Tina K. Russell

February 3, 2009

Learning the Tropes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:15 pm

What Do You Mean, It’s Not Didactic? – Television Tropes & Idioms
Right, so you’re looking through the library and come across a copy of Moby Dick. First published in 1851? Wow, if it’s still being published after more than 150 years, it must be good! You’ve heard a lot of good things about this novel, so you eagerly check it out and head home.

Later, you open it up and discover there’s a preface. Might as well read that to get an idea of the context it was written, and so maybe enjoy it even more. You start reading, and naturally the preface begins by summarizing the plot… wait, why are you annoyed? You weren’t planning on reading it for the story, were you? This isn’t just literature, it’s a work of True Art! In the minds of Really Clever Literary Critics, the true worth of a book, movie, or TV series is not in telling an engrossing story with interesting characters, but in allowing people to write long, complex, deep essays on the true meaning of the subject matter, whatever they think that may be. Once the critics have done this sort of analysis, they can objectively declare these works as True Art: it doesn’t matter how much you personally like or dislike these works so long as you understand the deeper meaning behind them. Only ignorant fools don’t understand. Such an attitude may be expressed in several ways:

You can even get away with Completely Missing The Point if you’re a Really Serious Critic who wants to reveal all sorts of Family Unfriendly Aesops inside a work, whether or not they have anything to do with the actual characters or plot. Goodness forbid that the author(s) wanted you to do so. How long will it be before high school/college students are forced to write long-winded essays about the philosophical and socio-religious undertones of Harry Potter? (Answer: Already happened.)

Note that having the plot given away becomes less and less of an issue the older the subject is. Most people who haven’t read, for example, Moby Dick will still be familiar with key plot points due to Popcultural Osmosis. See It Was His Sled.

See also True Art Is Angsty, True Art Is Incomprehensible.

Good God, this website is brilliant! It’s already sucked away hours of my life. It’s a complete listing of clichés that have appeared in (despite the site’s title) every fictional work, ever. All are named, identified, and catalogued. It feels like a certain consumer comeuppance. And, as such tropes are not necessarily bad (as the site eagerly points out), it’s like revealing that the emperor has no clothes—and hey, the emporer’s not that bad looking. He could be Mr. September on the Vainly Deceptive Heads of State swimsuit calendar. (I hope there’s a trope entry for what I just did, going too far on an allusion. You know, like instead of going out on a limb, you’ve staked out a tree for a week as part of an anti-logging public protest, only to find that the threatened tree you needed to protect is a couple meters over and already chopped down. It distracts from the text.)

January 7, 2009

Remembering EGM

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:46 pm

EGM Closed; 1Up Sold | Edge Online
Ziff Davis, a veteran player in games magazine and website publishing, has quit the business, closing long-running consumer mag EGM and selling its games web properties to UGO Entertainment and its parent Hearst.

EGM has been published for 20 years. In the 1990s it increased frequency to twice a month, via EGM2, and has been publishing online sites since the early 1990s. In the last few years, debt-stricken Ziff has closed numerous games pubs including Games for Windows.

This breaks my heart. I knew EGM was in trouble, and that a gaming news outlet that operates but once a month is hardly tenable these days, but… I’ve heard many stories of “I can’t believe this cultural institution I’ve grown up with is gone after 20 good years,” but I never prepared to say goodbye to mine.

I read my first issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly back when I was a little kid. Back then, I only played videogames twice a year; my parents would rent a Genesis and some Sonic games for my birthday, and for my brother’s birthday (which was, fortunately, sufficiently far apart).

You can imagine, of course, that this elevated the Sega Genesis to an almost mythical status for us, a kind of legendary civilization that rises from the water but twice a year. So, if I saw an issue of EGM (especially if it had Sonic on the cover, which was often) on a grocery store shelf, I’d plead with my mom for it. Every once in a while, she’d grant my wish (despite thinking of EGM, with its raunchy game ads and occasional sexy rendered ladies, doubtlessly as part of the American institution of the too-short childhood), and I’d walk home with a cherished knickknack, a kind of souvenir from this legendary civilization.

Actually, first it wasn’t EGM, it was GamePro, and later an issue or two of GameFan. (I still have that issue of GamePro; it was their famous Sonic 2 preview issue, featuring screenshots of several levels that were eventually scrapped. Also, in the pictorials, I wondered who that raccoon next to Sonic was. Even after learning he was a fox, I resolutely refused to believe he had two tails. That’s just silly.) In time, it was all EGM.

