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Author of queer, quirky sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

A Loaf of Bread: on Imperfections

Hello hello!

So, my father's been visiting this week. As those who follow my blog and Facebook may know, my familial relationships are somewhat complex and...perhaps the word 'fraught' is applicable. Still, things have gone pretty well. On the weekend, I was eager to show off my baking skills, which now include yeast bread. I don't have a stand mixer and do everything by hand, so as other bakers and cooks will know, this is a bit of an achievement.


Bread (and creative pursuits) are hard 


Bread is easy to mess up. It has to be kneaded the right way, left to rise, the water has to be the right temperature, and people across the internet have pretty fierce debates about when to add the salt for the sake of the gluten structure. Some people recommend a drier dough; some, a wetter dough. Different climates, elevations, and water types affect the taste of the bread. As a friend who went through culinary school explained it, bread made in a particular city will never taste quite the same as bread made elsewhere because of the makeup of the atmosphere. The point is, there's an art to it, not just the science of combining ingredients in a particular order.

While my father walked around the lake to make sure he could handle the carbs, and complimented the taste, he was also quick to look up the science of making bread. He immediately started looking at various ways to make absolutely optimal bread - using a stand mixer, of course, not tearing the dough as it's kneaded, the way to proof yeast, the chemical process of autolysing - and started quizzing me about whether I'd measured everything out to the gram or used volume measures.

I felt quite embarrassed and explained that I wasn't striving for perfection--just a good, edible loaf of bread. Food tastes different depending on whether the cook had their heart in it that day or was doing things perfunctorily. Something doesn't have to be perfect to be enjoyable for what it was. I explained, too, that I'm a relative novice - this is my third loaf of yeast bread ever, which is really not much - and that, as with knitting, one must do garter stitch, then stockinette, then lace stitches. I have to master a simple version of a thing before I start doing it more precisely and better.

My father, seemingly not understanding this, challenged me to a bread-making competition for the next time he visits. Although I laughed at the time, I felt disquieted later. The thing is, he proudly says that he can't cook but can follow a recipe, and that's very applicable to the arts. A paint by numbers kit is perfectly acceptable, but to create something new, diversions from a formula must occur, or will happen inevitably. For writing, bad or mediocre stories precede adequate, good, and excellent ones. And even then, writing is kind of hard.

I spent a long time not even attempting to make yeast breads because they're so difficult and technically challenging. Then I tried a breadmaker and ended up with some bricks. Eventually, I got up the courage to use a conventional oven and start attempting loaves. I'm definitely better at writing than I am at making bread, but that's okay.

At some point, reading about a thing can just be intimidating and make one self-conscious about imperfections. It's easier to criticize than to do, let alone to do well, and even the best art can never be utterly perfect from every single perspective. People are different, and what satisfies one person will leave another hungry and bring another jubilation.

How do you know it's good enough?


There's an anecdote I heard about Tennessee Williams; a friend of his found him sitting at his typewriter, editing a story that had already been accepted for publication. Williams shrugged off his friend's incredulity, saying the story wasn't done.

For my own part, I'm currently re-editing And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories for re-release. I have a lot more bread to make and a lot more projects to knit, and many more books to write and edit. And none of these things will be perfect, but they're part of a process. Finally, at least they may satisfy some people in the moment, and when I release them, they will represent the best efforts I could offer at the time.

Here's the other thing, though - hindsight is a luxury borne of experience. It's easy to say "this ought to have been done a certain way", but that comes about after circumstances have changed. Maybe I shouldn't have torn my dough, maybe I should have left that character alive, but even having that alternative perspective only has come about because a decision was made. It's too easy to beat oneself up and focus on the past rather than using that experience and acquired knowledge to improve the future.

At the end of the day, the best one can do, even if it's imperfect, is better than an ideal creation that never enters the world. I know what the perfect loaf of bread would taste, feel, and smell like, and I can imagine it, but my learner's efforts and the slow process of attempting garlic olive oil bread and brioches will yield more goodness than a hundred dreams of snow-white loaves ever could. After all, as any poor person could tell you, dreams may be enticing, but they leave one's belly empty.

What do you regret? What would you change, and what have you learned from creative failures? Let me know in the comments.


***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

It's Okay to be a Lady (Or Gentleman, or Gentleperson): Why I Swear Less

Hello hello!

So, it's no secret that I phuquing love profanity. I cuss on Facebook and Twitter, and quite a few four-letter words find their way into my blog posts as well. But even so, and especially in conversation, I've been trying to swear less. Now, I'm not saying anyone HAS to follow my example, but it wouldn't kill anyone, either. Obviously, this post will involve a lot of profanity. If you're not crazy about that sort of thing, you've been warned, but consider giving this one a read anyway.


Why swear in the first place?


