Dear America, You Have an Anti-Semite Problem & It’s Not Very Attractive

Here. Let me help. It’s stuck to your chin like a half-popped zit, oozing all over the place.

Ok. Pull up a chair, in front of my very imaginary, but very luxe faux fireplace. I’ll pour you a beer. Or a glass of wine. Totes up to you. Comfy? Good. Let’s talk.

I seem to be getting the impression that just because you don’t overtly spew anti-Semitic slurs all over the place [yes, yes I know all about the Alt-right sites, internet comment sections, and a certain Cheeto’s mentions], that means America is no longer anti-Semitic.

*cough* Yeah. ‘Bout that.

You can be an anti-Semite without calling Jews names. You can be an anti-Semite by blaming us for our own oppression that is caused by non-Jews, just by the existence of our Jewishness.

Yes. That is possible. Even if it is so profoundly illogical it makes my head hurt.

Any time you tell a joke that punches down at a marginalized group [like Jews], you are behaving in a way that is racist. Those jokes dehumanize the very people in them, and the next time you encounter a Jew it’s that much easier to reduce them to a stereotype [which flourish in the “jokes”].

We don’t control the world. We’re very often dirt poor. We’re very often also considered non-whites in the Pure ‘N’ Clean Whiteness Power Hierarchy [we’re often put right above brown folks, but vilified to a greater extent than some brown/black folks–“at least they’re not Jews” is something that’s been tossed around about PoC a lot]. Sometimes we actually aren’t white. [My heritage both is and isn’t. But this isn’t a post about European vs Middle Eastern traditions.]

Often our Jewishness is just a cultural heritage that gets mentioned for weddings and bris’ and funerals and the few times a year we attend temple. More and more often, it has to become a cultural [or “in name only”] heritage because parents are turning away from faith as a way to save their own children from oppression.

Because:

  • We’re living in a world where active propaganda work is being done in resurrecting the old blood libels.
  • We’re living in the 21st century and people actually fucking believe in that centuries old shit.
  • We’re living in a country where a major party’s candidate is openly supporting people who spout this nonsense.

I don’t say much about my faith, because my faith is intensely personal. I don’t say much about my faith because every time I do and someone I don’t know wants to spread my words around, I get nervous. I don’t know if this will be the time that someone says something hateful to me, or if they support me, or if they’re performing allyship in a way I’m just not that comfortable with [without informing me that’s what they’re doing].

I don’t say much about my faith, my inner spiritual being, because I watch other people speak of their Jewishness, and instead of being met with love [as Christians should have been taught to do, like us Jews are taught: to love our neighbors, the Christian text comes directly from Jewish traditions, we’ll forget all about the plagiarism ;)], they are met with hate piled upon hate.

I’ve watched Jewish synagogues be attacked and targeted in Western Europe. I’ve seen cemeteries desecrated, with slurs and Nazi symbols. I’ve heard and seen the denial of the West & the East of the greatest tragedy to affect the Jewish people as a whole–the Shoah. I’ve seen Jewish folks attacked in Jerusalem. I’ve seen a Jewish retirement center attacked within the borders of the United States.  This isn’t just a world-wide problem, it’s here.

I’ve heard anti-Semitic slurs from supposedly liberal folks, and those cut the worst. Liberals are supposedly on the side of making the world a better and more equitable place, yet some still reserve a spot in their heads for hateful language against a religion and culture. The same folks who will scream that something is anti-Muslim, or racist, will often spout an old slur about Jewish people.

I’ve heard “You Jews” in a tone of voice that has made me scrape my chair back and look for exits–and this was from someone I had considered a friend.

I’ve heard my entire life that we have to hide our religion, because it’s still not safe to be openly Jewish in America. The land of the fucking free and we have to be careful who we say “I’m Jewish” to and how much we say.

Is it any fucking wonder that when I do speak of my Jewishness I use a half-dead language [Yiddish] and coded terminology to refer to my religious beliefs? And sigh in relief when I find I’m either talking to a religious scholar or another Jew, because they reply in kind?

As I’m also queer, this “hiding in plain sight” has been ingrained in me. Outing another Jew, without their permission, often feels like it has more permanent and more immediately deadly consequences than outing someone’s sexuality [I do neither, because it’s not my place, and I am not going to bear the responsibility for that]. It’s on par with outing someone who is trans*, in terms of how deadly it could potentially be.

So, you’ll forgive me America, if I don’t trust you to do the right thing. I don’t trust that you’ll prosecute hate crimes leveled specifically against Jews, with criminals who specifically speak to performing those crimes against Jews because of hate and anti-Semitic beliefs. I don’t trust that you’ll treat us reporting our harassers seriously. I don’t trust that you are my ally in the fight against the oldest hate, anti-Semitism.

But America, you need to stop. Right now.

No more “jokes”. No more spreading the blood libels. No more hate.

I love my country. I love my American-ness. My family, on both sides, has been here for a very long time, bleeding and suffering on behalf of making this country what it is today. [No really, in every major war America’s had my family was there and fighting. Well. Not the War of 1812, but that was a couple of sea battles and a burnt house in the Potomac, and some stuff in Canada but who cares about Canada?]

But I am not required to love your hate. I do not have to educate you out of it.

That burden is on you.