EGM had the right balance of snark and professionalism. Unlike other game mags, which featured a colorful cast of fantasy creatures as their supposed editors (GameFan actually did a regular comic feature on the adventures of their intrepid reviewers; barf), EGM used real faces and names… mostly. (When a reader suspected them of being too good-looking, an editor responded, “trust me, if our pictures were fake, we would have found better-looking models.”) They had one exception to keep the fantasy alive: the mysterious, fighting-game-obsessed ninja from parts unknown: Sushi-X.

EGM gave each game four scores instead of one, and you could read what each reviewer thought. The reviewers had their own profiles and short messages in each issue, so you could pick whichever one you felt the most kinship with. EGM ran editorials on the maturing of the games industry, the introduction of violence and sex into the mix, and the undue influence of advertising dollars. (EGM‘s editorials in recent years have been one of the last bastions of defense against the widescale selling-out of the enthusiast press, and its reviews have been refreshingly harsh, refusing to hand out the all-too-common “courtesy sevens” for games that should have tried harder.) You also, as I remember, grew fond of the magazine’s editors, who were all good writers. You felt like you were hanging out at the arcade with them. (In fact, they were the first generation of great game writers, having started at the industry’s outset and laying claim to having played nearly every release “from Pong on.”) I was suddenly interested in playing the incomprehensibly named Super Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyperfighting, despite not having heard of it before. (I did play it eventually, and I just didn’t get it; those who did can now enjoy the acclaimed remake, lovingly monikered with the equally, endearingly absurd name of Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix.) I wanted to discuss with them why I thought the hero I grew up with (Sonic) was better than the hero they grew up with (some plumber who stomps on turtles). I wanted to sit around with them with pizza, Cherry Coke, and a few rounds of Saturn Bomberman. I was unsurprised when they reported that a sick child, through the Make-a-Wish foundation, chose to spend a day hanging out with the EGM crew. It was a sound choice.

They were heroes to me, breaking through the pomp of day-to-day videogame blather to reveal the creamy insides of compelling gameplay and fascinating, real-time stories. In issue #100, which I think was 1996, they presented a “top 100 games of all time” list, giving recognition to a wide array of games in many genres, all ranked with the rule that no points are awarded for fondness or historical importance; these are the game’s we’d take with us “if we were abducted by aliens.” This was the master list of pure fun, and at the top sat none other than Alexei Pajitnov’s Tetris. (Modern top-100 lists tend to guage subjectively, based on when the games came out; this inevitably results in a useless list topped every time by Super Mario Bros., for its yet-unmatched leap into the future of gaming. Still, Super Mario Bros. came out when the game market had crashed after being flooded by terrible Atari knock-off cartridges from companies desperate to cash in on what they saw as a fad; it’s hard to compete with Super Mario Bros. when it’s being contrasted with the crap that immediately preceeded it.)

The top 100 list gave slots to Sonic 2 and Sonic CD, to my pleasure, and also gave a joint entry to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche. It noted that both these titles were localizations of the popular Japanese puzzle game Puyo Puyo, beginning my childhood fascination with the series that would surprise and confuse my schoolmates. The list, to my dismay, included Blast Corps, a game that my brother liked but I did not; he relished the challenge, while I felt it was simply issuing you nearly impossible and uniformly boring challenges, and then rewarding you with even more difficult and boring challenges. (Little did I know that developer Rare’s games would only become even more so over time.) I could win the argument, though: the list also included Ms. Pac-Man, a a pizza-parlor favorite of me and kids everywhere, giving it a better spot.

Issue #102, which I recieved that Christmas in my stocking, introduced me to the world of videogame history; despite some inaccuracy, it was a fascinating look into the formative story of our industry, and it began my interest in the topic. Another issue had the Sonic Adventure cover story, which I pleaded with my mom for, and I then brought it to summer camp to flip through occasionally to comfort myself as well as to use it to inform my fellow campers how awesome the next year would be for Sega, defending the corporate giant from those who thought its hardware days were over following the Saturn’s woes. The story had many odd mistakes, such as saying that the game take place “on Earth, not Sonic’s homeworld of Mobius” (this sort of thing stokes an enormous fan debate, but the long and short of it is that Sonic and friends live on Earth, and it’s called “Earth,” but it’s different from our Earth), and that it took place in South America (really, it contained “the Mystic Ruins,” inspired by a trip to Aztec, Maya, and Inca ruins that the developers took before ever revealing the project). But, I forgave the mistakes, on account of the awesome visual spreads and the fact that I now had something to put under my pillow as I slept, something to remind me of my fandom back home.

