They Fight Like Wolves — Flash Fiction Month

Flash fiction month day 2! The theme for the day was “tranquility.” Challenge details at deviantart.com/flashfictionmonth. Photo by Cátia Matos from Pexels.

ferns

If there was one thing Becker liked about war, it was the peace.

He never minded the noise, all the yelling and crying and clanging that came when two armies, hyped up on the addictive energy of their commanders’ words, crashed into each other in a valley. He didn’t care about the chaos, about people asking him for things or dragging the wounded off the field. It was the simplicity that made him happy.

Becker believed in simplicity. He liked it when his soldiers all wore the same thing, when he could clearly see his team on the field because of their sky-blue uniforms. Simple and unique. Memorable.

Everybody was so down about war all the time, so doom and gloom. Nobody else thought to dress their warriors in sky-blue. Nobody else affixed tall feathers to the tops of their commanders’ heads. Nobody else flew flags in the sleek gradient of a sunset.

Becker had a mind for war, too. He was shrewd, smart. Crafty. He split his company of archers into three parts and told everybody he’d split it in four, so that his enemies stayed paranoid. He lined the shoes of his cavalry’s horses with sharp spikes, so that the trampled didn’t have a prayer.

That was the kind of man he was, Becker. Just when you thought you’d been stepped on by a horse, turns out you’d been stabbed too.

He wasn’t an inspiring or particularly innovative speaker. His men didn’t weep with loyalty when he gave a speech. He wasn’t very good at the face-to-face part of his job; his men liked him well enough, but they didn’t love him. They followed him because he was a keen strategist and absolutely ruthless. They didn’t have to like him, as long as they could trust him.

At the moment, Becker was nudging his horse up a rocky slope. The din of battle below him was a comfort, it kept the noise down in his head and the emotions at bay. There was a nice familiar beat to killing. He knew his role and that of those around him, and everything was easy.

But this was a little different.

The truth was, everyone was scared of Becker’s army. They had led the charge against Ro the Tyrant King and utterly flattened his defenses. And then when the world had thought the war was over, they turned around and unseated their own king. Rumors flew around them: Becker’s army were shapeshifters. Becker’s army had a trained direwolf. Becker’s army called on the power of hell to win their wars.

Becker’s army left no survivors.

Becker ignored most of it. Slander was good for business, it kept his attention on real fights. It was untrue, anyway – those who spread it were jealous or afraid. He didn’t know how they expected anyone to believe stories about an army who supposedly left nobody alive.

Often, during a battle, Becker would ride up a hill to take stock of their odds. He kept track of the tide of soldiers and when it turned in his favor. He was the only one who dressed in forest green, so that he wouldn’t be seen on his recon missions.

The path to victory is paved in blood, and Becker knew every inch of it.

He crested the hill and looked down, covered by the trees. His army was winning, but it hadn’t been an easy fight. There was still a knot of determined warriors on the far side of the valley, refusing to surrender, and Becker saw the shadow of enemy reinforcements coming down the slope across from him.

He slid off the horse and tied it to a tree. She would be fine, she had done this before. With an almost meditative slowness, Becker took off his uniform and underclothes and folded them neatly. He left them near the horse, who was chewing on the new grass between the roots.

This was the other side of war that Becker liked. It was a release, no need to think or feel or make decisions. Just pure energy, formless drive. War made him who he was. It kept him and pushed him, recreated him new every time. There was nothing he loved more than being stripped down to soul and fight, with only the blood in his mouth and the earth beneath him.

The soldiers on the pitch hesitated for a heartbeat. The wind had changed ever so slightly; something felt off. A thundering sound echoed through the valley, a rhythmic running sort of sound.

And a wolf, suddenly, between the trees and then on the field, sharp and real and huge. With snapping teeth and paws the size of the soldiers’ shields.

Only the dead saw the color of the wolf’s eyes.

Sky-blue.

Cardale’s Pearls — Flash Fiction Month

I’m back! I’m doing Flash Fiction Month and posting all my stories here. I don’t expect to have a new one every day, but I’m doing my best. Challenge details at deviantart.com/flashfictionmonth

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“Nine hundred and ninety-six…nine hundred and ninety-seven…nine hundred and ninety-eight…”

Cardale’s voice echoed morosely up the vent in which he sat, a big round metal deal with a diameter at least three times the length of Cardale’s entire body. It was a little bit like sitting in a cave, except the opening was straight above him and the feeling of being surrounded by industry was comforting.

Even if the factory hadn’t been in process in years.

He sat on the floor with his legs crossed, his body curved over the pearls he was counting. Cardale was a big man, but his wide fingers never fumbled. Each pearl was carefully scooted from one end of the divot in the packed earth to another, his low voice ringing out one number at a time.

Every now and then, the roar of another ship would sound overhead, booming down the metal walls. They screamed across the empty sky, for out here in the backwoods of space nobody much bothered with hyperspace regulations.

Cardale liked the sound. He liked the feeling of too much noise in his ears, the meaty rumble of engines pushed to the breaking point, the occasional explosion when one got a little too arrogant and paid hard for it. They reminded him that his job down here had a purpose.

“One thousand eighteen…one thousand nineteen…one thousand twenty…”

Occasionally, to break up the monotony of counting, Cardale would turn his attention to the small screen at his side, resting on a crate of pearls already counted and ready for shipping. The screen rolled an unending list of ship specs: the make and model, the sums of power cells and time adjustments that made for speed in space, anti-grav calibration chambers, fuel efficiency, stealth. And, of course, what failed when they finally exploded.

Cardale had built them, once; had worked his fingers to exhaustion and his back into a permanent slump, grease running in thick dark streaks to his elbows. He had existed in the bright cold space that created them, one after another, all different, fantastically improbable creatures.

And then later he had raced them, the curl of hyperspace around the nose of the ship giving him the push of adrenaline he needed to win, again and again. He had brought his ships out to vast fields of empty space like this one, to send them tearing through the blackness.

