Blog

It’s Complicated

The publishing world is a complicated place. More so now than ever, really. It used to be relatively straightforward: you wrote a book, you submitted it to agents, they said yes or no, and if they said yes, they submitted the book to publishers who would also say yes or no. For some publishers, it was possible to skip the agent stage and submit directly to an editor (like Stephen King did to William Thompson at Doubleday so many decades ago). But even in skipping the line a bit, the workflow was fairly direct.

Nowadays, that system still holds true to a point. For some. But now authors have other options. There are a lot more small publishers willing to look at manuscripts without agents attached. Or authors can self-publish their works. These additional options makes publishing more complicated, and for some, more confusing. And, given so many variables, outcomes can differ widely.

The Traditional Path

This is where you write your book, query agents, and hopefully get one to back your manuscript. Then the agent will submit your work to publishers. Most authors dream of being published by a “big name” (i.e., Penguin Random House), or at least a familiar one. Alas, landing an agent doesn’t guarantee this, nor does it ensure your book will actually get published at all. Even if the agent loves it, he or she may not be able to find an editor at a publisher willing to buy it. Factors include: current trends, what editors/publishers already have on their slates, what the marketing team feels they can sell, etc. You can write something brilliant and it still may not get picked up. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, just that you and your manuscript haven’t hit the market at the right time. If you’re lucky, the agent will sign you, not just the book, and he or she will encourage you through a new project that hopefully will fare better.

Pros of the traditional path, should you be successful, is that a good publisher will help with the bulk of the promotion and marketing of your book (though authors will always have to do some of the work), and that these publishers also can get said book into bookstores and libraries. They can submit your book to reviewers and for awards, too, and just generally get it more attention.

However, some authors choose not to seek agent representation because it takes too long or they feel their work doesn’t fit what agents and publishers are looking for. Alternatively, some authors believe their work has broad enough appeal that they don’t need an agent or publisher because readers will pick up the book regardless. (In short, some genres do very well when self-published because of avid readership.) For these authors, getting the book out quickly may be key, so they choose to self-publish instead. Finally, some authors just get too beat down and burned out by the querying grind and seek a different way to publish their work.

The Small Publisher Route

Many small publishing houses have sprung up in the past decade or so. These often specialize in certain genres and accept submissions directly from authors (whereas larger publishing houses take submissions only from agents). Therefore, some authors who want a publisher but would rather skip the step of landing an agent will begin by querying these publishers.

A good small publisher offers the sense of validation many authors crave. Some (but not, in my experience, many) will offer advances as well. A solid publisher will do some marketing for their books and authors, and will put the manuscript through a traditional publishing process, by which I mean the book will go through rounds of edits, it will be typeset and the author will see proof pages of that stage, a cover artist will design a cover for the book, marketing will send the book for reviews and promote the book online, and there will be manufacturing and distribution of the title. Unfortunately, most small publishers are working with little to no overhead and don’t offer as much of these as bigger houses. Most I’ve seen only do an editorial pass and make a cover. Many don’t even do print runs; their titles are print-on-demand (POD) if they’re available in print at all (many small publishers are ebook only). There are so many caveats regarding small publishers that they’d really need to be another post, but I will say:

  • Check out the publisher’s other titles and the sales data. Do they get many Amazon reviews? What are the Amazon rankings?
  • If it’s important to you to have your book in print (rather than simply as an ebook), be sure you what format(s) the publisher publishes.
  • NEVER, EVER PAY TO BE PUBLISHED. An honest publisher takes on the costs of editing, creating a cover, and marketing the book. If a publisher asks for money, RUN.
  • Know what marketing, if any, the publisher does. Many small publishers will ask their authors to promote one another, which is not an effective method for new authors who don’t have a readership yet.
  • Keep an eye on how many books and authors they publish. If they have dozens of titles come out each week, it’s likely they aren’t giving any of them much time or energy. The publisher may be an “author mill” that churns out books in the hopes that at least a few will sell well.

