Friday, November 25, 2016

Feats of Derring-Do

Being a homeowner, I’ve discovered, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, you’ve got a roof over your head and a chance to build equity. You’ve also got property taxes, yardwork, and home repairs. Back when I was renting and the furnace cut out on me, I could just call the landlord. Now I have to get it fixed and pay for it. And since I live in a mobile home park, I’m still paying rent anyway. Show me the advantage of that.

And every fall, when the trees have finished shedding their leaves, I have to go out and clean the gutters.

This is not a fun thing for me. I have a stepladder, so I can get to the gutter that lines the awning. That’s not a problem. The problem is, the ladder’s about ten feet and the roof is twelve. I’m a short woman. Between the ladder’s and my own lack of height, we’re both just a couple inches too short to let me safely climb onto the roof so I can get to the main gutters.

Why didn’t I buy a taller ladder? Because I got this one from some neighbors who were moving and had it for sale at a bargain price. The neighbor was a guy and didn’t have to worry about height issues. Why aren’t I taller? Blame genetics.

I can clean the house gutters with my ladder, in spite of our shortcomings. I can safely climb the ladder high enough to reach them. I did this last year. That was roughly an hour’s worth of: 1) set up ladder; 2) climb ladder; 3) clean about two feet of gutter (as far as I can reach in either direction; 4) climb down ladder; 5) move ladder a few feet and set it up again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I don’t enjoy doing it. That flippin’ ladder’s heavy and not easy to lug around, and all that climbing wreaks havoc with my out-of-shape leg muscles. There has to be an easier way.

There is, of course. Get on the roof and clean the gutters from there. I could probably do it on my ladder if I climb all the way to the top, and  risk falling and breaking something, like an arm, or a leg, or my neck. Remember the word “safely,” quoted above?

Luckily my neighbors are all in the same leafy boat, and some of them do have ladders that will reach the roof. This year I borrowed one for the task before me.

I’ve been on my roof before this, using a neighbor’s ladder. However, that was several years and almost forty pounds ago. I’m older, heavier and in worse physical shape. Also, that time the neighbor held the ladder for me, while another neighbor stood by to call an ambulance in case I didn’t make it to the top. This time I had the ladder and that was it. I was on my own.

Another problem: that other time the ladder was one of those sturdy wooden ones. This time I had an aluminum model, easier to carry and set up but tending to wobble when two-hundred-some pounds of nervous human being starts scrambling around on it. As I discovered on my first attempt once I was halfway up. All of a sudden that roof looked ten miles away. Ditto for the ground. I would have kept going had someone else been there, but it was just me and the leaves.

I came down. Thought about it. Tried again. Panicked again. Went in the house to gather my courage. On my next attempt I tried repositioning the ladder. If I leaned it on the awning where it joined to the house, I could grab onto both for support if I had to, and use the awning as an extra foothold to get me onto the roof.

This worked. Had a couple tense moments the closer I got to the top, but when I ran out of rungs the awning was there for me to push myself onto the roof from. The ladder trembled but didn’t fall over, and neither did I. Yay for me!

From there it was a breeze. I had full access to the gutters from end to end of the house, along with the top of the awning where leaves had accumulated. The roof allowed me to reach spots I couldn’t get to the previous year using the move-the-stepladder method. I even found the guts to stand up a time or two. Mostly I kind of crab-scuttled along on my butt and dug leaves out by hand. Wet leaves in some spots, decomposing into loam. I probably should have just left the whole moldy mess and planted crops up there next spring. But I got the gutters cleaned. Took about an hour, with less effort and strain on my legs than last year.

That part of the job was a breeze. The big problem arose when I got done, and had to climb back down the ladder. That’s when I discovered the ladder’s position, which had gotten me onto the roof, wasn’t the best for letting me back down again. I’d have to either balance on the awning, which might not take my weight, for figure some way to get at least one leg over the edge and onto a rung so I could swing the rest of me down, while hoping the ladder didn’t shake or tip. My weight had worked to my advantage, holding me steady against the house while I climbed. Plus I could see where I was going. Going down backwards, not such a good deal. This is why you should always have somebody around to hold the ladder for you. Or better still, for you to hold the ladder for while they go up on the damn roof.

Fortunately, I wasn’t trapped for long. One of my neighbors across the street came out to rake. I got her attention and she came over, repositioned the ladder, held it steady and guided me down until I was back on solid ground again. She says she never goes up on her roof. She leaves that to her 16-year-old son, who’s probably taller, in far better shape, and a lot more courageous than I am. It’s my own fault; I forgot to have kids. What the hell was I thinking?

But that’s it for this fall season, at least. The gutters are clean for another year. And I am never doing that again, not unless someone lends me a cherry-picker or airlifts me up there or something. Next year I’m hiring a guy. Let some macho male dirty up his jeans, scrape his palms on the shingles and risk life and limb climbing a ladder. I’m done.

Or, better still … don’t clean the gutters at all. Let the leaves dissolve into soil and plant marijuana up there. Then the cops will clean the gutters for me. I won’t have to do housework either, because I’ll be in jail. Sounds like a plan to me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Business as Usual


It’s been over a week since the election, and I’ve had a chance to process the results. With the advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight, it’s clear now what happened: once again everyone courted the minority vote and ignored the average American. You know him. He’s the blue-collar working man, usually white, who may or may not have a college degree, who at one time was or might have become middle class before the factory jobs that paid living wages went overseas. Now he and his family are struggling to stay afloat, or else they’re unemployed through no fault of their own, and justifiably pissed about it. That’s who Trump went after, and that’s who turned out in droves to support him. Because Trump’s not a career politician. He’s not part of the system that wrecked the American Dream. He thinks the way they do, believes what they believe in, and says what they’re secretly thinking. That right there should scare the bejeezus out of a rational person.

Hillary? I don’t think she lost because she was a woman. She just wasn’t the right woman, just as Jesse Jackson wasn’t the right man to become our first black President. That should have been Colin Powell, and I’m still kind of sorry it wasn’t. Also, Hillary is the poster person for The System. America didn’t want another Slick Willy (Slick Hilly?) and they voted in droves to prove it.

The final nail in her coffin was probably driven home by a man-in-the-street interview I saw on our local news station. The middle-aged woman with the mic in her face said of Hillary, “She’s sly.” Yep, that’ll do it. It’s okay to joke about sexual assault, publicly make fun of the handicapped, vow to abolish women’s rights and be openly bigoted in regards to race or sexual preference, but “sly” is the kiss of death.

As someone who’s been laid off at least five times in four different professions, twice when a job went to India, I probably should have voted for Trump. I was just too scared he’d grab my pussy. This was a frying pan/fire election. Or the giant turd vs. the shit sandwich, as South Park so aptly termed it. America chose the President it wanted. God help us all.

Well, folks, good luck with that. You put Trump in office. Cookie for you. We’ve survived total morons in the White House before (Bush Jr. being the most recent example). Because it’s not the President we have to worry about. The real threat is Congress, our elected House and Senate. They’re the ones who make the laws. They can override Presidential vetoes. If they don’t like Trump’s policies, they’ll find ways to block him. And now we’ve got a House and Senate run by conservative, rights-repressive, woman-hating Republicans, possibly soon to be joined by a similar Supreme Court. All politicians, members of The System. That’s who’s going to be running the country for the next four years.

No matter what Trump’s intentions, good, bad, or hideous, I suspect he’s going to run head-on into the same brick wall Jesse Ventura hit when he was Governor of Minnesota. Ventura was the outsider-elect there too, and his Congress thwarted him at every turn. Wait’ll Trump finds out he can’t fire anybody. The drawbacks of a democracy. Well, at least Trump isn’t sly. He’s got that in his favor.

Be interesting to see how this all shakes out, though “interesting” may be too bland a word for it. Fasten your seatbelts, America, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

# # #

Meanwhile, out here in the everyday world, business also continues as usual. My cable provider is switching over to all digital broadcasting, so we the customers now have to attach a converter box to our TVs in order to receive the new signals. I got mine and hooked it up and even got it and the new remote running. Everything was fine until one of my channels went Spanish. Efforts to fix it fouled up the other channels. So I took the box and remote back and got replacements. This time when I hooked up the box, the power light started blinking red and green. The other one hadn’t done that. This meant a call to the helpful 800 number provided by the cable company, for some needed customer service.

I explained to the girl what the problem was. She attempted to send a signal to the box. Nope, still blinking away. “Did you get letters from the company?” she asked me. Not beyond the initial “we’re changing our system” announcement. “We don’t have the new signal yet,” the girl on the line said. “Unhook the box and wait until you get the letters. Then you can hook it up.”

This sounded odd to me, since when I took the malfunctioning box back the woman at the office advised me to hook the new one up immediately, otherwise I’d start getting phone calls. Not to mention the annoying crawl that had started appearing at the top of my screen—“If you can see this, you haven’t hooked your box up yet”—every hour on the hour. Luckily I live within walking distance of the cable office, so I went up for a second opinion.

The woman behind the counter had no idea what the girl on the phone had been talking about. She scheduled me for a free service visit, have a tech hook the damn thing up.

That worked out better. The tech came by and had my set up and running in about ten minutes. The blinking that prompted my call was the box processing its software. It stopped after about five minutes, just as the tech told me it would. He also had no idea where the girl on the phone got her info. The customer service handling box-related issues comes from an out-of-town call center. No telling how long, or if, any of them were adequately trained.

