Was That The Revolution?

We’re approaching a significant finish line for our nation, by which I mean Joe Biden’s anticipated inauguration on January 20, without having gone through an obvious revolution. There’s still time, however. Who can say for certain if such an upheaval is more likely to come from the left or the right? The country is so polarized that either seemed possible. Some of Donald Trump’s most deluded followers, believing to the last that their dear leader was somehow cheated out of electoral victory,  have vowed that Biden and Kamala Harris will never take office. How this will be prevented isn’t spelled out. On the other hand, if Trump somehow succeeds in one of his outlandish schemes to subvert the will of the voters, the clear majority that voted for his opponent can’t be expected to take that lying down.

The American election of 2020 should have been declared over and done with several times already. In any case, it was officially over once the electoral college voted emphatically on December 14 to uphold the will of the majority. It would be nice to be able to take a breath, but Trump keeps coming up with all kinds of fantasy ploys, up to and including a military takeover. The creativity of his imagination isn’t exactly a surprise, since he’s never been all that tethered to reality. He might make a good novelist, if only he were more literate. The real problem is that far too many lawmakers who surely know better have avoided shutting down his absurd ideas. Worse, an appalling percentage of citizens would be perfectly okay with Trump effectively declaring himself dictator. With stupidity in this country more rampant than Covid, such an outcome isn’t as implausible as it should be.

So we can’t rule out the possibility that some stranger-than-fiction Civil War 2.0 still looms on our horizon. Our current president, utterly ignorant of history and still clueless about how government works after four years at the head of that government, craves a banana republic. He hopes his followers will fight for such a republic, where he could remain in office for life. Of course, he would decline to involve himself directly in such a fight, citing those same pesky bone spurs that kept him out of military service during the Vietnam era. For that matter, why can’t such a glorious commander simply order the virus, which has so bedeviled his administration, to magically disappear, as he once promised it would? Unfortunately for him, both the rule of law and of nature have been stubborn so far.

I had a mild concern, before the election, that my novel in progress, tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, might be overtaken by events. Admittedly, that’s a small concern compared to the possible demise of the republic. The story features a president with dictatorial ambitions, although much smarter than Donald Trump and much more knowledgeable about how the system actually works. I seem to be exploring what might happen if the next dictator wannabe has similar ambitions to overthrow democracy, but is actually intelligent enough to make a case that isn’t totally absurd. Such a chief executive, by looking and acting somewhat normal, might be able to win over people who aren’t sniveling cowards or downright stupid. That would have to be someone who hasn’t spent his or her entire tenure in office spouting incredible whoppers that shouldn’t fool a reasonably bright child.

If there is no revolution this time, it might be owing to Trump’s general incompetence and limitations. He actually doesn’t care about the politics of it, but only about himself and his brand. The job itself never interested him, except for its money-making potential. The next coup that aims not only to enrich one man and his family, but to change democratic institutions permanently, might succeed. Then it will be time for a people’s revolution.

I’m beginning to realize, as my novel winds toward its conclusion, that it foresees a time when the rule of law actually implodes, and the U.S. Constitution is effectively shredded. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be happening right at this moment. No doubt there will be more desperate gambits, all the way up to inauguration day, but so far there have been enough people of integrity to hold the line. Part of me wants to see the wannabe dictator removed forcibly, thereby suffering a taste of the violence that he has absolutely no problem trying to visit on others. But the better part of me wants to see the rule of law continue to prevail. A peaceful counter-revolution like that beats a violent revolution every time.

Writing Desperately

I became a devotee of Sylvia Plath during my college years. I originally identified with the troubled young Esther, also a college student and the heroine of The Bell Jar, Plath’s autobiographical novel. A couple of years after devouring that story, I wrote my senior thesis on Plath’s poetry. Now, after all these years, having read both volumes of her letters, her journals, and several biographies, I’ve learned many additional details of her life. My admiration has only grown, since I can see more clearly the numerous obstacles she overcame in order to pursue her art … financial, physical, psychological, marital.

My mother used to object to my interest in Plath, which persisted well after college. I suppose idolizing a suicidal writer is something that would naturally raise some parental concern. But that worry was misplaced, because I also felt a need not to identify with Plath too much. That was true even when I was trying to write poems modeled on hers. I could never summon the degree of rage she instilled in her work, not to mention the skill.

The main difference between us (other than Plath’s superior talents and fame) is that writing is fun for me. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. Fortunately, I made a good living for many years from my day job, and am now retired with a nice pension. I don’t need to earn money from writing, although it would be nice if I raked in more than I do. As much as Plath loved to write, she was never in a position to exercise her chops for the pure joy of it.  Her mother was a widow with two children who was left in dire financial straits when her husband died. Although she taught on the college level, she never earned enough to make the family comfortable. But she was determined that her children would have the best of everything, and fortunately, both were bright enough to help her out by winning scholarships and other prizes.

Sylvia, while enduring hundreds of rejections, began to sell her pieces even before she entered college, first to the teen magazines and gradually to more professional publications. Every penny she earned from these early successes counted, as she had no other way to splurge. A sale might mean a new pair of shoes for a friend’s wedding, or a new dress for a prom.

