Tag Archives: journalism

Writing: Other People’s Lives

cold snow person winter
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is often recommended that writers write what they know. Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of novels written by angsty professors about how an angsty professor finds renewed spirit via an affair with a ripe coed.

Writing what one knows is also difficult when one has led a basically boring life. Not everyone is Steve Irwin or Jack Ryan or Jacques Cousteau, after all. I for one have never climbed a mountain, thwarted a spy, or been a spy for that matter. Must I restrict my writing to the everyday adventures of a former English major who has two cats and enjoys crossword puzzles? What a snooze!

There are a few geniuses who’ve managed it. Most notable is Martin Cruz Smith with Gorky Park. Without having been to Russia, this superstar writer made us all believe in his snow-covered, KGB-infused vision.

For him, and for the rest of us, there’s research.

Obviously, a nonfiction writer has to rely on research – interviews with the biography subject, police files on Jack the Ripper, the diaries of Sir Ernest Shackleton. This does not, however, preclude adding a personal touch to the facts. Take Mary Roach’s work, for example. She may never have been an employee of NASA or gone to Mars herself, but her Packing for Mars is a masterpiece of factual research combined with first-person observation and idiosyncratic footnotes. For nonfiction writers, exploring other people’s lives is part and parcel of the genre. Even Rabid, a book about rabies, provides a glimpse into the lives of researchers, doctors, and victims.

For the fiction writer, research is a necessary evil as well. If you write a novel set in Victorian times, you can make it convincing only if you know what people then ate, how they dressed, what political upheavals affected their lives, and even how they used the English language. Even contemporary fiction requires research: What were the laws on the statute of limitations like in Ohio in the 2000s? What are the procedures involving releasing a person from prison? What does a meth lab smell like? These details may not add to your plot, but they can make or break the verisimilitude.

And of course the rule about writing what you know is right out the window with science fiction. You can research what is postulated about faster-than-light travel or colonies on Mars, but at some point you’re going to have to make that leap and write about a creature, a planet, a culture, a history that never existed.

It’s tricky when it comes to writing fiction about people. You can’t fashion every character after yourself (even if there’s a little piece of you in every character). And unless you want to be sued, you can’t write a villain as some specific person from your life, especially if they’re easily recognizable. Better to give that person a hook hand or a lisp, or make him over seven feet tall.

In my fiction writing, I give my characters small pieces of my life. I let my protagonist live in an apartment I once had and can describe in great detail. Another character gets a friend’s kitchen with the odd wallpaper border of ducks.

Then I do mashups for other characters. One gets the hairstyle of one friend, the hobbies of another, and the sexuality of a third. One has the appearance of someone I know and the lifestyle of a different person. Mashups keep me detail-oriented without borrowing too much from any one person. These imaginary amalgams allow me to visualize the characters clearly and not have to keep reminding myself whether the bad guy is tall and skinny or short and dumpy. I know how my model for his body moves, so I know how he moves too.

Until I can figure out a way to write an autobiographical novel about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and hasn’t gone through astronaut training, I’ll keep doing my research and my mashups.

 

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What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

The Nature of Terrorism

According to the definition of “terrorism,” we have some pretty half-assed terrorists out there.

Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Another definition says: “a surprise attack involving the deliberate use of violence against civilians in the hope of attaining political or religious aims.”

And the word terrorist is defined as “a person, group, or organization that uses violent action, or the threat of violent action, to further political goals….”

What’s missing from terrorism as spoken of by the media, politicians, and the general public? The goal. The coercion. Especially when discussing “domestic terrorism,” most of the examples have no goal. When no goal can be accomplished or even named, what you have is crime, not terrorism.

Oh, certainly some of them have goals – pointless, ineffective ones. The 9/11 attacks had a goal of destabilizing U.S. political, military, and financial structures. In that sense, it was terrorism. But as a goal, it was poorly thought-out. Political, military, and financial power in the U.S. are simply too complex and decentralized to be destroyed or even much hindered by destroying a symbol of that power.

Destroy the Pentagon and military power remains (not that the bombers succeeded in destroying the Pentagon). Destroy the World Trade Center and American capitalism carries on. Eliminate the White House and structures exist for the government to continue. While those events were powerful as symbols, as attempted coercion, they had the opposite of the effect intended. They did not weaken U.S. power; if anything, they increased it.

