Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Jan 20 2011

Superheroes and Princesses

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Virginia Postrel of the Wall Street Journal offers an interesting comparison: “The princess archetype embodies a feminine version of the appeal… The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ascribes to superheroes. They express the ‘lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves.'”  What do you think? Are the two that comparable? Any other observations, arguments or baseless insults?

20 responses so far

Aug 17 2010

At first glance, this superhero “research” looks shamelessly incompetent

In a ScienceDaily article:

Watching superheroes beat up villains may not be the best image for boys to see if society wants to promote kinder, less stereotypical male behaviors, according to psychologists…

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” said psychologist Sharon Lamb, PhD, distinguished professor of mental health at University of Massachusetts-Boston. “Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”

The comic book heroes of the past did fight criminals, she said, “but these were heroes boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities,” she said.

My initial impression is that this is so luridly off-base I don’t know where to begin.

Continue Reading »

17 responses so far

Sep 01 2009

Disney announces deal to buy Marvel

You can see the Associated Press’ take here and The Wall Street Journal has more here (subscription required?).   I have a few thoughts below.

  • Disney is paying roughly $50 per share, which is a 29% premium over Friday’s closing.  If you own Marvel stock, you will come out ahead quite nicely on this.  It was trading around $25 earlier this year.
  • I am cautiously optimistic that Disney knows how to buy a successful firm without ruining what made it successful.  For example, Pixar’s movies didn’t drop in quality after the Disney buyout.  (Nor have they released a lot of straight-to-DVD sequels to successful movies).
  • I doubt this will have a noticeable impact on Marvel’s products.  Even the movies.
  • I think Disney is the biggest loser here.  It’s betting 4 billion dollars that it can leverage Marvel’s characters better than Marvel did.  I’m skeptical.

10 responses so far

May 04 2009

Writers are dispensable; readers are not

If you’re looking to get a novel published, I think that understanding the Boston Globe’s difficulties will help you.

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No responses yet

Aug 04 2008

The Future of Political Nonfiction

City Journal wrote a well-researched article on the future of conservative nonfiction, but I’d like to make a larger point about political nonfiction. “Since the new conservative imprints have far less latitude than traditional nonfiction imprints to fail, they tend to rely heavily on, and largely be defined by, a handful of proven iconic authors.” It’s probably true that smaller publishers have to be wary about rolling the dice with noncelebrities. But, because of blogging, I think that it’s tremendously difficult for a non-celebrity of any political persuasion to publish political nonfiction. Readers can find blogs that offer any style of political thought for free. Some blogs are exceedingly well-written and intelligent. So why would anyone want to pay for your opinion? Because you’re someone who has an invaluable perspective because you used to be a President, a secretary of state, or are a hugely popular talk-radio host, etc…*

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Aug 03 2008

Why are mysteries more popular than fantasy or sci-fi?

Published by under Commentary

Observations from the Balcony suggests it is because mysteries are helped more by cinema than other forms of literary fiction. I’d lay out two alternate theories: 1) it’s far easier to make a detective story intriguing and interactive, because the readers can solve the case alongside the detective. 2) The premises, particularly in detective mysteries, are easier to sell than exotic premises that use magic or advanced technology.

Additionally, I think it’s slightly easier to write mysteries…

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One response so far

Jul 25 2008

Don’t Write for Yourself: You are Your Own Worst Reader

Published by under Commentary

Today, a commenter at Nathan Bransford’s site said…

While I’m striving to write a book that I hope will be some kind of bestseller, I never forget that I’m also striving to write a book that *I* would want to read if I saw it on the shelf.

That is badly misguided. Whether you want to buy your book is irrelevant. You are not the audience of your book. Publishers do not want to publish a book for you. Publishers need to sell thousands of copies and they want books with that sort of appeal.

Authors that write a book they want to read tend to lose sight of the audience. I think that leads to self-absorbed and completely ineffective titles like “The Legend of Edarotag” and “Cimmeria’s Song*”. It may contribute to in-jokes and references that no one can relate to. As a rule, I think it’s safe to say that no one finds your interests as interesting as you do.

In conclusion, your career will probably be more successful if you forget about what you want to read and focus on finding what you can (and would be proud to) sell.

*These are both fictional titles (try reversing the letters in Edarotag).  I hope that demonstrated how easily in-jokes can disgruntle mass audiences.

8 responses so far

Jul 11 2008

A few questions for opinionated authors

The authors that try to present political or religious opinions usually confuse their opinions with insights. How is your message different from what people have already heard about abortion? For example, your readers have already heard many people chant “abortion is good” and “abortion is bad.” Is your story just another voice in the chorus or will it actually add something? Why will anyone care about your opinion? Do you have any unique perspective on the subject material? Do you have relevant professional or scholarly experience? Are you personally affected by the issue? Etc.

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9 responses so far

Jul 03 2008

A brief argument: reviewers don’t have to be credentialed to be relevant

Published by under Book Review,Commentary

When authors or fans challenge negative reviews, they sometimes say something like “what have you written, because I bet it’s awful.” I think that reflects a fundamentally wrong conception of reviewing. Every day, people evaluate and suggest things without any experience of having made them. For example, over the past few years I’ve suggested that friends stay away from (ugly) Pontiac Azteks, (shoddy) Craftsman tools, and (inedible) McDonald’s food. But I’ve never designed a car, built a tool and hardly ever cook. Does my lack of experience disqualify me as a relevant reviewer?

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4 responses so far

Jul 02 2008

Season 3 of Heroes will have MORE characters!

The creator of Heroes, Tim Kring, has promised that season 3 will have more villains. Yes, more characters… that’s exactly what Heroes needed.

“You’re going to see a lot of bad guys,” he said to Sci Fi Wire. “We’re playing off the idea of our characters as heroes or villains. So it’s really the duality of good and evil.” T.K., I will see your duality of good and evil and raise you character development, interesting traits and a well-rounded cast. For one, I’d start by killing off about half the cast…

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Jun 07 2008

A Quip About Ulysses

Ulysses is a totally incomprehensible book. Understanding it is like machine-gunning a pack of unicorns. Anyone that claims to have done either is lying, but should be institutionalized anyway.”

