decided to do a bunch of science fiction short stories. We’ll see if anything pans out. My planning this time primarily consists of gathering ideas and doing outlining depending on how complicated the idea is. So without further ado, some possible ideas I might end up using next month:

*Cluck. Based on my first tweet, a murder mystery taking place on a Dyson sphere where the investigator also has to contend with alien possession. I’m still not sure whether I want to eventually put this up as an interactive fiction or not–if I manage to finish this.

*Histone Corps. Basically, fairy tales in space. The monsters are genetically engineered creatures and/or aliens and the main characters stumbling upon this science fiction version of fairy tale tropes are named after famous fairy tale collectors and writers. (Grimm, Anderson, Perrault, d’Aulnoy, Lang, etc.)

*Hair Apparent. This one takes place in Restoration England. People start acting funny. It’s due to mind controlling parasites hiding in wigs. My original intent was to lampoon wallpaper historical romances, but the more I think about it, the more serious it gets…

*Fred. This is a murder mystery told from the point of view of a pet python owned by a psychic who denies her abilities by stubbornly running a gag shop. It takes place in the same steampunk universe as another idea I’ve been trying to develop for a full fledged novel.

*Back to Nowhere. The main character needs to go back to her home planet–a backwater mining colony–because of reasons (I’m still trying to figure this out). It’s a parody of a small town romance. But it takes place in space.

*Tooth and Claw. Humans are insignificant. Shapeshifting dragons secretly control the planet. The shapeshifting is not the result of paranormal woo woo but due to movement in higher dimensions. Think: the Sphere passing through Flatland. The plot for this one is kind of up in the air at the moment, though.

So, those are some ideas in a nutshell. The titles are all tentative–they’re just place holders for now to help me keep the ideas straight. Unfortunately, my problem isn’t coming up with ideas but the execution…

Don’t Call Him Fred

A Twitter conversation I had yesterday was initially sparked by this tweet by @mharvey816: “Seriously, writers: DO NOT put your name in your own book. It’s not cute. It’s not clever. It is the exact opposite of those things. #FAIL”

I completely agree with the sentiment.

Even if you argue that you are trying to do something clever and arty to make some kind of statement, people going in cold aren’t going to immediately realize this. A name is an identity. When an author puts her name into the book, it is putting herself into the book. It’s a big neon sign saying “Look at me, I’m breaking the fourth wall and telling you all my fantasies!” or more succinctly put in fanfic terms, “Mary Sue. RIGHT HERE.” While it is human nature to be nosy about other people, there is a point where it becomes too much. And if you do want to break the fourth wall and tell all your fantasies, there are better ways of doing it without alienating your readers. For starters, Find and Replace would be handy.

I also want to make it clear that this is not about memoirs, autobiographies, or other types of non-fiction. In those types of works, the author is upfront about who the story is about. The reader goes into the work expecting the author to feature prominently in the narrative. The expectations of fiction, on the other hand, are different. The reader is expecting storytelling, to be swept up into an imaginary reality illustrating adventures and/or thought-provoking philosophy about the human condition (depending on the genre). Readers of fiction want a narrative that entertains or makes them think. They don’t want self indulgent prose that screams ME ME ME. And putting your own name into the book? That has ME ME ME all over it.

One could argue that not putting your name into the story is a constructed convention, a tradition that hinders certain forms of storytelling. However no one’s really stopping anyone from bestowing their own names to a character. The self-proclaimed writing etiquette brigade might be blowhards, but they can’t physically stem your hand. But if an author does want to do such a thing and they want readers rather than leaving the manuscript in a drawer, the author must consider the readers’ expectations about fiction. And if those expectations are broken, the execution of how they’re broken will determine whether or not the audience will still find it worth the time they spent reading it.

I’m not saying that this can’t be done–just that it can rarely be done well. The only example I have off the top of my head is Lemony Snicket, the author, narrator and fictional character of A Series of Unfortunate Events. But one of the reasons why this works is because “Lemony Snicket” is so obviously a pen name. (Just as, say, S. Y. Affolee is so obviously my internet handle and not my real name. It has the structure of a real name, but the combination of letters is too rare. The style of the name is not what people have used in today’s society.) Stephen King might be able to pull this off if he used “Richard Bachman” as a character because it’s pretty well known that “Richard Bachman” is a pseudonym. But a new author who starts with a pen name that isn’t advertised as such so that everyone assumes off the bat it’s the author’s real name? No, the suspension of disbelief wouldn’t work at all unless the author pulls off some kind of amazing literary trick.

