Archive for April, 2012

Goodbye to the Unhappy Housewives

Another Pain of Reading Old Work I’ve discovered is that a shockingly large number of my protagonists are unhappy, verbally and emotionally abused housewives whose reality is melting around them. No one believes them. Everyone (especially the husband) thinks they’re crazy.

On Sunday night’s Mad Men, Don Draper was trying to control his new wife, picking at her, making her feel like garbage, insinuating she was the crazy one. Exactly how he treated Betty when they were married. Remember Don’s late-night phone calls to her psychiatrist to discuss her progress (or lack thereof)? Betty Draper, the crazy housewife.

What many women thought they wanted. Really.

I was a child in 1960, but old enough to notice, observe, and study. I lived through it, and I learned the wrong lessons. I liked the clothes. They were restrictive and artificial, but very cool. The panache, the glamour, even the relative rigidity of the social rules, the Eisenhower placidity of the time, didn’t strike me as artificial. I didn’t think a lot about artificiality vs. authenticity in those days. I looked upon it instead as a dance one needed to learn, and if one learned the steps well, one would be happy.

By a mere half-dozen years later, everything had changed. I don’t know what will happen between Don and Meghan, but I suspect he won’t be dialing up her psychiatrist to consult on her progress. He might want to, but he will no longer be allowed to.

This highlights an important difference between my protagonists and Don’s wives; his “act up,” but mine are shockingly passive. Victims. I read them and want to scream. Worse, I read them, and am bored with them.

I’m not certain why I fixated on this sort of situation. In real life, I went through and benefitted from the sexual revolution like everyone else. I have not shared the situation of these characters. I have certainly listened to other women talk of their situations, and have been outraged. I am aware that even a highly intelligent, outwardly successful woman can be shockingly passive when it comes to protecting herself from abuse from a loved one. I consider the very real lives of women today in countries where a abuse is codified into law and custom, and am horrified. Because I write SF & F, I crafted housewive’s stories into dark fantasy short stories. The horror of them comes as much from within as from without. I avoided depicting physical abuse; none of my characters’ husbands would hit them or kill them, but oh, could they be mean-mouthed and stupid as turnips!

My short stories of mad and unhappy housewives are well-written and authentic, if a bit repetitive. I could have written half as many and done the job. I acknowledge them, but to remain any longer with them would be to wallow. I have lost sympathy with them. I must move on.

I will not reprint these stories. Nor will I be writing an unhappy, reality-is-melting-and-my-husband-doesn’t-believe-me housewife protagonist in any future work. I say goodbye to all those poor, sorry, fictional women, and leave with some advice: Get out of the house once in a while. Do something. Stop isolating. Ask for help. Call Dr. Phil if necessary. Or Ghosthunters. Whatever. This is not the Middle Ages. As your author, I hereby set you free!

Photo: Flickr.com

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The Pain of Reading Old Work

Toss old ms. into flames--what a quaint idea!

Inspired by David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital I am exploring the pros and cons of self-publishing my novel (when it’s finished) as an e-book. My post today isn’t about pros and cons, or even about the process of formatting, marketing, and so forth. It’s about the basic issue: content.

My novel is months away from being ready. I don’t know how many months, but less than a year, I hope. I would love to test the waters with something now, say some short stories. I have some already written–two dozen or so published since the late 1980s, and a handful of unpublished works. The published ones are somewhat obscure. Most were in the very excellent Tales of the Unanticipated, and five were in the British semi-prozine Interzone.

I’m in the middle of reading them all now, to see what kind of mini-collection I could put together.

Reading old work. Whoa. Scary. Weird. Some concerns emerge.

#1: Anachronisms. Oddly, this affects the science fiction and the fantasy equally. In the 1990s, I utterly sucked at foreseeing what techno marvels would come to wow us a mere decade later. Oh yeah, I’d read Phillip K. Dick while listening to a compact disk, and sneer at him for having his characters listening to their music in 1990-something on reel-to-reel tape. I never saw the mp3 player coming. My idea of an up-to-date modern household in 2050 is a big-screen flat TV and robotic vacuum. Pathetic.

