‘Authors Anonymous’ and real-life critique groups

Authors Anonymous movie

After watching the movie Authors Anonymous on Netflix, I realized something important about participating in a local critique group: A little manuscript help isn’t worth suffering other writers’ neuroses.

Most writers are neurotic, one way or another. Put five to ten of us in a room together, and shit happens. Usually, that means some lively (at times heated) story discussion, and sometimes outright arguments. There are always pros and cons. The critique group is a crawl — you can get a full manuscript critique from an online writing partner in the time it would take a local critique group to do one or two chapters — but the trade-off is the atmosphere and community. It’s about being united with your fellow writers and motivating each other to improve.

One tense scene in Authors Anonymous shows what happens when that little community implodes: Jealous of another member’s success and annoyed by everyone else, one character bitches out each writer in turn (mostly saying their work is crap) before quitting. It isn’t long afterward that the whole group falls apart. Each character has too much emotional baggage to support anyone; they only end up sabotaging or demoralizing them instead.

Real life can be similar. When writers start picking fights, gossiping, or taking criticism too personally, it’s time to say sayonara. If you’re not getting emotional support from the group, it’s not worth going.

Have you ever been in a writing / critique group with personality problems? What happened?

The Maze Runner: I have no idea what I’m in for

The Maze Runner movie

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is, well, weird.

Basically, I have no idea whether the movie — which hits theaters this Friday — is going to be awesome or The Langoliers corny. Back when I was a kid, I thought that Stephen King film was the most frightening thing ever (I mean, come on, monsters that eat reality itself?!?!), but when I rewatched it as an adult, it was goofy as hell.

The monsters in The Maze Runner — an easy read of 300-some pages — remind me a lot of those bad CGI creatures. That is, I have no idea how they’re going to manage to look cool on the big screen when their descriptions in the book are so bizarre and … kind of stupid.

Let’s back up. The Maze Runner is sort of like The Langoliers meets The Lord of the Flies. A bunch of boys are thrown into a walled-in area they call the Glade — with no memories of who they were or how they got there — and forced to investigate a deadly, gigantic maze for a way out. The maze surrounds them on all sides, so while they have to form their own organized and civil society (they even have a council) just to survive, the braver few go out into the labyrinth during the day and try to learn its secrets.

The Langoliers movie
The Langoliers: Totally not scaring after the age of 12.

Not everyone gets along, though, and that’s made worse when the newest recruit, Thomas, arrives and weird things start happening. Including the appearance of a girl — the first ever in the Glade.

Cue awkward teenage sexual feelings and, erm, telepathy.

Yes, The Maze Runner is kind of a cheesy book, made weirder by the slang the boys throw around as their own primal island language. Words like “klunk” and “shank” and phrases like “good that” are totally normal conversation. They might as well be jumping from trees and sticking pig’s heads on stakes.

But the monsters are something else. Part slug, part death-metal-torture machine, the Grievers that patrol the maze are … totally ridiculous to imagine and maybe not as frightening to picture as Dashner thought. But then again, I’m not the target age group for this book.

I plan on seeing The Maze Runner in theaters later this month, mostly because I’m just damned curious — either it’s going to be the lamest young adult movie ever (maybe dumber than If I Stay seemed?) or it’s going to be somehow totally amazing, and Grievers will become the stuff of my nightmares. I mean, I dig mazes, so anything’s possible.

Can robotic slugs freak me out? Will I ever be able to take the words “shuck-face” and “Greenie” seriously? I have no idea.

Let’s find out.

John Green on creating characters for novels and written stories

John Green

John Green talked today about how to create characters in novels and other text-based forms of storytelling … while playing Fifa Soccer 11, which probably doesn’t have very deep characters.

But his reasons for playing make sense. Fifa is a video game, which is largely a visual medium. The author of The Fault in Our Stars said that what’s often forgotten about character creation is that characters in stories are made out of text, not images. “When I first read Harry Potter, I didn’t think of the physicality of Harry Potter. That wasn’t as central to his character as his interior life and my own feelings and connection to his interior life.”

He added, “First-time readers of Harry Potter are able to read that story without thinking of Daniel Radcliffe or even picturing anyone specific.”

