An Open Letter to the Great Joss Whedon

744349_640x640wcAvast! There be Spoilers Here! And possibly some very unpopular opinions about a current box office mega-hit! Very, very unpopular. You’ve been warned!

Dear Joss,

 

I’m such a big fan! My daughter and I grew to love your writing while watching Buffy and Angel together. Such funny, smart stuff that even a mom could appreciate the teen angst. Great characters, heroes and heroines, great fight scenes – and the sarcasm! Fantastic! Sure, there were misses. But, geez, you had a long run there, and a few misses among the masterpieces are easy to forget. Although, the Adam storyline… well. We’ll say no more about that.

And then, Firefly! Oh, I wrote my share of letters to Fox when they screwed all of us over, let me tell you. A true tragedy that we didn’t get years and years of the adventures of Captain Tightpants and his crew of misfits. You were certainly ahead of your time.

And then I find that you’re writing the first Avengers movie. I was over the moon! And you didn’t disappoint, did you? It was funny, it was angsty, it was filled with teamy goodness. I’ve been a Marvel comic book fan since my girlhood – always loved the Avengers – so this was a marriage made in heaven for me. You + Hawkeye + Black Widow + the rest of them = genius! I was sad that Hawkeye didn’t get to do much in movie #1, but I had faith. And the funny moments? No one will ever forget the Hulk slamming Loki into the floor. “Puny god.” I’m pretty sure I was not the only one snorting Coca-Cola out of my nose.

So it is with a heavy heart that I pen this letter after my second viewing of Avengers 2, or, as I like to call it, Buffy and Angel, the Greener Years.

First and foremost, I regret your clear case of retrograde amnesia. How much of your life have you forgotten? Obviously, there is some lasting damage, as you’ve forgotten that Clint had no family to worry about or ask about or be in the least little bit concerned about in A1. Or that Black Widow was wearing an arrow necklace, a token of her man, throughout Captain America 2. Or that they both are actually superheroes and not Buffy and Xander reincarnated. Or that Black Widow is not a damsel in distress whose most terrible memory/regret from the Red Room is that she can’t have babies with her man.

Your amnesia must be a horrible burden, just as you’ve burdened us with a re-do of your Buffy/Angel trope that the woman must never get to, er, consummate her romance with her man because he’ll turn into a monster. Vampire or Hulk, a monster is a monster. I hope Mark Ruffalo didn’t mind being relegated to sad faces and David Boreanaz’s re-worked dialogue. Weird that your mind keeps coming back to this teen angst, even in your tender state. You’ll laugh, but, honestly, after Natasha stared at that wall for a long time because her man done gone away, I was waiting for her to say, “Fire bad, tree pretty.” If the Hulk ends up in LA battling an evil law firm, well, won’t that be a surprise?

I was happy to see Spike and Drusilla again! They were some of my favorite bad guys who turned into not so bad guys! Sure, they have new names – Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – but the hair and the bad accents, well, they were a dead giveaway! Although, I was a little confused – or you were – to find that the Scarlet Witch turned into Willow in the middle of the flick. What with the red eyes, red hair, magic, and total meltdown and revenge-mode when her buddy got whacked.

Then there’s Hawkeye. Did I mention that Xander was always my favorite? The heart of the team, the only one who didn’t have any super powers, just fixed the furniture and remodeled the Summers’ house whenever it was wrecked. I did have a bit of a moment when Hawkeye walked in on his very sudden family – shades of Dawn! Is Laura going to turn out to be some kind of mystical key? I have to say that I sure hope so because that would be the least depressing explanation for this madness. And, yikes, the name of the character is just a little on the nose, isn’t it? Xander, the one who “watches,” and with his one eye, and Hawkeye, the guy with the amazing vision? It is kind of a shame that The Amazing Hawkeye now is stuck babysitting and remodeling the dining room instead of actually being considered a founding member of the Avengers. Coulson must be rolling in his not-grave for recruiting the guy. Unless he did all his house repairs on the cheap.

About halfway through your trip down memory lane, I was honestly wishing Faith would appear. You know, like in Season 7? The one with all the Potentials and the time-outs for speeches? For long, boring monologues on the part of the main characters? And then Faith calls Buffy on it, rolling her eyes and taking everyone out for tequila?? Yeah, I really missed that character, because you sure made time for the speechifying, didn’t you? And, frankly, we all could have used that tequila. Adam, er, I mean Ultron made speeches. Spike/Pietro made speeches. The Vision made speeches. Giles, er, I mean Fury made speeches. Yikes.

