Thursday, April 29, 2021

'Exotic Birds': Not a Bird Book


For an ornithological textbook, 'Exotic Birds' really misses the mark. It made me look like a huge idiot in front of my birding club, and for that, it lost a whole star on Amazon.

The book opens with a short introductory on each species and it's foraging and mating habits. The species known as 'Jack Whittmeyer' seems to have an affinity for fermented nectar, which often gets it into trouble with it's mate. The Jack has a colorful plumage, and it's vulgar vocalizations are gritty, but oddly poetic. It's sister species, the 'Megan Whittmeyer', shares a similar vocal range, through it's focus is mainly nest building through long work days and concentration on self-reliance. The two birds seem to tolerate, though not necessarily enjoy each other's company, though the Jack is especially good at causing the Megan to screech in annoyance at it's brother species' antics.

Several other species are mentioned in the book, one of which being the 'Erin Rankin', a small, timid creature which enjoys mimicry of other species. The 'Elliot Greenfield' is also mentioned, and is a bold member of the peacock family, bent on finding as many females to mate with as possible. The drab 'Dave Peterson' is a quiet, unassuming with an affinity toward nest building. 

All of these birds flock together for an annual migration to Atlantic City, but in the course of this study, there is an unexpected event. The 'Megan' disappears from their flock, and the remaining birds actually set out to find it, deterring their migration from Atlantic City all the way to Ecuador to follow the path of an unknown species simply known as 'X', which is responsible for the disappearance.

During their adventures, the five birds find themselves being stalked by predators, baring the elements, and fighting amongst themselves as they search for the 'X' and a way back to their own terratory.

As an unconventional bird book, there is something for everyone here, although I would not recommend bringing it to your birding club. You've got comedy, romance, and adventure wrapped up into one package called 'Exotic Birds.' 

Find it on Amazon as a paperback, Kindle, or audiobook. You can also visit the author's page at 

Yeah, you got me. This is my book. And no, it isn't actually about birds. This is a novel that took me over 15 years to perfect, and it's my personal favorite. Might I also add that there is a sequel by the name of 'Solve for X.' 

Check it out, if you so desire, and stay weird.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Attempting to Divorce a Book's Worth from Capitalism

A Post by Mary Fan
Happy Fool's Spring, everyone! Well, it's Fool's Spring up here in New Jersey, at least. Who knows, you might get Actual Spring where you are, instead of having to dig out your winter sweater again because it suddenly dropped to 37 degrees...

Anyway, as y'all may know, capitalism is increasingly seen as the villain behind many societal ills, and with good reason. It reduces people and the things they do to dollar signs and bottom lines. It's no different when it comes to books. They are, after all, just "widgets" in economy-speak. Items to be sold for a profit; their value determined by how much green they put in the bank.

After all, how do you decide which books should be considered worthy? What makes one author more prestigious than another? The answer: capitalism. This author was published by a huge corporation and sold millions of books after an enormous marketing push! They're a great author! Let's invite them to speak at conferences, to participate in special events, to be upheld as a prime example to emulate. That's capitalism at work: The author is considered worthier because of the amount of money generated. Meanwhile, that author over there, who was published by a basement press and made maybe a few hundred bucks? They're not legit. That's also capitalism at work: The author is considered unworthy because of the lack of money generated.

There's a good reason why people use capitalism as a stand-in for worth: It's easy. No one has the time or willpower to read every book ever published, let alone compare and contrast and rank based on content. The number of decisions that would take would burn out anyone's brain. Popularity and bestselling status are convenient stand-ins. If tons of people liked a book, it must be good, right? 

And hey, why not. Most books are good enough, and if you're like most people, you'll enjoy what everyone else enjoyed. 

By the way, did you know that award submissions are often run out of the marketing department? Because awards, too, are capitalism. They're not the objective marker of merit that we like to think of them as. They're an advertising tool (trust me, I work in marketing). 