 

 

Dear America, You Have an Anti-Semite Problem & It’s Not Very Attractive

Retired Superheroes

This is a story about Jax, a transman, and his wife Jewel, a transwoman. They’re in the last stages of their lives together, and this week more than anything, we need a story that focuses on hope, on survival. I was going to clean this up and submit it, but honestly, I need the money less than our community needs this kind of story. I hope it’s enjoyable. I had a bunch of fun writing it. [And Twitterfolks, some of the things I was tweeting about will make a whole lot more sense now.]

***

“Ready to save the world one last time, old girl?” I asked Jewel.

She was already sitting up in bed when I came in the hospital room door. Her wig was off, her skin papery thin and tattooed with spidery veins, just as mine had become over the years.

“Can’t you leave a dying woman in peace, Jax?” she wheezed. Oxygen tubes were coming out of her nose, askew from the last time she scratched her nose.

“They can’t let us live in peace, much less die in fucking peace,” I said. “Where’s your chair?”

Jewel waves to a large built in wardrobe. I see her wheelchair folded up next to it.

“What are we saving the world from this time, Jax? Aliens? Werewolves? Republicans?”

I laughed. “No, but I should tell you about the time that I met some aliens. Remember how back in the day I used to do drag king shows? We met at a drag show, didn’t we?”

Jewel laughed, until she started coughing up red. I went to her and patted her on the back and got her some water. She drank it and gasped until she could breath again. Jewel waved me away impatiently, not wanting me to wait on her hand and foot, like I did at home.

“If we’re going someplace, I’ll need my wig and my boobs. You’ll have to help me with them, Jax.”

I pulled her brassiere with the gel breast inserts already in place and started helping her into it.

“So, way back, when I was a baby transman,” I said, “I was doing a Bowie routine.”

“That’s not someone you think of often anymore,” Jewel said.

“Yeah, and that sucks. But I had the routine down pat. Even had the orange hair, ’cause I was doing the Ziggy Stardust persona.”

Jewel’s eyes widen a bit. “That had to be a pretty sight. Skin tight leotard too?”

I blushed. “Uh, yeah. The whole works. But anyways, that’s not important. Well, not really important. So I was in the middle of my set when the roof blew off–”

“You weren’t doing a drag show in the middle of a tornado warning were you? I know you don’t have the sense your mama smacked into you, but–”

“No, wasn’t a tornado. Would you let me finish? God. You never could let a man finish a damn sentence to save your life.”

I buttoned up her shirt and leaned over to kiss her cheek, mostly to make up for losing my temper—an old habit from the days when I first started transitioning full time and seemed to go off about any little thing. Now we argued mostly to have something to do with our time.

Jewel smiled at me. “Ok, go on.”

“Where was I? Oh, right. The roof blew off. Well, the power got knocked out as well, so it was dark as could be. Full moon that night. The weird thing is with all that happened, after, I still remember how the moon looked impossibly full that night.

“I worked with a Madonna drag queen at that show, like early 90s Madonna, ya get me?”

Jewel nodded.

“And turns out she was a pretty good shot with a rifle. Not that it did much good. Pissed the aliens off I’m pretty sure.”

“Wait,” Jewel said. “Aliens? And how high were you that night, exactly?”

“Wasn’t high.” I yanked Jewel’s wig into place, eliciting a yelp from her. “Sorry, babe. Someone forgot to take a pin out.” I straightened everything into place and gave her a thumbs up.

It took us a while to figure out the best method for getting Jewel and her oxygen tank into the wheelchair as comfortably as possible. I wasn’t as young as I used to be, otherwise I would have lifted her up out of the bed and set her down in her chair as gently as I could. And the hospital floors were slippery, so it took us a few minutes of skidding around and setting brakes before getting her into her chair.

“But anyways. I was there all dressed up like Bowie, had been singing Space Oddity, when the aliens showed up. Pete—that was the Madonna gal—had run out of bullets and was getting everyone down into the basement. I was helping, but then all of a sudden I felt something.”

“Like what?” Jewel asked.

“I dunno. Like the absence of anything, I guess. It was weird as hell. Then the alien hands me a copy of a Space Oddity record. It was all dinged up, like it had legit come from the 70s.”

“You are so full of shit, Jax. Aliens came all the way to earth for a fucking autograph from a drag king? Please.”

“No, this really happened, Jewel. I am not making it up.” I huffed as I pushed her chair up a slope towards the main desk.

We got to the main desk and a bored receptionist was talking on the phone. She held up a finger. I found the clipboard I needed and signed my wife out. I waved to the receptionist and she put a hand over the phone.

“Where are you going, Ms. Jewel?” she asked.

“My husband’s taking me to save the world one last time,” Jewel said.

“Ok, honey, but you gotta be back by dinner time. We’re having your favorite tonight: potatoes and steak. I think there’s gonna be ice cream for dessert.”

“Alright, we’ll be back in time.”

The receptionist waved us off, hitting the button for the door so I didn’t have to wait for the door to open. I pushed Jewel into daylight.

She held up a hand, the bright sunlight blinding us both.

“Sunglasses, dear.”

I pulled them out of her purse and handed them to her. I pulled my own pair off the top of my head and we kept going.

“You were saying?” Jewel said.