There is probably a lot more to say on the subject, but that’s a good start. Basically, if you’re looking at a small publisher, you have to ask, “What can they do for me that I can’t do for myself?” If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may want to consider

Self-Publishing

This is when the author is also the publisher. Some authors even go so far as to make their own small publishing companies. An author may choose to self-publish for a variety of reasons. If no agent or small publisher accepts your manuscript, you may consider self-publishing. If you have a book that is too weird in theme or genre for anyone else, you may need to self-publish. If your goal is simply to get the book out into the world, or if time is of the essence, self-publishing is the fastest route.

If you choose to self-publish, you will need to pay to publish because you are acting as publisher and take on the costs of a publisher. That means paying for an editor, paying a cover designer, paying for someone to typeset the book (either for ebook, print, or both)… You will also have to figure out how to market your book, which can have additional costs.

So, in order to self-publish with any success, you need to be ready and willing to outlay the money, and you need to know where to find your readers so you can market to them. You also need to be prepared for some readers to turn their noses up at you because many have the idea that self-published work is, well, not very good. (To be fair, some of it isn’t, but that’s true of traditionally published books too. An argument for another time.) Some readers feel the lack of gatekeepers—a “verification” process of sorts—means all self-published books are “rejects,” and that those books must have been rejected for good reason and therefore are not worth looking at. The truth is, while that’s the story for some self-published books, just as many authors go directly to self-publishing because they can make more money and retain complete control of their work.

I self-published my books because, even though agents told me I was a really good writer, they also told me my books weren’t salable. My stuff is just too… eccentric for genre classification, I guess. And it turns out that I’m not very good at marketing my own work, which is already difficult to sell, so… Ah well. I love to talk about writing and publishing and books in general, but when it comes to finding the audience for my decidedly niche works, I’m not savvy. Which is why I’m hoping my most recent manuscript is commercial enough for an agent this time around. I’d like to just focus on the writing part.

This is, of course, merely an overview of the complicated tangle that is publishing. And things are changing constantly. Feel free to ask questions or tell me your publishing story in the comments!

Book Summary 2020

Prefer video? View my 2020 Reading Wrap-Up on YouTube.

Yes, there are still a few weeks left in the year, but the chances I will finish reading another book in that time are slim to none. So I don’t think it’s premature to look back at my year in books.

This year, I read 62 books, fewer than the 81 I read last year. BUT… last year, the only thing I wrote was one short story (“Origami of the Heart”—go read it if you haven’t, or read it again if you have, even if it is set on White Day). This year, I re-released two novels and wrote entirely—from scratch!—a third. More writing = less reading, and that seems reasonable.

So, of the 62 books, how many were manga? 31. For those not keen on math, that’s exactly half. But they still count, because it’s still reading. On top of those, 8 were Japanese “light novels.” Which are different from manga!

An additional 8 books were nonfiction. Which leaves 15 fiction titles. I’m probably splitting hairs by separating out the Japanese light novels, but they do feel like a different reading experience to me. Maybe that’s simply a cultural difference, though. Like, maybe it’s a byproduct of the translation process (or it depends on the translators)? Because certainly I’ve read other books in translation that feel… relatively normal from a Western standpoint. So I dunno. But I do feel Japanese light novels and more standard reading material—what passes for such in America, anyway—are just a wee bit different. And I mean no disrespect there; obviously I enjoy the Japanese novels, else I wouldn’t read so many.

Favorite books I read this year? Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry and Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh stand out in my mind. Piranesi, too, by Susanna Clarke… not because it was great, but because it was so strange. I feel like I liked Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, and yet it failed to leave much of an impression because I have to think really hard about it to remember anything.

For more about things I’ve read, check out (Like! Subscribe!) my YouTube channel. I post reviews there even when I don’t write reviews here.

So what’s the plan for next year? Well, I always set a modest goal. I think I’ll aim to read 30 books and hopefully do better than that. I have an inkling for a new book I want to write, so it will depend on if that spark ignites. If it does, I’ll be devoting time to writing over reading again. Honestly, in a year spent mostly at home, you’d think I’d have read more rather than less. But everything is off this year, and very little makes sense anymore. Sure, the calendar is a construct, but I’ll say it anyway: hoping for a better 2021. If not in reading, then in every other possible way.

2020 in Review

There are 39 days left in the year, which means it’s time to begin the process of reflecting on all that has occurred. And for a year spent mostly at home, there is surprisingly a lot to review.

