Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fifty Shades of Grayskull


The original image for "The Grayskull Library"

Nineteen-ninety six to nineteen ninety-nine was a magical time for me. Never in my life did so many people show interest in my fiction. Over one hundred thousand people visited my site, The Grayskull Library, and I was hooked on praise like an addict on heroin. At one point, the fan community was asked to list their favorite stories, and mine took the top three spots, winning 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. This only confirmed what I had believed since the third grade, that I was destined to be an author. But I was a young and idealistic student attending the University of South Florida, pursuing a BA in English and an MA in History, and did not have to worry about restaurants or mortgages or raising children. As far as I knew, my future was golden, and in a few years time my novels would surely be selling all over the country. 

Of course, my first site, Nick's Story Page, did not go over well. It featured original content, including my first novel, The Nomad, but I was still new to the Internet and had yet to realize that nobody would ever find my book unless they already knew about it. This led me into the world of fan-fiction, through which I could connect to readers with similar interests. But for aspiring writers like myself, fan-fiction is a double edged sword. You don't have to come up with your own concept or setting, or even worry about readers liking your characters, but it's a lot like plagiarism, a major sin in the literary world. Of course, it wasn't like I didn't have my own ideas. Even as a child, I preferred my own imaginary sandbox. He-Man was strictly for playing "episodes" with my toys. When it came time for pen and paper, my own Red Panther and Dynotus were the protagonists. Given the dynamics of the Internet, however, I had no choice but to fall into fan-fiction, and even then I often strayed far from canon into new territory, to the point that fans sometimes criticized me for writing what was, to them, thinly veiled original content. 

But for someone studying fiction at the collegiate level, my childhood inspiration, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was flat and 2-dimensional. Anyone familiar with the cartoon will tell you that He-Man's motivation never extended beyond saving the day. He did not know love or regret and he certainly did not think of sex. From the very beginning, my goal with my fan-fiction was to bring my heroes into the real world, to turn them into 3-dimensional beings with all of the emotional nuance and psychological baggage that makes for relatable characters.

The second thing I discovered about the Internet was an interest in erotica, which seemed more prevalent at the time, given that pornographic content was difficult to come by without a credit card. Sex was also more taboo than it is today, so it was common for people to seek out Superman/Wonder Woman "action" unavailable at your local comic shop. But just like fan-fiction, writing erotica came with a stigma. While discovering that fan-fic + erotica was a recipe to garner readers, it was also a way to make enemies. For every ten letters praising my work, there was at least one piece of hate mail. To save my reputation, I went by a pseudonym, and for some inexplicable reason, chose the name of my childhood crush, Jennifer Thomas. It didn't matter one bit that my fan-fiction was not attributed to me, since the stories were not entirely original, and could never be published anyway. 

I eventually found that writing erotica, with a focus on sex, was dull. And so I turned my attention to exploring other mature themes, like rape and death and parenting. In a way, I was still practicing, still learning how to write. In time, my He-Man fiction turned into a series of interrelated plot lines that became The Jennifer Thomas Canon, and it was three stories from this canon that won the fiction poll. By 1999, I figured I had enough fans to start my second original novel, The Dark Age of Enya. I planned to advertise it on my website, The Grayskull Library, and other He-Man related sites. Unfortunately, my pseudonym became known, and my prudish enemies found an even bigger ax to grind. I was not only a pornographer, they argued, but I liar. My reputation went down the tubes and nobody from the MOTU community showed any interest in my novel except for one person, David Pasco, who remains a great friend to this day. Afterward, I attended regular fiction forums, where nobody had any problem with erotica, though they did have a problem with fan-fiction, which became a badge of disgrace nearly impossible to live down. It did not matter to the forum trolls that I had shelves of original work and that even my fan-fic was much less "fan" than "fic". 

Time, of course, has a wonderful way of changing perspectives. People are much more open expressing sexuality, and fan-fiction has lost much of its stigma, owing to the fact that many great writers started out the way I did. Most notable is E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey, which not only borders on pornography, but started out as Twilight fan-fiction. Publishers finally figured out what I had decades before, fandom + sex = readers. Maybe if I'd bothered to change the names in my Jennifer Thomas canon, I'd be a millionaire today.

After almost two decades and three original books, I finally feel the disgrace of my literary past wearing off. If there is anything truly embarrassing about The Jennifer Thomas Canon today, it's the quality of the writing itself, because I still had much to learn at the time.

She-Ra related erotica doesn't seem so strange anymore. 

If you're interested in my work from twenty years ago, you can find links to the stories below (as I post them), all dated to the time they were written, except for The Amazon (sorry), which I admit to being too terrible to for anyone to ever see! Check back often as fiction is added! 