It can have analgesic effects for injuries, it's fun, it's emphatic, and it has a long and storied history. One of the first things I do when learning a new language is--and this is a hundred percent true--learn to swear in it. Learning to swear in Spanish helped the language stick, and actually taught me about some cultural values, as well as linguistic diversity within the Spanish-speaking world. (For instance, "pinche" is a cuss word in Mexico but means "bobby pin" elsewhere. There are many examples of this).

Swears represent cultural values and taboos, and have a lot of anthropological value. You can trace a culture's evolution through the swear words it's created and discarded (link). I love them, I love the way they sound, and I love what they express. But...

Swear words have power.


Because they're taboos, when injected into conversation, they really snap people to attention. Sure, our era's pretty lax about swearing, but it still gets banned and bleeped. It's kind of exciting to hear someone swear because they are breaking a cultural rule. Even the little cuss words, like "damn" and "Hell" are moderated in their use, and I really enjoy hearing them.

But pwer can be abused, and these words lose their zap and sing if they pass too much into common vocabulary. That said, new cusses, like "fuckboy" and "cuck" have arisen. "Douchebag" is another relatively recent invention; I first heard it used as an insult in tenth grade (yes, I remember the exact moment) when arguing with a girl named Holly in English class. We both came away from the argument with a sense of mutual respect for the other's wit, by the way, which was pretty cool.

Still, these words can also be very hurtful when directed at someone else, so there's a reason we try to teach kids to use them judiciously. I did grow up listening to one of my parents swear a lot, angrily, and hurtfully, so it took a long time for me to learn that swearing could be fun and even innocent.

Swearing less makes it more fun when you do swear.


I guess this is my biggest argument for reducing the rate of cussin'. I love it, so I wanted to feel that old thrill again. Swear words have a connection with sublimated violence, and sometimes I just don't feel like being violent in my thoughts or conversations. Plus, searching for alternatives can be fun, and a bit goofy. It doesn't hurt to revive archaic words and even archaic substitutes, because language is fun.

Final thoughts?


Swearing can be great. It can be hurtful as well. It can be transgressive. But making it a staple of conversation makes it less fun. Eating candy all day, every day would be fun for the first couple of hours, but eventually the inevitable sugar-sickness sets in and one wonders why they gorged on gummy candy in the first place, Disarcade. So, keep swearing, and try to be as creative as you can with it. Words can cut like knives, as long as you turn them on, say, vegetables in the kitchen rather than your friends, everybody wins.

Also, fuck onions for being so hard to cut. Why do they have to be round?

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Surprise Announcement: Flight Anthology is Out!



Hello hello! So, today I have a simple announcement for a book in which I participated!

Here's the basic rundown.

Blurb


A 300-word story should be easy, right? Many of our entrants say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever written.

Queer Sci Fi's Annual Flash Fiction Contest challenges authors to write a complete LGBTQ speculative fiction micro-story on a specific theme. "Flight" leaves much for the authors to interpret—winged creatures, flight and space vehicles, or fleeing from dire circumstances.

Some astonishing stories were submitted—from horrific, bloodcurdling pieces to sweet, contemplative ones—and all LGBTQ speculative fiction. The stories in this anthology include AI’s and angels, winged lions and wayward aliens. Smart, snappy slice of life pieces written for entertainment or for social commentary. Join us for brief and often surprising trips into 110 speculative fiction authors’ minds.


Excerpt


Smoke, by Zev de Valera


He rubbed his temples and squinted at the soft light of his surroundings through the fans of his thick eyelashes. The last drink had been a mistake.
Was that a shaker he'd felt, or the onset of a hangover?
He clutched a silken pillow and waited.
Suddenly, he felt his home tremble; a few pieces of glass and ceramic ware teetered and then fell to their demise.
Shit. This is the real thing.
With an effort, he hauled himself from his bed.
How many years had it been since the last one?
Sixty? Seventy?
The shaking ceased, and he looked around his small dwelling.
A model unit when he'd purchased it. Now filled with the result of years of collecting: a gramophone, a first generation television set, a water clock. And much more. All of it all had sentimental value—as did the photos of the various men that sat atop or alongside the items in his collection. Some of these men had loved him. All of them had once owned him. Now he owned their memories. That was the bargain.
Another shake. Followed by several unnerving tilts. He willed his cherished possessions to remain in place and willed himself into sobriety and a more becoming appearance as he prepared himself for work.
What to wear?
He selected a red brocade tunic and pants. A classic look always worked best for the initial consultation.
A resounding thud.
He peered up into the small shaftway at the center of the ceiling.
A pop.
Then a small circle of light at the end of the shaft.
He sighed, folded his arms, and transformed into a cloud of red smoke.
Up and away to meet his new master.

Judge's Choice — J. Scott Coatsworth


Buy Links and basic info


Publisher: Mischief Corner Books
Author: Various
Cover & Illustrations Artist: Mila May
Length: 33.6 K
Format: ebook, print
Release Date: General release 9/21/16
Pairing: LGBTIQA
Price: $4.99 eBook, $12.99 print b/w*, $24.99 print color*

*Book contains 5 illustrations inside.

