Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Art and the Artist

I was a guest author last weekend at ConGregate (a FANTASTIC small convention in High Point, NC that you should all attend if it's reasonable at all to your lives). I've written about it before: here, here, and here.

One of my panels this time was a conversation on separating the art and the artist.

Carol Cowles of the podcasts Guardians of the Geekery and Out of Our Skull moderated a panel of me, sci-fi/fantasy author and publisher Nicole Givens Kurtz of Mocha Memoirs Press, and sci-fi/fantasy author and editor Margaret McGraw.

It's always epic to have a conversation with intelligent, thoughtful, well-read, and articulate women like these three, but this discussion has really lingered with me. It's still resonating several days later.

What's a reader/viewer/media consumer to do when a work of art you love is sullied by realizations about the creator?

When you find out the author is a racist, misogynist jerk, or the actor sexually assaulted someone?

Are you a bad person if you still admire the work? Or a hypocrite?

The four of us couldn't solve this quandary in a fifty minute conversation at a convention, but we did break it down a little and how it works for us when we find we have a problematic love. The big conclusions I walked away with:

1. Context is everything: consider the timeframe and life experience of the creator. (Especially useful when we're talking about classic works of history)

If you read or view media that is more than fifty years old, there's a high probability that you will find attitudes that seem old-fashioned or even outright offensive to modern sensibilities (and not just if you're liberal; conservative views have evolved, too). Art is always part of the era in which it was created and artists are people with beliefs and attitudes, too. (NOTE: there's plenty of misogyny, racism, and hatred in contemporary work as well, but I don't give it a "bye" like I might in an older work).

So, do you throw Herman Melville's Moby Dick back into the sea unread because of the cringe-y chapter with the black cook? (Or Queequeg?) Do you burn copies of the First Folio because of antisemitic jokes in Shakespeare's plays? Is Rochester still hot even though he locked his first wife in the attic when it became clear she was mentally ill?

If you follow me on Goodreads, then you know that I read a fair amount of classic literature. So, I run into this quite a bit.

There are some classics I can't get through because the bile fills my mouth until I'm ready to vomit. There are others that I can grimace through a section that makes me feel uncomfortable because there's enough to the rest of the work to keep me pulled in and engaged.

I don't write off the problematic attitudes entirely and automatically as "well, it was different back then" because that's only partly true (I'm looking at you HP Lovecraft, considered racist by your own peers even "back then."). But nor do I refuse to read anything that reflects a world view I disagree with.

A major part of why I read is to learn. To walk in someone else's metaphorical shoes and see what it is like to be them and live their lives. That includes learning about people I wouldn't want to invite to lunch. Understanding is at the heart of growth and change.

2. Attitude in the art: is the attitude or belief that troubles you evident in the work itself?

When I'm reading a living author, currently writing, it's pretty easy to learn about their lives and attitudes. Like many contemporary readers, when I like someone's work, I check them out on social media, follow their Twitter or Instagram, subscribe to their newsletter, attend their public events.

That's not always great for my enjoyment of the work. I learn things I wish I didn't know.

More than once, I've learned that someone who made a piece of art I enjoyed is not a good person by my personal moral compass.  Sometimes, this changes how I view their art. I can't, for example, watch anything with Woody Allen in it anymore without getting slammed in the face by all the troubling sexual attitudes, when once I would have laughed those off as comic exaggerations.

But, sometimes, I don't find the "problem" in the work. There are some writers I have enjoyed reading that I was genuinely surprised to learn held attitudes I find offensive. HP Lovecraft's racism is directly in the work. You don't even have to dig for it. But when I read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, I didn't notice an anti-homosexual agenda, even though I now know the author has one (I haven't gone back and re-read since I learned though, so I don't know yet if it would color my perception of the work).

But then…especially if the author is still living, I have to consider what I'm supporting with my money:

3. Follow the money: Are you funding bad behavior that you don't support by buying this work?

When the #metoo movement started uncovering poorly hidden predatory behavior in Hollywood and other media, I felt gut-punched more than once. Someone whose work I admire was revealed for the ugly face beneath the pretty mask and I learned once again that actors ACT, so it's a mistake to conflate actors with the characters they play.

But, when I go to a movie, my dollars don't all go to that actor. A movie employs a LOT of people doing a lot of different kinds of work. Of course, if an actor stops being a box-office draw, they will stop being cast, but I don't generally go back and destroy all the copies of movies I already have and enjoyed before the fall. I might even still see a movie with a problematic personality attached, depending on how intrinsically linked the project and the person are.

With a book, there's also a production team, but it's much smaller, and it definitely feels like more of my dollars are going to the writer. So, just like I don't eat at some restaurants or buy some kinds of products because I don't want to hand their owners dollars to ruin my country with, I also don't buy books by people like this. If I want to read them still, I borrow from my library or buy second-hand to mitigate the financial aspect of support.

