nonny: (Default)
A perennial question amongst the writing community these days (particularly in post-Racefail SFF) is that of representation. It's heartening to see it as an active topic of discussion, but I think that something that gets lost sometimes is how important it is. I'm many things: pagan, polyamorous, (mostly) lesbian, mentally ill, on the Autism Spectrum, disabled, childfree, gender-questioning, among others. Let me tell you my story.

I grew up in a very Christian household, and a few years of my teen life were tarnished by my Dad getting into Christian Fundamentalism (of the "listening to rock music is signing an implicit contract with Satan for your soul" type, also "music in other languages is secretly witch spells being cast because you can't understand the language" -- let's just say my listening to Rammstein didn't go over well). I was pretty isolated as a child and teen because I was homeschooled and lucky to see another person my own age every six months. This background is important later.

more behind the cut... tw for mentions of depression and suicidal feelings )
nonny: (Default)
This will be one of my few open posts, because I feel it's important enough to share beyond my friends list. Note that

Kameron Hurley (whose Bel Dame trilogy is amazing) wrote an essay for Locus Magazine, which is also quite excellent. The essay is worth reading in its entirety, but in it, Hurley speaks about feeling like she had to make excuses for what she wrote.

A couple excerpts:

Yet I contributed to this very narrative about my work. Instead of talking about my books as serious (or at least fun) literature, I found myself fall­ing into the same self-conscious trap I had as a kid, when I muttered about how I was writing a story about an expedition to Venus where the volcanos erupted with flowers. I said stuff like: ‘‘Oh, you probably won’t like it. It’s pretty weird,’’ or ‘‘It’s not for everyone,’’ or ‘‘You’ll only like it if you read a lot of science fiction.’’


and

Her reaction made me re-evaluate how I talked to people outside of SF/F about the books I love. In SF/F circles, we delight in complexity and sense-of-wonder. We spend millions upon millions of words debating about the slim difference between ‘‘science fiction’’ and ‘‘fantasy.’’ But folks outside of it really couldn’t care less. People outside of the SF/F bubble just want to know, quickly and simply, what it’s about.


While there is definite truth to what Hurley is talking about (and let me say that I am not criticizing Hurley for not speaking about this; I am fairly certain it is something she is aware of herself, but there are many reasons she may have chosen not to address this), there is another factor that she hasn't addressed, and that is gender. Women are specifically taught from childhood not to "show off". Instead of talking excitedly about things we are interested or things we are creating, we are expected to be demure, humble, and even self-deprecating. Heaven forfend we actually take pride in our work.

It's difficult cultural training to overcome. Moreso if you also have social anxiety. Almost all writers are taught that it's just a hobby, that it's not real work, but there is a pernicious sexism when it comes to women. I'm considering some of the panels that I have seen, where there were both men and women on the panel. The men were exuberant and raring to talk about their book; the women visibly struggled to describe their books. These are all published authors.

I do not see the issue as much in romance, where men are uncommon. I see women excited and ready to share their stories, and full of pride about them -- well, so long as they are in groups where romance writing isn't considered "trash". In SFF, even now, there are is still the old boys' club, and while people are working to dismantle that, it takes time, beacuse there are people (usually men, but not always) fighting every step of the way.

While I have talked about being raised as male (long story, but the TL;DR version is that I was homeschooled and dreadfully isolated, and my father wanted a son; after my mother had my sister, she said no more children -- therefore and ever after, my dad dubbed me the son he did not have), I did not actually start talking about my writing much until I started embracing my femininity and womanhood. It was something I noticed, and it is something that worked its way into my subconscious.

It ties in, too, with Imposter Syndrome, which affects women at a higher rate than men. The downside of encouraging self-deprecation is that women start to believe it. When you believe that your work is shit and not worth anything, it's not surprising that women back down for fear of reprimand or scolding. There is a definite subset of people who seek to knock women who are confident about their abilities "down a peg."

In light of that, how can we expect women not to make excuses for their work? It's ingrained. It's there in our very society, and it is certainly there in writers' communities and organizations. It's insidious, to the point many of us don't even know we're doing it.

The solution? Become aware. Know that it is affecting us. Fight it when and where we can (and if and only if it is safe to do so; as important as it is, ideology is not worth someone's physical or mental well-being). At the very least, be proud of ourselves, even when we can't speak up. When we can, tell our stories, and tell people what they're about. Sometimes that means memorizing your blurb until you can say it in your sleep (I can't be the only one whose thoughts fly out of her head the moment she's put on the spot). Sometimes it means having the strength and will to just say it -- and it's hard to say, make no mistake.

