Accidental Representation

Jim Hines is hosting his excellent annual series on why diversity in SFF is important. I’d like to talk about something connected but not quite the same: accidental representation.

But first– apparently there’s an article out about how Aspergers and high-functioning autism are dramatically underdiagnosed in girls. This made me think about my own childhood. I never would have been diagnosed because I wasn’t interested in planes or planets or watches, I was intensely interested in people.

I read a book once in which somebody had literally been Focused on People. She read as autistic until the end, when it’s revealed she’d been damaged instead.

And more often than not, that’s what happens when I find somebody in fiction who thinks so much like me that I instantly identify with them. It turns out the author wasn’t trying to write somebody with autism. They were writing a demon. Or a maladjusted anthropomorphic personification. Or somebody with brain damage.

With all of them there’s a moment of, “Oh my god! It’s somebody like me!” and sure maybe that person is difficult, maybe even a bad guy but that moment of realizing people like me exist in fiction is wonderful– until I discover the connection was accidental. The author is shocked and horrified when somebody points out the parallels with autism. They didn’t mean that, no, not at all!

(And these are all authors I love, too, which is why I was so delighted with the characters. Who doesn’t want to believe that their favorite artist really understands them?

But no. It was an accident.)

So not only do I feel like an alien, but the characters I identify with are quickly pulled away as ‘unintended’. That really, really sucks. It’s also one reason I write about neurodiverse characters. I mean, I didn’t set out to Make A Statement, but I will if I have to. I hate feeling like a freak: like my body is exotic and my brain came from outer space– and having representations yanked away only emphasizes that feeling.

What’s even worse is that reaction of surprise and even horror: because they wrote what they saw as problems to be solved, not natural ways of thinking. The idea that somebody might strongly identify with somebody they think of as basically broken is very upsetting.

But I didn’t read those characters as broken. I just read them as people like me.  People who think differently but who are just as interesting and just as capable of being awesome.  People who can inspire me to feel like less of an alien and more like me. 

Admittedly, that’s a lot easier in a world where people recognize you when they write about you.

*

It would be foolish of me, I suppose, not to point my own work toward providing fictional companions to the neurodiverse:

in Nightlights, Jehane is a protagonist, she falls in love, she acts heroically.  She’s also autistic. She’s not the only neurodiverse character but she’s the most obvious one.

in Matchbox Girls, Marley, the heroine, has an anxiety disorder. She eventually she discovers she has magic, too. It doesn’t help nearly as much as she’d like.

And in Citadel of the Sky, you can find a lot of different acronyms and disorders, along with more complicated, less easily labelled things. There’s also an entire group of people dedicated to providing accommodations for the neurodiverse Royal Family… and a story about what happens when those accommodations are taken away.

Coloring

I like to dabble in art. And one way I dabble is by coloring other people’s lineart. I have a nice collection of coloring books aimed at adults, and I recently discovered the world of digistamps. For a long time my coloring medium of choice was colored pencils, but I recently discovered the world of alcohol markers and gave myself the present of a starter set of Spectrum Noirs, which are low(er) cost versions of the Copic markers used by manga artists everywhere.

I’ve enjoyed playing with those in a really visceral way: even discovering that I’m not happy with what I can accomplish with them, I still deeply enjoy the process of trying. It reflects what I do when I get access to some new digital art tool: I scribble with brushes. No drawing (even though I can draw, a little, after four years of art classes as a teen) just… splashes of color across a canvas. I like color.

I gave myself another gift: an online coloring class at Kit and Clowder. I wasn’t sure about it at first; would I get anything I couldn’t get on my own? But I like the community I’ve seen on Facebook and I wanted a chance to feel like part of it and this was much cheaper than the markers themselves.

I’ve been working on the first homework sheet tonight and having trouble. It could be the paper, it could be the marker nibs (which are not the ideal COPIC-style brush tips), it could be me, it could be all three. I became quite frustrated a few times! And I think this is a good thing because it means i’m trying harder than I would be without the class, and thus hopefully getting better.

Anyhow, at some point perhaps I’ll post some pictures of what I’m doing. Because hey, I’m always thinking I should blog more.

(The problem there comes down to not wanting to talk in detail about my writing and having all my anecdotes about household and children be microblogs at best, But hey, maybe between arts, crafts and games I can do a better job of looking alive…? or maybe just show off some pictures later….)

Writing About Problematic Relationships

Hi there and welcome to my extremely intermittent series on writing techniques! Today I’d like to talk about Problematic Relationships. Specifically, Problematic Love Stories. It’s Valentines Day and 50 Shades of Grey has been released in theaters everywhere so it’s the perfect time!

Ok, so you’ve decided to buck the critics and write a desperate love story about a cynical hired killer falling in love with the woman he’s been paid to murder.

