Friday, April 21, 2017

The SM9 Who Got a Second Chance

This was my second ever typewriter purchase off of Facebook Marketplace. The pictures from the seller did not adequately convey the condition of the machine, and when I'd driven thirty minutes to meet him, I was a little uneasy. The machine was dirty, and carried upside down in the box. To make it worse, the guy (smoking, covered in tattoos, who showed up in the parking lot in a Chevy truck that looked one bad bump away from falling to pieces) kept going on about how it was passed on from his ex-girlfriend and he'd never had time to mess with it.

I almost didn't buy it. The carriage kept hitting the frame when released. The carriage stopped entirely if you typed past the halfway point. The clear tab button wasn't working at all, just hanging there limp. When he saw my hesitation he lowered his price to $15 and I took it, feeling a little sorry for him. After my debacle with the Lettera 22 I was very unsure of myself. Could I fix it?

As you can see, yes. I did.

The rail issue was caused by rubber grommets on the underside of the frame. One was missing, and one had a loose screw that cause the outer frame to wobble. The carriage rides straight now, even though the machine's a bit lopsided. The clear tab button only had a disconnected link. It looks good now, but still won't work right and actually clear the tabs. Funny, my $10 SM7 doesn't have a working tabulator at all, but this one does.

As you can see, it types just fine. The only other defect is that the ! key slug was cut off. Why? Who knows? Why are there gashes all over like someone took a knife to it?

The only question now is what to do with it. I can't fix the missing slug (though...a custom made slug with my initials or some other symbol would be nice...), and I don't particuarly need another SM9 when the other I have is just fine. Trade bait? Sell it? Still thinking about it. For now, I'm just glad I was able to fix it to the point it works reasonably well.

Sometimes the damage isn't as bad as you think.

Power to the pen.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lettera 22 Link Help!

Snagged a Lettera 22 off CL last week. The carriage wouldn't hold because the escapement was gummed up. Nothing a little PB Blaster couldn't fix.

But there's still one more major problem left that I've been unable to solve: the ribbon vibrator will not stay at rest, and therefore, I can't use the machine because the ribbon blocks my view of the text.

Compare the image from the Olivetti repair manual (courtesy of Mr. Munk) with the image of my machine's link #34. It's not the right shape, so it doesn't work correctly. The vibrator will stay in the elevated position as if I was pressing a key. The spring next to link #34 is keeping it under constant tension.

The link snapped when I tried to bend it back into the correct shape. I need a new one, so if you have a Lettera 22 parts machine please get in touch. I'll even pay for the stupid thing. I'm was so close to getting this back up and running properly.

Thanks in advance.

Monday, March 20, 2017

You Can't Make Art With A Checklist. Part 2

Last time we tackled the issue of "sensitivity readers" being hired to screen manuscripts for big publishing houses. It should raise valid concerns about censorship. As I've always said, you cannot make the kind of world-changing art people love with a checklist of dos and don'ts.  However, they aren't the only ones restricting artistic freedom.

Today, we look at the other side: the checklist of Christian fiction.

Before we get started, we have to define terms. What is Christian fiction? You could go all the way back to stories like The Divine Comedy and Pilgrim's Progress. To make this easier, we're going to stick with the modern publishing trend, which seems to have emerged around thirty to forty years ago. Sometimes a friend or relative will ask "Have you every considered writing Christian fiction?" Yes, I have, but it's fraught with the problems, in a similar vein as angelic fiction.

One topic that's been on my mind for some time is the legalization of gay marriage nation-wide. My generation was raised in a very black and white home. Sin (in all manifestations) is bad and you shouldn't do it. By the time I grew up and got into the world, the world had changed in such a way that I didn't know how to engage. I started meeting gay people online through common interests of writing and typewriter collecting. The question popped into my mind "How can one with absolute religious beliefs reconcile with the laws of the land where they live? How does one walk that line between Jesus' love and God's sense of justice and righteousness?" I believe it's a topic that demands a Steinbeckian treatment.

