A Subtle Form of Sexism

I’m a fan of the Green Arrow comic book from way back. So is my husband. Consequently, we’re also fans of the current television series based on it, The CW Network’s Arrow. Yeah, it took a while to get started, and yeah, there are flaws and problems with it. But overall, it’s well done and offers a fresh take on many familiar characters from the DC Comics universe. (BTW, if anyone from the network happens to be reading this, Felicity and Ollie NEED to be together! She and Ray have NO chemistry!)

Anyway. *clears throat*

In a recent episode, the action split between the goings on in Starling City and a rescue mission headed by two of the supporting characters, John “Dig” Diggle and Lyla Holland. Diggle is one of my favorite characters in the show. He’s a genuinely good guy who has grown devoted to Oliver and his cause since they first came together as a traumatized and self-absorbed rich boy-man and his implacable bodyguard. I love Dig and Lyla as a couple both because they’re an outstanding example of a mixed race relationship on a popular television show and because they operate as partners. There’s little or no power inequity between them. Both are bad ass, with Army backgrounds and secret military connections. Both care for their daughter. They have their difficulties and differences, as every couple does. But for the most part, they resolve them through communication and compromise.

And yet.

Ain't they cute?
Ain’t they cute?

In the episode in question, “Suicidal Tendencies,” John and Lyla got married (for the second time). Unfortunately for them, as they were about to depart on their honeymoon, Lyla’s boss summoned her for a covert mission leading members of the Suicide Squad into a fictional Middle Eastern country to resolve a hostage crisis. I’d like to reiterate: Lyla was the official Team Leader for this operation. Diggle, who had accompanied Lyla to ARGUS headquarters when she got the summons, decided to tag along and lend his (not inconsiderable) support. Well, to make a long story short, everything went kablooie when the hostage crisis turned out to be a con set up by the very senator the team was sent to rescue. And here’s the rub: when things blew up and the team got trapped in a hospital rigged to explode, Diggle automatically assumed command. EVEN THOUGH LYLA WAS THE OFFICIAL TEAM LEADER. He didn’t ask. He didn’t consult with her in any way. He just did it.

True partners. Except for that one time.
True partners. Except for that one time.

Now, you might offer several justifications for this. You might say since the mission turned out other than they thought, the original command structure didn’t hold. Or you might say Diggle was better suited to lead the changed operation because his experience on Team Arrow better suited him to situations that don’t go as planned and made him better able to improvise than someone with a strict military position. You might even say that Diggle is more of a major player than Lyla, so putting him in charge makes sense from a narrative standpoint.

Or you might say that Diggle–and the episode’s writers–took it for granted that when things go to hell, a man should be in control.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t notice this at the time. It wasn’t until the next morning, when my husband said, “They did it again,” that I got it, and even then, he had to explain to me what he was talking about. (Ten points to Ravenclaw!) Since then, I’ve had a hard time not thinking about it. The thing is, Diggle KNOWS Lyla is competent–MORE than competent. She’s trained to handle doubtful situations. They’ve had each other’s backs over and over again. He knows what she can do. And he didn’t ask.


I mean, one line would have done it. “Hey, this mission has gone south; maybe I should take the lead.”  That’s all he had to say. But he didn’t. Or he could have said, “Well, Lyla, you’re in charge. What do you want to do?” In which case, she might have replied with, “You’re better at improvising.” Or ANYTHING. Just acknowledge it!

It reminded me how insidious most sexism is. It goes on all the time, all around us, and we’re so inculcated in our sexist culture that we don’t notice. Sometimes I don’t notice even when it’s directed at me. It’s not until later, when I’m upset for no reason, or when I start to cry out of the blue, that I remember. Or my husband points it out, like he did the Arrow episode. Which is ironic, because I’m talking about the way our culture assumes men know better, think better, see better than women in almost every situation, and here’s a case where it’s true. My husband CAN see this shit better than I can, because it doesn’t endanger him. The microagressions of everyday sexism aren’t meant to reinforce a power structure where he’s inferior. If I had to acknowledge every single one in the moment, if every woman had to do that, I don’t know if it would be possible to go on living in this culture or on this planet. So mostly I, like many other women, don’t acknowledge the bulk of them. Not until later.

What does it look like in my life? Here’s a few examples culled from the many.

I used to be a DJ for the local community radio station. I developed an original Celtic Music show, “Whiskey in the Jar,” and both produced and hosted it for fifteen years, every Thursday night unless an illness totally incapacitated me. Sometimes I went in when I was sick, because I had a more difficult than average time persuading one of the other DJs to cover my slot. This is actually relevant. The usual excuse other DJs gave was that they weren’t familiar with the music. Which was pretty much a bullshit excuse, because any competent DJ could go in and pull music from the Celtic wall and come up with a decent two and a half hours by flinging random CDs at the players. They did it for shows in other genres, like Jazz and Bluegrass and New Age. Be that as it may, the other DJs acknowledged my expertise in the Celtic field in this weird way. They conceded that I knew what I was doing.

My show ran during the dinner hour, a shift from 6 – 9 PM. My husband was in the habit of coming to the station with me to bring me dinner and keep me company. THAT’S ALL HE DID. He’d been a DJ for a time as well, but during my show, I ran the board, I took calls, I chose the music and arranged the playlists. Yet, when we were out in public, even at some of the radio station functions, people inevitably referred to “Whiskey in the Jar” as “Your guys’s show.” They assumed my husband played more of a role than he did, sometimes to the point of engaging him in a discussion of the last show while I stood by with my jaw hanging open. I have a framed certificate on my wall that the station gave to me when I decided fifteen years was enough. It says the station proudly recognizes “Kele and Michael” for our outstanding contributions hosting “Whiskey in the Jar.” I was really glad to have my husband’s company on that journey, but I hardly consider his contribution to the show “outstanding.”

During my show’s run, the station engaged a nationally-known professional (male) photographer to shoot all the DJs for a series of photographs to be hung in the studio offices. I suggested to Michael that we pose in costume, and we had a great time. When the proofs came out, however, the photographer and I had a problem. He’d picked a particular shot as “The One” that represented the show best. I disagreed with him. We went back and forth for several emails, and finally he agreed to print and hang my choice in the show. At which he gave an interesting speech about how people need to trust an artist’s judgment and vision even if they don’t understand it. And his choice was the one that ended up in the show catalogue. Curious how that worked.

My choice.
My choice.
The artist's choice.
The artist’s choice.

Do you see the difference here? It’s not that I dislike the artist’s choice. In fact, I love it. I have a framed copy hanging in my dining room, and we gave another to Michael’s parents.  But in the photograph on the left, it’s clear that Michael is the dominant figure while I lean on him for support. He’s running the show. In the one on the right, I’m the dominant figure with Michael as a background presence. Which one better represents MY radio show? I think it’s pretty clear.

This isn’t a singular incident. Not long ago, I walked into the local print shop to get an estimate on bookmarks to use as promotional materials. I started talking to the woman behind the counter (one of the owners, someone we’ve known since we’ve lived in this town). She began showing me what they could do, how many bookmarks would fit on a page, explaining how their process worked. And then, Michael came in from parking the car. IMMEDIATELY, the printshop owner’s attention turned toward him, the man. She stopped talking to me in favor of talking to him, even though moments before she had assumed me competent to grasp her explanations. Even though I was the one who started the conversation, about materials I wanted to promote books I wrote, and my husband had simply driven the car.

Another time, shortly after I published my book of fairy tales, an acquaintance (a woman) purchased a copy from me. I asked her if she wanted me to sign it. She hesitated a minute, then said, “Can I get Michael to sign it?” Remember, I wrote every word of the book. I had arranged its publication, from the interior design to the cover art. And yet, this woman wanted my husband to autograph it. I asked her why and she said, “He’s really cute!” At the time, I laughed. The incident became a funny anecdote I won an “awful publishing stories” contest with at the next conference I attended. Looking back, though, it’s another in a long, long line of similar incidents. Times when my husband has been given credit for my successes, in which he only peripherally participated, if he participated at all.

I’m not angry at Michael for this. He does nothing to detract from me and nothing to claim the spotlight. Nothing except be a big, imposing, confident, reasonably attractive white man. Exactly the kind of man one would like to put in a position of authority, particularly as I’m extremely introverted and not at all confident in groups of people. Usually he catches the problem before I do, just as he did with that Arrow episode. If I could ask him to do one thing differently, it would be to address the situation when he sees it. Mostly he doesn’t because he doesn’t want to be rude. But at least he can see it.

Sexism isn’t always blatant. It’s not always the catcalls, the come-ons, the boss who asks the one woman in the office to pick up his dry cleaning and make his coffee, even when her qualifications are equal or better to those of the men. In fact, as damaging as those things are, they are less so than the little things that slip by us every day. The person who asks the man about his career and the woman about the pets or the kids. The tendency of certain fields to promote the work of men over that of women and People of Colour, even when the quality of the work and the subject matter is the same. It’s in the way we define normal and average to look like a white guy in a suit. And the fact is, women perpetuate it as much as men. Because we’ve learned that it’s the way things work, and because it seems rude to make a fuss. Because it’s really hard to confront nice people who honestly didn’t mean any harm, and because it’s really easy to think, “But maybe the quality of the work really IS different. Maybe men are simply better at these things.”