Publisher (info only, no buy link yet)
Amazon 
ARe
Goodreads
Kobo 
Goodreads Series Page
Barnes & Noble: Coming soon
Apple: Coming soon
Smashwords: Coming soon

Author Bio:
In the first year of the Queer Sci Fi Flash Fiction contest, we received about 15 entries for the theme “Endings”. In the second year, it was 115 for “Discovery”.
This year, we had more than 170 entries from people around the world, and from all parts of the LGBTIQA rainbow. “Flight” represents 110 of those people and their stories.

The authors:
Colton Aalto
Kiterie Aine
Odin Alexander
John Allenson
Tam Ames
R.R. Angell
Bran Lindy Ayres
Jeff Baker
Jessica Bansbach
J.P. Barnaby
Capri S. Bard
Jonah Bergen
Michael J. Bode
L.M. Brown
Marie Brown
Michelle Browne
'Nathan Burgoine
Iona Burnfield
A.M. Burns
Katelyn Cameron
Hank T. Cannon
Foster Bridget Cassidy
Skylar M. Cates
H.J. Chacon
M.A. Church
Rebecca Cohen
S.A. Collins
J. Comer
Ross Common
Elliot Cooper
Gretchen Crane
Jase Daniels
Claire Davis and Al Stewart
Avery Dawes
Zev de Valera
Bey Deckard
Jana Denardo
Nicole Dennis
Kellie Doherty
Jude Dunn
Tray Ellis
Rhi Etzweiler
Thursday Euclid
K.C. Faelan
Christina Mary Francis
L.E. Franks
J.R. Frontera
Liz Fury
Elizabella Gold
Ofelia Gränd
S.E. Greer
M.D. Grimm
Jenna Hale
Kaje Harper
Qaida Harte
Saxon Hawke
Kelly Haworth
Cheryl Headford
Valentina Heart
Jaylee James
Jambrea Jo Jones
Michael M. Jones
Ryvr Jones
Ellery Jude
Jon Keys
K-lee Klein
Jennifer Lavoie
A.M. Leibowitz
Mario K. Lipinski
L.V. Lloyd
Clare London
Meraki P. Lyhne
Lloyd A. Meeker
Eloreen Moon
John Moralee
Christopher Hawthorne Moss
E.W. Murks
Rory Ni Coiliean
Jackie Nacht
Thea Nishimori
Bealevon Nolan
Alicia Nordwell
Mathew Ortiz
Nina Packebush
Donald Qualls
Kirby Quinlan
Mann Ramblings
Loren Rhoads
Jojo Saunders
Brent D. Seth
L.M. Somerton
Rin Sparrow
Andrea Speed
Paul Stevens
Ginger Streusel
Jerome Stueart
Julia Talbot
Jo Tannah
Natsuya Uesugi
T. Allen Walton
A.T. Weaver
Missy Welsh
Eric Alan Westfall
Brandon Witt
Alexis Woods
Christine Wright
P.T. Wyant
Victoria Zagar

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Fat in Fiction: A Chubby Lady's Critique

Hello, hello!

I'm going to stick a content warning on this post for body issues and descriptions of fatphobia; if that kind of thing is triggering for you, you might want to skip this one. I'll be focusing on the policing of white women's bodies and fatness, because it's what I know most about, and the issue of weight affects black women and Asian women differently. I also just don't have enough information to speak with authority on issues that women and people of colour face regarding their weight, so please keep those areas of my ignorance in mind.

This post is one I've been thinking over for a very long time. Its genesis came from an oft-lauded and shared J.K. Rowling quote:


Source.

Lovely words, aren't they? Shame it's complete bullshit. Rowling has been all too happy to endow unattractive, weak, or antagonistic characters with the trait of flabbiness. Neville Longbottom and Professor Slughorn are chubby and portrayed as weak and ineffectual; yes, Neville becomes a more heroic character later, but he starts off as an absolute simp who is frequently bullied. Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bullstrode are described as 'pug-faced' and 'large and square' respectively; Goyle is also described as rather stupid and fat. Finally, Umbridge is described as 'toad-like' and squat, with a flabby face. Aunt Marge and Uncle Vernon, as well as Dudley, are all huge, fat, muscular bullies. Dudley's fatness and greed are described over and over, and often equated to each other. The only character who is plump and portrayed positively, other than Neville--and see note above for info about him--is Molly Weasley, but she is a mother and therefore doesn't quite count.

Now, the Harry Potter series is basically in my DNA, in writerly terms. I loved the series growing up and still retain affection for it, but that sticking point of fatness always rubbed me the wrong way. Rowling's far from the only author or writer to use that shorthand (even if Rowling denies it). Every movie made in the 90s with a cast of kids had to include at least one fat, stupid, greedy kid, and few things are more hateable than a fat, ugly bully.