Goals of more “successful” terrorist actions have been more precise, and more effective. The terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the release from prison of members of their organizations. The domestic Islamic terrorism of the Taliban caused women in Afghanistan to abandon jobs and other freedoms for fear of violence against them. The violence and threat of more violence coerced them into altering their behavior.

Compare the lack of effectiveness of “Islamic terrorism” in the U.S. Any Sharia law enacted? No. Any convicted prisoners freed? Any populations so terrorized that they abandon former freedoms and daily routines? These shootings and bombings have been crimes, but not actual terrorism. Or at least not terrorism successful in its objectives.

And what of “lone-wolf” terrorism in the U.S.? (Let’s remember that Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf. He had accomplices. And they caused terrible death and destruction, but not terror in the sense of attempted coercion.) David Koresh’s Branch Davidians did not have an apparent goal. They caused fear for the people held hostage and for the lives of the government representatives trying to remove them from their compound. But they posed no real threat to the ATF, the U.S. government, or the population of Waco, TX – only to themselves and their children. The Unabomber’s schizophrenic efforts seemed random to anyone who could not follow his demented logic, because they were, indeed, random and unhinged.

The anthrax scare was perhaps the most ineffective of all. While ostensibly targeting the media and the Congress (again, to what supposed effect?), they primarily caused terror among tabloid mailroom employees and assistants who open mail for higher-ups. Fear, maybe. Terror, no. There were no demands, no goals, no proposed change in potential victim behavior.

In the U.S., the most “successful” terrorist actions have been those against abortion clinics and gay meeting places. Abortion clinics have not been eliminated (at least by bombings and shootings), but employees have in response to the death and destruction quit their jobs or instituted complex and expensive security measures. Bombings and shootings at gay night clubs and hate crimes against individuals, for example, have not eliminated the gay population, of course, but they may have had a chilling effect on the gay community and their willingness to speak up, gather in public, and feel secure in public spaces.

And what of other “terrorist” attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing? Did that event have its desired effect of bringing attention to the situation in Chechnya? No. What does the citizen-on-the-street know about Chechnya? Any more than before? That bombing and other attacks have been expressions of impotent rage, futile protests, and deadly crimes, but they have not been terrorism.

Calling these actions “terrorism” gives them a power they do not have. Terrorism is meant to alter the everyday behavior of people or institutions. To some small extent, they have done that. Americans are more vigilant, more suspicious, more angry, but not more ready to give in to the goals (if any) of the terrorists. That suspicion and anger are in many cases too widespread and likewise devoid of specific achievable goals, but they are certainly not effects that supposed terrorists intended.

The terrorists have not won. Yes, they’ve killed and maimed and destroyed property and lives, strained our resources, and made us unreasonably fearful. But they’ve hardly accomplished anything.

 

 

 

What’s With All the Crazies? Are They Crazy?

Yes. Yes, they are.

And no, they’re not.

I say yes, because so many political extremists out there are acting, well, crazy.

And you can define  “crazies” any way you want – alt-right, alt-left (two handy meaning-free terms), in-office, out-of-office, politicians, your Facebook friends, your Uncle Ned, whatever. We’ll just leave out for the moment the tin-foil hat squad.

Whoever your opponents are, there’s more than a fair chance that some of them are acting irrational, delusional – some variety of crazy. Is it crazy to run down peaceful protestors? Yes. Is it crazy to still be battling over the outcome of an election that happened close to a year ago? Yes. Is it crazy to carry rifles in Walmart? Yes. Is it crazy to spend news air time on the First Lady’s shoes? Yes.

Most of all, though, people are acting paranoid. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get us, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

And paranoid means crazy, right? (Unless, as the saying goes, “they” are out to get you.)

Well, not actually. “Paranoid” is a clinical term from psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is an actual psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

So, if by “crazy” we mean “mentally ill,” then no, the political and social “crazies” are not “crazy” as a group. Their tweets and posts and dinner table conversation are simply not enough to declare them mentally ill.