Sadly, Sylvia Plath never knew real financial security in her life. She was making some progress toward that goal while she was married to fellow writer Ted Hughes, thanks mostly to his successes, which she supported passionately. Early in their marriage, he published a prize-winning poetry collection which enjoyed quite impressive sales for that genre. Plath had to keep striving toward that goal for several more years. Her first collection, The Colossus, was published to fairly good reviews, but didn’t sell much. Her novel, The Bell Jar, came out less than a month before her death, while she was struggling as a single mother. She was receiving some financial support from Hughes, although not enough, in her opinion. She planned to take him to court to get a better settlement.

Sylvia had a chance to read several reviews of the novel, which for some reason proved distressing. While certainly not bad, they probably weren’t what she hoped for. The book was published in England under a pseudonym, and didn’t make a splash upon publication. There is no way of knowing if its sales would have picked up at some point, enough to make her more comfortable during her lifetime. Also, it’s undeniable that the story of a young girl’s suicide attempt, written by a woman who eventually did kill herself, spoke to many young people, and contributed to making it the raging best-seller it became several years later.

When Hughes left Sylvia with two young children, she feared that she was about to repeat her mother’s struggles. She reportedly burned the only copy of a novel she had been working on as a sequel to The Bell Jar. That story was intended to celebrate the life she and Ted made together, after the adolescent angst of the first novel. She planned to present it to him on his birthday. I’m betting that story was fun to write, and felt like a joyful exercise as long as she was still happy.

After trashing that novel, she began another one. Tentatively entitled Double Exposure, this was the work that she thought would make her name, if only she could manage to finish it. It centered on a love triangle, inspired by the real one between her, Ted, and Assia Wevill, the woman who lured him away. Writing that narrative would have enabled her to unleash the same sort of fury that was motivating her poetry at that time. Her demolition of Hughes and Assia in print might have provided satisfying payback. But finishing it would require more time and peace of mind than she possessed. “I could finish the novel in six weeks of day-long work,” she lamented in a letter to her mother. The freedom to work uninterrupted for that long would require a nanny for the children and household help, and those would cost money.

Double Exposure was never finished. The writing of it (about 130 pages worth) seemed to be a desperate game. The pages “disappeared” several years after her death, so we don’t know how good it would have been. Maybe it was shaping up to be great, as she seemed to think herself, although it’s hard for me to even imagine writing under such pressure. Plath described this feeling in her final letter to her long-time psychiatrist: “Living on my wits, my writing … even partially, is very hard at this time, it is so subjective and dependent on objectivity.”

Certainly people manage to do this without having nervous breakdowns. Success in writing is wonderful, except for the pressure to go on being successful. The writer whose series attracts many fans can be sure that they are waiting impatiently for the next installment. If it’s too long in coming, momentum can be lost. Maybe that kind of incentive can help the writing process, but it seems to me it could also hurt. In Plath’s case, she seemed to be striving for wealth and fame as if her survival depended on it. Can that possibly be a productive mindset, or is it inevitably a destructive one?

My Characters Can’t Act

In several previous posts, I reported on my efforts to turn my novels into cinematic products, using whatever technology was within my reach. I posted a few comic strips, extracted from a website called Storyboard That. I hoped those would be the first tangible step toward envisioning my stories as do-it-yourself movies.

Here in the Washington, DC area, it is theoretically possible to enlist live help from the local film-making community. Unfortunately, for the moment, the pandemic has choked off all forms of face-to-face creativity. I had previously hired professional screenwriters to turn my first four self-published novels into scripts. I lifted a few scenes from each screenplay to create shorter scripts that might be easily make-able by small production companies. In 2017, one of these, after considerable revision, was turned into a thirteen-minute movie called “The Investigation,” through the efforts of a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. Maybe someday, when life returns to normal, I’ll be able to pitch the other short ones. Meanwhile, my feature-length scripts languish on various screenwriters sites, getting occasional views but no Hollywood-style offers to make me rich.

Still, my cinematic dreams keep evolving as the technology does. I was recently alerted by some highly creative WordPress bloggers to a method of going one step farther toward bringing my comic strips to life. Plotagon Studio is a system for making animated movies on a computer. Ever since I downloaded the software, I’ve been getting a kick out of creating little movies from bits and pieces of my own stories. Admittedly, they’re more cringe-worthy than Hollywood-worthy. The software has its limitations, and I’m not close to mastering even what is available. Still, I couldn’t resist jumping right in with more enthusiasm than skill. No matter how awkward and amateurish they turn out, it’s fun and satisfying to see the stories come alive.

I’ve made six “movies” so far. Each one starts with a bit of exposition, in the form of narratives that appear in white letters on black backdrop, with a voice-over added in some cases. I’ve found it’s best to hold these narratives to a minimum, as viewers tend to get impatient with the longer ones. Still, a little explanation seems unavoidable when trying to set up a story that has been compressed to three minutes or less.

After the initial setup, various indoor and outdoor scenarios can be chosen. A wide variety of musical accompaniment is available, suitable for comedy, suspense, drama, film noir, etc. Sound effects can include ringing phones, background laughter, city sounds, and nature sounds. I used an office setting, with jarring phones, for the beginning of Secretarial Wars, while Sycophants begins in a restaurant, the location of a five-year college reunion. Handmaidens of Rock opens in a television studio during the mid-1970s, where the heroine is being interviewed about a book she wrote revealing her intimate dealings with a rock band a few years before. That is followed by flashbacks, including a backstage scene where the lead guitarist she hoped to write about and make love to felt somewhat cornered. For The Rock Star’s Homecoming, a college dormitory setting was needed. Eventually, this story shifts to an empty field near the campus, where my heroine, yet another rock and roll fan, attempts to interview her musical hero about his “poetic” lyrics for a senior thesis in English.

