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

Friday, 27 March 2015

A Confession: Some Thoughts on Romance

Hello hello!

So, it's fairly well known that I'm an editor as well as a writer. Naturally, that also means I'm a reader. When I was younger, I reviled romance. Then I discovered Jane Austen and the Brontes, and without realising it, started to fall headlong in love with falling in love. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame--classics of the 19th century, with their seductively rich prose and antiquarian settings, became my go-to for tales of loss and love.

I read Stranger Music by Leonard Cohen and Visiting Hours by Shane Koyczan over and over, my heart thrilling to the caress of sensual, playful poetry and the love stories coded in the verses. But it wasn't romance, of course. And the tragedy of Anna Karenina, of Crime and Punishment, and the near-misses and playfulness of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing--those didn't count as romances.

But not modern romances, I told myself, chucking Harlequins at the wall and rolling my eyes at the worst excesses of bodice-rippers. Modern romance, outside of literary novels, was bollocks. A Farewell to Arms and 1984 had delightful love stories, but anything written after 1950, or anything written below a certain reading level, was clearly worthless pulp at best.

Shown: a huge, disappointing bore.

Why hate romance? 

Obviously, I was dead wrong. Bigoted, even. As I slowly gained respect for romance in the context of sci fi--my heart wobbling over Farscape's Chriton and Aeryn Sun, or Doctor Who's Rose and Nine, or Mass Effect's Liara and Shepard--I kept thinking that it was "better" than most romance. That it fell into a special category of some sort. Surely it wasn't 'real' romance, because it was in the context of sci fi.

I had reasons. Honestly, a lot of them were pretty sexist, and related to not wanting to be "one of those girls". But I also just hadn't found anything I liked enough yet. And that kept me in my little box.

It's amazing what you can talk yourself into. "This is better, because ___, and it's not like the other ___s!". But eventually, if you're smart enough or patient enough or just have enough friends smarter than you are, the truth breaks in. And the truth was, my inept fan fiction-writing friends in high school didn't represent everything romance could be any more than they represented what fan fiction itself could do.

Shown: definitely not worthless pulp in any way.

And yet...

Eventually, I had to face up to it--it still wasn't my genre most of the time, but I *liked* romance. Editing it, reluctantly at first, only made for a slippery slope. You *have* to respect something that a lot of your colleagues and clients write. And then, lo and behold, I slowly found myself enjoying some of the stories. I discovered the feminist side of romancethe stories of people of colourthe contemporary tales about Californian teenagers written with aching honesty and truth. And I discovered that yes, there were stories about gay people, and even--gasp!--stories about women falling in love with other women. And I realised that I liked writing and creating them as well as reading them.

The turning point

Then I got blindsided by The Fault in Our Stars, the kind of book that--before--I would have eschewed on principle. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and other books had softened me up, but it took John Green for me to sit in my shower, ugly-crying and turning pages compulsively. That broke me. Every time I'd growled at something like Moulin Rouge didn't matter anymore. Since then, it's been a slow and gradual slide--I've found myself occasionally seeking out romance. This weekend, I ended up watching Chico and Rita, which was an unusual and heartbreaking movie. And it was the love story that made me break down in embarassing, goofy, cathartic, pleasant tears.

The whole thing has been a real learning experience. I'm never totally averse to eating humble pie--I mean, come on, pie is delicious--so as much as it was embarassing to be so wrong, I'm glad that I've changed my mind about it.

What have you changed your mind about? What would you like to change your mind about?

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie--get on the mailing list. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Monday, 23 March 2015

Holy $#@*--On the Use of Profanity

Hello hello!

Ah, profanity. As a reader, I enjoy it for cases of verisimilitude and emphasis. As a writer, well, I love it. I’ve been dinged for it in reviews. As an editor, I long for more of it. So why do so many writers shy away from it?

The most common argument I hear against profanity is that it’s crude and coarse language. However, profanity has little to no correlation with socioeconomic status or personal refinement in most cases. Sure, there are people who use it as a substitution in their vocabulary, but it’s not as common as you’d think. Instead, aggressive, type-A, ambitious people with strong emotions tend to favour it. It’s also common in cases of injury or anger, as swearing actually has analgesic (pain-reducing) effects.
So why don’t people use it in books? While a cozy mystery or a Young Adult novel might not be the best place to drop some F-bombs, I am going to go out on a limb and say that other New Adult or Adult-oriented fiction (ie, most of the market) needs and requires cussing for verisimilitude. Even Jane Austen and the Brontes mentioned their characters swearing, and sometimes showed it--with censoring, sure, but it still happened. Some authors ‘aren’t comfortable’ with ‘inappropriate’ language, but considering that beheading a character or sexual assault flies easily with some of the same authors, I’m left scratching my head. Swearing makes up approximately 0.3-0.7% of language, and it’s a small but crucial portion.

