Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Which the Author Is Asked a Steamy Question

How do you write scenes that contain physical intimacy? Do you have any advice?

I'm willing to share some thoughts on this, but with the caveat that this is a subjective matter, and another writer with another writing style could give opposite advice that's just as valid and that you'll like better. Okay? There are many ways to, um, get the job done. And the job you do is not going to please everyone. :)

Also, where this post contains spoilers for my books, I will do my best to be as warny as possible. READ THE RED PRINT, which announces the beginning and end of spoiler sections. (If you have read both Graceling and Fire, then you don't need to worry about the spoiler warnings.)

So, how do I write scenes about physical intimacy?
  • With extreme, persnickety, finicky care. When writing scenes of any kind, you want to try to avoid too many clichés, right? The trouble is that the language of sex and intimacy is SUPER-clichéd -- just imagine a parody of a sex scene in a romance novel -- so it becomes difficult to say things in a fresh way, a way that doesn't draw unwanted attention to the writing. When I'm writing a book, I return to every scene and every exchange, over and over, days and weeks and even months after I've written them, testing them with my more objective eye. I fiddle with single words, or even punctuation. I do this with every type of scene -- but I do it even more with scenes that have to do with physical intimacy, because these scenes require such a delicate balance of vocabulary and feeling.
  • With my thesaurus open. Let's face it: there are some words that are best avoided in these scenes. Maybe never used the word "throbbing" in your sex scene :). Of course, there are no set rules, but words such as "ecstasy," "rapture," and a whole litany of corny names for body parts (manhood! member!) can also be problematic. This leaves the writer with a crisis. What words can you use without cracking yourself (and others) up? What words are left? I can't tell you. Be patient. Keep fiddling with it until it feels right. I give a few more tips about word choice below.
  • With a lot of laughter. Writing one of these scenes is not a dignified activity. My thesaurus, in particular, is constantly cracking me up. I don't want to use the word "passionately," because that's wooden and clichéd, but wouldn't it be hysterical if I used the word "concupiscently" instead? Or "agog," or "with biological urge?" Agog with biological urge, he thrust his throbbing manhood into her quivering conflagration. The antonyms always get me, too. What if I just admitted that my smooching characters find this turn of events to be "dreary," "uninspiring," "producing ennui," or just plain "stupid?"
  • Reminding myself that less is more. Here's the thing: you're trying to evoke the feeling of what is happening to your characters, for your reader. So, how are your characters feeling? Keeping in mind, of course, that everyone is different :) -- while this funny business is going on, the characters are probably NOT going through a mental inventory of the steps involved. My goodness, I am now moving my left hand slowly up his right calf and over his bumpy knee while spasmodically clutching his throbbing torso with my right arm! Fantastic! Assuming the characters are into what's happening, they probably aren't thinking that way. Chances are, they're in a bit of a haze. So, create a bit of a haze for your reader. Don't feel the need to over-describe; resist the urge to explain. If you're struggling with what words to use for body parts -- see if you can evoke the same impressions without naming the body parts. If you've written a sentence about hands touching face and back and neck (or whatever), try how it sounds if you just talk about hands touching, without specifying where. See how much you can do with as few words as possible. Maybe, choose a single specific physical touch for one of your sentences, and then back away from specifics for a while. Or, don't. It's a delicate operation. You don't want to do too little or too much, but where that line is depends entirely on the nature of your book, the nature of your characters, and the situation.
  • With extreme attention, at all times, to who has the power and who is taking the initiative. These types of scenes are inevitably at least partly about power. The power dynamics between whoever the players are in the scene need to be realistic. Depending on how you write these scenes, they can go a long way toward defining your characters, and defining the power dynamics of their relationships. For example: [FIRE SPOILERS!!!] In Fire, Archer sleeps with women indiscriminately and makes it obvious he always wants to sleep with Fire. So, if and when Fire sleeps with him, I make damn sure that it's because she wants to and takes the initiative, not because he finally "wears her down," so to speak. In fact, Fire is so much about Fire being desired by others, even attacked, that this became important to me throughout the book. Onscreen, I try to make her always decide for herself when she wants physical intimacy, and never allow herself to be pushed into it by loved ones. I also try to demonstrate the decency of various loved ones by showing them resisting the urge to try to push her into it -- resisting the urge to exploit their own power. Which she does, too. Power dynamics get messy! [END OF FIRE SPOILERS!!!] ....... [AND NOW....] ...... [GRACELING SPOILERS!!!] Katsa, on the other hand, is the aggressor in all things, always -- except for in this particular sphere. She's a frequently fearless person who is suddenly terrified to discover herself having feelings for someone. So though she finds the courage to initiate the first hug, I decided that her partner should kiss her first. That being said -- that first hug, initiated by Katsa, was also carefully planned. He didn't kiss her until she gave him an invitation. All of this was part of my attempt to create an even balance of power between two people with an unusual power relationship. [END OF GRACELING SPOILERS!!!] And it's relevant, of course, that the exchanges I've been talking about here are all consensual and involve characters who love each other and want what is happening. Obviously, if the power dynamics are important in that sort of situation, they're going to be extra important in a situation that isn't consensual, doesn't involve love, etc. (Here's a post from Rebecca Rabinowitz's blog from a whole year ago that led to some interesting discussion on this sort of stuff, btw.) (BTW, I could write a book about this bullet point.)
  • Taking into account the physical realities of the situation. This might not be as relevant for you as it is for me, but my characters are often injured, stranded in the wilderness, recovering from traumatizing experiences, etc. :), and it's important that as you approach a smoochy scene, you remember the realities of the situation. For example, [FIRE SPOILERS!!!] in Fire, I had this spectacular smoochy scene all planned out... and then, when I got there, I was suddenly like, "WAIT. She has a broken nose." How fun can it be to kiss someone if every time your nose touches something, you're in agony, plus, blood is running down your throat? Ew. So instead of trying to force the characters to do something uncomfortable, I changed the way the scene played out. I ended up quite pleased with the way it played out, actually. [END OF FIRE SPOILERS!!!]
  • Remembering who my characters are. On the other hand -- I'm not sure what it would take to break one of Katsa's bones, but I can't imagine a broken bone stopping her from kissing her partner, who could probably handle a little blood :). People are different. What's likely to happen will change depending on which character you're writing about. Trust your instincts on this one; they're your characters, and it's your book. Here's an example of how who my characters are affected the way I wrote their respective scenes: [MILD SPOILERS FOR BOTH GRACELING AND FIRE!!...] at a the beginning of Graceling, Katsa is an intensely physical person, but with a complete lack of experience of physical intimacy. Fire, on the other hand, is a more emotionally-oriented person and much more experienced in both giving and receiving pleasure. Also, Fire is injured, or in emotional distress that's causing her physical discomfort, a lot of the time. For all of these reasons, I found myself making Katsa's experiences of physical intimacy more descriptive, more specific about what was actually happening, than I did with Fire's. Maybe I wanted intimacy to be a physical revelation for Katsa, a new way of being an intensely physical being. Whereas I wrote Fire's experiences using fewer specifics, because I found myself wanting those scenes to be less about physical revelation and more about giving and receiving comfort and love. [END OF SPOILERS.]
  • Being willing to embarrass myself. You know what? You gotta take risks. Try things, and then give them to readers you trust. If you're lucky, you have an extremely sarcastic sister who loves you but is happy to tell you when your corniness needs to be de-corned.