“Oh. Right. Well this was just after Bowie had passed, so what—30, 40 years ago? And here I was with an alien that wanted David fucking Bowie’s autograph on Space Oddity. I couldn’t tell anything about the alien, because there wasn’t a body there. It wasn’t really there, if you know what I mean. Just an absence of light, an absence of everything. What was I supposed to do? The album was hanging in dead air along with a pen.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, at first I didn’t think. I kinda said that he’s dead, man, and all that. The presence shifted, just a little bit and it felt like the alien was getting angry. I told it, as I signed the album, that I meant that aspect of Bowie was dead. This seemed to make the alien a little bit calmer. It slurped the album and pen back inside itself—which was fucking weird to see, let me tell you. And then it left.”

“That’s it. That’s your ‘I met aliens who wanted David Bowie’s autograph story’? Jesus, Jax. That’s the stupidest story I’ve ever heard you tell and I’ve heard you tell a lot of them.”

We’d made it to a crosswalk. I set the brakes and hit the cross button. I stood there in silence for a while.

I cleared my throat. “But the weirdest thing of all is, you know–”

“What’s weird about that story, sweetie?”

“After everything was done, the roof was back on, I was in the middle of singing ‘Space Oddity’ and it was like nothing ever happened.”

Jewel laughed. “Ok, you were high as a kite then. I knew it!”

The crossing signal chirped at us and I looked both ways before starting across.

“If you’ve got a better story, I’d love to hear it,” I said.

“I do, but first promise me that after we’re done ‘saving the world’ that I can get my nails done on the way back.”

“Sure thing.”

“Good. Just ’cause I’m dying doesn’t mean that I don’t want to look nice. Would you believe that they won’t let me go and get my nails done at the home?”

I shrugged. Keeping myself pretty was something I’d never been good at. And once I transitioned, I’d given up all pretense at even trying. Besides, that was more Jewel’s arena.

“So, what about about that story you promised, Jewel? We’ve got a few minutes before we’re there.”

“Oh! Right. Well, this was a long time ago, way before we ever met. So don’t go and get jealous on me, yeah?”

“I won’t get jealous of some little shit ex lover of yours, I promise.”

Jewel laughed. “He wasn’t an ex. Not really. We went on exactly one date. And that didn’t end well for him.”

“No?” I laughed.

Jewel got quiet. “Don’t laugh, Jax. Killing someone is no laughing matter.”

“What? When did you ever kill someone? You’re the kindest, sweetest–”

“Thank you honey, but you know that for us girls it was harder back then. You guys would blend in, maybe not completely, but enough that most straight dudes wouldn’t question you.” Jewel sighed.

It had sucked. Binders were still a necessity back when I first transitioned, for lots of folks. I still had to wear one, when I went out, because I hadn’t qualified for the insurance to pay for my surgery, not when it would have made a damn bit of difference. Once I got going on T, which ironically, my insurance would pay for, things got a whole lot easier.

I couldn’t even imagine how much more difficult it had been for Jewel, when she’d first transitioned.

I waited for Jewel to start again.

“I’d met this guy on Tinder. He seemed sweet, not like he was a tranny chaser or anything. I agreed to meet up, the once, because hell he was hot. I already knew he was lying about his age, because he said he was something like 31, but his eyes said differently. They were way old.”

“Huh,” I said. “Got to love a Tinder story. Even now, when all the cool kids are just linking brains through the net and jacking off that way.”

Jewel snorted. “When we met up we went out to dinner. Had a nice time. We were getting ready to get a cab when he grabbed my arm, pulled me back from the curb. He’d thought he’d seen someone getting ready to swerve into the right hand lane and splash me. They hadn’t, but in all that twisting I’d broken a heel. My best pair of stilettos too, if you can imagine it.”

“Oh, no, not your favorite heels? Is that why you killed him?” I laughed, still not taking Jewel all that seriously.

“I was waving the broken stiletto at him, poking him in the chest with it. I didn’t realize it was that sharp, not until after.” She stopped.

My smile kind of faded away, the longer she was silent.

“Then it sorta slipped into him—the broken heel—and after that, well, there wasn’t much after that. I pile of ash where my date had been a moment before.”

“So…you think he must have been a vampire?” I asked.

“What else could he have been? Needless to say, I didn’t date again for a long while after that. Moved out of New York too. Came out here. We met, I dunno, two, three years after that? At that drag show. You weren’t performing Bowie anymore by then.”

“No. I never performed as Bowie after that night.”

I turned Jewel down another street and we could see more people congregating near the park.

“Who were you performing as when we met?” Jewel said. “I can’t remember anymore. It’s been so long.”

“Yeah, it’s been ages. I think I was doing one of the new Jpop outfits from the late 20s. They had some fun stuff.”

“Oh! That’s right. Fukushima’s Revenge, wasn’t it?”

“Sounds like something I’d have been into at the time.”

I turned onto the park grounds and headed towards the stage. Jewel craned her neck to try to see me.

“Jax? Where are we going? I thought we had to save the world.”

“We are. Remember that whackadoodle who insisted that us folks who hadn’t had good enough insurance coverage to fully transition didn’t and never had existed? Well, Rosalie at the comedy group mentioned that there was going to be a rally today to prove him wrong.”

“Oh,” Jewel said. “I thought we’d be done fighting this shit by now. We’re old. I’m tired.”