The Masters of the Universe
Jennifer Thomas Canon

  1. Jitsu’s Revenge
  2. FROSTA
  3. The Krelm
  4. VOODOO
  5. POISONED
  6. RAIN
  7. Quest for the Golden Apples
  8. Lady Death Vs. She-Ra
  9. DECADENCE
  10. The Return of Shokoti
  11. Prince Regan

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lost in the Maze


Before I write this review, I would like to offer my apologies to Mr. James Dashner. You see, I hate to criticize authors. I do not review books to make myself seem more knowledgeable, or my work more favorable, but rather, to explore fiction, why it works and why it doesn't, to have open discussion regarding literature in general. I know what bad press feels like. A scathing review of The Dark Age of Enya nearly drove me to suicide, which is why I normally don't review books other than to praise them. Unfortunately, I painted myself into a corner a few weeks back when I said I would be reviewing The Maze Runner as part of a reading experiment. I suppose I could delete my earlier post and hope nobody notices, but The Maze Runner has sold 3 million copies and recently been turned into a movie, so nothing I say should have any effect on Mr. Dashner's career or the success of his books. I strongly believe that any reviews, mine included, are entirely subjective, and as I am certain that Mr. Dashner is a fine human being, sincerely wish him well in all his endeavors.

OK, with that out of the way, I have to admit that The Maze Runner suffers from many, many problems, things so glaringly obvious, it hurts my brain to think how an editor or publisher managed to miss them. I am talking plot holes to sail the Titanic through. But I am getting ahead of myself here. First, let me address the premise, which had me fascinated and wanting to read this book. A number of boys, called Gladers, are trapped in a giant maze filled with monsters. That's pretty much all you need to know. Simple, to be sure, but sometimes the simplest stories are the best. The book starts off when the hero, Thomas, arrives in the maze via trap door/elevator. Like every other boy, he has no recollection as to who he is, a mystery the book never explains (among others). For two years, these boys have been living in a camp in the center of the maze, without knowing why. The term "runner" refers to the select few chosen to explore and solve this puzzle, which is far more difficult than it at first seems, since the walls change every night, changing the pattern. Runners also have to avoid greavers, ridiculous looking monsters which can best be described as Super Mario Bros. rejects. At sundown, immense doors seal the maze off, the area where the boys live from the outer segments, protecting them from the greavers.

I mean, really, what the hell is that supposed to be?


Now, the first thing to cross my mind when I picked up this book (which has a great movie based cover, btw) was why you could not simply climb the walls. After all, the walls are perfectly vertical and covered in thick vines ideal for climbing, and from the top, the heroes are sure to find an exit, right? Right? Well, halfway through the book, Thomas asks this very question, to which Minho, the top runner, angrily replies, "Don't you think we haven't tried that?" Do giant blades come out to kill anyone who reaches the top? Or lasers? Or something? No explanation is given. This is especially frustrating, since at one point Thomas manages to climb the vines with relative ease, so why the author never bothers to explore this further is beyond me. What's more, the greavers can also climb the walls, except for some reason the doors, which have no tops, offer the Gladers complete protection. Another glaring plot hole: greavers roam the maze day and night, only they are more frequent after sundown. Why they never manage to stroll into camp during the day, when the doors are open, is never explained, nor do any of the characters seem bothered by the possibility, despite living in a constant state of terror.

Of course, if the story is interesting and told well, and if the characters are engaging, plot holes can be overlooked. Unfortunately, everyone in this book is a cardboard cutout from every young adult novel ever written. I cannot think of a single personality trait to define these people. Do they like to sing? Dance? Is one of them gay? They are identifiable only by the role they play in the story; so Alby is the stern leader and Newt his second in command; then there's Minho who is the fastest runner; and the bully who everyone is supposed to hate; and the little boy we are supposed to worry about because he is the youngest; and the girl we care about because she is the only girl, and so on. There is also very little by way of inventiveness. I have argued that a story is only as good as its ideas, so while Harry Potter delights us with magic mirrors and talking portraits and quidditch matches; and The Hobbit surprises us with trolls that turn to stone and maps invisible but by moonlight; with The Maze Runner, you get nothing but what is established in the first few chapters. It's cliche, predictable and unimaginative. At the very least, we could hope for some quality prose, but while you might find the occasional clever metaphor, the writing is mostly dry exposition, without an ounce of subtlety. The author also bludgeons you with melodrama, so there doesn't seem to be a page where Thomas isn't seized with terror or seething with rage or collapsing into a puddle of his own tears. Just look at how he reacts when he gets an idea:


He froze, hit by a dizzy spell; he would've fallen to the floor if he hadn't had the shelves to lead on. An idea had just occurred to him. A horrible, terrible, awful idea. The worst idea in the history of horrible, terrible, awful ideas.

p. 291


Now, unless this paragraph refers to Medea, and the idea is to murder her own children, whatever Thomas is thinking is far from history's, or literature's, most horrible, terrible, awful idea. The result of so many over the top reactions is to basically numb the reader, so that when, in the book's finale, something truly awful does happen to Thomas, you end up feeling nothing for him. Then again, who am I to criticize an author with a legion of fans, 3 million copies sold, and a movie to his credit? 

