Boldly Going, Going Boldly

Star Trek Discovery isn’t perfect, but I’m not sure any television show, movie, or comic book franchise will ever be perfect in the eyes of its fans. There’s a passion in fandom that’s tied to nostalgia, to the version of a franchise we first fell in love with.

I grew up on reruns of Star Trek the Original Series. Every day at 6pm on Channel 34 in Oklahoma I visited strange worlds and came to think that people should be judged on more than skin color or by ethnic or national background. When the Next Generation came along, I went happily back to the stars.

I love Star Wars too, but for very different reasons. Star Trek was always about the principles for me—that humanity could grow beyond petty squabbles and conflicts over religion or resources to do something bigger. We could spread out, explore. We could forgo economics, hunger, and internal armed conflict.

For some people, Discovery will be a letdown because while it focuses on the Federation/Klingon war, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about explorers and scientists in wartime. The Discovery is a science vessel. That she’s a science vessel whose research into finding a “better way to fly” must be repurposed for war provides a perfect setting for the show’s primary theme: can the Federation’s ideals survive in a time of war?

Some characters easily resent this, and they run the risk of helping the Klingons win. Other characters pivot to the other extreme, that winning the war is worth any cost. The interesting ones, as always, are conflicted and walk a line down the middle, pulled apart by their principles. The main character in Discovery, Michael Bernam, is a walking example of this: a human orphaned by the Klingons then raised by Vulcans, and now back among humans.

My largest problem with the recent Trek movies is that they failed to understand what Star Trek is truly about. The principles that drove the original series seemed entirely lacking, the scientific curiosity thrown over for a shoot first ask questions later mentality. The writers seemed determined to plumb the depths of the Federation’s dark side and offer up villains whose motivations, while sympathetic, were outright betrayals or rejections of the original series’ principles. “This isn’t your father’s Star Trek” so many reviewers said, and they weren’t wrong. The main issue I had was that it wasn’t my Star Trek either.

I love Discovery. I loved the first two episodes, a prologue to the main event. I loved episode four the most, where the shoot first character blunders into their death because that mentality has put them on too extreme of a vector.

I’m more than excited to see where the series goes. It’s not the original series. It’s not the Next Generation, but it feels far closer to Star Trek: wonder, exploration, and guiding principles, albeit tested against the backdrop of war.

I can’t end this review without mentioning CBS All Access or the controversy around it. Like so many, I hate the subscription service. It’s a lot of money for one show (and for me, there is no other CBS show I’m interested in after they booted Supergirl). For now, I’ll pay the fee to see Discovery, but I would absolutely hate to see it fail because of a short sighted attempt to launch the subscription service. I’d much prefer to buy the season on Amazon and watch the episodes a day later commercial free (like I do the Expanse or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency).

Subscription aside, I hope Discovery succeeds. It’s the Star Trek I’ve waited a long time for.

I Grieve

I’d just discovered sushi when my grandmother died. It wasn’t the sort of food you found in rural Oklahoma, not the time I grew up. I tried it when my boss took us there for dinner. I enjoyed it and learned that I have good chopstick days and bad chopstick days.

A few weeks after grandmother passed away, I dreamed about sushi, about sitting in a beautiful restaurant: dark granite table, fine wine, and limited lighting. I could hear other tables, snatches of their conversation, the chink of glass on stone, but I couldn’t see them. I looked around the table and saw my father across from me and my grandmother sitting next to me.

The meal continued. We ate. We laughed. We talked about nothing important. A waiter appeared with a small tray. As he set it on the table, he said, “This is the only fish of this kind. This is the only time you will have this meal.”

At that moment I realized my grandmother was dead, that I was dreaming, and that when I woke she’d be gone again. As the thought came to me she winked, and I woke up.

Since then I’ve made sushi my happy food. I eat it when I’m down, sad, or grieving. My father died this week, and I’m eating a lot of sushi. My friend Liz, dear heart, sent me a set of chopsticks she picked up for me in Japan. I don’t know if she’s like me is terrible about mailing things or if they just arrived, but I love them and I intend to put them to good use.

