Saturday, August 27, 2011

Seven-Course Storytelling or A La Carte?

Scott D. Parker

What do Harry Potter and Donald Draper have in common?

I've been catching up on "Mad Men" these past couple of weeks. Last year, in the show's fourth season, I decided to sample "Man Men" and see what all the hubbub was about. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but realized I was probably missing a lot of context. So, my wife and I have been blazing through the first three seasons this month. Marvelous storytelling, to be sure, and the historian part of me revels in the period details. Heck, we've kept going and are now re-watching season 4 now that we know the whole story.

It was in watching the first few episode of season 4 again that I realized something crucial to Man Men's storytelling: the show doesn't bother to fill in the gaps. This became crystal clear to me while re-watching season 4 and seeing conversations I saw last year but with new eyes. When Don references his trip to California to a new character, he just says it. There aren't any slow-mo flashback scenes to bring new viewers up-to-speed. You either knew the reference and smiled or you didn't and moved on. Frankly, last year, when I watched season 4 the first time, I had to ask a friend for some background. It helped, but what helped more was watching seasons 1 through 3.

The Harry Potter films are the same way. If you think the movie "Serenity"--the feature film based on TV's "Firefly"--was, in essence a thank-you card for fans of the TV show, you might see the Harry Potter films as the ultimate reward to fans of the book. In the week leading up to this summer's last movie, my wife and I re-watched (a lot of that, huh?) films 2-7.1. We've read the books so we know what's in store for us as we watch each film. But there isn't a recap at the beginning of each film. You're just supposed to know what's going on. The editing of the final film--broken into two parts--was abrupt. Part One just ended and Part Two almost literally picked up right where the first one left off. Again, that's okay, for folks "in the know," as we don't necessarily want to be bothered by needless recaps.

What about the rest of the people? As fantastic as the Harry Potter films are, one they started being made, you pretty much had to catch up. I doubt any newcomer just up and decided to watch Movie #5. Well, they could have, but they'd be lost. Mad Men is a little less like that, but I'm getting a whole lot of new meaning in scenes and lines of dialogue now that I know the whole story.

Building a mythology for a TV show or movie series is like building a silo. It separates us from other people. You're either a fan of the exploits of Don Draper or he just that guy Jon Hamm plays in that TV show. You either know what a Muggle is or you don't. I'm perfectly fine with building silos. It's a good way to interact with others and enjoy yourself. But is it limiting?

Mad Men gained two new fans with my wife and I because of good storytelling and production values. Last year, we knew we were missing stuff, but the episodes were good so we just went with the flow. We joined the Mad Men silo, are proud members, and think the writing is above average in almost every category.

But I also like my mainstream network shows, too. There's something nice about the a la carte nature of shows like "Castle," "CSI: Miami," or "Monk" that's different than the seven-course-meal nature of shows in which there is a set mythology. The a la carte show may have a backstory, but it'll either be explained or it's not really that important.

Here's my main question about these different types of shows and the writing therein: which is better? Which wins awards?

It it any wonder that Man Men consistently wins the outstanding drama awards? Is it any wonder why people think "The Wire" is almost the best cop show TV ever produced? Silo shows, like Mad Men and Harry Potter, by cutting themselves off from traditional mainstream-type storytelling, produce more expansive canvases. Without the limitations of network rules or, in the book world, reader expectations set by brand-name authors, silo stories flourish with genuine, in-depth characterizations and story arcs.

What do you think?

Video of the Week: OK Go doing "The Muppet Show Theme" I love the Muppets and was really jazzed to discover that there is a tribute album out now called "The Green Album." OK GO gets the nod to do the opening track and, while the version is trippy (and far from my favorite track on the album), the video is pretty darn entertaining. Give it a look.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rewriting History

By Russel D McLean

I recently read Shaft, the novel by Ernest Tidyman that of course would also become one of the coolest films ever made.

Shaft is actually a well-written novel, a real fast mover, and just an entertaining read. But one part in particular suck out like a sore thumb. The blatant and rather distaseteful homophobia that sneaks through the novel. At one point, Shaft notices a “queer” checking him out. He gives the guy a wink and says he’ll be at a place in Central Park about one am. The other guy nods excitedly and Shaft leaves the coffee house where he’s been using the phone hoping that the gay man knows karate so that he’ll last ten minutes or so against those muggers. Yeah, he’s setting the guy up just for looking at him funny.