But, hey, Buffy was a wonderful era, so I don’t wonder that your mind is kind of stuck back there. I hope you get help, soon. Especially as this was supposed to be Avengers 2, so somewhat of a sequel to the first movie. The movie where Black Widow didn’t get kidnapped so that her man could rescue her, she got kidnapped as a plan of her own to get information out of her targets and then managed to beat them to a pulp and rescue herself. Where Fury was a badass and not a kind, gentle mentor who truly “cared” about his team. Where mind control was used against the team by a sarcastic, larger-than-life bad guy. Where Tony and Steve argue and fight until they realize they are, after all, on the same side. So, been there – done that.

The loss must be very painful. I hope all the money you’re making from the fans who were actually hoping for a sequel, with grown-up men and women – superheroes – not shabbily re-written teen angst eases your pain.

Still a fan,

 Me

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Satisfaction of a List.”

Fave SG-1 Episodes:

1. The First Ones

2. The Quest

3. Legacy

4. Prototype

5. The Curse

Yes, they are all Daniel Jackson heavy. Daniel holds the Stargate universe together for me. He’s the conscience, the scholar, the unlikely hero who makes friends with both the lizardy monster who wants to eat him and the race of whack-a-doo creatures who like Klingon opera. He’s played beautifully by Michael Shanks, the most underrated actor of all Canada. These are puzzle episodes, sad, episodes, dangerous episodes, but all episodes that reveal something of Daniel’s character. That take us behind the nerd glasses and into his heart. Daniel loses a lot. His wife. His home. His mind. His reputation. His life. His innocence. But he gains, too. Respect. Friends. A place.

No, you don’t see Window of Opportunity up there. Why do so many people love that episode?? Because there are funny bits? Really? Jack riding a bicycle does it for you? Someone explain why that is so many people’s absolute fave because I just don’t get it.

Give me a character that I can sink my teeth into and I’m all in. It worked that way for Stargate, for Criminal Minds (Spencer Reid), for Buffy (Xander and Anya), Star Trek (Spock), The Man from UNCLE (Illya), and NCIS (Tony). Give me someone who has a past, a secret, who is conflicted, or a fish out of water. These are my characters.

So, in writing my original fiction book, why didn’t I consider what I liked? Why didn’t I keep with the types of characters I would want to read about? My first readers – and thank you all again for wading through that first draft – did not connect with Deok. Why? Because I didn’t make her into the type of character that I love. The type of character that pulls you in, that makes whatever story you’re telling so much deeper and more cutting and more emotional.

Time to start my re-write. Time to make Deok into that character, that woman, who will center this world I’ve created. Matthias is there, he’s fleshed out and whole, with the right amount of strengths and weaknesses. But he’s only half of the story.

Time to write that strong female character that I’ve wished for all my life. The character that every girl wants to be and every actress wants to play. Janet Frasier and Samantha Carter and Anya and Black Widow combined.

New List: Things to Do with Deok:

1. Give her a past

2. Show her struggles to fit in

3. Show her strengths and her weaknesses

4. Let her lose

5. Let her win, sometimes, too

… Checking it Twice

Thanks, Mike

It’s a journey, this writing business. It started when I was a child, when I took the stories from my head and put them on paper. Stories about characters that I saw on my family’s one small television. Or characters I read about in comic books. Or science fiction novels.

My brother-in-law was a great supporter. In college, I began an original fantasy novel about brothers who were separated and found their way back to each other. I guess my love of “buddy” stories, the modern day “bromance,” is deeply rooted in my soul. Mike (said bro-in-law) is also a writer. A creative soul. He taught me a lot about patience, and being true to yourself and your voice. I wish he was still writing.

I’d like to think the novel I just finished, The Heir of Time, is that original brother story, all grown up.

Then came love and marriage and work and family. It was a busy time and, like many others have, I lost my love of writing for a while. It was only after falling in love with Stargate SG-1 and the characters of Jack and Daniel that the muse awoke. And, thankfully, fanfiction had finally found its home on the newfangled thing called the Internet. I found friends and fans, and outlets for my stories. I grew as a writer, as a reader, and as a critiquer, and everyone who ever left a comment on one of my stories helped along the way.