–Cadet Davis

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May 21 2008

Future Cops, 1. Academics, 0

This is an excerpt from an interesting article on college.

I assigned a research paper. This time around, the students were to elucidate the positions of scholars on two sides of a historical controversy. Why did Truman remove MacArthur? Did the United States covertly support the construction of the Berlin Wall? Their job in the paper, as I explained it, was to take my arm and introduce me as a stranger to scholars A, B, and C, who stood on one side of the issue, and to scholars D, E, and F, who were firmly on the other—as though they were hosting a party.

A future state trooper snorted. “Some party,” he said.

No responses yet

May 18 2008

What!?!

Published by under Comedy,Commentary

The US government has introduced a fitness test for adults. Did you know that the government thinks it’s “normal” to have a 500-inch waist circumference?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you have a 500 inch waist, you probably do not have a 24.1 BMI.

One response so far

Jan 29 2008

Heroes got sued

Published by under Commentary,Heroes

The gist of the lawsuit is that Heroes supposedly ripped off a preexisting plotline that where an artist painted the future and included the (possible) destruction of two New York City landmarks.

If this lawsuit works out, I’m going to sue every romance publisher because they’ve all ripped off a story I wrote last year where a guy and a girl struggle through adversity and finally get together.

(Wait a minute…)

I’m not sure I can think of a superhero story set in the real world where a New York landmark isn’t endangered. In fact, superhero stories are probably more likely to endanger NYC landmarks than romances are to show guys and girls getting together, because some romances are tragedies).

As as for the supposed ripping-off of a superpower (painting the future), again pretty much every superpower is a direct and blatant ripoff of something that’s already been used. Some of the superpowers used on Heroes are…

  1. Superstrength

  2. Regeneration

  3. Flying

  4. Mind-reading

  5. Time-travel

Groundbreaking stuff there!

No responses yet

Jan 28 2008

Overheard at the Sports Desk

Published by under Comedy,Commentary,Sports

The [NY] Knicks need to let Isiah Thomas go. To quote Ozzy Ozbourne, the Knicks have been “going off the rails on a crazy train” for the past four years, and Thomas is the conductor. It’s time to cut this ride short.

–Mr. Andrews

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Jan 28 2008

Seen Online

I got a kick out of this quote.

“A few years back, I suggested a new rule that no male writer should be allowed to write a female protagonist unless he had dated a woman at least once in his life.”

That’s fine, but that’s probably why there are so few (clothed) females in comic books.

No responses yet

Jan 07 2008

My spies report…

The UN plans to “use Spiderman to fight evil,” according to the Associated Press. (Wait, doesn’t the UN already have its own superheroes?)

The article mentions that…

John Bolton called it an “act of desperation… you can have Spiderman in a comic book all you want, but it’s not going to change public perception.”

John’s wrong. Adding Spidey to a comic book always changes public perception about its quality. For example, take Spiderman: Get Kraven. It made it to issue six, out of a scheduled seven. Get Kraven would not have survived to two.
Just how bad was Get Kraven?

Get Kraven #1

Kraven 1

Makes you wonder what they did for 2-6, right?

Savor excerpts of a review of #1:

It works, in the same way that selling Pokemon toys to children works. The characters don’t go challenging any boundaries, except those of good taste.

Spidey’s appearance is best quickly forgotten…

Get Kraven #2

Kraven 2

Incidentally, the mini-WTC logo is the only reason this comic should not be burned.

Excerpts of a review:

it’s about as witty as two-day old vomit down the back of the sofa. It’s as funny as a draft notice in 1967 [hey!] It’s as clever as a Ph.D thesis in pig-latin*…

Namor swims up and gives him some advice about Hollywood…

SUMMARY: Renting a bungalow. Scott Baio. Six pages.

*Which is different from regular theses… how?

Get Kraven #6 (skipping 3-5 for everyone’s well-being)

Kraven 6

Wait… the WTC logo is gone.  Light it up!

If you actually bought this, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Here are some excerpts of a five-star review of #6.

The Rothsteins weren’t the head of the snake. They need to go to Beverly Hills…

It turns out, Ned is playing a role playing game with the Chameleon because it’s healthy, according to his shrink. The Chameleon snaps, he takes a spear and runs towards Al…

The story ends with Nickles [THE F***ING DOG] wondering that this was supposed to be a seven issue series. And that it’s weird that he waited to the last page to talk!

Anyway, the point is that Spidey got Get Kraven to issue six. After that, world peace should be a snap.

In any case, he can sell a comic that will be heavy on the preaching and light on the miracles.

No responses yet

Jan 03 2008

Texan Headline of the Day

Dallas Police, Officials Discourage Random Gunfire.”

Uhh… what were the Dallas police doing before?

On a side-note, I think the Dallas police will find that it’s easier to cut murders by reducing targeted gunfire.

No responses yet

Dec 12 2007

Improving Your Beta Reviews

This article will focus on how to find beta reviewers and how to get beta-reviews that are more useful.
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2 responses so far

Dec 09 2007

Quote of the Day: Dec. 9

Agent Orange: Contrary to popular belief, the New York Times is not actually the most anti-American news outlet. CSPAN is far more dangerous, and not just because it is more accurate than the average comic book. You couldn’t design anti-American propaganda more effective than around-the-clock Congressional coverage.

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Dec 04 2007

Characterization

I hate little writing guides. I read one this morning that offered only ~300 words on writing characters, all of which could be summarized as “write authentic characters,” which was incidentally the chapter heading. Write authentic characters. Thanks!

Hopefully, this article will prove more useful to you. As you craft and introduce a character, you have many tools at your disposal. I’ll offer some tips for the following aspects and tools of character creation.

