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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 12: Neurostim

Episode Name: Neurostim

Premise: The Zik Zak Corporation is selling Neurostim bracelets, which are designed to stimulate the brain to experience a fantasy, but at the same time, stimulate people into buying Zik Zak products.

Themes explored: Consumption behaviors are what's mainly the focus of the episode. The Neurostim bracelet prompts people to keep buying products, with some people doing it to the point that they go into debt. It raises the issue about advertising tactics that prompt people to buy things that they might not necessarily need.

But a larger purpose of the Neurostim bracelet is to allow Zik Zak Corporation to advertise its products without the need to broadcast advertising or sponsor shows on Network 23 or other television outlets. And after Zik Zak pulls its advertising from Network 23, causing the network's stock to drop, Zik Zak is able to buy cheap shares and put a member of its company onto the Network 23 board.

That raises the question about what happens when a corporation acquires a media outlet and how can the media outlet be expected to stay impartial when what it intends to cover may conflict with other business interests the corporation has. Today's media environment is like that, with corporations or individuals who acquire media outlets and then attempt to control the message. How can a media outlet operate independently if a corporation acquires it and forces the outlet to bend to its will?

One might also see a parallel between how Neurostim allows a company to advertise its products in a new manner, as opposed to traditional methods of advertising. (Did someone mention how newspaper advertising declined with the rise of the Internet?) It illustrates how much of our media is dependent on advertising to stay in business, so what happens when that revenue stream dries up?

There is a subplot regarding how Edison Carter and Max Headroom clash over who should be dominating the airwaves -- Carter's investigative reporting is popular, but Max Headroom is just as popular and the two are put into conflict. It's only after they each learn to accept one another in terms of how they bring in an audience that they learn to co-exist again.

Max Headroom quotes:
"A quick thank you goes out to the real sponsors: you. Yes, you. You buy the products, you give them their profits, so you're sponsoring the game."
"You buy the burgers, you finance the game, and you have to go buy a ticket to watch it. It's that funny old world."
"As long as it's the truth, does it matter which of us tells it?"
"That makes a lot of sense. He yells, I apologize."

Personal observations: The episode primarily focuses on Zik Zak providing Carter with a bracelet that's designed to excessively stimulate his impulses to buy things and keep his investigative reporting from interfering with its business strategy. That means that plot's resolution tends to dominate, while the subplot of Zik Zak taking over Network 23 tends to be resolved too quickly -- Zik Zak gaining, then losing, a spot on the corporate board gets wrapped up in the final acts. So it's not as good of an episode as previous installments of the show were, but the themes touched upon are worth consideration.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 11: Whackets

Episode Name: Whackets

Premise: Big Time Television has the most popular TV show on air, the game show Whackets, which is actually broadcasting a video signal that addicts people to their TV sets.

Themes explored: Addiction. The video signal broadcast during the show is the equivalent of a narcotic, which stimulates the brain to either feel pleasure or counter pain. It's so strong that victims of an apartment building that collapsed are so focused on recovering their TV sets from the wreckage (despite free TVs being made available to those who can't afford them) and that the injured no longer feel pain or discomfort while watching the show.

Of course, addiction doesn't have to be limited to a video signal -- we know all about the various forms of addiction in today's society, all because of the pleasure we feel in our brains or how it allows us to ignore pain. Opioids. Social media. Alcohol. Junk food. Shopping. These and many others can become highly addictive if we aren't careful about moderating their usage. And, yes, leaving a TV set to drone on, featuring one network or program can be just as bad for our brains.

That's particularly true with the underlying point of Whackets -- take away the addictive video signal and people realize Whackets is a bad show. It's worth thinking about regarding anything we watch, use or consume for pleasure. Is it really that good of a product to begin with? Or would our lives be better off if we didn't spend all our time with it?

Max Headroom quotes:

"I was dumped for some ninny trying to win a trash compactor?"
"Caught you watching the competition!"
"I want my Whack TV!" (An obvious reference to MTV's catch phrase back in the 1980s.)
"It's just TV with a twist."

Personal observations: The show was timely back in the 1980s when the anti-drug movement was at its height. It remains timely today, though, because all throughout society, we can find things that people become addicted to, when we should remind ourselves to moderate our usage and, in some cases, not use it at all.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Max Headroom Episode 10: Dream Thieves

Episode Name: Dream Thieves

Premise: Edison Carter meets a former colleague, Paddy Ashton, who introduces him to a business in which people are paid for their dreams. The next day, Carter learns that Ashton has died and pursues an investigation.

Themes explored: The episode centers around Dream Vu, a subscriber-based channel in which people pay to watch the recordings of other people's dreams. The business is run out of an old movie theater (in this world, movies are a thing of the past, replaced by other forms of visual entertainment) and people are paid to have their dreams recorded while they sleep. But the process can be lethal when someone has a nightmare and suffer from brain trauma when those nightmares are pulled from the subconscious.

It begs the question about what price are people willing to pay for entertainment -- especially in an environment in which traditional forms of entertainment that involve originality and creativity (movies, books, episodic TV) and are replaced with another form. Though in today's society, we aren't taking other people's dreams and passing them off as entertainment, there are other variants of entertainment that replace original ideas and sell them to the public as a replacement. We just call them by different names. On this episode, games shows and chat shows are mentioned -- we'd refer to the latter as debate shows. And then there's the obvious example: reality TV. How far are we willing to go to seek out entertainment, especially if we are replacing people's original ideas (which may cost more) with cheaper programming?

There's also the previous friendship between Carter and Ashton -- the two both worked at Network 23 together, but each had different principles when it came to pursuing a story, with said principles influencing Murray's decisions. Carter's aggressive drive to get the story got him a promotion -- with Murray choosing to promote him -- while Ashton was passed over. Carter's aggressiveness to get the story comes to a head here, when he gets too personally involved in his investigation because he's upset about Ashton's death, while Murray realizes that his choice to promote Carter because of Carter's drive had its downside and that he perhaps shouldn't have pushed Ashton to the side because he thought Ashton was willing to meet his full potential.

Max Headroom quotes:
"But if dreaming is all your subconscious desires coming out, why do people wait until they're asleep to do it?"
"I don't mind being the projectionist, but don't forget that no one's paying me to be the censor."
"Looking at other people's dreams is as bad as reading their diaries."

Personal observations: Though the technology to record people's dreams hasn't been developed, it would raise ethical questions if it were to become reality. But it's worth raising those same ethical questions regarding entertainment that isn't based on an original concept, but merely following the trials and tribulations of everyday people as they happen. It may seem trivial on the surface, but if everything that's produced is merely based on real-life developments, we can lose something when it comes to the original ideas we imagine.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Nine: Grossberg's Return

Episode Name: Grossberg's Return

Premise: Ned Grossberg, former Network 23 chairman, resurfaces at rival Network 66 and rolls out a plan to take the ratings lead away from Network 23.

Theme explored: This is the first episode that focused less on a specific theme and more on setting up the overarching storyline for the season -- that Grossberg, ousted from Network 23 after the revelation that his Blipverts had lethal side effects, was now with Network 66 and plotting to become its chairman and launch a rivalry with Network 23.

But the themes remain evident, surrounding how the media can be utilized to play political games. It starts with Grossberg using a device called View Doze, which counters viewership of people who leave the TV one while sleeping, in an attempt to win an election for Harriet Garth (in this world, elections for leadership positions are won based on the ratings garnered by the network, which backs a chose candidate). This prompts Network 23 to launch an investigation into the practice.

It takes a different turn, though, when a freelancer working for Network 23 -- who is really working covertly for Grossberg -- reveals footage of Garth apparently having an intimate affair with a Network 66 reporter. Cheviette, the chairman of Network 23, pushes Edison Carter to pursue the story, mostly because of Cheviette's desire to win the election. All the while, Grossberg is manipulating both Network 23 and Network 66 in a move to claim the chairmanship of Network 66 for himself.

The media's effect on elections is discussed a lot in light of the 2016 Presidential election, but this Max Headroom episode takes it a step further, in which networks themselves are backing political candidates. Nonetheless, the debate over how the media should cover elections and political candidates is relevant to our society today.