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If this were real, it would be awesome: A Joss Whedon Choose Your Own Adventure

The Cabin in the Woods choose your own adventure

Because the sacrifice doesn’t count unless they choose their path for themselves. [via Quantum Mechanix (QMx)]

Here are my thoughts on Cabin in the Woods, the movie.

Did you have a favorite Choose Your Own Adventure? Check out this newspaper interview with Edward Packard, the guy who started the series first with The Cave of Time in 1979 — a book that contains roughly 450 different adventures, according to the article. Crazy.

Children and censorship: How much is too much?

The wonderful blogger Valerie Lawson wrote an excellent post recently about how censorship shelters children from reality. After reading her thoughts on the subject, I started to form a comment in response, but found that although I initially agreed with many of her statements, the more I wrote, the more my feelings differed from hers.

Valerie poses a very intelligent and provoking perspective, and before I delve into my counter-view, I’d like you to read some (or all — here’s the original post) of what she had to say. Then please weigh in with your own ideas on this controversial matter.

I love a good probing discussion, and while I do understand that some people think certain topics are unsuitable for children, I must say that I am firmly against censorship in any form. Period.

This stance of mine makes for a lively debate. Sometimes the challenge of my view comes from other writers – which I must say is so odd. I would assume that all writers would be completely open-minded and fully against censorship in all forms, but that is just not the case.  Maybe they would take these words literally:

”Obviously, the danger is not in the actual act of reading itself, but rather, the possibility that the texts children read will incite questions, introduce novel ideas, and provoke critical inquiry.” Persis M. Karim (The New Assault on Libraries)

I’ve had some enlightening discussions to say the least – some within my own local writing chapter. Here’s a fictionalized version of how one of these conversations might go:

My Fellow Writer: Do you think children/teenagers should be allowed to read books with so much violence, especially a book about children killing each other?

Me: Absolutely. Whether that book is Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games or some other book.

MFW: But don’t you think the violence is gratuitous?

Me: No. I actually think it’s toned down compared to reality. Haven’t you heard of the Invisible Children? This kind of thing is actually going on today, but on a much more brutal scale.

(Side note: This isn’t all happening in Uganda either, despite the wonderful media coverage Kony has received. According to Amnesty International’s website, “worldwide, hundreds of thousands of children are recruited…” And according to another website, this one for the SOS Children’s Villages, “Since 1998 there have been armed conflicts involving child soldiers in at least 36 countries.” )

MFW: Okay, but what about books with frank discussions of sex and characters making bad choices? Would you let your daughter read them?

Me: Definitely. I think books like Twenty Boy Summer and Beauty Queens (or whatever Ellen Hopkins book we’re talking about) encourage interesting conversations with her.

MFW: You talk to her about sex? ACK!

ME: Of course! Don’t you talk to your child about sex? If not, where does she go with her questions? The internet? Her friends? I’d much rather she felt comfortable coming to me and getting accurate information than risk her going elsewhere and believing that she could get pregnant from a toilet seat or something stupid like that. Or worse…having her end up pregnant. Period.

As forward as some of Valerie’s answers are, there’s a good point to them. While I think keeping mature books out of kids’ hands stems more from our wish to “protect” them than it does to condemn those very materials (although obviously, some people want them to disappear entirely), we have to face an important reality: Even we found out about this stuff on our own, regardless of whether our parents sheltered us. And most of us turned out okay, or at least functionally damaged.

Perhaps it’s better to openly allow children and teens access to this sort of content because it invites a controlled scenario, rather than one where they’re forced to resort to more unreliable and dangerous sources of information — like the Internet or friends who might not have someone’s best interests at heart (including their own).

However, my problem with her argument comes mainly from her claim of disagreeing with censorship “in any form.” When I think about the kinds of things I want — and don’t want — my future kids exposed to, an inherent part of me clenches up: No way would I show them a PG-13 movie when they’re seven! But most of my reservations originate from my awareness of how frightening and disturbing some images can be, especially to women and young girls. For females, once certain parts of the world are opened up to us, they’re hard to deal with — and for any of us who are filled with sadness and anger over the gender issues that women must grapple with every day, that’s a lifelong struggle. On a basic level (and one that relates to the topic at hand), I’m talking the sexual treatment and portrayal of women in film and other media (not to mention actual society). Some of those depictions are abusive, and others reinforce inflexible expectations and unrealistic standards. They don’t teach girls the right thing; they don’t empower them. Quite the opposite.