Important: What I've talked about here is what I've tried to do. I don't make any claims as to my success, and I kind of cringed through the sections above that involved some "explaining" of my own characters. Authors aren't allowed to do that. Reading is subjective. YOU decide who my characters are, whether they're decent to each other, whether you agree with their decisions, whether you like them at all, whether the writing in any particular scene makes you happy or makes you roll your eyes. One of the things that's become most enormously clear to me, since becoming a published writer, is how true it is that taste and interpretation are subjective. I can't count the number of times someone has told me they loved the very thing about one of my novels that someone else has told me they hated. Keep that in mind as a writer. There is no absolute right. It's art, and it's yours. Make it what it's asking to be, and don't worry too much about what other people are telling you it should be, unless what they're saying speaks to your soul.

And that's my answer!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Extra Post This Week...

...because this xkcd is too funny not to share.

Monday, July 26, 2010

In Which the Author Is Tired

I like this post called Stop Telling People to Love Their Bodies, and some of the comments, too. H/t, R.

Also, I'm totally enjoying the Buffy Fashion Roulette over at The Bitter Buffalo.

On August 5, there'll be an all-day reading of To Kill a Mockingbird at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library, from 9am to 9pm, to celebrate the book's 50th birthday. I'll be one of the many readers. I'll post more info about this once I know more -- but isn't this cool?!

Feel like going to Vail in October to talk about women in fantasy novels? This year's Sirens conference is from October 7 - 10 and registration is open. The guests of honor are Holly Black, Marie Brennan, and Terri Windling, and the presenters include Sarah Rees Brennan, Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Delia Sherman, Sherwood Smith, and Janni Lee Simner. I was at Sirens last year -- it's a good conference. Have fun, everyone!

So. Remember last week, when I said I hoped to post some writing advice this week about the forest? I still want to do that. The problem is, I'm tired. The reason I'm tired is that after a very long time of Bitterblue moving slowly, it's now moving almost too fast for me to keep up. I've been looking up from my writing a lot to discover that the sun is rising. And I have so many untranscribed notebook pages that yesterday I mailed copies of everything to my parents, even though I keep it all in my fireproof, waterproof safe (OBVIOUSLY), and even though I also always keep copies in the closet of a friend. After all, it's remotely possible that somebody could shoot high-powered glue into my friend's closet on the same day that a burglar broke in and stole my fireproof, waterproof safe, but what are the chances of a meteorite hitting my parents' mailbox on that same day? NEARLY ZERO.

Here's a quote that requires four thanks: first, Texas Bix Bender for writing it in Don't Squat with Yer Spurs On!: A Cowboy's Guide to Life; second, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson for quoting it in her Coretta Scott King Book Award speech; third, Horn Book Magazine (July/Aug 2010) for printing the speech; and fourth, my friend Rebecca for sharing it with me:
Don't worry about bitin' off more than you can chew. Your mouth is probably a whole lot bigger'n you think.
Go bite things, people!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Frankie, Alpha, Matthew, Names, Power, and Squee

December 14, 2007

To: Headmaster Richmond and the Board of Directors, Alabaster Preparatory Academy

I, Frankie Landau-Banks, hereby confess that I was the sole mastermind behind the mal-doings of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds

So opens one of my favorite books of all time, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart.

Recently I mentioned Marie Rutkoski's super fun post about good book boyfriends, bad book boyfriends, and what you can tell about a potential book boyfriend from his name. Marie and I got into a conversation over there about our favorite male character names and what they mean -- which, of course, devolved eventually to Spike, Angel, Jayne, and Mal, but anyway -- then, this past week, I reread The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I can't BELIEVE that I forgot about Alpha and Matthew when I was e-chatting with Marie! Talk about two larger-than-life boyfriends with names that matter.

