About Me

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

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Elegy for a Mistake: My Toxic Friendship

My usual post style and topics tend to encompass writing techniques, analytical bits and riffs on TV and movies, or even the odd podcast. Once in a while, I turn my attention inward and try to offer lessons by example from my own experience. Today, I find myself talking about a humbling and painful, yet freeing experience: the release of an unhealthy friendship.

Normally, I'm a peppy, jocund, and self-assured writer, with solutions ready at hand by the time an article is ready to go. In public and private, I am known for my likeable and kind personality - though I would privately describe myself as a haplessly bumbling, well-intentioned blowhard.

Let us presume that both cases are simultaneously true. This time, I have only an ouroboros of self-doubt and a cautionary tale. Bear that in mind: this essay lacks an easy or blithe answer to the questions I've posed and struggled with.

A word of warning 


To protect this person's anonymity, I will call them "Micah." I have changed their gender pronouns for this article to enhance their privacy as well. I won't talk about their personal circumstances at much length, either, for the same reasons. Figuring out their identity from context clues in my personal life and my blog is possible, but ultimately, unimportant.

For the same reason, I will not be including screenshots or "proof" or other receipts. I don't want to roast Micah's books or sabotage their career. (For reasons I will outline below, they do a great job of that on their own.)

Another big issue with Micah was my long-term working relationship with them. No matter how much you like someone and trust them, never work for free. More precisely, never work for free. or for exposure, or work trades if you find yourself shouldering a very unequal load.

I did this. I knew better - but Micah (and my own affection for them) let me talk myself into it over and over. And that was far from all that went wrong.

"Everyone has dead people," insisted Rocket Raccoon in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Everyone has their share of mistakes, ghosts, demons, and regrets. Perhaps Micah had more demons than most. But at the time, I saw them as a dammed fine writer and a tough person, a marvel of endurance.

That's still true, but their coping techniques to maintain that survival were another matter. Micah had ways of judging people and justifying their reactions to relatively small incidents that, over time, caused a lot more harm than I realised at first.

The warning signs I ignored 


The thing is, Micah had a thin skin and a very sharp tongue. They were happy to nitpick and harangue anyone and everyone - usually in the safety of our private messages. This included people who thought of them as a friend and authority.

Everyone has gripes with friends from time to time, nitpicks about media, and qualms about significant industry names. Micah had all of those - and a long memory to boot. Eve their partner was far from exempt from critique and bewailing.

Yet I was, until the end of our friendship, the one person almost always exempt from these critiques. Not that I always got praise, but the mildest compliments were gold in the context of their otherwise unceasing criticism.

Surely this seems like an unflattering picture, but consider, reader, the burden of guilty pleasure that lies at my feet. I did not think I was complicit in their unhealthy patterns of criticism; I would sometimes softly defend people, but always in private.

On many occasions, I took the brunt of a fight to defend their honour - from a person who often had no idea Micah was offended. But I got to be the one good person in the world, who measured up - until I didn't.

But even before the change in tenor and tone, things were starting to go wrong. I was avoiding my favorite social media platform and my many friends there, because I dreaded the gloom and pain in Micah's messages. Our primary mode of communication was inevitably draining and depressing. Nobody has to be happy all the time, but unceasing misery is simply not okay.

The problem 


While Micah and I do struggle with similar mental health issues, they had many severe physical issues to boot. I let this excuse their temper, their dark moods, and sometimes arbitrary coping mechanisms fat more than I should. They refused to deal with their mental health issues with medication or supervision - even though said issues were life-threatening.

And I, who normally would have spoken up about that, kept tolerating it.

Micah went to no small effort to convince me they knew best for themselves...even though the benefit of hindsight makes me question that deeply.

The problem is that Micah's depression was thick in their writing, and I think - I know - it sometimes negatively affected my own. Refusing to write happy or happier stories that were "not true to their experience, " they chased off potential fans and professional allies with endless cutting and overly specific arguments.

But I found their positions and their writing eminently defensible. They were very good at articulating arguments which I found persuasive.

When Micah excoriated me on a thread in public, in private, and on Twitter at various points, over a variety of issues, I began to question the state of our friendship. I think it's pretty fair to say that most of us know it's not good form to rip a buddy a new one "in public" or in private, as it were. Especially when, say, you actually agree on an issue, but have failed to state things in the exact way they require and prefer - and when that is an offense meriting a hard scoldin', it's a sign that something's awry.

 Unfortunately, smart people can talk themselves into anything.

The fallout 


I was unable to complete a dark and melancholy book for Micah, and they had a mental health crash - which was,  by that point, indistinguishable from their usual state. They said they wanted to talk less to me because they were deeply hurt that I hadn't recognized the toll of their books on my own mental health - even though I told them as soon as I realised it was a problem, and had found a reasonable way to articulate it. (That took probably 36 hours, for the record. I was unable to criticize their books to myself before that point.)

They were deeply upset, and I blamed myself - for their mental health crash, just as they wanted me to. Realising that I could no longer work for free or be fast enough, I found myself questioning many things about their books - and even Micah themselves.

I even asked a celebrity (whom they'd caused me to pick a fight with by complaining at length about her "horribly offensive, ableist" perspective that writing books too fast and immediately publishing them does not result in good books) for her insight.