“I know. But just one last time, before we go, yeah? Then the kids can take over.”

I parked her wheelchair near the impromptu stage and sat down next to her. I took her hand in mine and we sat there and listened to the trans kids talk about how much more work we had to do to get full equality in the eyes of the law.

But somehow, knowing that we’d been fighting for this day, to say that we had grown old and gray together was enough. We had made enough progress that we could survive long enough to die of old age.

Retired Superheroes

Main Female Characters in the Expanse [and one token dude], a critique

No, no one has ever asked for this. I don’t know that anyone wants this, particularly, but…after reading Books 1-5 in a month, to get all caught up on the series, there were a series of exposition/character description errors that bugged me enough to write a “how NOT to describe your multi-ethnic or female characters” post.

This only happened, in my opinion, with the women characters in the books. Menfolk were not subjected to this level of scrutiny and picking them apart and over-description, men just got to be men.

I’m also not calling the authors, or their first readers, or the publishers racists or sexists for including the following points, I’m just saying…if I as a white person am able to pick up on these things as “oh no, you really didn’t just say that did you”, other folks are able to as well.

Without further ado, Book 1:

I came to Book 1 [Leviathan Wakes] from the tv show. I **adored** the show. I was not…prepared for the book, coming to it in that way.

Naomi Nagata was the character I watched the show for. I fell in love with her characterization immediately, because I can easily relate to the “tough” women characters.

So when I got to the book and the character description started, I was very surprised to see how that was handled.

I’ve never seen the “I’m this % x, and that % y, and this much % z” conversation that white folks have to discuss multi-country heritages done to a mixed race character before. I, uh, wish I could unsee that one too.

No one should describe a character’s ethnic origin by physical feature like they are a Mr Potato Head, but this is a “uh, please don’t do that it’s creepy” warning if you needed one.

Book 2: Caliban’s War [Bobbie & Avasarala]

I’m going to start with Avasarala. They did a great job with integrating an Indian woman into the world wide power structures and conveying her response to being a woman in power. That said…

She’s a man with tits.

And this is coming from someone who acts in similar ways in power structures that are similar to what Avasarala had to deal with in the books. A certain kind of powerful man can be very thrown by a woman outperforming men in the masculinity department. It is definitely a way to have power or to frame certain conversations. I can understand why she does it, I can approve of why she does it.

She still feels like the most realistic woman in the books, which is kinda telling about the rest.

Now, Bobbie. Oh my god, Bobbie. I like Bobbie. I really, really, really, really wanted for her to be my favorite character.

It was really hard to get over the obsession the authors had with the amount of physical space she took up. I completely understand that when an author writes about a POV that doesn’t come “naturally” to the author [because of being different along several different axes of identity], there is a tendency to overcompensate in the other direction. But that doesn’t excuse beating the reader over the head with that kind of overcompensation.

Bobbie is [in part at least] Samoan. The authors are very clear they are not “fat shaming” her, but they do mention [at every opportunity, it felt like] how Bobbie occupied the space she was in.

The authors do not do this for the stocky/overweight men in the books.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that fact.

If they had, I would not have the level of critique about this point that I currently have. We can do better!

We should do better. Especially when you consider that because of her larger than Eurocentric beauty standards frame she is considered “not that attractive” or “scary” to men, or only “attractive to a certain kind of man who likes being towered over by women/femdom”…whooboy. It gets to be really problematic for me.

I really could go on about this point, but she comes back to the story later on, so without further ado…

Book 3: Abbadon’s Gate

Um, kids. Kids have been described in the books before. Girl kids have been described in the books before. But all of a sudden, because Anna’s daughter was mixed race it was cool to describe her as having a “pug nose”.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

Y’all didn’t just go and describe a mixed race [part Black] girl child’s nose as a dog’s did you? No, you did.

There is a horrible heritage of comparing Black people to animals. So the rule is: NEVER DESCRIBE A BLACK PERSON BY COMPARING THEM TO AN ANIMAL. EVER. NO. THAT MEANS YOU TOO. I DON’T CARE IF YOU THINK IT’S ARTY OR NEVER BEEN DONE LIKE THIS BEFORE. NO.

There is no reason that there should be anyone left on this planet who does not already know this one.

“Snub nose”? I would not have a problem with that.

Also, since Anna becomes one of the main viewpoint characters, I’d like to take a second to talk about her sexuality. Great, you have a lesbian character. I even believe that in the situation the characters are in, the safety/threat conversation would have gone down exactly as it did, with the results that it did. And congrats. You didn’t fridge the lesbian. There was a bit where I was worried that you would.

I don’t know if this was because of her sexuality or what the actual reason was…but having gay couples in the book as a way to tick off the diversity spreadsheet is kinda shitty. I would’ve preferred seeing them try to go through their situation together, with a child in tow, because that would’ve created automatic dramatic tension right there. [Anna & her partner are not the only gay couples in the series, but they’re all kind of just there to tick off diversity boxes.]

And I really can’t think of a person, outside of a homophobe, who wouldn’t like reading about lesbians. So, there’s that.

Not related to women characters, but the treatment of one of the POV characters in the last half was quite frankly awful. It even took me a while to unpack how bad it was.

I’m lucky enough to be privy to some of the conversation surrounding the film “Me Before You” and how icky it is to suggest that because someone is disabled they should “sacrifice” themselves because their lives aren’t “worth as much”. Or other ableist bullshit like that.