This is the place in the post where I pause to say that if you haven't read this book, plan to, and don't like spoilers, STOP READING. STOP READING THIS INSTANT. This book is a treat, and I don't want to ruin it for those who haven't read it yet. Especially since all I'm going to do is blather inanely and it is NOT WORTH HAVING A BOOK SPOILED FOR THAT.

Also, just so we're clear: I don't know E. Lockhart and I don't know how she chooses her character names. The following is my textual interpretation, not my attempt to guess at her process.


Let's start with Matthew. Matthew is Frankie's boyfriend. Such a nice name, Matthew, isn't it? A nice, reliable name, for a nice, reliable, charming, popular, attractive, delightful character. Right? What does the name evoke?

Well, Matthew was an apostle; Matthew the apostle was one of The Guys. He even wrote a gospel, i.e., was one of the storytellers who tells us how it went down with The Guys. Except that he actually didn't, he just got the credit for it. The Gospel of Matthew was written near the end of the first century, and the true author is unknown. (My theologian dad for the win!) And what does it mean to write a gospel anyway? Doesn't it mean that you have power over what is known about people; power over how the truth is perceived; power over what things mean? Also, what does it mean to be one of The Guys? Well, no doubt it means a lot of things, but one of the things it means is that when the Holy Spirit comes down to designate the first priests, His Holy Flameyness is going to choose you. And definitely not any of the women, even though they're just as loyal and capable.

Ahem. Are you still with me?

Now, I don't mean to slander Matthew the apostle. I'm sure that he was a lovely guy who spread kindness, deserved happiness, suffered appropriately, always used his turn signals, etc. Also, I'm aware that I've accused him of both not writing a gospel and of writing one. Just -- bear with me, please, if you would, because one of my points is that the best characters contain contradictory qualities, and what I'm really trying to focus on is that Matthew -- or the guy we call Matthew -- had power. Power that had to do with being a chosen member of an exclusive (male) society; power that had to do with deciding on the truth that was to be known by others.

Enter Matthew Livingston, the son of a newspaper magnate and the co-president of a secret all-male society (the Basset Hounds) at a boarding school for the privileged in Massachusetts. Such a nice guy, so generous, such an outstanding citizen, right? I mean, he actually is. Matthew Livingston is going to grow up to own newspapers, spread the word, and do good things in the world. It's just too bad about the lying, the condescension, the sexism, the almost unconscious assumption that he be king of the world, and the exclusionary loyalty to his secret male society -- all of which make him a terrible boyfriend for a dynamo like sophomore Frankie Landau-Banks.

Okay, now that I've said a few things about Matthew, can I finally talk about Alpha?

Hello, name that speaks volumes. Alpha's real name is Alessandro Tesorieri, which is also a name that speaks volumes, but let's stick with his nickname for now. How much aggression and cockiness does a guy have to display, how much of an obvious alpha dog does he need to be, to end up with a nickname like Alpha? On the outside, Alpha and Matthew -- seniors, best friends, co-presidents of the secret Basset Hounds, and the boarding school's natural kings of popularity -- are foils for each other. Where Matthew is a decent, gorgeous, wealthy, welcoming, upstanding guy from an upstanding family, Alpha is: a guy with a reputation for treating girlfriends like crap; cute, but kind of ordinary-looking, "medium height and sandy haired, with a barrel chest and a baby face"; at school on scholarship, because his mother doesn't work and has just been dumped by the wealthy boyfriend who was supporting her; dismissive of people not in his immediate circle (his "dogs"); and fatherless. Alpha has magnetism and social power. Alpha is a bad boy with an eyebrow-raising background and a bad reputation. Alpha always has a girlfriend, and she is always referred to as the she-wolf, no matter who she is at any time. Alpha is a jerk, and it's not really a secret.

But you know what else Alpha is? He's a boy who, oddly enough, knows what it's like to have no resources of one's own and be what I believe is known as a "kept woman" -- because that's what his mother has been for his entire life. Every luxury he's ever experienced has been at the condescension of a man (not his father) willing to support his mother and her child-out-of-wedlock, but not live with them or marry her. He's a boy who knows the stress of all that money suddenly disappearing. At a hoity-toity New England boarding school where wealthy graduates are funneled into Ivy League colleges, Alpha is a little bit of a faker, and knows it. Unlike Matthew and the other members of his secret boys' club, Alpha can't afford to get into too much trouble, because he doesn't have a daddy who can buy him out of the trouble he gets into. Unlike Matthew, Alpha, for all his cockiness, is vulnerable.

And there are other things about him, too. I think it's pretty clear that he loves his mother, in all her complexity and crazy-makingness. He also loves Matthew, almost in the same starry-eyed way Frankie does -- and knows it about himself. And while he's at the top of a complex social order, he can also see the order, see its cracks and flaws, the ways in which it's unjust, the ways in which it hurts people. It's hard to have perspective when you're up really high, but Alpha has it. Maybe because he's aware of how easily he could fall off.

