I just finished reading Deerskin by Robin McKinley. It was intense and beautiful. I didn’t want to put it down, mostly because I didn’t want to leave Lissar where she was. I felt like I needed to see her through to the end. She’s an excellent character, and I found that I cared very much about her very quickly.
The writing feels kind of fairytale in style. It tends toward some truly impressive run-on sentences, but the language also had an interesting flow to it that I really liked once I got into it. Even though it’s a bit wordy, the descriptions of her surroundings, sensations, and internal experience are extremely vivid and gripping.
Princess Lissar is accompanied throughout her journey by her loyal fleethound, Ash. I loved how relatable her relationship with Ash felt. The canines in this fantasy world might be almost supernaturally beautiful and graceful and clever, but they’re also just dogs, with all the weird little behaviors and quirks that people love them for. The story centers a great deal on her bond with Ash and the way they care for and rescue each other.
The rest of this post warrants a trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, so please be warned.
Deerskin deals with sexual trauma and Lissar’s struggle to survive and recover. I didn’t find that it in any way sensualized the abuse, which can be a big problem in some fiction. It does, however, go very deep into her senses, her emotions, and the resulting flashbacks and disassociation. I haven’t experienced PTSD, but it was in line with what I’ve been told it can be like. I was impressed by that, since I haven’t seen many realistic depictions of trauma in fantasy, but it might also be very painful for some people to read.
The story is based on Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault. I actually think that as a kid I had an illustrated book of the fairytale version, which is slightly terrifying to me in retrospect. Most fairytales were originally much darker than their modern kid-friendly versions, but this one is probably not as familiar to a general audience. Not so shocking that a story about a father trying to marry his own daughter didn’t catch on quite as easily as some of the others, where at least the creepiest parts were easier to pare off while leaving the stories intact. The original telling, of course, doesn’t focus on the terrible reality of incest so much as on the virtuousness of the princess in being willing to suffer ugliness and hard labor to escape her father’s immorality.
This story, on the other hand, is about Princess Lissar and no one else. It’s about her experiences, her rediscovery of herself, and her anchoring connection with the faithful dog who sticks by her through it all.
There’s this disconnect I’ve seen and felt in specific types of conversations online. (And in person, but this is where I generally observe it in the wild because I don’t often go outside and talk to the flesh people.) I hang out in writing groups a lot for obvious reasons, so lately, the argument has looked kind of like this:
The OP: “Maybe don’t portray autistic people as rude, awkward geniuses incapable of human connection in your books and shows – it’s inaccurate and harmful.”
The inevitable flood of responses: “You can’t police creativity!” and “I do what I want!” and “It’s my book!”
I think about this a lot, because I see and experience it pretty frequently, and I’m not gonna say anything particularly revolutionary, but some of this is new to me. I think this disconnect starts all the way back with the way we raise kids.
In order to get and maintain power over a group of people for more than a generation, you’ve gotta train all the kids to see the world in a way that supports that power structure. To make little boys grow up to be properly misogynist men, for example, we first stunt their empathy and emotional intelligence. We tell them that all their feelings but anger are bad and weak and worst of all – feminine. We teach them that tears will earn them derision, not compassion. Did you know that people are statistically less likely to comfort a crying male* infant? That’s how early it starts. If we could find a way to get at fetuses and start indoctrinating them into gender roles before birth, we’d do it. Hell, we almost do. We throw gender reveal parties to celebrate which of these two narrow categories we’ll be training the future child for.
People do this stuff with varying levels of awareness. It was done to them. It’s the way things are done. This indoctrination was used on them, so it’s right to do it to their kids. Otherwise, they’d have to face some pretty unpleasant things about their own childhoods. They might see some elements of their own upbringing as old-fashioned or ignorant, but they might still tell a little boy with a scraped knee to man up and stop crying. They might still casually slut-shame their daughter on her way out the door to meet friends. Why not pass on these values? It never hurt them. Except it did hurt them.
My point is, we don’t just do this to make boys into neanderthals who are badly in need of a hug, or to keep girls barefoot and pregnant in the sandwich factory. We do this for every form of oppression that our societal structure is invested in. To make a society as mean-spirited as this one, we break kids and then we convince them that they were born wrong and required this indoctrination in order to be good. Goodness is a rigid thing that they earn by following the right authority and only exercising their own power over those who are beneath them in the hierarchy.