  1. Character genesis: what kind of character do you need?
  2. Introducing your character
  3. Making your characters memorable/sticky
  4. Three dimensional characters
  5. Character problems

Character Genesis: what kind of character do you need?

Virtually every well-designed character has each of the following:

  1. Purpose
    1. This is the role he plays in your story. If your character does not play a unique and useful role in the plot, you need to rewrite or remove him. Characters are unique if their role can’t be performed by the story’s other characters. A character is useful he cannot be removed without dramatically weakening the story. That’s subjective, but often your beta readers agree which characters are productive and/or interesting and which aren’t. If you have beta readers, ask questions like “what role did John play in this chapter?” or “which character contributed the least?”—those are pretty direct ways of getting reader impressions on the material. If you don’t have beta readers, go to http://www.critters.org; it’s a very professional and free online writing workshop.
    2. Purpose comes first because everything else you put into your character hinges on the role you need him to play. Purpose should drive development. For example, if you want a character to add comic quips, he should be witty. Readers will notice if a supposedly slow character is verbally quick.
    3. Your audience and world often reach the same conclusions about a character. But, if you intend your readers not to agree with what your characters think about another character, make it clear why there’s a distinction. (Failing to do so will make your characters feel flat or unbelievable). NOTE: this should be done as sparingly as possible. Discrepancies tend to disconnect readers from the story.
  1. Goals
    1. Real people have goals. Your characters should, too! Goals add plot coherence. If your plot moves from one characters attempting to achieve his goal to another thwarting him by pursuing his own agenda and then back to the first character trying again, it tends to flow nicely.
    2. Goals make characters deep and believable. Did Neville Longbottom go to Hogwarts just so Snape could pound on him? Hell no! He wants to be a man, which drives him to (hilariously) confront Harry Potter towards the end of the first book. Goals are essential to making your characters more than just props. Even your minor characters should have them.
  2. Problems
    1. Real people have problems, too. Problems are a great way to develop your characters. In fact, sometimes the problems are more memorable than the characters themselves (how long could you talk about Luke Skywalker before saying “Darth Vader?”)
    2. Sometimes you reach for your goal and fail. Failure adds drama! Someone who succeeds the first time, every time is not really interesting. The higher the barriers are, the more your readers will enjoy watching the leap. Failure also helps develop characters. Adversity brings out resourcefulness, ingenuity and strength.
    3. Problems also help you mix up the plot. If your character tries shouldering open a locked door but fails, it wouldn’t be very dramatic if he just kept hitting it until it opened. This gives you an opportunity to show that your character is able to do more than solve all of his problems one way—action writers often tend to focus on violent or confrontational solutions. If you feel you have that problem, try mixing it up by placing your hero in a position where he’s hopelessly outpowered, ideally in a social setting. You can’t punch your boss…
    4. Are you using a broad set of problems? Here are a few to consider. 1) Nature/natural phenomena 2)Violent antagonists 3) Iagos (diplomatically savvy antagonists) 4) The hero’s shortcomings 5) The hero’s goals conflict 6) Conflicting heroes
  3. Flaws
    1. Authors sometimes mistakenly confuse problems with flaws. Problems are obstacles or failures. Flaws are attributes that the audience won’t find endearing.
    2. Many authors tend to subconsciously write characters as reflections of themselves. That’s fine, as long as you don’t idealize yourself. Realistic characters virtually require flaws. “But I want my audience to sympathize with my hero!” That’s a good point, but keep in mind that flaws can accentuate positive traits. For example, an idealistic character might be depressed because the world doesn’t meet his expectations. His depression will remind us that he lives by his ideals.
    3. On the other hand, villains often have too many flaws. Sympathetic villains—with agendas we can relate to, even if we don’t want them to succeed— are often the most memorable and feel the most realistic (Darth Vader).
    4. Flaws tend to be more memorable. For example, in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Temeraire has an interesting set of characteristics. Let’s see… he’s a dragon, enthusiastic about geometry, he is very affectionate towards his Captain/partner, is strongly anti-slavery and wants sweeping reforms to make British society more dragon-friendly (like tearing up London buildings to make the streets widers). But what is most salient about Temeraire—and characterizes him the best—is that he’s politically radical and doesn’t care about what society deems acceptable.
    5. Flaws tend to add plot coherence. Temeraire [SPOILER] goes rogue and refuses to carry out a plot to poison French dragons. [/SPOILER] That flows naturally from his deeply held views about the dignity of dragons. It doesn’t feel like the author randomly decided to have Temeraire rebel to spice the plot up. Plots driven by flaws tend to be more coherent and feel less arbitrary, partially because flaw-driven foreshadowing is more noticeable and memorable.

Memorable/Sticky Characters

You want your characters to be memorable, I’m sure. More precisely, your characters should be sticky—something about them needs to stick long and hard with your readers.

Readers will often miss minor details, especially one introduced only once or twice. The essence of stickiness is giving each character one or two defining characteristics that provide memory cues to everything else about the character. If you bring attention to those defining characteristics a few times, readers will gradually make a lasting impression and they will easily remember the character.

Here’s an example from my own work: one of Agent Orange’s defining characteristics is that he’s an (reptilian) alien. I assumed that readers would remember that unusual detail. WRONG! Not only had the majority forgotten that he was the alien, many more had gotten confused about the species of some human characters. To help cue my readers, I had Agent Orange say “mammals*” whenever he’s exasperated, faces a political obstacle, has to explain something about himself or is otherwise perplexed by American culture.

[1]

ORANGE: Do you smell that?

LASH: That you smell like an ashtray?

ORANGE: The squid. He’s a mile off.

LASH: How the hell could I smell a squid a mile away?

ORANGE: Mammals.

[2]

Agent BLACK: I’ll stick with the experience and Darwin factors.

Agent ORANGE: (Mammals). When Freakshow is melting your neural synapses together, let me know how much inspiration and comfort those give you.

BLACK: I will try to remember to do that, sir.

ORANGE: (Wiseass).