But, I was talking about boyfriends before, wasn't I? Here's the thing: Alpha is known for being an addictive but destructive boyfriend (you know the type). But in the best books, it's not a question of who would make a universally good boyfriend and who would make a universally bad one. I can see Alpha making a bad boyfriend for a lot of people, maybe even for most people. But what about for someone who's just as powerful and ambitious as he is, has just as clear a perspective on society's workings and hypocrisies, and is just as determined to make something of it? Alpha is the only person in the book who sees Frankie, and I think she could take him. To be honest, I think she might be a little too much for him, and I think they both know it. Alpha needs a few years of continued financial insecurity -- and of introspection -- to grow up, and decide who he wants to be and what he wants to accomplish. At the end of the book, Alpha is leaving for Harvard. I love LOVE LOVE to imagine that Frankie will also end up at Harvard someday, where she, and the new, improved Alpha, will meet up again, clash, war, play power games with each other, and TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

(Okay, maybe that's not everybody's idea of a good romantic relationship. ^_^)

By the way. I've been blathering about boys and boyfriends, but really, this is all about Frankie. Frankie is the reason this is one of my favorite books of all time, and I'm not even going to try to describe her, because E. Lockhart wrote a book-long description of her, and really, that's the way you should meet her. Frankie doesn't need a boyfriend. I think she'd like one someday, maybe, but one of the best things about Frankie is her resilient self-respect. I think she learns, over the course of this book, that if she is going to have a boyfriend, it needs to be someone worthy of her, who sees and loves her vulnerabilities and her power. Matthew isn't worthy. Neither is Alpha at the book's end; Frankie is no one's she-wolf. "She wanted something more than Alpha. She did. Something much more." What Frankie wants is a bigger life; Frankie wants to change the world.

Frankie, by the way, is named after her father, Franklin, who'd "wanted a son to name after himself." So ironic that when Frankie grows up to be powerful -- with exactly the kind of power Franklin admires in men -- Franklin is disappointed in her. Ashamed of her, even. And you know what I love about Frankie? Things like that hurt her, but they don't stop her.

Also by the way, I'm not saying Frankie is perfect, or without vulnerabilities, or even that her ambitions are unqualifiedly good. I'm just saying that... she's complex, in a whole lot of ways that work perfectly for me as a reader. I started this post squeeing about book boyfriends and their names, but can I turn my squee now to books? Books like this one that serve up complex, fascinating characters who really can't be summed up in a blog post.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Writing Lesson about the Trees

But first: News goes behind the News link, but some news is worthy of an announcement. Fire has won the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. This award, presented annually by ALAN, honors a book that possesses literary merit, widespread appeal to teens, and a positive approach to life. I'm touched that the ALAN Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee saw the hope in my grim tale. Thank you so much to the committee for this fabulous honor!! :D

On to our writing lesson.

Here's the thing: recently, while I was reading Sandra McDonald's Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories (highly recommended, BTW), I read a wonderful line that, very suddenly, taught me an important writing lesson. Unfortunately, being out of post-it flags, I didn't mark the section, and now I can't find it again to share with you. Curses! But, here's what I wrote in my calendar, presumably because my calendar was the closest thing nearby for writing in: "If you're describing a place or an emotion or anything that is simple and peaceful, your writing should be simple and peaceful. Match your style of writing to the feeling you wish the reader to feel."

This struck me as important, because I get caught up sometimes in trying to use words and excessive description to express something that's better expressed with a lack of words. I actually noticed myself doing this in my own writing last week, and have a little passage I can share with you. It's a throwaway section; nothing critical happens; but it illustrates my point. Here's how I jotted it down the first time through (note: names have been changed to protect the spoiler-phobic):

Leaving the infirmary, stepping into the Great Courtyard, she suddenly came face to face with Sam, who was just about to climb onto his platform and haul it, with Tommy, to whatever obscene height today's work called for. "Oh," she said, shivering, for she wasn't dressed for outdoor weather. "Hello."

"Hello," he said, taken by surprise.

The skin around his bluer eye was bluish. Funny that...

Later on, when I took another look, here's what I changed it to:

Leaving the infirmary, stepping into the Great Courtyard, she came face to face with Sam. "Oh!" she said. "Hello."

"Hello," he said, also taken by surprise.

He was, apparently, just about to climb onto his platform and haul it, with Tommy, to whatever obscene height today's work called for. The skin around his bluer eye was bluish. Funny that...

Like I said, it's not a "wow" sort of passage, or a "wow" sort of change. But the point is that I was trying to get across that subtle sort of feeling that happens when there's no reason why you shouldn't run into someone, but you've sort of forgotten you might, so you're vaguely surprised when you do. In that moment of surprise, what you experience is a sudden, tiny bit of confusion. A blankness. So, it felt to me that the writing also need to be blank. Empty. I needed to get rid of all that initial description, because it got in the way of the blank feeling of surprise.

Make sense? If so, thank Diana Comet.

Not exactly profound, but sentence-level things can make a big difference in the feelings you evoke with your writing, so I thought it was worth mentioning.

Next week, if I have time, I hope to give a little writing lesson about the forest.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Voice Recognition Software Demonstration

Note to those who are reading this post in an e-mail, or anywhere other than my blog actual: if you don't see the short video immediately below, this post isn't going to make a whole lot of sense to you. You might want to read this one on my actual blog, which is here.

Press play!

Note: When the VRS recognizes a word that I do not say, that word is shown in red font. The correct word, if there is one, follows in brackets, in green font. Similarly, when I say a word that the VRS misses entirely, that word is shown in brackets, in green font. (My apologies to any readers who are color blind!)

Hello everybody! This is your friendly author Krif[s]tin here, and I’m going to give you a little demonstration of my voice recognition software. Below this video, I will post the uncorrected text of this dictation. Read along, and see for yourself how well it works.

