As co-founder and female counterpart of the duo that started New England Speculative Writers (NESW), I have the pleasure of writing the final blog post for Women’s History Month. It’s only recently that I’ve really started to fully understand what being a woman in society means and how that impacts me as a human.
I’ve always tried to look at people as humans first, before applying the gender tag they identify with. I think that’s part of the storyteller in me – looking for commonalities first and building out from there. In many ways, I’ve applied that practice to how I view myself too. When I think of myself in a context, I don’t necessarily view myself as a female in the middle of a situation, I think of myself as a person in the situation, but unconsciously, I have come to realize, I have been applying certain gender rules that have affected the trajectory of my life. It’s not that I was unaware of the “traditional” roles women play in society, I just didn’t really think many applied to me. In some ways I thought of myself as a strong independent woman who blazed her own path in life and didn’t adhere to societal gender rules. I still think I am, but…
I’m an X-gener. I grew up in the era when traditional roles for women were in a great shift. My parents were the offspring of what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation”. I grew up in the 70’s when society was seeing and feeling the effects of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the battle cry of “I am woman, hear me roar (“I Am Woman”, co-written and performed by Helen Reddy, 1971, along with Ray Burton). More and more women were leaving to work outside the home, and the term “latch-key kid” became more prevalent. In addition to more women in the traditional workforce, there was a boom of companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Stanley Home Products that allowed women to have a foot on each side of the fence so to speak. They could work and earn money, but still have the flexibility to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother; keeping a home and raising children.
Combine what was happening in society with watching movies like 9 to 5 where a group of women are fighting “the man” and reading books written by both male and female authors who portrayed girls and women as smart, strong, independent or fighting against their society rules, like A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle or some of the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists Of Avalon, I grew up seeing the shift toward equality in action. I saw great strides, and have continued to see progress, but I also realize we have a ways to go still. Many of the women of my childhood were straddling old and new cultural rules and trying to make them both work, and in a lot of ways we still are today.
Like a lot of people, I’m in the process of a sort of awakening. I think we as humans are becoming more enlightened about inequalities at a faster pace than previous generations. A big reason for this is technology, social media and the internet. The world is a much smaller place than it was twenty years ago. News travels faster, cell phones with cameras are everywhere and people are really starting to realize that there is a lot of bad out there, but more importantly we are also realizing that we can do something about it, as seen in the myriad of hashtag causes, including many to continue the fight for equality for women.
I spent over twenty years in the working world, ten of those years were in the corporate world. Five years ago all of that changed. A series of events occurred – a long and boring story not worth telling, but all the same life changing. I found myself unemployed, burnt out, extremely unhappy with my life, and ready for change. I made the decision to get off the hamster wheel of “working to live” and change my perspective to finding a job that would allow me to “live to work”. I took time to start doing things I enjoyed and really learning what makes me as a person happy.
During my time off from the working world I started writing again. The more I wrote, the more my world and perspective blossomed. One of the first things about my writing I realized was that all my protagonists were women. Women of all different strengths and backgrounds, but strong, independent, adventurous, amazing women. The more I wrote about these strong women the more I realized I was writing about all the women I knew or read about and admired, and I started to see the differences between the life I had been living and them. That’s when I saw how inequalities of women had affected my life. The workplace is one example. For instance allowing the term “work wife” to be applied to me, even though I was a national account manager of a multimillion dollar account, allowing myself to be talked over during meetings, not voicing my opinions as loudly as the men were, all the while never really thinking about how wrong that was. I didn’t see it. It had been happening all along, and for so long, that I didn’t recognize it as anything but normal, nor did I recognize how unhappy I was trying to conform. I can now say, never again. My eyes are open. The “box” I had been trying to fit my wild and unconventional self into for the sake of fitting in, has been tossed in the trash!
