rachelmanija: (Default)
( Mar. 4th, 2015 12:00 pm)
Sherwood and I were interviewed on the Outer Alliance podcast by Julia Rios. Please feel free to ask follow-up questions here. (Spoilers are clearly stated in the interview, in "skip ahead a few minutes" format.)
I have an article on the reasons why people self-publish as a guest-post at Charlie Stross's blog. If you were one of the beta-readers, I added stuff to the post that's up now.

You are welcome to comment either here or there. However, if you comment here, one topic is banned. It is whether or not Amazon is evil. It is not banned at Charlie's blog, so feel free to discuss that over there. I just find it a dull topic, since nobody ever seems to have anything to say that doesn't summarize as "Why don't the writer-sheeple see that Amazon is evil?!!!"
Sherwood has a guest post at Charlie Stross's blog on the history of English-language publishing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It began when [Curll] first pirated Pope, prompting the poet and his publisher to meet Curll at the Swan, where they slipped a mega dose of "physic" (think ExLax) into his drink.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jan. 9th, 2015 09:48 am)
In case anyone would like to nominate my work for anything, here's what I published in 2014:

Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. (Viking, November 13, 2014.)

Prisoner, by Lia Silver. (Melusine Press, June 30, 2014.)

Laura's Wolf, by Lia Silver. (Melusine Press, March 5, 2014.)
And as if to celebrate our collaboration, Stranger has been nominated for YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults. The final list will be announced in February.

The way Sherwood and I collaborate is that we first sit down and discuss the plot of the entire story, taking notes. Before we write a chapter, we discuss what will happen in more detail. Then we sit side by side at a computer and write the chapter. Usually Sherwood types, with either of us or both of us actually writing. (I would be dictating.) The result is a book where any given sentence was probably written by both of us together. When we have a first draft, we pass it back and forth for rewrites and polishes and additions.

Sherwood thinks on a much larger scale than I do, in every way. I tend toward intimate scenes with a few people, shorter lengths, and less lavish description. She goes for epics, LONG epics, and more description. Our work together tends to split the difference: medium length, medium description, a large world but we only see a small part of it.

We think differently about worldbuilding. Sherwood creates entire worlds from scratch, with economies, ecologies, and cultures. I tend to start with our world, make a few changes, and extrapolate from there. The werewolf Marines books are typical of my general tendencies in that direction. I didn’t create a new ecology or economy, because werewolves exist secretly within our own ecologies and economies, but instead focused on how werewolf culture might have evolved alongside all the other real cultures, and the details of how their powers work. How might pack dynamics (actual wolf behavior, not the alpha male bullshit) translate into human culture, is there a limit to how much transforms with them when they shapeshift, do they have origin myths, etc.

Sherwood tends to start with an image. I tend to start with “What would be the most interesting/dramatic path that follows logically from what we’ve already got?”

The best part of collaborating is that it’s impossible to get writer’s block. If I go blank, Sherwood will provide something, or vice versa. It’s also just fun – a bit like playing a role-playing game. We’re different enough to keep things interesting, but similar enough to have infinite fun inventing creatures, mutant powers, difficult situations for our characters, etc.

The worst part is that we’re both absent-minded and not very computer-adept, so we have repeatedly lost files, accidentally copied old versions on top of new versions, etc. It can also be hard to find the time for both of us to get together.

I’ve tried collaborating with a number of people. It doesn’t always work – sometimes our prose styles don’t mesh, or our working styles are incompatible, or we argue in a way that isn’t fruitful, or we have wildly differing visions, or we plain don’t get along.

When I saw the movie Pacific Rim, where giant robots can only be operated by a pair of pilots who are capable of working so smoothly together that they can make one mecha move as if operated by a single person, I thought, “Sherwood and I are Drift-compatible.” Call us if a giant monster appears and you need pilots.
Hostage, the sequel to Stranger, is out now. The e-book is $4.99; the paper book will be released in a few months.

Sherwood has put up a detailed post about why we chose to self-publish Hostage. It’s well-worth reading in full, but the short version is that we finished Hostage a year ago. If we stayed with Viking, it would be two more years before it would be released. (Stranger also took three years to come out, counting from when Sharyn November first told us she wanted it; two and a half years if you count from when we actually got our contract.) We decided that being able to control the price and release dates of the series was more important to us than the prestige and resources of a traditional publishing house.

Feel free to discuss here or there; feel free to publicize and link anywhere.