Jenny Trout was kind enough to hear me out, and even warn me that a friend like Micah may not be a real friend. That really made me think. Ms. Trout was so eminently reasonable, and I thought about how repetitive Micah's books had been lately, and I just couldn't disagree with her point.

When we continued discussing the topic, Micah had the temerity to refer to artistic writers (as opposed to commercial writers) as "blowhards". When I admitted that had offended me, they took the tack of insinuating that ghostwriting, editing, or enhancing are "not real" writing, or part of a shadowy underground industry, not deserving respect as part of the industry (even though ghostwriting and editing have been present in writing for as long as books have been made.)

Frustrated and upset beyond communication, I had to get my partner to write the message saying I needed a break from Micah.

I spent the next two weeks in agonizing tension, worrying about the future of our friendship. About twelve days into the proposed three-week hiatus, I messaged Micah to check in, hesitantly extending an olive branch.

They ripped into me, accusing my partner and myself of unhealthy and unsafe behaviour towards them - for sending a short, clipped message in the middle of a hard mental health crisis.

As I stared at the screen and skimmed through their messages, I had to face the facts: I would never be good enough for Micah.

I was bound to bump into their exacting rubric of communications and requirements eventually. It had finally happened.

But when I realised I needed to end things, I felt almost deliriously free. I spent a good week smiling and laughing more, and enjoying a generally great mood. But then I had to think about everyone I had blocked or critiqued or mocked with Micah, and the way they encoraged me to shred others. In all, it is almost a wonder that through my relationship with them, I kept the vast majority of my friends.

 How does one proceed? 


Having patience for friends with mental health issues and complex disabilities is vitally important. Learning to talk about people and vent in private, rather than picking fights or airing the pettiest of grievances, are both important. How do I use the best of what Micah taught me while critiquing their perspectives after the fact? Is hard to say what would be different if we had never become close, but there will be no escaping their impact on my music taste, writing, and memories.

There are no tidy answers or how-to charts to figure out whether a friend simply has complex needs, or is facilitating and enabling your bad habits. Unhealthy friendships can also involve a lot of mentorship, support, and intimacy. If they were straightforwardly awful, they wouldn't last.

 but at present. I seem to be, for the first time in my life, unencumbered by any toxic relationships. I have more energy and time for my friends and chosen family, and even my partners (my original partner Andrey, and our queerplatonic housemate Kit).

All I can do is try to wrap my head around both how much and how little I really lost, and apply my lessons to improve my friendships with others, ensuring they feel heard and cared for. At the same time, I must remain safe and self-critical enough to avoid perpetrating the abusive cycle and behaviors all survivors must constantly guard against.

At the end of the day, they left me with conjecture,. and not much else. I thought we were the closest of friends....yet I never heard their voice, met them - or even knew their given name. And there is only so much you can love a friend who won't share their true self with you.


***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime, housemate, and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

Catch up with Michelle's news on 
the mailing list. Her books are available on 
Amazon. She is also active on MediumTwitterInstagramFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. 


Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Global Warming: Why The Winds of Winter May Never Come

This morning, I found myself penning a feisty screed about sequels, and I've been meaning to write an article about them for some time. Apparently, the moment has come. 

I have a theory about why ASOIAF's main storyline is screwed up beyond repair. It's not unrelated to the issues of the Kingkiller Chronicles, which have also been all but abandoned by Patrick Rothfuss.

As much as authors don't owe their fans instant gratification or satisfaction of every whim, offering a finishing date and moving that is a breach of etiquette and trust, especially since it's been going on for so many years. 

I'm no stranger to setting up sequels and struggling to finish them. No author is. But these books have gotten somewhat out of control, and after a few years of trying to discuss it, I think I can summarize the reasons why, both quickly and simply.

The what now? (No, really.)


If you've somehow been living under a rock or in a windowless void in some alternate dimension, A Song of Ice and Fire is the series by George R R Martin that's been adapted to a big-budget tv show by HBO. It's been a smash hit, especially for its controversy-courting topics and often blunt, insensitive approach to issues. It's basically historical fanfiction combining The War of the Roses (mostly as presented by Shakespeare), the Borgias of Renaissance Italy, Mongolian Huns circa Ghenghis Khan's reign, and Vikings, with protagonists plucked from other works of classic literature for spice, and absolutely shameless borrowing from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn's plots and themes (a series by author Tad Williams that features a fire priest, coming winter, undead creatures, nasty political conflict, and the reawakening of magic). 

(If you don't know those names, I recommend a wander through Wikipedia for the basics, because the history stuff is really cool. There's also somewhat inaccurate but entertaining and lush series about the Borgias, Vikings, and Mongolian rulers on Netflix. Shakespeare covered the whole War of the Roses, so you can listen to or watch readings of the plays on Youtube if you're wondering what those were about. There's no shame in reading notes for Shakespeare, and hearing all that intricate speech is easier than reading it sometimes. So now you know!)

Oh, and there's some dragons, intriguing bits of Lovecraft/Robert E. Howard fanfiction that doesn't go anywhere, and nods to Celtic myth cycles that also don't really get used that much. Everyone else and their dog has covered the feminist and representation issues in the series, but this should give you a rough idea of what it's about or what it's like. He also kills way too many peasants in the series, which did not happen in mediaeval Europe, because a) they were civilians and b) peasants are an important resource in a non-industrial country, but I guess that's what it takes for an adequately upsetting body count. 

