Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Ineloquent Response to Grammatical Criticism

It's largely considered bad form to respond to a critic. As a fan of bad forms I decided to go ahead and give it a try. You see, I recently came across a criticism of my book, Bad Unicorn, because the reader had encountered “their” as a singular pronoun and so stopped reading. My response . . . pfft!

He or she, in writing his or her review, must have reflected on his or her experiences as an editor/copywriter/kitten euthanizer, and in his or her dedication to one prescriptive style guide or another, found his or her panties/shorts wadded in a binding grammatical knot causing him or her great rhetorical angst and discomfort. Now that's how you write a sentence! 

Just to set the record straight, however, according to Merriam-Webster, “the use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” The use of “their” as a singular pronoun is found in the works of such hacks as Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare, and others. There's actually a great post about this at Daily Writing Tips.

So to any future readers, let me suggest that if such nuances are troubling for you, you probably aren’t the type to enjoy a book about a carnivorous unicorn in the first place. That being said, let me salute my critic's grammatical vigor and ask that we at least part as friends. Or as Shakespeare put it: “There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.” Now that guy can write. 

The only surviving photograph of "The Bard" when asked about this issue. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Simple Kind of Life

Goodbye social media.

I’ve given you a fair shot, but I’m turning you off and tuning you out. If you want to know why, please feel free to keep reading. If not, that’s okay too.

You see, I was born in 1967. That means my life can be comfortably divided into two halves: 1967-1990, and 1990-2013. Each of these 23 year periods are marked by remarkable differences and periods of change. And now that I reflect on both what I’ve gained and what I’ve lost in the bargain, I’ve decided to stick with what I like and get rid of what I don’t. So here's a little history—I’ll try and keep it brief:

I appreciate having grown up in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. We had a rotary phone hanging on our wall, a three-channel television with rabbit ears, and Saturday mornings were the only time you could watch a half-day’s worth of cartoons (totally worth waking up for).  When we played, we grabbed footballs, bats and gloves, or BB-guns, and peddled off to whatever adventures we could find. In the late 1970’s we discovered Dungeons and Dragons, and despite our parent’s concerns we were secretly summoning Beelzebub through candle-lit pentagrams, we gathered and stretched our imaginations into characters and worlds fantastic and wonderful. Geeky, I know. But awesome too.

I had this bad boy
I watched as the personal computer came into the home, starting with a Radio Shack TRS-80 my dad bought me; then to the much upgraded Commodore 64 thanks to mom (and a divorce that left both sides offering material incentives to keep me smiling and playing along.) I soon decided computers were cool. I watched MTV when it was a small cable channel and listened to Howard Stern when he was a local DJ in Washington DC. Life was good.

I graduated high school in 1985. That was the year the first version of Windows was released, and in a computer science class I helped a girl with her homework by writing the answer: D$=”Mr. Hacking is a Jerk.” Yep, she didn't check it and that was the name of the teacher—score! The next year the 386 PC rolled off the factory line, and those riding the vanguard of technological change were called Generation X. That was cool too.

Then the decade turned over and my second 23-year clock started ticking. And while personally these were great years (I was married and we had four kids by 2000), I remember the rise of this thing called the Internet. I was in college and schools were the early adopters. Gopher was the first point and click navigation system, and we anxiously listened to sounds of modems squelching before the long march of pixels began to trace images across our monitors. We didn’t know it was slow at the time because it just was, and there was nothing else like it. Five years later CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy started providing dial-up services, and I remember the first time I saw a URL listed on a commercial—it was for Ford. It hit me that this Internet thing was going to change things.

Totally used this phone
As far as other stuff going on I had early access to cell phones because I worked as a radio DJ, and we had a version that had both a base and a handset. This is pre-brick folks, just to put it into perspective. I remember the first time I placed a call from a car--something very few people were able to do--and I started the conversation with, “I’m totally calling you from a car!” Yep, that’s how novel it was. Then things just exploded: modems disappear, phones get smaller, bandwidth goes up, and everything gets faster.

Social media came on the heels of the technology that supported it.  I remember Geocities as the first virtual hub of sorts (it’s still available in Japan, by the way.) Blogging starts and Google comes on the scene. Jump to the 2000’s as Wikipedia arrives and Friendster, MySpace, Digg, Facebook, and YouTube bubble up to prominence to either thrive or succumb to the next offering. Meanwhile we have three more kids (awesome). Also, I realize my kids will never know a time before the Internet. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Now as we move into the next decade social media has wrapped its tentacles around everything we do. It’s no coincidence that twitter founder Jack Dorsey listened to emergency dispatch calls as a kid and found the idea of short blurbs of information announcing who you were, what you were doing, and where you were going, as inherently interesting. Now we’re all dispatchers, and if we choose we can listen in to whomever we want (notice I wrote “whomever” just to be a smarty-pants).

