Review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Spoilers!)

** spoiler alert ** When I heard that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was going to be in script form, I was thinking Shakespeare. I wasn’t expecting novel no-no’s in the stage direction like “There’s a lot of emotion here.” If there’s emotion, it should be obvious from the dialogue.

That said, I liked the storyline, and it was nice to feel like I was back at Hogwarts. I did think the tension between Harry and his son Albus was a bit inauthentic. Would Harry really tell his son “Sometimes I wish you weren’t my son?” I think Harry would have grown up a little more sensitive than that. And Ron was like a caricature of himself. I was also really hoping for a better closure to the story with Cedric’s dad. I’d have liked to see something good happen to him or at least some more meaningful dialogue. Maybe it will seem to have more depth on stage.

I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars, but here I am saying only negative things about it. That’s because the bar is set so high in Potter World, I guess. I loved being back at Hogwarts, I thought Hermione’s character was spot on, and I did feel the urgency of Albus and Scorpius’s adventure. I just missed Rowling’s writing and the usual Potter complexity.

Always Have a Woman Read Your Love Scenes

“What a wimp!”

This is handwritten in the margin of the first and only draft of my first novella. My friend Jeff wrote it next to Cate and Micah’s first kiss. You see, I am a woman, and I thought that Micah’s hesitance was sweet and sensitive. If I had planned on marketing primarily to women, the scene might have sufficed, but if my own sweet and sensitive guy friend Jeff wasn’t going for it, I was in trouble.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve read novels written by men and thought, “THAT scene was supposed to be sexy?” Women who are unsure of themselves at work completely changing their personality on a first date, brazenly baring their breasts; women who aren’t gymnasts performing miraculous stunts; overly specific descriptions of sex with no dialogue or mentions of, I don’t know, thoughts or feelings…

MEN! ALWAYS HAVE A WOMAN CRITIQUE YOUR BOOK BEFORE YOU PUBLISH IT! It goes beyond love scenes. An otherwise great book can be derailed by a bad love scene, or worse, a woman written badly the whole way through a book. Ask a woman friend, “Have you ever known a woman who thought this way? Have you ever known a woman who acted like this?” You risk at least half your potential market if you don’t get it right, not to mention that you want to get it right for the sake of writing life like it really is. Don’t you?

Poor, wimpy Micah is only a pile of papers in my closet now, but if I ever go back to that novel I’ll have to do something about him. It might only be an added sentence or it might be a story-wide overhaul, but Micah is not a wimp, and I won’t have men readers thinking of him as such. It doesn’t do him justice.

Men, how do you see your woman character? Make sure women see her the same.

How Not to Teach English (or comment on social media)

I learned how to sit sullenly at the back of the classroom and glare at the teacher my sophomore year of high school. Through the eighth grade I got straight A’s no problem. I sat in the middle with a reasonably pleasant look on my face. Freshman year I hit a few bumps in the road, but it wasn’t until Mrs. Strange’s* English class the following year that I completely shut down.

You see, my dog died. I wrote a paper about all the things I’d loved about Barney and how much I missed him. Greatest dog ever. Once when I was three or four I escaped from the house and asked Barney if it was okay if I went to the park. He said yes, and off we went! (Mom found us before we got there.) If anyone at church or the mall or the grocery store ever asked if I had siblings, I’d respond, “I have two sisters and a brother. He’s a dog.” One of the things I mentioned in my paper was that whenever I had sleepovers, all the girls would try to get Barney to sleep on their sleeping bag. It was such a vivid and happy memory for me. Girls patting the end of their shiny sleeping bags and calling, “Barney! Barney!”

When I got the paper back, it had little notes along the side, but I only remember one of them. “DOGS AND BEDDING DO NOT MIX.”

Do you think I absorbed any grammar advice she may have mentioned in other places? No. I was furious. At the time I probably thought I was angry because she was insulting my hygiene, but I realize now that it was because she ignored my pain and made a completely unnecessary comment. She could have told me how to use language to better draw readers into my joy and pain (I’m sure I needed help—I still do!) but she chose to make a silly comment that I’m sure she didn’t think would affect me much at all.

But it did. So I sat in the back with a girl named Bonnie from then on. She seemed to hate Mrs. Strange, too. Probably got told that her dream of being an astronaut was unrealistic or something. I never asked. But there we sat, snickering at our formal, old, hag of a teacher and waiting for the year to end.