Of all the stories I attempted, I found that Let’s Play Ball required the most action. The opening features a smashed-up vehicle, still on fire, which appears to be the scene of a city accident. In this case, it’s the aftermath of the kidnapping of a famous ballplayer from his own ballpark. The athlete’s fiancée, sportswriter Jessica, is interrogating a police officer about what might have happened, and being interrogated in turn.

The available characters in the Plotagon universe tend to be young adults, which mostly suits my stories. They can be altered by gender, hair style, skin tone, clothes, shoes and expression. When I required a rather naive heroine, a girl with pigtails fit the bill. For contrast in the same story, I concocted a long-haired hippie girl, put her in a colorful poncho, and made her slouch in a way that might draw a boss’s ire in an office setting. So far I’ve only managed to place two characters in each scene, although the tutorials explain how that limitation can be overcome by introducing an additional “camera angle” in a subsequent scene. That’s a skill I’ll hopefully master in the future.

When it’s time to add voices and dramatic gestures, that’s when the fun really begins. The program provides various gradations of happiness, sadness, irritation, suspicion, and so on. The accompanying gestures tend to be exaggerated. There is a way to make the dialogue more realistically human, by recording your own voice, but that requires a built-in microphone that my ten-year-old-plus computer doesn’t have. The Plotagon-provided voices often put emphasis on the wrong syllables and mispronounce words, like amateur actors badly in need of more training.

Still, once in a while the software gets it miraculously right. In Let’s Play Ball, the fraternal twin sisters, sportswriter Jessica and Homeland Security bureaucrat Miranda, confront one another in a police station and argue about which of them is best suited to investigate the kidnapping. Jessica knows that Miranda has a personal interest in protecting one particular suspect. “Maybe I’ll see you in court!”she snarls. Miranda’s reply is spot-on.“Yeah, see you in court, “she retorts, somehow achieving just the right mixture of brow-lifting sarcasm and wisdom.

Some experts proclaim that this is only the beginning of do-it-yourself film-making. Advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI), along with more sophisticated speech synthesis, will someday allow anyone with a modern enough computer to run their own personal Industrial Light & Magic outfit. In the meantime, you can try to coax your characters, within current limits, to appear more real. Maybe all they need is acting lessons.

Turning Reality On Its Head

When reality gets unbearably grim during this nonstop horror show of 2020, fiction seems particularly enticing. For me, it’s a perfect time to plunge into some of the alternate universes that the Netflix streaming service provides. One political drama in particular strikes me as pure wishful thinking, given today’s level of discourse.  It features the first woman president of the United States (and hurrah for the imaginary voters who finally got it right!). Madame President has moved up from her previous position as Madame Secretary of State (as a certain real-life figure once seemed poised to do, until the electoral college bollixed up her chances).

Early in the administration of this fantasy president, Elizabeth McCord, she receives credible evidence of Iranian interference in the most recent election. She vows to expose and punish this attack on American democracy … even though that interference appears to have benefited her! Talk about turning reality on its head. In this alternate world, we not only have a president who is willing to risk her office for the sake of principle, but actually listens to her opponents (as proven by her choice of a Republican vice president), tries to advance legislation that has a chance of helping people not in the wealthiest one percent, uses the military judiciously, and faces down irresponsible politicians who make unhinged threats against her and her family. In short, she applies reason and intellect to the pressing issues of the day. Will this ever be the norm again? After three and a half years of nonstop lies, conspiracy theories, tantrums, and plain rank stupidity emanating from the White House, is there any hope for such a reality?

I have also traveled back in time, to an well-honored classic, to examine this reality-tampering process. The most recent remake of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is quite a departure from the countless earlier versions. The 2019 movie directed by Greta Gerwig is more thematic than chronological. The four March sisters, growing up in Civil War-era New England, were based on Alcott’s own family, yet the author herself reportedly referred to her most popular work as “sentimental pap.” It seems that she was forced to betray her own reality in some ways, in the interests of appealing to the popular reading market of the time. Her original intention was to write a story more aligned with the truth. That would have left her heroine unmarried at the end, as she herself was. However, she allowed herself to be persuaded that the book wouldn’t sell unless it featured a  “happily ever after” ending.

How well does the new movie restore Alcott’s less idealized reality? We see Jo, the novice authoress, stand up to the prospective publisher of her first novel, even when he appears to have all the power. He offers her an upfront payment of $500 in exchange for the copyright. That was sorely tempting to Jo, the primary breadwinner of a poor family. But she turns down the offer, having enough faith in her work to realize that the copyright, in time, would be worth much more than $500.

