Thursday Reviews: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If McDonalds ruled the world: it would look like this book.

Or, rather, if Nike owned the world.

The Low-Down Dirty:
Welcome to the not-so-far-away future, where everyone is identified by the company they work for. Hence, our trigger-man (in every sense of the word, sort of) is Hack Nike. Hack Nike works for John Nike and John Nike. **No, that wasn’t a typo. There are two John Nikes in this book. One is prettier than the other.** John Nike has decided that the greatest marketing scheme of all time includes shooting ten teenagers to make the new shoe, the Nike Mercury, that much cooler and desireable. The Johns ask Hack to handle it.

But Hack’s not very good at this and outsources to the Police, who in turn outsource to the NRA — who kill fourteen teenagers instead.

Now Hack is being hunted by the Government: Jennifer Government.

How it Works:
Barry has pulled off a fast-moving, sometimes confusing feat of how-not-to-run-the-world. Considering the world-wide scope of this story, it’s amazing the characters come together as well as they do.

You’ve got unemployed people (a.k.a. ‘entrepeneurs’) working on computer viruses to sell to the highest bidder. You’ve got a government that can’t prosecute criminals unless the victims agree to pay for said prosecution. You’ve got ambitious corporate-ladder climbers that make the Enron assholes look like pansies. It’s an exciting set-up for things to go wrong.

The most interesting parts are the people who somehow grow a conscience out of this whole debacle, and there are a surprising amount of them, which bodes well for humanity. Just be prepared, as a reader to keep a mental list of the cast of characters because Barry doesn’t slow down to let you catch up. If you lose a person, you’re outta luck for a little while until you can get your bearings.

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A Late Post of Accountability

It’s Wednesday! Which really means not much except: get through it.

However, even though I’m not keeping up with the mentor posting and, instead, am focusing on my own writing…means I still need to keep up with the posts of accountability.

So, here’s what I’ve done since posting last:

1. Three chapters of The Line. Which included a re-examination of my structure and I decided to speed things up a little bit. So I upped the timeline. Which had the added bonus of making it more exciting for me to write, and I hope that translates to more excitement (not more confusion) for the reader.

I aim to be finished with Part One by mid-next-month.

2. Started a new short story. Since I’m not blogging as often, I’ve decided to use that extra time toward mastering the short story – or, at least, writing a few. My goal is one short story every two weeks. I’m defining one short story as the following: A.) A rough draft of something totally new or B.) A full edit of a short story that leads to a finished story.

I’m not totally beating myself up if I miss that, though. Novel first!

3. Sent out six submissiosns. Yay! Fingers crossed.

Anybody else do anything interesting/productive?

Difficult Decision!

Hey guys, I’m afraid that this’ll be my last post for a while. I do have a few already scheduled to go up down the line…but after some heavy consideration, I’ve decided that I need to spend more time on my writerly writing.

As you can imagine, following up on the mentors and reading/researching, etc. takes a lot of time and energy. While I’m learning a lot, I have discovered that most of my time has been going to writing about writing instead of doing the writing. So, I’m going to pause the blog and revisit how it’s structured…but that could be a while.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this stuff! I hope that your writing endeavors are richly rewarded!

Now get to work.

Hang-up Awareness

After an interesting bout during a critique meeting, a few of my writers group buddies and I discussed our hang-ups in fiction. Basically, we asked ourselves: during a critique is there anything that you, personally, cannot get past or overlook in another writer’s submission – and it’s an entirely personal reaction, not something like comma-use or story structure or anything ‘writerly.’

For example, my hang-up is the treatment of women in a story. I have next to zero tolerance for what has been termed ‘Mantasy’ because a lot of the elements of this type of fiction treat women in a questionable manner. For example, rape is often utilized in some manner in the unpublished works I’ve seen – often negatively, but rape will still show up in there somewhere. Because this is such a damaging life-altering event in any woman’s life (I hope to heaven it never happens to any readers here!) I hate seeing it used as anything even remotely erotic.

That’s an extreme example, but my hang-up shows up in smaller ways too. If a story doesn’t represent a balanced woman’s perspective I have a difficult time overlooking it. Sure, not all stories need a balanced perspective – but I really think that Of Mice and Men would’ve benefitted a little. (See? It’s a matter of personal taste.)

Anyway, reading The Handmaid’s Tale I realized something else: I’m also irritated when men are not treated in a well-rounded fashion.