Max Headroom quotes:
"Ratings! Audiences! You're playing my tune!"
"I'll never understand why people always use so much energy over the idea of getting excited about the very thing they'll need energy for once the excitement is over."
"You should leave it to me next time -- leave it to someone who understands show business."

Personal thoughts: This was the first episode in which the writers focused on continuity from previous episodes and set the stage for what was intended to be the overarching conflict of the season. Though the series was cancelled a few episodes later, you could tell that the writers knew that the table had been set and now was the time to move forward with episodic storytelling. Even so, this episode stands well on its own for its underlying theme.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Principle's Not The Problem, The Method Is

As I sat down to review Max Headroom episodes, one line from Edison Carter keeps popping into my mind: "I agree with the principle, but the method stinks."

Carter's line is directed at Blank Reg, one of a number of people who, in the futuristic world of Max Headroom, disagree with the decision to have everyone's personal information kept in computer databases and have all such information erased. Reg is working on behalf of fellow Blanks who seek to sabotage the networks because other Blanks are being detained by police without charge, at the behest of a government leader who doesn't like that Blanks had their personal info erased.

Certainly the idea of detaining a person without charge simply because the person disagrees with a government's directive is problematic, but the decision to sabotage something in response brings problems of its own. And though Carter is symapehtic toward Reg and his fellow Blanks, he believes there has to be a better way to get the point across.

Which brings me to the latest in debates surrounding young adult novels, this one concerning American Heart, a novel written by Laura Moriarty and set to be released in January. The novel's premise is that Muslim Americans are forced into concentration camps and the protagonist, a white teenage girl, encounters a Muslim professor and, while originally not concerned about the plight of Muslims, decides to help this professor escape to Canada.

Kirkus Reviews published a starred review by a reviewer who, while not identified by name, was identified as Muslim. That was followed by a number of individuals who wrote scathing remarks about the book and Kirkus, in a rare move, changed the review and took away the star.

There are two reviewers who aren't connected with Kirkus who both note the attempt by Moriarty to write a homage to Huckleberry Finn. Cathy Day believes people should read the book because she thinks the portrayal of American Heart's main character should get people to reconsider their own casual prejudices. Justina Ireland, though, is more critical of the book -- her praise for Huckleberry Finn is similar to Day's (and both note important flaws in Huckleberry Finn), but Ireland finds the portrayal of American Heart's main character problematic, along with the portrayal of the Muslim characters and others along the way, plus the way the story unfolds.

Though Ireland makes her dislike for the book known, she does it in a thought-provoking manner, detailing why she doesn't care for the characters and why she finds the storyline flawed.

But reviews such as Ireland's are not what appear to have prompted Kirkus to change its own review. Instead, Kirkus is reacting to online backlash by people who haven't read the book, but either read the blurb or read reviews by others who wrote the book and leave scathing remarks on Goodreads, as if they are solely interested in sabotaging the book, the author and the publisher rather than engaging in an open, honest discussion such as about points Ireland raised and what could have been done to make the book better.

And while I agree with the principle that writers shouldn't fall into lazy tropes and stereotypes regarding people of different races, ethnicities or religions, the method of bashing and insulting the author stinks.

Such bashing and insulting doesn't serve any means to advance discussion and get writers to learn about what to do better next time. It only serves to convince writers they shouldn't bother trying to explore certain themes, ideas or characters -- or even to write future novels at all. More importantly, the bashing and insulting diminishes what Ireland set out to do -- get writers to do a better job with such character portrayals. Because when bashing and insulting takes place, that gets all the attention, when attention may be better focused on reviews such as Ireland's.

And when the attention only focuses on the bashing and insulting, people who might be open to reconsidering their views are more likely to be convinced there is no reason to do so. Nobody, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or other factors likes to be bashed and insulted, so how can anyone think such bashing and insulting is going to cause people to change their minds?

While I understand the need to get writers of all types represented, I have previously written that it's difficult for new writers to break in with publishers for several reasons -- one of them being that major publishers tend to fall back on writers who have had successful works rather than giving new writers a chance. Increasing representation for all types of authors is good, but when major publishers would rather rely on established authors before new authors, groups that are underrepresented remain that way. And I agree that it's a good idea to get characters of all types represented in novels, and that such portrayals shouldn't just fall into stereotypes. But that means that writers of all backgrounds are going to have write about characters of all backgrounds, whether the character's background matches the writer's background or not.

And considering that it's white Americans who may need the most educating about what casual prejudice is all about, I believe it's important to have novels in which a white protagonist is forced to confront casual prejudice. One is free to argue with how such a concept is executed and one is right to point out that the writer must do plenty of work to ensure an accurate portrayal of non-white characters. But arguing the attempt shouldn't be explored is problematic. Yet that's the message sent by those who bash and insult, and is hammered home by Kirkus changing its review.

It's easy for writers to fall into the trap of keeping their protagonists as ones who fit the writer's beliefs and experiences. That's not to say the writer should never create protagonists who share the writer's beliefs -- such exercises can be useful. But the real challenge for a writer is to write a protagonist that the writer doesn't agree with and, in some cases, may not be likable. And when such attempts are made, those who review the books should focus on whether or not the execution worked, even if the reviewer may not be a fan of the premise. That's how writers learn to get better at their craft.

But if certain individuals spend more of their time bashing and insulting than offering critical analysis, it's only going to cause writers to stay in their comfort zones rather than explore new territory. And it defeats the purpose of what those offering critical analysis are trying to explain to writers who venture into new territory.

To paraphrase Edison Carter: It's not the principle that is the problem, but the method is certainly a problem.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Eight: Deities

Episode Name: Deities

Premise: Edison Carter is tasked to investigate the View Age Church, which promises technology to resurrect loved ones, that happens to be overseen by Carter's old flame.

Theme explored: On the surface, it's televangelism -- the View Age Church is like many televangelists when considering the promise of salvation if you'll just give money. A deeper theme explored, though, is the question "what is truth?" That's the challenge that Vanna Smith, the head of the View Age Church and a former love interest of Carter's, poses to Carter itself when she points out that she promises her church members something and they have found peace, while what Carter seeks out doesn't always bring peace, even if the evidence shows he's right.

There's also the question about how relationships can present conflict of interest when it comes to our jobs. Carter had a past relationship with Smith -- at first, he's reluctant to pursue the story, but once he learns more details, he becomes almost vindicative in his pursuit of the story. Carter tries to make peace with Smith, but in doing so, violates one of his rules that he will not allow a source to see his story before it airs. And then comes a confrontation with Ashwell, a member of Network 23's board of directors, who happens to be a member of the View Age Church and points out that Carter's past stories have often cost Network 23 sponsors and shows, thus hurting the network's bottom line.

Though the themes don't necessarily tie into what one would find in a dystopian environment, they are themes that hold relevance in society, especially when it comes to the question of what seeking the truth is all about.

Max Headroom quotes:
"God may have taken only seven days to create the universe, but the running repairs go on forever."
"One of my commandments is thou shalt not squeal."
"And God created the fish that swims in the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that walk among the earth and then... he created Vanna Smith."
"What do I need a new body for? I never had an old one."

Personal observations: Again, this episode focused less on the consequences of a dystopian environment and more on asking the question about what truth really is. It does a good job building to the moment in which Max Headroom himself proves to be the mediator in the conflict between Carter and Smith, all while staying true to his personality.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Seven: The Academy

Episode Name: The Academy

Premise: Blank Reg is accused of zipping (hacking) Network 23's transmissions, but the real culprits are students at the network's Academy of Computer Sciences, for whom Bryce is covering up.

Theme explored: Logic versus emotion. Bryce, in his attempts to cover up for the academy students, uses logic to determine that there is no harm in diverting attention to an innocent person because the evidence will show the person is innocent. However, Blank Reg is different because, given that he chose to wipe out his entire record, the networks use a "criminal profile" to determine the likelihood that he may have committed the crime -- a profile also based in logic. Or in other terms, a computer algorithm determines the likelihood of guilt.

