Archive | November, 2020

The Squid Zone

20 Nov

Koreans love eating squid. They like it raw, cooked, fried, grilled, ground up into a little powder and drunk with hot water. But it’s only when you enter a soccer stadium and see the sign, written in English, that you realize… you’ve entered “The Squid Zone.”

I guess that’s a good metaphor for the “expatriate experience.” I only lived in Korea for a year, so compared to some of my friends, my knowledge of that country is limited… and now, twenty years old. My “two truths and a lie” is always, “I partied with a quarter million Koreans on New Years Eve 2000.” Also took me two hours to get back to my hotel afterwards because they closed the Metro at midnight.

I worked at Taejon Christian International School in Daejeon, which is about two hours south of Seoul. Again, with the high speed rail built for the World Cup (which I also missed), you might make it one hour.

I had the opportunity to watch a game between the Taejon Citizens(?) play… someone in the old stadium that had a statue commemorating the Independence Movement with a heroic Korean standing in 20’s clothes, holding a grenade in his hand. So… that’s different. Then I’m going to my seat and I see the “Squid Zone” sign–in English–and had that seared into my memory.

They didn’t sing the national anthem–they played it, everyone stood, but no one sang. The hype guy had the Republic of Korean flag painted on his face and carried a little cymbal that he dinged to pep up the crowd. I honestly don’t know if he was hired by the team or just did this for kicks. I remember that the Taejon team lost, not surprising, since they were down in the standings that year.

Taejon (or Daejeon, they changed the official transliteration after I left) was probably the best place I could live. It was a “small town” of a million people, but because it was so packed together in the mountain valley, I could walk to the other side of the city in half an hour. I could reach nature easily, even when surrounded by multi-story apartment buildings. I stripped naked for hot spring baths and could still eat Pizza Hut, but frankly, they had NO Mexican food. I craved Taco Bell when I got home.

I still prefer Korean ramen over Japanese–there was a ramen machine right outside my apartment. I loved being able to go to cafes and have omelets. Street vendors with corn dogs. PC-bongs (computer cafes) where you could play games when you wanted to get out of the house. And going to movie theaters to watch English movies with Korean subtitles. I danced in the streets of Seoul at the drum festival and watched Armed Forces TV.

I love travel–usually hated the jobs that allowed me to do it–but I was so happy to live a life less ordinary… if only for a few years. Have you been an ex-pat? What’s the first thing you discover about living in a new place? Let me know in the comments below.

So I Finished Unisplaining…

19 Nov

I’m approaching the 50k goal of #NaNoWriMo and my novel is still going strong! However, when I outlined my sci-fi mystery story, it didn’t occur to me that at this point, I was shifting from explaining the universe to explaining the characters. And I’m not sure I like the characters more than the universe… I want to go back!

I’ve found that when I use an outline–or usually, an outline based on a template–I end up with a much more successful story. This time, more than most. At time of this writing (a couple days ahead of actual time), I’m only at Chapter 6 of a 12-chapter outline at 38k words. That’s great! That means I’ll actual reach traditional novel length this time! 🙂

To paraphrase Stephen King (in the prologue to Different Seasons), Novella sounds like a South American capital. “Bienvenidos a Novella, capital of La Revolution!” It looks like a novel, sounds like a novel, but there’s something off about it. Whenever he suggests printing a series of novellas to his publisher, the agent gets that uncomfortable look as he hears the chimes of Latin music through the room.

Novella is where I like to write. I don’t like dragging out scenes–I feel my characters have enough to say–and too many subplots kill the flow of my main story. So most of my novels are actually novellas, which make it difficult to sell to a publisher. But since I’m my own publisher these days, who cares?! Sell ’em for a discounted $1.99 and get ’em out there!

But in a sci-fi story, the universe is a character, and I really enjoyed building up this universe. Writing on the line of “Isn’t that cool?” balanced on “That sounds familiar enough to be believable” was a lot of fun. However, that “character” has been established, and if I’m supposed to be at the halfway point–or past it–I need to focus on the people who live in this universe.

