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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

No sh!t, the Ice Bucket Challenge actually worked, because of course it did, you idiots.

I go to twitter today and see, next to the tragic news about Syria, this story about how "The Ice Bucket Challenge Actually Worked."

No shit, I say. No shit, it worked, and all you assholes who complained about the sheeple with their pointless viral video campaign for charity look like...well, assholes who complain a lot. 

As someone who worked for a few years raising donations, let me explain why. 

I spent hours each week calling potential donors for my small women's college. Some were on a yearly donor list; some were on an occasional donor list; some were cold calls to people who'd never donated. 

Some of the callers were absolutely lovely. Some were busy and donated just to get me off the phone. Some were interested to hear the news updates but didn't want to or couldn't donate. Some people on the inactive list were happy to donate at whatever level they could manage.

And some were horrible. You would not believe some of the abuse I got as part of that job. Well, maybe you would. You're reading this on the Internet, after all.

Because, whaddya know, people don't like to be called up and asked for money. They feel pressured, or their dinner got interrupted, and then they threaten to get your phone number and stalk you at home and harass your family. (Yes, that happened, though to be fair it wasn't the alumn herself...it was her husband or boyfriend or father or somebody.)

BUT, but, but, if you make it a fun game, something they can volunteer to participate in that is silly and fun and doesn't feel pressuring, they're a lot more open to giving. I know, right? Shocker. 

And if you come up with a genius idea like the ice bucket challenge which encourages people to tag their friends, you don't even have to spread the word yourself! Because it's all part of the game and people will do it for you because they want to. 

Anyway, I hope that explanation of why "The Ice Bucket Challenge Actually Worked" was sufficiently sarcastic and condescending to explain why to all the too-good-for-this sarcastic, condescending asswipes who bragged about not helping a worthwhile charity for a horrible condition because they didn't want to follow the mainstream.

Good day. I say, good day.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Diverse Reads Review: Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly

Harmonic Feedback is a YA Contemporary novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who loves music. As a musician, it was gratifying to read a book about teens who love making music. One of the characters is a pianist, so that was awesome. Even more awesome was finding a book that represents disability in YA literature. Since my own sibling has ASD, I was looking forward to reading this book. 


Summary

16-year-old Drea has lived everywhere with her mom, who bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and drags Drea across the country with her. This is especially hard for Drea, since her Asperger's Syndrome already makes it hard to have friends. Deciding that being lonely is better than rejection, Drea loses herself in her music: producing mixes and manipulating sound with her computer and collection of guitars. 

All that changes when they go to live with her grandmother. Drea must navigate the social minefield of high school while she deals with having real friends, and possibly a boyfriend, for the first time. 

Review: 4 stars! FYEAH!


I had a few problems with this book, but let's get to the good stuff first!

Harmonic Feedback felt like an honest portrayal of what it's like to be a misfit. Drea's symptoms are pretty mild, but even when she's coping well, she is constantly thinking about what her life would be like if people "knew" about her. She doesn't want to be defined by her disorder, but struggles to communicate with neurotypical people who don't know how to make adjustments to how Drea thinks, speaks, and acts. Drea also has to deal with social awkwardness, ADHD, and anxiety. Reading Harmonic Feedback was genuinely stressful. The descriptions of panic attacks had my heart in my throat.

A lot of this book is about not putting people in boxes. Used to being put in a box herself, Drea starts to do that with other people. She's standoffish and assumes everyone else is a "normal" jerk, because that's easier than approaching people and being rejected. She's forced to question that way of thinking when it comes to Justin and Naomi, her friends and band members. 

The author has ADHD and has a sibling on the autism spectrum. While "Asperger's Syndrome" is now a dated diagnosis (it's since been lumped in with Autism Spectrum Disorder), Harmonic Feedback is a thoughtful and honest portrayal of a character with AS who's just trying to live her life.

And now for the bad...spoilers abound.

On Justin


After Drea accuses Justin (our love interest) of being Mr. Conformist with his Nike shirt, he dresses as a Goth the next day -- mimicking her style in order to mock her. He thinks it's a big joke.

Of course, what he doesn't know is that Drea makes her own clothes because she's poor. Drea also processes sensations differently and can't stand the feeling of jeans -- hence all the skirts and velvet and general "goth girl" look.

So the rich kid Justin goes out and buys a whole new outfit specifically to mock this girl who doesn't fit in because he thinks she maybe sort of made fun of him. It's part of the book's message about not putting people in boxes, but damn if I didn't hate Mr. Love Interest for the rest of the book. 

