The Practice of Apology

It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”

How hard can it be?

Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:

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(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.

I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.

Thank you for reading this.)

I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.

How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.

When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.

Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?

My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.

After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.

Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.

A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.

How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.

This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”

When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.

How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.

 

 

 

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Writing the Female Gaze

ThePartingMirror_ front_smallI’ve written seven novels in my Caitlin Ross series now, and unless the coming release of The Well Below the Valley changes things, the one that has prompted the most divisive opinions among readers is The Parting Glass. There are a lot of reasons I’d expect this to be the case–my PoC characters rely too much on tired tropes, for example. But that’s not what I hear. Simply put, reader response falls into two camps: Those who like Romance novels love it, and those who don’t, don’t. They see the entire second act, which focuses on Caitlin and Timber’s developing relationship, as a distraction from the main story. If they’ve started at the beginning of the series, which most have, they’ve read three books of magic and action by this point. They want more magic and action, not this icky love stuff, thank you.

This interests me.

When I started the series, I didn’t set out to write Romance. In fact, I set out NOT to write Romance. (I didn’t set out to write a series, either, but that’s beside the point, I guess.) I did, however, have two specific agenda. First of all, I wanted to portray a true-to-life Witch rather than a sensationalized one. As you’ll know if you’ve read the books, I did end up giving Caitlin some extraordinary powers because doing without them became far too complicated and adding them kept things interesting. For the most part, though, I stick to the thought process, actions, and world view one would expect from a long time practicing Pagan. I also wanted to present exceptional Tarot readings, because at the point where I began I was sick to death of every Urban Fantasy author inserting an obligatory Tarot scene when they obviously knew nothing whatsoever of the subject beyond reading the little pamphlet that comes with the deck.

Second, I wanted to show a realistic relationship between a stable, long-term couple who, though they disagree and even argue from time to time, actually communicate pretty well. That’s why I started the series with Caitlin and Timber several years into their marriage. I wanted to avoid the inevitable “sorting out” period every relationship goes through. In fact, I didn’t want the book to be about their relationship at all. I wanted the relationship to be part of the setting, like the house or the town: an interesting backdrop for events, rather than an event in and of itself.

I had numerous reasons for wanting to do this. I enjoy the occasional Romance, especially those that are well-written and/or have an interesting premise. However, stand-alone Romance novels tend to rely on certain tropes I’m not fond of. Even those with “strong” heroines often fall back on traditional gender roles. The hero may start out as kind of an asshole, at least on the surface, and it’s up to the heroine to pierce his soft center and get him to recognize her equal standing. Disagreements can usually be traced to lack of effective communication. I find this frustrating. I don’t mind when characters have secrets like “Honey, I’m from the future,” or “I conned my way into this social position.” Major revelations require a level of trust not usually present at the start of a relationship. But refusing to share pertinent information because the author needs to sustain the conflict is a sure turn off for me.

I created Timber MacDuff as a man who specifically does not balk at communicating. He has his share of flaws and secrets, sure. But when it comes to his relationship with Caitlin, he talks openly and honestly. He has to, because Caitlin is more than normally sensitive to nuance and hidden subtext. If she fails to call him on obfuscation, it’s because she has her own issues clouding the matter. More, they’re both self-aware enough that they don’t need the constant release of fighting over trivial matters to prop up avoidance of underlying conflict. If Caitlin reminds Timber to please rinse the sink after trimming his beard, he doesn’t take it as a personal affront and need to escalate to the point of a power struggle. He just rinses the sink. On the other hand, if Timber recommends against a course of action, Caitlin may not like it, and she may do it anyway, but she doesn’t question his motives. She trusts he has her best interests at heart, and isn’t trying to exert dominance by controlling her. I made their partnership as equal as I possibly could while grounding it in reality. Caitlin’s forthrightness and practicality balances Timber’s occasional emotional outbursts, and Timber’s wisdom tempers her tendency to take risks.

So what does all this have to do with the topic of this post, writing the female gaze?