As a woman, I had some strong reactions to this book. The dehumanized portraits of women reduced to a color or a duty. The lack of choice. The fear, the threats, the loss. I felt all of it, so two-hundred and ten points to Atwood for that. But something was bothering me throughout the story and I finally realized that it was the men.

So this Handmaid’s Tale society is male-dominated. The dudes are in charge – which just takes it back a hundred years or so and is not a monstrous stretch of the imagination (woe be the day!). And this is where I hit the flaw in the story: men were in charge for centuries prior to this one. They have a certain amount of logic and dominating capability. In fact, when it comes down to dudes “defending” themselves against women, their “claim” is that they are more “rational” and “logical” rather than “emotional” and “passionate” like the chicks. While I don’t think guys are more rational than women, by any means, I do think that a dominating group has certain rationales that drive it.

In Tale, the rationale for the Handmaids is that they have proven themselves in The Time Before as capable breeders. All of them have had children. The Commanders (dudes in charge) want kids. But the Commanders are stuck with their Wives, have negotiated certain rights and responsibilities with said Wives, and the Wives – some of them – are not able to have children. Therefore the Handmaids are brought into the Commander’s homes and assume getting-knocked-up duties.

Now, here’s my issue: the Commanders are in charge. They have certain requirements – namely children. Sure, they negotiated with the Wives prior to the takeover of the world, but now the world is taken over…why still negotiate with the women who aren’t adding to the quantity of children? Of course, it’s the men themselves that are probably responsible for the infertility…but that didn’t stop Henry VIII. Wouldn’t they start the rules for multiple wives, especially if they’re using Biblical precedent?

Like I said – this is my hang-up. There’s no way that Atwood could’ve made that choice, because that would’ve upset the balance of the story – in fact, it would’ve changed the story entirely – and there’s so much that is interesting already in Handmaid’s Tale. But I think that’s the key to creating a good story: the writer has to create a more interesting idea in order to help the reader past their own prejudices/biases/hang-ups.

It does make me wonder how much of our hang-ups make it into our own writing.

What are your hang-ups? Do you think that your hang-ups extend from your reading/critiquing into your writing? How can you spot it without it being pointed out by, say, your writing group?

Thursday Reviews!: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

Plum Island (John Corey, #1)Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah…sarcastic narrators. This book’s got one.

“I gripped my right ear and twisted, which is how I tune out idiots.”

Unfortunately, it’s apparent that everyone except John Corey (our fearless, convalescing-from-getting-shot-on-the-job narrator/hero) is an idiot. I sorta wish that his ear had been turned off for some larger chunks of the book — because the reader has to wade through a lot of red herrings and schtuff to get to the meat of the book.

For example, getting a tour of Plum Island, the spot where world-threatening viruses are studied and possibly stolen, shouldn’t be so long and tedious. For an example of that: there are numerous mentions of the ospreys — but don’t get all excited. It’s not a clue. Apparently the bird has nothing more to do with the story than a narrative motif, which doesn’t quite come off for me. The tour of Plum Island takes 100 pages and by the time you reach the end, witty repartee like

“I had to ask, ‘But is the female screwworm fulfilled?’

‘She must be,’ Zollner replied. ‘She never mates again.’

Beth offered, ‘There’s another way to look at that.'”

is just a little frustrating. You want INFORMATION, not wit, by that point.

That being said, the characters are certainly likeable (you know, except for the ones you’re not supposed to like.)

And even the false leads are intriguing. Pirate treasure, virus hunting, international intrigue, historical implications, etc. You just can’t get much better than that. The whole thing is an adventurer’s wet dream. It’s fun to go and figure stuff out along with Corey — though the turn might be a little to easy to catch. I mean, I got the gist before they left Plum Island…which might explain why a lot of the copious detail felt, well, copious.

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Tuesday Post of Accountability! Writing! Yeah!

Ah, Tuesday. Time to be held accountable.

Here’s what I was up to:

1. Writing. Woo-whee! Finished a chapter and am half through another, for a grand total of twenty-odd pages this past week. Since I figured out the schedule that I need to be on, I’ve been sticking to it pretty consistently. Of course, I only figured it out last week…so let’s see how long I stick to it, yeah?

Another reason I think I’ve been so productive is that I’ve figured out not to try too much new. A certain pattern has emerged on the projects I finish and, if that’s how I’m finishing, then that’s what I need to do, right?

