Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts

This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.

Motive and Obstacle: the Building Blocks of Story, Gaming

Like you do…

A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.

Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.

Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal  or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.

I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even  historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.

In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.

It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:

  • What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
  • What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
  • What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?

By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!

All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.

Hawking My Wares (Book out next month!)

It occurs to me that I don’t quite spend enough time (read: hardly any) hawking my own wares, so this is just me reminding you all that the fourth book in my fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, releases in e-book on March 5th (available everywhere fine e-books are sold). Books 1-3 are available via e-book or paperback from any online bookseller and in select bookstores.

I’m proud of these books. As my first published novels and (soon) my first completed series, I think they are good work. They’re fun, they’re exciting, there’s twists and turns. It’s a redemption tale, but a slow one – no sudden magical epiphanies making a bad guy good, no easy outs. There’s swordplay and magic, poison and sorcery, and even a big dog/human lady who eats people and has cute puppies she’s trying to protect. If you like fantasy, you’ll dig these books as likely as not. Go and buy them.

I guess part of the reason I don’t hawk my wares as frequently as maybe I should is because I don’t feel like it makes much difference if I do or don’t. I can sell a few books this way – maybe, optimistically speaking, in the hundreds (and that is being very, VERY optimistic) – but this little platform and my tiny voice doesn’t get me very far. I do interviews, I write blog posts, you can find me on social media, and I publish short fiction fairly regularly in a variety of pro markets. Of all of those efforts, short fiction by far gives me the best return, and that isn’t saying a whole awful lot.

I don’t say this to complain, by the way. The market is what it is. I’ve seen the size of the boulder I’m supposed to shift and I know that I can’t shift it myself, no matter how I hustle. So I chip away here and there; I make friends, I write more stories, I publish on this blog. I hope more people like what I write and tell there friends (for serious now: TELL YOUR FRIENDS), but I’m one little droplet in a large ocean. Growing steadily, I hope, but trying to remain realistic for all that.

Maybe I should do more readings. Maybe I should visit more bookstores. Maybe I should do workshops at libraries. But guys, I’ve got a day job (which I need) and three kids and a marriage and so on and so forth – I only have so much time. Some guy on the internet recently was implying that a real writer quits their job and devotes themselves to their writing. And sure, yeah, in a perfect world I’d do just that. In the world we live in, though, it just strikes me as a uniquely privileged kind of madness. Want to make it for the long haul? Be honest with yourself. Be realistic. And keep working.

My book comes out March 5th. There is maybe just enough time for you to read the first three before it drops.

Get reading.

Nog and the Promise of Potential: A Teacher’s Reflection

I’ve been (slowly) re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 for the last few months or so and I just got to that episode in season 3 where Nog, son of Rom and nephew to that scoundrel Quark, declares to Commander Sisko that he wants to apply to Starfleet Academy. It was a subplot I had sort-of half forgotten about but then came raging back all at once – Nog’s struggles, his long journey, and his eventual triumph. I just love that subplot. In fact, it might be my favorite Star Trek subplot of all time.

Not the face of sober, dedicated student.

Now that I’m watching it as an adult, this storyline has some extra resonance for me. Besides being an author, my day job is as a college professor – a teacher – and Nog and his quest represent a very important lesson we teachers need to remember. To look at Nog from a distance, the kid is obviously a fuck-up and a lost cause. He gets bad grades in school, he is always goofing off, he gets arrested by Odo on a semi-regular basis, and his uncle Quark is a known criminal and low-life who associates with known criminals and low-lifes. To top it all off, he’s a Ferengi! No culture is more opposed to what the Federation represents – they are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and cowardly. There’s just no way in hell a kid like that has any business wearing a Starfleet uniform.

Sisko knows this. Hell, Nog knows this! Nog knows nobody expects him to amount to anything. His father is a permanent, laughable loser and his culture would never accept him going to Starfleet even assuming he could get in! But you know what this kid does? As soon as he comes of age, he scrounges together what money he has, walks into Sisko’s office (Sisko – the most powerful person on the station by far), shakes his hand, looks him in the eye…

…and offers him a bribe.

