Author: JDJPlocher

Reflections on a Third Teaching Year

Forty-eight hours ago, I turned in my keys and signed out of my school for the summer. That doesn’t mean there’s no work to do: I have some projects to plan, some bureaucracy to manage, some trainings to attend…but by and large, the next two and a half months are mine for other things. Including (finally!) getting back to Walking Ledges.

My thoughts after my first year of teaching full time were long enough to require three separate posts. Last year, I apparently didn’t feel that anything beyond signing my contract renewal was noteworthy.

This year has been different in that it has been largely the same as the previous one. Signing that second contract was a big deal; working a second year in the same place was less about the moments and more about the way the work shaped other moments.

Teaching advanced placement and intervention simultaneously kept me on my toes. I joked that I had “only the skinny parts of the bell curve.” That’s not entirely true; some students end up in intervention classes who don’t belong there, and the same is true of AP classes. They all require different strategies (differentiation!). They all require attention. They all require—have a right to—the best teaching the school can provide. We  teach the students who walk through our door.

That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed from that first set of reflections: students are the best thing about the job any time they aren’t the worst thing about the job. (Most of the time, the worst part of the job is bureaucracy.) What did change? Well…

Improvisation and Iteration

My class assignments changed back in August, and I had to hit the ground running with my AP Literature course. Mid-August up through November was a bit of a blur. I knew only a few of the texts I taught. One or two were a matter of staying ahead of my students. One of the perks of having done this for a while, though, is that you’re better able to leverage the authority you get just for being the one at the front of the room. I’ve always worked from broad outlines and sketches, filling them in as I go. That’s become my general mode of lesson planning…at least until I’m wrangling challenging material or challenging students. At those times, I damn well better bang out specific, timed lesson plans. Most of the time, though, teaching AP allowed me to improvise and bounce ideas around with my awesome students.

Teaching intervention was, most days, at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d taught the course a full year. With it being a one-semester course, I’d already taught it twice by the time the 16-17 school year started. That meant that I had plenty of material sitting around waiting to be re-used. Or modified. Or shifted to a different context. Or thrown out all together. The pleasure of teaching a course I’d been through before is much like the pleasure of editing and revising. The iteration helps you smooth things out, improve the good things, eliminate the ones that aren’t working, and try new things in small doses.

Of course, you get new students. Tests change. Administrative requirements change. Lessons that were awesome for one class can fall flat the very next period. So even when you’re fine-tuning, you frequently have to improvise a new melody.

Collegiality

I’ve said it before, and I meant it: I like teachers. Not all teachers are awesome people, but it seems like most of them are. (No self-congratulation intended!) In a year when there was so much craziness going on in the world, I appreciated having colleagues who could help keep me grounded and focused on the things I could control. My fantastic department head won district teacher of the year, and deserved every bit of it. My fellow AP/pre-AP teachers are doing cool stuff with curriculum. My next door neighbor is the loudest guy in the building, a raconteur who holds down the head of the teacher’s lounge lunch table. It’s good to have work friends again.

Plus, my colleagues get (most) of my jokes. Even when they’re not funny jokes.

On Finding my Niche

I started teaching full-time at a charter in East Austin, commuting too many miles and too many minutes. I spent my days with eighth graders who, mostly, were not good at being in school (no matter how smart they were). I’d done most of my substitute teaching in middle schools. It seemed like a good idea. Looking back, it’s hard to sort out which challenges were first-year-teacher things, which were specific to the school, which to the commute, which to the grade level… Being a first year teacher is hard!

This year, teaching AP, things felt…right. Teaching advanced placement seniors is about as close to teaching college as you can get without actually doing it. There are advantages, though: I get to spend so much more time with my students. I see them every day, learn so much more about who they are and what they hope to do. I would have gotten some of that with professor-ing full time, with the mythical tenure-track job. I was absolutely not getting it as an adjunct. The AP kids, usually, remember to call me by the correct title.

I still love teaching writing. I got faster, over the year, at grading the exam-specific stuff. I’m working on more and better ways to build writing into the curriculum. I love showing students how a text can do multiple things at the same time, how no matter what a multiple-choice exam might require you to ‘understand,’ literature and life are messier. When I do my job well, when it is at its most satisfying, its the students who get that, who find the meaning in the glorious mess, who explain it as best they can (which is sometimes brilliantly).

Next year, barring another last minute change, I’ll only be teaching seniors—AP and “on-level.” As excited as I am about spending the summer writing, about my summer to-do list, I’m already excited about what’s coming up when August rolls around.