It has some strong points, like the way Martin manages to subvert tropes by exploring them very fully, and the disability representation is pretty good, in my opinion. It has tons of worldbuilding porn and description porn, but long-term readers of fantasy and pulp aren't going to find anything truly challenging here. Basically, it's fine. But it's not perfect, and it could be better - as I'll explain in a second.

SO - be aware of the SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS referred to herein.

Why should we care? 


The thing is, A Song of Ice and Fire about the Starks. There are other characters, but we meet them first, we are given cues to care about them, and we connect with them. We explore more of their perspectives than those of any other family, including the Targaryens and Lannisters. Ned Stark died in the first book, as we probably all know. However, that wasn't a dealbreaker - as his family got scattered to the winds, readers and Martin had a strong motivation to see them reunited.


The reuniting a family theme is actually underused, but it worked in Fivel Goes West and it worked here. Eagerly devouring the books, we all hoped to see the Starks come back together, surviving their harsh circumstances (which are historically inaccurate as heck, by the way). 

BUT - in book 3, when the Red Wedding happened (killing eldest son Rob Stark, his mother, and his new wife - even though his mother returned as a scary undead lady), it all fell apart. Sure, it was a brilliantly unpredicted plot twist - but it messed up the emotional throughline. 

Who do we care about, and why?


A land is made up of people. The history of a world is meaningless if it doesn't include individuals. By killing off so many Starks one by one - and by killing their direwolves, too - GRRM completely nuked his own emotional throughline. That's why books 4 and 5 start focusing on Noble #5 and Suitor #3, characters that we don't care about, and why they're such a mess. The books would benefit from focusing on non-noble characters, but classism fetishization is an important problem in fantasy as it is, and GRRM does little to remedy it.


All the other families could be torn apart, but by killing too many of his real protagonists, he made the emotional throughline of the book completely collapse. I don't know if it can be fixed, and I think that's why The Winds of Winter just keeps failing to come out. He's trying to write his way out of a hole, but the fact remains that he killed the characters who gave us a reason to give a shit about the story.


Someone might say "but the story is bigger than the Starks!" But that's the point - it isn't. They symbolise so many other families torn apart. There is no real hope in the series. It's equivalent to a romance novel where one of the protagonists gets killed halfway through (in a contemporary setting without magic or tech to bring them back) or a mystery where there's no solution.


What's wrong with that? 


Artistic works usually set up an emotional contract with the reader, albeit an unspoken one: "I will create people and a journey for you to care about, and you will spend your hours reading my work--and in exchange, I will provide you some kind of satisfying conclusion, or at least finish what I set up."


ASOIAF has broken its most important throughline, and the author has inadvertently sabotaged himself. Between that and the pressure of living up to what he's set up - because The Big Fight That Changes Everything is a risky creative choice at the best of times, actually - Martin has to fight himself to get it out. Hence the years of delay. But if an editor had been allowed to cut all those stupid and unemotionally interesting attempts (far too late in the series, I might add) to hook us into someone else to care about, and to mess with his stupid murder-fetish earlier, maybe the series could have been saved.


Of course, I might be wrong, and we might see The Winds of Winter come out any month now. But it sure is hard, as a former fan, to watch the deadlines keep getting pushed. Because it's not just "the book isn't done yet" - it's that he's mentioned release dates, and they fall through over and over. Even if that's his right, it does suck to deal with.

And personally, I just don't care anymore. In such times as these, I've gotten weary of endless dark and gritty tales with few redeeming features. Having outgrown Can Lit and the fetishes of literary fiction - more on that in my next post - I need more than chronically depressed murder-hobo protagonists. 

I need hope, and life, and a world outside the muggy, stifling confines of imaginary Western Europe.


***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime, housemate, and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

Catch up with Michelle's news on 
the mailing list. Her books are available on 
Amazon, and she is also active on MediumTwitterInstagramFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. 

Friday, 13 July 2018

Evil is Boring, and Other Unexpected Things

Like a chipmunk crouching in a forest next to a nuclear reactor, Canada is in close proximity to the slow-motion disaster that is the United States of America. With a president who coasted into office on a wave of electoral fraud constantly compromising the safety of the country's information and people.

A part of me - perhaps unbelievably - is a little embarrassed to be excoriating Trump as thoroughly as I am, even though it's nearly a universally understood truth at this point - and even though his party's legislation has directly resulted in the caging of immigrants and their children, and their detainment in concentration camps.

That said, I think one of the hardest things to understand about Donald Trump is that, inasmuch as he's basically as evil and villainous as it gets, he's not the kind of villain I was raised to to expect.

What is evil?


That's a complex question, but for our purposes, I'm going to reference both aesthetics and intentions. My personal stance on evil is that it's more of a verb than a noun. One's actions, weighed in the balance of their impact, as well as the current historical or contemporary perspective, tend to determine whether or not one is classified as evil. For instance, Winston Churchill tested mustard gas on Kurdish villagers before deploying it during WWII, and the otherwise admirable Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who created the "New Deal" and a number of important social security measures for American citizens, also was responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans. Canada has its own examples of leaders with similarly mixed legacies. In the context of colonialism and that resulting violence, it's hard to canonize any leaders, especially those in the "New World."