This recurring remark has benefits beyond reminding readers that Orange isn’t human. Sometimes I’ll ask my reviewers questions like “do you remember a passage that shows how Agent Orange (or nonhumans generally) get along with humans?” They almost always pick a “mammals” passage. I think the word “mammals” is a pretty good cue that the reader is supposed to make associations there.

Since I’ve introduced the “mammals” lines, readers have fared much better on open-ended questions like “how would you characterize human-nonhuman relationships in Superhero Nation? I’m looking for words like “awkward,” “well-intentioned,” “strange” and “friendly”—at least, that’s what I meant to convey. Before I used mammal lines, most readers had no clue and the rest mentioned discrimination. That was certainly puzzling, given that the only recurring nonhuman character is a ranking government official that’s friendly with his co-workers.

Now, I see a lot more answers that use words like “strained,” “symbiotic,” different perspectives, etc.

Big picture, “mammals” helps characterize Orange. It reminds us that he’s not a human and that his relations with humans are mostly positive but kind of outsider-looking-in (I like “symbiotic”).

*I experimented with him saying “humans” but that came off much more sinister and lacked the whimsy and exasperation I was looking for. Reviewers overwhelmingly agreed that “mammals” was friendlier. One said that “humans rings with contempt. It sounds like a slur.” Another agreed that mammals was less threatening because it paralleled racism less. By using “mammals” instead of “humans,” Orange implicitly contrasts himself as a reptile rather than a dragon. “I don’t think he’s suggesting reptiles are categorically superior to mammals, but I think using ‘humans’ does suggest a categorical assertion about the superiority of his species [dragons].”

I’m only done with part 1 of this, but it’s pretty late here. I’ll complete this later.

No responses yet

Nov 27 2007

Black Superheroes and Writing Fiction About Racism

ABC did a story called Why Black Superheroes Succeed– and Fail. That’s interesting for whites writing black characters (or vice versa) or those wondering why some characters are popular and others aren’t.

I think black superheroes tend to fail because they get typecast as persecuted heroes. Even the article confuses two very separate ideas.

  1. The article’s first sentence: “Would Spider-Man be the box-office juggernaut he is today if he had been created as an African-American character?” All other things being equal, would a successful hero become unsuccessful if he is made black?
  2. The article’s second sentence: “What if Peter Parker had had to deal with the problems of being black in America in addition to adjusting to his powers when he was first introduced in 1962?” Would a successful hero become unsuccessful if white-on-black persecution were inserted into his plotline?

These two questions are very different! The second implicitly assumes that a black hero must face white-on-black persecution, which probably makes less sense now than it did in 1962. And, regardless of whether it is plausible that every black is persecuted by whites, persecution stories are usually depressing (particularly when the persecution is based on real-life events, rather than hating mutants or Muggles). Making the hero the victim of persecution changes the tone of the plot far more than just making him black.

Do black heroes have to be persecuted? I don’t think so. Most young people, especially, haven’t lived with the intense and highly visible racism of the 1960s, but the comics industry doesn’t seem to have caught on to that. Plot elements that were commonplace (or at least plausible) fifty years ago, like racial violence and particularly caustic racist remarks, often seem outlandishly cynical now.

If you do focus on racism, I recommend using elements of racism that are likelier to resonate with your readers circa now. People might step away in hallways and elevators or sit at different tables in cafeterias—I think that most readers would agree that’s how racism manifests right now more than, say, burning crosses and even racial slurs. More provocatively, someone might suggest that a minority has gotten where he is because of affirmative action or that affirmative action hires as a whole are less qualified than other employees. Bank guards might get antsy. Etc. (For some more manifestations of modern racism, please see the footnotes).

The point is that modern racism has become subconscious—I suspect that most racists genuinely believe that they aren’t— and that portraying racism as in-your-face, 1960s slurs will likely feel out of touch and preachy to your readers.

When I watched Crash, I laughed so hard when a car crash caused people to immediately start screaming slurs. Wouldn’t you, uhh, want to get their insurance information first? NO CUZ KKKALIFORNIA IZ RACIST. Crash wants to Make A Point and comes off as totally cartoonish.

Freedom Writers portrays a racially balkanized community much more plausibly.

If you feel the need to include intense racism in your work—something that will significantly affect the tone and marketability of your piece—Freedom Writers offers a pretty good model. It treats racism more seriously.

  1. FW is set in a school district with some really poor areas. Meeting basic, everyday needs is a struggle.
  2. Gangs and ghettos form as an attempt to form communities to meet those needs.
  3. Intense, Hobbesian struggles and racism arise as the communities clash.

FW suggests that racism arises from economics*. That offers FW’s world a sort of grim, perverse logic. FW’s world is deep—you see where the racism came from and why it is so damn hard to overcome. Readers understand economic motives and how much money matters, especially if you have very little. Readers won’t sympathize with race-based gangs, but they will appreciate that tolerance is a harder choice than they thought. That raises the stakes and makes the heroes larger-than-life.

In Crash, racism just sprouted from nowhere and persists despite economic concerns. Insulting someone rather than getting their insurance information is irrational. Furthermore, the story offers no explanation why the characters would think it’s rational. Why are characters intolerant? Because they’re emotional, maybe. That seems flimsy and unsatisfying. It also gives the story an arbitrary feel– the characters couldn’t overcome racism at the story’s start, so how are they able to at the end? It would feel much more logical if we knew why racism was a problem at the start.

Footnotes

*Although some sociologists do agree with Freedom Writers that racism is primarily rooted in economics, they’re in the minority. But that doesn’t matter– Freedom Writers feels coherent and plausible anyway.  99% of your audience has no idea what most sociologists think, so it’s the feeling that matters.

More modern racism

For the purposes of helping you write, I’ll broadly define racism as anything that might create discomfort or division along racial lines.

