Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pandemic movie reviews

After I drafted my own novel about a pandemic, I re-watched some movies about pandemics.

Outbreak (1995). I always liked this one, but after reading another 3000+ pages on the topic in researching my own novel, I was impressed at how much they got right. (The worst inaccuracy was how the time frame was compressed. You don’t isolate a new virus or come up with a treatment or vaccine that quickly, sorry to say.)

If you don’t know the plot, it’s this: The US Army has saved a killer virus and developed a treatment for it and is hiding it for use as a bioweapon some day. But it re-emerges from nature, as such diseases will, and it enters the human population, and now we’re in trouble, particularly the residents of a small California town. Bad guy general, good guy military doctors working for USAMRIID, conflict as they work at cross-purposes, and a love story provides the B plot. It stars some big-name actors.

There was a maudlin and unlikely scene with a little girl and monkey that should have been edited out, but the helicopter chase in this one is so freakin’ cool! (And I’m not the world’s biggest fan of chase scenes, but when someone does it well, I say so.) I was engaged, rooting for the heroes, and not troubled by the inaccuracies, which I understood were necessary to make it a fast-paced thriller.

For me, an A- grade.

Contagion (2011)

I sympathize with the screenwriter and filmmaker. It’s darned hard to tell any disaster story from a single point of view. So much happens, and not any one person can experience all of it. As a writer, I’m always torn between following one character (which I think appeals most to readers) and following several (which tells a more accurate story). This film jumps from a sick family to an EIS worker on the ground to her boss embroiled in politics to an irresponsible blogger, to China where the disease originated, to runs on the stores and riots and roadblocks, and because of all of this, it ends up being something of a mess. In offering too many people to root for, they leave us no one person to root for.

Again, the accuracy is impressive. They clearly had consultants from the CDC helping them through this one, and they made no factual mistakes I noticed. (They based the start of the epidemic largely on the emergence of SARS.)

But despite this, the multiple points of view and lack of a story through-line didn’t thrill me. Still, if you want to get scared about the inevitable coming pandemic, watch it for its accuracy. It should scare you.

Grade: C

Plague City: SARS in Toronto. (2005) A Canadian made-for-TV movie, historical, about SARS. Again, very accurate research here.

This movie does better than Contagion at picking a point of view character. We get to know a nurse in a big hospital and stay largely with her. It does move to other scenes where she couldn’t possibly have been; to tell the full story it must. Our emotional connection is mostly with the nurse, and if you don’t yet appreciate the risks health care workers take in an epidemic, watching this should help you get there.

It also does a good job of touching on economics and politics, and how priorities in those areas are totally opposed to the priorities of actually containing an epidemic. Greed will end up killing more people than it should when the day arrives, and I think it’s good to think about it in advance, so that we might perhaps make more rational decisions when the day comes. (And the day will come.)

It’s a made-for-TV movie, with no superstar actors and low production values, but it’s quite good. Free for now at Amazon Prime Video, if you have that. B+

I do a good deal of complaining about inaccuracy and lack of scientific research in big-budget disaster movies, but it seems that people making pandemic movies do a far better job than people making earthquake or volcano movies. But being accurate and telling a good story is a challenge, as well I know, and we’re lucky there are a couple movies that do both.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What’s wrong with MFA programs in writing

Admittedly, I don’t know what’s wrong with all of them. I do know what’s wrong with the one where I earned my MFA. But I’ve asked other people with MFAs, and many of the residential ones sound similar. I’ve probably missed what’s wrong with other programs, but surely the following is enough, don’t you think?