Like the writers of that Arrow episode, we remain unaware. And like them, we could solve many instances of it with a single line.

“Excuse me. She’s in charge.”


Confronting the Inner Critic

For the past two weeks I’ve been sick. Not raging fever and completely incapacitated sick. Just sick with this year’s respiratory virus. You know the thing. It comes around every winter/early spring, knocks you upside the head with a sore throat, congestion, and maybe a cough. In the normal flow of events, it runs its course in a couple weeks and then moves on to its next victim. Time passes, and you forget you ever had it.

This year’s crud, as we call it, features exhaustion. For the first week, it was all I could do to move from the couch to the toilet when I needed to pee. Even after it began to let up, minimal effort tired me out. I’d feel fine for a couple hours after I got up in the morning, but after noon or so I had to lie down and recuperate.

Being tired is difficult for me. I guess it’s difficult for everyone. For me, it’s difficult in a particularly annoying and frustrating way. See, I devote a LOT of energy just to being okay. By “being okay,” I mean ignoring all the internal programming and belief systems that tell me how terrible I am, both as a person and as a writer. The ongoing internal monologue with its myriad voices insisting I’m no good, I don’t do things the “right” way, no one will ever read my books, everyone hates me, etcetera. Over the years, I’ve learned to disconnect from those voices, let them, in the words of Natalie Goldberg, be “the sound of distant laundry flapping in the breeze.” When I’ve had enough rest, maintaining that distance is no great problem.  But when I’m tired, the shields I’ve built disintegrate. After a bad night, or an illness, or even an especially long day, the voices get louder and louder until they’re the only thing in my reality. I get anxious. I question myself. I ask my husband for validation, over and over: “Are you mad at me? Am I in trouble? Am I bad? Do I have worth? Do my books suck? Is everyone lying to me?”

“No, no. no, yes, no, no,” he says. It doesn’t quiet the voices, but it gives me something to hold onto until I get some rest and can go back to ignoring them.

Over the last two weeks, while I’ve been sick, I haven’t been writing. Now I’m feeling better and I need to get back to it. Notice how I said “need” there instead of “want.” I need to get back to it because I’m only about a third of the way through the first draft and I had planned an early summer release (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah, right.). I need to get back to it because the story needs to progress. But right now, I don’t really want to go back to it. I’m having a horrible time getting motivated to sit down at my desk and open the Chapter Nine document, which is where I left off. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’m not entirely over this crud. But most of it, I fear, is due to my inner critic.

"You call that writing? I've known FROGS that write better than that!"
“You call that writing? I’ve known FROGS who write better than that!”

Book seven has been an interesting journey so far. When I finished book six, I thought book seven would be an entirely different story than the one I’m writing now. In fact, the plot I thought would take place in book seven hit me in the head when I wasn’t very far into the first draft of book six. (This happens often. I know I need to concentrate on the current story or task, but these other ones seem so much more attractive and exciting! I gather this is common for authors.) I even churned out the first scene of that plot to append to book six when I released it. And after the obligatory break to recover from my book release, I plunged ahead. About six chapters in, however, I realised THAT book  did not belong at that place in the overall series arc.

Well, okay. I had another project in mind. For about a year (ever since I got addicted to White Collar, if truth be told), I’d wanted to write a book about a confidence game. It’d be fun, and it would give me an opportunity to show Timber in a different light. The desire only got stronger when one of my husband’s construction clients turned us on to Leverage. So, fine. I had long cons and grifters nudging my brain. I decided to do the con book NOW instead of in some distant future (I’d originally slated it for book nine).

I tossed the idea around for a while until I came up with a plot I thought would work. I hadn’t started with any plot, just this vague notion of “Hey, you know what would be great? A CON!” I began writing. And although I felt certain I’d made the right choice as far as the series arc–if you’ve ever grappled with trying to shove a decent book into the wrong timeline you’ll know what this feels like–the new story gave me trouble almost from the start. Not because I questioned my writing ability; I’ve grown confident about that over the years. But because my inner critic woke up and opened fire.

"You realize flying is stupid and dangerous, don't you?"
“You realize flying is stupid and dangerous, don’t you?”

To put it in simple terms, I am experiencing more doubt and judgment of this story than I have of any I’ve written in a long time, maybe ever. It takes a particular form. I think the story is stupid. No, I don’t really think that. But that’s what the inner critic keeps telling me. The story is stupid. I don’t get any more than that. Nothing concrete, no reasons it’s stupid. Just stupid by virtue of existing. Every time I open the document–whichever chapter I happen to be working on–the chant starts up in my brain. “STUPID. IT’S STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!” Sometimes I get a bit more: It’s unrealistic. No one will be able to suspend their disbelief about this. It’s off the deep end. It’s too farfetched. I even went as far as to enlist a second Alpha reader to give a look at the first act and give me a straight opinion. She did give me a few tips about things that needed addressed. But none of them was an outright dismissal of the setup as “stupid.”

Yet I keep hearing it.

To complicate matters, as a writer I am a “Pantser” rather than a “Plotter.” In case you don’t know these terms, here’s a brief definition. A “Plotter” is a person who plans everything in the book in advance, before embarking on any of the creative writing portions of the task. They make meticulous outlines of every chapter, sometimes every scene. They know every rise and fall of the script. When characters interact and what happens when they do. Where those interactions lead. You get my drift. A “Pantser,” on the other hand, writes by the seat of their pants. For me, this means I start out with an overall idea, a set of probable characters, a beginning, and an end. If I’m lucky, I get a middle too. Usually when I start a chapter I have an idea where I want to end it, but not always. Sometimes I stumble on a chapter ending unawares. Sometimes the unimportant transitional scene I thought I could cover in two pages turns out to be WAY more vital that I guessed and ends up taking a couple thousand words. And that’s okay. I trust my process, and I work better with a loose set of guidelines than with a strict playbook. And sure, sometimes I get stuck. Then I stare into space a lot and try to hear/see/feel what happens next. Or I get my husband to take me out to dinner and we hash things out over a meal.

Anyway. I had less of an idea than usual going into it what this new book seven would be about, and it’s taken several turns along the way. What I thought would be the main theme turned out to be irrelevant to the story I’m telling. A character point I thought I could cover in very little space turns out to be major. Characters I hadn’t planned at all keep appearing and influencing the story, and some of them aren’t who I thought. A scene I thought would be a major plot driver looks like it has no purpose and no motivation behind it except that it’s “cool.” And so forth. And every time something like this happens, the inner critic screams at me. “STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!”

inner criticI know what this is about. It’s about fear. Most obstacles I have to overcome in my writing are about fear. I was afraid of writing explicit sex scenes. I was afraid of making my heroes violent. I was afraid of killing antagonists. I was afraid of being judged for stuff too close to personal experience. This time, I’m treading unfamiliar ground. Most of my books are driven by relationships. This one is driven by events. Most of my books have a strong magical component. This one focuses more on mundane skills. I love stories about cons and capers, but I’ve never tried to write one before. I’m unsure of where all the twists and turns are leading, and of whether I can pull this off. I’ve taken my characters out of their comfort zone, and so I have taken myself out of my own comfort zone. And in those places where I’ve allowed myself a modicum of comfort, I question it. “Are you really using that plot device again? Isn’t that a bit much?” “Well, yes,” I tell myself. “It does look like that plot device. But really you’ll see that it’s totally different.” This doesn’t help. Even when I got really Meta and had a couple characters comment on how the device keeps popping up, it didn’t help.

I’m not sure why my fear manifests as “STUPID,” however. Probably some messed up shit from my childhood. Both my family and my peer group put a high premium on intelligence. Being smart was virtually the only way I got any validation. It’s the personal quality I feel most secure about and the one I value most. So convincing me that I’m stupid, that what I’m doing is stupid, is my inner critic’s surest way of getting me to abandon the project.

That’s what it wants. That what the inner critic always wants. It wants you to stop. It wants you to give up. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a creative project or personal growth. The inner critic abhors change of any kind. It wants you to stay comfortable, not to challenge, because your comfort zone is where your inner critic has the most power. Horrible, but there it is. It’s true especially for people who have been damaged, because the inner critic is part of what helps damaged people, or people in dangerous situations, survive. It keeps you safe by steering you away from actions that can hurt you. By reminding you what happened last time. By warning you away from shaky ground. By hurting you–just a little, so you don’t get a bigger hurt later. By calling you stupid.

It makes you a nice, cozy nest where nothing harms you and nothing challenges you and nothing changes.

But you’re not the same person now. I have to keep telling myself this. I am not the person who had to tread carefully. I don’t live in that world any more. It’s a memory. It’s not NOW. And in the NOW, I want to stretch out. I want to challenge myself. I want to go places I haven’t been and see things I haven’t seen. I want to grow, and I want my writing to grow. And I can’t do that by giving into the inner critic and staying in my nice, cozy comfort zone.

Of course, when I come to this place, the inner critic gets louder and louder. It hurts me more and more, trying to keep me from taking the next step to the place where it won’t have so much power. I have no real idea how to combat this, except by slow steps, with the occasional burst of frenzied activity. But I move on in the faith that, eventually, I will move beyond the range of that voice.

I know the game. I refuse to play.