Now I’m taking different steps on this path – steps that are harder, on steeper mountains with rocky, broken surfaces. I’m reaching out to find a handhold in the publishing world – a world with rules and regulations, with antique ideas and unclear requirements. The first steps are hard. Scary. Daunting. But I’m putting on my big-girl panties and getting on with it.

A writing friend pointed me in the direction of a local workshop taking place this weekend. It seems like an obvious handhold – a next step painted in neon orange and lit with blinking lights. It’s being presented by Chuck Sambuchino of Writers’ Digest, a man who knows a thing or two or a bazillion about publishing. I’m really thankful for kinfolit’s excitement, her support, and the chance to walk a little farther on this journey with a friend at my side.

Mr. Sambuchino offered a personal critique of attendees’ first query letter and I jumped at the chance. One-on-one advice from a professional? Yes, please, sign me up! Trying to write it brought me to hair-pulling frustration and my last blog post. Such a dilemma! Such contradictory advice posted on reputable on-line sites! It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Sambuchino had some criticism, which, after my usual knee-jerk denial, I took to heart.

But, here’s the problem: after perusing Mr. Sambuchino’s blog site, where he shares query letters that actually led to literary representation, I’ve found that agents’ reactions to query letters are completely subjective and idiosyncratic. Four paragraphs. Five paragraphs. Begin with a single sentence that has a compelling hook. Forget the hook and tell your main character’s story in simple language. Talk about why you chose this particular agent. Explain your background and platform. Don’t waste time. Be funny. Don’t try to be funny or unique. Unique voices catch agents’ attention.

Hence the hair-pulling.

So, what have I decided? It all goes back to the advice my brother-in-law once gave me. I’ve decided to be myself. To trust my own voice. And, above all, not to play games trying to mind read literary agents.

I don’t think I can go wrong with that advice.

Thanks, Mike

Where’s Tim the Enchanter When You Need Him?

Ah, the Query Letter.

To the writer, the skeleton key that opens the massive iron gates to the mysterious and fantastic Universe of the Printed Word. The single-spaced sheet of paper that, if the runes be carved properly and the ink simmered with the perfect pinch of sweat and blood, can be transformed into a message that spans continents, slips through the narrowest crack in a literary agent’s armor, and tickles the ear of the publishing sovereign.

The Writer-Penitent who seeks to enter the Halls of the Represented must make sure to follow each convention, to stay true to the decrees and directives of the Gatekeepers. The arrow ridden skeletons of those who raced ahead seeking entrance by stealth or bribery, heedless of sage advice, line the pathway. Dusty and mold-ridden, their bones lie upon the remnants of rotting manuscript pages dotted with the wicked smart-quote, typed in the fiendish Font of Not Times New Roman.

But, say the listeners, surely any true believer, any of the pious who can read and write can follow these formulae?

Students of this lore laugh at such a foolishly innocent question.

These regulations are not listed out in black and white, boldly lettered over every portal. Even in those few, well-guarded entries that proudly display their incantations, one halting error made by the Writer-Penitent can release the Kraken of Rejection.

The mere thought of undertaking this quest can chill the most ardent heart, can cause the steadiest pen to stutter. “Perhaps self-publishing,” the fearful acolyte whispers, alone before the towering gates that seem to be forever slammed in his face.

And yet, amidst the carnage, wading through shredded 20 lb. laser-printed paper floods, brow unbeaten beneath her helm of rusted confidence, one more comes to do battle for entry. She will throw her skills against the chains and bars, forge her tens of thousands of words into a single, sharp sentence that will slide between the tumblers of the Great Lock. She will avoid the Trapdoor of Triteness and the Cleavers of Cleverness, while balancing on the tightrope over the Chasm of Showing Not Telling.

One single page. One chance. One try.

It is a daunting and terrifying feat even to one who has already created new worlds and breathed life into sympathetic and multi-faceted characters. Let us wish her well.

“What is your name?”

“My name is AUTHOR.”

“What is your quest?”

“To be published.”

“What is your favorite color?”

“Um… red. No, blue!”

SPROING

“You’ve Finished the First Draft, Now What?”

My first answer was dance. Yes. I danced. All around the kitchen, up the stairs, through the dining room, and then on the sidewalk outside the Ashton Diner where I met my friend and cheerleader, Michelle, and then later in the gym locker room. I danced. I laughed. I shouted in glee.

