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.

We need to talk about this, just maybe not so much

img_3163I’ve started working out at a gym (again) and this time around I’m facing a challenge I haven’t seen before, and it involves breast cancer. No, I don’t have it and let me go on record as being against cancer of all types and firmly in favor of a disease free life for everyone. However ….

Someone in the gym has decided to put cute little pink sticky notes with hand-written statistics about breast cancer at eye level on the machines. I suppose if these had been in place for a week or so I might have ignored them, but it’s been almost a month now and I’m getting tired of averting my eyes. img_3161Nothing written on a sticky note is going to change my health care practices. However, I have emotional attachments to women who have died from this awful disease and to others who have bravely fought a battle that they are losing. These notes put me in a funk every time I see them. I’m fine with educating people. I’m not fine with badgering them.

trump-assult-scandalEnter sexual assault. Most women I know have experienced it in some mild form, including me, and too many of those I love have had experiences that were disturbing enough to continue to haunt and challenge them. I wish healing for them, and safety for all women. I recognize that to ignore the problem is not to solve it. I welcome honest dialog and a world striving to be better. However ….

It’s hard for these brave souls to move on, or to even have a good day, when almost every newscast addresses the topic, and half of the available entertainment feels compelled to have a scene, episode or back story about the same. When is comes to the news, a lot of this is tied to the presidential election and the way that events are unfolding. We all can’t wait for the election to be over, and for me this is just one more reason.

27-15As far as the entertainment industry goes, if I want to be positive then I think that they are striving to be relevant and, at their best, helpful. After all, I wrote a book about human trafficking with the best of intentions. When I am in a less charitable mood, I am sure that some others are only capitalizing on what they think will sell, and I understand with some sorrow how I could be accused of the same.

So I get to write a book about human trafficking but you don’t? Who decides when enough about a subject is enough, or whether the handling of a difficult topic is sensitive or exploitative?

I can’t answer that question. I do know that I never want to see ugly topics like disease and assault (and poverty, racism, domestic violence, homophobia, child neglect, human trafficking, war, and gun violence) swept under a giant collective carpet. Awareness can lead to solutions. But I also think it is fair to consider how toxic the atmosphere can become once we are fixated on a difficult subject, especially for those struggling to recover from emotional wounds that get strained a little every time the subject arises.

There are no easy answers here; just the age old need to step back from what we are doing every once in awhile, and to look honestly at our own motives and to consider the feelings of all others.

I do know that when difficult topics are handled with warmth, compassion and even a little humor, it helps. That can be a hard thing to do, and successful examples are rare.  This video, put out by the Thames Valley Police about a year ago relating the issue of consenting sex to having a cup of tea, handles a difficult subject as well as anything I have ever seen.

 

(For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be Alright,  Our brand is crisis?, and Is it over yet?)

Books by an armchair traveler

It’s true.  I write books about places I’ve never been. My problem is that I want my characters to travel the world, and yet I’m limited in where I can afford to go. So I research, get help, get more help, and research some more.

c3 was my most challenging book in this regard. Most of the action in c3 takes place in Darjeeling India, in the little known nation of Bhutan, in Bangkok Thailand and along Thailand’s famous beaches. I had a fascinating time learning about each of these locales and as I wrote I fell in love with all them. In the case of c3, I was lucky enough to have four wonderful beta readers from India who helped me with accuracy and local color, and I was also able to make use of some wonderful books, the internet and well-traveled friends to fill in other gaps in my knowledge.

The internet, of course, was my most versatile tool. As I wrote about Bagdogra Airport Teddie and Michelle making their way to India, I was able to see what they might see as they arrived at the Bagdogra airport. Having these ongoing visuals made the book easier to write, and a lot more fun.
Enjoy this short excerpt about their flight.

Teddie had been to Ireland, to France and to Hawaii, so she had some idea of how miserable a long flight was on a full plane. Still. Two crying babies, one on each side? Come on. There ought to be a law.

Bagdogra Airport2Michelle, who clearly was far more excited than Teddie was about this adventure, as everyone else kept insisting on calling it, had slept through three out of the four major bouts of wailing. Now, she was wide awake and eager to explore the Frankfurt airport for a few hours before the girls boarded the second plane on to Delhi and then yet a third on to some town Teddie couldn’t even begin to pronounce. And then that would be followed by a three-hour car ride. Teddie, for her part, just wanted to sleep in a bed, preferably her own soft and cozy bed, but at this point any real bed would do…

The flight to Delhi was full too, of course, and Teddie had already been warned, many times, that from this point forward she should expect large crowds of people crammed into less space than she was used to or would like. India, only about one-third the size of the United States, had over three times as many people. It was going to be part of the cultural adjustment that was going to make “this adventure” so enriching.

 

A December 1st baby: born to give back?

It’s my birthday in 2 days, and I always felt that being born on the first of the month was a bad deal.

Anyone else: “Hey, isn’t your birthday some time this month?”
Me: “Yeah. It was last week.”
Anyone else: “Oh. Well, hope you had a good one.”

But this year I am feeling pretty special. Someone (who ever decides these things) has decreed December 1 to be Giving Tuesday. What??? Well, according to the Giving Tuesday website

“We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals. Now, we have #GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to giving back. On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.”

Think about it. This is a totally cool idea. I mean I know people born on Global Wind Day, Australia Day, International Lefthanders Day and Free Money Day*, but a day dedicated to celebrating generosity kicks butt on all of those if you ask me.

