Thursday, April 15, 2021

Talking about the Snyder Cut with Guest Author, Victor Catano
  I am a superhero junkie. Says so right in my Twitter bio. And while, I think the MCU is consistently putting out more reliable movie material, you'll never take away my love of DC classics like Superman and Batman. I grew up on Wonder Woman. Wanted to BE her when I was little (I had the Underoos to prove it.) 

 I am, however, among the many who have been repeatedly disappointed by the new round of Super Man movies. I love Henry Cavill's portrayal of the Man of Steel, but I'm not to crazy about the scripts he's been given. Despite that, I've still hung in there, watching Batman V Superman, and waiting impatiently for The Justice League so I could meet Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash.

And I'm going to confess something. I barely remembered any of the 2017 movie by the time the Snyder Cut was released on HBO Max. Which probably explains why I was willing to subject myself to it again. Ha! I (almost) always want to see superhero movies. And if the movie wasn't great, I love the idea that they get a chance at redemption. Isn't that often what being a superhero is all about?

So, that sort of explains why I decided to give the Snyder Cut a try--to find out if the Justice League movie got some kind of redemption in its re-edit. I've invited my buddy, author, and semi-regular ATB guest contributor, Victor Catano, to discuss his thoughts on the Snyder Cut with me, now that we've both watched it. So, tell me Victor, why did you subject yourself to that FOUR HOUR super hero marathon? 

Victor: It’s a good question! I was not a fan of the theatrical Justice League. At all. Snyder had to leave the project due to a family tragedy, and the studio brought in Joss Whedon to finish it. The resulting mess was a real Frankenstein creation that whipsawed from jokey to dour and was almost incomprehensible. So I was curious to see if the film could be salvaged.

I grew up with Superman and Batman and want to see them in good movies. However, that would mean the unified tone would be more like Batman v Superman, and I also did not like BvS. But, early reviews (from real critics!) were encouraging! So I decided to give it a try, with this caveat: I would only watch 10 minutes a day. That way, the slow motion bombast wouldn’t numb me.

Karissa: LOL! Slow motion bombast is so true I almost want to cry. For much of the time, I felt like I was stuck in a very long White Snake music video (So much hair blowing dramatically to retro musical numbers!). So, yeah, I didn’t much like Man of Steel or Superman V Batman for a lot of reasons. I think most of the biggest complaints were that, coming off the heels of Christian Bale’s gritty prestige Batman, people were ready for something else from DC. Especially when it comes to Superman. Nobody wants a grimdark Superman! Unless he’s briefly high on red kryptonite. But what these new series of movies gave us was a Superman we didn’t really recognize. 

I had hoped the new Justice League was going to remedy my Superman complaints, but I was a bit disappointed, especially when he came out in that black suit in the Snyder Cut. How about you?

Victor: I really like Henry Cavill as Superman. I really did not like how the Snyder films portrayed him. Especially Pa “fuck them kids” Kent!

There’s a reason Kal-El becomes the embodiment of Truth, Justice and the American Way. It’s because the Kents raise him full of love and respect and ideals. Without that, he’s a General Zod clone who views earthlings as “lesser.” So it drove me crazy that Pa keeps telling him to let people die so he can stay a secret. (Including Pa senselessly sacrificing himself in a tornado!! Why???).

But there are moments in the Snyder Cut that actually lean into Superman’s humanity. His reunion with Lois is touching and sweet! The best Superman stories lean into his human aspects.

But they don’t last. Snyder is more into laser eyed Superman laying waste to everything

Karissa: The best part of all of the Snyder Superman movies was the casting. There was a lot of believable chemistry between Clark and his immediate inner circle. Maybe that was Cavill's particular charm, but it was, for me, about the only thing that redeemed the movies. And I agree with you that it doesn't last. It all gets buried under the SUPER DESTRUCTIVE Superman.

Victor: Yes, Snyder films are always impeccably cast, going back to Watchmen. That movie looked like they pulled the cast right out of the comics. And Gadot is a perfect Wonder Woman.

Not really a fan of Ezra Miller as Flash, though. He was even more annoying here than in the theatrical cut. Turns out all those quips I blamed on Joss Whedon were all in Snyder’s version.

Karissa: Ha. I don't mind Ezra. I'm kind of looking forward to his Flash movie, to be honest. I was glad for the comic relief he brought that was so desperately missing from other Snyder-verse movies.

But more than the Flash, I was really glad we got to see more of Cyborg's story. There's been a lot of controversy lately over Ray Fisher's treatment during filming. That could be a blog post in and of itself. So aside from that, I'm glad that his character got to have his day, so to speak.

Victor: The thing is, we got maybe 10 more minutes of Cyborg, and most of that is Victor playing slow motion football and a baffling “enter the matrix” sequence where a CGI bull fights a CGI bear to symbolize “economy.”

Karissa: Okay, maybe you're right. Because, to be honest, I remember so little of the 2017 Justice League that I can't give a fair comparison to the 2021 Cyborg versus the 2017 version. And I was also watching this version with Cyborg specifically in mind because of all the talk about him on social media.

Victor: So I really don’t get the whole “Cyborg is now the heart of the movie” talk. They just developed a supporting character a little better, and they still really didn’t define his powers all that well, beyond “cyber.” At the end, he magically repaired a tape recorder he crushed. Sorry, but “talking to machines” doesn’t mean you can do that.

Which is kind of a problem I have with a lot of Zach Snyder’s work. He can create a stunning image. There are shots here that look like the best splash pages ever in comics - Batman, perched on a rooftop, backlit by lightning. The whole team leaping forth to fight the villain. Going back to Watchmen, the opening sequence telling the condensed history of superheroes is amazing, bravura filmmaking.

But the everything around these great images is nonsense! Like he started with the image he wanted and then worked backwards from that.