  • Mostly, they teach sneering and elitism. They teach nothing about business, and the one I went to taught nothing about craft. But they did sneer often at commercial fiction and genre fiction. I had one prof, whose total publications as a fiction writer were two stories bought by buddies of his, literally sneer at one of my stories. “Isn’t this...(sniff)...rather commercial?” He couldn’t have wrinkled his nose more had I just farted. I smiled brightly and said, “Thank you!” Because he had given me a compliment, even if he didn’t have the wit to know that. What commercial means, just in case you don’t understand the word in this context, is that several strangers would be willing to part with their hard-earned money to have the chance to read what you’ve written. And yet, in the MFA program, this was seen as a bad thing, a low thing, beneath us. It didn’t take me long to see the classism that underpinned all this sneering. The classism assumed you’d be living off a trust fund or a rich hubby, and dabbling at writing “real art” that you needn’t be paid for. I grew up working class. I continue to be working class. I pay all my own bills. I relate as much to this privileged attitude as I do to being in the royal line of Monaco or a Martian bacterium.
  • At the program I attended, they also sneered at all the ways I had taught myself how to be a regularly-published writer before I arrived. Close analysis of published novels, for instance: was not done there, and when I pointed out in a discussion that it was a way for a fellow student to understand why so-and-so’s books worked so well for her, the professor merely laughed at me. Another professor, when I suggested during a critique circle a possible technique to apply to a problem spot, said, “Right. Did you read that in a book somewhere?” “Book” was said again with lip-curling and a sarcastic tone. I thought, but did not say, “Gee, I never thought I’d be in graduate school and the professors would sneer at the thought of reading a book!” But they do, and certainly if it’s a book on fiction craft. (I probably had read it in a book, in fact, and the worst craft book I ever read taught me a hundred times as much as any of those professors did.)
  • Instead of actually teaching the craft, they expect you to intuit it. And maybe some brilliant people can. I think of Truman Capote, writing wonderful short stories at age 17. But then, if you’re that much of a natural, getting published in national magazines at 17, why on earth would you need an MFA program? I spent two years in that program, and there was one fellow there, a nice bloke, who still didn’t have a clue what point of view was when he was awarded his degree, much less how to control it in service to the story.
  • The We Are Special Artistes And Better than Everyone Else belief. In my program, we were encouraged to be licentious and end up in jail. Literally. Seriously. It was stated the first week: they looked forward to bailing us out of jail. I have news for you, artistes, this is ten kinds of nonsense. Writing is work. It’s another kind of work people do, nothing more, nothing less. It is no more noble than drawing blueprints or planting shrubbery or being a civil servant or running a Subway franchise or any other work. It is, in fact, somewhat more self-indulgent than most sorts of work. You do the work by plopping your arse down in the chair every day and typing, not by slapping your hand to your forehead and moaning, “alas, poor me! I’m so special!” Typing scenes isn’t particularly romantic. It’s thinking and imagining and typing and backspacing and typing some more. And being a writer doesn’t excuse indulging yourself in untreated alcoholism, cheating on your spouse, or anything of the sort. “Writer” is not an excuse not to mow the lawn or pay the taxes. Everybody who doesn’t write also has special thoughts and deep feelings. Writers aren’t special and they aren’t above anyone else and they aren’t above the law. Seriously, get over yourselves.
  • Forget the university’s rules about sexual harassment. Because some of my professors demanded their students get naked in conference [you think I’m making this up, don’t you? Alas, I am not.], and others screwed whoever they wanted to (always going for the youngest or most mentally unstable). As there was usually thirty or more years’ age difference between screwer and screwee, it was creepy, to say the least. Requesting sex of someone you hold grading power over is coercive, which is why there are rules against it. But because they are special artistes and all, those rules don’t apply to them.
  • What they are steering you toward, in their half-assed way, is writing the sort of story that appears in the Paris Review or Glimmer Train. Those two magazines pay for stories, but the ones in the tier just under them do not. All you get with publication there is bragging rights. I’ve yet to meet a utility company that takes publication in the Sewanee Review in lieu of cash payment. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy reading these sorts of stories. I do. I’ve written them. I’ve been published in those places. But pretty soon (or not so soon, in my rather slow-on-the-uptake way), a smart writer has had sufficient ego-boosting from it and realizes that it’s not getting her anywhere else but dropped at the corner of Pleased and Proud without bus fare home, and she moves on.
  • Where other graduate programs have an aim of getting you actual work that pays your bills or setting you up for a Ph.D. that will pay you well, MFA in fiction programs have no such goal. One of the people I attended with has a small-press published book which sold about what small-press books of literary fiction do (It’s ranked at 2 million at Amazon today). Otherwise, I’m the only one regularly publishing or making any money at fiction-writing. (And I was regularly published before I attended.)
  • Their combination of nonsense--no craft study, no acknowledgement of the business, Special Artistes, literary fiction only--will push you further away from being a writer who earns a living at writing fiction, not draw you closer. If you believe all the above nonsense while you’re there, it may take you years of slapping yourself out of it to fix your attitude. Life is short, people. You can’t waste two years at an MFA and five years detoxing from it.

