Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) with me and Sherwood, going on today. Go on over and ask us anything! (If you don't have a Reddit account, it takes 30 seconds to make one.)

Ask Us Anything!
I put a quote on Kate Elliot's LJ in response to her post on NaNo. It's from George MacDonald's story "The Golden Key." The heroine is on a quest to find the Old Man of Fire, and she has just met someone who knows where he is:

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.

"That is the way," he said.

"But there are no stairs."

"You must throw yourself in. There is no other way."

She turned and looked him full in the face-- stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year-- then threw herself headlong into the hole.

I have thought of this quote at a number of important turning points in my life, when I had to either give up and walk away, or throw myself in. There were no other ways.

Every time I've thought of it, I've thrown myself in.
rachelmanija: (Princess Bride: Let me sum up)
( Aug. 15th, 2014 01:58 pm)
I will do an actual write up shortly, but first I had to quote this. The context is that the character is having trouble walking.

It seemed like at any moment his knees were going to take a vacation and he was going to yard sale like an idiot. - J. R. Ward, Lover Unbound.

I can tell from context that "yard sale" means "fall down."

...How in the world does "yard sale" get to mean "fall down?"

This made me think of how difficult it is to invent slang. Actual slang tends to have properties which makes it more-or-less comprehensible:

People use words and phrases in a natural context, so you can usually figure them out from that context.

Slang is usually not isolated, but part of a whole slang culture, from Valley-speak to doge. If you know some of the slang from that culture, you know its rules and can use them to figure out new-to-you slang. For instance, all the "bad = good" slang. If you know that law, you can figure out that someone being enthusiastic about something while calling it "trash" probably means that "trash = good."

Slang usually has some sort of internal logic - words that don't make sense to people don't get repeated, while the ones that make sense to lots of people get used and thus become common coin. It's not totally random. If you've been exposed to the "bad = good" slang culture, you might be able to get "puketastic = good" to catch on. But fetch will never happen.

One author can't replicate the wisdom of crowds. So they need to have a good ear and make good use of context. Ward is generally pretty good at context - it was obvious what "yard sale" meant - but not so much on the ear.

Anyway, reading her books reminded me of one of the worst failures of context for invented slang I've ever encountered, the only movie I've ever walked out on, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. I saw it with a friend in an advance screening. It's a gangster movie full of totally incomprehensible invented slang. The point at which we walked out went something like this:

Gangster 1 bursts into a solemn meeting of gangsters.

Gangster 1: Guys, guys! Capelli bought a boat drink!!!

This is obviously deeply meaningful to the gangsters.

Gangsters: Mmm, ahhh. That changes everything.

Me, Friend: [WTF looks.]

Gangster 2: And we all know what this means, right?

Gangsters: [Nod.]

Friend (whispers): I don't know what this means!

Me (whispers): He got whacked?

Friend (whispers): He ratted them out to the feds?

Me (whispers): He came out of the closet?

Friend (whispers): He moved to Miami?

Gangster 3: Yeah. We gotta tarantula.

Friend (whispers): Let's go get boat drinks.

We left.

(Actual reviews to come!)

ETA: I looked up "boat drinks" in that movie. When you go to Heaven, you lounge on a boat drinking, so boat drinks = dead. However, I may have misremembered the actual slang in that context, because "buckwheat" = "killed horribly." So the dialogue I remember might have actually been "Capelli's buckwheat."

I leave it to you, my imaginative readers, to figure out why buckwheat means killed horribly. A derivation of "pushing up daisies," minus the "pushing up" part that makes it make sense?
1. What am I working on?

A. Something secret that contains clones, werewolves, desert survival, hurt-comfort, psychic powers, and references to my current musical obsession, Filipino rapper Gloc-9. (Thank you for the mix CD, [personal profile] oracne!)

B. Firestorm, a novel I'm co-writing with Sherwood. The part we're currently on involves a post-apocalyptic arson investigation. It's the third book in the series for which Stranger is the first.

2. How does my work differ from others in my genre?

What genre? Seriously, I write in a lot. I would generally say that mine is less likely to focus on straight white guys. I think that's true of every genre I write in.

In general, I tend to have more lesbians, food descriptions, and references to Indian mythology than the average work in whatever genre I'm writing in. It's also more likely to be set in Los Angeles.

3. Why do I write what I do?

For money, for fun, to inform, to comfort, to influence, to entertain, to turn on, to give myself something I really want to read that doesn't exist yet, to make people happy.

4. How does my writing process work?

I stare at my laptop until drops of blood appear on my forehead. (Quote, more-or-less, by Ring Lardner). Also, I procrastinate on one thing I'm supposed to be writing by writing something else. That works pretty well. More broadly, I string together scenes I would like to read. Luckily I do enjoy re-reading my own work, so that also works pretty well.

Take the meme if you like it.
1. Horses cannot vomit. Not even if they're poisoned. This is one reason why they're so likely to die from digestive problems or, for that matter, poisoning.

2. You cannot "fillet" a jerboa for dinner. That goes sextuple if you're cooking for six people. Jerboas are this big. If you tried filleting one, you would get two slivers of meat the size of a quarter. I'd believe catching a bunch of them and cooking them more-or-less whole in a stew, if there was nothing better available.

