Life After Viable Paradise – One Writer’s Path

The first few weeks–maybe even months–after I got home from Viable Paradise 17, I was filled with a righteous fire for writing.  Anything that got in the way of writing was crap.  I k

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Viable Paradise 17. I’m the goober in the top row, second from the left, standing next to Beth Tanner. You probably know her.

new–KNEW–that it was only a matter of time before I would be signing copies of my book.

You really can’t sustain that level of hellfire.  Well, I can’t, at any rate.   That’s not to say VP left me with unrealistic goals–but I created for myself some unrealistic expectations.

As the instructors took pains to tell us, several times, Viable Paradise is not the Easy Button.  It’d be damned nice if it were, and I’m fairly certain the instructors would be just as stoked for that as the students, but publishing simply doesn’t work that way.  Even the best among us took some time to get a story published, and one of the best writers in my class (my opinion, of course) is still writing her book.  Me?  Nada.  I am still a Nobody in the writing world.  No short story I’ve sent out has been published.

As for novels, I finished mine; the third one I’ve ever written, but the first one that wasn’t pure shit.  And as I’ve rather irritatingly chronicled here, it isn’t really going anywhere yet.  Maybe it stinks, or maybe it just hasn’t found the right agent.  But the bottom line is, it’s still sitting here, unread by all but one publisher, and they gave me a form rejection.

That doesn’t mean I’m awful–but it does mean that, VP grad or not, I have the same steep hill of probability to climb as any other writer.  I have to do the same slog through Agent Search Hell that any other writer does, just as every VP student before me, and every one after me, will have to do.

Aside from that, there’s the whole “living your life” thing to do, as well.  I know some writers like to go on about how, if you want to write, you will Do Whatever You Have To to write, but the truth is, very few writers can afford to do that.  Most of us have Things We Must Do. Sooner or later, the student work you haven’t graded demands your attention.  Your daughter* still wants to play Lego Marvel with you, and she won’t understand that your book needs to be written NOW.  And of course, your spouse needs your attention, too, as do your friends.  You can put them off sometimes, but not often.  Unless, of course, you want a divorce, which… let’s just assume you don’t.  Who needs that?

In my case, I found ways to cope with the demands of life but still manage to write.  I go to the coffee shop some nights after dinner, and write.  I try to get up early on the weekend and write a bit before my daughter wakes up and fills my house with the ungodly voices of YouTube.  I take occasional–very occasional, in my case–weekend retreats on my own to write in a nice, clean, quiet hotel room (I want to do that one more often, but it gets set aside by Things We Must Do).  And, of course, as a public school teacher, I do get some time in the summer to write (and take care of my daughter, who is of course also on vacation at that time).

Anyway, the trick to surviving life after Viable Paradise is twofold: First, you have to recognize the realities of the writing life, and manage your expectations of how quickly you’re going to hit the shelves (if ever).  Second, you have to find a way to balance your life between work, family, and the needs of the muse.  Is it easy?  No.  But what else are you going to do?

 

*Or son. Or cat, if yours is sufficiently evolved to have opposable thumbs.  Not dogs, though.  They don’t appreciate Marvel Comics. They’re more into Image**

**Yes yes, your dog appreciates Marvel and thinks Liefeld is a terrible artist.  But most dogs think Liefeld is the shit.  So, y’know.  Ew.

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Summer is Over. Let’s Check In

So, the blog fell into disuse over August.  I started to write posts, but they were mostly whining about how I wasn’t getting any fiction done, so I stopped.  But now we’ve begun the new school year, so let’s do a rundown of life.

Writing Life

I wrote very little over the summer, and most of it was terrible.  Part of it is that I’m in limbo, with several different projects on the burners, with none of them shaped enough to really get them written.  I’ve got a “Die Hard in Space” plot, a Sci-Fi Mystery save-the-world plot, a coming-of-age/revenge plot, two fictional oral history-type projects, and of course the second and third Zhen books. None of them are developed enough to write except the Zhen books, but I don’t want to start those until the first book is under contract (or at least signed to an agent) and revised, because I have a feeling it will change enough that it will force changes in the second and third books.  Also, the way book 1 is doing in agent rounds suggests maybe it needs more work.

On that note… Book 1 has been outright rejected based on the query alone 25 times, with 5 requests for partials, which all got rejects.  There’s one partial out now, but my pessimistic self expects that rejection any day now.  That’s only It’s really hard to know if this is the numbers game, or if I need to make some changes to the first three chapters to make the book more “eye-grabbing.”  Maybe I start off wrong.  Maybe Tajen finds out about his brother’s death in a stupid way.  Maybe I need to do more with Zhen anti-human prejudice in the first chapter.  I dunno.