So what am I going to do about it? If you read my posts at all you know that I’ve struggled for the past few months to get the sixth and final book in the 46. Ascending collection moving along. I took a year long break from writing, expecting to emerge at the other end of a cross-country move and job change fully refreshed and ready to create another novel. Instead, I’ve found the blank expanse in front of me more daunting than any blank screen in a newly opened word document ever was.

laotzu121075My advice to others seeking to ground themselves and move on has always been to stop thinking about yourself and do something for someone else. What good is advice if  you can’t follow your own? So tomorrow I have an appointment with a volunteer coordinator in the area who is going to help place me at one or two local agencies who are willing to train me and then use my time and expertise. I’m excited.

If you know anything about my novel c3, you know that I have a particular passion for women’s issues and a strong desire to see my sisters free and confident enough to follow their dreams. No surprise then that I will be looking at volunteering with agencies that deal with some of the worst problems that women face. I’m not naive on these subjects (have you read c3?) but I do understand that I may find myself well outside of my comfort zone. I hope to grow in strength while I help others do the same.

Does the idea of focusing on generosity for a day appeal to you as well? I’m told that one can log onto Twitter and follow the hashtag #GivingTime to join the conversation and learn more. Or go to the official website and check out their video.

Whatever you do, happy December 1.

*If you’re curious, Global Wind Day is 6/15, Australia Day is 1/26, International Lefthanders Day is 8/13 and Free Money Day is 9/15 and yes this day does involve giving away money, so it is sort of about generosity too.

Day is Done

george3Something about a winter sunset always makes me a little melancholy. I’ve been that way lately anyway, what with not writing and adjusting to a new place and a lot of little things I can’t quite put my finger on. Today I wasted hours trying to navigate options to renew my health insurance, and now the whole afternoon is already over.  Damn. Why do the inane things seem to always take so long?

I think the problem is that the main entertainment in my life is looking at my to do list each day and crossing out what is done. In my own defense, this is a beautiful, color coded list on which I use glitter pens and neon highlighters and doodle around the edges. It occurs to me that maybe I don’t like list making half as much as I like coloring.

I also spent some time today online looking for volunteer opportunities. If I’m going to be unemployed and not writing, I’ve decided to get myself out of my funk by at least making someone else’s life better.  It’s a good idea, but the potential assignments are pretty daunting. Most require hours of training, and most of the training is over for this year. The qualifications for one position actually said “ability to remain calm in all situations”.  Seriously? Calm is good, but in all situations? The frustrated writer in me went wild inventing scenarios that did not call for calm. Sigh ….

It’s a silly, childish funk I’m in and I know it. I need to pick up my laptop, move on to chapter 3 and stop stalling. The story is in my head. I can do this. It wouldn’t hurt to do some other things too of course. Go for walk. Fill out the volunteer form. Pick up my pens and doodle. Maybe even just enjoy the sunset.

Do strangers make the perfect beta readers?

“A Streetcar Named Desire” made the phrase “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” infamous. While it is hard not to wince when the naive yet tragic Blanche DuBois utters it, I think that part of our discomfort comes from knowing that we all do rely sometimes on the goodwill of those we don’t know. Having spent the whole play or movie learning of the cruel events in Blanche’s life, this truth makes us uncomfortable, whether we find Blanche a likeable character or not.

spirit medium 1Yet there it is. Reach out beyond your normal existence and you expose yourself to the danger that those unknown to you are devoid of compassion, at least for your particular welfare. It makes a person want to stay home and deal with no one but close friends and relatives. At least, one is inclined to stick with citizens of their own “village”, those who share customs, race, religion and nationality. When possible, one even seeks out those with common age and gender too. It’s safer that way, or so we think.

Enter the internet. Those of us who have years of clear memory before it existed still marvel at the way it can and does put perfect strangers in touch with each other. Yes, we’ve added safety rails all over the place. We rank and review each other and turn to moderators and block the obnoxious. But how does it go when we find we need some strangers in our life?

If you write books, you want a few people you’ve never met to read your novels before you take them to the next step. Friends and family have certain understandable shortcomings for this task, as I wrote about on my other blog. It turns out that the internet is full of unknown curious people, some of whom will actually volunteer to read your book. Should you let them?

If it seems like an easy yes, consider how much of ones heart goes into creating a novel. It is personal. Feedback delivered too harshly can stop any endeavor. Consider that you are depending on people, waiting on them before you continue with a task that means the world to you. They may lie to you, stringing you along with promises of feedback coming before they disappear, leaving you to wonder why they bothered with such a charade. Consider that they are strangers, and you are taking a risk with them.

My most recent novel is now in the hands of thirteen people, eight of whom I’ve never met.  I’ve just heard from an older tax accountant in England who admires Margaret Thatcher, and from two young Hindu women engineers who share a passion for enlarging women’s rights in India. The British gentleman and I have played online word games for years and though we disagree about politics he has enjoyed my other books and agreed to beta read this one. My connection with the young women from India stems from one of them winning a copy of my first novel. So they aren’t total strangers, but we’ve never looked each other in the eye either, and I’ve just asked a lot of them.

sungazing2Their feedback? Helpful. Very helpful, actually. These folks spent a lot of time, caught a lot of minor mistakes, and bothered to describe their best ideas for improving my story, and they did it all very kindly. The only rewards I have to give will be a thank you at the end of the book, and a t-shirt.(I do like to give away t-shirts.) I hope that I get to meet each of them someday,and they will be strangers no longer.

It’s  an odd world. We can all choose to stay inside our own cozy homes, hoping never to get caught in a storm. It is true that storms can be dangerous. Or we can go outside every so often anyway, and feel the rain. It may be the best way to find a beta reader for one’s book. It’s the only way to turn strangers into friends.