I started the year with health issues and big plans. My focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH) in my liver had begun to act up, so I was sent for an ultrasound and then an MRI. That MRI took place on February 26 and was one of the last in-person doctor visits I would have, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was expecting to see a hepatologist in mid-March, but that got scotched. Two guesses as to why, and the first doesn’t count.

On February 27, my husband and I drove down to Disneyland. Again, we didn’t know it then, but it would be the first and last trip of the year. I was supposed to go to Texas in August for a reunion and to Japan in September, but… I came home from Disneyland with a cough that steadily worsened. The doctors only spoke to me via video chat and told me it was simply asthma. To date, I am not sure whether I had COVID-19 or not. I’ve yet to be tested in any capacity. But it was the worst cough I’ve ever had—and that’s saying something, as I have a history of routinely getting pneumonia and bronchitis. It continues to come and go, and doctors continue to treat me via video visits. Asthma and/or a fermentable food sensitivity have thus far been labeled the culprit(s). I’ve been punted to a nutritionist, so we’ll see what transpires.

Meanwhile, we were also supposed to host Japanese students in mid-March, but that trip was cancelled as well. On March 13, my kids came home from school and would never go back—at least, not in person. On March 14, we celebrated both Pi Day and eight years in California by going to a Sherlock Holmes-themed escape room and then to In-N-Out Burger. It would be our last “normal” day out in the world.

While I battled my cough, we hunkered down at home and have more or less stayed hunkered ever since. We get our groceries delivered. My husband’s office has had everyone working from home since March 9 and currently don’t plan to have people back until maybe next April? The kids have been doing school online. And I’ve always worked from home, so now I just do it with everyone else home, too. It means fighting for bandwidth sometimes, but we’re safe and mostly healthy, so that’s good. Meanwhile, the boys are still able to do fencing lessons (outside at the park), my daughter still horseback rides, and she and her younger brother are continuing Taekwondo. Plus, we swam in the pool for as long as the weather allowed, and there have been many walks, plus the rowing machine and a new stationary bike.

I did manage to write a book this year (The Ghosts of Marshley Park), and I think it’s possibly my most commercial manuscript yet. I’ve just begun the querying process with it. I also re-released both The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller and The K-Pro this year. Peter sold more copies in paperback than it ever did as an e-book, which doesn’t surprise me in the least given its genre and the likely readership for that title.

Besides writing, I was tapped for several school duties that have kept me busy via Zoom meetings. I like being involved, and I like having something to do, so it’s fine by me. I’ve read 61 books this year, which is fewer than the 81 I read last year, but I also didn’t write anything last year (except “Origami of the Heart”), so I guess it evens out.

Despite not being able to go to the Shakespeare at Winedale reunion in August, we did manage to create a distance version of The Winter’s Tale. I had a very small part, but it was fun to do, even if it was tricky to film. I continue to be hopeful my best friend and I will be able to go to Japan next fall… This year, friendship has mostly taken place via phone calls, Zoom get togethers, and text messaging.

We did manage to take the kids to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom one day this summer and to the Oakland Zoo on another day. And we did another escape room (“magic school” themed) on Hallowe’en morning. It’s pretty sad when you can count on one hand the outings you’ve been on in 8+ months. But we’re grateful we have the ability to stay home when many people do not.

I’m not naive enough to think the change in a calendar year will magically reset things, but I do hope that we’re progressing in the right direction and that, maybe by spring or summer, we can start to venture out more regularly. And I have hope that an agent will see value in my latest work and take a chance on it (and me). There could be a lot of curve balls to come, and not every ball we hit will be a home run, but to hit anything these days feels like a minor miracle. Even if it flies foul, at least you stay in the game. So I’ll keep swinging.

Book Review Quickies

If you’d rather see/hear me talk about the books I’ve read lately, check my YouTube channel for all the videos. (Like, subscribe, click the bell, share, etc.) But if you’d rather read, here are the quick versions of my reviews.

