Freedoms and Phobias

Freedom and Phobias

The Arizona legislature has once again thrust our state into the midst of a nationwide controversy. The have passed SB 1062, which would protect businesses from being sued for refusing services to individuals if that action is based on religious beliefs. Critics call it a license to discriminate against gays. In reality it’s more complicated than that, which is why I have mixed feelings about the law.

On one hand, I have many gay and lesbian friends and I personally find anti-gay bigotry to be stupid and offensive. In my opinion, the idea that homosexuality is a sin rather than a biological condition is 100% wrong. There are other rules in the holy books that modern people choose to ignore (how many people shun clothing made from multiple fabrics?) It’s about time this one becomes one of those.

On the other hand, as a libertarian I am opposed to anti-discrimination laws of any kind. Why?

  1. They’re unnecessary. The quest for profit gives businesses an incentive NOT to discriminate, which is why southern states passed Jim Crow laws to force them to do so.
  2. They’re unenforceable. Nobody can look into the heart of a business owner or employer. They can choose not to hire a person, drag their feet on a rental contract, or make certain customers feel unwelcome, all of which achieve the same discriminatory effect.
  3. They have unintended consequences. These laws allow members of protected minority groups to file frivolous lawsuits based on real or imagined offenses. Doubtless this is only done by a few bad apples, but one malcontent with an agenda can cause a business lots of trouble. Thus businesses are discouraged from dealing with the very people the law is supposed to protect.
  4. They could promote a violent backlash. Why antagonize a tiny minority of bigots, who might be inclined to see themselves as victims?

Despite these facts, I feel that enacting SB 1062 would be a mistake. It would be largely symbolic, given that gays and lesbians aren’t currently protected in Arizona at present. Some people might see it as an endorsement of discrimination by the state, rather than a more appropriate stance of complete neutrality.It would antagonize national public opinion needlessly, possibly giving rise to boycotts of the state. Furthermore, it fails to address the real issue, which is judicial activism, in which judges whose proper role is to interpret the law take it upon themselves to write the law. Despite the fact that activist judges sometimes further causes I support, such as marriage equality, they can just as easily do things I find odious, such as forcing governments to spend money on favored groups.

C’mon, Jan, let’s have a veto.

 

Presenting “Out Loud”

After a three month hiatus, it’s high time I return to my blog, though this entry will be a relatively short one. In early November I became quite busy with my writing projects, which turned out to be much more demanding then I expected. All my marketing activities ground to a halt, though I now have something important to promote, which I’ll get to shortly.

 

First of all, I was attempting to meet my personal goal of finishing my second novel, Fidelio’s Automata, by the end of 2013. Although I made a valiant effort at editing and cleaning up the draft manuscript, I was forced to set it aside. I’m recently resumed that project and hope to be done by the end of this month. I’ll keep you posted.

 

My second, more urgent project is a theatrical production, which is called OUT LOUD! Stories from the Gayborhood. The show boasts five contributors of different short works, including three scenes by myself and my girlfriend/collaborator, Arlys Holloway. The latter are excerpts from our work in progress, a musical comedy about on-line dating called One Good Man. When I took up writing a few years ago, I never expected it to go in that direction. Frankly, if I’d have realized how challenging writing a musical would be, I probably would not have attempted it. (By the way, many thanks to JR McAlexander with his invaluable assistance with the music.) Despite several weeks of chronic sleep deprivation, it’s been an enjoyable and educational experience.

 

Now, after two years of preparation, OUT LOUD! is finally coming to the stage, with seven talented local actors playing over twenty roles. Besides our own musical numbers, the show features works of fantasy, young romance, and drama, by playwrights Ben Gill, B.D. Heywood and Lori Hicks. Like us, they’re newcomers to writing for the theater, and we owe a debt of gratitude to our facilitator, mentor and director, Richard Schultz. (Shameless plug: Gill, Heywood, Hicks and I all have novels published on Amazon.)

 

The title makes obvious the show’s lesbian/gay theme, and in fact, it is a benefit for the One Voice LGBT Community Center in Phoenix. All the works have gay/lesbian characters and/or writers. Though Arlys and I have a more conventional orientation, we are proud to support the cause of equality for the LGBT community. Though gays and lesbians have achieved much in recent years, there has recently been a resurgence in bigotry around the world, especially in the Middle East and in Putin’s Russia. Vladimir would no doubt consider our show “homosexual propaganda,” which is his standard smear on anyone who opposes his agenda of making gays into scapegoats for his country’s problems. (Though I do appreciate his opposition to the neocons’ Syria war plans – but that’s another topic.)