Maybe I'll write that book someday, maybe not. Still very unsure of myself. Regardless, I started looking into the Christian market to see if such a story might be received. What I found was a bit...disappointing. A lot of people had a lot to say about it.

This guy.

This gal.

This guy. 

This girl.

And even this girl.  

There were several others, but the consensus was the same: Christian fiction today just isn't good.

That puzzled me. How could an entire slice of fiction be that bad? Even if you apply Sturgeon's Law (the idea that 90% of everything/anything is subpar), there's got to be some good stuff out there, right?

I'll leave that one up to you, since we're dealing with censorship. The articles that I found the most helpful were "Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction" by Simon Morden and "Why Christians Can't Agree About Christian Fiction" by Mike Duran.

In his essay, Morden delves into the background of the biggest Christian publishers operating today and the aims of their work, namely to entertain and inspire whilst providing a safe alternative to secular fiction. All well and good. You can teach kids how to treat others with kindness by showing them Zootopia rather than Twelve Years a Slave. They aren't ready for the heavy stuff.

But that nobility starts to break down when you look at the submission criteria these companies allegedly use: the protagonist must be a Christian or become one by the end of the book, no cursing, no depictions of drinking, smoking, sex, drugs, and almost no violence.

Half of my library falls well outside of those guidelines. As Morden points out, such rules would easily disqualify most works of the best-known Christian writers of the past: Tolkien, Lewis, Tolstoy, Sayers, Dostoyevsky, and Chesterton.

And here's where we come to the defining break: the works of the above-mentioned were more Christian-inspired than overt vehicles for evangelizing that you see in bookstores today (despite the obvious moral messages in some of the former). And when you get to that point, you'll lose the reader.

John Steinbeck was one of America's greatest. His books dealt with very flawed people battling to retain their dignity whilst suffering inhumane conditions. Read about the Dust Bowl. Read about how cruel Americans were to each other. Under those circumstances, anyone's faith in a loving god would start to crack. In his novel East of Eden, two of the characters are discussing different translations of the Bible, specifically the story of Cain and Able. The Chinese manservant called Lee has found that the King James version records Genesis 4:7 "And if thou doest well, shalt not thou be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him." As Lee points out, this is and order. But the Hebrew word in this same verse is timshel, "thou mayest rule over him." Lee declares this "may be the most important word in the world." Man has the power to rule over sin, if he chooses. But as Faulkner said, the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Some people choose not to rule over sin.

Isn't that what the whole Christian faith is about? Making that choice to rule over our impulses? It's brilliant but also a sobering thought, one that fits well with the events of the novel. When Adam Trask finally confronts his ex-wife Cathy (who runs a sadistic brothel and has files to use as blackmail), she's struck by the realization that she cannot corrupt him like her clients.

I can tell you that East of Eden spoke to me as a believer in a very powerful way.

There's another powerful moment in Shogun by James Clavell, which is based on the true story of this guy. As the protagonist, an English Protestant, rises in power and favor with the Japanese, he is granted the status of hatamoto, or "land-owner." He carries the two swords of a samurai. He has life-or-death say over his subjects. Keep in mind, this guy lived around 1600 and is initially repulsed by the Japanese with their liberal attitude on sex. He has a maid, a female interpreter, and has slept with a professional, high-class courtesan (a favor from his lord, that lady was worth a small fortune). One night, as he contemplates his life, he admits: I love each one of them. But how can that be?

That's a great conflict!

So why can't those kinds of books succeed in a so-called Christian market?

Enter Mike Duran's essay. In "Why Christians Can't Agree About Christian Fiction" he outlines the battle: the holiness camp versus the honesty camp. The first group emphasizes the law that Christians are supposed to live by, which governs our conduct. The latter emphasizes the fact that we're flawed, fallen creatures who are always struggling with the command to "be in the world but not of the world."

The main issue seems to be what kind of content is acceptable and does the author sin by writing such things? That's outside the scope of this article, and I don't want to comment on the potential sinfulness of such without using the Bible.

