The Practice of Apology

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

How hard can it be?

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

wp-1487612498636.jpg

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

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

Thank you for reading this.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Save

Writing the Female Gaze

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

This interests me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Cover Reveal: The Well Below the Valley!

Those of you who follow the Caitlin Ross Adventures have been waiting a long time for the seventh book in the series, and I have news at last! As you may know, this was an exceedingly difficult book for me to write. Over the last two years, I’ve started and stopped many times, and discarded half a dozen potential plots and tens of thousands of words. Even after I stumbled on the right plot, I had to rewrite over and over to integrate all the various elements. Now I can tell you The Well Below the Valley will be released this coming August 2nd, which is, by strange coincidence, the date the book itself begins. Let’s see what it’s about.

Six months after the birth of her daughter, Caitlin Ross’s life is in a tailspin. Still suffering from what he endured at the hands of his former lover, her husband, Timber MacDuff, has drawn away. The gods have stopped speaking, except for vague hints in bad dreams. Unwilling to face reality, Caitlin goes about her daily routine as if nothing has changed while deep inside she longs for distraction.

When the county sheriff asks for help with a puzzling situation, Caitlin believes her prayers have been answered. A rancher has drowned in the middle of a desert, and the means appear supernatural. The case is right up Caitlin’s alley, but her interest pits her against Timber, who insists getting involved is too dangerous now that she’s a mother. Neither he nor Caitlin realizes a greater danger awaits. Strange events in Gordarosa have brought the area to the attention of a group known as Shade Tracers. Mundane mortals, they’ve taken it upon themselves to protect humanity from magic—with deadly force, if necessary. One holds Caitlin responsible for a personal tragedy, and will stop at nothing to see justice done.

Past and present converge in Caitlin’s darkest adventure yet. With her own life at stake, she must journey through time to uncover the truth behind the Shade Tracer’s obsession. Success could provide the key to solving the local mystery. Failure will doom her to a life on the run, forever hunted.

Artist Matt Davis* has outdone himself with the cover for this one. I know you’ll love it as much as I do. And here it is!

well002

In case that hasn’t got you excited enough, here’s a brief excerpt.

Just then, some odd flickers from the BLM land adjacent our property caught my eye. Shading my brow with my hand, I squinted into the distance. A flash. A beat, and then another. No regular rhythm. They seemed to originate from the low hill from which we often watched the moonrise.

Some kids dicking around with a mirror. BLM land was public property, and this section lay convenient to town. Bored local teens partied there. Timber and I combed the ground a couple of times a month, picking up the trash they left behind.

I bent to retrieve my basket. As I straightened, the light flashed again, this time with a distinctive quality hard to define. Less like a mirror. More like a flame. I’d just settled on the difference when something whizzed past my left ear, and a cluster of berries fell off the rowan tree at the center of the garden. A split second later, a sharp CRACK! rang through the air.

My jaw dropped. What the hell? I lifted my eyes from the rowan berries to the hilltop in time to see the light flash again. At the same time, panicked voice shouted not three feet behind me.

“Jesus Christ, Caitlin! Get DOWN!”

A heavy object struck my back, knocking me to the ground. My basket flew from my hand, spilling my harvest. I hit the earth with a shock that drove the wind from my lungs. An I lay there, cheek in damp soil, the intense, green scent of bruised tomato vines clogged my nose. A foot from my head, a pepper plant exploded. CRACK! Understanding washed over me, and I began to shake.

Someone was shooting at me.

Who’s shooting at Caitlin and why? And who may her mysterious savior be? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

*For more information on Matt Davis’s work, follow @GreyDevil13 on Twitter, or contact him at rockandhillstudio@gmail.com.

10 Novels that Informed my Paganism

Yesterday I stumbled across this post on Patheos. For those of my readers who don’t click links, it’s the first part of a list of 22 books that, according to the author, have influenced and defined Modern Paganism (Part 2 hasn’t been posted as of this writing). Having read all but one of the books included in this installment, I think it’s an interesting list so far. But it doesn’t resonate with me or my experience, so I decided to do a list of my own.

The following are books I discovered as a young reader (under the age of 25). Only one is specifically Pagan-centric. Mostly, they slip their Pagan themes into the margins and between sentences–in my opinion, a liminal space highly appropriate for such things–where they contribute to the way the authors constructed their worlds. It’s only later, reading as an adult Witch, that I look at what I absorbed, and laugh, and think, “Well, no wonder I turned out the way I did!” I recommend all of them highly, and I hope if you’re interested, you’ll check a few out, no matter what your religious bent.