3. If someone has a head injury, keeping them awake is not a form of treatment. It will not, by itself, save their life, stop them from going into a coma, or do anything else to help their condition. It is an old-fashioned form of diagnosis. If the patient is asleep, you can't tell if they're actually unconscious or in a coma. If they're supposed to be awake and they pass out, or you can't wake them up, then you know something is seriously wrong. Note that 1) this is only useful information if you have the facilities to do emergency surgery, magical healing, etc, 2) it's not necessary if you can do a CAT scan, magical scan, etc.

What common (or uncommon but hilarious) factual errors have you come across recently, or come across frequently and wish would die?
Sherwood and I were invited to write a short story for the anthology Kaleidoscope, which is having a kickstarter. It will be an anthology of fantasy stories with diverse protagonists - fun ones, not Very Special Episodes solely about how much it sucks to be oppressed.

Here's the kickstarter!

We were also invited to write a post on an issue of diversity in fiction. Here it is! I have reprinted it below. Please comment here or there.

If you recall my post on genre novels with Jewish protagonists which are in some sense escapist or fun, and not about being oppressed, it got a large number of comments. However, most comments either recced the same books over and over, or else recced works which did not meet the qualifications I originally set out. The number of fun books with Jewish protagonists is, in fact, extremely small. That and related issues inspired our post below.

Who Gets To Escape?

by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

J. R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” from The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966.

Escapist storytelling has been with us even before Homer and his audience sat around the fire spinning tales. The human soul needs both serious works and books that are purely intended to entertain. But even nowadays, escapism is allowed only to certain groups.

While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers—a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape. (This essay focuses primarily on American books because that is what we’re most familiar with.)

Serious literature focusing on social and individual problems is good and necessary. But it should not be the only type of reading that’s available.

* * *

Rachel: I’m Jewish. It is almost impossible to find Jewish protagonists in my favorite escapist genres. I can literally name to you the titles of every book ever published by a major publisher in America, with a Jewish protagonist, in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and romance. Those are all genres which are commonly considered escapist. In young adult, children’s, and adult mainstream fiction—all genres which are not inherently “escapist”—there are far more Jews, but, almost inevitably, they only inhabit novels on serious subjects like anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.

When the only fiction you can read about people like yourself is exclusively concerned with how hard it is to be an oppressed minority, it sends a number of subtly toxic messages: you don’t belong here; people like you are not allowed to have fun; if you want to escape, you can only do it by imagining yourself into a gentile identity.

Sherwood: When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, it was very difficult to find stories whose kid heroes did not reinforce the majority status quo. I didn’t think about that. I just accepted that adventuring kids were pretty much like me. The first heroine not like me that I recollect loving passionately was Mara in Mara, Daughter of the Nile. Now there was a heroine to root for! She didn’t look like me, but I wanted to be like her.

The only way to find stories about people who were not me was in travel books or historical novels, like Mara. But when it came to cool adventures and magic, everybody was literally, or at least implied, a WASP. People who didn’t fit that mold were either caricatures, or singled out to stand on the sidelines cheering. Sometimes both.

Now, there are wonderful choices to be found for young readers, which please the kid in me, but you know what I can’t find? Escapism for old women. When they show up in stories, they are figures of derision, helpless, boring, unsexed.

* * *

Now that both of us have discussed our individual identities, we’d like to talk about one we have in common. We are both women. There have been many arguments about the tendency of women in epic fantasy novels to be portrayed solely as powerless victims, to be raped and sometimes murdered to motivate the hero or demonstrate to the reader that the world of the book is gritty and “real.” Those in favor of such portrayals argue that such portrayals are realistic—in medieval times, the average woman was powerless and often raped and murdered—and that realism is a literary virtue.

Leaving aside the dubious historicity of such arguments, it is only female characters whose portrayals must be “realistic” and must reflect the experiences of an average woman. The average man in a medieval setting would have been a powerless peasant or craftsman who never left his village or had adventures.

But the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies—heroes of escapist imagination. They have special powers, secret royal heritage, astounding fighting skills, or magical talent. If they truly are ordinary in themselves, they are thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rise to the occasion.

Aragorn, Kvothe, and Jon Snow are not representative of the average straight white man. They are intended as fantasy figures. But in countries where straight white men hold the power, only their fantasy figures are common, respected, and hold iconic status.

These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Mar. 28th, 2013 09:52 am)
Can you think of any theatrical roles which are or could be played by an actual infant? They don't have to be from actual existing plays, but could include stories which someone might adapt into a play. If the latter, please make them extremely well-known stories, like from mythology or classic literature.

So far I've come up with Baby Jesus, Baby Krishna, Baby Moses, and the Bad Seed. I'm assuming the baby in Punch and Judy would not ever be played by a real baby, given that it gets chucked out a window.
Yesterday there was a fascinating discussion of portal fantasy, in which a character from our world is transported to another world. The classic example of this is Narnia. I can’t link to the post, because it was filtered (the “portal fantasy” discussion was in the comments) but I offered to make a public post on the subject. I invite the participants to copy their comments to it.

There was a Sirens panel in which five agents, who were discussing their slush piles, mentioned that they were getting quite a few portal fantasy submissions. Two of them said those made up about a quarter of their total fantasy submissions.