What happened in the last half of Book 3 with this POV character was exactly like that. I get that if a character goes from abled –> disabled there is going to be a bit of time spent figuring out how to deal with that transition. I even get that for some folks, they don’t make that transition.

But if the only time this happens, you kill the character off? That’s pretty shitty. That helps spread the message that only abled bodies are capable of living fulfilling lives, and puts further oppression on non-abled bodies.

[Yes, yes, I get that not every universe is a Star Trek one where everything is happy and shiny. I’m not asking for it to be. I’m asking for the thought process to go into thinking about how you can make this character live and do other things with them instead of the automatic “well I guess I’m just fucked I better die” that seems to ALWAYS happen.]

Book 4: Cibola Burn

Since the only female POV in the main book was Elvi, there was less problem with her. They were able to write a female scientist pretty well, barring her creepy follower thing for Holden.

Oh. And the whole not being able to figure out a method for humans to have sex on long space voyages without too much drama, and then making the only woman lead POV be a sexless being until half-way through the book.

I’m mostly asexual, but I know when a crush is just a crush and when I just need to have sex because I need to have sex. I think most non-sexually repressed folks have a pretty good idea by the time they’re 25-30 what that difference is.

So, maybe figure out a way to have sexually active, thinking, feeling women characters, especially if there are going to be long space voyages in your books. Or, if you’re not going to have sex, do realize that there are going to be some serious side effects of not having sex on long term time scales and do something interesting with that fact of human physiology/biology/psychology.

Book 5: Nemesis Games

Bobbie is back! Oh, wait.

Naomi gets her very own POV–finally! Oh, wait.

Avasarala is tough as ever! Well, consistent characterization at least?

Ok, first Bobbie. Again with the “how much room is Bobbie taking up” thing. At least this was a bit tempered this time around with her just ripping out a chair so her powered suit can fit into a small racing space craft.

This book was where I realized how they could have fixed the issue I was having with Bobbie in her first appearance [and to some extent in this book as well].

Give a girl a Warhammer 30k Space Marines powersuit and make it about how much room the suit takes up. Because those things are huge. If they’d made it about her suit–and therefore something that she can take off and isn’t HER–I would’ve been much happier.

And the fewer times that they did mention her physicality/presence, they did it in a fashion that was much more acceptable. So I know these guys are learning–whether that’s to be a better descriptive writer, or just as people in general, I dunno. I can specifically call out one example that is part of the ripping out the chair example from above, where they had Bobbie get a little embarrassed about how much space she’d need to take up in her suit…and also that she didn’t want to get left behind. Because that is all very understandable, and good writing.

Part of my frustration with Bobbie’s characterization in Book 5 has to do with Alex as well. Just fuck her already man. I know you both wanna do it! And uh, excuse me, I’ll be right back. [Just got to write a little shipping action if you know what I mean. Um. Anywho.]

Naomi gets her POV chapters and then, well, then it all goes to shit doesn’t it? I don’t know if this is my bias coming through, because I’ve dealt with situations with sadistic ex-romantic partners years after the fact but the first thing you do once you’ve healed is never fucking go back. Throwing a kid into the mix did not improve things any.

And you may not tell future romantic partners about the past abusive ones, everyone’s different in that disclosure, but if you’ve had serious health related issues surrounding pregnancy and you don’t want to have kids [or flat out can’t have another pregnancy]–if you’re any kind of honest and responsible adult you do not let your romantic partners suffer under the delusion that there are going to be children in the future.

Avasarala was Avasarala. Enjoyable in the few bits she was in, but not the main focus of the novels.

Concluding Thoughts:

I, overall, enjoyed the stories. There were a few too many battle scenes for my liking–my eyes kinda glazed over after the first one in each book–but it wasn’t bad space opera. But as far as tools to recognize act structure and plot points, they were good reminders of how to pace a novel.

That said, I’d recommend people start with Book 5 and then work their way back if they want to understand the world more, but if they like character focused stories, these may not be the right books for them. (I waited FIVE FUCKING books for serious character development of the main crew. And with each book clocking in at over 400-500 pages, that’s a lot of story to get through.)

Also, I’d be more prone to recommend these to white guys of a certain age with no reservations. Anyone else? I’d give them some head’s up that there are problem areas.

 

 

 

Main Female Characters in the Expanse [and one token dude], a critique

Second Smartest Girl

I dunno where this character came from, other than that a buddy and I were talking about the smartest people we knew [and also that we knew we *weren’t* ever going to be the smartest people in the room & that was ok with us]. I kinda like that she’s not that nice of a character. Anywho, enjoy yeah?

[Also, disregard the shitty rhyme schema. It wasn’t intentional until about halfway through–yeah, you’ll know which bit I am talking about–and then I kinda didn’t fix the rest of the rhyming. If I were to do this again, I might make sure nothing rhymed except that bit in the middle, as a bit of narrative drama, but well. I like it as is.]

“Second Smartest Girl”

She was always the second smartest girl,
you being the first,
she played fast and loose
with indiscriminate girls
and self-aware boys
such lovely, luscious toys.

