(Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard)
Genre fiction, particularly the Romance genre gets a lot of flak from some who prefer a more literary, ‘true-to-life’ brand of fiction. Romance, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and comic book super heroes, all suffer from the sin of being products of wish fulfillment. They allow events far from likely in reality. They allow happy endings. They give people unlikely successes and even super powers.
And you know what? Readers know the real world doesn’t generally work like that. Readers are all too familiar with frustrated dreams, failure and struggle, death and devastating losses. Every step we take contends with gravity. Every breath we draw and exhale passes irreplaceable moments of the limited time we occupy our planet – where countless lives have passed to dust, where empires have risen and fallen to be all but forgotten – look on their works and tremble, look on their works and weep for what is gone.
That’s life. That’s the reality we have no choice but to live with. We do what we can to adapt and adjust and better our world as best we can, and we move on. Readers are not apt to mistake happier fictions for fact.
But things are different in the world of imagination. We can imagine impossibilities. We can imagine anything we can conceive. We can experience the fulfillment of our desires. We have the power.
Consider how convincing a dream can be, how often we experience the wildest, most incredible events without ever questioning them – until we wake up. I have often flown and levitated and performed other magical acts in the worlds of dream. The experiences are genuinely experienced, if not in the world of our physical, consensus reality. Our imaginations can give us real experiences fulfilling real emotional needs. They can evoke real emotional reactions. They can give our minds and hearts some practice at successes we may not expect in life but are far more likely to be achieved if we strive than if we assume failure and never get off the couch.
The challenge of wish-fulfillment fiction is suspension of disbelief. People are so accustomed to the world of struggle, loss and failure that readers can’t believe fantasies of extraordinary attainment unless they include obstacles and conflicts and losses in the course of reaching for the prize.
In fantasy we can have the lover of our hearts desires, the fabulous mansion or quiet garden of our dreams – and without all the complications that reality entails. We can have the happy ending without worries about property taxes or paying the gardeners…
Critics of wish-fulfillment fantasies may claim that they give us unrealistic expectations, but we know better. We’ve lived in this world long enough – at least – to have learned to read. We’re born knowing how to cry. We learn soon enough that our dreams are much bigger than reality can generally fill – and that fantasy can bring us solace for all that reality denies.
This is the text for a talk I’m giving to the Midwest Fiction Writers group, the Twin Cities area chapter of Romance Writers of America. It tells the ‘Journey of a Novel’ – what was involved in bringing the story to the page and the book to market. Our chapter features one such journey at each meeting and it’s a great way to learn about different writing processes and the workings of the publishing industry.
Team Guardian – four years in the making –
Team Guardian is a compilation of three novellas, all featuring a team of superheroes operating in a near future world where the use of ‘probability bombs’ has left the world with many people who have strange powers. Not all of these are law-abiding citizens and the team is dedicated to policing their own. These stories all tend to be heroine-centric, with heroes who bring these heroines exactly what they need most in a partner.
was my first ever publication longer than a short story. It was published in December of 2012 by Champagne Books, a digital-first publishing house.
Earlier in 2012, I was still working on my second-released novel, ‘Wonder Guy,’ which features a young man granted super powers by his fairy godmother for the sake of impressing the girl next door. When my critique partner, Nancy Holland heard about a call for novellas for an anthology of super hero stories, she referred it to me and I set out to write a different sort of female super hero.
So many female protagonists in adventure novels are ‘kick-ass’ heroines, whose strengths are in fighting and martial arts of one sort or another. I thought the world needed someone whose strength lay in her emotional intelligence. Rachel, the heroine of ‘Sweet Mercy’ is a reverse-empath who can project her emotions to those around her. She has, by necessity, learned meditation techniques to calm and center herself so that she can project peace and serenity to, for instance, defuse conflicts and hostage situations and bring potential suicides in off the ledge. Rachel’s hero is, literally, the luckiest man in the world…
Unfortunately, the story was not accepted for the anthology for which I wrote it, but was accepted by Champagne Books and published in December of 2012.