I welcome comments on your own publishing experiences. I ask only that you refrain from put-downs of individuals or general statements that anything is evil. Amazon included. Criticize all you want, just don’t say stuff like “Amazon is trying to enslave us all, like STALINIST RUSSIA!!!” or “You’re just self-publishing because no one wants your politically correct tripe!!!” or any other statement that naturally lends itself to three exclamation points.

Hostage at Book View Cafe (the writer’s collective). Hostage (The Change) at Amazon. At Barnes and Noble At Apple. At Kobo
There are so many tropes that I have opinions about that I could discuss this topic all month. So today, for Tonapah, I will just discuss romance tropes.

Before I start, I just want to say that fantasies are fantasies. I never assume that people who write or read tropes I dislike literally want those tropes in their real life, any more than I literally want to have a hot bodyguard because I'm on a mafia don's hit list. Enjoying romance novels with asshole heroes does not mean you masochistically want to date real life assholes. Okay, on to the tropes.

There is a certain romantic hero type that has become very popular in straight genre romance. It is the arrogant, asshole, controlling, domineering, sexually dominating billionaire. Sometimes he is just one of those things, but often he is all six. One is fine if done well, but the rest are the opposite of sexy. This dude is my least favorite trope of the day.

Billionaires are not sexy to me. The essential thing about a billionaire is that he has lots of money. If the most attractive thing about a man is his wallet, that implies nothing positive either about him or women who are interested in him. When I think of a billionaire, I think of Donald Trump and Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good.”) I think of asshole bosses who exploit their workers. I think of men who are totally out of touch with real life, men who buy their way out of problems, men who have never faced adversity and wouldn’t last five minutes in any sort of crisis situation, unattractive men who have beautiful girlfriends who are in it solely for the money. My image of the billionaire is of a shallow, narcissistic, bloodless wuss who has to bribe women to have sex with him. Not sexy.

Arrogant characters can be entertaining. But it’s not an attractive trait by itself. I mostly enjoy arrogant characters if they’re regularly deflated. Similarly, asshole characters can be entertaining. But they’re not appealing as romantic heroes. I can’t root for them to get the girl, because I always think the girl would be miserable. I sure wouldn’t want to date one.

Some arrogant asshole characters are sexy, but on a “hot one-night stand” level. Mal in Firefly, for instance. Mal would be fun for a weekend, and might make a great platonic friend afterward. But Wash is the one you’d want for an actual relationship.

I don’t get the appeal of the control freak. I imprinted on Han Solo, who’s cool and confident enough to take things as they come and trust that he can handle whatever might arise. That’s sexy. A man who must control everything is a man who lacks confidence, spontaneity, sensuality, and a sense of fun. Uptight, buttoned-down men are probably bad in bed. Domineering men are obnoxious dicks. Men who try to control women are jerks at best and abusive at worst... and they’re often at their worst. None of this is sexy!

Sexually dominating men can be sexy; it depends on the writing. However, I have to be sold by the writing, because if there’s going to be BDSM at all, my personal preference is for femdom.

On that note, one of the most annoying tropes of all is the assumption that of course the hero will dominate the heroine, in and out of the bedroom, whether or not either of them are specifically into BDSM. Barf.

So a whole lot of recent contemporary romance has heroes whom I find both unlikable and unsexy. If I’m going to read contemporary, I prefer military romance or romantic suspense. Those are more likely to have blue-collar heroes (soldiers, cops, bodyguards, etc) with a more rough-and-ready attitude – John McClane rather Christian Gray.

For romantic heroes, I like rogues with a heart of gold, genuinely nice guys, tough guys, battered idealists, warriors and soldiers, scholars, and wizards. I like tricksters and pifflers who use their powers of deception for good. I like self-sacrificing men. I like men who don’t need to prove their masculinity, whether it’s because they aren’t traditionally masculine and don’t care or they’re so badass they don’t care. I like old-school gentlemen who aren’t sexist. I like men who’ve gone through hell and still aren’t assholes. I like pretty much any sort of romantic hero who’s brave, honest, and kind. I would probably like a billionaire with those attributes, but billionaire heroes are a different archetype that lacks those traits.

Probably my favorite romance trope is partnership. I love it when the hero and heroine fall in love while working together toward a common goal, and keep working together after their relationship is established. For instance, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, or Sam and Alyssa in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters, Ki and Vandien, or early-days Vlad and Cawti, or the main couple in the “Queen’s Thief” books, or any of Barbara Hambly’s romantic couples. Trusting each other with their lives, guarding each other’s backs, rescuing each other, tending each other’s wounds, fighting together, bantering together, figuring out a difficult problem together— now THAT is sexy.