I’m looking forward to October, when I’ll be heading to Martha’s Vineyard for a reunion with my Viable Paradise class (and students from other classes, as well as at least some of the instructors).

Home

Tegan has started in a new school, and while day one wasn’t awesome for her, day two seems to be better.  The savings we’re seeing from leaving Private School are enabling us to allow her to do more activities she’s into–she’s joined the school’s choir, and may start learning the violin in the school orchestra (she hasn’t made up her mind yet).  Bottom line, she’s happy.

Over the month of August I ripped the floor out of both of our bathrooms, laid down new tile floors, and installed new toilets.  Doing my bathroom was fairly simple, and took a day and a half, but Tegan’s bathroom had bigger problems to solve, and it took me nearly a week and involved repainting a wall, as well as installing new tile and plumbing.

Work

School started September 1.  My classes are pretty good this year, though the start of a new year is always somewhat awkward.  We’ll see how things shake out as the students and I get to know each other.

 

 

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A Long-Delayed Delight

Greetings from beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I am vacationing with my family this week.  I was last here (the first time I came) at Christmas in 2005.  It’s a great place, a real slice of Old Mexico: the town was founded in 1541, and because it is a UNESCO world heritage site, the town has very strict rules about color and what you can build in your home–everything has to look roughly like it did during the Colonial period. It’s really cool to walk down streets that are still cobblestone–slightly less cool to walk UP the streets (this is a city of hills), but oh well.

Anyway, when I was last here, we had a family dinner the last night in a local restaurant owned by my wife’s aunt and uncle, El Pegaso  (If you’re ever in SMA, I highly recommend this place).

During that dinner, my eye was held by a dish on the menu, but in the end I went with something “safe” and known.  And it was good, but I always regretted not trying that dish. Well, we’re here again, and a couple of nights ago we had dinner at El Pegaso.  And I tried that dish, Chiles en Nogada.

OH. MY. STARS. AND. GARTERS.

That was one of the best things I have ever eaten.  Had Tia Robin been there, I’d have kissed her.  She’s safely out of my reach right now, though, as she’s out of the country.

Here’s roughly what it is: Two Poblano chiles, stuffed with ground beef, cheese, raisins, and some other stuff I’ve forgotten, all topped with a completely freaking wonderful walnut sauce and then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (as the menu says, “All the colors of Mexico on one plate”).

It sounds good, but it tastes so much better than it sounds.  I felt bad for my vegetarian family that they can’t taste that amazing dish.  And I kind of want to eat dinner there one more time so I can have it again before we leave.  I mean, I looked it up, and I’ve found recipes for it (and you’d better believe I’ll be attempting this dish), but I doubt I will ever be able to make it as well as the chef at El Pegaso did.

No lie, this is one of my favorite dishes now.

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Just a generic check-in

I don’t have much to talk about right now.  It’s summer break, and my daughter asked if she could skip going to camp this year, so we’re together a lot.  Which is cool, but it means I’m not getting much writing work done.

Query Stats!

Queries Sent: 29

Form Rejections at Query Stage: 13

Silence-as-Rejection*: 6

Partials Requested: 3

Form Rejections of Partial: 2

Personal Rejections (of Partial): 1

Queries still out: 8

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On “flip-flopping” vs Changing One’s Mind

Look. If you think someone changing their mind, or “evolving” (which is a stupid word to use for this, but whatever) their opinions, is a bad thing, then frankly, you’re wrong.

Evolution of thought is one of the things that make us human. Being able to grow and change even your deeply-held beliefs when the evidence piles up is the mark of a true intellect.  
Very, very few people get anything right from the get-go. We learn, we observe the world, and we change our minds based on what we’ve seen and how we’ve changed. If you call that “flip-flopping,” then you’re not even using the term properly.  

“Flip-flopping” is when one changes one’s stated opinion to please one’s audience at that moment. So when Politicans tell the NRA one thing, then go to the League of Women Voters and say the opposite thing? That’s flip-flopping.  

But when a person thinks A, and then ten, fifteen, even thirty years later, thinks B? That’s not flip-flopping. That’s THINKING. That’s MATURING. That’s GOOD.

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The Good Side of Teaching: A Real Note From a Student

Most of the time, teaching in the US is one of those thankless jobs where everyone pretends to respect you, but the prevailing cultural attitude is one of derision and disrespect.  I’ve written about that side of it a lot.

But sometimes there’s the other side of it.

On Thursday, the last day of school, in the final moments of one of my classes, a student, Ethan (not his real name), slipped a sealed envelope addressed to me onto my desk as I was talking to a colleague, and then quickly scuttled out of the room.