It raises the question about the usage of computer alogrithms to come to conclusions. We have seen this become an issue in how posts are removed from social media accounts, or said accounts are suspended, based on what an algorithm determines, rather than an actual person examining the post or account to determine what is really being posted. And given the nature in which the academy teaches its students, in which they are taught to think in terms of logic rather than emotion, how that may not be a good thing when some situations may require a determination of "right or wrong" that is based more on emotion than logic.

Also critiqued was the trend at the time of broadcasting court cases for entertainment purposes (The People's Court was in syndication at the time this episode was taped). The critique comes in Blank Reg's trial, which is broadcast on the Network 23 show "You The Jury," in which the prosecutor and judge behave more like game show personalities and everything is treated as an event. It begs the question about how far you go in taking legal cases and broadcasting them for entertainment purposes rather than informational.

Max Headroom quotes:
"I happen to be living above the mainframe and just watched the show."
"As they said to King Charles I on the scaffold, are you going to go quietly or do you need a push?"
"Me smirk? It's not in my program."

Personal observations: This was one of the better episodes of the series. The writers were hitting their stride by this point, exploring a main theme that wasn't solely about critiquing television but finding a way to fit a critique of the media into the show. And in our debates today, there's always the struggle between using logic (data, algorithms, etc.) versus emotion (feelings, conscience, etc.) to determine what is the best solution to a problem.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Six: The Blanks

Episode name: The Blanks

Premise: A group of Blanks (individuals who have wiped out their personal information from all databases) threatens to take down all computer systems unless Blanks who have been detained without cause be released by the government.

Theme explored: The episode focuses on Simon Pellar, an elected official who doesn't agree with those who choose to remove all identifying information from technological systems and seeks to have them arrested simply for choosing to be a Blank. Meanwhile, Blank Reg -- who runs his own Big Time Television network -- wants to reach a wider audience and agrees to work with Blank Bruno to sabotage all other network systems. But Reg has second thoughts when Edison Carter confronts him about it, but promises that he will talk to Bruno and find a way to get Pellar to release the Blanks who have been detained.

The theme is summed up by Edison's remark to Reg: "I believe in the principle but the method stinks." In other words, it's questioning what methods are appropriate to further principles that people hold. Pellar represents the government's side of things (wiping out your personal info from databases should be a criminal act) while the Blanks represent an example of what may be an individual or group's perspective (we don't want that personal info kept and want to live as we choose because we aren't hurting anyone). But in the end, each side uses a questionable method.

And those questionable methods certainly hold relevance in today's society. Pellar has Blanks arrested and detained after a tainted judicial procedure, which is easily comparable to the idea of holding a person accused of a crime without a speedy trial. Meanwhile, the method employed by the Blanks to achieve their ends would be described in today's world as "cyberterrorism." And the question to ask when these viewpoints come into conflict is this: Who should really prevail?

Max Headroom quotes:
"You want me to pretend to be a horse? I saddle up for no man!"
"I'll let you know if there's life after the off switch."
"What are you laughing about? Brice just tried to kiss me!"

Personal observations: I didn't find this to be as good of an episode as the others so far in the series, but the theme remains relevant today. The question we should always ask is the same thing Edison asks of Reg: While we may have certain principles we believe in, we should think carefully about the methods we utilize to advance them.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Five: War

Episode Name: War

Premise: Network 23 investigates how a lesser rival network seems to always be on the scene of terrorist attacks during a global ratings sweep.

Theme explored: Media access is the issue at hand here. Breakthru TV, a less influential network, obtains exclusive rights to story packages involving the White Brigade, a terrorist organization railing against the heavy influence of television networks. But it's revealed that White Brigade and Breakthru TV are actually working together, with Breakthru TV's CEO hoping to get Network 23 to purchase the rights to the story packages. It escalates to the point that the Brigade unleashes an attack on the "ad market," this world's version of the stock market, in an attempt to discredit Edison Carter revealing the White Brigade's intentions in staging its attacks.

Though the theme of media access is taken to an extreme in this episode, there are questions that must be asked about how important access is. Is it worth it to give favorable coverage of a government agency in order to maintain access to it? Or the same involving a corporation? Or a non profit agency? Or a political organization? At what price does the quest for ratings (or whatever factor is used to measure audiences) must be questioned when those the media has access to engage in questionable behavior?

Max Headroom quotes:
"If I could get a hold of Breakthru TV, I wouldn't touch them with a bent TV antenna."
"The rigors of investigating, so tiring."
"For those cold mornings, why not try Chrenobyl Pops? They'll give you that warm glow all over."
"If they think I am endorsing car accessories, they've got another dipstick coming!"

Personal observations: Media today would be well advised to ponder the question about the importance of an audience above all else, especially if it means only favorable coverage may be given of any entity in exchange for access to those with the entity.

There's also an interesting exchange in which Edison Carter asks, "Since when did news become entertainment?" and Murray replies "since it was invented." Today's media environment arguably is the perfect example of "news equals entertainment" and it's something everyone should think about when it comes to the news they consume. And when it comes to media access, it often means the media further perpetuates the idea that news should be entertainment, lest its access be lost.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Reminder Why Kaepernick Took A Knee

Whether you follow the NFL or not, you no doubt know about the remarks Donald Trump made about NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest and the responses ranging from NFL owners with carefully worded statements critical of Trump's remarks to players criticizing Trump in various forms to the gestures ranging from kneeling to linking arms to raised fists.

All the while, people are up in arms about disrespect to the flag, disrespect to the military, disrespect to the country and how football games are not the time or place to do such a thing. And then other people use it as their chance to bash Trump and blame everybody who voted for him for everything that's happened, while others still talk about how unified the NFL was and how great it was to see everyone standing together.

Meanwhile, what got lost in the shuffle is the man who started it all more than a year ago and what he was really wanting to draw attention to. The man is Colin Kaepernick and the issues he wanted attention drawn to were police brutality and racial inequality.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Four: Security Systems

Episode Name: Security Systems

Premise: When Edison Carter sets out to investigate who is the mystery bidder for Security Systems Inc., he learns that the company's AI has him listed as committing the most serious crime of all: credit fraud.

Theme explored: The question raised is what happens when one entity is given control over personal information and security and the dangers that come with it. Security Systems Inc. touts that "your inalienable rights are consumer credit, unlimited TV and personal security" and that only the company can ensure them all.

But as we learn from the episode, when somebody seeks a monopoly over such information, there's no telling what that person might use it for and how that person might use it. Edison Carter learns that quickly after the AI falsely designates him as wanted for credit fraud (a crime described as "worse than murder" in this dystopian environment) and he must now go underground to uncover the truth behind Security Systems Inc.

Another issue touched upon is the risks involved with artificial intelligence and how it can do the unexpected -- but while many stories tend to explore the idea of the AI turning against its users and causing harm, in this case, the AI serves a purpose in helping Edison Carter, thanks to the convincing of Max Headroom. Though an unusual twist, one can still ask whether it's wise to let a computer algorithm decide everything.

Max Headroom quotes:
"I'm glad that's over. Some of us can't cover our eyes, you know."
"You call this space? And I though the Network was cramped."
"I wonder if security guards ever hold a party and, if they do, do they let each other in?"
"As they say, when you're buying suppositries, with friends like that, who needs enemas?"
"You know what security guards are like -- shoot first and still argue about whether you can come in."

Personal observations: This is a good example of why Max Headroom was ahead of its time in many ways. Personal information, who is entrusted with it and who is able to access it is a major concern, but tends to get overlooked in our quest for security. Whether it's the government or a private company being entrusted with that information, there are plenty who worry about who controls it, what gets shared and whether it's really being protected by those people. And it's a reminder that we shouldn't just use "security" as a reason to believe that certain individuals or entities must be trusted at all times with such information.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Three: Body Banks

Episode Name: Body Banks

Premise: Edison Carter investigates the disappearance of a young woman, which leads to the discovery of a body bank involved in organ theft.