Reality’s Got Teeth

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
—Shylock, Merchant of Venice (III.i)

Most of what I write is fantastic.

waits the necessary beat

…by which I mean it’s not real, nor is it intended to be. I don’t think there are many places that becomes clearer than in the way so many of the novels I read and games I play deal with violence and its consequences. In most roleplaying games, damage is abstracted to hit points or health levels. It usually doesn’t matter where you get hit or what you get hit with, because damage is just another stat that you track. Healing, likewise, is a matter of popping a healing potion or medkit, sometimes resting a few days. Few games deal with scarring. I’ve yet to see any deal with rehabilitation.

A lot of the novels I enjoy are the same way. Our heroes get the crap beaten out of them. They get stabbed or shot or scorched by magic. Then, a chapter or two later (sometimes just a page or two later), they’re back to running across rooftops or dueling with evil wizards or piloting starfighters. Writers—myself included—build in medical technology or healing magic that’s just as fantastic as the dragons or fireballs or jump gates. I’ve tried, in the novels I’ve written, to keep track of injuries, to let them mean something. But I’m guilty, too, of slapping magical healing or nanosurgery or such on my characters once the crisis has passed.

Partly, it’s a genre expectation. Partly, it’s really hard to effectively write a scene where being able to sit up unassisted for fifteen minutes is a victory. Mostly, I think, we as writers and readers find pain, well, painful. Agonizing months of rehab, scars that don’t fully heal? No thanks. Get me back to the monsters and swordfights and ancient mysteries.

Recently, a family member was in a serious car accident—the “we’re not sure she’s going to live” kind of car accident. She spent a week in the hospital with a laundry list of trauma. Now that she’s out of the hospital…she still has that laundry list of trauma. Her recovery will take months. Realistically, she may never recover 100% of what the accident took. Almost dying will do that to you. Right now, the walk from bed to the bathroom is a hike to Mordor carrying the one ring.

Injuries have consequences. Pain is real. If you prick us, we bleed, whether or not we’re Jewish. This is why current U.S. politics are seeping so deeply into so many lives: policies cause material harm, whether that’s choosing between health insurance and utilities or facing deportation or understanding that your rights aren’t as good as somebody else’s. Life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse for abandoning the work of trying to make it better.

Watching my sister-in-law in her hospital room, working to breathe, only inconsistently able to track what had happened to her and what was going around her, I couldn’t help thinking “there’s no way to write this pain.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Writing and reading promote empathy. When reality has the kind of bite it does right now, that’s more important than ever.

Forty-Five

Embed from Getty Images

On January 20th, we inaugurated Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

I remember, back in February of 2016, before Trump was even properly on track for the Republican nomination, writing a post on Facebook about belief in policies not making people good or evil. (There were a lot of moral judgments flying around between Berners and Clinton supporters on top of the tumult in the Republican field.) One of my high school friends pushed me on a particular point of phrasing. At that time, I confessed that Trump had said things that went well beyond the political for me, things that crossed moral lines.

In February.

A year ago.

The outrages and the outrageous have only compounded since then. We now have a sitting president who boasted about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. We have a president who mixes George W. Bush’s insight and Reagan’s nostalgic machismo with Nixon’s paranoia, disdain for intellectuals, and ethical corner-cutting. His campaign strategy was that of the most effective internet trolls: keep spewing shit, ignore anybody who tries to call you on it, and then yell about the bias of the mods. He approached the campaign with all the savvy of a reality TV star.

With a substantial assist from the electoral college, Americans kicked the only alternative off the island.

I’d watched Brexit unfold in real time through the social media accounts of European friends. There was disbelief. There was grief. There was a sense that an order was ending for all the wrong reasons. People predicted immediate disaster.

November 10th felt the same way. I’m not going to lie: I cried. It wasn’t in disbelief, though—I live in Texas. I grew up in rural Idaho. Hell, I’ve spent time in the deeply-red outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities. There’s a lot of bigotry in this country, much of it quiet and wearing the clothes of class and the trappings of “responsibility.” Even more, though, there are many people who already see the world ending, for whom progressivism and any hint of relativism are failings of both morality and civilization. There are people who see zero-sum games everywhere they look and understand others’ rise as their loss. There are those who believe fervently in American exceptionalism and national pride. Trump was able to tap into all of that. I cried that day because the world I want for my students, for my own kids, is not the “great again” one that Trump spun for the crowds.

Is the best case scenario for our president “too incompetent to really damage much”? Alas, that’s unlikely. He’s built a cabinet of the rich and richer, of executives and careerists who have in many cases aggressively argued to end the existence of the government offices they’re about to lead. Steve “Breitbart” Bannon is his chief policy advisor. Even if Trump himself is too busy throwing Twitter fits about the meanies who make fun of him, that cabinet is going to make things happen.

