Greetings from SoCal

Hello again world! Quick life update, since I haven’t posted in over a year. I am currently staying with my brother in Burbank, California as a vacation from having no life. So far I’m just hanging out with him and his wife and some of their friends, and working on my book as much as possible. I am almost finished chapter 22 in book two of the series. My first book topped out at 111 pages and 92,813 words; so far the second is 185 and 163,620 words, and I’m planning on 27 chapters in total. By the way, this is the most emotionally complex work I’ve ever attempted, and for roughly every second chapter, it’s split into three POVs. So, even though I’m writing chapter 22, it’s more like I’m on chapter 42. It’s kind of crazy.

Writing is still my life, and even though externally nothing has gotten ‘better’ in reality, my conviction of faith might actually be stronger than ever. My brother kind of considers himself a unitarian, and my sister-in-law has just expressed a wish to start an active atheist phase, but I don’t feel shaken by either of them. And for a socially awkward, anxiety-ridden woman, that’s a big deal.

I can’t really explain why I’m not shaken, because like I said, there’s nothing I can point to that ‘proves’ God is real, or that he has my back, or even that being a ‘faithful’ Christian has somehow made my life better – because honestly, it hasn’t. But I know that I’m still committed to serving him, insofar as that means treating others how I want to be treated, not judging unless someone is being hurt, exercising forgiveness and unconditional love, and following the ‘path’ that I believe he has for me. I don’t know what that means, but I’m still trusting.

I think a lot of it comes from curiosity – finding out for myself if continuing this ‘Christian’ life without giving up is as awesome as the Bible claims – because if I’m wrong, then I’ll know (at least for myself) that the Bible is exaggerated, and I’m no worse off than the average agnostic. I say to God often now, ‘I am with you. I just need you to be with me.’

I’m still waiting, but at the moment I’m okay with that. I’m hoping to finish chapter 22 tomorrow, so chances are I won’t be posting for a while (again). You gotta follow the fiction flow.


Shame on you, Dead Pool

I watched Dead Pool on the weekend with my parents, which was very creative and witty, and today my mom and I were discussing the movie, because I said if I were the executive producer I would have dialled down the rauchiness just a smidge. Then I realized that I mostly had issues with the longish sex montage, and it was because yes, this man is faithful to one woman, so good message, but it’s Dead Pool:  he knows he’s in a movie, which means he knows we’re watching, and all genuine intimacy is ruined. I said that you could keep the script identical – because Dead Pool is all about the talking anyways – but still show that their sex life was quirky, silly, and dirty, but without being so graphic. In fact, you could escalate the dirtiness, then have Dead Pool turn the camera away and say, ‘Sorry, no peeping Toms and Janes for this one. So you know it’s going to be really good.’ I think it would’ve fit the message of monogamy as well as fun in the bedroom (which I heartily support), without making the relationship a spectacle, and you’d be in keeping with the ‘Dead Pool knows he’s in a movie’ bit.

Sarah James out.

And now for the editing

Just a quick update for those of you on the edge of your seats. I have finished book one and down a couple rounds of editing. Right now I’m in the ‘fine-toothed comb’ stage, going chapter by chapter. I kind of see editing like going to the dentist: I put it off as long as I can, while trying to make the product as good as possible (regular teeth brushing), but it’s inevitable. I hate the appointment and the process and most of my anxiety comes before I even get in the chair, because once the drilling starts – as painstaking as the process could be – in the end I recognize the benefits. And I apologize if that metaphor is lost on anyone, because I really want the point of this blog to be me expressing thoughts without the monkey-on-my-back need to be perfect word-wise. All that to say that I think the editing is doing its job. To Gina and Louise, I want to send you an acceptable copy to read, preferably before July. I have sort of started book two, but chapter one scares me because it’s the scene I’ve been obsessing over since I first finished Buffy and Angel two and half years ago.

The End of the World, Hollywood Style

I dreamt that my dad and I were somewhere in Florida. I think it was Daytona, but Disney World was featured, and giant tidal waves washed ashore every few minutes. It wasn’t a nightmare, although I sort of expected it to be while dreaming it, because I would brace myself for a wash of cold water and lungs feeling like they’d explode from lack of oxygen, but after successive tsunamis, I always found pockets of air in unexpected places, like under car roofs, or tied plastic bags that hadn’t been punctured. In the end the whole thing was sort of beautiful. I’ve had other dreams about tornadoes – very realistic dreams too – and the feeling wasn’t fear, but sheer awe.