 

PS: As for my reading experiment, where I attempted to read a book in a day, I ran into a number of problems. The project was interrupted a few times, and I ended up at page 240 of 375. What I learned, at least from this book, was that the accelerated rate did not enhance my enjoyment of the story. However, I found that I was more inclined to finish the novel afterward, which leads me to propose this theory: If you read a book over the course of weeks or months, you are more likely to quit. This makes sense, if you consider how often people will sit through a movie they hate, while hanging up a book they enjoy.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why Roger Ebert Needs to Play "The Last of Us"


This isn't Pacman, Roger.
I do not typically review games. The last time I did, with Mass Effect 3, I was attacked by a gang of hater nerds, and it took me a good few months to get rid of them. I review books, on the other hand, because I have insight into authors' mental processes, understanding what choices were made and why, and how things might have been improvedThough I've played through hundreds of games, I have no real expertise in the matter. But books themselves, binding and paper, have no innate value, only what they can convey. Books are more likely to contain superior story telling in that a blank page offers the greatest freedom from constraint (all games, by definition, necessitate a goal, something for the player to do). However, I am just as passionate in defending a story telling medium from the literary snobs who thumb their noses at comics and movies. I adore Shakespeare and Steinbeck, but feel no less love for Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Recently, Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad proved that the very best fiction can sometimes be found on TV. Still in its infancy is the video game. As the newest medium to tackle this age old form of expression, it has yet to prove itself to the high brow community. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert has gone so far as to state that video games are not art and will never be art. Now there are many amazing examples that contrast this view, but perhaps the most compelling, to date, is The Last of Us. If I could tie Mr. Ebert to a chair and force him to play one game, this would be it. Whatever emotional impact one hopes to attain from a great work of art, whatever inspiration or perspective, it all can be found in this game. Without hesitation, I will say that The Last of Us earns its place on the same mantle as Citizen Kane (sorry, Roger) and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. So while the focus of my blog is not games, every now and then two of my passions will collide, and the very best story will come out of a game.

The Last of Us rises above its roots because of Neil Druckmann, who penned the story, and the actors providing the voice talent (yes, I said actors). For anyone who's TV and computer have been in the shop this past decade, The Last of Us takes place in an apocalyptic future overrun by zombies. Now I'll be the first to admit to zombie fatigue. After so many Resident Evil titles, the abysmal World War Z and starting-to-put-me-to-sleep Walking Dead, I could go the rest of my life without another zombie reference. But the undead only sets the stage for the characters and the struggles they overcome, and I found myself rushing to the conclusion not to see how many zombies I could kill, but, as with any good book, to learn what would happen to the characters I love. The game could just as well have been set during a nuclear holocaust, as it is partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, with only minor changes.

Ashley Johnson plays Ellie, a young girl who somehow becomes immune to the zombie virus, and Troy Baker voices Joel, a father who loses his only child earlier in the game. Both actors play their roles with subtle pathos and subtext. You can truly hear the fatigue in Joel's voice, the horrors and loss he must have endured. He's no hero, nor is he an anti-hero, but rather, a genuine and complex human being. As for Ellie, she walks a fine line between innocent child and someone who has lost and must lose their innocence to survive. Last of Us tackles some of the deepest subjects in fiction, exploring how humanity is transformed after tragedy on both a societal and personal level, and it does so with intelligence and compassion. Often, the smallest details will stir the heart, like the crayon drawings in an abandoned, makeshift preschool in an underground bunker; or the herd of giraffes roaming a college campus, offering Ellie a temporary reprieve of childhood wonder. Unlike most games in the end-of-the-world genre, The Last of Us is not about death and destruction, but how we deal with those things on an emotional level. It's not about heroics, but sacrifices. It's not about overcoming the enemy, but finding the courage to love someone in a world where the people you love are too easily taken away. Finally, The Last of Us throws us an ethical curveball in its climax, something that pushes us to think and to ask the really tough questions about life, and isn't that what great art is all about?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sex, Marriage, and Morality