It’s a strange moment in the book, and jarring to someone of my generation. But after reaching the end of the sequence I remembered when the book was written and the prevailing attitudes of the time and place. I accepted it was part of the book’s contemporaneous nature and moved on.

But others might not.

It made me think about the guys who want to remove That Word from Huckleberry Finn or the talk about removing some of the more dated and racist jokes from early episodes of Sitcoms of the seventies.


Its all about context. Viewing these things with the knowledge that they are historical documents and that time has moved on, you come to gain an understanding about where and when they were written. Your unease at the references allows you to reflect on why these words and ideas are offensive or unsettling.

But what about the children, I hear you cry.

You know what, you can talk openly and frankly to the children about how times have changed and how such ideas are no longer acceptable. You can help your children to understand how times change, how people are capable of change and how society is different now.
I don’t believe its right to change documents as they were written to reflect modern attitudes and ideas. I believe it is better to place the documents in context, to debate, engage with and understand why they say what they say, why they use the ideas and the words that they do.

Because otherwise we are rewriting history, forgetting the past.

And you know what they say about those who forget the past…

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Controversy Sells

By Jay Stringer

In which there is some offensive language, and for once, it's not coming from me.

I've compared publishing to pro-wrestling on here before. It's not the most accurate comparison in the world, but it's closer than it has any right to be. Where I really compare them is in marketing. Controversy sells. Just ask Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Ask Eisler. Konrath. Ask Alan Moore. There's nothing better when you have something to sell than to stick your head above the parapet, give some soundbite of controversy, then retreat. No sooner is DC pushing a Green Lantern storyline across it's whole line, then Alan Moore is giving an interview pointing out that the story is inspired by stuff he wrote 20 years ago, and the news cycle goes a-spinning, and books both old and new get sold, and everyone goes home happy. I suspect writers like Geoff Johns, deep down, are no more upset over being name checked by Alan Moore than some modern wrestler is about Rick Flair or Hulk Hogan talking them down in public. Because it gets the names and the work out there.

It is pro wrestling.

And I'm not knocking it, because it works. You wait till I have my book deal, I'll be giving interviews where I say that Professor Steve Weddle told me he stole his beard from Conan O'Brien, or that me and Dave White are now locked in a silent feud because he didn't cast me in his latest book. And it might not end me up on the NYT best sellers list, but if I use the right words, and mention the right people, then it'll get me enough google hits and news pickups to buy me a few cups of coffee.

Writers do this all the time, and I enjoy watching the game. Sometimes I'll play along, sometimes I'll stand and laugh, but I rarely let any of it sink in past the most superficial layers.

But something nagged at me this week. I started off bemused, then I got angry, then I moved on to the def con 5 of modern life- blogging.

Grant Morrison is a damn good writer. He's written many of the most creative and exciting comics of the past three decades. He can be guilty of following the idea rather than the story, and drifting into a dead end, but when he gets it right, he gets it very right. He's also been to the school of Alan Moore marketing, because he's getting better and better at the packaged controversy. He can give interviews filled with 'frank' and 'honest' views that also, miraculously, happen to contain the right words and phrases to chum the water and create a feeding frenzy. It's a skill. An art. Chuck Wending could probably blog on the 25 things you need to know about marketing the Alan Moore way, and it would be amazing.

Grants been giving a few interviews of late, because he has a book to sell. So as I was reading his latest, with Rolling Stone, I was chuckling along as he ticked each box.

You want something where I compare Superman to socialism? Check. You want a sound byte about the death of the comics industry? Check. Want some fuel onto the fire of a feud with Mark Millar? Checkity-Check.

But then he goes and starts throwing around the concepts of misogyny and rape. And somewhere deep down you're thinking, is Jay really going to blog today about the subjects of misogyny and rape? Well, kinda. Here's some of the relevant extracts from the interview, then I'll try and explain whats pulling my bass string around my gut. I'm going to quote a bigger chunk than usual, just to give the words some context. (And here's where the offensive language creeps in, be warned.)

You were very kind to Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis in Supergods.
I was trying to be kind because I like Brad Meltzer. He's a nice guy. I have a lot of interesting conversations with him so I tried to focus on what I thought was good about it and there was actually quite a lot when I read it again. The first time I read it I was kind of outraged. I thought this was just… why? What the fuck is this, really? It wasn't even normal. It was outrageous. It was preposterous because of the Elongated Man with his arms wrapped several times around the corpse of his wife. I thought something is broken here. Something has gone so wrong in this image.