Anyways, without consciously making the connection, I had a craving to watch the movie 2012. The blu-ray version is one of my desert island movies, simply because it is frickin’ awesome, and after I finished it, I realized that I hadn’t watch The Day After Tomorrow (TDAT) in ages. So I put that one in as well, and like with most stories, I began an impromptu comparison.

I’m sure it’s been done before, given that these two movies are the most memorable disaster movies in the past couple decades, and the only ones in my recollection that involve a global disaster. But I think I wanted to vindicate TDAT a little, given that my dad is so anti-climate change that his opinion on anything (and anyone) who supports it is an automatic FAIL regardless of how sound their reasoning might be. Both movies are very well done. You start off the with the built up – featuring the obscure expert who alone understands what exactly is going on and how to stop it – followed by the establishment of familial instability – the broken Curtis family in 2012 and, Jack Hall, the largely estranged father in DAT – to the crisis event that drives human kind to drastic measures to save as many people as they can. Then the resulting mayhem, the heart-pounding action sequences where you’re not entirely sure if the good guys will make it or not – a feeling that both movies still create despite the fact that the disaster is really no one’s fault (okay, TDAT claims that global warming has caused the change, but even in that case the collective ‘villains’ would be faceless multitudes of the greedy fossil fuel burners). Not everyone makes it in the end, and both movies have what we call ‘senseless deaths,’ which is meant to create pathos and leave us feeling unsettled, because death is not something that should be easily sermonized, whether in fiction or real life. And finally, after we’ve felt loss and sadness and relief, there’s the triumphant, ‘against all odds’ conclusion, where the good guys – the ones who really matter, fiction-wise – survive, and there’s a brave new world waiting for them all.

TDAT is pretty decent. It’s well directed – note the use of light in the office tower, right before the janitor opens the door to find that half the building has been demolished by a tornado – and the effects are excellent, given that the movie was made in 2004. The disaster factor is more subtle, but certainly original, like when the super-cold air is pulled down from the troposphere and freezes the helicopter fuel lines, or when Sam and his friends have to find penicillin for Laura’s blood-poisoning and they’re attacked by wolves who escaped the New York zoo. The moralizing about how ‘we thought we could use this planet’s natural resources for our ends’ is too preachy, but if you watch it the same way as 2012 – as an apocalyptic fantasy made up by Hollywood movie writers – it’s definitely worth having in a disaster movie collection.

With that in mind, 2012 is spectacular. The critics called it ‘the best disaster movie EVER!’ and even seven years later – yes, it was made in 2009 – I believe it retains that title. The special effects alone got it into my desert island movies, but it’s the intensity of the emotional journey that puts it over the top, and I honestly think most of that comes from the fact that in this case, the disaster was not man-made. The world ends and there’s nothing we could’ve done to stop it, and as the characters watch footage of earthquakes and tsunamis around the world, the devastation goes to the heart because at that point all they can do is sit back and watch it happen. Granted, the coincidences in 2012 are clearly not from a realist repertoire: Gordon happens to be a pilot who figures out how to fly a two-engine plan in thirty seconds, Jackson happens to go to Yellowstone and hears Charlie Frost’s broadcast right before everything goes down, Jackson happens to be the limo driver who takes the Karpov family to the airport and hears about the ‘big ships’ they’re leaving on, Karpov’s girlfriend happens to have been Gordon’s patient, and oh yes, the Karpovs are stranded at the Las Vegas airport at the same time as the Curtis family. Abjectly extraordinary thing after extraordinary thing happen to them, but who goes to a disaster movie expecting to see something entirely realistic?

At the same time, there is the typical ‘How can this character manage to keep just missing the debris or the bullets, or they’re the only ones to make it through this against-all-odds situation?’ My response is to say, ‘Think of real life disasters. If someone inevitably makes it out alive, chances are they’d have a pretty extraordinary story.’ That’s usually enough real to get me to suspend the rest of my disbelief.