That being said, Adolf Hitler's actions and his legacy are pretty good examples - nearly archetypcal examples - of what we see as evil nowadays. (Well, those of us who are not neo-Nazis, anyway.)

But do they look evil?


Between Disney and other fantastical films, very clear portrayals of "a villain" emerged - a villain was supposed to be stylish, attractive, usually or frequently non-white, damaged, and either coded-gay or overtly homosexual (sometimes asexual). In contrast, heroes - especially in the nineties - were usually laid-back slackers, usually white, straight, and male; always heterosexual, and both mentally and physically well, often athletic or extremely nerdy, and usually lacking self-confidence and/or social skills. Frequently, said heroes were disproportionately popular, due to some inexplicable "leadership quality," and I'm sure many of my readers will be familiar with the token reward girlfriends usually accorded to such heroes as a matter of course.

The state of the present


Much hay has been made of the idea that young white men grew up seeing themselves as heroes based on their birthright, and therefore, have not had to do anything to deserve that mantle. Said young and less-than-young men are also increasingly fond of mocking marginalized people who dare set boundaries on the portrayals of their cultures, sexuality, and themselves.

Given that white men and white women voted for Trump in droves, and have continually shuffled out of the way when held accountable for inequality issues, I feel it's fair to say that both the left and right have come to see straight, white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able people as - well, the "enemy," or at least a source of antagonism - and as a "persecuted minority," respectively. That said, from what I can tell black people and other people of colour don't really hate white people, not really - but centuries and decades of persecution and marginalization and abuse have led to a lot of pain and entirely reasonable resentment.

More recently, in addition to the many nigh-endless microaggressions and larger acts of violent discrimination perpetrated against people of colour, images of the cargo shorts-clad and tiki-torch wielding racist protesters trying to "defend their white heritage and children" are inescapable. For white queers, a similar dynamic exists with "the straights" - it's not that we hate straight people, but we exist in a constant state of trepidation, wary of that moment when a friend or relative will suddenly reveal that they hate people like us, or have no interest in preserving the rights of people like us.

Because narratives cut us out of the spotlight or cast us in antagonistic roles, queers and people of colour grew up fixating on minor characters and often, on villains. When I thought about it tonight, my heart cracked to realise that the people who were supposed to be the heroes fighting injustice - ordinary white men - seem to care little about our rights and their so-called birthright - and those who were always cast as villains had ended up being, well, the ones fighting for people's rights to marry, control their own bodies, vote, and not be incarcerated or killed on fatuous or fabricated charges.

Coping with it


On the other hand, I finally had the emotional resources and the chance to watch Black Panther recently, and I think the movie - which did not disappoint - offers both hope and some potential solutions. Martin Freeman's (hilariously) American CIA agent is overtly (and rightly) called a colonizer, but he learns to listen to Nakia and Shuri rather than questioning them or assuming he knows better. The movie nods to the historical reality of American interference in other countries' governments, but unlike Andy Serkis' character, he doesn't refer to the Wakandans as "savages."

The peaceful resolution at the end of the movie brings tears to my eyes as I recollect it. Conquest and murder won't make reparations for the sins of the past (and present). But resources and nurturing might, and will save the current and future generations - as well as enriching all of us.

And personally, that's the future I want. Let me be clear - as a scary leftist, all I want is for everyone in my city, my province, my country, my continent, and this world to be housed, fed, and safe; for people to be happy, healthy, and loved. That includes the straight, white, cisgender people, not just the marginalized.

I want to see what the world can be if we work together to take care of it. I want to see what kind of art we can produce when we have the opportunity to make it, and what we can discover if we put the resources towards the sciences. And from what I've gleaned from talking to anarchists, communists, socialists, and even many people on the liberal spectrum - that's what all of us want.

But to do that, we have to figure out what we're fighting for, and maybe, who we're fighting.

As a writer...


I was never prepared for this eventuality. Will Ferguson's Happiness (TM), a book in which the end of the world is wrought by a self-help book, had some excellent points about the banality of evil. I think a lot of us still think of evil as stylish and classy, but where in that schema do we place a tasteless human vuvuzela like Trump? The bland and smiling "worst teacher you had in high school" persona of Mike Pence has something of a place in the rogue's gallery of archetypes, especially in dystopian fiction. But how do we reconcile with the fact that the people we were taught to trust and idolize - for instance, cops and parents - are only too happy to hurt us?

Honestly? I don't have an answer, so I want to know how all of you feel about this. Reblog, comment, and answer - how do you feel about this reversal? How are you going to write about villains and antagonists?


***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime, housemate, and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

Catch up with Michelle's news on 
the mailing list. Her books are available on 
Amazon, and she is also active on MediumTwitterInstagramFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. 

Friday, 15 June 2018

The World Belongs to You: On the Sunset of White Supremacy

Hello hello!

On a whim, I found myself working on a short story today. There was a contest for a podcast I love, I Don't Even Own a Television, and I decided to actually take a shot at it.

(On a related note, I know that for those of us on slender budgets, rationing out meds is sometimes required - but take your meds, everyone. It's good for you, and good for your creativity.)