The trick, I guess, is to make the characters as interesting as the universe. After all, if they’re not interesting, what’s the point of introducing them to the audience? “This is Joe, he pumps gas down at the corner store.” Not exciting. Now if Joe is secretly building a time machine to ruin the life of all his ex-girlfriends… that’s something to talk about! 🙂

So when I introduced the exiled ruler of another planet, okay, now I’m excited! Not as much with the gardener last chapter… but we’ve got to eliminate the possible suspects. Here’s where I need to really examine my outline and decide, “How do I make my characters as interesting as the setting I put them in?”

How do you deal with this obstacle? Have you had to change a background character into an active character? Do you like living in Novella? Let me know in the comments below!

When You’re Pressured to Read a Book

18 Nov

I am generally happy when I see my kids reading; they are very picky about what books they’re willing to tear into. However, my son feels the need to share what he feels passionate about. So after many prompting, he really wanted me to read Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger. Quick review: this book was really not meant for me.

I really, REALLY want to be positive about other authors’ work; writing a novel is not easy. It’s especially difficult because my kids are dyslexic, so getting over the hump to actually read text is a lot harder for them than it is for me. However, I’m flipping through this big text, wide margin book and I’m immediately realizing that this is written for a pre-teen audience. Fair enough–my kids are 13 and 10, so check that box.

Let’s start with Sophie, our main character, a young pre-teen girl who finds the world too loud… because she can read minds. Okay, promising start. Then there’s mysterious people following her. Better. Then we reveal her true heritage and fast track to the alternate world. Gee, this sounds familiar, I tell myself. In this case, the elf world is in a different dimension, not in the same world as us, but elves can and do jump between Earth and Elfland… but they’re not supposed to.

There are folks that think that Sophie shouldn’t be in Elfland because… reasons. She can do things that elves aren’t supposed to do. There are those mysterious people trying to capture her because of what elves aren’t supposed to do. There’s political fights and mysteries, all of which could be really interesting, but our POV character doesn’t have a lot of time to figure those out, since she has to go school.

What? Sophie is immediately shoved into Firefox Academy, tells her its the best school for elves, and if she doesn’t pass her midterms, she’s going to get kicked out. My first thought is Why would Sophie care if she flunks? She’s not going to get kicked out of Elfland. She knows nothing about the world… and neither do we!

I guess if we’re going to match the appeal of Harry Potter, she has to go to a school. However, schools are a rather new invention in the modern world–only three hundred years old, and that’s stretching it. Rich brats used to be tutored at home, they only went to university at… well, roughly this age. Poor brats were also tutored at home, but boys usually apprenticed with an older man to learn a career. Women had to work around the home or the father’s business and eventually get married off.

Mercedes Lackey did this in her Collegium series; she even has to lampshade this by saying, “Well, we used to just have the herald-mages apprentice with a master, but the demand is too great, and there’s not enough masters around.” I enjoyed that series, but in that case, I thought the world-building was done better. In Elfland… eh, you’ve got this weird insta-wealth system, and you get very little sense of how the elf world works.

The plot was… okay. The story got about three stars–wasn’t amazing, wasn’t bad–and I even was forced to read the next in the series. Exile–which was better, but not much. Like I said, this book wasn’t for me. If you have a pre-teen, they’ll love it, because frankly… they won’t have read these tropes so many times before.

Did you find these books interesting? Do you find the kid in mystical college idea done to death? Let me know in the comments below!

Difficulty of Diversity: LGBT+

17 Nov

Today Editor Ed finishes his series on diversity in genre fiction to address LGBT+ authors. Ed is a small press publisher, editor, and author for many years.

I mentioned in a previous post that when organizing my first anthology, I idealistically aimed to select a diverse range of authors that represented a variety of gender, race, and sexual orientation—and promptly ran head-first into a brick wall.  For female and minority authors, the problem was a depressingly low number of submissions from those groups.  But there was a different problem with LGBT+ authors, one I hadn’t anticipated …

How do you know if an author is LGBT+?