Ethan’s one of those kids who is super quiet, but a smart kid.  He’s always been respectful, and we’ve only occasionally talked outside of lessons or when he needed something explained. A ton of my energy in that class went to trying to keep the peace; it was a very difficult class to teach thanks to behavioral issues–my 48 year old, nearly seven foot tall and very large instructional aide had to leave class often to rein in his anger, and he often asked me how I can cope with that level of disrespect.  So it’s a hard room to deal with.

Anyway, during fourth period, I had a chance to read Ethan’s note. Here’s what it said:

Hey Mr. Johnston!  I know you probably couldn’t care about this stupid, arrogant letter from me to you so I won’t make it long, you’ll probably just tear it up or throw it away anyways, but I just wanted to tell you that I really really appreciate what you did and what you taught us, especially me, throughout this tough year, and I’m sorry for it being tough, for the both of us.  But you helped me a lot through this year, and even though I didn’t, I want to let you know that I felt like I could tell you anything.

I’m choking up a little while I write this, because you’re the hardest teacher to say goodbye to, even though we didn’t talk to each other a lot.  I want to thank you for making my first year in public school so memorable and valuable to me!  I appreciate what you did and what you do so so much Mr. Johnston!  You taught me a lot and not just in the English academic field but in life.

You are the best English teacher and I wish with all my heart I can be your T.A. someday.  I don’t want to say goodbye but hopefully I’ll see you around next year.  I hope we can be friends someday!  😀

Oh, Ethan.  That note is going into my desk drawer–the one at home, not in the classroom–and whenever I need to remember why I am still teaching in these days of slashed budgets, disrespectful classes, and right-wing hatred of what we do, I’m going to pull that letter out, along with a few others like it I’ve received over the years, and I’m going to read it.

And “Ethan,” just in case you find this post: If you’d said all this to my face, here’s what I would have told you:

Thank you. That was one of the nicest notes I’ve ever gotten. Know that you are one of the kids in that class that I looked forward to seeing every day.  Your quiet, stoic demeanor in a class full of (let’s call it like it is) idiotic posturing was a breath of fresh air, and Mr. McLaren (the instructional aide) and I talked often about how you were one of the good ones.

If you ever find room in your schedule to be a TA, you will be more than welcome in my classroom.  For that matter, kid, you stop in any time if you need anything.  Even if you just want to say hi at lunch, or talk about things that are bugging you, you’ll always be welcome.

And despite what you wrote on the other side of the note, you were NOT a bad student.  You did your best, and it paid off: you earned a B in the class.  Now work that hard in your other classes; I can see you’re having trouble.  Come talk to me next year and I’ll help you out.

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The Problem with Psylocke: Sparked by X-Men: Apocalypse

This past weekend, I finally got around to seeing X-Men Apocalypse.  Sadly, I walked away relatively unimpressed, to the point where I’m not sure I’ll bother seeing another X-Men film in the theatre.

Understand: I have been a fan of the X-Men since I was fifteen years old, and a friend handed me issue #213 way back in 1986.  It’s near the end of the Mutant Massacre, and is coincidentally the issue in which Psylocke officially becomes one of the team.

That means I have been a fan of the X-Men for thirty years.

Holy shit.

Given that, you’d think I’d love the movies.  And I did, at first.  The first X-Men movie from director Bryan Singer arguably is the first good superhero movie that isn’t about Superman or Batman.  X-Men 2 was… well, it wasn’t as good.  And X-Men 3 had its moments, but ultimately failed.  X-Men: First Class brought back the magic, albeit under a new director, and I loved Singer’s return in Days of Future Past, even though it had some of Singer’s hallmark unnecessary character changes.

And then there was Apocalypse.

Oh, Bryan Singer.  Why?

First, let’s get this out of the way: For a guy who loves the X-Men, Singer sure seems to want to change things for little reason.  It’s like he thinks dumping a minor character into the film, but very different from the way they existed in the comics, will make fans happy.  But all it does for me is make me wonder why he couldn’t make an original mutant to run the German mutant underground.  Why Caliban? And why is Psylocke, the daughter of a British scientist, one-time Captain Britain, former caucasian supermodel and now-Asian telepathic, telekinetic ninja (more on that later), acting as a mostly-silent, thuggish, AMERICAN bodyguard to Caliban?  It just seemed like they couldn’t figure out how to introduce her, so they did it in the laziest way.

