What Lies in Wait Beyond the Next Branch

Just some philosophical musing today at the approach of an important anniversary.
One week from tomorrow (June 5th) is the 1 year anniversary of my very first story submission dropped in a mailbox. It’s also my 5th wedding anniversary, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I started writing fiction in 2007, and jumped right in, diving head first into writing a novel with no prior experience writing fiction, no critique group and rare feedback from anyone. I finished a rough draft of that novel last year. Over that whole year I hadn’t even considered writing short stories. If you want to make it big, I reasoned, you’ve got to aim high. Book royalties, that’s the key. Once I finished writing the entire book, I polished the first 3 chapters to the best shine I knew how, wrote a synopsis for them and dropped them in the mailbox addressed to Tor. Their website at the time estimated 4-6 months for reply to slush, so I figured I had time to polish some more chapters before I had any chance of hearing back from them. I figured most places will take at least as long as the time estimate they give you. Right? Wrong!

I had their rejection in my mailbox 12 days later, a grainy photocopy of a form letter: “Dear Submitter”, “signed, the editors”. Now what should I do, I thought. Not that many places even take submissions of just 3 chapters + synopsis. Many places require you to work through an agent. Many others require an entire manuscript. I found another publisher that would take 3 + synopsis, Elder Signs Press, and sent it off to them. Once that was out the door I decided I needed a change in tactic.

Since novels take such an ungodly amount of time to write, and since so few publishers will take 3 chapter submissions, I decided I’d better get writing something shorter. So I wrote up my first short story, originally titled The Long-sought Purpose of the Divining Man. It was filled with almost constant exclamation points and semi-colons as I’d had a secret love for these punctuations. It was very long and had all kinds of problems, but of course I thought it was great.

I made my very first story post to Baen’s Bar, the critiquing forum associated with Jim Baen’s Universe. It took me quite a while to work up the courage. What if someone steals my work? What if someone rips my story apart? But I sucked it up, because quite frankly, their money was among the best pay in the short story biz. And of course, the good Barflies there told me what they really thought of it, pointing out all the problems that they could find. “Wow, this is harder than I thought”, I said, but at the same time was delighted to get prompt and knowledgeable feedback not only from fellow writers who were more experienced than I, but from the slush readers Edith Maor, Gary Cuba, and Sam Hidaka.

I’ve used Baen’s Bar both to give and receive critiques since then and have yet to see its equal. The critiques I’ve received there have helped me grow as a writer much more quickly than dogging through it on my own. In the year since I started writing shorts I’ve learned 10 times what I learned the year before trying on my own.

I also found other useful writing forums like the Writers of the Future forum (where I met Anthony Sullivan among others), and Hatrack River forum where I began wonderful friendships, discussed the ins and outs of writing and of the publishing business, and just had a great time.

More recently I’ve started grabbing writer friends on Facebook, which has been fun. Many of them give frequent updates about tour dates, publications, and you can just interact with them for fun too. It’s been awesome. Before you start talking to these people it’s easy to put them up on a pedestal and think of them as some sort of strange otherworldly being that can pull prose out of their ears unbidden, but they’re folks just like you and me (albeit talented ones).

Anyhoo, I sent that ESP novel submission out over 300 days ago now, and have queried at 6 and 9 months without even an acknowledgment in return. How different would my writing career be nowadays if I had sent that first manuscript off to ESP instead of Tor. I probably would never have started writing short stories, so I wouldn’t have come across critique forums like Baen’s Bar. I never would’ve made the awesome friends I’ve made, and I would be left slogging through the revisions of that novel (or ones of a second novel) with little or no feedback to help me understand what works in stories and what doesn’t. ALL it would’ve taken would have been a different address on that one envelope, and this would be so different.

I’m glad I addressed that first envelope to Tor, it set me on the path I’ve traveled to be where I am today.

Now I just need to get back to revising that novel! Such a daunting task now that I have a pretty good idea what I like and don’t like about different stories!