By the late 2000s, things had started to improve enough that Norbit wasn't successful at the box office; in another time, it probably would have been. Shallow Hal is the only movie I can think of that features the struggles of a sizeable woman trying to find love; oddly, white women have faced extra scrutiny in this area. Films tend to play this sort of thing for laughs, or, even when a fat female character is present, play her off as repellent and unhygenic or slovenly. Much as she's an otherwise excellent character, Pam Poovey on Archer often falls into the 'disgusting fat lady' stereotype.

Stage 1: Fat is fine as long as it's temporary 


When overweight or fat female characters do crop up, such as in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Danielle Steele's Big Girl, Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, and The Bridget Jones Diaries, their stories often focus obsessively on weight loss or control. "How can someone love her," asks the narrative, "while she's fat?" Self-love often plays a big part in the stories, but so do substantial weight loss dreams. Obesity is correlated with trauma, being damaged goods, and being repulsive; fat is a sort of squishy prison for heroines, and unless they can escape it, they are often doomed to lovelessness. Worse, books like Size 12 Isn't Fat by Meg Cabot her The Princess Diaries series feature characters who simply shift fatness off as an identity so they can remain desirable. There's always someone bigger, and in TPD, skinny vegan Meg is ever so proud of her chubby princess friend when she starts to work out and skip snacks. Even Disney slides in jabs; while they have fewer fat female villains than one might expect (though the repulsive, sneaky Ursula--as I thought of her when I was a child--comes to mind), there's a scene in Hercules where a sobbing fat girl appears among the throngs of fangirls following the titular hero. The same film does feature a chubby black Muse, but the image of that hideous, weeping fangirl was the one that emblazoned itself on my childhood memory. Weakness and pathetic lack of personal resolve encircled the word like an invisible pair of bodyguards, flanking any idea of fat with coded implications.




Stage 2: Body positivity 


The worst thing one could be, said writers, is fat. But a few writers in the 20th century did buck that trend; in Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck describes a female character as having a "pleasant curve under her chin" and associates it with fertility and prosperity. In Happiness (tm) by Will Ferguson, May's character is clearly described as fat, but also possessing a fragile beauty.

For all the flak given to Dove, not without reason, they have actually helped a bit with that whole body positivity thing. That movement has made a substantial difference. We still haven't come as far as we could, but full-figured, generously-shaped ladies in lingerie are appearing. The #curvy hashtag on Instagram has more than a slight following. Women are pulling themselves out of the shadows and refusing to conform to gendered expectations of their bodies. Queer people outside the gender binary are showing themselves too, letting others know that fat acceptance isn't just for cis women. Fat, people are hesitantly realising, does not necessarily indicate health or fitness, and should not be shorthand for undesirable traits. I won't be going into the scientific side of this, partly because it's often hard for me to take even on good days, but we're also discovering that being overweight may be caused mostly by the microbial environment in the gut. Exercise and diet affect this environment, but the cause lies in the GI tract, not in a moral failing.

With this in mind, people are beginning to realise that focusing on ability is a better demarcation of health. In turn, fat women are demanding to be treated like human beings, and to be catered to. The sometimes problematic and aggressive BBW (big beautiful woman) romance writing subgenre has popped up to cater to this. It's making good inroads, but an avoidance of calling heroines 'fat', a tendency to code chubby characters in defensive language ("she was healthy, she just had more to love...) and abstraction of characters' physical traits tend to taint the escapism. It is all right to accept fat, the genre whispers, as long as one doesn't think about it too much. the greatest triumph is being loved at all.

The Best Destinations To Swim With Whale Sharks

Source.

How can we change the way fat is described and perceived? 


But perhaps it's time to do better than writing characters who are loveable in spite of being fat. Popular language has ugly connotations for the words used to describe weight. "Cellulite" comes to mind; it sounds like a cheap mattress, not something to embrace.

We haven't yet developed a vocabulary for the sensuality of a full figure, or its associations. Mothering ones and abundance are often coded in there, but softness, generosity, richness, and strength can come with fat as well. I have many friends of various sizes, and although a lot of them give wonderful hugs, those with extra weight do tend to be specially warm and strong in their affection. Fat can be associated with suppleness; consider whales or seals, especially when swimming.

"An ocean of delicate skin spilled out before him. She looked as though she'd washed up on the covers, like so much sea foam in the moonlight..."

In summation, the way forward in fiction means acknowledging that beauty comes in more than one shape and size. Slender frames and lean muscles are so often associated with strength that other builds have been chucked aside. For that matter, maybe it's time to do in other conventions; is there any reason an elf can't be chubby, for instance?