There are millions of loving parents who are ready to die valiantly on the “spanking totally isn’t the same as hitting” hill. Is there any parenting mantra more thoroughly engrained into American consciousness than “Because I said so?” If goodness and rightness are, from birth, associated only with the power to enforce them, and if explanation and negotiation is seen as weakness, is it any wonder that we get this weird interaction on the subject of social justice? The basis of social justice is opposing the beliefs and behavior that supports oppression. The original poster is, at least to some extent, not coming from that place anymore. They have no power behind their appeal, and they shouldn’t need any. They’re not exactly giving an order; they’re trying to share important information.
As far as they’re concerned, they’re just waving a shovel and asking for help with the mess that they can plainly see right there in front of everyone. The mess is toxic. It clearly needs to be removed. It would benefit everyone in the long run to remove it. Why wouldn’t you want to help remove some of the mess? In fact, for a start, couldn’t you just stop throwing more garbage onto it? Just a little less? Just one type of garbage? Why are you so invested in protecting this stupid pile? It’s maddening.
And, of course, the response they get for their troubles sounds an awful lot like a little kid shouting “You’re not my dad!” Social justice warriors are accused of seeing everything as a battle, but if they didn’t care about people so much that it hurts, they would not be doing this work. They spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to make change in the world, which requires a deep well of optimism and caring. Whereas, the folks that I will henceforth refer to as status quo warriors, cannot seem to view their efforts as anything but an attack. The replies are almost incredulous in their fury. “Who are you to tell me what to do? You can’t make me. Worse, you’re telling me I’m responsible to a group of people that I was taught is beneath me in the hierarchy. I’m allowed to hurt them. I have the power.”
I know this is kind of a ramble, but given how often I’m told to try to see the other side’s point of view, maybe it’s worth saying. I won’t entertain a world-view that says it doesn’t matter if some people are suffering as long as they’re the right people, but I can try to see why someone would be stuck in that place. If we all start there, and I think we all do to some extent, there must be a way through it. If nothing else, it makes me feel a little less angry to see it this way.
Epilogue: Yeah, sure, good and bad are subjective, but they’re also kinda not. What if we stopped complicating it? You can go as deep down the ethics rabbit hole as you want if you really enjoy wrestling with the gnarly questions, but functionally, it’s not actually that hard. I really do think we can do so much better for each other and I think it’s always worth the effort to try.
*Assigned male infants, of course. There’s no room in this system for kids who don’t conform to the gender they’ve been assigned.
I’m in San Diego at the moment for my sister in law’s wedding. I’ve only been down here a couple of times before, for the big reptile show they have. Now I get to see some other parts of the area, which is cool. We’re staying at a pretty hotel full of ponds, waterfalls, koi, and cute mandarin ducks. I’m hoping to experience a little more of the beach, but I can see it from the hotel grounds.
I got a mini tour of the UCSD campus from my little sister on Thursday. We saw a cute baby bunny, and then we collected a bunch of snacks, made tea, and binge-watched Miss Congeniality, a spectacularly awful mutant shark movie, and Practical Magic. All in all, a very well spent evening.
I had some interesting conversations in Lyfts getting to and from her school. One driver was an older gentleman who explained the publishing industry, the world in general, and my own book to me. He had no writing or publishing experience, but they’re always so helpful, these guys. The other was quite nice and he told me that Istanbul is on a major fault line and has tons of earthquakes, which I didn’t know before. From a fellow passenger, I got an extensive update about the damage the fires in the north have been doing to his friends’ pot farms, and specifically the massive amounts of money hidden in the walls of one of their homes, which has now burned down.
Flying makes me super sick, and Dramamine makes me sleepy, so I didn’t get any work done on the way here. I’m gonna have to play catch up after I finish this post.
I have not kept up with my goal of reading and reviewing one book on writing per month, but I’m catching up now. Last month I actually got through a couple of writing books. I read 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox and The Life-long Writing Habit, also by Chris Fox. I think that, of the two, I definitely got more out of the former, although I enjoyed them both.
