Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Yes, Georgia, The Words You Use Do Matter

TW: casual racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism.

The following stemmed from a conversation I had with a friend today. A conversation that seems to come up way too often. Other, better people than myself have already covered this, but it seems to bear repeating.

Artists: The words and images you use matter.

Seems simple enough, right? I have never met a writer, painter, poet, musician, sculptor or artist of any sort who would honestly state that what they create doesn’t matter. That it is just stupid nonsense taking up space in the world. I don’t think anyone could put the muscle, strain and abject terror that goes into creating anything if they believed that.

Yet, inevitably, some white guy (like me) will drop a cavalier “nigger” or “chink.” Some cis guy (again, like me) will make a joke about ladyboys. Some straight guy (yup, still me) will toss out “faggot” like it ain’t no thing. These things will come out in some innocuous bit in their work, used without purpose or value or an understanding of the power those words have in the minds of those most affected by them. Don’t even get me started on “retard.”*

More inevitably, when they are called out on this, the resounding response is to lighten up. They’re just words, after all. Neither sticks nor stones. Stop being so sensitive. Stop working so hard to take offense at everything.

You feel that cognitive dissonance, there? The need for people to take your work seriously, to treat it with the gravitas your greatness deserves, except for those words. The ones you are complaining about. You shouldn’t treat THOSE ones as if they matter. After all, they don’t cause harm to me, so they clearly do not cause harm to you.

Except they do. There are too many people to whom the word “nigger” carries with it memories of beatings, of being turned away, of being belittled and dehumanized. There are too many people to whom the word “faggot” is bound up in the angry glare of a parent throwing them out of the house, or back alley boot parties, or mumbled excuses about why they can’t continue to work at this establishment any more. Hell, does “cunt” ever come without the connotation of rape, when it comes flying out of the mouth of an angry man?

Some words have more power than others. Some words bear a certain cultural and historical weight to them. Sometimes, that weight is felt disproportionately by specific portions of society and not at all by others. That weight, that power, needs to be treated with respect. Reverence, even, on occasion.

That isn’t to say that there is no place for them in art. Denial is also a type of weapon and I refuse to let those who have profited from the abuse of others bury their past crimes any more than I would degrade the effect those crimes have had upon their victims. If I was writing something dealing with caustic ableism, I would be remiss if I were to ignore the existence and impact of words like “retard”. I would also be a lazy ass writer if I just leaned on that, instead of showing the more subtle ways in which ableism rears it’s head. Because I know the weight they carry, I use such words and images sparingly and with grim purpose.

I get annoyed at this because I take my work as an artist** very seriously. I use words because I believe they have power to build and to destroy, to lift up and to oppress. To bring joy and to bring pain. If I didn't, I wouldn't bother working with them at all. To see people use them so flippantly and without regard is a manner of spitting on the hard work of those who do use them carefully, reverently and with respect to all they can accomplish.

Really, shouldn't we being doing that with ALL the words we use, anyways?

*Yup, I am sticking to using examples that apply to writing. That’s the type of art I understand. There are plenty of ways to do this same shit with visual art.

**Enter self-deprecating comment here, as I feel super pretentious calling myself an artist.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Baby Steps and Long Term Goals

I went to the Cincinnati sister march to the Women’s March on Washington today. My wife went with me. So did a purported 14000 other people. Then someone asked me why I was there.

This question threw me, so I had to think on it. What follows is the best answer I could come up with.

I wasn’t there because I thought it would turn back time. I wasn’t there because I thought marching and shouting would really and truly change anything. I’m not stupid enough to expect miracles.

I was there because those who found themselves in possession of an absurd amount of power were calling the election a popular mandate to undo so much of the progress we, as a nation and as a people, had made over the past decade. I was there because the talking heads were so vociferous that this was what the “real” people of America wanted, when the whiny strains of the east coast elite were removed from consideration.