I said, "This intrigues me, because I haven't seen a single one in the last ten years. Is it that editors aren't buying them? Did you pick any up?"

The agents replied that none of them had even requested a full manuscript for a single portal fantasy.

They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they're not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world.

One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn't fall through the portal, there would be no story.

Of course, this is the key quality that makes a portal fantasy a portal fantasy. England was not at stake in the Narnia series, Narnia was. If the kids hadn't gone through the wardrobe, there would indeed be no story. Nor was Narnia tightly connected to England: the kids were from England and that was important, but the story was all about Narnia.

The agents added that nothing is absolutely impossible to sell, and one said that she had a middle-grade fantasy which had portal elements. But overall, they were not enthused.

In the filtered discussion, several people confirmed that it isn’t just that agents won’t even take a look at portal fantasy manuscripts; almost no editors are willing to buy them, either. Presumably, this is why agents don’t even want to read them.

Agents and editors: Is this correct? If so, why? The obvious answer is that they don’t sell to readers… but normally, you know that because they consistently fail to sell. In this case, there seem to be none published at all.

This puzzles me. It is rare for a genre or subgenre to become absolute anathema, as opposed to merely unpopular and comparatively rare. Usually, it takes a string of spectacular and well-publicized failures for that to occur, and I’m not aware of that happening with portal fantasy.

The fact that agents are getting a large number of submissions suggests to me that there might be a market. After all, writers are interested in portal fantasy enough to write it. It’s possible that only writers, and no other readers, are interested. But that seems a bit unlikely. This isn’t some extremely metafictional or otherwise of-interest-only-to-writers form, but a subgenre to which a number of classic, in-print fantasies belong, and one which was reasonably popular up until about fifteen years ago.

However, it’s impossible to tell if it’s really anathema among readers, because there’s almost none that’s new for them to read. (Curiously, the most recent exception I can think of, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, is quite successful. It is, however, like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, middle grade. The only other recent one I can think of is Hiromi Goto’s Half World,, which may also be middle grade.)

As I said, I am puzzled. I can understand “unpopular.” I am bewildered by “absolutely not.” Urban fantasy is huge now, and high fantasy is doing well in adult fiction and is at least acceptable in YA. Books about magical creatures already in our world are desirable. Books about magical creatures traveling to our world are fine. Books about humans who are native to a magical world are okay. But books about humans traveling to a magical world are verboten. Why are portals into our world fine, but portals out bad? Is it because leaving our world might be considered escapism?

As another commenter noted, there is little YA which involves space travel or takes place on other planets, either. The closer the setting is to our world, the better. Dystopias are our world, but worse; ditto most post-apocalyptic novels. Urban fantasy is our world, with added magical creatures or powers. Maybe the lack of portal fantasy is a metaphor for the belief that modern teenagers don’t want to travel to strange new worlds, even in their reading.

There are also arguments that the subgenre is inherently bad or flawed. I won’t get into too much detail on these, because someone is going to make a case for that in comments. Instead, I will make a brief “pro” case:

1. The Secret Country, by Pamela Dean and Coraline by Neil Gaiman, in which the fantasy world is a twisted reflection of the protagonists’ real or imagined worlds – a story that can only be told by them traveling to the other world. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones. (Only $4.99 on Kindle –fabulous book, and one which could only be written as a portal fantasy. No portal, no story.) The Silent Tower (The Windrose Chronicles) and The Time of the Dark (The Darwath Series) by Barbara Hambly – neither bestsellers nor classics, but books which I love very much. The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 1), by Guy Gavriel Kay. The Subtle Knife: His Dark Materials.

Also, The Matrix is not only a take on portal fantasy, but riffs on a classic portal fantasy, Alice in Wonderland.

Neverwhere and Harry Potter merge urban and portal fantasy, as does the Percy Jackson series.

These are all good books in which the portal is essential to the story. In many cases, the story depends entirely on the protagonists not being from the fantasy world, in a way for which merely being from a different part of the fantasy world would not compensate. Many of these are books which are in print, read, and enjoyed to this day. Why shouldn’t there be more of them?

2. Many arguments against portal fantasies sum up to “they can/often are done badly.” This is true of every genre.

For instance, they can be wish-fulfillment. But in what way is every “A girl learns that she has special powers and must choose between two hot boys” urban fantasy not wish-fulfillment? And since when has wish-fulfillment been banned from fantasy? Just because something is wish-fulfillment doesn’t mean that it’s not enjoyable, is badly written, or shouldn’t exist. Also, they are not always wish-fulfillment. They can be, and that can be part of the charm. But many are more complicated, and in some, the other world is outright horrible.

Similarly, they can be pro-colonialist metaphors in which a kind foreigner must save the helpless native people. But they don’t have to be. That is especially unlikely to be the case in stories in which the stakes are smaller and more personal than “save the world.”

One could argue that the concept has been so over-done that all subsequent books have nothing of interest to offer. But the same could be said of stories about vampires, werewolves, fairies, dystopias, apocalypses, teens with psychic powers, teens with magic powers, ghosts, superheroes, dragons, princesses, destined loves, angels, and every other staple of the market.