After five years from first thought to ‘THE END,’ I deserved to dance, even with two left feet and all of the grace God gave a goose. Heck, as a certain Princess Bride once said to her Wesley, “If you like, I can fly!!!”

My second answer was to back it up. On my computer. On a flash drive. On the cloud. Then print it, mail it, and shove it in a drawer for safekeeping. Done. Good.

After that it was time to make copies so that my first readers, loyal fan-fiction buddies, and those who have no choice but to read and give comments (like my daughter) for their critiques.

There might have been some celebratory wine drinking between two and three. And after four.

This is huge. Gigantic. From my first notion, from a dream I had of a man struggling through a snowstorm towards a red glass castle, to my first notes dictated to my daughter on a long car ride from Florida, to my 2012 NaNoWriMo victory that helped me get the story straight in my head, it has been a long, frustrating, exhilarating journey. There have been flat tires. Medical issues that have stolen my energy. Sinking depression that has swallowed up my confidence. The ups and downs of a moody creative type turned into vast mountains and deadly swamps that my little furry feet could only conquer with the helpful hands of friends and relatives.

Along the way, I hurried back to fan fiction many times. It was a way to center myself. To remind myself that, yes, I could so write. I could plot. I could develop character. I could do it and people would not hate it. There are a few stories hanging out there, unfinished, even now. I’ll finish them. I’ll put my very best into them, just like I did my novel. Why? Because all of my readers deserve it. They deserve great characterizations, dialogue that echoes perfectly, and plots that make sense. They deserve my time and attention just as much as those hopeful future readers of my original fiction do.

Why?

Because people are people and readers are readers. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about being a writer or reader of fan fiction, no matter who pretends there is. We read. We write. The same people who pick up the latest Patterson or Bujold will also pick up a fan zine or a web story and get enjoyment there.

So, after my house is cleaned (thank you my poor, dusty husband!) and after my fan fics are polished up and posted, then what?

Then I will write my Query Letter – a one page letter which brings more trepidation and dread than knowing I have many more books in Matthias’ series to finish. Then I will attend a Writers’ Conference, find an agent, and get my words into my readers’ hands. Somehow. Some way.

I didn’t write this so that it could sit on my shelf as a paperweight.

Is it going to be easy? Well, why should it be? Nothing about this journey has been easy, so I’m not expecting that now. But my skin must be thickened, and my heart must be steadied against all criticism, harsh words, nasty reviews, and rejection. I have a wonderful passel of friends to pat me on the head, give me another glass of wine, and shove me back into the fight when things go badly. Thank God.

On to the next mountain, Samwise! Where are those dratted eagles when you need them?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “A Moment in Time.”

oreo

It’s a picture of my cat. Well, not my cat, exactly. My daughter’s cat. But my daughter hasn’t lived here for quite a while now. She’s 26, in medical school in another state, and has a big rambunctious cat of her own. My grand-kitty, if you will. Max. Maximus. Huge and bouncy and adorable and not at all brilliant.

But I digress.

Oreo. The cat’s name is Oreo. That’s what you get when you allow your eleven-year-old to pick a name for the new kitten that is black and white. (Her brown/orange/white sister was named Snickers. True story.) So, by now, you can do the math and figure out that this is an old lady cat. Elderly. One might say set in her ways. Or, one might just go with blatant honesty and say ornery. Crotchety. Stubborn.

Old.

When she climbs up on my lap now, she seems to weigh nothing. All fur, bright eyes, and a scraggly tail. Her bones are just beneath the skin and when I run my hand over her fur I wonder if I’m hurting her. Petting her is not an option, however, more of a royal decree. And I can’t help myself. Softly. Gently. She purrs. She lifts her head to make it clear to the dumb human that I’m to rub her chin. She scruffs her cheeks against my hand. The table. My laptop. My laptop is warm and must feel good to those old bones. Measuring the *poof* of cat fur that greets me each time I open it, it must feel very good indeed.

A cat’s internal clock is unquenchable. I’ve always thought so, anyway. Every evening, about 9:20, she begins to pace, to stalk my husband, to chirp at him, reminding him that feeding time is coming right up. Ten o’clock. On the dot. Not one minute later. But, lately, she is sleeping so soundly at ten o’clock that we must rouse her. Pick her up. Give her a snuggle. Carefully. And as soon as that tummy-alarm kicks in she’s away to her food dish, ready for action.