But now, alone in the ruins of a processing station, the only living thing in the only obstacle on this massive course, he counted. He had found a profession more profitable than shipbuilding, more satisfying than racing.

“One thousand ninety-four…one thousand ninety-five…one thousand ninety-six…”

Cardale’s fingers hunted for the next pile of pearls and didn’t find it. He refocused his eyes, intervening on the muscle memory, and looked down. There were two pearls left. He picked them up, caressing them with the pad of his thumb.

“One thousand ninety-seven…one thousand ninety-eight.”

Racing was dangerous, always had been. And expensive, of course. Fuel for such power did not come cheap. Racers traded an uncountable amount of wealth for every mile of practice, practice for a first prize that would pay it all back and then some. But over time, the pockets of the young had worn thin, and even thinking about being a racer was too expensive for the next generation.

It was Cardale who had solved the problem.

He had developed the new racing fuel, cheaper and faster and easier to transport. Supply always matched demand exactly. The ultimate price was higher for the racers, but it kept their pockets lined.

Two racers went out with every ship, a pilot and a navigator. One to manhandle the controls and one to watch the star fields fly by. Each one hooked into the ship, electrodes on their necks and temples, drip needles in their skin. When the ship, driven to the very limit, inevitably came apart in the vacuum of space, the monitor machines went briefly into overdrive and sent their precious cargo out in radio waves to an antenna perched on the edge of Cardale’s vent. The essence of the racers coagulated instantly on the metal spikes, glowing slightly with a white light, their very selves hardened into perfect round droplets like tiny stars.

There was a reverberating crack as a ship exploded, and two new pearls dropped in the dust under Cardale’s fingertips.

“One thousand ninety-nine, two thousand.”

The One Place “Narrative” is a Bad Word

I want to talk about something that I have become entangled in by necessity that I don’t think is seen by many people who are outside of it. Yes, friends, I’m talking about the trans community.

There is a thing called the “trans narrative.” The narrative is a list of assumptions that is made by society/popular culture/cis people (for the sake of this article, I’m going to call this “cis people,” even though there are many cis people who are married to trans people or have trans best friends or trans children, etc. and may have seen this on a deeper level). If I tell you that someone you’ve never met is a trans male, what comes to mind? That’s the narrative. The list of things in the trans male narrative includes, but is not limited to, these:

  • Boys who are thin
  • Boys who are white
  • Boys who are straight and date girls, usually cis girls
  • Boys who identify as binary
  • Boys who want all the surgeries and hormone treatments
  • Boys who try hard to look traditionally masculine, e.g. keep their hair short, wear binders and packers, don’t wear skirts, etc.
  • Boys who knew they were trans from a very young age
  • Boys who are “stealth” (they have physically transitioned and nobody can tell they are transgender)

There are more, but these are the big ones. Therefore, since this is the narrative, it is this list that those within the trans male community value. The logic is that the more closely we fit the narrative, the more seriously cis people will take us. Ergo, those who don’t fit the narrative are seen as actively working against the legitimacy of the trans movement by subverting the expectations of broader society.

Which is some bullshit.

So then, with the rise of toxic-masculinity within the trans male community bringing in unhealthy competitiveness, we use this list as a way to judge how valid you are. And of course, there are disagreements over which of these traits count more and which ones are essential (in reality, none of them are essential), and which ones make you a “real man.” It’s highly disgusting.

Admittedly and obviously, I do not have nearly the same level of intimate knowledge of the trans feminine community, but from what I have heard it is very similar. Less toxic-masculinity though, because, y’know, they’re women.

The trans community as a whole, fem and masc, deals with this too, but there is friction. See, we still have to contend with cultural sexism from outside and that creates a problem (because of course it does. I cannot think of one instance where cultural sexism did not create a problem).

Here’s the rub:

Our culture has a morbid fascination with trans women. They have a problem with the idea that “men would choose self-emasculation,” they see trans women as predatory, they’re obsessed and keep getting grossly personal with trans women in an effort to understand. It’s misguided though, because they’re not trying to understand as one would try to understand a human being. It feels more like the way that one tries to understand a new species or a scientific phenomenon.

Because of all this largely negative attention, trans women are far more visible than trans men. They get attacked and murdered more, but hey, at least they’re on TV! (ew)

Trans women, in popular culture, have started to represent all trans people. This makes trans men angry and bitter. Society has a nasty habit of valuing the voices of people who have penises over the voices of people who have vaginas, no matter whether you’re cis or trans. There’s also the problem of trans men not being taken seriously and seen as “tomboys,” which is a pretty sexist concept even before you add trans people to the equation.

There is not a sick obsession with trans men like there is with trans women. We are simply ignored. The way this manifests within the trans male community is that trans men absolutely overrun trans spaces—trans spaces meant for all genders. Ask-blogs on Tumblr for trans people are full of questions from trans-masc people, Facebook groups for trans people often have more men than women, even many real-life groups are overwhelmingly male. This is in part because we need to show that we are present in these spaces because we cannot be present in other space. It’s also partly because toxic-masculinity and the pervasive competitiveness make us want to tear down trans women in order to push our own visibility (and no, it’s not the testosterone hormone therapy giving us anger issues. That’s not a real thing).

It’s all fucked up, all of it, and then poor nonbinary people get caught in the middle because nobody seems to know which box to put them in (how about their own box? Or better yet, let them pick?)

And if trans men aren’t represented the majority of the time, think of how little trans men of color are represented. Or trans men who are comfortable with femininity. Or fat trans men. When not even your narrative majority is represented, forget your deviant minorities.

And trans men who diverge from the narrative are the deviant minority within the trans male community, trans men are the deviant minority within the trans community, trans people are the deviant minority within the queer community, queer people are the deviant minority within broader culture. It’s a tidy little Matryoshka of oppression and underrepresentation and you have to burrow REAL far down that rabbit hole to find, for instance, trans men like me who don’t bind and have longer hair and wear skirts to swing dancing because it’s fun okay.

It doesn’t mean we’re rare or anything; in fact, there are more trans people who don’t fit the narrative than ones who do. We’re just not represented enough for the oppressive majority to recognize our existence.