If one day I have a little girl, I don’t want her seeing that sort of degradation and injustice at an impressionable age and getting the wrong idea. Most of all, I don’t want to sit her down in front of it and encourage her to watch. And I don’t want my little boy to grow up thinking certain behavior is okay. When I think of monitoring books and movies and other content for kids, I don’t automatically equate that with “censorship.” Censorship to me is trying to block something out of existence entirely — putting it out of anyone’s reach, trying to stifle and condemn its messages, and instructing everyone to forget it’s even there.

Valerie gets this next part right: If you’re going to allow your children to explore everything the world has to offer, then you better damn well be prepared to talk with them about it afterward and teach them right from wrong and good from bad. Because at a young age, they don’t know the difference. They’re innocent and developmentally bound to repeat what they see and hear from us, so how could they? Sure, they’ll learn, and I feel that books are more trustworthy than other material, but they’re not substitutes for parenting. You wouldn’t drop a kid into a third-world country and leave them to the dogs so they can “learn about the real world.” You take them by the hand, make sure they feel safe, and tell them this is how things are, this is who they are, and that’s okay. It will be okay.

Maybe the people who want to ban books from schools and bar children and adolescents from sensitive media are those who don’t know how to explain why their contents make them uncomfortable — or don’t bother with making the time to. Maybe some people are just ignorant and stuck-up. But I think there are those who have grown up, suffered, and learned how the world is, and want to spare children from that reality as much as possible because it’s painful. We can never take back our childhood, and we’ll always wish some of the people in our lives had loved us more than they had. There’s a preciousness in giving our children sanctuary for as long as the world will let them have it — to allow them to believe, with unshakable certainty, that they’re safe from those who would do them and others harm.

It’s not important to give children free reign of all that’s before them. But to shape them into moral, intelligent human beings who will have to live every day in the sort of world we live in, it is important to guide. Think of the best literary parents, even adoptive ones, and note the careful balance of self-discovery and protection they provided their children. And when those parents went away, the children were prepared with love, confidence, and understanding. They could look toward all the darkness in the world and hold onto the small amount of good their parents had fostered within them.

Too many people worry about what their children will get their hands on because information is as much an implement of “power” as it is a means of destruction. And too many people would let their children explore the wild on their own, without any safe retreat.

What are your thoughts on what we should and shouldn’t grant children access to? When is it okay, and when is it not?

My small claim to fame and fortune

So several months ago I might have mentioned that my name would be appearing in print. Well, now I can officially say it has.

I submitted a review of the film festival documentary Grandma’s Tattoos to the 55th issue (“Fame + Fortune”) of Bitch magazine — a “feminist response to pop culture.” It consists of only a few hundred words and a small section in the back, but it’s there.

If you’re interested, the magazine costs $5.95 for a print copy and $4.95 digital. My review appears on page 70.

Why Cabin in the Woods wasn’t scary

Okay, so this post has only a little bit to do with books. Right now I’m reading a collection that examines the accomplished career of Joss Whedon—you know him as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, to name a handful. Shortly after I received the book, I went to see The Cabin in the Woods, a horror movie co-written by Whedon and Drew Goddard, who contributed to some of Whedon’s work in the past.

Imagine the supernatural “scares” of Buffy, add in a lot more humor and less camp (no singing vampires here), and you’ve got Cabin in the Woods. I had planned on waiting until my review of the Joss Whedon book to talk about the movie, but necessity calls: When someone writes an article as misleading as the one at Vulture.com, it demands a counter-response.

First off, the title: “Why Wasn’t Cabin in the Woods Scary?” I hoped the article was going to educate those who were missing the point because they were disappointed over the movie’s real nature (non-stop funny, smart, well-characterized—the list goes on, but “scary” isn’t on it), but instead the writers used it as a soap box to discuss what the movie allegedly did wrong … thus missing the point themselves.

