Monday, December 5, 2016

Diverse Reads Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue




I'm behind on these. There's a whole list of wonderful books that I've been meaning to roll out reviews for. Unfortunately, NaNoWriMo got in the way. 

But now it's December and I can get back to what I love writing: snarky reviews. I could have kicked off the next series of Diverse Reads reviews with a nice review. But I'm in a bad mood. Have been since November 8th. Actually, I've been in a bad mood since 2016 started with a slew of celebrity deaths and terrible news. 

So a negative review it is. Spoilers below. I could not give less of a fuck whether or not I spoil this horrible book. Actually, since the whole point of this is to convince you NOT to read it, I'm going to try to spoil as much as I possibly can.

Brace yourself. This is going to be a long one. 

Summary

After the swimming accident that nearly claimed the lives of him and his friend, Jack Peter has been severely agoraphobic. What his parents don't seem to understand is how scary he finds the world outside. So he starts drawing monsters in order to show them. Unfortunately, his drawings start coming to life. Soon his whole family and his best friend Nick are haunted -- and hunted -- by the creatures of Jack's imagination. 


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Review: Fuck This Book. I Wish I Had Never Seen It. I Regret Spending Time Finishing It. Good Thing I Got it At the Library. Maybe I Should Just Throw It In the Trash and Pay the Reimbursement Cost. That Way The Library Could Buy A Better Book.

One star. One single, solitary, star that stands for the single, solitary finger I'd like to raise to this book. 

Not only is this one of the most offensive books I've ever read, it has no redeeming qualities. The plot is a meandering mess. The characters are annoying. AND THE MONSTERS AREN'T SCARY.  

It was a disappointment on every front. I'm not even going to find a one-star graphic for this post. That's how much I hated this book. 

The Shitty Concept

The Boy Who Drew Monsters tried to capitalize on the "creepy child" trope. Jack Peter is a quiet kid with a monster-drawing habit, making him great creepy child material. Jack Peter is also mentally ill, and neurodivergent (Asperger's Syndrome). And we all know how horror loves to exploit mental illness for cheap shock value and ready-made villains.

While at first Jack is portrayed sympathetically, the tone shifts as the book goes on. Jack is described as cold, emotionless, and malignant towards his friends and family. We're also meant to associate these negative traits with his autism, which is hugely fucking problematic. Autistic people do not always "get" social cues or demonstrate affection the way neurotypical people do. That does not make them robots or psychopaths.


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Creepy children of movies.
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For something billed as a psychological thriller, the treatment of Jack Peter's mental state is circumspect bordering on lazy. Although he is a viewpoint character, the majority of the book is written from the POV of his parents and his best friend. The Boy Who Drew Monsters flip-flops on just how much agency Jack has; does he really control his creations? Does he know or care about the harm he's doing?

The Shitty Monsters

The unknown is scarier than the known. The monsters and apparitions lost much of their power when they were described too early, in too much detail. The book also waffles back and forth on how real and dangerous they are. The half-assed worldbuilding that went into the horror elements was truly yawn-worthy. 

In one scene, Nick sees an apparition of his dead parents, only to have it disappear as soon as he calls his parents to look at it. However, we learn later that Jack Peter can alter reality with his drawings. In fact, he's been keeping Nick alive since the day they almost drowned by making daily drawings of him. (Spoiler.) So, by that logic, shouldn't Nick's parents really have died? The supernatural elements have no internal consistency. 

Some of the monsters are just babies. Scary babies running around in a scary baby horde making scary baby sounds. All they did was crawl and look weird. It had me cracking up laughing. I wasn't going to put it in this review, but I feel I had to just because it was so hilariously bad. (And this is coming from someone who LOVES corny, campy horror.) 

In another scene, Jack's father Tim runs out in pursuit of a monster he sees on the beach. The monster knocks him down and...gives him three shallow scratches across his throat. Yet we're supposed to be terrified of the monster at the climax? 

We never get a sense of how strong the monster is or what it can do. It spends a lot of time running around knocking on the walls and did I mention that it can be destroyed if you just rip up the paper it was drawn on?

The climax of the book is literally Jack's parents throwing his drawings in the fire. 

Such scare. So monster. Very horror. Wow. 


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Jack's "Condition"

Jack has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In addition, he also developed agoraphobia and PTSD from his near-death experience at the age of seven. 