That plotline faced a lot of criticism, in part because people saw it as misogynistic.
It's hard to tell because most men try to avoid misogyny, really they do, in this world we live in today. It's hard for me to believe that a shy bespectacled college graduate like Brad Meltzer who's a novelist and a father is a really setting out to be weirdly misogynistic. But unfortunately when you're looking at this beloved character who's obviously been ass-raped on the Justice League satellite, even saying it kind of takes you to that dot dot dot where you don't know what else to say.

Maybe it's for the best that DC Comics is starting over now.
But I don't know. There's been lots of things, the sexism in DC because it's mostly men who work in these places. Nobody should be trying to say we're taking up a specifically anti-woman stance. I think it would be ignorance or stupidity or some God knows what. I was reading some Alan Moore Marvelman for some reason today. I found one in the back there and I couldn't believe. I pick it up and there are fucking two rapes in it and I suddenly think how many times has somebody been raped in an Alan Moore story? And I couldn't find a single one where someone wasn't raped except for Tom Strong, which I believe was a pastiche. We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape!

Okay, there's a whole can of worms here, and I'm not really worthy enough to open it. Much like my many visits to the head-teachers office, we're going to take this one grumble at a time.

Is there misogyny in writing? Hell yes. We've all seen it. We've all, hopefully, been repulsed by it. Some folks are going to be more perceptive of it that others, but we all know that we've come across it. And there are added layers in comics because it's a visual medium. It's not just the writing of poorly chosen words, it's also the drawing of poorly chosen pictures. There's an unacceptable litany of misogyny in the history of super hero comics. But surely you have to pick the right fights, tackle the actual problems, rather than simply name check a few that help you get some press attention?

Also, and this is a theme we've discussed on DSD before when dealing with race and racism, it's surely vital to draw a line between when a writer is covering a misogynist subject matter as a necessary part of character/plot, and when a writer is being misogynist. And in the quotes above, he's doing a very awkward and delicate dance of calling a few folks on it without wanting to be seen to be doing it. He's the guy saying, "I don't wanna call a guy misogynist, but.." And if you're going to go down that road, lets make sure you're going down the right road.

Lets take the first one first. His comments are aimed at Brad Meltzer, and his 2004 story, Identity Crisis. It was a Justice League story, featuring all the shiny nice super heroes you'll remember from Saturday morning cartoons, and it was highly controversial for adding in some dark sexual elements to the storyline. The story starts with the death of a female character, Sue Dibny, and then follows a murder mystery of sorts that leads in some dark places. It's revealed that, at some point in the past, Sue was raped by the villain Doctor Light. To deal with this, the heroes all agreed to use their powers to alter the villains mind, to wipe his memory and alter his personality. Batman, being the all round swell guy that he is, refused to go along with this, and so his colleagues -the good guys- invaded his mind too, wiping his memory of the event so that they can carry out their plan.

Now, the rape itself was horrible. It was a nasty, nasty moment. And it was supposed to be. That surely is the right reaction of such an act. Also, the fact that this was yet another story kicked off with a dead woman doesn't always sit easily. If you're going to use that as a catalyst for a story, you need to make sure you're doing in for the right reasons, and that your story is good enough to earn it. Did Identity Crisis earn it? I don't know. I wasn't quite sure what I thought of it at the time. I wasn't completely sold that the story needed to be told, or that those acts needed to be depicted. At the same time, the story itself was using them to ask some interesting allegorical questions. As much as we could spend a whole blog discussing the vile act that's depicted aimed towards a woman, we could also dedicate a lot of time to the issues about the mind wiping. Heroes decide to punish a criminal by changing who he is. They do the same to one of the good guys, all in the idea that the end justifies the means. It's a story that depicts acts of mental invasion that are counterpoints to the physical acts that kicked off the story, and it's really asking, are these acts justified?

6 years later and I've never felt the need to re-read that story. But then, I don't feel the need to jump into bed and crack open the spine on The Killer Inside Me or The black Dahlia. But they were great and challenging books. Is Identity Crisis deserving of being compared to those books? Not really, and as I said, I've never fully digested whether or not I thought the story worked. But I could see what it was aiming for, and I could see why it thought it earned the use of those nasty moments, and that in itself is enough for me to hold back from making accusations of the writer.