On a related note, as a writer, I wouldn’t use the names of people I personally know, either. Other people get around this by asking people their permission to use their name, with the understanding that the fictional character has nothing to do with the real person. And as for common names like “John” or “Mary,” well, there’s always that fiction disclaimer at the beginning of every novel. For me, names–like every other word in the language–have certain connotations. Perhaps this is just my own quirks in developing a story, but I never assign names to character simply because it sounds nice or because it’s my favorite. It has to suit the era and the culture where the character lives. Besides, there are a million names out there. You can even make them up depending on your genre. Why must one use a relative, friend, or co-worker’s name if you don’t have a reason outside of aesthetics to do so?

From the reader’s side (if the reader has no personal connection to the author and the author is not a Famous Person like the president or an A-list actor), the fact that the character is named after the author’s best friend or that the villain has the same name as the author’s mother-in-law is unknown. Again, the reader is going into this cold. The book is the finished product and not a treatise about the inspiration for the story. The reader will only take its surface meaning because he or she is ignorant of the background. So in this case, using the names of people you know is not the same as using your own because the reader is only aware of the latter.

Although there will always be readers looking to see what resemblance to real life the fictional works have no matter what the author names the characters, there is the implicit understanding that fiction isn’t supposed to be Real. Fiction is a melange of all that the writer has experienced, learned, imagined, and dreamed. The Real is merely one facet of fiction, an inspiration not an imposition. In contrast, non-fiction is by definition imposed with the Real. If there’s no longer anything Real in non-fiction, it is no longer non-fiction. The author’s name is a piece of the Real. And thus, by putting one’s own name into the story, the Real becomes imposed upon it. So not only is the narcissistic ME alienating readers, but it also breaks the suspension of belief which depends as much on the unrealistic as the realistic.

Some Thoughts on Fan Culture

From the recent discussions on fans and fandom I’ve read going around the internet, I’ve been thinking about the topic and how I am a fan (or not) of things I like. I’ve come to the conclusion that being a fan means you like “X”, whatever that is. If you want to call yourself a fan, go knock yourself out. No one has the authority to bestow the title “fan” to anyone. Gatekeeping is for obnoxious clique defenders. Being a fan is NOT the same as getting a Ph.D. Fans don’t need to buy all the merchandise, read or watch all the “classics” (whatever the hell that is), ace a qualifying exam stuffed with trivia like a Jeopardy pro, and/or write several theses worth of fan fiction. What separates the fan from the normal person who likes “X” is degree of obsession. I admit, it’s a blurry line. For instance, I would consider myself someone who simply likes and enjoys “X” if I interact with it because someone’s put it there in front of me or I came across it by accident. Otherwise, I don’t think about “X” much. I am a fan, however, if I go out of my way to engage with “X” even after initial exposure.

What gets confusing is the terms “fan” and “fandom.” They’re not the same thing. You can be a fan and still not be in fandom. But all people in fandom are fans. In other words, fandom is a subset of all fans. When people start yelling at each other about who is a “true fan,” it’s usually because someone’s thinking that “fan” is an exact synonym for the word “fandom.” It’s no longer about liking (or even obsessing) about something but passing all these particular checkpoints (whether or not it’s even relevant to “X”) in order to get into a particular clique labeled as “fandom.”

I think of fandom as a community of fans who are governed by rules, explicit or implicit, which dictate how they behave towards one another and how one must engage with the topic of interest. Depending on the fandom or clique, these rules can be flexible and inclusive or rigid and exclusionary. People are social animals so, of course, they want to join the group which likes the thing that they like. Unfortunately, if you don’t follow the conventions of the fandom in a way that it likes or accepts, you are persona non grata. In any case, there will always be fans because people will always like stuff. The existence of fans is independent of social behavior. But fandoms will rise and fall depending on outside factors like politics, social change, fashion, style, and technology.

As for me, well, I’m a fan of some things. But I don’t consider myself part of fandom. It’s not because I think fandom is inherently bad (or good). Whatever that I am a fan of may have changed me, but I’ve never interacted with any fandom in such a way that fandom itself has significantly influenced the course of my life. Simply put: I like what I like. I’m happy to talk to other people about it, but being a fan is a personal thing that has nothing to do with what other people like or how they think one should engage with it.

(As an aside: This naturally leads into the topic of “fans” and “professionals.” While fandom is a subset of fans, there can only be an intersection of professionals and fans. Certainly, professionals can be fans but they have strict rules for behavior. In fact, they are even more strict than those implicit/explicit rules in “fandom” because money and ethics are involved. I feel that if you are both a pro and a fan, the behavioral rules for being a pro trump those of being a fan.)