So let's move on with the idea that, no, you can't be overt about it. How do you write meaningful stories with God at the heart? I have always believed that you cannot dissuade people from a life of sin unless you show them what sin looks like. There's a big difference between saying "don't fornicate" and showing what casual sex with multiple partners might lead to (besides the obvious STDs). There's a huge different between saying "don't drink" and showing what Charles Jackson did with The Lost Weekend (the protagonist ends up in an asylum after being arrested for theft to feed his addiction; one patient pees on himself and another is having violent hallucinations).

And there are some classic examples of how to do this in film.

It's a Wonderful Life. Story of a selfish man who berates his uncle for a clerical slip, walks out on his family, goes on a drinking binge, then contemplates suicide before an angel intervenes.

War Room. Story about a man who neglects his daughter, steals from his employer, and almost cheats on his wife with a younger woman.

Chariots of Fire. Story about a man who wants to serve God but is also tempted by the chance to gain worldly recognition as a champion runner.

These films do not shy away from the harsh reality that good people do bad things. The Bible is loaded with that kind of stuff! David was an adulterer. Abraham lied. Moses disobeyed. Eli failed to teach his sons. Esther was hesitant to act on behalf of her people until prodded by Mordecai.

Unfortunately, for every film like the ones above, we get the campy feel-good stuff like Facing the Giants and Flywheel which convey the message of "100% pure prayer! Works in five minutes, guaranteed!" I was saddened to hear critics saying the same things about The Shack. That one had potential, at least in the premise. How to grapple with the unsolved murder of your child is a great question.

I've met a lot of Christians, some who were so sheltered I felt pity. One young lady planned on heading to Egypt (pre-revolution) as soon as she got out of school to evangelize. Without speaking the language. Without a guide. By herself. I hope someone talked her out of it.

The recent controversy over Beauty and the Beast is another good example. It makes sense that there would be gay people in France at the time depicted in the film, just like it makes sense for them to show racial integration. Having seen the film...I still can't figure out which "gay moment" supposedly got everyone up in arms. If I hadn't been told otherwise, I wouldn't have suspected a thing. Way to go, people.

Why do I not write/read about Christians, for the most part? Because I'm interested in other kinds of people, and want to explore how people without my faith get through A, B, and C.

But these other believers want to be in the world without acknowledging anything about the world. Not only are they denying a fascinating aspect of the human experience (an understanding which Paul conveyed in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), they're also, it seems, reading a lot of boring books.

And that, dear reader, is why you just cannot make art with a checklist. You'll make a mediocre product that no one can relate to.

I hope this mini-series was enlightening and helpful. I enjoyed writing them.

Power to the pen.

And remember, thou mayest.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Just a Bit Shameless Marketing

When I moved to Ste. Genevieve in 2015, After Their Kind was the very first short story I wrote on my Olivetti 21 typewriter. Every fantasy magazine turned it down, some praising the writing but noting that anthropomorphic animal characters were too hard to sell.

I found the "Dogs of War" anthology contest by accident last year. It seemed like a perfect market. I needed money. Why not? I never expected a volume this good to come out! Just look at that cover art!

"Dogs of War" has twenty-three stories in it, and opens with a fantastic introduction by the editor about the history of humans using dogs (and other animals) in combat (from ancient times to the present). Each story also has a short intro which helps contextualize what you're about to read.

If you're interested, head over to this link here to pick up a copy! I've been in contact with the editor since it was published in January and he said the first batch sold out before the convention in SF was over (reason why it took so long to get mine).

It's kinda like Zootopia or The Jungle Book with guns and...other stuff.


Part 2 of "Making Art with Checklist" coming soon. Promise!

Monday, February 20, 2017

You Can't Make Art With a Checklist. Part 1

Like many many sermons I've heard, I'd like to segway into this with a good joke. 

With everyone busy attacking Steve Bannon for his remarks on the media, I'd like to direct your attention to this Chicago Tribune article that was published on 2-15. The piece mentions several high-profile authors, such as Joanne Rowling and Veronica Roth. But I'd like to quote someone else who had their own thoughts on this very issue.

