Monday, November 30, 2015

Scathing Reviews

Like every other published writer I know, my work has garnered rave reviews and anti-rave reviews. (Or perhaps that is rave anti-reviews?) Both ranged from insightful and well thought out to haring off after irrelevancies (like the reader who posted a negative review “not very good” on GoodReads of an unreleased anthology I’d edited and that no one, not even the publisher, had yet seen).  I try to be philosophical about such reviews, keeping in mind that most of them are from amateur reviewers, many of whom have their own axes to grind, as it were. This is not to say that non-professional reviewers cannot produce thoughtful, worthwhile reviews, only that there is no filtering mechanism or gatekeeper to sift out those reviews from the noise. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have a wider discussion of books and other media, one that includes more people. In fact, conversations about books are a good thing! Sounding off for its own sake, seeing how mean-spirited and provocative you can be, is another. We call folks who do that trolls, and trolls write book reviews, too.

That said, I recently noticed my own reaction to a scathing review of a movie by a professional reviewer. “Scathing” was the term of the friend who pointed out the review. My friend thought the way the reviewer savaged the film was highly entertaining. I suppose this is what movie reviewers are paid to do – to entertain. But why is it entertaining to show off how clever one is, as if there is a contest to see who can produce the most sarcastic commentary? We don’t tolerate hate speech or bullying, so why do we applaud viciousness in this form?

I don’t believe for a moment that the directors, producers, actors, and all the other folks are deflated by such reviews. For one thing, they make big bucks, even for a film that gets panned. Then there’s the point that any publicity, good or bad, drives sales. Yet I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line, some of those people loved this project and did their very best. And that some of the folks who saw the film just loved it, too. Or…would have loved it if they had seen it? Or would have loved it if they had not seen it through the lens of a scathing review?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Deborah's EBooks at Your Public Library

If your public library subscribes to Overdrive, you can check out my ebooks. Here's the link to what's available, both traditionally published and through Book View Cafe. (Overdrive carries BVC's entire catalog.)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris, Grief, and Healing

Lots of folks have posted on the recent terrorist attack in Paris. I don't have much to add, but I do feel moved to re-post some thoughts from years ago, about 9/11 and the anniversary of my mother's murder, also in September. A few of the references are dated, but the process of coming to terms with trauma remains valid for me.

What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it’s okay for my mother’s killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.

My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked — incarcerated — in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It’s like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.

I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice — to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.

I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, “I want my father back!” (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that’s impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.

My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or “achieve closure,” and instead focus on taking care of my insides — my heart, my spirit, my body — the better I fare.

So I’ve been talking about my own healing process and what I’ve learned. I’ve been meeting with other family members and with people who’ve been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I’ve been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.

Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.

I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Writerly Support Goes Both Ways

Some years ago, I struck up a conversation with a young writer at a convention. (I love getting to know other writers, so this is not unusual for me.) One thing led to another, led to lunch, led to getting together on a regular basis, led to frequently chatting online. I cheered her on as she had her first professional sale, and then another, and then a cover story on a prestigious magazine. One of the gifts of such a relationship is not the support I receive from it, but the honor and joy of watching someone else come into her own as an artist, to celebrate her achievements. It's the opposite of Schaudenfreude -- it's taking immense pleasure and pride in the success of someone you have come to care about.

I've written about these lunches here: The Lady (Actual and Honorary) Writers' Lunch

I find such friendships invaluable, and even more so when they shift from "pro/newbie" to one of true peers. Although we may not be in the same place in terms of professional publication, we each bring a wealth of life experiences to the conversation. Often, critical skills develop faster than writing craft, so even a novice writer can provide invaluable feedback.Trust arises from recognition of each other's strengths.

This happened recently, when I was wrestling with the opening of a new novel. I typed "Chapter 1" and then stared at the blank screen. Everything I could come up with for a beginning sentence was -- to put it mildly, just awful. I wouldn't want to read a book that began that way. But because my friend and I were IMing and she often shares thoughts about her creative process and struggles with various aspects of storytelling in a very different style than mine, I felt safe with her. She agreed that my idea wasn't very entrancing (she was very nice about it, for she understands that beginnings are vulnerable times and that this is indeed a process, not the final copy on the editor's desk). Her support lightened the burden of "I'm totally useless and now everyone is going to find out; I'll never write another decent sentence in my life and I have no idea how to begin a novel!" which we both knew to be not true, but the sort of self-doubt that regularly assails writers of all skill levels.