Unlike race and gender, which an editor can usually determine from an author’s name and photograph on social media, the editor generally can’t determine someone’s sexual orientation just by looking at them.  They have to tell you.  And, for the most part, they don’t.

You see, an author’s sexual orientation isn’t generally the type of information they usually include with their submission cover letter.  They’re typically more concerned with genre, word count, and plot summaries.  Perhaps they understandably fear discrimination if they disclose an LGBT+ orientation.  Or maybe they just don’t think it matters, or shouldn’t matter—and they’re right, it shouldn’t.

In my last submission call, only one author identified their sexual orientation (bi) in their cover letter.  I was able to determine another author’s orientation (also bi) by searching Facebook profiles.  And that’s it.  Two.  Worse, one of them had their story automatically disqualified for some uncomfortably racist subtext.

And all the other authors?  I had absolutely no idea.  For all I know, maybe I did publish a LGBT+ author in that anthology, but just didn’t realize it.

And here’s the thing: it would be horribly inappropriate (and quite possibly illegal) to ask.  I mean, can you image that?   “Excuse me author, I know this is a very personal question about a very private part of your life that’s really none of my business, but what type of people do you like to have sex with?”  I can imagine the lawsuits already!  Besides, I imagine I’d get a lot of answers along the lines of “Why does that matter?” or “What does that have to do with my story?”  And the honest answer is “Nothing.”

I haven’t yet found a solution for this dilemma: How can an editor ensure LGBT+ diversity among an anthology’s authors when the editor doesn’t know their orientations, and can’t ask?

If you readers have any advice or suggestions, please let me know by leaving a comment.  Have you heard of other publishers who have found a way to solve this problem?

Difficulty of Diversity: Race & Gender

16 Nov

Today’s post is brought to you again by Editor Ed, continuing his exploration of diversity in anthologies. Ed is a long-time small press publisher, editor, and author.

In my previous post, I discussed how genre anthologies are frequently criticized for being dominated by straight white male authors, and how I wanted to have a more diverse collection of authors in my first anthology.  I also mentioned how my open submission call resulted in disappointingly few stories from women, even fewer from people of color, and a completely unknown amount from LGBT+ authors.  Finally, I said I had a few guesses about why that happened. Today I’ll offer my theories (and ask if you readers have any others).

For my first anthology, Corporate Cthulhu, fewer than 5% of the submissions I received were from racial minorities.  Worse, one of those stories (from a Latin American author) was automatically disqualified for some shockingly misogynistic content.  Worst of all, 0% were from African-Americans.

Why?

I’ve mulled this problem over for the last few years.  Perhaps the underrepresentation of racial minorities in genre fiction has less to do with discrimination and more to do with… well, numbers.  According to the 2010 US Census (a decade ago now, so take it with a grain of salt), 72% of the US population is white.  In retrospect, I guess it’s not really surprising that most of the story submissions I received came from authors representing this largest segment of the population.  In contrast, African-American are less than 13%, Asian-Americans are around 6%, and Native Americans are just under 1%.  Was it perhaps simply unrealistic of me to expect a large number of story submissions from such a small segment of the population?  Possibly.  But there’s still quite a gap between the US population being 28% minority, and the submissions I received from minorities being only 5%.  That suggests there are other factors at work besides simple numbers… I just don’t know what they are.

But what about women?  They form half the population.  So why were only a fifth of the stories I received submitted by women?  Could it possibly have been the genre?  After all, if I’d been organizing an anthology of romance stories, I suspect the majority of my submissions would have been from women.  Perhaps women just aren’t as interested in horror stories as men?

I dug around on the internet trying to find market research info, but wasn’t very successful.  The closest data I could find was an analysis of the horror movie audience—not the same as horror fiction writers, of course, but better than nothing.  That study found that horror movie fans are roughly 60% male and 40% female.  Still, given that only 20% of the submissions I received were from women, there’s still a sizable gap to be explained.