Karissa: Not to get off topic, but this reminds me a little of Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Madripoor episode. So much comic book eye candy. So little substance. But I digress…Perhaps one of my biggest complaints about the Snyder Cut (other than it felt like a very self-indulgent editor ego trip) was the pacing. Anything four hours long is going to be a challenge when it’s not written episodically. I think Snyder’s affixation on cinematic imagery ended up being like a series of very pretty speed bumps. And then, like you said, those images had to be justified with a story line, and so many of those stories just weren’t well thought out.

Victor: Take Batman v Superman (please!) The main event fight between Batman and Superman is great! It’s inspired by the Dark Knight Returns comic. It’s everything you want! It’s got the iconic moment where Superman punches Batman AND BATMAN CATCHES HIS FIST and Superman is visibly shaken.

But everything leading up to the fight is the laziest screenwriting imaginable! Luthor will kill Martha Kent unless Superman kills Batman. “Ok.” And the way the fight ends has just become a notorious joke. (WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!?!?)

It’s the same here. I want to see the team working in tandem, stopping the interplanetary invaders! I do not want to see Steppenwolf zoom calling Darkseid’s assistant to further a master plan that makes no sense. Oh, Darkseid has been looking for these mother boxes for thousands of years? And they were on the one planet that defeated him? You’d think he’d remember a thing like that!

 Karissa: Okay now that we're talking about Darkseid and Steppenwolf, I have to go off on one of my personal issues. I've talked repeatedly to anyone listening about how much I prefer practical effects and "real" people as villains instead of relying too heavily on CGI. Even though the motivation behind their animosity was less than convincing, I at least appreciated the chemistry between Batman and Superman as antagonists because of their realness. One of the places where Snyder's movies (and many other Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Paranormal) stop working for me is when the villain becomes too unreal. I had a hard time with Steppenwolf and Darkseid for this reason.

 I could not be bothered to care about them at all or find them believable as characters. I didn't like it when he created Doomsday in Batman v Superman. I didn't like it when he turned Ares into a CGI beast in Wonder Woman (don't tell me that Ares was not 100% a Snyder element). I don't like natural disaster movies, and I usually don't like Kaiju movies like Godzilla and King Kong for the same reasons. Big dumb destructive forces as villains rarely works for me (because a villain with nothing meaningful to lose ((other than world/universe domination)) is just so generic and boring), and I feel like Snyder relies on that too much to his detriment.

I know you like Godzilla and King Kong, Victor. What are your thoughts in general, of Snyder’s villains?

Victor: Yes, I hated the CGI character designs as well. Darkseid, Desaad, and Steppenwolf all looked Terrible. They looked like some one mushed up some plasticine. They didn’t look finished. Also didn’t like the character designs of a lot of the heroes. Flash looked like a bunch of red Tupperware lids taped together. Cyborg looked like a cut scene from Tron. Martian Manhunter looked dreadful as well.

Karissa: They all looked so similar! Ha ha, "red Tupperware lids" Ha ha ha you're not wrong.

Victor: Right, Darkseid & Manhunter looked exactly the same, but different costumes!

Now, as you note, I have nothing against CGI in general! But, like anything else, it’s a tool. It is one tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. Look at Grogu, aka Baby Yoda, everyone’s favorite special effect. It’s a practical puppet enhanced with CGI as needed! It feels like something real being interacted with, not something weightless that’s bouncing around. 

Karissa: So, I feel like the CGI was gratuitous, the cinematography was gratuitous, the FOUR HOUR run-time was gratuitous. Snyder was having his own personal editorial orgy with this movie. What director wouldn’t be thrilled to have this kind of opportunity and privilege (whether he deserved it or not ((I’m leaning hard towards *not*))?  How, and more importantly WHY, does a movie like this even happen?

Victor: What, you didn’t appreciate the super slo mo sesame seed drop and flying hot dogs?

Karissa: I did NOT. I hated those slo mo hot dogs. So gross.

Victor: Also, my phone keeps autocorrecting super slo mo to “super slo no,” which I feel is Siri making an editorial comment.

So, putting aside Snyder's inability to create a sustained, coherent narrative, I wanted to talk about fans and fan service as well.

The Snyder Cut would not exist were it not for the vocal online presence of Snyder's hard-core fan base. You know, the ones who would spam #ReleaseTheSnyderCut into any conversation and generally act like a bunch of obnoxious assholes. They were encouraged by Snyder because of course he wanted to get his full vision out there, even though the most die-hard fans were abusive jerks.

Karissa: Why does this sound familiar? *cough cough* starwarsfans *cough cough*

Victor: This happened to coincide with WB launching HBO Max and needing new content to lure in subscribers. So, seeing a way to mollify a vocal fanbase and get some buzz, they relented and gave Snyder $70 million to do reshoots and finish effects. Considering the realities of pandemic life, this was a cost effective way to get a brand new movie and not have to do lots of location shooting.

Now... I am no stranger to fan campaigns. I remember being so appalled as a snotty 14 year old that comedic actor Michael Keaton would star as Batman in a film from the director of Pee Wee's Big Adventure that I furiously signed petitions at several comic book stores. (This is pre-internet, kids.)

Karissa: *gasps* Did you really???

Victor: Yes, but I was 14! I was tremendously concerned that people take comics SERIOUSLY. However, I grew out of that and I don’t think a lot of the Snyder Fans ever did.

Fans helped save Star Trek, Veronica Mars, and other shows. But, hear me out, sometimes fans are dumb and mean. 

Like me! That first Tim Burton Batman, that every fan was sure was going to be a campy follow up to the Adam West series, that turned out pretty good! Nicholson's iconic turn as the Joker, with Oscar winning production design and Burton's surreal sensibility, made for a great movie. I freely admit that I was wrong!

And fans amplified by the echo chambers of Twitter and Reddit seem to have just gotten more and more toxic in recent years. Starting around the time of The Last Jedi, it seems that there's just been a constant march of nastiness. Hounding Kelly Marie Tran off of Twitter, doing "fan" edits of TLJ that took out all the women, people lobbing threats at Brie Larson because she wanted more women and POC to review movies, it's just been a constant river of sewage.