2013 was a year bringing huge upheaval to my life. Not all bad. In April, my first full-length novel, ‘Spirited‘ was published – also by Champagne, and in June ‘Wonder Guy,’ my second novel came out via Lyrical Press (now the digital-first imprint of Kensington Books).
Unfortunately, between those events, in late May, my mother passed away after a long-lingering decline – completely overshadowing the fulfillment of my lifelong dream. I didn’t feel able to give my books the attention or promotion they needed. I didn’t even want to bring them to the attention of my grieving family beyond making the simple announcement of their publication.
At the same time, it became necessary for me to move from the house where I’d been renting a room. The long and short of this being that, between early August and late October, I moved house three times in those three months. Both I and my cat were somewhat traumatized by it all, but nonetheless, I never stopped writing.
I wasn’t ambitious enough to attempt a novel during all the upheaval, but I worked on ‘Safe Haven,’ the sequel to ‘Sweet Mercy.’ I also participated in a writing retreat with my critique partners, during which I worked on a series of short stories I later published independently in the collection, ‘More Wishes,’ featuring the Fairy Godmothers’ Union active in ‘Wonder Guy‘ and in my first collection ‘Three Wishes.’
The heroine of ‘Safe Haven,’ is Beth Talbot, whose power is rooted in her extreme sensitivity. For her, to touch something is to know its history, to experience the emotional residue of its past. She’s often unsettled and confused by the impressions of many different time periods converging on her. This makes her vulnerable, but supplies her Team with vital information to stop the bad guys. Her hero can nullify her ability – giving her a source of strength and stability in her chaotic world.
‘Safe Haven’ was first released in October of 2013 – when I was also conducting a blog tour for ‘Wonder Guy,‘ and making preparations to move for the third time – to the small apartment where – thank heavens – I still reside.
In 2014, my financial situation was still marginal, so my energy was divided between working on a variety of low-paying freelance gigs, job hunting for a more permanent position and writing. My project then was ‘Shining Hope’ – the third of the Team Guardian novellas. It was released in October of 2014. At that time I was applying for a position with my present employer, and visiting my brother in hospital while he underwent stem cell replacement therapy for his multiple myeloma.
The heroine, Sophia Alvarez has the more conventional power of an Illusionist, but is a survivor of date rape and her sympathy for the ‘villain’ of the story – a vigilante killer of sexual predators – causes her a moral crisis in helping the Team. Her hero has a maturity and patience that are exactly what she needs.
Two of the three villains in this trio of stories are women: powerful women whose motivations are warped. One by a need to assume ruthless control when she is fearful for her financial security, the other by a need to protect the world of women from sexual predators in whom she can no longer see any humanity.
(Once Shining Hope was completed and sold to Champagne, I moved on to start my more ambitious Holiday Enchantments series. I am currently finalizing ‘Thanksgiving,’ the first of the five inter-related Fairy Godmothers’ Union novels.)
I first inquired about collecting the three novellas into a boxed set a couple months after Shining Hope came out. I inquired again in January 2015, only to learn I’d missed a communication from my editor. She confirmed that the publisher was planning to go ahead with the idea, and we did some back and forth about title (I wanted ‘Team Guardian Affairs) and cover. Ultimately, my suggestions were not used.
After that, I heard nothing until I inquired again in March, when my editor said the publisher was moving the project to the top of her list.
And again, I heard nothing further, until late in May, when I found a pirated version of the collection being offered on a pay-for-use site. Both my editor and I were caught by surprise – the publisher hadn’t notified either of us – or given me the opportunity to add forewords to the stories, or add any new dedications etc.
I was especially disappointed, since, if I’d been aware of its release in early April, I’d had a great opportunity to mention the book when I was introduced on a panel about the evolution of the publishing industry, at a science fiction convention over Easter Weekend.
But, happily, all three novellas are now together in a single collection and finally available in print after their long journey!