In no particular order:

earthseaThe Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the first of LeGuin’s books I ever read. I loved Fantasy and Mythology from an exceptionally young age and eagerly consumed all I could get my hands on. Earthsea had everything: Magic, a school for Wizards, Dragons, and numerous quests. It hooked me from the first page.

From the very beginning, the trilogy serves up a substantial helping of philosophy along with its engaging plot. The magical system is all about balance; in fact, this site’s header, “To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow” is a direct quote. The wizards can’t simply do anything they like. Taking energy from one place removes it from another, and every act has consequences. The protagonist learns this to his sorrow when he works a spell out of ego and unleashes a horror. This was my first introduction to the concepts of Karma and the Shadow Self, as well as the idea that sometimes the better part of wisdom for people of power lies in acceptance rather than action. Another bonus is that the main races populating Earthsea are Black and Brown people, although this is rarely shown on the books’ covers and never, to my knowledge, in any of the film productions of the novels.

facesTill We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

My 8th grade English teacher recommended this book to me to keep me busy when everyone else was working on a grammar program I’d already finished. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, which has its reflection in many fairy tales, and it’s the first book I ever read that turned a familiar story inside out by telling it from a different point of view. In this case, the point of view is that of the usual antagonist, Orual, the ugly sister of the beautiful Psyche.

Till We Have Faces has a lot to say about the nature of the gods and the nature of knowledge and responsibility. It shows that everyone has a story and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard without flinching from the truth that individual stories can and do come into conflict. It also addresses the harm conventional ideas about beauty does to women, the tragedy that can result when people treat others as possessions, and the need to open one’s heart to both love and grief in order to gain true wisdom.

ExcaliburExcalibur by Sanders Ann Laubenthal

I read this book about the same time I read the previous two. It’s a marvelous adaptation of the Grail Quest to contemporary Mobile, Alabama, which contains elements of Gothic novels as well as Fantasy. Working with both the historical idea that Iron Age Welshmen “discovered” the New World and concepts of reincarnation, it reexamines the definitions of betrayal and redemption. It also has a large number of kick-ass woman characters, which was quite unusual for a book of its time. One of them is an eccentric aunt who lives in a castle and wears medieval garb on a daily basis because she feels like it. I wanted to be her.

This is the first book I read where active magic and Tarot cards played a major role, and I can say without a doubt that it led to my becoming a Tarot reader.

princessThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was one of the predecessors of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who was once driven out of his kirk for heretical ideas–or so the story goes. His original fairy tales are some of my favorites. This children’s book starts out in a familiar way with a naughty princess climbing a mysterious stairway, and proceeds immediately to turn every story of the type on its head. Princess Irene meets her “grandmother,” a virtually immortal woman who, with her spinning wheel and “moon lamp,” as well as a tendency to be young or old as it suits her, is a clear stand-in for the Triple Goddess. She sets Irene on a quest which will have repercussions for everyone around her and end a threat no one will talk about.

I love this book because it makes an eight-year-old girl the hero of her own story and shows that girls are brave, steadfast, and capable in their own right. Irene doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued; she gets dirty and does the work even when the people around her don’t believe in her.

curdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

I didn’t initially like this book as much as I liked its predecessor, but I found a beautifully illustrated edition in the library book sale and read it for the pictures. It follows about a year after The Princess and the Goblin, and concerns the further adventures of Irene’s companion, the miner boy Curdie. At the beginning, things don’t look so good for him, but an encounter with the Crone in the guise of Irene’s grandmother teaches him the value of believing the impossible, and the task she sets him shows that scratching the surface of reality always reveals a deeper truth. More of a Hero’s Journey than its companion, The Princess and Curdie still features an array of important woman characters from all walks of life.

horseThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is better known for her adult Gothic Romances than her children’s books, of which this is one. Set in Edwardian times, this is the story of the orphaned Maria, who’s sent to live with her eccentric uncle in a mysterious, cursed manor. Before long, she sets herself to the task of righting past wrongs and settling old grievances.