Now ten years old, he's improved somewhat -- but not nearly enough for his parents. Their constant hand-wringing, impatience, and borderline abusive behavior -- dragging him, shaking him, grabbing him, yelling at him, emotionally abusing him and telling him to get over it or "give it a rest, for once" when he's in the throes of a panic attack -- is cringe-worthy. 

Holly's mother constantly thinks about what Jack was like as a baby before he was diagnosed. She misses hugging him and being physically affectionate. This is understandable. But she also tries to touch and hug him non-consensually -- and then acts like it's his fault when he gets upset.

Touch aversion and nightmares are common symptoms of PTSD. The book's inciting incident comes when Holly touches Jack's forehead in order to wake him up from a nightmare. Surprised and scared, he lashes out and punches her. She takes this as evidence that her son is "getting worse" and that he's going to get too big for her to "handle," grow into a violent psychopath, and ought to be sent away to a home. To avoid being sent away, Jack Peter -- who was asleep when he unknowingly hit his mother after she touched him without his consent -- creates these monsters. 


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I need to drop another Doge or this review will be too depressing to finish. Sorry.

Over the course of the book, the monsters are revealed as manifestations of Jack's anger and resentment. The novel takes it a step further, describing them as manifestations of his autism in terms like creatures from his "tortured" mind, imaginings of a "broken" mind, and Jack creating the world inside his own head where he's "trapped." 

Fuck This Book. Fuck It Right In Its Book-Hole.

You know what? I'd be fine with an early offensive portrayal of ASD...if Jack's parents eventually learned to accept him for who he is and stop wishing for the "normal" son they never had. Raising a kid with special needs is tough, since there's a social stigma around it and not much in the way of resources to help parents. But it's not the kid's fault. 

The Boy Who Drew Monsters goes so far as to describe Jack's manner as though a "demon" had taken over his body and that the "normal" baby he once was had become a distant stranger. The father thinks Jack is "broken" and can be "restored," even wishing that he'd married a different woman and had a different kid. Both parents blame Jack for the breakdown of their life plans and the crumbling of their marriage. Both wish his best friend Nick was their son instead. 


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Holly's fatalism that Jack can never be "normal" and will always be a helpless invalid is one kind of problematic: the kind that infantalizes autistic people and refuses to see them as anything other than their diagnosis. Jack is only ten -- but she believes autism will keep Jack from ever being happy, just because she's not happy having to raise a kid on the spectrum.

Tim, the dad, is problematic in another way: his insistence that Jack Peter can be cured, fixed, restored, or otherwise transformed reveals a deep prejudice against autistic people. Jack is not valid in his eyes unless he is "restored." But there's no "cure" for autism. Hell, here's nothing wrong with people who are neurodivergent -- they just experience and process sensations and interactions differently. His belief that Jack can one day "return to normal" leads him to speak out against treatments that would help him, including medications, doctors, psychiatrists, even support groups with kids from different places on the autism spectrum.

All Jack needs to do, Tim thinks, is change his fucking brain by fucking power of will alone. I am not fucking making this shit up. FUCK. 

Both their prejudices converge on one point: the idea that autistic people cannot lead happy, fulfilling lives. Holly looks at her ten-year-old son -- a traumatized boy who nevertheless has his whole life ahead of him -- and sees an Asperger's diagnosis as an insurmountable obstacle to that life. Tim looks at his autistic son and sees a cure or restoration as his son's path to happiness -- the only way Jack can live a full life is if his autism is eliminated. 

I'm honestly getting incensed just writing this. The amount of self-righteous hand-wringing, the oh poor me I'm so put-upon, I have to raise an autistic child, boo-fucking-hoo I can't hug my child without their consent, wahhhh children have bodily autonomy and I don't like it, wahhh why couldn't I have a normal kid?? is nauseating. Keith Donohue could have just replaced this book with a link to Autism Speaks. (link explains why Autism Speaks sucks.)

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Hahaha did you think I was done? Oh, no. Oh dear, no. I hate this book with the fire of several thousand words. 

The outpouring of resentment and negativity towards Jack even starts to come from Nick, his best friend. The narrative drops no hints of Nick's animosity towards Jack until it needs Jack to be creepy. Suddenly, Nick is scared of his "creepy" autistic friend, he resents rather than enjoys coming over to play, and decides he hates Jack Peter and wishes they never met. The abrupt switches are jarring. 