She was always second in everything she tried
until she descended into lairs
with built in stairs
going down into calderas
while you ate madras
watching her grow into

the first archvillainess.
She built an empire
by playing umpire
to a damned vampire
or so she’d aspire.

She was always the second smartest girl,
you being the first
to undo your ego and limitations
peeling off your gendered expectations
until

She became the smartest one
sifting through dead things
all the tumultuous lives laid bare
in her volcano lair
You were the smartest one
but she played you like a fool
stepping back and letting you
get there first.

Second Smartest Girl

DIY MFA

I’m one of those people that is constantly searching for new and better ways to approach any of the creative tasks that I undertake. In other words, I feel like my education in writing is never done, nor will it ever be…because there is always a way to improve, whether that is in little tweaks like character arcs/subverting character arcs or in larger structural things like pacing.

That said, I made an off hand comment the other day about DIYing my MFA. I won’t ever have the funds to finish my bachelor’s much less the money it takes to complete a Masters in Fine Arts [in creative writing], so I’m kinda left with finding things on my own to play around with and reading, reading, reading as much as possible.

Some of my lessons are in reading great collections of short stories and analyzing them to death. Some are in listening to people lecture on certain aspects of craft. Sometimes it’s reading a great long, in depth, overly detailed book on one part of writing SFF that isn’t really applicable to my current problem, but is useful in the general sense that I have a reference book for certain other problems that might come up one day. [Or a whole list of story starts because I’m arguing with the text about whether or not that particular aspect is really feasible–especially common when reading Patricia Wrede’s list of worldbuilding questions for SFF authors.]

In the interest of sharing the things I’ve come across that I’ve found to be intellectually stimulating, or good career advice, or just plain useful to general storytelling, I thought I’d make a list of my “coursework” that I’m doing in my own time, as I need it/as it applies.

  • Philip Athan’s course in world building for SFF authors was a ton of fun.
  • James Cameron’s Blockbuster Formula
  • Writing SFF tv scripts that sell
  • Winning SFF structures

These were all available through Writer’s Digest’s online store, last month it was a package deal that also came with:

  • How to Write Monsters [A Writer’s Digest book]–super fun!
  • Writing the SFF Screenplay [this came with writing exercises]
  • and a couple of other pdfs that are general info kinds of things

As far as the business of writing goes, I can’t recommend Douglas Smith’s book on the selling process for short fiction [found here] or Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s book on the general state of publishing and where it might go from here [found here].

More general books on writing:

  • Chuck Wendig’s set of lists about writing are invaluable
  • any writing prompt book you can find they can get you started on little things that aren’t “important” stories, but teach you “oh that’s how you do that”
  • Nancy Kress’ book on Beginnings Middles and Ends–really good, still relevant 25+ years on
  • screenplay writing books to teach structural elements like pacing and character arcs

I steal mercilessly from every aspect of writing craft that I can. I don’t necessarily feel that one mode of storytelling [ie short story vs poem vs novel vs screenplay] can’t be successfully used elsewhere [or at least the lessons you learn from trying different formats].

I’m still stuck in the problem of mushy middles, which I know comes from writing almost exclusively by the seat of my pants when I’m doing character exploration/idea exploration, and most of those issues can be fixed in the edit cycles. But sometimes I get stuck in the mushiest of mushy middles, and that’s where things like learning about pacing and character arcs and Joseph bloody Campbell’s Hero’s Journey really come in handy.

I hope any of the above are helpful to y’all.

 

 

 

DIY MFA

So You Wanna Write in Second Person, Do Ya?

After yesterday’s #SFFgratitude went semi-viral [at least amongst SFF authors!], I did a lot of thinking about what I was grateful for, from those authors that came before me. Other than the stories, obviously.

And it came down to writers who take the time to teach other writers craft lessons. Whether that is via online workshops [Cat Rambo runs a few, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and hubby Dean Wesley Smith run some, etc etc], or an article about the ins and outs of getting published [Sunil Patel wrote a great one], to giving lectures [Philip Athans, Steven Barnes, etc] to writing books on the subject of writing and writing well [any of the Writer’s Digest books are good, some better than others, Nancy Kress‘ on plotting is INVALUABLE.] it doesn’t matter because all the info is good.

I’m not far enough along the writing career track to offer advice about much of anything, even as much experience as I have at writing things that absolutely 100% DO  NOT WORK, to really want to tackle something like “writing outside the traditional plot structure” or “how to write engaging SF characters” or something serious and authorial like that.

But I have written enough pieces in a second person voice [six first drafts at last tally?], and finally stumbled across one as a reader that showed me what you need to do in order for it to work. I’m going to use a couple of examples to illustrate how you can make it work [or not work], since it doesn’t seem like 2nd person is really discussed all that often other than some off-hand advice of not doing it in the first damn place.

The last book I read that used 2nd person extensively had an air of a woman narrating those 2nd person bits, so it never truly felt like 2nd person narration. [The book I’m referring to is Charlie Stross’ Rule 34, one of the Laundry File books and totally amazing.]

Whenever the narration swapped from 1st person to 2nd, it never quite got to the point that first person narrative voice went away. It still felt like she was there, breaking the 4th wall, and telling the reader information.

This jarred me out of the story, quite a bit. Even if the narrator had been a male first person and did this, it would have jarred me out. I’m not the fondest of stories breaking the 4th wall, but I understand its purpose. And it did feel right for the story.