Eventually I calmed down enough to remember one of my tried and true techniques for coming up with titles. I write down every one I can think of, quite quickly so that I get through all the really stupid ones first. I give myself permission to be ridiculous -- and silly -- and quirky -- and by this time, I am usually generating stuff that has some potential. I did the same thing with opening lines, and before long I realized I'd become ensnared by one of my perennial challenges: wrong point of entry. By backing up (in this case) or leaping forward, I can find the place that clicks. 

I went to bed, having written a page or so, and woke up with: "Yes, and this other thing happens and then she gets thrown into jail (on page 2 or 3) and by the time she gets bailed out, her father has been brainwashed..." Okay, this has possibilities!

Thanks, dear friend, for cheering me on through the discouraging part!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Today's Work

I just typed:


Chapter 1

Now comes the hard part! Or the fun part, as I like to think of it!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How I Became a Reader

Over on the Book View Cafe blog, Sherwood Smith describes her journey as a "passionate reader" (her phrase). She writes how a babysitter brought over a book that ignited that passion:
The story was everything I wanted: kids with no parents, girls getting to adventure as much as boys, no drippy patriotic or moral message in that inimical fifties way of “do what I say, but if you do what I do you’ll be in trouble,” funny stuff as well as action.

I suppose every one of us who loves books has a story. Here are some tidbits from mine. I'd love to hear yours, as well.

I am of an age when kids were expected to learn to read at school, usually in 2nd grade or so. Also, for some reason, I never went to kindergarten (and no one I knew went to preschool, not that my family could have afforded it). I got dumped into first grade with no prior school experience and spent the next couple of years absolutely confused. Reading was opaque to me. I remember struggling with the word "laugh." I just could not translate those letters into anything like a familiar word.

Then in the summer between 2nd and 3rd grades, I was given a discarded reader (3rd grade, I think). I remember the brightly colored pictures and stories I wanted to gobble up. The fairy tale about the hill of glass, and excerpts from books like Understood Betsy (the chapter where she and Molly get left behind at the fair and have to make their way home). These memories are mixed with the rocking chair in which I sat and the sun streaming through my bedroom window. I learned to read that summer because reading gave me entry into wonderful worlds, places I wanted to be, and people I wanted to know more about. I dove into the books on my own shelves. I think that by the time I entered 3rd grade, I was reading and a 5th or 6th grade level.

So what did I read in 5th and 6th grade?

Anything I could get my hands on!

By this time, I was checking out library books and snatching books from the shelves of the classrooms. I read Black Beauty and Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island  and Stuart Little and Dr. Seuss. And anything with horses or dogs in it: The Black Stallion and the Albert Payson Terhune books featuring collies (Lassie -- the original version with Roddy MacDowell -- was very popular). It wasn't until high school that I tackled Crime and Punishment and then discovered Andre Norton, my gateway drug into fantasy and science fiction.

I don't remember how I came by that reader, but I am so grateful to whoever it was.

How and when did you fall in love with books?

Monday, November 9, 2015

World Fantasy Awards and Jackson's Middle Earth

First and foremost, congratulations to the winners of the World Fantasy Award, and also to the finalists. Many splendid creations here.

Now this post will veer off in a highly personal direction, applying to no one but myself. I have read one of the winners and when I saw the title, I felt a little sick. Do not get me wrong -- the work absolutely deserved the award. It was highly original and superbly executed, a stellar addition to the field.

And it gave the the absolute shakes. There's no way I can see myself ever reading it again. Our local library got my copy.

I've talked with folks who write and love horror about my aversion to it, and I appreciate their point that horror gives us a way of regaining power over the things that terrify us. Once upon a time, I got a delicious thrill out of that adrenaline jolt and the weird, fascinating dark stuff. I don't anymore. I think my threshold has been permanently re-set, and the consequences of exceeding it are more tenacious.

So why am I not pushed over that edge by the violence in the Peter Jackson Middle Earth films? There's plenty of excitement and twenty ways to kill an orc, each sillier and bloodier than the one before, and characters I love in dire peril. Is it the fantastical setting? The characters, even non-humans like Elves and Dwarves, don't feel unreal. Is it the knowledge that all will be well in the end, or as well as can be, given the price various characters play? I still cry at Boromir's death -- he didn't have a happy ending.

And yet, as I wrote in an earlier, watching the films, with all their flaws -- and also reading the books, albeit less vividly -- leaves me with a feeling of peace. Emotionally wrung-out, but brought to a good place by all the adventures I've gone along on.