Next up, Alan Moore. Now, Moore is something of an easy target for comic writers wanting to make waves. He makes enough of his own 'pro wrestling marketing' comments to set himself up for a fall. But -and I stand to be corrected here- he talks about the work, about the quality of the stories and the abilities of the writers. He takes swipes at what he perceives (or what his marketing persona perceives) as a tired old industry peddling thirty year old ideas. And as much as these comments earn the ire of the Internet, they are a world removed from calling someones morality into question or saying they are "obsessed with rape." Shit, those of us here at DSD, and many of you who read and have shared your work with us, write some dark dark things. And we'll take criticism of our abilities and our work on the chin. But to make accusations about our character?

Alan Moore is one of my biggest influences. So I've read all of the work that Morrison is referring to. You know what? There's been some rape in there along the way. But looking back over, say, the forty year career of a crime novelist or screenwriter, you'll find a few instances of the same thing, mixed in with many other dark deeds. But do we simply hide behind statistics, or do we give the writer the benefit of context and story? Morrison doesn't make it clear which Miracleman issue he's referring too, and I don't have my (coughdigitalcough) copies to hand to sift through. But I can give an example of his writing in another well known story, WATCHMEN. It's a remarkable piece of fiction, and it has a horrible rape scene in it. If you've seen the film, then you've seen a version of that scene. It's uncomfortable and nasty in the film, but then, the whole film is uncomfortable and nasty, so put it to one side while we talk about Moore's work.

Sally Jupiter spurns the advances of Eddie "The Comedian" Blake, so he brutally attacks and proceeds to sexually assault her. He is caught in the act by one of the other male characters. Again, it's a nasty scene, and again, it's supposed to be. As a man kicks and punches a woman, we see the image of an ape in the background, the connection is clear, this is a man acting like an animal. We see the pain caused to the woman, and there's nothing glorifying about it, we are repulsed. When he is stopped, when another character intervenes, we then see two men fighting, making the other connection, sex and violence, men trying to impose themselves. And in the next moment, after Eddie has been chased off, we see the 'hero' of the moment unable or unwilling to offer any sympathy or condolence. He tells Sally, "for gods sake, cover yourself," showing that he is as caught up in the underlying issues of identity and power as Eddie. It's a well written, well drawn, powerful scene. It repels us in the way that it should, and it reveals elements of character in the way that earns it's use.

Why am I going into such detail about the scene? Well, first I think it's important to judge a writers intentions by actually reading the context, to see how the act was used, and why. Does it tell us anything about the characters? Was there a way to get the same effect without using such a charged concept? Are we seeing the character at work, or is this direct from the mind of the writer?

And the other reason is because of what Morrison says near the end of the extract I quoted. "We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape." Again, "I'm not saying he's misogynist but..." Why phrase it that way, or even in anywhere near that context, other than to get away with sliding in a dig while saying that you're doing the exact opposite?

Man, that Moore guy, he's weird, look at all the nasty shit he's written. I've never written anything like that. Especially since he takes such umbrage at a "beloved character being ass-raped," as he so considerately puts it. Except, as it happens, there is a comic in the attic at my parents where Grant Morrison depicted Dan Dare being held down by soldiers while a Mekon did a nasty thing to him from behind. In Downing Street. In front of the colluding Prime Minister. Cut to a picture of Big Ben in what looks like a condom, and the Mekon saying, "Think of England, Colonel Dare, it's more than England ever did for you." After the act, Dare even feebly thanks the Mekon for humiliating him.

Twenty years on and Morrison probably wouldn't write that scene. Twenty years on and I don't find it anywhere near as edgy and deep as I thought it was back then. Now I find it uncomfortable and nasty. Now I find that he's using a horrible act for political effect. He's showing Dan Dare, one of the leading symbols of British comics and an establishment figure, being violated by the state. Twenty years on, we've all changed. But you give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Or you try to. That's what he deserves, right? The benefit of context and story, before you start making accusations?

And sure, an act of male on male violation isn't misogyny, but I feel the point remains the same. It's still about depicting that act, an act of taking someone's choice, someone's space and identity, and using it to please yourself or make a point. So how is it then, that it's okay for Morrison to depict such a horrible act in 1990, to make a symbolic point about the icons and politics of the day, but that it's not okay for Alan More to depict the act in 1986, in a moment that revealed character and plot? It's not okay for Brad Meltzer to depict the act in 2005, in a story that is trying (if not succeeding) to raise valid moral questions?