Looking back, I pity Mrs. Strange. She was raised at a time and place where teaching was probably the only profession she was allowed. And obviously she’d never been allowed to snuggle with a dog. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that English teachers and social media commenters should not be distracted by a sentence that they disagree with but should instead focus on the writer’s feelings. English teachers are there to help use the craft to perfect our own voice.

My first year of college I had the best English teacher I’ve ever had. Professor Schneider didn’t care if a dog or a dozen drunken sailors shared your bed. He cared about words. Language. Expression. Soul. He might hack apart this blog, but he would never overlook the feelings I have about Mrs. Strange and say “kids shouldn’t glare at their teachers.” He would say, “here’s how you can show us more clearly how you felt about her,” without passing judgement on my feelings. I have a feeling that he wouldn’t disagree with me anyway. I have a feeling that he would have been sitting in the back with me and Bonnie.

*Name changed, a little

How to Celebrate Your 20th Anniversary

“Are you getting me a present?” I ask. “Or are the mattress, washer, and desk what we’re doing?”

Unrelated to our anniversary, we’ve taken money out of a small  inheritance to replace some ridiculously old household items. He looks alarmed, so I clarify.

“Because I don’t know what to get you.”

Whew. Neither of us is getting anything for the other. We’ll go for a walk at the beach and he’ll take me to one of my favorite restaurants. And we’ll shop for a washing machine. A long time ago he used to talk about renewing vows, but I’m glad he hasn’t brought that up so that I don’t have to tell him I always associate vow renewal with people who have had affairs and need to re-vow. I meant mine the first time, no offense to vow renewers. Also I’d have to plan a party. Blech.

He shaved off his goatee. He was clean-shaven when I met him, and after my periodic requests for him to shave, he’s done it now for this special occasion in his usual dramatic fashion. There’s my dashing beau! I kept my hair long for him the first 17 or so years. I figure that’s enough.

We’ll probably get each other cards. Usually his say, “Thanks for putting up with me.” Do I act like I’m only putting up with him? Well, sometimes of course, but is that the overall impression? I hope it’s just a cute thing he likes to say. Usually I read into things more than he means. He does the same to me.

He wants to do more for me for our anniversary (in his true dramatic fashion), but I really can’t think of anything else I’d like to do. I like things simple. 20 years ago I wanted to elope in Tahoe, but he insisted that I’d regret not having a wedding. I acquiesced.

Here’s the great thing about a 20th anniversary. We know what we want now. I know now that I wouldn’t have regretted running off to Tahoe. Planning the wedding, although my mom and sisters did most of it, was nothing but a stress for me. Now when he asks if I’m sure that a walk on the beach and dinner at a favorite restaurant is enough, I can say “yes,” and know that I mean it, and he believes me. He knows that I know myself, and he knows that I don’t just say what I think he wants to hear.

What a relief! That’s how to celebrate your 20th anniversary. Know yourself. Accept that your spouse knows their own self, too. Your celebration doesn’t have to be far away or involve a lot of people if you don’t want it to. For our anniversary I’ll tell my husband that I appreciate that he’s a respected teacher and a great dad and a safe driver and a good avocado-picker. (Seriously, he picks perfect ones every time.) We’ll go for a walk on the beach, and at dinner I’ll get either the gluten free fig and pig pizza or gluten free pasta. If he wants to do something else, I trust he’ll tell me.

Once, a confused newlywed asked me for marriage advice. I say confused not because she was confused about her marriage but because she must have been confused about me! She was asking the wrong girl. What gave her the impression that I had any wisdom? Here’s all I know. Don’t have an affair. Don’t consider divorce. Other than that, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure we’re only still together by the grace of God.

So happy anniversary, Sean. I love you, and you’re welcome for putting up with you.

 

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

A follow-up to I’m Just a Girl Standing in Front of a Jazz Band

So I made myself go to a jam session. I had played approximately one improv solo in the last twenty years, but I wanted to put a flyer for my girls’ jazz band on the cafe’s corkboard, and I also thought I should probably dust off the old chord extensions before teaching them.

I walked in as the band (five men and no women) was setting up, and I took my trombone out of its case. Is that how these sessions work? Do you just show up and take out your horn? I didn’t remember, but I’m old now and didn’t care if I was doing it wrong. I took out my horn and waited for someone to tell me what to do or at least introduce himself. No one did. Of course, I didn’t introduce myself, either. Finally I went and sat at a table by my mom. Four of my husband’s (male) high school students had come with their instruments, too, and I overheard another patron tell them that there’d be a sign-up sheet out soon.