Stopover to become really like that [Here's how well the software works if you talk really really fast] about the [trains and] planes and automobiles and circus[es and] monkey[s and] never takes a [single] breath. On the other hand, here’s how well the software works if you talk a bit more slowly about planes and trains and automobiles in [and] circuses and monkeys (I believe booths [those] were all of the things I mentioned), and a brief [breathe] now and then. Here are some words that my software has learned, and almost always gets right: Graceling, Bitterblue, M*A*S*H [Nash], Graced. Here are some words that my voice recognition software [never] gets right: oh [Po]. Given [Giddon]. Fasten [Raffin]. Our door [Corridor]. Library and [Library]. I mean [Queen]. I mean [Queen]. Clean clean clean clean clean clean clean clean clean [Queen queen queen queen queen queen queen queen queen]. I just figured out that I have used the word “meme [queen]” 1003 times and [in] my current work in progress. I really can’t overstate how tired I [am] of this particular error. Sigh…

well, this has been my voice recognition software demonstration. I hope it has been helpful to those of you [who] are curious. At the bottom of this post, I will provide a little information about what software I use, but [what] its particular disadvantages are, and what software I recommend. If you have all her [arm] pain when you type, or discomfort of any kind, you really should look into voice recognition software, because arm injuries should not be taken lightly. And that’s my story! I [Bye] everybody! :-)

The first thing I'll say is that there is so much about VRS that this demonstration fails to demonstrate. Too many things to explain in this post without it getting out of hand, to be honest, but for now, I'll just say that (1) the best software has a good correction feature that allows you to correct mistakes without typing, a feature to format text by voice, a feature for training the software to recognize the words you speak, and the ability to do other things, too, like add to/subtract from/moderate the known vocabulary; and, (2) the best software allows you to do a whole lot more than dictate prose, i.e., operate various programs, have access to and control your desktop and windows, and do all sorts of computer stuff without having to type or use your mouse.

The second thing I'll say is that the absolutely only thing I use my software for is to dictate prose, so I cannot speak intelligently about the use of VRS for any other purpose -- other than what I've absorbed from listening to friends who do use it for other purposes. Also, unfortunately, my education is limited to software for English speakers. The software I know about may very well be available to speakers of other languages, but I just don't know.

The third thing I'll say is that there is one error in the dictation above that was my fault. At the beginning of the last paragraph, I should have said, "cap well" to capitalize that word. I forgot that while the software does capitalize the next word after sentence-ending punctuation (.!?), it doesn't automatically capitalize the next word after ellipses. (Also, I should have put a comma between the two instances of "really.")

(Can you believe the M*A*S*H thing? Sigh...)

Beyond all that, there's just too much to say about VRS in one blog post, so I'm going to try to wrap everything up with a little "who, what, when, where, why" section.

Who: Well, me. :-) And a WHOLE lot of other people with a WHOLE variety of needs, so many people that I really think Apple should step it up and produce some Mac-compatible software that truly competes with its far superior PC-compatible competitor. If they did, Macs could be accessible to a lot more people. But, more about that below.

What: If you're in the market for VRS for English speakers, the product you get depends entirely on whether you're a Mac user or a PC user. To the best of my knowledge, the best VRS for Mac users is MacSpeech Dictate. I'm a Mac user, and I use MacSpeech Dictate. It's... adequate for dictating prose. But if, like me, you were a PC user first, and were once able to use the far superior software Dragon NaturallySpeaking, MacSpeech Dictate will pretty much make you want to tear your hair out, guaranteed. Why? Well, I could give you numerous reasons, but here are a couple examples. (1) Dragon NaturallySpeaking allows you to teach it how to recognize your own personal pronunciation of words -- both words that are already in its vocabulary, and words you wish to add to its vocabulary. MacSpeech Dictate does not. (2) Dragon NaturallySpeaking allows you to erase words from its known vocabulary. MacSpeech Dictate does not. (If I could, I would remove the word "clean" from my software's vocabulary. That's how tired I am of the "queen" error.)

(All that being said, MacSpeech Dictate does have good word recognition. There's a lot of green and red above, but mostly just in the sections where I'm deliberately demonstrating its weaknesses. It's all the other features that are crappy. [And like I said before, I can't speak to its non-prose-dictating abilities.])

If you use a PC and are shopping for VRS, get Dragon NaturallySpeaking. No other software comes close. I know this is the case for dictation, and have friends who can vouch for it for its other abilities, as well.

When: I use my VRS when I'm transcribing my handwritten novel into my Word document. If I didn't, I would hurt myself (see below). That's the main thing I use it for, but I also use it for e-mails and blog posts whenever I'm having arm/hand/finger pain.

Where: Um, wherever I am with my computer? I try to do it where no one can hear, because I don't want people to hear me dictating my novels.

Why: I have this thing called thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), which isn't the point of this post, so I won't get into it too much here. Basically, it's a neck/shoulder/arm/wrist/hand/fingers pain thing, + hand/finger agility thing, that I can manage about 80% of the time with daily stretches; that 17% of the time causes me discomfort, but doesn't limit what I'm able to do (you've seen the pictures); and 3% of the time makes simple motions like turning a doorknob or flipping through a pile of paper prohibitively painful and renders me incapable of typing. Copious typing is on the small list of things that causes it to flare up to that level. (You can tell it's not flaring in the video above, because if it were, I wouldn't be using my hands to talk.) This is why VRS feels like a miracle to me. I mean, I'm a professional writer. If I had to do all that typing with my fingers, I would be in disabling pain a lot more than 3% of the time (if I could even actually do that much typing, which I'm not sure I could). VRS saves my arms, which makes an enormous difference to my life. (There are so many people who need VRS for so many reasons, many who need it 100% of the time! Come on, Apple, step it up!)