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits, or is a narcissist in the garden-variety meaning of the word, but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Our readiness to label people, both our acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. He’s a Southerner; of course he’s a racist. She’s a liberal; of course she’s a snowflake. If we can apply a label, we can make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true. (It can also lead us into “Not all X are Y” arguments, which are seldom productive.)

Stigma comes with the label “crazy” or mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to, despite the fact that their cognitive abilities are generally not impaired.

As for terrorists, they are in common understanding automatically mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. And we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. I know I’ll catch hell for this. But I’m not being an apologist for reprehensible behavior.  I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Now, as for the tin foil hat squad, they’re mostly harmless. Let’s leave them alone.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Things Are as They Appear

There was a furor and a spell of blocking and unfriending in one of my social circles last week. It seems that a person well known in the group and respected for her considerable talent voiced the opinion that the terrorist incident in Charlottesville was a “Wag the Dog” exercise meant to distract the public from other topics.

For those of you not familiar with it, Wag the Dog was a 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. In it the fictionalized President of the United States manufactures an international incident to cover up a real scandal he is afraid might embarrass him and derail his administration.

The reasoning in terms of Charlottesville breaks down. But the general gist was that the car plowing into a crowd was a manufactured incident, meant to make the trouble-making protestors look sympathetic and the well-intentioned marchers look evil. This take on events fell apart rapidly when it came to light that the driver of the car actually was associated with “alt-right” or white nationalist causes.

But the tactic of switching blame has been used before. The tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, were believed by some to be a “false flag” operation in which anti-gun forces staged the entire incident to promote their own agenda and make gun-owners and the NRA look bad. It was even rumored that some of the mourners were actors who go around to various such events and fake distress for the cameras.

These are far from the only conspiracy theories that have taken hold and outlived attempts to debunk them. The 9/11 attacks are particularly fertile ground for the “truthers,” as the theorists often style themselves. But there are others. From the McMartin Preschool to the Malaysian airplane’s disappearance to the “pizzagate” child sex ring rumor to the death of JFK and on and on, many among us refuse to take any news story or public horror at face value.

Notice that these assorted accusations of dastardly schemes and heinous cover-ups come from both sides of the political spectrum: President Bush’s administration created the 9/11 attacks to justify a war. President Clinton and assorted cronies killed Vince Foster and made it look like suicide.

Never mind that for these conspiracies to be true, an impossible chain of events involving thousands of people (not one of whom ever screwed up the plan or spilled the beans) would have had to be either participants or in the know. None of these things could have happened outside a Tom Clancy novel or a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And no private citizen or group could have uncovered the “truth” if such things had happened.

That is to say, they are fictions. And believing them doesn’t make them true. Unexplained aspects are just that – not able to be verified or explained because evidence doesn’t exist or for some other reason.

I think it’s telling that many of these theories are expressed in military and intelligence terms – for example, “false flag operations,” “black ops,” and so on. Everyone wants to be an expert, especially in fields where few can claim true expertise. Phony experts are even interviewed on television regarding these incidents, giving even more credence to pop psychology and self-styled warriors or spies. Few Americans have ever served in the military and even fewer in the intelligence field, but you wouldn’t know it by watching TV or listening to talk radio.

Now, it’s true that the press can be, and sometimes is, manipulated. Politicians have been known to make announcements that they’d rather not draw attention to on Fridays, so that by Monday, when the next news cycle begins, the story will have been replaced by more recent events. Press releases and talking points can present one-sided, skewed, or outright false information and journalists without the time, resources, or interest to check them let them run as is.

But for the most part, things are what they appear to be. Coincidences are exactly that and not evidence of conspiracies. As Carl Sagan said (though he was talking about something else), “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And by “evidence” he didn’t mean what-ifs or convoluted chains of suppositions or the plots of dime novels. He meant hard facts and physical objects, scientifically verifiable, tangible or observable, and demonstrably real.

Those who support conspiracy theories appear to be motivated by the desire to be “in the know” and feel superior to those of us who are pathetic dupes, unable to see the truth, even when it’s presented to us with passion and conviction. Apparently many people want to live in a world where diabolical Bond-ian villains pet their white Angora cats and invent doomsday devices until a plucky hero foils them. I’d rather not.