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

This is the final tome in the three-part historical fiction series about the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII. I loved Wolf Hall and enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, but this book was a bit of a slog for me. There’s a long middle space, somewhere between about the 30% mark and the 80% mark, where not much happens. Though I read this in less than two months, it felt like I’d been reading it forever. It’s as well written as the others, of course, but the pacing just didn’t work for me.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This one was… interesting… I read an ARC on my e-reader, so the formatting was kind of weird, and I wasn’t sure if some of that was intentional because of the atmosphere of the story or??? The book is written in the form of journal entries, and at first it is very confusing; it takes time and patience to glom on to what is going on. Even then, though, I spent time wondering where the actual story was. The plot didn’t kick in until almost halfway through the book. There were times I thought I might not bother finishing it, but it’s also not a very long book, and I was just intrigued enough to keep going. The plot itself is not particularly deep or anything. I won’t spoil it for anyone who wants to read, but I will say I liked the book much more by the end than when I started.

The Case of the Missing Marquess (Enola Holmes #1) by Nancy Springer

This book suffered the disadvantage of my having watched the Netflix film first. I was pretty charmed by the film version, which means the book disappointed me because it’s quite different. For one thing, in the books Enola is 14 rather than 16. And the marquess? He’s 12! There is no potential love story here, and the plot is actually rather facile by comparison to all that happens in the movie. It was still an okay book, and I can’t imagine what my thoughts might have been had I not seen the movie first. It’s important to keep in mind the books are written for middle-grade readers, though the fact they then do fly-bys of things like prostitution may be considered questionable.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady (Enola Holmes #2) by Nancy Springer

Better than the first one? Enola hunts for a missing baronet’s daughter while also trying to evade detection by her determined brother. We meet Dr. Watson in this book, and we get more of Sherlock as well. The story is more interesting, too, even if I did have it solved very early on. (Again, these are middle-grade books, so… I can’t really gloat that I figured it out.) I have the other books in the series lined up to read at some point, but two back to back is my limit, it seems, so I’m searching for a palate cleanser in the meantime. A little Enola goes a long way.

Things in my TBR Stack:

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab – need to finally finish this series
Classroom of the Elite #6 by Syougo Kinugasa – but not feeling it right now
Enola Holmes 3-6 by Nancy Springer – as mentioned, need a break
False Value by Ben Aaronovitch
The Witch Elm by Tana French – started it but couldn’t get into it; don’t like the narrator

Thoughts? Suggestions? I think I need some nonfiction, actually, so I might go looking for something like that…

Television: The Movies

This is a 2019 documentary miniseries from CNN that my husband and I watched via streaming. Rather than watch them in the order that Wikipedia lists, the streaming service (I can’t remember which one it was on now) had them in chronological order by era/decade. So we started with the “Golden Age” and moved to the 2000s. I’m not sure if that affected my overall perception of the series, which in short is that it was well made but very biased.

I have a film degree. And I’ve worked on film sets. I’m not saying this to be superior, since I know there is still a lot about movies I don’t know and the industry is always changing. I just want to give context to my point of view. And that POV is: what a bunch of old, white men congratulating each other.

This is nothing new in any industry, really, but it felt so obvious in this context. Each episode of this series goes over the films that made a big impact in any given decade, and more often than not then discusses the directors and their grand visions and how they brought the films to life on the big screen. There is a reverence for, not just the films, but the men who made them. The token effort to talk about films that were made by POC or women only makes the elevation of these men (Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Cameron, Hughes, Tarantino, Ridley Scott, etc.) more conspicuous.

Maybe it’s a quantity issue. There are, after all, so many more old, white men making movies than there are women or POC. It would be impossible to talk about film history without talking a lot about these guys. But rather than choosing one film per auteur as representative of his work, The Movies presents a catalogue of films by these directors, hailing each of the titles as groundbreaking, and then tosses in a mention of Spike Lee or Jane Campion or Ryan Coogler or Kathryn Bigelow to call it even.

Look, I get it. It’s meant to be a celebration of film, not a deep dive into the inequities of the industry. The goal is to keep to tone light and happy and remind people of how great movies are. But as I watched the episode about the 70s, it was crystal clear that men were making movies for other men. That they were satisfying themselves rather than thinking about the wider world. So to celebrate that is to celebrate selfishness.