There’s one last underrepresented category of writers to consider: LGBT+ authors.  Fairly representing that group in an anthology, however, presented an entirely different set of challenges.  I’ll get to that in the next post.

Do you guys have any ideas about what other factors could be at play?  Things I missed, or just didn’t think of?  Are there any other editors in this blog’s audience who have experienced similar problem?  If so, how did you fix them?  Please leave any thoughts in the comments, I’ll be very interested to read them.

Difficulty of Diversity: Race

15 Nov

Today’s post is brought to you by repeated guest, Editor Ed, who has worked as a small press publisher, editor, and author for many years.

When I set out to organize my first anthology, I was aware that genre fiction has been criticized for decades for being dominated by straight white male authors.  Wanting to be a Good Guy™ and help remedy that pattern of poor representation, I added to my submission guidelines “We’re particularly interested in submissions from writers traditionally underrepresented in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, including racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, women, LGBT+ individuals, and people living with disabilities.”  In my mind I was saying, “Behold, ye underrepresented huddled masses!  I, your straight white male savior, have thrown open the gates of my anthology!  Give me your fiction, your stories, your rejected manuscripts yearning to see publication, the hidden treasures of your overflowing hard drive!”  And then I sat back and waited for the flood of submissions from women and minorities.

In retrospect, I was unbelievably naive.

After submissions closed and the demographics of the submitting authors were analyzed, these were the disheartening statistics: Only around 20% of all submission came from women, and less than 5% were from racial/religious minorities.  I didn’t receive a single submission from African-Americans.  And LGBT+?  I have no idea (more about that later).  In the end, my first anthology included stories from one woman, two racial and one religious minority (all men)… and 23 white men (no idea if they were straight).  I’d published exactly the kind of anthology I’d set out NOT to publish.

What happened?

Conventional wisdom has a ready answer to that question: editors and publishers are racist sexist homophobic bigots who discriminate against women and minorities.  Before I did my own anthology, I believed that simplistic explanation—I had to reason not to.  Now, I’m not so sure… at the very least, the situation is a clearly a lot more complicated than I thought.

I’ve been pondering this question for years, and I have a few guess as to why submissions were so low from these author groups.  Just to make things even more complicated, I suspect there might be different explanations depending on if we’re discussing authors of color, female authors, or LGBT+ authors.  In follow-up posts, I’ll share these theories with you, and invite you to share any theories of your own.

For now, what is clear is that simply saying “I welcome submission from women/minorities/LGBT+” is obviously not enough for an editor to assemble an anthology with a diverse selection of authors.  As far as I can tell, indie editors need to actually go out and find women and minorities, and actively encourage them to submit stories to the editor’s anthology.

But how, exactly, does one do that?  Good question.  I’m still trying to figure that one out.  If you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments.  If you have any other theories as to why submissions from racial/ethnic/religious minorities are so puzzlingly low (or how to fix it), leave those in the comments too, I’d love to hear them.

And the next time you notice an anthology is full of white male authors, please don’t automatically assume the editor is a racist sexist homophobic bigot.  It could simply be that they didn’t have a very diverse pool of story submissions to draw from!

Most Favored Mug

14 Nov

There’s something comforting about using the same coffee mug every day. It’s a ritual that is sacred upon waking. It gets the flem out of my throat. But what is it about having the same mug that is so important?

My current coffee mug is my Dukakis ’88 election mug that I… ahem, liberated from my (Great) Aunt Nancy. I thought it was freakin’ hilarious It’s actually quite small–people in the late eighties tended to have smaller cup sizes and smaller food portions. I can call that from the Hardee’s (you would call it Carl’s Jr. or Roy Rogers) Rise-and-Shine Biscuit mugs that Aunt Nancy also had that are exactly the same size. (By the way, the cinnamon raisin biscuits were amazing and a rare treat growing up.)