I Love “Love Actually”–Truly, Deeply, and Without Apology

This is without a doubt the closest thing to a seasonal post I’m going to write this year. I originally meant to post it in a series of tweets. But as I thought about it in the shower–where I do most of my best thinking–I realized that while it may make a short blog, it’s far too long for Twitter. So here.

I get really sad this time of year when I see people dissing Love, Actually. I remember watching it when it came out and loving it. Last year, we re-watched it for the first time since its release. And you know what? I still loved it. In fact, it may have made its way into the position of my number one favourite holiday movie, edging out White Christmas for the honour.

Most of the flak I see about it calls it unrealistic, privileged, and sexist. And if I try really hard, I see elements of all those things, sure. It deals with rather well-off British people and presents most of its stories from the male point of view. Does this make me love it any less? No, and here’s why:

Love, Actually is a movie about a commodity that is all too thin on the ground these days: Love. Love that comes unexpected. Unrequited love. Weird love. Bad love. The love that sustains two people over years, as in the case of Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his manager. The love that fails. The love Emma Thompson’s character finds for herself when her marriage falls apart. The love of a father for his son and the first crush that dazzles with its intensity. The love that makes you do crazy things you never would have tried before.

I don’t care that the relationship between Liam Neeson’s character and Emma Thompson’s is never defined. Do we really need a platonic friendship between a man and a woman spelled out for us? I’d rather simply accept that it exists. I don’t care that the uniting metaphor of the airport indicates class privilege or creeps you out. I don’t find it at all hard to believe that the guests at the wedding didn’t remark on the saxophones sitting next to them, or that Billy Mack is recording a Christmas single five weeks before the holiday. I’ve been a recording musician, see. And I’ve played weddings. Guests will pretend not to notice all kinds of stuff to keep a secret from the bride and groom, and sometimes you throw together a recording at the last minute to see if it flies. What the fuck is wrong with people that they have to grasp these picayune details as a way to support their dislike of the film?

I love Love, Actually because it’s a character-driven fantasy in the best tradition of the white telephone movies of the 30s. It shows us life as we’d like it to be. It shows us things working out–or not, but even when they don’t work out as the characters might hope, there are always reasons to go on. Yes, it plays on tropes that maybe some people don’t like. And it does it in a light-hearted fashion you can take or leave. It’s uplifting and put together so well that I can’t help cheering at the end. And in a world where I am seeing more and more violence and less and less tolerance every day, I need that. I need the reminder that we can be more. And I am more than willing to overlook certain flaws for two hours to experience the joy.

As a Tarot reader I am experienced in the ways symbols and imagery can strike a person differently every time they appear. Sometimes, when The Lovers comes up, you see the couple. Sometimes you see the Angel with the bow. And sometimes you see the snake in the garden. In the same way, your focus can shift when you watch a movie multiple times. Today it’s a fun romp, and tomorrow it’s a travesty. So I do get it. Not everyone is going to like what I like, and those who do like what I like may not like it every time. Still, I do think it’s sad that there seems to be a trend of focusing on the things this movie doesn’t do–many of which, in my opinion, it was never meant to do–and ignoring the things it does so spectacularly well.

If you don’t like it, fine. You don’t have to. But I’ll keep watching it, and I’ll keep enjoying it.

Happy Holidays.

In the Details

A few weeks ago I was re-reading a favorite novel. It happened to be the first novel by an author who is now deservedly well-known, and a lovely first novel it is. Toward the beginning of the book, one of the characters remarks, “It’s coming on Beltane, the spring equinox.” The incident always forces me to stop for a moment, tear my hair a bit, weep quietly into whatever beverage I happen to be drinking, and remind myself that this WAS a first novel, that a lot of people don’t know the difference from Beltane and a hole in the ground, and that most of the author’s research is impeccable, with incredible attention to detail.

Still, it’s a mistake that stands out for me and interrupts the flow of the narrative. And it got me thinking about the mistakes in detail I see in many novels, even those of prominent authors. Mistakes people make because they don’t have personal experience in the things they’re writing about, or because they get attached to a visual detail and they don’t take the time to find out whether what they envision is actually possible. This kind of thing causes me to gnash my teeth, because I have a wide knowledge of all kinds of weird shit and because I DO take the time in my writing to verify picayune stuff. So here’s a post about the errors in detail I see most often and how you can avoid them.

1. Please learn how moon phases work.

Authors love to talk about what the moon looks like. I get it. The moon is a gorgeous heavenly body and there’s a huge amount of symbolism attached to it. You can do a lot with night scenes if you allow the moon to play a part. And I don’t know how many times I’ve read scenes where the full moon rose at two in the morning, or the sickle moon rose at sunset two days after moon dark, or some other patently impossible event involving the moon takes place. I don’t care what world you’re in, or what planet you’re on: those two things are never going to happen unless you intentionally change the laws of physics (and if you do, please make a point of mentioning it). At full, the moon ALWAYS rises at sunset or thereabouts. That’s what makes the moon appear full: the sun’s rays are directly opposite the moon in the sky and thus illuminate the entire face. At moon dark, the sun and the moon are in the same general vicinity in the heavens, and so the sun blocks the moon out. As the moon waxes, it appears to fall behind the sun’s path, a little bit each day–that is, it emerges from the sun’s shadow. So a couple days after moon dark, the moon would be setting around sunset, not rising.

2. While we’re at it, pay attention to seasonal sunrise and sunset times.

I caught a glitch with this in a novel I was Beta-reading a little while back. The main character was closing a diner around sunset at the winter solstice, after the dinner rush. I pointed out to the author that here in Colorado, sunset at the winter solstice takes place at 4:30 p.m. In her setting, it might have stayed light a bit longer, but still, the dinner rush would hardly have happened yet. If it’s important to you that an activity or event take place at sunset or sunrise, please check to make sure the time you’re thinking of the event taking place actually COULD take place at that time. In northern latitudes, you’re going to have much longer summer days and much shorter winter days than you are at a location nearer the equator. And of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, everything will be reversed from what it is up north. This is a useful website to use to keep track of sunrise and sunset, as well as moonrise, moonset, and moon phases worldwide. It’s the very top link in my folder of Book Research materials.

3. Seasonal Fruit is Seasonal

This one is easy for me, because I live in an agricultural area. For the same reason, it gives me hives when people mess it up, which tends to occur most in Fantasy or Historical Fiction (I’ve also seen it in Romance). I can understand it, because in the first world we aren’t as limited by seasonal availability as we once were. But the fact is, you don’t pick cherries in March most places. Seasonal availability is going to depend a lot on your planting zone, of course. (If you don’t know what this means, look HERE.) If you must work with agricultural information and you don’t come from an agricultural background, check out some gardening websites and catalogues. Where I am, we grow a lot of fruit, and each has its season. Apricots in late May to early June, cherries at the beginning of July, followed by peaches, plums, grapes, pears, and apples. Berries of most kinds ripen in the summer. Nuts in the fall. And so forth. Also, do pay attention to how fruit works. If you have a scene at the local cherry harvest early in your book, the big wedding in chapter twenty CANNOT take place in a shower of cherry blossom. Unless, of course, you’ve gone to a completely different location or one of your characters has the power to make trees blossom out of season. I encourage you to treat all plant life cycles with similar attention. It’s extremely unlikely, for example, that Lily of the Valley would bloom at Hallowe’en, or tea roses in April. And I have yet to get a rosemary bush to survive the winter in zone 5.

4. A stallion? Really?

How many heroes of Fantasy novels ride stallions all over the place? How do they manage it? It does depend on the breed–my vet has a stud who’s a real sweetheart–but in general, stallions don’t make good saddle horses. That’s why you geld colts you’re not going to breed. Stalli0ns have historically been used as war horses, precisely because they tend to be vicious and hard to train and control. And an important thing about stallions is, if he smells a mare in season anywhere in the vicinity, he’s going to have one thing on his mind, and it won’t be his rider’s convenience. So do your character a favor and put him up on a nice gelding or a mare. Also, it’s simply amazing how many people can make the distinction between a stallion and a gelding at a single glance. It is easy with some male domestic animals. Bulls, for example. You can always tell a bull from a steer or a cow. They’re heavier and bulkier, particularly across the shoulders. Horses aren’t so easy.

5. She carries her swords on her back, does she?

This is another trope you see a great deal in Fantasy: the warrior with the sword or swords across his or her back. It looks super-cool. And it’s a wonderful place to carry swords so they don’t get in the way of other activities, like walking. But it is virtually, if not literally, impossible to draw a sword from a back sheath with any alacrity if the sword is any longer than your forearm–about the size of a Roman gladius. Try it sometime. I have. So has my husband. I really, really wanted to give Timber MacDuff a back carry, because IT LOOKS SO COOL! I had to ditch the idea because there would be no way for him to draw a four-foot sword with a three-foot blade from a back sheath without getting cut down as he struggled to get it free. Another thing about swords is, they’re lighter than you might suppose. You may have read about a certain 15-lb Claymore. Can you imagine controlling something of that weight for any length of time with the muscles of your forearms and wrists? Yeah, you wouldn’t last long. An actual early style Claymore weighs 5-6 lbs and is about five feet in length. A classic basket hilt Claymore weighs in at 4 lbs, and a lot of that is the basket. Most one-handed swords are no more than 3 lbs. Learn more about Medieval weaponry and fighting styles at The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.