Either the girl got a dose of misinformation from a similarly-clueless instructor or, as I suspect, when confronted with a question she couldn’t answer she made up something to get me off the phone and out of her hair. Doesn’t matter that she was totally wrong. Doesn’t matter that she would have left me waiting for a letter that wasn’t ever coming. Her problem was solved. People do whatever’s easiest for them. Life among the minimum-waged.

So the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’d like to see more bucks in my wallet. Bush Senior promised us “no new taxes” and then reneged. But he was sly. You get what you pay for, and sometimes what you vote for. Wishing you a pleasant good day …

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.


Here we are, finally, at election day. I've already voted. Mostly it's the old and the unemployed who are out at the polls at this hour. Since I'm both, do I get to vote twice?

Frankly, I'd rather not have voted at all. This has been one ugly election season.

That's not even counting the usual electoral shenanigans. Example: In my area we've got a referendum on the ballot. They want to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. That isn't how it's worded, though. The question on the ballot is, "Should judges be forced to retire at age 75?" If you vote "yes," you just voted to raise the retirement age. Voting "no" keeps the cutoff at 70. I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't heard it explained on the radio this morning. Welcome to the devious world of politics. No wonder no one trusts politicians.

Which brings us to the presidential contest.

Quick: tell me where either candidate stands on one of the major issues. Taxes. Immigration. Women's rights. Health care. Don't know? Me either. Most of their speeches and all the commercials were centered around the reprehensible actions taken by their Unworthy Opponent. Hillary's taking money from terrorists and sending emails to the Kremlin. Trump's managed to offend damn near everybody, in between grabbing women by the crotch. Even before election day, he was claiming the system was rigged.

I recall seeing an ad for the second debate on CNBC that presented the candidates like two contenders for the WWE world title. I'm surprised they didn't promise us Pence and Kaine in a ladder match.

This is what we've come to. Two little kids shoving each other on the playground, going, "You're a poopie head." "No, you are!"

And one of them's going to be President. Our public face to the rest of the world.

A devious liar and a man who's demonstrated borderline psychotic behavior. Both with horrendous hair. Seriously, this was the best we could do?

When Bush Junior got in, I used to tell people, "I never thought I'd look on the Clinton years as the good old days." When Obama ran the first time, I couldn't in good conscience vote for either him or his opponent. That was the year I wrote in the ticket of Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan. Now it's 2016 and all of a sudden Barack doesn't look too bad. Why couldn't his wife have run for President? I'd have voted for Michelle in a second.

I've been a registered Republican all my life, but I can no longer support the Republican Party. I swear to God, a deep and abiding hatred of women must be one of the party platforms. Trump was a joke and a moron long before he announced his candidacy and everybody knew it. Yet here we are. I keep wondering at what point Earth was replaced by Bizarro World, that the Donald got as far as he has.

And Hillary's no prize either. It's less about me disliking her than it is I don't want to see Bill back in the White House in any capacity. (What would his title be, should she win? First Gentleman? Will he be expected to bake cookies and give tours of the White House to civic groups? They'd better keep him far away from the Girl Scouts troops. Trump too. Just sayin'.)

So what are we, the American people, supposed to do? Vote Libertarian? You know, we really should. Maybe this will be the year everybody says Screw It and abandons the two major parties and votes in a third-party candidate. I recall one of the Triple Crown races years back, where some unknown nags shot to the forefront and came in first, second and third. The favorites didn't even make the top five. I'd love to see that happen. Some man or woman nobody's been paying attention to suddenly gets elected by the people and ends up running the country. It would serve all the poopie heads right.

My personal choice would be that woman in the city where riots and protests were happening, and she saw her son looting on TV, so she went out and got him, read him the riot act, and dragged him home, all on camera. That's a woman who won't take shit but will take action. That's who we need to be President.

She's not running, alas. We're stuck with Humpty and Dumpty. By tomorrow morning we'll be living in a brand-new universe. I may not get out of bed.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

C'est Cheese


This is another in my series of “Things that Cheese Me Off,” road-trip division. Early in life I was introduced to the joys of the Sunday drive. As with any activity, it comes with its share of cheese-inducing possibilities. I was out on the road last Sunday. Along with the sought-for relaxation, I encountered a few mild cheeses along the way.

I left home early, armed with a bottle of water and a map, even though I knew where I was going. My destinations were two shopping malls about thirty miles from the home base, and around twenty miles from each other, along with a used bookstore near the first mall. By using the right roads I could travel in a circle for maximum sightseeing.

All started well. I took the four-lane Rt. 222 to Shillington, then opted to follow a back route to Pottstown, site of the Coventry Mall. More stuff to look at, less traffic. So I assumed. Even on secondary roads, on a Sunday, I encountered “Mr. Hurry.” You know the guy (or gal): they’re the ones who hang on your bumper because, even though you’re doing ten miles over the posted speed limit, that’s still too slow for them.

I ran into two of these on a stretch of secondary road barely a half hour into my trip. It makes it tough to cruise around and sightsee. I can only imagine the language they’re using regarding my driving habits.

This especially drives me nuts when I go Sunday-driving around home. I live in a county crisscrossed with two-lane back roads and all sorts of Nature to look at. There are always two drivers out on these roads: me, and the guy on my tail. And there’s nowhere to pull over and let them pass, which is how I usually deal with the Mr. Hurrys I encounter. It makes me nervous, always having to glance in the rearview and calculate how far into my back seat they’re going to penetrate if I’m forced to slam on the brake.

Fortunately, on this particular road I was able to slow down and pull over onto the shoulder so they could zoom around me. Ten minutes later I came to a red light and lo and behold, there were both drivers who’d passed me. I pulled in behind them and had myself a quiet laugh while we waited for the light to turn green.

My favorite example of this type of karmic retribution happened years ago. Same situation—twisty two-lane back road, guy on my bumper, no way for him to pass. I finally pulled off into somebody’s driveway, and he roared away toward the horizon, vanishing from sight within seconds. I continued on at my leisurely pace. About twenty minutes later, about thirty miles away, I once again came to a red light. You know who was already sitting there. For all his lead-footing and reckless driving, there we were, together again. Speeding doesn’t necessarily get you there any faster, so you might as well slow down and enjoy the scenery.

Which I did, following a stop at the first mall. Rather than backtrack, I went twisting around on some country lanes, in the hopes of hooking up with the state road upon which the used bookstore was situated. I came across a couple other drivers back here, but none behind me, so I was able to cruise and enjoy the fall leaves. Good thing I was going slow—I rounded one sharp bend and there was some guy taking his Sunday stroll along the side of the road. In the road, in fact. Nor did he get over onto the berm when he saw me coming at him. I was forced to pull into the oncoming lane (another curse, which I couldn't see around) in order to give him space. Luckily no one was coming. The pedestrian was probably one of those people I’ve talked about, who ignores Do Not Enter, No Trespassing and Closed signs, too. Had I ended up in a head-on collision, I’m sure Mr. I Own the Road would have glared at me and pronounced, “Stupid woman driver.”

I did make it to the used bookstore without crashing, however, and found a couple volumes at great prices. Then it was on to the Exton Mall. I stuck to highways for that leg of the trip. More available lanes removed the threat of Mr. Hurry. It’s a game I like to play on three- and four-lanes: stick to the speed limit and see who passes me. Today, as always, it was everybody. I’m content to stay at the back of the pack, seeing what’s by the side of the road.

Here in Pennsylvania it appeared to be signs supporting Trump. The whole time I was out, all the roads I was on, I did not see a single Hillary sign. I guess we’re all solid Republicans here in Dutch Country. Either that, or the Clinton supporters are lying low, and will make their presence known at the voting booth. Guess we’ll know in a week or so.

On the way home Karma decided to get cute with me and deliver a taste of my own medicine. Since the trip was now over and all sights seen, I felt okay with speeding on Rt. 322. So of course I ended up behind a family of tourists, out for their own Sunday drive. I could tell because they slowed down to wave to the Amish in their buggies, and the kid in the back seat took pictures. At one point they put on the brakes because omigod look, there are horses in a field. I sucked it up and held back and tried to keep an acceptable distance between us. This was one of those no-passing roads, so the tourists had accumulated quite a line behind them by the time they finally turned off.

And that’s what I do on my Sundays off: drive around aimlessly, look at stuff, and complain about other people. With winter coming on, I’ll be staying in and, I hope, writing more. Then from the proceeds I can hire somebody to drive me around and we can both complain. Enjoy your slices of cheese.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Formulaic


This is my review of the Throne of Glass series. Sort of. Eventually. First I want to talk about a related issue.

There’s this writer. They write genre. They’ve written over a hundred books. I have to stay vague here because I came across this in my freelance work and I don’t want to offend a client. I still have bills to pay.

But in my proofreading, I noticed something. Every single book of this writer’s that I read contained the same plot point: with about ten-to-twenty pages left in the story, the female lead gets abducted. Every time. Like clockwork. Things are going fine and suddenly the Evil Bad Guy pops up in the next-to-last chapter and nabs her. Then the heroes search frantically and save her right at the very last minute. Then it’s happy ending time. I’ve proofed at least half a dozen of these books and the formula remains unshakable.

This writer is wildly popular in their genre, a consistent number-one bestseller who’s making big bucks for their publisher. The readers don’t appear to mind the repetitive plots. Maybe they’re comfortable with it.