With the exception of Demon Lover, which alternates between Caitlin’s point of view and Timber’s, I write the series from the Caitlin’s first person perspective. Being inside her brain, as it were, it doesn’t take long to see that she’s Timber’s equal sexually as well as intellectually. Getting back to The Parting Glass, the first time she lays eyes on him she goes weak in the knees. She thinks he’s hot. She wants him. We see this in other books as well. When the series begins, they’ve been together almost eight years, and the fire hasn’t burned out. She likes looking at him. She makes no bones about it. He has a fantastic ass; it turns her on. It’s not a huge part of any of the books except for The Parting Glass, but it’s there. And I’ve received more than a handful of reader comments leading me to believe that people find this uncomfortable. Things like “Caitlin objectifies Timber too much” and “Timber only exists in this book as a sex object.” None of this feedback, by the way, came from male readers, of which I have several. They all came from women.

Now, I’ve read a great many books where the male protagonist thinks or voices similar opinions of the female protagonist, and unless it’s taken to extremes, very few people comment on this behavior when it’s coming from a man. From a man, it’s flattering, expected, even admirable. I’ve never been criticized for Timber expressing his desire for Caitlin. He can throw her over his shoulder and carry her to bed or say outright that he wants her and means to “have” her, and no one raises an eyebrow. This leads me to wonder if the underlying reason for people’s discomfort is not the expression of desire and attraction in itself, but the fact that it’s coming from a woman.

We all know–or at this point we should know–that most entertainment media caters to the male gaze, the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze in particular. Female characters possess a specific kind of beauty, the big-boobed, small-waisted variety, with or without a shapely booty, depending on preference. Most leading women are under the age of thirty. Even those marooned on mysterious islands without modern amenities or stuck in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse have mysteriously smooth legs and armpits. Male writers of “strong female characters (TM)” dwell on details like the sensation of moving breasts and the slide of silk over newly-washed skin in a way real life women seldom do. Men can be loud, dirty, and combative without much personal consequence, but women can’t. Not and remain “attractive.” A dirty, loud woman is presented as flawed. A woman stepping outside the role of peacemaker is ridiculed; a woman reaching for power falls; a woman acting upon her sexual desires is punished.

But women have sexual desires and urges. Women look at men they find attractive (Disclaimer: I’m speaking specifically of het women). They like butts, and abs, and shoulders. They like bellies and beards and feet. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around a group of women knows this. Anyone even peripherally aware of the many, many fandoms revolving around shows with gorgeous male stars–Outlander, Supernatural, and Arrow, to name a few of the current ones–should know this. Men can be beautiful. Their beauty takes infinite forms, just as women’s beauty does. People in sexual relationships are attracted to one another. Isn’t it about time to admit it goes both ways?

Caitlin thinks Timber is beautiful. Sure: It’s the first thing she notices about him. Haven’t you ever seen a stranger and thought, “Wow, what a hottie!” I know I have. It’s Caitlin’s first impression, and it’s all she knows. As they come to know each other better, however, she adds to that first impression. He’s smart, talented, a craftsman, a shaman. Caitlin’s attraction doesn’t cause her to discount those things, as it would if she saw him as no more than a sexual object. And familiarity, if anything, deepens her attraction rather than diminishes it. After years of marriage, she still thinks he’s hot. It’s as much a part of their relationship as the magic.

It may be that women critique Caitlin’s sexuality and the way she views Timber because women are more overtly aware of sexual objectification, being more subject to it. I think, though, that there’s an aspect of internalized sexism in the act. All too often we still cram women into the virgin/whore dichotomy. We expect our female characters to behave certain ways around sex, to be the one acted upon rather than the actor. A woman who’s up front about her sexuality, who picks and chooses and directs instead of going along, is a challenge to our self concepts and our own relationships with carnality. In claims that Caitlin treats Timber as a sex object, I hear the echo of a patriarchal standard warning us that if we own our bodies and our desires, we must necessarily treat the men in our lives the way women have been treated: as lesser beings, unfit to be equal partners.

When you release a book into the world, you lose control over it. People interpret stories differently than you intended. They project their own issues onto your characters and read deep meaning in the most innocent actions (One reviewer had a real problem with Caitlin not wearing makeup on a regular basis because it was “obviously meant to show she’s superior to other women” and decided that despite Caitlin’s relative insouciance about her appearance “the reader is supposed to know she’s always the hottest girl in the room.”). I know this, and yet the claims of Timber being objectified because his wife likes the way he looks and enjoys having sex still bother me. They show we have a long way to go before women’s points of view become normal and women’s sexuality, in all its many forms, becomes as acceptable as men’s.