Whether you see God or the Devil in the details, attention to them is the mark of a skilled writer. Don’t ignore them or make assumptions because you think no one will notice. I assure you, someone will.

The above are five of my pet peeves. What are yours?



Writers: It’s Fine to Like Your Work

My friend, Olivia, posted this blog today about an experience common to writers: Thinking you suck.

It got me thinking about my own involvement with my work. As you know if you’ve read much of this blog, I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. Making up stories. Some have worked and some haven’t so much. Some I got bored with. Some I couldn’t pull off. Some I completed, but didn’t have the chops at the time to translate the grandiose idea to the page. Some turned out to have themes I honestly didn’t want to explore, but trying to ignore them or gloss over them made the work superficial. Some I wrote a lovely first half, put it aside for a while, and forget what was supposed to happen. But I can’t truly say I’ve ever thought my work sucked. Not really. Sure, I get nervous when I hear people are reading it or it’s out for review. I might wonder, “Oh shit, what if it sucks? What if all the good reviews are flukes and THIS ONE PERSON’S negative opinion is the true one?”

This is bullshit, by the way. Even a reviewer’s opinion is only an opinion. Not every book meets with approval from every reader. I’ve hated enough popular books to know this. Unfortunately, it’s common for everyone pursuing some kind of public art to have these kinds of questions. When I was doing my radio show, I could get ten calls from people who thought it was wonderful, and still the single caller who said, “I hate this music! Why are you even on the air?” was the one I remembered. The one who ruined my night.


The point I mean to make is, though there are things I haven’t finished and things that haven’t worked for various reasons, I have never actually in my heart of hearts believed my work categorically sucks. Yes, it can be frustrating. But I believe in my writing ability. I do not suck. My words do not suck. My use of language does not suck. My characters do not suck. Etcetera, ad infinitum.

I mentioned this to my friend, Jennie, and she said: “That’s because you’re a gift to the world of writers: you actually KNOW and can admit when your stuff is amazing.”

This made me angry. Not at Jennie, or at her words, but at the prevelant attitude that writers are supposed to hate themselves and their work until someone else tells them not to. I have been involved with a great many other arts, and in my experience it’s an attitude that you don’t have to deal with anywhere else. Not in music, not in theater, not in dance, not, in my limited experience, in visual arts. (Well, maybe in some types of dance. If you have really bad teachers.) But writers, who already tend to be vulnerable, introverted, and fearful of sharing their passion, are encouraged to hate themselves in the name of personal growth.

New Flash: Hating yourself does not in any way contribute to personal growth. It might give you an impetus to change. But once you’ve decided to do the work, it just gets in the way.

Right now I see this attitude contributing to the Self vs. Trad publishing wars. Militants in the Self camp are tired of “gatekeepers” deciding what does and does not constitute good writing–especially since a lot of Trad publishing seems to care less about writing quality that it does about trends that will sell and fitting within some arbitrary appropriate word count. Militants in the Trad camp are worried about their hard work being devalued if just anybody can do it, and point to the unfortunately large number of self-published books whose authors have not taken the time or paid the attention necessary to turning out a professional, finished product. (And in case you wonder, although I chose self-publishing, I am not in either camp. I’m very glad that writers have a wide variety of options these days and I think you should pick what works for you. I ALSO think you need to put your work under objective eyes before publishing it and spend as much time cleaning it up as you did writing it in the first place.)

So what causes this attitude? How is it we encourage writers to practice self-hate? Well, I see a couple of things. One is the way we tend to view writers, particularly novelists, as inhuman creatures who kind of pop into being, like Athena springing from the skull of Zeus. Unless a writer has a particularly interesting (and often tragic) life story, we forget them. In school–at least in my school–we studied literature, but we paid very little attention to the process that produces it. I can tell you about Freytag’s Analysis and how it applies to Virginia Woolf. I can’t tell you Virginia’s relationship with her characters, or how she discovered the road from Point A to Point B.

Another thing is, writers might be great poets or story-tellers, but it doesn’t mean they know the first thing about communicating as human beings. One of the most traumatic things that I have experienced in my writing process took place at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, which I attended in 1986. At the time I was writing poetry almost exclusively, partly because that was the focus of the program and partly because college level creative writing at the time meant writing poetry. The End. (Aside: I never, ever, have taken a course that explains in clear, concise detail how to write fiction, much less genre fiction. Analysis, yes. How To Do It, no.) So, I was in a workshop with a famous and rather brilliant poet, and I was asked to share what I was working on. I did, and the famous and brilliant poet reamed me up one side and down the other for presenting such garbage and wasting his time, and why the fuck did I think I could write, and on and on and on. I was in tears. Afterward, almost everyone else in the class came to me privately to say the guy was out of line and my poetry was actually rather lovely. But that incident sticks with me. With the perspective of time, I have come to think a couple of things: This brilliant and famous poet was AN ABUSIVE ASSHOLE who got off on screaming at people with less power than he had. And possibly, just possibly, he had no idea how to talk to another person or how to give effective critique. To say, “You know, this theme is interesting, but you should look at tweaking the phrasing here and using a more powerful word here.”

This is something I’ve learned over the years. I’ve mentioned it before, and I will no doubt do so again: People. Please. Learn to give effective feedback. Any writer worth his or her salt should understand that the world is not black and white. “You suck” and “You’re great!” do not constitute anything I need to listen to.

Because some writers don’t actually communicate well, we get nauseating little sound bites of technique advice. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Yes, my all-time least favorite thing ever: Kill Your Darlings!


When I first heard this, I thought it meant you should kill characters you’re attached to because it will be good drama. (FACT: When I started writing the Caitlin Ross books, I thought, “I’m going to have to kill Timber at some point, aren’t I? Because it would be good drama.” I have since gotten over this. Timber will continue to go through immense shit from time to time, but I’m not going to kill him.)

Later, I learned that “Kill Your Darlings” means you should eliminate any paragraph or phrase you’re attached to.


Okay, I will admit there is something to this. My favorite poetry prof, Ken Mikolowski, said it like this: “If you have a poem with one excellent, shining line, you should probably axe that line because it will stick out like a sore thumb. Instead of it shining, it will bring down the whole rest of the work by comparison.” Irish singer Niamh Parsons spoke of voices blending in a choral situation: “You don’t want one or two people going off into ornamentation, even though they might do it in a solo piece. In a choir, the whole sound is what matters.”

Your novel is a choir, with many voices blending to create a smooth whole. So yeah, a single, shining line, a line you love, that you think is so awesome, might have to go to preserve the whole.

However. I see a lot of writers doing THIS:

“Kill my darlings, kill my darlings, Ima axe everything I think is good because I DON’T KNOW WHAT GOOD REALLY IS AND I SUCK!”

Back up. What was that? Okay, yeah: we all fall victim to hyperbole and the occasional purple prose. Especially those of us writing Epic Fantasy. It goes with the territory. But there’s a huge difference between being able to recognize when you’ve taken a description or a turn of phrase too far and actually sucking. “I suck” is a value judgment. It isn’t helpful, and it only makes you feel bad. “This doesn’t work here” is something else entirely.

When you get right down to it, I am a terrifyingly practical person and I like practical solutions. I am always going to ask what works and what doesn’t. This is a question more writers need to learn to ask in a way that doesn’t make them throw up. Does it work? Why or why not? If it doesn’t, how can I fix it? And you know what? If it works, it’s totally all right to like it. Be proud of it, even. You’ve done something not everyone can do, and that’s a good feeling! You’re allowed to feel good about your passion! Society often sets us–people in general–up to dismiss ourselves. We don’t want to appear stuck up or, gods forbid, “Get the Big Head.” But in the words of Sherlock Holmes,

“My dear Watson, I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”

Or in the much shorter phrase attributed to Apollo: “Know thyself.”

It’s good to evaluate and discern. It’s good to be able to apply a critical eye to your work, to find and fix the flaws. But flaws don’t mean you suck. Being critical doesn’t mean you suck. They just mean you’re not done.

Writers: Start practicing liking your work. It’s okay. It’s even beneficial. Once you get rid of that load of baggage weighing you down, think of all the places you might go!

Ain’t No Fire in This Hole: Deconstructing True Blood Season 7, Episode 3

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!! If you have not yet seen True Blood Season 7, Episode 3 and you don’t want to know, STOP HERE!


Today I was supposed to post my installment of the “10 Things You Don’t Know About Me” Blog Tour. In fact, I did start writing that post yesterday. And then I watched last night’s True Blood, and all bets were off.

I came late to the whole Sookie Stackhouse experience, books and TV show both. In truth, vampire fiction is a big yawn to me, and a lot of the standard tropes of the genre give me hives. I can’t even get through a lot of it. But last year, I developed a huge crush on Joe Manganiello, who plays the Were, Alcide. I resisted as long as I could, but in the end I gave in to my fangirl instincts and got the DVDs of the first five seasons of True Blood out of the library. I also read the entire book series last summer, because I write Paranormal fiction and I figured I should.