Wicked or Oppressed: Humanity Through the Eyes of Sweeney Todd

sweeneyFor those of you who haven’t seen Sweeney Todd, as either the movie or the play, be warned that there will be plenty of spoilers following. FULL SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

First, it’s kind of funny how I first heard of Sweeney Todd. I first saw it in the Ben Affleck/Liv Tyler movie Jersey Girl. In that movie there was a parent/child talent show where each pair was asked to choose a song to perform and act out for the school. Everyone but Ben Affleck and his daughter performed “Memories” from Cats. So after hours and hours of replays of the same song, these two go on stage and perform “God, That’s Good!”. On the upper tier of the stage, the barber Sweeney Todd cuts the throats of customers, who then fall through a hole in the floor and are served as meat pies to unsuspecting customers in Mrs. Lovett’s restaurant to dispose of the evidence.
If you want to see that video clip:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkLSFdvrhq0

Anyway, the details of the story FULL SPOILERS AHEAD are this:

I’m assuming that you all have seen the story. If you want to remember the details, here’s a link to a Wikipedia synopsis:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_todd

In the song “Epiphany”, Sweeney states his view of mankind:
“They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why. Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one stays put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face. Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you. We all deserve to die. Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I. Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us death will be a relief.”

His simple bimodal distribution of humanity is very apt for the play. Only a few characters violate this description, and those are the most remarkable characters. Here’s an analysis of all the named characters in the play, classifying them as the Wicked and the Oppressed:

First, the clean cut ones:

Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the movie):
Definitely Wicked. She’s the one who suggests putting human meat in her pies. She also deceives Sweeney, leading him to believe that Lucy is dead so that she can seek Todd’s love for herself. You can’t get much more wicked than that.
Dies by Sweeney’s hands for her crimes.

Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman in the movie):
Definitely Wicked. He wrongfully imprisons Barker to get at his wife. He exploits Lucy to the point that she attempts suicide. He imprisons Johanna and tries to force her into marriage. Rich man, and civil officer, taking advantage of decent people–definitely wicked.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Beadle Bamford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower in the movie–you may know him as Wormtail/Peter Pettigrew in the Prisoner of Azkaban)
Wicked. He seems to have a pretty good life. Though he lives under the command of Judge Turpin, he doesn’t really seem to suffer for it. He’s well-dressed and happy enough. He helps Judge Turpin in his unethical actions. He’s wicked, though not to the extreme of his employer.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Signor Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie)
Wicked, though he’s the least wicked of the wicked. A rich man, very well dressed, who exploits the general populace by pretending to be Italian and selling them overpriced barber services as well as selling them “miracle elixir” that’s supposed to grow hair, but is really just a mix of urine and ink. Tries to blackmail Sweeney.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Lucy Barker
Definitely oppressed. Her husband is wrongfully imprisoned, then she’s relentlessly pursued by a man in power, then exploited, then takes poison, but doesn’t die. She ends up brain damaged and begging on the streets.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Now for the dual case:

Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd (played by Johnny Depp in the movie)
These two sort of follow the rules, if you consider multiple personalities to be different people. I think that Barker/Todd really believe their statement that there are only two kind of men. Benjamin Barker is the oppressed man who lost his wife and child. Desperate for revenge, but unable to bring himself to it, he creates another persona: Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is more than capable of enacting revenge on the judge, but he’s incapable of compassion and more than willing to commit mass-murder.
dies at Toby’s hands

And the really strange cases. Interestingly, the strange cases are the ONLY people who survive:

Toby:
Transitions from neutral to Wicked. His life at the beginning isn’t particularly terrible. He has a home and a job being a crier for Signor Pirelli. If I remember right, he’s a rescued orphan so his life is looking up. After that he’s taken in by Mrs. Lovett who treats him like a son. He’s suspicious of Sweeney, but they manage to coexist until near the end when Toby discovers what Todd and Lovett have been up to. He’s lurking in the sewers beneath the basement when Mrs. Lovett is killed. After that, he creeps up and kills Todd while Todd is cradling Lucy’s dead body. Murder at such a young age seems like it will make him wicked for sure.
She is still alive at the end!

Johanna:
Transitions from Oppressed to Neutral. Her life at the beginning is terrible, forced to live with Turpin as he tries to force her to marry him. But Anthony comes along and rescues her. In the end they run away together. You could argue that she’ll be Oppressed for the rest of her life because of childhood trauma, but I like to think there’s a happy ending there.
She is still alive at the end!