So I feel that yesterday’s post was a little unbalanced, and hopefully I can add some context to explain some of it. My grandmother and many other evangelical Christians have an annoying tendency to thank God for every good thing, even things that he may or may have had any involvement in. I have no issue with this – not directly at least – but with this tendency comes the burdensome ball-and-chain attached to it, namely, that when something is wrong, it’s not God’s fault, but either our mistakes or our attitude that needs to change. I do take issue with this, because it’s thoroughly illogical. For example, someone wants to thank God for the internet, not because he directly created it, but because he allowed such technology to be invented. Alright, but by that reasoning, he also allowed child pornography websites to be invented. And yet, we’re not allowed to blame him for that? People say, ‘Oh, that’s just free will. And those people will be judged. It’s not God’s fault.’ But when people use ‘free will’ to invent good things, why should God get the credit?! See, from my perspective, if I thank God for nice weather, then by the same logic, I should be able to blame him for crappy weather.

This ‘we suck, God rules’ mentality is what motivates most of my rants against him, because along with it comes the Christianese complex (for those Christians who are really honest with themselves) that when something’s wrong, it’s always, in some way, our fault. If we’re angry, we need to let it go, or pray, or allow God to comfort us. If we’re anxious we need to ask for peace, and if we still don’t feel peaceful, well, then that’s because we don’t have enough faith for God to do the work properly. And if God is withholding it, it’s because we’re not ready, or we need to just wait a little longer, or we need to change this, or change that, or accept this, or let go of that, or ask the Holy Spirit to tell us what’s wrong (so still, it’s our fault for not asking). These people talk as if the ball is always in our court when there’s something wrong, but when it’s a good thing, oh, then God is behind it all and is deserving of all praise! Seriously, and please forgive my language, because I only say this to express the vehemence of my frustration, it’s one giant mind-fuck to those like myself who haven’t been shown God’s glorious favour.

So this is some of the context for why my depressive states inspire questions like, ‘What good are you, God?’ Because, really, if ‘every good thing comes from God,’ and ‘he answers all who call on him,’ and ‘insert every other oft quoted biblical promise,’ then, if logic serves and if God is really who he says he is, a Christian should not be sitting in a bathroom, telling herself that she’s worth nothing, looking to God for relief, and getting none. So my beef is that more often than not, this ‘God’ leaves me to figure things out myself – to find a way to pull myself out of whatever hole I’m in, no matter how deep and dark, when that’s the one situation where he’s promised to rescue us from. I am more than willing to give credit where credit is due, but practically speaking, if God expects us to do the work, then why are we so concerned with thanking him?

And as a final word, I’m not an atheist, just a thoroughly honest, self-aware Christian who would like some real answers from the God who claims to love me more than I could possibly imagine, yet has somehow failed to show me the strength of his affection: a logical inconsistency in itself.

I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been focused on fan fiction. It’s always fun when a story you’re writing is going so well that you don’t feel like watching something new on TV because you’re far more interested in what will happen next in your own story. It also means I’ve had less to rant about. But right now the fanfic is a bit stagnant, so here’s more trivial venting from the life of Sarah James:

I had a dream that there was a group of people recruiting individuals who had potential, just like the characters in The Magicians, only the books they claimed were real were the Brandon Sanderson Stormlight Archive. There were police reports with photos of previously ‘abducted’ individuals, and the same person from the recruitment team would appear nearby in every one. Eventually, I was recruited – I was a ‘believer’ but struggling to reconcile the logical impossibilities of a fantasy world being factual –  but I was running late. I was supposed to leave at 9am but my phone said 9:24, and I realized I had turned my alarm volume down too low. At this point I realized I had been dreaming, and I was thankful that I wouldn’t actually be late, because I was in fact planning on leaving my grandparents’ house at 9 this morning in order to get home before 3pm. Unfortunately, I did sleep through my alarm, and all my bitterness, frustration, and depression from the past three days was compounded from that one incident.