The Little White Horse features a host of amazing characters both human and animal, as well as a plot full of puzzles and magic. It’s gender balanced, with a thirteen-year-old female protagonist and many supporting woman characters. One of the things I like best about it is that, although there is a prophecy involved, Maria grasps her fate with both hands. She does what she does because it’s the right thing and because she wants to, out of love, not to fulfill some cosmic destiny.

valeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians shares a lot of themes with The Little White Horse, but it’s geared towards a younger audience. Once again we see the young protagonists–four brothers and sisters this time–abandon the conventional for the magical in the form of an eccentric uncle in a manor house with an equally eccentric staff. And once again, there’s an old wrong to be righted and dark magic to confront.

Both this book and the previous show how getting away from societal norms and opening the mind to magical thinking, as well as connecting with nature, can lead to changes no one ever expected. They do share a flaw, which is the trope of the “magical disabled person,” so if you read them or recommend them to children, this is something you might want to bear in mind. Since they were written in the 40s, I don’t mind it as much as I might in a contemporary work.

moonheartMoonheart by Charles DeLint

This is the breakout novel from the virtual inventor of Urban Fantasy. There are books of his that I like better, with themes that resonate more closely, but this was the first DeLint I read. Set in contemporary Canada, it explores the way lives are connected over time and the consequences of unintended action. It’s chock full of both Celtic and Native American mythology. (The latter is a bit appropriative by today’s standards, unfortunately.) One of the things that I love about it is the way it shows music and other acts of creation as magical in and of themselves. Most of the characters don’t have any special powers; they’re just ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Along the way, they learn banding together and supporting each other is the best way to create the world they want to live in.

the king must dieThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

This retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of my favorite books of all time. Mary Renault was exceptionally skilled at tackling old stories from a sideways slant that both made logical sense and gave them new life. Here, she’s infused the Hero’s Journey with humanity and perspective to explore the nature of sacrifice and the power of consent.

One of the things that makes this book important from a Witchy perspective is the way it deals with the conflict between Matriarchal, earth-centered traditions and Patriarchal ones, showing the flaws in both systems. You can root for the hero at the same time as you cringe at some of his decisions. It teaches the importance of valuing people of all genders for themselves and not dismissing the identity of any.

avalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Since the revelations of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a perpetrator of and apologist for child sexual abuse, this book has become a controversial inclusion in any list. It’s still the book most responsible for my identifying as Pagan and claiming the word Witch. To my memory, it was the very first novel that took a male-centered mythology, in this case the Matter of Britain, and retold it from the points of view of the women involved. It was the very first book I read that came out and said “God is a woman, too, and women can be powerful in matters of religion.” In the mid-eighties, if you asked a Pagan how they came to the path, The Mists of Avalon was almost always one of the deciding factors.  Bradley herself later dismissed Paganism as hypocritical for various reasons–e.g., she thought a “fertility religion” had no business taking a pro-choice stance. But there’s no doubt she wrote a powerful paean to woman-centered spirituality here.

That’s my list. I hope you’ll check out some of the titles. Happy reading!

 

What I Learned from a Big Bookstore

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Grand Junction on errands. This is a thing we do from time to time, because we live in a small town where certain goods and services aren’t available. When we first moved here, we went “to town” at least once a month. As the years have gone by, however, we’ve become more small-townish ourselves, and the trips are much less frequent. Our tolerance for THE BIG CITY (population 60,000, more or less) has also dwindled, with the result that when we do go, we’re apt to accomplish a few of the things on our to-do list, get overwhelmed, and give up. So some of the things we used to do for recreation have fallen by the wayside.

One of the things we used to do was visit Barnes and Noble. As of last weekend, we hadn’t set foot inside in years. It was always a dicey proposition for me. I love books– considering my chosen profession, I’d better. But when I was first struggling with writing and publishing and all the self-doubt those incurred, seeing the shelves loaded with titles by authors who WEREN’T ME often caused me more anger and anxiety than anything else. Lots of reasons for this that I won’t go into here.

I’ve been in a “not-reading” phase since the beginning of the year. Most years, I read upwards of 100 books. Since January, though, I’ve had a hard time maintaining interest in anything. I read a few pages or a few chapters, and go back to Twitter. Even books I can tell are good don’t hook me. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe the endless lure of Internet click-bait, available at the merest touch of my phone, is to blame. But it bothers me. I feel like I should be reading more. So, while we were in town, I suggested we go to Barnes and Noble, figuring that being surrounded by books might inspire me. I might stumble upon some gem of the written word that would make me want to read again.