And now, while trying to get more content for their streaming service, HBO Max has rewarded the worst behaviors. Did this satisfy the mob? Nope! One day after they hailed the Snyder Cut as better than Citizen Kane, they were back at it on Twitter, with the new hashtag #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, trying to get the rest of Snyder's series of dour movies made.

Now, if you like the grimdark, dour heroes, great! I am happy for you. It is decidedly not my jam. My favorite DCEU movie is the first Wonder Woman, because that movie understands what heroism is. Also, it has colors. (Karissa: AMEN!)

But! You do not have the right to be abusive to people who disagree with you.

Karissa: Absolutely right! You, Mary Fan, and I have disagreed in the past over the latest Star Wars movies, but thank we've managed to remain civil. Strangely, it's not that hard to come at it with a feeling of empathy and respect for your fellow human being. For me, it's ridiculous that we live in a world of real life and death issues and people want to put so much energy and hate into something that is supposed to be fun and entertaining. As authors we also are so grateful that not everyone likes or dislikes the same things. Our careers depend on it! So, I'll walk away from the Snyder Cut feeling mostly dissatisfied and kind of eye-rolly and lip-curly about all the shortcomings of this director and this franchise, and the fact that another mediocre white dude got way more credit and opportunity than he deserved, but at the end of the's just a movie. There will be lots more. And lots more that are lots better.

So, as fun as this chat has been, I think it has gone on long enough. Wrap it up for us, Victor. Out of five stars, what would you give the Snyder Cut?

Victor: Well, I’d give the Theatrical Cut one star. This gets 1.5.  It’s better, because it’s clearly the product of one creator and not the result of a note session by committee. But it’s still not very good. It is still my least favorite DCEU movie. At least BvS had some cool scenes that are fun to revisit - like Wonder Woman leaping in to save Batman. There is nothing in Justice League I want to revisit.

Karissa: I give it a DNF (Did not Finish) because I made it to about the 3.5 hour mark and just. couldn't. take. it. anymore.

But, I would kill for more Cavill as Superman. I just hope whoever takes him on next does him justice and gives him the script he deserves. In the meantime...Season 2 of  The Witcher is on its way! Yay!

Thanks for chatting with me today, Victor. I'm sure you'll be back soon to critique another movie or show with us, and we look forward to having you.

Check out Victor's Gabriel and Orson urban fantasy series, featuring Gabriel, his witch girlfriend, Sheila, and their magical Bulldog familiar, Orson:



Monday, April 12, 2021

Editing for Fun and Profit

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Hey, everybody!

Hope you're holding up well.  I just got my second vaccination today, so here's hoping the rest of you are getting there as well.  I'm in the middle of a big editing project, so I thought it might be interesting (or horrifically boring) for you all to watch my editing process live.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Honey, I'm Home Forever

Photo by Pixabay on

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else. I’ve felt that many times. My hope for all of us is that “the miles we go before we sleep” will be filled with all the feelings that come from deep caring – delight, sadness, joy, wisdom – and that in all the endings of our life, we will be able to see the new beginnings.”
― Fred Rogers

I’ve been shot, twice now, in the left arm, and I’m a little unsettled about life after vaccination. Additionally, I’m horrified to admit I’ve developed a mild case of agoraphobia over the last year, which might have something to do with prolonged Zoom calls. It’s a theory, baseless really, but if not Zoom, then it’s definitely The Larry Factor. The idea of planning a cruise, a dinner party, or a massage seems rather terrifying, maybe even irresponsible.

I’ve become a walking germaphobic and honestly, the masks are only exasperating my condition.

We’ve been through a lot lately, both individually and collectively, so let’s go easy on each other. I don’t know about you but I tired. I’m actually tired of doing nothing but numbing the dread for the better part of a year. I might need therapy because “trying” to be “happy” isn’t getting rid of the angst. Maybe I should call Shawn Anchor the “happy” expert?

The truth is I’ve been hibernating as if a bear with a den of cubs for the better part of a year. I’m lethargic, okay grouchy, and fat (the PC term is fluffy). Seriously, I could do daily workouts with those insane Peloton instructors, and I’d still have a healthy layer of insulation that would get me through next winter. Try not to judge.

And not to complain but my students are under some sort of spell, try as I may to hook them with stellar lesson plans (Bahaha), I only manage to wake them up briefly before they slip back into their COVID comas, and crawl under their hoodies.

My hope is that one morning I’ll wake up and realize this was all a dream.

Well, more like a nightmare, but let’s focus on the positive.

Just when Larry and I have become addicted to endless hugs and kisses from our grandkids, and the sound of laughter reverberating off the walls of our home, they pack up and leave. Our villages came so close together, the beginnings and endings could no longer be discerned, well that and the fact they moved across the street.

As my cubs relocated it’s as if the house doubled in size down to the hallowed halls and can I just say the silence is deafening. I’m not kidding. My ears have been trained to identify the sounds of distressed children for like a year as if I’m a massive sonar device and now all I pick up is a noiselessness void. It’s unnerving.

Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go. Sarah Dessen

Yesterday I putzed around the house for like the first time in a year, adjusting the trinkets that survived my grandkids, fluffing pillows that will stay where I place them, returning abandoned toys to the cupboards. I had a big decision to make and I was wallowing in the ability to linger with my thoughts for more than a few minutes without disruption. And just like Cheryl Strayed, I loved the cozy familiarity of the way I arranged my belongings all around me.

Not to complain but our sleep patterns have become as erratic as the availability of toilet paper, by 8:00 pm we can no longer keep our eyes open (let’s agree to agree it’s not just about the wine), and then for the life of us we can’t figure out why we’re wide awake at 2:00 am playing solitaire on our phones? Okay, I play solitaire, Larry searches youtube for things like porcelain repair, and how to get crayon art off textured walls.

I say it’s the residual of a pandemic whose contagions have altered our internal clocks, possibly forever, or the house is haunted?