3. Or perhaps they’re fine for children’s books, but anathema for YA. Harry Potter, Coraline, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, and The Golden Compass are OK because they’re middle grade, but YA portal fantasy is unsaleable. This baffles me. Why?

4. I enjoy them. Writers are still writing them. At least some readers still want to read them. Why not publish a few, and see if some catch on?

I’m frustrated with the lack of faith in teenagers, the lack of belief that they might try something a bit different from the latest dystopia/vampire novel/werewolf novel. Just because something is unusual or out of the received wisdom of what readers are interested in doesn't mean it won't sell. Sometimes it sells like Krispy Kremes.

I'm concerned that fixed ideas of what does and doesn’t sell have overridden other questions, like, "Is this a well-written book? Is this a fun book? Did I enjoy reading this book?"

If you ask that set of questions, you buy Harry Potter. If you ask, "Is this a disguised portal fantasy? Do American kids care about British boarding school stories?" you will pass it by.
I am once again having a failure of imagination. Please pitch in by suggesting a trauma which would plausibly make a character willing to go on a suicide mission. For story purposes, I want this character to be motivated by externally-caused depression rather than solely by idealism.

1. No rape or child abuse. No "terminally ill" or "suicidal because biochemically depressed." I'd prefer to not do "My entire family/significant other/child was killed," but would consider it if the circumstances were interesting.

2. I'm not mentioning the exact setting to avoid giving you all preconceived notions, but it's steampunk in an area where access to steam tech varies widely. Tragedies that could only occur in very rural, pre-modern areas are fine. Tragedies that could only occur in a steampunk context, like tragic zeppelin accidents, are fine. Bullying via Facebook will not work.
[personal profile] cofax7 asked for recommendations for romances with a platonic start and a long lead-in, and I wrote,

The Time of the Dark: The Darwath Series (Book One), by Barbara Hambly. I would only read the first three books; sequels were written much later and are substantially different and really, really grim. Mostly adventure, but I really like the two main romances.

Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly. Wonderful, mature romance between two middle-aged people who once slew a dragon together. They're not married, but have kids. This was written as a stand-alone. For the love of God, don't read the sequels, which were written much later and are substantially different and really, really grim.

This made me ponder the existence of disappointing sequels. The horrifying Dragonsbane sequels are possibly the worst I've ever encountered: totally different in tone, excruciatingly depressing, poorly written, out of previously established character, and systematically undoing everything I liked about the previous entries in the series. My other contenders are the Star Wars sequel/prequels, for the exact same reasons minus the grimness.

And then there's Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed, an anthropological sf adventure primarily focused on worldbuilding but including adventure and female friendship between a human ambassador and a female alien. Its sequel, Ancient Light, wasn't badly written or an artistic failure. However, gur znva nggenpgvba bs gur svefg obbx jnf gur jbeyq. Va obbx gjb, gur srznyr nyvra qvrf va n shgvyr nggrzcg gb cerirag gur raq bs gur jbeyq. Ng gur raq, gur jbeyq vf nobhg gb or qrfgeblrq, naq gur nzonffnqbe pna bayl jngpu va qrfcnve nf ure qrngu naq gur qrngu bs rirelbar jr zrg va obbx bar nccebnpurf. (Decipher at, since lj cuts are not working. Sorry!)

Speak to me of disappointing sequels. Spoilers are totally fine, but please put them in comment headings. (ie, "Spoilers for A Dance With Dragons.") If they're for very recent works, please disguise in some way, like via
I recently read a fantasy novel which was set in a Europe-esque landscape, with swords and bows but (unless I'm forgetting something) no firearms. They had the printing press and herbal birth control, but no antibiotics. People knew the concept of a republic, apparently based on theoretical writings, but actual governments were hereditary monarchies.

Given the ye olde setting, I was jarred to see characters use the phrase "mental health" and mean exactly what I would mean by it, and also the word "process" in the sense of "to process one's emotions." Those were the ones which jumped out at me, but there was enough in the language and concepts known and believed by the characters which was not merely modern, but distinctively modern, that between that and the thematic elements I ended up feeling that I was reading an allegory, not a fantasy. (Allegory is not a dirty word. It is a perfectly legitimate artistic form.)

The book, by the way, is Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue. I thought it was very ambitious and largely successful. But it struck me as an allegory of recovery from personal and political abuse and totalitarianism, not a fantasy on the same theme. I am not using "allegory" to mean "preachy," or anything else negative. I mean that the world of the book did not read as a fantasy world, but as a stand-in for our own. You don't need magical mind-control to be a brainwasher. It was the pervasive use of extremely modern concepts and phrases that made me feel that way.

Do any of you ever notice that sort of thing? What type and amount of modern language or concepts is invisible, what is jarring, and what tips the book into feeling like it isn't truly meant to be historical or fantastical at all?
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jun. 19th, 2012 07:32 am)
Riffing on Sherwood's worldbuilding article and the linked Lev Grossman's suggestion of things fantasy novels should do more often...

...what little details, to you, make good worldbuilding? What makes worldbuilding unbelievable?

For the purposes of this question, by "good worldbuilding," I mean "interesting, and also consistent and believable within the parameters set up by the book itself."