This is my disclaimer: I only ever watched True Blood for Alcide. I enjoy some of the other characters and the occasional witty bit of dialog. But Sookie is at best annoying and at worst downright moronic. Love interest #1, Bill, is a drag. And I have never, never understood the fan obsession with Eric. So you might understand my distress at the rumours I started hearing around the first of April, of Alcide’s impending death. Well, it happened last night (in episode 3 of season 7, “Fire in the Hole”). I knew in advance of watching, because I live in Mountain Time Zone, and after about eight o’clock here there it was impossible to be on the Internet without being spoiled. What with the speculation and the plain fact that Mr. Manganiello has been everywhere EXCEPT  on the True Blood set this year, it’s not like I didn’t see it coming. So I’m not actually TOO upset that the writers decided to kill off my main reason for watching. The main source of my irritation is the way in which it was done, the rationalizations given for it, and the unmistakable truth that episode–the whole season so far, really–was just badly written. Boring, even.

So. Deconstructing “Fire in the Hole.”

We start off in a Los Angeles ashram, where a previously-unheard-of yoga teacher is conducting a class. After some New Age Speak with focus shifting back and forth between the teacher and various students, we get the big reveal: Here’s Sara Newlin, her hair darker than we’ve seen it, evidently having turned her back on her Christian faith, but with the same ardent Seeker’s smile on her face as ever! Well, that’s okay. Jason let her go at the end of last season. She was a loose end that needed tying up, and I can accept the writers wanting to do something about that.

Cut to main titles, THEN:

Pam confronts Eric in some manor on the Rhône, a place where, according to Pam “he’d never go.” I wondered about that when it first came up, but I figured it had something to do with Eric’s pre-vampiric past and let it go. Turns out Eric–who was revealed in episode 2 as having contracted Hep V–had a love affair with a French vintner’s daughter back in 1986, and, according to Pam, he’s punishing himself for what went down with that. Now we’re treated to a LONG flashback about Eric and Sylvie. As the two of them make sweet love in the vineyard, up pops Nan Flanagan. You remember Nan, the spokes-vamp for the Authority? She has an issue with Eric and Pam being in France without having notified the local sheriff, and living openly as vamps when the secrecy laws are still in effect. Fine. Then there’s some garbled nonsense about an alliance between the Authority and the Japanese Corporation that has begun to manufacture True Blood, and WHAT? I totally did not understand this whole purported conflict, and this is when I started to have major issues with the writing in this episode.

Despite earlier assertions that the writers planned to scale back, they still have a distressing tendency to invent unnecessary new characters instead of letting the stories revolve around the perfectly good characters they already have. In season 6 they took it to extremes with the wacky kids of the Supernatural Rights movement (or whatever they were called), a subplot that brought us the forgettable Nicole, a woman who managed to get discernibly pregnant about five minutes after sleeping with Sam. Oh, and Violet. I’ll have more to say about her later. In season seven, the writers continued the trend with Vince, who apparently ran against Sam for Mayor of Bon Temps, and who is now fulfilling the clichéd Angry Redneck Agitator role. Because there aren’t enough problems in Bon Temps without stirring up the already frightened townspeople. Good one.

Now we get Sylvie, who, to all appearances, was the actual true love of Eric’s life. I suppose it’s not impossible that he had a lot of lovers over the course of 1000 years, but it seems unlikely, given the apparent depth of their attachment, that we would never have heard of her before this. Why do we need to hear about her now, and in a subplot that took up about a quarter of the screen time of the episode? I’m guessing that they may go somewhere with the subplot. But it mostly seems, as my husband put it, “They had to invent Sylvie because no one else was fucking in this episode.” Knowing HBO, I can actually hear that being said at a plotting conference.

Nan leaves Eric and Pam with an ultimatum: Straighten up and fly right or the evil Corporation WILL GET YOU (Again, WHY? Is Eric the only straying vampire on their radar?) Pam suggests that she and Eric get the hell out of Dodge. He refuses because Sylvie wants to finish University. Because that makes so much sense for Eric to say.

Cut to: Alcide has finished the shower he started last week. You remember, when Sookie, like the complete idiot she is, left him without any explanation to go off and hatch a moronic scheme with Bill. So, Alcide finishes his shower, discovers Sookie had flown the coop, and tracks her to Bill’s house. Not finding her there either, he shifts to wolf shape and runs off to hunt her.

Alcides buttt
We do, however, get some nice footage of the ass the gods spoke of.


MEANWHILE: Bill and Sookie are driving somewhere to put Sookie’s moronic plan into motion. Sookie wonders if Alcide will be able to track her. He assures her he took care of all their scent traces. Yeah, that worked. Bill also tells Sookie that he can no longer sense her because he was totally drained when he gave the Lilith blood to the imprisoned vamps last season, so the “Vampire Bill you knew no longer exists.” This declaration caused me to give my computer the finger. Bill goes on to say that he’ll always remember and pay for the abuse he put Sookie through. Sookie says, “Good,” and then sucks some more Bill juice, declaring “I have a boyfriend!” So don’t get any ideas, Bill.

NEXT we see Adilynn and Wade sharing a tender moment in a jail cell. Just as they start to kiss, Jessica appears, along with a justifiably pissed-off Andy. Adilynn explains about the mob of angry townspeople, and the four of them take off to get reinforcements.

SAM and the Reverend are having a heavy discussion about matters of faith in the church. When Sam asks what good it does to have faith, the Reverend asks him what good it does NOT to have it, and adds, “Death is a dark and blinding motherfucker, whether you see if coming or not.” This is actually a great line, and the Reverend is one of the newer characters I like. But I half-expected a giant, pointing finger labeled FORESHADOWING to descend from the ceiling at that moment. At that moment, a tripping Lettie Mae bursts into the church, along with a remarkably ineffective Willa. Girl, you’re a vampire. Couldn’t you have restrained the crazy woman, or glamoured her, or something? Anyway, the Rev asks everyone to leave. Sam and his vamp escort head off, only to be met by the aforementioned crowd of angry villagers townspeople. After the requisite gloating, during which rival Vince announces that he’s the mayor now, someone splatters Sam’s escort on the pavement. Sam turns into an owl and flies away.

Technically, the Angry Mob should have torches and pitchforks, but whatever.
Technically, the Angry Mob should have torches and pitchforks, but whatever.

BACK AT JASON’S PLACE, Jason tells Violet he wants to have kids, because “a man is nothing without a family.” Because Andy said the exact same thing last episode, and Jason has never had an original thought. Violet launches into an angry tirade about how “in her day” men were goddam MEN, and warriors trampled the dismembered bodies of their fallen enemies without feeling. Because, in case you missed it, REAL MEN DON’T HAVE FEELINGS. This was another moment when I flipped the bird at the screen. I freaking hate Violet. Not quite as much as I hate Sookie, but she’s a close second. I hated her when she showed up last season, because WHY? Then it turned out that she was denying sex to Jason because she wanted him to prove his macho by raping her on the hood of a car, an action she evidently found a turn on. And now this Real Men (TM) bullshit. Honestly, this little speech pissed me off more than about anything in the episode. I guess Violet’s been around 600-odd years and the entire Women’s Rights movement completely bypassed her. Someone stake that bitch, please. Fortunately, before the argument takes off, Andy and Company show up. They leave the kids at Jason’s place, and the two law officers and the two vamps run to rescue Sookie, whom the believe to be in danger from the angry mob. Because we MUST RESCUE SOOKIE. It’s the Law!

TIME to check in with Lafayette! He’s dancing around and shit, when James shows up, trying to score some weed because Jessica doesn’t know he’s alive. Or undead. Or whatever. Anyway, it makes sense that she doesn’t, because they haven’t has a scene together since he changed bodies, so maybe she doesn’t recognize him anymore. Lafayette only has pills, which he kindly takes so that James can get off by drinking his blood. The two of them trip off into Happy Land, but when Lafayette assumes James is coming on to him, James declares that he’s with Jessica. Because that’s believable.

They're really cute together. Pity.
They’re really cute together. Pity.

AFTER a brief check-in with the Hep V-infected Vamps at Fangtasia (remember them?), during which they decide to go hunting and take Holly along for munchies, it’s back to Bill and Sookie. They’re filling the time waiting for the infected vamps, whom Sookie hopes to lure with her glittery fairy blood, with reminiscence. For Bill, this includes a long and COMPLETELY POINTLESS flashback about getting photographs of his family takes before he goes off to The War. Because it totally made sense to waste our time on that.

ANDY and company find Sam’s abandoned truck, as well as the angry villagers. There’s a confrontation. Maxine shoots at Jessica, and Violet rips Maxine’s heart out, which was admittedly gratifying. I guess Violet’s good for something. The mob scatters, and the good guys continue to search for Sookie.

INSERT over-long, pointless scene of the Rev tossing Willa out on her ear because Lettie Mae is a drug addict.

NOW, without warning, we’re back in 1986, where a group of Japanese businessmen force Eric to choose between Sylvie and Pam for no apparent reason. Eric, also for no apparent reason, chooses Pam, and Sylvie is unceremoniously killed. To which my husband said, “They invented her for nudity value, so they had to invent a reason to get rid of her. Thus the Japanese assassins without apparent purpose.” EXCEPT! Pam manages to get Eric to rise from his bed of pain with the mention of one name: Sara Newlin. Finding out she’s alive is just the tonic he needs. The two of them leave to hunt down Sara and give her what for. Meanwhile, Sara and her guru are finishing up some spiritual practice when the SAME Japanese assassins arrive. With Sara conveniently hiding in the wine cellar, they kill the guru and proceed to search the ashram. Guess they aren’t too chuffed about the Hep V thing.