Wait, no, back up. That side is the easy side. You’ve decided to write a story about a woman falling in love with a stalker who hasn’t decided whether or not they wants to kill her.

or

a story about an innocent girl convincing her kidnapper to abandon the side of evil because she loves him

or

a story about a young person falling in love with the body-stealing alien who stabbed them when they first met

etc. You’ve got a story and you’re feeling kind of worried because stories with other troubled relationships have gotten a lot of bad press recently and you just want to write the kind of story that makes your heart flutter, you don’t want to be scorned everywhere as promoting domestic abuse.

Fear not! You can write about Problematic Relationships in a responsible way and I’m here to help.

(The easiest approach is to Not Have A Happy Ending, but that isn’t what you want to do. I know it isn’t what I want to do, at least. So we’ll just put that option aside. But do be aware it’s out there.)

First: be aware of what you’re writing. Be aware of who you’re writing about. Don’t try to make your heroine an Everygirl; she’s in a problematic relationship and she’s going to thrive there because she’s got exactly what’s required to thrive.  (Almost) Everygirl can appreciate a well-done problematic relationship, but Everygirl will not find said relationship personally healthy.

So know your heroine. And know what your hero is offering her, other than the thrill of danger. Is she always responsible at home and thus welcomes the chance to be bossed around by somebody she trusts? Does she feel isolated and appreciate somebody who sees the world the same way she does? Does she wear a mask and bond to the first person to notice that?

Figure that out, figure out the places where they fit together like puzzle pieces and please have those NOT just be their physical tabs and slots. If you’re going to have a happy ending, make the characters emotionally compatible as well as sexually compatible. This is going to make their decision to put up with something everybody else might consider awful a lot more comprehensible and even sympathetic!

(Bonus: figuring out those emotional cues will make the whole story better, too.)

Second: If at all possible, have your character acknowledge the relationship is problematic. It’s bizarre to be attracted to somebody after they hold a knife to your throat! Probably you need to see a doctor to make sure everything’s okay up there.  Maybe your fear and attraction signals are really confused by that bump on the head? (And maybe that’s the case! Maybe that’s where it starts. Explore, have fun.) But even if it turns out that fear and attraction are just upsettingly mingled, let your character be aware that this is probably not going to be good for them.

Sometimes that’s not reasonable because you’re writing about somebody who honestly doesn’t realize that it’s a bad relationship (for whatever reasons). But that’s what friends are for. Supporting characters are great at kibitzing on other people’s relationships. Maybe they can wake your heroine up to her danger. Maybe they can point out other stories that didn’t have a happy ending. That can be a buzzkill, definitely, so I prefer to go with the self-aware characters myself. But it’s an option!

Third: Have your characters respect each other. This is really important! Maybe they don’t like each other.  Maybe they do like each other but they have extremely different goals. Maybe they’re on opposite sides of a war. It doesn’t matter. They can still respect each other.

Respect, by the way, is a deed, not just a word. Respecting somebody means giving them room to take care of their own business. It means listening when they say no.  It means listening, period.

Maybe they hide it. Maybe their entire deal is being disrespectful. That’s definitely problematic! But a love interest who respects his counterpart will a.) show that respect when it’s important and b.) fundamentally respect the role and person of the counterpart even while disrespecting smaller elements of his or her lifestyle. (This calls for an example: As a fashion expert, he may disparage her personal style but he’s well aware that she’s the best editor in all of the western seaboard. If he ever steps on her toes as an editor, he apologizes.)

Yes! Apologies! Apologies are often cheap, especially in Problematic Relationships. But as part of a consistent diet of respect, self-awareness and repressed passion, apologies can offset character quirks as long as that character quirk never, ever hurts the partner again.

Fourth: As a writer, own that you’re writing about a relationship that nobody should go out looking for. Maybe it works out for your characters, maybe everybody enjoys cheering for the happy ending– but your characters are one in a million, not Everygirl. Make sure that when it comes up in interviews when you’re rich and famous, you make it clear that the girls who walk away? They find love with somebody else. Because it’s okay to blow up that investment of time and love and walk away to take care of yourself. You’ll find somebody else. I promise.

Optionally: Attraction doesn’t mean a relationship has to follow. It might be a challenge pacing-wise but even if the attraction starts when a relationship would be incredibly unhealthy, have your smart, self-aware heroine hold off on letting it progress until the dangerous character in question has gotten his shit together.

(But don’t make her decide she has to stay with him until he has his shit together. She shouldn’t change him. But he can change himself after seeing himself reflected in her eyes….)

Or maybe he doesn’t change. Maybe he’s a dangerous killer, barely more than a savage animal, soothed only by your heroine’s gentle touch and YOU LIKE IT THAT WAY. Okay. Keep First, Second, Third and Fourth in mind.

Finally: (maybe? there’s probably more. This is what I’ve got today though) No matter what you do, some people are going to hate the Problematic Relationship. If you’re doing your best to make sure nobody goes out looking for that same wild one in a million happy ending, don’t worry about it. Write your romance. Enjoy yourself. Keep reading!