 

For those who would rather support Truth, Justice and the American Way, showings of OUT LOUD! will be February 6, 7, and 8th at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North 3rd Street at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $10 and $25; to buy in advance, call 602-254-3100, and for more information, www.1vcc.org. Warning: these works have mature subject matter, so it’s not for children or for the easily offended. We invite those of a more eclectic bent to join us for an enjoyable evening of original theater by local Arizona writers.

 

Remember, Remember

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November and the gunpowder treason and plot.”

- English nursery rhyme

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom, which commemorates the 1605 discovery of a plot by Roman Catholic rebels to blow up the British Parliament building. It is traditionally celebrated with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of effigies of the infamous traitor. In the modern world, Guy Fawkes and his day have taken on a new significance as symbols of the rejection of authority.

face

One of the staples of the November 5th celebration is the Guy Fawkes mask, which is now recognized around the world, ever since it figured prominently in the 2006 film V for Vendetta. Based on a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the movie featured a mysterious rebel who fights the fascist government of a post-nuclear-war Britain. The character “V” wears the Fawkes mask to hide his identity, and possibly also to hide the effects of horrific government experimentation he had suffered previously.

The movie was tremendously popular in America, where fans drew parallels between its fictional neo-Nazi government and the war-obsessed surveillance state of George W. Bush. Guy Fawkes was quickly adopted by both libertarians and left-wing radicals as a symbol for anti-government protests. The Internet hacker group Anonymous wore the mask in protests against the Church of Scientology in 2008. The mask also appeared in the Occupy Wall Street protests and in Egyptian protests during the 2011 Arab Spring.

Guy Fawkes Day was also the occasion of the first “money bomb,” a new kind of unofficial political fundraiser, invented by grassroots libertarians to aid the 2008 Ron Paul Presidential campaign. It was a call for as many people as possible to donate money on that day, as a special show of support. The day was an appropriate metaphor for the word, since Fawkes and his cohorts meant to literally bomb the House of Lords. But it also drew fire from neo-conservative detractors of Dr. Paul, who claimed that the choice of day was an endorsement of terrorism. I would argue that Fawkes was not a terrorist, but a would-be assassin, since his plot targeted not civilians but enemy politicians. Still, the connotation of violence was problematic for those lacking a sense of humor.

It’s easy to see why the Fawkes mask became associated with rebellion after its use in V for Vendetta. The reasoning behind Moore’s choice of the Guy Fawkes theme is not so straightforward. He meant the character V to be morally ambiguous, possibly a hero, or maybe a madman. The historical Fawkes was a suitably complex character, and was no angel, though not quite a demon either. He plotted the violent deaths of hundreds, though at least he targeted his enemies in government rather than innocent civilians. He fought the tyrannical rule of King James I, whose discriminatory laws made life hellish for English Catholics. If the plot had succeeded, however, the rebels would have imposed a Catholic monarch who likely would have been just as oppressive to Protestants.

Upon his arrest, Fawkes was initially defiant, gaining the admiration of King James, though not his mercy. He resisted hours of brutal torture but finally broke, implicating and dooming his co-conspirators. All were tried and given the particularly sadistic sentence of death by drawing and quartering. On the day of his execution, Fawkes cheated the authorities of their brutal revenge by jumping off the gallows platform, thus breaking his own neck.

Though the movie version of Vendetta made the face of Guy Fawkes into a world-wide meme, Alan Moore was highly critical of the adaptation. He felt the script had simplified the V character to made him more of an unambiguous hero, and also softened the graphic novel’s anarchistic message. Personally, as much as I enjoyed the movie and rooted for V, I still felt conflicted about him. I found his imprisonment and psychological torture of his protege Evey (supposedly to break her fear of death and assure her love of liberty) to be quite disturbing.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the historical Fawkes, November 5th has become an important day for those who love liberty around the world. It is no longer just for the English to remember.

 

Attack on Titan

At the 2013 Saboten Con, which was held here in the Phoenix area, we all heard a lot of buzz about a new anime called Attack on Titan. The show’s popularity was obvious from the full conference room for the panel discussion on the upcoming season. There were also showings of the actual episodes, which were restricted to 18+, supposedly due to graphic violence, so I was unable to attend with my son. Intrigued by all the fuss, I vowed to check it out.

The first thing I realized was that the title is a mistranslation. There’s no place called Titan (certainly not the famous moon of Saturn) being attacked. Instead, there are beings called titans which attack humans, and are attacked in return. So it should either be Attack of the Titans or Attack on the Titans. Like a lot of anime, this show was based on a manga, which was also released as a light novel.