I think we as people will always have struggle – either collectively or in groups against one injustice or another, but we, right now are lucky and unlucky enough to live in an era of technology and social media which has made the world a much smaller and more transparent place. It’s a double-edge sword, that we have quickly learned to use negatively, and are finally starting to use to our advantage. We humans, we women, have more power now to change the world than we ever did. And we’re doing it. We as writers have the unique power to reflect the changes we want in our writing.
I want to take a moment to thank our NESW community for being a wonderful, diverse, inclusive group. That was one of the visions Jeremy and I had in starting this group. Please continue to help us build that. We need more of “us” in this world. Let us lead by example.
Cristina currently lives in Massachusetts. She earned a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and spent many years on the West Coast living and working in Arizona and California. She moved back to New England in 2008, and began a journey that led to refocusing her life on the ‘want tos’ rather than the ‘have tos’, by making what she enjoys doing creatively a priority. In 2013 she participated in her first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a story called The Empire that a few years later would become her first completed novel. The Empire is currently available on Amazon.
This celebratory month of women in speculative fiction has seen posts on many topics all of which come back to a central important issue – inclusion. I write in an area of fantasy that is often relegated to the back burner in the sci-fi/fantasy community and among writers in general: romance. Yes, romance is frequently the red-headed step child at the family reunion, but I can’t help it. Love and relationships are always the focus of my writing.
Most of my published work would be classified as either paranormal romance or romantic fantasy with many of these being in the category of retold fairy tales. It’s a genre I’ve loved for decades and while it generally finds a lot of success with the reading public, many people I meet have an easier time believing in mermaids and magic than love or happy endings. (New England is especially known for this – romance sells the lowest in this part of the country).
What can be more basic, more interesting, and more revealing than how we choose and treat our closest relationships? When as writers we create worlds we need to ask ourselves about the mating, pairing and parental relationships that exist in this new world. When we read, if these things are left out or ignored, something about the world seems off, lacking.
Certainly the various movements including #metoo, #timesup and #ownvoices show that how we interact with one another, how we include those who identify differently from us, has a lasting impact on current and future generations. Speculative fiction gives writers and readers an amazing opportunity to look at the truth of these relationships – the problematic and the healthy – from new perspectives which can help us understand our own. Look at the recent resurgence in popularity of The Handmaids Tale, science fiction which puts relationships at the core. No, it’s not a romance. This is a world where there is no place for romance – and look at the results of that.
I know that in my own writing, when I work in a paranormal world, I look at what rules I no longer have to adhere to, where I can get creative, and where can I build something completely new – something that reflects what I believe is the best a relationship can bring to an individual.
We still have challenges when presenting these relationships either in books or film. From Sleeper to Demolition Man to Gattaca science fiction and fantasy movies show what might be different in the future when it comes to the challenges of love, sex and relationships on other worlds and in other futures. Many make it comical (when I asked about this on Facebook a friend reminded me of Barbarella), some eliminated it all together. But at the end of the recent blockbuster hit Wonder Woman she extols the value of love and how this aspect of who we are is one of the things that make us worth saving.
Would you like some recommendations? My favorite fantasy author who looks at the importance and influence relationships have on our lives and our world is Anne Bishop. All of her books explore romantic relationships, but the Black Jewels trilogy (and beyond) is particularly amazing as is her Others series. And if in your fantasies you want vampires, then Joey W. Hill’s Vampire Queen series is one of the hottest series I’ve ever read.
I have come to believe that we brush love and all it stands for aside at our own peril. It deserves to be a priority, not a second thought, not something relegated to the silly or trivial. Certainly not something called “girly”. Anyone who has felt and expressed a wide range of emotions knows – emotions are not for the faint of heart. They require great strength and they show the strength of those who experience them.
As Diana says at the end of Wonder Woman, there is darkness and light in all of us and only love can truly save the world. I agree.