The Attic

I had a dream that I was exploring an attic. (“A dream, how dull.” But stay with me for a moment.) At first I was walking through finished corridors: white walls, proper floors. But the halls were narrow and full of many branches. A maze of twisty corridors, but not all alike, because as I progressed the attic became unfinished. Bare studs and plywood, and nothing safe to walk on, and then somehow the only places for me to walk were along the backs of other walls forming corridors I couldn’t get to. Where I walked was so narrow that I could barely squeeze along, but it was a dream and of course I had to keep moving. I had to find my way back to the finished halls and then I’d certainly be able to find my way home.

At last, shoving down a corridor no wider than me, I found a tiny room amidst the rafters, warmly lit and standing out against the dim dustiness. It was still unfinished, but clean, and on a sheet of plywood were two neatly made pallets, sized for children, each with a doll waiting for its owner. It looked, at first, as if it had a wider exit from the other side, but that was just an illusion as I discovered when I stepped inside. As I was looking at the hook from the side that was a wall, not an exit, the door I’d entered through _clicked closed_, pulled to by something outside.

Reader, I was terrified. I _knew_ that even if I opened the door again, the hall beyond would not be the one I arrived via, that the whole maze would be different and now I’d never be finding my way back to my original path.

And this is the thought that crossed my mind: I could just stay here in this lit attic room, where it was warm and comparatively pleasant, with the memories of children. I would be taken care of. I could just stay here and not even check to see if the door was locked, not venture out into the horrible maze where I never seem to get anywhere. I could just stay here instead of seeing what was beyond the door now. There would be peace instead of terror, in a little room designed to contain me. I would never be anywhere else again, but that seemed so attractive, because otherwise I was so afraid…

I woke up, and I was still afraid.

My brain can do some symbolism, what?

It’s a new year.

Happy New Year! It’s going to be a busy year for me: I’m hoping to release CITADEL OF THE SKY (Book 1 of a new fantasy series) in May, and then a collection of SENYAZA short stories (about the first year after MATCHBOX GIRLS) in July, and finally the fourth SENYAZA novel in October. I’m also planning on going to Norwescon and Worldcon this year. AND I’m writing something new. Busy busy busy, how will I manage– oh.

On the 5th day of this new year, my 7 year old broke his leg. Very exciting, kind of traumatic. He’s adapting to his full-leg cast, his baby brother is adapting less well to the temporary loss of a playmate and I am trying to learn to juggle time even better because man, as distracting as this is, it is absolutely not the time to delay on projects that might earn a few bucks.

I finished the draft of DIVINITY CIRCUIT in November and I’ve been sitting on it since then, letting it season, waiting for beta readers. Meanwhile I’ve been working on short stories. I have so many short stories left to write: a couple more for the INFINITY KEY Kickstarter, bonuses for the WOLF INTERVAL Kickstarter, and extra material to put into the collection.

(Speaking of WOLF INTERVAL or INFINITY KEY or MATCHBOX GIRLS: if you’ve read them, would you consider writing a review on a retailer site? Those help in very concrete ways, in that lots of algorithms skip over books without a minimum number of reviews. Much appreciated.)

I’ve just finished a novelette about Penny. It’ll go out to INFINITY KEY backers in a week or so, and be generally available as part of the Year One collection in June or July. I haven’t titled it firmly yet but I think of it as ‘Penny and What Happened After’.

Next up, by request, I’m writing a very short vignette? story? about the Queen of Stone.

Then, THEN, I’m switching gears for a while to work on my 2015 project, Astromantica. I’m very excited by it. It will be something quite different from anything I’ve done before and as such it will require a whole new process. I’ve bought new markers and some sketchbooks to get myself started. :-)

Dark Parables: The Final Cinderella

I love the art direction and interwoven stories of the Dark Parables games so much. I like how there’s more than one fairy tale being explore in each game, despite the title. The Final Cinderella has links to the other games and is about more than just a cinder girl. In fact, Cinderella is a technical term and tehere’s an awful lot of puppets in the menu screen…

There were bits I got very unhappy with– I don’t like missing content especially when clues on where to find the missed stuff are so hard to come by. But I did eventually find all of the optional content so I no longer remember my list of complaints.

The story is about as good as it can be given the structural limitations and the source material, which is to say: I could imagine a better story but I’ve also played far worse ones. I once again loved the visuals and wished I got to explore them even more. The Fragmented Object Puzzles were okay. A bit harder this time, more objects hidden in ways I considered cheating. The other kinds of puzzles were adequate: there was one sliding panel puzzle in the bonus content (which I skipped; it’s the only kind of puzzle I pretty much plan to skip) and some word-find puzzles except in a field of unfamiliar characters. There were a couple instances of a marble puzzle and I really liked the pipe/string puzzle (turn the squares with the pipes to connect two locations), all pretty general stuff and nothing that stood out.

All in all a solid but not superior entry in the sequence, with interesting lore expansions.

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