So my advice if you’re even thinking a little about doing this is:
  • Don’t go to an MFA or BFA in writing program unless they pay you to go, as with a fellowship. (I was paid to attend mine and chose the best financial offer.) Why? Because you’ll never earn a dime from anything you learned there, and you don’t want loans dogging your steps for the next decade. With an MFA, you can then teach composition in community colleges all across this great land and experience the joy of explaining the comma splice and that, no, that word that means “absolutely” is not spelled “defiantly” a thousand times every year. It’s not fun, but it’s a least for a while, until you can’t bear it one more day. Community colleges with 80 adjunct English faculty who have no health insurance and only 10 full-time instructors will welcome you and your fresh MFA in fiction with open arms.
  • Instead of grad school, go get a real job, or a series of jobs. Work on a fishing boat. Stock shelves at Walmart in the wee hours. Be a crisis counselor on a hotline. Be an orderly in a nursing home. Anything that puts you in contact with lots of different characters is good, as that’s all fodder for your writing. Work for pay, and write early in the morning and on weekends. This is what most writers do. It’s what you’d have to do after an MFA, so why not skip the MFA and get straight to work?
  • Or get a degree in something that will simultaneously lead you to a job that pays the bills (as writing doesn’t for most people who work hard at it, and it’s often unreliable income even when it does pay) and make you an expert in something you can use in your fiction. Fantasy writers, perhaps you can get a degree in folklore or anthropology. (Though jobs in those areas are hard to come by and low-paying.) Science fiction writers, what’s wrong with a degree in computer science that allows you to earn a good living and also give you ideas for your futuristic fiction? Mystery writers, attend the police academy and hit the streets in uniform for a few years, why don’t you? Then you’ll know something real that will serve your writing.
  • If you must get a master’s degree in writing, go for technical writing. You’re more likely to get a job with that.
  • If you insist on an MFA and do get a fellowship, go, but don’t, as I did, arrive there revealing you have more publications than your professors or, if you get a great publication while you are there, mention it. (It’s hard to bite your tongue at such times, but bite it, hard.) The professors are insecure, foolish little people, and it will upset them. 
  • If you get several offers of fellowships, okay. Now go the websites and look at who they brag about as MFA alumni. Have you heard of any of those people without googling them? If the answer is no, then that’s not the program to attend, is it? If none of them can list a alum name you recognize, then why go at all, even with a fellowship? Be smart; ask yourself, “Then what does this place actually DO for its students?” If, after twenty-five years of handing out MFAs, not a single student went on to pen a best-seller or win a Pulitzer, then they are not doing their jobs right.
  • If you have your fellowship and go, and you’ve learned to keep your head down in class and ignore the nonsense values, do volunteer for a job editing the literary magazine there. You’ll learn a lot about what editors see when you’re an editor yourself, and it’s enlightening. It was the one useful thing regarding writing that I took out of the experience, but of course it was not part of the coursework.
  • So, you have your fellowship, to a program that can brag about several famous authors graduating in years past, and there’s a lit magazine to work on. You’re moving in to your apartment in August, checking out the town. Do check it out! Do not make the MFA students and professors your main source of social connection. If you have a family, great: do things with other families and spend quality time with your kids. If you’re single, join a group that appeals to you, join a church or temple or ashram or atheist meet-up. Find an equestrian group or a group of people who build model trains, or a quilt circle, or volunteer to mentor teenagers playing chess, or get a membership to a yoga studio, and build your social connections out from there. This will keep you saner and make it less likely you’ll absorb all the nonsense values promoted by the program.
Take it from one who knows. The MFA in fiction writing is a nonsense degree, and it won’t get you any closer to being a writer making money from writing fiction; indeed, it will probably push you away from achieving that goal. If you must do it for whatever reasons drive you to, heed my advice about minimizing its damage to you. Like a good parent, I really am saying it for your own good.