Reality is scary enough without flummery, embroidery, and delusion.

 

 

Freelance Editing vs. Freelance Writing

I am a freelance writer.

I  am also a freelance editor.

Most people have to pick one or the other, but it is possible to combine both – although usually not on the same project. There are distinct differences in the skills required, the clients you take on, and the likelihood of finding work.

Let’s take that last point first.

How do you find work?

Most magazines, ezines, publishing companies, and editorial services companies have editors on staff. They hire freelance editors only when a big project comes along and they can’t handle the volume of work in-house. Then they usually turn to a stable of proven, reliable freelance editors. So it’s important to get your resumé and sample work out there and on file with them.

It also helps to network with other freelance editors. You may think they’re your competitors, but they can be your best sources of work. I’ve gotten many jobs because an editor friend of mine has said to a client, “No, I can’t take on that project now, but I can recommend Janet. I’ve worked with her before and she has experience.”

If you don’t have a recommendation – and sometimes even if you do – you may have to take an editing test. The best question you can ask before beginning is, “Who is the audience for this piece?”

How do you get paid?

Many magazines, ezines, and other outlets use freelance writers. Some use nothing but freelance writers. Not all of them pay, however. Those that rely primarily on blog posts are the least likely to pay. You can hold out for paying jobs, but the pool of possibilities will be correspondingly smaller.

Freelance editors, on the other hand, almost always get paid for their services, at least if they are firm enough to insist on it, even among friends. It probably isn’t necessary to charge for 15 minutes of work reading over liner notes for a new CD, but for substantial work like a doctoral dissertation, friendship doesn’t stretch that far.

Pay for freelance editors is usually by the project, by the hour, or by the page. The client gets to decide which.

What skills do you need?

Of course you need strong skills in grammar, punctuation, and all the other fiddly bits you learned in English class. But those skills alone make you a freelance proofreader or copy editor. A freelance editor needs more.

A freelance editor needs to be able to see the flow of a piece of writing and to see the holes. For example, does the piece have a strong introduction and conclusion? Is an assertion backed up with evidence or reasoning? Is some material repeated? If you’re looking at a piece of academic writing, is proper footnote procedure followed? If the author uses quotations, are they properly introduced and cited?

Remember that question about who the audience for the piece is? The freelance editor should keep in mind that audience and make sure the writing is appropriate for people at that level. (There are lexile checkers that can tell you if you are writing at a ninth-grade level or a grad-school level.) Is the tone of the piece right for the publication or purpose? Is it supposed to be friendly? Informative? Persuasive? Does every part of the writing support that tone?

The secret to being a freelance editor is finding a couple of regular clients who rely on you for a certain amount of work per time period (week, month, quarter). Then look for other one-time jobs to fill in the gaps. Using this formula, you can make a pretty good living. Of course there are ups and downs, as with any freelance work – editor, writer, illustrator – but for those with the skills and desire, jobs in freelance editing can be enjoyable, stimulating, and a good use of your time and talents.

 

Crashing Political Parties

By the time this post is up, President Trump will have been inaugurated and many parties will have held many parties. And a lot of people have a lot to say about that, on both sides.

Because that’s what there are – two sides. Apparently, this is one situation in which there is no middle ground. For or against. Admiring or appalled. People who attempt to take a middle position – wait and see – are derided as “the problem” themselves, or apologists, or pie-in-the-sky dreamers. Any suggestion that we try to understand the other side (whichever that is) and their problems is met with a resounding “No! Why should I?”

I have been steering clear of the fray. I voted, and I have an opinion regarding the outcome. Those who know me well probably have no trouble guessing for whom I voted and what I think of the outcome. But I have avoided posting about it on my Facebook timeline or here (though I did write a few quasi-political posts – http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-qv, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-o2). I knew that my opinions were not likely to change anyone else’s opinions. I have used sources to refute some misconceptions and fake news, but since the threads went on without anyone noticing my contributions, that hardly counts.

I refused to get involved in the ugliness before the inauguration, and I refuse to now. My decision to stay out of the – I hesitate to call it a discussion –  may have cost me friends. There has certainly been a lot of if-you’re-not-for-us-you’re-against-us thinking, and if I do not declare myself, I become, in some minds, against everyone else.