("I can't believe in giant bugs because they break the square-cube law" is more a comment about the reader than about the plausibility of the specific giant bugs in any given fantasy novel. I'd believe in the bugs if they're in an environment where they could plausibly have something to eat when they don't have hobbit, or if it's explained that they were created by someone and then released just to harass the questers.)

One of the things which makes worldbuilding believable to me, in certain settings, is inconsistency. I don't believe in one planet with a single culture. In many settings, I find it implausible for a town to have a single culture. Often a mixture of levels of technology is much more believable and likely than, say, everything being done by sophisticated nanotech.

Along similar lines, I like extraneous elements (bricolage) without plot relevance, and things going wrong. If it's a rural or wilderness setting, there should be bugs, animals, and birds. Machinery should break down. Plans shouldn't work perfectly. People should screw up. The only item I really liked on Lev Grossman's list, which appears to be exclusively based on a perusal of epic fantasy from the 1980s, is people forgetting to do things. (My issue with his list: many items would not improve a book, but merely be blinking "I'm so smart and meta!" lights, and most of the rest are things which are already a matter of course since the eighties.)

I don't need to see peeing (please! my vote is for less bodily waste on-page, not more) but I do like to know if this is a society with or without indoor plumbing. On that note, I would like to see more low-tech societies with comparatively high sophistication. Low-tech does not necessarily mean disgusting and sordid. Mohenjo-daro had indoor plumbing.

Also, food is very telling. I don't think I have ever believed in a society where everyone eats protein pills or mystery mush every day. Hardscrabble societies are just as likely to evolve clever means of making whatever they have tasty as they do of despairingly mashing the one tuber that still grows after the apocalypse. A lot of Chinese cuisine, for instance, is clearly derived from people who really needed to investigate the edibility of absolutely everything... and then made it delicious.
Has any book which is not primarily a re-telling of the Christ story, and in which a character turns out to be some version of Jesus or the Christian concept of God, ever been good?

Note that my exceptions leave out books like Lamb, and also books in which characters turn out to be non-Christian Gods.

When I was reading Brain Rose, the instant a character said, "This is happening because [spoiler character] is God," I knew things would go rapidly downhill from there.
On the drive to Judy Tarr's horse camp, Sherwood and I were talking about tropes which function as a warning sign, either of extreme badness or at least of stories we are sure not to enjoy.

Sherwood's nominee was serial killers. My nominees were Satan and Satanists (unless it's a comedy) and all stories in which abortion laws lead to ridiculous dystopias. For instance, "Because abortion has been banned and it's illegal to kill fetuses, parents now have the right to kill their children after birth and before age eighteen." (Actual book. I read that on the back cover, and my eyes rolled so hard they almost flew out of their sockets and bounced against the opposite wall.) And as I have ranted about before, I generally dislike stories in which infidelity or zombies play a very large role.

The ultimate Sherwood and Rachel scarer-offer would be, "Because abortion has been banned/legalized/made mandatory, parents have the right to kill adulterers. A serial killer takes advantage of this situation to create zombies to help him worship Satan." (Abort: a YA dystopia. Also, cats have been banned and the government controls heterosexuals.)

What are your Tropes of Ultimate Loathing?
Do you have a manuscript that needs a critique? Have you been quietly longing for an individualized writing workshop with me? If so, you are in luck!

My manuscript critique services include detailed general notes, plus individual notes in the manuscript itself. If you like, it also includes an hour-long consultation via telephone (you call me), or in person if you happen to live in Los Angeles. Optionally, I will give you advice on business issues (like getting an agent) in addition to critique. I am extremely honest, but not mean.

I can’t guarantee that your book will be published or your script will be produced, but some people I’ve worked with have gone on to publish their manuscripts. I was the main person who critiqued the two manuscripts linked below before they acquired agents. I also advised both authors on how to get an agent and write a query letter.

A Bad Day's Work: A Novel is a lighthearted mystery a la Stephanie Plum. This manuscript underwent major changes as a result of my suggestions, and ended up with a new love interest. The author got a three-book deal.

"Ready for the People": My Most Chilling Cases as a Prosecutor is nonfiction by a Los Angeles prosecutor. I edited this for clarity, readability, and manuscript format.

The woman who won my critique services in a Sweet Charity auction a while back rewrote her spec script for Supernatural according to my notes and submitted it to a TV writing contest, where it came in as a quarter-finalist.

I am willing to read fiction, non-fiction, and any kind of script, including comic book scripts. I have no content restrictions, and I will read partial manuscripts. I don't think I'm the best person to consult about poetry or sitcoms.

Rates: $2/page for manuscripts of 200 pages or under. For manuscripts of 200 + pages, the rate for the subsequent pages drops to $1.

ie, if you have a 50-page TV script, I will critique it for $100. If you have a 300-page book, the total cost (200 pages at $2/page and 100 pages at $1/page) is $500.

If you have a very short piece, like a query letter or college admission essay, the minimum rate is $50.

Turn-around: One month.

Comments to this post are screened. Comment if you’re interested or have questions, or email me at Rphoenix2 at gmail dot com.