So it’s actually rather inconvenient to use, but then again, I just carry my giant insulated carafe upstairs now to refill it. I’m already developing a history with this mug. It replaced the Secretary of State mug I bought at a yard sale in back in my hometown on the one of the rare times I returned home. However, that has been exiled back to the cabinet, because it never gained my love. The seal embossed on it was cool, but hard to see.

Even that was a replacement for my other two mugs that I got from an Army-Navy surplus store in downtown Galveston, Texas when I was on one of my contracts back when I was travelling. These are what military men would frequently get whenever they changed assignments or finished a tour. My dad has a whole box full of them since you changed tours every two years or less, so they weren’t particularly sentimental to him. Nowadays, they give out challenge coins which are shiny, cool, and much easier to carry with you between deployments.

I loved those damn mugs. As you can see from the picture above, they usually come with a name embossed, which didn’t really help me, so I had to search for a while through the pile of them before I found two that weren’t personalized. One was the Army’s helicopter training squadron out in New Mexico, which had a cool seal of an eagle stringing a bow. Being a teacher, I found that particularly nice. When that broke, I used the other, which had the more generic US Pacific Command. Then that broke and I lost that part of my history forever.

And perhaps that is the key–it’s a connection to something in the past that you think about fondly. In the case of my military mugs, it was both being a Navy brat and being a travelling consultant. The Epic University mug (that you see in the same picture) was used as a coffee mug back in my days starting working for hospitals, because it reminded me of fond memories travelling to Madison, Wisconsin during a blizzard to learn medical software. But that original one I got broke–I picked this replacement up on a later contract, so it didn’t have that same mystic connection.

Am I the only one? Tell me about your most favored mug or tell me why that’s silly in the comments below!

Buying My Own Books

13 Nov
My cat doesn’t even read my books.

I decided to buy my own books on Kindle; unlike the print version, where Amazon gives you a discounted author’s copy, with Kindle you have to pay full price. Makes me wonder–how do other writers feel when they see their books in the used book store?

For those who don’t know, my father-in-law was Christopher Stasheff, who was a traditionally published science fantasy author with over 40 books written during his career. I honestly didn’t know who he was before I became friends with his son, better known on this blog as Editor Ed, but I became a big fan of his writing after going to his house for Thanksgiving.

When I later married his daughter, I asked him for some author’s copies to help fill up his place of honor on our shelf… and even he was stingy with giving away his remaining copies. Many of those ended up gracing the shelves of Woodstock School‘s library back in India, since we had to leave in a hurry, and couldn’t move most of our books. We left most of them because we knew we could get copies from the source when we returned to the States.

My daughter doesn’t even read my books.

Of course, five years later, my dad-in-law had even less of his author’s copies back. However, I do like going to used book stores and picked up the copies of Dad Stasheff’s books that I didn’t have in my collection. You could instantly tell when a book wasn’t that good, because there was a lot more copies available. Of course, that could have been because it was mass marketed to death, like your big name authors like Stephen King or Tom Clancy. You can pick up the entire Battlefield Earth sci-fi series easily from any bookstore, because the author was L. Ron Hubbard… and if it’s not holy writ, at least it’s proximal Scientology.

When I asked my favorite sci-fi author, Steve Perry, that question a decade ago, he replied that he didn’t really think about it. It’s not bad–and I’m paraphrasing–if they’re reading my books, who cares where they get it from?

Here are four of the books I’ve got on Kindle.

So that makes me feel a little better about buying my books. Thankfully, my books are pretty cheap, but it still bothers me that I have to pay to get them on my virtual shelf. But… even traditional publishers don’t give away author’s copies anymore. The industry’s changing, and if I wanted to be cheap, I could have created my own .epub document and dropped in Aldiko and had it on my phone that way, but I wanted it in Kindle.

Do you have unfair thoughts about books you see in the used book store? Do you wonder how some books even get published? Do you wish you had some blackmail over a big name publishing editor? Let me know in the comments below!

Touchdown… whoever!