Secondly, the claim of graphic violence was a gross exaggeration; I would rate it a PG-13. True, people get eaten by titans, but this is typically shown from a distance. As such, it’s no more violent than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in which people were eaten by giants and monsters all the time. The one possible exception was a flashback scene in which the main protagonist, at the age of 9, uses deadly force to rescue a friend from murderous human traffickers. Yet surely this episode, bloody as it is, provides valuable lessons in “stranger danger” and the importance of self-defense.

My third observation is that the show’s immense popularity is at least partially deserved. The action is gripping, the characters engaging, and the art style is interesting, especially when portraying the titans. The opening and closing themes are much better than average, and surprisingly relevant to the show – though not all the lyrics are subtitled. Having said that, I’ve seen many science fiction animations that were better done and less hyped.

One of the strangest things about Attack is its backstory – though admittedly, many anime have strange premises; if you’ve even seen Speed Grapher you know what I’m talking about. In an unspecified future, humans fall prey to a race of giant humanoids called Titans, who seemingly come out of nowhere. Perpetually hungry, they devour almost the entire human race, except for the inhabitants of one city, which judging by the character names, seems to be somewhere in German-speaking Europe. The surviving city has three concentric 50-meter-high walls to protect its inhabitants against the predators. This enclosed area has just enough agricultural land to feed its people, and there the human race survives for a hundred years.

As the series begins, a “colossal titan,” larger than any ever seen, arrives to kick a hole in the outer wall. Dozens of hungry titans pour in to devour the population of the outer ring. Our unfortunate protagonist, a teenage boy named Eren Jaeger, escapes with his two best friends, but not before witnessing his mother being gobbled up by one of the marauding giants. He then swears to exterminate the entire titan race.

The weird thing about the Titans, which makes the whole plot line a bit difficult to swallow, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that they’re both slow and stupid. They don’t speak or wear clothing. They vary in size from 3 to 15 meters in height, and mostly look like giant naked men without genitalia (probably omitted more for reasons of censorship than plot.) Yet they are surprisingly difficult to kill, and never lose their appetites for human flesh. They are perfect “eating machines,” like two-legged land sharks.

What’s more, human technology has at this point devolved to something like a steampunk level. The only way a person can kill a a titan is to don a special jet pack which allows him or her (it’s an equal opportunity army) to fly close enough to stab the Titan in its only vulnerable spot, the base of its neck. Often as not, this maneuver results in the demise of the soldier rather than the Titan.

Though I won’t give any spoilers in this column, I will say that my guess about the Titans’ origin, which I made about 4 episodes in, was substantially correct. Another aspect of the show I greatly appreciated was its stealth libertarian message: the city government is portrayed as being incompetent to defend the people and callously indifferent to their fate.

On a scale of 1-5, I would give the show a 4. I recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction action and doesn’t mind a little blood. You also need to have the capacity for a Harry Potter-esque suspension of disbelief. Be advised that the tragic events of the first 2 or 3 shows are really disheartening. Keep watching; it gets better.

Episodes of Attack on Titan are available for streaming on crunchyroll.com and funimation.com.

High Noon in America’s Outland

One of the most memorable scenes in science fiction cinema was in the 1981 movie Outland. At a mining facility on Jupiter’s moon Io, one of the workers inexplicably rips open his spacesuit while working outside in the near-vacuum, spattering himself all over the airlock window. Federal Marshal William O’Niel, portrayed by Sean Connery, investigates this and other incidents in an epidemic of senseless violence. The cause turns out to be a stimulant drug the mining company gives to its workers. The drug increases workers’ productivity, but there are some nasty side effects. His investigation threatens some powerful people, and the Marshal has to take on a gang of company hit men, in a scene that his been called High Noon in outer space.”

This is picture that came to my mind after the recent Navy Yard tragedy. Although the mainstream media hasn’t given it much attention, deceased shooter Aaron Alexis had recently been treated with psychiatric drugs. In fact, many of the perpetrators of recent mass shootings have had a similar history. It this more than a coincidence, as many in he alternative media claim?

I’m a naturally skeptical person, so when I first heard the news of a possible link between psychiatric drugs and suicide, I was not surprised. After all, many of the people who take these drugs do so because of depression. My question was, did the drugs actually increase the likelihood of suicide, or were they just ineffective at preventing it? Was there a real risk or was it just a disclaimer to protect the manufacturers from lawsuits?