[I will note that despite this discomfort at making me, as reader, pay attention to story mechanics I still finished the book in three or four days, which is on par for me finishing a book that I find really enjoyable. These are MINOR quibbles folks.]

The second example is Helen Marshall’s “Secondhand Magic”. Her narrator is talking about the MC to the audience, telling the audience things like maybe you’d do this, maybe you wouldn’t, but the “you” is generic and non-gendered. It works.

[Funnily enough, I thought this was a Cat Rambo story that I was looking for, because I’ve discovered that much like Gaiman’s “Smoke and Mirrors” was THE textbook for how to write a short story [in the 90s], Rambo’s collection “Near and Far” is showing me lessons on how to write stories for now.]

To use some examples from my own story telling, I have had 2nd person usage breaking the fourth wall and I have had 2nd person usage that is obviously gendered.

The first story I did with bits of 2nd person was a story within a story within a story about the origins of a certain in-world career choice [er, that’s a really bad way of describing it, but hey for a 17 word tag line not a bad way either] , but it wasn’t solely an “origin” [aka worldbuilding] story. It had that flavor of oral legend written down so addressing the audience, even in a written format, felt like it worked.

I’ve done a few others since then, but the last story that featured a 2nd person voice I did with the intention of using it as a way of more fully immersing the reader in the struggle of a powerless character finally gaining some power, in the only way she knows how. And this last one got me to thinking that if a character in 2nd person is fully gendered in this way, it isn’t a story for 2nd person.

I thought that the immediacy of using 2nd person as a device to get the reader to more fully “get” what choices women who’ve historically been quite powerless would over power the gendered nuances I was giving the reader. But I was wrong. Adding the small nuances: a shawl slipping, longing for the stable hand, etc made that character harder to relate to than if I just used proper 3rd person pronouns.

I, as a reader, can slip into a first person narrative, even in cases where the narrator is vastly different from myself; but if you tell me what I’m seeing/feeling/experiencing and reference things that are NOT me I get jarred out of the narrative. Even when the narrator is a woman talking about things that women relate to. If it does not fit my narrow band of experience, I will object to the use of 2nd person.

And I think this is where most writers/readers find the problem in using 2nd person. We all have narrow bands of experience, that are ours and ours alone; the trick of fiction being where we the reader and they the author can get them to line up, even a little bit for as long as the story lasts.

The key to making 2nd person work is neutralizing all your gender cues.

That’s right. Make sure there aren’t any references to clothing items that skew gendered, language choices that don’t skew one way or the other, topics of conversation that don’t skew towards predominantly male interests vs woman’s sphere [i.e. military air shows vs housekeeping tips; yes there are characters that break both of those stereotypes, but the majority of your audience is going to read a gender to either of those topics].

If you can manage to write a second person character who doesn’t skew gendered [or predominately one gender vs the other] then I think the story has a chance at being a 2nd person POV.

Examples of characters that might more easily work in 2nd person:

  • agendered folks
  • androgynous folks
  • aliens that don’t exist in any gender/not in predominantly one gender space
  • robots/AI/conscious tech

Anything else? If it isn’t written in the generic plural “you”, then it’s going to be a harder sell.

I don’t know if anyone else has any tips on how to write a good and effective 2nd person short story, but I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

 

So You Wanna Write in Second Person, Do Ya?

There’s no shame in writing pulp SFF…

But there’s no great honor, either. To loosely quote Teyve from “Fiddler on the Roof”.

I guess it takes hearing a lament about poverty for the ten millionth time for that to really sink in for me. I’m a dreamer, always have been. Always will be. I’m also poor–mind you 1st world poor, but poor nevertheless.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the goal posts of success, and the things I like writing most, and the things that I’m BEST at writing. There’s a lot of interconnection between the three.

I’m best, in my opinion, at writing things that would be considered pulp SFF. Stories that you could almost see Isaac Asimov writing if he were still around. Or Robert E Howard.

I’ve gotten great feedback from editors on the pulpiest stories I’ve written. Those were the stories that have reliably gotten feedback from editors–a notoriously difficult thing to achieve in this day and age.

Those are also the stories that come to me easiest, flow out of me easiest, and are the ones that are the most fun for me to write. They’re the cleanest stories I write, with the least amount of poetic language [that some people might take as “purple prose” or have difficulty in following]. They are not literary works of art.

I guess I’ve been having difficulty letting go of this idea of “successful writing” if it isn’t literary. As if humorous and fun stories don’t matter. As if you can’t have a very serious point in a humorous story.

That it’s not success unless I’ve got a story in a literary SFF magazine. Or a publishing contract with a Big 3 publisher [are there three publishers left? Or did that number go back up?]

Which is bullshit.

Yeah, some people might see success as ONLY being publication in a “serious” literary SFF magazine. But that’s their definition, not mine. Some people might see success as only publishing things that are award worthy. Again, not my definition.

So what is my definition of success at writing?

Being able to buy a pizza every now and again.

To me that means: being successful enough [however it happens] that I have the luxury of going out to eat, or going to the movies, or doing something that goes beyond basic survival.