Because of course he does! That’s how Ferengi society works! This, to Nog, is what being a man is all about. This is responsible, adult behavior. And Sisko – bless him – realizes this. Everything tells him to show this kid the door – it’s probably a trick, a trap, some kind of prank – but…he hesitates. Sisko does something that makes me love him forever: he gives this kid a chance. He decides to trust him. He gives him a day alone with a cargo bay full of valuable stuff and lets Nog prove himself.

And you know what? Nog earns his trust. He proves he’s the hardest working kid on the station. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants this.

What I take away from all of this – the person I identify with – is Sisko. As a teacher, one is often faced with students who are…well…less than impressive at first glance. They show up late. They sleep in class. They don’t seem to be taking their education seriously. But the thing that I need to remind myself of is that I just don’t know what this kid is actually capable of. I can’t judge them based on superficial characteristics. Yeah, maybe they aren’t much good in my literature classes, but this person could very well become an excellent doctor or nurse or scientist. Hell, they might even have within them to become a wonderful writer or artist. As a teacher, it is part of my job to give them that chance – to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves, no matter what they look like or even how they act. Will I be let down? Sure, sure – happens all the time. But if a kid who’s been goofing off all semester comes up to me and asks if I can help them clean up their resume or give them advice on how to bring up their grades or ask me to recommend books for them to read to improve themselves, I remind myself of Sisko, sitting in Ops, looking at that sack full of latinum from an eager young Ferengi…

And I say yes.

And, like Sisko, I am often pleasantly surprised.

Speaking is Believing (article on The Astounding Analog Companion)

Read my article on the short story in this magazine! It’s free (the article, not the story).

As I’ve mentioned, my short story “Applied Linguistics” is currently for sale as part of the January/February issue of Analog Science Fact and Fiction magazine. As a companion to my story, I wrote a little blog post for the Astounding Analog Companion all about how language influences and even defines our sense of self and purpose. I’m fairly proud of it, and it’s always nice to get the opportunity to wax philosophical about what I’m trying to achieve or explore in any one of my stories. I thank Analog a lot for the opportunity!

Anyway, if you’re interested, go ahead and check it out. I now return you to your regularly scheduled internet.

 

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Actually, just one more thing!

I’m going to be appearing at Boskone this February 15th-17th in my home town, Boston! Me and hundreds of other professional writers, editors, agents, and so on will be converging for what promises to be a great convention! I’ll be posting my full schedule for the event closer to the date, but I’d love to see you there!

Join me at Boskone (February 15-17, 2019) in Boston, MA for New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s going to be a fun weekend filled with discussions of books, art, games, film, music, and more. For more information, visit the Boskone website: http://www.boskone.org/

Fargo and the Power of Community

Brilliant performance by Thornton

My wife and I just finished watching the first season of Fargo (the TV series). I enjoyed it immensely, especially the spine-chilling portrayal of assassin Lorne Malvo by Billy Bob Thornton. Much like in the Coen brothers’ film of the same name, the show juxtaposes the wide-eyed provincial innocence and “folksiness” of the people of North Dakota and Minnesota with the absolute horrors humanity is capable of. One thing I enjoyed about the show, though, was how much more thoroughly the series was able to explore this theme. (Spoilers below, obviously)

The central antagonist of the plot is the aforementioned Malvo, who moves through the small cities and towns of the frozen north with terrifying impunity. He can kill who he likes, he can do as he likes, and nobody is able to stop him. These back-country yokels are wildly unprepared to combat a menace of his dimensions. They can’t even imagine him in any real way – he is the boogey man, Lucifer, and Death astride the Pale Horse. Malvo’s every utterance is filled with malice and threat, to the point where everyone in Bemidji instinctually recoils from him.