I guess that's it for today. Disclaimer: There are various frustrations that you'll become familiar with if you ever decide to try VRS. It's a little like one of those unbearable people who thinks he's smart, and is always trying to correct you, but is actually dumb as nails. But I need it, and I'm so grateful for its existence.

I hope this has been illuminating!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Some Nights Stay Up Till Dawn

Sometimes, my writing does disruptive things to my daily schedule and I end up staying up until 4 or 5am, for days on end. That's been happening a lot in the last few weeks. It can make life kind of messy, but I just try to go with it and be grateful for a job that allows me to live in all parts of the day. I always think of this gorgeous poem, ganked from the blog of my friend and fellow writer, Sarah Miller:

Some nights stay up till dawn,
as the moon sometimes does for the sun.
Be a full bucket pulled up the dark way
of a well, then lifted out into the light.


Speaking of delightful things: this evening, as I walked the footbridge over the Charles River, a man wearing swimming trunks and a Spanish flag as a cape climbed up onto the edge, yelled "For España!," and jumped into the river. :0) Congratulations to Spain, and I hope people aren't too sad in the Netherlands. It was impossible for me to decide which team to support, because I love people in both places.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Long Blather About Intertextuality, Actors, and the Movie Heat

Warning: this got rambly! Don't stress out: it is not assigned reading and there will not be a quiz.

Okay. About a year ago, I blogged about intertextuality in books and music. I.e., the way we bring every book we've read to every new book we read, and make connections; the way our enjoyment and appreciation of Jane Eyre is liable to affect our reading of any book about a lonely person going to live and work in a remote and mysterious house, for example. Or the way, if you've listened to a lot of Dvorak, some parts of John Williams's movie scores are going to sound pretty durn familiar. (There's probably some other word for "intertextuality" when it relates to music, but I don't know what that word would be.)

Well, this week I've been thinking about intertextuality in TV shows and movies. (Again, maybe there's a better word for it in this context?) There's an aspect of intertextuality that comes into play in movies and TV constantly: the actor aspect. You know what I mean. If there's a character you love on one TV show, and then that show ends, but the actor starts playing another character on another TV show, it's pretty normal behavior for you to go try out that other TV show, hoping the love will continue, isn't it? And maybe your feelings for the new character will be tempered by your feelings for the old character? Is it possible that if I didn't already love Lindsey McDonald on Angel, I might be a little less forgiving of Eliot Spencer on Leverage (both played by Christian Kane) for his derogatory girl comments? (Of the "What are you, a girl?" or "You scream like a girl!" ilk. Blech.) And it works the other way, too, of course -- sometimes the new character is a relief. I may be the only person on earth who feels this way, but I like Seeley Booth so much more than I liked Angel (both played by David Boreanaz).

My most recent rewatching of the movie Heat, written and directed by Michael Mann, is what got me thinking about all of this. Heat is a depressing movie, for a bunch of reasons. It's depressing and violent and horrible in the story it tells, and it's depressing to watch as a woman, because this is a movie where the power and the agency, for the most part, are with the men. The white men, to narrow it down more. Despite this ickiness, I love this movie. I love it, it just captures some part of my soul... so when I find little things inside it that seem like narrative inconsistencies, I'm eager to find explanations other than that the movie itself is flawed. I love it so much that I want it to be structurally perfect.

Here's the structural thing that was bothering me during my last rewatch. [NOTE: if you're a fan of Al Pacino and/or Robert De Niro and you haven't seen this movie, STOP READING NOW. Go watch it, then come back. You're in for a treat, and I don't want to spoil it.] The movie takes place in Los Angeles and it's structure is basic cops-and-robbers stuff. Vincent, played by Al Pacino, is the boss of the cops, and Neil, played by Robert De Niro, is the boss of the robbers. Neil, your classic really-bad bad guy, tells Eady, his new girlfriend, that he's originally from the Bay area. Eady, who is doe-eyed and naive and honest, doesn't challenge this, and tells Neil that she's from Appalachia but went to design school at Parsons. Neil asks where Parsons is, and Eady says, "New York City."

Here's the thing. Neil has the world's most screamingly obvious New York accent to anyone who's ever heard one and has any memory for regional accents. Now, I can believe that a bad guy gangster type from the streets of New York hasn't heard of Parsons. New York is so full of schools and museums and theaters and parks and EVERYTHING that I expect practically no one, no matter how "from New York" they are, knows everything that's available there; and Neil doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who can list art schools off the top of his head; and it's not like he had to ask the location of the Empire State Building or even the Flatiron Building. If Neil is actually a New Yorker, as his accent attests, his ignorance regarding the location of Parsons is believable to me. On the other hand: maybe, if Eady has never been outside Appalachia (or ever watched a gangster movie), we can excuse her for not recognizing a New York accent. BUT, she went to school in New York. So I find it hard to excuse.

As I sit here trying to decide what to think, here are what I consider to be the options: (1) Neil is lying about being from the Bay area, and Eady has a bad ear for accents. (2) Neil is lying about being the from Bay area, and Eady is gullible, and/or naive for not picking up on it and challenging him. (3) Neil is lying about being from the Bay area, and Eady suspects it, but is so lonely that she's willing to be with a guy who lies. (4) Neil is telling the truth about being from the Bay area, and the movie itself is flawed for allowing a disconnect between where the character is from and where he sounds like he's from.