I was married in Morocco, so my wife's hand looked like this
For decades, I have passionately argued that nudism does not = sex, and clubs like AANR (the American Association for Nude Recreation) have supported this philosophy, giving their stamp of approval only to those resorts that cater to a family atmosphere. Unfortunately, the promise of sex is a much better marketing tool, so places I once loved, like Caliente and Paradise Lakes, now openly promote a free sexual lifestyle. Other resorts, like Hedonism in Jamaica, were built specifically with sex in mind. This is a real sign of the times, when sex has become less of a taboo than simple nudity, and groups like AANR, comprising mostly of people with one foot in the grave, remain set in their antiquated anti-sex, pro-nudity ways. But changes in resort policy has had a harmful effect on traditional nudism. Parents with children feel less inclined to vacation at such places. While there may be just as much sex at Disney World, you don't see Mickey Mouse in skimpy lingerie advertising itself as a retreat for daring couples. But a growing and vocal number of young nudists are embracing the change, believing that part of nudist philosophy is accepting all behavior between consenting adults. My attitude is this: for nudism to remain innocent, something for families and children to enjoy, there can be no stance on sexual mores one way or the other. Surprisingly, nudists come from all walks of life. There are Christian nudists, atheist nudists, and everything in-between. Some resorts feature chapels and Sunday sermons. If we are to remain inclusive, our position on sexual mores needs to be mum. While swingers may feel free to "swing" in the privacy of their hotel rooms, they should feel no greater inclination to do so at a nudist resort. If swingers can be permitted into the movies, they should be permitted into Paradise Lakes. It only becomes a problem when the movie theater starts to advertise pornography and parents go elsewhere to watch Frozen. 


A typical add for Caliente "naturist" destination.

But this begs the question: Why should parents care what goes on at a nudist resort? If the proverbial movie theater is playing Debbie Does Dallas down the hall, why should it matter, if the kids don't see it? It's not as if swingers invite the kids into the act. This is where I bring up a controversial, and for some, offensive word: morality. Lately, when people bring up morals, what follows is a litany of hate directed at homosexuals. Historically, people have acted atrociously in the name of morality, castrating and murdering gays and lesbians, and stoning adulterers. But as a concept, morality is not to blame, no more than science can be blamed for killing people with bombs. Some people think that all we need is ethics, which can be argued from an objective position, but whether you grew up in a religious household or not, we all abide by the morals set by our society. Even the most sexually "progressive" person has boundaries. Most swingers do not advocate prostitution, or if they do, draw the line at public orgies, or if they are accepting of that, draw the line at children having sex. Incidentally, there are a number of psychologists who find that children can engage in consensual sexual activity (with each other) without harm. In the dystopian novel A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicts a future where sex between children is common. Shocking? Perhaps. Immoral? Maybe. Point is, the way we feel about children and sex is no different than the way people once felt, and still feel, about masturbation and homosexuality.

Is this love?

Now this is not to make a slippery slope argument, but to show that morality is always in flux, as it is determined by outside sources. For instance, the Prophet Mohammed said that it was better for a man to take four wives than for a woman to enter into prostitution (a common practice for unwed women at the time). In small African villages, where males greatly outnumber females, polyandry, or one woman marrying multiple husbands, is the norm. What is interesting about marriage is that, contrary to popular belief, it is the most successful social construct in history. There is no place on Earth where some form of marriage does not exist. While Free Love societies have been tried numerous times, often in the sixties, they never last, because human beings are inherently jealous and territorial. There are always rules as to who gets to fuck whom.

But marriage is not a part of our DNA. There is no commitment gene. In fact, humans are naturally promiscuous. We have evolved to seek multiple partners to better spread our seed, which was beneficial thousands of years ago, when infant mortality was high and the average lifespan hovered around thirty. King Solomon's thousand wives can be largely attributed to this fact. Like morality, marriage is always being redefined, based on the needs of the society. Most recently, U.S. courts broadened the definition to include interracial couples and same sex couples, because denying rights to people was deemed unethical.

Before continuing, allow me to clarify a few things which has some people confused. I do not intend to equate the word immoral with unethical. While often used synonymously, they can have different meanings. According to Wikipedia:

  • In its descriptive sense, "morality" refers to personal or cultural valuescodes of conduct or social mores. It does not connote objective claims of right or wrong, but only refers to that which is considered right or wrong. Descriptive ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.
  • In its normative sense, "morality" refers to whatever (if anything) is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values or mores held by any particular peoples or cultures. Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.