At first, I felt hopeful. When I walked in the doors, it smelled like a bookstore: that mixture of paper, dust, and imagination no other shop can imitate. After a brief cruise through non-fiction and a stop at the restroom, I headed for the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, my natural home. And that’s when I noticed the changes.

I’m kicking myself for not taking pictures to illustrate this post. Initially, I didn’t have any intention of writing about the experience. By the time I did, I was so overwhelmed that I forgot I owned a body, much less a camera.

I couldn’t find SF/F at first, because it had shrunk from seven full rows of shelves to three, one of them dedicated to new releases. This disturbed me A LOT. Following the writers and agents I do on line, I’d seen certain types of Science Fiction and Fantasy described as “tough sells,” but I hadn’t imagined the entire genre had gone into collapse. When I started looking at the shelves, I got even more of a shock. A great many people whom I consider masters of the genre–Charles De Lint, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, Diana Paxson, and others–didn’t appear at all. I didn’t even see any Heinlein or Asimov. Yet I didn’t see an overabundance of new names, either. Rather, the bulk of the shelf space was devoted to a few authors with high name recognition, usually from popular culture tie-ins or cross-media presence (i.e., writers of both comics and “word books”**). I’d already noticed that store offered a LOT more than it had in the way of games, toys, and collectibles, but they were doing a pop culture promotion so I figured that was why. Checking out the shelves changed my mind.

75% of the books on offer in SF/F were by men. I caught a few well-known women’s names–Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, a mouldy volume of Melanie Rawn. All the women represented were writers of Fantasy. I happen to know women both read and write Science Fiction, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t seem to share this knowledge, or recognize its importance. Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all authors of multi-volume series, were featured. In fact, they took up three whole shelves. This was the most presence given to women authors, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Paranormal and Paranormal Romance didn’t exist as genres the last time I set foot in the store. Harris and Hamilton used to be shelved in Mystery. They didn’t belong there, not really. But in my opinion, they don’t quite belong in Fantasy, either. Paranormal has a different flavor than either High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy, and I think it needs its own section.

Beyond this, I spotted another bothersome trend: Multiple editions of the same few titles. Particularly for titles with astronomical sales, it was usual to find two or three different trade editions as well as a mass market edition, and sometimes a hardcover. Many of these titles were shelved facing cover-outward, instead of spine-outward, which would have taken less space. George R. R. Martin’s books consumed more than an entire section of shelving in this fashion. I’m a Martin fan, myself, but how many editions of A Song of Ice and Fire does a person need? Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time received similar treatment, as did Tolkien. So did several straight Science Fiction authors, Larry Correa among them.

The multiple edition trend carried over into the Fiction and Literature section, where a large proportion of books offered a movie tie-in cover edition, a “classic” look edition, and something I can only describe as a “pretentious hipster” edition, meaning a book that will look cool when you read it at the coffee shop. I don’t like this trend. Showcasing multiple editions made me wonder how many lesser-known but deserving authors are passed over in the name of assuring space for so many different covers and trim sizes of bestsellers. The thing is, casual readers already KNOW about bestsellers. They’ve heard the buzz or they’ve seen the movie. These are books that people will ask for BY NAME. If they’re browsing, it’s likely they’ll know where to look. The same doesn’t hold true for lesser-known titles and what used to be called mid-list authors. Once you could stumble on them, hidden gems in a bestseller setting. Now bestsellers, instead of supporting new and different voices, hog all the space and there’s no mid list at all.

Fiction and Literature did have a fair share of woman authors, though. On the other hand, some genres that once had their own sections, such as Thriller and Horror, were now lumped into Fiction and Literature with nothing to distinguish them, so Stephen King appeared alongside Barbara Kingsolver and both shared the section with Jane Austen and T. H. White. This makes for a confusing browsing experience, and it also emphasizes how arbitrary a lot of genre distinctions have come to be, with authors mashing up elements like Time Travel and Romance or Procedural and History. Personally I think these mash-ups are great, by the way. And I understand the complications of figuring out where to put them without resorting to an infinite number of genre sections. However, I think it would be more helpful to the casual shopper at least to differentiate between Contemporary Fiction and Classic.