I was there because I knew it wasn’t just me that was scared of what the future would remove. That there were many other voices out there, trembling at home in the dark. I knew that those in power could only delude themselves to their divinity of right if they could call us few. I knew there were others that believed the lies and thought themselves alone, besieged.

I was there because all of those people needed to see the hidden truth. They needed to see us together. As much as we needed to see each other. They needed to hear our voices and feel the earth rumbling from our collective feet.

I was there because this wasn’t about me. It never is and never will be. Every single one of us is too intricately tied to each other, too bound up in unified existence. No spiritual or shit-science bull here, just the very real fact that all of us are stuck on the same chunk of earth and don’t get to pretend that we are islands.

I was there for us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why I Wear the Rose

*self indulgent, likely self-righteous prattling to follow.*

As I write this, I'm still reeling a bit from the election. Not quite as aghast and depressed as many of my friends, but still thrown and worried. Not even so much due to our choice of leadership in this country, more by what this past election has brought to the surface. We've seen a pushback against all the movement forward our society has made, an empowerment and legitimization of racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and the use of force and intimidation to enforce these ideas. It saddens, scares and angers me. 

All the same, adopting the tactics of rage and violence feels too much like accepting what has appalled me.

I know I cannot force a change in the ideas and ideals of others. I can talk to them. I can try to convince them. I can beg and plead that they at the very least don't use those ideals as an excuse to harm others. But I cannot force the change.

However, I can do my best to make it clear that I do not agree. That I do not stand with those who want to demonize difference, those who use positions of privilege to reinforce that privilege. I can make it clear that I am not the guy to bring your “bitches be crazy,” “no homo,” “go back where you came from” bullshit. I can make it clear that I will do my best to provide a safe space from any of that as well. That is what, to me, the rose is about.

You can look up the history here. It's interesting stuff. I acknowledge, though, that I am not in the same position as those WR members. I don't risk imprisonment or death. Still, they stood up to make it clear that not all agreed. They fought with words, instead of guns, and with actions that halted the machine of ignorance and destruction when possible. I aspire to such, myself. 

In my younger years, I used to go to a lot of shows that were also frequented by a straight edge gang (Courage Crew, if you must know) who had a tendency to be horrible to anybody not with them. They'd start fight, kick people in the head and generally be douchebags. I didn't go after them aggressively. Didn't look for those big black X's and throw my own haymakers. Instead, I stood between them and those they were trying to hurt. That's about the way I think this whole shitstorm will need to be approached. For me, at least.

For those who have dug themselves out from the woodwork, the ones who now comfortably and proudly wave their rebel flags and white sheets and fag-bashing, mysoginistic crap, I won't make any threats or screams for blood. I haven't drawn a line in the sand with a promise to shoot trespassers. I'm making a promise to do my best to be the line. To stand between you and those you seem to want so badly to harm.

And I'm not moving.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

RECOMPOSE, or how I learned to stop worrying and love to bleed.

TL,DR: Editorial upgrade and introduction to RECOMPOSE.

I feel like I should act more professional about this. Like I shouldn’t be running around in circles, giggling my ass off and pointing at myself in mirrors, saying “You. You’re awesome.” However, I have, in my grand wisdom and all consuming exuberance, decided that acting professional about it can hold off for a week or two.

Because I’m officially a fucking editor now. Been paid and everything. Achievement has been unlocked and leveling up has occurred. I think I’m supposed to get a new sword or something, too.

It isn’t just about being an editor, even though being approached by a respected colleague who expressed an honest belief in my capabilities is cool as a trillion cucumbers dancing the cha-cha. The part that gets my engine revving is the opportunity to take part in shaping a project that is both super nifty and (I think) fills an unmet need.

With that in mind, please sit a spell and I’ll tell you a bit about Recompose. The gist is that we want to present speculative fiction with a literary bent that still grabs you by the tender bits and squeezes. While I don't want to0 speak for co-editors Leslie Anderson and Steven Saus, I look for work where the thought and artistry are clear, where there is no doubt that every word was placed with both intent and integrity and where meaning is nested like Matroyshka dolls and each look opens up a new layer. At the same time, the heart needs to be there. Those words need to bleed. That meaning needs to cut deep and leave scars. I’m not really interested in something blandly intellectual or chaotically emotional, but balanced between the two. It doesn’t hurt to have a huge, slavering beast of some sort in there either.