Theme explored: The episode focuses on medical technology and questions how far one should go with it. In this case, a wealthy individual pays a large sum to a body bank for a pituitary gland to save his mother's life and insists it be found at any cost. It leads to the body bank declaring that if it cannot find a matching organ from a dead person, it will extract one from a living person -- in this case, a person in the lower class. The question that is asked: If saving one person's life must mean taking another's life, is it worth it?

Along with the plot involving the young woman's disappearance -- a kidnapping in which her organs are sought to save a wealthier person's life -- a member of Network 23's corporate board is blackmailed to acquire the technology that made Max Headroom possible to save the mind of the wealthier person. This not only furthers the theme about how far one should go with medical technology and who benefits from it, but touches upon bribery and corruption among the wealthy. This is further explored, to an extent, in a subplot in which Network 23's executive board attempts to get Max Headroom to become a spokesperson for the Zik Zak Corporation when Max has his own ideas about being a spokesperson.

Class warfare is also touched upon -- those who benefit are the elite and well connected while those who are exploited are described as the "fringes" of the city, which is another way of describing those in the lower classes who don't have the connections or resources those in higher classes do.

Max Headroom quotes:
"They're interested in me? They want an audience -- I'm like an audience."
"Zik Zak, the corporation that makes you give your money away the nicer way."
"Forget what I said about those Zik Zak burger packs. Don't go for your wallet -- that's just what they taste like!"
"Asking is just polite demanding."

Personal observations: Debates regarding medical care, ranging from who really gets access to life-saving treatment to how far we should go in exploring new medical achievements (stem cell research is a good example), haven't gone away in today's society. The question posed about "whose life matters more?" is one we must keep asking ourselves as well, especially when the question comes down who happens to have better access to medical care.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Max Headroom Episode Two: Raking

Episode name: Raking

Premise: Theora Jones' younger brother Sean is caught up in raking, a youth sport with a violent twist.

Theme explored: The main focus of the episode is how violence is used to exploit youth. The episode revolves around raking, a sport in which youth use motorized skateboards and attempt to knock each other down, but is exploited by adults and turned into a spectacle in which youth are encouraged to injure each other and bets are placed as to who will survive.

But the critique doesn't stop with a sport that's turned violent -- throughout the episode, Max Headroom is asking questions about a show called Missile Mike (a clear reference to Rambo) that is considered "children's programming" on Network 23, which happens to be negotiating for the rights to broadcast raking events (along with its primary sponsor, Zik Zak, agreeing to sponsor events). It raises the issue about how media companies seek programming to draw viewers without always considering whether it's appropriate for a particular audience or something that should even be aired to begin with.

Max Headroom quotes:
"Is fond the same as fondle?"
"The kids like killing? Who told them about it?"
"I'm looking for something with action, excitement and taste -- a taste of blood."
"Do you know that in Chinese, there are 30 different ways of saying one word? Is that why their population is so big? Chinese men just don't know when to take no for an answer."

Personal observations: Another episode with a theme that is still relevant today -- violence and its impact on not just youth, but all people, is something we still struggle with today. That many of the most popular movies, shows and video games today are violent in nature begs the question about how far media should go in using violence to appeal to audiences.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Max Headroom Episode One: Blipverts

Episode name: Blipverts

Premise: Edison Carter, star reporter for Network 23, discovers a recent death is linked to Blipverts, the new advertising technique his own network is utilizing.

Theme explored: The episode revolves around advertising and its influence on decisions made by media conglomerates, along with asking the question about what happens when a journalist's pursuit of a story comes into conflict with the very corporation the journalist works for.

Blipverts are advertisements designed to compress multiple three-second advertisements into a 30-second span each time, resulting in viewers finding it harder to change the channel. The technology is favored by Network 23's top advertising client, the Zig Zag Corporation, who is unwilling to drop Blipverts even after the revelation that a TV viewer died after watching them.

Max Headroom quotes:
"Network 23: The network where two's company and three's an audience."
"The executive board? You mean, you're the people who execute audiences?"
"Tune into Network 23, the network that's a real mind blower -- love those Blipverts!"
"I know you're looking at me and thinking to yourself, 'Why, he could be a star.' Well, let me just suggest humbly that -- you're right, I could!"
"How can you tell when our network president is lying? His lips move."

Personal observations: The first episode of Max Headroom explores themes that are still relevant in today's world, particularly with the huge influence that mass media has over today's society. Corporations want to get the word out about their products and are willing to explore any means to advertise and some will raise questions about ethics. Blipverts takes that issue to its ultimate extreme, in which a method of advertising proves lethal.

The episode does a good job establishing Edison Carter as a person who deeply believes in journalism as getting to the truth and keeping viewers informed, but he seeks to maintain a level of professionalism at all times, even when he engages in covert methods to get to the truth. His computerized alter ego, Max Headroom, takes a different approach -- he is more interested in getting himself over with audiences, but there is a lot of truth to what he has to say. Both generate material that keeps audiences interested, even as the executive board struggles with the idea that they are risking the bottom line by letting both personalities reveal the truth in their own ways.

The episode establishes the relationship between Theora, the camera controller who works alongside Carter, in getting through Carter's rough exterior and showing that he can trust her. It also sets the table for future storylines, such as Ben -- the one member of the executive board who sets limits as to how far he'll go to ensure the bottom line -- and Grossberg -- the Network 23 chairman who is more concerned with the bottom line than anything else -- and how they will each impact future decisins, and how Bryce, the technical genius who creates Blipverts, Max Headroom and other technological advances, becomes something of a wild card.

This was a good episode that can stand on its own (as was the case with most TV pilots back in the 1980s, in case the network didn't pick up the show) while allowing for future storylines to unfold.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Look Back At Max Headroom

After I finished up edits and rewrites on the second draft of my third novel and reviewed edits on my second novel, my thoughts turned to ideas for future books.

See, folks, this is what happens when you become a novel writer -- you keep getting all these ideas in your head for new stories!

But I'm not here to talk to you about such ideas, because my thoughts also turned to my collection of DVDs that I've accumulated through the years, how I started to think more critically about the movies and TV shows and what they were all about, and that's when I pulled out my DVDs of the Max Headroom TV series.

For those who remember Max Headroom, you probably remember him from MTV and his ad spots plugging New Coke, but what caught my interest when I was younger was the short-lived TV series based on the character. It lasted 13 episodes on ABC (a 14th episode was produced but didn't air until it went into reruns on cable networks) and was released on DVD by Shout Factory seven years ago.

What sparked my interest in revisiting the TV series was its commentary on television and its impact on society. Set in a dystopian future (the tag line was "twenty minutes into the future"), it focused on a society in which multiple TV networks dominate and everything revolves around their programming. Edison Carter is a reporter for Network 23 who always want to seek out the truth, even if it means clashing with his network's agenda.

In his pursuit of a story regarding something amiss at his own network, he is injured and his memories are download into a computerized conscious dubbed Max Headroom (so named because the last thing Carter saw before his injury was a sign that read "Max Headroom"). Unlike Carter, his computerized alter ego is brash and outspoken, but like Carter, has plenty of reasons to be critical of the TV-dominated society he's part of.

The show creators and writers admitted that Max Headroom was a series ahead of its time, given the relevancy that its criticisms of television and media hold today. The series predicted the rise of TV networks dominating the landscape, but while it didn't predict the rise of Internet-based media, Max Headroom would certainly have fit in well with today's society in which just about any form of media can make somebody an instant celebrity.

What I am going to do for the next few weeks is critique each of the 14 episodes and discuss some of the themes explored in each episode. The format I'm going with will look like this:

* Episode Name
* Premise
* Theme explored
* Max Headroom quotes
* Personal observations

I thought it would be fun to go back and review a series that, while it didn't last long, it had a big impact on a number of writers today and would probably be a relevant series to bring back to the airwaves today.

And who knows -- maybe it'll inspire some of you science fiction, fantasy and dystopian writers to come up with some of your own ideas about what might happen "twenty minutes into the future."