The media won’t save us. It can’t. Let me tell you about one of the impossible situations teachers occasionally face. Sometimes, there’s a student who decides to say “no.” No threat of consequences will move her. No appeal to personal responsibility, to judgment, to the needs of fellow-students will dent that “no.” As a teacher, your only recourse is to call in administrator (or, sometimes, an SRO). Trump has said “no” to the media in so many ways. He has said “no” to the American people when they have asked about his tax returns, his potential conflicts of interest, and, in most cases, any description of policy beyond “best,” “outstanding,” and “terrific.” He’s the president now, and he doesn’t care. There’s no administrator to call in. His surrogates are already talking, literally, about alternative facts… We’ve taken internet echo chambers into a real reductio ad absurdum.

There were protests over the weekend. As Congress moves to gut the Affordable Care Act—a law, incidentally, that guarantees my son his health insurance—their phones are busy as hell. There are calls to make sure the cabinet nominees get at least standard ethics office screenings. We can push back. We might lose. We will lose on some things, because it’s not for nothing that Trump was elected. It’s not for nothing that Republicans control government. Democracy means losing sometimes.

What we can’t lose is democracy, as fragile and incomplete as our American one has always been. We will have to build our own bulwarks against the flood of propaganda that is already flowing from the White House with its “alternative facts.” We must keep one another from falling into “some people say…” no matter how much we’d like those things to be true or untrue.

This isn’t reality TV anymore. It’s reality. We have an obligation as citizens to deal with it that way.

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.

Shifting Gears

Last week, I went on vacation. My family put 2000 miles on our new car, learning about the ways road tripping is different when people are sitting close enough that they can all touch each other. (Our mileage was great, though!) Only one of the trip’s six days did not feature at least three hours of driving as we shuffled first north, then south. Along the way, we took in a museum where a T-Rex shares a name with my son, a production of Cirque du Soleil’s new Avatar-inspired show, and an awful lot of corn fields. And family.

Some of the transitions from car to family visit to car were seamless. We arrived. The kids exploded out of the car. They ran amok (sometimes with cousins) while the adult-types prepared food and caught up. We ate hamburgers and, because the sweet corn is coming ripe, plenty of fresh corn. The weather was very not-Texas, which we appreciated.

A few times, the explosion of kids out of the car was too explosive. There was too much energy to sit, even with the relative novelty of eating out. It meant going outside and finding places in or near gas station parking lots where my son could run and jump and otherwise do activities to help him regulate his body.

And of course, many transitions were preceded by “are we there yet?” Variations on this were my daughter’s favorite, sometimes hours before we closed in on our various destinations. By the time “getting there” meant being home, we were 15 minutes into August.

So, end of summer break…are we there yet?

We must be getting close. Monday, my boss called me to discuss my class assignments for the upcoming year. Earlier in the summer, he’d said that, pending enrollment numbers, everybody would be teaching what they taught last year. The purpose of the principal’s phone call was to explain that some things had changed. (It almost always changes.) Last year, I taught English intervention (for students who have either already failed or are at risk of failing the end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate) and on-level English IV (for seniors who often think they’ve already finished high school). Last spring, intervention was full entirely of freshmen. It was…challenging (especially the section at the end of the day, which was almost entirely boys and almost entirely disinterested in anything academic by the time class started at 3:05). I had hoped that we’d hit numbers for the creative writing elective I was listed to teach. I’d also hoped, vaguely, to escape teaching intervention. (It has its benefits; I feel like it helps keep me honest as a teacher and really pushes my pedagogy. It just wears me out.) Neither happened.

This year—which for teachers in my district starts next week—I’ll still be teaching intervention. Instead of on-level seniors, though, I’ll have the Advanced Placement (registered trademark of the College Board) seniors. I’ll be inheriting my colleague’s summer assignment, which means hurriedly reading the assigned novel (thank you, grad school, for preparing me!). I need to pull a syllabus together, one detailed and tidy enough for the College Board to approve it. I need to shove the vague plans I had about rearranging the on-level English stuff to the back burner. I need to think about what worked with the intervention classes last year, particularly in the spring, that I can adapt to the different group of students I’ll have in the fall.

It’s a lot to get ready in the two and a half weeks before students show up. On the plus side, I won’t be waiting on HR to decide whether or not I exist. It’s another opportunity to improve my teaching, which is exciting. None of my classes should be huge. There’s a lot to like.

Earlier, I mentioned that we got a new car. It has a continuously variable transmission; there are no “gears” to shift between. My first car was a manual transmission. I’ve driven automatics since then, but even those train you to a pattern of shifts. You learn when you need to jam on the pedal to make the transmission downshift, when to let up a little to get the upshift. You listen to the patterns of the RPMs. The new car doesn’t do that. It has paddle shifters and a sport mode so you can pretend, if you want, but mostly the transmission just runs. The changes are gradual.