Unfortunately, the problem was much broader than that. Antidepressants are only one type within the broad category of psychiatric drugs. They include drugs like Ritalin, usually prescribed to keep hyperactive children focused in school. Here is a situation in which medication is given, often under extreme pressure from school authorities, to children who aren’t necessarily that troubled. It’s a win-win for the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions of dollars, and the schools, who can maintain their educational assembly line without being disrupted by inconvenient displays of individualism. The losers, if the allegations are true, are the victims of the resulting senseless violence, as well as our treasured civil liberties, such as the right to bear arms.

Why would these drugs cause violence in some users, when the majority seem to experience no such side effects? I’ve heard many theories, both in the alternative media and from discussions with friends and colleagues. One possibility is withdrawal. Some of the accused shooters had supposedly discontinued their medication suddenly. If the withdrawal symptoms are not debilitating as they would be with heroin, for example, the addict is able to take out his distress on himself or the people around him. Another theory is detachment; the notion that under the drug’s influence the user no longer fears death, or feels remorse at the thought of killing. My own hypothesis, which I haven’t heard from anyone else, is that to the extent that medication replaces therapy, people with severe mental problems are allowed to get worse while remaining functional in society. These people never challenge their own irrational, destructive thought patterns, which eventually cause them to snap.

Though I have no particular expertise or experience in this matter, I did have a close friend who committed suicide while taking psychiatric drugs. He also had a drinking problem, so I’m not sure if the drugs were solely to blame. Despite this tragedy, my opinion is still guided by a pro-freedom, pro-technology philosophy. Psychotropic drugs are a just another tool, which may be useful for people with certain mental illnesses. Furthermore, I’m not inclined to ban anything without an overriding reason. Such bans, no matter how well-intentioned, have their own negative consequences, such as with Alcohol Prohibition and the War on Drugs.

What we really need is transparency, beginning with some serious, independent research. The drug companies, schools, and government “health” agencies such as the Veterans Administration all have an interest in the status quo, so they must not be involved. Nor should the alternative health community do the study, as their well-known anti-pharmacology bias would make any results suspect. Unfortunately, without the approval of the Federal government (which appears to be under the influence of the pharmaceutical lobby) no serious study can happen since these drugs are, conveniently enough, controlled substances.

Even if a link between psychiatric drugs and violence is conclusively proven, it doesn’t necessarily mean they would be the only cause. There may be additional factors which taken in combination can better explain the violent behavior, and hopefully increase our understanding of human psychoses. Though there may be situations where these drugs still prove useful, I suspect that the widespread over-prescription of these drugs would cease, especially for minor ailments such as attention deficit problems. Surely an occasional disruption in the classroom would be preferable to the risk of violence in the future.

Here in the American Outland, we are in dire need of a hero like O’Niel who is willing to face down the powerful forces of government and industry, High Noon style. Otherwise the tragic attacks will continue, and the people may never know the truth.

 

Coming Clean – a Future History

Transcript of speech delivered in front of Chelsea Manning Monument at the International Truth Day celebration, September 11, 2026 in Washington City.

Friends, colleagues, distinguished guests, free people of America (pause for cheering) I stand before you in the company of giants, humbled by the immensity of the sacrifices others have made to restore this land to its former greatness. Though we are no longer one country but several, we are all still part of the same great nation.

Many of you, like me, are old enough to recall that day of infamy, September 11, 2001. Doubtless you remember where you were and what you were doing when the planes hit the Towers, bringing death to over three thousand innocents. Our so-called leaders laid the blame on a terrorist mastermind named Osama bin Laden. We accepted the invasion of Afghanistan, allegedly to capture him and avenge his victims. It would take decades for the lies to unravel and the real culprits to be brought to justice. By that time, the damage to the United States – its prosperity, freedom, and credibility – was nearly irreversible.

Initially, we mocked the minority who questioned the government’s explanation of the events of that day, and accepted that “national security” required permanent secrecy regarding every aspect of the “war on terror.” Yet there were those whose consciences forced them to act. A young soldier, known at that time as Bradley Manning, did his duty to inform the public about war crimes in Iraq, releasing a huge trove of classified information to Wikileaks. This was followed by Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Despite the horrific persecution of Manning and the pursuit of Snowden, others followed their example.

When an anonymous intelligence analyst released the 9/11 Files, many of us refused to believe them. There were skeptics even in the Truther community, because their theories about wing pods and nano-thermite were demolished. Yet the files proved that the attacks on the Towers and the Pentagon were orchestrated by a tiny cabal of intelligence insiders, including a former Vice President. How could we have been so small-minded, our imaginations so constrained, that we couldn’t conceive this possibility? Our own spies, unaccountable to any law or authority, had become as corrupt and ruthless as the Soviet KGB.