5,000 Words Per Hour is a super handy book. I was a bit surprised. The title makes it sound kind of gimmicky, but I’ve been watching Chris’s videos on Youtube and it’s clear to me that his method works really well for him. (Astoundingly well, even.) He literally writes entire novels in a month or two each, back to back. Of course, that alone doesn’t mean his method will work for anyone else. Some people have the right combination of skills, practice, and good habits to be super productive, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to help others achieve similar results. Plus, a whole book that just says “Do this thing every day like it’s the only thing in the world that matters” isn’t likely to be very popular, or helpful for most people.
The nice thing about this book is that it is very simple and direct. He asserts that if you actually do the exercises he lays out, you should see dramatic and measurable improvement. He also says they’re simple, and he isn’t lying. The whole thing is easy to follow, makes a lot of sense, and most of it doesn’t take much time to try out. He jumps quickly into actionable suggestions, why he thinks they work well, and provides examples from his own experience.
Daily writing sprints are central to his approach. Writing sprints are exactly what they sound like: Short bursts of concentrated writing. The main thing, and the part that I personally struggle with, is not going back to edit during the sprint. I hate this, but it’s definitely sound advice if your goal is to improve your writing speed, so I’m working on it. Getting words onto the page, even if they’re a mess, is vital. Editing can always happen later, but you can’t edit what you haven’t written.
Another important component is tracking WPH, or words per hour, so you can see your improvement over time. Tracking numbers doesn’t exactly get me excited, but I’m taking this on because I know that a lot of the time when I get discouraged it’s because I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.
Because longer writing sprints require practice and stamina, he suggests starting with five minute sprints (easy and manageable, right?) and then multiplying your word count by 12 to get a WPH number you can track as you go along.
My favorite take-away from this book is the idea of making a tortoise enclosure for yourself. I liked this concept so much that I made a goofy drawing to go with it, because it is both sensible and charming. Apparently, he got the idea from a video of John Cleese talking about creativity. The tortoise enclosure is a safe space for your imagination that makes it easier to get right into flow state and stay there the whole time you’re working. The boundaries for your enclosure are (loosely): Time, Space, and Privacy. He also suggests making a list of all the potential distractions that you frequently encounter and then making plans to eliminate or temporarily block each one before starting.
This last is probably very sound advice, because according to some science stuff that I read a while ago and can’t find now, each distraction sets you back significantly in terms of focus, no matter how briefly it holds your attention.
I’d recommend 5,000 Words Per Hour to pretty much anyone who wants to write more and write faster. It’s a quick read, so not a huge time investment. I listened to it on Audible, but it’s available in ebook and physical form as well. There’s a content warning after the picture, just in case anyone needs it.
CW: The author references his own weight loss and dieting behavior multiple times, and there’s some mildly food-shamey content that could bother some people.
I believe there was also a brief mention of depression and thoughts of self harm in his past.
Writing wasn’t my dream career. I didn’t start as a kid like a lot of authors, and I don’t have any cute snippets of childhood fiction to share, sadly.
I started writing in 2011, when I was 22. At first I just did some journaling to cope with my depression. I’ve always loved to read fantasy, and an idea for a fantasy story had been rattling around in the back of my head for a while. I think the stream-of-consciousness journaling that I was already doing helped loosen me up enough that I just started writing it down.
I pounded out a few chapters, then slowed to a crawl as I ran out of the bits I had already figured out, struggled through a few more, and then stopped. I knew I didn’t have the skill to write that story the way I wanted to, so I quit. But then, I did something totally normal and healthy that was nonetheless a big deal for me. I decided to get better at writing so I could come back to that story and tell it really well. I started writing little short stories when I had ideas, just ’cause, and that was fun. They weren’t great, but I could finish them in a few sittings, and finishing anything felt really good.
I switched to a second novel project for Nanowrimo in 2012, and figured I could just do it all in one go because it was supposed to be a shorter and less complex story. I was very wrong, and I didn’t win. I hadn’t plotted either of those attempts, and even though that story was simpler in concept, I had allowed it to ramble again and gotten totally lost. I kept working at it, but I was pretty frustrated, and effective practice was still totally foreign to me. I was just flailing around and trying to make this huge thing without a plan.
Looking back at it now, I see that the drafts for those two stories actually add up to a pretty impressive amount of output for a beginner. I wasn’t tracking my progress very well at the time, and I counted all discarded work as basically wasted time and effort even though I was actually learning from it.