Within the last couple of weeks, I had a strong reaction to an episode of a TV show. A woman is brought into the episode as an authority figure, it seemed, simply to walk around the set while a male character makes vile sexual comments about her, before he shoots her twice, takes her authority away, and then incinerates her. And I'm not playing those things up for effect, they're exactly what happened. And I was pushed away by this. I felt that the story didn't earn it. I felt there was something nasty at the heart of it, but not a valid nasty, not something that had been earned. My initial reaction was to talk to people about the misogyny of the story, about what it said about the writer. Then I found out the episode was written by a woman and, while that doesn't meant it can't have been misogynist, it made me think twice. It gave me enough pause to make sure that I didn't go shouting about it, or making any public accusations. I've spent time since then trying to decide whether what I was reacting to was an abhorrent underlying message, or whether it was simply bad writing.

Because that's surely the basic point, right? The quality of the writing. Good writing earns the use of dark and nasty deeds. Bad writing hides behind the use of dark and nasty deeds.

Here's where my anger is coming from; Rape, Mysogyny, exploitation, violence against women (or violence against any victim, frankly) are difficult issues. they are complex issues. They're not something that can be done justice in a Rolling Stone interview any more than they can be done justice in a ranty blog by a crime writer. These themes are the bread and butter of crime fiction, and they are issues that any responsible, self-respecting writer thinks long and hard about before tackling. As writers, we write about a world where characters say racist things, a world where women are victimised, and where children are abandoned. And we have to be honest about these things. Honest enough to over them, whilst also honest enough to make sure we're covering them the right way.

There are still too many inappropriate representations of each of these things in the mainstream media. There are still battles to be fought there.

Do we fight these battles by having a considered debate? By letting good writing and brave writers nudge us toward these issues? OR do we simply toss them around in thinly veiled jabs at other writers to sell our books? And as writers, don't we have a responsibility to our colleagues to treat them with the same respect we'd want? A responsibility to give them the support they need to examine dark themes, without fear of being singled out?

As much as these issues are probably too big for a Thursday morning article on a website, I also think they're too big to casually toss out in the middle of a promo interview. If Morrison really believes in the issues, and really believes that these writers need to be called on them, then surely there's a better way to do it, and a greater conversation to be had. Alternatively, he doesn't really believe it, and is simply using such sensitive issues and such tactless comments to sell his book.

Maybe there are some places that pro wrestling shouldn't go.

I'd be interested to hear your views on those questions, and on where you draw the line. Are there any acts that you don't think a writer should depict? And what do you think a writer needs to do in order to earn the use of those acts in a story? And after I've taken my soap box to shout some negatives, I'd be interested to hear some positives; which writers do you think are best at earning the use of terrible acts? Which writers have done their dark subject matter justice through good writing?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Writing is a Solitary Pursiut, er, Pursuit

John McFetridge

This week I’m going over the final copy edits on my novel, Tumblin’ Dice (and just to continue Dave’s post from yesteray, to be published March 1st, 2012. Here’s a little more about it and here’s the Amazon page .

If you’ve read any of my books you know it’s not an easy job for a copy editor. I try to let the characters tell the story and, like me, many of them have only a loose grasp of grammar and punctuation (it turns out I have no idea when to use a dash and only a vague idea what a comma is for). Sometimes I think the mistakes work well to get across the voice and the feel of what I’m after and sometimes they’re just mistakes. The copy editor can’t know which is which so she has to mark them all – five, six, ten per page. I’ve worked hard over the years to improve my spelling (and spell check sure helps) but sometimes the copy editor catches things like the “Northern Lights Theatre” is actually spelled “Theater” and the Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore is actually spelled “Rams Head Live” with no apostrophy (even, as the copy editor noted, “if it kills me”). She even corrected my mixing up the porn stars Bree Olson and Bobbi Starr in the Scooby Doo parody.

And this is just the copy editing after I’ve had meetings with my editor and gone over the entire manuscript and followed (some of) his suggestions.

And this after my “first readers” read the manuscript and gave some very good suggestions.

And this is after I first proposed the book to the publisher and we talked about what direction it would take, how closely it might be tied to the previous books and what characters might be in it and I followed a lot of his advice.

And this is after I bored my wife for months talking about, “this idea for a book about a rock band from the 70’s who get back together and play the casino circuit.”