When the sheet appeared, I went and signed up, writing “any” under the “song” category. I’m indecisive, and I also figured that “any” might seem impressive while also covering for me if I sucked. How terrible would it be to suck on a song that you chose as the one you’d most like to play in front of an audience?

And there was an audience—a small but friendly one. After the house band played two tunes (loved the bass player) they called me up and the drummer said to the other band members, “Caravan?” I could have misread the body language, but at least one band member seemed to think Caravan was a poor choice, and I thought it was because they had no idea what level player I was. The drummer asked me, “Do you know Caravan?” “Yep,” I answered. At least I used to, and I hoped it would be like riding a bike. Well, not exactly like riding a bike, as I haven’t gotten on a bike since an accident landed me in the E.R. when I was nine.

I had forgotten about the pain I get in the pit of my stomach as surely as I had forgotten the chords to our second song, “God Bless the Child.” No one seemed too impressed with my playing, and I have to admit I kind of wanted to get on the mic and say, “I’m the girl who wrote that blog. Some of you probably read it? Kind of a poignant moment here.” But of course I didn’t. My playing fizzled, and I went back to my mom. I don’t think she even told me I played well.

My husband’s students played their songs. (Mercifully, I knew beforehand that one of them could play circles of fifths around me.) A man sang “It Had To Be You.” And then my husband’s students and I all went up for the last song of the night, and one of the band members called “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” Now I know the melody of that song, but I didn’t remember the name, so I didn’t know I knew the melody. “What are a few of the chords?” I asked, trying to be funny. Gospel blues. B flat. “You’ll find something out about yourself,” the drummer said.

I wish what I had found out about myself was super dramatic. The drummer’s setup statement sounded so prophetic! “You’ll find something out about yourself!” I thought that I might discover that I had more in my soul than I had ever dreamed over a C minor 7 and the clinks of the dishes in the kitchen. Alas, here’s all I found out. 1) I should have gone pee before the song started. 2) I should have used my new irealpro app at home a few times instead of making my poignant return to improv in public, and 3) No matter how many times I heard “Mercy Mercy Mercy” before it was my turn to solo, I would not notice the very obvious lead-up to the C minor 7 chord.

I left feeling a little sad. The men were not rude, but I was the only woman, and that stirred up old feelings. While I played, I almost felt like I had to force myself to play more than whole notes. “Whatever, here’s a simple lick. Here it is again changed a little to fit the new chord.” I know it’s a form of fear of failure. Don’t let yourself care, and it won’t hurt when you suck. I remember it well. I’m back in the E.R.

Mercy. Mercy. Have mercy on me, Lord, and help me help my students to reach higher than I ever did.

 

I’m Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Jazz Band…

Twenty-five years ago I was in the California State Honor Jazz Band. I was a senior in high school and the first chair trombone. There were, undoubtedly, more talented high school trombonists who didn’t send in audition tapes (yes, tapes) but there’s no proof, when you think about it, that in 1991 I wasn’t the best high school jazz trombone player in the state of California.

I was one of three girls, if I recall. One girl played either bass or saxophone, and I wish I could remember her name. The other girl I remember very well. The pianist. I’ll call her Bella*. Bella was only a sophomore, and she was the star of the group. She was already winning international competitions.

17 boys and three girls didn’t seem like a big deal to me. My own high school jazz band teacher and the boys in my class treated me as an equal, and I still assumed that was the case in the rest of the jazz world. I guess I hadn’t noticed that I was one of a very few females who performed in the Sacramento Dixieland Festival. Old drunk men from other bands hitting on me at said festival when I came off the stage was just part of the deal. So what if I was only 15?

After an indecisive year at a junior college, I entered Cal State Hayward as a freshman music major. Still 18, I was naive as the night is long, and generally unaware of how small phrases affected me in big ways. One day, a few men and I were sitting around the band room. I wish I could remember who the men were. Maybe I don’t wish. At any rate, one of them implied that I had gotten into the top jazz band based on, shall we say, nonmusical qualities. He wasn’t kidding.

I have so many questions about that moment. Why didn’t one of the other guys stand up for me? And more importantly, why didn’t stand up for me? Why didn’t I stand up for myself, even if only in my own mind. I’d been first chair in the state of California, damn it! Why did I defend my professor in my mind (he would never!) but not myself (I am qualified!)?