When I refer to morality in this article, it is not in the latter, objective sense. I do not equate swinging, for instance, with murder or rape. Rather, I am referring to the term in the relative sense, based on the cultural values within a (in this case our) society. 

As a social construct, marriage is determined by morality. It includes cherishing, loving, and respecting my partner (this was not always the case, as in ancient times, wives were more property than companions). But for the past century, commitment to a single partner has also been a fundamental part of marriage, and this is what makes modern unions so remarkable. When it comes to human desire, lust is second only to hunger, and people will risk prison time (in cases of rape) and the dissolution of their families (for infidelity) to satisfy it. The fact that our society elected to forgo this most primal instinct, in favor of greater emotional and spiritual aspirations, is a testament to our species. Throughout the ages, chastity was synonymous with being "true" and "virtuous". While the Ancient Greeks and Romans venerated Aphrodite, goddess of love, whose priestesses engaged in orgies; it was the virgin goddess, Athena, whom the Greeks most revered, and named their capital city after. In Christian times, Athena morphed into the holiest of holy women, the Virgin Mary. During the medieval age, chivalry forbade knights from fornication, which is why Sir Lancelot du Lac, in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, remained undefeated in battle, until having drunken sex in a tavern. He was then defeated by his virgin son, Sir Galahad, who found the Holy Grail and ascended to Heaven.

Personally, I can think of no greater proof of love than to remain committed to the same woman for life. But marriage doesn't always work out the way it should. Fifty-percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the reasons are many, but a lot of it has to do with sex. Swingers argue that resisting our most basic desires is unrealistic and unnatural, even harmful. In my father's time, it was common for a man to cheat on his spouse, and for the woman to knowingly "look the other way". But for the wife to do likewise, would be to risk violence, and even death. This is an outdated, sexist system, and I will admit that swinging is preferable to infidelity in that it is, at the very least, honest.

Perhaps someday, society's mores will shift, and swinging will become the status-quo. But monogamy remains the most successful of social constructs. Ultimately, people will say it is nobody's business what people do behind closed doors, and I agree. Condemning others is anything but moral. But we should not trade one freedom for another. We must not censure the right to set moral boundaries for ourselves in favor of sexual freedoms for others. My right to define marriage as a moral construct does not infringe upon those who think and act differently. I believe in monogamy, with all its traditional and religious implications---that true love can only exist between two people--- and belief makes marriage what it is.

Call me a sap, but this, to me, is love.



     


Monday, September 29, 2014

Reading Challenge: 1 Day, 1 Book


I put this here because . . . why not?
One of my many challenges, as a striving author, is figuring out what people read and why. Why is Game of Thrones so popular, for instance? Is it mainly due to the TV show? No doubt, cross promotions boost sales, but HBO would not have spent millions bringing the book to life without an established fan base. But in this current ADHD era, A Song of Ice and Fire, a 6+ book series of up to 900 pages each, defies convention. YouTube, PS4 and the Walking Dead offer instant gratification, while the oldest entertainment medium on Earth (besides oration) can be excessively time consuming. For this reason, I often wonder how time affects story. For example, I forget names and plot points after weeks of reading. But I have also found time to be a benefit, since spending more of your life with a character develops familiarity and attachment. This is why people often say the book was better, since even the most faithful adaptations deal with time constraints. If you've never read a Harry Potter book, you may not form an emotional connection after only knowing him two hours in the theater.

This got me to thinking how people perceive novels based on how quickly or slowly they read. I've watched my daughter struggle for months to get through a book, and when she's done, she usually feels apathetic toward it. Unless the story really grips me, which is rare, I take a leisurely pace, but in college I could knock out a French author in a weekend. Did the accelerated pace alter my perception? Is my love for the classics based on deadlines? To answer this question, I will attempt to read a novel in a single day; I know that I can technically do this, but skimming through a book for relevant information defeats the purpose of story telling, which is why I hate and have never used Cliff's Notes. A story needs to be felt as much as understood, and feeling takes time.

For this little experiment, I have chosen The Maze Runner by James Dashner, due to it's average length for Sci-Fi/Fantasy (374 pages), and because it has been recently made into a movie.

The questions I will then attempt to answer are:

1) Can I comfortably read 374 pages in a single day? This might end up a fiasco, if I only get halfway through it . . .

2) Will the accelerated reading rate hinder or enhance my enjoyment of the story?

3) Will the accelerated reading rate reflect more positively or negatively on the film? In other words, if I spend the same amount of time (1 day) on both the book and the film, will my emotional investment equal out?

By answering these questions, I hope to get a deeper understanding into how people read and why they enjoy certain forms of fiction. I will then post my results along with my review of The Maze Runner.