Then again, the industry has never minded selfishness so long as it makes a profit. Yes, yes, it’s a business. Its goal is to make money. But if you’re going to elevate it as art, you have to remember that a lot of great art never made any money. So when the focus is on dollars, you are already eliminating a large swath of people and points of view. You’re chasing either the lowest common denominator or the people with the most expendable income. You’re chasing popularity and then making a miniseries on how great popular films and directors are. If it were high school, it would be like making a documentary on how great the athletes are and ignoring what the art students or French club or whoever else is doing because “no one is interested.”

Sorry, that was probably a stretch as far as metaphors go. But I just really found this docuseries to be indicative of a wider problem, and it stirred up all my frustrations with the film industry.

It is possible, too, that much of what they chose to highlight in The Movies has to do with who they were able to interview. This is a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Did they ask Spielberg and Scorsese for a chat before or after deciding to venerate them? They didn’t get Tarantino, but maybe enough other people wanted to talk about him that they couldn’t avoid making much of his work? Was it a question of: “Here are the sound bites, the things most interviewees mentioned, so let’s focus on these”?

The lack of love for screenwriters was also telling. Not that it’s anything new. But it was summed up in the 2000s episode: first there was the studio system, then the rise of directors, then megastars, and now we’re in the era of IP. Where are the writers in all this? Well, they’re around… A lot of directors also write their own movies, though nowadays there is a small pool that people dip into for things like Marvel movies or whatnot. I won’t bother to moan over the death of originality, since it’s all been said, but I do believe it’s harder than ever to break in as a writer unless you happen to create or have rights to an amazing IP—that is, you’ve written a book or comic book series that has already made you a name. Gone are the days of spec scripts or shopping anything completely new.*

*I know they’re not really, completely gone, but it feels like it sometimes. As ever, it’s who you know, etc.

tl;dr: This is a pretty predictable series that highlights exactly the movies and directors you would expect, which means they are playing into the same lowest-common-denominator fad as the films themselves. As a retrospective and celebration of film, it’s passing fair if unremarkable. More interesting would be a deep dive of indie and fringe film, movies made for and by POC, and women in film.

RIP Quibi

Okay, so I may be one of the only people in the world who actually enjoyed some of the content on this platform. Quibi drew me in with their all-star remake of The Princess Bride. I stayed for their reboot of The Fugitive (which, let’s be honest, was just 24 mini). I laughed at Mapleworth and was a bit confused by Murder House Flip. Like, I was absolutely convinced that was parody, but… apparently not.

Truthfully, I was impressed with some of the talent Quibi’s shows were able to tap. But I was also aware early on that the platform was not thriving. It had been designed for commuters and then launched at the very moment commuting came to a standstill.

Anyway, here I am to bid it farewell. We cancelled our subscription… much later than most people did. Quibi, we hardly knew ye.

Books: Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Like a lot of people from a certain Internet era, I used to read the Hyperbole and a Half site all the time. So I was primed to enjoy this book from the start.

Then again, I didn’t actually enjoy the Hyperbole and a Half book all that much, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one.

The short answer is: I did enjoy this book, much more than the first, and pretty much at the same level as I used to enjoy the site. In fact, I laughed so much I cried while reading some of this book, which is what I used to do when reading the site, so… Take from that what you will, but I count it as a sign of the book’s success.

It’s not all laughs and rainbows; Brosh does fly past a few serious topics, themes, and situations. She’s honest about some things that happened to her while still maintaining a certain amount of privacy, which she absolutely deserves. Kudos to her for walking that delicate line so well; it can’t have been easy.

I don’t know if you have to be of a certain age or temperament to “get” it. I’d guess it’s not an age thing since my kids also love her site, and I read most of this book aloud to them, and they loved it, too. Temperament, though… We are a family of weirdos, so maybe that helps in relating to Brosh’s content. Takes one to know one and all that kind of thing.

I definitely recommend this book. It’s a fast read (but remarkably heavy because of the weight of the paper—that’s all my old publishing knowledge squeaking out; I remember manufacturing specs). Easy to pick up and put down, read a little at a time or devour all at once. Like a box of candy, really. Definitely a little something to make 2020 slightly better and brighter. And good for not feeling too alone in the world, either.

Movies: Enola Holmes

This was cute.