A couple of these are enemies-to-lovers stories, which I like if the reason they’re enemies is that they start out with opposing goals or are on opposite sides. I’m a hard sell on “I hate your personality” enemies-to-lovers stories, because they tend to go in the direction of “asshole hero puts down heroine; bitchy heroine is mean to hero.” I find that unpleasant to read, and the resulting conversion is a hard sell.

I like to feel that the heroine and hero are compatible and enjoy each other’s company and will make a good couple once they’ve overcome whatever obstacles lie in their path. A surprising number of romance couples seem to have nothing in common and don’t actually like each other that much.

I almost never see this, but I love it when the heroine must choose between two or more romantic options who are both attractive and appealing but flawed, her choice will say something important about her, it’s not obvious who she’ll choose, and any choice would be valid. Offhand, I can think of exactly two examples of this: Patricia McKillip’s The Changeling Sea and Agatha Christie’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. (Possibly also Legend of Korra, whose romantic endgame I know of but which I haven’t seen yet.) A lot of love triangles start out like this, but resolve by making one of the choices clearly the wrong one. Then the heroine doesn’t make a true choice. Suuure, she’s going to pick the guy who turned into a ruthless killer who was indirectly responsible for the death of the person she loved most in the world!

One of my very favorite tropes in any genre is lovers or friends on opposite sides of a war. It contains so many things that I love and which are dramatically juicy: conflict arising from honor and idealism rather than petty or stupid or jerkish issues, tragedy, angst, difficult choices with no right answer, and grand battlefield melodrama optionally followed by moving reunions. I imprinted on the Mahabharata as a child, and probably nothing will ever top its version of this trope, with brothers, cousins, uncles, teachers, and friends on both sides of the battle lines. I rarely see this in genre romance, unfortunately, and can’t think of any examples offhand.

I like moments of tenderness and the hero and heroine being gentle with each other. I have a whole post coming up just on hurt-comfort, which is all about this.

I like realistic portrayals of PTSD. That’s now not uncommon in genre romance, which is nice. I don’t like PTSD used solely as a plot device or as a shallow nod to the concept of realism. I see this a lot in military romances, where the hero has nightmares that are solely there so we can see what happened to him in the war, but is completely fine otherwise. That’s not how it works. At the very least, he should feel lousy the next morning.

Also, PTSD is not an excuse to be an asshole. I see that mostly in contemporaries, where the asshole hero eventually comes out with some melodramatic tale of childhood abuse, witnessing his father murder his mother, first girlfriend died tragically and he blamed himself, etc. Guess what, we all have problems. Still not an excuse for being an asshole!
Welcome to the question-a-day month meme! You can still add questions. Check the LJ version for the most current schedule by clicking on the month meme tag.

Dhampyresa asked about the process of publishing a book, from first idea to publication. There’s actually several different roads for this, depending on whether it’s traditional or self-publishing, or whether I write solo or collaboratively. For this, I’ll assume you mean solo, because I’ll write on collaboration later.

In the beginning is the idea. I have lots of these. If I stuck just to the novel ideas I have right now, I’d have enough to keep me busy for the next ten years. So it’s not so much getting an idea as prioritizing an idea.

Due to laziness, I tend to prioritize the ideas that won’t take extreme amounts of research or worldbuilding. (This is why the lesbian dragonriders book got pushed back – it requires both. Anyone have good, vivid references for WWI-style dogfighting and aerial strategy?)

So, I’ve got my moderate-worldbuilding, moderate-research idea. I then contemplate and outline, then start writing. Eventually I have a manuscript. Here’s where paths start diverging.

If I’m going to self-publish, I polish, proofread, write a blurb, and create keywords. I get other people to do the cover and formatting. I usually solicit some reviews from bloggers. Then I publish. Ta-da! Once it goes live, I send out a message to my mailing list to let them know I have a book out. If it’s a sequel, I update the previous book to put a link to the sequel at the end of it. I will probably also put the first book on sale, to lure new readers. Once the manuscript is ready to go, the rest of the process takes anywhere between a week to two months. The difference depends on things like whether you had the cover done in advance and your formatter’s schedule.

If I traditionally publish, I send it to my agent to submit to publishers. This part takes between one month to one year, but could be longer. (If an agent can't sell a book in a year, it may not sell at all. Submitting without an agent takes far longer.) If a publisher or publishers wants it, they send a contract, which I and my agent ponder. It usually goes back for revisions/requests. Contract negotiations can take six months. Then the editor asks for revisions. I do them and send them back. The editor will usually do at least one round of that. This part takes between three months and two years. If it takes longer than four months, most of that time is spent after I’ve sent back my revisions and am waiting for the next set of notes.