Links to episode reviews:
Episode 1 - Blipverts
Episode 2 - Raking
Episode 3 - Body Banks
Episode 4 - Security Systems
Episode 5 - War
Episode 6 - The Blanks
Episode 7 - The Academy
Episode 8 - Deities
Episode 9 - Grossberg's Return
Episode 10 - Dream Thieves
Episode 11 - Whackets
Episode 12 - Neurostim
Episode 13 - coming soon

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Book Review: Stealing Liberty

I've always been a fan of books with themes that make you think. One of those books I ran across which does that is Jennifer Froelich's recent release, Stealing Liberty.

Taking place in a dystopian future, the book follows a group of students sent to a detention facility, who discover old books found in a hidden tunnel and learn more about the United States and its final days. When they learn about a planned sale of the Liberty Bell to Japan, the students plot to steal it.

Froelich does a good job creating strong characters and building tension and suspense. The book blurb suggests an alternating viewpoint between Reed and Riley, but two other characters, Xoey and Adam, have their viewpoints. It does add to the story, though I could make a minor quibble about how Adam's view tends to be limited.

Froelich also creates a good supporting cast -- I particularly enjoyed Sam and wouldn't have minded getting more of his perspective. The antagonists aren't what you what call evil -- they truly believe they are doing the right thing and it's their actions that make them characters who you can't sympathize with.

Most of all, the concept is what makes the book a great read. Though there are views shared that not everyone will agree with, they force the reader to question what price one is willing to pay to cater to a single mindset or viewpoint, as opposed to exploring individually and let one draw his or her own conclusions. This becomes particularly important in this world, in which popular books and songs are forbidden, alongside items associated with America's history. People may have differing opinions about The Bible and the Harry Potter series, but a society in which those and other books are all banned is a society I think few would want to live in.

That Froelich wrote a novel that makes you think as much as it makes you empathize with the protagonists and keep turning pages because of the tension built, makes Stealing Liberty an easy recommendation to read. You may purchase the book at Amazon.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Twenty Questions With Jo Ann Schneider

My guest for Twenty Questions is Jo Ann Schneider, the author of the Jagged Scar series. She has released four books in the series so far, of which the most recent title is Crippled Hope. Previous installments are Fractured Memories, Severed Ties and Shattered Dreams, with the fifth book, Broken World, underway.

You may learn more about the Jagged Scares series here or visit Jo Ann's website to learn more about her books.

For those who want to know more about Twenty Questions, you may learn more here about how you may participate.

I appreciate Jo Ann stopping by to visit -- let's hear from her about her writing.

1. How did you get interested in writing?
I won’t lie, I started writing stories as a tweenager. They all featured me, tossed into my favorite universes (ie Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, The A-Team, Aliens, Star Wars...) romping about kicking bad guy’s butts with the heroes.
None of it was good, but that’s how it all started.

2. What inspired you to come up with the Jagged Scars series?
A dream I had in college. A young girl who wakes up among strangers and has no idea where she is or what’s going on. I usually have fun dreams, but this was different. It felt real, and I still remember it to this day. The dream itself never made it into the novels, but the young girl, Wendy, and the leader of Shelter, Mike, did.

Ever since seeing the original Planet of the Apes—late at night, huddled in front of my 12” black and white TV that I had in my room when I was about twelve—and having my mind blown by the Statue of Liberty at the end, I’ve been fascinated with the fall of the world and what might happen afterwards. Jagged Scars is my first romp into that world.

3. Tell me about the main character, Wendy, and what inspired you to create her.
Wendy has problems. She’s the lone survivor of a Skinny (a mix between zombies and reavers) attack on the Den. She struggles with PTSD through the first three books, and it never totally goes away. It takes her a while to trust and/or bond with anyone. In book one, Wendy feels a little distant, and that’s on purpose.

Despite her problems, she’s a warrior who has spent more of her life training than anything else. She would give her life it if meant saving a kid, and she’ll go out of her way to kill Skinnies. Her father described her as the hammer of the Den, while her sister was the heart.

4. What characters, other than Wendy, did you find enjoyable to write as you progressed with the books?
Well, the others have their work cut out for them. Wendy is a hard nut to crack, but between Kev, Cal and Arie—with the occasional assist from Jeff—they break through her shell of protection and begin drawing the real Wendy out into the story.

The relationship between Kev and Cal has been fun to write. At first they’re like brothers, but Kev gets hurt and Cal gets warped by one of the bad guys, and they struggle for a few books. Being able to drive a wedge between them and then have the characters rip it apart was strangely satisfying. Their relationship is different now, and that’s okay.

5. What are some of the themes you explored in writing the series?
The first is mental illness. Not that I delve into the topic, but the first two books in the series are riddled with Wendy’s struggle with PTSD. She doesn’t really know what the problem is, and for a while she thinks she’s becoming a monster. Her friends rally around her, and never give up on her. Kev even knocks her out to keep her from killing a guy who did some nasty things to her.

That would be the second theme. Friendship. It can go through hell and still survive. I think people today need to know that. With the flurry of social media and the ease with which you get into a fight over nothing these days, I think it’s important to remember to ask yourself, “What is important? That we disagree over this topic, or that we’re friends and can stay that way despite our differences?”

6. What were some of the things you have learned along the way as you have written and edited each book in the series?
I’ve learned a few things. One being that I’m a crazy person until my plot is gelled. Which, sadly, may take two or three drafts of the book.

I’ve learned how valuable mean beta readers are. Seriously, worth their weight in gold. And chocolate.

I’ve learned that knowing the end will help me get there.

Right now I’m learning that wrapping everything up in book five is by far the most difficult part of this series.

7. Tell me more about the book, Babes in Spyland.
Babes in Spyland is a satirical James Bond in heels story. And it’s just as cheesy as it sounds. Four Super Secret Agents go up against bad guys that really shouldn’t exist. Like Lady Cluck. And the Swiss Misters. There are zombie flash mobs, a golf cart chase, theme parks, and a reality TV show gone awry.

The whole thing started out as a joke in college between some friends. It escalated and I decided I loved the characters so much that I asked the other girls if they were okay if I wrote an actual story. They said yes.

Babes was originally a serial story—one episode a week for twelve weeks to make a season. The publisher has gone out of business, so you can’t read it that way anymore, but I plan to break the original five seasons apart and then add on to it.

8. How did the process for writing Babes in Spyland differ from what you have done with the Jagged Scars series?
Each season of Babes is about 25k words. That was what the publisher requested. Fractured Memories, the shortest of my Jagged Scars books, is over 60k. On one hand, only having to worry about 25k words is easier than over 60k words. However, cramming an entire mystery—along with enough jokes to keep me laughing—into only 25k was challenging.

I didn’t have a solid ending in mind for Babes when I started, and life got crazy when I met my husband to be, so the last two seasons were a bit messy to write.

9. You have also written a couple of books in the New Sight series – what inspired those books?
I had recently been to a writing conference, and I had vowed that I would have a novel to pitch to an agent the next year. I’d been messing around with ideas for a few weeks, when one day, as I was driving home from work, the idea hit me.

Kids addicted to magic.


10. And what can you tell me about that series’ main character, Lysandra Blake, and how you created her?
I obviously gravitate toward female protagonists. Lys sort of grew out of the world building I was doing for the series. Once I figured out the magic system I started to think about what sense would be the most interesting to explore. Sight ended up at the top of the list, and things snowballed from there. I needed a main character who had issues—in this case addiction instead of PTSD—but was a good kid. Lys is smart and kind. She’s way out of her comfort zone at the beginning of the book when she’s on the psych ward after trying to take her mother’s eyes out with a spoon. We’ve all felt out of place before. Lys got that times about ten. I’ve loved her journey of self-discoverey so far. She isn’t a warrior, like Wendy, but she’s tough in other areas.

11. What do you find is the right environment for you to write?
I can write almost anywhere. One of the best short stories I’ve ever written came to me while I was in the train station in Moscow, Russia. Also, doctor’s offices. No idea why.

If I need to push out words, I go to Barnes and Noble. No distractions. No laundry. No dusting. No pull to go to the fridge and see if something chocolate or caffeinated has miraculously appeared in the last fifteen minutes.