That’s kind of the only word I can come up with to describe it. We watched it for family movie night, and everyone enjoyed it (my 12yo daughter most of all).

Based on the first in a series of novels by Nancy Springer, the film features Millie Bobby Brown as the titular Enola, younger sister to Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill). On her 16th birthday, Enola wakes to find her mother missing. When she doesn’t return, Mycroft arrives to take guardianship of Enola and Sherlock comes along to half-assedly determine whether… their mother needs to be looked for? It’s not entirely clear. He basically declares that their mother left on purpose without any intention of returning, so… case closed?

Faced with the prospect of being sent to finishing school, Enola runs away to London to look for their mother herself and along the way gets entangled with a young marquess (Louis Partridge) who is also running away from home in order to avoid being sent into the army. Except it turns out someone is trying to assassinate him. Enola’s brief brush with him makes her a target, too, &c.

On the whole, it’s all a bit rote but also charming. If I were my daughter’s age, I’d probably be in love with this film. Back in the day, it’s the kind of thing I’d have watched over and over again. (I did watch Young Sherlock Holmes repeatedly, after all.) Partridge is tween crush fodder, and my daughter was all the more elated when I told her he looks a lot like the main character of my current WIP, the draft of which she has been devouring.

I have some questions about the marquess’ titles and names, but it may simply be that I misunderstand the way these work. I assume he used the courtesy title of Viscount Tewkesbury prior to ascending to Marquess of Basilwether. But doesn’t “earl” come between the two? Can you be a viscount and a marquess without being an earl? Maybe earldoms are not used as courtesy titles, or this young man simply chose not to use it? I haven’t read the book, so maybe that explains it better? If anyone knows, please comment below.

N-E-ways (as we used to write when we passed notes in class)… Cute. Charming. Can easily see it becoming a series of some kind. A recommended watch if you want something not too taxing.

Disclaimer: My first self-published works were Sherlock Holmes stories, written in the style of Doyle’s originals. They’re still available on audio here.

My 9/11 Story

I’ve told this tale many a time, but now that I have a brand new site, I will post it once more. This is the story of a newlywed living on Beacon Hill in Boston. At the time, I worked for Houghton Mifflin (pre-Harcourt). I used to walk to and from work—across Boston Common and the Public Garden to the HM building on Boylston and Berkeley. FAO Schwartz was there, too.

On this particular morning, I woke from a bad dream. In the dream, I was a passenger in a white pickup truck. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but I remember the skin of his arm was deeply tanned. I did not want to be in this truck, but I had no choice. We were going down a highway with green hills on either side, and in the distance I could see the skyline of a city. The city had dark clouds over it. I looked up at once of those green highway signs and it read: Death and Destruction Ahead. I was desperate to get out of this truck, even thinking of jumping out despite being on a highway… And then I woke up.

The walk to work helped soothe my ruffled feathers. It was a beautiful day. But when I got to work, I could tell something was up. My cubicle was on the opposite side of a wall from the department admin, and I could hear that she had at least two other people in her cube with her. They were saying, “It won’t load.” I assumed they meant some kind of Web site.

I turned on my own computer and prepared to start my day, but then my phone rang. It was my husband, calling from his office in the Financial District. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” he said.

“That’s stupid,” I replied. I was picturing some little Cessna, a really bad flying student or something.

My husband seemed to understand. “No, a plane.” Meaning a big one, a passenger jet, the kind you take on vacation.

And then he said, “Oh, God, another one.”

Working in finance, my husband’s office had televisions everywhere. In fact, he would have been at 7 World Trade Center for a meeting that morning if not for a change in schedule.

I tried to wrap my brain around what was happening. All our department managers were in a meeting, but people around me were clearly getting anxious. Rumors were flying: that the Sears Tower had been hit, the Space Needle, that the John Hancock Building a few doors down was a target.

Now, I was just a lowly little Production Supervisor. But with the managers unaware of what was going on, I made an executive decision. I told one of my work colleagues to call her boyfriend and have him come pick her up. I decided I, too, was going home. And told others to go if they wanted. Then I went to the corner conference room, opened the door without knocking, and said to the stunned table of managers: “I’m sending people home.”

They stared.