That’s how this summer has felt, and it’s a change I’ve been able to notice mostly because so many other pieces of my life are stable. As an undergrad (and before that), summers were summer. Whether it was a job or just a lot more ultimate, I had a sense that summer was different. Not all of the summers were lazy. Not all of them were good. They were, though, decisively not-school. During my masters, I took a fair number of summer seminars to grease the wheels on my dual degree. It still felt like a distinct season, though, because we had a lot of teachers pursuing masters degrees, because the rhythm of the day was different, because the weather was different.

I didn’t take summer seminars during my doctoral work. They weren’t part of the program. I took care of my kids. I squeezed in research trips. I wrote. The research trips have been replaced by professional development, but those other things have continued. My school year lines up imperfectly with the kids’, so there were some hazy patches at the beginning of the summer, with another coming up when I go back for inservice next week. There have been trips and camps and many visits to the library. Not once did I have a sense that things had slowed down. They must have, though, because I can feel them speeding up again now, even without a noticeable shift in gears.

Continuously variable transmission, indeed.

Reflections in the Rearview Mirror

I remember the day that, as an undergraduate, I realized I could not do everything. I had committed myself to the same kind of activity load that I’d had at UWC. For a semester, it was fine—my first semester at Macalester was lightweight, especially since I wasn’t adjusting to living away from home. Second semester, I had some harder classes, and I collapsed. I spent a day in my dorm room, sometimes sleeping, sometimes crying, knowing I had to quit at least one thing but unable to reconcile myself to—as I saw it—being a quitter.

In between naps, I pored through my yearbooks. At AC, we wrote a lot in the yearbooks, especially our second year. We tried to wrap all the intensity of those two years into our words, knowing that we would soon be scattering literally all over the world (and in the days before social media, that meant even more). That February day in Minnesota, I needed those memories. It wasn’t just to remind myself that I had friends. I needed to read all of the good things people wrote about me (although one of my fellow U.S. students wrote, thoughtfully, about how I was a terrible cynic and ought to respect my country more). I needed to believe that some of those things, maybe most of those things, were true. I was good at things. People liked me.

I needed the past to validate my present, to reassure me that my travails would pass, just as they had there. (I’d had a similar break while in Wales, one that remained the worst I’d had until I was wrestling with leaving academia.) It worked, mostly. I ended my brief career as a sportswriter for the Mac Weekly. I stopped taking on new activities. I started going out with my first real girlfriend.

[–*–]

Earlier this week, my first band director died. Skip Bicknese didn’t bat an eye when my mom, a little confused herself, took me to the band room moments after I’d informed the counselor at my soon-to-be middle school that I wanted to do in band in seventh grade. Mr. B and I talked a little about what I wanted to play. He taught me, minutes after walking into the band room, the basics of buzzing and showed me my first fingering chart. My braces saw to it that I didn’t remain a horn player for long, but I am pretty sure I was a band nerd by that October.

There’s no doubt I was by the time I reached high school. I’d been playing baritone horn for a while. Mr. B invited me to come try the jazz band (which met before school) on valve trombone. Valve trombones are abominations, and I decided I’d better learn to play a proper trombone even as I was falling in love with third and fourth trombone parts and going to all the home basketball games. (The jazz band was also the pep band.) When Mr. B left after my freshman year, I was bummed, but I’d learned enough that, along with other band students, I helped stand up to his replacement (who was terrible and only lasted a year himself).

When I read that Skip had died, I cried. He introduced me to music as practice. I’m not sure he was endlessly patient, but he was endlessly enthusiastic, which made up for it. He told terrible jokes. He laughed at the terrible jokes his students told. He wrote our marching band arrangements and a good chunk of our pep band music. I suspect looking at photocopies of those low-resolution printouts planted the seed that I could create music myself. I know that Mr. B’s love for music and for his students propelled me and many others into music as a lifelong effort. I didn’t think of him when I smiled to hear Rite of Spring on the radio last week, but I should have. I wouldn’t have gotten to Stravinsky (never mind LaMonte Young or Meredith Monk) without the Bicknese arrangement of “American Band.”

[–*–]

Last night, I took my curling printout of Ghosts of the Old City to a coffee shop. I brought a pen, too. That was it. I sat down, and I read the whole draft. I went through it last summer, but had to job hunt instead of starting rewrites in earnest. I spent NaNo 2015 working on the sequel. I hadn’t forgotten the novel, but I didn’t remember it well enough to dive straight back into rewrites.

It’s odd to think that I wrote the first part of Ghosts three years ago, before I’d even considered moving to Texas. There’s not a lot of that early vision left, and where it shows it mostly needs to go away—I still read parts and think “that’s so NaNo.” There were times when I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the glory and the curse of NaNo, especially for a first-timer. I had to find my story.