I’ve sold nonfiction, fiction, TV scripts, poetry, and comic books, and taught writing privately, at writing workshops, a high school, and a university (UC Riverside.) For more details, I will email you my writing and teaching resumes upon request.
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Sep. 12th, 2011 12:29 pm)
Sherwood Smith and I have a post up at Genreville, about how an agent offered to represent a YA novel we'd written on the condition that we make a gay character straight or remove him from the book.

I have copied the post here for the benefit of people who'd like to discuss it here. However, please note that Geneville offers a form of pseudonymity which I cannot replicate. If you are a writer who has been pressured by agents or editors to change a character's identity, you must go to Genreville to tell your story pseudonymously!

We thank everyone who has supported us in this matter, and helped us come to the decision to go public. It was not an easy decision, and your support was invaluable. We also give special thanks to Rose Fox for offering us a platform, to Mme Hardy for line-editing our post, and to Tanuki Green for hosting the book lists.

If you want to Tweet this, the tag is #YesGayYA.

Note to new commenters: Please be civil to each other, and please do not insult or label people based on group identity, as opposed to individual actions or beliefs. ("All LDS/Muslims/Christians/etc are homophobes" is not okay. "Homophobes are ruining America" is okay.)

Say Yes To Gay YA

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

We are published authors who co-wrote a post-apocalyptic young adult novel. When we set out to find an agent for it, we expected to get some rejections. But we never expected to be offered representation… on the condition that we make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether.

Our novel Stranger has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki's romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.

An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.

Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.

We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer – who knew if there would even be sequels? – and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.

LGBTQ teenagers already get told this. They are four times more likely than straight teenagers to attempt suicide We’re not saying that the absence of LGBTQ teens in YA sf and fantasy novels is the reason for that. But it’s part of the overall social prejudice that does cause that killing despair.

We wrote this novel so that the teenagers we know – some of whom are gay, and many of whom are not white – would be able, for once, to read a fun post-apocalyptic adventure in which they are the heroes. And we were told that such a thing could not be allowed.

After we thanked the agent for their time, declined the offer, and hung up, Sherwood broke the silence. “Do you think the agent missed that Becky and Brisa [supporting characters] are a couple, too? Do they ever actually kiss on-page? No? I’M ADDING A LESBIAN KISS NOW!”

This Is Not About One Bad Apple

This isn't about that specific agent; we'd gotten other rewrite requests before this one. Previous agents had also offered to take a second look if we did rewrites… including cutting the viewpoint of Yuki, the gay character. We wondered if that was because of his sexual orientation, but since the agents didn’t say it out loud, we could only wonder. (We were also told that it is absolutely unacceptable in YA for a boy to consensually date two girls, but that it would be okay if he was cheating and lying. And we wonder if some agents were put off because none of our POV characters are white.)

We absolutely do not believe that all our rejections were due to prejudice. We know for a fact that some of them weren’t. (An agent did offer us representation, but we ended up passing due to creative differences that had nothing to do with the identities of the characters.)

This isn't about one agent's personal feelings about gay people. We don't know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue. The conversation made it clear that the agent thought our book would be an easy sale if we just made that change. But it doesn't matter if the agent rejected the character because of personal feelings or because of assumptions about the market. What matters is that a gay character would be quite literally written out of his own story.

We are avoiding names because we don’t want this story to be about one agent who spoke more bluntly than others whose objections were more indirectly expressed. Naming names can make it too easy to target a lone “villain,” who can be blamed and scolded until everyone feels that the matter has been satisfactorily dealt with.

Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action.

When we privately discussed our encounter with the agent, we heard from other writers whose prospective agents made altering a character’s minority identity – sexual orientation, race, disability— a condition of representation. But other than Jessica Verday, who refused to change a character’s gender in a short story on an editor’s request, few writers have come forward for fear of being blacklisted.

We sympathize with that fear. But we believe that silence, however well-motivated and reasonable from a marketing point of view, allows the problem to flourish. We hope that others will speak up as well, in whatever manner is safe and comfortable for them.

The overwhelming white straightness of the YA sf and fantasy sections may have little to do with what authors are writing, or even with what editors accept. Perhaps solid manuscripts with LGBTQ protagonists rarely get into mainstream editors’ hands at all, because they are been rejected by agents before the editors see them. How many published novels with a straight white heroine and a lesbian or black or disabled best friend once had those roles reversed, before an agent demanded a change?

This does not make for better novels. Nor does it make for a better world.

Let’s make a better world.

What You Can Do

If You’re An Editor:
Some agents are turning down manuscripts or requesting rewrites because they think that the identities of the characters will make the book unsalable. That means that you, who might love those characters, never even get to see them.

If you are open to novels featuring LGBTQ protagonists or major characters, you can help by saying so explicitly. When agents realize that LGBTQ content does not lead to a lost sale, they will be less likely to demand that it be removed.

The same goes for other identity issues. If you are interested in YA fantasy/sf with protagonists who are disabled, or aren’t white, or otherwise don’t fit the usual mold, please explicitly say so. General statements of being pro-diversity don't seem to get the point across. We ask you to issue a clear, unmistakable statement that you would like to see books with protagonists or major characters who are LGBTQ, people of color, disabled, or any combination of the above.