Yet after token resistance, Jo does succumb to her publisher’s “happily ever after” edict,  just as Alcott did. Gerwig’s movie compromises in the same way. It isn’t certain at first, in this retelling, that Jo will fall for the German professor who courts her during a sojourn in New York City.  In fact, when he has the temerity to criticize her writing rather harshly, she lashes out at him, defending her stories for the pulp market. They might not be great literature, but they bring in cash that her family sorely needs. In the end, however, even this somewhat revisionist movie isn’t about to let Jo end up a “spinster.” The professor grows on her, and his writing advice, while unwelcome at first, turns out to be sound. Some time after she returns home, he pays her a brief, unexpected visit. She almost lets him walk away without a commitment, but her sisters know love when they see it. At their urging, she races through a pouring rain to stop him before he gets on a train bound for the west.

Jo’s three sisters have likewise acquired a new complexity. I’ve often wondered if the real Beth, the sister who died at a tragically young age, was as relentlessly sweet as portrayed in the book. A little research into the actual sister (known as Lizzie) suggests otherwise. As the story goes, the girls’ mother is called away to tend to her sick husband at the battlefront. She asks her daughters to  take up her charitable work while she is gone, but Beth is the only one who actually does. One of her charges comes down with scarlet fever, which Beth knows is beyond her nursing capabilities. She asks her older sisters to pitch in, since they had the fever years before and presumably couldn’t catch it again. When they claim to be too tired or busy, Beth’s normally placid face betrays a moment of anger. Can’t one of them relieve her burden just this once?

As a result, she catches the disease. She appeared to recover from the initial phase, but as time passes, it becomes clear that permanent damage has been done. She eventually succumbs to its complications. In Alcott’s story, Beth accepts her fate, and after much suffering and prayer, even embraces it. Other sources report that on a few occasions, the real Lizzie lashed out at her sisters and others, as she had every right to. After all, their neglect at a critical time was at least partly responsible for destroying her life.

As in all versions of the story, Meg, the oldest sister, and Amy, the youngest, prove to be polar opposites when it comes to marital choices. Meg marries for love, not money, but she’s only human, and sometimes she can’t help lamenting her continuing poverty. By contrast, the latest version of Amy has been generally lauded as a proto-feminist. A rather self-centered child, and later something of a gold-digger in her determination to “marry well,” she’s not entirely sympathetic. Yet who can blame her? Along the way, she faces the fact that her skills as an artist aren’t sufficient to afford her a comfortable living … although she believes in her heart that her earning capability would be far greater if she were a man. Given the limitations imposed on ambitious women, her best option is to make a match that will enable her to pursue art as a hobby, and perhaps serve as a benefactor to others.

In the end, all three of the surviving March sisters make peace with their choices. Switching back to modern times, President Elizabeth McCord manages to overcome a bogus impeachment attempt, and actually rises in the polls as a result. It’s all rather cheesy, and perhaps wishful thinking, but reassuring nevertheless. Given the circumstances of 2020, why not? Just now, we need all the happy endings we can get.

My Novels Have Soundtracks

One thing that spurs my writing these days, perhaps more effectively than anything else, is a form of music known as “classic rock.” Luckily for us boomers, there are plenty of online radio stations that provide us with these blasts from our past. They make us feel nostalgic for the old days of antiwar protests, civil rights marches, mini-skirts, bell-bottoms … and maybe even “bummers.” I wasn’t brave or stupid enough back then to embrace the drug culture, apart from a few tokes now and then on a peace pipe or a bong. I was a rather sheltered child, to tell the truth. Still, the era of rock and roll dating roughly from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was my particular magic time.

While often raucous, classic rock, at least to my ear, made greater use of melody and harmony than many of the forms of music that gradually overtook it, such as garage and grunge rock, hip hop, and punk. The “British invasion” bands that reached U.S. shores during the early 1960s, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, are often credited with having launched the movement simply by growing more sophisticated as they aged. They provided the basics, but I was equally dazzled in my youth by figures such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Doors’ Jim Morrison. Hendrix and Joplin died suddenly in rapid succession soon after I started college in 1970, and Morrison followed less than a year later. Although others rose up to replace them, there’s nothing like sudden death to romanticize a rocker’s life.

YouTube makes it particularly easy to get quick jolts of the old music when I need them. These, for better or worse, provide more effective inspiration than my current slide into old age. Many of the old records have been re-mastered, which has made them sound better than new. That’s a great thing, although I sometimes miss the imperfections of my old vinyl records. Complete with scratches and skips, they were truly the soundtrack of my youth.

My first novel, Secretarial Wars (2003) was inspired by the partying and clubbing I did in my twenties, while holding down a fairly boring day job. The contrast between day and night life was a theme of the story. Nowadays I live such a prim and proper life, rarely deviating from my strict schedule unless traveling, that it’s hard to believe I was ever that wild. But I must have been, because the song that brings that era back to me in an instant is Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which celebrates the shameless joy of a casual hookup.

After Secretarial Wars, I wrote a campus-based novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007). As a freshman at my small-town college, I felt homesick and friendless at first. The taped music that played in the dining hall often matched my mood, especially the haunting Bee Gees tune, “Lonely Days,” with its strings and minor key. My outlook improved when I met my husband-to-be, and our soundtracks became the bands we saw together, including Elton John (pre-fame), Stephen Stills, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton (twice in one year), the post-Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and many less well-known acts. Now, although we’re divorced and living on opposite sides of the country, my partner in music and I still reminisce and text each other tips for good YouTube listening. I can pretty much relive the ups and downs of our relationship by firing up the British group Blind Faith: “Sea of Joy” for the happy times, “Can’t Find My Way Back Home” for the confusion and sadness that overtook us.

Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my second music-centered novel, was inspired by the Beatles’ story. That is the band whose entire oeuvre reflects my life back to me. It’s a tapestry that took them, and me, from puppy love (P.S. I Love You, Happy Just to Dance with You) to cynicism about love (I’m Looking Through You, No Reply), to peace-and-love idealism (All You Need Is Love, The Word), and toward some kind of hard-fought wisdom about the music business (You Never Give Me Your Money, Carry That Weight). And I musn’t overlook their psychedelic period (Within You Without You, Tomorrow Never Knows), although I mainly experienced that vicariously.

The rock band in my novel forms in high school during the late 1960s, kicks out its original drummer (as the Beatles did to that poor schmuck Pete Best), and then takes off on wild adventures around the world, including time in a Scottish religious commune (replicating the Beatles” sojourn with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India). Then my band heads to California, where the big music festivals are, and embroils itself in the antiwar movement.  This somewhat reflects the temporary radicalism of John Lennon, who moved to New York with his second wife, Yoko Ono, after the Beatles broke up. That pair put out an album full of political screeds, “Some Time In New York City,” which only tended to prove that heavy doses of politics don’t do anything for music. Only the closing number of that misbegotten album, an exuberant embrace of Lennon’s new home entitled “New York City,” is still worth a listen.

Handmaidens of Rock, being chicklit of a sort, focuses on the three women (actually girls at the start) who latch onto the band. Candy, Hope, and Theda disdain the groupie label, being ambitious in their own right. My musicians, much like the Beatles, discard their first loves, the ones who met them as kids and nurtured their pre-fame ambitions. Sad to say, that is typical behavior for rock stars once they hit the big time. There must be hundreds of books about the Beatles, and I’ve read quite a few of them, but none moved me as much as the autobiographies of Cynthia Lennon and Pattie Boyd, the first wives of John and George, respectively. Although they got left behind, they found the strength to tell their stories. My “handmaidens,” too, I’m glad to say, landed on their feet.

Dictator In Pantyhose

I’ve never been able to resist inserting politics into my stories. I know I’m not unusual in that respect. Political apocalypses have always been popular in fiction, and the farther out they get, the better. But I sometimes ask myself how far authors can reasonably take their nightmare scenarios. For example, how evil can a leader be and still remain plausible?

Try to imagine a President of the United States who exemplifies everything the founding fathers tried to prevent when they established the emoluments clause to the Constitution and other safeguards. In their eighteenth-century wisdom, they foresaw that a sociopath might someday attain the highest office in the land, and turn it into a private fiefdom for his own political and financial benefit. Such a scenario would only be possible if that person corralled a once-respected political party to elevate him, whitewash his flaws, and do his bidding.

Such a president would treat the rule of law as an inconvenience, resist any efforts by the other branches of government to conduct oversight, and fire anybody who dared to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. He would sell out allies and coddle dictators according to his whims. He would be a pathological liar, given to childish tantrums. Worst of all, when faced with a genuine emergency, he would continue to lie to cover up his own incompetence and inadequacy, even if his lies endangered the health and safety of the citizenry. Pretty wild, right? Couldn’t possibly happen here, could it?

Oh, wait …

An alarming realization has struck. There are limits to the effectiveness of speculative fiction if the worst has already happened, or is about to happen. What will possibly be left for us amateur politicos to cook up? Luckily, brave people who resist authoritarianism have always made good heroes and heroines. In the present circumstances, things could definitely get worse, and soon. If Trump is re-elected, he’ll anoint himself dictator, if not emperor of the universe. His corruption will become even more unapologetic than it is now. If he’s defeated, he may well scream “false news” and refuse to leave. His implacable base, many of whom have guns and nothing much to lose, will support him no matter what, perhaps even to the point of civil war.

I’m currently trying to draft yet another novel that features corrupt leaders. Tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, this one is a sequel to Let’s Play Ball (2010). The first story featured a monstrous president, Jeremiah Smith, who facilitates the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer for his own benefit. His actions are covered up by his enablers, enough to maintain plausible deniability, although almost every thinking person knows or suspects that he’s guiltier than sin. He foregoes running for reelection, citing health concerns. He and his supporters are fine with this because his daughter, Deirdre Smith Gordon, is prepared to succeed him.

In Gilded Prisons, Deirdre proves not only as corrupt and venal as her father, but much smarter, which increases the danger. (Think Ivanka in a few years). Deirdre is a lawyer who never practiced law, having chosen to please her father’s conservative base by representing herself as a stay-at-home mom while her children were young. That was always a bit of a ruse, since she has been the driving force behind her husband’s rise to leadership posts in Congress. And now that she has attained the highest office herself, thanks to daddy’s legacy, she plans to change everything about the government that doesn’t directly serve her and her family. As if to prove that no one ever learns from past mistakes or pays for them, the baseball kidnapping caper is repeated. Did she instigate the crime, or merely exploit it after the fact? That has yet to be determined.

I picture Deirdre as a woman with a sweet, flirtatious veneer, who looks especially good in short skirts. This enables her to hoodwink people more efficiently than an equally evil man would. In some ways, she’s Trump in pantyhose. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Trump was an obnoxious but fairly benign reality-show host. Despite his long previous history of business fraud and con-artistry, he didn’t seem that threatening. He lacked a firm ideology when it came to politics, bending whichever way best served his purposes. Had it suited his ego and ambition to come down to the left of Bernie Sanders, he would have done so without a second thought.