The draft had not miraculously improved itself while it sat on my desk. The opening is still mostly good. The following section, the one that leads up to the turn, is still muddy as hell. I noticed a few problems with continuity that I hadn’t noted down before. There’s still not enough Zahra in the first half of the book.

There’s good stuff there, though, which was gratifying to see. There are pieces of music I wrote that I can hardly stand anymore, stories and poems that I look at and wonder “how could I have thought this was insight?” Ghosts has good bones. There were moments that I wanted to cry. I still like the ending. There were characters I wanted to know more about, and guess what? I’m the writer. I can know more about them. I can help you know more about them.

Reading back through that draft was what I needed, not just to remind myself of what was in it, but that I’m a writer. Blog posts are writing, but they’re not the same. They’ve worn me down a bit over the course of the summer, especially because I haven’t had much inspiration to write about writing. Now, I think I can get back to that.

[–*–]

Three different moments, but these were all moments that the past, my past, buoyed my present. It isn’t always about morale, or about loss, or about learning from past mistakes. Sometimes we just have to remember where we came from, remember who we are. The terrible news of this summer makes it easy to drown in the now. We act in the moment, but we should not forget that we bring our past decisions, good and bad, with us. We bring our teachers, our friends, our work. Don’t forget that.

Doing Better than Distraction

Sometimes, a flood of thoughts is worse for writing than not being able to come up with any. This has been one of those weeks. Even last week’s Nicking from Novels, about a book that I truly enjoyed reading, seemed…trivial. There has been so much happening in the world, so much happening at home. Some of it has just been busy-ness: events, appointments, getting ductwork replaced so the air conditioner conditions all of the house’s air. More of the flood has come from the ugliness of the news. I’ve seen calls for armed revolt just because a politician didn’t get indicted. I’ve seen somebody write “White people can’t speak our mind in this country anymore” in support of a comparison of Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan.

And all of that leaves out what actually happened: people were killed with bullets and with bombs, in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas and Baghdad. Riot police looking like stormtroopers hauling in women in summer dresses. Protesters throwing rocks and rebar and fireworks at police on I-94. Blood.

People killed people, and our media and our conversations immediately folded them into the narratives of presidential politics and culture war. Instead of “why did this happen?”, we so often frame the question as “whose fault is this?” (The cops’ for being racist, the victims’ for being uncooperative, the protesters’ for inciting violence…)

Look, the world doesn’t need another white dude to hurl a cri de coeur out into the world wide ether. It needs people—it needs us—to engage with one another and with institutions to make change happen.

It needs “how can I help?” to mean more than “how can I help without inconveniencing myself?” I think that’s what it has often meant for me: my answers amounted to “keep being a good person.” That helps! It is better to be a good person than a selfish person, better to practice empathy in our daily lives and try to understand our neighbors. I’ve written about this each of the past two summers. In 2015 it was Paris and Syria and Chicago and Chennai. In 2014 it was Ferguson and Ukraine and Gaza. For too many people, nothing has changed since then.

If we really want things to be better for our fellow humans, we need not just to be good people, but to be better people. We have to work. Listening can be work, but I think a lot of us have listened enough. We need to keep listening, always, but we have to understand that change worth having is change worth making sacrifices for. That can be money for bail funds or time for protests or toner for letters to your representatives or the work to actually run for office yourself. It needs to be voting, too, and trying to understand the local politics that the big media instruments aren’t shouting about.

It means resisting distraction, even when that seems to be the primary mission of the machines through which we route our lives.

Nicking from Novels: Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon

This is probably the first time I have picked up a book because the author kept showing up in my Twitter feed. Michigan-based Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon came out in 2012. He’s an award-winning writer of short stories, with quite a publishing history behind him by the time Throne dropped. He’s also a prolific Tweeter.

Overview

Throne of the Crescent Moon follows an aging ghul hunter, his friends (a magus and an aklhemist), his apprentice (a dervish), and a nomadic girl who turns into a lion. It’s possible (though not entirely fair) to sum up the story in simple fantasy terms: heroes band together to stop an ancient, black-magic wielding evil. The old characters complain about being too old for the job; the teenage characters are bellicose and as naive as they are sincere. The villains, servants of the Traitorous Angel, are wholly depraved and black-hearted; what complexity they have is in their history rather than their motivations.

What makes the novel, well, novel is that it’s not set in the faux-Medieval Europe that forms fantasy’s “default” setting. It is, to pull from Kevin J. Anderson’s back-cover blurb, “a beautiful story of a demon hunter in an Arabian Nights setting.” It also isn’t. More on that below.

