Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Voting Machines Story

My one time inside The Old Weird Harold, on a tour with my eldest son Scott, we were ushered into a room and spoken at by "a real reporter" and, at the end, asked if we had any questions "about current news items or topics".

At the time, replacing paper ballots with electronic voting machines was a big topic of discussion, and I raised my hand and asked, "What do you think about replacing paper ballots with voting machines?"

You would have thought I had accused him of sucking the Pope's cock during high mass. It was incredible. The guy became livid instantly, and called me a crackpot and a conspiracy theorist and so on. He raved, literally. And during the rant he let slip the fact that he KNEW FOR SURE the machines were ABSOLUTELY TRUSTWORTHY because he'd reported on them extensively AND, it just so happened, his brother-in-law and others in his family owned a company that MADE them...

Well, I stood then and calmly said, "You said you reported extensively on the machines, but just said you were related to someone who makes them; isn't that a conflict of interest?"

He glared at me, opened his mouth, shut it, then strode out of the room, leaving everyone in the group floored.

And of course they all then shot ME dirty looks for "ruining" their tour and for being such a crazy liberal trouble-maker... As they stood and wandered from the room, some muttered what a jackass I was, and yet, all I'd done is ask a question and a sensible follow up question.

I was astounded, still am. I'm also now more cynical about how people prefer conformity and orthodoxy to facts, truth, or even to probing for such things. Better not to make waves, better not to rock the boat, than to find out useful, important, and interesting facts, is how they live. They being society, the collective group. The hive mind, the herd, call it what you are taught to call it, what's familiar to you. Better that way. Won't upset you if you reduce it to cliché.

They want answers, regardless if they're lies, and detest questions, regardless if they're revealing, insightful, or trenchant.

Later, I laughed about it, and said, "You know, it fucking figures. I can't even ask ONE innocent question without being buzz-sawed by the right."

The right, meaning the approved, the sanctioned, and the allowed.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hooked For Life

There are many reasons why people write, and why they might quit.

My parents are dead, for instance.  I'm evidently not writing to prove anything to them.

I discovered writing out of a love of stories, and a realization one day that hey, omg, I can write them too!  holy shit!

I was 7.  It was in summer, between first & second grade, at 402 W. Triumph Street, Ebensburg, PA, at the bottom of the hills the town was built on, down by the railroad tracks. I sat on the green couch by the east window in the living room in a striped tee shirt, jeans, and black Keds. My hair was pretty well buzz cut.

I wrote a story, The Big Fish, in a Tom Brown's Notebook, in pencil, using my knees as a clipboard. The story was about an imaginary adventure I and three friends had. Along with Scott Coons, my best friend, there was Marvin Hudson, who did a hilarious spazz creature at the Lyons Pool in Cresson, where I learned to swim when the teenaged bullies threw us in and told us we'd drown if we didn't learn fast, and Craig Weaver, who tried to act grown up all the time, much to our puzzlement. Craig had walked up to me first day of first grade, when I was terrified, and had punched me in the stomach. Then he said, "Now you punch me and we'll be friends." He was as good as his word, despite the bizarre logarithms by which he operated.

My story was about us going fishing together, of course, and about how we caught a fish too big to get into the boat. Our line breaks and the fish gets away. We are disappointed but also think it was cool how close we came, until Craig starts practicing the story he intends to tell about it. He plans to lie and say it was bigger than the boat. Scott and Marvin and I don't like this. So we tell him to shut up.

It was a great story, to me. Seemed both realistic and compelling, with elements of fantasy, even myth. It even included profanity; Craig had said, "Shit," at one point, something he really would have done.

I was so thrilled at the freedom, and the realization that I could make those pictures in my head come to life, that I ran to show my mother. I read it to her, "shit" and all, and she liked it. "But what can I do with it now?" I wondered. Even then, just writing it didn't seem enough somehow.

And she said, "Well, maybe you can get it published sometime." And I realized, with naive amazement, that the stories in all those books I loved so much had been written by people like me, and that is how they got into the books.

I was hooked for life.

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Order and Chaos In Genre

Genre fiction relies on order and chaos in many ways to define itself.

All mystery is about restoring order after chaos. Any variation of that moves away from the form to the point of failing the audience.

Horror often moves from order toward or into chaos. Schlock and camp horror even celebrates the chaos.

SF is about lecturing each other in detail how imaginary order works.

Fantasy is about escaping strict order to imaginary realms where emotional and mental elbow room can be found. Taken to extremes, fantasy has so much mental room that it becomes inadvertently chaotic.

A hero ventures forth from order to fight threats to that order, usually monsters. To do this the hero will die, be reborn, vanquish the threat, and thus redeem or save the order he can never then return to. He becomes an outsider as a sacrifice to the order he defends. A hero does all this selflessly and often reluctantly.

A villain threatens order, or undermines it for his own ends.

Genre fiction succeeds or fails to the extent a given story varies from established pattern. Fulfilling a pattern in a clever way earns accolades, thwarting a pattern, even in a clever way, risks audience rejection. Maintaining a pattern's order helps a story succeed in genre terms.

Order and chaos also apply to tone. The more orderly narrative, the more a genre audience likes it. Add any level of chaos and genre readers will either be confused by it and put it down as amateurish, or see it as literary and reject it bitterly.

Too much narrative chaos strikes genre audience as abstraction, which makes a genre reader feel as if something is being put past them, and this riles anger and resentment.

However, if you can make order look chaotic on the surface, and manage not to lose the order required to fulfill a given genre, it is possible, rarely, to prevail as "brilliant" or "a genius". Examples of this are Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and the Zen influenced mysteries of Janwillem van der Wetering.

Strict attention to order and chaos defines genre and helps a story fulfill expectations and thus succeed in the market.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Drama, Melodrama, and Soaps

Good drama is based on interconnections, which is another word for relationships.

Soap Operas draw them with big fat crayons and oversized Sharpies in neon colors.  This is the reason we can all get hooked into them but also feel at least a mild contempt for them, if not outright allergic detestation; they're blatantly manipulative of our vulnerability to relationship shifts.

It borders on cheating; in the worst of them it IS cheating.  It parallels taking a sledgehammer to a kitten or feeding a puppy into a meat grinder.  It is guaranteed to make us react, and everyone knows it's a cheap shot.  

This is melodrama, the cartoon of the dramatic world. Actual drama is more refined in many ways.

More refined drama addresses both more serious relationship subtleties and deeper emotional scars. It also factors in ethical considerations and other real world expansions of personal problems.

The best drama enhances real life. It shows recognized individuals, not types, engaged in situations we can relate to, doing things to cope we have all done in one way or another, and it also reveals the complexities and subtle shadings involved in the process of living life with others.

Next time you write a story, figure out if it's melodrama or drama and adjust accordingly. It will strengthen your fiction no end to be aware of these things.