So, while the sitting down and writing is solitary (and now that I’m a grumpy old man that means no music, no internet, no distractions at all), the production of a book could have a credit list very similar to that of a movie or TV show. When my first book was published I joked that I didn’t want to have an acknowledgement page because I’d either have to leave so many people out or it would be as long as the book itself.

A long time ago I took courses in Creative Writing at Concordia University and for a while I was in a writers’ group.

So, for me, writing has always been a pretty social activity. What about you, are you in a writers’ group? Do you have people who read and critique your work? How social is writing for you these days?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Have Some Fun With It

I've noticed a little trend with Twitter.

Okay, it's a big trend.

Well, it's like a tidal wave of trends without a hashtag for said trend.

Wellll, let's hashtag it anyway. #hashtaglesswritertrend

It's the fact that people with books out do one of two things... they either over post the link to that Kindle, Amazon, Indiebound, Borders (okay, not Borders... really... have you been reading the news? I tried to slip that one by you), or Barnes and Noble site that has their book on it. "BUUUYYYY my book," they say. "Come on, people, let's sell some books today."

And it's all they do.

Then there's this guy... the "I'm not going to do that guy." The passive aggresive, my book is out today, I'm going to post a link to it and then pretend like I never did and not really care if anyone buys it even though I care more than you know. I'll retweet every mention of me and hope it catches on that way.

(I'm a little of both of these people on Twitter, btw, I am not innocent in all of this. Well, I'm kind of innocent. All right, I'm just a plain hypocrite... I do these things all the time).

But I'm here to say something... It's time we have a little fun being an author. It's time to stop taking ourselves so seriously and remember that "HOLY CRAP, I HAVE A FUCKING BOOK OUT THERE!"

Be excited. It's okay. Something good happens to you, shout it from the rooftops. Tell people, hire a skywriter and let your town know about it. Be excited. I don't know about you, but if someone out there isn't excited about their own book, then guess what? Neither am I.

Don't be too cool for school about this. Let your freak flag fly.

At the same time, you don't have to be all self-promo all the time. It can't just be a link to your book. It has to be a link to good reviews. A quote from an email you got from a fan.

Sell your movie rights? Tell us!

Listen. You're human. Writing a book and getting it published is a big deal. Fans understand this. We've been beaten down by too many people telling us selling ourselves is a BAD thing. It's not. Not if you do it right.

Have fun with it. Celebrate your good stuff.

BE EXCITED!!!!!!!!!!!ZOMG!!!!!!!!!

Let me tell you a story:

I was in Boston seeing a concert right around the time my 2nd book came out. As my buddy and I were grabbing a beer, a woman stopped me. In Boston. At a concert. And she said, "I'm sorry, are you Dave White?"

I said, "Yes."

She said, "Your book rocked."

She wasn't star struck. I was. I made her take a picture with me. I got all... giggly. I was excited. I texted my friends and family. I know I blogged about it. Not sure if I had Twitter then, but if I did... I definitely tweeted it.


And that's okay.

You want to shout about the big deals, we're all going to be happy for you. Have fun. It's a book. If you're reading this site, it's like a mystery book.

But don't be boring. Don't tweet links, and don't try to downplay it. Act like you KNOW you have something special on your hands.

Because, you know what? You do.

So, show us.

Shout--USE CAPITAL LETTERS--your good news in the comments below.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Generation of Guinea Pigs

Amongst all the other post secondary certifications I have, I have a Teacher Assistant Diploma. I'm officially qualified to work as an aide (1:1 aide, therapy aide, paraeducator... the titles keep changing but the role is the same) and have worked in a number of preschools, elementary schools, middle schools and even high school.

My nerd fact is that I can do MSA Algebra is my head. The last math teacher I worked with just gave me the papers to mark when we were doing practice tests for review.

When I was studying in college, towards the completion of the diploma program, one of my instructors (who was from New Orleans) talked about why she was an atrocious speller. She grew up in the generation when educators decided that they wouldn't put heavy emphasis on correct spelling. The catchphrase was 'inventive spelling'.

The problem is, when you've grown up with one of these ridiculous new philosophies at work in your education, you're stuck with the results. Educational philosophy shifted, and perhaps some common sense was restored.

But for a generation of students, they struggle in the workplace because they have a difficult time spelling, and it impedes their ability to produce anything in writing for work purposes.