For the story, I found myself thinking about a positive comment or two one of the hosts made about Sun-Ra. As a different friend of mine has been inspired by the seminal poet and musician's work for some time, and has been tracing his effects on Afrofuturist literature, Sun-Ra's been on my mind. That and the ridiculous prompt soon blossomed into a tongue-in-cheek skewering of nostalgia-bait. The story itself featured three Black characters trying to run maintenance checks on habitat craft while asteroid-mining on the belts around Saturn, and ended with Tasia, the main character, happily considering her future in the infinite space around her. 

While penning the vignette, I got to thinking about an awkward topic I've been wanting to blog about for a while. As a white person - never a good way to start a sentence, but bear with me - I think about white supremacy and injustice issues a lot. Accepting my place in that system and the place of people who look like me can be thorny. 

So - how do those of us who are white emotionally cope with the historical and present burden of accepting that our ancestors and relatives were and still do wreak havoc and enact violence on so many others?



The Evil Empire 


Maybe it's a little silly, but one of the ways I have reconciled with this is by thinking of it in Star Wars terms. Obviously, this fandom is full of toxicity, and it's pretty illustrative in this instance. 

Being white, particularly in the post-European cultural mishmash of North America, means being the inheritors of the benefits of colonialism. That stolen land and wealth was given to us. And sure, our lives can be hard in different ways - but in others, in fundamental ways, we have been cushioned. 

More so, culturally speaking, white people still dominate in both American and Canadian culture, and in terms of representation. Sure, we're nominally a majority, but if you're reading my blog, you are probably also aware of how disproportionate that representation has favoured us, or at least, people like me (since you, dear reader, may not be white).

But in order to deconstruct that hegemony, those of us who are white have to let go of that heritage. 

Imagine, if you will, being born into the Empire in Star Wars and developing Rebel sympathies. Admitting that everything around you is basically wrong can leave one with a heavy heart, but the only way to fix the world and culture is to face and internalize this fact.



The Sunset of the Elves 


Here's the thing - it's okay to have mixed feelings about that, and to be like, "wait a minute, is this evil? Has my culture, my country, have my ancestors perpetrated and enabled evil?" 

Seeing evil as a verb rather than a state of being, the short answer to that question is "probably, yes." 

While that's rough thing to accept and process - nobody wants, truly, to think of themselves as bad - it also means that we have a chance to gracefully fade. I'm editing a project that deals with white supremacists and racists right now, and seeing things from inside that has given me a surprising empathy for them. However, as both the author and myself agree, violence and fear are not the way to protect that legacy. 

For one thing, Black people and other people of colour aren't particularly out to destroy all remnants of European cultural heritage, and more specifically, of whiteness. But - those of us born white should do that for them. 

It's not that I'm saying we ought to destroy every celebration, or that things like pagan traditions should be forgotten, but we absolutely have to let them become less prominent and make room in culture for the expressions of others. And maybe there's a tiny bit of romance to playing our part in letting the sun go down on evil, and watching others flourish. While the elves are not conventionally evil in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, the metaphor of transition still works decently, at least for my mindset.

And maybe it's okay for the empire, and us, its children, to recede and fade a little. We've dominated so much for so long - to the detriment of our own compassion and humanity, because that dominance came about through no natural means; only violence and control. (And I reject the proposition that violence and control are a "natural" way to live or some mark of triumph among a species that is, by evolution and fate, as pro-social and inclined to altruism as humans are.)



Shown: just one of the cultural groups I didn't even know about until a couple weeks ago.



But what do we get in exchange? 


Selfishly speaking - as most of this post is - it can be hard to let go of power. But we are still allowed to witness and, when invited, participate in the joy of others. 

The problem with whiteness - not merely European-ness, but whiteness, the construct - is that it is inherently restrictive. For those unfamiliar with its precedent, whiteness is an artificial invention devised by slavers to distinguish themselves from enslaved people. Specifically:


"The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America."

Let that sink in for a moment. Whiteness has erased European cultural heritages, flattened out shared heritage - for after all, if one is to benefit from whiteness, one must supuress and avoid any sharing or serious investment in other cultures, be they Indigenous, Asian, Black, or anything else - and only dabble with them, not engage.





The fight for equality


Even more perniciously, letting ourselves fear the safety and sanctity of whiteness - an artificial construct, as with racism in general - keeps us divided from other oppressed people and even just our neighbours. If we fear, hate, or deride others, why would we invite them to our table, or show compassion for them, or help them out?

We are stronger together. The world we live in, and the world of the future, will continue to be beautiful and diverse and amazing. And within that word, "diversity", there are more colours and shades and cracks and crevices than we can even understand. Multiculturalism doesn't mean a weird, indistinct melting pot - it means that people with thousands of years of history in their own rights can come together, share, discuss, and create new things. It means that people can live in different places, and come up with new foods, and that nobody ever has to be bored again. 

I'm not sure how to express just how beautiful humanity is, or how many different ideas and histories and experiences there are in the world.

It's truly a matter of going from a monochromatic view of the world to full-colour. It's dizzying, and wonderful, and sometimes even painful - but there's so much to share and enjoy. And yes, there are still points of friction, because rejoicing in our shared humanity and differences doesn't mean we can forget the legacy of all this pain and violence - but the future is, and can be, so bright.

As I said to one of my friends this afternoon, "the future belongs to you."