My presidential anti-heroine has a similar lack of true convictions apart from her own self-interest. Accordingly, she forms unholy alliances with odd political bedfellows, including right-wing militias at home and Communists abroad, and anyone in between who has the potential to serve her goals. Inevitably, a movement to resist this soulless form of government takes shape. I’m not sure yet whether to plunge my fictional United States into a second civil war, this time perhaps leading to permanent division. Sometimes I feel that the old Confederacy might just as well have won the first Civil War, and saved us all the trouble of trying to build a democracy based at least on the ideals of freedom.

Is this a reasonably original plot, or merely a prediction? What if it really happens, and soon? What’s a writer of political fiction to do?

My Novels Are Comics (Part 2)

With the world so out of whack at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say to friends, much less strangers, other than “Stay safe.” At a time like this, the normal author-like pursuits of writing and blogging seem irrelevant on one level, although comforting on another. I’ve been trying to draft a new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but conjuring up the comparatively normal world where they unfold feels disorienting, if not a tad self-indulgent.

Accordingly, this could be an ideal time to revisit old stories instead. The problems and traumas we wrote about months and years ago were comparatively normal and recognizable, even if our characters were weeping and moaning over them as if the world had ended. Who doesn’t yearn for the good old overwrought themes of unreliable boyfriends, love triangles, jealousy and revenge, bad bosses and soul-sucking jobs, social awkwardness, and all the rest of it?

I’m also renewing my ongoing effort to envision a few of those old stories as movies. Obviously, there are no production companies or crews available right now to make them spring to life on video, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be envisioned graphically. If my novels aren’t yet movies, at least they can be comics. Trying to encapsulate them in one panel proved to be a challenging exercise, like trying to spit out one of those hyper-streamlined elevator pitches. Of course they don’t look terribly professional, and melding them into social media is a skill I don’t yet have. Enlarging them for better readability tends to make them too humongous. But what does it matter if they’re comical-looking? I guess you could say they are comedies.

 

 

 

 

In The Rock Star’s Homecoming, college senior Imogene has hit on a unique topic for her English honors thesis. Ignoring her advisor’s advice to choose a more traditional subject, she is determined to concoct a theory about the influence of poetry on rock music. Her research will consist of critiquing her favorite band and its lead singer, Jake, who have returned to the campus where they originated for a special Homecoming weekend. She lures the musician to her father’s nearby farm, where the inevitable seduction occurs. Will this help or hurt her academic efforts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Play Ball features fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica, always close but competitive. They are pursuing opposite theories about who plotted the kidnapping of Jessica’s fiancé, Major League ballplayer Manny Chavez. The crime took place just prior to Manny’s scheduled Congressional testimony about steroid use in baseball, which would have implicated several teammates of his. Jessica’s main suspect is Petie Jansen, Manny’s fiercest rival on the team, and inconveniently, a close friend of Miranda’s. Miranda is determined to clear Petie, and to pursue her own suspect. Choosing the most public place available, she confronts Madeline, the daughter of the team’s owner, with the incriminating evidence she’s compiled. Incidentally, she also confirms her suspicion that Madeline has been sleeping with her husband, Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handmaidens of Rock unfolds during the wild early 1970s. Aspiring college journalist Candy has attached herself to a campus rock band. Not caring to be regarded as a mere groupie, she has fulfilled her wildest dream by marrying the flashy guitarist who fronts the group. Then, shortly after discovering she’s pregnant, she catches her roommate in bed with her husband. She vows to take revenge by writing investigative articles that will implicate her former best friend in a plot to fire-bomb the campus theater, and her husband’s band for inciting a riot at a festival.

Such Devoted Sisters

I’ve always been intrigued by catfights. Maybe I don’t have a great opinion of my own sex? My stories seem to be populated with mean girls, their collaborators, and their victims. That has led to a corresponding interest in the dynamics between sisters. My 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball dealt with fraternal twins who were close but competitive. I made some assumptions about sister relationships based on no real world experience, not having a sister of my own. I was guessing that even twin siblings can be very different.

Miranda and Jessica, the fraternal twins in my story, pursue wildly divergent career paths and love lives. While Miranda establishes a relatively sedate career as a budget analyst in the Department of Homeland Security, and marries a young lawyer, Jessica becomes a freelance journalist and starts her own sports magazine. Her endeavor takes off when she publishes a story about a local baseball star, Cuban-born Manny Chavez, who has pulled off a daring rescue of his young son from his unstable ex-wife. Jessica and Manny become engaged, and then he is kidnapped. Miranda, whose own life is not as picture-perfect as it seems, becomes embroiled in the investigation alongside her sister. In the course of the story, Miranda and Jessica fight and make up a lot, criticize each other’s personal choices, and pursue wholly different suspects.