If I’m not in a huge rush, I have an office in my house. All I need is a computer and a comfie chair. Music helps, but Pandora can stop for a good hour before I notice sometimes.

12. Are there specific programs or tools you find useful to help you with the writing process?
I type in Word. Although I have Scrivener. I’m just too afraid of opening it and losing a month of my life.

For plotting I am a huge fan of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. I know there is a lot of controversy around having a ‘formula’ to write to, but it really helps the pacing of my stories. If I didn’t use it, the fun part of the story would be 2/3 of the novel, and the endings would all be rushed. Not to mention weak. Torturing characters is sometimes hard, and the Beat Sheet forces me not shy away from it.

Also, I often write plot points on index cards and spread them around my desk/table/house. I’m a visual girl. It really helps.

13. What have you found to be useful methods for promoting your writing?
I’m in the midst of trying out:
Amazon Ads
Facebook Ads
Newsletter swaps
Free books
Diversifying my platforms (not just Amazon)
Social media

I’m still looking for what really works for me. But the best thing I’ve done is find a few people who are ahead of me in the marketing game and ask them what’s working for them.
Putting Fractured Memories up for free on Amazon was a big move for me earlier this year. So far so good.

14. What are some of the famous books or authors you have enjoyed or inspired you?
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and anything by David Eddings or R.A. Salvatore. I know, old school.

15. Any aspiring or independent authors whose books you’ve read that you liked and want to mention to others to check out?
I’m really liking Angel Lawson’s The Death Fields series.

16. What advice would you give to those who want to write a novel before they actually get started?
Just do it! First drafts are supposed to be horrible. There will be parts that make you cringe and want to delete the file, then there will be parts that will amaze you. Embrace them both, then be ready to build on them.

17. I see you have a black belt in Kempo – tell me more about Kempo and what you enjoy about that martial arts discipline.
Well, I’ve always wanted to be a Jedi Knight, but since that particular path isn’t available, I decided on the next best thing. A ninja! I’m not great at the actual fighting part of it, but I love the physical confidence it gives me. I’m a chubby girl—always have been and always will be—so it’s nice to know that if something happens, I have a few things up my sleeves. And a killer kick to the groin. (Sorry guys)

I’ve had great instructors, and honestly, nothing prepared me more for receiving critiques in writing than having my instructors correct me and show me a better way to do even a simple kick. It sounds cliche, but I learned how to keep my cup empty, instead of full all of the time.

Plus, you get to kick things as hard as you can. It’s extremely satisfying.

18. I can tell you’re a Star Wars fan – is there a particular character(s) in the series you particularly love, and if so, who?
What gave it away?

Yes, I love Star Wars. As a kid I was all over wanting to be like Luke. Like I said before, Jedi would totally have been a career path for me. However, as I’ve gotten older, Han has become my favorite. His approach to things is practical and sometimes brutal, but things get done. He’s been down a lot of different paths, and in the end he decides to stick with the rebellion. He does what’s right even though it might hurt him in the long run. I like that.

19. In your travels to other continents, what were some locations you visited you particularly found enjoyable or interesting?
I went to China with my dojo and we did some training at the Shaolin Temple. Like Kung Fu the Legend Shaolin Temple. There is a room in which there are two divots in the floor, about a foot and a half across and four or five inches deep. They are just over shoulder width apart. This is where the monks stomp the floor.

Seriously. Stomp the floor. The stone floor, made out of super thick slabs of rock. That was pretty cool.

I took a Lord of the Rings tour in New Zealand. We went everywhere, but one of my favorites was the outing we took to where they had Edoras in the movies. The whole set is gone, but it was a beautiful wilderness with this amazing hill in the middle. We forded streams and everything to get there.

On my first cruise to Alaska my mom, dad, sister and I took a helicopter ride up to the top of a glacier. We got out and walked around. It was amazingly beautiful, and peaceful, but also full of power. Like nothing I’ve ever felt before. We all still talk about it, twenty years later.

20. Who would win a battle of superhero skills: Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman?
I have to stick with what I heard Stan Lee say when he was asked about characters in the Marvel Universe fighting.
“It depends on who’s writing the story.”

I still agree with him.

Friday, August 11, 2017

On The Black Witch, YA Lit And Related Issues

Earlier this week, I ran across an article at Vulture about young adult novel discussions on Twitter which focused on The Black Witch, a novel by Laurie Forest released earlier this year. To summarize, earlier this year, there was a review of The Black Witch that was highly critical of the novel (it may be found here) and followed by reactions ranging from tweets questioning the book to negative reactions to reviews that praised the book. A few months after the book was released, the Vulture article in question went up, which has sparked more debate, such as that tweets the author, Kat Rosenfield, linked to were on teens' accounts.

I won't go into too much detail about the novel itself, other than to say that I haven't read it but that there are some reviews on Goodreads that are worth considering (you can find the full thread of them here). But regardless of one's opinion about the book, there are several issues that need consideration when we talk about the world of YA publishing. As a YA writer, I have thought about a few of these issues from time to time, while others came up as I thought about the discussion surrounding The Black Witch.

The truth is, I have read from a lot of authors of all types about pushback they get against them for whatever reason, to the point that some wonder if it's even worth discussing their works with the public. We are in a society in which social media and the Internet are major parts of our lives and, while they have opened new doors and allowed for new opportunities that weren't available before, they come with a host of problems that we are struggling to address.

Meanwhile, having entered the YA field, I find myself struggling not only with how my writing takes shape in genera, but whether or not I am doing justice to the characters I write and to how to better represent people of all types. I imagine a lot of other YA authors feel the same way.

So here are some issues that need consideration regarding not just The Black Witch, but any novel that tries to tackle tough issues, and things we need to keep in mind regarding our discussions and debates about novels and literature.

The issues novels can tackle are often ugly. The Black Witch's main theme is prejudice, which takes a lot of forms, often forms that are not pretty. People tend to fear what they don't understand, especially if they have never grown up around particular individuals. Even our Internet age that allows us to connect with more people of different types hasn't solved this, especially because the Internet can just as easily allow the same types of people to gather in like-minded circles and sometimes keep bouncing the same views off one another.

And if we are honest, we are all prejudiced to some degree, regardless of race, sex, orientation, religion (or lack thereof), philosophy, location, ethnicity -- the list goes on. True, for those of us living in the United States, white, Anglo-Saxon males have tended to dominate historically, but on a worldwide scale, it's more complex. And those prejudices have taken ugly forms at times, ranging from slurs and harsh stereotypes to slavery and genocide. Prejudice has long been a weak point of human beings in general and something we still struggle with to this day.

But while I understand that words can be harmful, authors need to be able to explore these tough issues in order to get people to consider their shortcomings and question their own views. It's not just regarding prejudice -- there are plenty of issues that can address tough, often ugly, issues ranging from portrayal of warfare to abusive relationships. Sometimes it leads to material that can be sensitive to some readers. I understand the need for authors to carefully research what they write and to get feedback on what can be sensitive topics, but we have to be careful we don't discourage authors from exploring these issues or even make them decide they don't want to write any more.

Open, honest discussion about what authors can do to better address such topics should be welcomed, but we have to remember that sometimes we can't avoid ugly truths if we want to get people who may not be as aware, to become more aware.

People, in real life, don't always change quickly. One of the complaints I've heard about The Black Witch is that it took until halfway through the book before the protagonist started to change. But when you consider the protagonist grew up in the same area for 17 years and had no contact with people outside her own, it's not surprising it would take her a while. Because that's closer to reality than people may realize.

It's easy to think that, with Internet, social media and other means of networking that people will experience a broad range of individuals, but as I mentioned earlier, these new forms of communications have also allowed like-minded individuals to congregate and seldom go outside their bounds. But even when we do go outside those bounds, the online connections are no substitute for face-to-face interactions.

It's those face-to-face interactions that do a lot more to break down the walls and get people to understand how those who are different from them are really like. So it would be a natural progression that, in a book's world in which people don't have face-to-face interactions with those who are different, that when said people do have more of those interactions, it may take longer for them to warm up.