Anthony:
He is the most unique character, arguably the hero of the story. He is neither Wicked nor Oppressed at any point in the play. He does not perform any actions to hurt other characters, but he does not allow himself to be pushed down by other characters either. His actions only have good effects, allowing Johanna to be free, and absolving Todd’s guilt to know that his daughter will be in good hands.

Judging by all of these things, I think the story is told from Barker’s point of view (hence why most everyone fits so neatly into the two categories). In this story, Anthony is the hero because he saves Todd’s daughter.

If anyone has any thoughts on this analysis, I’d be glad to hear them! 🙂

What is “literary”?

My question for today’s post is: What is “literary fiction”? Taken literally, the answer seems pretty straightforward. “literary” seems to be related to “literature”. “Literature” means “written”. So “literary fiction” simply means written fiction, right? Wrong!

I’ve yet to find a widely accepted definition of “literary” as a genre. Glimmer Train classifies themselves as literary, as does Zoetrope (and many others). Whether you like the stories in these magazines is, as with all magazines, a matter of taste.

But to me classifying some writing as “literary” to the exclusion of other writing implies a sort of elitist attitude, as though “literary” writing is the only sort of writing that has value. The same for labeling a section in the bookstore as “literature”, as opposed to other fiction sections like mystery, horror, science fiction/fantasy. I don’t object to the section–I’ve read many books in the literature section that I enjoyed, but I do object to the title. The book store might as well label it “high-quality fiction” and “other”. As I’m primarily a reader of speculative fiction, this bothers me.

And a lot of times, the boundary is fuzzy anyway. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, is in the literature section, despite it being clearly fantasy material. Why is that classed as literature? I suspect its the tone and style of writing, which would explain why this is the only Oz story I don’t care for.

Classic science fiction and fantasy is generally classified as literature also–I believe I’ve seen The Time Machine, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, and other classics in there. Is Speculative fiction like a fine wine, somehow gaining quality as it ages? If we’d been alive to taste of The Time Machine shortly after it was written, would it have ruined the experience because it wasn’t old enough? Maybe if I take a George R. R. Martin novel and put it in the book cellar, and pull it out again in several generations, it will have become literature, perfectly aged and fetching a handsome price from literature connoisseurs who will riffle the pages, sniff the binding, and read only a paragraph at a time so as not to be overwhelmed by the power of the prose between the covers.

City of Green

When I read L. Frank Baum’s original The Wizard of Oz, his description of the Emerald City got me thinking. In that version of the Wizard of Oz, there was a city law mandating that all people entering the city must have sunglasses attached to their head. The shades literally locked over your ears (though they seemed to not notice the fact that the tin man and scarecrow don’t really have ears). The stated reason they gave for this was that the emerald city was so dazzling that you needed to wear the sunglasses or you would be blinded. Inside the city, everything was green, green buildings, green clothes, green horses, green-skinned people, everything. They even get Dorothy a green dress. Well, they have their audience with the Wizard and everything, and then leave the city, having the shades removed at the gate and Dorothy is surprised to find out that her dress has changed to white. Later they find out that the shades weren’t just shades, they were tinted green! The city wasn’t really as green as it claimed to be, but everyone thought it was because they were wearing green sunglasses! Now, there’s some inherent flaws in this whole plotline, such as the fact that they didn’t notice that each other turned green as well.

Anyway, imagine a race that grew up in such a world, where they were forced to wear green shades all the time. It’s sort of a specialized way of being color blind. It’s still monochrome, but instead of seeing in shades of gray, it’s shades of green.

But the most interesting thing would be the question of what happens when you take an adult, who’s lived their life in a green world, out of that world and let them see the full spectrum. The first question, and an interesting one, is whether they would be able to see the other colors at all. I took a psychology class in college, and one of the random tidbits I remember from it is that vision isn’t inherently built into our systems. It is learned through experience. They explained one experiment in which they put polarized glasses on a kitten and kept them on it for the first couple months of its life (probably not ethical these days, but the results are interesting nonetheless). When they finally took the glasses off, the kitten couldn’t see light that was polarized in the other direction! It had never seen that kind of light so its brain never learned to process it. I don’t recall if the cat developed the full optical abilities later in its life, but I think animals have to learn pretty early.