The Plot

Adoulla is an aging ghul hunter, the last of his order. He’d like to retire—or to die—but can’t bring himself to do either. He has an apprentice named Raseed, a teenage holy warrior who is fond of quoting scripture. What starts as a normal ghul hunt turns into something more. There are too many of the ghuls for any normal magician to raise. Raseed and Adoulla are saved from being overwhelmed by Zamia, an Angel-touched girl who can turn into a lioness. Her band has been destroyed, body and soul, by the monster that drives the ghuls. She reluctantly joins forces with the learned Adoulla. In consultation with Litaz the alkhemist and her husband Dawoud the magus, the trio endeavours to find the source of the ghuls. They uncover a deeper mystery and get tangled up in the political struggles of Dhamsawaat, where a corrupt Khalif is challenged by the self-styled Falcon Prince.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Let’s talk about “palette swap.” The term comes from video games, where, for example, Sub Zero and Scorpion from Mortal Kombat were the same “ninja” model with different colors. It’s a labor-saving device to create the appearance of novelty. More generally, the concept is used for a simple re-skinning of previous creative work. You take somebody else’s engine and wrap some different skins over the animations, maybe program a few new weapons, and call it a new game. (Consider the endless Candy Crush variations.)

It’s tempting to try and read Throne of the Crescent Moon as a mere palette swap. Adoulla’s a cleric (albeit an irreverent one). Raseed’s a paladin. Zamia’s a shape-shifting barbarian. There’s an evil old necromancer with a monstrous henchman. All the typical elements of Eurocentric fantasy, just painted over with an “Arabian Nights” brush (or put through a filter, if Instagram is more your thing).

Tempting, but wrong.

“Readers yearning for the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser will delight in the arrival of Adoulla and Raseed,” Walter Jon Williams writes in another jacket blurb. There are similarities to the Lankhmar books, certainly: inscrutable magics, master swordsmen, an endlessly busy and dusty city. As somebody who enjoyed the Lankhmar books, I appreciate those similarities. (In passing, I’ll mention that it occasionally reminded me of Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road.)  I also think that the similarities are just one layer. Throne of the Crescent moon is not a palette swap on the old sword and sorcery.

I do like the idea of thinking about different palettes, though. There are ways that Throne reminds me of old comic books, cheaply printed in layers of colored dots. It has a different quality than most contemporary fantasy. And unlike those vintage comics, Ahmed’s colors pop; they’re vibrant. They are not particularly blended.

This isn’t to say that Throne of the Crescent Moon simple or plain. To build a character like Adoulla from swathes of bold, unshaded color is hard. There’s the veneer of the old swords-and-sorcery or swords-and-sandals stories in those bright colors. Throne isn’t a throwback, though, because Ahmed, like those old comic colorists, works wonders with juxtaposition and balance. We can appreciate Adoulla as the type that the palette suggests while understanding his complexity thanks to Ahmed’s skill in balancing the swatches of color.

The setting, too, is created through careful application of color. Dhamsawaat is on the Tiger River. The characters’ monotheism is flavored by Islam, from Raseed’s proverbs to the repressive Humble Students. The myths of the Middle East underpin the magic—for heroes and villains alike. None of these are “painting over” a Eurocentric fantasy setting. Ahmed paints his own setting, in his own colors, on his own terms. Dhamsawaat is not Lankhmar (nor is it Baghdad).

Looked at from a distance, or read quickly, Throne of the Crescent Moon might seem a mere palette swap on pulp fantasy. It’s enjoyable at that level, for sure: the action is compelling, the love at first sight entertainingly troubling to the two young characters who don’t know how to deal with it. Throne rewards deeper attention, though, where we can pick out the individual patches of color that blend at a distance. We see the contrast between Raseed and Zamia’s budding relationship with the long marriage of Litaz and Dawoud (and Adoulla’s long suffering with neither). We see the ambiguities in the choice between a known tyrant and the brilliant braggart who’d usurp him. We see the characters constantly interpreting their environment based on their separate experiences. That’s what makes the novel compelling.

What We Nick from this Novel

Local color is no excuse to be lazy.
It’s always tempting to grab for easy novelty, whether that’s writing in dialect or picking a real place as a “skin” for our concocted settings. That’s a bad palette swap. If we want different color, we need to think about the whole palette, the whole technique of the painting. Taken out of the analogy, we need to consider how our setting, characters and the way we write about them influence our story. Throne of the Crescent Moon works because palette suits the painting; it’s the right way for Ahmed to tell that story. We should aspire to do suit method to message as well as he does.

Believable Beliefs

I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.—Shepherd Book, Serenity

I love Serenity. It is not the deepest movie ever made, not the most tightly-plotted, and part of me still can’t get over a world where characters constantly drop phrases in Chinese but there are no characters of Asian descent. Still, it is smart for space opera. (It’s also clever, though that’s a different post.)