Just leave me here to die, please.
Just leave me here to die, please.

AND NOW the climactic scene: The Hep V Vamps back in Bon Temps FINALLY locate Sookie. Before they can make off with her, however, Alcide and Sam, in animal form, attack. At the same moment, Andy and company show up to splatter the Vamps all over the scenery. Alcide morphs back into human form, makes sure Sookie is okay, and starts to read Bil the riot act for not being able to protect the girl. Before he can get going, one of the stray angry townspeople shoots Alcide through the head.


I can understand killing Alcide, I really can. But the justifications for doing it in the way they did at the moment they did don’t fly with me. It may be, from a story point of view, that “the fairy has to end up with the vampire.” I can play that either way. As a writer, I can see the appeal to wrapping everything up into a neat package. However, as a writer, I also kn0w that no story HAS to do anything. My personal preference would have been to have Sookie grow a brain and backbone and discover she can be an independent person. Since I recently saw a tweet from Anna Paquin stating that “part of Sookie’s character is that she doesn’t learn from her mistakes,” I doubt this is ever going to happen.

As far as Alcide being an outsider and thus the character the series can do without: You know, that didn’t have to be. The WRITERS MADE THAT. They made it by separating the vampire and were storylines so far in season 6, and they continued it by asking the audience to swallow the absurd notion that Alcide is still an outsider after living with Sookie for six months that we never saw. Now, I never bought the whole Sookie/Alcide romance in the first place. It didn’t sell in the books, and it didn’t sell in the show. It seemed to me as if Alcide fell for Sookie for no other reason than that every male character has to fall for Sookie at some point. If I try really hard, I can believe that he might have become infatuated with her because he was on the rebound from Debbie–whom Sookie killed. Great basis for love, that. But Alcide was no dummy. I think it would have been far more realistic for him to become disenchanted with Sookie on closer inspection, and for him to leave her. But, you know, that would have taken an effort.

But it’s the final justification that sticks in my craw the most. Alcide had to die because if Sookie dumped the good guy everyone would hate her. I MEAN, REALLY? Because we’re totally going to love her now that her stupidity and refusal to communicate honestly GOT HIM KILLED! Granted, I run in a particular circle of fans–Alcide Fans, that is. But from what I saw last night, it looked to me as if this brilliant move might have lost True Blood two-thirds of its viewers. At the very least, I would have liked to see Alcide continue a couple more episodes and go down in a blaze of glory. The random shot in the dark from an irate hick wasn’t dramatic. It was lame, lame, lame.

You know, I did get one thing out of this poor excuse for an episode. I never understood the brou-ha-ha over the end of the book series, or why people were so upset that it didn’t turn out the way they wanted. Mostly because I’ve never shipped Eric. So the rants I read about it didn’t make any sense to me. When I read the books, I thought the way Harris ended the series made perfect sense.

Now I understand where those people were coming from.

I expected all along that Alcide wouldn’t make it through all ten episodes. And I fully intended to keep watching after his death, because I don’t like leaving things and I like knowing what happens. But after last night’s travesty, I have no desire to continue. I might pick up the series at some later date if I have nothing to do. But I won’t be waiting for it to air every Sunday night.



Your First Draft Does Not Suck

There’s this maxim prominent in writer circles. If you’re a writer, or if you have much to do with writers, you’ve seen it or heard it. You may even have said it or posted it. It’s one of those catchy, four-word phrases meant to give pause, to get you thinking. To condense a whole world of meaning into an easy sound bite.

I gave it away in the post title, but in case you aren’t following me it’s this one: Your First Draft Sucks. Alternately, Your First Draft ALWAYS sucks.

This is my reaction when I hear or see those words:


Look, I understand the intent. We all know people who are so enamored of the idea of themselves as writers and the process of putting words on a page as sacred that they refuse to apply any critical thinking to their work. It may be we’ve all been that person at one time or another. Maybe we churned out fifty to a hundred thousand words and were so proud of the achievement that we wanted to share it with the world. Maybe we were too close to the work to see the flaws. Maybe we didn’t have the education and experience to judge. Maybe we lived a life where we didn’t have access to a good critique partner or community of supportive writers. Or maybe we were scared of self-examination. Whatever; I can see how people might feel the need to remind folks that critical thinking and self-editing are part of the writing process. The problem is, saying “Your First Draft Sucks” does nothing to address the issues, and it can be downright harmful.

Writers are a vulnerable bunch. Whether by intent or predisposition, we, like most others who pursue an art form, feel things deeply. It takes a gigantic amount of courage to translate deeply felt realities into words and put them onto a page, and that’s not even considering the amount of courage it takes to share your work with others. I know there are those who–at least ostensibly–seem t0 take up writing because of the idea that it’s a glamorous life that will result in immediate fame and fortune, with little work involved. But 1. that’s a myth, and 2. for every writer I know who subscribes to the myth, I can count half a dozen who sweat blood over their work and are afraid to show it to anyone. Because, deep inside, there is always the question: Is this any good? Have I expressed my deeply held reality in a way that will convey it to other people? Or am I pretending to have skill at something I’m no good at? Is this thing I want out of my grasp? Unrealistic? Should I give up on my dream?

Yeah, telling these folks that they suck isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s kind of like this:

And telling us to grow a thicker skin isn’t great, either.

When I see or hear “Your First Draft Sucks,” it tells me way more about the person saying it than it does about anyone to whom they’re talking. I ask, “Why do you need to repeat this? What’s so threatening to you about other people’s first drafts? Why do you need to perpetuate this idea that all writers–especially beginning writers–think of themselves as ‘special snowflakes’ (ODIOUS TERM) with the golden semen of angels pouring from their pens?”

I also think, “Here is a person who does not know how to give constructive criticism, or who can’t be bothered to.”

The first rule of constructive criticism is: Be Specific. Please explain to me, what is specific about telling a writer her first draft sucks? I read a lot of manuscripts, and though quite a few of them have problems (sometimes numerous problems), I can say with certainty that none of them categorically sucked, first draft or not. Even in manuscripts that I’ve found amateurish and cliche-ridden, there have been gems. Characters that leap off the page, scenes that make me laugh, or cry. Beautiful words and original ideas. Why in the world would I want to risk having a new writer scrap all that by telling her, “Your first draft sucks?”

Hey, you know, if you don’t want to deal with all that, fine. Don’t be an Alpha reader or a Critique Partner. Say, “I’m sorry, I don’t read manuscripts.” Don’t put your issue on the writer. Especially don’t use your status as an established writer to intimidate someone new to the craft, or spout bullshit aphorisms out of some weird intent to make yourself look knowledgeable. Because what it looks like is this:

Listen to me or else!

One last thing: When you say something like “Your First Draft Sucks” as if it’s a universal truth, you are assuming that everyone’s process is alike and everyone’s first draft looks the same. They aren’t. Not everyone sits down and writes straight through a story to the end (oh yeah–that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Another useless standard.). My writing process looks a lot like this: Write first chapter. Think about it for a couple weeks. Write a few more chapters. Decide that I don’t like what’s going on in Chapter Three and I didn’t touch on something important in Chapter Five. Go back and fix those. Continue through the first act. Think about it some more. Realize I need to do something in second act that I didn’t lead up to, so go back through act one and stick in foreshadowing. Write some more chapters. Discover a character vital to the outcome of the story doesn’t exist. Create character and if necessary go back and insert him into previous chapters so his appearance doesn’t come out of nowhere.

The thing is, by the time I have a First Draft folder containing an entire book from beginning to end, I’ve already done the work to make it hold together, with a consistent, comprehensible plot containing a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sure, there’s work yet to do. But my first draft does not suck. Some of this is because of the way I work, and some of this is because I’ve been writing forty years, and some is because I have a highly organized mind that doesn’t veer off on strange tangents. Whatever the reason, your sound bite doesn’t apply to me. And it doesn’t apply to most others.

So let’s stop perpetuating this one, okay? Writers have enough grief to cope with. We don’t need it from each other.

Male Privilege II: What Men Don’t See

A Twitter friend of mine shared this Buzz Feed article yesterday: 19 Things Women Writers Are Sick of Hearing. For those of you who don’t want to click the link, it’s a series of photographs taken at the AWP Conference. Photos of women writers holding whiteboards of things women writers hear all too often. I shared this link on my personal Facebook page when it came out, back in March, and it occasioned an interesting conversation between me and a (white, male) friend of mine, who is a professor of writing (among other things) at a United States University.

DISCLAIMER: I searched all through my Facebook Timeline to try to find this actual conversation so I could quote directly from it, but since it took place so long ago (by Facebook standards), I couldn’t locate it. So this blog post is based on my recollections of the conversation, rather than on me looking at the actual words. I stand by my recollections, because the conversation I had with my (white, male) professor friend is one that I’ve seen other women refer to, but one I’ve never taken part in. And it threw me, because my professor friend is another Good Guy, thoughtful and insightful. But he still didn’t see some of the things I saw. If I ever do manage to find the thread, I will, of course, amend this post as necessary to provide direct quotations.

The conversation revolved around this image, which appeared fourth in the list.



This is what my friend had to say. Again, it’s paraphrased because I can’t find the related thread from which to post:

I can see how many of these questions would be annoying. But the fourth one bothers me. If she’s consistently getting that kind of feedback, she needs to look at her own writing instead of complaining about the criticism. It’s more productive to work on the writing craft than to bitch about people not understanding you.