The book's only queer character, Naomi, also gets a "put in her place" moment brought to you by Justin. After she tells him she kissed Drea, Justin scoffs and asks: did she think she was the first straight girl to kiss another girl for shock value? Naomi responds by saying, how do you know it was for shock value? We were alone, and I don't put my identity in a box. 

But Justin (our rich, straight, white male love interest) just says that Naomi can't possibly be queer because he has excellent gaydar and he would know. Her identity must meet with his approval and belief in order to be valid.

Yeah, on second thought, fuck Justin. 

On female friendships vs. romance

Justin is at the center of most of my problems with this book. If this had been a book about Drea and Naomi and their friendship of opposites, I would have liked it a lot better. But Justin comes between them, and together he and Drea make Naomi feel like an inadequate third wheel, which leads to the book's tragic climax. 

I guess I'm disappointed that this started as a story about a female friendship and ended up ruining that with a romance. Hell, if this had been a romance between Drea and Naomi, I would have been on board. But the book is littered with other examples of people picking their love interest over their friends, and the narrative does nothing to trouble that. Drea describes female friendships in the most derogatory, sexist way you could imagine: overhearing girls gossiping about each other in bathrooms, friendships being defined by backstabbing and hatred, how girls always turn on you, how Drea doesn't want to mix with those "common denominator" girls...

And OK, so Justin does have some redeeming qualities. He's a pianist. He has an autistic niece. He cares about family. He's nice to Drea once they get to know each other. He's also one of the few male characters you'll find, especially in YA, with rape as part of his backstory. I should just take the book for what it is. 

But there's also an anti-drug message running through the novel and that only makes me hate Justin more, if possible. 

On Drugs and the Bury Your Gays Trope

Justin, our Mr. Love Interest, has a drug-riddled past. But because his parents are rich, he got rehab and a second chance in the main plot of Harmonic Feedback. Our privileged straight male love interest gets to be redeemed, while Naomi, who also struggles with drugs, has to be punished with an overdose and death. 
Yeah, Harmonic Feedback kills off its only queer character with an accidental overdose because the narrative had to punish her somehow, and the characters were reading Go Ask Alice in English class so...the author wanted that tie-in? I don't know. Even the circumstances of the overdose felt massaged to get the "punishment" ending. Someone says that a meth dosage that can make one person tweak can give another a heart attack, and that's all the explanation we get. 

Naomi, a junkie who is dating a drug dealer, apparently didn't know that. Which I don't buy. The narrative doesn't even let us wonder whether it was really a suicide via deliberate overdose. That would at least give her some agency in the narrative. But, no. She's just a plot device. She's disposable because she's not part of the romance, and extra disposable because if you have no black characters to kill then it's time to Bury Your Gays. 

Conclusion

Despite all the negative things I just said, I really encourage you to read Harmonic Feedback and decide for yourself. The writing is phenomenal. I particularly liked how Drea describes music. And you know I think it's good because I dislike first person, and I rarely praise a first-person narrative voice this highly. It's up there in my top three with first-person character voices I just loved. 

Morality tales about drugs aren't really my thing; in my opinion, we already have Crank or, if you must (sigh) Go Ask Alice. Even Go Ask Alice presents a more nuanced and compassionate narrative about teen drug use than Harmonic Feedback. HF's harsh outlook on drugs and drug users comes partially from Drea's objection to her own medications: she would give anything not to have to take meds, so why would someone who's already "normal" want to alter their state with drugs? 

It felt like Harmonic Feedback was not just anti-drug, but anti-all drugs, even prescription drugs that could help Drea. In this book's view, anything that changes your authentic self is a bad thing. In that light, I'm willing to forgive the book...a little.

While I could barely stomach Justin and only ended up liking him by the end of the novel, I have to admit the romance was a good read. It was about Drea discovering herself and her boundaries, mental and physical, and learning to let go with another person. Because so much of what Drea feels is intense due to how she processes sensations, the sensory writing and focus on how feelings connect to the physical was just...wow, inspired.

And despite Naomi being a plot device who falls victim to the Bury Your Gays trope, she was a vivid character who acted as a great foil to Drea. Their friendship, though it ends tragically, is genuine.

Welp, that's my review. My feelings are mixed. If you've read it, let me know what you think in the comments. 

I tried to write a story with a gender-neutral protagonist

I wrote a horror story today. 

I needed a break from the other stuff I was writing, so I wrote this. I like it a lot. But I ran into a problem early on: what gender is the protagonist?

I couldn't decide. And I was on a writing roll, so I didn't want to stop and take the time to decide. I figured that if I wrote and the need arose to identify the character by name, or have others identify them, or have them use the bathroom, I'd decide then. Perhaps some other aspect of the character would reveal itself to me and I would determine gender based on that. 