Some other things I noticed: Mystery has shrunk and Folklore and Fairy Tales has disappeared. Romance still has a substantial section, and contained the largest number of woman authors. (On the other hand, I have to wonder why Nicholas Sparks novels were shelved in Fiction and Literature when I found Jodi Picoult in Romance. Do you suppose it’s indicative of anything?) Graphic novels gained a section, as did books devote to Gaming, and there was a huge selection of Manga that didn’t exist before, almost as big as Mystery and SF/F combined. Joining the ranks of things non-existent at my last visit was a YA section very nearly as big as Fiction and Literature. Once upon a time, the few YA books available were located in the Children’s section. In this case, I was glad of the change.

I noticed topical and thematic trends as well as genre. Witches are big, both in Fantasy and YA. As a religious Witch, I have a hard time with this one. While some Witchy fiction gives a nod to difference in world view, most of it focuses on the light show (Paranormal does somewhat better here). Faeries and Fae-like beings are also big, and I also have difficulty with it. I admit to my attitude being the result of arrogance; I’m an amateur folklorist and I’ve studied Faerie lore most of my life. I also believe in the Fae. So seeing them portrayed as the latest incarnation of Elves, with little, if any, attention paid to the stories both disgusts me and strikes me as rather dangerous. In fact, I picked up a novel I’d seen people on Twitter raving about and put it down immediately when I read the back cover’s description of the Faeries involved. While I’m at it, I love “fairy tale” retellings. But really, how many interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” does one need? (No offense to friends who have published retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.”)

Except in already popular series, vampires and shifters have fallen off, as has dystopia–though the YA section still had plenty of the latter.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I noticed while I wandered the stacks was the absence of authors of color. I did see a few, like Laura Esquivel, in Fiction and Literature, where Like Water for Chocolate made a bizarre appearance on the New Titles shelf. But in YA, in SF/F, in Mystery and Romance, ALL the authors were white. No N. K Jemisin, who has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards. No Octavia Butler, who is widely recognized as one of the Grande Dames of Science Fiction. No Samuel R. Delaney. From the books available, one would suppose that no People of Color ever become detectives, or have love affairs, or dream of space travel or becoming wizards. It’s unconscionable.

This is the point where I lost it and had to retreat to Starbucks for a restorative latte and croissant. The small section of the store roped off for coffee addicts was surrounded with racks displaying still more mass market copies of A Game of Thrones and a table covered with various editions of Go Tell a Watchman. Looking at Harper Lee’s novel, I thought about how unlikely it would be, in today’s publishing climate, for To Kill a Mockingbird ever to have been written. As you may have read, the classic grew out of a few pages of flashback in Watchman. A kindly editor to whom Lee had submitted the earlier work told her the real story was in that flashback and she should “rewrite” the book and resubmit. Would this happen today? I think not. People do still get R & R (rewrite and resubmit) recommendations, mainly from agents. But I have to wonder if something requiring so substantial a rewrite would ever get farther than a form rejection.

Incidentally, if I’m wrong, I’d like to hear about it (please keep it civil). From where I sit, it looks like publishing today mainly exploits trends until they no longer sell and then moves on in search of the next big thing. Wish lists for manuscripts ask for things that are different, but not TOO different, paying lip service to the desire for diverse voices while not challenging the status quo in any remarkable way. Editors in the big houses often come and go; few have the leisure to nurture potential. Books are a market, a commodity, and authors lie thick on the ground. I hear all the time, “we WANT to like your work!” But mostly this seems to me like a polite way of saying “we want to find out that your work fits into a particular, salable niche.”

As disturbing as I found my Barnes and Noble visit, I learned something important from it: I’m glad I chose to self-publish and I’m grateful for the technology that has allowed me to do so. Sometimes, when I see contacts and acquaintances posting about signing with agents or being picked up by a traditional publisher, I am envious and regretful. I wonder all the things self-published authors wonder (many of them, anyway): Was I just too impatient? Too resistant to learning the ropes? Too cantankerous? Is my work itself flawed? Do I write less well than I like to believe? And if I answer these questions in the negative, am I lying to myself?

I believe not. I believe that really, I’m too idiosyncratic a writer, with too different a world view–not to mention life experience–for the traditional publishing world to make sense for me. I might have been able to hook an agent; once I figured out how to write queries and synopses and all the rest, I got requests on a regular basis. I might even have been picked up. But if my bookstore experience is any indication, even IF those things had happened, I would have been unlikely to find my work on the shelves at a major retailer.