I should mention in passing some of the other things that happened during jazz band and jazz theory and improv classes over the next two years. I was told by an older male perennial student that women only go to college to find a husband. I was slapped on the butt by a mediocre drummer. I was called “The future Mrs. Smith,” by Chet Smith*, who never asked me out.

Six out of 20 of us were women. Not bad for a jazz band. Many of the men treated me like a real person, including my now husband. (I swear I didn’t go to college just to meet him.) But I think that subconsciously I never quite felt like I belonged. And then, after two years, one of the other women told me something that had happened to her in our group, and it was the last straw for me. It’s not my story to tell, but the point is, I quit.

I quit jazz.

Fast forward 22 years. 20 years of teaching private lessons, 10 of those years also teaching band to 4th-8th graders. I take full responsibility for not “making it” as a jazz performer. I didn’t have to let the atmosphere of the jazz world stop me. I sure didn’t practice enough, and not only because girls were told not to come to the music building alone because there was a rapist on the loose. (Though that certainly didn’t help.)

But after all these years, all these little moments along the way have finally crystallized in my mind in the form of a conclusion. There is an atmosphere in the jazz world. There is a reason I never felt like I fit in. How did I look at list after list of famous jazz instrumentalists to emulate and go to concert after concert and not wonder why 99% of them were men? I love what Geena Davis says. “If she can see it, she can be it.” I couldn’t see it, and I think that subconsciously I didn’t think I could ever be it.

This year my college professor won a DownBeat magazine award. No one deserves it more. But when I clicked to peruse the list of awards and saw that not one of the high school student instrumental awards had gone to a girl, my heart nearly stopped its slow, steady swing beat. I emailed the editor. He said that the judges hadn’t known which recordings were girls and which were boys, and that he lamented the inequality, too. He said he understood that change must seem “dreadfully slow” to me.

When I relayed this to a male trumpet player friend of mine, he told me that this year the California State Honor Jazz Band had only had one girl in it. The junior high band hadn’t had any. That does not seem “dreadfully slow” to me. The little engine didn’t make it up the hill, and now it is rolling backward.

Unlike so many problems in this world that I am not qualified to help solve, this is something I can work on. After I got the ball rolling to start a jazz band for high school girls at the music store where I work, I got nostalgic and decided to track down Bella from honor band. I’d always wished I’d kept in touch, and she was a glimmer of hope for me. A girl who I felt sure would have made it. Inspiration.

Bella did make it. She toured with a couple famous groups and wrote scores for television and film. And then, at the age of 29, she took her own life. This time my swing beat heart really did feel like it stopped. The article in the L.A. Times mentioned chronic pain, and I have no right to project my lamentations about gender inequality onto her, so I can’t say that the atmosphere in the music world contributed to her decision. But I can say without a doubt that the jazz world losing one of its brightest female stars is a blow to me and a loss to every girl who won’t get to emulate her. A devastating loss that the girls will never even know about. And so each one of them who can’t “see it” and therefore decides not to “be it” is a loss for every girl after her.

What can we do? I can start my jazz band for girls and make sure they are so prepared that nothing anyone says can make them feel like they aren’t good enough to be in the top group. School band directors can do blind auditions even if they think they aren’t subconsciously hearing girls as less talented than they really are. They can encourage girls to audition for honor bands and awards and the top schools. They can keep their ears open for any negative talk within the band.They can bring in women guest artists.

I’m just a girl, standing in front of the whole jazz world, asking for respect for the girls I’m about to send to you. They have some beautiful things to say.

*Names changed.

If you want updates on my class, Sonoma Jazz Girls, or want to read guest blogs by women jazz musicians, please follow my new blog, halfthatjazz.com

Top 10 Writer Problems (and what novelists can do about them)

10. The Actual Writing

Quality writing is, of course, a topic that can be broken up into many categories. Entire books are written on the topic, which is one reason I’m not going to try to tell you how to write well in one blog entry. Instead, I am going to steer you toward the things I’ve found helpful in crafting my own novels.

1. Books on writing by Sol Stein and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner.

2. A great critique group.

3. Grammar references like those of Arlene Miller.

I’ve probably read 50 books (and countless meandering blogs) about writing techniques, and trust me—I’ve narrowed it down to the ones that actually help. The others made me feel motivated for about 5 minutes but gave no concrete techniques. You might find a few good tips on the internet, but after a few days of surfing, they’ll all start to sound the same.