It’s like McDonald’s. You can walk into any McDonald’s in the country at any time on any day of the week, and you know exactly what to expect. There are no surprises. I thought readers wanted surprises in their stories. Perhaps I was mistaken.

Back in the ‘70s-‘80s, if you were a fan of romance novels, Barbara Cartland was huge. Her niche was historical romance. She wrote a ton of books. I never read any, but it’s my understanding she also used the same plot repeatedly. Arrogant older man, dewy young maiden, Victorian hijinks ensue. She also sold in mass quantities, and had a loyal, rabid fanbase. Even though, from what I’ve heard, if you read one of her books, you’ve read all of them. Literary comfort food? Is there such a thing?

Just to prove this doesn’t only happen in romance, there was one author I did read, in the science fiction genre. After a promising start to his career, he also developed a formula. He began writing what I dubbed “travelogue” fiction. The plots consisted of a group of characters moving from Point A to Point B, and having largely-forgettable adventures along the way. I discovered I could read the first three chapters and the last three chapters, skip the middle, and still get the gist of the book. That’s a shame, because I liked his writing style and enjoyed his earlier work. However, it was the later, formulaic works that started appearing on the New York Times best-seller list. Go figure.

Which brings us, finally, back to Throne of Glass. I’ve now binge-read the five books available, and I’ve noticed this writer, too, has developed a winning formula. Essentially, the bulk of any given book in the series is filler. Sometimes boring, sometimes entertaining, but filler nonetheless. The characters have adventures, have romances, yadda yadda yadda. Then, somewhere near the end, there’s a Big Reveal. The book’s "holy shit" moment. Nothing’s what you thought it was. The plot spins off in a new direction, to be explored in the next volume. After about 300 pages of filler.

Hey, it’s working for her. The series is a best-seller. If it ain’t broke …

I always thought the point of writing was to entertain the reader. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think without realizing it. Surprise them. Granted, there are some genres—romance, mystery—that require a formula. But you can still play around inside the formula and have a little fun. Or can you?

Maybe what I see as tedious repetition, the market sees as reassuring familiarity. It’s certainly popular, and profitable. Maybe I should forget about surprising readers and find myself a formula and start churning out predictable books that don’t upset readers by messing with their expectations. Finally get me enough money to buy that newer car I’m going to need next year.

# # #

Overview of Throne of Glass: go ahead and read the series, if YA fantasy’s your thing. You may or may not be disappointed. Opinions on Goodreads are evenly split between This is the Greatest Series Ever and This is Boring and Sucks. Personally I enjoyed it, even though I ended up skimming large chunks here and there. The writer has an engaging style and knows how to tell a story. I recommend you skip the first one, Throne of Glass, and start with the second, Crown of Midnight. That’s the novel where she hits her stride. It’s like the early Star Trek movies. Avoid Star Trek: The Motion Picture and go straight to Wrath of Khan. The difference in quality is astounding.

Although at this point in the TOG series, I’ve become more invested in the story of Manon the witch and couldn’t care less about Celaena/Aelin and what happens to her. Manon’s story is like an antihero version of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, my all-time favorite series. And she probably should have been a lesbian, and spared us all that forced, awkward hook-up with the prince. But that would have messed up the formula, and probably cost the writer sales. Or so I’ve concluded. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Not the Time or Place


I’ve finished my binge reading of the Throne of Glass series, with the most recent book, Empire of Storms, currently out on the shelves. Damn thing ended on a cliffhanger. Now I’ll have to wait an entire year for the grand finale. I should have read more slowly, but I was getting these books from the library and only had two weeks each. Even free comes with a price.

I was going to write a book review of the series so far, but a couple of reviews on Goodreads sent me off in the direction that follows. Overall the series has been getting rave reviews from the Young Adult-reading audience it’s aimed at. There have been dissenters. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

I don’t agree that an author is required to put some particular element, either overt or subtle, into his/her novels, just because a reader thinks it should be there.

What prompted this were the couple of negative reviews where the readers complained that the author hadn’t put enough people of color, or LGBT characters, into her story. It was strongly implied one major character was black, from this fantasy world’s equivalent of Africa. Two walk-on minor characters were gay. One lead character came out in dialogue as bisexual. That was pretty much it. The other characters, male and female, were depicted as white, straight, and oh so very physically attractive. As far as I can tell, this world doesn’t have any fat people of any age, race or orientation. Maybe magic really burns off the calories.

I think what may have brought on the gripes was the way the last book played out. At the end of the 700 or so pages, every major character had been paired up with a lover of the opposite sex. (Including the one main character from the first four books who doesn’t even appear.) Even the bi guy falls for a woman. One character who might possibly have been lesbian, or at the very least asexual, has a sex scene (admittedly an awkward, forced-feeling one) with a lusty, unbelievably handsome male. I can see where readers who support the gay cause would feel like heterosexuality is being crammed down their throats.

As a woman who waved bye-bye to 40 quite a while ago, I get a mite peeved at all the books with women barely into their twenties calling all the shots. Especially because they’re all thinner than I ever was or will be. Like real life, fiction is not fair.

And y’know what? Too frikkin’ bad. To me, and to the complainers. This isn’t my book, or yours. It’s the writer’s. This is how she chose to tell her story. If it doesn’t fall in line with your personal agenda, you’ll just have to suck it up.

Yes, inclusion of other races, peoples, and sexual orientations is a good thing. “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” That was part of the philosophy behind Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. He put blacks and Asians and women on the bridge with all the white guys. And a gay guy (George Takai), even if we didn’t know it back then. The most popular character on the show turned out to be the biracial alien. That was Gene’s vision. He fought for racial and sexual inclusiveness (and for Spock’s pointed ears). That was the story he wanted to tell.

But now that society has finally caught up with Roddenberry, it’s reached the point of getting out of hand. Now everything needs to be racially and sexually diverse. Whether it's logical in story terms or not.

Thor did this quite well. The inclusion of black and Asian Norse gods worked because they were people, not races. I notice from the commercials the remake of The Magnificent Seven is racially diverse. This is historically accurate. There were more black and Hispanic than white cowboys back in the real Old West, and a large Chinese population. But World War II movies? Sorry. The armed forces weren’t desegregated until 1948, by order of President Harry Truman. (Even then, actual desegregation didn’t happen until the 1950s, under Eisenhower.) Not to mention it’s totally ludicrous. The covert spy team sneaks into Nazi Germany, and they don’t think the black guy’s going to stand out? Gimme a break.

Here in my neck of the country we’ve had complaints that Valley Forge has no monuments to the Asians who fought in the American Revolution. That’s because none did. If it makes you feel better, there is a monument at Gettysburg to Stand Watie, the Cherokee leader who commanded the Confederate Indian Cavalry in the Civil War. Happy now?

Harry Potter didn’t have any gay characters. (Dumbledore wasn’t outed until after the series ended.) Neither did Twilight. Nobody seemed to mind. Twilight had a teenage girl lusting for a dead guy a hundred years older than she was. Nobody minded that either. Hunger Games described Rhu as dark-skinned, yet people were pissed when a black actress played her in the movie. You just can’t win.

As for me, I write M/M romances. That’s guy-on-guy, for those of you not up on the terminology. Should I be chastised for not including more women and straights in my gay love stories?

Here’s the deal: Sarah J. Maas has the right to write her series any way she wants to. If she includes—or doesn’t—peoples of varying races, religions, sexual orientations, ages, weight classes, eye color, left-handedness, or anything else you think she should have, that’s her decision to make. If what she writes doesn’t jive with your personal expectations, don’t read her next book. It’s as simple as that. If you’re really that pissed at her lack of inclusiveness, then I suggest you balance the scales by writing your own book, and make the characters as diverse as you think they should be. This is why writers write: to read the books we want to read. If the book you want to read isn’t out there, then go write it yourself.

As for me, I’ve got a WIP I expect will stir up a fuss. It’s about a circus run by shapeshifters. Since, in my view, the animal form’s continent of origin determines the human form’s race (shifters have to blend in with the majority population, after all), and most circus animals come from Africa and Asia, most of my characters are going to be non-Caucasian. Except for the hero, who’s white. Oh wait, he’s a gay guy. But the woman who owns the circus is straight. Looks like I’m not off the hook. We’ll just have to wait and see what the readers say.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Slaves to Fashion


Well, I made it to and through the wedding. I had a good time, but I’m telling you, getting there was not half the fun. On the trip down I made a couple wrong turns and then ran smack into Friday-afternoon Philly traffic, so a drive that should have taken roughly two hours ended up taking four. Good thing I left the house early. As a test I took the same route back, only this time there was no traffic and I knew where I was going. Time elapsed: a little over two and a half hours. Sure, I could have taken the turnpike, but I’d rather take the scenic route and not pay tolls. Though it turned out a lot more scenic than I could have done with. Sure hope my other nephew elopes.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about clothes. I ended up wearing the dressy top with a pair of decent slacks. My aunt was there with a friend of hers. Both of them wore slacks. In addition, the friend and I both wore flat shoes. Everyone else had a dress on, but so what. We’re over 50. Screw fashion, we’re gonna be comfy. Besides, women over 50 don’t matter in our youth-obsessed society, so nobody gives a crap what we wear. I know my feet didn’t hurt at the end of the night, and I could sit without worrying whether or not anything was on display. That’s all I care about.