The next thing I know Kelley and Tim show up on our doorstep, the very day the guest room is vacated, definitely a sight for sore eyes, I haven’t seen them since their wedding last year!

Kelley’s a Kondo kickass and now that both Julie and my houses are in various states of disarray we need some serious assistance. I have cleared out three gigantic cupboards, a closet, and although I have miles to go, there are only a few weeks before our remodel begins. Keep in mind I have a deeply embedded aversion to change and all these adjustments are taking a toll on my sense of well-being.

I’ve taken up chanting, it doesn’t work, but it annoys the roommates. So there’s that.

Julie and Nic now have a fully functioning kitchen and we have given it a worthy christening. Nic has already cooked up some delicious gourmet hamburgers, savory eggs benedict, and an elegant chicken salad. He’s a brilliant chef and I blame him for my evolving curvaceousness.

Drumroll please…so here’s my exciting news!

A wise person, Susan Newman, once told me that the way you leave something is the way you enter what’s next. Today I’m giddy to announce my retirement after 15 years at Notre Dame. I sent a note I’ve been holding in a draft folder for weeks to the principal, vice-principal, chair and co-workers informing them of my intention to retire at the end of this academic year, instantly I wanted to rescind the note, but I reminded myself about the champagne I bought for tonight’s celebration and decided to resign myself to resign. As my co-worker Deidre says, a bottle of champagne is a good motivator for SO MANY life choices. Pretty sure that’s why they serve it at weddings?

We gathered around Julie’s generous island to celebrate my newfound identity, or maybe my ability to make a damn decision, Kelley did one of those boomerang things as I popped the champagne and filled our glasses. She posted it on Instagram and like half a dozen people messaged me to see if she was pregnant? She’s drinking champagne people!

So Julie lifts her glass and says, “Dad you do the toast for Mom.”

Larry looks like a deer caught in the headlights, he says, “What are we celebrating?”

We all stare at him as if he turned a putrid shade of green? “Dad, Mom retired today.”

“She did?” He gives me the look.

I say with all the authority of a recently retired school teacher, “really, we’ve been discussing this for months, and now you claim ignorance?”

“I didn’t know today was the day.”

“Hint, the full glasses of champagne?”

“I thought we were celebrating Nic’s new kitchen?”

“Dad, that was so last week.”

In the meantime, we are all standing there holding our bubbly with worried expressions clouding our recently cheerful faces.

He looks around, lifts his glass, and says “to Mom’s retirement.”

“Now that’s the way to wrap up a decade of work?”

“So what’s next?”

“My retirement plan is to get thrown in a minimum-security prison in Hawaii.”

“I’ll drive the getaway car.”

Honestly, I’m no longer equipped to function in polite society. I don’t remember how to wear makeup, or real clothes, or shoes. This is the result of working from a lounge chair, in pajama bottoms, on Zoom for a year! Now when people ask what I do for a living, I can say I’m a writer, and that will explain everything.

I’ve come to the end of a long road, but as you know when we think we’ve come to the end of the runway, that is when we learn to fly.

“No, this is not the beginning of a new chapter in my life; this is the beginning of a new book! That first book is already closed, ended, and tossed into the seas; this new book is newly opened, has just begun! Look, it is the first page! And it is a beautiful one!” C. JoyBell C.

When I'm not writing for Across the Board, I'm Living in the Gap, join me anytime. 

What are you retiring from these days? What will you miss? What will you do with the new space you've made? 

Monday, April 5, 2021

An Interview with Pitch Wars alum Lina Chern

Hey all you cool cats and kittens –

Your good pal Katrina here. Read on for an interview with Pitch Wars alum (and my newest agency sibling) Lina Chern!


In a nutshell, what is Pitch Wars?

Pitch Wars is part contest, part writing mentorship program. If you have a novel you've banged on until you're sick of looking at it, but haven't snagged an agent (and want to), Pitch Wars may be for you! You submit a query for your finished novel manuscript to four possible mentors (or mentor teams), who are usually just writers like you but with a bit more experience (i.e. have an agent, or have published books, etc.) If you get plucked from the pool of hopefuls, your prize is to work your butt off for three months, revising your novel with your mentors' help. When that's done, you can participate in an agent showcase, where agents flip through all the entries (a short pitch and the novel intro). If they like what they see, they will request to see more. I'd love to say "and the rest will be history," but it's important to remember that you're not guaranteed an agent through Pitch Wars -- it's just a very intense and fun leg up in the process.


What was your experience with the contest? Even though you came out the other end with an agent (!!) is there anything looking back you would have done differently?

I had a terrific experience with Pitch Wars. My mentors Kristen Lepionka and Ernie Chiara were well suited for me in every way -- in personality, communication style, and writing style. Their comments were spot on, and making the revisions was a pleasure, even if I had to struggle through an upside-down, pandemic-ridden schedule to make them. Some of my favorite memories are of all three of us working together in a live document, hammering on some small but stubborn piece of writing, and watching it write itself. It reminded me of playing with a ouija board when I was a kid -- no one thinks they're moving the planchette, but something mysteriously perfect emerges anyway.

I don't think I would have done anything differently because there was no time to do anything differently. I pretty much just put my head down and worked.


Is this the only pitch contest you've participated in?

I participated in Pit Mad several times before applying for Pitch Wars. I probably would have jumped on Pitch Wars sooner, but it didn't line up timing-wise with when I thought I was ready, and for that I am eternally grateful. Which is a great segue to the next question.


Do you have any advice for beginning writers eyeballing pitch contests with a twitchy submit finger?

It is really, really tough to know when your novel is ready to submit to something as selective as an agent or a contest. It was especially tough for me because I am a perfectionistic curmudgeon who likes to hole up and write by myself without showing my work to anyone ever. I don't recommend this. You don't need to bring in a critique partner every time you change your font, but there definitely comes a point when you're just too close to your own work to see its flaws. When you think you might be there, bring in a reader who knows what they're doing, preferably has some familiarity with publishing, and won't pull any punches. Don't go to your mom, who loves (or hates) everything you do. Don't go to your friends who may love to read but won't read with the kind of critical eye you need. If you can afford a professional such as a developmental editor or a query-reader, that may be an option. Try to make some connections through social media, or writing groups. Get some good eyes on your manuscript before you hit that submit button -- you'll be glad you did, but probably not until a lot later, when you look back in horror at what you thought was "ready."