12 Nov

I am the casual (American) football fan that all the analysts like to talk about, and yet, I’ve become more casual this year. I watched an hour of football this season; I only realized games were on Sunday when I flipped the TV on. When I think about, the reasons are not that surprising.

I started out as a Cincinnati Bengals fan–they haven’t done well since I started following them 14 years ago. At that point, I liked football, but I hadn’t watched it religiously since high school. However, all my new friends in Ohio were big into football and the Bengals in particular, so I joined the ongoing drama. I even won season tickets one year and was able to take my friends out to live games at Paul Brown Stadium–freezing my butt off in December one time during a crappy game.

I lost those friends, moved to Arizona, and watching Bengals games got harder and harder. A lot of the folks who were on the Bengals switched to the Cardinals, so I occasionally watched some of those games. But my limit was about one game a day; sometimes I would start looking at my phone after mid-game.

However, I kept watching because for my kids, it became an event. I would get chips, and the kids would pile up on the couch, and we’d watch the game together. But then the chips would be demolished by the end of the first quarter and the kids would wander off. After I moved, the Arizona Cardinals really sucked, and it got harder to catch Bengals games. They locked them behind firewalls, and even radio streams had to only be done on a computer, because listening on a phone was… bad?

When football got political, I had less and less reason to watch. I had no emotional connection with the Cardinals, and even if I caught the Bengals, I hadn’t followed the season, so it was like seeing your sister come from college. You have a history with them, but you’ve missed most of the last year, so there’s a disconnect. The sports radio I listened to because it allowed me to enjoy their antics since the topic matter didn’t matter… suddenly mattered, and it soured my enjoyment. Even the commercials–which were always top notch–got more “we’re here to save the world” preachy.

So… I caught a half-hour of the first game of the year, half-hour at the bar, and… that’s it. You lost me, NFL–why should this casual fan come back? I don’t watch TV on Saturdays, so even if I found a college to follow, I have less incentive. My own alma mater isn’t Division I, and just like pro sports, college sports makes it hard to follow a single team unless you want to crank out the cash to get past the firewalls.

What I wanted was the drama–and what I get are snippets–bookended with politics and flashy pictures. So I’m out. Are you a true fan of your team? What keeps you in? Or have you lost the faith like me… and what caused you to lose your grace? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Sacred Oil of Clovis

11 Nov

Previously, I was talking about the problem I have with mysticism. This made me think about a film that made me think about that question: The Messenger (1999). Is it a good film? Eh… Does it have some amazing scenes? Oh, YES!

First off, this film has some serious acting power: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman. It’s directed by Luc Besson, who did The Fifth Element, which for my money, sold me watching it. It’s actually got some pretty decent fight scenes, set during the Hundred Years War, so it’s technically proficient. But the film has got this weirdness factor to it–because the question the film is trying to address is–Is Joan of Arc a saint or a lunatic?

At the same time, it talks about the political fight that Joan of Arc brought about. The dauphin couldn’t claim the throne because he didn’t have the popular will or the military victories to challenge the English claim. Joan changes all of that. So there’s a bit where they’ve finally gotten to crown their new king, and the priests are dithering because the sacred oil of Clovis is empty. It was full the last time he saw it. After a couple seconds of that, the royal mother (Faye Dunaway) grabs the vial, takes some ordinary oil, and refills it. The priest askes, “What are you doing?!” The mother just says deadpan, “Performing a miracle.”

And that becomes the oil they anoint the king with… and no one was the wiser. Later on, Joan becomes a political liability, so she gets “captured” by the English (or betrayed or accident). and she’s brought before the inquisition. Dustin Hoffman is the inquisitor and makes her question what she thinks she knows. It is… well, let me just show you the clip:

Really amazing film, and yet… I think I’ve only seen it once. Which makes me question how good it actually is, or if my tastes are more towards comedy and I don’t rewatch drama that much, or maybe those are the only two scenes I liked. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 30%, which makes me question myself.

Have you seen this film? What do you remember about this? Is there another film that addresses the border between the mystic and the real world that you like more? Let me know in the comments below!

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