Thanks to The Passive Voice and its commenters for reminding me I needed to write this post one day. Kris Rusch has also spoken about the matter intelligently. Let the Truth be known.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sexual abuse by aid workers

Here’s the least pleasant topic I’ve run across in my researches on natural disasters. To think that in some terrible natural disasters, aid workers would come in and rape children who had just lost parents and home and access to food was at first unthinkable to me. But it happens, as several reports have revealed in the past fifteen years, and so we had all better think about it.

To me, this is in the same general category as looting but roughly a million times worse. And if you’ve followed this blog or read my novels, you know I’m death on looting. Scumbags, those natural disaster looters. They’ve existed since written records of disasters, too, so don’t believe it’s some new sign of a worse world. It happened in the Tri-State Tornado and I’d bet good money that it happened in Pompeii.

But this? This is so much worse. I can’t come up with a good enough insult name for the people who do it. Imagine: you're a child. Natural disaster has struck. Your home is gone. Your parents are missing and possibly dead. An aid worker comes in and seems as if he might be there to help, to provide some comfort or relief. And then comes the horror: the price of the bag of rice or the hour of listening is sex. Or, the aid worker simply rapes a child or woman once he has her alone. (I’ve seen no cases reported of adult males being raped or females being perpetrators, but there may be such incidents.)

One wonders what kind of monster could do this. Is this why they sign on to be aid workers in the first place, as a form of...what, rape tourism?  (Shudder.)

Aid organizations must educate their workers on this, test those people for signs of sociopathy, look into their criminal backgrounds, and get the information out to the public that any incident of abuse needs to be reported. And the punishment, after investigation, needs to be swift and certain. (I'm thinking something involving a blowtorch...but then, that's why they don't let me be a judge.)

What can you do about this? I can only think of two things: First, before donating money to any disaster relief agency, ask, “Do you background check your paid and volunteer work forces? How do you guarantee they won’t be molesting the children under their care?” And, of course, educate your own children. If anyone touches them inappropriately, in any situation, including after a tornado or earthquake or hurricane, when their world is in chaos, they should scream, bite, kick, run, and tell every adult they encounter ASAP.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why I hate Facebook

Admittedly, I never wanted to go to Facebook in the first place, and more than a few unpleasant things have happened to me there from the minor (please, people, no nude pictures of your heinie at 4:30 a.m. before I have even had my coffee!) to the major (someone from there reporting all my five-star reviews as fake to Amazon)...but writing friends said I couldn’t run a business without it. While I had hit the top 1000 of all authors at Amazon for a week with no Facebook, no ads, no advance reviewers, nothing but enthusiastic readers and word of mouth, I thought, well, but these writers must all know what they’re talking about. Right? So I finally caved.

But I never loved it, and this week came the straw that broke the camel’s back. I got a notice from FB that I could not get into my account because of malware. “Here, download this program,” they said, and that’ll take care of it and we’ll let you back in.

I have my own malware/trojan/spyware program which works great, and I had just run it not twelve hours before. But I downloaded any updates that had come in overnight and ran it again. No malware. Not even one little bit. So I ran a full virus check, too. I ran a specific check via both programs on the only three files I had downloaded in the previous few days, the cover to my new book. Nada. My computer was as clean as could be.

So, I thought, I’ll return to Facebook and it’ll know I’m clean and I’ll get in. Right?


I’ll clear cookies, close the browser, and it’ll know now, right?


And so I began an internet search on tech forums. And here is what some experts say is going on...and I think they’re probably right.