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NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up

If you follow me on social media, you already know I participated in #NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. I swear I thought I had written a blog about my decision to do this, but I looks like I didn’t. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo (or just “NaNo”) stands for “National Novel Writing Month.” It’s an event that falls every November, not just in the US but around the world, in which participants set a goal to write 50,000 words over the course of the month (50K being the minimum length for a book qualifying as a novel). People don’t always stick to the novel idea. Some write essays, or poetry, or short stories–whatever takes their fancy. The only stipulation for “winning” is that one write 50K words of whatever.

Short story:

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I hit 50K last Friday. For me, this word count doesn’t represent a finished novel. At the moment, it looks like this is going to be a shorter work, more along the lines of She Moved Through the Fair than A Maid in Bedlam. So I have maybe 30K more to write to round out the plot. But okay: I did it.

As I said, I’ve never participated before. I don’t think the reasons for this are important. I went back and forth about participating this year, and eventually elected to do it because my writing process needed a boost. I’d spent over a year muddling around with book 7 of the Caitlin Ross series, tossing plot after unworkable plot. All of them stalled out at about 25K; I got bored, or the book didn’t move, or some weird shit took control that detracted from the story. I think it’s possible that any of those stories could have been made to work with time and effort, and I’ve kept a lot of my notes. But I’m not good at making progress when I feel like I’m dragging a ton of bullshit behind me. Even though my brain said, “Just get through it and fix it in edits,” and even though a couple times I asked for outside (meaning not my husband) opinions and heard “It’s fine!” I couldn’t follow through. I kept going back to the beginning, over and over again, fiddling with the opening chapters and trying to pull them into some kind of shape that excited me. After doing this a number of times, I got lazy. I hate using that word–it has triggering connotations for me–but it applies. I used any excuse at all NOT to write: “Oh, I’m just not in the space,” or “I kind of don’t feel well,” or “I have to wash my hair.” And while I’d like to emphasize that ANY of these is a valid reason not to write and no creative person is obligated to be creative at any time, I recognized that, for me in this situation, they weren’t doing me any favors.

So I started over with NaNo, and I got through. The last few weeks of October I took some time to noodle around and rediscover my protagonist’s voice, which I’d lost. I found a plot I felt more passionate about (“more” being the key word here; my ability to feel passion for anything remains lower than I’d like). I wrote every day, even when I had a minor headache, even if it wasn’t any more than a couple hundred words. I passed the 25K disaster mark and went on. I relearned how to let the story unfold and how to keep out of my characters’ way. I stifled the urges to prove my worthiness through promoting a political agenda and write a bunch of tripe that served little purpose but to show I’d done my research on things I haven’t personally experienced.

What kept me going more than anything was the event website (and I hope next year, if I participate again, they have an app, because really). In the same way Weight Watchers has hooked me in the past with its charts and tracking widgets, NaNo hooked me with the ability to earn badges and chart my progress. I liked updating my word count every day. I liked posting my running totals to the Twitter hashtag. I have a more competitive nature than I like to own, and the website helped me compete with myself and push past all the little foibles that I’ve allowed to stand in my way.

I didn’t feel a lot of community support, but I think that’s mostly about the way I work. I didn’t participate in any events or frequent the forums. Trying to write in public, like at a write-in, distracts me. And when I’m working a plot, I prefer just to focus on it.

Before I started, I heard a lot about “You’ll feel so great when you hit your goal!” and “The sense of accomplishment is worth it!” I don’t feel either of those things. Some of that is because I simply don’t feel a huge amount of excitement or accomplishment about anything. When I do something, even something others think is amazing, at best I feel, “Okay, I did that.” It doesn’t seem any great cause for celebration. (And yes, this is something I’m trying to address in therapy.)

Right now, what I feel is tired. I worked on my new book every day for a month. I have a fair way to go. I’m not really looking forward to it. A few days ago, I saw a post to the Twitter tag that said (in essence), “The lesson of NaNo is not just that you can write every day one month out of the year, but that you can do it ALL THE TIME!” Um, yeah, for me not so much. As I said above, NO creative person has an obligation to be creative every day–in fact, I think the idea that we must create every day in order to justify our creative identities is harmful. I did learn that I can do more than I usually assume. And I also acknowledge that doing so takes a lot out of me and I need time to recover.