***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible. Catch up with Michelle's news on the mailing list. Her books are available on Amazon, and she is also active on MediumTwitterInstagramFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. 





Friday, 27 April 2018

Marvel's "Infinity Wars" is Trash and Maybe You Should Skip It

I'll cut to the chase today.

This post is absolutely loaded with

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


for "Infinity War", which came out last night. Read no further if you are dead-determined to see this movie.

So: first, it does follow the comic storyline, and I am aware of that - but comics are not a golden, unquestionable authority, and previous movies have deviated from or altered the canon as necessary, so insisting that it follow canon religiously is absurd (and not even possible).

Still, at no point does this excuse the fact that the heroes who die are those coded as queer, the less-than-alpha males, the people of colour, and the women - Loki, Gamora, Scarlet Witch, Drax, Black Panther, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and others. Sure, they'll probably be brought back to life using the time reversal in the comics, and yes, there are movie franchise sequels in the works for several of these, but that doesn't make this okay. Bucky and Spiderman do die, sure, but they're "softer" - and coded queer (especially frustrating since Marvel's sacrificed queer representation for the sake of that green, green foreign release money in China and Russia).

While a dictator occupies the White House and trespasses on laws of his land, while ICE agents and police officers haul out people of colour from their homes, while sex workers face persecution under SESTA/FOSTA, and while women live under policies that make it easier to die than get an abortion or reproductive health options, we cannot use genocide as a plot device.

Sure, it's supposed to be tragic, but having Thanos magically genocide half of the universe - the queer, non-white, non-rich, non-male half - is not escapist. It's cruel at best and triggering at worst.

But there's more to this problem. As the writers gleefully and clumsily skip past the actual implications and work of smoothing out the romance between Peter Quill and Gamora, heading straight to on-screen smooching to show progression, Gamora becomes tragedy bait. Gamora is sacrificed and fridged by her abuser, Thanos - making the story she and Nebula have undergone all about Thanos and Peter. Even if her death is undone, the twist here is appalling and irresponsible to survivors of abuse.

The heroes who live are white, male, powerful, and apparently, less disposable. Sure, Captain Marvel is coming, but distracting us with a new toy to make us forget the ones we lost only works on toddlers.

So, no - even though Thor: Ragnarok was exultant and wonderful, even though Black Panther was a revelation, even though Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was wonderful and subtle in many ways - I'm not sure I can stay with Marvel. To have marginalized people used as trauma porn for the development of the societally empowered characters is too much for me. It throws out the work of those movies.

In short - maybe Infinity Wars won't upset you, and maybe you can enjoy it, but if any of this sounds like it will reduce you to tears or a panic attack, give this one a miss.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Want to Write Better Books? Stop Watching Television

When it comes to storytelling, most of us grow up immersed in visual language. Television and movies and Youtube series can be extremely potent, and tell inspiring stories - but when it comes to translating that storytelling method to the page, they can be a writer's worst enemy.

I can always tell when people have been watching more TV than reading books because there's a similar pattern of errors. Drawing from my own screw-ups and experiences and combining them with things I've learned from reading hundreds of books, I've compiled a useful list intended for newer writers with an eye on publishing.

At the risk of bowing to clickbait with my title, I'd like to make a case for aspiring writers to scale back their television-watching time and spend that on short and long-form fiction. Even fanfiction inspired by TV can help exercise that writing muscle more than watching stories alone, and I've made the reasons why into an easy-to-read list.


1) TV writing is often bad and illogical 


There's no good way to put this - the behaviour of characters on Lifetime made-for-TV movies, criminal dramas, and night-time dramas or medical shows is often exaggerated and vastly distant from reality. The best TV shows and movies do have good writing - but let's be honest; we don't always watch the best of the best. That's not a bad thing, but when it comes to writing, 'you are what you eat' is very much an applicable idiom.

It's hard to write emotionally authentic decisions and ethical debates when paranormal teenagers are fighting in the most dramatic ways possible. Because of the narrative constraints of episodic storytelling, which is the norm for continuing TV shows, antagonists are often thinly written and illogical, and characters who conflict with the main cast tend to be cruel, rude, or selfish in ways that an actual human person would not dare to be when confronted or opposed. Villains and antagonists are an important part of every story, and they're usually the biggest letdown, because their actions are often dictated by whatever inflicts the most suffering on main characters. Shows have to compress as much interest in the problem-of-the-week as possible, while still adhering to the (usually more complex) long-term plot.

The thing is, these are really bad habits for writers to pick up. It's taken me a lot of work to unlearn the villain-of-convenience habit. Antagonists and villains need to have strong motivations - even stronger than the protagonist(s)', at times. Otherwise, their actions make no sense on a fundamental level, and the narrative thread of the story will completely unravel. This is not to say that antagonists and villains have to be "evil" per se - in fact, evil is usually a matter of perspective. However, stories are driven by what people want and the people who want things. If they don't have a thing they want that remains somewhat consistent, or has a reason for changing, the story will sputter and its engine will stop turning over.


2) Visual storytelling and literary storytelling are different mediums


This sounds obvious, but hear me out. In working on a recent project, I saw a scene wherein a character went up the stairs after a party, took off her jewelry, texted her friend - and suddenly, her abusive alcoholic father appeared in her room and started threatening her. The scene was clearly patterned after the classic "jump scare" style.