Many people use the argument that a person’s blog or Facebook page is like a party the person is hosting, and the host is entitled to say anything he or she wants. This is as good an analogy as many others. But its corollary is that I do not have to remain at the party, or accept invitations to future parties. (I do agree that a person who behaves boorishly at a party can or should be ejected, but that tends to lead to really boring parties, with everyone nodding and shouting the same thing.)

When most of the invitations I see are to ad hominem parties (attacking a person instead of her or his relevant behavior, statement, stance, or action) and ones where only one opinion may be shouted, I prefer to play online bingo. I have taken a break from social media (except to post my blogs) a couple of times last year, and I feel another such fit coming on.

I don’t have a problem with online “parties” that involve sharing verifiable information or organizing to oppose a perceived injustice by legal means. But have you noticed how many suggestions are of the “hang ’em high” variety? I’m not talking about just one end of the political spectrum, either. One may be more likely to invoke firearms as a solution, but both are “sharing” in the gloating and finger-pointing and obscene memes and vulgar nicknames. I refuse to engage in dialogue with anyone who says either “rethuglicans” or “libtards.”

I understand the need to vent when one is disillusioned, outraged, insulted, ignored, or otherwise upset. Doing that venting in public, or even at one’s own party (which the virtual neighbors can “hear”) is no doubt satisfying, especially if one is particularly clever at inventing epithets. But it does no good, and only makes the divisions wider.

Yes, yes, I know I can just keep scrolling, but not without seeing hateful memes and pictures at the very least. I feel the same way about them as I do about photos of abused animals: I don’t want to see the carnage even if I support the cause. But I digress.

Blogger Jim Wright (www.stonekettle.com) often says,”If you want better government, be better citizens.”

I would add, “If you want better parties, be a better host. Or guest.”

Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies

Just in time for Halloween, Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) has published Feedback, the latest in her series of zombie novels. The original books were Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, collectively known as the Newsflesh trilogy.

Sign of infected areaThe thing is, they’re zombie novels, but they’re not really about zombies. Oh, there are plenty of undead, infected creatures roaming through the novels, trying to bite the living, converting them to more zombies, or simply feeding on human flesh. There are brave zombie hunters who defend civilization against the shambling menace with intelligence, courage, and a vast amount of firepower. There are excitement, chase scenes, well-drawn characters, stunning surprises, and all the things that make a good horror-scifi-action-thriller.

So what are these books really about? Not Jane Austen, that’s for sure.

Fear. Okay, you probably expected this one. A zombie novel about fear. But in the Newsflesh books, fear of zombies is the least of it. There are alarming secrets that turn out to be symptoms of big, appalling conspiracies. One of the novels’ underlying messages is that fear can be – is – used to manipulate people and control them. If the threat is big enough, and scary enough, and relentless enough, people will do anything, give up anything, completely change their way of life to avoid the danger.

And people who know that can pull their strings.

Safety. Again, a fairly standard topic for a zombie book. But in this world (and ours), there is no guarantee of safety. All you can rely on are yourself and the few people around whom you can trust – and sometimes not even them. Mechanical defenses have holes; strategies have deficiencies; friends have their own agendas. In the end, you have only yourself and your principles, and maybe a few other people if you are very, very lucky.

Journalism. The main characters are bloggers, who form teams that gather the news, poke zombies with sticks, or write fiction. This gives the author plenty of room to explore how modern technologies have affected news-gathering, as well as the consumer’s desire for real-life action-adventure, poetry, and stories too. Large questions are explored: How far does the public’s right to know extend? Are there secrets that journalists shouldn’t reveal? What happens when the journalists become part of the news themselves? Have no fear (except of the zombies and conspiracies); these subjects operate in the background while the plot continues to rocket ahead.

Politics. The blogger-journalists are embedded with the campaign of a possible candidate for President, which makes the books all the more timely. Politics and zombies may not sound like a fascinating combination, but when the dead are rising everywhere in the world, people look to governments to address the problem. Whether those governments and the people in them make sound decisions, put responsible policies in place, and fund research can affect the outcome for individuals. Anyone who can’t make connections with the current political climate just isn’t paying attention.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from the novels. There are plenty of gore, ambushes, narrow escapes, heartbreaking deaths, and all the other accoutrements of your standard zombie novel, if that’s what you want. There’s even a zombie bear. You don’t have to pay attention to the various subtexts, though your reading experience will be richer if you do.