The Bible says, “The Truth will set you free.” But what is the cost of a lie? Many thousands of brave American service people died, some in battle, others by their own hands upon returning home to a government that refused to care for them. Over a million innocent Muslims were killed, including old men, women and children. We lost our civil liberties and privacy. Countless Americans were imprisoned or “disappeared” for daring to oppose the National Security State.

The revelations ended our complacency. In the beginning they brought not peace, “but a sword,” Riots broke out in all major cities. The President was removed from office – he was facing impeachment anyway – by a military coup. Tens of thousands were dragged from their homes to FEMA camps. It looked like the end of the American republic.

But from every evil there comes some good. In the late twenty-teens our civilian resistance was victorious. This was due in part to the brave men and women who mutinied or deserted their units rather than fire upon their fellow Americans. They had read the illegal leak websites, and no longer believed the lies of their commanders.

This ended the “War of Terror”, and forced the closure of American bases worldwide. So also ended the Apartheid State in Israel. When the crimes of the Mossad (and its political arm AIPAC) were revealed, not even Christian Zionists supported the anti-Palestinian regime. The House of Saud fell to a Shiite rebellion. And the mighty Federal Reserve? When we learned the secrets of the banking cartel, even Democrats agreed to end the Fed.

Gone now are Homeland Security and the alphabet agencies that once oppressed us: IRS, TSA, NSA, DEA and others. Most importantly, we have fulfilled Kennedy’s threat to the agency that killed him; it has been “scattered to the winds.”

Within the CIA archives, we discovered our nation’s true history. These have been published online, with only the personal information of individuals redacted. The revelations of dirty dealings by other governments have caused oppressed populations to rise up around the world. Even our earlier history his been revised. The monument behind me, formerly dedicated to the war criminal Lincoln, has been re-named for the first true hero of the twenty-first Century, Chelsea Manning.

At times I can scarcely believe how far we have come. Yesterday I boarded a plane without being X-rayed or scanned. I crossed international boundaries without undergoing a single search. With no time wasted in needless security, I arrived early enough to visit the Pentagon Peace Mall, where I saw happy children from many nations, riding the merry-go-rounds and roller coasters in the atrium of that former temple of death.

I do not claim that we have achieved utopia. There are a host of problems facing us, including the devastation of our recent civil war, and the flood of refugees from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. Tens of millions of baby boomers, myself included, have lost our homes, savings and “social security” to the greed of the financial elite who have fled our nation with their ill-gotten gains. Since their crimes are public knowledge, other nations have begun to send them back, and we reclaim our property, dollar by dollar.

So today we celebrate the Truth and mourn those we have lost – the victims of the attacks 25 years ago, the casualties of the wars – American, Afghan, Libyan, Somali, and others – and the dead and missing from our own coup and rebellion. May the Higher Power, whatever you conceive it to be, bless our people, and may the light of Truth forever shine upon this nation.

(Applause, band plays “God Bless America.”)

Author’s Note: The preceding is fiction, of course, but who knows where the truth will lead us?

Heavy Thoughts on Holly Golightly

One of the hazards of being a sci-fi fanatic is that in the quest to read every space opera and see every time travel movie, a person inevitably misses some of the classics. For this reason, my girlfriend has taken it upon herself to make sure I am properly educated in classic cinema. Recently we watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Netflix, which I had never seen before. I’m not usually a big fan of romantic comedy, but I must admit I enjoyed it. However, I’m not a person who can simply enjoy something, I’m obsessed with analysis. So naturally, I have some comments and observations I’d like to share.

Like most romantic comedies, I found I fairly predictable, though quite well-written. I was not aware that it was based on a novel by the great Truman Capote. It’s no wonder these characters have captivated people for so long, especially Audrey Hepburn’s irrepressible Holly Golightly. This movie is a perfect example of the “show don’t tell” dictum. Her friend Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard) says nothing romantic to Holly for most of the movie, but his feelings for her are obvious.

Another thing I loved about the movie was its period feel, which was of course contemporary when it was made. It’s the same reason I like foreign movies, for the window they provide into another culture. Likewise, Breakfast is a window into another time, though I’m old enough to remember many of the elements in the story. One of the movie’s most jarring elements is the pervasiveness of smoking. Although the nasty habit is still with us, it’s sad that the social aspect is gone, along with accoutrements like Holly’s amazing two-foot-long cigarette holder. (Recently I saw an Audrey Hepburn calendar featuring the iconic Tiffany’s photo in which the cigarette had been air-brushed out. Heresy!) Other nostalgic items include rotary phones, men and women wearing classy hats, and the automobile as an exhaust-spewing seat-belt-less land yacht. Humor was different in those times, too, as exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s hilariously offensive Japanese character Mr. Yunioshi.