Now, I'm not saying I'm a hardliner, and think that points should be deducted from all papers and essays for every misspelled word. Before someone jumps on me, I'd like to point out that there is a time and place for such philosophies. Particularly if you, like me, spend most of your time working with students with diagnosed learning disabilities. In the work I do, it's often critical that I move the goal posts.

But what I want to touch on is something larger. Schools trying out all kinds of new strategies in order to deal with budget cuts. A few months ago, my best friend told me that her kids' school district had realized that if they extended the school day by just a handful of minutes each day, they cut could several days out of the calendar, and the cost savings of having schools closed more days per year were in the millions.

Five or six extra minutes per day...

What does anyone really think a student learns in a handful of minutes?

I mean, think about the last time you went to some work-related seminar. Were you tuning out 30% of the way through it? Or did you feel you learned material right up until the end? In most cases, it's repetitive. Most of my required annual classes ended early, because the material is either known or it isn't. The divide happens. Test for those ready and the ones who aren't quite there get assistance as they work through the unit.

I'm not going to delve deeply into my thoughts on the problems with education. However, I am going to toss this out as food for thought. If we want to continue to grow readers in this country, a quality education is an important component. Nothing troubles me more than my own personal experience. The kids aren't learning much about grammar, and forming conclusions is definitely not emphasized. Bry's grade 2 teacher really hit the nail on the head when she said Bry could read well beyond her age level, but she didn't comprehend what she was reading. And we've found that to be true. She can spell a lot of words, but doesn't know what they mean.

Unfortunately, getting teachers who can make that kind of astute assessment are few and far between, and while educators play with new philosophies and test out their new ideas, it's the kids in the system who will suffer the consequences if the ideas they're adopting and implementing are bad ones.

As authors, we should all be concerned about how this impacts future generations of potential readers who might not have their skills developed sufficiently, or be turned off of reading altogether.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Things that make me go "hmmm".

by Joelle Charbonneau

Maybe redheads are just suspicious by nature. It could be genetic. Or maybe I just like poking things with a stick. Whatever the reason, over the past week and a half I’ve been watching a few developments over at Amazon with a critical eye.

About 11 or 12 days ago, everyone in the Amazon buying universe got an e-mail announcing their new Kindle Cloud Reader. Not being an e-reading girl, I admit I don’t understand all the cool new features that this gadget is providing. But Amazon must think it is pretty awesome because they have gotten the word out about it in a huge way. I’ve seen tweet after tweet, stories in PW and Publishers Lunch and all sorts of other advertising about it. When Amazon thinks they have a winner, they send marching bands down Main Street and have skywriters streak the message across the sky.

So, perhaps that is why I’m looking sideways at another recent move Amazon made just a day or two after the Cloud Reader announcement. This move was made without fanfare. No e-mail blasts. No marching bands whipping up excitement. Just a quiet shift on the website which has moved all self-published e-books into a new category – Kindle Indie Publishing.

Once again, I will admit I’m not an e-reader, so I can’t really say how this move affects a reader searching for new titles. But this shift on the website looks a little suspicious to me. For years, Amazon has been telling authors to ditch the traditionally published route and self-publish their books. That the authors who chose to self-publish are equally important to them as the ones that are traditionally published. And yet, as of a few days ago, Amazon has rounded up those “Indie” authors and put them in a category separate from the traditionally published authors.

I know Amazon is telling authors this is a good thing. That this will help readers and authors alike. Maybe it will, but the skeptic in me can’t help seeing this move as Amazon creating its own personal ghetto. Ok, I’m probably going to get lynched using that word, but it’s the only one I can come up with that fits. This new Kindle Indie Store rounded up and separated self-published titles from all the others. It tells the reader that for good or ill, these titles are different.

The cynic in me can’t help wondering at the timing of this move. Amazon will soon be launching the first titles in their fiction imprints. These are titles that they have shelled out money for. Their editorial, artistic and marketing staffs has put huge time and effort into these titles. Amazon want them to be stocked on bookshelves along side the traditionally published books they have encouraged “indie authors” to shake their heads at. So, it wouldn’t surprise me that they want to distinguish these new imprint titles on the virtual shelves as well.

I’m hoping the cynic in me is wrong. That this move really is good for the “indie” authors. Lots of my friends have gone that route and I would hate to see them shoved to the side by Amazon in favor of the newer, cooler kids on the block. But anytime Amazon (or anyone for that matter) makes a move without a major announcement, I just have to say “hmmmm”.