Truly, we each see and read a different story. They are all colored by what we as individuals bring to them.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Cataract Journey 7: Settling in

It’s been several months (August) since my cataract surgery, and I’m adjusting to my new vision. My eyes have recovered from the surgery and my vision seem to have stabilized. It hasn’t changed noticeably over the last month or so.

So far, my experience continues to be positive. It’s amazing to open my eyes in the morning and be able to see clearly. I haven’t experienced the halos or other visual distortions that some patients with accommodative lenses report. My eyes had gradually become drier and scratchier over the years, and that is slightly improved, although I’m not sure why, maybe all the eye drops I used after the surgery. I’ve talked to other folks who’ve had cataract surgery and reported increased scratchiness afterward (to be fair, once I shared with them my optometrist’s protocol for dry eyes, they said it helped tremendously).

Here’s where I landed, vision-wise. I’ve gone from being incredibly near-sighted to being only slightly near-sighted. I had expected to be able to see clearly at intermediate (computer screen) and distance (driving) ranges, and to need reading glasses for close activities, but that turned out to not be the case. My vision for working at the computer and playing piano is excellent. I can’t remember seeing the piano music so crisply before. I can also read, unless the type is really small or I have to hold the book really close, so I use low-power over-the-counter reading glasses for reading in bed. My distance vision is not so great, especially in my weak eye. I can see well enough to drive places I already know how to get to, but reading street signs requires me to be fairly close to them (the letters and symbols of traffic signs are big enough, so that’s not a problem). I’d likely not pass the driver’s license vision test with my weak eye.

Now it’s time to decide what, if anything, I want to do about the residual near-sightedness.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Guest Blog: More on Transgender Genetics

Welcome back! This week let’s look at a different paper that examined potential genetic causes for transgender.
In the last post, we looked at a SNP (“single nucleotide polymorphism” — a very, very tiny mutation at just one “letter” of novel of DNA) as a potential cause. This week’s paper looked at a different type of change: trinucleotide repeats.
There are some sections of human DNA that have funny little repeats of three “letters”. If you remember, DNA has four letters: A, T, G, and C. Some parts of our DNA have long strings that looks like this: CAGCAGCAGCAGACAG. It’s called a trinucleotide repeat. Everybody has sections like this, and it’s not clear why they exist. The sections vary a lot from person to person, and change from generation to generation. Within the same person the repeat doesn’t change. Sometimes these repeats, when a person has a lot of them, can cause disease. Trinucleotide repeat expansions are the cause of both Huntington’s disease and Fragile X syndrome. Most of the time, though, trinucleotide repeats aren’t a problem.
Repeats of other lengths are also found in humans — it can be as small as two letters (e.g., “AGCACACACACACACACACACATG”)
So — what about this study?
This study looked at nucleotide repeat sequences in three specific areas in trans women and cis men: CYP17, AR, and ERBeta. Yes, CYP17 is back! You may recall that’s involved in the creation of sex hormones. AR stands for androgen receptor — it codes for the receptors that testosterone binds to to cause its effects. And ER Beta is one of the estrogen receptor subtypes. Like AR, it is a receptor that estrogen binds to to cause its effect. In essence, this paper asked: “Do the number of nucleotide repeats in genes associated with sex hormones differ between transgender women and cisgender men?”
The results?
Some of them. There were no differences in ERBeta (the estrogen receptor) or CYP17. But the AR (androgen receptor) gene in trans women had longer nucleotide repeats than the cis men did. Since AR codes the androgen receptor, it is an even more important controller of masculinization of a fetus than testosterone itself is. As the researchers state, the difference in nucleotide repeats “might result in incomplete masculinization of the brain in male-to-female transsexuals, resulting in a more feminized brain and a female gender identity.”
It’s an interesting thought and definitely in line with the brain research that’s been published. As always, we need more studies and more data to say that the cause is definitely the androgen receptor gene.
Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth – Unexpected Gifts

It has often seemed to me that fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) fall into two categories: those who adore Peter Jackson’s films and those who despise them. I fall into the former category and my husband into the latter. From our conversations, I have concluded that in most cases, it is impossible to change the other person’s mind (not to mention disrespectful to try). This is hardly a problem of cosmic importance, unless one person attempts to drag the other to all six extended cut versions of the movies or prevents the other person from enjoying them. Both sides put forth arguments and reasons, and they are entitled to them. I think just about everything that can be said has already been expounded upon.

I am firmly in the love-them camp. All the objections folks have are absolutely right, and have no relevance to my experience of the movies. The uncritical, immersive, “take me away” quality of my enjoyment of the films has definitely piqued my curiosity. What happens when I spend hours in Jackson’s Middle Earth?