If You’re An Agent: If you are open to manuscripts with major or main LGBTQ characters, please explicitly say so in your listings and websites. Just as with editors, simply saying “we appreciate diversity” could mean anything. (In fact, the agent who asked us to make our gay character straight had made such mentions.) You can throw the gates open by making a clear and unmistakable statement with details. For instance: “I would love to see books whose characters are diverse in all or any respects, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and national origin.”

If You’re A Reader: Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs by buying, reading, reviewing, and asking libraries to buy existing YA fantasy/sf with LGBTQ protagonists or major characters. If those books succeed financially, more like them will be written, represented, and sold. Your reviews don’t have to be positive – any publicity is good publicity. Review on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, anywhere you yourself read reviews.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with main or major LGBTQ characters is available here, with links to Amazon. Please bookmark this list for reference – it will continue to be updated as new books are released.

Characters of color/non-white characters are often also relegated to the status of sidekicks in YA sff, and are depicted as white on the covers of the few books in which they do star. Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs to support novels in which they are protagonists.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part I: Author surnames from A – L.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part II: Author surnames from M – Z. Please bookmark these lists for reference – they will continue to be updated as new books are released.

The usual protagonist of a YA sf/fantasy novel is a heterosexual white girl or boy with no disabilities or mental/neurological issues, no stated religion, and no specific ethnicity. Reading and reviewing novels whose characters break that mold in other ways would also be a step forward.

If You’re A Writer: If you have had a manuscript rejected because of the identity of the characters, or had an agent or editor request that you alter the identity of a character, please tell your story. If you want to use your real name, comment here, or leave a link to your own blog post. If you want your name to remain private, you can publish your story here under a pseudonym, verified in general terms by Rose Fox. (Such as, “I verify that the author of this comment is indeed a published YA author.”) You can also comment with complete pseudonymity.

Instructions for commenting pseudonymously are here.

If You’re Anyone At All: Please link to this article. If enough people read it and take the suggestions, enormous and wonderful changes could take place.

Who We Are

This article was written by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. Rachel Manija Brown is a TV writer, poet, and author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Sherwood Smith has published more than thirty fantasy and science fiction novels, including the adult fantasies Inda and Coronets and Steel, and the YA fantasy Crown Duel. Together, we created an animated TV series, Game World, which we sold to the Jim Henson Company.

Our YA post-apocalyptic novel, Stranger, remains unsold.

ETA: To be clear: Sherwood and I were trying to find an agent specifically for our co-written works, which are quite different from what we write solo. My agent for nonfiction, Brian DeFiore, is not the agent in question!
Love triangles, always popular in many genres, seem to have become a near-requirement for YA fantasy and science fiction.

I usually do not like love triangles. They bring up the possibility of infidelity, which I hate in literature.

They bring up a lot of angst which I find hard to identify with - this is probably a very personal reaction, but I always think, "Having not one, but TWO attractive guys you like? What a great "problem" to have! That's like getting two fabulous job offers, or being accepted by your top two colleges!"

Plus I find it annoying that, if the heroine genuinely loves them both, no one ever even considers the possibility of polyamory, or even not choosing immediately and seeing how things shake out. (Honorable exceptions: a few books whose titles are spoilery given that this is surprising and happens at the end, but they're by Janni Simner, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Caroline Stevermer. Um. And Laurell K. Hamilton. Maybe that one should be dishonorable.)

It's also usually excruciatingly obvious who the heroine will pick, making her angst annoying and pointless - one guy is clearly evil, unworthy, or doesn't reach the heights of exquisite wonderfulness as the other.

It is very annoying when the triangle is resolved without the heroine making a meaningful choice, because one of the guys dies or turns out to be evil or falls for someone else. Total bait and switch!

Finally, the ubiquity in certain genres may be why many seem to be pasted on as an afterthought. Elements pasted on due to marketability rarely add to the artistry of a work.

One of the few that I've ever liked was in Patricia McKillip's Changeling Sea, in which there were three guys and a girl, and they all had about equal screen time and were all attractive and likable in some sense. Plus, she picked my favorite.

Talk to me about love triangles. Why do you like them? Why do you like the ones you like? Why do you dislike them? And which are your most and least favorites?

Please mark triangle-related spoilers in the header of your comment, ie, "Spoilers for Hunger Games."
I was recently pointed to a new YA dystopia straight out of the YA dystopia generator.

Caffeine has been banned and the government controls water.

I have no idea what that book is actually like (unfortunately, it looks like it isn't a comedy) but my problem with a lot of recent YA dystopias is that they do didacticism badly: bluntly, to the detriment of other artistic functions, and in the service of a message that everyone already believes: it's bad for government to control every aspect of life. Love is good. Destroying the environment is bad.

Didactic art is art which intends to teach, and while we tend to use the word to mean “teach morality,” it can also simply be educational. Most nonfiction is didactic. Fiction too teaches facts (often wrong), about history or work or nature; it shades into morality when the lessons are about human nature.

While didactic fiction of the moral/political variety is so hard to do well, and so easily to do so badly that it invites reviewers like me to point and laugh, it’s nearly impossible to write a work of any length which avoids didacticism altogether. Every story has facts and beliefs embedded in it. If the intent was entirely to entertain and not at all to teach, all that means is that the facts and beliefs will be some amalgam of those held by the characters, those held by the author, and those held by the author’s society.