But the thing that impressed me most was how civilized the people were. Though Holly’s neighbor Yunioshi repeatedly scolds her for her inconsiderate behavior, he tolerates her antics with Asian detachment until he finally calls the cops on her noisy party. When the police arrive, there’s no SWAT team, just guys in blue uniforms armed with nothing more deadly than billy clubs. On other occasions, Holly’s drunken suitors bang on her apartment door at all hours of the night, but they skedaddle the moment Yunioshi yells at them. Likewise, when Holly’s ex (Buddy Ebsen) shows up wanting to take her home to Arkansas, he accepts her refusal sadly but graciously. Through all this, does Holly get angry and defensive when her schemes to land a rich man fail? No, she remains optimistic, though at times a bit clueless.

As I reflected on the changes in American behavior since that time, a powerful sadness came over me. Admittedly, romantic comedies like Breakfast gloss over issues like poverty and racism, and the few blacks that appeared in the background looked respectably middle-class. Yet despite Jim Crow, “the ‘hood” was much safer in those days, with most black men home with their families rather than languishing in prison, as Thomas Sowell would tell us. In 1961, our country had recently finished two brutal wars, but there was still more neighborly idealism than angry jingoism. People believed in kindness and charity, and gave to the poor of their own accord, rather than being forced by the tax man. It’s not like they were all angels; Holly is a low-grade grifter, and Paul is the ‘kept man’ of a rich married woman. But for the most part, the system worked. Breakups led mostly to broken hearts, not broken bones, and bar brawls tended to end with black eyes rather than gut shots.

So how did we get from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Breaking Bad? I’m not one to blame the decline of religion and traditional morality. I don’t mind if two men can get married, and I don’t care about the divorce rate, abortion, or illegal immigration. But I do care about peace and freedom, which have been in short supply lately. My own theory is that Holly’s generation is partly to blame. They were too polite, and too trusting, and allowed the government and the ultra-wealthy to promulgate numerous wars and financial frauds. By the time the country passed to the Baby Boomers, the Military Industrial Complex, which Eisenhower warned us about right around the time Breakfast was being filmed, was firmly in control.

Since then, we’ve had the Cold War,the War on Poverty the Vietnam War, two Gulf Wars, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Nowadays America spends more on weaponry and incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. What we gained in sophistication, we lost in civility. Characters like Paul, the cynical aspiring novelist, and Holly, the social climber with the banned cigarette holder, are far more civilized than most of us will ever be.

More Writing Strategies, and Cory Doctorow’s Writing Tips

In my last post I detailed a few writing strategies that had worked for me, and I referenced a helpful article by science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. It’s a fascinating piece, with several intriguing suggestions, some of which I like and others, not so much.

As I said before, I love his idea about committing yourself to writing a certain number of words per day. However, I disagree strongly with the idea of writing an exact number of words. If I’m inspired I want to continue writing for as long as time permits. On the weekends I sometimes write as many as 2000 words per day on my primary project. Most days, though, I don’t have time to go much beyond my minimum 500; my day job takes care of that. If I were a full-time writer, though, I would need to balance my time between writing new material and other activities such as researching, editing, and promotion. I would probably either set a maximum word count or a time limit.

Doctorow’s reason for stopping at an exact word count – even if it means quitting in the middle of a sentence – is so you have a continuation point in your brain for the next day. That’s a good argument, but for me, it’s not necessary. I rarely get stuck on a story, and if I do, I’m obsessive enough that I think about the problem while doing other activities, such as walking the dogs or driving to work. I almost always come up with something.

Another of Doctorow’s rules, which I arrived at independently, is “don’t research.” More precisely, he means to keep your writing and and research times separate. Part of the trouble with Fidelio is that, being in the steampunk genre, which requires a lot of historical research to do correctly. I love history and could spend hours reading about it- but it doesn’t get your writing done.

When Doctorow is writing and needs to reference a fact that he doesn’t currently know (the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example), he doesn’t stop to research that fact. Instead, he inserts the abbreviation “TK” into the text, to remind himself to insert the information at a later time. He uses “TK” because the combination appears in very few English words, making it easy to search. During my July experiment I began doing something similar. For my own place marker I use a descriptive phrase in curly braces, such as {name of spouse.} As a software developer I use braces all the time, but when was the last time you saw them in fiction? The advantage of my scheme over a fixed marker such as “TK” is that I don’t forget what kind of info I need to substitute in any particular place.