What is your writing routine like? Plotter? Pantser? Do you write in small spurts or in long stretches?

I take plotting to an extreme. It's not enough for me to simply write an outline. I have to fill pages and pages with tiny, handwritten, stream-of-consciousness notes about what the story is and where it's going, before I even get to the outlining stage. Basically, I have to trick my brain into thinking I'm just journaling -- not writing, nope, nothing to see here -- so it doesn't freeze up on me. Then, once the story gets going and I'm motivated to continue, it's too late for my brain to complain. Sucker! Falls for it every time. Until the next time I have to do it. 

I tend to write in small spurts because that's what my home life allows these days. When there's no global health crisis and my kids are at school I tend to write for longer stretches.


What is something you think is unique to the genre you write? Is it what drew you to writing?

I dunno. I'm going to raise some eyebrows here, but I'm actually no more interested in mystery / crime fiction (the genre of my now-agented Pitch Wars novel) than I am in any other genre. I grew up reading speculative fiction, and currently read pretty much anything -- crime / mystery / suspense, sff, "literary" fiction, poetry. I landed on crime fiction as a writer because one day I discovered Elmore Leonard, and knew that THIS was what I wanted to write. It wasn't the crime-specific elements that hooked me, though; it was the voice, the style -- that simple, funny, conversational tone that is somehow simultaneously light and substantial. Any novel can be written that way, regardless of genre. And as a matter of fact, suspense novels that lean too hard on plot mechanics tend to lose me quickly. If the voice doesn't grab me right away, I'm out.


What is that one piece of writing--book, poem, screenplay, anything--that makes your insides go all twisty because you wish you'd written it (or as well as the person who wrote it)?

I have dozens of these, but a recent one is Erin Morgenstern's THE NIGHT CIRCUS. I had to read it twice -- once for the excitement of the story, once for the craft lesson. It is literally about magic, but to me, its real magic is how much it accomplishes with how little. It builds such a stunningly rich, visual, imaginative world, from language that is actually quite simple. Like, 9 times out of 10, when something is wet, she calls it wet. When something is red she calls it red. Often, writing that misses the mark does so because it's trying too hard to sound fancy, or literary, or just generally like MORE than it is. This book is a testament to "less is more." Also, I love books that are slyly about creativity and art when they are actually about something else.


What is your biggest writing "flaw?" The one thing you can guarantee will show up in your zero draft no matter how many times your critique partners have pointed it out?

I tend to get annoyingly clever when I'm faced with the difficulty of writing something genuine, which is always.


What is the worst part of writing?

Hmm. That's a tough one. It took me a long time to figure out my own writing process enough to enjoy it, but now that I have, I kind of love all of it. I love the compulsive pre-writing, the outlining, the revising, the obsessive thinking about the story even when I'm not in front of a computer or a notebook, the typing one-handed on my phone while I'm stirring pasta because I HAVE TO GET THIS IDEA DOWN RIGHT NOW. I mean, it's all difficult and challenging and all that, and I still face a ton of the anxiety that kept me from doing it for so long, but I feel like I have ways of controlling that part now (i.e. being nice to myself and not insisting on perfection every single time).


What is the best?

I can see I answered these two questions all wrong. See above? But also: I like the feeling of looking at a passage I wrote and thinking wow, I don't remember writing that, but whoever wrote it nailed it.


Lina Chern’s mystery novel HOT STREAK was selected for the 2020 Pitch Wars mentorship program. Other work has been featured in the Bellingham Review, Rhino, Black Fox Literary Magazine, the Coil and Mystery Weekly. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two children. Find her on Twitter @ChernLina.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Google Search: What to Write in a Gift Book


My Google search heralded this question this week: What to write in a gift book?

Well, it depends on the definition of "gift book." Is it a Christmas or birthday gift? That's simple enough.  Is it for a special occasion like a graduation? That could also be relatively simple to write. "Congratulations on completing your degree!" and the like. 

But what do you write in a book that you yourself have written? What do you write when it's a random fan who wants an autograph? That has always been where my creativity dries up like a spilled soda on the hot sidewalk in July. I've settled on some of the simple lines. "Thanks for reading," "Join the adventure!" "Thanks for the support," and so on, but I have often felt that this is sort of a let down for the person receiving the book. Surely, they are expecting something profound and personal from their favorite (maybe) author.

Sometimes I look to other authors' inscriptions in the books I've gotten for inspiration. For instance, I got a signed copy of 'Ghoul' by Brian Keene years ago, and he had written "Who are the REAL monsters?" in it, which makes sense once you read the book. I also got a few books from authors where literally all they did was sign in, and that was okay too.

I guess what it comes down to is what the person you're signing the book for is all about. Sometimes they only want a signature because they plan on selling it later, or they want you to sign it to someone else. I guess this is where I tend to overthink what the inscription should be.

I'm curious to know what other writers like to do for their inscriptions. If you're a writer, give me some ideas!

Stay weird.

Monday, March 29, 2021

How to Be a Shitty Ally

A post by Mary Fan
Hey everyone! Mary here, and I was supposed to do a Back Jacket Hack Job, but then a murderous piece of shit went on a rampage around Georgia and killed a bunch of Asian women - women like me. It's been a tumultuous few weeks, emotionally speaking. I just loved getting on the NY subway after that, knowing that people who looked like me had been randomly attacked in the city while sitting in a train car just like I was. So you can see why I'm not particularly in the mood for writing a fluffy joke post.