My fantasy fares no better. A single cell phone can collapse an entire plot line, and a lack thereof can seem really weird in a story that’s meant to be happening in the present, turning it into a really nebulous no-time period piece. Giant shoulder pads and big hair lurk offstage.

#2: It’s old. Those handful of readers who have read my work (most of whom I hope would want to read more) want to see something new from me. It would seem cheesy to slap some old thing up on Amazon, etc., that they’ve read before and ask them to pay money for it. There has to be some previously unpublished work up there, which means I would have to write some new material, short stories, to be specific. Darn. I was hoping to have something to sell without actually having to write something.

Before I toss those old mss. into the flames, there is one other consideration: Some of this earlier work is pretty good, and I would like to see it out there again.

Possible solution: Find a way to combine old and new material in such a way, like a themed mini-collection, that would appeal to old and new readers alike. Yeah. Guess I have some work to do.

For now, I’ll keep reading.

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Do We Have To Keep Listening To This Nonsense?

Okay, so here we go again.

Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen implies that Ann Romney is unqualified to comment on women’s economic issues because “…she hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Although Rosen, a mother herself, has apologized, saying she knows being a mom is the hardest job there is, and placing the comment within her larger point about Republican economic policies, there was something she left out of her response. That something was left out of the other comments by the DNC and the Obamas, as they distanced themselves from the “never-worked” statement.

Here it is: We never know, truly, what another person’s life is like–whether it’s easy or difficult, fulfilling or not. Nor do we know the extent of another person’s knowledge, empathy, expertise, or understanding. We don’t know what Ann Romney or anyone else knows. We don’t know what they’ve overcome, because many of life’s accomplishments are private, and don’t show up in public. It is the height of foolishness to characterize another person’s life based on what that life (even a public one) looks like from the outside. Period. Don’t do it. You’ll always get it wrong.

Now let’s move on to the Republican response to Rosen’s gaffe, particularly that of Sabrina Schaeffer, who is quoted thusly: “Many, many people in the Democratic Party view the choices that Ann Romney made as the greatest threat to feminism.”

Really? How many is “many, many?” Ten? One hundred thousand? A million? Have you taken a poll? Because hey, I’m a registered Democrat and semi-retired stay-at-home mom, and that’s not what I think at all. You, Sabrina Schaeffer, don’t know what I think. You don’t know until I tell you. And, I’ll bet you don’t know what most or many or some other Democratic women think of Ann Romney’s choices either. You need to ask, not just make s%&* up, because you’re so sure you know. You don’t know. Remember that.

You don’t know what I think. Please stop pretending to.

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This Is Going To Be Difficult

The Hugo Award nominations are out, and I want to vote more intelligently and completely this time. That requires me to read everything that’s nominated. I have a bit of a start in the novel category; I’ve read Embassytown, by China Mieville, and Deadline, by Mira Grant. Loved Deadline, but Embassytown is the one to beat so far for my vote. I am reading A Clash of Kings  (Book Two of A Song of Ice and Fire). That means I have several more books before I get to A Dance With Dragons. I think I can do it, but I’m going to be spending a lot of time with George R. R. Martin. The other two novels, Among Others, by Jo Walton, and Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. The Jo Walton books looks very readable, as does the James S. A. Corey. I note that the latter is actually a collaboration between two writers, and I have a bias toward multi-authored novels; in some warped way it seems like cheating. (Of course, this is from someone who only has an almost-readable draft of a novel to her name. Perhaps I ought to put that bias aside.)

And at one level, I don’t place too much stock in awards, be they Oscars, Emmys, or Hugos. Certainly not Grammys–I can’t forget how they ignored rock ‘n’ roll–utterly ignored it–the most important music of the 20th century, just as it was being born in the fifties and sixties. And with the Hugos, or the Nebulas, there are absolute gems out there that never even get nominated. Some years, the field is stronger than others. Nonetheless, I think the Hugos do a decent job. I am quite impressed to see an episode of Community under the Dramatic Presentations–short form category. Fans of SF & F have nice, stretchy minds capable of seeing what’s actually there and pulling it into their sphere if it belongs there. And it does.

The main purpose of reading everything on the list–other than to be a thoroughly qualified Hugo voter–is that reading the list will cause me to look at books I would not otherwise have read. I am at a time in my life when a little extra reading effort is possible and highly desirable. I will be smarter and happier for my efforts.

So here I go. And after the novels, there are the novellas, novelettes, short stories….

I’ll keep posting on my progress.

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Explaining What I Do. What Do I Do?

The people in my life–and there are many great ones–fall into a number of different groups. These groups are largely isolated from one another; there is little overlap, little interaction between them. I could chart them as a Venn diagram, but there would be a lot of circles. I would have to make myself a really big circle in the center, and everyone I know would have to be little tiny circles all around in order to fit and overlap with me. (That would make me look really conceited.) Furthermore, although the groups are largely discrete, there are some individuals who fall into more than one, and those circles should therefore overlap with others, and that might be difficult to work out. The resulting Venn diagram would look like curdled bubble bath.

Some Relationships Won't Easily Fit Into Venn Diagram

Groups (for example): Immediate Family, Extended Family (Dad’s side), Extended Family (Mother’s side), Band Mom Friends, Junior High School Friends, EastEnders Fan Club Friends, Hairdressers/Manicurist, Next-door Neighbors and their Contractor Son-in-Law, Arboretum Nursery Manager (a group of one), Science Fiction/Fantasy People, Online contacts, and so on. Most of these people know I write, but only a few, outside the Science Fiction/Fantasy People group, have a clear understanding of what I write.

I used to be told–yes, told–I write children’s fiction.

“No,” I say, “I have never written children’s fiction.”

“But yes,” says Acquaintance. “I’m quite sure you do.”

“No, honestly. I don’t.”

“But Suzie [not her real name] told me that you told her that’s what you do.”

I said no such thing, but I knew Suzie believed I told her I wrote children’s lit, because of her perception of what SF & F was. Also, I was a woman. Woman + SF & F=children’s lit, or so Suzie assumed. Once I had a child, my career as a children’s lit author was set in stone.

No one even asked. A friend bought my short story collection, Inside A Bear and Other Dark Places [published by Stone Dragon Press 1999, no longer available], and then came to me, puzzled, to ask if there were any stories in it that she could read to her very young kids.

Not really. I would say most of my stuff is PG-13-ish, leaning in the direction of R. I favor mostly less-than-happy endings. I felt bad that she had assumed.

Those days are past. Now that my daughter is in her twenties, the subject of SF & F brings up Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, both of which I have read or am reading, and one of which I am catching up with on TV. A few months ago, SF & F talk by non-fans centered around a certain teen vampire series, and we heard of a new sub genre: the paranormal teen romance.

Categories. Sub genres. Both are necessary to shelve books, even digital books. But oh my goodness I can’t stay in them, either as a reader or a writer. I love to mix it up, and read others who are doing the same.

Science Fiction: When I write SF, it usually has a strong sociological content. I am interested in our human society and what happens when you change this or that. I’ve dealt with gender issues, age issues, and political issues. I do my best with any hard science, but that is not my focus. My focus is how change affects us. Sometimes set on near-future Earth, sometimes on a far-off planet, but no space opera, no military.

Fantasy: It’s contemporary, urban, and always involves issues of control. It is psychological. Often, reality is melting. On various occasions, I’ve taken on God, Jesus, and Satan. One early story touches on zombies, but not in the George Romero sense. Elves and wizards appear rarely. Fantasy is more likely to be psychological; science fiction, sociological.

My reading closely tracks my writing, but only in the most general sense. I’ll never do what George R.R. Martin does in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Nowhere in any part of my brain are there neurons sufficient to imagine that saga. Even as a reader. No way would I have said, “Hey, someone ought to write a minimally supernatural, very bloody late-medieval saga. That’s what I need to read!” Surprise. It was exactly what I needed to read. More than that, it is inevitable that it should exist, and that I should be fortunate enough to read it.

This is the highest aim any writer goes for, to be inevitable. Regardless of genre, whether  it’s for children or adults, pop fic or lit fic, we want people–not all of them, just some–not to be able to imagine a world without our work in it.