At one point, when I was living at home again after college – under my mother’s roof with no idea of a future for myself, I actually set out to commit suicide by taking Valium with alcohol.
But after the first pill, I got to thinking about how things change. At the moment life seemed pointless, but if I died there’d be no option for improving things, and things did have a way of changing, and would probably look different the next day.
I fell asleep around then, and woke up the next day, indeed feeling differently. And lots of things have changed for good and bad since then, including meeting friends who’ve become important influences, having all kinds of adventures and creating some cool stuff. I hadn’t even discovered SF fandom at that point, or written a single novel.
I’ve never again set out to kill myself, but the urge has occurred from time to time, when circumstances have seemed hopeless.
I get mad at myself for it. It’s like this person who has been with me my whole life, enjoying every good time, wants to ditch me when the going gets rough.
You know how much influence our thoughts can have on our feelings. (I say influence rather than ‘control’ for a reason*)
If my self-talk all dwells on the things I want and don’t have (a mate, children, car, big house, money), or the uselessness of my works (how little I’ve impressed people I’ve striven to impress, etc. etc) and how impossible it is that I’ll ever improve matters, it tends to darken my spirits and make life seem like a dreary wait for the inevitable grave.
If my self-talk focuses on what I can enjoy here and now, I tend to stay in pretty good spirits. Also known as counting blessings and adopting an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ (All those ‘attitude of gratitude’ inspirational sayings are perfectly correct. I’ve collected a lot on one of my Pinterest boards – a lot are about inspiration and creative work, etc too). If nothing else, this focuses my thoughts on the resources available to make any changes to my situation. It’s also a kind of magic. Focus on resources makes it easier to contemplate things I can do here and now to at least improve matters, if not solve every problem in existence.
Of course, being grateful for blessings doesn’t address issues that represent real problems.
It’s easier to feel optimistic about life if I’m actually doing something (small or large) every day toward reaching my goals. To this end, I establish weekly goals. A certain amount of progress on the current novel, making a dentist’s appointment, etc. I keep myself honest by checking in with a few friends every week. “Never give up, never surrender!” (Galaxy Quest)
And we can’t just ignore feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, despair or other ego-based needs. As a writer, I tend to view all my feelings – even difficult ones like sorrow and frustration and impossible desires – as resources. Strong feelings are the stuff dreams are made of – or, at least, the stuff good characters and stories are made of.
I just need to keep some perspective, not be overwhelmed or carried too far away. Having a sense of compassion for myself helps this. Imagining a love greater than my own helps me find that compassion in myself. Conceiving a compassion great enough to embrace the worst of my feelings leads me to conceive a compassion embracing all of us, even at our worst. It’s the kind of perspective that can enable me to relate to my villains as well as my heroes, and knowing that acceptance in my own heart keeps me from giving in to the worst I could be.
(*from our Discordian teachings we know that an excess of control can break our spontaneous and playful creative spirits.)
Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard: A number of my stories, including the novel, ‘Wonder Guy,’ feature a fairy godmothers’ union.
I’ve wished for a fairy godmother so often it’s probably what led me to start writing stories about them. The thing with fairy godmothers is that they are not genies or magic wishing wells. They don’t grant any and all wishes.
Cinderella, for example, and supposing her story real, probably wished for something or other everyday — if only to escape the notice of her step-mother or find some relief for her aching back or knees. As it was, she never asked for a ball gown or a carriage. She wished to attend the ball to which she’d been invited.
The fairy godmother stepped in at this time, when she never had before. She supplied more than was asked. A tricky genie or devil’s bargain might have sent Cinderella to the ball as she was: on foot, ragged and filthy with ashes.
Why did the fairy godmother step in at that time and not before? Why did she do everything to assure that Cinderella would not only attend the ball, but shine there? That she would show off the full potential of her natural beauty and catch the eye of the prince? That she would appear as a member of the respectable nobility and worthy of a like respect? This all suggests that the fairy godmother was motivated not by the letter of the wish, but by the spirit, that she had Cinderella’s best interests at heart all along.