But each time, it gets a little easier. (At least, it does for me.) If you're not able to, don't beat yourself up; there will be other chances. This is not an all or nothing game; this is a progression. For every two steps forward, there will be one step back. This is still progress.

Write what you love. Stand up for your work. Or don't, if it's not safe. But most of all: Be proud, because you have your work, and nobody can take that away from you.

I must also add: A great big thank you to Kameron Hurley for writing about this, because it's an important topic. I urge again, for anyone who is interested in a science fantasy Muslim based future setting with plenty of POC, a foul-mouthed and tough-as-nails queer assassin protagonist (who puts all the supposed "ass-kicking, tough-as-nails" women protagonists to shame), and an awesome team of characters that includes shape shifters and bug magic with a very devout but not so very good magician, and their many adventures -- CHECK THESE BOOKS OUT, THEY ROCK. (This series is probably my favorite from the entirety of 2013.)
nonny: (Default)
So, there's a particular article about what differentiates a hobbyist from a pro writer, that is full of BS that has been talked about by various people like Brian Keene and John Scalzi.

One thing, though, I haven't seen addressed is this:

"4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?"

Okay, I really fucking loathe this dichotomy. I have seen it a lot in crit and writing groups. This idea that either you take criticism like a masochist, or you are an idiot who wants people to pander with praise, is fucking stupid.

It's not a one or the other deal. You can want useful criticism for the things that you did wrong, or that you almost got right, or that could be better if you did this... and still want to be praised for the things you did well. There is an attitude in writer's groups that I find fucking harmful, which is that if you're a true pro, then you shouldn't care about praise.

It's fucking human to want praise. It's normal, and healthy, and for gods' sakes, I have seen so many crit groups where a badge of honor is taking sometimes downright abusive shit about your work, and not complaining. It's a toxic attitude. It's important for writers to hear both criticism and praise -- but too often, writers are told that if they even want praise, they obviously aren't serious.

Not to mention that praise is also an important part of a crit, because it helps you figure out what you're doing right. If all you have is a crit full of complaints, well, you can still work on improving, but it doesn't give you a very clear idea of your strengths.

You can want both. You should have both. And I am really annoyed at this all-or-nothing, one-or-the-other thinking. The world doesn't work that way.
nonny: ([utena] everything is clear in the moonl)
Recently, I came across a few posts about Imposter Syndrome. Along with that link, there is a very good personal essay about one woman's experience with it over on Geek Feminism.

The short definition is "Impostor syndrome describes a situation where someone feels like an imposter or fraud because they think that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them. Usually, their accomplishments are just as good, and the person is being needlessly insecure."[above link]

I was struck when I first started reading about this, because it absolutely describes the problems I have faced in trying to learn more about computer technology. I've wanted to learn various things, but feel that I'm not good enough, and I frequently find myself denying what I know I'm good at. I'm always second-guessing myself.

And then I realized that it's not just the geeky stuff that it affects; it affects my writing, too.

If someone asks me about my writing achievements, I will certainly mention what I've done, but I'm quick follow up with "but." "But I'm just e-published." "But I haven't sold much." "But it's not that good." I don't feel like I have made any huge accomplishments to be proud of, in part because I'm not published through a big New York house. Realistically, that is becoming less important every single year, and even if I were, I think I would still feel the same way.

It's something I hear a lot from writers. I've been in a lot of writers' groups, and it's so very common that someone will get published, but still feel like they're some kind of sham. That it's not real. That they're making it up. I suspect the "sophomore novel" blues that frequently are discussed have something to do with Imposter Syndrome -- we have trouble believing that what we've done is real and valuable, and now that the whole world is looking at us, now they're going to see what a farce we really are.

This year, I wanted to submit ideas for panels to my local SF convention. I went last year, and they had a wide range of panelists. Many people only had short story publications, and some were not even published, but had real life experience in what they were talking about. Despite having several e-published books, I couldn't believe that anyone would take me seriously. I was convinced people would just laugh at me. That they'd see that I was some sort of fake, a fraud. And then came the shame, that, who the hell did I think I was, trying to present myself as some sort of expert? What the fuck was I thinking, that I had anything worthwhile to share?

All these things ran through my head, and my gut twisted and turned, and I just let the deadline pass, because deep-down, some part of me doesn't believe that I have the credentials to speak on -- well, any issue. And truthfully, I don't think it would be any different if I were NY published. Because I have seen the same thing from NY published authors.