It was a horror/supernatural story, but it was also a revenge story. Both those genres tend to have tropes strongly associated with gender. As I wrote, it became less about discovering the character's gender than it did about the exercise of writing a character who had no specific gender. This character could be male, female, or nonbinary. Perhaps they are nonbinary. I don't know. 

I didn't really want to deal with the particular issues that would arise from tropes in this kind of story if I picked a gender. But also, I sincerely didn't know what gender the character was or should be. I tried not to let it affect the writing. 

Writing gender-neutral scenes is way harder than it sounds.

It's far easier in first person, at least. As long as the character was alone, it was easy to write without gender. The challenge began when I introduced them to other characters. Male characters. Teenage boy male characters hanging out with booze and drugs and having a good time.

Because people treat men and women differently. They treat nonbinary people differently still. And people of different genders tend to react to certain situations in a way that acknowledges or signals their gender. 

I didn't want to decide the character's gender, but I found myself wondering: did I unwittingly give this character male privilege in "his" interactions with these other boys? Are the other characters treating them in a "neutral" way or is there some signal that "she" is a girl? Does the fact that the character doesn't worry about their safety when they get into the car with the bad guy signal that they are a boy, not a girl or nonbinary? Or is the character so focused that they don't care? Would readers be willing to believe that a brother could be close to a sister, or would they gender the protagonist a girl by default because they believe women form stronger bonds? When the protagonist cries, would readers believe they are a girl?

I'm probably overthinking this. 

My point is that so much of what we assume about character development and appropriate character behavior comes from a gender baseline. Maybe I'm just more aware of this. Or maybe I'm just prejudiced in some way, I don't know. I know that boys can cry and girls aren't always close to their sisters. But I also know the stereotypes -- and trying to write without invoking those stereotypes was hard.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Resisting the Urge to Edit

I have a problem when it comes to drafting.

I decided to attempt Camp National Novel Writing Month this year, and it's going far better than I expected. I'm up to 33,000-some words, when my original goal was just "rewrite this thing and consider myself lucky if it works well enough to get me to 10k." If I were pushing for the traditional November goal of 50k, I'm over halfway there. 

But the longer the thing gets, the more insecurities I accrue. It's like each 100 words represents a worry, fear, or insecurity. As the thing gets longer, my urge to go back and edit gets stronger.

Usually, I give in to that urge. My original writing process used to involve editing by default: I'd handwrite a chapter, then transcribe that chapter into the computer, editing as I went. Even when I stopped handwriting, I constantly re-read, rewrote, and edited my drafts. 

Now, if I were editing finished drafts, that would be one thing. As it was, I was editing incomplete drafts as a way to procrastinate on writing. After all, finishing something is scary. That means you have to consider it as a whole, and if you finish a draft with no editing during the process and then go back and start at the top, then -- yikes, that's a lot of editing. Editing of a much rougher draft than you get if you edit as you go along. Part of me worries that if I finish a draft without editing as I went along, I'll look back at that first draft and delete the whole thing in disgust. 

Finishing a thing means committing to that thing, though. As long as the project was a draft, I didn't have to take it as seriously or commit to it as much. It was just an incomplete draft! Just a work in progress!

The thing is, you can't successfully edit a project if that project isn't complete. You can tweak for style, grammar, and the other little things, but you can't fully critique for plot, character, or any of the big-picture stuff because there is no big picture. You can't edit a scene in the middle to make more sense with an ending you haven't written yet. Anything could change when you actually draft that ending -- and then that middle scene you "fixed" no longer works within the whole. 

NaNoWriMo has been helpful in getting me to shake free of my need to edit. By focusing on the wordcount to the exclusion of all else, it helps people get past insecurities and nitpickiness and poor writing discipline to just write the damn thing already. Some people don't need that, and that's fine. But I definitely do.

I have completed drafts in the past, through my own long, circuitous, torturous process. This time, though, I'm trying to establish better habits and more self-confidence. For me, going back to edit is a way of second-guessing myself. I criticize my own writing far too harshly at the draft phase. It's a draft. It's for getting the words down. You're supposed to make it pretty later.

So, despite the discouraging quality of the crap I spew out today as I pass the 33k mark and march towards 50,000 (17k to go!), I just have to soldier on. Much like the undead hordes in this draft. Soulless. Powerless. Stripped of all will and following only the commands of their dark master.

Oh yeah, this one has zombies. FYEAH ZOMBIES. I'm pretty excited.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Examiner is gone (and so are all my reviews)

Well, this is frustrating.

Examiner.com was a crowd-generated entertainment/opinion/"news" site where I reviewed books. I reviewed books there since college, and while it didn't exactly make me millions I enjoyed it.