It is surprising to me how few people know about this weird dynamic. The queer community as a whole has not been a safe space for a very long time, and not just for trans people. Anyone who isn’t a cis gay person has come under fire for not being “queer enough” (also not a real thing), everyone from asexuals to bisexuals to intersex people even to lesbians who have ever slept with men. And yes, there is a movement led largely by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) to quote, “Drop the T” and kick trans people out of the queer community for good. (TERFs are awful and that’s a whole different essay that I’ll write someday)

 

And to be clear, here’s a little Trans 101: trans men are men and trans women are women and nonbinary people are nonbinary and there are no tests you have to pass in order to be “allowed” to identify as one or the other. The only requirement to using the word “trans” to identify yourself is that you identify, whole or in part, with a gender that is different from the one you were assigned at birth. There is no “being trans enough.”

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If you are struggling with your trans identity or don’t know if you identify as trans and you want to talk about it or need some help, feel free to contact me. I’m a mentor and advocate within the community and am always willing to help you get the support you need or talk it through with you.

A Response to Orlando

I’ve been playing this game on my phone for the past hour. flowIt’s a puzzle game. It’s easy. I’ve ripped through ninety puzzles in sixty minutes. That’s one and a half puzzles per minute. Or 2,160 puzzles in a day. Anything to take my mind off what’s happening in Orlando. Click-click-solve, on to the next problem.

I try really hard to use my fighting energy, my critical thinking, my vats of compassion on queer issues because I only have enough spoons for one big movement right now. Trans bathroom bills, workplace discrimination, queer youth homelessness. The blatant straight/cis/whitewashing of that awful new Stonewall movie. Queer people in media. The “bury your gays” trope. The suicide epidemic among trans teenagers. Fair, nonviolent treatment of trans people at my college. Educating cishet people on a one-on-one basis, because human contact is where open-mindedness starts (“ya can’t hate ‘em if ya know ‘em!”). Writing about queer stuff. Going to queer events. Organizing queer events. Being very transparent about my own queerness and using my privilege to help queer people who cannot be open.

Click-click-solve.

This is not quite so easy. This is violent. This is mass execution.

I’ve heard all sorts of sentiments on the internet today, from “we are strong and united and we will fight!” to “when will this end. I am so tired.” I’m mostly on the tired end. We fight and fight and fight and where does it get us? Dead on the floor in Florida. And according to cishet media, we were already “too visible.”

Fifty people. The largest mass shooting in history. Read that again. The largest mass shooting in history was enacted upon queer people in a queer space and you still want to tell me that queerphobia isn’t alive and well? This is a hate crime, and the media would be all too glad to let you forget it.

 

Here’s a list of things I never want to hear about or have to address ever again:

  1. Trans people in bathrooms are a threat! (You’re killing us. We’re not the threat. You might want to get a better handle on your priests, though, if you really want to “protect the children”)
  2. Gay marriage is ruining the sanctity of marriage! (You’re ruining the sanctity of our lives by ending them)
  3. I don’t support your choice of lifestyle! (Bitch do you think this is a choice? Who chooses to be part of a marginalized group that regularly gets murdered for existing?)
  4. This proves that all Muslims are evil! (First of all, fuck you for using the deaths of my queer siblings to justify your hate. Secondly, this is entirely about the rampant, violent queerphobia that pervades this country. If a white man shoots up a school, you don’t yap about his Christianity causing it)
  5. This is all about gun control! (If Sandy Hook didn’t immediately make us reconsider our gun laws, this won’t either. I mean, sure, it is a little about gun control, but it’s mostly about the rampant, violent queerphobia that pervades this country. Did I say that already? Yeah, I said that already.)

 

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Today’s Assigned Male comic

There will be no justice for Pulse. There will never be justice for Pulse. The shooter is dead, and even if he wasn’t, killing him or imprisoning him would not pay for fifty innocent queer lives. His death is a mercy, because watching that trial would only prolong the grief and pain of those involved. And I don’t want to know what they would have sentenced him to. Three months in prison? Okay.

The only thing that will stop this horror is the eradication of prejudice and hate in America, and I personally don’t believe that is possible.

Click-click-solve.

I am tired of fighting. I am tired of hearing about the death of my people, I am tired of being threatened and harassed, I am tired of feeling so helpless. If anyone has any ideas, I’m open to them, but for now I’m going to light some candles, listen to this song, and play this stupid click-click-solve game. At least I’ve got that under control.

Curiosity and Close Reading

When we study writing at The Evergreen State College, without fail, we do what’s called a “close reading.” Close reading is where you take a piece of writing and piece it apart word by word, studying every individual word choice and debating why the author chose that word.

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“Which blue makes me look sadder, baby blue or royal blue?”

As a writer, I dislike close readings. To me, it feels an awful lot like, “the author chose to make the curtains blue because the protag is sad! It’s ~symbolism~!” or assuming intention where there may not have been any. Because sometimes, the author made the curtains blue because blue went with the carpet. I don’t like to look at writing and make assumptions about why a writer chose a particular word unless we’re looking at poetry, in which case each word can have a tremendous amount of significance.

Personally, I want my readers to focus on the things that I put real time and effort into. Things like the world I created, the characters I stuck in it, and the plot I built around their lives. The individual words mean less to me because novels are so damn long that I think more in terms of paragraphs as opposed to sentences, let alone words.

But I read a book last week. Three dynamite YA authors (Tessa Gratton, Brenna Yovanoff, and the inimitable Maggie Steifvater) who are also writing buddies have written two books together: The Curiosities and The Anatomy of Curiosity. The first one is a collection of unrelated short stories that get progressively longer as the book goes on, written individually by each author. I read this one for the first time a few years ago and loved it. (You can visit Tessa, Brenna, and Maggie at their tumblr, merryfates.tumblr.com, or at the now-inactive but story-filled merryfates.com.)