The response rather jerked my chain. Here are a number of women stating things they hear over and over again, things they find useless and annoying. And instead of believing that this particular woman had a right to be annoyed and was expressing frustration at the patronizing attitude many women writers get from readers–especially male readers–who have not made an effort to understand their work because the writers are female, my friend immediately leaped to the conclusion that there must be something lacking in her work. Now, I have no idea who this writer is. The subjects of the photographs were not named. I don’t know her, don’t know her work, don’t know the context of the comment. But neither does my male friend. He had no basis for his comment that this writer needs to work on her craft. He just felt that, as a (white, male) writing professor, he was privileged to make it. Without even acknowledging that he had no context for his remarks.

We went back and forth for a long time. Because my friend is a Good Guy, whom I’ve known since high school, I tried to explain the experience of the woman writer.  How we face this kind of thing at every public appearance, with every public statement. How male readers and male writers–especially in genre fiction–judge us at the drop of a hat. Accuse us of “ruining the genre. Declare that we don’t know what we’re talking about, or that our experience and professionalism should be questioned because what we wore on vacation was “too revealing.

My friend responded with several posts about how, as a professor of writing, he stresses to his students the need to be open to criticism rather than respond with knee-jerk defensiveness. In fact, he said, even in his own experience he has had things pointed out to him that he did not want to face (namely, accusations of unconscious racism in some of his published articles), but he forced himself to re-examine his writing and try to see the other person’s point of view.

He talked about the need for the writer to connect with the reader and seek ways to make the work accessible. I talked about how women’s experience and women’s bodies are pre-judged as inaccessible and outside the norm because in our society maleness is the standard. He talked about being able to sympathize with a well-written account of childbirth even though he doesn’t have the anatomy to experience it. I talked about how people discount women’s opinions because they come from women, not because they’re badly written.

Do you see the trap I fell into here? It took me several exchanges to see it for myself. Because my friend is a Good Guy, I tried to tell him about what life is like for women writers, believing he would listen to me because he knows me as a person. Which is not necessarily a bad thing to do. But for a long time, I failed to address the main problem with his original statement. I got derailed with explanations and justifications, with defending the picture instead of calling my friend on the thing that had upset me in the first place. It took me several exchanges over the course of the day before I realized we were speaking at cross purposes. He thought we were talking about effective writing. And I thought we were talking about women’s experience.

When I finally got it, I posted this comment:

Look, I love you. But your male professorial privilege is showing. Because you have made an assumption about the quality of this woman’s writing from nothing more than a picture of her holding a sign with a statement of something she finds annoying.

His response?

I didn’t make any assumptions. Why are you accusing me of making assumptions?

So, I spelled it out for him. I quoted back his original comment: “She needs to look at her own writing instead of complaining about the criticism.” I pointed out that he had no basis to make this statement, as he had never read the author and could have no idea whether or not the criticism was justified. I told him that, to me, it looked very much as if he had read her “complaint” and automatically decided that she had not sufficiently explained “what the body had to do with it,” WITHOUT having any clue of the context or whether she did or not. To me, this is strong evidence that he had made an assumption about the quality of her work without ever having read it. Because she publicly declared she was fed up, and because he’s a (white, male) professor of writing who knows these things.

Well, he came back with, “You’ve supported your position very well and given me a lot to think about,” which I found a bit condescending, but accepted as the best response I was likely to get. After all, he’d made a tacit agreement to think about things, which was about all I could hope for and better than I get from a lot of people. And that was essentially the end of the conversation.

The lesson here? I think there are a couple.  The first is, posts like that one on Buzz Feed may be validating for those who already “get it,” and as such are valuable. But they don’t convince people who don’t already “get it.” They don’t even necessarily engender coherent questions and conversations, because those who don’t “get it” can’t even see what the problem is. And the second is, when people can’t see what the problem is, it does no good to engage in long conversations trying to explain it. As long as the eyes are closed, they’re STILL not going to see. You have to go to the blind spot. You have to point out the unconscious assumptions that lie behind the automatic judgment. Like, “A woman holding a sign is wrong.” Like, “All feedback has value.” Like, “A white, male professor necessarily knows what he’s talking about.”


Respecting the Work, Respecting Ourselves

A couple weeks ago I ran across this blog post: “Do Writers Really Have to Learn All that Yucky Grammar?” Now, I am what is commonly known as a Grammar Nazi, but I count myself a Grammar Lover. I dig language. I dig how it works and how it’s put together. More than that, I find it easy. It resonates for me. I don’t always have an explanation for the way things work on the tip of my tongue, but I have a natural gift and I almost always get it right.

I understand that not everyone has the same advantage, not even everyone who writes. When I Beta other writers’ manuscripts, I find a lot of mistakes, and that’s fine. That’s part of why you get feedback–so someone else can point out things you might have missed from being too close to your work. So you correct them and move on, or if you don’t understand the issue you might ask about the problem or look it up and learn to avoid it next time. It goes with the territory.

But I don’t get people who claim a writer’s identity, who object to learning the basics of the trade. So when I read the above-mentioned article my gut reaction–the same gut reaction I have when I read any article along the same lines–was: Why is this even necessary? Why does this have to be said over and over again?

Are you really going to make me explain this again?

I have a long history with the arts and humanities. I’ve done visual arts. I’ve studied music since I can remember, play a variety of instruments, and have been in several bands. In college, I majored in Dance (and Psychology), and I’ve held starring roles in numerous theatrical productions. But my first love has always been writing. I’ve seen it as my calling since second grade, when Mrs. Stahl told Julie Johnson that she should be an author and I piped up, “No, I’M going to be an author!” And I have never seen any of the arts treated with the same bizarre combination of reverence and disrespect that people bandy around when the subject of writing comes up.

In the disrespect corner are the people who say things like, “My family always tell me I write such great letters, I think I should write a book.” The acquaintances who greet the news that you’re a writer with, “Hey, if you need any help editing let me know!” There’s the lady in town who writes poetry in the bathtub, reads it that night at the local coffee house, and receives any suggestion that her work might be made cleaner as an affront. The relative who tells you, “I’ve got a great idea for you to write about in your spare time…” I’d also include those individuals who refuse to learn proper spelling and grammar, as well as those people who submit unpolished manuscripts and query agents without following their guidelines. These things are so common that there are a couple memes circulating about them. And at first, you greet them with sighs and eye-rolling, but as time goes on and you hear them over and over again, they make you want to bash your head repeatedly into the nearest wall.

No, really. This is less painful

On the reverence side of things, you get a weird conglomeration of stuff. The hushed awe some people show you upon learning you’re a writer, as if you’ve announced you just dropped in from Alpha Centauri, or perhaps discovered a cure for cancer. The massive advances that some A-list writers get. Book fandom turns popular writers into rock stars. Readers obsess over the fates of their favorite characters and line up for signings and treat the winners of the Hugo or the Edgar the way other people treat Oscar winners. Prominent authors become spokespersons for political causes and their names become household words. All of it contributes to this feeling that writers are a race apart, with talents that set them far above the average Joe. And I don’t know how other writers react to the intersection of reverence and disrespect, but in me it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, a feeling that my ability to use words to convey a coherent story is a kind of superpower, but it doesn’t really count because anyone could do the same if she felt like it. Anyone at all could sit down at a computer, or with paper and pen, and write a hundred thousand words, and transform herself into the next Stephen King by breakfast next Sunday. Because writing is, after all, an easy way to make a quick buck.

I’m  not sure where this idea comes from, and I think about it a lot. Maybe it’s because in the First World we’re all (allegedly) taught to write in school. Most people experience words on a daily basis in one way or another. We write emails and Facebook status updates. We see words on cereal boxes and street signs. They’re not mysterious, like the ability to dance or act or play an instrument. Society’s focus on literacy for everyone has made them accessible, and don’t mistake me, I think that’s a good thing. I think words are great, and do good things, and people should have access to them. But being able to send a witty letter to Mom or tweet your emotional state in one hundred and forty characters does not equate to being able to write a novel, or even a short story.

The thing is, while most people learn some form of literacy, a great many of those people don’t absorb the annoying details. Grammar, unless you’re me or share my fascination for language, is neither easy nor fun. Neither is spelling. No more so  is the logic of structuring a coherent plot, or many of the things that turn a string of semi-related words into a novel that someone might actually want to read. And so people don’t learn them, or if they learn them, they often forget them as soon as the test is over.

There’s also this idea in some circles that the picayune details don’t matter as long as a person expresses herself honestly. I remember back when I was in high school hearing about some Urban District where an English teacher was having great success getting kids to write by telling them not to worry about spelling or grammar or any of the rules; just get the words down. Needless to say, this approach sent my English-teacher mother through the ceiling, but I do see the value in it. My own husband, who is also an English teacher, sometimes has to resort to it just to get his students to do the work. And I’ve seen it used to good purpose in groups like Writing Down the Bones, where the point is to overcome the fear of writing and the debilitating tendency to self-censor. Just write. Worry later. I say it to myself when I’m working on a first draft. Just write.