In general, I am far less critical of visual media than of text. Because my own art form is prose, I have developed a keen internal editor and critic that may be regaled to the back seat but never entirely departs. I have no such filters for films or paintings. Only a horrifically bad film can destroy my suspension of disbelief, but horrifically bad films are enjoyable for quite different reasons than good ones.

I devoured Tolkien’s novels as a young adult, although I never wanted to run away to Middle Earth then. I found some aspects of the books frustrating: the “travelogue” passages were often tedious, I had no idea what Tom Bombadil was doing in the story, and I had trouble forming clear images of many of the places, for example Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, I joined the ranks of fans wearing buttons that said “Frodo Lives!” and “Beware the Balrog.” I stood in line to see the films by Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass (The Hobbit and The Return of the King), all of which I found unsatisfying. The hobbits and dwarves in the animated versions were silly, in bad need of haircuts, and the Bakshi film was just plain weird. The orcs looked like sabertoothed Sand People (from Star Wars), the Balrog was a costume from a bad opera, Boromir looked ridiculous in a Viking helmet, and none of the character moved in a natural way. Et cetera.

I had no idea who Peter Jackson was, but special effects had come a long way since the 1970s. Needless to say, I had excitement but not high hopes. I came prepared to see a live action version of the previous attempts. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring, I was in love. The Jackson films “clicked” for me and brought the stories alive in ways that previous versions, even the original text, fell short.

This is not to say that everyone must feel the same way. Different media and different interpretations work for different people. I’m delighted that some folks prefer Tolkien’s text or even the animated versions. I am also delighted that this one form of presentation worked so well for me. When I go back and re-read the books, I can now immerse myself in the rich and varied landscapes of Middle Earth, and see and hear the characters.

After the extended editions of all three Ring movies came out on DVD (and I had watched all the commentaries and appendices), I set them aside. Every few years, however, I would watch them (3 movies over 2 days, usually, and when my husband – who is in the “doesn’t work for me” camp – was out of town). Either by happenstance or internal prompting, my schedule synchronized with the parole hearings of the man who raped and murdered my mother. That is, I’d gear up for the hearing, get re-traumatized no matter what precautions I took, come home and fall apart, and slowly put myself back together again. Some quality of the Jackson films spoke to me and offered itself as a healing tool.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

NaNoWriMo Resources!

Here's a great collection of writing books, from "hot-to" for beginners to the finer points of specific elements, all at a fantastic price. Not only that, but you'll get two of my own essays in Book View Cafe's Brewing Fine Fiction -- one on writing when there is no time, and another on surviving being reviewed!


Book View Cave is delighted to be included in StoryBundle’s 2015 NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle. Not only is ourBrewing Fine Fiction anthology part of the bundle, so are two additional guides by BVC members: Writing Horses by Judith Tarr and Writing Fight Scenes by Marie Brennan.

Never heard of StoryBundle? It’s where you can get fantastic ebooks at one low pay-what-you-want price. DRM-free means you can read them on just about all the devices you own, no matter who makes it.

– Pay the minimum $5 and get Brewing Fine Fiction plus five other great titles.
– Beat the bonus price ($13), and get seven more books including Writing Horses and Writing Fight Scenes.
– Opt into the 2nd tier bonus ($25) and get the 2014 NaNoWriMo bundle as well, for a total of twenty-five fantastic writing books!

Plus Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.

National Novel Writing Month happens every November. Thousands of writers all over the world take up the challenge to produce a novel in a month.

This toolkit offers great advice from a multitude of seasoned professionals including Kevin J. Anderson, Lawrence Block, Algis Budrys, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Al Zuckerman. Curator Kevin J. Anderson writes:

Here, to get you ramped up for the marathon, I’ve curated a baker’s dozen of instructional books on all aspects of writing, from craft, to productivity, to business, to career advice, to specific areas of expertise. Presenting, for the second year in a row, the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools StoryBundle: a massive batch of useful books that will help you survive—and thrive—during National Novel Writing Month—the full spectrum of useful information. You name your own price, whatever you feel this batch of books is worth, and part of the money you pay goes to help the supportive non-profit NaNoWriMo organization.

I put together these books from the general to the specific, a treasure chest of books vital to your success—not only in writing your novel but in launching your long-term career as a successful writer. This is a toolkit, a drill sergeant, a mentor, and a cheerleading section, all in one.

For complete details and to pick up your bundle, visit 2015 NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle.