Andy Weir and Neil Stephenson in Conversation

There was a book signing and Q&A event for Andy Weir’s new book Artemis at a local book store, and I got to go! The talk was great, and it was fun visiting Third Place Books again. Totally worth going outside for, even for me.

Andy’s writing approach is really interesting. He said that he builds locations before plots or characters. That’s not exactly recommended practice, in fact it’s one of the commonly diagnosed causes for writer’s block, but clearly it works for him. He said that after he built the world for Artemis he actually went through several different plot ideas before he settled on one that he liked. The main character’s name in this one is Jasmine, so obviously that shows good judgement on his part; not that any further proof of his genius was really needed after the success of The Martian. The movie was even pretty great, although it was funny to hear him grumble about some scientific inaccuracy in the changed ending. Apparently, he had considered going that way when he was writing the book, but the math didn’t actually hold up. It’s accepted practice to fudge scientific details or do some hand-waving about future tech when writing Sci-fi, but it seems that’s not Andy’s style. The amount of research he’s done is truly impressive, and it’s clear that his writing grows around his real world interests.

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I was feeling a little off, so I bundled up in basically everything I own before going outside. I think I could rock a Tardis in this outfit. Please feel free to mock my dorky excited face.
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I opted for a plain signature, because I’m just low maintenance like that, but this is the heartwarming personalized note my husband requested for his copy. Andy seemed to find it amusing.
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We had to walk through a foil airlock to get to the talk. It was quite a wild ride.

One of the highlights of the night: In response to an inevitable question from the audience, Neil Stephenson declared that, in his opinion, Andy Weir would be a Hufflepuff.

Status Quo Warriors

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.

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Puppy break.

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.

My Less Than Epic Entry Into Writing

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.

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Me at my favorite hiking spot, just after pulling an all-nighter to finish that first draft.

A Rant, a Personal Update, and a Writing Thingy

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.IMG_20170914_212406_800

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.

Writing Dirty

Recently, someone in a writing group I follow asked for advice on good words to use when writing a sex scene. They got a lot of answers, many of which could be broken down into two categories: strangely clinical* and childish euphemisms. I feel like it all missed the point, though.

Even beginning writers generally know that they need to develop a distinct voice for each character. Failing this, the characters all sound exactly alike and it won’t be believable. A teenager probably shouldn’t sound the same as a fifty-year-old ex-mercenary. Although, if they do, that could be a pretty distinct character voice right there, provided they’re surrounded by people with contrasting speaking styles.

I think the issue when it comes to writing sexy scenes is that people get nervous and stiffen up. (Heh.) They’re afraid they’ll sound silly, or they’re afraid the subject matter itself will spark a negative response, and they want to word it perfectly. It’s also kind of hard to toe the line between a sexy, romantic scene and straight up porn. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but it may not be what the writer is going for. I’m sure a list of suggestions can be very helpful in this situation, but it won’t do to just pick and choose an array of words that sound good to the writer.

The writer is piloting the characters, and the characters still need to sound like themselves. Even if the story is in third person, it’s best to use words that the POV (point of view) character might use. This draws the reader in and makes them feel close to that character. It sets the tone. There are times when distancing the reader is fine, but a romantic or sexy scene really isn’t one of them. That’s exactly when you want that closeness, so the reader is emotionally invested in what’s going on.

In first person, this is even more vital. The writer absolutely has to choose words that suit the character. It makes no sense for them to switch into a different mode as soon as things start to get steamy. The biker can’t go from cursing the air blue to referring to their partner’s genitals as their “tenderness.” It’s just weird. If the character would use terms that make the author uncomfortable, the author is gonna have to deal with that or wind up creating a very inconsistent narrative. The words should also go together well. Switching tone mid-scene is confusing and will push the reader out of immersion.

So, what would the character say? That’s it. Asking around for inspiration is great, but it all has to be filtered through the character in the end.

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I tried to find more suggestive flowers, but this was the best I could do. I apologize.

*  Anatomy tip: The vagina is on the inside and the vulva is on the outside. Unless there’s penetration involved, no one is doing anything to the vagina. I was a little concerned by the number of people who suggested penis and vagina as the only terms any writer really needs for a solid sex scene. For a number of reasons.

 

Wonder Woman and Revisions

I saw Wonder Woman, because of course I did. I’m not gonna go into detail, so there are no spoilers to follow, but I’m not as excited about it as I kinda wish I could be. The thing is, it’s only revolutionary compared to the bulk of really fantastically sexist crap up to now. It’s still good to see, and it’s a step in the right direction, but they could have gone a lot farther. I enjoyed the fight scenes as much as the next person, but there were a lot of points where I wished for a little (or a lot) more boldness and awareness. I feel oddly uncomfortable with the amount of praise it’s getting, even though I understand why it is, because treating a female superhero like a male one shouldn’t be anything other than normal. They still played into the born sexy yesterday trope, so they didn’t even quite treat her like a male superhero, but even if they had. That’s what we should expect every single time, from every single movie. That’s not something we should have to celebrate, and we shouldn’t have to ignore any problematic elements to encourage them to make more. I’m glad I saw it, but I’m sad that basic non-shitty storytelling isn’t common enough that we can just shrug and call it a decent superhero movie with some issues.

I’ll say this again and again. Sexism, racism, ableism, etc are all elements of bad storytelling. We shouldn’t be saying “well, it was a great movie except their female characters were all basically cardboard cutouts with boobs, and the only people of color were evil, as fucking usual.” We should call that a bad movie, because it is both incredibly lazy and harmful to rely on the same offensive stereotypes and narratives. Normalizing equality is important, and while it’s totally understandable that we treat anything that gets even a little bit close as exceptional, it’s still a serious sign of how messed up things are that Wonder Woman is such a huge goddamn deal.

On that uplifting note, I’m still in the midst of revisions, and I’m hoping to be done with them by the end of June so I can stay on track and get Somnolence off to be line edited. We’ll see how realistic that is, but I’m pretty sure that if I give myself more time I’ll get complacent and slack off.

I’m also preparing to buy some ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers.) That’s a whole thing. You need a different ISBN for every version of the book to be published, and the pricing scheme is kind of bizarre. At the moment, one number costs $125 and a batch of 1000 numbers costs… $1500. Bowker is the only source for these numbers in the US, so I guess they can basically do whatever they want. There are also some midrange options, which I’ll be taking advantage of, but the scale is still a bit startling.

That Feeling When

Do you ever find yourself reading a Terry Pratchett book and just getting annoyed because he says things you never knew you wanted to say, and says them in such a casually clever way that it’s almost insulting? That’s been happening to me a lot. The more I write, the more I notice really excellent chunks of writing that beautifully and humorously communicate a complicated idea or feeling. Of course, coupled with that is the awareness of how freaking hard those are to produce and how much my own work falls short, but that’s just how it is.

I got my manuscript back from the editor this week! I’ve been reading through her comments, and we have a call scheduled for next week to discuss her recommendations. It’s pretty cool.

In other news, procrastination is a scary powerful force. I meant to spend a few minutes prettying up my blog page last night, but instead I spent half the night glaring at my screen because nothing is quite right, damnit. It’s still not right, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna spend another minute on it right now. It’s just going to have to sit for a while and think about what it’s done.

I went out and got some fresh air instead. Soon I will go out and get some fresh caffeine, which is even better.

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Questionable life choices selfie.