"About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solumn Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology...But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book to include more women characters and roles? A few years later I got a certain amount of mail concerning the complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I 'do them over'?Then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks...I sent a play off to a university theatre a month ago. My play is based on the "Moby Dick" mythology, dedicated to Melville and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Space Comet and destroy the destroyer. The university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play, it had no women in it! 

The point is obvious. There is more that one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist/Zionist/Seventh-day-Adventist/Women's Lib/Republican/Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, and the duty to douse the kerosene and light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme."

My my, was this some poor mid-list author being kicked around? Was this a new guy just getting on his feet?


It was Ray Bradbury.

That's right. One of the most iconic writers in modern American history had the PC police after him years after he wrote Fahrenheit 451.

Above quote was taken from his essay, Coda, published in 1979. 

That's four years after Watergate, a scandal that was fought by daring reporters who knew there was something very wrong with the executive branch and risked a lot by speaking out. 

But people were already dissecting the text of Bradbury's work, the very novel that preached so vehemently against it.

He writes:

"Only six weeks ago I discovered that some cubby-hole editor at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students...wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony."

Think on that.

But the list goes on.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly chastised for its portrayal of people of color...even though the story features a white man fighting the system, trying to ensure a fair trial for an accused rapist...who happens to be black.

The Grapes of Wrath caused so much controversy that John Steinbeck had to leave the Salinas Valley and never lived there again. He was labeled a Communist, among other things, and copies were publicly burned.

The Color Purple (book and movie) was ripped to shreds because of how it portrayed black families.

And of course, Harry Potter has been banned in some schools because it "promotes witchcraft."

Here's the critical difference between the Tribune article and the above examples.

The other books were condemned after they came out by players independent of the publishing world.

But now, it seems, we're looking at the next logical step: prevention.

Here's a snippet from the Tribune piece. 

"This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her 'Truthwitch' series. 'I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage," Dennard said. But, she added, she felt the voice of the character was an important one that wasn't often portrayed, so she hired a fan, who is a transgender man, just to be sure she did it right."

Scared? No! It can't be! It's only their passion and their livelihood we're talking about. It's not like they had to work really hard to stand out among the millions of wannabe writers to get this far.

I digress.

Is this practice in and of itself wrong or unethical? 

No...but it presents a very thin line between constructive criticism and outright censorship.

Before the term "sensitivity readers" came about these people were known as something else: content editors

The last line of that quote, "just to be sure she did it right," seems counterintuitive to every bit of writing advice that I've ever heard.

Write what you know.

Write what you want.

Be true to yourself.

There's only one way I can see this working out. Stephen King is one of my top five favorite authors. He does a good job of showing why his characters behave the way they do, even the bad ones. In Cujo, Gary Pervier is a hard-drinking pig who lives in a dump of a house, and his response to just about every situation is "I don't give a s***!" Why? He was traumatized by his experiences fighting the Germans in WWII. A similar character appears in It: Henry Bowers' crazy dad who hates black people. He spent a lot of time in the Pacific theatre.

IF this is the intent of sensitivity readers, then they have the potential to do a lot of good. 

BUT I think it would behoove any and all publishers who are taking this initiative seriously to use strict guidelines when hiring these folks, and how they're to do their job. 

That's the optimist inside me. The pessimist has grave reservations about the whole thing.

Take a look:

"One reader for hire in Ireland's database is Dhonielle Clayton, a librarian and writer based in New York. Clayton reviews two manuscripts per month, going line by line to look at diction, dialogue and plot. Clayton says she analyzes the authenticity of the characters and scenes, then points writers to where they can do more research to improve their work.

Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. "Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they're supposed to be escapist and fun," she says. They're not supposed to be a place where readers "encounter harmful versions" and stereotypes of people like them."

Has it occurred to anyone that people cling to stereotypes for a reason, and by understanding why we might be able to better address the underlying problem of hatred? William T. Sherman famously said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." He said that because as a young boy in the West he witnessed just how cruel and ruthless the Natives could be when they went to war, and he was completely oblivious to the larger context that drove them to war. 

