The Amazing Things I Get to Do

I jumped out of a helicopter today without a parachute. I used my ability to see the future to save my mother’s life, I stared down two villains at gunpoint, I orchestrated a corporate take-over and I played with penguins. It was a great afternoon.

Years ago, I loved to read fiction and I still do. However, in recent years, that same energy has gone into  my writing  instead. Writing is hard work, and stories don’t always go as well as the writer would like, but when they do, the feeling that you are doing what your characters do is even more compelling.

These people live in my head. I know far more about them than will ever appear in my book, and when they set foot in Antarctica or on a beach in Brazil, I am there with them.

Because many of my characters have superpowers, I get the added bonus of doing things I never could in real life. Today, I wrote this scene about one of my characters who can “travel”, that is, have conscious out of body experiences.

Vanida had never used her energy body to travel to someone who was on an airplane, so she was alarmed when she ordered her body of light to seek out Yuden and found herself rising thousands of feet into the air and moving westward. It took effort not to panic and snap back into her physical body which was resting quietly on the beach in Brazil.

She was glad she had persevered, though, once she sighted the tiny plane approaching, and realized why she was where she was. The skill with which her energy body matched the speed and direction of the craft amazed her, and allowed her to cross through the metal as gently as if it had been sitting on the ground.

Tonight, I will go to sleep dreaming about flying through the air, matching my speed to that of an airplane and passing gracefully through its walls. It should be a night of sweet dreams.

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

Choosy?

I’m starting to write fiction again, after a break of almost exactly one year. It is taking everything I’ve got to get the momentum back. One technique I am using is to reread short pieces I’ve written over the years that never got used anywhere.

I found this and it seemed perfect for this blog. It’s slightly fictionalized truth, and the memory on which it is based still makes me smile. I hope that it will make others smile as well.

Memory is such a strange beast. Words meant to touch your heart may evoke a small swell of emotion at the time, but often they don’t last. It’s the stupid pun, or the offensive joke or the offhand remark that stung a bit at the time that replays itself over and over. Or sometimes, it comes back to you ten years later, out of the blue.

cold mountainI am outside of a bar in Evergreen Colorado. It is biting, winter-mountain cold. Closing time has passed, the glasses have been cleared and the bar wiped down. That’s the drab part of cocktail waitressing. I grab my coat, and the late hour and brisk wind hurry me towards my little rented place across the road.

“Hey, honey.”

Loud, the voice of a big man, it carries from some distance away. Was he waiting for me, watching? Or did he just randomly look up from unlocking his car and feel like making drunken trouble.

“Why don’t you and me go home and warm each other up?”

I walk faster and I don’t look. This is my usual response to unwanted male attention. Ignore it and it will go away. It usually works.

“Hey. I’m TALKING to you.”

I walk faster. Look straight ahead harder.

“I know you hear me. ANSWER me, damnit.”

I can’t walk any faster but I do focus harder on the pavement.

Finally he yells in disgust “You didn’t have to be so choosy, bitch.” He laughs. “I wasn’t.”

With relief I hear him close his car door and start his engine. With more relief I watch him drive away.

I am still scared and embarrassed when I finally reach my own front door. The next several nights I leave the bar with friends who see me safely home.

11Ten years later, I’m walking down a windy street in Chicago. I hear him again, clear as a sound in the cold mountain night air.

“You didn’t have to be so choosy, bitch. I wasn’t.”

And I stop. I turn straight towards him, a memory shadow in the dark distance. I yell back to him. “Yeah, I don’t think your mother was particularly choosy either.”

The murky outline of his body registers surprise. I add with firm clarity “In fact, you look to me like you come from a long line of people who weren’t particularly choosy.”

I turn and walk on with unhurried confidence and he fades into memory. Go figure. I never walk down a cold dark street quite as afraid again.

Free on Kindle

c3 will be available for FREE download on Saturday Feb 15 and Sunday Feb 16 here.

Enjoy this tale of a young woman learning to trust and use the strange powers with which she was born.Kanchenjunga You’ll get to climb one of the world’s most dangerous peaks, take on a crime lord with no scruples and hide from his all-seeing super hacker. Marvel at sunrises in the Himalayas and beaches in Thailand as you flee those who would harm you with no second thought. Revel in developing the ability to outwit people who give you no respect, and learn to be stronger each day as you take them on.

Enter the world of c3, and enjoy the victory.