Write Your Way Out

Use every rejection to fuel your determination.

Use every bit of good news, every gain, to fuel your persistence.

Whether it’s a good day or a bad one, write your way through whatever blocks or distracts you.

Writing should be your joy, the thing that stops time because you’re lost in it.

Take the best parts of your life and crystallize them in words.

Take the worst parts of your life and write your way out. Because it’s the only way past them.

This is the best, most consistent advice I can give.

Send in the Cheerleaders: In Praise of Alpha Readers

When you’re trying to succeed at writing you’re often told to avoid critique from your mom, your friends, from anyone whose feedback on your work won’t be critical enough to help you improve. This is good advice — to a point. You need honest feedback if you want to improve as a writer. Critique partners and brutal editors are your friends when it comes to spotting weak points in your craft, especially when it comes to clarity.

That said, writing is hard. Rejection is hard, and trying to make it as an author is for most of us, a long, brutal road. It can beat you down and it can be hard sometimes to peel yourself off the mat.

That’s where alpha readers come in. These readers aren’t necessarily going to give you much feedback. They might spot problems, tell you when something isn’t working, but I don’t count on them for line edits or even provide suggested fixes to structural problems.

Their primary purpose is to cheerlead. I use them to know whether or not a book is headed in the right direction, to get behind it and encourage me to keep writing the book. Since I work in an Agile method, I can ship a few chapters a week. My alpha readers, the first round readers, provide feedback and encouragement.

They act as an audience, people who want to know where the story is going. That bit of pressure can keep me working, keep me barreling past the hard parts in a book. I don’t want to let them down.

They’re often my most enthusiastic readers. They ask me how it’s going, and give me a sounding board when I get stuck. Knowing they’re in my corner, that my book has someone waiting to meet it, helps me keep going.

You have to be careful with alpha readers, just as you do with betas. You need to make sure that you trust the person to support and encourage you. Like beta readers, you need to make sure they can provide input you can use and when they do, be sure to parse it against your gut. Don’t let alpha or beta reader feedback sway you if your story feels right as it is. That said, DO listen. Do think about all feedback. It’s a delicate balance between letting your ego tell you to ignore input and letting yourself get pulled in any direction a reader tries to push you. The first results in sub-standard writing and the second in eternal edits. Thank your readers, alphas, and betas.

Know Thy Limits: Self-care, When Too Much Just Is Too Much

Most people know that one side of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi had “Know Thyself” written over the main entrance. What most people don’t know is what they wrote over the back door: “Know Thy Limits.” The ancient Greeks were trying to warn us about hubris, dangerous pride and thinking ourselves gods. I like to think they also meant it in regards to overextension.

Creative burn out is a real thing. We talk a lot about word count and daily goals in writing and pursuing success in writing, but it’s important to know when to rest, when to recharge. Our creative batteries need a break, even when our creativity is our escape.

We’re in a time of political unrest, when it’s easy to let the news and the constant stream of input derail completely us. For me, I want to stay active, to call my representatives, to march, to donate where I can. Still, I must accept my limits. I have to know when to pull back and take some time for self-care before I burn out. It’s hard to balance it all, hard to have it all. Be active. Write. Do the work. It’s the only way out for me, but always know your limits and accept the damage done when you surpass them.

Give yourself permission to rest sometimes. You’re not a god. Give yourself permission to take the time out when you need it. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Aim to win the long race.

Of Family and Folios

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (original Middle English text from the First Folio of 1623) with stamp – selective focus

I saw the Book of Will tonight at the Denver Performing Arts Center. I have to admit that when my friend Jo invited me I wasn’t certain I needed a deep dive into how Shakespeare’s First Folio was published. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The play is set a few years after Shakespeare’s death, when his friends and actors are confronting their mortality and the realization that the words they’ve loved and lived by, his words, are fading from their collective memory. The fire at the original Globe destroyed the original manuscripts, and the copywriting method Shakespeare employed, only giving each actor his written part, threatens to erase the plays from the world. To publish his plays they have to side with foes, make deals with those they consider devils, and collect bits of text from closets and privies. The lost words hurt even as the cast sees their time on earth running out. They’re racing against time and death.