Now for another of Doctorow’s point that I don’t like: dump the word processor. He suggests using a plain-vanilla text editor such as “emacs” rather than a word processor like Microsoft Word. It’s true that word processors can be distracting with all of their formatting features, but there’s also an advantage in ease of use. Besides, I use very few of these features until the entire work is done. I’m a Open Office partisan myself; it’s simpler than Word but much easier to use than emacs, which I appreciate from a programmer’s standpoint, but not for prose. Features like word wrap and double spacing make the text easier to read, which means easier to edit, and jobs like paragraph indenting and converting quotation marks are done automatically.

That brings me to a rule of my own that was not in Doctorow’s article– I like to plan in advance what my primary writing project will be for the upcoming month or two. If I didn’t, I’d be tempted to jump around from project to project and not finish any of them. For example, when I started Diana’s Fury at the beginning of July (to be honest, I’d already written one scene, but lets not quibble) I didn’t allow myself to switch projects it was finished. However, to ensure I wouldn’t stray from Fidelio for too long, a set a drop-dead date of August 1st. Luckily, I finished the rough draft of Diana a week early, so I then took the opportunity to work on an urban fantasy story I’d started and abandoned in 2011. Although I haven’t yet finished that story, it’s next in line after I’m done with the rough draft of Fidelio.

These simple rules have helped me vanquish a problem that has bedeviled me since I’ve started writing seriously- my obsession with working in a totally linear fashion (that is, writing one book at a time.) That’s what almost killed my enthusiasm for the craft. I spent many months writing my first book, Centrifugal Force and many more editing it. During the editing phase I had many cool ideas I forced myself to forgo. Eventually I got so burned out on the book that I had to put it aside for a few months. Now that I’m doing two or more projects in parallel (one for just writing, another for editing, and a possible third for research and/or outlining) that doesn’t happen to me any more.

So now you have them, my “top secret” writing tips, which you can modify to your own liking. Remember, the most important rule is not to write at any particular time of day, it’s just to set a regular time and stick to it. Also, be sure to check out articles and blogs by experienced authors. To a writer, newbies are not competition, they’re comrades.

Amazingly Simple Yet Effective Writing Strategies

Today I return from a one-month hiatus from this blog. In the intervening time I’ve discovered some useful writing strategies that I’d like to share. I came upon some of these on my own; others indirectly. All of them come with the following disclaimer: Everybody is different and what works for one person may not work for another. As we like to say in the Linux world, YMMV (your mileage may vary.)

First of all, I’d like to stress that I’ve been writing regularly for the last several years, and that although it’s more work than non-writers realize, I really enjoy it. That brings me to my first piece of advice. If you try writing, and you find you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. If, on the other hand, you want to “become a writer,” the best way to do so is by frequent practice. As cartoonist Len Wein once said, “A writer writes. Period. No matter if someone is buying your work or not.”

In order to write, you must make time to write, no matter how busy you are. That brings up the second suggestion: it’s important to set aside a regular time each day for your writing. I’ve been lucky in that my day job is more flexible than most. My employer allows me to bring my own PC to work, and I write during my lunch break. Even better, I’m able to take my lunch from 1-2 PM, which means I can use the lunch room when it’s practically free of distractions.

A word of caution: You employer may not be so easy going. In particular, if you’re a technology worker, beware- some companies think they own every bit of intellectual property you produce, whether or not it’s related to your actual job. Before hiring on, make sure your contract only applies to writings relevant to the business. If not, get out as soon as possible – or write secretly, under a pen name, and never let those greedy bastards know what you’re up to. When your masterpiece is complete, quit your job, wait a few months to make it seem plausible, and voila! You just wrote your debut novel in record time.

The third strategy was something I happened on accidentally. For that I need to thank my friend Rissa Watkins, who is in the same sci-fi writer’s group (Nexus) as I am, well as an additional group. During June of this year, her other group staged a writing contest, in which a writer could earn points for writing each day, but lost them all on any day on which you failed to produce the minimum number of words. Rissa kindly invited Nexus members to participate as well, and though none of us did, I was intrigued by the concept.

I had already been writing practically every day, in the sense that I was always doing something writing-related, whether it was writing original work, editing, outlining, researching background facts, critiquing fellow group members’ submissions, or writing for this blog. What I lacked was focus. I decided to apply the principle of the contest on my own, and picked 500 as my minimum word count per day. In addition, I “found” some additional writing time by getting up a bit earlier every day. (Please don’t hate me because I’m a morning person!)