The idea for Somnolence came to me in a dream. I hate myself a teensy bit just for writing that ridiculously pretentious sentence, but it’s basically true. In 2013, I had a dream that was just the climax battle of a fantasy story. It felt super epic and compelling, and when I woke up I wrote it all down in my journal and started making up more backstory for it. I really liked it, and it had the potential to draw from a lot of the emotional crap I was going through at the time. In a spectacular act of self-sabotage, I switched projects again. I kept feeling like I needed a clean slate because the other projects had gotten so messy. In reality, I needed to learn to plot properly, but that didn’t really occur to me till I had written about half of Somnolence.
I slogged on, working mostly when I felt inspired and wasn’t too depressed to move my fingers on the keyboard, and it took for-fucking-ever to finish the first draft. I declared it finished, just barely, on New Year’s Eve right before I moved from California to Seattle in 2016. That really was a huge milestone, although it immediately paled in the face of what I wanted to do next. I wanted to edit it properly and actually publish it, and I had no idea how to make that happen. Fortunately, by then I was just barely starting to grasp the practice thing and I’ve always been really stubborn. I’ve been researching, reading, joining writing groups, watching youtube videos, blogging, and practicing writing craft.
I don’t know what it is about writing that drives me to improve. I find it satisfying in a way that I don’t really understand. I love to draw, but I never felt the need to practice enough to polish my skills or make a career out of it. I’m usually pleased with what I can produce, but I’m perfectly content to do it as a hobby. Writing comes less easily to me. I’m often not at all pleased with my initial results, but it’s still where my energy goes, and I’m happy with the progress that I do make. Working toward the goal of being a published author has helped me change my life in a whole bunch of positive ways and improved my self-esteem. It wasn’t my dream growing up, but it is now.
There’s a lot of debate about the merits of daily writing. It’s definitely good to write regularly, and writing every day basically guarantees more rapid improvement than if you only rarely make time for it. There are some ableism issues if it’s framed as the best or only way, since many people literally cannot write every day. Lots of the arguments against it sort of boil down to “but then it’ll feel like work.” If you’re trying to make writing a career, then letting it feel like work is probably a necessary part of that. If not, then it’s probably just fine for it to be a fun hobby that you only do when you feel like it. I think a lot of the time the issue is when people don’t want writing to feel like work, but do want to improve dramatically and be “successful” without putting in the effort.
I’m kind of stuck in a weird middle place. I struggle to finish projects, and I always have. Finishing my first, first draft was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. It took a huge amount of dedication, and I’m proud of it when I remind myself to be, but I still didn’t work consistently and I constantly got down on myself for that. It took a lot longer than it could have. Feeling guilty about not writing consistently made me want to quit, pretty much every day. I was probably more consistent about berating myself for not writing than I was about writing, which I would not recommend as a motivation strategy. It is less than effective.
I’ve always had really nasty drops in mood because of depression and they randomly knock me on my ass. I used to (and still sometimes do) fantasize about not bothering to get back up because it’s just exhausting to know that it’ll happen again and again, but I always do get up. The weight just lifts, or the right person says the right thing, or the right song comes on, and I manage to tweak my mental state back into something functional. I’ve developed tricks that help, if I remember them when I need them which is never guaranteed. My dogs help, because the imminent threat of floor wetting and canine starvation is motivating in a way that kind of sidesteps my emotional issues and gets me into pants and a shirt and usually shoes.
One shitty thing about mental illness is that it makes things impossible, but they never feel like they should be impossible. I don’t sit in front of the laptop scrolling mindlessly through Facebook for hours because I know for a fact that I can’t write. I always feel like I’m just on the cusp of working. It might be executive dysfunction stopping me, but physically I could do it. My hands are on the keyboard. The manuscript is there. The fact that looking at it for a few seconds made me feel sick and panicky doesn’t register as anything other than weakness. I have no perfect or even consistent solution for this problem, really.
Building a habit helps, because it lowers the initiation energy required to get moving. It’s hard to build a habit, though, and easy to break it. Building a habit requires consistent effort in the first place, which is unbelievably draining if you’re already dealing with mental illness.
Sometimes I can just push through it, usually around 3am, and then I’m often surprised by how easy it feels once I get into the zone. Then, the next day, I’m shocked by how hard it is when the flow doesn’t come.