Best of all, I only paid $2 for the top, and another $2 for the knee-high pantyhose. The rest was leftover office wear I had in the closet. I didn’t pay a bundle for some dress I’ll probably never wear again, which was my intention.

The bride did have a lovely wedding gown, and I’m sure she paid handsomely for it. Ditto for the bridesmaids. They might be able to wear their dresses to another venue, though I can’t think of one, unless one of them gets invited to the Oscars or something. I doubt if those dresses came cheap, either. They’ll probably sit in the closet now, unless or until the bridesmaids donate them to Goodwill for use as a prom dress. What other function can you wear a bridesmaid dress to? You can’t even wear it to another wedding.

The men, in contrast, simply rent a tux. They don’t give a damn how many sweaty guys wore it before they did. Women, for some reason, aren’t given the option of renting clothes for special occasions. They’re compelled to buy an expensive dress they’ll no doubt never wear again. Does anyone else see a double standard here? A very costly one?

It’s been proven that clothing, grooming products, haircuts—anything having to do with appearance—costs more for women than it does for men, even if it’s performing the same function. On top of that, fashions change with the seasons because clothing designers and manufacturers want to make a living too. Let me rephrase that. Women’s fashions change. Men’s clothing may offer minor changes here and there, but on the whole they can get by day after day with a few shirts, some slacks, and a sports jacket. A woman builds a nice, functional wardrobe and then all of a sudden her dresses are pronounced too long/short and her slacks are too roomy/tight and her blouses have the wrong kind of sleeves. She has to buy a whole new set of clothing—at prices higher than what a man pays—whether she wants to or not.

Here’s a true-life adventure from several years ago. I was about to start yet another office job. I decided to get a new skirt to kick off my new employment. Guess again. That was the year skorts were in. A pair of shorts disguised as a skirt. Nice, but I didn’t want a skort. I wanted a skirt. You think I could find one? Not a chance. Nobody was selling skirts. One of the most basic items in a woman’s wardrobe and they were nowhere to be found. It was buy a skort or go naked.

So I went to “Bloomingdale’s” (my mother’s name for Goodwill) and found exactly what I wanted, at a fraction of the price. So there.

The following year skirts were back on the racks. You couldn’t find a skort to save your life. Not that I cared, since by then I wasn’t at that job any more. But how many thousands of women were stuck with unwearable skorts in their closet, because the fashion changed and then changed back again?

Who decides these things? And why can’t we kill them?

If you think this is bad, pity the poor moms trying to find decent outfits for their pre-teen daughters, and the only thing available in the stores are what’s generally referred to as “slut clothes.” Why, exactly, does a six-year-old need to bare her midrift? Or own a T-shirt that says “Sexy Beast”? Yet the mothers complain they can’t find age-appropriate alternatives. But this is what sells, cry the store owners. Of course it’s selling. It’s the only thing you’re making available. Since public nudity is frowned upon in the United States, we’re stuck with whatever you offer us. A vicious circle, indeed.

I think the Amish still make their own clothes. I know we’ve got a lot of fabric stores in my neck of the woods. Their fashions don’t change much from year to year. Or century to century, for that matter. Or we could go the Madonna route. She dressed herself from thrift stores because she couldn’t afford new stuff. Then she got famous and started setting trends. Imagine if women all started dressing themselves from second-hand stores. Would used clothing prices go up?

Not that this really affects me any more. I’ve hit the age where comfort trumps appearance, and fashion can take a flying leap. But hey, if anybody sees a skort on the racks anywhere, let me know. I don’t even see those in thrift stores. I’d love to know what happened to them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Consequences of Your Inactions


I know, I know. It’s my own fault. I knew this was coming almost a year ago. I could have done something about it then, but I didn’t. Now I have to pay the price. I have no one to blame but myself.

My nephew’s wedding is at the end of this week, and I have nothing to wear.

Back around the beginning of the year—yes, resolution time—I thought about trying to lose weight. I knew the wedding was set for September and I’d probably end up wearing a dress. I preferred not to think about that. I’m not a dress person. I’m also not an exercise person. All that heat and humidity this summer made it easy, even safer, to stay sedentary.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I wore a dress. Back in the Dark Ages, when our school eased up on dress codes and finally let girls wear pants, I was among the first to make the switch. I pulled on a pair of jeans and never looked back. When I moved into the work force and offices eased up, I soon traded my skirt-and-blouse combos and to blouse-and-slacks. What can I say? To me, Ellen Degeneris is the height of fashion. Besides, if Hillary gets in this November, pants suits will become all the rage.

But I still decided I was going to wear a dress to the wedding. Call it a nod to traditionalism. Or my last hurrah. I also decided, last minute, that I wasn’t going to spend a lot on my wedding outfit. After all, I don’t go out that much, and pants are accepted everywhere. No point in spending a bundle on something I’ll probably never wear again. That’s supposed to be the bride’s problem.

So last weekend I went to the local Goodwill to check out their offerings. Found some nice ones, too. I must have tried on at least half a dozen, all perfect for public appearances.

Except for one little problem. None of them fit me.

Here’s where that sedentary lifestyle of the last eight months came back to bite me in the ass. And the hips and thighs. And especially that bulging stomach. Picture Jabba the Hut frantically pawing through the plus-size racks and you’ll have an idea of how I must have looked.

Okay, then. Plan B. Off to KMart. They were bound to have a better selection anyway. And they did. Of tops, blouses, shorts and slacks. No dresses that I could see. None whatsoever in plus size. Once you get past size 16 you’re not supposed to leave the house, I guess.

Walmart’s inventory was much the same. The dresses they had weren’t intended for anyone over the age of 12, or over 100 pounds. The pants-and-top combo idea was starting to look better and better.

Back home, on impulse, I dug into the back of my closet. I used to own a dress or two from my days doing office work. Of course, that was several dozen pounds ago. Maybe I still had some nice tops I could pair with a new set of slacks. Elastic waistband, of course.

Right in the back of the closet, I found it: an old interview outfit. A simple black spandex sheathe with a green jacket that covered the bulges quite nicely. And wonder of wonders, it fit. I even found a matching pair of shoes. See, it pays to never throw anything out.

Experimentation time. The dressy tops I had looked fine with it, but they were a little tight. So it was back to Goodwill. I got a pair of oversized, colorful tops to dress up the basic black. Thursday night I’ll do a fashion show. Whatever looks best and fits best over the sheathe will become my wedding outfit. All I need is a pair of pantyhose and I’m ready to rock.

Sue Grafton, speaking through her detective character Kinsey Milhone, was right: all any woman really needs is a basic little black dress.

Though everything would have fit even better if I’d dealt with my weight in the many months leading up to this moment. If I’d lost even ten pounds I could have fit into any one of the decent dresses I tried to try on. Yeah well. It’s only for a couple of hours, in front of family members I don’t interact with, some of whom I haven’t seen in ten to twenty years. I haven’t even seen or talked to my nephew since Mom’s funeral six years ago. (To which I wore slacks, by the way. Mom would have understood.) Do I still have to get him a gift?

Just as a backup, I’m going to hit Target later this week and see what they have in the dress department. Or if they even sell dresses any more. Maybe you can only get dresses at Sears or Penney’s or specialty stores. Screw that. I’m not going to the mall for this. It’s not worth it.

Guys have it easy. They just have to rent a tux. One or two suits last them for life. Women get socked in the wallet for wedding dresses, prom dresses, bridesmaid dresses, cocktail dresses, work, casual wear, formal wear—geez. And you have to sit up straight with your legs together in all of ‘em. No wonder I gave it up.

In fact, this whole thing may be moot. This morning I tried on the dressy purple top with my pair of black slacks. The outfit does't look that bad. Better than it does with the dress. Fits better, too. And the pants are roomy enough to hide that multitude of sins below my waist, as well as the waist itself. I guess that settles that.

So much for dresses and weight loss. Look for me at the wedding. I’ll be at the bar, having a drink with Ellen Degeneris.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Directionless


Next week this time I’ll be headed out to mid-state New Jersey for my nephew’s wedding. It’s about a two-three hour drive for me, more or less. From where I am, it’s about an hour’s drive to Philadelphia, then another hour’s drive to get through Philadelphia, depending on the state of the Schuylkill Expressway. Under normal conditions I’d drive down for the wedding and reception and then just come home, but the nephew’s getting married at 5:30 in the afternoon, so I booked a hotel room down there. No way in hell I’m facing Philly traffic in the dark after a full day of revelry.

Since I don’t have a cell phone or GPS, my next step is to figure out a route to the place. I’ve been to Jersey plenty of times, but not that part of Jersey. It’s supposed to be right across the river from Philly. When I asked the nice lady at the hotel registration desk for an easy route from Philly, she told me to use the Ben Franklin Bridge. “It’ll bring you right here,” she assured me.

Good thing I doublechecked on a paper map. The Ben Franklin Bridge takes me into Camden. The bridge I want is the Tacomy-Palmyra Bridge, which meets up with Rt. 73, which runs right by the hotel. I can pick up Rt. 1 from the Schuylkill, which should bring me to the bridge and get me into Jersey with no trouble.

I should know better by now. You should never ask anybody for directions. I’ve driven across the country with nothing but a map, and believe me, nobody is capable of giving directions. Not men, not women, not people at information desks whose job it is to help you out. Not nobody, nohow.