Those querying the "health risk" of "encouraging" people to be overweight should read a few studies on the topic. There has been some criticism, but at the end of the day, I am a writer and an editor, not a physician. I do, however, know what's kept me from dying and encouraged me to become more physically active, and over a decade of shaming certainly was not it.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Myth of the Solitary Writer

Hello hello!

Lately, I've been involved in a writing group for the first time. I do have editors and mentors, but I'd actively avoided a small round-table support group. At first, it was out of snobbery and artistic conceit, but also out of shyness; eventually, I realised that it was both okay and important to rely on others. It turned out to be a great decision, and a lot of fun. In addition to being a writer, I am a professional freelance editor, and have been for several years. I'm a member of quite a few groups on Facebook, and have many clients, friends, and clients who are friends there.

The myth (is a lie)


When I was growing up, I took in the idea that all industries needed to be as separated from clients and personal life topics as physicians are from their patients, and also that writers are always people alone in a cabin or a cold corner of a room, scribbling or typing away frantically at their masterpiece whenever the muse hits them. I definitely got the idea that writers had to deal with a certain amount of suffering and torture as well.

Margaret Atwood has a pithy quote for young writers about how we need not seek out suffering; "write, and the suffering will take care of itself". Still, there's something to be said for the high rates of mental illness and neurodivergence among creative types. I myself certainly fit into this demographic. History, both recent and less recent, is rife with lonely, tortured types flinging themselves off to a typewriter and drinking whiskey miserably while they type. H.P. Lovecraft, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Nabokov all come to mind instantly.

Here's the thing - writing cannot be done alone. That's bullpuckey. First of all, these great men (tm) had wives and children and maids following them around and handling the mundane tasks that their delicate, artistic constitutions couldn't handle. I recently posted on Facebook about that particular topic.

I was talking with Andrey Taskaev about life extension technology, and what it would mean. (Now, he has been awesome at cleaning the house lately, so this ain't shade.)
To be honest, I'm kind of done with existentialism, very over it. If you think life is inherently boring, and a trap or a cage, maybe you need to DO something. It's like, a philosophy of white male privilege. If you're THAT bored, f**kin' help your wife around the house!
Bored of climbing great mountaintops? Then f**kin' go to a library and help some kids, dude! If life is boring, you aren't trying hard enough. Boredom is the ultimate luxury, and it can be a fertile creative ground...but not if you get sucked into the trap of seeing other people as robots, or insignificant insects.
Anyway, those are some of my thoughts about infinite life and life extension and stuff. 


Writing as a social exercise?


While Virginia Woolf's comments about having "a room of one's own" and space to write ARE relevant, and while writing does sometimes mean sitting in front of a computer or typewriter for HOURS while slogging away at something, it doesn't have to mean always doing so alone.

Lately, I've been participating in "writing parties", where myself and a few others sit in the same room and just write. The air of concentration can really help one focus, and the occasional breaks for conversation to help or get help from others can also be very useful. I also participate in a "work buddy" thread on Facebook where myself and some friends bounce ideas off each other, do writing sprints, and discuss projects.


Why do we need people?


First, many of us are mentally ill or have challenges, and it's important to involve oneself with others and build a support network. Second, human beings are social animals. This is a basic tenant of social psychology, so go read up on that on Wikipedia or take a course if you don't believe me. Third, it's easy to get into excessive self-loathing or excessive self-aggrandizement, or worse, BOTH at once, without others to talk to. Fourth, you can get help with plotting or something when you get stuck. Fifth, writing has never actually been that solitary.

Yes, people do require support, and yes, women get disproportionately less support for their writing time, but it doesn't have to be like this. By leaning on our partners or friends, or by giving them support as needed, anyone can be more productive and feel that writing is less futile or lonely. In a new century and new era of intimacy and connection, we have access to millions of people across the globe. I've never met some of my best friends in person - or rather, I haven't met them yet - and some of the ones I have met live in different cities.

In Virginia Woolf's day and even in the early 20th century, people lived very entwined lives. They had servants and friends and families around, whether they wanted them or not. Now, connection with others requires conscious effort, but it's so worthwhile and important. Writers don't have to pretend that they're alone anymore.

Who are some of your most important supports? 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Why I Bailed on Activism

Hello hello!

As those who follow my Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr antics may have noticed, I've really pulled back on content about human rights issues.

What the hell?


The problem is, I started to buy into a fallacy that plagues both conservative and left-leaning activists - being right is more important than making people happy. I definitely did this when I was younger, and hadn't yet learned argument mediation skills; as I've aged through the last ten years or so, I've learned that being right only feels good for so long.

Of course, that doesn't mean that bending over backwards to make people happy, the strategy I lived by in my early teens, is particularly wise, either. But for me, personally, as a person who was supporting activists and trying to spread word about certain ideas, it was too easy to lean on the comfort of moral superiority. I saw a lot of people I looked up to doing that, for one thing. As well, there's a really uncomfortable habit that people in radical left circles share with radical right circles - withholding affection and attention until the person interacting with them abides by certain behavioral patterns. If one is a teacher's pet, i.e. a person vulnerable to authority figures, it's very easy to become obedient or toe a party line, even when personal ideas may start to conflict with that.