So along these same lines, would people who grew up in the Emerald City be able to see other colors at all? I don’t think they would. What would they see instead? Would they see everything, but shifted into the greenscale? Would non-green things be essentially invisible to them, hiding in giant blindspots? I’m curious.

Let’s assume that they’re physiologically and mentally capable of processing the full range of colors. Can you imagine what a wondrous time it would be, just taking them for a walk, showing them multicolored flowers, seeing songbirds, or even a rainbow? It would be like a drug! They would never want to go back to the Emerald City again! And if they did, and they told their friends about colors, their friends would laugh and think them crazy!

Would a monochrome society develop any differently than a full-color society? At least some areas would. Art would be viewed very differently. Florists would probably have much less demand. Marketing people would have to rely on other tactics rather than color of packaging. I’m sure there are many other ways. Can you think of any others?

Would people as individuals develop any differently?

Now, this idea was covered in some extent by the movie Pleasantville, but in a rather different way. In that movie, the main characters enter a classic 50s TV show, which is of course in black and white, and are stuck there for a while. But that is really a different thing. That society didn’t develop that way, it was an artificial construct by entertainment censoring standards in the 50s, as well as the lack of the development of color TV technology at the time. It wasn’t forced on them by their government, it was just how the artificial world was fabricated. Along with the lack of color were other oddities, such as no one being aware of sex, or toilets, or reading, and firemen that didn’t do anything but rescue kitties from trees. When color started bleeding into the world, it represented a loss of innocence, which some people thought was a good thing and others thought was a bad thing. It’s a great movie, but again, it’s usage of color is rather different than the Emerald Citizen concept. Emerald Citizens are otherwise normal people, knowing of copulation and defacation and firefighting.

In The Matrix, there’s at least one mention of Oz–not surprising of course with the parallel world analogy. But another parallel that might not be so obvious is that the cities inside the matrix tend to all be tinted green, as though seen through a green filter, just like the Emerald City. And in both cases, the populace is largely controlled by an uncaring dictator who controls them by misleading them.

Also, a friend pointed out an interesting side effect that might be visible to Emerald Citizens when they first see the outside world, assuming they are physiologically capable of seeing other colors. When you look at one color or image too long, then when you close your eyes or look away you often see an afterimage, everything still in the same place but with all the colors inverted to their negative–black becomes white, green becomes red, etc… So these people might see everything in tints of red for a while until their eyes cope and adjust.

On a related side-story, I took a car trip with my older brother a decade or so ago. I wasn’t old enough to drive yet, so he did all the driving, and I tended to be lulled to sleep by the sound of the engine. On more than one occasion I woke up to find the whole world was tinted green! The effect faded after a few seconds or a minute, and then everything was normal again. It was bizarre! I recently found out that it was probably just another afterimage. I must have been sleeping in direct sunlight so that the sun glowed red through my eyelids. After hours of red exposure, I woke up, and opened my eyes, and everything was tinted green–the negative of the red filter provided by my eyelids. Crazy stuff. 🙂

Wizard vs. Witch: Who’s the Real Villain?

While writing a story for JW SChnarr’s Shadows of the Emerald City horror anthology, I began to wonder why people assume the Witch of the West is the villain? I thought the same as a child, but looking back at that movie I don’t understand why she is seen as the villain at all. It can’t just be the maniacal laughter and green skin, can it? I’ve known several very nice people with laughs that could scrape the paint off a wall, but that doesn’t make them evil. And to discriminate based on green skin? I’d like to assume the makers of the movie weren’t selling a racist agenda in their children’s movie. I should note that the Witch in the original book did not have green skin, but she was described as being very very old, homely and having only one eye, so it could still be that she was assumed to be the villain just because she was unattractive or very old.

Let’s look at both sides, witch vs. wizard:

The Wizard is in a position of power where he has spent a lifetime misleading the public and frightening his citizens into submission. A little girl from a far-off land approaches him, asking for assistance, and his response is to send her on a mission to kill his most dangerous adversary. In return he makes promises that he’s incapable of keeping, giving snake oil presents to Dorothy’s helpers and then escaping before fulfilling his promise to Dorothy. His only explanation is: “I’m not a bad man, only a bad wizard.” That’s a terribly weak excuse considering the magnitude of his crimes. The Wizard escapes without providing his promised payment AND without paying for his crimes, and we think the story ends happily?