Eventually, EGM‘s intrepid marketers selected me to recieve a free subscription (I don’t know what I did!), and so I have many issues saved up from the late 90s and early 2000s, for about two years or so. I fell in love with the “Hsu and Chan” comics that poked fun at the industry’s odd habits and shortcomings. (In one, our heroes, small-time game developers, try to upstage Gran Turismo 2 with an “ultra-realistic driving game” of their own: it includes such realistic touches as the “pounding on the hood and swearing” mini-game and the “try to get one last ride to Vegas outta this jalopy” challenge.) I cherished looks at games like Jet Grind Radio and Skies of Arcadia that would live on to be under-appreciated classics.

I’m sure if I went back and looked at my old issues of EGM, today, my fawning wouldn’t gush quite so freely. The rose-tinted specs would be off, and I’d see the relentless assault of immature ads, the even flow of courtesy sevens, and the excessive lightness of their approach to a serious (and seriously entertaining) medium. In retrospect, and I’ve known this for only a few years now, the real gift that EGM passed onto me was its gift of words.

EGM taught me to talk. It tought me to be snarky. It taught me to be unrelenting in my criticism but forgiving in my outlook. It taught me to laugh at the bad and see through to the good. It taught me to use big words in elegant ways that imply what they mean. It taught me the most important lesson of all: never forget, even and especially when your health is running low, your last save point was an hour back, and you’re about to fight the toughest end boss so far, that it’s all just a game.

Thanks, EGM. In my book, you’ve earned a perfect 10.

August 5, 2008

Please, please don’t overdo it

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 2:47 pm

This is why I hate it when William Safire goes on vacation:

On Language – Me, Myself and I – NYTimes.com
So what effect has capitalizing “I” but not “you” — or any other pronoun — had on English speakers? It’s impossible to know, but perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot. There have, of course, been plenty of rich and dominant cultures throughout history that have gotten by just fine without capitalizing the first-person pronoun or ever writing it down at all. There have also been cultures that committed atrocities even while capitalizing “you.”

Still, there seems to be something to it all. Modern e-mail culture has shown that many English speakers feel perfectly comfortable dismissing all uses of capitalization — and even correct spelling, for that matter. But take this a step further: i suggest that You try, as an experiment, to capitalize those whom You address while leaving yourselves in the lowercase. It may be a humbling experience. It was for me.

It’s a very good and informative article; it’s also full of the cutesy, candy-coated turns of phrase that I cannot stand to read in The New York Times. They make me retch precisely because I imagine how proud the author must have been with them, which makes me cold with fear that such bombast may infect my writing, if it hasn’t already.

I once read a book on writing that recommended that, if you’re afraid to pull a piece of writing from your larger work because you’re too proud of what’s in there, stick it in a file called “cuts” and leave it alone. That way, you’ll always be able to go back to it should you need it; though, he found, he never did. (The book is The Playwright’s Guidebook, by Stuart Spencer. I recommend it.)

June 11, 2008

Awesome Cissexuals: Mehmet Murat Somer

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:38 pm

Turkish novelist Mehmet Murat Somer writes about a cross-dressing detective out to help a community that the police all too often ignore. That’s something I can get behind. Here’s an interview with him, by Bloomberg’s Steve Bryant.

Bloomberg.com: Muse Arts
After a hard day of computer programming and martial-arts training, Burcak Veral dresses up as Audrey Hepburn and sallies forth to solve crimes in Istanbul’s transsexual community.

The cases are grisly: transsexuals raped and drowned or left to die in burning buildings. Yet it’s all in a night’s work for the hero-heroine who kick-boxes and jiggles through the bestselling novels of Turkish crime writer Mehmet Murat Somer.

Somer is a former Citigroup Inc. branch manager and trainer who left the bank in 1994 to become a management consultant. In his beige trousers and open-necked shirt, he cut a dapper, sassy figure as I joined him in a cafe near his office in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul.

It’s a regular haunt for the author, who greeted the waiters with a wave as he sauntered in and demanded a quiet table. Over a lunch of seafood salad, we talked about Agatha Christie, police crackdowns and the first English translation of one of his books, which explore the hidden sides of Turkish sexuality.