And it seems primarily a problem that affects women. We are so devalued by society that it is hard for us to believe that our ideas and experiences are worthwhile. It is hard to believe that there are those that would value our expertise when it is still common to run across people who tell you to shut up and demand to speak to a man instead. It's something that is reiterated through all our lives, when as kids boys are called on more often in class to answer questions and rewarded more.

Even now, just writing this, my gut is twisting and I fear that I'll be ridiculed for speaking about this with any sort of authority -- because, after all, don't others have it worse? Aren't there other people better able to speak? Why should anyone believe me?

It's part of what led to a breakdown the other night when I received a hurtful comment related to some of my writing. The comment came from someone I trusted, and the novel the commentary was about was one that I had some amount of confidence about. The end result being that I was completely torn up and questioning whether I should even keep at this thing, because, well, obviously I'm just a fake and not anywhere near as good as I think, and I should just give up and make way for Real Writers...

And I know that's bullshit. I really do. And I suspect some people are going to be rolling their eyes here and thinking that I need to get some self-confidence. But it isn't about that, really. It's a cultural issue. Otherwise this wouldn't be so common. Otherwise you would not see professional, published authors, some of them award-winning even, convinced that they suck.

It's not generally talked about. I think it needs to be. I think that's the only way that it will ever change -- that we speak up about our fears and our doubts and these deep feelings that we aren't good enough. Because, you know, I can't put into words how it felt when I first read that article on Imposter Syndrome. I just about burst into tears, because, oh my gods, there was someone out there that was going through the same thing. It wasn't just me. I wasn't crazy.

And I'm writing this, and I'm convinced that I'm going to be told that I'm crazy, that I don't know what I'm talking about, that it isn't that big a deal, that I need to suck it up, that I'm some kind of fraud, that I can't speak about these issues, that this isn't a real issue, that I'm just making it up. I'm scared to the point of my gut knotting and feeling like I'm going to throw up. But I have to write this, and get it out there, because if I feel this way, there have to be others. I know there are others.

This is a discussion that we need to have. Let's start.
nonny: (Default)
A couple links I'd like to share since they are relevant to the discussion being had:

The Danger of a Single Story. I don't generally watch videos. This one is worth watching. Because Ms. Adichie nails it. The examples that she gives in her talk are about race, but they are equally relevant to the problem of one character type being common among urban fantasy heroines.

Along those lines, Tiger Beatdown's post on Strong Female Characters, which includes several links to other posts on the issue that are worth reading. The Cliff's Notes version: "Strong female characters" basically include one archetype, that of the warrior woman, where the heroine is rewarded for behaving in a masculine manner, eschewing femininity, and it is almost entirely limited to physical strength.

Lots of food for thought.
nonny: ([misc] muse hunter)
I love urban fantasy. I have for years. I started out with Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde series, then discovered Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books, and longed for more. For a long while, it just didn't exist. Annnnnd then it boomed.

Unfortunately, there's a pattern in urban fantasy that I have a huge problem with and has been turning me off the genre more and more. And that's the treatment of women in urban fantasy. You would think this wouldn't be an issue. After all, most urban fantasy these days features a tough, competent, kickass heroine. What could go wrong? Well, a lot of things.

Most prevalent is the overwhelming tendency to completely defang women. Hear me out. Most modern urban fantasy has a heavy romantic subplot and borrows heavily from romance tropes. Being a writer myself, I follow a lot of writing circles, and I can't tell you how many times I have heard someone say, "I have this awesome heroine, but she's so capable, she does everything! And I need to make the hero sexy! And nobody will find the hero sexy if the heroine can do better than him!"

Ignoring the obvious solution of having the hero and heroine have completely different and complementary strengths, far too many writers go for the TSTL solution. If I had a penny for every time I saw a heroine do something completely out of character... *sigh*

Like, oh, storming off for no good reason and doing something utterly stupid that nobody competent in their field would do. Usually because, well, the hero suggested it, and thus he must be wrong. And if there was a good reason for the heroine to disagree, great! But that's often not it at all. It's a matter of cutting off her nose to spite her face. It's a plot device to put the heroine in a position where the hero has to come to the rescue and save her from her own stupidity -- and frankly, this is just insulting. And it's common. Ridiculously common. And it's lazy writing.