1) Affirmative action. I actually already mentioned this before, but I think it’s particularly useful because blacks and whites often strongly disagree not only about AA but about which statements/opinions about AA are socially acceptable. For example, in one class a white student discussing AA made the (not extremely controversial?) assertion that race influences faculty hiring decisions. This offended the black professor, who may have thought that the white was insinuating he was less qualified. The professor asked, “do you think I was hired because I’m black?” The white was taken aback by that point-black, personal question about what he probably perceived to be an impersonal, general statement. He said that he thinks that the professor’s being black was a factor.

As the author, you could paint this a few ways. Maybe the student is wrong to treat the issue impersonally, maybe the professor was being oversensitive, or that there’s just a gap in understanding between the white and the black that doesn’t suggest anything negative about either.

2) Whites saying “sup” to black peers. In terms of awkward hilarity, this is one of my favorites. Whites often feel pressured to act differently with blacks. You might chalk this up to insensitivity and/or oversensitivity. Saying “sup” probably isn’t sinister, but it may create tension because the black knows that the white is acting differently because he’s talking to a black. In a related example (one I can hopefully offer without making a political point), Hillary Clinton once adopted a painfully bad drawl when speaking before a black audience.

3) Subways, trains and buses. I’ve noticed that people (including nonwhites) strongly prefer to sit by people of the same race. Visual media, like comic books, have some fantastic opportunities for some grim humor by showing a black (or white?) sitting alone in a crowded bus like he has leprosy or something. However, I’ve never seen anyone change seats to specifically move away from someone of a different race.

4) The assumption that whites and blacks have substantially different skills, traits or tastes.

12 responses so far

Nov 24 2007

Getting into Notre Dame

 

This article builds on “Why Notre Dame? What’s it like?

 

This article will cover some ways for you to distinguish yourself (on the application and otherwise). It also features a way to make your college visit a substantial boost to your application by networking with faculty.

 

Getting into ND

 

In the personal statement and essays, it’s usually pretty obvious who wants to go to this university and who just selected it because it was in US News and World Report. That’s probably true to some extent for all universities, so I’d really recommend visiting at least a few of the schools at the top of your list so that you get a better feel for the campuses and cultures.

 

At Notre Dame, students often try to show that they know the campus by writing an essay that refers to the sense of community and football fever that permeate the campus. These essays frequently refer to Rudy, the quintessential Notre Dame football story. It’s really, really hard to write a Rudy essay that sticks out from all the rest.

 

I don’t know what your academic interests and future plans are. I certainly wouldn’t want you to write a dishonest essay/statement! But, if your plans might conceivably involve going to a Ph. D. program and eventually becoming a professor, then Notre Dame wants you bad. One of the ways universities compare themselves is how many of their students go on to get Ph. Ds and Notre Dame scores a woeful five percent. Even Northwestern, my most reviled adversary, trounces us.

 

A good essay usually features you and Notre Dame. You might write an essay saying that you want to become a professor someday (because of whyever that would make sense for you), so you want to go to Notre Dame because it’s the best place to make that happen.

 

Notre Dame is pushing hard to give students chances to explore their intellectual horizons. These are some of the opportunities available to ND students that you might find it useful to reference in an admissions essay to demonstrate that you’ve actually considered why ND makes sense for you.

Research/creative opportunities

  1. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program; it awards grants to undergrad students interested in working with a faculty member to conduct research or a creative endeavor together.

    1. For example, I got a UROP grant to write half of Superhero Nation with an English professor that helped me storyboard and edit. And I’m not an English major!

    2. Notre Dame has done a nice job of tailoring these to student interests rather than academic department politics.

  2. A political science undergrad co-authored one of my professor’s papers.

  3. A horde of political science students have banded together to create their own political research journal, Beyond Politics, to introduce political science research to a much broader campus community. (Good luck, guys!)

  4. Grad courses

    1. I’ve heard that it’s generally easy for undergrad upperclassmen to take grad courses in their major. I’m a political science major and I’ve found that it’s really easy to take PS grad courses.

    2. Grad courses are really effing hard.

    3. If you’re interested in grad school, I’d recommend taking at least one, so that you know what the workload will be like. They’re also hugely useful for your applications to grad school. The recommendation letters could also prove extremely useful.
  5. Notre Dame lets undergrads take directed readings with professors. That’s an interesting way to pursue a particular interest in a specific field with a professor/advisor.

So that all is one broad strategy—showing that you satisfy what the university wants (students that will go on to get Ph. Ds).

More Application Strategies

By the point in the application cycle you’re probably reading this, a lot of your application is essentially locked into place. You probably already have 4-6 semesters of high school grades and your SAT/ACT scores will probably not rise more than 50-100 points if you take it repeatedly. Your extracurricular achievements will probably not drastically improve—adding a lot of activities junior year usually looks flaky and it is virtually impossible to do anything in a year that would impress college admissions staffers.

 

So what can you do at this point to make your application stronger, besides rewriting your essays over and over?

 

Your single best option is a campus visit. It takes you 2-3 school days (or a weekend, but that won’t work as well) and the benefits can be enormous. (I know that many students can’t afford to invest a plane ticket in a prospective school, so I’ll offer some suggestions along the way about how you might be able to replicate many of the benefits of the campus visit with electronic legwork).

 

The conventional (less effective) approach to a campus visit

    1. Do the tour

    2. Visit the most prominent places on campus

    3. Visit the admissions office

    4. Speak with students

 

That isn’t bad, per se. It’s certainly better than staying at home. But doing the tour and knowing what the stadium looks like probably won’t improve your application much. (If you speak with admissions staffers, they will note that in your file. That suggests commitment, so it certainly won’t hurt).

 

But I’d feel pretty comfortable predicting that the following approach is likely to substantially increase a marginal student’s competitiveness in the applicant pool at Notre Dame.

 

Campus visits done right

Prepwork

  1. Two weeks in advance, get a course catalog or look online to see which courses will be open during the days you’ll be on campus. (This is one reason that weekend visits are not very productive).

  2. Email the professors of all the courses you’re interested in looking at. Something like “Dear Professor X, I’m a prospective Notre Dame student and I’ll be on campus on the 28th and I was wondering if it would be possible to sit in on your International Security course.”