One of the more useful philosophers
My problem with social media goes back to my favorite philosopher, who wrote meaning is always a derivative of use. Or in other words, Facebook isn’t about what it represents but about how it’s used. If I were to reach back to my 1985 self and describe the social media experience, I’d use the following metaphor:
Imagine you’re walking through a crowded mall. Everyone there has a megaphone and shouts what they’re doing, thinking, or feeling. Friends are those with megaphones turned in your direction (being a friend has nothing to do with how much you really know or care about someone). Everyone else is shouting too, but their megaphones are pointed in other directions (these are non-friends). And a lot of people are angry: about the government, elected officials, the media, neighbors, religion, and social issues.  But these are not arguments in the Socratic sense of hoping to work toward some truth—these are arguments about winning. Being entrenched is seen as strength and being open-minded a surrender to moral relativism. Since this is a contest, he who shouts the loudest and with the most vitriol seems to win. Those not in the argument have lots of things to say as well, because it’s important to know what everyone is doing as often as possible. These are not mean spirited communications, and there are real moments of love, laughter, and appreciation; but every life seems to require its own running commentary, and since everything is news what’s really important is easily lost.

For some strange reason most of the stores in this mall are filled with Hallmark card shops offering various inspirational saying, platitudes, or images of cats demanding to be liked. Of course there are other stores too, but you’re never left to just quietly browse these. The maelstrom of noise is everywhere, and at each step smart billboards follow. And these billboards never leave your line of sight, constantly advocating that you buy this or do that. All the while there’s more shouting and more updates from friends who may or may not give you the time of day if you really needed them, and more opportunity for billboards to watch, track, target, and add their messaging to the fray. We have surrendered wisdom for knowledge, and conversation for data. And so long as you remain trapped in this mall that will not change.

1985 Self Reacts to Metaphor
Knowing my 1985 self I think the answer to this scenario would be rather straightforward: “That mall sucks. You should totally ditch it.”

So I’m finding the exit and walking away. If you really are my friend you’ll know that this has nothing to do with how I think of you and what I’d be willing to do for you. Instead, my analysis of the two 23 year periods of my life found more joy in the simple things, and less in the ongoing chaos of being plugged in to social media. I desire a more simple kind of life. I will continue to write and post updates via book pages and such, but I am largely disconnecting from social media. I hope you understand and don't take it personally, because my decision feels really, really good. Almost waking up on a Saturday morning and watching cartoons good. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Poem

Okay, so completely off topic. But . . . eh . . .

Two Temples

I build my temple on a hill.
Come and worship with us; see the trappings that mark our devotion,
Gold and silver arranged just so,
Unblemished by those who would use such things,
To satiate unworthy stomachs.

This temple belongs to me.
I am glorified in my abundance; righteous in my opulence;
Lick my heel and be rewarded when I am gone,
For my corporate piety has promoted me.
Let my status be heralded again and again.

You, son, do not belong here.
Salty tears will stain; bloodied feet leave sanguine trails,
Across rugs not made for walking.
These are holy fibers,
Sewn from pecuniary tithes - in numbers known precisely.

I am the High Priest of this temple.
See the knife cut through familial sinew, tendon, heart,
Woman, children—such distinctions hold no sway.
Only the beautiful and deserving walk my grounds,
And have the privilege to call me father.

Two temples sit upon the hill,
One to reap and one to sew; see them thus together?
To each tokens of devotion cast.
But most of all I am pleased to note,
Of the two, mine is slightly higher.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Love and Publishing

Imagine if every product you ever purchased required you to “love it.” It wouldn’t be enough to buy a big couch that was merely “comfortable,” or “firm,” or even a “good deal.” No, you would have to love it. Or the quick run through a drive thru to grab a burger . . . just liking something wouldn’t do. You’d have to truly love that particular burger in order to justify buying it. Good luck with that. And how big would our closets be if we were constrained to only those clothes we truly loved? And more importantly, can you ever love a man muumuu too much? But I digress. Let’s face it, using “love” as a litmus test for what we buy is a pretty tough standard.

So here’s the thing: every writer who’s received rejection letters from agents and editors alike has probably heard a variation of this phrase: “I just didn’t love it.” And I suppose what it does is shut down any argument to the contrary (I’m sorry to disagree with you, but you really did love it, so take that!) Love is so personal, so subjective, and so impossible to nail down—you’d have better luck describing what salt tastes like. So does an editor or agent really have to love your manuscript to take it on? Can’t they look to the market with the steely determinism of a newly minted MBA and say something like, “I don’t love these chicken nuggets per se, but I think people will buy them like crazy?”

I think the answer is no. I think they truly must love your work in order to represent it or buy it.

At least that’s been my experience so far. Despite whatever commoditization occurs once your novel becomes a figure on a publisher’s P&L spreadsheet, it begins its life as a work that must be loved—loved by your agent and then loved by your editor. Yes, that’s an impossibly high standard to write to. And yes, love is completely subjective and often not rational. There is no more a formula for writing a book that will be loved as there is for writing a manual for falling in love.

So where do you start? I think this: write the book that you love—because if you don't it will show through and you won't convince anyone else to love it either.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What Does Christmas Mean?

I got into a little bit of trouble on Christmas Eve because when asked to share my thoughts about the holiday, I remarked how Christmas was a tool used by the Romans to co-opt the pagan holiday celebrating the birth of Saturn and assign it to Christ.