It's one thing if, hey, the heroine runs into odds that she can't beat, or an enemy that's stronger than her, or gets outwitted by someone equally as capable. But that's not what's happening. These are situations the author is forcing the heroine into by making her act out of character for the purpose of giving the hero a moment to shine. Why not put the characters in situations where both their skills are needed? But, that wouldn't allow the heroine to be the damsel in distress, now would it?

One of the other major issues in urban fantasy in regards to women is how the heroines relate to other women. In a genre that is so focused on strong female characters, it is pretty shocking how few heroines actually have relationships with other women. Often, other women are not friends and allies, but the enemy. Often, the heroine looks down on other women. And you see the same trope over and over again -- the leather-clad dark and tortured gun-toting heroine whose strength is all physical or perhaps supernatural.

This is really just the whole "girl in the boy's club" thing rearing its head. Femininity is derided while masculinity is put on a pedestal. Rarely do we see women who enjoy feminine things, and when we do, it's usually a slight touch rather than an integral part of the character. Even Anita Blake, with her stuffed penguin collection, dismisses and derides other women. It's been a long time since I read the books, admittedly, and I haven't read the recent ones, but of the early series, all the characters that I recall her being close to were male.

(Mind, the problem is not that masculine-leaning heroines exist. The problem is that they are the sole archetype that we see commonly in urban fantasy heroines.[1])

Very few urban fantasies actually pass the Bechdel test (two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man). For a genre that is supposedly woman-focused, that's just sad. Where are all the relationships between women? Most of us have friends who are women, mothers, sisters, aunts, etc. Where are they?

So what's the solution here? It comes down to writers being aware of the social implications their fiction will have. Because words have meanings, and stories have power. If they didn't have power, Piers Anthony's Mode books wouldn't have helped me when I was a suicidal teen, and Mercedes Lackey's books wouldn't have helped me come to terms with my bisexuality.

When even supposedly strong heroines are undermined at every turn and cannot succeed without the aid of a man, the underlying message is that of Well, if $awesomecharacter can't do it, why should I believe I can? Women are already at a disadvantage in society, with all the negative messages lobbed at us. We should be able to read fiction that empowers us, not reinforces that we are nothing without a man.

I am not saying that heroines should be all-powerful, because that would be boring. But if you're writing about a top-notch FBI agent, you don't have her forget basic gun safety. You don't have her barging into trouble without thinking about it. You don't have her so distracted by the hero's good looks that she misses the villain's move and gets trapped (and yes, I have read this). It sends a very negative message.

So how do you get around it when you need the heroine to screw up somewhere? Well, make it a believable screw-up, not something that a rookie would do (unless your character is a rookie, but most of the heroines I've seen in urban fantasy are purported to be some of the best at what they do). Or, hey, maybe she doesn't have all the information, makes a decision on what she knows, and then finds out that she was missing a vital piece of the puzzle.

But you know what I'd love to see more of? I'd love to see more heroines who get themselves out of that pickle, rather than heroines who have to be rescued by the hero. But, how do I manage an alpha hero and heroine and their power struggle without having one or the other knuckle under? Not everything has to be a power struggle, although they can be fun to write. The best alpha heroes I've read have been adept in their own field but respected the heroine in hers and listened to her opinions. But what if they're both experts in the same field? Well, hey, they're probably going to argue -- but the automatic reaction shouldn't be for the heroine to be the one who's wrong. Mix it up a little. Or hey! Maybe they're both wrong.

There's a lot of focus on alpha heroes in urban fantasy and a need to make them sexy. You know what? The sexiest heroes I've read aren't the ones who are always rescuing the artificially created dumbass heroine -- they're the ones who respect the heroine, her abilities, her strengths, and love her for who she is. The ones who aren't threatened by a strong woman. The ones who know when it's appropriate to take a backseat. The ones who know when it's time to stand their ground, and when it's time to say, "Hey, you know more about this than I do", or "I don't agree, but let's compromise." It's not an all or nothing situation.

I'd love to see more women who have relationships with other women, too. I'd also like to see a greater breadth of heroines -- heroines of color, heroines with disabilities, queer heroines, etc! Or hey, maybe not the heroine but a lady friend who is one of the above, or someone deeply involved in the story. I'd love to see more focus on this, because the lone uber!heroine surrounded by a sausage-fest is getting old.

This is something that writers have the power to change. Let's change it.


[1] I know there are exceptions to this. Please do not focus on them. This is a widespread issue, and the fact that there are exceptions does not negate that the overwhelming majority of urban fantasy heroines fits only one archetype.

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Nonny Blackthorne

August 2014

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