I absolutely don’t dismiss out of hand the value of traditional publishing. Truth is, once I get through the current Caitlin Ross book, I’m going to excuse myself from that world for a while and work on some things that I think will do better in a traditional market, because that interests me. There are a lot of advantages to it, and it works for many writers. Even so, it seems clear to me that, despite its problems, self-publishing is home to most of the innovation in the field and gives a greater welcome to diversity. That’s important to me, so I’m glad that’s where I ended up.

**”word books” coined by Greta Ladson

Trope Talk

What’s a Trope?

If you work in a creative field, particularly one which involves storytelling–literature or film, for example–you probably know what a trope is. If you don’t work in a creative field, you may not, but you’re about to find out. To put it simply, tropes are shortcuts. A trope uses a familiar collection of concepts, images, and/or traits (among other things), to give the audience a snapshot of a character, theme, or plot, so the artist doesn’t have to explain every single detail of their artwork every single time. It’s like a macro for your story. Some familiar tropes are “The Poor Little Rich Boy,” “The Wise Advisor,” “The Helpful Old Fart,” and “The Underprivileged Person Who Possesses Insight The Rest Of The Characters Don’t.” (If you want to fall into the world of tropes, Look Here.)

Tropes can be as simple as “Superhero” or “Secret Agent,” of they can be as complicated as “Mysterious Orphan Raised By Wolves Who Holds The Key To Saving The World.” Generally speaking, a simple trope gives an artist more leeway for creativity, while a complicated trope gives the audience a better “in” to the character or plot device. A “dystopia” (genre is a kind of trope) might take any number of shapes. A “Post-Nuclear Apocalypse Where Survivors Must Fight The Earth And Each Other” is more limited. Tropes can contain or require other tropes. For example, the post-nuclear apocalypse I mentioned above might need a “Plucky Yet Confused Teenaged Heroine Who Takes No Shit.” As well, some tropes are subsets of other tropes. Your “Wise Advisor” might be a “Helpful Old Fart” or a “Dangerous Yet Likeable Pain In The Ass.”

In a way, all stories are collections of tropes compiled in different numbers and orders. This can be an advantage to both creators and their audience. Once you employ a trope, you have a code for how to proceed with your work, and that makes the work easier. Once the audience recognizes a trope, they can put aside the task of figuring out that piece and turn more attention to less familiar aspects of the artwork.

Beauty and the Beast is a popular recurring trope. Image via deviantArt.
Beauty and the Beast is a popular recurring trope. Image via deviantArt.
The Problem

The obvious problem with tropes is that they can all too easily become clichés. It’s exceedingly hard to put an original spin on something like “The Chosen One” or “The Dark Lord,” both tropes that appear often in Epic Fantasy. This isn’t to say it can’t be done. But as a creator, it’s easy to relax into the trope and follow where it leads, without giving due thought to an original interpretation. You can often tell a creator’s experience level by the number of overused tropes they cram into a single work. A new writer is much more likely to use tropes in this way. So, in an Epic Fantasy, you might get the elf analogue (pointy-eared forest dweller who is nearly immortal), the halfling analogue, the shield maiden, the hidden king, the inaccessible wizard, the humorous sidekick, and the ancient prophecy in addition to the Chosen One and the Dark Lord. If you don’t pay attention to your own process and mix it up or add new elements, the work becomes dull. You’re telling a story that’s been told umpteen times before, probably better.

Another, less obvious, problem with tropes is that the tropes you use in your project reflect your worldview. If you come from a dominant segment of society or a privileged class, your tropes will reflect those societal norms and/or that social privilege. Currently (meaning in the early half of the twenty-first century), especially in the United States, the culture of creation is dominated by people possessing a certain amount of privilege: financially stable, heterosexual, white men in particular, with women of similar advantage running a distant second. Consequently, the tropes in our fiction overwhelmingly represent that worldview and the voices of minorities of all kinds are minimized.

Many socially advantaged creators do make an effort to include more diverse voices, true. And there’s a different problem inherent in this task. It results, once again, from falling back on tropes. Often the minority characters who make it into fiction aren’t realistic to actual members of the minority, and can even be offensive, because creators of privilege don’t take the time to do research or put the effort into learning about unfamiliar thought forms and cultures. So, over and over again, we see the “Magical Negro,” the “Noble Savage,” the “Disturbed Transsexual,” and the “Psychopathic Nympho” (to name a few). It’s a nod to “diversity,” but it only serves to reinforce ideas of minority held by the dominant culture. Hell, I’ve done it myself. I love my book, The Parting Glass, for a lot of reasons. I still cringe every time I think about it. At the time, I was pleased at how easy it was to write. Now when I look at it, I see how much of that ease came from my use of tropes, and how I presented the minority characters as near stereotypes. I have the “sassy black girlfriend,” the “alcoholic Native American” who becomes the “sadder but wiser Native guide.” I even have the “white guy who does Native shit better than the Natives.” FML. It doesn’t matter that I’ve known people like those people and based those characters on real life figures. I should have paid better attention when I was writing, and I didn’t.