The problem is that jump scares don't work in written fiction. In order to mimic the effect created by a jump scare, we have to break down the scene and the rising tension created by it. A camera panning around and showing the scene, the slow shot of a character walking up the stairs, and the subtle tension created by having a character do ordinary things without realising that they are in danger may not be conveyed by simply saying that character walks up the stairs, takes off their jewelry, and prepares to use the bathroom. Those words don't express the information conveyed by the same camera shots and edits, or by the creeping shriek of violins or synth music in a score. Words can express that tension - but not if writers take what they see on TV (or computer) screens at face value.

Mimicry is not enough. We have to understand why things happen and why we are shown or given certain pieces of information, and why things are portrayed in certain ways. We must learn to see the framing devices used in fiction of all kinds, not accept them as the way the world works.

3) Hide things from the reader


As the audience, we may not realise that storytelling techniques are being used to convey a story, because we're busy reacting to it. That's okay! It's good to watch or read something and just experience the emotions intended, and enjoy the ride of the story. However, if a book has a deep impact on you, and you admire it, it's worth reading the book at least one more time to try and see the places where it was most effective.

For example, in a tense scene, a character might scan a room, looking for a weapon, and the author or narrator may describe the contents of said room.

In a dingy hotel, a bed covered in rumpled sheets, the bolted-down lamps and furniture and a clunky television may not offer much. As the character looks around, they might notice there are some glasses on the bureau or in the bathroom, and pick those up, hoping to throw them at the assailant pounding on their door.

In this vignette, the words 'pounding', 'dingy', and 'rumpled' offer the most descriptive power. However, we don't know what the antagonist on the other side of the door looks like, what kind of weapons they have, if any, or even what their name is. While there might be a little more context in a book, the very limited scope of this one scene shows that using immediacy and restricting the view and information available to the reader can create more tension.

I often see this problem in longer-form works as well - and I've certainly made the mistake myself: the error of trying to cram in too much exposition in the first few chapters. It's hard not to worry that an audience will get lost or miss something, but audiences just don't need as much information to enjoy a story as authors do to write it.


4) All books are not created equal


Some books are designed to convey a story as efficiently as possible, often to meet the reader's emotional needs - this is the case for most commercial fiction. Some books are intended to please the reader's intellect or evoke more complex emotions, and often take their time in the storytelling or break rules - this is often the case for literary fiction. Upmarket fiction combines both of these needs. That's not to say that commercial fiction can't have moments of beauty, or that literary fiction can't be fun to read, but it's important to know that these two broad types of fiction have different goals - and that both have their advantages and disadvantages.

It's important to know which markets your book is destined for, and to be honest about it with yourself. Do you write weird fiction that kind of straddles genres and has little philosophical narrative kicks? Do you secretly just want to write fun books about sex and guns? Do you like writing about kissing and emotional drama, but crave a good plot to complicate things? There are readers who want books like each of these, and looking for similar books to yours can help you figure out who will want to read it.

It's vitally important not to confuse the people you want to impress with the people who will probably read your book. I've made this mistake. It's hard not to want to change the world with a book, but you're more likely to achieve that goal if you get the book into the hands of people who will like it in the first place - enthusiastic readers will share what they like, and word of mouth is still the oldest and strongest form of marketing.


5) If you're working in a medium, engage with it 


Having a good vocabulary is essential. This seems like a daunting task - how do we learn more words? Where do we even get the words? How do we know which words are better to use? However, it's not as bad as it sounds. Reading non-fiction news articles in one's Facebook feed can help; honestly, just snatching everything with written words in it and picking it up to read it, even warning signs in bathroom stalls or advertisements at bus stops, can make a difference.

Of course, books and short stories are an ideal place to start. Short stories and short story collections can be a great way to work more fiction into your diet. Ideally, it's best to read a wide variety of books. Having favorite authors is fine, and having favorite genres is fine, but both a) reading widely within your genre and b) reading widely in general will help you try new things and expose you to different ideas and inspirations. Have you ever read a western? An old Harlequin bodice-ripper? A modern romance novel? Women's fiction? A techno-thriller? African-American literary fiction? A gay coming-of-age tale? Grab something off the shelf with your eyes closed and start reading - you don't even have to start from the beginning, if you really don't want to, but try to give the strange new book a chance.

The more you read, the more comfortable your brain will become with the storytelling methods, conventions, and styles that authors use. It's not about copying people or being 'unoriginal', although those are okay for practice techniques - it's about fluency. Writing well is very difficult if you don't read!


6) Emotions are important


Just putting in a description of a character's actions doesn't convey their mood, emotions, or what's going on inside their heads. It can - but it's essential to think about why a character is doing something, and which life experiences have contributed to the decision they're undertaking in that moment. People never just do things - and stopping to consider why a character grabs a wire hanger to fight back, whether they'd cower or flee, and whether they'd be able to speak their thoughts honestly are all vital to communication.

In daily life, we may hesitate to speak or act frankly, and that's not always a bad thing. There's something to be said for honesty, but there's also something to be said for respecting the feelings and desires or needs of others. For example, if Manpreet and Cynthia are friends, and Cynthia is wearing a new sweater she just finished knitting, Manpreet may want to tell her the sweater is ugly. But then Manpreet's desire for validation of her opinion will conflict with Cynthia's need for validation of her efforts. There's nothing wrong with these conflicts, nor with learning when to hold one's tongue or put something carefully, and expressing that characters are going through those steps is a great way to show conflict and emotion in a work of fiction.