While the plot involves human experimentation, conspiracies, and life at the edge of the law, it also hinges on belief. When the movie begins, Mal Reynolds is not a believer—at least he won’t admit to himself that he is one. He tells everybody who will listen that he’s just a captain trying to keep his boat in the sky and his crew fed. (“The wind blows north, I go north.”)

Against that, we have the Operative, a creature of pure belief—his cause is his only moral compass. The Operative is one-dimensional. He’s more a symbol than a character. Especially in the context of a movie, we don’t have to know why he believes as he does. (We might vaguely assume that he’s a product of brain-meddling himself.) What matters is that he is single-minded and implacable. He’s a Terminator of belief.

Mal can’t help but come into conflict with the Operative. The Operative is a legitimate external threat, but he also threatens the story Mal tells about himself, that he is “just a captain.” That internal conflict is nothing new to fans of the series, where the battle between Mal’s pragmatism and his idealism colors most of the jobs the crew takes. In Serenity, though, Mal is eventually forced to believe again, to believe in a way he hasn’t since the Browncoats lost Serenity Valley. Embracing belief leads him to victory: not just a physical victory over the Operative, but actually punching a hole in the Operative’s previously impenetrable faith.

It works because we can see it as redemption. Malcolm Reynolds, who has embraced cynical pragmatism as a bulwark against the war he lost, rediscovers belief to become, for as long as it takes, “properly” heroic (yes, a Big Damn Hero). His beliefs are a logical consequence of his experiences during and after the war. (I assume they follow from his experiences before the war, but we don’t get much of that.) Serenity is thus a story about belief as much as it is about conspiracies and space cannibals.

Not all stories feature belief so close to the surface. As writers, though, we still have to know what our characters believe. Belief is a slippery word. We use it in turn as a synonym for faith, as a synonym for principle, as shorthand for giving credence to. All of those things matter for our characters. Whom do they trust? What are their principles? Where do they put their faith? We need to think about the answers to those questions.

Then we have to follow up: how do we, as writers, challenge our characters’ beliefs? Most internal conflicts can be viewed through the lens of belief. Do we challenge faith with counterfactuals? Do we challenge trust with jealousy? Do we challenge one belief with another? Do we drag them, kicking and screaming, to a point where they have to choose between beliefs? Do we run them into a character whose contrary beliefs are more successful?

We never have to explain to the readers why characters believe the things they do. As writers, though, we have to know. There are differences between a devout middle-aged man who was raised in a faith and a devout middle-aged man who came to faith after trauma. This doesn’t mean that we need exhaustive backstories for every character who crosses our page. Even a thumbnail sketch ought to provide clues necessary to infer beliefs, though.

Chief Inspector Mukul, who is at times an ally and at times an antagonist in Ghosts of the Old City, doesn’t have much of a backstory. I know that he was an officer in the Shehru military before he took over Sakurdrilen’s Watch. I don’t know where he was born, or who his parents are, or even, for sure, whether he has living family. (He probably does.) I know he believes that order is the path to public safety, though, and takes threats to it seriously. The single belief suits his role and colors his personality; it’s sufficient for a background character.

Protagonists and, hopefully, primary antagonists, should have more complicated networks of belief. Their richer internal lives help create the inner conflict that makes us care about them. And that, ultimately, is the reason we connect with stories: whether or not we agree with a character’s decisions, we see how he or she makes them, imagine what we might do in the same situation. That’s how we get characters we can believe in.

Without Mal’s reluctant embrace of belief, Serenity is just another little guys versus authoritarians space story. With some believable beliefs, Firefly and Serenity become something people are still writing, thinking, and cosplaying about years later.

Nicking from Novels: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs

Funny story: I first picked up the sequel to local Austin author Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, City of Blades. I got about fifty pages into Blades and realized I very much wanted to know the characters and the world better before I read it. The next trip to the library, I picked up City of Stairs. It did not disappoint.

Overview

City of Stairs sits somewhere between “fantasy” and “science fiction.” There are no space ships or aliens. There are guns and cannons and swords, but there are also miracles. One could reasonably describe the miracles as “magic,” but not once in the novel did I ever think “that character is casting a spell.”

Bennett reminds me, in both prose and concept, of China Mieville…only without Mieville’s academicism and bouts of pretension. City of Stairs is a tremendously clever novel that never puffs out its chest to show how clever it is. Behind the plot’s mysteries lie thoughtful considerations of historiography, colonialism, sexuality, and religiosity. There’s also a six-and-a-half foot quasi-viking who bites out somebody’s throat, monsters, and plenty of intrigue. The deeper ideas are all there, but you don’t have to appreciate them to enjoy the book. (Which may be the biggest difference from Mieville.)