Not that I want to sound like a Grinch or anything--I'm not full of humbuggery about the holiday. It's just that, like most questions of "meaning", I tend to drift back to my undergrad Philosophy days and the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He said, rather practically in my opinion, that to talk about the inherent "meaning" of something is not that useful. Things don't mean anything outside of how they're used. It's like talking about the meaning of a chair. Yuck. But how it's used..? That can be more instructive. Sometimes it's used to sit on; other times it's used to knock people over the head with. So what does it mean to be a chair? Well, it means exactly how it's used. In other words, meaning is always a derivative of use.

So, the more practical question about Christmas isn't what it might inherently mean, but how did you put it into action in your life? Did you go on a spending binge and rejoice in the materialism afforded our modern society? Did you gather around the bible and read about the birth of Christ? Maybe you did both, deftly dancing between the stories of elves and Santa Claus and the virgin birth of the Son of God. Kind of a tough juxtaposition.

Thankfully, I have a wife who inspires and grounds me. What she did for Christmas? Well, of course we did the materialistic thing--I mean seriously, we're not savages here. BUT, and this is a big but (I know, hilarious), what I watched my wife do was pick out three families in need and engage in a campaign of charity, gift-giving, and joyful service. And she got the whole family involved. It was awesome. I don't want to go into details because I don't want to sully the pureness of her actions. But it was the most Christ-centric Christmas I've experienced in a long time. And why? Because my wife actually went out and did something Christ-like.

I suppose what I'm saying is if we inventory all the time and energy around the things we actually did over the holiday, maybe a quick reading of Luke on Christmas Eve doesn't stack up well against all the hours of Black Friday'ing, Cyber Monday'ing, shopping, buying, wrapping, etc.

Look, Christmas has a history of being co-opted by the powerful. I'm just wondering if maybe we should put a little more thought into what we're actually doing, and maybe we can claim a bigger portion of it back. It's a lot to ask, I know. And I've got a few new toys to play with.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Four Story Forms

My son, who is also named Platte, wants to be a writer, and I think this is a good idea. First, since we share the same name I can accuse him of writing any of my books that bomb. Second, if he writes something successful I can take credit for it. It's a win / win.

His dilemma, like many writers, is where to start. Sure, "It was a dark and stormy night," has some potential, but sometimes facing that blinking cursor feels overwhelming. I often think back to something I learned when I was writing screenplays: almost all stories come down to only one of four forms...four! Four doesn't seem very overwhelming.

So, the four story forms for nearly all stories:

- To retrieve
- To stop
- To win
- To escape

Try a little thesaurus exercise with each of the above words. I'll just start with "retrieve".

Retrieve: Bring back, recapture, redeem, repair, rescue, salvage.

How many stories do we know about bringing something back (stolen items); or recapturing something (on a battlefield, an escaped convict); redemption (of fallen hero or a sinner); repair (being stranded somewhere, drifting in a space capsule); rescue (hostages, those trapped in a disaster) get the idea. All derivations from the basic "to retrieve" story form.

So if you're stuck on where to start that novel you're itching to write, narrow the field down to one of the four forms. And from there, with a little help of a thesaurus, dive deeper into variations that pose interesting, unique, or compelling dilemmas. Of course we're only talking about the outer journey here, the external action. But hey, it's a good place to start and hopefully get the creative juices flowing (also, just what are creative juices and where do they flow to?)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Story and Spectacle

If T.S. Elliot were a blogger, I suppose he'd start by writing "This is how this blog will start, this is how this blog will start, this is how this blog will start, with a whimper and not a bang."

Now, I don't want to presume to know the mind of T.S. Elliot, but I also don't want to presume my blog will begin with any kind of 'bang' -- for that you need some combination of celebrity, crazy, and paparazzi.

I got a call from a producer friend of mine today who is out in L.A. with Relativity, receiving various and sundry pitches for a movie concept I wrote the first draft for, called "The Legend of Santa Claus". The premise was simple: Santa Claus is a kind of hero without a hero's journey, so lets create something that draws on the various mythologies and lore of Christmas and construct an adventure neither blasphemous or ridiculous. And, heaven forbid, let's try to get some good old fashioned Christmas Spirit in there as well.

What my friend and I failed to realize is that Hollywood has become less about the story and more about the spectacle. So much in fact, that part of the pitch session included two seasoned screenwriters talking about a Nazi-styled blimp that is carrying a weapon of mass destruction that Santa and his elves must stop. Now, if you could promise me some kind of dirigible-based chase scene at the end, they might of had me. But seriously, I suppose Santa would be leaping from his flying sled to the blimp, climbing down ropes and jumping into the cockpit (I assume it's called a cockpit), wielding, I don't know, a candy cane or something, and knocking SS dressed soldiers out the windows to their deaths. Yep, this is how Hollywood constructs a story about Santa Claus.

It is also why I have shifted my attention from screenwriting to novel writing. Frankly, I'm getting tired of the spectacle and I want to spend more time in the story. Not that big, climatic kinds of scenes are bad, I just don't want them to be front and center and the rest just kind of shoe-horned in as an after thought.

So, I'll be blogging about my adventures writing, trying to get published, and how to work a dirigible into my next story.