The response to the shootings has been as telling to me as the tragedy itself. And it stirred up a lot of old anger and frustration that goes back years. Some of the same people who'd previously brushed off and derailed my attempts to discuss anti-Asian discrimination were now posting sad-face statuses about how shocked and appalled they were by this headline-making public tragedy. To those folks: Of course you were shocked. It's easy to be shocked by something you weren't paying attention to, even when it was right in your face. Oh, you don't remember those conversations? Well, it's only natural to forget things you didn't think mattered!

So instead of a fun bookish post, here's a sarcastic rage post. Enjoy.

How to Be a Shitty Ally

So. You’re a good person. More than that, you need everyone to KNOW you’re a good person. You have a super strong sense of right and wrong, and whatever the situation, you always have the answers. Then a public tragedy strikes and *alert**alert* this is not a drill *alert**alert*! It’s time to spring into action. Especially if the tragedy struck those with marginalizations you don’t share.

So you want to be a shitty ally, the kind who cares more about being right and appearing good than hearing what anyone else has to say. Here’s your how-to guide.

Derail the conversation with Oppression Olympics

Someone from a marginalized background brings up an issue that impacts them directly. Don’t you dare let them get away with making it about them for once! Bring up a bigger tragedy to silence them! Asian Americans trying to bring up discrimination? Well, at least it’s not the Holocaust! What are they going to say to that? You’re right, and they have to shut up.

Completely ignore what’s being said

You know, sometimes you don’t have to say anything to win at this game. Just totally ignore what the marginalized person is trying to say and change the subject, as if they never said it! Better yet, do it in a group setting so you have plausible deniability! And if you happen to cut them off, well, that makes the plausible deniability even stronger if they later try to confront you about it. After all, how could you have brushed them off if you weren’t listening in the first place? 

Focus on your feelings and how the terrible things in the world affect you 

You’re listening and learning. Your thoughts and prayers are with the victims. You feel SO BAD about what’s happening. You’re crying. You want to do better. You had no idea things were this bad. You don’t want to be part of the system of oppression. You want to show that you’re a good person. You. You. You. Make it all about you. 

Don’t bother with little slights; only big splashy tragedies matter

Anyone remember that decade-old SNL skit with a white actor playing the Chinese president and literally saying “ching chong ching chong” over and over while a white actress “translated” with a stilted accent? Of course not! Because it was just a bit of fun—why would anyone make a big deal out of it? Remind them that they have no sense of humor and that they should relax; it’s just sketch comedy. Nothing is a big deal, not even the deaths of elders in random acts of violence. No, that’s not worth your precious ally time. That must be preserved for big splashy headline-making tragedies. Use the previous tactics mentioned. Derail. Ignore. Focus on your feelings—especially if those feelings bring up a bigger tragedy that will make the person bringing up the little slight feel awful. You win again!

Bring up people from marginalized backgrounds who disagree

Hey, someone from a marginalized background is trying to bring up that pesky old -ism conversation again, and you don’t agree! And guess what, neither does this other person from that same background! Well, then it must be okay, right? Japanese people in Japan don’t care about whitewashing Ghost in the Shell. Some Asian Americans find Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s absolutely hilarious! You’re right, and they’re wrong because they’re treating their own identity as a monolith when it ain’t so! Checkmate!

Refuse to see differences

You’re a humanist. You don’t see color, or gender, or anything else. The entirety of homo sapiens is like the mascot from Community—a featureless blob. And if you don’t see any of these things, how could you possibly wrong anyone?

Always remember, you have all the answers

“Well, actually” are your favorite words. Ok, so maybe it’s more of an attitude—now that those actual words are known, you might dance around them instead. But it all comes down to the same meaning: You have all the answers, and they, whoever they are, know nothing, even regarding their own experience. In fact, you know better because they can only speak to their own experience while you, in all your wisdom, know of every experience! When in doubt, interrupt and bring up someone more marginalized. Shift the conversation away from something they have background in, into one that’s either all about you or about something neither of you can really speak to. You’re right, and they’re wrong.

Congratulations, you’re a shitty ally. Change your profile pic to a damn safety pin.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Google Search: Am I Normal?

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
We all search for a sense of identity. Some of us search by going on literal or metaphorical journeys of self-discovery, testing our limits to find out what makes us really tick. Others search Google.

It's my turn for a Google-search-based post here, so I thought I'd try to discover what Google knows about how people define themselves.

Searching "am I," here are the autocomplete suggestions:


It seems that most people are curious about their internal state, which makes sense. Even with the progress we've made in discovering more about the brain and mental health, human minds—even our own minds—are still full of mystery and confusion.

Then there are the people who suspect they are pregnant, and decide to hit up Google instead of a doctor or pregnancy test. When Google fails to tell them if they are pregnant, they try "am I pregnant quiz," and I'm not that kind of doctor, but I don't think a quiz can tell you that. Come to think of it, a quiz isn't the best way to tell you if you're depressed either.

A core part of identity is comparing yourself to everyone else. In my psychology work, trying to measure things like personality and intelligence, a consistent theme I see is that most people think they are different, but most people are not (and, mathematically, can't be). The normal curve is very normal, and so are most people. I'm sure you're just full of delightful quirks, but those are the exceptions to countless other measurable variables that you're smack dab in the middle on. A quiz can't tell you with certainty if you're depressed, but Google's auto-complete can tell you that you're not the only person trying to figure out if you're comparable to other people in how you think, who you're attracted to, or how you're feeling.

What else can Google tell us about being normal?


Ok, a lot of things about blood there. Yeah, we're all full of the stuff, sometimes it leaks out, and we all bleed the same colour. But aside from that, we are mostly searching to see if we are sadder or "crazier" than other people.

That got me thinking—is this a recent thing? 2020 was an unusual year for a lot of people. Let's look at Google Trends:


There you have it. Searches for "am I normal?" reached an all-time high in October of 2020.

It's normal to worry about being normal after a highly abnormal year.