Anyway, I read The Anatomy of Curiosity for the first time last week. It features three stories, oneanatomy by each author, complete with author annotations and introductory bits. This is (I think) as close to getting a how-to-write book as we’re going to get, and it’s the best one I’ve ever read. Each author focuses on the aspect of the story that’s most important to them and that’s what they talk about. For Maggie, it’s characters; for Tessa, it’s worldbuilding; and for Brenna it’s the idea and feel of the story.

And when I read Brenna’s story, I finally understood close reading. She chooses her words so carefully, making sure she communicates the exact atmosphere she imagines, and it really makes a difference. Hers was the only one that included previous drafts of the story in the book and while the plot and characters changed a lot, the theme and overall essence remained the same.

I also learned that as both a reader and a writer, I am very character-driven. Worlds are cool and deserve time and attention, but what I’m really interested in are the people. My favorite books are all about people primarily, world-ness secondarily (see Maggie Stiefvater, Nora Sakavic, and Leigh Bardugo, though Bardugo’s worlds are just as vast and amazing as her characters).

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Actual photo of me

I’m writing another novel right now. This one, when I finish it, will be my third completed novel-length work, fifth piece containing more than 40,000 words, and the 263624th piece I’ve started ever (the last number is an approximation).

And this time, when I edit it, I’m going to focus on individual words. It’s important for me to get the story down first or else I’ll lose it, but when I go back through, I’m going to pay special attention to sentences. Because even though the volume of words may be many thousands more than your average poem, the story would not be the same without even one of them and I want to make sure I say exactly what I mean.

Let me clear something up really quick though. What I said in the beginning doesn’t mean that I don’t want people to find meaning in my work. There is very often meaning in my work. And of course, I will always hunt for symbolism and subtext in the work of others.

The thing I have a problem with, however, is when people claim that the author intended meaning where there is no proof of that. Authors don’t know everything about their own writing, period. Astute readers have found subtext in my work that I didn’t put there. I really appreciate hearing their opinions, I love it when people care enough about my writing to analyze it, but I don’t want readers claiming I intended certain things. That gives me way too much credit.

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“Ahh. Well, now that that’s over with…”

Readers are smart. Readers are often the reason we write. And without hearing from them, writing a book is like birthing a child and then throwing it off a cliff. You don’t know if there’s someone at the bottom to catch it.

So please, analyze the work of your favorite authors. Come up with fan theories, find ways to fill plot holes, psychoanalyze the characters. Take time to study the aspects of writing that we spent time on. Most of us will appreciate it.

Photo credit: mgvisgood via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

Photo credit: Lerner Publishing Group via Goodreads

Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales collection via VisualHunt.com/ No known copyright restrictions

Photo via VisualHunt

 

Everything is Crystal Queer

I am Angry™.

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Me. All the time. Especially now, though

Most of the rest of the internet is Angry™ too, at least the corners of it that I frequent. And I think I can talk about this without a spoiler warning because everyone is so gotdam angry that there isn’t anyone left who hasn’t heard about it.

Just in case, quick recap. Yall probably know what I’m going to say.

There’s a show on CW called The 100. Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. The basic premise is pretty cool: it’s the future and qzPlDyMTall that is left of humanity is living in the Ark, a giant spaceship orbiting our radiation-filled earth. Earth has not been inhabited by humans in several hundred years and they’ve just gotten confirmation that perhaps now, finally, humans can exist there again. As a test, the officials send down 100 juvenile delinquents to see if survival is possible. The logic is, since the Ark is overpopulated and these kids are “bad,” it’s no loss if they die down there.

Okay?

Cool. It’s based on a book, which I read, of course. It was alright. The show cut out a really interesting character. Anyway…So on the ground, there’s Clarke, our protagonist. She seems to have more people skills than literally everyone else combined. And there’s a boy, Bellamy, who is only there because his sister was one of the hundred and he didn’t want to be in the sky while she was on the ground yeah yeah whatever. He’s noble.

A lot of fans think Bellamy and Clarke should end up together. They have a ship name and lots of fanfiction and everything. (We talked about fanfiction. Remember?)  But then, sometime in the end of the first season, the hundred discover what they call Grounders, descendants of humans who survived the radiation. The leader of the grounders is a badass woman named Lexa.5908622474_8be9411da6_z

Over the course of the second season, Lexa and Clarke grow very close. Regular gal pals. They become a canonical romantic couple with their first kiss and gain the views of queer audiences everywhere.

Lexa is everything queer representation needs. She is physically and mentally strong without being emotionless, she leads a large group of people that think nothing of her sexuality, she has connections and interactions and feelings that have nothing to do with being queer. Plus, she’s an A+ badass. What more could we queer folks want?

Weeeellllllll…….

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Did you get all that?

STOP KILLING QUEER CHARACTERS.

In case you haven’t caught on by now, um, LEXA DIES. She and Clarke have sex for the first time, spend the night together, and then the next day Lexa is hit and killed by a stray shot.

Allow me to list the things wrong with this:

  1. Lexa is a badass. She should not be killed by a stray bullet. Sexuality aside, it’s an insult to her character. She is a leader, she is strong and kind and merciless when she has to be. Killing her in such a meaningless way completely invalidates everything awesome about her. There are some characters that you can get away with killing in the middle of their character arc and it’s sad and you move on. Lexa is not one of them. She died in vain.
  2. How many queer characters can you think of that are on TV right now? I’m not talking Supernatural they-MIGHT-be-gay, I mean full-on, canonical queer relationship. Or queer gender identity! Huh? Nothing? Maybe three or four, if that? Yeah, me too. So WHY WOULD YOU KILL ONE OF THE ONLY ONES. There are plenty of straight people on that show who could have been hit by a stray bullet. Plenty of people whose deaths would have been more meaningful.
  3. When you kill queer characters, you tell young queer folk that we are a) unnatural, b) destined to be alone, c) expendable, d) better off dead. Is that really the message you want to send to queer kids, who have a higher suicide rate than any other demographic?
  4. A relationship isn’t over and done with the moment they consummate it. Just because they had sex once doesn’t mean all the potential for great storylines is done. There is plenty of space to progress from here. This is not a point at which you haul off and kill one of them.
  5. You’re fulfilling a harmful stereotype. It’s so prevalent that it has its own TVTropes page. Yes, friends, I’m talking about the “Bury Your Gays” trope. This trope states that if a queer character appears on a show, they are destined to die. There are tons of entries on that page, examples of media that have perpetuated this trope. It needs to end now, for the reasons specified in item #3. (Also, the timing of her death coincides with this trope)

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    …on you specifically, Jason Rothenberg

Basically, stop it. This is not taking care of your fans. The showrunner handled it badly, too, he did not apologize for his mistake or even acknowledge the harm he has caused. The ratings for the show plunged overnight. He forgets that the people that make you popular are the same people who have the power to vilify you.