My dad recently lost his job, and while I had said a couple prayers for God to give him wisdom and still his anxiety, my own emotional well-being seemed to suffer as a result. I sat in the washroom, my mind hurling insults at itself, like so many previous bipolar crashes – the usual being variations on the claim, ‘You’re a fucking piece of shit.’ And in this state I thought out a rant to God: ‘You freaking piss me off like no one else, and the worst part is that my anger must have next to no affect on you, otherwise you’d have done something about it after all my ravings. I have no right to complain, and my hatred of myself has only grown the longer I’ve waited on you, when others say these desert periods are when we really get to know you. In your eyes I must be less than nothing, and still I’m convinced that you’ll punish the slightest failure with maximum pain. Why do you think I fixate on stories and romantic pairings? Because you refuse to comfort me, to console me, to give me anything that might make life worthwhile. If you were really the source of everything, and you really loved me like your Word claims, and you were truly deserving of all praise, then I wouldn’t be forced into eternal emotional starvation. Did you know that I almost never do anything new or go anywhere outside my primary living areas because I’ve only had myself to rely on? I call it being frugal, but really, it’s a natural result of endless loneliness. I’ve been yours all my life. I’ve listened and learned and believed and put my faith in everything that not only my spirit, but your Word and other wise counsellors have affirmed was your will. I have believed to the point of psychological damage, and all you’ve done is left me to flounder. So fine, you’ve made it so none of my plans have worked out, and you’ve obviously never bothered to come up with any yourself (save for leaving me to rot as an unemployed, thirty-year-old virgin who lives with her parents). My hopes for some ‘grand’ narrative, or a miraculous event that makes it all worthwhile is foolishness. That only happens in fiction, or to people who thoroughly aren’t me. So you refuse to give me the kind of love, purpose, understanding, solace, and connection that I crave, and beyond blind faith, I have no reason to trust you. And now with all these people who are praying for me – my parents, grandparents, probably a dozen others I’ve shared my story with – you can’t even rescue me from crippling depression. So when it all comes down to it, what good are you?’


Thin Line Between Empathy and Melodrama

I’ve had this post on the back burner for a while now, and I’m writing it now because last night my mom, a few girlfriends, and me went to see Mockingjay Part Two. I  read through the Hunger Games series three months ago, and Katniss did what I had thought near impossible since Twilight: she reinstated my faith in first person. It caused me to remember that one of my all-time favourite books, Jane Eyre, is also written in first person, which made me ask myself, ‘How do you write an emotionally charged scene that moves your readers, without falling into melodrama?’

Off the bat, the first thing that comes to my mind is character consistency, which is also the source of my issues with first person. If you’re writing straight from a character’s perspective it has to be believable, which requires a certain amount of inconsistency because no one is fully consistent. And yet, because you’re still writing a story – something that can be revised and edited, unlike a real-life train of thought – there is an expectation that the thoughts flowing from your character will craft an individual in the minds of the readers that can stand up to scrutiny. If they can’t, you come off as a second-rate writer.

The second thing I could suggest – albeit tentatively, because I’m sure there are imaginations vastly more creative than me who could pull it off – is that a first person narrative should not feature a character who is continually given over to melodrama, aka, Bella Swan. Stephenie Meyer’s main flaw is that Bella is not a consistent character, even with the slight inconsistency allowed for first person. The most glaring example is when Bella’s mom says to her, ‘You’ve never been a teenager, sweetheart. You know what’s best for you,’ as though we’re supposed to suddenly believe that Bella is the epitome of maturity. However, Bella is a very accurate picture of the typical mind of an American teenage girl, and the problem is that being an average teenage girl tends to be melodramatic in almost every aspect of life, and if you want to write a story from this perspective … well, let’s just say you better show a significant change in the character by the end if you want intelligent critics to be able to stomach your narrative, and Twilight does not deliver.