So, when should characters swear? 

Strong emotions are a great time for this. Crying, bouts of anger, an argument, physical pain—all of these are prime times for some cussin’. If your characters are using exclamation marks—as they should, if they’re shouting—they can do some swearin’. Some people even swear when they’re happy—a joyous ‘F$#@ yeah! I won the lottery!” hardly goes amiss. As well, characters who are in the military, known for bluntness, or are teenagers, will likely do some cursing.

I am going to be blunt.  If you, as an author, are uncomfortable with swearwords, you need to get over it. That goes for readers, too, but this is a column about writing, so it’s authors I want to address. You don’t have to pepper your text with F-bombs in order to get the right feel, but a carefully-placed swearword can make a lot of difference. If you’re uncomfortable with swearing, practice saying it out loud (in private if you must) and try to write dialogue with lots of cussing in it to acclimatize yourself. Why do you have to? Because you’re trying to write a good story, and a lack of cursing can result in utter silliness.

“Ow! Ding dang dong diddly!” shouted Claudia. The insane clown grinned and continued to saw away at her toes. “Ow! Shucks and tarnation! That hurts!”

Your characters shouldn't sound like Ned Flanders. Even Ned would cuss if his toes were being sawed off by an insane clown. Consider this revision.

“Ow! Fucking shit! Get the fuck off!” Claudia yelled. The insane clown grinned and kept sawing at her toes. “Fucking--go to hell!”

This is how most of us would respond in the same circumstances, though probably with more screaming. Sure, these words can be seen as ugly, but they’re a natural part of language. Avoiding swearwords altogether is like avoiding the letter ‘z’—it might be rare, but you WILL stumble across it eventually, and having a slice of pi—a would be very odd.

I’ve also heard the argument that authors in the classical era didn’t swear. Anyone who’s read classical plays, Shakespeare, or even Jane Austen can easily refute that. ‘Damn’ used to be considered as powerful as ‘f$%#’, and now it’s used in kids’ movies. That’s right—the logical corollary is that even Jane Austen dropped a few ‘D-bombs’ once in a while, even if they were often censored.  Arguably, you could also say that just because classical authors did it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

So, my final words are these—whatever your religious or moral persuasion, in writing, it simply won’t do to avoid cursing completely unless you're writing children's books. You can make up the occasional curse-word as a substitute, but make sure you use it the same way as traditional curses, swears, and oaths. Don’t make your characters talk like Sunday-school teachers unless they are, and even then—I’m pretty sure every Sunday-school teacher has hit their thumb with a hammer at some point in life. 

What are some of the most creative swear words and phrases you've heard? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie--get on the mailing list. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Friday, 20 March 2015

"The First Rule of White Club...": Tokenism and White-Washing

Hello hello!

I haven't been able to drag myself off to Fifty Shades of Grey yet, but my blog is starting to get a layer of dust on it, so I'm here to throw a few posts at you until I can make that happen. (What can I say? I'm usually up for a hatewatch of something like this, and I promised to do it, but I'm really not crazy about the thought of spending thirty bucks on tickets to watch Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan assault good taste and fumble through BDSM horrifyingly.) So instead, let's talk about diversity in writing--especially the dirty side-door policy of cheating at diversity through including tokenism.

Tokenism: is it a problem?

The first rule of white club is that you don't talk about white club. The second rule of white club...well. I'm extremely happy that privilege barriers are breaking down, but as much as this is starting to happen in speculative fiction, there's this safe zone that people are still orbiting. Maybe it's just that I've been spoiled by amazing writers, but between finishing The Night Circus and some of my other reading-around, a particular issue has stuck with me. When a cast features some diversity, but those characters are relegated to sideline roles--should the book get a pass? A lot of authors are lenient on this, but honestly, I'd say no. Fair criticism is part of art, and so is going outside one's comfort zone. Sure, it's fine to start off writing about characters you're comfortable with, but particularly for those of us who are white and born with various kinds of privileges, insulated by our birth-assigned identities, we need to push outside those zones eventually and try to write well-rounded characters. It's not just a matter of equality: it's a matter of technique and pride in the craft. But how do you write diversity?