I’ve been the ignorant tourist in places all over the country. I’ve asked locals how to get somewhere. Talk to four people and you’ll get four different sets of directions, one of which might be correct. I’m not looking for some obscure place. Most of the time I’m trying to find someplace well known, like a WalMart or a tourist attraction. Usually I get blank looks. “WalMart? Never heard of it.” With the WalMart sitting right across the street. “Oh. I’ll be damned. I never noticed that before.”

I don’t know if people just don’t want to be bothered and are trying to get rid of me, or if they honestly have no idea where they exist on the planet. I’m not constantly thinking about where I am at any given time, let alone how to get somewhere else. It must be jarring to have strangers walk up to you and demand, “How do I get from here to Point B?” And then you have to stop and think about it. Not only do you have to figure out how to get somewhere and then pass this information on to another human being, but you have to stop and think. That right there can ruin someone’s day.

Here’s a few of my adventures delivering flowers for Mother’s Day earlier in the year. It was raining, for starters, so I wasn’t in the best of moods. I had deliveries to make at a retirement community. I couldn’t find one address on my road atlas, so I asked at the information desk. The woman at the desk didn’t know where it was. “I’m a temp. The person who really does this job is at lunch.” I asked if she had a map of the community; most of these places do. She was sure they had one, but she didn’t know where it was. I walked into an office and asked a professional. The girl got me a map of the place and found the home I was looking for. Why is it people with no information are always sent to work the information desk?

Then I had to find an address on Farmersville Road. Pretty straightforward. Except there are four Farmersville Roads, one for each compass direction, and my address list didn’t specify which one. I picked the closest at random, but the house numbers restarted before I found my target. So I asked some people. They’d never heard of that house number. “Ours is 522,” the woman told me. Five minutes later she said, “Oh wait, our house is 225.” She didn’t even know her own address, let alone the one I was looking for. Her son consulted the GPS on his cell phone, then sent me down the road to ask somebody else. So much for helpful technology.

That’s just receiving directions. It’s no better when you’re giving them out. I was having lunch in a restaurant when some woman asked me how to get to Dutch Wonderland. That’s a well-known tourist destination out here, located on Rt. 30, just like the restaurant. “You go out on 30 and turn left,” I said. Others nearby said the same thing. “That’s 30 outside. Turn left out of the parking lot and go about half a mile.” No sweat.

Yeah, right. A woman asked for directions, but it was a man—husband, brother, I dunno—driving the car. We watched from the restaurant as the car pulled out of the parking lot—and turned right. Sure, 30’s a busy four-laner, and making a left is tough. He might have gone up to a light and turned around. However, it was all women in there giving him directions. To this day I believe he thought we didn’t know what the hell we were talking about, so he automatically did the opposite. Hope he enjoyed sleeping on the couch.

This is why, when I’m doing a major road trip, I stick to highways. They’re straight. Hard to go wrong. Unless you miss your exit. I’d better get printouts from MapQuest before I head for Jersey. I don’t want to have to call my nephew from Connecticut and apologize for missing his wedding.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Peter David Moment


Here’s how a writer’s mind works. My current WIP involves a comic book writer/artist who needs to come up with a new superhero concept. Which means I had to come up with a new superhero concept. Name, background, origin story, superpowers, secret identity. Lucky for me this is prose, so I don’t have to design a costume too.

Which got me thinking about what superpowers are out there already, the good as well as the bad. Top of the heap, of course, is Superman, who has all the biggies—flight, super-strength, super-speed—as well as an impressive array of secondary powers, like super-hearing, heat vision and X-ray vision. I’m not that sure about icy breath, but I suppose that would come in handy if he’s cooking you dinner and it catches on fire. I don’t think “culinary skill” counts as a superpower.

And a cape. Nothing says superhero as impressively as a cape. Capes look so cool when you’re flying. Or if you’re trying to scare the shit out of criminals, if you’re Batman.

Then there are powers that aren’t as flashy but can be just as impressive if the hero knows how to fully utilize them, like agility, stretching (Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man), elemental powers (flame, water, wind), psychic powers (telepathy, telekinesis), magic, shapeshifting, and the like. And brains, probably the most important superpower out there. Ask Batman, the world’s foremost powerless superhero. Spider-Man isn’t as strong as Superman, but he could probably use his scientific knowledge to whip up a batch of kryptonite webbing. Let’s see you break out of that, Supes.

As you move down the list, the awesome factor starts to fade. Poison Ivy controls plants. She shouldn’t be as deadly as she is—a little weed killer should put her out of action—but her knowledge of her subject and how she applies it are what make her a threat. The Invisible Girl (now Invisible Woman) used to be a waste of space until societal attitudes towards women’s abilities matured. She leads teams now. She probably only keeps her nerd scientist hubby Mr. Fantastic around because of the advantages of his stretching powers (heh heh). (Side note to DC: you want to make a popular R-rated superhero comedy on a par with Deadpool? Go with Plastic Man, and consider all the ramifications of a hero who can stretch, harden and enlarge any and all of his body parts. I guarantee you’ll have a winner on your hands.)

At the bottom of the barrel we have the Legion of Super-Heroes, which at one point included members like Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad. Or Bwana Beast. The less said, the better.

Which for some reason led my brain to Aquaman.

Okay, he’s got some spiffy powers. He’s the King of the Seven Seas. He can breathe underwater. He’s incredibly strong—he’d have to be, to survive the pressures at the bottom of the ocean. He can telepathically control sea creatures. Piss him off and he’ll throw a shark at you. He’s had a few different incarnations over the years. Previews for the upcoming Justice League movie look like they’re going with the surly badass version.

I’m not sure how well he’s going to work out. Take him out of the water, where his powers mean something, and … then what? What would happen if the King of the Seven Seas found himself stranded in landlocked Kansas? Does he have control over fresh-water fish? What exactly could he do with an army of striped bass, or sunfish? How deadly are minnows en masse?

Alligators or snapping turtles, there you might have something. Or water snakes. Or some of the larger wading birds with those big scoopy bills. Now you’ve got yourself an army.

As all this was running through my head, I realized I was having a Peter David moment.

Peter David was/is (not sure what he’s been up to lately; I’ll have to check) one of my favorite comic-book writers, mostly because of his sense of humor, and because his mind would go off into these odd what-if tangents. Mr. David wrote some of my favorite Star Trek tie-in novels, including the epic meeting between Lwaxana Troi, the ultimate meddling mom, and Q, the ultimate meddler. While writing Spider-Man, Peter had Spidey take a trip to the suburbs. In the city, Spidey swings on his web from Point A to Point B. No tall buildings in the ‘burbs. Peter had Spidey rushing to a crime scene on top of a car. What else was Spidey going to do? Run? It’s like the Flash foiling a scheme at the DMV, but first the Fastest Man Alive has to wait in line while Patty and Selma take their smoke break. Those were the kind of plots Mr. David came up with.

He also, in one story, devised a logical way for Amazons to reproduce without men, kidnapping, or recruitment drives. No idea how he slipped that one by his editor. For all I know, Peter David may have written a story similar to my Aquaman idea above. I was never a big follower of Aquaman.

The point is not to always go for the obvious. Figure out who your character is, what his/her greatest strengths are. Then put that person into a situation where their biggest assets are useless and see what they do. Comic books aren’t always about the powers. At their best, they’re about the people in the capes, and how they respond to a situation where all their powers can’t help them. That’s the true measure of a character.

Let’s get back to Superman. Thanks to all the movies, YouTube has a fine selection of fan-made video mashups between Marvel and DC characters. They always pit Supes against Thor or the Hulk. You ask me, they’re going in the wrong direction. Superman has two major weaknesses: kryptonite and magic. Supes needs to battle Dr. Strange. What would he do against an opponent who can banish him to the Ditko Dimension with a flick of his wrist? To a world where his formidable powers don’t work and the laws of magic apply? My guess is, Superman would learn to use magic, or at least enough to get himself home, while fighting magic-based enemies coming at him from all sides. I’ll bet that’s the story Peter David would write.

I hope some YouTube fan is reading this. With a Dr. Strange movie coming out, we might get to see a Superman/Strange matchup after all.

And if mondo mashups are your thing, some fan did a series of shorts matching DC, Marvel and Star Wars. Imagine this if you will: Batman. With a lightsaber. Fighting Darth Vader. I know who my money’s on.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Mishmash

I'm baa-aack. Technically I wasn't gone; I just skipped a week. This will be an update on what's been going on.


First off, the big news, AKA commercial break. J. J. Collins' new book, Horsepower, just came out yesterday. You can find it on Evernight Publishing's site at www.evernightpublishing.com and also on Bookstrand, Smashwords, All-Romance ebooks and Amazon. I added links over on the Shapeshifter Seductions blog, but I'm too tired and lazy to do that today. Just go to the site and type either J. J. Collins or Horsepower into Search and the page should come up. I already wrote the book. Do I have to do everything?

One side note: that scene on the cover does appear in the story. I won't swear to it, but the scene in the story may have been subconsciously inspired by this scene from Ghost Rider. This is the best scene in the movie, so I just saved you two hours. Ain't I nice?

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I'm still working my way through the Throne of Glass YA series. I must admit, the writing has been improving since the first book, and the plot is shaping up into something truly epic. Celaena's still a bitch at times, but she's nowhere near the abysmal twit she was in Book 1. So far, Book 2 appears to be the highwater mark. I confess to skimming chunks of Book 3, which ran over 300 pages. I got busy doing stuff, and the library only gives you two weeks. The bulk of Book 3 is Celaena learning how to use her newfound magic powers, which pretty much amounts to filler. I don't think I missed anything.

I just started Book 4, which clocks in at a whopping 600 pages. I may be skimming again. Also, from what I gather on Goodreads, this book supposedly wraps up most of the major plot threads and deals (fatally, in some cases) with the major bad guys. There are supposed to be two more books in this series. The writer must have something truly spectacular lined up if she's going to off her prime villains with two subsequent novels looming on the horizon. So far I've been binge reading, but Book 5 isn't out yet, and Book 6 isn't due until next year, I think. Maybe it's just as well the initial storyline's ending. When I finally get to the next two books, it'll feel like a whole new series.

Two side notes here: My local library has all four books, but I only got one there. They're always checked out when I look for them. I've had to get the others at other libraries in the county. That's four books so far, each one borrowed from a different library. I'll probably skim Book 5 in Barnes & Noble. Someday I'll have enough disposable income to buy books again. Also, once Celaena turned 18 and became a legal adult by modern standards, she started killing on camera. She also developed an active romantic life. In Book 1 she had two guys interested, by Book 2 she'd picked one, in Book 3 she left the country and found another guy overseas, and now in Book 4 she's back home and apparently over the guy she was so madly in love with in Book 2. All this while still mourning the first love of her life, who died before the series started. If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.

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So how'd I do on the Carina Challenge?

Miserably. Doesn't look like I'll be submitting to any of the anthologies. I did send in a proposal, but I haven't touched that either. Instead I got caught up in a story I'm not even sending to Carina. A couple people who sent in proposals have already gotten requests, and one of the editors said they've picked a couple already. Apparently I wasn't one of them. I'll finish both the stories I was planning to write eventually, unless I get distracted again. I blame yard work. When is science going to invent a self-mowing lawn?

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Finally, my brother, who is and always will be nine years older than I am, ha ha ha, had a pacemaker installed to deal with an irregular heartbeat. It's designed to send minishocks to his heart if it stops to get it going again. Here he is in the hospital:


And now it's on the Internet for everyone to see. You don't have to thank me.

What will science think of next? Not a self-mowing lawn, that's for damn sure. See you next week.




Thursday, August 11, 2016

Gotcha Covered


It's here! The cover for Horsepower, the new release from J. J. Collins! I don't have a release date yet, but it should be some time before the end of the month. I think. It's been removed from the Coming Soon page on the Evernight site. I'm hoping that's just an oversight. I'm sure if there was some kind of problem they would have contacted me.

This is the book I was talking about last week, the one where the publisher and I were wrestling over my use of strange spelling and slang words. Things worked out. I made the changes in the narrative they wanted, and they let me keep my dialogue, and by extension my characterizations, which is what I was ready to fight for. I consider it a win-win.

Some people may want to use this as an example of why self-publishing is the way to go. If that's your thing, fine. For the time being I'm willing to let publishers deal with things like editing, promotion and providing a cover. I would have had to pay $300 or better to get a cover that nice. As far as promotion goes, I tend to not do much. That may or may not be why my sales aren't spectacular. I'm seriously thinking about signing up for Facebook. Start a page for myself and one for J. J. Why not? They do it on Catfish. I wouldn't mind having Nev and Max show up at my door. Although I've established J. J. is blissfully married. That should keep stalkers away.

Anyway, my single foray into self-publishing sank without a trace. Quickly. I don't know if promotion would have helped. From what I'm hearing, the people who are successful in self-publishing are either writing to a specific niche, or already had a loyal (and large) following before they uploaded their opus. Or there was a specific demand from those follows, like with the guy who wrote The Martian (which started as a serial on his blog), or the people who wanted a print copy of what became Fifty Shades of Grey. I don't foresee that happening with any of my books any time soon. For right now, I'll stick with publishers.

And now, back to the hard part, writing the next one. This time I'll write characters who speak correct English. It's August, and too hot to fight.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Stand Your Ground


Update/book report: I’ve started reading Crown of Midnight, the sequel to Throne of Glass, which I pretty much savaged last week. I’m pleased to say the reports on Goodreads were accurate. Most of the problems I bitched about regarding the first book have indeed been corrected in the second. Celaena’s not nearly half as annoying, and more attention is paid to what she does as opposed to what she wears. And she finally gets to assassinate people. She’s begun to live up to the hype that made up most of the first book. In fact, she’s in danger of becoming a Mary Sue, especially since—but that would be telling. Let me read through this book and maybe the next before I make that accusation.

Anyway, it’s now clearly stated that she’s 18 years old. So she’s a legal adult by modern readers’ standards, which is how she’ll be judged. Remember, even though these stories are set in fantasy kingdoms, foreign lands, future eras or galaxies far, far away, they still have to appeal to readers in the here-and-now. And get the okay from their parents, in the case of YA books. Therefore, no on-stage killing until the protag turns 18. She’s still drinking, though, even though she isn’t 21. Guess that part’s okay, since this kingdom hasn’t invented cars yet. Wonder if she could get arrested for RHWI (riding a horse while intoxicated)?

On a side note, if you want to see what tailoring futuristic science fiction or high fantasy to present-day sensibilities can lead to, tune in to an episode of the original Star Trek (set in the 23rd century but created in the 1960s) and have a giggle at the female crew members—officers, even—running around in miniskirts and go-go boots. Austin Powers would have felt right at home on the bridge of the Enterprise. Especially because, while racial equality has apparently been achieved, sexism will continue to run rampant in the far future. They even came right out and said in one episode that women weren’t allowed to command starships. I’ll bet young Hillary Rodham blew a gasket over that and never watched the show again. (Young Bill Clinton, on the other hand, would have given Kirk a big thumb’s up and a “You go, dude!”)

# # #

That isn’t what I want to talk about today, though. I’m in the process of going through edits on a story I had accepted by a publisher, and having to gear up for battle. Not over content. Over spelling.

Y’see, I try to write natural, realistic-sounding dialogue. My characters are a couple of motorcycle mechanics. Blue-collar, working-class heroes. Neither went to college. I’m sure the one just scraped through high school by the skin of his teeth. Which means they talk like just plain folks. Their sentences are peppered with ain’ts and gonnas, helluvas and son-of-a-bitches, and the occasional fuck. That’s not even counting the scene where they get drunk, which doesn’t do their diction any favors.

I extended this style, to a lesser extent, to the narrative, to give the story a distinctive flavor. The editor was fine with all this. Apparently she’s a writer herself. We like to play around with the language. We’ve got all these words at our disposal, yeah, we’re gonna have fun with ‘em.

The publisher, though, is another matter. She seems to be a stickler for proper spelling, which means my slang terms, contractions and fast-and-loose grammar will have to be “fixed.”

I’m okay with most of the changes in the narrative. That part’s not so important. But now she’s messing with the dialogue. Change that, and you change the characterization. You change who my people are. Blue-collar mechanics with a high school education do not, as a rule, talk like college professors. Especially with two to three beers in them.

I’ll change some of my words, but not all of them. Not when the changes threaten to turn my characters into different people, and my story into something I didn’t intend to write. That’s where I dig in my heels and fight back. Even if I have to withdraw it and try again elsewhere.

Which I did once, with an anthology story. The publisher rewrote it in a way that changed my protag’s character into what he thought it should be. To which I say, write your own story, buddy. Don’t write mine. The publisher backed off, and the story saw print with my protag sporting the personality I gave him. Score one for the writer.

I suspect I’ll win this one too. The editor’s on my side, and I’ve agreed to clean up most of the “misspellings” that seem to offend the publisher so much. But not all. The dialogue better stay the way these guys would say it, or I might have to pull up stakes and move on.

The irony is, my freelance job includes editing and proofreading. The book I’m reading now is rife with the same “mistakes” I made, plus a bunch I never thought of. That’s her style, her voice. It’s how she writes. They aren’t mistakes, either. She’s a damn fine writer and she knows exactly what she’s doing when she makes those choices. She’s also one of that publisher’s top-selling authors. If I “fixed” her alleged errors, I’d completely ruin the tone of her work, and be kicked off the job three seconds later.

The publisher I work for is a lot more lenient than the publisher I’m writing for. Though if they keep this up, I may not be writing for them much longer.

I’m hoping we can reach a compromise everybody’s happy with. If I have to, I’ll pull out the big guns and cite Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, widely considered to be the first true American novel. Wonder if Twain had to fight to get Huck’s colloquial speech patterns into print?

The irony there is, he probably prompted no squawks at all over his repeated use of a certain derogatory N-word, which has gotten the book banned all over the place in this more enlightened era. But hey, it was created in a different time. The folks who worked on the original Star Trek are probably nodding right now.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Do Tell


Yesterday we were discussing trends in the Young Adult genre, and how the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games may have sparked a trend in YA fantasy featuring a tough, kick-ass young girl caught up in magic and court intrigue. Specifically, the rise of the teenage female assassin as the protag in a book aimed at teen girls. I decided to pick on the Throne of Glass series just because it was popular, and available in my local library. Except somebody had checked out the library’s copy, forcing me to do a speed-skim of the book in question in our area Barnes & Noble.

Well, it’s a year later and I finally got hold of a library copy and actually read the thing. Here’s my impression of Celaena Sardothien, the most proficient and feared assassin in her particular Middle-Earthian world: what a total dickette.

Picture a stereotypical head cheerleader. Let’s give her the whole package: blonde hair, blue eyes, flawless skin. Whatever she wears, whether it’s a prom dress or gym clothes, it always fits her perfectly and looks spectacular on her. All the boys are in love with her, including your boyfriend. She’s arrogant, judgmental, and carries an air of entitlement like a designer purse because she knows she’s the best. She never passes up a chance to tell you so.

Now give this girl a sword. That’s Our Heroine.

In addition to being unlikable, Celaena commits the cardinal sin of a fictional main character: she doesn’t do anything significant. Oh, but she could. The narrative is constantly telling us just how good she is. She could escape any time she wanted just by doing such-and-such. She could kill that guy over there with a rolled-up napkin and a butter knife. She’s faster, tougher, more skilled and more successful than any other assassin EVAH. It says so, right here in her press release. She watched the opening fight scene of Deadpool, snorted loudly and went, “Amateur.”

And what does she do in her introductory book to justify all this hype? Well, ummm, okay, she’s pretty good with weapons. She wears a lot of lovely gowns. She gets both the prince and the captain of the guard to fall in love with her, even though she treats them both like dirt. She does beat up one guy, and she kills a monster from another dimension with a magic sword she found earlier in the book. Supposedly she’s racked up a body count, but in this book, which runs over 400 pages, she does not kill a single human being.

This is supposed to be a book about the best and most feared assassin in her world. Shouldn’t the star of the show, um, y’know, assassinate somebody?

It gets worse. At least three times people walk right up behind this fearsome killer-for-hire and take her by surprise. Good thing they weren’t assassins. In the climactic battle we still don’t get to see her fighting prowess because she’s drugged right before the fight starts. Guess it never occurred to her the woman who hands her the cup of wine, who’s made it clear she’s Celaena’s sworn enemy, might slip something into her drink. The price of arrogance, folks. In what should be a scene showcasing all those lethal skills we’ve been hearing about for 300-odd pages or so, Celaena stumbles around, gets beat up, and has to be rescued by a ghost. I kid you not on that. The captain of the guard ends up killing the designated bad guy. Four hundred pages, and the hero of the book does pretty much jack, with a side of squat.

This is the opening book of the series. Not an auspicious debut for this particular character. Pity, because it’s got a smooth and readable style. The author is certainly capable of telling a good story. Shame she chose to tell it instead of showing it.

I’ve heard the series gets better. Consensus on Goodreads says the second book reads as if the author took note of all the complaints about the first book and then fixed them. I hope so. I’ve just started reading the second book. Celaena’s working as the king’s designated assassin. But she doesn’t like the king, so instead of killing her targets she fakes their deaths and helps them escape. So she still isn’t killing anybody. What exactly is it this girl does for a living again?

# # #

Which brings us back to one of the other points I brought up in the previous blog. This is a Young Adult novel. It’s being marketed to teens and pre-teens, girls in particular (which would explain all the emphasis on pretty clothes and the romantic triangle). Hunger Games and Divergent featured tough female protags and made a ton of money. Fine. We’ll make our heroine a badass assassin, whose very name makes grown men shudder in terror. But she’s still a teenager, so we can’t show her killing anybody, just in case one of those impressionable young readers starts getting ideas in regards to that bitch at school she doesn’t like. And acts on it. Then her mother reads the book, and lawyers get involved. That’s how you make grown men shudder in terror here in the modern world.

So the writer’s left walking a narrow ledge: introduce a lethal, tough-as-nails heroine, tell us what a kick-ass babe she is, and then never show it. Because she’s the heroine, and the heroine has to Stand for a Higher Purpose. She can’t go around killing innocent people because That’s Bad. If she’s too despicable she won’t sell books. Even worse, she won’t sell books to the parents, who are the ones actually buying the books. That’s how you end up with Throne of Glass, and the writer telling us all about her character instead of being allowed to let the girl go out and do something. For instance, if she was half as good as we’re constantly told she is, she could have easily killed the king halfway through the book and escaped. But then we wouldn’t have a series, would we?

And remember: Luke Skywalker never defeated the Emperor, and he only sort of defeated Darth Vader. Darth redeemed himself by killing the Emperor while Luke, the hero of the trilogy, just stood there. Then George Lucas monkeyed with the SFX to make it look like Han Solo didn’t shoot first when everybody knows he did. Han’s a hero now. He has to be Upright and Moral because all those little kids (and their parents) are watching. At least Celaena’s in respectable company.

All of which leads me to wonder: why is it Wolverine can go around killing people willy-nilly and everybody loves him? I’m going to think about that one. If I come to any conclusions, I’ll post them here next week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Retro Post: Making A Killing in YA


This post originally appeared last year on another blog. I'm reposting because I finally read the book I talked about and have some bones to pick, which I'll detail in a follow-up blog. It also semi-relates to last week's post about alleged children's lit that you might not want your (younger) children reading. And why does Wolverine get away with killing people when other heroes can't?

But first, the rerun:

# # #

Having learned nothing from my last foray into young adult literature, I've decided to try it again. As part of my prep, I'm raiding the library for the current popular sellers, to see what I'm up against. Ye godz. I am seriously going to have to up my game if I want to compete in this market.

For the moment, it appears the Twilight/paranormal and Hunger Games/dystopia fads have run their course. What I'm seeing a lot of now is otherworld fantasy, sort of Game of Thrones lite with a bit of the X-Men thrown in (the kids in some of the books have superpowers). This makes reading them like old home week for me. I grew up haunting the Science Fiction section of the bookstore, which is where these would have been shelved back when I belonged to their target demographic. In those days books for tweens and teens consisted primarily of contemporaries and mysteries. Those of us with a penchant for weird read Lord of the Rings, and Stephen King when he showed up. Then Harry Potter and Twilight came along, and all of a sudden YA was a thing. And here we are.

So I'm in Barnes & Noble skimming through Throne of Glass (somebody else got the library's copy) and I notice something interesting: the protag, a young woman constantly referred to as the best assassin in her world and a total badass, never seems to kill anybody. Come to think of it, the whole point of Hunger Games was two dozen teenagers turned loose in a huge arena to kill each other. How many did Katniss kill? One, I think. She may have shot some guy. Mostly she ran and hid and let them kill each other. Katniss was not a killer, and no fool.

The publishers of these books, however, I have to wonder about.

In following the Game of Thrones formula of intrigue and nasty doings in a high fantasy setting, coupled with the call for kickass ladies fueled by Hunger Games and Divergent, publishers are putting out stories of teenaged assassins and swordfighters and rebels against the (adult) government and presenting them in a light that makes them look heroic. Maybe not the best of ideas. I have to question the marketing strategy of glamorizing killing to a segment of the population known to take deadly weapons to school and bully classmates into suicide.

Somebody else must have brought this up at a board meeting, because these teenage killers don't enjoy what they do. It wasn't even their choice: they were forced into it by evil adults. Even though they've been trained from childhood to kill, they usually don't. The greatest assassin in her world spends a lot of her time knocking people unconscious. As soon as they can, they leave the profession and become—I dunno, maybe a housewife. All these chicks have boyfriends, killers like themselves.

This dilemma—we wanna read about tough teenage girls, but kids killing others is wrong—can lead to absurd and even frustrating situations, like the assassin mentioned above. If she doesn't off somebody, she's liable to look like she's all talk. But do you really want your 14-year-old daughter "watching" a 17-year-old slicing people up? Getting the idea that's a good thing? We must protect The Children!

That's one way around the problem. When these kids do kill, it's justifiable. Nobody's going to blame Harry Potter for magically blasting Voldemort. On the other hand, Harry was 17-18 years old by Book 7, pretty much an adult. Also, his weapon of choice is a magic wand, something harder than a gun to pick up on the street. In the Percy Jackson series, Percy's only 16 in the climactic novel. He doesn't kill the bad guy. The secondary bad guy has a change of heart, offs the major bad guy, and then dies a hero. In Throne of Glass, Celaena finally does kill somebody, but it's an otherworldly monster. She'll be over 18 by the end of the series, so maybe she'll be allowed to graduate to human victims.

It helps that these books are set in fantasy or future worlds that have nothing to do with our modern reality. Different worlds, different times, different societies. Same old sexist attitudes, but that's a different blog. It's okay for kids to be trained killers in these books because the stories take place somewhere else and not in middle America. Don't try this at home, kids! Or at school.

As for the hundreds of innocent techs, scientists, military grunts and support crew who perished when twentysomething Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, it's best we don't think about them. They destroyed Alderaan; I suppose they had it coming.

For the book I'm fiddling with, I won't have to worry about any of this. My story is set in modern America, so showing kids who kill is out of the question. My protag doesn't need to kill. She's a shapechanger. She can knock grown men out with the best of them. My biggest problem will be matching the quality of the writing in similar YA books currently on the market. I've definitely got my work cut out for me.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Think of the Children


Well, the genie’s out of the bottle now. His name is Deadpool, he’s a superhero, and his movie got a pile of rave reviews and made an even bigger pile of money. It was also rated R, and for a slew of good reasons: over-the-top violence, nudity, sex, adult situations, and swearing out the yin-yang. Not the kind of movie you want to take the little kiddies to, though their mid- to late-teen siblings would probably get a kick out of it.

Deadpool is hardly the first superhero movie to earn big bucks at the box office, and it’s not the first R-rated superhero movie. (I’m not sure what that was. Punisher: War Zone? One of the Blade movies? I don’t think it was Watchmen.) However, as far as I know, it was the first superhero movie to be both popular and earn massive moolah with an R rating attached. And with Hollywood involved, we all know what that means: more, more and even more of the same, as Tinseltown rushes to cash in on what they think made Deadpool so profitable. Which means we’ve got a tidal wave of R-rated superhero flicks looming in our movie-going future.

I can think of a couple comic-book characters that could handle and even benefit from the adults-only treatment. Wolverine, for starters. Let’s be honest: Wolvie’s shtick is that he goes into berserker rages and guts people. That’s what the claws are for. Check out this scene from X2: X-Men United. This is the Wolverine we know from the comics. This is the scene we wanted to see in the first X-Men movie but had to wait for. Wolverine is beloved by fandom. Put him in a film with no ratings restrictions and people will line up around the block.

I’ve already mentioned the Punisher and Blade. If the upcoming Suicide Squad isn’t rated R, there is no justice in the world. We deserve to see Harley Quinn in all her psychotic glory. Batman? Not necessarily. His is a whole other breed of nutzoid, and doesn’t require ratings restrictions. The Joker? Definitely. DC is releasing an animated version of The Killing Joke graphic novel, and it’s rated R. Yes, you heard me. A cartoon based on a mainstream comic book has been given an R rating. If you’re familiar with the story, you know why.

There’s talk the recent Superman v. Batman should have gone after the R. I think the Blu-Ray has added scenes that bump the rating up a notch.

Whoa. Superman? Are you telling me Superman belongs in an R-rated movie? No. Just no. No way, no how. Superman and Spider-Man are where I draw the line.

Aren’t you people forgetting something? All these big-budget blockbuster flicks are based on comic books. Once upon a time, comic books were disposable entertainment for kids. Little kids. Interest in comic books generally waned around the time puberty hit, when girls became more interesting than musclebound guys in tights. But until hormones kicked in, comics were something to keep kids quiet on rainy afternoons.

All that began to change in the 1960s, when Marvel Comics discovered their reader demographic was mostly college students and older, and adjusted their sights accordingly. Also, the comic-book readers of yesteryear had grown up to become the comic-book pros of the present. They wanted to tell stories for the people they were now, not the children they’d been. So the storylines began to skew upward, into more grown-up themes.

Then Watchmen came along, with its deconstruction of standard superhero tropes, and showed violence, nudity, heroes having sex, and “heroes” who were flat-out wacko. It was hailed as ground-breaking. It made a lot of money, which meant from that day forward all heroes must be violent emotional basket cases. If you’re sick to death of all the “grim and gritty” comics that have clogged up the stands since the 1980s, go blame Alan Moore.

Or maybe not. In Back Issue magazine #79, artist/co-creator Dave Gibbons had this to say: “The message that was perceived by a lot of creators was, ‘Oh yeah! We gotta get really dark! We gotta make all our characters mentally ill and emotional wrecks.’ We didn’t ever intend that to be the case and we felt very sorry for all the depressing comics that came in the wake of Watchmen.”

What he said.

There should be room in the market for a little of everything, but comic books for pre-teens seem to have gotten squeezed out. Bad enough we’re now paying $4 for a flimsy pamphlet we can read in ten minutes and we don’t even get a full story. Those stories aren’t even aimed at the kids that were once comics’ primary market. Publishers like Harvey, that catered to little kids, aren’t around any more. Archie Comics, for decades a cartoony bastion of all-ages comedy, recently revamped its line into a more realistic style, with teen-centric realistic stories. And now kids can’t even go to the movies based on these comics unless they’re 18 or older. Where’s the audience of tomorrow going to come from, if there’s nothing for them to get hooked on early? Will nobody think of the children?

That’s why I feel Superman needs to be exempt from the grim-and-gritty grownup world. He was the first. He epitomized what used to be the traits we wanted our kids to aspire to. The alien being from another planet showed us all the heights a human could achieve. And you want to make him a scowling, psychotic jerk who solves all problems with punches? Batman already is a scowling, psychotic jerk, and even he stops short of killing people. We don’t need another one.

Ditto Spider-Man. He was the first teen superhero who wasn’t somebody’s sidekick. He was a geeky science nerd who couldn’t get dates and was bullied by the football team. Even those of us without spider powers could relate. Spider-Man taught us “with great power comes great responsibility.” And he did it without going dark.

Ease up, creators. Give Superman and Spider-Man back to the kids. We took all the other heroes away from them. They should get to keep the icons. If you want to make an R-rated superhero movie, then show us Wonder Woman in all her 1940s glory, with the bondage and the fetishism intact. I’ll bet Deadpool himself would pay big bucks to see that.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Distractions


But first, an update. As you’ll recall, I posted word about Carina Press and their current open calls for material, which includes five anthologies and a short-term call for proposals for stories of any length. Here’s where we stand:

The proposal call ended yesterday. I got one in at near the last minute, so I’m covered. It was one of my anthology contenders; I pretty much had the mandated three chapters already written. My synopsis didn’t quite make it to the required five pages, but I hope they don’t hold that against me. They’ve assured us we’ll hear back within the next twelve weeks. That gives me three months to write the thing, just in case I get the nod. I was going to send a second proposal, but time ran out. That one’s still going toward the anthology open call. So that’s two of the anthos accounted for. The other three …

Nope. Maybe if I was a faster writer. There are authors out there who have a new e-release—and we’re talking 40K-50K words and up novellas, not short stories or flash fiction—every month or so. Somebody else must be doing the housework. I’ll bet I could get more done if I didn’t have go out and buy groceries. Or write blogs. I’ve tried setting priorities and working on my time management, but it’s a struggle. I’ve got decades of bad habits to dismantle. I’m sure the problems will sort themselves out the lower my savings start dropping. I was hoping writing would supplement my income. Not if I don’t do it, it won’t.

I knew I was biting off more than I could chew when I announced I was aiming for all five anthologies. So I’m backing off. The proposal’s been sent so that’s on the table now, along with the story for the SF anthology. Two out of five isn’t bad, especially given the word count (25-40K words for the antho stories) and my glacial writing pace. I’m okay with that.

The reason for my backing out is positive, for once: I got hit with an idea for an Evernight Romance on the Go and I’ve been going great guns with it all week. Those max out at 14K, far more doable for me. Besides, the two longer stories I’m concentrating on are M/M. I’m confident I can find homes for them elsewhere if Carina says no. The M/F shapeshifter story I’m not sure about, even if I found time to get to it. The other two were only vague ideas. I’d rather concentrate on the ones I feel good about, rather than dash off some half-assed glop in order to meet a deadline. At least with the three I’m working on, I know how they end.

That clears my plate from an intimidating pile to something more manageable. I should be eating smaller portions anyway.

# # #

Years upon years ago, our local paper ran a profile of a budding young neighborhood author. I’m not sure what she wrote. Given her age, which was somewhere in her 20s, I’m guessing literary fiction. If you’re going to write the Great American Novel, you’ll do it in your 20s. By the time you hit 30 you know better. At any rate, she said something along the lines of, “If you’re going to be a writer, you have to devote all your time and energy to it.”

Which immediately caused me to wonder: Who’s paying your bills, honey?

Somebody had to. Clearly somebody, either parents or a boyfriend/husband, was providing her with living quarters, food, electricity and medical coverage so she could focus all her time and attention in pursuit of her Art. Writers may live in our imaginations, but we still have to function in the real world, which includes such mundane distractions as eating, staying healthy, paying taxes, and hopefully interacting with the person or persons who bring home the paycheck that’s letting you live your dream.

I wanted to be a writer, too. I also wanted a car, a place to sleep and regular meals. Nobody was there to provide them for me. I fit the writing in between cleaning the house and yard, grocery shopping, face time with family and friends and a full-time job so I didn’t have to pursue my Art under a bridge. I had a few minor successes, but nothing I could live on because it came sporadically. You try being creative at the end of an eight-hour work day. More often than not, the writing was forced into the corner while I worked at supporting myself.

Some writers do this with kids added on. God bless ‘em all. Or maybe they had kids to create a built-in work force to look after the house, yard and laundry while Mom pounds out her latest opus. Damn, I should have thought of that.

Now that I’m semi-retired I’ve got more time for the Art, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. As I alluded to above, those years of putting off writing while I worked a job left me with some bad procrastination habits. I’ll just have to plow on through. The rent won’t wait for me to feel inspired. Then there was that bout of explosive diarrhea that hit me Sunday night, which dragged on for almost two days and brought new meaning to the term “pain in the ass.” If you’re going to work for yourself in a home-based business, don’t forget to plan ahead for sick days. Or carry a notebook or tablet with you so you can write while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. Most of the magazines are crappy anyway.

Wish I could remember that girl’s name. I’d love to Google her and see if her single-minded pursuit of her dream yielded literary success. Something tells me she revised her lofty views as soon as she got married or, at the latest, pregnant. Or maybe she taught her kids to type and dictates her books to them while she’s doing the dishes or folding clothes. I just her name wasn’t E. L. James, because if it was I’d be totally pissed.