This appears to give Malvo power. Likewise, those who Malvo corrupts also are afforded a measure of perceived power. Herein lies the tale of Lester Nygaard, hen-pecked loser turned murderer and alpha-male. Lester’s chance meeting with Malvo in the hospital changes him; Malvo demonstrates how the world as we know it – the world of rules and morals and laws – is an illusion. You can have what you want, Malvo implies, by just reaching out and taking it. Malvo even demonstrates how this is done by going out and killing Lester’s high school bully. Lester, taking these lessons to heart, kills his wife, covers it up, frames his own brother, and goes on to find himself a better wife, professional success, a bigger house, and his own name on a salesman of the year award. By leaving the rules of society behind, Lester achieves everything he ever wanted.

Molly Solverson – the only competent officer on the Bemidji police force – knows what Lester has done and even has almost enough evidence to convict him, but the bull-headed, dull, and plain old sexist police chief will not listen. His world is the traditional one, based upon commonly accepted values. He cannot accept Lester’s guilt because the crime exceeds his own limited imagination and won’t listen to Molly because of her status as a woman and as his inferior. This is all against “the rules;” things like this don’t happen in Bemidji.

Doomed

One of the brilliant aspects of this show is that it makes you yell at the screen a lot. You are howling for Molly to press her case. You are terrified at the threat Malvo represents and so, so anxious that these people – these poor, good, stupid, guileless people – are totally, completely at his mercy. When Molly backs down and walks away from her poster board of evidence, it feels like a defeat. But then the show pulls another turnaround on us: it isn’t a defeat. It’s a victory. Molly made the right choice.

Fargo is playing upon our expectations as people living in an increasingly individualistic world. We see Malvo’s skill and Lester’s cunning and we think we have identified the true power in the story. But we’re wrong! This becomes clear when Malvo follows Gus Grimley home from his aimless investigation and sits in his car outside Gus’s apartment building, where he and his adolescent daughter sleep. They are in grave, grave danger, yes? Then there’s a knock on Malvo’s window – it’s the neighborhood watch. No one of great authority, no one of any actual power – just a concerned neighbor. He sees Malvo. He knows he’s up to no good. I half expected Malvo to kill him right through the door of the car, but he doesn’t. He growls something antisemitic, but he leaves and never comes back, warded away as surely as Dracula from a church.

And that is the true power in Fargo. Community, family, society – these things are juggernaut like powers in this film. Those who remain within the safe confines of a caring community are safe, immune from Malvo’s power. Those who choose to step outside the bounds of the “normal” are doomed. When the Supermarket King digs that money up and uses it to build his business, he is in metaphysical trouble. This trouble, however, grows exponentially worse as he gets further and further from the caring bosom of family and small town life. Isolated and wealthy, he is cosmically punished for his hubris and greed. As for Lester, his end – riding a snowmobile across cracking winter ice – is preordained the moment he refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Indeed, when he denies the existence of any such responsibility. There is no one to save him not because those people don’t exist (Hell, the cops chasing him are yelling for him regarding his safety! “Come back,” they yell, “it’s not safe!”), but because Lester has left the fold and will not return.

Malvo, then, for all his pretensions, is not the powerful one in the story. It’s Molly, and always has been Molly. It’s Molly because she recognizes that going it alone leads nowhere good. No matter how stupid the chief is, he’s the chief. She gets married, has a family, moves on. When she tells Lester the story about the man running for the train and losing one glove and then dropping the second, in that metaphor she is the passenger and Lester is the gloves. She is saying “I cannot save you; you have killed yourself.” The arc of justice in Fargo is long, but it is inexorable. Those lone wolves? Those dashing villains and dramatic scoundrels? They die, are destroyed, and are forgotten. And Molly?

She gets to be chief.

 

Doing Research Wrong

When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:

Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.

This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.

Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.

I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false.  I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.

Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.

Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).

Ummm…no. Not unless absolutely essential.

This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.

So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.

I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.