We label works “didactic” when they are either unsubtle or when the beliefs being promulgated go contrary to our own. When the beliefs are those we or our societies hold ourselves, they have to be pretty damn unsubtle for us to even notice them. This is why a cozy mystery with a lesbian protagonist gets labeled “pro-homosexual propaganda,” even though it contains not one word about gay rights, while the same mystery with a heterosexual heroine who gets married at the end in a flurry of rejoicing at this exquisitely happy conclusion will never be labeled “pro-heterosexuality propaganda.”

I’m not interested in writing fiction whose primary purpose is to teach moral or any other type of lesson. But I confess, there are some messages I do try to send, and not through Western Union.

When I grew up, it was very noticeable, just by the preponderance of books in which the heroes were boys and girls barely even appeared or appeared only as secondary characters, that American society, in general, didn’t believe that girls could be heroes. (I did not get this impression about Indian society, by the way, since the literature I had access to did not erase the historical presence of some amazingly bad-ass women.) It didn’t have to consciously try to send the message that girls weren’t heroes, or that the main importance of Jews was that most of us died in the Holocaust. Those messages were sent by our absence and the overwhelming presence of everyone else.

Another message, unintentionally sent loud and clear, was that people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities not only don’t get to be heroes, but exist only to teach those of perfectly sound body and mind not to try to help them out, because they will only pull you down. And also, people with mental illnesses are doomed. DOOMED, I tell you!

On the flip side, quite a few books sent messages which were much more encouraging and positive, and which I clung to for dear life: If you’re a misfit and bullied and don’t fit in where you are, you can leave and find a place where people will appreciate you. (I know lots of adults hate books with that message, because they are often blatant wish-fulfullment, are unfair to the original society, have protagonists who suffer for no reason and then are rewarded without effort, etc. But when you’re a bullied, depressed, misfit kid, they are an absolute lifeline. And also, quite often true, especially if your problem is something like being gay in a small, homophobic town.) Another message I benefited a lot from was that you can go through absolutely horrible stuff, but survive to find a happy ending.

I have no interest in convincing anyone through my writing that, say, global warming is real. (I don’t know why, but environmentalism ranks with libertarianism as the didacticisms most likely to be obnoxious in fictional form.) But I do try to suggest that trauma doesn’t have to break you forever, that hope and redemption are always there for the taking, and that anyone can be a hero.

Talk to me about messages: good ones, bad ones, the ones you send, the ones you receive, the ones you’re sick of, and the ones you wish you’d see more.
I realized the other day, while listening to an episode of This American Life about infidelity, that there are some topics in which I have so little inherent interest that a work focusing on them has to be extraordinarily good, or else largely about something else, to compel my interest.

One of those topics is infidelity. Another is zombies. (Zombies cheating on each other would be my ultimate "bored now.")

Perhaps infidelity doesn't horrify me on the level upon which I need to be horrified. I get the visceral anguish at the idea of being dumped or unloved or supplanted or lied to or infected with an STD, but not the horror solely at the thought of one's lover having sex or an emotional relationship with someone else. When faced with angsty love triangles, I tend to wonder why no one ever raises the possibility of an open relationship or polyamory. And finally, I've never been tempted to cheat myself.

But my lack of caring about infidelity goes beyond an inability to personally relate. I enjoy tons of fiction I don't personally relate to. But infidelity-driven plots nearly always strike me as dull, trivial, unnecessary, irritating, and give me a sense of second-hand embarrassment.

As for zombies, they are gross, rotting, and lack intelligence and personality. The first two actively turn me off, the last one removes the things that interest me in a character. The only zombie stories I've ever enjoyed are ones in which the interest is in the characters fighting or fleeing the zombies, and ones in which the zombies are still intelligent and have personalities. But in those cases, they are barely zombies at all.

I am also suspicious of vampires and faeries, but that's nothing inherent, it's just that they're so often done and so often done unimaginatively. Show me a new or merely extremely well-written take on faeries, vampires, or faepires, and I will happily settle down to read.

Please discuss the subjects and tropes which make you flee in the other direction, whether they're well-executed or not. (Or share my loathing for zombies and cheaters.)
I'm sure you all figured this out by now, but if you write a negative review of something I wrote, I will not descend upon your blog to insult you, sic my friends on you, vow to never work with you in the future, attempt to destroy your career, or otherwise try to penalize you.

I may be privately annoyed, but I will probably get over it. I may or may not even be hurt. I have written quite a bit, some of it work-for-hire which was doomed to badness from the get-go as I had to work off an incoherent original concept someone else came up with, some of it later rewritten by others, some of simply not that good, and all of which, I realize, may not be to everyone's taste. I once came across a review (of a doomed bit of work-for-hire) which said something like, The characters are barely even one-dimensional, and had to admit to myself that the critique was perfectly true.

So review honestly, should you feel like reviewing.

Context here. I would read the comments in addition to Janni's thoughtful post, as the comments go a long way toward explaining why people feel genuinely intimidated.

I've already written a post about why negative reviews are not unprofessional, evil, or mean, so I won't revisit that here. My opinions as stated there still stand. The last italicized argument, Since authors are all in the same field, it is unprofessional for a published author to write a negative review of another author’s work, is probably the most relevant to the current discussion.


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