Imagine trying to explain that to all the parts of your Venn diagram. Some of them, I think, would understand. Some of them, probably not.

Photo: Wikipedia

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Based On A True Story

You’re in a darkened theater, watching the interminable trailers, with fiery crashes, explosions, quick cuts, and music welling up like to bust your eardrums, and there it is:

BASED ON A TRUE STORY

And maybe you ask yourself, What does that mean?

Good question. I say, Not a damned thing.

All you fiction writers out there, tell me, have you ever written anything that isn’t somehow based on the story of your life? I’m not sure we can ever do otherwise. Never mind the genre, never mind if the characters are all aliens, never mind if it’s a James Bond-type thriller. They are us, they are our families, friends, enemies, and acquaintances. Write what you know is common advice given to writers; I’m saying that, no matter how much research we do, we can’t help but write what we know, or what we think we know.

There are facts, and there are facts. We can look up facts of history, of science, geography, and culture. We can interview people closer to the world we’re writing about than we are. But when we start to imagine our characters lives and their relationships with one another, we are stuck with ourselves, our relationships, and our understanding of our various human selves.

My first published fiction was confession stories, in confession magazines, such as True Romance and Secrets. They present themselves as non-fiction. In Writers’ Digest, however, you will find the titles listed under Fiction. Along with the acceptance letter, I would be given a contract, selling all rights, which would include a clause (paraphrasing here) swearing that the story either happened to me, or happened to someone I know, or was based on interviews with someone I had talked to. The gist of it was, they had to be “based on a true story.” Then, because I had sold the rights, the editors were free to change the stories as they saw fit. (Although they usually did not.) Ultimately, the stories were published anonymously.

Friends would tease me, understanding the stories were fiction, but “wondering” if this bit or that part were about my husband, or perhaps some secret life I had hidden. In spite of their knowing the stories were not true, I believe they somehow felt they ought to be.

When I started writing science fiction and fantasy, all such teasing stopped. It occurred to no one, apparently, that an alien or monster might be drawn from someone I know, that an interplanetary journey might reflect a commute to work, or that a story about a melting reality might reflect my own occasional neuroses. And, indeed, it is dangerous business to psychologize about an author based on his/her work. You will almost certainly get it wrong.

I have such great respect for fiction, for its ability to relay truths about our common, shared humanness. Fiction hits on all cylinders, all levels, in a way unadulterared non-fiction rarely can. Adulterated non-fiction, a true story that has been “enhanced” until it is untrue, often gives itself away by one or two wrong fictional details. Apparently this was the case with the Mike Daisey Apple expose, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The Wall Street Journal reporter who investigated the story had noted the detail about the factory workers sitting around a Starbucks, and talking about their lives. He knew Chinese workers were extremely unlikely to be sitting around a Starbucks. The wrongness of the detail caught his attention, and ironically so, as the bit was more likely than not added to increase verisimilitude, not destroy it. [For excellent posts and commentary on Mike Daisy’s theatrical concept of journalism, take a look at Alec Nevala-Lees’s blog, where he discusses the issue of bent journalism. http://nevalalee.wordpress.com]

In conclusion: I believe to label fiction as “based on a true story” is an insult to the entire field of storytelling, fictional and nonfictional. While all fiction, in my view, is based somehow, some way, on some true interaction within our universe, the entire point of fiction is to rearrange reality in such a way as to point to something true, particularly the elusive, and the difficult to define. The scenes in the story aren’t my scenes, the protagonist is not me, the enemy isn’t one of my real-life antagonists, but the are close enough to identify. The similarities and the differences work together to give me a bigger, more interesting view of my life, my world.

I apologize to anyone who thought the stories in those confession magazines were “true.” The term that might be more apt is “truthiness,” although they preceded  Stephen Colbert by many decades. Some people I talked to way back then were surprised to learn the stories were not true-life confessions. The sin-suffer-repent formula of the genre played in beautifully to the shame-saturated society we lived in then. Now fans of that sort of thing can revel in the shameless doings of the “real” housewives. (Also based on a true story, I understand.)

Based on A True Story?

Based On A True Story?

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