Not content to stop after writing the trilogy, Grant has revisited the near future, post-zombie-apocalypse world with short stories, novellas, and now the new stand-alone novel. (I say stand-alone, though its plot runs roughly parallel to Feed.) She explores interesting questions: What is this character’s backstory? What would happen in zombies got loose in a science fiction convention or a school? Who was responsible for starting the zombie plague? Is the zombie situation the same in Australia? Clearly, this is a fictional world with lots of room for expansion, despite the definitive ending of Blackout. It’s an impressive piece of world-building.

Grant is a gutsy writer (pun intended). Writing under the name Seanan McGuire, she has even written a novel in which one of the major plot points is Evil Pie. And for some reason, it works. (It’s in Chimes at Midnight, one of the October Daye series of urban fantasies.)

For more about Feedback, the other Newsflesh novels, short fiction, and Mira Grant, see miragrant.com.

Hungry Children: A One-Act Play

Sharing food with the needy

[Setting: The Halls of Power]

Guy in Suit: The media keep saying that there are hungry children in America.

Other Guy in Suit: Let them eat dinner.

Bleeding-Heart: That’s the problem. They don’t have dinner to eat. Or even breakfast maybe.

GIS: We already give them lunch at school. That’s five days a week.

B-H: Unless they’re absent or on vacation or a snow day.

OGIS: Then it’s the parents’ problem.

GIS: Why do schoolchildren have so many vacations, anyway? We don’t get all those vacations.

B-H: Uh, yes you do.

GIS: Oh. Well, never mind that now. We were talking about tax cuts…uh, job creators…uh, feeding children. That was it.

OGIS: Suppose the media are right?

GIS: The media are never right unless we tell them what to say.

OGIS: Well, just suppose. For a minute. OK? The problem I see is that it looks good for us to feed poor, hungry, starving American children. By the way, are they as pitiful-looking as poor, starving foreign children?

GIS: Probably not. You were saying?

OGIS: If there are hungry children, and we do need to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without feeding the lousy, lazy, good-for-nothing moochers at the same time?

GIS: Ah, yes, the parents. If we give the parents anything, it should be one bag of rice and one bag of beans. And — hey — they could feed their kids that too.

B-H: But children need good nutrition — fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and enough to keep them full and healthy.

OGIS: Hey, we have plenty of minerals left over after fracking. Won’t those do?

B-H: No.

GIS: But if we give kids all that fancy food, what’s to keep the parents from eating it?

OGIS: Or selling it for booze or cigarettes or drugs?

GIS: Think about that! The drug dealers would be getting all the good nutrition. Then they could run faster from the police.

OGIS: We can’t have that, now can we?

B-H: But…the hungry children? Remember? Eating at most one meal a day, five days a week, when school is in session?

GIS: That’s plenty. I heard American children are obese, anyway. They could stand to lose a little weight.

[Curtain]

 

I thought it was time to revisit this post when my husband and I visited IHOP for their No Kid Hungry promotion, which raised money for www.nokidhungry.org. (You can donate at their website. I did. Besides buying all those pancakes.)

I was also reminded of a conversation I had with someone who works in the education sector. She was at a conference, talking with a group of teachers. One of them mentioned how many snow days they had that year and my friend responded, “Oh, boy! I bet the kids loved that!” There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the teachers spoke up. “On a snow day,” she said, “many kids don’t get to eat. The only real meal that they get is at school.”

My friend had never thought about that, and neither had I. We both came from times and places when there was always food in the fridge and a hot dinner on the table. Sometimes we forget that life isn’t like that for everyone.

In this election year, we’ll hear a lot about welfare and funding for schools and improvements in educational policy. Childhood hunger may not be mentioned, but it is intimately tied up with all those issues.

You can donate to local food banks and charities. You can work with nokidhungry.org. Or you can leave it up to the Guys in Suits, for whatever they think it’s worth.