So, my process (my real process, as I figure out every time…so remind me next time I try something too different): hand-write in the cheap notebooks that are so plentiful this time of year – because they’re cheap I don’t have an ounce of guilt about what should or should not go in them, which plagues me for some reason with the nicer notebooks/journals. Then edit as I type it in later.

Another weird thing I’ve noticed: when I’m working on a big project I like to use one writing utensil – whether pencil or pen – until said utensil runs out (either the pencil is so short it’s awkward to hold, or until the pen runs out of ink). Seems strange to the outside world, I’m sure, but I think I use these as measuring sticks. If I ever feel I’m not making progress…I can just look at the length of my pencil, or my pen will suddenly refuse to write another word. Then I have the distinct triumphant feeling of: Ha! I beat that one!

2. Finished reading some books that I’ve been monkeying around with. On Goodreads I entered 100 books as my reading goal this year, so when I plotted my writing goals I plotted my reading goals as well. Turns out that I was a tad smidgen too ambitious. So I’ve revised to eighty books and I’ve actually scheduled out how much time I’ll need to read said books to hit my goal by the end of the year.

Shane looked at me and said “You’re a little intense.”

Well, writing and reading are pretty much my thing, so it doesn’t feel like work. I want to be an expert and all….

3. Learned to pity English teachers (well, actually, all teachers). I’m from a family of teachers, and my husband is one. He’s just taken on a job at, basically, a Talented and Gifted charter school that can get kind of intense. He had stacks of stuff to grade this weekend – drafts of paragraphs that he had to mark up and get back to the kids by today. I had mercy on him and helped edit…though I don’t know how helpful I was with the rubric schtuff. I’m sure he wasn’t the only teacher grading on Labor Day, so let me give a shout-out to my teacher people: I LOVE YOU! YOUR STUDENTS LOVE YOU! KEEP IT UP!!!

Answering Questions with Questions

Perhaps you noticed in the introductory post on Atwood, during her interview with Bill Moyers, that Atwood answers a lot of questions with more questions. Moyers asks something like “Are the myths true?” and Atwood answers something like “What is true?”

The interviews with Atwood that I’ve found online are all like this. A question gets asked, and she responds with a question. I’m sure this is a very frustrating trait for interviewers. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than to reach across the interview space and smack her around. Because journalists are about getting answers.

But novelists are about asking questions.

Any story, any novel, is a presentation of a question – the What If? – and the exploration of a possible answer: these characters in this situation would do this (maybe). Take a group of novelists and give them a situation and watch them ask a million questions of their characters, of the situation, of the setting, of the ‘theme.’ Whenever they answer, it’ll be with a story, but something interesting will have occurred. Their stories will be riddled with further questions – the story isn’t an answer at all, it’s just a way to ask deeper questions.

In my opinion, Atwood is a strong writer because she asks so many questions.

I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale recently, and that’ll be the example book for this week and probably next week – so just fair warning that I’ll probably ruin some stuff for you if you haven’t read it, but I’ll try to be careful about that.

Imagine that you’re in a group of novelists that has been asked to answer the following questions with a story:

1. Women no longer have rights. Their personal incomes are shut down, they are completely reliant on men for support. How did this happen in the late twentieth century?

2. What does this new society look like? How does it function? Does it look like the late 19th century? Medieval times?

Atwood’s answer to these is The Handmaid’s Tale. Her answer to the first question defines a lot of the structures in the book: everything collapses after a violent massacre of the U.S. government – congressmen are killed, the government can’t really function, and voila – a whole new regime that Atwood actually keeps fairly small and in the early stages, the struggle for control is still ongoing. And her answers to question two (the societal structures and purposes of the Handmaids, the Wives, etc.; clothing based on Mid-East garb; religious totalitarianism) define the other questions that need to be asked.

But what’s really interesting are the questions that The Handmaid’s Tale brings up: Could something like this happen? Has something like this happened already? How is the similar or different to today, or yesterday, or what we’re expecting for tomorrow? How realistic is it?

Good literature makes us ask questions – even today we talk about the questions brought up in, say, Jane Eyre regarding marriage/violence/mental illness. But I also think that good literature is only created when the writer explores questions. Exploring questions is different than answering questions. Exploration is similar to experimentation – you start with a question and then start digging into what the answer could be.