7) Traditional literature may not be for you 


Frankly, I think more authors should try different storytelling formats just to see if they find one that's a better fit. Books tend to be the default for creative storytelling, but honestly, they're just not for everyone because they don't always skew to people's internal storytelling style. Sometimes books just don't play to people's strengths. People who are dialogue-oriented may find that plays do the trick. People who like visuals that are continuous may want to try out writing screenplays of various kinds. Still others may want to try writing graphic novels, and either hiring illustrators or illustrating work themselves. The trick is to figure out how you think - in pictures? In moments? In words? - and find the medium that expresses your feelings and thoughts most adequately.

Telling a story is an act of communication, and to communicate well requires a lot of effort, practice, and study. New authors should consider this before rushing to publish their first work, because the enthusiasm and fire of the story experience inside an author's head may be different from the experience of the reader from going through content on the page.

Ultimately, writing is hard. There's a reason that career authors, amateurs, and aspiring writers often despair over it. And honestly, that's okay. There's a joy to the process of learning techniques, to finding the right word. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, because it's easier to get appreciation from others if your work is careful and shows skill.


8) Writing a good book means creating a book to be read


This is always the hardest part of storytelling. Do we, as writers, craft stories we want to read and tell, or for our audience? Sometimes a weird cross-genre story works, and sometimes a story pulls from so many different genres and influences and goes in so many directions that it's hard to see who will pick up on it. Many of us may dream of adulation or praise from masses of readers, but putting faces on those masses is the important part. It's okay to want that - but wanting it alone is not enough to grant it, and merely creating something is not enough to deserve fame and praise.

It's not about 'that mediocre book that's doing so well! I could write better!' - it's about writing better than yourself. It's hard, during the honeymoon phase of completing a project, not to feel like it's the apex of creative works in one's native language. If I sound sarcastic, it's because I know this euphoric high, and I know the unfortunate consequences of trusting it too blithely. Simply put, the problem is not even bad reviews - it's crickets. Unless a book is waterproofed beyond the 'good enough' state, it may not be worth reading.

All creative works are risks, and to attain the prizes of money and positive attention, it's worth making sure a book makes sense from an external perspective, and is a satisfying read. Of course, not every friend or person you know will be an ideal member of your reading audience, so finding anonymous or professional beta readers can be very helpful - even if just for the sake of seeing how a book comes across to someone who knows very little about it. You may find that your book is very appealing for a reason you totally did not anticipate.

Above all, writing the book isn't about you. It's about the audience, the characters, or the story itself.


9) Publishing is scary and hard 


It's okay to be overwhelmed from time to time. It's not even that I'm trying to discourage people from putting their books out for mass consumption - it's that I want to help people make sure the books they put out are as good as possible. There's no such thing as a bad book, just an imperfect book; 99.99% of books that have issues can be saved with a good editor or editors, multiple sets of eyes, and a willingness to tweak and revise.

Drafting books is a process. It took me years to get over the idea that one draft was enough, and that I'd get every idea and nuance down in one go-through. That isn't the case, and it rarely is for many authors! Eventually, realising that I just had to get down a skeleton, and that I could modify and elaborate on things when I had the patience for them, was tremendously freeing. Not only have I stopped hating revisions, I look forward to them. When you know in your bones that the scene and the story feels right, few experiences compare to that.

Publishing, however, is a lot of work - getting used to learning about advertising, knowing where to find information about advertising, buying a cover, researching genres, writing a good blurb, finding people to hire for these various services - it can really add up to an ordeal. Still, doing all that work is a little easier and a lot more rewarding if you feel a rock-hard certainty about the quality of the book in the first place - and it can even make the other stuff easier, because you know what to draw from and what to look at.


10) If all else fails, Google is your friend


Just going for a Google safari or searching around on Amazon isn't something most of us do anymore - our 'wasted time' on the internet usually involves going to a website we already know or frequent regularly, clicking through content, and scrolling through various newsfeeds. However, these habitual paths may not yield as much information when preparing to publish. Simply going to Amazon or Google as if you were looking for a new book and entering various keywords in the search bar - things associated with your book or genre, like 'science', 'scientist', 'adventure', 'comet', 'asteroid', 'crash', 'aliens', or other pertinent terms - can be surprisingly fruitful.

You can also look up books (or shows) you admire and see what people read after reading or watching them. The more books you have to compare to, the more readers will understand your book's place in the market or library. Referencing shows and movies in a blurb is not ideal.

At the end of the day, I'm glad so many people take the leap into trying to write, and finishing projects, but actually trying to sell a book to readers isn't the same thing as merely writing for the satisfaction of it. And writing privately for satisfaction is fine! It's just that when a book hits either an editor's desk or the market, it should be as ready for readers' eyes as possible, and thoroughly vetted - even if it's been self-published.

***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and nightmares, as well as social justice issues. She is currently working on the next books in her series, other people's manuscripts, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible. Catch up with Michelle's news on the mailing list. Her books are available on Amazon, and she is also active on MediumTwitter, InstagramFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. 
Google+