Whether you're writing the inner workings of a character in a book, or just trying to figure yourself out, I think that it's important to remember that almost all people are struggling to figure themselves out, especially now.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Reading Non-Western Stories: A Note to My Fellow White Readers
 I saw a Twitter post this morning with a screen shot of a rejection from an agent to an AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) author, and the agent was basically saying, “Your manuscript is great! But it has a lot of foreign worldbuilding elements that our [white] readers aren't going to connect with, so I’m passing on it.” I'm paraphrasing, but I've seen this sort of thing happening plenty of times before to authors of color. It always surprises me because white readers are perfectly happy jumping into complex fantasy and science fiction worlds full of aliens and elves and trusting that it will all eventually make sense, but we can't extend that same good faith to authors who write stories set in real (or semi-real) but non-Western settings.

Another thing I saw on Twitter this week was a tweet from Joyce Carol Oates (which I'm only screenshotting and not linking to because it's a totally crap take): 

What got me grinding my teeth in particular was the "come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination" part. She illustrates her point with examples of notoriously white, Western authors. Is Russian fiction "Western"? For this purpose, I say, yes, it is. She's comparing apples to oranges for one thing-- auto fiction is basically a genre of memoirs/autobiographies where some elements are fictionalized, and I don't think Faulkner ever wrote anything like that. Another thing is, in 2021, a purportedly progressive, feminist author is still standing on old,  mostly male, Western canon as examples of what constitutes "ambition, substance and imagination". UGH! Really?

With me being due to write a post for ATB, it seemed like an appropriate time to say: Hey, white/Western readers, we have biases we may not be aware of. We've become accustomed to Western (of primarily European and North American origin) themes, language, structure, belief systems, etc. And we, often unknowingly, impose those customs on whatever we're reading. Because of that, we're missing out on exceptional literature and shutting out some really great authors. We can do better.

One of my side-gigs is being a co-assistant editor at Cast of Wonders. A lot of what I do in that role is reading submissions and making decisions with my co-assistant editor and senior editor about which stories we'll accept for publication and audio-production. We're open to receiving stories from authors of all backgrounds, and we've made a point of trying to produce more stories that show the diversity of the authors who submit to us. Sometimes that requires opening our minds to stories that are not written in formats that are familiar to us as primarily Western and/or white readers. Sometimes we fail, despite our best intentions.

Recently my co-assistant editor, a member of the AAPI community and a talented writer himself, brought this shortcoming to our attention. Primarily his point was that often our comments as slush readers reveal our biases against non-Western structures and elements in ways we aren't aware of. He linked to great thread on Twitter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa to demonstrate and exemplify ways this bias appears in our editorial language and what it indicates:

The point of this post isn't to accuse anyone of racism. Rather, it's to remind myself and readers like me that we can and should question our biases. We can be more critical of our responses to media that include unfamiliar themes, settings, and cultures. It's also my attempt to challenge us to stretch our analytical muscles, to broaden our minds by purposefully broadening our media selections. 

Maybe learning how to be receptive to non-Western story structures will take some practice. Maybe we'll have to use Google to help us understand, to look up the meaning or translation or location of something. I promise it won't hurt, and it might actually do us some good.

Here are some places where we can start--stories that I (and some helpful friends) enjoyed and challenged me to think a bit outside of my white/Western comfort zone:

"This is How you Remember" by Phong Quan (a short story and audio story) :

"Common Grounds and Various Teas" by Sherin Nicole (a short story and audio story):''

"The Forbidden Books of  Da Lin Monastery" by Andrew K Hoe (a short story and audio story):

"Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (a SFF short story):

Ken Liu's "The Grace of Kings" (a novel)

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (a semi-memoir):

"Lagoon" a novel by Nnedi Okorafor (a novel):

"Ficciones" by Jorje Luis Borges (Magical Realism short story collection from their South American roots):

"Black Sun" by Rebecca Roanhorse (a fantasy novel):

"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience" by Rebecca Roanhorse (a short story)

"The Devourers" by Indra Das (a novel):

"The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday" by Saad Hossain (a novella or very short novel):

"Brown Girl in the Ring" by Nalo Hopkinson (a novel)

"The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God" by Etgar Keret (short story collection):

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James:

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Room of One's Own


I learned about quotation marks in dialogue from my babysitter. Her name was Maria, a red head with more freckles than face and an attitude to match.

“It’s so people know what they’re saying,” she said. “Otherwise it all just blurs together.”

Maria was full of great writing advice. She told me to start at the beginning and end at the end, that I wouldn’t always know which was which, but that was probably okay. She said people like adventures, and that people could have perfectly fine adventures in their living rooms if they wanted.

She told me I needed space to spread out. To write. She’d been reading Virginia Woolf, she said, who knew a thing or two about it.

As a nine-year-old, I figured I was pretty worldly. I’d moved at least three times—once to Gibsonton, FL, known colloquially as Carnie Town because it’s where the off-season carnival folk settle—had a cat named Yoda, and had seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show (by accident, at my aunt’s house). I was the oldest, with four brothers and sisters who looked up to me when they weren’t beating on me and was called “Little Mama” by my relatives because I was the small child wrangler at holidays and family parties. So when I sat down to write a story, I figured I knew what I was doing.

I didn’t have my own room (and wouldn’t for most of my life, moving from sharing with two little sisters to two daughters and then a wife) so I sat in the backyard on a slab of concrete that had great ambitions to be a patio, but never quite lived up to its potential. I wrote on loose-leaf notebook paper that sometimes blew away when a big gust of air cut through the yard, with a pencil that had a cupcake eraser on the top, the cherry long bitten off by one of my brothers.

I was going to write a story, I decided, about a little girl with dark hair and scabs on her knees and a noisy house full of too many people. One night, when the girl couldn’t sleep because her sisters were snoring or talking in their sleep, a leprechaun would come to her window and whisk her off to a magical land where there were more trees than people. I’d read the Chronicles of Narnia—I knew that when children were brought to a magical place, eventually, they would have to come back. But this was my story. It was all well and good that the Pevensies were happy to come home, but my little girl could stay in the magical land for as long as she wanted. Forever, even.