A Jersey Girl trapped without good diners or boardwalks in New England, Rachel Kenley is the author of eight romance novels, most recently the Melusine’s Daughters trilogy. Rachel started reading romances at 14 and credits them with her lifelong fascination with relationships and how they contribute to our ability to go for our dreams. When she is not writing she is homeschooling her sons, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with laundry, and laughing as much as possible. She believes in shameless flirting, finding pleasure in the everyday, never missing the chance to watch The Wizard of Oz and the emotional and economic power of retail therapy. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and at www.rachelkenley.net where you can also sign up for her newsletter.
Like any craft, writing is a world of its own. There are rules that must be followed, and rules that may be broken. While being creative is esoteric, and may be something you are born with, learning the craft of writing is just like learning any other craft. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts information you need to absorb. Good grammar is the first one, but it takes much more than proper spelling and sentence structure to write a good story. Story structure, character development, pacing, building tension: these are all building blocks of our fictional creations. There are tricks and methods to all of these, but for this blog, I’m going to share a few tips on self-editing.
So, okay, this one is not exactly a newsflash. It’s actually one of the most well-known bits of advice floating around the writing universe. This not only helps you find errors and clunky parts, it’s also a great way to find the rhythm of your words. The tip here? You don’t actually physically HAVE to speak out loud. An actual out-loud read should happen at some point, but as you are writing, just read the sentences in your head, and focus on what they will—or should—sound like when spoken out loud.
I don’t mean to literally read every sentence backwards, word wise. Just read backwards on the page and, when possible, the paragraph. Why? Our minds like to play tricks on us. If we read quickly, we tend to skim, which makes it really easy to mistake what is actually on the page for what we think is on the page.
Spellchecking programs should never be considered the be-all, end-all of editing. They won’t catch everything, and they will at times complain about things you did on purpose. That said, you’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping this step. Spellcheck may flag a sentence that’s perfectly fine, but when you look at it more closely, you may find a better way to word it. This is also a great way to find and kill passive voice.
Mark Your Spots
Ever get stuck on a phrase or plot point, or come across something that you may need to research more? Ever wonder if you already used that piece of dialogue? Don’t get bogged down in details on your first pass. Put a special word in that doesn’t appear often in your work. I use insert, but you can use monster or chocolate or pizza or phalanges whatever. Then, go back and search those words out to find the spots you wanted to work on.
Let It Simmer
When you’ve finished a first draft, back it up, walk away, and leave it alone. Like a good wine, the story needs to simmer. I don’t know if this happens with all writers, but my back brain tends to work on things even when I’m not paying attention. This is a good time to feed your head. Look at art, listen to different music, watch documentaries. I’ve often found a plot point strike me while I was working on a different WIP. Make a note, and move on.
Don’t Take The Easy Way Out
Jack White recently posted an interview where he said that ‘As an artist, your job is not to take the easy way out.’ You want a best-selling novel? You have to write a novel that is good enough to be a best seller. That means setting high standards for yourself. That means picturing your book as an excellent novel, and then stepping into that space. Always, always look for ways to improve your book and fill plot holes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Make Multiple Passes
Some stories are ‘born’ in more or less one shot. Others grow slowly. I tend to be a bit OCD about editing, and edit things at least 4 or 5 times. At least. I have one WIP that’s been edited probably 20-30 times. You don’t want to go overboard here, as you may find yourself editing the same thing over and over. The old saying about art never being finished, only abandoned, is true. That said, do one more pass than you think you need to.
Kill Your Darlings
I can’t take credit for this one, as it’s an old adage, originally attributed to Faulkner. I blew this one off for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I got it. Just because you can write a long, beautiful sentence, or a perfect paragraph describing someone’s car or clothes doesn’t mean you need to. If it serves the story, fine. But trim the fat. This also means boil down your sentences and paragraphs. Chop filler words and phrases, and let the story shine through. Go in with the intention of cutting.
Save The Bodies
Ever find yourself cutting a scene or chapter that doesn’t fit? It may work in another piece. Keep files for bigger cuts.