I get films can’t include the ENTIRE backstory of the character, but seriously, they couldn’t get Olivia Munn a dialogue coach and make the character British?  That much effort would have been rewarding.  But no, they make her American, then give her very, very little to say.  She’s all glowers and pouting.  And ok, I’ll admit Olivia Munn looked great, but… that’s really all she did.  And, honestly, if we’re going to make changes for the films, did she need to be that incarnation of Psylocke?

You know what? Many people have talked about the film’s failings, so I won’t rehash that here except to say: It was pretty, but lacking in character development.  But I want to talk about Psylocke, one of my favorite characters.

For those unaware, Psylocke is Elizabeth Braddock, originally a British caucasian.  She was telepathic, and wore a suit of purple and pink armor into battle.  It was awesome.  Then, in the 90s, someone decided they needed an asian character in the X-Men again, which was a good thing, but they went about it in the wrong way.  Rather than create a new character, they sent Psylocke through a mystical device, then had her reappear in an Asian body with slightly-altered powers.

The comics have flirted with making Betsy caucasian again, and for some reason they don’t.  Some have claimed it’s because they want the X-Men to be diverse, but that’s not working in this case.  Betsy, though in an Asian body, isn’t Asian.  She’s English, and not just English–she’s aristocracy, born and bred to privilege both in England and Otherworld, the mystic dimension her father came from and which her twin brother rules as King.

She was raised on money, tea, and scones.  She doesn’t have the experience of an Asian woman raised in Japan (where the original inhabitant of her body, Kwannon, lived); she doesn’t even have the experience of an Asian women raised in Britain.

In short: She’s a rich white woman in yellowface.

To be fair, the writers have, over the years, tried to make it work.  They’ve claimed that Betsy’s mind got “blurred” with the mind of Kwannon when the woman were switched (and don’t get me started on that name).  But it never reads as anything other than cultural appropriation.  The white woman has become the ultimate psychic ninja.

This is a Bad Thing.  I mean, okay, on a purely sexual level, yes, Psylocke is HOT.  And that’s exactly the problem. She’s the familiar melded with the “exotic” to create a “perfect” sexual fantasy for men.  That she’s British adds to the weirdness of it all, setting up a metatextual issue with British colonialism and “oriental” mystique.  And this is reflected in the way the character is drawn.  Here’s her original look: Note that while still sexualized, it’s also a bit restrained–not a lot of skin showing, but still sensual; one could even say it’s metacommentary on Psylocke, who was always portrayed as outwardly demurely British, but inwardly a steel warrior.  1351506701591

But once the character becomes Asian, the sex comes to the surface:

Psylocke

Now she’s all skin, going into battle in a swimsuit.  And to add to the ickiness of it all, there was a thankfully soon-abandoned storyline in which, once Psylocke became Asian, she also became the sex fantasy for Cyclops, the leader of the team, who would fantasize about her in his dreams for some time.  Think about that: A comic, written by a white British man (Chris Claremont), about a white British woman who becomes Asian and then is the sexual fantasy of the white man who leads the team. Layers of Ick there, folks.  Layers.

(I gather her costume has changed, but the change isn’t much–it’s a skintight suit, so yeah, no visible skin, but you can see everything anyway.  No less “sexy” than the swimsuit.)

Now, when this first happened, I was young.  I didn’t care so much.  But as I learned more about colonialism, and how race informs art and influences parts of our culture we don’t even think about, and once I realized racism isn’t just about being a dick to people of other races, this really began to bug me.  For years I had an original art piece of the Asian Psylocke hanging in my office.  I still own it, but it’s not hanging anywhere, because now, even though it’s not overly sexual in and of itself, it bothers me.

I know there are comics fans out there moaning about how “every conversation comes down to race.”  But guess what, dudes?  That’s the world we live in.  Like it or not, race influences things, and some of the art we love is problematic.  Tolkien had race issues, Lovecraft was a racist, and guys, Psylocke is problematic.

It doesn’t matter that this happened when an Asian guy (Jim Lee) was drawing the comic; it’s still problematic.  It doesn’t matter that it’s been this way for twenty-seven years (holy shit, really?–inner editor).  It needs to change.

Marvel needs to return Psylocke to her original body (yes, I know, it’s dead and buried, but it can be done any number of ways; her brother is the king of Otherworld, fer crissakes), and then, when that’s done, they need to create a brand-new Asian character who isn’t a walking stereotype, nor a White Man’s Fantasy, nor a Sexbomb-masquerading-as-Women-Power cardboard cutout, to join the X-Men.

Probably never going to happen, but I have hope.  And hey, Marvel–give me a few years to publish my book and get a track record, and I’ll be happy to write it for you.  Or I could recommend a writer who can do it well right now–Marjorie Liu might be free!

 

 

 

 

 

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