Was participating worth it? hard for me to judge, but on the whole I’d say yes. I’m closer to finishing an actual book than I’ve been in over a year. I need a day or two off, I think, but I’ll get there. Will I participate again? No idea. Depends on what’s happening this time next year.

For today, I’m resting on my laurels.

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Banging my Head Against a Wall, and Other Fun Hobbies

A little over a year ago, I released the sixth book in the Caitlin Ross series, Demon Lover. As you might know if you interact with me on any kind of social media, I’ve been trying to write book seven ever since. It’s not going at all well.

I had an idea for what came after Demon Lover. Six chapters into it, I realized it wasn’t working.  I got another idea that interested me more. I tried that idea. Couldn’t make it work. Went back and tried it another way. And another. STILL couldn’t make it work. Tried another idea, which ALSO didn’t work, and another, and another. Every time, I got 200-odd pages into it and didn’t feel right about it. Nothing worked.

I got another idea. This time, I thought I really had it! But it got harder and harder, and yesterday, after only 100-odd pages this time, I took a good, hard look at it. I realized a couple of things about it, the main one being I didn’t have a believable conflict. I had a bunch of semi-interesting events, but they didn’t build or lead anywhere.  My antagonist wasn’t doing anything evil enough, or even problematic enough, for my characters to get involved. So I lost interest.

I think this has been the problem all along. Michael says I’m usually good at conflict (which astounded me, because I feel like I’m terrible at it). But I’ll tell you, when you have a world view as out of the ordinary as mine, it’s hard to get riled up about any of the major ones. Murder, okay, I can do that. I’ve done human trafficking and involuntary possession and breaking magical rules in a way that has disastrous consequences. But drug dealing? I don’t think drugs should be criminalized at all, so I can’t get into a lather about it. Breaking THE LAW? I’d have to look at circumstances. I can’t even bring to mind other kinds of BAD THINGS.

A helpful–I mean this non-ironically–person on Twitter just suggested “Give the character a goal and stick an obstacle between him and the goal.” This is great advice. I can’t come up with a goal for any of my characters, either. What do Caitlin and Timber want right now? Since they had a baby in the last book, I expect what they want is to settle down and live a relatively normal life for a bit while they adjust to being parents. This is not the stuff of epic storytelling. In one way, literally anything I came up with that interfered with their lives would be a conflict. In another, it still has to be believable that they’d give two shits about it. And I’ve already established that a happening has to be pretty big for them to get involved. Or have personal significance. Preferably both. But I feel I’ve tapped out the personal significance vein. I’ve got three more things I plan to do in the series arc, as far as that goes. I don’t think any of them happen yet. So I’m stuck.

Part of the problem is Timber (male protagonist, for those of you unfamiliar with the series). He went through some traumatic shit in the last book. Truth be told, he goes through a LOT of intense shit.  Sure, he’s a hero, but that kind of shit leaves a mark. I don’t think I’ve given enough attention to the affect it may have had on him. I don’t WANT to. But it keeps coming up, even when I don’t intend it to. I don’t want to spend another book dealing with Timber’s trauma; that was the whole plot of book 3, and I can only play that so much. In order to skip it, though, I have to advance the series timeline about a year and a half. This is something I intended to do anyway, AFTER book 7. I’ve been giving Caitlin and Timber two adventures a year, or thereabouts. The result is, the series timeline lags six years behind real life time at this point. I don’t like this because it becomes increasingly difficult to work with as certain issues of the historical past become more and more irrelevant and difficult to keep track of. I want to catch up to real time better, so the series doesn’t become unbearably dated.

So one question on my mind is, will I be doing a disservice to the characters, and to my readers, if I skip over the personal consequences of book 6? This is something I worry about, because a critique I often see of serialized entertainment is, “You put so-and-so through this awful thing in the last episode and then next episode it’s like it never even happened!” I’m loath to do that.