Even the 'good people' aren't always...good. 


I've seen a surprising number of people - most white, but some people of colour as well - engage in really interesting rhetorical backflips in order to stay in line with others. For instance, being an activist but refusing to educate well-intentioned people under any circumstances. Education can be exhausting, but it's also the point of raising awareness. And yes, sometimes demands for education are used passive-aggressively, but leaning on facts and basic information can still result in productive conversations.

Another thing I've noticed is a tendency to focus on either guilt performance theatre or deliberately ignoring areas of non-disadvantage. So, a person who is genderqueer and asexual and from a middle-class background might underline their sexuality and gender identity, but avoid talking about finances or their own white privilege. Alternately, they might bemoan their own lack of "wokeness" and limitations imposed by said background.

Power structures and dynamics in such conversations can be complex at the best of times, and there are countless articles on how to navigate them. I do think communication issues and awareness of personal circumstances and limitations are important, but the hostility, defeatism, and pessimism of social activism really started to get to me.

It's funny, but sometimes it seems as though people are happy to slap down trigger and content warnings for things that affect them, but not willing to abide by the same requests when brought forward by others. I have a large number of now former friends who claim to be sensitive, motivated by change, and proactive in mental health issues, but who were all too happy to weaponize triggers when it served their purpose in an argument. Can't deal with an article on a given day? Clearly you're not that committed to The Cause, or endorsing prejudice against a certain group. Can't make a commitment because of a mental health issue? Citing your own depression is ableist!

You can probably see how that takes a toll on someone, or at least, on me.


Source


Bad social dynamics, the breakdown 


A comment can be a misstep in one case and highly offensive in another. When it comes to interacting with other people, situational cues are better than hard and fast rules. Since I've returned to giving people the benefit of the doubt, I've been able to make more inroads with discussions, and I certainly don't lose nights of sleep or cry over something that led to an argument.

One of the things I like about environmental activism is that there are clearer goals. Things can be measured. With social activism, sometimes people would look at a win and go, "this isn't enough". For a person with my background and mental issues, that turned out to be really toxic. I started focusing on negativity and terribleness too often, found myself stuck in endless argument loops that didn't seem to have a clear answer or solution, and sometimes, ended up on the sharp end of attacks when my own mental health issues meant I couldn't be perfectly objective about something.

 Beating oneself up accomplishes nothing, and being around people who encourage self-flagellation as an outlet for guilt is toxic. Constant pessimism is not realism, it's a bad habit of mental health. That's not to say that optimism is required at all times, or that people should sit down and shut up - but if all we do is punch sideways and downwards, what's the point of all this?


 


This blog post won't be good enough for some people, and may be a huge disappointment. And that's okay. But for the rest, know that I'm still on your side, on what I'm pretty sure is the right side of history as well. But I've been wrong a few times, and learned to move on, and I hope that other people who find themselves exhausted by the world will take comfort in this.

The thing is, I haven't changed any of my perspectives. In the world of writing, I will still be pursuing representation and fairness. I will write protagonists of colour, of queerness, and with mental health issues, and they will be protagonists rather than sassy supporting characters or tragic tokens. I believe in a better, fairer world. But I have also realised that, as my friend and mentor Katie de Long put it, I can't light myself on fire to keep others warm.

In any case, I have Black romance novels to edit, Afropunk beauty articles to share, and novels to write. I have fellow writers to support, friends to encourage, and other stuff to do. I've been trying to save the world too long, and now I've got to save myself.

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!


Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Dungeons and Dragons and Storytelling

Hello hello!

For the last few months, I've been not only playing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign again, I've also been listening to a couple of podcasts about campaigns. Critical Hit and The Adventure Zone are both wonderfully funny, interesting stories told by avid and active gamers and players.

One of the many reasons I love D&D is that it scratches my theatre itch. I love musicals, and I did some theatre back in high school, but I wasn't quite passionate enough/was told I had to take too many science classes in order to pursue it further. The combination of performance and audience around one table, of participation, and of both organization and improv is absolutely wonderful.

The thing is, Dungeons and Dragons relies on a lot of different things to go right, but it's pretty hard to make a session go wrong. As I've listened to these podcasts, I've definitely picked up on a few key points.

Collaborative storytelling has to be collaborative


Not all types of storytelling  - comics, movies, video games, and of course, books - rely on audience input. But in the case of D&D or other group projects, it's improtant for one person not to hog the spotlight. As the group leader in our games, I often set up a situation and then put the spotlight in other players. I've tried to make an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up and suggesting something, and that seems to have worked pretty well. It's important to rotate the focus so that the quiet person (who might be incredibly witty and be a voice of of reason) gets a chance to speak up rather than being stuffed in the closet.