And millions of queer kids were reminded of how we are seen in society: a fun little alternative side story, not worthy of long-term attention and certainly not ever going to have a place in the protagonist’s chair.

I am Angry™. I am so angry I could scream. We deserve better than this. We deserve characters in which we can see ourselves. We deserve positive role models who are more than their gender identity, more than their sexuality. We deserve showrunners and writers who care about the message they’re spreading.

Everybody deserves that.

Better representation in the media is one of the only ways to fix bias against queer folk in our communities. You can pass all the laws you want, you can legalize gay marriage and polyamorous marriage and trans people in bathrooms for crying out loud but nothing will change public opinion as quickly as the humanization of a queer character, maybe even the relatability of said character.

So make us human in your stories. Remember that thing I said? Make Stuff? The only way we’re going to get the fair treatment we need is if people like you, creators, thinkers, storytellers, make stuff that treats us fairly.

Fair treatment means two things:

  1. Many queer characters. Forget the “gay best friend” or “getting the bisexual vote” or “the token trans kid.” We need lots of queer characters with different personalities, backstories, relationships, temperaments. We need so many queer characters that you don’t have to worry about falling into a stereotype by accident because there will always be another queer character to break the stereotype. Do not default to creating straight, cisgender characters. Be intentional when deciding their gender and sexuality.
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    THIS IS WHAT BOOKS AND SHOWS SHOULD LOOK LIKE. SUPER QUEER.

     

  2. Giving your queer characters the same fates they would have had if they were straight/cis. Do not create six LGBTQ characters and then kill them all at once in the first chapter. Take their sexuality and gender out of the equation completely when you’re designing their character arc. Give them screen time in your story, make them important. And it can be as easy as changing the pronouns of their offstage lover. Queer people are not built with chips in our head that make us different. You don’t have to write “queer characters” as much as “characters who are queer.” Remember, they are people first.

We deserve better than to be told our kind of love story cannot have a happy ending.

 

Photo credit: DesignFathoms via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: The CW via Twitter

Photo credit: °]° via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: BlueRobot via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: torbakhopper via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

Make Stuff (Please)

Oh my, it’s Sunday again. I am late with this post. My apologies.

Today, I want to talk about writing. I know, that’s what I do. That’s probably why you’re here on this web page with my name on it. To listen to me talk about writing.

But what if I told you that you are a god?

We writers, the people who have stories growing in our heads like beautiful, annoying crystals, are in a very unique and privileged position. We spin the stories that the rest of the world devours, whether they find it through prose or poetry, screen or stage, comics or music. We control, or at least influence, the brainwaves rolling through the collective consciousness at all times.

We create that.fountain-pen-ink-pen-business-document-writing

I was going to go somewhere very different with this post. I was going to talk about a writer whose work I read back in December and address something she said about writing in an interview. But I can do that later. I got carried away with this thing that I’m talking about here.

I believe it was my junior year of high school that my school got caught up in this concept of making stuff. All of the things we did as a community were based around this concept of MAKING STUFF (I went to a weird wonderful school). That was our phrase of the year. Make Stuff.

And as someone who not only makes a life but would like to make a living out of Making Stuff, I took this to heart. I heard it echoed again tonight at the Oscars: one of the winners whose name has now slipped my mind encouraged young filmmakers to Make Stuff. He used those words, too! Make Stuff!

I am part of a group on Facebook that is composed entirely of writers. Some of us are old, some are young, some are published, some are not. It doesn’t matter. We all feel the pull of words and characters and stories, stories, stories. But recently in this group, there has been an epidemic. Four or five people, in a fit of frustration, have posted about quitting writing. It’s too hard now that they have children, or their writing is “bad” (bullshit, everyone starts bad. The good are the ones who keep going), or they simply do not have the energy to 8079341228_6528646164_bcontinue. Writing is stressful.

And the response to these writers has overwhelmingly been, “No! Don’t quit! Please!” Because we need your stories. This world needs your stories.

It doesn’t matter if you’re fourteen and writing superhero tales in the margins of your math books, if you’re twenty and writing between your college classes and your night shift, if you’re thirty and writing while your kids are napping or while you’re on your lunch break, if you’re sixty and giving this thing a try for the first time. The world needs your stories.

The world needs dreamers. We need people who look at the world and decide that it’s not enough, that it will never be enough, that the way to make it bearable is to create something new. We need people who will create that Something New and take the people who cannot create it for themselves.chalk-designs-gessi-drawing-guy

You are a god, my friend, you are a god in this world you’ve made. You get to stand over it and scratch your beard (because all gods have beards regardless of gender—it’s practically a requirement) and decide what stays and what goes. You get to fill it with people and you get to decide who they are. If you are upset, as I am, about the lack of dragons here on earth, you get to make them in your world.

You know that Happy Place you hear about all the time? That’s what you’re doing here. You are creating a Happy Place that you can give to others. And maybe it’s not a happy place, necessarily, but it’s an escape and sometimes that’s all you need.

So I make stuff. I make stuff all the time. I plot stories nobody else will ever read, I write lyrics that won’t ever end up in a song, I sketch half-finished faces and flowers and 3082707918_cb08fd17c9_mteacups. Making Stuff is practice. Making Stuff is learning how to generate stuff so that when you have an idea for some stuff you want to share, you are more skilled at your particular brand of stuff and can more easily translate your idea into real, tangible stuff.