When Facebook tells you there is malware on your computer, THERE IS NO MALWARE ON YOUR COMPUTER. It’s a scam. They want to force you to download this software. What that software does, the experts say, is:

1) write code to your O/S you really don’t want there
2) disable any real malware software you have installed
3) allowing FB to put whatever they wish on your computer
4) and now, because the real malware software is now disabled, you are open to actual attacks, not imaginary ones

I have never understood greedy rich people. That Zuckerbooger guy is richer than Croesus, but apparently, he needs to be richer than that. So the new forced ads, data mining of horrific, invasive sorts, and now this holding your account hostage trick. All to grab at more and more money.

As I was uploading my newest book, 41 Days, at the time, having to deal with this for four hours in the middle of the list of 22 (don’t ask) tasks required of a book release? It put in me a very bad mood. (And bad health. My blood pressure, usually normal, zoomed up 35 points.) But the mood has passed, the BP is normal again, but I'm holding a grudge. It'll be some time before I'm back, and only as an author.

Also, FYI, I never did for FB what almost every author does: upload the reader mailing list to FB. (Didn’t know writers that, did you?) Authors do this so they can pay FB to find people just like you, demographically, to try and sell more books to.

But FB encourages it because, once they have that information, they get to data mine you more. And more. And more, until, with more and more businesses giving them this information without your knowing it, they can anticipate which links you’ll chose and which products you will actually buy. They know sooner than you do which “shop” button you’ll click. As has been reported elsewhere, in many cases, they actually know women are pregnant before a woman is certain herself! Your privacy, your buying behavior, has been sold.(Seriously, who wants Facebook to know the contents of her uterus. Isn't that upsetting to anyone but me?)

Because it seemed a little slimy to me, I never gave my mailing list (of readers who signed up here) to them nor to anyone.

If you get that notice from FB about malware on your own computer, based on what I experienced personally and everything I read on line, don’t believe it. If you bite on that bait and download their “malware” program, you may end up with malware on your computer, including nasty data-mining bits of it from FB itself.

FB seems free...but there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, my friends.

Be wary. Protect your privacy.

December: Edited to make it slightly less ranty. :)

Sunday, September 4, 2016

September is Preparedness Month

Here in the US, September is the month we're supposed to review our emergency plans, restock our food and water supply, and get ready for the coming year of natural disaster and power outages that might come our way.

I’m not much of a prepper. I do have a bug-out bag in my car trunk, and I do have 25 pounds of rice in my cupboard. But the latter came from my friend Ron and the former comes from my being a proponent of being prepared for realistic emergencies.

Not just preppers but everyone needs to be prepared for the sort of disaster that is most likely to happen wherever they live. Don’t worry about the end of the world; worry about the end of your stable world! Earthquakes, wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, sub-zero temperatures with electricity loss, house fires, floods: these are the likely events that could make your life uncomfortable or hellish at some point in the future.

For any emergency, you should have a three-day supply of water, food (and pet food) for every member of your family, cash, life-saving medications, and a change of clothes. Duct tape and a couple of bandanas are good additions, too, with many possible uses. A spare leash for each pet. Even six-year-old kids can have the special emergency backpack in their closet with a favorite old toy stuffed inside, ready to go at a moment’s notice if need be. A small first aid kit, which I hope you won’t need, is a good addition to one of the adult’s backpacks.

Take photos of your insurance papers, birth certificates, family phone numbers (since cell phones store those for us, we don’t remember these any more, do we?) and other crucial papers; upload them to the cloud, in an account you won’t forget the password of when you’re panicked. Make sure there are pictures of the pets in there, too, in case you get separated in a dire emergency and need to make lost pet posters. Even if your phone runs out of charge, usually in serious emergencies, you can find somewhere to get online. (libraries, special Red Cross facilities, cafes.)

The US government has done a terrific job of putting up emergency preparation information. (And anyone can look at it, no matter your nationality.) September is a month we’re to think of this, and if you haven’t freshened the water and food in your supplies you collected last time I nagged you about this, it’s a good month to do that. (Scroll down and click "emergencypreparedness" among my blog topics for all my posts on this.)

Stay safe.