That's not to say all such criticisms of The Black Witch are invalid -- only that we must remember that face-to-face interactions do more to get us to really understand others who out there and what they are really like.

Diversity in publishing is a legitimate issue that may take time to address. It's true the major publishers were dominated by white males at one point, and that it tends to be white females who are becoming more prominent at them now, while others appear lost in the shuffle, but this is a complex web that's not so easily untangled when you consider a number of factors.

First, it's difficult for any author to get in with a major publisher -- you need an agent to do that and, without an agent, a major publisher won't consider you. Even with an agent, that's no guarantee you'll sign with a major publisher. We know about how the authors who became famous received multiple rejections the first time they tried to break into the publishing world, so you can imagine what that obstacle can be like for authors who are under-represented in the publishing world.

Second, while self-publishing is providing a means of allowing under-represented authors to get their works out there, it requires they do a lot of the work themselves -- in particular, promoting themselves. And some writers struggle with finding ways to market their books (I know I'm still learning that stuff). For those that do know how to market themselves, they must still navigate a world in which millions of books are out there. Figuring out how to stand out from the crowd is not easy.

Third, even with publishers wanting to promote diversity, their methods of promoting it may not be the best methods. It seems to me that there's more interest in making sure we have every type represented as characters in the novels, rather than trying to find more authors of every type and get their works represented. But even if you get those authors, the publishers may only show interest in books with themes that appeal to a mass audience. Finding a way to address such challenges is not an easy thing.

There are other challenges ranging from which groups are showing the most interest in reading (which plays a part in how many of those types of people will want to pursue novel writing) to the interest in paper-bound books versus ebooks (an area that the publishing industry is still figuring out and in which it may be fair to ask if demographics play a part) to the tendency of publishers to fall back on proven authors over those trying to get their first novel published.

Getting more diversity in publishing is fine, but the challenges that presents are many and it will take time to sort everything out and get it where it may need to be.

Outrage culture is dominating society too much. Regardless of where one stands on political, social, economic or any other issue, there is a tendency to vent our frustrations and outrage more than wanting to engage in discussion. And that leads to the tendency of some to follow that outrage because they become enamored with the drama that comes along with it.

It's often encouraged by the ability of people to like or favorite social media posts, reviews, forum posts and other forms of online communication. For some people, they are less interested in how a discussion is taking shape and more concerned with getting gratification and reward for having a post everybody loves -- that is, until somebody comes in with a counter point (sometimes regardless of how it's worded) and the arguments start.

Outrage culture often leads to whoever is leading the charge becoming less interested in promoting change or raising awareness and more interested with promoting themselves and raising their status. It can also lead to people who are unwilling to consider a single word of somebody's counterpoint and try to shout them down. In short, outrage culture does nothing to advance discussion and lead to meaningful change and, in the long run, can do more harm than good to whatever issue people are trying to raise.

And that brings me to this...

Twitter is problematic for open, honest discussion. I use Twitter and have found it useful in some ways. There are people who use it who have found ways to engage in honest discussion or raise valid points. It can serve as a means to promote your work or link to articles and blog post. And I have found it's the best way for me to post updates about sports events I cover for my full-time job at a newspaper.

But Twitter comes with plenty of drawbacks, which has led to the point that some want nothing to do with this form of social media. Let's go over some of the problems.

* The 140 character limit tends to boil things down to the simplest of terms and reinforces the mindset that Twitter is not about having a meaningful discussion, but about throwing out talking points, sound bites, memes and one liners, with gifs thrown in for good measure.

* It's extremely difficult to keep tweets private. Case in point is the Vulture article that linked to tweets off several people's accounts, many who were teens. But Twitter is set up so that somebody can link to any tweet that isn't protected -- and even that protection isn't foolproof, as a follower can share it and risk that it goes into the public realm.

* Twitter offers the least amount of information on a profile so people can know who they are conversing with. For people who may want to keep that information private, it works in their favor. But the flipside is how can one possibly know how old somebody is or exactly who they are dealing with if they have so little information to go by? For those who link to random tweets, some people may not even realize who is the person behind the tweet.

* Twitter offers one the least control over who can talk to them and who can follow them. Users can mute or block others, but it doesn't always prevent their tweets or replies from getting responded to by whoever wants to respond. Compare that to Facebook, in which users have more control over who can see what -- again, not foolproof, but more measures in place than what is on Twitter.

* Policing Twitter behavior has been a difficult exercise. People who run Facebook pages and groups can control posting and monitor inappropriate behavior, but Twitter doesn't operate like that. Additionally, the founders of Twitter haven't always been responsive to cutting down on inappropriate behavior, given how the platform works.

Those issues make Twitter problematic and are among the reasons why some people just don't bother with it any longer. And while some of the issues are the responsibility of those who founded and run Twitter, others fall into the hands of users who may find it too tempting to throw something out there just to get attention.

If we are going to address concerns about YA literature or literature in general, it's going to require more open, honest discussion about these and other issues, but it will also require everyone to keep an open mind and not be so defensive regarding how we approach our concerns. We may have good intentions regarding the issues we want to raise, but a flawed approach does nothing to address those issues and may, in fact, make the situation worse.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Twenty Questions With Helen Vivienne Fletcher

My guest for Twenty Questions this week is Helen Vivienne Fletcher, who is the author of Broken Silence and the collection of short stories titled Symbolic Death. Here is the blurb about Fletcher's debut novel.

A stranger just put Kelsey’s boyfriend in a coma. The worst part? She asked him to do it.

Seventeen-year-old Kelsey is dealing with a lot – an abusive boyfriend, a gravely ill mother, an absent father, and a confusing new love interest.

After her boyfriend attacks her in public, a stranger on the end of the phone line offers to help. Kelsey pays little attention to his words, but the caller is deadly serious. Suddenly the people Kelsey loves are in danger, and only Kelsey knows it.

Will Kelsey discover the identity of the caller before it’s too late?

I met Helen through An Alliance of Youth Adult Authors and am happy to visit with her about her debut novel and her other writing experiences. You may learn more about her work at her website.

Let's hear from Helen now!

1. How did you get interested in writing?
I was going to say I’ve always written, but I actually struggled really badly with learning to write as a child, so I guess it would be more accurate to say I’ve always made up stories, even if it took me a while to learn how to capture them on the page. I first became interested in writing as a career after I left drama school, due to ill health, and was looking for a new creative outlet.

2. What inspired you to come up with your latest release, Broken Silence?
I came up with the idea for Broken Silence when I was about 13. My best friend was sleeping over, and we’d just watched “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. We started making up our own thriller stories, and I came up with the basic plot for Broken Silence that night. It wasn’t until ten years later when I told the story to a writer friend, and she was just as captivated by it as my best friend and I had been as teenagers, that I realised it might be worth writing down.

3. Tell me about the main character, Kelsey, and what inspired you to create her.
Kelsey is struggling with a lot of things – her mother is very unwell, her father isn’t really in her life, she has some eating issues, and her boyfriend is abusive towards her. Added to the personal dramas she is already facing, Kelsey then begins receiving strange phone calls, which quickly escalate. All of this has led Kelsey to not value herself as much as she should, and this influences many of the events of the story.
There’s a lot of me in Kelsey, I have to admit. Or at least teenage me. I’d like to think I’m slightly less snarky than she is though!

4. What characters, other than Kelsey, did you find enjoyable to write as you progressed with the book?
I actually really enjoyed writing all of the characters, even the ones who aren’t always that likeable as people. I guess it’s the former mental-health support worker in me, but I just found the process of looking at how each character thinks, and what their motivations are, really interesting. Of course for most of it I was looking through Kelsey’s eyes, as well as my own, which was also an intriguing experience. Kelsey is somewhat of an unreliable narrator, so balancing how Kelsey saw things between her and her boyfriend, Mike, versus the reality of the abusive nature of that relationship, was a particularly interesting journey. Similarly the dynamic of Kelsey’s relationship with her brother and father, and also her changing relationship with her brother’s friend, Ben, were interesting ones to explore.