Eventually, the manuscript goes to copyediting. It will be sent back to us with a bunch of corrections, from typos and grammar errors to questions about word usage and catches on continuity errors, like characters’ eye color changing. I fix the problems, answer the questions, and send it back. Then it goes to proofreading. I again get the proofread manuscript to check and do my own proof. Then it goes to ARCs – Advance Review Copies. These are sent to reviewers, and may have errors. My first book’s ARCs had a MISSING CHAPTER. (Usually errors are not that bad.) This part takes about three months, I think. Finally, the finished book comes out, and everyone rejoices.

As you can see, a big difference between traditional and self publishing is time. You do most of the same things either way— writing, editing, proofing, formatting, getting a cover, sending out review copies, etc— but because there’s so much less waiting between tasks with self-publishing, the whole process is significantly faster.
In 2014, I got an MA in clinical psychology, spent a year working as a therapist, and published four novels.

Saying it like that makes it sound like those annoying people who post, "Oh, I didn't get much done today; I just sold three poems, wrote a novelette, cleaned my three-story houseboat from top to bottom, and cooked a five-course meal for twelve houseguests."

Everything in that first sentence was the result of years and years and YEARS of work, and some of it was the results of work done years ago. For instance, I completed most of my coursework in 2013, but I didn't officially graduate until September 2014. Stranger was written in 2010-2011, but didn't come out till the end of 2014. Hostage was completed in 2012.

More importantly, everything which saw fruit in 2014 was the result of everything that led up to it. I'd been trying to learn how to write and finish a novel for something like fifteen years; it took that long for it to click. Being able to walk into a room and sit down with a client in crisis and feel confident wasn't something I learned in graduate school, it's something I learned in five years of sitting down with people in crisis with a body in the next room, and a lifetime of observation of others and myself. ("A child's among you, taking notes.")

I love being a therapist. Except (predictably) for the paperwork. And the fact that I'm still in an unpaid internship. But I love my clients, and working with my clients, and my working environment is very good.

It does bring me face to face with all the most horrible things people do to each other, and that the "justice system" is not remotely just. In America, you probably have a better chance of being struck by lightning than you do of seeing the person who raped you face any consequences whatsoever, no matter how hard you pursue it. But all of that is happening whether I know about it or not. The fact that I now know the details also means that I have a chance to do something about it. Other people are working on justice. I'm working on healing.

I love being a writer. After all those years of assuming that writing was inherently a tortuous slog, it turns out that it doesn't have to be at all. Writing can consistently flow and be fun - even if you've been writing for years and years and only ever had that happen in brief moments.

You can spend twenty years depressed and anxious and unable to do all sorts of ordinary things because they trigger panic attacks, spend six months in therapy, and leave much happier and more relaxed and doing all those ordinary things, and even enjoying some of them.

The main thing I've learned in the last year is that things can change. They can change amazingly.

Here are my four books. Two are collaborations, two are solo. Two are written under my name, two under a pen name. All four contain PTSD, psychic powers, diversity, both male and female leads, action, comedy, banter, romance, a strong sense of place, and food descriptions guaranteed to make you hungry.

Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. In a post-apocalyptic frontier town where the doctor can speed up time and the squirrels can teleport sandwiches out of your hands, a stranger comes to town...

Hostage (The Change), by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. The sequel to Stranger. Ross is kidnapped to make use of his unique power. While his friends desperately try to rescue him, he is forced to engage in a battle of wills with a king. Available for pre-order.

You may notice that Hostage has been self-published. On January 6, when it will be released, I will link to an essay Sherwood wrote on why we did that. I hope it will spark some interesting conversation. Watch this space.

Laura's Wolf (Werewolf Marines), by Lia Silver. A werewolf Marine with PTSD meets a semi-reformed con artist with trauma of her own in a cabin in Yosemite. Together, they find love, danger, and healing.

Prisoner (Echo's Wolf, Book 1) (Werewolf Marines). DJ Torres, a hyperactive werewolf Marine who got his nickname because he actually is a DJ, is kidnapped by shady government operatives and forced to partner with Echo, a genetically engineered assassin. Hijinks ensue; also love, banter, and music recs.

The Lia Silver books are related, but can be read in either order. I am hoping to have Partner, the sequel to Prisoner, out in late January.
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 rot13.com, 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 rot13.com.
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?


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