    1. Some of the professors—probably at least half—will email you back and say that’s OK. Promptly email them back: thank them and ask if there are any recent, small assignments that the class has done. Say that you really, really want to get a feel for what the class is like.

    2. At least one professor will suggest something small like a 1-4 page paper. Look online for what office hours that professor (or professors) has. You will want to meet with him (them) personally during your visit, after attending their class. If they do not have office hours that work for you, try to schedule appointments.

    3. Do the paper(s). Don’t be pretentious and/or reach for a thesaurus. Treat the paper(s) like a high school assignment that is unusually important to your grade. Talking with an English mentor and someone who’s knowledgeable in the course content might be appropriate.

The Visit

  1. Forget the tour. Go to as many classes as you can. If there’s any way you feel you can contribute to class, like answering a general question from the teacher, do so. Understandably, you’re at a huge disadvantage because it’s your first time in the class.

  2. Turn in your paper(s).

  3. Speak with the paper professor(s) after class. Emphasize how much you enjoyed their class (try to mention at least one detail that reinforce how enthusiastic you are) and arrange to meet with them personally by the end of the visit during office hours.

  4. See them again in office hours or whenever you scheduled your appointment. Make The Pitch.

 

The Pitch

  1. Ask the professor(s) to write you a super-short letter of recommendation based on your participation in the class and the assignment you’ve written.

    1. “Hi, I’m Brady McKinerney. I’m an applicant to Notre Dame. I really enjoyed your History of Democracy course and I’d love to actually take one of your courses next year. I was wondering if you could write a short letter of recommendation for me.”

  2. PROFESSORIAL OBJECTION ONE: “I don’t really know you all that well.”

    1. “I understand completely. I know you’ve only had me in class for a day and only have one assignment from me. But I’d really appreciate if you’d be willing to offer even a qualified assessment of my academic ability—I think that would boost my chances of admissions a lot. I’d be really grateful.”

  3. PROFESSORIAL OBJECTION TWO: “I’m not sure I can fit it into my schedule.”

    1. “I certainly wouldn’t want to impose on you. The dedication for applications is in three weeks [or whatever], and I don’t anticipate that it would take more than half an hour of your time.”

    2. Remember to send him a hand-written thank-you card for agreeing to do the recommendation. That will also serve as a subtle reminder in case he had forgotten.

  4. PROFESSORIAL OBJECTION THREE: “I’ve never written this kind of recommendation before.”

    1. This is probably more of a matter of comfort than reluctance. He just isn’t used to this kind of recommendation. They’re very rare.

    2. Suggest that his recommendation mention how you two met and how you participated in his class, both by participating and with your paper. Even a mild statement like “his paper was pretty good” will mean a lot because it came from a professor who obviously knows what is expected of Notre Dame students.

    3. Normally, a high school teacher or advisor writes a letter of recommendation that’s about a page long—and you’ve known the teacher for at least a semester. If a ND professor is willing to write even five sentences about how eager you were to participate and how obviously passionate you are, that could be enormously effective. If you are academically competitive, at your best you can outperform the average Notre Dame student in a class he doesn’t care much about.

 

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Nov 21 2007

Where are the happy superheroes?

I recently wrote a scene where Agents Orange and Black discussed how the government might profile the alternate identities of superheroes. Black focused on relationship troubles and Orange goes for characteristics like being close to people that have been kidnapped more than once.

I think I missed two important characteristics: cheerfulness (specifically the lack of it) and extraordinary and seemingly inexplicable job performance.

Job Performance

No matter how “ordinary” superheroes pretend to be, they always end up having spectacularly successful alternate identities. They won’t just be a mild-mannered journalist, they’ll be a Pulitzer-quality mild-mannered journalist. Even freelance photographers, the homeless bums of the media world, will be so eminent that they publically tell their boss they want twice the money. Industrialists will invariably build world-shaping conglomerates. Let’s not even talk about super-scientists. (Well, actually, I will talk about them, in the chapters with Jacob Mallow and Dr. Berkeley).

If I were in charge of the OSI, I’d *definitely* have a watchlist of the 500-1000 most productive and influential members of American society, with a focus on top performers in the scientific, media, academic and business communities. We can rule out the political/governmental/judicial sphere, but definitely not pro bono civil rights attorneys looking to make the world a better place. That’s obviously too many people to run surveillance on, but it should seem highly suspicious if any of these individuals is involved in anything supercrime-related. Who misses one board meeting too many? Who has cranked out one Nobel-worthy advancement after another? Of course, that works for government-friendly scientists as well.. .

The OSI’s WWII-era predecessor did a comically bad job attempting to cover up the species of Dr. Joe “Slizard,” who showed that an atomic bomb was theoretically possible. Of course, in WWII keeping the identities (and species) of your scientists was critical because roughly a third of the nation’s lab assistants were fanatically hardened Nazi assassins. The real Slizard was saved on several occasions because a Nazi threw himself at a paid actor that played Slizard at public functions.

Cheerfulness, a lack of

Ever since the end of the Silver Age of comic books, most superheroes seem to have been pathologically unhappy. This unhappiness often stems from personal tragedy, government/social persecution, or the realization that you’re a tool who only get published to make shots at Vietnam veterans.

On the whole, superheroes often demonstrate a marked inability to cope with loss and trauma without becoming 1) totally withdrawn/asocial 2) pathologically violent 3) internally conflicted. It’s probably a good thing that American servicemen have proven much more resilient than Captain America; beating the Nazis and subsequent foes would have been quite tricky if everyone went to pieces as soon a friend died. NOOOOOO, BUCKY!

Speaking of post-traumatic stress disorder, Andrew Sullivan and Blackfive, the Paratrooper of Love, go at it over how best to help the traumatized deal with PSTD.