Speaking of things I worry about, I’ve also developed a tendency to self-censor more than I have in a very long time. I can trace this difficulty directly back to following and interacting with lots of writers and people in the publishing industry. Now, the writing community is mostly great and I’m glad I found it. But it can also be strident and divisive. This sort of thing affects me. I wish it didn’t and I try to have strong boundaries, but the truth is, I don’t have a strong sense of self and I really, really want people to like me. So I often absorb other people’s opinions more than is good for me. For at least the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about how the publishing industry needs more diversity. Yes, great, I’m all the way down with that! I’ve looked at my work in that light and found I could do better. At the same time, however, some people have an issue with authors writing characters from marginalized populations when they are not, themselves, a part of that population. And as a writer who isn’t part of a few marginalized populations I’ve been trying to write about, I’m always second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m doing it right, or at least right enough. Plus, in the writing attempts of the past year, I’ve included some characters who are Native, or LGBTQ+, or PoC, because they might as well be those things as not. But then, I have to devote a huge number of words to explaining that. I mean, if you want two male secondary characters to be gay, you kind of have to point out that they are in order for it to have any relevance. Otherwise, they’re just two guys, because that’s the default in most people’s minds. But if the story isn’t about their gayness, then devoting so much verbiage to secondary characters actually detracts from the story. Or, at least, this has been my experience over the last year.

I kind of wonder if I should table the diversity issue for this series. At least, not try so hard at it. The main characters of the Caitlin Ross series are a het, cis, white couple. So sue me. I have other ideas for other books with different kinds of main characters. I have secondary characters already who are Bi, and Gay, and Lesbian, and PoC. Maybe I don’t need to go out of my way to include more. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s enough, and the second-guessing is doing a disservice to my getting actual words on the page.

On top of all this–and what follows is mostly a rant I need to get out of my system, so bear with me or not–almost everyone I know on Twitter is sharing today’s blog by a popular author/blogger about how you shouldn’t sit around waiting for motivation, because writing creates its OWN motivation. Which is just this kind of thing I want to read when I’m sitting around feeling blocked and unmotivated. I have mixed feelings about this author/blogger on the best days. Often he has good things to say. I can’t stand the way he says them. He adopts this tone that I guess is supposed to be funny, but to me it reads as a weird mix of authoritarian and condescending, like some kind of inspirational drill sergeant. I often feel alienated when I read his stuff, because so many people think it’s so great and I want to scream, “Yes, and you’re a heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical DUDE!” who treats this obvious stuff as some huge revelation. Kind of the same feeling I get when well-meaning people say, “But haven’t you tried…(Insert alternative healing method) for your depression/migraines/whatever?” Like, “Oh, gee. in forty years of dealing with this I NEVER ONCE THOUGHT OF THAT THANK YOU SO MUCH!” If simply sitting and writing created motivation for me, I’d never run out.

So, anyway. This is stuff I’m dealing with. Thanks for tuning in.

 

 

Seven Lines

Okay, I’ll bite. There’s a Twitter game going around, #7Lines. The rules: Go to page 7 of your current WIP (page 7 of chapter 1, for those of you who, like me, start a new document for each chapter). Count down seven lines and post the NEXT seven lines (i.e., lines 8-15). Then tag seven writers to do the same.

I went a bit over, just for context. But here are seven lines from page seven of The Mist-Covered Mountain.

“What kind of trouble?”

My steps had faltered and my stomach had dropped into my toes as his words caused the past months’ vague unease suddenly to manifest. I’d prayed it never would. He’d been doing so well.

“What happened last winter…it’s preying at my mind, ken. It’s gnawing at my soul.”

I’d noticed. In the six months since our daughter’s birth, he’d grown less spontaneous, more meticulous, as if making plans and following them to the letter reassured him.

I tag Jennie Davenport, S. A. Hunt, Louise Gornall, Krisitne Wyllys, Marie Hogebrandt, Luther Siler, and Katie Bailey.

I Complain About Stakes

It’s common wisdom for writers that an effective story contains three things: Character, plot, and stakes. A person risks something to accomplish something. An author works hard to make queries, pitches, and blurbs reflect all three in the least number of syllables. For example, “When (Character) discovers (Plot Point 1) she must (Plot Point 2) or else (Stakes).”