I only mention the comparison again because The Hunger Games was published around the same time as Twilight, both feature female characters in a first person narrative, as well as love triangles of varying intensities. Katniss was a breath of fresh air for me because her character was so thoroughly consistent throughout the novels, and I believe the main reason for this was Katniss’ own straightforwardness. She is a true product of District 12: she lives by what was necessary, with no room for dreams, indulgent romantic fantasies, or idyllic happy endings. She carries this attitude through the Games, and towards Peeta and Gale, which is why readers are so torn between who she should choose – Katniss herself doesn’t know until the end, so her turmoil is evident to the reader as well. Katniss doesn’t romanticize or fixate on her lovers because there are more important things in life. She’s fighting a freaking war, people! She’s losing her friends, fearing for her family, and (spoiler alert to those who haven’t seen the movie), ultimately watches her sister die in an explosion. Who she’s going to ‘end up with,’ while naturally enthralling for us (if we’re being honest) should not be the focus of the story if we’re going to truly feel Katniss’ pain. Yes, Team Gale is allowed to lament their loss, but Katniss herself doesn’t give it much thought because she so overcome with sorrow after Prim’s death. Even when she ‘picks’ Peeta (I say that if Peeta died, she wouldn’t have been with Gale anyways because she never really saw him as a lover) she doesn’t go all poetic about how blind she was or how amazingly perfect he is (which he’s not). She simply accepts it – slowly, gradually accepts it – which is the only believable way two war-torn individuals could have a lasting relationship. But the romantic in me is still satisfied (and bravo to Collins for this) because the most important part of any story is the ending, and the last line in the main narrative is Katniss admitting to Peeta that her love for him is real.

The Hunger Games epilogue is almost more poignant than Harry Potter (and those of you who know what a rabid Harry and Ginny shipper I am can appreciate the significance). The romantic conclusion gets a feature, but the intensity and sobriety of the story would have lost its punch if the final words fell into the ‘happily even after’ category. And yet I think it’s important to see Katniss with a family and still living life not despite, but amidst her scars. When I first read the epilogue I was a little disappointed because part of me wanted the sweet, perfect, fairy tale ending to have the last say, but Collins gives you a conclusion that is a tad unsettling because it references the Hunger Games again. Upon reflection, her choice was the best, because real survivors of war – especially ones like Katniss – don’t suddenly get some optimistic, sunlit, dewey-eyed personality transplant. You don’t just forget everything that’s happened because oh, she’s with the right guy! And that’s what the epilogue delivers. Katniss’ kids aren’t named, and she says she only had them because Peeta wanted them so much. She’s contented, but not rosy, and even makes mention that Peeta still has occasional fits of PTSD where he has to grab the back of a chair to remind himself what’s real and what’s not.

Now for the reason I’m writing this post-Mockingjay movie. (Again, spoiler alerts.) I was mostly satisfied with the film – Finnick’s death is excellently done and thoroughly heroic, Haymitch and Katniss’ relationship is better in the movie than in the books, and President Coin proves so tyrannical by the end that one of our friends, who hadn’t read the books, said aloud, ‘Katniss should shoot her instead!’ – but then there was the epilogue. I had been kind of dreading this part – sort of like my fear that they would make Ginny the last thing Harry sees before he dies in the Deathly Hallows movie, which is incredibly powerful in the book, but Daniel Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright have no romantic chemistry so it would have been atrociously cheesy, and thankfully it wasn’t done. Movie-goers tend to crave fairytale endings more often than readers, and unfortunately, the Mockingjay epilogue kinda ruined what was otherwise a very loyal retelling. Katniss is sitting under a tree, wearing a yellow flowery dress of all things, holding a baby with an abnormally large head (my mom said one of the crew probably wanted their kid featured), her face fixed in an idyllic smile that makes her look like a Stepford wife. She’s watching Peeta in a meadow playing with a toddler, and for the record, that part was perfect: it totally captured Peeta’s character and joy, and the toddler’s acting was fabulous. But Katniss’ ending was so not her that it was unsettling for the wrong reasons.

My mom and I drove home our astute friend who wanted Katniss to shoot Coin, and all three of us were dissatisfied with the epilogue, so I shared what I would have done, had I been the director, and I had enough conviction about my perspective that I was moved to write this post. First, I would start with Katniss sitting under the tree in partial shadow, wearing shades of grey clothing that are not ultra feminine, and not smiling, but looking ponderous as she wrote in one of the notebooks that Haymitch, her and Peeta filled up with memories of people they’d lost. This is a truly beautiful part of the book series, and I was sad they didn’t include it in the films. It allows the characters to process the deaths, to purge their anguish, while also commemorating their loved ones and ensuring that future generations wouldn’t forget. Katniss could have spoken in a voiceover as she wrote (I know that can be cheesy, but what the movie did was way worse), then Peeta looks up and smiles at her. She returns the smile, but not too wide to break her ponderous mood. Then the voiceover says, ‘There are far more dangerous games that can be played,’ and roll credits.