Prioritizing writing over basically all my other tasks feels impossible, but it seems to be one of the biggest barriers I’m facing right now. It’s a little easier to take out the trash and do the dishes than write a challenging scene, but if I try to do all three in a day, writing is almost always the thing that gets bumped off the list when I run out of energy. If I have to socialize, that burns me out, but I don’t want to admit that or disappoint people.
The only really solid advice I can offer to anyone who wants to write but is dealing with something like this is not to let it stop you from picking the story back up again, no matter how long you stall, or how bad you think it is, or how disappointed you are in yourself for missing those days or weeks or months in between. I’d love to be able to write every day. Maybe someday I will, because I have been slowly improving my skills and reorganizing my life and I have supportive partners who encourage me, for which I’m really grateful. But for now, just picking it up again after a week of feeling miserable about it is more important than doing it every day. It’s been a while since I went a month without working, and I think part of the reason for that is I don’t spiral quite as hard into all the guilt and feeling bad about it. I’ve made a conscious effort to prioritize something over perfect or even good, even though that idea feels like nails on a chalkboard to my brain.
I wasted a whole day on Minecraft and laundry, but Somnolence is sitting there at the bottom of my to-do list, do I:
A. Tell myself I’m garbage and stay up super late to punish myself?
B. Promise myself I’ll do it tomorrow and write today off as a lost cause?
C. Literally open it for five minutes and rewrite one sentence so I can cross it off my list?
It’s silly, but C is usually the most daunting option for me because it means facing that scary mountain of stuff I need to do and just doing this one tiny, inadequate, little thing and every part of my personality rebells at that. A sentence is still better than nothing, though. I don’t write every day, but I have managed to produce a blog post, albeit often an embarrassing full day late, every week for a few months now. Late is better than nothing, too. The only way to guarantee that it never gets done is to put it down and never pick it up again, but every day is another chance to try again. If I pick it up again enough times it will eventually be complete, and that is truly the best I can do right now.
P.S. I did not feel like I had any thoughts to share when I opened the page to write this. I thought it would just be crap, but damnit, I showed up with my crap anyway and I’m proud of that.
P.P.S. The breed history in that Frida Kahlo link is totally wrong, but it has cute pictures of her and her pups.
The rant: I’m re-watching Doctor Who from the beginning, because it’s fantastic! It’ll be a while before I hit the Clara train-wreck seasons. I really love the beginning even though Ten will always be my doctor. Even cranky old Nine still chose to see potential in the human species. That was the whole appeal to the show for me; it was hopeful. Plus, he respected Rose and everyone else he interacted with who did the right thing. Twelve, on the other hand, not so much. His vaguely misogynistic refusal to recognize Clara from other humans isn’t funny, and I super didn’t need another show in my life with a rude, misanthropic white man in the lead who everyone tolerates because he’s “brilliant.” Like, really. No one needs that. Ever. Remove the brilliance and that’s just everyday life.
It went from a show about adventure, and encountering and embracing difference, and the potential for good in every person and situation… to a show about a white dude who is awesome all the time, wearing the old show like a creepy flesh suit.
I stuck in there for quite a while after the spark had faded for me, but that season finale with Missy and “the cloud” just… ick. I’m viscerally angry that they got me to sit through it all the way to that appalling end.
I’m probably going to start watching again to see the female doctor, because that’s a big deal and because Moffat is gone. (Thank god.)
Personal update: I made a real human friend, which is very cool. I actually met people in person and did socializing correctly – it’s amazing! Also, I was able to help someone new to Seattle settle in and find cool stuff, so I must be a proper local now. Maybe eventually it’ll feel like that.
My love of caffeine has prompted me to pick up a new houseplant. I now have two little coffee plants in my living room. I must hoard cheerful green things indoors because winter is coming and I’ve got all the seasonal depression.
Writing Thingy: I’ve been using Skillshare for a while now to learn more about writing and marketing. It’s really handy. It’s like a streamlined version of what I use Youtube for, without all the distracting fish unboxing and college humor videos. You sign up for a subscription and then you get access to a ton of videos and classes on different subjects. I like that there’s a lot of info on marketing and business practices for artist-types, because that information can be pretty difficult to come by and sift through.
One tip: I’d recommend watching a lot of the videos on Skillshare sped up slightly. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but many of them are sort of slow going, possibly because the people who make them aren’t all experienced vloggers. They make it easy to speed them up, though, and I find that I get more out of them that way.