She’s been a friend, a monarch, a companion for a very long time. The proof is there, in the pictures, the scrapbooks, the memories. Playing. Sleeping. Allowing my daughter to dress her in doll clothes. Suffering the cuddles and clutches of young hands, or the benign negligence of impatient adults.

Ahead, the days stretch out. Days of not enough sunshine to warm her, fewer laps to cushion her, no sister to lick her face or curl up in a pile of vibrating fur to sleep away the day.

We’re not going to even mention that behemoth (Max), annoying (playful), giant (well, he is large), thing (grand-kitty) that invades her home (comes to visit) far too often (once in a while).

It’s far too late to guard my heart against her leaving, even though I know that day draws closer every hour. But I will resolve to make more laps. Free up more hands for careful petting. And relish the need for a lint roller in every room.

Stay a while, Oreo. Another summer is coming, I promise. With sunlight. And warmth. And that favorite lap of yours visiting.

Please, stay a while.

Stay Awhile

“Follow Your Passion”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I’ve seen it on motivational posters, heard it at graduation ceremonies, and listened to it come from the lips of celebrities and CEOs alike for many years. I’ve even said it myself a time or two.

Today I read Mike Rowe’s take on this phrase, and it got me to thinking. And regretting. (Read Mike’s explanation here: Mike’s answer )

At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to have someone say it to me. “Mary Ellen, follow your passion. It’s the only way you’ll be happy.” “Major in Art in college if that’s your passion.” “Quit your job.” It sounds like validation. Like recognition. Warms the cockles of one’s heart.

Or does it?

Maybe what it really says is, “drop out on all of your responsibilities, ignore the commitments you’ve made, what you WANT is so much more important than what you SHOULD or even CAN do.”

Passion can be great. It lights the fire inside of the creative person. It keeps that inventor working through the night to come up with unique, important ideas. It holds the medical intern to the 48-hour-straight-shift because she wants to save lives. It keeps you working at crap jobs so that you can get that degree.

But passion, in and of itself, is not a virtue. Passion can lead to war. To envy. To selfishness. To obsession. A passion for money chews up personal relationships. A passion for your boss’s wife will lead to betrayal. I’m sure Ted Bundy had a passion for killing women. Certainly ISIS has a passion for beheading people. Does that make it okay? Hey, they’re following their passion, aren’t they?

Passion, like many emotions, is neither good nor bad, neither uplifting nor degrading. It is passion’s root and passion’s fruit that put it on one side or the other. Does your passion bring light and life, or does it lead to anger and harm? Is it borne from frustration and vengeance or is it kindled through compassion, self-awareness, and empathy? If your passion for the simplest, most inane and seemingly harmless activity comes at the expense of your soul, your friends, your family, those you love and those who love you, can following it ever be a good thing?

Beyond good and evil, beyond the big questions of life and faith, God and the devil, Mike Rowe makes another important point: passion for any endeavor without the skills or knowledge or talent for it will lead to frustration and heartache.

“When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.”

Think about it. No one ever told the captain of a ship that all he had to do was “stay the course” if he was headed into a reef. Or an iceberg. Passion does not trump knowledge. Or talent. Or genetics.

I’ll admit it; I watch some reality television. Top Chef. Project Runway. Face-Off. Masterchef. But, please, spare me from contestant rants. “I deserve to win because I have so much passion! I want it so much! I want it more than anyone else so I should be rewarded!” Is this how life works? I certainly hope not. I really want a million dollars – does that mean I should rob a bank? Cheat? Steal to get it? Can I be a professional baseball player right now, walk on the field, grab the bat, and hit a home run? Can I do it if I spend the next five years working out, practicing, and devoting every moment to this goal? I’m a 50-something year old woman. Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

If you can’t find contentment, success, or happiness by pursuing your passion, I think it’s time for a change.

I’d never have made it as an artist. I have a little natural talent in that direction, but that’s it. I know that because, even though I didn’t study it in college, I kept drawing. Painting. Creating. I didn’t need to make it the center of my life to “follow” it. It became a hobby. And it translated well into some of my other responsibilities, like raising my daughter with a love of art and music and making things with her hands, decorating our home, making gifts for family and friends, and inspiring students.

Change your passion. Change your attitude. Change your focus. Take a look around. This economy stinks. People are struggling. Veterans are in need. Children are hungry. Stop telling people to follow their passion and tell them to get involved. Help others. Volunteer. And then look into the eyes of someone you have made the tiniest bit of effort to help. I think you might find your passion there.