So this was pretty much the standard reaction I got last night:
I told many of my friends about my odd adventures, and they didn’t even blink. My Dad didn’t even ask why; I guess after the beekeeping and the fireplay and the Rocky Horror, he’s just used to his son doing weird things.
Apparently, my life is sufficiently odd that “Hey, Ferrett’s sticking chocolate to his forehead” is literally just Wednesday to most people.
Still, most demanded photographic evidence, so I provided it:
“Why were you doing this, Ferrett?” you may ask. Well, it’s a long story. But fortunately, it’s not so long that I can’t link to it.
The Clarion Workshop was a lonely place, and a busy one. We had lost all of our friends and family for six weeks as we flew off to San Diego, and replaced them with summer friends that we’d just met. And writing was a lonely business; sitting in your rented bedroom, reading the day’s stories, felt isolating.
So you’d creep down to the commons area, and there would always be people there. The teachers, in particular, went out of their way to be in the commons; poor souls, they would be gone after a week, and they wanted to make the most of their time with us.
The only noise in the commons would be the rustling of paper, the clattering of keyboards. There were times talks would break out, of course, but the evenings were for work: critiquing tomorrow’s stories, writing your own. We warmed ourselves at each other’s presence, not communicating, but having that pleasure of knowing we were all on the same page. Sometimes quite literally.
It was comforting, being in a room full of writers…
…unless it was my story on the block.
The rule at Clarion – well, more what you’d call “guidelines” – was that nobody was to talk to you or anyone else about your story until it was critique time. This was to avoid tainting other people’s perceptions, or to hurt the critiquee – if Bobbi told you she thought your story was the best ever, and the other seventeen people disagreed, you could set yourself up for a brutal round of crits when you expected praise and got slammed. (Or vice versa – approaching praise when you’re cringing for a beating ensures you won’t appreciate it in the way you might need to.)
So when I knew they were reading my story, I got paranoid.
They went hmm, I said, trying not to crane my neck to see what page they were on. Was that a good hmm or a confused hmm? Oh, they just frowned. What’s that mean? They’re reading awfully fast – oh, wait, they just made a note. What’s the note say?
Do they like it? Did I do a good job?
After a week or two, I figured out that I just couldn’t be in the room with them when they were reading my stuff. To this day, when I hand a manuscript to Gini for reading, I go to the kitchen and clean the dishes so I won’t be tempted to read over her shoulder. This has the benefit for Gini that whenever she does me the favor of critiquing my story, she emerges with a scrubbed kitchen.
And what no one told me about my first novel is that I am currently trapped in a room with hundreds of people rustling pages, making hmm noises, waiting for the hammer to fall.
Because there is a lull-time between the time the manuscript is turned in and the Advance Reader Copies go out – a time when the reviewers get their hands on your writing. They haven’t finished reading yet, nor written the review. But in these days of social media, you see them Tweeting that they got your book, they make comments that it’s On Their Agenda, and you feel this impending iceberg of Review approaching.
Will it be a good review? Will it be a bad one?
God, you have no idea. Me? I read my blurbs. Obsessively. I was lucky enough to get some nice blurbs, so authors I respect at least liked Flex enough to say something complimentary in the hopes of driving sales, so the blurbs are like mini-reviews that prove that Flex can’t be bottom-feeder terrible.
But what if Kirkus hates it? What if Kirkus gives it a starred review? What if Kirkus doesn’t even bother to discuss it? You could be universally beloved, maybe the novel is brilliant! How would you deal with that? But then again…
And oh God, just publishing this book has made you excruciatingly aware of just how vibrant and active the sci-fi community is, hundreds of excellent blogs just waiting to dissect your book.
But they haven’t done it yet.
Weeks pass. They’re still reading. Some of them even have auto-posts on their Twitter, so you get notifications: $REVIEWER is 46% done with Flex. They were at 16% yesterday. Are they a slow reader? Is that good? Lord, you’ve never paid attention to how someone reads a book before, and seriously, how vain is it to analyze someone’s percentages?
Go for a walk, you raging egomaniac.
The thing is, you don’t necessarily want to be told how brilliant your book is. (Though that’d be nice.) What you want is the judgment, to collapse the wave quantum-physics style – because this oscillating limbo where you shuffle back and forth between grand dreams and terrible nightmares is worse than any single bad review.
The reviews will arrive soon. And when that’s done, maybe you’ll have people saying they enjoyed cat vomit more than your book. Maybe you’ll be unmasked as a fraud, where everyone you know sneers and wonders how you got published. But to my mind, that’s far better than this month of suspense.
Right now, I am in the Clarion room. I’m watching the papers ruffle. Everyone is going hmmm.
And I am doing so many metaphorical dishes.
Few people talk about how polyamory affects your friendships.
I have a couple of close friends who I’ve described as “Like poly, except I’m not having sex with them.” They’re super-dear to me, and we have a very intense friendship where we share all sorts of highs and lows – they’re just not interested in me sexually.
That’s cool, though.