5. What are some of the themes you explored in writing the novel?
I think this is one of those questions where my answer as the author might be different to the answers readers would give. And as it should be – writing, like all art, will mean different things to different people. For me, I think one of the main themes is around how we deal with trauma, and the affect this has on how we see ourselves and how it affects relationships, whether those be with partners, friends or family. While this may seem a strange thing to say about a book which involves a serial killer, I do think relationships are at the heart of this story.

6. What were some of the things you learned along the way as you wrote and edited the book?
Some of the biggest things writing this novel taught me were patience and persistence. This was my first time working on a project of this length. I simply couldn’t write it all in one go, but it taught me to keep coming back, and to keep editing when things weren’t working in the text. There were times when I wanted to give up, because I’d look at a passage I’d written and think how awful it was, but each time I came back to it, and tweaked it a little more, it got a little better. It was a slow and at times frustrating process, but ultimately a rewarding one.

7. Tell me more about your collection of short stories, Symbolic Death.
As the name suggests, Symbolic Death, is a collection of stories about death. The title story follows a woman who finds a “death curse” symbol scratched into the soap scum around her sink, and Underneath the Clock tells the story of Angus, a young boy watching his family fall apart after the death of his father, told from his innocent perspective. Some of the stories are sad, as you’d expect, but there is also a touch of black humour. In Short-Lived Happiness, a butterfly chrysalis hatches, under the watchful eye of a hungry cat, and Death’s Daughter is told from the perspective of a teenage grim reaper. I wrote these stories over several years, while studying for a qualification in creative writing, and this book is free to anyone who signs up for my newsletter on my website.

8. Is there a particular work in Symbolic Death that you particularly enjoyed writing and, if so, which one(s) is it and why?
I think that would have to be Underneath the Clock. I’ve been a student in various short writing workshops over the years, and I kept finding these two characters – a young boy Angus, and his teenager brother Bede – appearing in the writing exercises we did. I wasn’t sure what their story was for a long time, but the dynamic between them, and the sadness that seemed to surround their family intrigued me. It was an interesting experience, as when all the pieces of the story finally came together, they all made sense. It was like my subconscious had had the plan all along, it just didn’t let me in on it until the last minute.

9. I see you’ve written a few picture books – how did writing them compare to writing a novel?
In a way, I think writing a picture book is more similar to writing a play than to writing a novel. While there are, of course, editors, designers etc. involved in publishing a novel, the final product is still reasonably within your control. When it comes to picture books and plays, the text is only one part of the project. Handing work over to an illustrator, or to a director and actors is a really scary feeling as you do have to relinquish that control. The illustrator or director may take your work in a quite different direction to what you had imagined, but the cool part is, that’s usually a really good thing. The collaboration aspect creates something amazing that neither of you could have come up with individually.

10. What do you find is the right environment for you to write?
It’s varied from project to project, but at the moment my preferred space to write is sitting on the bed in my spare room. I’ve never been one to sit at a desk to write, and I think the spare room works for me as there are less distractions in there!

11. Are there specific programs or tools you find useful to help you with the writing process?
I keep it simple when writing fiction. I use a notebook and pen for keeping track of ideas, and a word document for writing drafts. When it comes to writing plays, I do use software to simplify the formatting process. I have done it myself in the past, but it is pretty time consuming to set up, so I now use Celtx, which is fortunately free to use.

12. What have you found to be useful methods for promoting your writing?
This side of the business is still new to me, but I’m learning! I think the most useful thing has been collaborating with other authors. I found it really scary to approach other authors, or join joint promotions initially, as it felt like they were further along in their journey and I didn’t have much to offer in return. But everyone starts somewhere, and many people are happy to give a helping hand up to those just beginning.
13. What are some of the famous books or authors you have enjoyed or inspired you?
I think the authors who inspired me most were ones who I read as a teenager. Kate de Goldi, Paula Boock and Melina Marchetta come to mind. My teenage years felt very confusing and their works made me feel understood in a way the world in general did not. If you haven’t come across them before, I would really recommend their books.

14. Any aspiring or independent authors whose books you’ve read that you liked and want to mention to others to check out?
This doesn’t quite fit into the category of aspiring/independent authors, but I would say if you haven’t read many New Zealand children’s and young adult authors, I would really recommend checking them out. Sue Copsey, Fleur Beale, Mandy Hager, Kate de Goldi to name just a few. We have a brilliant community of authors here, but I’m not sure how much their work gets seen outside of New Zealand, and that’s a shame.

15. What advice would you give to those who want to write a novel before they actually get started?
A lot of our lives, we have deadlines and goals put on us by other people. Writing usually isn’t like that – you have to set the goals and timeframe, and you need to motivate yourself to do it. There are so many responsibilities and distractions in life, so it can be hard to make writing a priority. It also doesn’t help that no one else really cares (or even knows!) that you’re writing a book. If you didn’t show up to work, you would be told off, but if you don’t show up to writing… no one minds. It’s important to be your own taskmaster, to get yourself to your writing dates, and also to be your own cheerleader to keep going and celebrate your successes. Also, your first draft is probably not going to be that great – and that’s okay, because that’s how it should be! Don’t think you’re not a good writer just because your unedited first draft doesn’t read like a finished book. No one’s first draft reads like a finished book!

16. I see you teach creative writing classes – what’s it like getting the chance to share your knowledge with children and adults?
It’s a really great experience teaching creative writing. Kids have such an interesting way of looking at the world – I love seeing what they do with the writing prompts, and am always inspired by their ideas and creativity. In all my classes – both for children and adults – my main focus is on improving confidence with writing. I strongly believe that the best way to become a better writer, is to spend more time writing, but self-doubt and self-consciousness can get in the way of that. The best feeling in teaching is seeing someone complete an awesome piece after feeling too afraid to start, because they thought it wouldn’t be good enough. It might sound cheesy, but it really is an honour to be allowed to be a part of that journey for them.

17. Are there programs, other than the creative writing classes, that you offer through the Brain Bunny Workshops?
Brain Bunny Workshops is just creative writing, though I did collaborate with a drama teacher a while back, to run a creative writing and theatre sports holiday programme. I did also used to also teach gluten-free baking and arm knitting through the Wellington High School Community Centre, where I teach my adults classes, but I’m now just focusing on teaching creative writing.

18. Tell me about the play you wrote, How to Catch a Grim Reaper, and how that experience compared to writing books.
How to Catch a Grim Reaper tells the story of a group of flatmates, who set out to end death and suffering forever, by capturing the grim reaper. There’s just one problem with their plan though: they need to kill one of their friends to do it. Well… almost kill them. I describe the genre as “drama-horror-comedy-romance” as it has a bit of everything mashed in together, but somehow works!
I was commissioned to write this play by an organisation here in New Zealand called Young and Hungry. They are a charitable trust who empower young people, through mentoring, to appreciate, create and participate in New Zealand Theatre. I was involved in Young and Hungry as a teenager, so it was really nice to be able to reconnect with them as an adult.
The experience was not as different to writing a novel as you might expect. My strength has always been in writing dialogue, so even when I’m writing fiction, I often start my drafts by writing out some conversations between characters. The one thing I did find was that my first draft of How to Catch a Grim Reaper had way too many stage directions. I was used to having to describe everything on the page, and had to learn to pare that back and trust the actors to tell the story.

19. Other than the writing part, what aspects about plays do you find particularly enjoyable?
All of it really! My parents introduced me to going to the theatre at a young age, and this is something I’ve enjoyed since. Mum and Dad actually met through an amateur dramatic society, so it’s not surprising really. I studied acting, and have worked as a director, and in stage management. When I was younger, I thought that would be the field I ended up working in, but writing is a much better fit for me, though I do still occasionally take to the stage for performance poetry.

20. Who would win a battle of superhero skills: Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman?
Hmm… I want to say they all would, because they would realise they’re on the same side, and join together to use the best super power of all – teamwork! But if I have to choose just one I would say Wonder Woman. Have been a fan since watching reruns of the 70s TV show as a kid, and I just think she’s awesome.