 

 

The Benefits of Distance

One of the things I always tell my students is that proofreading right after finishing something is a waste of time. You just can’t see most of the stupid typos and awkward sentences you just wrote because you just wrote them. Your brain (your lazy, lazy human brain) just kind of handwaves it all away – yeah yeah, it’s fine, pal. C’mon, lets get some pizza or something…

“Jesus, is *this* ever a pile of crap! Wow.” ~Ernest Hemingway, probably

Well, this doesn’t just apply to college undergrads, as any author or writer will confirm. Hell, it’s the whole reason editors exist – you, the writer, are just too damned close to your own work to be a good judge of it. You need distance and objectivity. There are only two means to accomplish this that I know of. One is the aforementioned editor, and the other is distance. You’ve got to put the story down, move off, let it set, and ideally forget all about it. That way, when you come back, you can look at the work with clear(er) eyes.

Of course, this means all works of writing exist in this kind of Schrodinger’s Cat-Box space where what you wrote is simultaneously brilliant and terrible until, at long last, you open it up to check, at which point the quantum wave function collapses and you’re suddenly cursing yourself for not having a keen grasp of syntax. This is painful – acutely painful, actually – but it’s also a necessary part of the writing process. “The first draft of everything,” says Hemingway, “is shit.”

But then there’s that other possibility.

You write the draft. Heck, you revise the draft. You revise it again. And still it’s garbage. You don’t know why it’s garbage (if you did, you could fix it), but you know it is. You put it in a drawer in disgust and resolve never to look at it again. But then, one day, you do anyway.

Or this version:

“By all the gods…this…this is freaking GREAT!”

You write a story. At the time, you think it’s pretty good and, whaddya know, you actually sell the damned thing! It’s going to be published! But, of course, the publication sits on the story for a while – maybe even longer than a year – and you, of course, have been writing other stuff. Better stuff, you think, because you’ve been working hard at leveling up your craft and pushing boundaries. And sometimes you think back to that story you wrote and assume it probably wasn’t that good after all – it was so long ago, and you are a different writer now, and you kinda-sorta dread it coming out. But then…then the copyedits come in and you read it again for the first time in over a year…

And it’s actually pretty goddamned awesome. Like really awesome. Like “wow, I actually pulled this off, didn’t I?” awesome.

That right there, friends, is among the best feelings you ever get in writing. Because what it means is that, despite all your insecurities and doubts and bouts of impostor syndrome, it means that you, author, actually have some idea of what you’re about and, by all indications, maybe you always have. That makes you feel like a million bucks, let me tell you, because if there’s one thing – one consistent thing – that all writers have to struggle with, it is fighting that never-ending, nagging possibility that you are out of your goddamned mind and living in a deluded fantasy world where your stories are worth the paper they’re printed on.

Now, it just so happens that this very thing happened to me just today. I got the copyedits back for a story I sold a good while ago to Stupefying Stories. They have a new anthology dropping soon and I’m in it, and the story I’ve got in there – “Upon the Blood-dark Sea” – is honestly a really solid tale about pirates and dream magic and boiling oceans, an homage to the work of guys like Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ll announce when the book is out, but for now you can check out the table of contents on their website.  Bruce Bethke, the editor, always manages to put together a hell of an anthology and I’m looking forward to this one. Go and check it out!

Messing With Time

I have a hard time with alternate history as a genre. It isn’t that I mind entertaining the idea of alternate realities, but rather that I more broadly dislike what alternate history most commonly means: it means that the Nazis won the war.

What is with this shit, anyway?

And yes, I know it’s not always the Nazis. Sometimes it’s the Confederacy. Or the Soviets. Or the Romans conquering the Earth. Sometimes Nixon is still president. But you know what it almost never is? JFK eluding assassination (Stephen King’s novel excepted, I guess). It’s never women getting the right to vote in 1812 (or always having the right to vote!). It’s never the Native Americans kicking out European settlers right from the get-go and continuing their civilization uninterrupted. And sure, sure – just by writing this, people are going to start pointing out novels where all of these things have happened, but you know what I mean, right? They aren’t the majority. They don’t attract much attention.