Since starting this strategy on July first, I’ve only missed the 500-word figure one time, and on that day it wasn’t by much. Following this “weird tip” (I hate those ads, too, but I couldn’t resist- should I also say that it makes writing schools furious?) has allowed me to produce much more material than ever before. For the initial test I took a 30-day hiatus from Fidelio’s Automata, the steampunk novel I’d been struggling with, to pursue a concept for an adventure novella that had been kicking around inside my head. By the end of the month I’d finished the rough draft of Diana’s Fury, and was enthusiastic to return to working on Fidelio. The best part of this strategy has been that on most days, I’ve been able to finish my 500 words before my workday starts. This leaves my lunch hour to pursue other writing-related activities, such as critiquing, editing, blogging and research.

Now I must give another acknowledgment: if I’m not mistaken, someone in Rissa’s group attributed the contest idea (at least in part) to sci-fi author Cory Doctorow. I googled his name with the phrase “writing tips,” and found this great 2009 article on Locus Online. Among his suggestions was the idea of committing yourself to writing to a particular word count per day, which, as I’ve noted, has worked wonders for me.

It seems this article has gotten a bit too long, as is my usual habit, so I’ll save the rest for my next post. In the meantime, you can check out Doctorow’s article, which I’ll critique and build upon later this week.

Remakes, Good Or Bad?

Are movie remakes a good or bad idea? Recently I heard about Gene Wilder trashing the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, calling it an “insult” to the classic 1971 version. (Yes, that was eight years ago; I like Gene Wilder, but he sure can hold a grudge.) Around the same time, I listened to an NPR interview of Lynda Obst, one of the producers of the 1991 masterpiece Fisher King, in which she said that remakes were what’s keeping Hollywood alive through the current economic downturn. I’d say we should examine them on an individual basis. In this installment I’ll discuss three remakes I’ve seen this year.

Of course I would not have missed the latest installment in the Star Trek reboot franchise, Into Darkness. All my fellow Trek fans seem to love the characters and the way the new actors have re-invented the old favorites from the TV show. Kirk, Spock, Scott, McCoy, Sulu, Checkov – they’ve all got it down. It’s especially cool to see Uhura in a more active role, and being played by the very hot Zoe Saldana. The film had non-stop action and plenty of high-dollar CGI effects, but it was disappointing to see yet another recycled Trek plot. Yes, I know there are only a few basic archetypes in fiction, but they could at least invent some new villains. And the romantic relationship between Uhura and Spock? Highly illogical.

The newest Superman show, Man of Steel, generated a lot of controversy. Many people ridiculed the “emo” incarnation of Superman. I liked it; it brought some depth to a character who was always too wooden for my taste. Continuing the “spunky female” trend, Lois Lane has a major role, though this time she’s not a brunette – heresy! Like the previous Superman movies, this one ditches the whole Superboy story line. Though the young Clark Kent does a few rescues in secret, he doesn’t don the cape until he’s well into adulthood. This one had a decent plot and great villains; once again, non-stop action. There was an extensive and imanginative segment on the planet Krypton, something previous movies have ignored. My main complaint about Superman is the Man of Steel himself. As my son remarked, he’s the ultimate “OP” (over-powered) character. It’s appropriate that Kent’s true surname is “El,” a Hebrew word for “God.”

The third and most recent of this year’s movie remakes is The Lone Ranger, featuring Johnny Depp (the guy who stole Gene Wilder’s thunder as Willy Wonka in 2005) in the sidekick role as Tonto. This one got many negative reviews, and I’ll admit it has substantial flaws, but I enjoyed it. Armie Hammer does an interesting portrayal of the masked vigilante as a mild-mannered attorney driven to seek justice for the murder of his brother. With Depp playing Tonto, this neglected character finally gets the attention he deserves. The Native American hero is not the PC version you’d expect these days, but a trickster with her own faults and foibles. After all, Tonto is Spanish for “fool,” something Kemo Sabe mentions at the end of the move. As for the plot, it was the old “evil railroad baron” story, and it veered from melodramatic (a villain who eats the hearts of his enemies) to ridiculous (riding a horse on top of a moving train.) In any case, I appreciated the anti-authority message; they’re all corrupt, even the Army.

As I stated before, I believe we should judge each remake on its own merits, rather than bemoaning the trend. I admit, however, that Hollywood has been intellectually lazy and overcautious for far too many years. If it wasn’t for foreign films and TV shows, or the occasional youth-oriented book series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games) they wouldn’t have any new ideas at all. Still, some characters and story lines are too good to be allowed to die.