Please make stuff. I want to see the movies made out of the books you write, I want to read your novels and go to your shows. Without art, we are nothing. And if we don’t have people making stuff purely for the joy of making it, we won’t have art.

Winston Churchill was once asked about cutting funding for art programs in high schools in order to fund a war. His answer was, “Well then, what are we fighting for?”

Give us something to fight for.

 

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Deadpool and Trigger Warnings

The Valentine’s Day movie of 2016 is Deadpool, a marked improvement on last year’s 50 Shades of Grey. I’m glad to see we’re learning from our mistakes as a society.Untitled

I went to see it a few days after it was released. For those that don’t read comic books or haven’t been on the internet in the last few months, Deadpool is a superhero. He is the textbook definition of an antihero. He is clever and has a good sense of humor, one of the few superheroes to possess one. He is incredibly bitter over his (admittedly terrible) lot and he never professes to be one of the good guys. He has his own agenda and doesn’t let anyone get in his way. I enjoyed it immensely.

If you’ve been in certain corners of the internet lately, you know that there are plenty of people making posts that say things like “DO NOT TAKE YOUR CHILD TO SEE DEADPOOL. THEY WILL BE SCARRED FOR LIFE.” Which I do agree with, though I’m likely to be less shouty about it.

Deadpool is, appropriately, an R-rated movie. It’s full of swear words and sexual humor and disturbing imagery. It is true to the character, and Deadpool is an R-rated person.

“But, Logan,” you say, wringing your hands in despair. “Why do people need to be reminded not to take their eight-year-old to see an R-rated movie? Why do we need to spoil the movie ahead of time by telling people exactly what’s in it? Why can’t they just pay attention to the rating?”

Well, friend, there are several reasons.

1 – “Deadpool is a superhero! My son/daughter/offspring loves superheroes! We went to see Avengers and it was fine! It’s a Marvel movie! It’s not any different!” Many parents are unaware of exactly what sort of character we’re dealing with here. They have an inaccurate appraisal of their child’s maturity level and are underestimating how inappropriate this film is for children.

2 – “MPAA ratings are often incorrect! My kid saw Titanic before they were 13! It’s fine!” The fact is that the rating system has changed over time, just like literally everything else ever. If Titanic was made today, it would likely be given a PG rating instead of a PG-13 rating. My sister’s favorite movie when she was six was Mamma Mia!, another PG-13 movie. But there is a BIG difference between a six-year-old seeing a lighthearted, funny movie whose premise is “Meryl Streep had sex when she was 20 and 20 years later, Amanda Seyfried is confused,” and a six-year-old seeing a rather dark movie whose premise is “Ryan Reynolds is seriously disturbed and is using murdery, bounty-huntery methods to take revenge on one of the many people who made him so disturbed in the first place.”

3 – “Trigger warnings are a scare tactic and, paradoxically, used to coddle girls who are too sensitive! They need to MAN UP and stop being such a weenie!” Okay, Sexist Sylvester, take it down a notch. First of all, the posts that have been going around about Deadpool are not trigger warnings. They are reminders to parents that this movie is something to go see with

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Language benefits from visual aids! Yay! Words are cool!

their spouse, not their young children. Secondly, trigger warnings are super important for the safety of those of us who have been through trauma or have mental problems that are easily set off by certain things (hence the word “trigger.” English is so handy sometimes).

Let’s address that last one. What is a trigger warning?

A trigger warning is a brief description of the things included in a piece of media that are common triggers for trauma victims. The ones I see a lot are violence, graphic sex, rape, self-harm, suicide, death, blood, and abuse. Though there are others like clowns, needles, gaslighting, spiders, racism, homophobia, guns, strobe lights, and war. Everyone who has triggers has their own unique set of triggers, and sometimes they have uncommon ones you wouldn’t think of, like outer space or photos of wrists.

It’s easy to see where some of these come from. People with epilepsy obviously do not want to see things with strobe lights in them, rape survivors obviously might not want to see anything related to sex at all, military veterans likely do not want to be reminded of war.

But since human experience is so varied, some triggers can be more subtle. For example, one person doesn’t want to see photos of penguins because they were abused by someone who was obsessed with penguins and now the mention of penguins reminds them of being abused. Or another person was nearly killed by suffocation when they were small and now any mention of outer space reminds them of it because suffocating is the #1 way to die in space. (These are only examples, I made them up based on things I’ve seen, I’m not outing anyone’s triggers here)

And obviously, those aren’t things you would automatically know to put in your warning. People with really specific triggers have usually learned how to manage them in ways that are healthy for them, though it always pays to be aware.

The new topic in the world of writers, however, is this:

Should books come with trigger warnings?

There is no MPAA for books, no official organization that reads and rates books based on their content. Your ten-year-old could go to the library and check out a copy of The Shining and nobody would care.

I’m not trying to scare you. I know people who read Stephen King and Anne Rice and Kerouac as children and grew up to be perfectly fine, unscarred people.

But what about triggers that have nothing to do with age? The argument is that if you put a trigger warning on the title page of a book, you’ll spoil the story for people who don’t have triggers; versus if you don’t put a trigger warning on a book, someone who is triggered by mentions of suicide will pick up Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan without knowing that it does very much involve a boy leaping from a bridge.

My opinion is this:

In my books, under the dedication, I will put a small notice that says something like: “For those that need it, there is a trigger warning for this book immediately following the acknowledgements.” That way, people who don’t want to see trigger warnings won’t have to, but the people that do need them will be able to get to them. (I was unable to do this with Voiceless, as it was written over a year ago and this particular discourse had not occurred yet)

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Now, trees IN your yogurt is legitimately terrifying

I believe it is not at all my business to police the triggers of others. If you are triggered by the mention of trees or yogurt (two things that are in front of me at the moment, sorry), it’s not my job to tell you that it’s “stupid” or to say things like “dude, you shouldn’t be afraid of trees they’re literally everywhere.” It’s not my job to tell you that trigger warnings are the equivalent of being “coddled.” One of my strongest beliefs is that you can do whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone. I do not get to pass judgment on you for your brain issues and you do not get to pass judgment on me for mine.