So how about you, friends? How do you handle it when you learn something troubling about an artist? Or are the art and the artist completely separate in your mind? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Shall We Play a Game?

I've always liked games. It's partly the game itself--the brain tease, problem-solving feeling of achievement--and partly the camaraderie of the time with my playmates.

When I married my husband, I leveled up when it came to games, learning about a world of different sorts of games than the Gin Rummy, Clue, and Yahtzee that I grew up on. Now we're a pretty serious gaming family, whether we're talking about board games, card games, improv games, role-playing games, or video games. We have quite a library of games to enjoy, but it can be hard to find time amongst all of life's other demands.

I got to play quite a few games in the past few weeks. Summer vacation is great for that, because I sometimes still have a little brain left to use for fun at the end of the day :-)  Some of the fun is choosing the right kind of game for the group and the time frame.

So here are a few of my favorite picks from Bryant family gaming so far this summer.

What do you play with an 11 year old girl, an 18 year old girl and her boyfriend, three grandparents, an aunt, and a set of parents during a family graduation party? We went with Use Your Words.

It's a party game for a videogame console. We played it on our Playstation 4. It doesn't require any video-gaming skills. Instead it networks your phones, tablets, or other internet-accessing devices through a website with a room code. It's a series of mini-games in which you make up subtitles for a film clip, newspaper headlines, and mad-libs style fill-in-the-blanks, with the goal of being funny enough that the other players will vote for your answer. It's great in that it's not knowledge based (unlike trivia games), so younger players (so long as they are old enough to read and write well) can participate fully. 

Another console based game I enjoyed recently was Overcooked on the Nintendo Switch. This one is a co-op game (meaning all the players are working together to achieve a goal, rather than working against each other). It's probably easier for people who have some video game experience, but there are only a few buttons to figure out. This matters to me as I'm not that great at remembering complicated game controls. 

The premise is that we are a group of chefs trying to fill orders while the kitchen itself provides additional challenges, like occasionally getting rearranged as the ship rocks, or having very narrow passageways so it's hard to move around each other. It's got a silly animation style and each challenge is short, so you don't need a lot of time to play either. I'm especially fond of co-op games, so this one is right up my alley. 

Off screen, I've been enjoying short board and card games: games with a less-than-15 minute
playtime. Our recent high school graduate is one busy young woman and it can be hard to pin her down long enough to play something good, but with quick-but-fun games like Kokoro, Tides Time, and Wonderland, we can fit in a quick round of fun after dinner and still leave time for her to spend time with all her friends.

Kokoro is my favorite of these three. You get a printed white-erase board with the grid for the game on it and based on the cards you pull, have to build a maze-like path connecting certain elements. The more you connect, the higher your score.

Tides of Time and Wonderland were also beautiful and fun to play, but are only two player games, so great for me and my husband, but not great for family night.

I'm looking for more games with a very short play time like this because they really fit well into this phase of life.

One more recent play was Rising Sun. This is a big board game. Best with several players (we played with 5) and requiring a long play time of three or more hours.

My husband scored this one on Kickstarter, so we have the edition with all the fancier fiddly-bits: metal coins, 3D building and tokens for various parts, and extra materials that don't come with the standard edition. The more I've played games, the more I've come to appreciate the art and craftsmanship of well made game pieces. They make a game feel like a luxury experience. 

This game took me a while to understand, but I really came to appreciate it. Both complex and easy to understand, it's a satisfying experience for more experienced gamers who are looking for something a little different. It's a territory game in some ways, but there's also a political element, monsters, special abilities, and several different possible paths to victory, not necessarily coming from winning the most battles. I look forward to playing this one again!

So, that's what I've been playing this summer. You can read my fuller reviews and comments about these and other games I've been playing in this Google Plus collection

Any other gamers out there among my blog-readers? What have you been playing? Got any suggestions I should check out? 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

IWSG: Ever-changing Goals

It's the first Wednesday again, which means it's time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. This month, we're celebrating on Tuesday because in the U.S. July 4 is a holiday and hopefully we'll all be too busy having picnics and fireworks and eating hotdogs at baseball games to read blog posts!

July 3 question - What are your ultimate writing goals, and how have they changed over time (if at all)?

The awesome co-hosts are Nicki Elson, Juneta Key, Tamara Narayan, and Patricia Lynne! Be sure to check out what they have to say after you finish here!

For the longest time, my goal was pretty simple: finish writing a book. It took me a shamefully long time to do that. But I *did* do it, and I'm still proud of that because I know that while a HUGE number of people think they want to write a book, only a small percentage ever actually do. 