Holly seeks advice from a priest and his old Japanese housekeeper. Miss Tiramacu, in a refreshing breath of air that doesn't stink of prejudice, is the only non-white character in the book. She's also autistic. 

Her depiction does play to some racial stereotypes: she is the resident dispensary of supernatural knowledge and visions, she hangs around educating the white people, she knows magical Eastern healing medicine techniques, and the characters often think of her as "The Japanese woman," "the housekeeper," "the Japanese housekeeper," or in one case, "that voodoo woman" and similar magical monikers. 

But she's a positive character in an overwhelmingly negative novel. She is autistic and she's lived a full and happy life, despite growing up in a time when people were even less understanding of ASD. She offers to talk to Jack, and their conversation goes well. Jack finally seems to have a true ally. 

But, of fucking course, Tim calls her a freak and a witch because she has a cloudy eye. This wreck of a book's hostility towards disability of any kind is the only consistent thing about it. 

This COULD have been an opportunity for someone to stand up to Jack. When Holly comes over to talk to the priest, she confesses that she was disappointed in having a son with Asperger's and wishes she could have had a normal child. She also confesses that, on the day the two boys nearly drowned, she briefly hoped that the hand of God had taken her son away so she didn't have to deal with him anymore. 

Out of all the messages Donohue could have sent with that scene -- for instance, having the autistic person in the room defend Jack, or give Holly hope that Jack could grow up happy, or point out that there's nothing wrong with being autistic and that maybe Holly should adapt more to Jack rather than expecting he, a ten-year-old child, do all the changing to be "normal" -- the author had the priest say that God gives us burdens to test our faith.


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I wish that I could say this isn't a common narrative about mental illness, disability, and neurodivergence among religious people. I wish I could say that the author was portraying an ignorant view of Catholicism. But the author went to a Catholic college, and in my own experience, explaining any perceived "abnormality" as God "testing" or "burdening" parents is common among religious people.

In fact, this was so similar to the kind of shit people told my mother about my brother growing up that I wanted to vomit. Or smash something. 

Holly confronts him about calling Jack a burden -- but it's not to defend Jack. It's to complain that people try to "ennoble his condition" by pretending like it's a test from God, when really Asperger's is this horrible condition and he suffers so much poor me poor Jack etc etc etc. The autistic person present actually speaks up in the priest's defense.

Now, to be clear: children are a burden. That's why you don't have kids until you're financially and emotionally able. But the resentment against Jack and autistic people for even daring to exist is woven through this book in a toxic narrative that stretches from its offensive concept to its final page. For fuck's sake, Jack's own mother WISHES HE HAD DROWNED.

I don't mean to minimize the struggle of living in a world designed for the neurotypical, or of experiencing more negative things like self-harming stimming, panic attacks, social exhaustion, and meltdowns. I absolutely DO mean to minimize the "struggle" of parents who bitch and moan and abuse their child because he doesn't fit their dream of a white picket fence family. 

I'm Almost Done, I Swear...


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*breathing calmly* OK...

In the very end of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, we learn Jack Peter's motivations for drawing monsters. Sort of. He's been drawing his friend Nick every day since they almost drowned, because Nick's heart stopped and he needed to keep him alive. He got tired of doing the drawings. That...still doesn't actually explain why he starts drawing monsters to torment Nick and his family, or wrap up the half-assed ghost plot, or also what about the fact that the two kids were trying to kill each other on the beach that day, which wasn't brought up as a factor in their "best friendship" until about 2/3 of the way in and...You know what? Fuck it, I'm done expecting anything out of this book. 

Long story short, Nick will die or remain comatose in the hospital if Jack Peter doesn't draw him again. 

This could be a moment for Jack to work through his feelings about Nick holding his head under three years ago. He could wonder whether perhaps he should let nature take its course. He did say earlier that he didn't blame Nick anymore, but that's different from wanting to save his life. This was a moment for character development and agency: is he going to forgive his friend and use his supernatural powers to save him? Is this book finally going to redeem Jack from the constant resentment and creepiness?


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Inspiring thematically appropriate image!
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No. Of course not! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA HAVE YOU BEEN READING THIS REVIEW????

Holly seizes his shoulders, walks him forcibly to his desk, forces him to sit down, thrusts a pencil in his hand and bodily curls his fingers around it and presses it to the page, ordering him to draw. And yes, the book does describe her actions with verbs like "forced."

No one ever hits Jack in The Boy Who Drew Monsters. But the amount of manhandling that takes place -- the total disregard for the problems that come with ignoring bodily autonomy of a touch-averse person with Asperger's and PTSD -- is deeply disturbing. Holly, who kicked off this whole mess when she touched Jack without his consent, ends the novel doing the same thing even more forcibly. So much for character development.

And just for the icing on the cake...


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The very angry cake.
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Tim is an aggressive caricature of an atheist who scoffs at and insults the priest, Miss Tiramacu, and all religion. He even shames his wife for wanting to talk to a priest and tries to control her -- telling her that she doesn't have his "permission" to go to church. So not only is he an atheist, he's a religion-hating atheist who doesn't want to live in an interfaith marriage with a woman who has a Catholic background, and he wants to control what she believes as well. Again, I'm super not surprised that a religious man wrote this.

Audiobook Review: Bronson Pinchot

It was adequate. The voices of the younger characters were too deep; they sounded much older. I know the reader could have gone higher, since he did the women's voices perfectly well. At that age, the voice of a ten-year-old boy would be higher than that of an adult woman. Someone should have reminded the producer when boys hit puberty.

Also, Holly's voice and tone took on a plaintive, whining quality after a while. Which made sense, since she whines about Jack all. the. time. but still got annoying. I thought some emotional variation introduced into her long monologues about her life -- anger, exasperation, hopefulness, fear, a speculative tone -- anything in addition to her typical mopey voice -- would have livened her up a bit.

If you'd like to read better books about protagonists with autism and PTSD, I recommend this one or that one. Just stay the hell away from The Boy Who Drew Monsters. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Standing Rock Protesters Need Your Money, Not Your Castoffs

The situation at Standing Rock -- the site of month-long protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline -- has gotten dire. 

Police are now blasting protesters with water cannons despite the freezing temperatures. Extreme hypothermia and death under such conditions is a real threat. The conduct of our government -- from local law enforcement on the scene to a President who refuses to speak out against the the DAPL or the treatment of the protesters -- has been appalling. 

But that's not what this post is about. 

A few weeks ago, a hoax went around Facebook claiming that by using Facebook to "check in" to Standing Rock, people could show solidarity and confuse local police who were using social media to track down and persecute the people who were attending. This didn't make sense for a number of reasons which Snopes is better equipped to explain than I am. However, the Sacred Stone Camp did thank everyone who had participated for showing solidarity and creating enough of a media shitstorm to finally get them more of the national attention that these protests desperately need. With mounting pressure from journalists, it's possible that the President may finally step in to condemn the pipeline.

Unfortunately, it's not enough. People are out there freezing their asses off while we wait for the government to act, and sharing a Facebook check-in from the comfort of your own home is not enough.

A while ago, I posted about the Ice Bucket Challenge that was super popular to hate on social media -- but, surprise surprise, it actually worked. Getting people to participate in a viral game is a much better way of raising money than simply asking for donations. I worked in a call center asking for donations in college, and I can attest that people are shitty, and people are never shittier than when you are asking them for money. People need to feel personally invested in a charitable cause in order to care enough to give their money to it.

The Standing Rock site has posted a list of their needs, a link to their legal defense fund, and an Amazon wish list. They have had to request that people stop sending clothes due to a surplus -- unless it is warm winter wear, specifically made for freezing conditions, they do not need it. 

This is where "charity that makes sense with reality" and "charity that makes people feel good" starts to break down. Sending your old clothes to Standing Rock is easy -- there's always shit you can't wear anymore -- and lends that little personal touch. It's also free. You don't have to spend $50+ on a low-temperature, military-grade sleeping bag or jacket. You feel like a little piece of you is going to Standing Rock: one of the protesters might be wearing one of your old pairs of jeans, and that's practically like you're there yourself. 

It makes you feel a part of things, while doing the least work and committing the least personal expense possible. 

Well, that's nice, but they don't need your damn castoffs. They need your money. 