Our first issue (available for free viewing here) gives a solid sense of where we want to head with this. If this TOC doesn’t get your brain-maw watering, then I don’t know what will:

How To Give A Dog A Name Without Owning It - Nisi Shawl
The All Night Clinic - Charlee Jacob
Safe Empathy - Ken Liu
Strange Horses by Edwin Muir - Alasdair Stuart
A Boy's Guide to Neoteny - Lucy A. Snyder
Tiger Lily Madness - Cat Rambo
We Killed the Morale Officer on Sweetest Day - Matt Betts
The Right of It - Seanan McGuire 

*side note: We have a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first few issues. Issue 1 has been fully funded, but for each $550, we will be able to guarantee another issue in advance. Check out the magazine. If you like it, drop a few bucks in our cup. I’m looking forward to some exciting times with this.*

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Lexiles matter to independent writers and publishers

TL,DR: An explanation of Lexile Measures and how to receive an official Lexile measure for your books to help get them into school libraries.

In the ghastly domain of the real world, I work at a public school. I’m also a huge fan of independent presses and the work they do outside the lines of traditional publishing. Enough so that I believe whole-heartedly that one of the paths to instilling a love of literature in the youth, especially those that are bored to tears with what they are force-fed in their classes, is by providing them access to books by indie presses. That means getting copies of those books into school libraries.

The problem is that more and more school libraries require a registered Lexile score for every book they have available and many owners of small presses that I talk to do not know what this is or how to get it set up. In fact, I’ve had this conversation with enough writers and publishers that I decided to put this together to (hopefully) make it easier on everyone involved.

What the heck is a Lexile measure?

Essentially, it is a metric of how complicated a text is. The specifics of the formula are proprietary and owned by Metametrics, but basically seem to boil down to a combination of average sentence length (in words) and average word length (in syllables).

Why do schools care about Lexiles?

Lexiles are a handy tool in assessing the reading level of a student and can be tied to reading progress in accordance to the Common Core standards. It also allows for somewhat easier pairing of students with level-appropriate texts. Granted, this does not take into account how complicated the ideas within a given text are, only how complicated the words and their arrangement are (The Hunger Games actually has a higher Lexile measure than Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle). It does, however, provide a measurable tool to show progress in student reading ability. Given that teacher pay is increasingly tied to measurable growth, I’m sure you can see why so many schools buy into it.

What this means for your book?

Pure and simple, being able to provide a Lexile score gives a school library an extra reason to carry your book. Heck, it allows teachers the option of assigning your book for in class reading because they can then include it on the data they are likely required to provide to their bosses.

How do I get a Lexile measure?

This is where that whole “proprietary formula” thing becomes a bit of a pain in the ass. The only option I am aware of is to go through Metametrics. The details can be found at Lexile Framework sitehttps://www.lexile.com/about-lexile/publishers/. The good news is that most electronic texts only cost $30 and this is a one-time cost. The bad news is that you can’t comparison shop or estimate it on your own.

I will admit to a bit of bias when I try to push publishers and authors to get this done, but it is purely because I want to be able to give the kids I work with access to some of the best damn writing out there and this is another way for me to do that. Also, I think it would be cool as hell if we started showing how much genre fiction actually matches up to official literary works.