The world of Saypur and Bulikov is broken. About 80 years before the novel opens, a Saypuri general kills the Divinities of the Continent (who had been treating Saypur rather like England treated Ireland). When the gods died, their miracles stopped functioning; some of those miracles had touched on the fundaments of reality. For Saypur, which lacked a god, the effects were minimal. In Bulikov, especially, the effects of this “Blink” were disastrous. Since then, Saypur has ruled Bulikov (and the rest of the Continent) as occupiers. The Continentals remain bitter about gods the youngest adults barely know, and about the fact that the Saypuri killed those gods and broke their world.

The Plot

Into this mix of resentment and resignation comes Shara Komayd, intelligence operative and descendant of the Kaj who killed the gods. Saypur’s greatest historian has been murdered in Bulikov. Shara arrives to investigate with Sigrud, her Dreyling “secretary.” (Said secretary writes most of his memos in the blood of his enemies.)  Investigation of the professor’s murder leads indirectly to Shara’s ex, Vohannes Votrov, as well as a group calling themselves “Restorationists.” The Restorationists want to bring back the old ways (and more).

Chaos ensues! There are secret messages, secret warehouses, secrets of families and cultures. The climax is a heady collision of action and metaphysics. The denouement answers some questions, asks others, and leaves things open for sequels. (The second book follows a military officer who is a secondary character in Stairs.)

The Cool Thing to Consider

I’m analytical by inclination and, even moreso, by training. Years and years in school have turned my instincts toward vivisecting what I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure. I remember walking out of Serenity (the Firefly movie) and wondering at how much the movie had sucked me into its world. I had watched the whole thing with trying to spot tricks of narrative (or score, which is what usually gets me).

The setting in City of Stairs worked a similar magic. It’s probably the freshest, most cleanly realized setting I’ve read in years. Jackson Bennett allows the characters to live completely inside the world. He uses epigraphs to provide more background for readers who want it. Shara is a historian as well as a spy, but her explanations fit so tidily into the narrative that they never felt like pure exposition. Select flashbacks fill things in for characters while providing context.

How does the author make it work, though? While one can’t, by definition, imitate the originality, there are things to take away from Jackson Bennett’s methods.

First, language matters. Jackson Bennett names his Saypuri characters and places in quasi-subcontinental style. The names “sound” like they’re from the Indian subcontinent. The Continental names “sound” like a collision of Slavic and Central Asian influence. (The Dreylings are quasi-Nordic, although there’s only the one character in this novel.) Jackson Bennett uses these naming patterns consistently, which helps distinguish the cultures as well as the characters. Bulikov is not an undiscovered part of England, nor is it a jumble of vowels and consonants meant to evoke the fantastic. The language works organically to suggest that the world is bigger than the characters we’re following.

Second, Jackson Bennett makes good use of the “stranger comes to town” element of his story. His protagonist has spent years on the Continent, but not many in Bulikov. She arrives in an emergency situation and is forced to assimilate information at breakneck speed. She travels around the city and meets important people. We’re introduced to people and places through her eyes, helpfully dodging most raw exposition.

Third, and trickiest in relation to the above point, Shara knows more than anybody around her about the world. Part of Saypur’s domination of the Continent relies on the World Regulations, a grand censorship of all mention of the Divine. Shara has studied the Continent and the Divine extensively, with resources only available to Saypuri. She knows more about Bulikov than that city’s citizens do. (It’s terribly unfair, and Jackson Bennett makes that clear.) Shara’s knowledge is still incomplete; she’s still the stranger that comes to town. Her ability to explain so much, but never everything, helps suck the reader in. We want to know what’s next, what’s really going on. It’s the frustration of missing the last few pieces of a puzzle. That lack helps the plot move forward and sucks readers with it through the world and its history in an organic, unforced way.

Strategic use of flashbacks also helps establish the setting. Shara and Vohannes have a history; Bennett uses that history to personalize the broader conflict between Saypur and the Continent. We get a few flashbacks from Sigrud that offer hints of the Dreyling lands, but Bennett keeps things center on Shara. It works better than it ought to because the author is strategic in the use of flashbacks; they always connect to what is occurring in the novel’s current moment.

Last, least, but still important: Bennett gives us epigraphs at the start of every chapter. Many of these are by the murdered historian. Some come from other sources. They’re all in-world texts, though. They shed small light on the events of the chapter and cast relevant shadows on the setting.

What We Nick from this Novel

Characters live somewhere, even when the camera is off.

Good settings give the impression that they exist as more than vehicles for the story. There’s no question that Shara Komayd is the protagonist. She solves the riddles. She defeats the “bad guys,” more or less. The world keeps moving around her, though. We learn enough about Bulikov to infer what its residents are up to after the novel ends (and what they were up to before it began). It works as though it’s a real place, without the author making a show of explaining it. What more can we, as readers or authors, ask of a setting?