Book of Will brings the importance of Shakespeare to the front and holds it there, right where the audience can see it. It unabashedly pleads with you to see the value of art, theater, and continuing to feel with an open heart in a world where children can die before their parents and pain is a constant. The performances were stellar. I cried more than once and left wanting more than anything to write, to strive to put something into the world to ease the pain.

See it if you can. Read it if you can’t. Or if you have to settle, read some Shakespeare.

Interview with Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Liza Dawson Associates

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Today, I’m interviewing Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, an associate agent, of Liza Dawson Associates with questions about Publishing, what she’s looking for, and being an Agent.

Jennifer joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.

David: You’ve probably seen a lot of queries since you became an agent. What’s the number one thing writers get wrong in a query? Is there one area where we should really try to improve?

Jennifer: The number one mistake writers make in queries is not hooking me in with a compelling and succinct description of the project. I get a surprising number of queries that provide more of a synopsis, talk mostly about the writer, or (worst of all) say that the book “can’t be described.” I think queries are most akin to flap copy—perhaps with a bit more plot summary.

One area in which I’d urge writers to strive for improvement is with comp titles. They’re SO difficult (trust me, I know from writing pitches), but finding the right comp really helps agents get a feel for your book. Don’t be afraid to be specific; think: the voice of X and the pacing of Y.

David: Something that stood out for me right away is that you’re looking for highly readable books that explain why we act and think like we do. Can you explain what you mean in a bit more detail and give us some examples?

Jennifer: I’m really fascinated by pop psychology and sociology books that explain human behavior and conditions. One of my favorites is STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS, which is all about how we misremember the past and do a poor job of predicting what will make us happy in the future. Recently I loved MODERN ROMANCE’s exploration of the contemporary dating landscape.

I’m really looking for books for a trade, rather than an academic, audience. Daniel Gilbert’s use of memorable anecdotes and Aziz Ansari’s humor made those books very readable and compelling for the average reader.

David: My family is Oklahoma City too, though they don’t attend Thunder games. What’s your favorite book with a sports theme? Though it’s fiction, I love Chris Crutcher’s STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES.

Jennifer: Recently, I loved Emily Giffin’s THE ONE AND ONLY–such a perfect blend of football and romance that nails that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS feel. And this is a few years old, but Miranda Kenneally’s CATCHING JORDAN has a female quarterback, which is just amazing. I’d love to see more sports books about women breaking barriers. Also, I’ve been saving them for a slightly less hectic week, but I’m so excited to pair my Olympics gymnastics viewing with both Caela Carter’s TUMBLING and Megan Abbot’s YOU WILL KNOW ME. (Come to think of it, I loved DARE ME–yes, cheerleading is a sport.)

David: You’re a feminist, which I, and my critique group, really appreciate. What are some pitfalls writers fall into in that department? Are there certain tropes or negative clichés they should avoid?

Jennifer: Oh, this is a big question. This is by no means comprehensive, but there are two things I see frequently in books that really frustrate me as a feminist. The first is rape as a plot device or characterization ploy. If it’s at all possible for you to substitute an assault without rape and have the same story, then you shouldn’t use rape. And it also shouldn’t be a shortcut to explain why a character’s angry or vulnerable. The second big issue for me is the failure to present accidental pregnancy as a choice. I read so many books where a character becomes unexpectedly pregnant and immediately jumps to, okay, now I’m having a baby–that’s not a foregone conclusion. I want a character to at least consider all her options, including abortion.

On the other side of things, however, I’ve read many submissions over the last year where the politics are so appealing, the feminist themes are so strong, but the plot is lacking. I really believe in strongly plotted books, even for novels that are very much concerned with theme, voice, and characterization. Feminism is a baseline for me; it’s not enough to make me sign a book.

David: Publishers Marketplace lists some great deals across different genres for you over the last year, including non-fiction, fiction, and YA. What’s your favorite recent sale or work by a client you’re excited for us to read?