I wrote many, many stories after that one and the theme running through most of them was escape. Girls and women who were so boxed in by their lives, when the first chance to run away came along, they took it. My escape came through them. With earphones on and Word doc open, I drifted away to new times and places and though 99% of those stories never saw the light of day, I remember them as doorways to escape from work, from life, from children and parents and siblings who all needed something from me when I didn’t have much to give.

My wife asked me what I wanted for my thirtieth birthday.

I told her, “A room with a door I can close.”

I’m thirty-four now and writing this from a chair in the corner of my living room. It’s seven in the morning on a Saturday. It’ll be hours before my wife and teenagers get up, so I can almost pretend that this is my space. But I can hear the clock on the wall ticking away the minutes until they’ll want breakfast and attention and for me to alleviate their inevitable boredom by planning a full day of Target runs, drive-through lunch, and maybe a walk if the sun stays put and all I can think about is what I wouldn’t give to be whisked away to a magical land with more trees than people.

I announced in December that I’d finally signed my first ever multi-book contract with a publisher. Along with it came a decent advance—not enough to quit my job, but enough that it bridged the gap between “maybe we could someday buy a house” to “let’s buy a house.”

After eight years in a tiny apartment with only so many nooks to escape, I knew what I wanted.

As we scrolled through listing after listing, I told my wife, “I want a room with a door I can close.”

On April 2nd, we close on a hundred-year-old house in the city, with delightfully creaky floors and stories in the walls and at the end of the hallway, with two windows facing the backyard—a magical land with more trees than people—is a room with a door that has my name on it.

“This,” Maria would say, “This here is a beginning.”

I tend to agree. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

An Unusual Breed

Mark Smith Photography

By Cheryl Oreglia

John Updike said about writing fiction, “nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented.” Meaning, we’re not only writing a story, we are revealing more than we know about our own quirks and nuances in between the lines of our story, like finding yourself naked in a dream, but you’re also running around trying to find a barrier for your nakedness ~ when there are none to be found. Such is the life of a writer.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Dorothy Parker

It’s as if you’ve agreed to have a live stream video attached to your home 24/7. As Dani Shapiro says, “we are constructing the very thing that holds us. We have nothing to latch on to. If beginnings and ends are shorelines, middles are where we dive deep, where we patch holes, where we risk drowning.” As Loyd Alexander says “fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”

The strange thing about being a writer, aside from the benefit of humiliating family and friends, is that it requires very little physical risk, but a shit load of courage. I’m not one to fill my bucket list with skydiving expeditions, scuba excursions, or mountain climbing but when I’m tucked in bed, slugging down my fourth cup of coffee, my thighs heated from balancing my MacBook for hours on end, the house empty, the dog asleep next to the bed, and a light rain is beginning to fall - I’m as fearless as Evil Knievel (the guy that broke every bone in his body, google him).

“Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.” Jessamyn WestIt’s

It's as if I’m scuba diving for treasure, I stay down until I’m almost out of air, then using restraint I slowly rise to the surface, flushed with excitement. Most of the time I come up with nothing but an empty hand, maybe a broken shell, but on those rare occasions when I do find something of value, I hold it up to the light, positioning it for all to see. 

But as we all know courage and fearlessness are very different mobilities, courage asks us to do what we are compelled to do, feeling the fear, but doing it anyway.

Writers are a strange breed, don’t you agree? I mean who would prefer being cooped up in their room, avoiding life so they can try and tap into some deep-seated knowledge about the nature of humanity and the meaning of creation or a solution to the zombie Apocolypse? 

“I think horror, when done well, is one of the most direct and honest ways to get to the core of the human experience because terror reduces all of us to our most authentic forms.” Alistair CrossI

I can spend hours typing every little thought that comes into my head but I end up deleting more words than I keep. I have to remind myself that this isn’t normal, most people avoid writing, or find the task so distasteful they hire someone to write for them. So how is it I’ve come to believe they’re the crazy ones?

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Graham Greene

When I fail to make space for writing it’s as if I need a blood transfusion, the words pumping the rich oxygenated cells throughout my depleted body, without it I believe I would simply die?

I’ve been in a writing group for over a year now, we have always met on Zoom, as our formation happened at the beginning of the pandemic. Our group consists of nine people from around the world, half male, half female, different ages, temperaments, and ethnicities. We meet once a week to “encourage and support” one another. We’re more like a murder of crows, squawking about this and that, watching for subtleties in our writing, pushing each other to break out of ingrained patterns, fly out of formation so to speak, knowing we can bring each other to greater heights with the subtleties of gentle underpinning.

As Dani Shapiro says, “Each and every day that you approach the page, you are reaching for it once again. At times, it will elude you. At times, it will seem to have abandoned you. But in the face of this, be persistent, dogged, patient, determined. Remember that this moment, this day, is one stitch in a tapestry of days.” I love that.

It’s an occupation where one never actually arrives, we just glide with the wind of our thoughts, see where they take us, the destination matters not, it’s all about the journey.

"The only bird that dares to peck an eagle is the crow. The crow sits on the eagle's back and bites his neck. The eagle does not respond, nor fight with the crow; it does not spend time or energy on the crow, instead, he just opens its wings and begins to rise higher in the heavens. The higher the flight, the harder it is for the crow to breathe, and eventually, the crow falls off due to a lack of oxygen.

Learn from the eagle and don't fight the crows in life, just keep ascending, the detractors might be along for the ride but they'll eventually fall away. Do not allow yourself to succumb to the distractions...keep your focus on the things above and continue rising." Solara. 
“As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” kurt Vonnegut
We are indeed an unusual breed, trained for a specific task, and therein lies our value, because it is both a privilege and an instinct to bring a banquet of stories to a starving world. 

Join me in the comments! Love to hear your thoughts on being a writer in the world today. 

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Martin Luther

When I'm not writing for Across the Board, I'm Living in the Gap, join me when you can. 

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