I’m going to come out and say it: I hate working with stakes. As far as my technical ability goes, it’s probably the thing I understand least and do the worst job of. For a long time, I thought I was worst at plotting, but I was wrong. A plot is simply what happens. It can be any sequence of events: “I went to the store, and the store was closed, so I got on the bus and went to another store. I bought some orange juice, because I like orange juice.” That’s a plot. But it’s not a very good one, because there aren’t any stakes. As far as we know, there is no risk to the narrator. There would be no consequence of NOT getting orange juice, except, possibly, mild disappointment.

I have a hard time with stakes partly because of my world view and partly because of my writing process. For me, writing is an attempt to express a gut feeling or mood; at least, I began that way. I usually start with a character and try to put them in a situation that evokes the mood for which I’m aiming. In my teens, I wrote a lot of pieces–I suppose they might qualify as prose poems–that spoke of smells and sounds and sights and memories without anything actually happening. When I branched out into longer fiction, I knew something had to happen, but for the most part I inserted random events that seemed like they would be “cool” without being able to link them in any coherent fashion. Or else, I stole plots from other authors. I generally ended up with a bunch of still slides of emotional high points, through which my characters moved without much rhyme or reason. Stuff happened because I said it happened. But my characters didn’t make a journey or evolve.

In fact, it wasn’t until much later, when I started querying and pitching, that I ever heard anyone refer to stakes. It gave me a kind of “slap my head” moment: “Oh, of course, that’s the hook. Duh.” But then, when I considered my work, I couldn’t find the stakes to save my life. I thought they were there, but they often were very subtle and only rarely did I articulate them in any coherent way. Sometimes I did all right. “Unless she finds a way to heal him, both will lose their souls.” Those are pretty good stakes (in my opinion). Other times, not so much. “Unless she interferes, the world will be changed.” Um, okay? Mostly I think, “So what? Why is that a bad thing?” And I have a hard time answering. Especially in a 140-character pitch.

I even have a hard time finding the stakes in other authors’ works. Or caring about them. “If he doesn’t make the basketball team, he won’t get the girl.” So? Why don’t you find another girl who doesn’t require you to become someone you’re not? Which is another novel altogether, I suppose. Maybe choosing between trying to change yourself to suit someone else and learning to accept yourself and eventually find the way to happiness would make a good story, but what are the stakes there? I don’t get it. How would you turn that into a hook?

In Fantasy–in other words, in my genre–stakes are often huge: Death, Dismemberment, Apocalypse. I have a hard time caring about those standard tropes. Everyone dies, and the world as we know it won’t last forever. I’m interested in smaller things: personal trials, family problems, past trauma. Okay, maybe those aren’t categorically SMALL, but it’s hard to convey them in a few words. You have to care about the characters FIRST. THEN you’ll care about their experience. This is a difficult thing to express in a pitch or a blurb.

An early reader of She Moved Through the Fair told me she didn’t think Caitlin had a good reason to get involved in the plot because she wasn’t personally attached to the murder victim. There wasn’t any threat to her if she didn’t personally solve the murder; in fact, getting involved created the threat. I thought about that for a long time. Caitlin got involved because magic was the murder weapon and she was the only person aware of that fact. If she didn’t look into it, no one else would. In the end, I decided that was good enough. Her character, her sense of responsibility toward others within her particular field of expertise, was enough. Besides, the book isn’t really a Whodunnit. It’s about a load of other things, like wishes, and consequences, and desire.

I get tied up a lot because I don’t like making antagonists EVIL. Usually they have valid desires of their own; it’s their methods that are problematic, or they make stupid mistakes that put people at risk. The one time I invented a really evil antagonist, the whole time I was writing the book I kept thinking, “This is so stupid.” It’s my most popular novel so far.

A lot of authors take positive delight in doing horrible things to their characters. I don’t. I’ve gotten good mileage out of traumatizing my male protagonist, but I can’t keep doing that forever. I know I need to so something awful to a secondary character people care about soon, and I don’t want to!

I still haven’t found the stakes for book seven. I have a vague idea of something I might do, but once again a part of me is thinking, “It’s so stupid. I can never pull that off.”

Maybe that means I’m on the right track.

 

 

When Heroes Kill: Character, Culture, Context

Like everyone else on the planet (it seems), we’ve been watching the adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil on Netflix. It’s an excellent series, with great acting, great writing, character development for EVERYONE, even the villains, and better treatment of women than any of the other comic adaptations, big or small screen, that I’ve yet seen. (Netflix did not pay me to say this.)