Jennifer: I cannot choose between my babies! Seriously, though. I will say that the FIRST two books that will be hitting your shelves come out next summer, 2017: Rebecca Barrow’s YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU, a contemporary YA about a girl who receives an unexpected letter from her birth mother as she and her boyfriend struggle to decide what to do about an unexpected pregnancy, while facing a growing distance with her best friend, and Kristin Rockaway’s THE WILD WOMAN’S GUIDE TO TRAVELING THE WORLD, a work of commercial women’s fiction about a twenty-something travel-loving New Yorker who starts to question her five-year plan after meeting an American artist in Hong Kong.

They’re obviously very different books, but they’re both extremely smart and well written and feature strong women at their centers–they also both have very long titles ha!

David: I know a lot of agents and editors get bombarded by writers and it can be overwhelming, being pitched all the time. Is there anything you’d like writers to know that you feel would improve the process from our side?

Jennifer: Just keep in mind that agents are human–sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes life gets in the way, and we don’t respond as quickly as we should, etc. Know that we appreciate how hard it is for writers, and we really do wish the best for each of you. We’re all readers who want more books in the world, but we as individuals have limited resources and thus have to limit what we take on. And remember that this is a highly subjective process. I’ve disliked books that the rest of the world has loved. When I read queries or hear pitches, I’m looking for books that I personally want to champion.

David: I love THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN. I wrote a lot of papers about her in college. My poor professors probably got so tired of all the bondage talk. You have such a wide range of what you’re looking for. Are there any topics or areas you’re really oversaturated with right now? Any you’re light on and really hungry for?

Jennifer: As a newer agent, my list is still small enough that I could take on more of anything. But I’d really love to find the following:

  • a dark thriller or suspense novel–think Caroline Kepnes or Gillian Flynn
  • an upper MG project like COUNTING BY 7s
  • a very smart contemporary romance that feels fresh
  • a deeply reported narrative nonfiction book with a personal edge and a sociological bent like ALL THE SINGLE LADIES

David: Before you were an agent, you interned at LDA and worked as an assistant agent at Trident Media Group. What advice would have for anyone looking getting into publishing? Any myths you’d want to dispel?

Jennifer: Publishing–especially agenting–is very much still an apprenticeship model industry in which connections are important. You really do have to start at the intern level, and I’d encourage you to be open about your first internship. I actually started as an intern for a digital book discovery platform, which led to my internship at LDA, where I really wanted to be. And that was at 29 years old, with a Harvard Law degree and a few years of experience in both law and education–there are no shortcuts.

Once you have that internship, be willing to put in all the time you can, even though you may not be getting paid. I put in hours beyond my required 15 each week for Liza, which seemed a bit crazy at the time, but it obviously paid off in the long run. Finally, I’m not in a position to change this yet, but I know the expectation of an unpaid internship in New York City is impossible for some people–I hope that we as an industry continue to work on ways to make publishing more of an equal opportunity career field.

Pride

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A lot of rage in me today, atop a well of tears for my tribe, for a younger generation that gets to know the fear we had, the airport security doors on the clubs, the bullets, the pipebombs, and always watching your back. I was 18 when I was shot at. I’ll never know if it was because I was gay or not. Just like I’ll never know if my father beat me for calling him daddy once instead of dad because it was too effeminate or because he was drunkenly imitating a John Wayne movie. It’s been 10 years since someone in Denver drove by and screamed faggot at me from a passing car and I had to duck in case the bullets came again. It’s been five years since I said “him” instead of “her” to a coworker and saw them flinch with disapproval and I had to wonder if it would affect my career.
 
It’s a feeling I’d wished you’d never have felt. It’s a feeling 49 of you never will feel. You’ll never get to feel anything again. It’s a feeling that will haunt the survivors the rest of their lives. It’s something too many of us will remember, and will infect the rest of us. It’s fear and shame.
 
It’s why I write what I write: what I needed so very much to read when I was a young adult. It’s why I keep writing, why I keep loving, and celebrating who we are, what we cannot, and should not try to change about our crazy wonderful tribe. It’s why I’ll be there Sunday, with the thousands of us, the churches who march, the drag queens, and the amazing Dykes on Bikes.
 
I’m gay, damn it. And I say that with pride.