I love this movie so much that I'm eager for one of the first three options to be true, even though it means reinforcing the already plentiful patheticness of the women in the movie. I would prefer to dislike Eady than allow for the movie having a structural flaw, no matter how small.

Good grief. If you're still reading, give yourself a pat on the back for patience and perseverance in the face of extreme boredom. Because WTF does this have to do with intertextuality?

Well... why do I love this movie so much? Why do I need it to be perfect? It's about death and despair and failed relationships, well-presented; it's well-acted, through and through; Dante Spinotti's cinematography is beautiful; it's populated by a group of brilliantly-written assholes. But doesn't it also have to do with the movies I'm bringing with me when I sit down to watch? Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Godfather I and II. Using The Godfather to transition over to the Al Pacino side of things: Glengarry Glen Ross. Doesn't it have to do with two awesome badass actors known for playing badass characters, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, facing off in one movie, one as the robber and one as the cop? (Did you notice how in my four options above, I didn't include the option that De Niro played the part wrong? Unthinkable! It must be someone else's fault, right?!) If you've watched some or all of the movies above and then seen Heat, think for a minute about how long it took you to understand the characters of Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna. Didn't you come to the movie open to them, already sort-of knowing them, prepared to appreciate them? Didn't you feel like you understood Vincent Hanna the minute you saw Al Pacino walk? And I do think I would admire this movie in a vacuum; but I can never really know for sure, because I watch it, every time, in the complete opposite of a vacuum. De Niro and Pacino come on screen and I'm already thinking of them as tragic bad men with frakked-up lives who behave terribly but who are going to fascinate me for the next three hours. They are enormous actors in my brain space, too enormous for me to watch them in a crime movie and see them with fresh eyes.

I could write a whole other posts about all the reasons I dislike Eady as a character. She's so naive and helpless, and then so shocked to discover Neil is a bad man (when the signs are all there, IMO). But I actually think part of the reason I dislike her so much is that she's bearing the brunt of all the intertextual knowledge I bring to the movie. She's playing opposite a huge personality, and sometimes I almost feel frustrated with her for not noticing that her boyfriend is a natural progression from Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, and Sam Rothstein. But of course she doesn't know that. There are (presumably) no Robert De Niro movies in her world, and anyway, her boyfriend is Neil McCauley, not any of those other guys. Plus, there would be absolutely no problem if she did live in the real world, where there are De Niro movies, but didn't know who Bickle, La Motta, Corleone, or Rothstein are. Lots of people don't and it doesn't make them naive. Plus, naivety doesn't have to be a bad quality. Maybe I'm too hard on Eady, or hard on her for the wrong reasons. (After all, weak or stereotyped characterization is not the fault of the character!)

(Related question: when Neil and Vincent watch gangster movies, what movies do they watch? Because, some of the best gangster movies aren't available to them, because Robert De Niro or Al Pacino are in them, and that would be too... hard on their brains.)

(And related comment: just as I believe the author is dead, I believe the actor is dead. We could bring actors' personal lives into the discussion of any movie, too, but it doesn't really interest me to do so. I care about characters, not actors.)

So. Heat is a web of connections for other reasons, too -- including other actor reasons (Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Natalie Portman, Wes Studi) -- but this is already too long, so I'm stopping here. I'll just say that I would love to talk to the person who's watched Heat never having seen De Niro or Pacino in one of their more badassish roles before. What is Heat like if you've only ever seen De Niro in Brazil or Stardust or Guilty by Suspicion? (Would his role in Stardust be so funny if I weren't so used to watching him play bad guys?) Also: young people out there? If this interests you -- by which I mean, intertextuality, not necessarily this rambly, wordy post -- this is the sort of thing you can study in literature or film programs in college and grad school. HAVE FUN.

Next week: a short post.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Randutiae, Get Your Randutiae Here