In terms of OSI target identification, I think that I’d place a special emphasis on people that are…

  1. Cynical– though many heroes try to hide it with quips, pretty much every superhero is cynical and/or grim
  2. Unable to find happiness in everyday affairs; perpetually depressed
  3. Noticeably asocial– have you seen the latest Batman movie?
  4. Short on intimate, deep relationships.

Spiderman is the crucial exception to most of these, but even he can get emo when Venom is involved. This rubs against Rule 27 of Comic Books: He who is the most well-adjusted is the most ass-kickarific, with the corollary “with great power comes great instability.”

But, generally, I think that a psychiatrist would have some success identifying potential targets of concern. Just another reason that the hero-in-hiding should stay away from the counseling services of the Bedlam Clinic.

Superhero Nation specifically

I don’t think that many of my characters are deeply unhappy except perhaps Jacob Mallow. I’m inclined to think that angst and superheroicness are mutually exclusive. And angsty supervillains are damn unsatisfying and lack the charisma to really move the audience and plotline. So even Paingod is pretty optimistic, in a villainously libertarian kind of way.

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Nov 18 2007

Don’t mess with the Marines on this one

A Marine typist vs. the Chicago Manual of Style:

MARINE:  About two spaces after a period.  As a U.S. Marine, i know that what’s right is right and you are wrong.  I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period.

CHICAGO MANUAL:  As a U.S. Marine, you’re probably an expert at something, but I’m afraid it’s not this. [sic]Status quo. [sic]

I think XHTML turns properly formatted periods (with two spaces after) into single-spaced periods.  That looks HIDEOUS, which is especially problematic for writers that upload large blocks of text, like novel chapters and lengthy reviews.  Whenever I edit a Word Press post, I have to go back and make sure that I’ve replaced the double-spaces so that it’s readable.

I think it’s pretty funny that we don’t put any spaces after periods in abbreviations.  Something like “he’s a U.  S.  M.  C.  drill instructor” would be painful.

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Nov 10 2007

Captain America LIVES!… unfortunately

CPT America will be featured in a Veteran’s Day comic sold at military base stores.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service asked Marvel’s VP for business development to include Captain America and he “agreed because no other character better symbolizes the heroism and patriotism of the American soldier,” the VP said.

That’s funny, kind of. I’d be kind of insulted… well, really insulted if someone said I were as patriotic as Captain Anti-America. Sadly, The Hood (a Marvel anti-hero that trafficks in drugs and blood diamonds and accidentally kills a cop) makes a far stronger case for being patriotic.  He gets extra points for a hilarious reference to Guiliani Time.  

In Marvel’s comics for servicemen, there’s a big two-page spread that puts America in a romantic pose in front of the American flag that wouldn’t have been ridiculous, say, decades ago, when Captain America actually supported the American military.

Captain America, the “Patriot”

Posing CPT America in front of an American flag is horribly two-faced.

  1. Well, he’s a traitor and/or rebel.  He couldn’t bring himself to be as enthusiastic about fighting terrorists and registering superheroes as the government and people expected, which is fair.  Retiring would have been entirely acceptable. Instead he took it upon himself to militarily prevent the government from doing so, which is quite solidly treasonous.
  2. Even before he rebelled in Civil War, his plotlines almost always featured the US government as a nefarious and sinister actor.  The details are blurry to me, but for example he beat the crap out of a sadistic and villainous Navy captain.
  3. He’s never been very enthusiastic about either fighting terrorists or, frankly, America.  National Review argues that CPT America’s New Deal comics show that he is a terrorist sympathizer.  I wouldn’t go that far, but his recurring criticisms of the Dresden firebombing are pretty unrealistically severe for a WWII veteran.  Real soldiers–particularly ones that fought the Nazis, I’d imagine– aren’t that squeamish.  My impression is that servicemen overwhelmingly believe that the WWII bombing raids were justified on the basis of shortening the war and reducing casualties on both sides.  It seems a lot like Marvel’s writers have a certain set of views and they use CPT America as a mouthpiece to voice them, no matter how wildly implausible it would be for a WWII-era soldier to have them.  It would probably be more appropriate, I think, to have a younger America replacement make the revisionist case that the Dresden bombing is wrong;  I think that having the original America justify the bombing is probably truer to the source material, at least Captain America circa 1945. 
  4. There is a major disconnect between the civic values of America’s servicemen and Captain America. America doesn’t seem to mind very much attacking Americans whenever he thinks it’s his duty to do so, which is unsettlingly often.  

Perhaps I should rest assured that “AMERICA SUPPORTS YOU”!  The comics are selling well, I guess, so maybe I’m looking at this too cynically.  I wonder who would admit to buying a comic book on a military base ;-).  I’ll have to ask around at Parris Island this summer.   

On the other hand, Spiderman is pretty kickass.  I’d be OK with his support any time.  Even Wolverine and the Fantastic Four seem to know how it is. 

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Nov 09 2007

Only a Bumbling Person Can Stop a Supervillain

A supervillain is easily identifiable because power is sexy.  That’s why we always get the best women (no one really wants to date a mild-mannered reporter or an inept freelance-photographer).  But superheroes are also easy to identify if you know what to look for: the bumbling factor.  The more bumbling someone is, the more superpowers he’s waiting to unleash. For example, the last time my henchmen attempted to break into a presidential convention, they got absolutely shellacked by Tucker Carlson. If you have ever wondered whether someone that looks that bumbling could only get on TV because he was really a superhero, you’re not alone.

Tucker Carlson, Superhero

There’s really no way to know how many of my plots have been spoiled by Carlson and Alan Colmes, but I’d feel pretty confident saying that they’re the main barrier between me and global domination.

Hannity/Colmes

I’d give you two guesses whether it’s Hannity or Colmes that’s the bane of supercriminals everywhere. Remember, people that look bumbling are dangerous. And anyone that looks as bumbling as Colmes can strangle your best assassins with his mind.  Interestingly, Sean Hannity is also a superhero, but any supervillain that fears a conservative diversity hero should reconsider his line of work.