When I worked calling prospective donors, people always wanted to give to causes that felt good. We gave them the option to designate their gifts, which many people took -- giving to the library, or to programs and scholarships they remembered liking, or occasionally to something that they wanted to put their name on. 

Which, theoretically, is fine. I'll even admit to using the designated gift offer in order to get people more invested. People like to know where their money is going. People are more willing to give to a cause if it's for something that makes them feel happy inside, rather than a general fund which might go to an unromantic if necessary cause like fixing the freshman dormitory elevator.

But what you need to understand is that when you do that, the organization cannot touch that money for anything else. Likewise, when you send your old clothes or knitted hats to Standing Rock, they can't magically convert them into money that they can use to buy the things they actually need.

As of the time I left that job, we had over $1,000 sitting in a fund for the swimming pool. A swimming pool which my alma mater no longer has. Now there's a sum of money sitting in a designated account that we can never touch, because we don't have a swimming pool, and we can't use it for anything else but the nonexistent swimming pool. 

I'm sure whoever donated to that cause thought they were helping. But, again, intent is not enough.

Likewise, over the holidays, homeless shelters are often inundated with castoffs when what they really need are things like toothpaste and feminine products and deodorant. But the menstruation and body odor of homeless people are icky to think about -- and more importantly, going out and buying tampons and toothpaste costs money. Money that people aren't motivated enough to spend.

Which brings me back to Standing Rock. Sending your clothes might help when they need to burn the extra donations to keep warm, but it's a largely useless gesture. So if you want to donate to the Standing Rock cause this winter -- to any charity, for that matter -- don't donate in a way that makes you feel good. Ask what they need, and give them that

And, I promise, what they need is money. 

There's a stigma surrounding money in our society. Asking for money either means you're weak or you're greedy and grasping. During my stint asking for donations, I talked with some very nice, generous people. I also had people hurl verbal abuse at me and threaten my family. Again, people are never shittier than when you ask them for money -- as if the very idea of giving out cash cheapens them somehow. There's also this idea that giving money means you can't be bothered take the time to make a personalized gift like a hand-knitted hat. 

But this is not the fucking family holiday party, and this is not about your fucking ego. Is your hat going to hold up in subzero temperatures? No? Then put the money you were about to use on yarn into an Amazon gift card and mail it to Standing Rock. 

If you can't give a ton of money, that's fine. It's a cliche, but even a little bit helps. Imagine if everyone who had shared that Facebook check-in had donated $5 to the legal defense fund, for instance.

If you want to help, the absolute best thing you can do is give to their legal defense fund or send them a check or cash or gift card -- and let the people who are on the ground, doing the work, and seeing the needs of their fellow protesters spend your money in the way that will best help them and their cause. 

Tl;dr: This is not about you. Your gift doesn't need to feel good. It needs to be effective.

Send. 

Money. 


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Supplies, cash, or check donations can be sent to:
Sacred Stone Camp P.O. Box 1011, Fort Yates, ND 58538
or
202 Main Street Fort Yates, ND 58538

Thursday, November 10, 2016

It's Hard to Create Right Now

It's the month of NaNoWriMo. It's also the month that Donald Trump became President-elect, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. 

A few days ago, I was ahead on my writing goals. Now, I can't bring myself to open the word doc. 

My hands are cold and shaky. The blood has gone to my heart and my stomach in a warm wave in preparation for a fight or flight response. I think that, even though my mind has accepted the outcome, my body is undergoing some kind of prolonged shock response. 

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Sometimes, escaping into the creation of a fictional world is helpful. It's a distraction. Right now, I'm not sure I can create that distraction for myself. The effort, vulnerability, creativity, and stamina needed to create a thing seem beyond my reach at the moment. The emotional wherewithal to stave off the inevitable self-hatred that comes with first-drafting is something that I don't know I can muster.

A bunch of people across the country just said, "You're worthless," when they voted to elect Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton has told me that I represent the best of America, that I'm valuable and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue and achieve my own dreams. For what it's worth, I know the slim majority agrees with Hillary, since she won the popular vote. But the tension between what the two of them have said is currently paralyzing me.

It's hard to create right now. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Last Time I Voted, We Thought This Was the Worst It Could Get

The last time I voted in a Presidential election, it was 2012 and I was in a college undergraduate production of Chicago at my all-women's university.