I said, “There’s been a terrorist attack or something.”

The managers got up and began alternately calming people and telling them to go.

My husband called again and told me they were evacuating his building, that they were having to walk down some 30+ flights of stairs because they didn’t want people in the elevators. He would be walking home. I told him I’d meet him there shortly.

I grabbed my things and walked my coworker downstairs. I waited with her for her boyfriend, even though I was itching to just be gone. Once he pulled up and I saw her off, I hurried back through the Public Garden and Common to get home. On the Common were dozens of college students, stretched out and reading, doing homework. Many had headphones on. They don’t know, I thought. It felt surreal that there might be people who didn’t know what was going on.

Before going up to our apartment, I stopped at the convenience store around the corner from our building and bought a few things. I had a feeling we might be holed up awhile.

I got home. My husband had the television on. We hugged, but we weren’t crying yet. We were too much in shock, too confused about what was going on.

A few minutes after I got home, the South Tower collapsed.

Somewhere in all this, I was thinking: I need to call Dad. It’s his birthday. What a crap birthday.

Funny what our brains do in a crisis. Unable to grasp something so huge, we focus on a small, easy thing.

Of course, it was nearly impossible to get through to my dad. My call didn’t make it through until mid-afternoon, and the conversation was short; words were failing us.

Words still fail for things like this. As a writer, that’s difficult to understand and acknowledge, but it’s true. Words are wonderful and powerful, but there are times when their magic is impotent. Still, like cavemen with rocks, words are also sometimes the only tool we have. We do our best, however clumsily.

Movies: Mulan (2020)

So this was… okay, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe something epic. It wasn’t that. It was just kinda fine.

It starts well enough, with a young Mulan showing off her chi as she chases a chicken through her village. Here is a girl with the energy, power, and abilities that have been traditionally reserved for boys. For warriors. Her father indulges her in this until he finally is forced to explain that Mulan must hide her chi. Mulan’s duty, he tells her, is to marry well, and she can’t do that if she doesn’t become more girly.

In other words, “Into the closet with you.”

Maybe I’m just primed to read it that way, but the entire movie felt very obvious in its theme of queerness despite never actually touching on it directly. The closest it comes is when Mulan, at the time presenting as male, is invited by her general to meet with his daughter and a matchmaker after the war. The suggestion being that Mulan (again, being mistaken for a man) can marry the general’s daughter. Mulan has no real reaction to this, though, so it’s difficult to take it as a truly queer moment. Instead, from what I can tell, it’s mostly meant to be funny.

Meanwhile, the typical hetero love story is hinted at between Mulan and Honghui. At one point Honghui wonders whether a girl will ever like him, and Mulan whispers, “She will.” This is the one hint Mulan might be into Honghui, or guys in general.

The biggest problem I had with the film is that nothing feels well developed. We never really get to know any of the characters, so we can’t feel connected to them or really care that much about them. I feel like I could have liked Honghui, but I barely got to know the guy. And though there is, in broad strokes, the impression of Mulan having a character arc, she really doesn’t change in any dramatic way.

Gone, too, are the songs, the sidekicks, the humor. Now we are offered a “witch” character that is aiding the enemy army. Like Mulan, she seemingly had an excess of chi. But since she never hid it, this witch was exiled. She fell in with the baddies when they promised her she would never have to hide her true nature again.

Um, what? If the witch had stayed in the closet, she’d have been better off?

I guess, really, the idea is that people like the witch and Mulan need the support of those around them. Mulan’s fellow soldiers stand up for her. Her father accepts her. She is allowed to be her true self, and therefore she never turns evil.

There’s something very Star Wars about the whole thing, too. The way chi was explained and represented made me think of the Force. The witch, then, was someone who had embraced the Dark Side.

Also, there is a phoenix.

Bottom line: there are a lot of themes, and there is a lot of surface-level storytelling, but the whole of this version lacks depth and charm. Nor is it epic enough in scale to excuse that lack. The characters fail to be fully developed, the plot beats are fairly rote, and Jet Li didn’t even get to do very many cool stunts. Overall, this was meh for me. Magnificently shot with fabulous costumes and sets, but it’s like a beautifully decorated—but empty—box.