I started writing my first one when I was about fourteen--it was a romance with a tennis theme, co-written with my thirteen-year-old best friend. It was probably terrible, but the world will never know because we didn't finish it. 

I started and abandoned MANY over the next few decades--that Alcan book, the haunted house one, that painfully autobiographic lament. Some of those are definitely better left abandoned. Others might have been good someday. 

But when my youngest daughter was born and I was suffering with post-partum issues and trying to build a new life in a new place, I found my critique group and they saved my writing life. 

Because of them, I learned to stay focused on one project rather than jumping around to every new shiny that caught my eye. Because of them, I learned to produce pages regularly. Because of them, I finished that first novel (His Other Mother, unpublished, completed 2013, twenty-nine years after my first attempt at writing a book). 

Once I'd done it, my goal changed. I wanted to write a book I could get published. 

Once I'd done that, I wanted to finish the series (that one is still in progress). 

That's the nature of goals, after all. When you achieve one, you need a new one. 

At this point, I know I'm in this for the long haul, so I have several categories of goals, and they are always changing:  

Immediate 2018 Goals:

1. Finish Thursday's Children (current novel WIP) and decide if it will be indie or if I'm seeking a traditional publisher for it. 

2. Finish three short story projects that are still dangling.

3. Submit all my unpublished work (no one will publish it if I don't submit it!). 

Longterm Goals:

  1. Get faster. There are a lot of ideas on my BackBurner that I'd like to complete. My TBW list (to be written list) is dangerously long, and I'm not producing as fast as I want to. So, I'm always looking at my process and my time management and my skill level to see what I can do to work faster without sacrificing quality.
  2. Diversify. Most of my published work is connected to the Menopausal Superhero series. That's great! Because I love that world and I want those stories out there, but I don't want to be a one-trick pony. I have other ideas that need developing as well, so I'm working on balancing writing time to keep momentum alive in the work that I've found success with, while still exploring new projects. 
  3. Expand my readership: I want to make my living as a writer, solely as a writer. So that means I need a broader readership. I'm grateful to everyone who has ever bought and read one of my books and hope they all love the experience and tell all their friends, but hope isn't enough. So, I'm seeking opportunities for promotion and trying to balance all of that alongside writing new material. Whew!
There are sub-goals in there and vaguer aspirations, more like hopes than goals. I'd like to win a major award. I'd like to gain acceptance into SFWA. I'd like to be the author guest of honor at a convention. I'd like to earn enough from my writing to pay for a decent vacation some year. 

But mostly, what I want is to keep writing because it is my very favorite thing in this world to do. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

In Search of Efficiency

In many aspects of my life, I can work quite efficiently. In my teaching life, for example, I get 90 non-supervisory minutes per day. I often create the presentations for six or more lessons, process and provide feedback on 150 or so assignments from the day before, and make three or four phone calls. Occasionally I even eat or use the bathroom. I've become a master at squeezing so much into such a brief time.

At home, with the duties of family life, I'm great at using my appliances and doing one task and finishing another while that one simmers. In forty-five minutes each morning, I can prepare and pack four lunches; feed, medicate, and walk one dog; wash a load of dishes; dog-proof the house for departure; and make sure all four Bryants leave with the right things in their hands.

But when it comes to writing, even though I've been doing this professionally for four years now, I can't seem to be efficient. I am productive, but I am continually frustrated with my rate of production.

I have gotten better. I can produce more words in a shorter amount of time for sure. I have become more disciplined and can make myself stay focused on a single task until it is complete. I use a variety of organizational tools to keep me on track and meeting deadlines.

But there are just so many tasks now…my TBW (to be written) list grows steadily, and I want to be able to get these projects completed more quickly, but it just doesn't work that way for me. Even now, on summer vacation, when my days are more my own to sculpt and use, there are not enough hours in the day for what I want. And even when I have ALL the hours, I can only productively write for so many of them before something snaps and I have to let my poor brain rest.

Art isn't supposed to be efficient.

That's what I tell myself anyway. Art is messy. It's a process, and false starts, blind alleys, and backtracking are part of that process. The first draft of anything is shit, right? Hemingway said so, and people paid him for his words.

But I am impatient to get all my stories out there, into the hands of readers.

Play is part of it. Meandering. Wandering. Seeking. None of these are efficient, start-to-finish clear pathways. But the work suffers if you try to circumvent that.

So where I stand today is back on that tightrope, trying to find the right balance that lets me move forward and feel productive, finishing work and getting it out there, but doesn't make the work itself dull and plodding. Making art on a schedule that doesn't make me or my family crazy. Setting the bar high, but not so high that I can't feel my fingers brush it from time to time.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Yellow Crayons Save the World

I'm re-watching Stranger Things this summer vacation because I loved it and my youngest daughter wanted to watch it. We're at the part where (vaguely describing to keep from spoiling) they're staging an intervention for a character, by telling him all kinds of stories about how much they love him, all their happy memories and even some unhappy ones. Trying to reach the boy within and save him by making him feel.