Speaking of sisters, I’ve streamed the first three seasons of the Netflix series “The Crown,” which chronicles the endlessly melodramatic British royal family. Among many other themes, the series has something to say about sibling relationships, particularly between the Windsor sisters, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. That was a love-hate relationship for the ages. This portrayal of Elizabeth shows her wearing the crown rather uneasily, while Margaret subjects her to frequent jabs about how much better she could have done the job if she’d been the older sister. Since she isn’t, she pursues a rather wild life, giving the sovereign numerous headaches. But that is arguably what Big Sister deserves for all the slights and criticisms she delivers herself, not to mention the constant interference with Margaret’s love life and marriage prospects. Being single longer only keeps Margaret’s dissolute habits going longer, thereby creating even more sovereign headaches. Margaret does take on occasional diplomatic missions for the Crown, although her style of diplomacy is best illustrated by the occasion when she regaled guests at a White House state dinner with dirty jokes. Still, she got the job done.

It’s undeniable that catfights provide some of the best entertainment in the news, as well as in the  history books. Those of us who keep tabs on the current British royal family are aware of a falling out between the princes William and Harry … and few of us doubt that the real source of that tiff is their respective wives. Thankfully, catfights don’t usually lead to murder, but it has been known to happen. The feud between royal cousins Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots ended rather badly. When two such powerful ladies are both determined to have their most dangerous rival silenced, it’s likely that one of them will lose her head.

As I’ve confessed before, I can’t resist the various “Real Housewives” franchises on Bravo TV, even when they make me cringe. The catfights featured on these shows tend to develop between wealthy women over mostly petty differences and first-world issues. The husbands of these “housewives” are a rather henpecked group, often berated by their wives for spending too many hours at work and not enough with them. Once in a while one of these husbands works up the courage to point out that the long hours he puts in earning a living are necessary to sustain his wife’s lifestyle. That usually leads to a full-scale tantrum.

All in all, It’s a little discouraging to realize that no one seems to go broke by underestimating the intelligence of women. Maybe if we started fighting back against the usual female stereotypes, they wouldn’t be so pervasive. In the meantime, we have to face the fact that white woman (largely from the South, admittedly) played a significant role in electing an incompetent moron to the presidency in 2016. Why couldn’t they vote for one of their own, if only because it’s more than time to prove a woman can do the job? Could we really do any worse? Hillary might not have been the most likable candidate ever, but she had intelligence, relevant experience, and competence. I suspect those are the very qualities that seem unwomanly to some women, especially the descendants of southern belles. Is it that they’re jealous?

Back before the 2016 election debacle, I couldn’t help thinking that if only Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel could all be heads of state at the same time, it might make for one of the most entertaining catfights ever. But who knows? Maybe if those three had actually put their heads together, something would have clicked. After seeing the depths that masculine leadership can bring us to, it seems to me that government by sisterhood is worth a try.

Lady Macbeth As Heroine

My 2010 novel, Let’s Play Ball, features a villainess named Guadalupe. She’s an American-born woman of Cuban descent, who throws away a marriage to a Cuban-born major league ballplayer that could have ensured a prosperous life in the United States. She believes she was meant for greater things on a wider stage. She grabs at that more meaningful life by catching the eye of the heir apparent to the presidency of Cuba during a rare state visit. She follows him back to the island to assume the role of first-lady-in-waiting, taking her young son without his father’s permission.

My villainess is not the type to sit back and watch from afar as her ex-husband, Manny, finds happiness with his second wife, Jessica, a glamorous sportswriter, and maneuvers to get his son back. She suffers international humiliation when the child is snatched from his nanny in a daring raid, and returned to the U.S. In revenge, she plots Manny’s kidnapping, bringing in a wide range of accomplices.

Guadalupe is far from the only evil character in the story, since it takes a rather large conspiracy to pull off the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer from his own ballpark. Is she worse than all the others, being the ultimate instigator of a crime against the man she once professed to love? Is she not only un-womanly but un-maternal, since the revenge factor seems to play a bigger role in her plotting than the custody issue?

Certain critics have pointed out that my other female characters don’t come off so great, either. Jessica and her fraternal twin sister Miranda, a homeland security bureaucrat, are the ostensible heroines as they set out to investigate the kidnapping. Although they make progress, their contentious relationship threatens to derail their efforts. They disagree, argue, and snipe at each other a lot along the way. In fact, catfights are a motif in this story. Certain powerful women come to the twins’ attention as suspects, and they, in turn, are fighting with each other. Come to think of it, catfights pop up fairly often in all of my stories. Don’t I like my own sex?

Guadalupe proves to be the lead villainess, the undeniable catalyst of all the mischief. Now I’m writing a sequel in which she becomes something of a heroine, at least in her own mind. Her evil ways continue as she instigates yet another kidnapping of a ballplayer, with less personal justification than before. Yet she feels driven by a higher purpose, a long-range goal that even she can’t define at first. She may be delusional, but she may be onto something.

Can an unapologetic villain possibly be sympathetic? And can people who seem to entertain grandiose ideas make themselves understood by rational minds? For that matter, is it necessary as authors to root for our viewpoint characters every minute?

While researching the subject of sympathetic villainesses, I came across an alternative take on Lady Macbeth. In Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth: A Novel (2009), Shakespeare’s most wicked woman is given a rich backstory that helps to explain, if not justify, her wickedness. She was widowed while pregnant, and forced to marry the Scottish warlord Macbeth, her husband’s murderer. Although she initially despises this unnatural partner, the brutal world she inhabits forces her to join with him and share his plans. There are threats coming at the uneasy couple from all directions, including Vikings, Saxons, and competing warlords. Her own royal blood has given Lady Macbeth an imperious bearing and an awareness of her special destiny. Her twin goals of advancing her son and forging a united Scotland are not for the weak-hearted.