Have A Saving System
One rite of passage that many writers share is the pain of lost work. Computer crashes, missing thumb drives, whatever. I learned this lesson the hard way. I now have my auto-save settings set to two minutes. (I can deal with losing two minutes of work in a worst-case scenario.) I also save the file with the date in the name. This is because I used to save new versions by adding things like ‘Final’ into the name. That sounded like a good idea at first, until I ended up staring at multiple versions of a WIP with things like ‘Final,’ ‘ReallyFinal,’ ‘Final Copy,’ and even ‘UsethisFinal’ incorporated into the names. Don’t do this.
Fall Into The Story
Editing shouldn’t all be about nuts and bolts. At some point, you need to let your muse or your creative side play too. Make a playlist, light some candles, do whatever you need to do.
Listen To Yourself
If a scene or character isn’t capturing your attention, it probably won’t grab a reader, either. At the end of the day, some things just don’t work. Don’t kill a story trying to fix it. Let it sit, or walk away.
Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several places, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, and Endless Apocalypse. In 2013, she released Whispers From The Apocalypse, a horror poetry collection. Her first novel, Abode, was released from Bloodshot Books in July 2017 and is available on Amazon. She also writes for Antichrist Metalzine. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish.
Intersections Can Be Confusing
Because I’m a woman and I write spec fic, I’m often put on panels at conventions dealing with “women’s issues” vis à vis writing. I enjoy those panels and enjoy meeting my fellow panelists and the conversations we have about what it’s like striding into what has been traditionally men’s spaces.
But the conversations don’t really go far enough for me and it feels like I’ve been participating in the “101” level discussions for some time now.
In some ways, I also feel awkward in those conversations. My female identity is only a part of who I am, and it’s limited me far less than some of my other identities.
While I’ve never deliberately hid my neuro-atypicality, I’ve also not been extremely public about it. Until recently, I really didn’t believe that my “aspie” nature was a hindrance to my current life. After all, I wasn’t identified as having Asperger’s until my 30s and by then I was a successful physical therapist, wife, and mother.
So what does it mean to be a woman who is also neuro-atypical?
For me, it meant that very little in the literature described me or pertained to me. Not in the women’s literature. Not in the autism literature.
When you live at an intersection, instead of doubling (or tripling, etc) your identity, it fractionates it. Try to find writing advice for women on the autism spectrum. Until very recently, it wasn’t even believed by the scientific establishment that many women were on the spectrum and nearly all the data, all the research, all the narratives focused on the male presentation.
The advice for women writers often didn’t speak to me. I’m not sure whether that’s because of my aspie nature or because of other experiences and identities I hold. I’ve never had a hard time finding my voice or feeling like what I had to say wasn’t “worthy”. What held me back was near-crippling anxiety and until I started to embrace my non neuro-typical identity, I had no tools to address it.
And still, 20 years after the psychiatrist I was meeting with reviewed my history and my educational records and told me I was on the spectrum, I have kept that part of my identity cloaked.
Not fully hidden, but certainly not a label I publicly claimed.
So why am I talking about it now?
I recently saw the call for the “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” anthology and thinking about submitting to it make me extremely uncomfortable. So I spent some time getting to why.
Part of it was I feel relatively privileged: I am in a situation in which I am supported to be a full time writer. My books are finding their readers. What “right” did I have to submit and potentially take a spot away from a writer who might deserve/need that break more than I did.
That was the surface reason.
Digging deeper, there were others.
Was I “disabled?” If so, was I disabled enough? Did I want my carefully crafted identity as a women writing SF&F to be conflated with the word disability?
These are heavy questions and I don’t have final answers to them.
In the end, I didn’t submit to the anthology.
And yet, I’m “outing” myself here.
(I never said I wasn’t a hot mess of contradictions.)
So who am I and how to my identities inform my work?
I would describe my novels as extremely character-centric. Most of what I write is in deep third-person point of view and I feature fully-realized female characters in everything I write.