I never followed Daredevil the Book, although I must have seen the character around in other books or read about him or something, because when the Ben Affleck movie version came out (I liked it. So sue me.), I already knew the basics of the character. In fact, I must have learned his origins early on, because when I read the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles origin story, my first thought was “OMG, they came out of the same accident that made Daredevil!!!!”

Anyway, one thing I didn’t know was that a central theme of the Daredevil mythos is, “Is it okay for the hero to kill, or does that make him as bad as the villains? How do you accomplish your mission without crossing that line?” I’ve nutshelled the idea here, because it’s a complex question that would take me many more words to properly express. In comic books, as well as in much literature in a contemporary setting, the heroes DON’T KILL. It’s part of what defines them, the reluctance to take a life and the willingness to turn criminals over to the law. They might beat the crap out of them first. They might maim and mutilate. But they don’t kill.

In the mid-eighties, when I was doing my heaviest comic book reading, several heroes crossed this line. Green Arrow and Batman both come to mind (I was mostly a DC reader), but there may have been others. There may be others now. And for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about straight-up superhero books rather than darker anti-heroes or horror books, where people got killed all the time.

I started thinking about this again, watching Daredevil, because it’s a question I had to face in my own work: Can the hero take out the villains and still be a hero? When I was writing A Maid in Bedlam, it was one of my central problems as an author. I wanted him to do it, without question. I wanted him to do it because I’d given him a sword and I wanted him to use it. Because the idea of staging a giant bloodbath on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder tickled me. And, frankly, because a big, well-built guy competent with a sword is a huge turn on. But it made me queasy, because the bad guys were humans, not supernatural entities. I didn’t know if letting Timber kill them would be okay.

Except, if he didn’t, the problem would remain. You couldn’t keep most of these people in a jail; I established that early on. Not unless you denied them any kind of human interaction pretty much forever, which would be inhumane. Well, long story short, I had my bloodbath. My central issue became keeping my protagonists out of prison. And none of my readers rose up to complain about my choice.

Why not?

“Violence isn’t always the answer, he knows. Some would say it’s never the answer. “Violence begets violence,” goes the old saw. It feeds on itself and is never satisfied. When you’ve had your revenge, wiped out your enemies, what then? It’s a letdown, a disappointment, coming off that energy. Like after sex, when things go dark for a time, and you feel as if there really should have been more to it. So you keep after it, keep after that transcendent feeling, until you wear yourself out, and then, at least you can sleep.

Lots of heroes kill. They kill the villains in Epic Fantasy and Historical Fiction, in Science Fiction and Thrillers and Paranormal. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo killed Stormtroopers and TIE fighter pilots. Jamie Fraser kills his uncle and numerous English. Rand al’Thor kills people (though at times he feels really bad about it). So why not the heroes of Contemporary and Urban Fantasy? Why not those heroes who are larger than life, who populate THIS world? Oliver Queen spent the entire first season of Arrow putting down criminals and getting vilified for it. Then he had a change of heart. But has it made him any more effective in pursuing his mission? Has it made him any more popular? Current events in the series point to no.

There are several good reasons not to kill your villains off. In serialized fiction, the obvious one is you might need them again in another story arc. Creating a good villain is hard work! Don’t dispose of them unless you absolutely have to. Another reason not to kill your villains would be that it doesn’t serve the story. I’m still mad that Lursa and B’Etor were summarily dispatched in the travesty that was Star Trek: Generations. But why balk at getting rid of horrible people you don’t need?

By the way, I’m not proposing any definitive answer one way or the other. I’m just looking at something that interests me.

One question that comes up when you raise this topic is: “How long can you keep doing that before you become the thing you’re trying to stop?” Another is, “Can violence lead to lasting peace?” (And thanks to Kris Holt for raising both of those on Twitter when I was exploring this question there.) My personal answers are, I don’t think anything leads to a truly lasting peace, because everything is ephemeral. It’s probably no good to stir up conflict or to go looking for it, but being prepared to meet it? Sure. Of course, this raises the question of “How do you know when you’re prepared enough?” which can lead to arms races and all kinds of tricky stuff when you take it into a larger sphere. But I’m talking about a personal level, rather than a governmental one. As for the first question, I personally don’t believe it follows that one thing necessarily leads to the other. All kinds of things make a difference: Motivation, Ego, Mindfulness to name a few. It’s true that when you train in a martial art, MOST of the practice is learning to balance the Art with the Martial. Learning to cross the street when you sense danger, rather than take on the gang. Or so my Sensei used to say.