Nota bene: I don’t work for Metametrics and don’t profit by supporting their company. In all honesty, I think it sucks that this is not a publicly available tool and that the richness available in literature is reduced to an oversimplified number. All the same, I have to accept the world I live in and the expectations of my profession and use them to affect some form of actual learning in the students.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

RIP Tom Piccirilli

On Saturday, July 11, Tom Piccirilli died.
A Lower Deep

I remember stumbling on A Lower Deep back in 2001. It sat on a shelf in the book section of Kroger, that fucking harlequin staring me down like I owed it money. I remember being drawn in by the smooth, morose lyrical prose down into the depths of this weird ass necromancer and his snarky demonic familiar. I remember finding, among the copious buckets of blood and sex and scabby demons from every level of hell, an intense tale of love, loss and obsession. There was no turning back for me, even after I made the mistake of reading Dark Father.
Even Tom said to stay away from this one.
Even Tom said never to read this one.
Over my years writing reviews, I’ve been known to occasionally fawn over Piccirilli’s work. Some have accused me of being rather fanboyish, others (myself included in this last list) of riding his nuts. There’s a reason for this. While I’m neither arrogant or psychotic enough to believe he was writing directly to me, there are several times that works of his came out saying precisely what I needed to hear in precisely the way I needed to hear it to be able to hold on. To be able to deal with occurrences in my life I didn’t think I could deal with. I wouldn’t be the person I am if not for his work.
Last Kind

To every person out there who has ever ranted at me about the stupidity of genre fiction or that it only serves as violent and prurient wish fulfillment, this is why I politely ask you to fuck off.
Coffin Blues

His writing covered everything from erotica to horror to crime to gothic and even a couple of amazing goddam westerns. He could be linear, literal and sledgehammer brutal with his words or dance across the page with lyrical density. Some of his stories, especially the crime ones, were very straight forward. Then there were the weird ones where he really let the crazy come out and play. Those ones still mess with my head. Yet, there was always a core of raw, brutal honesty. That undefinable sense that no one else on the planet could have written this and that every bit of him was bleeding out onto the page.

I don’t know the man. I never had the chance to meet him, though he did respond to a few of my reviews and was always kind when I emailed him my latest bit of fanboyish squee, but I feel like, through his writing, I grew to know the piece of himself that he shared with the world. Hell, I still have a hard time picturing him without his old pug, Criswell, which used to feature heavily in his website those long days ago.
My condolences go out to his many friends in the writing community and especially to his wife, who fought tooth and nail with him throughout his battle with cancer yet always took a moment out to let his fans know what was going on.


Fuckin Pic, Man. Farewell.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Shock Totem Monthly Weekend-Long Challenge

Date: January 8-10
Prompt posted: Friday, 8pm EST
Story due: Saturday, 8PM EST
Comments and voting due: Sunday, 8pm EST

We are tossing things up a bit over at the Shock Totem Flash Challenge. We will continue the bi-weekly one hour challenge, but we are also adding in a monthly Weekend-long challenge. For this one, you will have 24 hours to submit your story.

This is a “prompted” challenge, meaning your story must be based on the prompt, which will be revealed just before 8 PM EST on Friday. The challenge takes place on the Shock Totem forum, so you’ll need an account if you want to participate.

Heads up: The Shock Totem Writer’s Workshop (the humble home wherein the flash challenge page of the forum is nestled) does not appear unless you are logged in. This is to protect any stories posted from appearing as published. Many people end up turning stories started on the flash challenge into publishable works and we don’t want to mess that up for anyone.

The purpose of the challenge is to force you, the writer, to clear your mind of all distractions and write a complete 1,000-word-or-less story within the allotted time. You’ll have to not only write the story, but also edit it, and then post it by 8 PM EST on Saturday.

For those interested, here are the rules:

1. All stories should be complete, written and posted within 24 hours, and can be anywhere from one sentence to 1,000 words in length.

2. You may choose to write your story in any genre.

3. Your story must be built around the restrictions—words, themes, photo prompts, word limits, etc.—provided by the Flashmaster at the beginning of the challenge.

4. Once the participants’ work is posted, the voting and comment session begins and continues until all votes are in. Time limit for voting will be determined on the spot, depending on how many people finish the challenge.

5. The winner becomes Flashmaster and hosts the next contest.

And that’s it. Simple and fun.

So go to the forum, sign up and kick people in the face with the force of your raw verbiage.