In June I got an email from Examiner after a long break from the site. It offered an incentive for returning writers through the end of June. I figured, hey! Why not? and wrote them some bitchy reviews (and few nice ones as well). What was really nice was the fact that they'd updated their quality standards since I'd left. 

One of the reasons I left was the subpar content; I was putting a lot into these reviews for very minimal rewards while other people wrote 200-word, highly biased, often grammatically incorrect pieces about dog abuse or celebrities and made hundreds-and-more dollars a month. When I returned to the site, I was one of the contributors whose content was consistently high-quality. I thus wasn't subject to the new mandatory review process. I could write when and what I wanted. And after publishing an audiobook review, I got someone from a publishing agency asking if they could add me to their review email list thing. 

In fact, Examiner was the main way I got attention from publishers and authors for my channel and this blog: they added me to mailing lists and sent me ARCs to review. I decided I was going to write a lot more reviews and put a lot more effort into them. It would be great. 

Except that a month after they sent the email to woo former contributors back to the site, Examiner announced they would be closing. Their parent company, AXS, would turn the former Examiner into a ticket sales and music entertainment site. Music and entertainment examiners whose content categories fit the new brand have mostly been able to stay. The rest of us, not so lucky.

Which is, I guess, fine. Online news has changed, blah blah blah, get with the times, blah blah. Only I found out about this too late to save any of my reviews, and that's my work down the drain, thousands of words with no way to recover them, and I'm pretty cheesed off about it. 

"Contributors should take steps to secure their content" and "Examiner is not responsible for content" well OK, maybe I should have checked my email every five minutes like everyone else on the planet. But from what I gathered from iMediaEthics.com, there wasn't much time between the announcement and the disabling of the Examiner site. In June they were promising rewards to returning writers; on July 1st, you could no longer post. 

More seriously, Examiner fucked up by sending an email halfway through July reminding writers to write an article in order to retain their active Examiner status. Usually I start publishing halfway through the month when I get that reminder email. So I saw that, went to Examiner, and found it'd been changed to AXS. And that all my content is gone with no way to retrieve it. 


I can go to WayBack and take a screenshot of a list of my reviews, but there's nothing more recent than 2015. I can use WayBack to find the last update to the general book review list, but the links to the reviews themselves haven't been archived. Which makes an archive of a list of content you can no longer access pretty fucking pointless for a service that advertises itself as preserving "free knowledge for everyone."* Even my grad student research skills proved useless. (If anyone has any suggestions, though, I will owe you cookies and/or alcohol, forever.)

I can at least use WayBack to get a list of the reviews I've written. Maybe try to recreate them. Who am I kidding? I don't want to do that. The thought of doing that much rewriting, some of it for books I don't even remember that well, is literally nauseating just to contemplate.

"But Laura," you say, backing away nervously as I make gagging sounds, "maybe you should calm down. You've made, like, what, 30 dollars from Examiner? Ever? Why do you care so much?"

BECAUSE I WROTE THE WORDS AND THE WORDS ARE GONE. Oh, sure, some of that's my fault and I could have prevented it had I saved my content in time. I suppose they're legally entitled to do whatever the fuck they want with contributor content. I clicked the terms and conditions box, after all. When I got booted from the ezine BrightHub.com during a spate of downsizing, they actually kept my articles. Which were still up there generating pageviews for them. Some of them on the front page of the zine. Which I think is kind of shitty. 

But perhaps the Examiner thing upsets me more because Examiner has always pitched itself about being contributor-oriented, powered by local writers writing local content. Even the shittier, highly biased content was kind of inspiring, in a "we value everyone's opinion who has taken a writing 101 course and also here's this community, forums, and tutorials to help you improve because we genuinely care about writers. But when we change hands, we'll delete all your content and offer you no way to retrieve it. Oh, you were on vacation in early July like HALF OF FUCKING AMERICA? Too fucking bad! Should've checked work email instead of relaxing with your families, suckers!"** 

I suppose that after a string of weird and/or bad freelance experiences that placed very little value on the work writers do, I'm particularly fed up. And not just because after June this felt like a "LOL PSYCH" moment by Examiner/AXS. I didn't make any kind of money from my book reviews, but at least I could have saved and published them elsewhere. Like here. And now I can't, and I have to change my blog's "Reviews" page because fuck me if AXS will get a single click from this website, and--

tl;dr: I'm just really pissy and pissed off about the entire thing.




*WayBack, I actually love you, even if you are a little creepy, and I'm sorry.
**Obligatory disclaimer that Examiner obviously didn't send me an email like that. This is just my imagination of the kind of logic that must have happened there.