Rehearsal doesn't stop for election day (although I seem to remember several of the company making half-hearted pleas for the night off). It was a tense election cycle. Benghazi had happened on September 11 of that year. People hadn't moved on to being nostalgic for Obama yet; many resented him and felt he'd fallen short of the promise of his first campaign. It's difficult to countenance now, but in 2012, there was a real fear that he would not be elected to a second term. 

I want to talk about that election night tonight because I've wanted to for a very long time. I've held back before, because it's not a feel-good story, but let's be real, nobody in America feels good right now. 

We were in costume: black and red lingerie, 20's dress, the works. Every time we left the stage, we rushed back to the computer-lab-that-doubled-as-our-low-budget-women's-dressing-room to check on the election results. The election had been the center of conversations for weeks. As women, people of color, queer people, and lovers of the arts and education and general hippy-dippy liberal arts ideals (I say with love), the stakes were extremely high for everyone in the room. 

There was a lot of fear in that room. The excitement of the rehearsal only heightened everyone's emotions. People were near tears as we watched the progression of the vote. I felt numb and detached, not really in my body at all. And when Obama finally won reelection, someone sprinted from the room to inform the director.

But it wasn't a sure thing. And feeling that fear now, multiplied a thousand times, I'm reminded of 2012.

I recall one conversation I had with a castmate before election day as we were walking back from rehearsal one night. She went off on the state of healthcare in America, relating her previous attempt to get coverage. "They won't cover me now because I'm single, but they'll cover me if I get knocked up?" she fumed. Healthcare reform was one of the few things she liked about Obama.

But remember, Benghazi had just happened. The country was still reeling from the scandal. "I went into that voting booth and I sat there," she said. "And I finally voted, but I was not happy about it. There was no reason those people had to die. But, you know, I have so many gay friends. And I had to vote for their lives."

I remember that conversation, and I remember the same-sex couple in the cast sobbing and hugging each other with relief in the dressing room after Obama won the presidency, and it is so, so difficult to be patient with my friends who preach high and mighty about voting third party on principle. Or voting Trump because Hillary is the devil. Or, or, or. 

It is so hard to listen to anyone who has never experienced that fear talk about this election. It is very difficult to watch my friend post about how they're terrified to make a road trip alone through Trump country because they're trans, and to run down the laundry list in my head of trans people murdered this year, and then to see some clueless, well-meaning do-gooder sing the praises of Gary Fucking Johnson in the comments. 

Voting on principle is a powerful argument. Voting for the candidate whom you feel best represents you and your values, even if it's just throwing your vote away, feels good. It feels like you have the moral high ground. It's a choice that, in a free and fair and equal world, would be absolutely compelling and right and just. 

But we don't live in a free and fair and equal world. 

Fuck, I used to be a libertarian. But gradually, I came to realize that it's not enough to just leave it up to the states and the corporations to decide whether all people deserve equal rights and equal treatment under the law. I came to believe that we have a moral responsibility to vote in a way that will protect our most vulnerable citizens from the irrational hatred of the "silent majority."

Hatred for the "other" has only grown during the Obama presidency, and we are in the grip of an alt-right, extreme conservative reaction to a Black president and the strides towards equality made under his term. I'm not naive enough to believe that electing Hillary Clinton will fix all the problems. But we have a chance here to say, "No. This level of open hatred is not OK. We will not tolerate it."

That is the hope I cling to tonight. And watching the neck and neck Florida race, and seeing third party votes take the edge away from a Clinton victory there, I feel that hope slipping away. 

This post focuses on LGBTQIA+ rights because that was my big takeaway from the memory of the 2012 election night. But I could talk about other things. About being a female-type person, about the inhumanity of mass deportation and mass bans on entire religions, about the economy, hell, about nuclear weapons. 

But some fears are more remote, and some are personal. And if you've never felt that fear, I don't want to hear your opinion on this election, because frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. 

Sincerely, a liberal who lives in a Southern swing state. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

November Approaches: Five Tips For the Forums

This July was the first year I "won" National Novel Writing Month. Every year, the same site hosts two write-a-thons on the off-season; one in April, and one in July. I started with zero words and ended up with 50k+ words.

Now November approaches, and the main month-long write-a-thon begins. 