I’ve also got a cop-out answer: The question isn’t really applicable in my books, because my hero isn’t a vigilante.

 He’s pretty sure Caitlin would tell him violence isn’t the answer at all. She has a soft heart. She feels bad about killing slugs in the garden. But Caitlin never had the experience of the world that he had. She  turns inward; he turns outward. Everything he is, he shows to the world, even if the world finds it an affront. She has secrets at Her core that no one can penetrate. She protects Herself from the world, and he flies in its face. So he’s learned that there must be violence, sometimes. After all, the slugs in the garden must be killed. They’d take over, else.

Of course, context matters. In a historical novel, we can say that killing each other in the year 1233, or 1842, wasn’t uncommon. People lived closer to death. In Science Fiction, in Epic Fantasy, we get to define the terms. Plus, those villains we choose for our heroes to kill could often be replaced with cardboard cutouts. We know them only as antagonists, not as people. I’ve noticed when authors delve into their villains as people, examine what motivates them instead of simply saying “Bad Guy,” the characters are much less likely to meet their Fates at the hand of the hero. Because then the hero would be killing a human being rather than a trope. And it’s not okay to kill human beings, or to “humanize” the alien species we mean to kill. We know the Cave Troll in Lord of the Rings is a danger. We never hear about the Cave Troll’s childhood or the Cave Troll’s mother.

I do this myself. It’s hard for me, because I never have been able to subscribe to notions of absolute good and absolute evil. One reason I like my first book less than others is that the antagonists are less fully developed (and I still had a problem with disposing of one of them). I do believe that people aren’t inherently one thing or the other, but that circumstances make us what we are. So, in order to justify getting rid of them, I have to dehumanize my villains. I don’t explore them enough as people. And I still have a horrible time coming up with actions bad enough to merit a death sentence.

I believe that we like to think of our contemporary culture as more civilized, and that in civilized societies we don’t go around killing people out of hand. Not up close and personal. War doesn’t count. The rhetoric of war allows us to dehumanize vast numbers of people, be they of a different culture, religion, race, gender, or what have you, the better to slaughter them. When you kill someone up close and personal, it’s “murder,” no matter what your justification. Now, I don’t have a problem with this (I’d hope it would be obvious that I’m not encouraging terminal solutions to arguments). I’m not even a supporter of “capital punishment” (lovely euphemism). The justice system is, in my opinion, too flawed in many regards to hand out death sentences. If new evidence comes up afterward, it’s too late. If a capital charge is proven beyond doubt, the appeals process is so drawn-out that it becomes its own punishment. I do believe that some criminals probably need to be removed from society on a more or less permanent basis. I also believe their numbers are smaller than we think, and even of those possibly quite a few would do well on some kind of frontier planet, where “less civilized” actions might be an actual life skill. Pity we don’t have one.

But the question remains to me: Does the choice to apply terminal justice make a person less of a hero? In the case of Timber “He-Man” MacDuff, I don’t like to think so. He’s not arbitrary. He does what he has to and no more. When he’s killed, it’s been to protect those less able to protect themselves, and it’s always the last possible solution (except for those couple times when he was younger and more hot-tempered). He remembers every face.

As far as writing goes, I think you can choose one way or the other and still make your character sympathetic. It’s a matter of balance, in the character and in the story. Timber is both a swordsman and a healer. His blade has two edges: One to harm, and one to heal. Sometimes surgery is necessary. I expect the question of who made him Judge, Jury, and Executioner will come up again in a later book (actually, I know it will). For now, I thought it through and gave him leave to do what he felt necessary.

Some people think they have no right to judge. To label this one a slug, and this one not. To make the choice between life and death.
He’s not one of them.

(All block quotes taken from “Summoning Scáthach,” in the collection Fits o’ the Season, © 2012 by Katherine Lampe)