And when we talk about trigger warnings for books, we forget that movies already have them and they don’t give away any spoilers. “Rated R for sequences of fantasy violence, language, drug use, and some sexuality” is not a spoilery sentence. I’m not advocating for censorship either, I’m simply saying we need to have more awareness around the millions of different experiences our audiences are bringing to the table.

This is just another way for us to practice being kind to one another and learning how to accept things we don’t understand.

So please, don’t take your kid to see Deadpool, and please appreciate the system that was put in place to make sure you know not to take your kid to see Deadpool.

Photo credit: Marvel Entertainment via iMDB

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Style and Vampires

I am currently fifty-five pages into Anne Rice’s first book, Interview with the Vampire. I picked it up because as a fantasy writer, I believe it is important for me to read the classics that started the fantasy genre in the first place. Books like these are our roots and if I want to understand where fantasy is now, I have to understand where it started. (Not to mention that one of my works-in-progress does involve the concept of vampirism and Ms. Rice has fleshed out the mechanics of her vampires extremely well)

What I did not realize before I started this book is that the title is way more literal than one would think. The whole thing is Louis, the aforementioned vampire, speaking to a boy who does interviews while a tape recorder clicks along in the background. It is not a conversation; Louis simply monologues away while the boy interjects briefly every three or four pages. Everything Louis says is in quotes, including his long paragraphs, and the effect is that 90% of the novel is told in the first person as Louis speaks to the boy.

This is particularly interesting to me because sometimes, this is how my characters appear to me. I’m sitting in a room with them and they’re talking to me about their adventures. Or sometimes I’m writing and they are leaning over my shoulder, saying (often quite rudely), “Hey, wait, that’s not how it happened. Fix it.”

An author came to speak to my program last week. His name is Bill Ransom. I had not heard of him before. Apparently he worked with Frank Herbert on some of Herbert’s sci-fi novels and has published some poetry and six novels of his own. One of the things he said during his lecture is that writing in the present tense is “too exhausting, both for the reader and the writer.” And while I agreed with most of his lecture, this scrap of prescriptivism got to me for some reason.

Because guess what popular book is written in present tense? The Hunger Games. And how many people found The Hunger Games too exhausting to get through? Exactly.

It all comes down to style.

Readers come for the story, but they stay for the style. You could have a brilliant plot and super-developed characters, but if your style is boring or uncomfortable to read or doesn’t flow, you will lose readers.

And the thing about style is that you can’t plan it. It appears in your writing and you can direct it one way or the other, but being intentional about it requires a level of self-awareness that is impossible for most authors. As a friend of mine said: “Style is not your decisions, it’s the mistakes you keep making.” I believe that’s true. It is so unconscious that it can be called a mistake.

I know my style varies slightly from novel to novel. While I have a novel in progress, I’m careful to read books that have a similar style so that I can stay in the mindset of my own story. And I was raised on Shannon Hale and Patricia C. Wrede, so my writing will always sound a little bit like them no matter what I do.

It’s important to identify what has influenced you and what your style sounds like, even if you only find things that sound similar. In all the arts, self-awareness is so extraordinarily important because your success depends on others enjoying your work and by extension enjoying a piece of your soul.

I mention Anne Rice in part because her book has an unusual structure that shows off her style in a unique way. I would enjoy reading it for that alone; the fact that it’s also a wonderful story is a bonus.

Here’s my shortlist of classic fantasy books that, as a fantasy writer, I believe are important to study. We are only as good as the foundation we are built on, and fantasy is sitting on earthquake-safe concrete.

In no particular order:

1: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien is the grandfather of modern fantasy and so many stories have been inspired by and taken elements from his work. Any story that features human-sized elves or orc-like creatures, for instance, which were definitely not a thing pre-LOTR.

2: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Oh, Lewis, you thought we wouldn’t notice your biblical story arc. Lewis and Tolkien were pals back in the day and worked on their stories together, sending manuscripts back and forth for editing. I believe the reason there is a lamp-post in Narnia is because Tolkien claimed that no good fantasy story would have a lamp-post in it. Narnia is a good example of both blending the real world uncumbersomely with a rich fictional world and the writing of a series of unrelated stories in one vast land.

3: The Redwall books by Brian Jacques. Pretty much any story that features talking animals who are humans in every way but physically is borrowing heavily from Jacques. Though now we think of talking animals as primarily a feature for children’s books (Frog and Toad, anyone?), the Redwall books are equally appropriate for adults. This only furthers my theory that anything can work, it just needs the right author.

4: The Land of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. No, I’m not just talking about The Wizard of Oz. Baum wrote quite a few installments in the world of Oz, my particular favorite being Ozma of Oz. He is a good example of an unconventional fantasy land, an almost dreamlike location that doesn’t seem to borrow from anything but interprets real-life things like scarecrows into light absurdity (fields of apple trees that throw apples at you). His writing style isn’t my favorite, but it’s worth it for the world he has created.

5: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. If you want even more absurdity, look no further. This book is just absolutely nuts no matter how you look at it. Juster twists logical fallacies and obscure idioms up in a pleasing knot and wraps it all up in an engaging story. It’s a fantastic illustration of surrealist writing. This is one of those books you read to learn what is possible in the wide world of fantasy. It’s not all knights and dragons, folks.

6: Interview with the Vampire (and sequels) by Anne Rice. Stepping away from what is traditionally known as “high fantasy” (monarchy, peasants, dragons, elves, you know the type), more supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and zombies are the sort that always seem to occur in real-world-esque storyworlds. As Tolkien is the grandfather of high fantasy, Anne Rice is the mother of the supernatural. Her vampires are classy and her writing of them has laid down a lot of the rules for how they are traditionally written nowadays.