The Witch: The Witch’s eastern counterpart is dispatched without warning by a powerful child adversary who claims she didn’t mean to do it. But of course, that’s exactly what any child-assassin would say in that circumstance. And honestly, when was the last time an intact house fell out of the sky by coincidence? And if it were an accident, what are the odds that it would land on the Wicked Witch of the East? The Witch would be a fool to believe Dorothy at her word. Then, despite the child-assassin’s claims of innocence, the girl accepts a mission from the Witch’s greatest adversary to go kill the Witch. How can anyone fault the Witch for trying to kill Dorothy? It’s clearly self defense! Even in the moments of her death, the Witch has no reason to question her own judgment–somehow the girl knew her one weakness and used it with no hesitation. Dorothy claimed it was an accident, but again, what are the odds of that?

In a discussion with writer Jeanne Tomlin about this topic, she said the following:
“It’s hard to separate this subject from the very real persecution of women that witch hunts in Europe covered up. What you are looking at and questioning is some pretty basic sexism. Any time a female creature (especially in a Disney movie) wants power, then she is by definition evil since power by rights belongs to males. Blech. I prefer to concentrate on less depressing parts of fantasy.”

While there probably is some degree of sexism at play here, particularly since the source material was written over a hundred years ago, I don’t think that’s the whole picture.

If I had to pick who was the most powerful character in the story, I would say it was Glinda, yet she’s not portrayed as evil. She plays a positively depicted female in power, despite her ridiculous bubbly voice, and her unfortunate fashion sense (was that pink monstrosity of a dress EVER in style?). She’s the only one who is shown using magic of her own, even if she does show it by riding around in a bubble. The Wizard’s magic is smoke and mirrors, and the Wicked Witch of West seems to have no magic, save through magical mediums: the broom, the crystal ball, the monkeys. Glinda is the only one who shows any inherent magic, and she’s the only one who can determine the magical nature of the slippers. If sexism were the only agenda here, I think Glinda would be portrayed differently.

Glinda and Dorothy are both portrayed very positively, but every single major male character has a major flaw that mars his character: the heartless, the brainless, the cowardly, and the impotent. Granted, it may be a stretch to call the Tin Man and the Scarecrow male, but they were referred to with male pronouns in the book, and were played by male actors for the movie.

It seems to me that the sexism of Witch vs. Wizard is perhaps not so much a fault with the filmmakers, but is due to assumptions made by the viewers. Looking at it objectively, it seems very clear to me that the Wizard is the villain because of his behavior.

What do you think? Do you think the Witch is the real villain, or the Wizard, and why?

Three Theories of Time Travel

This post is intended to open speculation about time travel. As far as I’ve seen, there are three main theories of how time travel works, depending on what you’re watching/reading.

1. Time is a slate–anything can be can be changed! Be very careful, you might prevent your own birth. (ala Back to the Future). Paradoxes are a major problem–if you change antyhing you could prevent yourself from going back which would keep you from going back to prevent yourself from going back–and so on.

2. Time is a tree. You can change things, but all you’ll do is create an alternate timeline. That is by making a change you just force yourself down a different branch. You can’t prevent your birth, but you can send yourself down a branch where you were never born. (ala Back to the Future II, which doesn’t seem to use the same concepts as Back to the Future)

3. Time is written in stone. Whatever happens in the past has already happened, observed events are 100% unchangeable. For me to believe in this one, I feel I also need to believe in a higher power (a fate or a god or what-have-you) to make sure everything is neat and tidy. (ala 12 Monkeys)

To me #1 is unlikely. If this were the way time travel worked, the space-time continuum would have ripped a long time ago, or a long time from now, which amount to the same thing when you’re talking about the space-time continuum.

#3 can only work if there’s a higher power, because something needs to decide what events are “allowed” to happen.

#2 is the most likely in my mind, though it opens the door to another discussion–alternate realities. Each branch of possibility creates new realities that may exist only in potentia. Changing events instantiates these realities.