Cinderella is a story, of course, and I can only imagine myself in the place of the fairy godmother and surmise her reasons and motives. Perhaps her powers to interfere in the natural course of events were limited, so that she could do only so much and she had to choose her time wisely. If she could only help once, she had to make sure that what she did would count to the best effect. By awaiting this one opportunity, she could change the whole course of Cinderella’s life for the better, using only a few small bursts of magic.
Choosing the moment required a broader understanding and perspective than Cinderella had. She could wish a thousand times for a thousand things and having those wishes granted might ultimately have done her no good. The fairy godmother’s perspective must have included an understanding of the affairs of the whole kingdom, the tastes of the prince, a sense of how a great many lives and goals interacted with each other and would be affected by what she did.
As I said, there have been many times in my life when I’ve wished for magical intervention. I’ve had my heart broken. I’ve lost a home to foreclosure. I’ve lived in poverty and lost loved ones to death, watched helplessly while they suffered from disease.
Death and disease and poverty have been with humanity from the start. Even supposing they are real, it may be that some things are beyond a fairy godmother’s powers to cure. It may be that there aren’t enough fairy godmothers to meet the demand. Perhaps I have already benefited in ways I never knew. And it may be that the moment has not been ripe for reaping the best effect from the application of my own fairy godmother’s help. Like the hero or heroine of any story, each of us is limited in our knowledge of what the morrow will bring and of the full consequences of our actions – or the fulfillment of our wishes. I like to think that if the fairy godmothers are out there, they do what they can, acting from superior wisdom, to produce the best possible results.
This started as one of those Facebook memes, but it was a fun exercise, and I encourage everyone to stop and think about what writing means to you.
1) I’ve been a day-dreamer since I was a child, and I’ve wanted to turn my daydreams into stories since I learned to read. I see writing as a kind of magic that turns insubstantial daydreams into something of substance that can be shared with the world.
2) We are capable of imagining anything we can conceive, and we can enjoy the fruits of our imaginations despite whatever the world may throw at us – debility, poverty, incarceration, old age and the prospect of mortality… I see fiction as a way to keep my mind open to what may seem impossible – and a way to share that sense of endless possibilities with whoever cares to read my stories.
3) It’s all too easy to lose hope in a world where we encounter disappointment, losses or frustrations every day. Fiction allows us to create alternate outcomes – I see it as a way to offer solace and reclaim power in the face of Life’s losses and disappointments.
4) I do most of my first-drafting in longhand, with pen and paper. It’s messy and virtually illegible.
5) I’m something between a ‘pantser’ and a plotter. I usually have a good sense of the over-arching direction of a story, but once I have a draft I need to take a second look at the structure and do some plotting to heighten dramatic tension.
6) Sometimes writing is the hardest thing in the world. Literally every single other thing there is to do or be in the world seems more interesting and inviting and I’d swear I just don’t have anything to say.
7) It’s not about me. Anything that is about me has been thrown against a wall and turned into something else – or it wouldn’t hold any interest for me. Writing is an art because it becomes a surprise to its own creator.
Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard
In response to an RWA article advising romance writers to avoid polarizing topics, SF writer, John Scalzi responded to the effect that one’s political attitudes are part of one’s identity and experience of the world from which is drawn anything a writer might produce of any unique worth.
This makes me wonder who I am as a writer. Am I trying to tailor my stories to please everyone? And by so doing, denying some part of my personal truth?
Is a desire for truth necessarily polarizing? The truth is that the world contains people with widely polarized views. If I want my work to reflect reality to any extent I need to include characters with strongly held and divergent opinions. I need to reflect what I have experienced as true, hopefully, without becoming pedantic about it. In respect to the intelligence of readers, it’s best to present my evidence, meaning the sorts of experiences I know to be real, and let the readers draw their own conclusions, even if some of my characters draw conclusions like my own.