I get that pulp fiction isn’t exactly the most popular of styles at the moment, but there is a lot that can be done with the format that isn’t necessarily Classic SF era pulp. The story I posted last week done as a “listicle”? That’s pulp SFF. That isn’t arty. It’s still experimental, but it isn’t so much so that it’s unreadable. [Yeah, there are a TON of issues with it, that I can see now, but I’m not so motivated to rewrite the thing and try again with it. I have learned the lessons I needed to from writing it and I might try the format again in the future but not with that character.]

I can still experiment with the stuff that I want to experiment with [to satisfy that particular creative itch] without it being so far into the arty realm that I’m barely accomplishing anything and getting frustrated when it doesn’t work.

I don’t think I’m any good at literary writing: my characters get too dark, my emotiveness is heavily skewed into disturbed places [but hey, if YOU were literally stuck in a fountain for 800 years, wouldn’t you be a little pissed off too?]. In “literary” stuff my prose can be beautiful in places but most of the time I feel that the story is just to show off that “hey I can do pretty things with words” and not really for the story itself. [Which some might argue is kinda the point of anything literary, but not an argument I’m trying to get into today.]

When I drain the darkness out, to make a story more…palatable?…I feel like anything that was there giving it life has vanished. I feel like it might become more mainstream, but I don’t necessarily feel that the story becomes better for doing it.

I think where I’m failing the most in attempting literary SFF: I am just another person who can be clever with words in a field filled with people who are very clever with words. There’s nothing to differentiate my style from anyone else’s and so I fall into the middle of the pack [or to the bottom depending on where I’m submitting, I can be assured that I’m at least above the folks who do things to piss off the editors by submitting things outside the criteria, but how much above that is beyond me].

I’ve been clever to prove I can be clever. I don’t know why I feel the need, even now after all the years of consistent compliments about my intelligence, to prove that I’m not an imposter in the intelligence arena. I know that I’m not the smartest person in most rooms, but I can generally hold my own. I don’t need to prove that I’m clever any more.

At best, my literary SFF has been called “almost Gaiman-like”, or “have you heard about this author Neil Gaiman?” Which is great and all, appreciate the compliment, but I’d rather not be hitting quite that close to someone else’s style. [This might be due, at least in part, to the fact that growing up on British telly has left my “voice” with more British expressions than American ones. *le sigh*]

With all this navel gazing about writing style and forks in the road, I’m sure that at least one ex-critique partner* is getting a laugh.

Since this is exactly(!) what he advised me to do–or rather, the advice was to narrow my focus to one particular market [aka magazine] and keep writing in that style [and by style he meant pick a subgenre and stick with it] until I got success. At the time I found that to be too limiting, because I keep one eye on what has historically happened to women SFF authors that got too narrow of a focus in their writing. *ahem: Asaro, Tarr, Lackey, the list could go on…*

And I am NEVER writing romances. Ever. Uh-uh. While I like reading SFF romance stories, I do not like writing them. At all.

I think that I can still have the creative freedom I want–and the desire to be “uncategorizable” a la Kristine Kathryn Rusch, or Gaiman–while writing pulpier stories. I think I can better play around with the blend between SF and fantasy and horror and what makes an SFF story an SFF story in the first damned place, by sticking to a more traditional plot formula.

So, I guess this means giving up the idea of garnering honor; giving up my definition of success as being published in a market that is notoriously difficult to get into [because why not just set myself up for failure by aiming at the stars before I can even get to the top of a tall mountain? *eyeroll*]; giving up my definition of success being anything like what other people think it should be.

I’ve been impatient to “get there”. To be successful. Partly because I’ve got family that shake their heads every time I get another rejection letter and tell me that “maybe I shouldn’t be trying any more.” Even though they’ve heard the same advice from authors that I have–it doesn’t apply to me, because I’m SO smart, I should be successful on my first try or three. Because I’m so smart, I shouldn’t have to figure out the lessons that every author learns, I should always just know how to do it, then do it and get the result I’m aiming for.

But I’m as fallible as the next person. I don’t know, and I read, and write in order to know more. I ask questions, when I probably shouldn’t, so that I can learn.

All in all, I think I’ll be happier doing pulp fiction–and “giving up” on the more lit stuff–because it’s what I enjoy doing the most. While that does mean a horrendous narrowing of markets, there’s like two(?) *eek*, it does mean that what markets do remain are going to be more open to my kind of thing. Instead of me trying to guess if a market is open to my kind of humor/brand of storytelling; and then submitting on the off chance that just this once it could work even though I’ve never ever seen them publish something similar.

[*The reason I call him ex-critique partner is because this advice was given to me three separate times after I thanked him for the advice and said that wasn’t what I wanted to do at that particular point in time [outlining my reasons each time]. I didn’t need to have it explained to me each and every time that I was “doing my career choices wrong”–with a heavy underlying assumption that because he’d decided self-publishing was the only way to go that he would convert me to that path as well.

So, to any editors that might stumble across this and wonder why it seems like I don’t have beta readers? This guy’s behavior is a big part of that. I won’t even get into the gal that used to critique my work who sent me stolen e-versions of writing books/magazines & SFF mags, who then did the “but I looooooove you and promise I’ll never do it again” thing when I asked her to stop.

Which leaves me trying to trust my own gut, my own reader’s/writer’s instincts, because the advice I get–while very well-intentioned in most cases–is the crappiest advice I’ve ever received about how to succeed.]

 

There’s no shame in writing pulp SFF…