The reason you also need a critique group is that once you get to the point where you’re saying to yourself, “Yes! I’m doing it just like Sol Stein and John Gardner,” you need someone to tell you, “Yeah, here’s where you’re not.”

9. Hating Yourself

My problem is that even after multiple readings of Stein and Gardner, and even after 5 years in a great critique group, I’m still not satisfied with my writing (or my sales). Just look at my weak vocabulary so far in this article! In a section about quality writing, “quality” is probably the most interesting word I used. No “avarice,” no “barnacle,” no “ramshackle.” When I paste my writing into those websites that tell you the grade level of your writing, mine usually says “5th.” Does it make me hate myself?

Yes.

But what I try to do is treat myself as well as I’d treat a friend. Would I tell a friend, “You’re pathetic?” No. I’d tell them that they write interesting, simple stories, and that they will never get better if they quit.

8. Scoffers

You scoff at yourself enough. You don’t need more scoffers. Are you imperfect? Is your writing imperfect? Is making money from writing difficult? Yes, yes, and yes. Are any of those reasons to quit? No. Ignore the scoffers. Don’t even waste your time arguing with them. You don’t need to justify yourself.

7. Finding Agents and Publishers

After years doubting, I have finally come to believe what speakers, panelists, and other members of my writing club have been saying all along. Self publishing is the way of the future. Agents and publishers take forever to respond, and if you finally get one and don’t happen to be the next J.K. Rowling, you’ll have to do all your own marketing anyway.

I can’t count the hours I’ve wasted reading about how to write query letters and personalizing queries and submissions. No more! Kindle and Create Space are free and easy and don’t require a lawyer to make sure I got a good contract. If my books are good enough, they’ll sell. If not, on to the next one!

6. Distractions

In order to limit your distractions, I’ll simply say that your kids are not distractions, but your TV is. You know what to do.

5. Writing Distractions

Contests, anthologies, and magazine articles can even be distractions if your goal is to publish your novel. I do all three of these things occasionally, but I have become more selective. Do you have a good chance of winning the contest? Will the anthology get your name out there? Does the magazine pay enough to justify novel-writing time lost?

Even writing this blog is questionable. Will it really help anyone? If so, it will be worth the time I invested, but if not…

4. Money

I am extremely lucky to have a spouse who has agreed to live off their* public schoolteacher salary for a while. In Sonoma County, it’s not easy. I constantly tell myself that I will never make money off my novels and that I could serve my family better by bringing in minimum wage, but I want to be present for my daughter after school, so for me it’s either a job or writing. I don’t seem to be one of those people who can do it all. I get exhausted and depressed whenever I try, and at 42, I’m coming to terms with that. If you have to have a full time job, there are other authors who talk about writing schedules and fitting it all in, but for me and my family, my dream of writing novels comes at a financial cost.

Okay, so in my title I promised I’d give solutions to my top ten problems. I’m sorry that I have nothing to help you while money is only trickling in from your writing.

Just being honest.

3. Marketing

First off, there’s little chance that a poorly written book or a book with an amateurish cover will sell no matter how much you put into marketing. Make sure that at the very least you’ve had beta readers, proofreaders, and opinions on your cover.

Here’s what I thought would work for marketing. Sharing the link to my book on my Facebook and Twitter pages. I have over 400 Facebook friends. Most of them are real live friends—people I know well. At least half of them will spend 99 cents for my 80-page fairy tale comedy on Kindle, right? And then they’ll tell their friends, right?

Wrong.

I sold about 15 copies of Littlefoot Part One that way. Fewer than 5% of my Facebook friends bought it, and only 1% shared my link on their page. That’s not even all my relatives. I’m not complaining; they have no obligation to buy or share. But I must admit I was surprised.

So what to do? You have to get a table at events. You have to read in public. You have to engage people on an individual level. (This is why Anaheim Tales has sold more than Littlefoot Part One. Not because it’s a better book, but because I’ve made the rounds with it.) You have to share other people’s books and try not to notice when they don’t share yours. You have to be persistent. It takes TIME.

2. Forgetting How to Talk to Real People

Sometimes my brain gets stuck in Writerland. I’m not necessarily even thinking about my novel, I’ve just forgotten that I’m a real person around other real people. Sometimes I have to silently tell myself, “They said something to you. Say something back!” Not kidding. So that’s my advice. Don’t forget you’re a real person.

1.  Sore Butt

Stand up once in a while.

Good luck and much love from,

M.L. Millard

*Yes, I have adopted the singular “their.” Deal with it.