No, it’s usually the Nazis. Look, I know they make good bad guys, but there’s lots of ways to have Nazis running around without invalidating the hard-won victories of the Allies in WW2. Guys, that war wasn’t close – the Allies didn’t win that thing by the skin of their teeth. We freaking murdered those goose-stepping shits. We ground their fucking army into dust. We filled their hateful ruler with so much despair, he shot himself in a bunker rather than be taken alive. And it was glorious – evil was not just beaten back, it was utterly, completely vanquished. Sure, sure – we’ve got Nazis goosestepping around all over the place today (hell, look at the current US administration!), but the cold hard fact is that they lost big time last time they tried this shit and I have always taken comfort in that.

So when a book or show or movie comes along and decides to chuck that out the window for the sake of a metaphor, I get uncomfortable. I just don’t like it. I guess maybe I’m just not a fan of dystopias. There’s more to it than just that: I also know that there are people out there – real, actual, living people – who deep down wish the South had won the Civil War and insist to themselves that the CSA would have freed their slaves eventually anyway and so on and so forth and these dystopias aren’t so much dystopian to them as utopian.

And that turns my stomach.

There are people out there watching Man in the High Castle and admiring Rufus Sewell’s uniform and fuck that. His character is a goddamned Nazi. He isn’t cool. He isn’t someone we can or should identify with. He’s the closest thing to the embodiment of pure evil we have on this planet and he isn’t even entirely fictional. People like him do exist and did exist and will exist again and maybe this is very close-minded of me, but I don’t want to sympathize with them. Not ever. It creeps me out how hard people want to try.

And then there’s another level to it, too.

As a white American male, I have a certain comfort with the arc of history as it has played out. History, after all, has been very good to people like me. It is an aspect of my privilege that I can look back on history and feel like the good guys have won. I know that I’m wrong, by the way – white men have been the villains more often than they’ve been the heroes, on balance – but I think there’s a deep-seeded level at which monkeying with the timeline makes me feel insecure and uncertain and afraid. And I guess that only means that it makes me feel as vulnerable as everyone else always has felt. This is not a pleasant feeling, as much as I recognize the importance of me feeling it. It’s just that I’m not going to actively seek out this feeling as part of my entertainment.

Furthermore, this is probably why the white men who dominate the alternate history genre are so often resurrecting the boogey-men of Western Euro-centric history – because fighting those old battles over again make them feel more comfortable than figuring out their place in the new battles that are brewing. And, of course, some percentage of those white dudes ultimately sympathize with the side that was wrong.

So go on and enjoy your Nazi dystopias and modern day confederacies. Just leave me the hell out of it.

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Writing News

Astute eyes may have noted that Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed has been pushed back to release in March. Sorry, sorry – things have been crazy at my publisher and they had to push it back. I expect to be finishing up edits on the book in the next week or two and will have a whole pre-order teaser/back copy reveal soon, so watch this channel! Thanks to everyone for your patience!

Yes, You Will Be Rejected

You will be rejected if you write.

Yes, even if it’s brilliant.

Yes, even if you know the editor and are the bestest friends.

Yes, even if you work really hard.

Yes, even if you have published before.

You will be rejected if you do anything.

Apply to school.

Ask someone out.

Propose.

Apply for a loan.

Try to get a job.

Are a scientist…

…an actor…

…an academic…

…a parent, a teacher…

Anything.

You will get rejected even if you get back up again, over and over and over, until your bones hurt and your heart feels hollow and you doubt your very soul.

You will be rejected now. And in the future. You will realize that scraps of hope you have clung to are just so much flotsam marking the place of past rejections you refused to see.

It will hurt. Perhaps less and less after time, but still some new rejection can be sharp enough to draw blood.

So maybe you can quit, you think. Escape the rejection.

But it’s still there. Always there. You can’t quit the world, and the world is made of the word No.

But not just No,

there is Yes, too. Atop the mountainous rubble of No, the towers of Yes stand.

Keep climbing.