Cover of Fire, U.K. large print edition, published by Clipper Large Print --->

So. Randomness today. Read what interests you, skip what doesn't.
  • Book Boyfriend Names. I got a kick out of Marie Rutkoski's short post about literary boyfriends and their names. Do you even have to read the L'Engle books to know that Adam Eddington is solid and reliable, while Zachary Gray is a bad boy? I have a lot of fun choosing names for my male leads. Poor Po is the butt of Germany, but I hope I've done well by my other boys :)
  • Airbrushing is Creepy. The other day, after I posted the poor rhino who's trying to slim down to a unicorn, my sister, secret codename: Apocalyptica, sent me the homepage of a famous airbrushing company. I took a look and was subsequently creeped out. First, click on any of the bottom four categories: Beauty/Hair, Correction, Shaping, or Manipulation. Then, watch original images morph into the final cuts by clicking on an image, then dragging the little white rectangle below it from left to right. The Shaping section is particularly... whatever it is... but I was also, um, amazed by the woman in the super-fancy dress in the Correction section. (Second down on the left.) Good thing they were there to correct her, huh? *shudder*
  • A Super Blog about American Indians and Appropriation. I'd like to recommend a blog I've started reading, called Native Appropriations. Here's the by-line: "Documenting images of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people, language, and culture in everyday life: countering stereotypes one cigar store Indian at a time." All the posts are worthwhile, but "Between Pageantry and Poverty: Representing Ourselves" is the one that finally kicked my butt into blogging about it. Do check it out!
  • So, You Think We Could See Pasha and Anya Dance Together? With maybe Ade Helping Out? You knew one of these bullets would be about SYTYCD, right? Oh my goodness, I HAVE OPINIONS. First off, two stars are shining bright for me this season: Ashley and Alex. Secondly... I'm not convinced that the All-Star format is working. Because, honestly? With occasional exceptions, the All-Stars are dancing the pants off the contestants. Especially the All-Star girls. Wowee, did you SEE Anya dancing with Jose last week? (I really like Jose, btw, and thought he managed, somehow, to pull that salsa off.) Anyway. Anya is SO HOT. (Trivia: Anya is Pasha's real-life dancing partner. No wonder they're both so good, if they have each other to work with!) Add Kathryn and Courtney, Allison and Comfort, and goodness me, no wonder the girl contestants are falling like flies with these All-Star ladies showing them up! And it's not just the girl All-Stars, of course. I'm so happy Ade is back; he makes me melt. Didja see him dance with Ashley? Talk about partnership. And, Twitch! Didja see him dance with Alex!!? This is the problem, really: it's just great to see so many loved dancers back. A lot of them are dancers that, IMO, got robbed when they were contestants. And I know more about them, and find myself caring more about them, than I know or care about the contestants. A few select All-Stars are totally filling my field of vision. I don't think that's what the show is meaning to achieve, is it? But I know I'm not the only viewer this is happening to. The set-up is problematic. My friend K suggested having a top, say, 16 contestants that dance with each other until it gets down to the top 10, and *then* bring in the All-Stars. Maybe that would be a happy medium? ... In other news, I loved when judge Mia Michaels told contestant Lauren that her problem is that she's too strong, which makes it hard for her to connect with her femininity. If by "loved" I mean "WTF?", because of course everyone knows that strength and femininity are mutually exclusive. I guess it's too much to hope that we could get through a whole season without one of Mia Michaels's obligatory reinforcements of the woman = weak, man = strong dichotomy.
  • More Tunes. As I continue through my iPod shuffle, here are some songs I've been enjoying: "Shipping up to Boston," by the Dropkick Murphys. (When I lived with my sister, secret codename: Cordelia, I think my fondness for the Dropkick Murphys was one her her less favorite things about me...) "The Wolf," by Eddie Vedder, from the fantastic Into the Wild soundtrack. "Moribund the Burgermeister," by Peter Gabriel. "One by One," from The Lion King on Broadway soundtrack. "Empty Hearts," by Alison Krauss. "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters," by Moby, from the soundtrack of Heat, a.k.a. the best action movie ever made. "Roslin and Adama," by the wonderful Bear McCreary, from the second season of Battlestar Galactica.
  • The Humans Are Dead. Finally, as I have not yet taken up enough of your screen real estate, one more thing: an excellent song called "The Humans Are Dead" from Flight of the Conchords. Thanks, J, for the link! Note: contains language that might not be safe for the workplace.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In Which I ♥ My Field (and My Friends)

1. The following is an email exchange between Becca, Amanda, Jess, and me.
Me: Guys! I sprained my ass on the flying trapeze. Now I'm sitting on a cold compress.
Becca: I read "cold compress" as "golden compass" and was considerably puzzled.
Golden compass explanation.

2. The following is an email exchange between Mike and me.
Me: I love Peeta like crazy, but I have to be honest: I don't love his name. Especially since he's the baker's son.
Mike: I agree. It's a little like naming your kid Phlatbred.
Peeta Mellark introduction.

3. The following is (another) email exchange between Becca, Amanda, Jess, and me.
Becca: I saw a bunny in my parking lot yesterday.
Me: A bunny! You remind me that I saw three bunnies in the business school the other day.
Becca: I wonder what business they plan to go into when they graduate.
Me: Garden vegetable retrieval?
Me: There was also this guy walking along, and a bunny crossed his path, and he barely even glanced at it. Then this buxom young lady crossed his path, and he watched every inch of her, every step of the way. I concluded he has no soul. Only a penis.
Becca: That strikes me as a very reasonable conclusion.
Me: Seriously, what kind of guy doesn't watch a bunny?
Jess: Maybe the business bunnies will capitalize on the current vampire craze. It is in their blood.
Me: Oh, good point. And I thought of another good profession for bunnies: aeronaut. Get it?
Becca: HESTER! I heart Hester. And Lee.
Becca: Oh, sorry guys. I should have just said I got it and then given other people a chance to get it. I was overpowered by thinking of Hester.
Me: Don't worry. I also like to scream HESTER! on occasion.
Jess: Yes, I believe this is a universal condition.
Amanda: I miss the days of Bunnicula. I'm reviewing a vampire book. I'm trying to express that the vampires are flat characters, and so I just typed something about the vampires not sparkling, and then obviously, I had to delete that. Then I called them "lifeless," but had to delete that, because of course they're lifeless! They're vampires!
Jess, Becca, and Me: *widespread giggling at the non-sparkly, lifeless vampires*
Me: Guys, I was just in the business school again and there were no fewer than 14 bunnies! One of them was enormous, more like (dare I say it?) a jackrabbit. Do you think something is afoot?
Jess: This makes me think of the book Tuesday. Except bunnies (+ 1 jackrabbit), not frogs. And except Thursday, not Tuesday.
Me: Tuesday!
Becca: HESTER!
Garden vegetable retrieval.
Bunnies and vampirism.
Hester and Lee Scoresby, aeronauts. And, their further adventures. Note: Hester is not actually a jackrabbit, though she and Lee believe her to be one at first. She is an Arctic hare!

Vampires that sparkle.
(Just for the record, vampires that don't.)
The book Tuesday.

(With thanks to my friends, for being so much fun -- and letting me exploit it on my blog.)