That said, it's okay if some voices are stronger than others, as long as the voices are rotated. Maybe Person A gets a spotlight in one session, but Person D gets a lot of attention in the next, and Persons B and C stay about even in both sessions.


Happy mediums rule the day


The Dungeon or Game Master can't yank the reins too hard, but also can't let their players run everywhere. Some railroading is necessary to make sure a story actually happens. When I relied on creativity alone to write regularly, I got dick-all done for months at a time, then a few things done in a burst. Now, I'm creating far more often, and enjoying it a lot more, because I give myself several kinds of structure to lean on. But sometimes I do just jump on the unicorn of fanciful whim and ride into a cybernetic sunset, because it's what I feel like on that particular day. (Note to self: cybernetic sunset and unicorn need to go in a story some time.)

Sometimes you have to cut loose


In both D&D and written fiction, it's awfully easy to fall into the trap of trying to create mounting tension. But at some point, being reckless and having an interlude with humorous or ridiculous tones can be very beneficial. Writers who tend to plan - like myself, these days - need to cut loose once in a while and do something silly and impulsive. The improv element of D&D can be very helpful for this, and the ways that DMs have to adjust their plans when characters move away from them can also be instructive.

One thing I have and still struggle with a bit is figuring out how to pace out action and time spans. Whether it's a long series or just one novel, like Bad Things that Happen to Girls, balancing action with a sense of naturalism can be tricky. A good DM does this well, and can provide guidance with
skipping over the boring parts without making it feel too rushed.

And again, sometimes you just have to jump on the back of a giant mutant rat and try to ride him, climb a giant gold chain, cut some of its links, and make an improvised parachute to land safely, or pick up random crap and turn it into friendship bracelets of sending for the rest of the party.

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 5 September 2016

PoV Party: First, Third, and Second Person

Hello hello!

Today, I'd like to talk about something that almost all authors struggle with from time to time. Some of the more experienced writers might be comfortable with this already, but it never hurts to review things. Today, I'm going to cover points of view and how to write them, as well as how not to write them.

But wait, what?

First vs third person


This is fairly simple. First person means that one (or more) characters do most of the talking; pronouns used tend to be "I" and "me". Third person means that characters are referred to by pronouns like "her", "xe", "he", or "they". Writers may use close third or distant third; close third is basically like first person, but with different pronouns, and it's popular for stories with a lot of emotional weight. Distant third can be better when an author wants to convey a broad idea of the circumstances.

None of these is better than the other, but one may be better for your particular story. You may even want to alternate between them, but make sure to signal that to the audience, and not to switch back and forth at random.

Second person narration DOES exist, but it's very rare in fiction; "choose your own adventure" books and many of my blog posts, as well as many how-to and self-help books, are written in second person. The reader is addressed as "you", and it can result in an intimate but confrontational writing style.

What is headjumping?


"Headjumping" is a slang term for moving between characters' perspectives without warning, and when it's inappropriate. In omniscient narration, commonly used in genres like science fiction or fantasy, it may be fine to let the audience in on what various people in a scene are thinking. In romance, mystery, or thrillers, however, it may be inappropriate to let the audience in on what another character is thinking. But why? Let's break it down.

Why it's bad


Headjumping is currently out of literary fashion, and perhaps for good reason. After spending a bunch of time in a particular character's perspective, getting to know about the innermost thoughts of another character can be very jarring. It can also make writers "have their cake and eat it too", so to speak, undermining dramatic tension by revealing too much at once. Finally, it can be distracting and hard to follow for readers.

When it can be good


Douglas Adams was a master at switching viewpoints for the sake of comedy; during a tense scene, switching between characters' perspectives can function similarly to rapid cuts between characters on a TV show or movie. It can also prevent audience boredom or character fatigue from having the same person "on screen" for too long.


Where it gets tricky


Distant third is a very common and comfortable writing style, but omniscient writing shouldn't result in herky-jerky jumps between characters' thoughts from sentence to sentence. The current style recommendation is to choose a particular character to follow around and to switch viewpoints when a paragraph or scene break presents itself. This makes the story flow more smoothly, and can also help authors avoid confusing themselves. Characters should have distinct personalities, and "cross pollinating", so to speak, can water that down when it's done too often. At the same time, having more than one or two PoV (point of view) characters can provide a lot of variety for the audience, and give them a better overview of a situation.

Third person tips


Be judicious and deliberate with your viewpoint characters. Every change of perspective should have a purpose; you don't have to shout it at the audience, but you must know why you're doing it. Don't resort to PoV switches out of boredom! They do make great writing exercises, but putting them in a finished manuscript is another thing. Above all, make sure your beta readers and editor(s) generally agree that the manuscript flows well and makes sense. If you have too many characters, you may get lost. In my own writing, I find that between two and six point of view characters tend to be ideal. Some characters spend less time in the spotlight than others, but alternating points of view is a good way to make use of an ensemble cast.