A third, related problem is that when you buy into a trope without examining it, either as creator or audience, you run the risk of both normalizing and perpetuating some really problematic stuff. Take the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (this entire article was inspired by a discussion of FSoG, in case you wanted to know). The success of this series, in my opinion, stems from the author adding a veneer of sexual naughtiness to a bunch of standard Romance tropes. On top of “Beauty and the Beast,” you have the “poor little rich boy,” the “naive virgin inducted into pleasures of the flesh,” the “damaged hero who needs saving,” the “will they/won’t they” and the “he desires her in spite of difficulties” tropes, as well as many others that have honest appeal to many, many (women) people. It’s easy–and yes, I admit to reading the whole series–to identify with Ana, the heroine. I mean, who DOESN’T want a rich, attractive person to desire them just for being themselves, without having to devote any effort to it? I’d have trouble not letting something like that turn my head. But in FSoG, these tropes are employed without thought. In consequence, behaviours that would be obviously abusive and terrifying in real life are easily told off as “He just loves her SO MUCH!” Coercion, stalking, and downright rape are transformed from crimes into romance.

Anderson's "Little Match Girl" is an "Miserable Orphan Gains Paradise" trope. Image by imperioli.
Anderson’s “Little Match Girl” is an “Miserable Orphan Gains Paradise” trope. Image by imperioli.
What To Do About It

The best thing a creator can to do avoid poor trope use, clichés, and stereotypes is to PAY ATTENTION. Make yourself aware of the tropes you’re using and if they’re dicey, change them. Don’t kill off that Black security guard in act one; instead, try turning him into the unexpected hero. If you’re trying to add diversity by including minority cultures, talk to actual members of the minority. Enlist them to read your manuscript and point out problems, if you can. If they do point out problems, try not to get defensive and justify your trope use. Look at how you can change things.

There is definitely some risk inherent in this process. I see it in my own experience as an Independent Author writing from a Pagan perspective. When you intentionally subvert tropes, you lose the advantage of the shortcut. Your audience might react by judging your work inaccessible. If you’re looking for an “in” to traditional avenues of distribution (e.g., querying agents), you might discover you are less able to find a “fit” for your manuscript. Coming up with a succinct pitch, like “Puss in Boots retelling complicated by romance between the cat and her master,” will almost certainly prove difficult. On the other hand, you give yourself a unique opportunity to tell stories that haven’t been told and develop characters that haven’t been seen before. And this may help you reach a whole new audience.

When I started writing the Caitlin Ross series, I made a couple of decisions about the tropes I would use. First and foremost, I wanted to present a happily (for the most part) married couple who practiced healthy communication. I did this for a number of reasons: I didn’t want to write a romance, I despise plots that hinge on miscommunication, and, most of all, I wanted to show that the kind of relationship Caitlin and Timber have is possible and desirable. In other words, I wanted to subvert the standard relationship trope where the people involved bring all their baggage into the arena, don’t listen, and don’t really seem to understand each other beyond experiencing sexual chemistry. I wanted to defy myths about marriage being the place where desire goes to die. In Timber, I wanted to show a man who can be communicative, passionate, caring, strong, and vulnerable–the kind of man I’d like more men to learn how to be, and the kind of man I wish more women would demand men be. I believe as a woman writer I have a great opportunity to communicate to the world what a healthy relationship looks like. So that’s what I did. And maybe it lost me some readers who are more familiar with and interested in the tension that comes from misunderstanding. On the other hand, almost every reader who has contacted me has mentioned how much they appreciate Caitlin and Timber’s partnership. I’ve even heard from  women who, after reading a couple of my books, began to work on getting more of what they want in their own marriages. I count this a success.

In the end, tropes are a tool in the creator’s toolbox. Like any tool, they can turn in your hand and cut you if you’re not careful or lack experience. But when you learn to use them, you can craft reality to suit your vision. And that’s no mean skill.