 

 

Sex in Fantasy

I’m in the middle of reading The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. I’ll hold off on a full review right now, as I’m not quite halfway through the book, but there is one thing that I keep noticing: the book is averaging a naked woman every chapter.

So, yeah, it’s a thing. But why is it a thing?

Now, I’m not offended by this inherently. I like a naked woman as much as the next guy, I suppose. But these naked women…these are not love scenes we’re getting here. This is just pure sex, edging towards the pornographic. The women are described as sexual objects for the purpose of arousal. To be fair to French, he does the exact same thing to the male characters, too – lingering on descriptions of their muscular backs, their strong arms, and the rough dimensions of their penises.

French is not alone here. This kind of writing is fairly common in fantasy as a genre and in literature as a whole, and the purpose of this post is not to call out French as doing something wrong specifically so much as it is for me to wonder aloud why it’s being done at all.

Because, I kinda feel like those scenes – the graphic, sexually charged descriptive passages about breasts and buttocks and genitals – are totally superfluous to the story. Here I am, in the middle of a intrigue laden plot in a harsh land full of half-orcs and we have, suddenly and for no reason, a naked elf maiden hanging from the ceiling or the main character fondling some muscular half-orc female’s boobs. These moments are clearly intended to arouse but…like…why?

I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old or something.

It should be noted that this is, overall, a solid book.

I remember being sixteen or so and reading The Far Kingdoms by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. The opening scene had the main character – the dashing, fit, and charismatic Amalric – having sex with an incredibly gorgeous woman. This scene was described in deliberate detail and, as an adolescent in the pre-internet era, it was possibly the most erotic thing I’d ever experienced. I confess to reading that specific passage over and over again. But it had nothing to do with the story and in no way advanced or improved the scene beyond giving a teenager an erection.

And, like, what the fuck is going on with that, anyway? Why do that? I’m picking up this novel for a solid adventure story – I want excitement and danger and mystery and, yes, even romance. But I’m not looking to be aroused. In fact, it’s damned distracting when a novel is trying to turn me on in the midst of what is otherwise a tense and gritty tale of survival and gore. Maybe I’m alone here, but those are totally different channels for me. I’m so concerned about man-eating centaurs showing up or giant oozes dissolving the protagonists that time spent lingering on the curve of some female character’s ass is, like, really weird. 

This is not to say that sex scenes – even graphic sex scenes – don’t have their place in this genre (or any genre). I’m not even going to sit here and tell you that sex scenes should be restricted to those who are in love. What I am saying is that a sex scene needs to serve the plot somehow – it needs to be important and consequential or even just thematically related. In Neuromancer, Molly is clearly sexualized, but Gibson is making a deliberate point with that sexualization – she is a woman trying to reclaim her agency. When she has sex with Case (and yeah, that’s a pretty graphic sex scene), she is firmly in control, telling Case exactly what to do and not to do. He is powerless to resist her, physically or otherwise. That scene, and how Molly is presented in it, is immediately relevant to the characters’ relationship, to the plot, and to the broader themes Gibson is exploring. So, in other words, it works.

In general, the same rules that make a fight scene work apply to the sex scene. Random, gratuitous violence that fails to advance the plot or affect the main character is boring. The reader is not invested in the battle and vaguely wondering why and, in the worst cases, ends up skimming ahead a bit. The stakes are not clear and the relevance is not established. Same goes for sex: if two characters are screwing for no reason other than to describe how their genitals are currently in use and how much they enjoy that, then the reader is going to feel like we just took a little side trip into some weird little fantasy inside the fantasy we were already reading.

And this doesn’t even touch upon the whole male gaze/patriarchal thing we have going on, too, that is driving and underpinning the whole affair. That is arguably even more problematic and is in large part responsible for this kind of thing much of the time anyway. But that’s both a huge issue and somewhat parallel to what I’m saying here – I’ll save it for a post for another day.

In general, my point is this: go ahead and write boobs and penises! Just make sure the boobs and penises are on topic, writers!