My feelings about NaNo are a little mixed. It's not for everyone, and there are some pitfalls to be aware of. However, it can get you started on establishing consistent writing habits and generally getting your own head unstuck from your posterior when it comes to actually putting words down on the page. 

The most helpful thing to me were the forums. Here are some tips on how to use them to your advantage.

The Forums Are Your Friend

If you, like me, aren't super great at structuring your time, then the Word Wars, Prompts, and Sprints Forum will be your best friend during NaNo. From "word war" challenges with other writers to Harry Potter-themed "word crawls" to Game of Thrones bingo, these user-created exercises help take your writing time from nebulous unmotivated word-barfing to "I almost have bingo; I just need to stab the main character in the back!"

They're fun. When you're feeling overwhelmed by all the words you have to churn out before December 1st, fun is good.

The Forums Are Your Enemy

The forums can be a huge help or a massive time-suck. If you spend more time jumping around commenting on other people's plot problems or character questions than you do writing your own, that's a sign that you need to limit the time you spend there. Make a system if you have to: "earn" forum time by writing words, where 100 words = five minutes of dicking around on the forums. 

If you, again like me, have a problem with time management, it's a good rule to just never click anyone's link to TV Tropes. Seriously. Just don't do it.

Don't Be a Selfish Pain in the Wherever

Reciprocity is important. If you request help on a forum problem or participate in a worldbuilding thread like Respond, Answer, Ask, it's good manners to leave a response somewhere else, too. Don't be rude. Don't be super harsh. If you find a writing buddy and they ask you to be a harsh critic in your private messaging critiques, that's one thing. But many people use NaNo to gain confidence or overcome a writing block to churn out a first draft. 

That's important. Don't hurt that. 

Also, while I may not always have the highest opinion of the moderators, you can avoid a lot of headaches and eye-rolling by at least bothering to read the rules. Know which forums are all-ages and which are not. Know which forum best matches your topic or question thread. 

Know Your Genre, but Don't Worry About it Too Much

I always see posts along the lines of, "What genre is this?" "Should I make this more fantasy, or more science fiction?" "How should I pitch this to an agent?" "I want to write a vampire story, but I think they're so overdone. How do I turn this into more of a paranormal crime novel?" "If I put too much sex into my romance novel, does that make it erotica?"

The truth is, it's pretty hard to tell the genre of a book you haven't even written yet. 

So write all the sex you want into your first draft of that romance novel, and then decide whether it's erom or erotica later. You can always edit the sex out. You can always turn your vampire detective into a normal woman later if the paranormal element isn't working. But so many people seem to be trying to edit a story they haven't even started. 

Genre is weird and fuzzy and frankly something that agents and publishers are better suited to dealing with. You may have a general idea of the genre you're writing in, but I personally wouldn't sweat the details too much -- not at the NaNo stage.

The Problem With Problematics

In a similar vein, you get a lot of people asking whether x, y, or z is a good representation of a certain type of character. Writing different-gendered characters, gay characters, characters of color, disability, and various types of diversity can be difficult for people without lived experience of those things. If you want to incorporate a character from an underrepresented group in your NaNo novel, wonderful. If you're allowing questions about possible problematic narratives in a story you haven't even written yet to completely paralyze you, not so wonderful. 

I am of the opinion that the first draft isn't necessarily the first place to worry about those things. Consult the forums, write up a list of questions, and then write the thing. Re-read your 50k later with those questions in mind. Don't let fear of doing it wrong stop you. It's a first draft. You are going to get shit wrong. 

I've also noticed that some people flock to the "writing diversity" threads on the NaNo forums looking not for feedback, but a pat on the back for being so open-minded. They tend to get super pissed if someone points out a problem with their story. So. Don't do that. And if you don't agree with someone's advice, thank them for their input and then move on. 

This is a delicate topic. But in a world where authors like JK Rowling can go through the entire writing and publishing process without anyone saying, "Hey, isn't this kind of ignorant?" the fact that you are even thinking and worrying about these problems at this stage is a good thing. 

So keep that worry...in your back pocket for the editing stage. On the forums, you can make connections with people who are willing to read over your synopsis or draft looking for red flags in your representation of a Chinese-American lesbian vampire detective. 

But you have to write it first. That's the whole point of NaNoWriMo, after all.