And while we're at it, why should I be considered an authority on white Christian men just because I'm a member of that group? I can only speak for myself. I've met a lot of people who are like me...and yet very different. I've met Christians who think it's completely ok to drink alcohol, smoke, curse, and pretty much anything else they cannot find an explicit "thou shalt not" verse to contradict them.

Freedom of speech/freedom of the press has been in a news a lot these days. Literature is a wonderful extension of that right.

There are books that are meant to entertain and comfort people.

But then there are other books that slap you in the face, spit in your eye, then laugh at your tears. And many of these books are now venerated as classics. 

They didn't shirk from reality, even though certain authors twist facts and people to show us how they see it.

And through that lens, many of us changed the way we think.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is credited (by a select few, albeit...) with starting a war that led to the abolition of slavery.

Native Son and Invisible Man showed an ignorant America the hard realities of Jim Crow.

Huckleberry Finn showed us that it is possible to coexist peacefully, no matter where you come from.

So why are we building a bureaucracy that could be used to scare people into not expressing their views of reality? Not sharing their ideas by which we could learn even more about ourselves?

Please, don't be this guy.

Is there a magical place where writers never have to fear telling it as they see it? Is there a paradise where good stories can thrive? Maybe outside the mainstream?

I wish there was such a place.

But, as we'll see next time, Christian fiction has its own share of problems.

Power to the pen, and pens for everyone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

Battling the Occasional Demon

New year. New President. New hopes and fears. New work.

It's often in the bad times that a man learns the most about himself. During my two week dry period I desperately sought a means to channel my frustrations and anger into "literary" stories. It didn't work. The stories I produced were boring and un-engaging, even to me, despite the fact they really happened. I did my usual sweep: Googling interviews with writers who'd made it and whose work was taken "seriously." Then, I realized why I wasn't satisfied.

I wasn't writing from the heart.

A simple comparison of American books heralded as "classic" should've told me as much. The Old Man and the Sea, Invisible Man, Slaughterhouse Five, and Of Mice and Men are all great works of fiction. They use different narrative techniques and tell different stories, but they're all considered wonderful books because they were written with passion and conviction. They're not all even considered "literary." Slaughterhouse Five is often labeled as science fiction.

It seems simple, right? But as always, easier said than done. It's hard not to feel that writing stories about magic, dragons, spaceships, and fantastical places isn't "real" writing. You may have met these people in real life or read their articles online, then sheepishly look at your collection of Tolkien, Lewis, Sanderson, and other masters of the imagination. But then, you meet people on the street who say, "Oh, I love those stories! They helped me get through some hard times." Then you realize there are just as many people defending the existence of faerie stories as there are defaming them. Just go on Tumblr or Facebook to see how many lessons people drew from Harry Potter.

Norwegian psychologist Frode Stenseg classified two kinds of "escapist" literature: self-suppression and self-expansion. The former is used in a negative tone, belittling things by labeling them as "kids books" or "make believe." There is plenty of bad fantasy out there, just like there's plenty of bad fiction about dysfunctional families, religious differences, and politics.

But I finally realized that speculative fiction can also have a literary quality.

Slaughterhouse Five is often hailed as the greatest anti-war novel of all time. I expected as much when I started reading it, but then I was very surprised by a scene when the protagonist is with the aliens who are studying him. After telling them about humanity's history and the ongoing Second World War, the man says he is part of a terrible species who is only good at destroying. The aliens don't even blink. "Why don't you hate us?" the man says. "Don't you think we're repulsive?" The aliens reply, "No, because we're just like you. We've also had wars, and done terrible things to each other. But we have also done good, and that's what we choose to focus on."

I didn't expect an anti-war novel to be pro-humanity at the same time, and that's profound! And it's a science fiction book, often ranked alongside books like the other aforementioned books.

With all of that fresh in my mind, I was finally able to get back to a fantasy story I'd been working on before the demon attacked. It's finished, at 12,000 words. I've also decided on a novel I'd like to finish this year.

At the end of the day, I'm still a writer. My stories are supposed to be awe-inspiring and fun, but they just might help someone see and understand reality a little better. Not everyone can see the world through the same lens as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Vonnegut. Maybe some Harbin glass is what they need.

Power to the pen.