To find a more modern villain-hero, we can turn to the Star Wars universe. It seems that Kylo Ren, son of the original icons Hans Solo and Leia Organa, somehow turned evil. Given his parentage, he must have felt pressured from childhood to become the very embodiment of Jedi righteousness. Instead, in an extreme case of adolescent rebellion, he ends up leading an army against his heroic parents, even killing his dad. A analysis in Rolling Stone of the final Star Wars installment seems to relate this angst to modern times: “A confused, angry man-boy radicalized by powerful forces whispering in his ear, an heir to generational trauma raised in an era of endless war, is an all-too-believable threat.”

Adam Driver, who portrays Kylo Ren, explains the nuances of his role: “There’s something in having an antagonist who is a little more vulnerable That seems to be more relatable and human than just someone who is a psychopath.” He goes on to explain further that although his character is the villain “in some ways,” his actions can also be seen as heroic. This is one mixed-up universe, where a mass murderer is deemed “vulnerable” because he hesitated a moment, with pain in his eyes, before he wiped out an entire regiment of righteous warriors.

I haven’t seen “The Rise of Skywalker,” but it was widely speculated in advance that Ren must be headed toward some sort of redemption. That would seem to be necessary if the chemistry between him and Rey, his warrior-heroine opponent, is ever to develop. That would be the most predictable plot arc, although writers of sagas have been known to surprise us.

So that brings me back to my own Guadalupe, who will not live “happily ever after,” no matter where she ends up. She has never found contentment, either as a baseball wife in the U.S. or in her “Cuban first lady” pose. Nor will she ever settle for being a mere decoration, when she “knows” she’s destined to make her own unique mark on history. Is she a little bit crazy? No doubt, but she may just prove to be a little bit right.

My Novels Are Comics

Let’s Play Ball

Has there ever been a novelist, whether traditional, self-published, or in between, who didn’t envision his or her story made into a hit movie? With the avalanche of new books apparently hitting the market daily, that would be the best way to stand out–or ultimately, perhaps, the only way. It’s a worthy goal, but unfortunately, Hollywood is unlikely to come knocking on our doors unless we’re already renowned writers, or famous for something else.

Fortunately, there are mini-Hollywoods sprouting up everywhere these days. We live in an era when independent film-making is becoming a major thing. That means it’s at least possible to contemplate turning our written masterpieces into cinematic ones. But novel-writing and script-writing are distinct skills. Knowing nothing about the latter, I hired professionals to turn my first four novels into presentable scripts. I thought they all did a more than presentable job, and that all four would make decent feature films. The scripts are on display at sites like Inktip and Simplyscripts, and get a fair number of looks, but no producer with deep pockets has been wowed as yet.

If someone with only moderately deep pockets ever showed an interest, crowd sourcing would be one way of obtaining whatever additional funding was necessary. Another option might be to extract a few representative scenes from the feature script and make a short film. That would still require locating or organizing a temporary production company. I have succeeded in doing this once. In 2017, I extracted a short script called “Secretarial Spy” from a feature script called “Secretarial Wars,” based on my 2003 novel of the same name. A local film-making group turned this into a 13-minute piece called “The Investigation.” Although many changes were made to my original script, it was gratifying to see at least a germ of the original story survive. And it gave me an incentive to try to repeat that feat for the other three stories.

The Rock Star’s Homecoming

While waiting for a production company to materialize, another option is story-boarding.  This basically involves making comics, or graphic narratives, out of your proposed movies. I signed up with a website called Storyboard That, and gave it a try. It’s not quite like having real people recite your dialogue and enact your ideas, but it’s a start. To storyboard an entire feature film, which might require 100 or more panels, proved a little beyond the website’s present capability, so I tried to boil the strips down to a more manageable size.

It can be fun to illustrate a story this way, although it has its limitations. The characters that the website offers in similar age groups tend to look alike, although some of the women are more hefty or hip-looking than others (and at least one that I used is obviously pregnant). The men are either bearded or not, or dressed in business attire or not. The expressions, physical stances, and clothing color can be altered. You can also use your own pictures as backdrops or props. Captions are useful to set the scene, as a narrator or voice-over would.

Handmaidens of Rock

Sizing things correctly is probably the greatest challenge, and is part of what makes this style of comics truly comical. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features two college roommates who drive to New York to pick up the rock band that has agreed, despite its expulsion from the school two years before, to appear at the annual Homecoming dance. Placing the two girls inside a moving car was challenging, to say the least, since the steering wheel alone turned out too humongous for any reasonably sized driver to handle. In Let’s Play Ball, a young sportswriter, engaged to a star baseball player, is appointed to throw out the first ball at a championship game. It proved difficult to confine her to the pitcher’s mound, as she dominates the entire field, literally. For Handmaidens of Rock,  I tried to depict a young, nervous girl appearing onstage to sing lyrics she wrote herself, alongside the guitarist she loves. He backs her up admirably, taking up the whole backdrop, in fact.

Well, it’s better than nothing. Until that day when your story excites some hot-shot director or producer, here is a way to force your narratives, kicking and screaming, into life.