Faced with an ever-growing deluge of content, I can't blame readers for using capitalism as a stand-in for worth. Heck, I do it myself. I know the unique agony of standing in front of an enormous, stuffed shelf at a bookstore with no idea what I want, then grabbing the first title that feels familiar - because I've heard of the title, or the author, or have seen the cover somewhere. In behavioral finance, we call this a "familiarity bias".

Another useful concept from behavior finance? "Anchoring," which is used to describe an irrational bias toward a arbitrary benchmark figure. If you've been around author circles, you've probably seen this apply to Amazon reviews - the idea that 50 reviews is the magic number, or 100, or 250 (okay, that one might be Goodreads). Heck the very idea of a "six-figure deal" is kind of an example of anchoring.

Ultimately, this capitalistic way of viewing books revolves around institutional approval. The bigger and richer the institution, the more their opinion is worth. But here's the dirty little secret: these institutions are run by human beings, who are every bit as flawed and biased as everyone else. Their opinions may be held in high regard, but they should not be the only arbiters of worth.

Anyway, why am I going on about capitalism and behavioral finance? It's because these ideas and fallacies around worth revolving around numbers can be toxic to creators. Everyone loves to list their capitalistic accomplishments as proof of their worthiness - achieved bestselling status, got a Netflix deal, sold foreign rights, got a four-book contract, hit six figures... money, money, money, money. And again, awards aren't exempt from this. They're just a more palatable manifestation. Awards cost money to enter, after all, and the size of monetary prizes are sometimes used as a marker of how prestigious an award is.

It's lovely to get these things, and I'm not saying that writers shouldn't want them. We all do; I definitely do. But in my head, I'm trying to divorce these things from worth. As in - having them doesn't make a book inherently worthy... and on the flip side, the side that will apply to many more of us, not having them doesn't make a book unworthy.

I've seen writers lament that their work must not be any good because it didn't make the New York Times bestseller list, or consider themselves failures because they didn't earn out their advances. I've seen them talk about giving up because they didn't sell enough. That's the kind of mentality I'm trying to divorce myself from. I started writing because I love telling stories, and not because I want to measure myself the way a door-to-door salesman does, treating these stories as only objects to be converted into dollars. It's not easy in a world that's conditioned me to think that money alone can bring the elusive idea of "success."

The book is the book; just by existing, the book by itself has worth. The book could sit alone in a box in a closet, having never been exchanged for currency, having only been read by the author, and still be worthy for its ideas, for its craft, for the love and dedication that went into it, alone.  

And, of course, the same should apply to the person who wrote it. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Cure for the Modern Era: Conducting Preliminary Research for the Historical Novel

Greetings readers and Happy Earth Day! I don't know about you, but I'm finding Present Day Earth to be incredibly stressful. Daily mass shootings (only in America, kids!), environmental disasters (goodbye Iceberg A68), people's reticence in getting vaccinated (we're never going back to normal), and this general fear that the Great American Democracy Experiment is on its way out (who needs voting rights) has ratcheted my anxiety to a thousand. 

For me, escapism has taken on many forms this past year--from binge-watching New Girl on Netflix to listening to old-timey crime podcasts on Spotify to planning a lavender garden in a Poconos backyard, but nothing gets me lost in my own world more than doing historical research for a book idea.

There are plenty of writers who won't touch historical fiction with a ten-foot maypole. And I get it. The research is daunting, and no one wants to mess it up or get called out for messing it up (I once had an editor tell me I was using a 2000-era slang word in a 90s setting--I wasn't, but people make assumptions about what they know). Although I have degrees in both history and library science, I haven't tackled a project of this magnitude since I wrote my undergrad thesis on Jewish colonization schemes in 1920s Mexico (actual title of my paper). And despite my young adult novels all having historical components--I've written two novels set in the 1990s (easy to research because I was there), one novella set in 1955, and two mystery novels with flashbacks to the Swinging Sixties and Roaring Twenties--I am overwhelmed at the amount of research ahead of me. It's not just fashion and food and the cost of milk in 1951 that I need to know, but the landscape of my Manhattan setting. What landmarks existed then? How did the city look and smell? And then there is the geo-political climate--Cold War, post-WW II trauma, birth of suburbs. And the newspaper business. And major league baseball. And Jewish history. And everything. I feel like I need to know everything.