A challenge to not read white, cis male authors for a year went around recently, and a lot of people lost their minds. I'm not here to talk about that, but I WILL leave this and this here for you to have a look at. The first is a link to Asian speculative fiction authors; the second, a quick sample of some black female writers of spec fic. Considering that there's over 137 authors on these two lists alone, that should give you an idea of just how many sci fi and fantasy writers of colour actually exist--not only do they exist, but there are a lot of them. If you still haven't ventured outside that shelf of sci fi classics, people other than Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler do exist. They exist now. They are writing awesome books. Go read them.

People of colour, people with disabilities, and queer people are not there to be checked off on a list to prove that your book is politically correct. If you're going to incorporate them into your stories, actually incorporate them. It's no different than doing any other sort of research. If you spend five hours looking up London architecture, you can spend half an hour making sure your Latino characters don't flirt with every girl on the block and talk in exaggerated Spanglish.

Seen here: an author you should read. 

The fake PC fight

This could really be an article of its own, but it's heavily linked to what I've already mentioned, so there's not much point. As a mentor of mine put it, '"I don't want to offend" is often code for "you guys are never satisfied". We need a Fuck That checklist for creators. "If the only time you describe a skin color is for the 'ethnic' types, fuck that. If the black sidekick dies, fuck that. If the woman is put in sexual peril for no fucking reason, fuck that."'

The thing is, he's right. Why is it that diversity, even tokenism, are considered 'going out of your way'? It seems like white voices fighting over (fake) free speech and (fake) sensitivity drown out the concerns of actual people of colour who are affected by the issues.

Why is this still a discussion point at all? If you can put five hours into researching cafe' food in London, you can spend half an hour learning about the South Bronx or immigration processes. It's entirely possible to just write 'normal' PoC and have them fit into a story. All characters' lives should include a mix of the good, bad, and ugly.

Murakami's kind of an easy pick, but he's a really good writer. This collection's particularly good.


The discussion tends to go in a certain direction immediately.

"What if I want to write about these characters?" Okay, but why do they have to be white?

"But that's how I envisioned them." Okay, but your imagination doesn't exist in a decontextualized bubble.

"I didn't want to go into racism and sexism and other isms!" If you include rape, social dynamics and fighting, or other forms of conflict, and you mention other characters' backgrounds, why are you leaving out the 'ethnic' characters' backgrounds?

"But I have my gay character come out to the MC!" Does his coming out make a difference? If the coming out doesn't make a difference to the plot, and has no consequences, your gay character is effectively being used as an ethical crutch for your MC. If it has no consequences, than why have the character be in the closet in the first place?

"Won't it distract from my storyline?" Is your storyline so fragile that you can't throw in a line here and there of dialogue to enrich the backstory, or subtle hints in descriptions of characters and rooms, without ruining everything? If your main character is so uninteresting that you're worried fleshing out background characters might ruin them, maybe your main character needs some work.

Behold! More research material!

How to fix it

Give the minor characters a careful scan. Do your white minor characters get all the attention and do all the talking? Do you talk about the backstories of your white characters, but not the people of colour? Are the people of colour disproportionately poor and unfortunate? Do the people of colour act in ways that are at all stereotypical, or speak in different ways than the white characters? Does a person of colour die to save a white character or to underline how serious things are?

Of course, I have to end this with some recommendations for some other favorite authors already doing it right--Minister Faust and Zig Zag Claybourne both tackle diversity issues really well, and Katie de Long proves that you can have your intersectional feminism and romance and get eaten out, too. A couple of webcomics I've been losing my mind over, Nimona and Strong Female Protagonist, also tackle inclusion quite a bit. Again, you don't have to sacrifice your awesome story to talk about these issues. If anything, diversity adds nuance and depth to a story. It opens up new possibilities. Diversity saves us all from boredom and repetition, issues that have plagued fantasy and science fiction for years.

Ultimately, a good story will only be richer for this stuff. Sure, it's daunting, but you can start with short stories featuring protagonists outside your comfort zone, then work your way up. Worried about how to describe a character's skin tone and what kinds of backgrounds characters can have? Trying to figure out how to write a white central protag and still avoid tokenism? Research. At the end of the day, this conversation matters for so many reasons, and if you come at it with sincerity, there will be a lot of people eager to help you.

What are your questions about writing diversity? Let me know in the comments. Let's get talking.

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!