The problem comes when people get so enamoured of the idea of self as writer that they forget that Just Write is the starting place. The process of writing gets entangled with the ego to the point where any criticism, any suggestion that you might perhaps want to subject your work to a little critical analysis or perhaps learn how to construct a sentence in a more effective way is seen as a personal attack. And I get it, really I do. The act of writing, or creating with words, is intensely personal. Taking what’s in your heart and putting it on the page for everyone to see is scary. But isn’t that a good reason to make it as tight and coherent as possible? “Well yeah,” you might say. “But what about the idea that my words have intrinsic value? That I, as a person, have intrinsic value? If you’re telling me I can do better doesn’t that mean you think what I’ve done so far is shitty? Who are you to judge? My books are my children!”

To this I really must ask: “Do you really refuse to bathe or toilet train your children because they weren’t born with those skills?”

I’ve seen this conversation a lot in the self-publishing community, which is fairly well divided between those who believe in working at their craft and making it the best it can be and those who think that uploading whatever words come off the tops of their heads to Amazon and calling it a book is just fine. (You can probably guess where I stand on this debate.) It’s the kind of thing that leads people to write articles demanding that those who self-publish shouldn’t call themselves authors. And it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that it’s demonstrably true that going the traditional route (or subjecting your work to gatekeepers, depending on your slant) does not always result in a superior product.

But, you know,  as it says in the article that prompted me to write this: you wouldn’t want to take your car to a mechanic who didn’t have a full range of tools at his disposal. Deciding you’re a novelist because you write good letters is like deciding you’re a brain surgeon because you were good at Operation in your youth. The two aren’t the same. And there’s another side to studied ignorance of your craft that directly contributes to some of the stuff that annoys writers most: When you don’t respect what you do enough to do it well, other people won’t respect it either. So they’ll continue to misunderstand what being a writer means, and continue to make those comments we find so hard to hear. Like these things:

And the next time I hear any of these, someone’s going to get punched in the mouth.

Everyone might have a story to tell, but not everyone needs to write a novel (which is my problem with events like NaNoWriMo, but that’s probably a different blog). It’s not an easy way to the big bucks. It’s hard work with less return, on a monetary level, than most people would like to think. If you manage to finish your first draft, there are edits, and sending your work out to critique partners; shit, there’s the whole business of finding a good critique partner before you even share your work at all. And then, more edits and, if you decide to go the traditional route, there are queries and synopses to write, which is an art all of its own. And more edits. And all that is no guarantee that a publisher will pick up your book, or that the public will buy it.

There are lots of ways to be creative with words. My husband (the English teacher, remember) creates beautiful and lavish worlds. I envy his ability to do so; he has one of the most original and creative minds I have ever encountered. Sometimes I tell him he really ought to do something with those worlds he creates. His response, inevitably, is “Oh, I don’t want to do all that work.” And that’s fine. Not writing a novel doesn’t make him any less original or creative.

I’m lucky. I have to edit far less than most other writers and I never fall prey to the tendency writers often display of looking back on early drafts and thinking they’re shit. Most of the time I can go over my work and know that, even if the words I’ve written aren’t the right words, they’re good words all the same. A novelist friend of mine recently told me, “The words you pull out of your ass are better than the ones I’ve gone over a dozen times.” But the reason for this is that I have spent forty years loving language, studying my craft, and learning to organize my thoughts so I can churn out 2000 words on short notice and have them make sense. (As some proof of this, I offer the fact that this post appears as it came out of my head, with only one edit to add the sentence about books as compared to children, because I thought of that when I woke up this morning.)

If, after all this, you still feel that novel pushing against your breastbone, write it. But please do yourself a favor and get the tools to make your book the best book it can possibly be. Study grammar. Learn how to spell. Read the work of other writers and ask yourself what does and doesn’t work, and how you’d do it differently.

Teaching other people to respect the process of writing starts with respecting it ourselves.

Critique Peeves (#1 in what will hopefully develop into a series)

I follow a writer and writing mentor on Twitter, K. M. Weiland (who is a lovely person and you should follow her, too). Every day, she posts a “writer’s question of the day.”  They can be anything from “What is the color of your antagonist’s hair?” to “What is the twist in your plot?” And unlike many writing exercises, I find them quite entertaining and helpful.

Today’s question was, “What do you find hardest when other writers critique your work?” I didn’t even have to think about it. The single hardest thing for me when other writers–or reviewers, or anyone, for that matter–critiques my work is getting a long-winded critique of the work that person thinks I should have written instead of the one I did, in fact, write. Now, you’d think it would be a non-issue. You read a book and remark on what’s there, right? Unfortunately for many people, in my experience, this is less obvious than it would seem.

It first happened to me about fifteen years ago. I sent a friend whom I trusted to be intelligent, with whom I had gone to school, the first five or six chapters of a fantasy novel I was working on at the time. My intent for the book was to explore how a certain noble family I had created for my world came to be wiped out, how their sole heir was raised in hiding and in ignorance of who she was, and how the discovery of her connection to her family’s doom led her to abandon the life she’d always known and become that world’s equivalent of a heroin addict. (It was called A Talent for Fire, and I never did finish it. I just didn’t have the skills at the time and then my interests led elsewhere.)

This was in the days before email was much of a thing (so it might have been more than fifteen years ago, okay). I sent her my pages and a couple weeks later got back a ten-page screed enumerating all the reasons why my entire premise was flawed, starting with, “the heir to such a prominent and powerful family could never have been raised in obscurity because political facti0ns would be struggling for control of the estates, blah, blah, blah, The Medicis.”

Excuse me? The heir to a powerful family could never have been raised in obscurity? Since when??? How many times in myth and folklore has this been just the case? King Arthur, anybody? And what the fuck did The Medicis have to do with my world, which I had created, where I made the rules?

I might point out that my friend had a fondness for long-winded novels full of Machiavellian political intrigue. She did not find this in my pages, so she proceeded to tell me how she would have written a novel. I wrote back and told her this, and furthermore reminded her that my book did not take place in this world, The Medicis did not appear anywhere in the world I had created, and I got to say what could happen and what couldn’t. Furthermore, she hadn’t actually addressed anything that did appear in the pages I had sent her.

Well, she was much chastened. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I have gone through the frustration of someone not truly considering the words I had put on the page, and not trusting me to know what story I was trying to tell. When The Unquiet Grave was in its early stages, I tried belonging to a critique group. Now, the central premise of The Unquiet Grave is the main character, a witch who has renounced using her powers, having to choose between taking them back to save her community–which would be harmful to her, personally–or remaining Mundane and saving herself. One of the people in the group gave me this feedback after chapter three: “We know she’s going to take her powers back, so why don’t you just make her have powers up front so we can move along.”

Because that’s the book, you moron!

I’ve gotten similar, um, mistaken suggestions in query workshops. People have asked my where the Dark Lord is, because all fantasy in all sub-genres OBVIOUSLY has to have a Dark Lord. “Shouldn’t leave that out of the query!” I’ve been told. I’ve heard that Caitlin Ross is a weak character because she is reluctant to make a decision that’s going eventually to destroy her and tries not to commit to it until the last minute. Personally, I call that a character arc, but whatever. I’ve been told I’m handling a certain demon wrong because “demons are evil.” Never mind that I’m operating in a system I created, which is not Judeo-Christian Standard. These negative experiences with people whom I’d think would know better has turned me into a virtual hermit, mistrustful of anyone I have not vetted through a series of rigorous aptitude tests (including a literary obstacle course). It makes me wonder about professional editors who are, I believe, swayed as much by current fashions in genre fiction as they are by the quality of any given work. (My friend, Stef, tells me I have “an adversarial attitude” toward the editing process but “that’s maybe not a surprise in a person with serious trust issues.”)

But people. Please. It’s NOT that hard. All you have to do is say what you see, rather than comment on what you feel is lacking. (Unless, you know, what you feel is lacking is a comprehensible plot.) What do you notice about the work? Come on, you have to notice something. Otherwise, you have no basis at all for saying, “This rocks” or “This sucks.”

Be as specific as possible. It’s okay to keep it simple; you’re giving useful feedback, not composing literary criticism. To a working writer, “I couldn’t tell your characters apart” is a lot more helpful than “the symbolic interactions of the window curtains and the night air had a deep meaning.” Also, keep it personal. We’re talking about what strikes you, not what some hypothetical future reader might think. Use your I-statements. Some examples: “I could really hear the dialog.” “I couldn’t visualize the setting.” “You use a lot of big words.” “You spend a lot of time talking about clothes.” “You described a character in depth and then he disappeared.” “I didn’t understand what was supposed to be happening here.” Now, use that as a starting point for your feedback. If you couldn’t tell the characters apart, you might say, “I’d like to see more individual physical habits” or “Does everyone have to be beautiful?” If the dialog didn’t work for you, you might say, “I don’t think people of that age talk like that.” If the action seems slow, try suggesting that the writer pick up the pace by adding more movement and gesture, or you might say “I think scene one should come after scene five.” Just address the work you’ve supposedly read, not some other thing that exists only in your mind.

Above all, remember you don’t own this. If you’re giving critique, especially to a work in progress, it’s not your business to force the book into the shape you wish it had. I always preface every critique with a disclaimer: “As always, this is your work and you are free to take or leave any of these suggestions. But this is what I see.” because, you know, we writers are an insecure lot and we’re almost always ready to fall all over the place trying to please everyone and get validation.

Okay. That’s my vent. As you were.