It’s sort of like the new theories of time travel and different lines of time. Say, for example, that a Yankee really did go back to King Arthur’s court. One of the theories circulating at the moment is that the Yankee won’t have changed this timeline…he would have created an entirely new one, so nothing is predictable anymore. Thomas Edison may or may not invent the lightbulb. Columbus may or may not discover America. The entire planet of Vulcan could be destroyed! Stuff changes when different questions are asked.

So, as writers, it’s up to us to ask questions of our work. Would our characters behave this way? Why? Why not that way? How can something work differently? What are my options? What is truth? What am I trying to say? How else could it be said?

***And, speaking of interviews, here’s a great one from the New York Times: Margaret Atwood interviewed by Joyce Carol Oates in 1978. (There are fewer questions asked in this one…but she’s younger, and younger people know it all, right?)

Mentors Coming Along Right When You Need Them

Happy September everyone!

With this new month comes a new mentor: Margaret Atwood.

In all honesty, I picked Atwood because my dear, dear friend Deb LOVES her. Before last month I had not read word one of Atwood, so I was going completely based on my friend’s suggestion. No other reason. Like most of the mentors this year, I kinda picked her at random.

Still, have you ever had the experience of getting what you need right when you need it?

Earlier this year I had to choose whether to work on one project or another. Strangely enough, the combo of Virginia Woolf and P.G. Wodehouse convinced me that I should write what I’m most interested in (human behavior in extraordinary circumstances) — after all, neither of them were going after fame or riches. Woolf tried to write beautifully. Wodehouse tried to make people laugh. But both were obviously passionate: as evidenced by Woolf’s focused diaries and Wodehouse’s sheer output.

Christie and Kerouac have, again strangely, worked together to show me that I needed to write. More words = more output = finished products. No whining. Do it because you love it. Through their notebooks and journals you can see how often they thought about their work (all the time), and how often they were working (all the time).

And now, having read some Atwood and continuing to tear into more of her work, I’m sure that I’m getting more specific information toward my own work. I’m writing a dystopian novel, she is Queen of that particular subject matter. Her work is a gorgeous melting pot exploration of philosophy, religion, sociology, science fiction, fantasy, all mixed with this amazing sense of storytelling structure and language. She’s so good that I can’t be jealous of her…only stand back in awe.

Of course, with the kind of subject matter she handles there’re controversies and debates. The work almost demands a college education to dig into all the -isms that crop up.

I can’t wait to dig deeper! For a small taste of her sensibility here’s the lady in her own words, in an interview clip with Bill Moyers:

Legacies and Jack Kerouac

Today, we say farewell to Jack Kerouac as a mentor. (“Farewell, Jack!”)

However, just because we have to say goodbye doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to explore Kerouac’s legacy. If you’re a writer (and if you’re reading this, I bet that you are in some way, shape, or form) there’s a more formal place to go if you’d like to participate in part of Jack Kerouac’s legacy:

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics

Started by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974 in memory of Kerouac, I know two people personally who have graduated from this particular school (both brilliant writers). You can get a BA in Writing and Lit. A MFA in Writing and Poetics. A MFA in Creative Writing – low residency degree. And there’s a summer program too.

But, seriously, how’s that for a way to be remembered? Your buddies start a school and name it after you. I don’t know if there’s much higher praise, and I certainly can’t think of it at the moment.

As I sat and daydreamed about my friends’ starting a writing school named for me, I ran into an interesting question. For the Kerouac school the website offers this as an explanation of their goals and vision: “The Kerouac School is distinct among academic writing programs because of its lively community of writers who trace their genesis and inspiration from a wide range of aesthetic and social movements, including postmodernism, Buddhist and contemplative teachings, the l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e school of poetry, the New York schools of poetry, the Black Mountain school of poetry, the Berkeley and San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Arts movement, the Beat movement, Surrealism, Dada and the Harlem Renaissance. One tradition that is emphasized is the Outrider lineage—a heritage of counter-poetics operating outside the academic mainstream.”

My question: What on earth would my school be based on? The movements listed for the Kerouac school can certainly be seen in his writing. I don’t know if there’s a Stephen King literary movement – but I’d probably fall into that. Can you make a whole school, dedicated to educating young, newbie writers – college graduates at that – based on the way that you write?

A good question to end on, I think. Daydream Time! Ignore the fact that a lot of us are unpublished wannabes and fast-forward to our successful futures: If there was a school dedicated to teaching your methods/themes/styles/whatevers – what would you want included? What do you want your legacy to be?