Do you have any questions about how to write points of view? Any thoughts or tips?

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Friday, 2 September 2016

Writing Sucks: It's Okay to Hate Your Art Sometimes


Hello hello!

Now, all the writers I know can anticipate what I'm about to say, but for those who prefer consuming media to making it, it may be a surprise. Art sucks. It's not just that drawing symmetrical eyes is difficult. Sure, there are fandom politics to deal with, as a recent ridiculous blow up in the Steven Universe fandom demonstrated. But sometimes, writing a storyline is just plain brutal.

A good example of this is The Underlighters. Sure, I enjoyed writing it, but sometimes, I didn't. I just had to write it. Same goes for After the Garden. Both of those books have scenes that were just emotionally hard to write. I won't include any spoilers, because of course, I'd prefer that you buy and read them for yourselves, but people who've already read one or both will probably know what I'm talking about.

But why is writing--or art in general--so hard? Well, there are basically three reasons. 

Writing and art can be tedious 


Art takes time. Right now, I'm working on a new productivity method--fifty words a day, fiction or blog, no matter what. My birthday? Halloween? Christmas? Doesn't matter. I will still have to write fifty words, at a minimum, that day. Sometimes I blow past this goal and write five hundred or even two thousand words, and sometimes, I just barely squeak by with the two or three sentences required to make my goal.

I tried higher word counts, and all that did was frustrate me. I tried a 'no zero' method, and that just resulted in a surprising number of zero productivity days. Something about fifty words a day really motivates me. A close pal of mine sets writing time limits. Chuck Wendig recommends three hundred and fifty words per day. Stephen King, as many people know, writes about two thousand words per day (link). I spoke to Emmie Mears recently, and they tend to write several thousand words per day over a very short span, then take long breaks. The point is, you might have to fiddle with your personal minimum, but finding it is the key to productivity.

I used to wait for inspiration, but when it didn't show up, I was lost, and I let my readers down. The funny thing is, once I get the engine going, the muse tends to hop in the car and participate the way I wanted her to in the first place. Using my new limit, I've been able to finish a first draft of The Meaning Wars, the long-awaited third book in the series of the same name.  Which brings me to...

Writing and art can be technically difficult and intricate 


OH GOD, SEQUELS. The writers are nodding and biting their lips and gnashing their teeth right now (hopefully not at the same time, because ow). Readers may be shrugging in confusion. The thing is, in addition to the famous "soggy middle" syndrome, there's a lot of stuff to handle in a sequel.

For The Meaning Wars, I had to advance and entwine character narratives, but I also had to introduce a huge new source of tension. How would my war be fought? It took me a long time to accept that I'm just not a boots-on-the-grouund military sci fi writer, and that traditional ways of describing combat and conflict wouldn't do the trick. Instead, I listened to the news and worked on chapters until the lightning bolt hit.

When I realised that I would have to use legislation and small details to convey the sense of oppression, fear, and restriction my characters would face, I got stuck again. How in the nine Hells was I going to do that without a lot of annoying exposition? Then I realised that even though I was writing in the third person, I could use epistolary techniques like news reports, letters and messages, and announcements or broadcasts. From there, it got a lot easier. I just had to think about specific, frustrating restrictions from the real world, and model obstacles accordingly.

Still, I will be working on book four soon, and after that, Monsters and Fools - the final book in The Nightmare Cycle (see above re: the Underlighters). I'm scared as hell of that sequel because the same problems will be presenting, and I have even more connective tissue to lay down! But I'm still here, still writing a blog post about it, and still refusing to give up. 

Writing can be emotionally demanding and exhausting


One of the projects I recently finished, Bad Things that Happen to Girls, was absolutely brutal. I've been pretty open about having mental illnesses, but referencing feelings from my turbulent youth and early adulthood was very taxing. The story isn't literally biographical, but it's got emotionally autobiographical elements, and that was hard enough. Some of the more vicious scenes of emotional abuse really took it out of me, and you don't even want to know how hard the ending was. But I'd been working on the story since 2006. It had gone through two full rewrites as I struggled to nail down the timeline and events, and then I had to get it edited. Compressing the timeline and wrestling the elements into place was bad enough, but the subject matter left me curled up on the couch more than a few times.

But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I am so glad I've released these stories into the world, and I have so many more waiting to be set free. I will be in pain, frustrated, swearing, or just slogging away at a blog post in the future, and I can't wait. It's not that suffering makes you an artist--it's that being an artist makes you suffer. Creation can be gruelling and frustrating. And that's okay.

Special thanks to Emmie Mears, Chuck Wendig, and Delilah Dawson, as well as Sarah Dimento and Katie de Long, for letting me peruse their brains!

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!



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