Way to keep a secret identity, dumbass

Unsurprisingly, the talk radio guy doesn’t know how important it is to keep his appearance secret.

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Oct 25 2007

Book Review, Empire of Ivory

This article will review Empire of Ivory (the fourth book of the Temeraire series) and focus on what beginning novelists should take away from it to improve their own skill.

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Oct 24 2007

Pun Explanations

Hello.  A few of my readers asked me about the chapter titles.  Did I mean ____ as a pun on ____? The answer is probably yes.  I’ll go through a few…

Gotta Kill ‘Em All! is a dark play on Pokemon’s slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.”  The popular children’s cartoon series, Hegemon, plays a prominent role in this chapter.  A related pun…  in politics, a hegemon is a completely dominant nation.  Since the end of the Cold War, “the hegemon” has always referred to the United States.  After all, what story about superheroes could be complete without a superpower?

How Many F’s are there in Katastrofy? (Win a Pulitzer in 20 Minutes a Day!) is a play on the latest Superman movie, where a supposedly Pulitzer-calibre journalist (Lois Lane) wonders how many F’s are in “catastrophe.”  Katastrophy is the name of the Hegemon that’s clearly based on Mewtwo (he’s in the header).  For reasons that I will hopefully be able to reveal by the end of 2007, the real-world incarnation of said character decides to go by “Catastrophe” because you’d have to be a complete idiot to spell it “Katastrofy.”

National Catastrophe is a phrase.  In a book that already has a character named Catastrophe and Nation in the title, how could I resist?

Dr.  Berkeley’s name is actually a reference to George Berkeley, an 18th century philosopher who claimed that anything we perceive is necessarily real.  (Mirages and The Matrix are both perceivable things that probably aren’t real).  The more obvious Berkeley association features a certain university in California, but that wasn’t my main objective.

What Do We Do About Berkeley? This time the reference actually IS to the university.  Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA) had been advised by his gubernatorial staff not to hit on the counterculture of UC-Berkeley.  Reagan responded: “Look, I don’t care if I’m [campaigning] in the mountains, the desert, the biggest cities of this state, the first question [I get is]: ‘What are you going to do about Berkeley?’ And each time the question itself would get applause.”  I amended the phrase to “What do we do…”  rather than “What are you going to do…”  because the title is already a bit long.

Forget Who’s Watching the Watch-Man…  Don’t Leave Yourself Alone with Him is a play on the phrase “but who watches the watchman,” and of course the comic book series The Watchmen, but most prominently Syler from Heroes.  You definitely wouldn’t want to find yourself alone with THAT watch-man.

The Empire State Strikes Back is an obvious play on Star Wars…  not too tricky.

Gods and Supermen at Yale is a reference to God and Man at Yale, conservative William Buckley’s seminal work on the relationship between faith and scholarship.  In the context of Superhero Nation, the “Gods” are researchers…  well, I shouldn’t spoil a chapter I haven’t written, right?

The Crisis of Infinite OSIs is a play on DC Comic’s seminal series, The Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Really, really devoted students of US government might know there is a separate Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Air Force, and the legislative Government Accountability Office.

It Takes a Child to Raze a Village  the original is liberal Hillary Clinton’s quote, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  I can’t say any more without hopelessly spoiling the chapter.  Suffice it to say that I hope you won’t miss Greenwich.  (Heh.  A red herring, I assure you).

The First Draft of History is a reference to the quote that “journalism is the first draft of history.” 

Hegemonic Instability Theory.  Maybe you’ve heard of “hegemonic stability theory,” the theory that particularly strong nations contribute to world peace.  Well, mental instability appears to be more relevant to the plot (and creation) of this novel, so I thought that was more appropriate.   It’s also a play on the Hegemon angle, if you’ve been paying attention.   (Additionally, Orson Scott Card wrote a book called “Shadow of the Hegemon,” which  I might turn into something like “Shadowing the Hegemon”)

The Last Oorah.  Oorah” is a Marine concept…  hell, a way of life! Its origin probably derives from “heard, understood and acknowledged” (HUA), a general expression of enthusiasm (ahem…  anything and everything but no“).  At one point, I had the chapter called The Last Huah because I wasn’t sure whether the character that dies is a Marine or an [Army] soldier.

The pun is that there’s a novel called The Last Hurrah, which is also a stage in Star Fox 64.  (Wow, I am such a nerd).

A few of the chapters (Agents of Change, Agents of Destruction, etc.) play on the double meaning of “agent” as a federal employee (IRS agent, OSI agent) and a causative factor.  The Free Agent plays on a sports-term for someone who currently has no employer.

Yep, that’s most of it.  I should add– well, it should be obvious that– a title that has to be explained is probably not working.  So hopefully titles like A Free Agent or What Are We Going to do about Berkeley? work even if the reader isn’t familiar with the inside joke.  If they don’t, then the author has needlessly alienated a lot of his readers.  I think the titles would be effective even if the reader didn’t know.

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Aug 31 2007

The Iraq-Comic Book Connection, Part Two

Published by under Art,Comedy,Commentary,News

The Washington Post described a meeting between two Congressmen, Jim Moran (D-Va.) and John Porter (R-Nev.), and the Iraqi national security advisor.

the three were trying to discuss the state of Iraqi security forces with [the NSA], but the large, flat-panel television set facing the official proved to be a distraction. [The NSA] was watching children’s cartoons.

When Moran asked him to turn it off, [he] protested with a laugh and said, “But this is my favorite television show,” Moran recalled.

Porter confirmed the incident, although he tried to paint the scene in the best light, noting that at least they had electricity.

It would be easy to criticize the NSA for prioritizing cartoons over two Congressmen. All things considered, it was probably a shrewd assessment. At least cartoons end.

That must be horribly awkward for both Congressmen. The Democrat has to act multilateral with an ally that obviously isn’t interested; the Republican has to make it look like supporting Maliki’s government advances US interests.

To commemorate this fine moment of US-Iraqi relations, I’ve slapped something together.

Showing US Taxpayers Who’s Boss

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