7: The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not actually read either of these yet. I’m getting there, okay!? But so much unrealistic fiction is based on Greek mythology that it would be irresponsible of me not to include it. So much of our literature, from the obvious (Percy Jackson) to the more opaque (DC comic heroes), has threads of Greek in it that it’s impossible to keep track. If Homer were receiving royalties, he would be a trazillionaire by now.

8: The Harry Potter books by J.K Rowling. All right, all right, I know, these were written within the last twenty years. But Rowling has crafted something nearly unheard of in modern writing: a series of fantasy novels that appeals equally to adults, teens, and children. My mother and I read the first three or four together equally invested in the story and when the last book came out every third person I passed on the street had a copy of it. And although there are other wonderful books about magic schools (hey there, Lev Grossman), Harry Potter stands out and has since become the pattern after which many magic-school books are modeled. (Also, if you want an example of how Tolkien has affected fantasy, Dumbledore is essentially a refurbished Gandalf)

9: The Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. Where did fantasy start? Urban legends and ghost stories. And what did those turn into? Fairy tales! If memory serves, the Grimms basically went door-to-door across Germany and collected all the old wives tales, which they then embellished and turned into the horrifying children’s stories we know and love. The one thing I have consistently recommended to budding fantasy writers is to buy a copy of The Complete Stories of the Brothers Grimm (whichever one has upwards of 200 stories in it, the G-Bros were prolific as heck). It makes for good flipping-through when you’re stuck on a plot point. Same goes for Aesop, I just have more personal experience with the Grimms.

10: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. Or really any of his fantastical plays, honestly, but Midsummer is the token one. And with good reason, because there is so much crazy magic and obnoxious pixies it makes you want to smack a sorcerer. There are so many ways to write and yes, one of them is flowery prose plus dick jokes plus iambic pentameter, which if you think about it is a really hilarious combination. Shakespeare is also worth studying for his plot construction.

I’m not saying you have to read all of these to become a good fantasy writer, or that even most fantasy writers have read all of them. But if you want to have a base understanding of what fantasy is at its core, this is an excellent place to start. And the better you understand something, the better you will be able to bend it to your will. These books will show you where certain tropes started and how they can be used, and since most of these writers are creating the first iteration of a trope you’ll see repeated, they are often a good example of intentional writing and unlimited inventiveness.

Disclaimer: These are not “perfect authors.” None of these stories include canonically queer people, for example, which is a thing we need more of in fantasy.

Good night. Don’t let the vampires bite.

The Kiss Rule and Why Dust Jacket Blurbs Matter

Hoo boy. Here we go.

I was at a bookstore yesterday, my natural habitat, hunting through the Young Adult section (Half Price Books calls this the Mature Readers section, which I like better, but this was a Barnes & Noble). I had plans to use the last ten dollars on a gift card I was given for my birthday and I wanted to make sure I found quality books.

I must have read twenty or thirty dust jackets that evening. And every time I encountered one of my list of “nope words,” I stopped reading and put the book back (I have gotten extremely efficient in my book-selecting process).

These words are:

  1. “Gorgeous/alluring/guarded/new boy”
  2. Any sentence that uses the words “tangled” and “romance”
  3. “…thinks she might be falling in love with…”
  4. “And then there’s the problem of [boy’s name]…”
  5. Any male character named Damien (who isn’t the protagonist)
  6. “new boyfriend” or “best friend’s brother”
  7. Any sentence that refers to a boy as “dark” (without talking about his skin)
  8. Any character (boy, girl, or neither) referred to as “mysterious” who is around the protagonist’s age
  9. Any sentence that refers to a girl as “angelic” or “popular” or “of his dreams”
  10. Any dust jacket that describes an unpopular kid falling for a popular kid

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    This boy. Do not put this boy in your blurbs

That’s a list of ten easy ways to make me never read your book. And the real kicker is, I don’t care if those things are actually in your book or not. My problem is when they are on the dust jacket. Because if it makes it into your blurb, that means it affects the plot in a major way (or you have a bad blurb-writer), and my personal opinion is that unless your story is set in a high school, your protagonist’s crush is not good enough motivation. Instant eye-roll.

I love stories that include romance. I think it is an excellent addition to any story; it complicates the relationships and emotions between the characters. Awesome. A+. I am all about torturing characters with feeeeeelings.

And I love well-written relationships. Where the interactions between the involved characters are not always “passionate” or “dramatic,” but are sweet or familiar or playful or bicker-y. (For this reason, I do not read romance novels)

When I was kicking around on the internet one day, I came across a post by a writer who talked about the Kiss Rule. She said it has been the single most helpful thing for her in terms of writing romantic relationships between her characters. The Kiss Rule is this:

The reader should be able to tell that your characters are in love without you ever having to write a kiss.

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HEY LOOK. BODY LANGUAGE.

That’s it. And since then, I have followed this rule. Kissing is the one thing that, in stories, cannot be platonic unless you’re very creative about it. Therefore when two characters kiss, the reader goes “Oh, they’re in love.” And there are so many ways to show that two people fancy each other! Hand-holding, easy banter, body language, et cetera. Hundreds of ways!

The Kiss Rule keeps the author from using a kiss as a cop-out exposé of a relationship and forces them to show the relationship. This makes the relationship more believable and the fact that the characters actually like each other totally plausible.

It doesn’t mean that you never write a kiss ever. It means that the kiss is not the thing that shows their affection for each other to the reader. The reader should already know that the characters are in love before the kiss happens.

And don’t be afraid to build it up! Make the first kiss a big deal, if you want! As a culture we have gotten incredibly desensitized to romance: somehow it’s all about the sex and not about the emotion. Which is fine, if you’re into that, but it’s not the way partnerships work in real life.

Mature, fully-developed romances between characters do add depth to your story and are a fantastic way to twist your readers’ feeble little heartstrings, and you all know that I highly encourage adding things to your stories that make your readers feel things. But I also encourage mindful writing and the making of deliberate, thoughtful choices regarding your protags and their (also feeble little) hearts.

And don’t forget to read the dust jacket.

 

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