May 8, 2008

Like lilies, glistening after a protracted steam bath, she picked up the thimble with the gentleness of a spring breeze and the grace of a novice plumber

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:22 pm

This Wikipedia article will probably be edited down in due time, because it goes entirely too far in depth into a book I’ve never heard of. However, I must say, this book sounds awesome. For instance, here are its “Ten Rules for Serious Writers”:

A Reader’s Manifesto – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

1. Be Writerly: If your writing is too natural, then there is no way it is scholarly.

2. Sprawl: Content doesn’t matter, it’s all about size. Critics are impressed by big books, so brevity should be dismissed.

3. Equivocate: If it doesn’t make sense, there can always be a good excuse. Truth can always be distorted as long as it makes the writer sound good. For example, the plot isn’t important because the lack of plot is what’s important.

4. Mystify: If people think that your writing is smarter than their writing, then they will respect your writing. If you sound smart (and definitely if you are published) then you must possess a brilliant mind.

5. Keep Sentences Long: If the sentence is not long and boring, then it is definitely not literature.

6. Repeat yourself: Repetition of words is important. If you don’t mention your subject enough times, then the reader may not know what you are talking about. You may also use synonyms to show that you know how to use a thesaurus, and thus, must be an intelligent writer.

7. Pile on the Imagery: Your writerly credentials will bloom to greatness if your ability to tie together multiple similes and metaphors like the wooden pieces of a Lincoln log set, never disintegrate from the fiery visage of the sun. The more literary devices that you can throw together, the better the writing .

8. Archaize: If thine style of writing reflects an age long gone, and a world unfamiliar to the modern reader, than thou art indeed a master of the quill and the ink. This is very similar to rule number four, except you must write as if you are stuck in the past, rather than stuck in a dictionary.

9. Bore: The word boring may as well be a synonym to the word scholarly. Along the lines of rule number one, you cannot write naturally, or make your words interesting. It is simply not scholarly. People are not suppose to be able to understand your writing, they are only suppose to realize that your writing is brilliant, because it just might be the cure for insomnia.

10. Play the part: Remember to be as you write, scholarly, literate, practically a god. You must understand that when you seem smart, when you seem to believe in yourself, others will do the same, because, how could someone that is so smart and so pompous be wrong?

I’m a good writer, but I’m both insecure about my ability (like any creator) and surrounded by people less talented than me. Let me say that again. I’m good at writing, but in any given room I’m likely to be around people who are better at other things than me. Writing is my thing, but I don’t network enough with other writers, so I get an inflated sense of how good my writing is because I too often talk about writing with friends who don’t write (but, I’m sure, can kick my ass at other things, like music, sports, and keys-not-forgetting). You know, I’ve never quite realized what a big problem that is for me. I guess I should join a writer’s group, or something.

Anyway, what I mean to say is that I find that list high-larious, not because I spend much time reading high-minded literary journals (I don’t, and the last time I really enjoyed a piece of fiction was when I positively devoured Nina, Adolescence a few years back, and I recommended you chow down as well sometime), but because I am, in my heart of hearts, horrified that I’ll end up in the same traps.

I mentioned, sorta, that I don’t read enough (well, not enough fiction, even though I’d like to write some of that stuff mah-self in time), but I have read enough to have cringed many times at a sentence that was grating or overly evocative (in all the wrong ways), with the most searing point of pain in my mind being that the writer must have been so proud of that part.

So, of course, I now know… if I really, really like a tiny little iota of something I’ve written, and I’m really proud of it, I may want to get rid of it. If it’s really worthwile to stay in, it’ll creep back in, I’m sure.

I didn’t just put that list up to mock pretentious writers, though I’m always up for mocking pretentiousness in general (see my previous post, “High Art”), it’s also because it’s funny because I’m afraid I might end up there. I’m terrified, as a utilitarian, of the idea of form divorced from content, or the idea of form as content, that it doesn’t matter what we’re reading, it’s that it’s hard to read and we’re busy stroking our chins contemplating how smart we are for reading such dense, bad fiction. There’s a difference between story and storytelling… storytelling is kind of like a condiment. You wouldn’t want to read a story told poorly, or in unnecessarily dense language, just as you wouldn’t want to eat a hamburger slathered with crude oil. A story told straight might be like a hamburger served plain, so it can be satisfying, but… missing something. Add ketchup and mustard in the form of good storytelling, and it brings out the flavor and creates one tasty burger-story.

Hey, I kind of like that. Damn!