And it struck me again how much I love this trope.

From Meg Murry who saved Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time by helping him remember that he loves and is loved to Xander Harris who saved evil Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a yellow crayon story. I eat this stuff up.

Every time I see it. Pow. Right in the feels.

Every brainwashed, possessed, or mind-controlled person who is rescued by the loved ones screaming "I know you're in there somewhere!"

I guess I'm just still that far into the idealistic side of the idealism/cynicism scale that I want to believe that no one is beyond reach, that enough love can rescue a seemingly lost case.

It's not true often enough in real life. But in fiction, heck yeah!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Another Transitional Phase

I'm going through another transitional phase. This one doesn't have a new name or category, not like "teenager" or "graduate" or "mother" or "divorcee" or "wife" did.

I don't get a new title, just new circumstances to adjust to.

Daughter, the elder, graduated high school and will be leaving for college in August. Daughter, the younger, completed elementary school and will become a middle schooler this fall.

These changes in educational venue are coming with changes in our house, a room shuffle, changing a bedroom into an office and changing who sleeps in which room.

I feel weird.

I mean, I always feel weird, but this is a weird I'm not used to.

I'll still have a kid at home, so I'm not an empty-nester, but my first fledgling is flying on her own now. On any given day, she will prepare her own lunch, plan her own schedule. I won't know, necessarily, if she's had a good day or a bad one.

That feels so strange. We've always been so close her whole life. I want her to go to college and be a successful adult, of course, but at the same time I want her stay right here and be my little girl forever. Parenthood and teaching, two roles where the goal is to make yourself obsolete.

On the other hand, my other daughter will attend the same school I teach at now. I'll know MORE about her school day than I've ever known before. I'll know all her classmates and her other teachers. I'm probably even going to be her teacher at some point, since I'm the whole Spanish department at my school. She'll spend time in my classroom with me instead of at aftercare after school.

And me? I don't know what this means for me yet. Will I have more time to myself? Will getting that office make a big difference in my writing productivity?

Throughout my life, I've been told that I was going through a phase. I guess I thought I would be done going through phases when I became an adult. I guess I'm learning that life isn't a game you can learn to play well and just keep playing. The rules change all the time. Here's hoping the next phase is a good one!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

What's in a name? #IWSG June

It's the first Wednesday again, which means it's time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. The June 6 question - What's harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?

The awesome co-hosts this week are Beverly Stowe McClure, Tyrean Martinson, Tonja Drecker, and Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor! Be sure to pop over and see what they have to say, too!

For my Menopausal Superhero series, both the titles and the character names came pretty easily. Going Through the Change was the working title pretty much from day one for the first book, and finding Change of Life (book 2) and Face the Change (book 3), was a quick sidestep and a little bit of thinking about phrases using the word Change. Not too difficult. 

Naming the characters was a little tricky, but still not anything I struggled over for long. Once I'd gotten far enough in to know about how old my characters were, I just went to census records for popular names during their likely birth years. I was going for an "everywoman" kind of feel for these characters, so giving them common names (Helen, Patricia, Jessica, Linda, Cindy) went along with that. 

There were some personal Easter Eggs in there as well, since Helen was my grandmother's name (though she preferred to go by Liz, a nickname off of her middle name, Elizabeth) and Patricia is my mother's name (though she prefers to be called Pat). I have a cousin named Jessica, too (who goes by Jessie). I liked Linda because it's a bilingual name and Linda Alvarez lives her life in two languages. 

Other works have been harder to name. His Other Mother (unpublished) went through a lot of titles while I was writing it. For the longest time it was just called Sherry, after the main character, even though I knew that wouldn't be the title in the end. 

The short story I finished last week still hasn't settled on a title even though I think the story is otherwise complete ("The H.O.A" or maybe "Late Bloomer"). Sometimes I can't title something until I've written it completely and the title rises up and suggests itself somewhere along the way. 

In my current WIP, working title Thursday's Children, the main character has been named Kye'luh the whole time, but I've tried out a bunch of different spellings for it: Ki'lah, Kai-luh, Kyla, etc.  Her youngest cousin used to be Jared, but became Camden when I realized I had two J characters with two syllable names: Jason and Jared. Could be confusing. 

A name can be so important. It can give ethnic cues, generational information, geography hints. The same with names of books. The title can give you tone and genre, as well as a hint as to the plot or theme. These seemingly little choices, can really impact a reader's experience with your work! 

How about you, friends? Got a character whose name you love? Or would change given the chance? how about a book title? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.