I do the same for all my characters, regardless of gender.
In looking though my body of work, there are definite themes that emerge, many of which come from my various identities. Characters have different patterns of strengths and struggles. They have disabilities – some overt, some hidden. Those struggles inform each characters’ growth and arc, rather than simply function as surface traits.
Ultimately, that’s what I have come to understand about my own intersections: being female and being neuro-atypical (two of my myriad identities) shape the lens with which I view the world.
And they are foundational to how I chose to write new ones.
LJ Cohen’s fifth and final book of her Halcyone Space series – A STAR IN THE VOID – will be available Summer of 2018.
It’s weird that I have to ask this question. It’s the year 2018, and I can’t give you a list that is strictly male and doesn’t involve a romance as a focal plot point.
However, the why is answered fairly quickly the moment you walk into a SFF convention. If you haven’t, have no fear, there’s a scene from Brooklyn 99 that illustrates it perfectly: a panel on Diversity in SFF and its all straight middle-aged white guys in various states of dress. As always, one of them is wearing a leather bomber jacket. Cause he’s not like those other SFF authors, he’s a cool SFF author.
Do I have a personal problem with romance in SFF? Gods no, read what you want, write what you want. But it shouldn’t be the only place I can read about queer men. And it is the only place I can read about queer men. Every book I’ve come across involving a queer male character in a leading role–not a supplementary character–is romance. And what that translates into is, unless they’re falling in love with someone, queer male characters don’t have stories to tell.
Which is, ya know, bullshit. Obviously.
But this is what happens in a genre dominated by straight white men; they’re going to write either straight men or queer women. Because that is both what they know and what they view as attractive.
So how do we go about writing queer men in SFF? And why is it so hard for so many writers to wrap their minds around?
First, you take every trope you remember from the 90’s and you set them on fire. Never approach them again. Don’t even look at them. They don’t exist. Then you build that character, just as you would any other character, and add in but they’re gay as an afterthought. How minor you want it to be and how you present that will depend on the level of acceptance in your world setting, and the character’s age. Are they younger and naive, or are they older and have seen various laws and politics surrounding the LGBT community rise and fall? And how does that affect their worldview?
But if I don’t use tropes or make the effeminate, how will people know they’re gay?
Oh buddy ol’ pal, that’s the beauty of it–you can reveal that little tidbit whenever you want. You can add it into a conversation, slip it in casually, or make it a big statement. For example, I came out to my DnD group last week when someone asked if my character had a crush on a party member and I said “No its not like that, Malachi’s like me. He’s demisexual. He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to others without very intense romantic feelings and a deep level of trust.”
Or you can flashback to it. Have it brought up in a memory. That’s how I introduced Yulian as being gay in the Silver Bullet Affair. It’s barely one sentence. And for me, that’s all I needed. I wanted my readers to know that Yulian is gay, has always known he was gay, and is living in a country where being gay was accepted and legal for quite some time before rulers changed hands (he’s Russian, by the way).
But who’s allowed to write about queer male MCs?
Anyone whose willing to give it due diligence, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For example, if you’re doing an SFF in a previous known time and place in history, or even a current one, you need to do your research on how the LGBT culture functions. If it’s made up, you have to make a backstory for that culture. How has it stood the test of time? Have different regimes of rulers made it illegal or otherwise legal? Did it start out as being acceptable but became worse as the power to rule changed hands, or is it the opposite? A writer should always write what they know, and the the beauty of the modern world we live in today is that what you know can easily be remedied. We have at our fingertips access to first hand accounts and primary resources with which to utilize to write anything accurately, so long as you put the hours in.
Queer men can kick ass, and save the world, and not have a romance define their entire place in a story. They can be effeminate or masculine, have great taste or a terrible fashion sense, because a person’s sexuality isn’t a clothing style or a series of mannerisms that dictates how you present yourself. Queer men, like all human beings, are individuals first, sexuality second.