What if I can't find what I need? What if an important plot point hinges on an idea that is not historically sound? What if I can't accurately convey the period because I wasn't there? What if it takes me three hours to write a sentence? What if I can't do this?

The truth is I can do this; it just might take me a long time to draft. And while I am daunted by the process, I am also excited. Last week, I requested through interlibrary loan a dissertation about female journalists in the fifties and sixties. I sat at my laptop, read the book, and took notes, just like I did in college. And it was fun. I got lost in the work, and forgot about checking email or Twitter. And the more I learned about this particularly facet of history, the more my novel began to take shape. I had discovered my protagonist's objective and story arc. I realized that this idea could be amazing. That, perhaps, I was onto something truly special.

Of course everything is fun when it's research and not writing. And it's very easy for writers to use research as a means to procrastinate. Truthfully, I'm teetering on that edge since my historical novel is a secondary project right now (calling it my side hustle). But because of our current socio-political climate, a step back in time is exactly what I need to function today.

What era do you love to get lost in most? Medieval Europe? The Jazz Age? Sound off in the comments below.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Fiction and the Allure of Conspiracy

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
Things are not good here in Ontario. While COVID-19 vaccines are starting to reach a sizeable percentage of the population, they are racing against exploding numbers of cases, alongside (and because of) exploding anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and even anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
How can people still be lured in by COVID conspiracy theories even after an entire year of this, in which many of us have seen the devastating effects of the disease first-hand? I'll put forward the idea that some people are drawn to conspiracy theories for the same reason most of us are drawn to fiction. There is an allure to believing in stories, even if they are false.
A constructed story is emotionally reassuring. A good novel can let you escape into a world where there is mystery and evil, but each mystery is a few steps away from being solved by our heroes, and the bad guys get what they deserve. A good conspiracy theory is the same: a mysterious illness has spread across the world, but a guy in scrubs on YouTube has heroically arrived to reveal that it was fake all along. Little viral particles don't make good moustache-twirling bad guys, so blame the government instead. It's all so easy—such an emotionally satisfying escape from a real world full of ever-changing answers and a threat without a face.

The problem is that trying to escape reality doesn't make it go away. The virus doesn't check if you believe in it before putting you in the ICU, drowning in your own fluids while even people who have followed reality-based rules and advice all along are turned away from the collapsing healthcare system.
Can you tell I'm a bit angry? I see these conspiracy theories on social media, even among people I thought were friends. And what do I do about it? Because I understand why it's comforting to believe it's all fake, to want a free pass to cough all over a gathering of friends because it's all just a plot by the government, Bill Gates, and whoever else you never liked anyway. These people are clutching to fictional stories like babies clutching their comfort blankies. On one hand, fuck you! Grow up! But on the other hand, they're just going to whine harder if you try to take away their comforting lies, and afterward they'll probably clutch to them even tighter.

Ok fine, have fun you delusional owl, but get back to reality when it's time to "book" a vaccine appointment. 
The BBC has an article on how to talk to the victims of conspiracy theories, which recommends approaching them with empathy and having long conversations with them to gradually introduce them to the facts. Maybe it works sometimes. But I'm just tired. It's been over a year, and who has time to spend hours trying to deprogram delusional cultists on top of everything else? I think there's still room for empathy though, because we all like a good fictional story, so we can all understand how some people take it too far and escape into a dangerous reality-denying narrative.
I wish I could end this post with easy answers, but this isn't a story, and there aren't any. At least those of us who subscribe to reality do have some concrete steps to follow and normalize, though: stay home whenever you can, wear a mask when you can't, get vaccinated when possible. Stay healthy, everyone.

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.

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