Now I have to strike it.

Anyway, I had one more thing to say. (I should stop starting paragraphs with “so” and “anyway!” It’s not good writing, after all. Neither is using words like “sorta” or “mah-self.” I like to say I can get away with it because this blog is written in colloquial style. I’m more bothered by grammar mistakes that do not reveal whether or not the writer actually knows what the write way is. Anyway…) (Damn!) I do want to be the greatest writer who ever lived–feel free to chuck some dangling participles at me, to toughen me up–but this shows that I must be sure to keep my head out of the clouds and meet with diverse groups of people, to avoid close-minded echo chambers that will enhance the worst aspects of my writing.

Anyway (damn!), the point is: love your readers, they pay your bills. Even if I don’t become famous enough to hole myself up in an apartment and become a celebrated mystery for the rest of my life (though wherever he is, I’m sure J.D. Salinger has World of WarCraft), I think I’ll be happy with just one of those book-signings with twenty or so adoring fans. Well, maybe more than one. As many as I can. I’ll be a book-signing monster.

Still, you see what I mean… if you write in unnecessarily dense language, or take pride in your work being accessible only by the elite, you’re placing a cap on how many readers you will attract and handing yourself a dwindling audience. Obviously, if you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how many (or few) readers you have as long as you’re happy. But, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re probably not loading your books on purpose with confoundingly dense prose. …Unless you consider that process itself to be a Tetris-like thing of beaty, stacking blocks just right to produce a precarious but unyielding stack of figures. If you do, more power to you, just don’t expect to see me at your book signing.

April 15, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 4:31 pm

With Mentors at Their Sides, Girls in Need Write Their Stories and Find New Lives – New York Times

Please forgive a really long excerpt (you, the readers, as well as The New York Times):

The reading was hosted by a nonprofit group that pairs high school girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to be writers with women who are authors, journalists, playwrights, poets and editors. The group produces an anthology of student writing each spring, and puts on several public readings.

The readings are often the first chance girls get to read their own words in front of an audience.

“I was so nervous when I stepped onstage,” recalled PinChang, a junior at Flushing International High School. “I was shaking. But now I feel like I can say or do anything.”

Maya Nussbaum, 31, helped found the group, Girls Write Now, 10 years ago when she was a senior majoring in creative writing at Columbia University.

Shelly Taylor, 26, and Carmen Li, 17, meet at the Vandam Diner in SoHo on Thursdays for ice cream floats and poetry.

“We were really lucky to be paired together,” said Ms. Taylor, a published poet from rural Georgia who works as a bartender and a writing coach at Empire State College. “We both write poems that sound like prose, and we’re both very random, very outside of the box, as people and as writers.”

The two are the first writers in their families.

“Where I’m from, if you tell your mom and dad you want to write poems for a living, they have no clue what that’s about,” Ms. Taylor said. “It can be very isolating. I never had a mentor until graduate school. That made all the difference.”

I may be in college–and not all that disadvantaged–but I’d really like something like this. Does anybody know of… anything? (I’m from Oregon, y’all…)

March 10, 2008

Lies and Consequences

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tina Russell @ 9:31 pm

Stolen Suffering – New York Times

This guy is right. The problem with lies is that they dilute the truth, and the truth–even in this age of “truthiness”–is a very important thing.

Moreover, to read a book is to express trust in the author, and the author had better not betray it. I read somewhere about authors defending David Sedaris’s many outlandish exaggerations, saying that, as a humorist, he shouldn’t be held to the same standards as, say, a journalist. That makes me sad because–though I find his writing a bit tiring–a lot of people read his books and find hope, inspiration, and a reminder to look for the amusing or insightful in the little things in life. People who read his books establish a trust, and when that trust is betrayed, it makes me sad. (And remember, you can always use disclaimers if you’re merely fudging things… the nice thing about disclaimers is that they remove pretense and force you to stand on the quality of your writing. Part of what people find enthralling about David Sedaris is that he writes, supposedly, true stories about a fairly average life. When he makes his embellishments, he’s selling the readers on a false premise, and that’s deplorable.)

Of course, the op-ed linked above isn’t about humor novels, or exaggerations; it’s about gut-wrenching, soul-searching memoirs that have recently turned out to be complete fabrications. I express often that I feel that we are slipping too deeply into moral relativism and forgetting the basic concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil, and–as is relevant here–truth and falsehood. The author is right that we need to bring back the truth, and start giving it the respect it deserves.

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