For a fine example of queer men kicking ass, check out the Silver Bullet Affair, book one in the Bulletproof Spy series, available now on Amazon.
I’ll never forget a particular conversation. It was several years ago at a sci-fi conference, and I was with a group of authors talking about writing. They all had more publishing credits that I did. Someone asked what was holding me back, and I stammered a bit and then mentioned my two school-aged children.
“I have kids,” said a male writer, “and I still find time to write.”
“Ugh…” (I literally did not know what to say.) “Do you have a spouse that has primary responsibility of your kids?”
“Yes, my wife… but… I’m very involved with my kids. And I find the time.”
This was consistent with the messages I received when I decided about eight years ago to seriously try and “be a writer.” Other writers and well-intentioned people—most whom did not have primary responsibility of children, if they had them at all—kept telling me that I could make it happen through sheer will and through making the time. Many of these folks were male identifying, by not all. About six years ago I was reading another writer’s blog—a woman with young children—and her advice to other women writers with kids was to simply teach your family you’re unavailable when you’re writing. “They will come to respect your boundaries,” I remember reading, “if they demand your attention simply turn them away.” And right after reading that that my then 8-year old daughter came into my writing space because she wanted to tell me something.
I didn’t turn her away.
It’s not that the male writer was wrong about “making time.” It’s not that the blog author was wrong about “setting your boundaries.” It’s just that for many years, for me, these were not simple choices.
I carry the trauma of a horrific birth experience with my first-born and subsequent severe depression and episodes of anxiety. It took me a year after he was born before I had several days in a row where I felt connected to him, felt I might just survive this motherhood thing.
There was no bandwidth for writing. It took almost all of my strength to survive each day and try to maintain a relationship with my husband.
To escape the stifling, trapped feeling that being a stay-at-home mother engendered in me, I went back to work part-time. I slowly got better.
Then I became pregnant again.
I immediately fell back into an anxious depression. I called my doctor once I recognized that dark curtain descending. I begged for medication. By the time I began treatment, I was completely numb again. I had no feelings for anyone, no affect. The only emotion I could experience and name was “anxiety.”
Luckily, this cloud lifted much sooner, while I was still pregnant. The support of my family and friends along with medication and therapy helped bring me back.
Still, I was never quite the same. I spent the next six years in a semi-anxious, under-slept, moderately depressed haze. I despaired I would ever feel the same again. But during that time something amazing also happened—I grew to love being a mother to these little humans. But for almost a decade, I had no capacity for anything except getting through each day.
As I found myself again, I realized I wanted to write. It was who I was. It was a dream I’d had since childhood; it was what I noted I wanted to do in my high school yearbook.
It was time.
Although I made baby steps toward this goal, I found it was not so easy to just do it. To just “set my boundaries” with my family.
I’d brought these children into the world; they didn’t ask to be born, and I suffered to have them. I was going to do my best for them.
Even though my writing was a priority, the kids were the highest priority. As they grew, I realized I had limited time with them—to shape them, guide them, and let them know they mattered above all else. I wanted them to have the security and confidence they’d need to go out into the world and be happy, secure, accomplished adults.
They’re now 14 and 17. And they’re amazing people. Everything I suffered and everything I sacrificed was worth it. Now I can find more time to write.
I know this is not the choice every writer makes. I don’t believe there’s one “right choice” in such a situation. We must all make the correct choice for ourselves.
Even now, as I have the capacity and more bandwidth, I don’t write every day—another typical “must” you hear from successful writers. I have a family, a few part-time jobs, and a chronic illness which requires me to get a lot of sleep. There are only so many hours in the day.
Being a writer with children is more difficult than being a writer without. But it’s not impossible. You may need to wait several years, do your writing at midnight, or steal twenty minutes here and there while you’re watching a game or waiting for a class to get out. You may not be able to write every day, or even every week. Do it when you can. Be compassionate with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to everyone around you. Find people who support you as you make your own way.
You’ll get there.