In the cause of engaging more readers, we’re encouraged to write sympathetic characters. The fact is, nobody is universally likeable. There are probably people out there who hated Mother Theresa and thought Gandhi was a pill. People who are trying to please everyone seem to me less rather than more likeable. Giving characters polarized views isn’t going to change this state of affairs.
In any case, I think the sympathy is in the writer. Every human being has an a-hole, is born selfish, and retains selfish interests throughout life – and none of this makes them impossible to love. Babies are loved because it’s in the interest of the species – it’s in our hearts to love them – no matter how self-occupied the little hedonists are.
It’s the writer’s job to sympathize with her characters – even the nasty ones. They won’t all be the heroes or heroines of the story, but they will all have viewpoints and see themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. Their goals and methods may be unsympathetic, but they will have been somebody’s baby at some point in life, and there’s always room for a little sympathy for that beginning that went somehow awry. If nothing else, we can sympathize with unmet needs and lost potential, with the wrong turns taken.
That said, romances do tend to be more concerned with personal relationships than with the political affairs of the world at large.
Writer Lois McMaster Bujold, in her much-cited guest of honor speech at Denvention, pointed out the different story expectations held by romance readers and f/sf readers. Romance readers expect a story to address the emotional issues involved in building intimacy in interpersonal relationships. Avoiding polarizing topics may be appropriate for some romances – such as short, category romances too tightly focused on a single relationship to allow time for other issues.
Fantasy/SF readers are more concerned with world-building and political issues. I write crossover urban fantasy-romances where I’m concerned with satisfying the expectations of both fantasy/adventure readers who care about broader world-building and romance readers concerned with interpersonal relationships. Writers of Womens’ Fiction or single title romances may also want to involve readers who care about the broader issues, however polarizing they may be.
That is to say, the political views of the writer and characters may have more or less of a place depending on the sort of story being told.
Cross-posted to The Writers’ Vineyard
Recently, I came across a blog post by writer Mindy Klasky, concerned with what a writer might choose to share on social media. Should we treat posts like the traditional holiday letter consisting of a list of triumphs, sharing all the good news and none of the worries? Or, do we share too much and come off as drama queens? What’s the middle ground?
I try to be matter of fact about my life, for good or bad – the facts are the facts. Some events carry intrinsic emotional weight, whether losses – of loved ones, homes, jobs – or wins, like accomplishing goals achieved after long struggles.
Other events are subject to a lot of interpretation. Whatever the facts of a situation, however we feel as an initial response, our choices and attitudes can play a huge role in how the events ultimately affect our lives.
We can make conscious choices to look for positive interpretations. For instance, I recently started a new job that I could have chosen to consider a step down in life. After all, I have six years of post-secondary education; I have years of training and experience as a graphic designer and I’m now working as a security guard.
On the other hand, I’m working second shift, and slow periods allow me time and opportunity to write. And also, the work involves a lot more walking than I’d ever do if left to my own devices. A recent visit to the doctor shows some weight loss and my blood pressure improving from borderline to normal. My pride may suffer, but my health is improving and I’m practical-minded enough to prefer it that way.
After the initial discomfort fades, we can turn distressing events into entertainment. Arriving at my bus stop following a long day at work, near midnight on an icy winter night, I hated being barred by a police barricade from my apartment building. But the story of the manhunt for a gunman in my apartment complex made for a good story to share with coworkers the next day.
The point is not to play Miss Mary Sunshine. A lot of things in life hurt. Some losses can never be healed, and it’s important to acknowledge those realities. But we can make things a little better than they might otherwise be by choosing to appreciate what advantages we can find in whatever situations life hands us.
We can make the effort to avoid buying into the kind of defensive thinking that makes negative assumptions about the character and motivations of others. We can look beyond ego-based reactions at not getting exactly what we want when we want it, and gain a broader perspective on our own lives and on life in general – the kind of perspective a writer should have on the lives of her characters.