(Warning: contains spoilers)

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See John Carter in theaters, then read the book

Personally, I’m not endorsing the new John Carter movie, which arrived in theaters last Friday. If you like director Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and WALL-E fame or have a taste for interplanetary adventures, then maybe it’s worth watching despite the splattering of negative scores that’s currently hitting Rotten Tomatoes. But for me, commercials for the movie rung a too close to Prince of Persia, a mediocre Disney film released in recent years.

Whether or not you plan to frequent the theater soon to see John Carter, you can always download the book it’s based on—and right now the Kindle version of A Princess of Mars, the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fantasy series Barsoom, is free on Amazon. That’s too good a deal to pass up, especially considering the book’s resounding four-and-a-half star aggregate customer score on the website.

Besides A Princess of Mars and its respective eleven-book series, Burroughs created Tarzan of the Apes, which led to a series of different adaptations, including Disney’s animated production Tarzan in 1999.

A Princess of Mars was previously a direct-to-DVD movie from film studio and distributor The Asylum and has inspired a number of comic books and other appearances, such as a cameo in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Small in stature, big in heart: The Secret World of Arrietty, or The Borrowers

After watching The Secret World of Arrietty in theaters this weekend, I’m convinced that I’ve read the book it’s based on. For those unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli films, they’re a line of wonderfully animated Japanese movies (translated into English) that contain enough humor and charm to entertain viewers of any age. They’re not like most anime. You won’t see girls with bouncing cleavage or similar tropes common to the medium that tend to turn off non-otaku-loving audiences. Rather, these movies showcase a love of nature and an appreciation for life’s simpler pleasantries. These emotional, heartfelt stories have become known for their excellent sense of character and imaginative worlds.

Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote the screenplay for The Secret World of Arrietty, is probably the most talented of the Studio Ghibli crew. He’s written and directed the best productions the studio has to offer, such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro (all favorites of mine). I’ve found that the move sway Miyazaki has over a movie, the better it is.

Miyazaki didn’t direct The Secret World of Arrietty (released in Japan in 2010), but the film is worth seeing regardless. This was my first screening of a Studio Ghibli film in theaters, and being exposed to other movies in the collection, I should have known that the faster scenes of animation, where the camera pans quickly over the scenery, would be a problem on the big screen. I’m not fluent in technicalities, but the frame rate or the standard definition causes the blurry animation during these moments. Thankfully, they are few, and it doesn’t prevent the movie from looking gorgeously colored, expertly detailed, and generally amazing.

Like some other Studio Ghibli films, The Secret World of Arrietty takes awhile to reach its full stride. Overall, it isn’t one of the best movies the studio has produced, but it is enjoyable and possesses all of the aforementioned qualities that separate Studio Ghibli from other animation companies of its class.

Interesting fact: The movie fared better than Ponyo, reaching a bigger audience and earning more in its opening weekend, but both are marred by bad pop songs. If you’ve seen the ending credits of Ponyo, then you know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I wanted to point out the book this movie is adapted from: The Borrowers by English author Mary Norton. I swear I’ve read this book as a kid. The book (and the movie) is about tiny people called “Borrowers” who live in people’s houses and take things that they need to survive—a lump of sugar here, a piece of string there. But a Borrower can never be seen by human beings, and that’s the source of trouble in the story.

The Borrowers (published in 1952) won a Carnegie Medal and was ranked among CILIP Carnegie’s top ten children’s books in 2007, beside classics like Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in North America) by Philip Pullman. Four sequels followed the book, recounting the additional adventures of the Clock family: The Borrowers Afield, Afloat, Aloft, and Avenged.

There has been a made-for-TV movie (1973), a BBC series (1992), a live-action film (1997), and a BBC production with Stephen Fry (2011)—none of them nearly as successful as The Secret World of Arrietty seems to be, and maybe that’s because an animated movie just makes more sense for a story this fantastical in nature. Anything else is going to look like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

What do you think of The Secret World of Arrietty and other Studio Ghibli films? Have you read The Borrowers?