And what polyamory means for Gini and I is a sort of relaxation. Because some of those dear friends could have been sexual – if the friendship had deepened in a slightly different way, maybe we woulda been lovers.
Yet we were free to explore that friendship in whatever way we wanted. And in some monogamous relationships I’ve been in, I would have been afraid to get too close to those friends, because yeah I liked them a lot, and I didn’t want to risk firing up some weird attraction, and so I just sort of kept them at a polite arm’s length. I was cordial, but I didn’t invite them out for coffee, and I certainly didn’t stay up until past midnight discussing all my needs and fears with them.
What we got instead was a very emotionally intense friendship. Which is just as satisfying as any of the sexytimes I have with other people.
Polyamory allows us to form organic relationships. Too many “poly” people have this desperate yearning need, trying to wrangle every person they know into bed with them, tossing them aside if they’re not amenable. And even then, there’s this constricted form these sexual relationships take: you can’t stay overnight with them, I don’t want you to discuss these topics, you have to call by 11:00 so I can mark you with my affection.
Whereas what we have? There are rules we’ve established for our protection, but in general we let the relationships flourish into whatever makes us happy. Sometimes that’s a fun romp with a buddy, sometimes that’s sitting next to each other on a couch without so much as holding hands but discussing the pivot points of our life.
Polyamory has let more love into what we experience with others. And that’s all kinds of love: eros, agape, philia. We wind up with good friendships and silly hugs, and we don’t have to force things into one shape or another. It can evolve.
And that’s beautiful.
Yesterday, I wrote about the difficulties in assigning genders randomly, and I said this:
What’d be seen as proof of competency from a dude – snapping off corrections – comes off as bitchy from a woman. (Imagine a female House insulting everyone in the emergency room as she yanks the scalpel out of their hands. She’s not gonna be nearly as lovable.)
To which Mishell Baker had this reaction:
Do we cater to this idiocy on the part of readers? Or do we start putting that scalpel-sharp tongue in the mouth of a woman MORE often, and showing supportive, needy men MORE often, until people get the hell over it?
I say, roll those fucking dice. And when your readers act like sexist shits, call them on it. It’s too late for our generation, but today’s young people become what they see in the media, and we are the media. Give people options.
I either agree wholeheartedly with it or disagree, depending on what hat I’m wearing.
If I’m wearing my “creator” hat, I say absolutely! Follow that fucking muse! Write the sort of change you want to see in this world! You may note that while I expressed worries about using a gender-inverted detective stereotype in my book Flex, I still wrote Valentine as a sexually-forward, offensive louche. Why not write a female House, and who gives a fuck if people see her as bitchy?
But if I’m wearing my “producer” hat?
Holy fuck, wow, I wish it was that simple.
It’s the eternal problem you see with comics stores – yeah, most comics are a murky backwater of curdled fan-sperm and sexism, regurgitating dude power-trips as Man punches Bad Guy.
But it’s not as simple as “Just produce a sexism-free comic!” Yeah, you can do it, but there’s no guarantee the market will buy it. Certainly comics companies have done bold experiments in attempts to push the envelope – and some of them have worked, but most of them haven’t.
You can shrug that shit off when you’re the creator – the creator’s job is just “make art,” and then they shove it over to “producer” dudette, muttering “Make money with this somehow.” And the producer is the one who says, “All right, I’m going to put $10,000 of my hard-earned savings into printing and distributing this damn thing, and I’d like to not be homeless when all is said and done.”
That producer’s every bit as brave as the artist. The producer is risking some chunk of her reputation and livelihood (and in many cases, all of it) to bet that yes, this will sell enough to make people money. And if they’re wrong enough times, they go broke. For them, though they may like a property, the question – and it’s a valid question, don’t you pull that bullshit “Good artists should starve for my pleasure” line in this fucking blog – is “Can this work of fiction make me enough money to do this again?”
If it can’t? Then you can’t do this.
As such, if you’re a producer for a mass-market production like, say, a national network television show that costs millions of dollars to produce, you can’t afford to piss in your audience’s face and scream, “GET OVER IT!” If you do, you won’t make any more shows. And then the assholes who are content to produce the moral equivalent of Baywatch – you know, all those sexist shows that lots of people actually do love, and inhale the sexist messages within like they were a corrosive poison – thrive, while you and all your noble attempts fail.
If you’re a socially aware producer, there’s always this tension between “What do I want to sell?” and “What will the audience buy?”
And if you’re lucky, you take the big risk and make an entirely new market. Your chances of revitalizing the moribund comics industry is slim, as the audience in a superhero comic shop is pretty conservative in their tastes – but you might be able to produce some webcomics that appeal to women who’ve never read comics.
And you may note I’m drawing an arbitrary distinction between “creator” and “producer” here, in the days of Kickstarters and webcomics and YouTube. The line’s getting blurred all the time, and the lower stakes allow for bolder experiments. My friend Rosalarian both writes and publishes some amazing comics about lesbian love and her experiences in burlesque shows. But she’s not trying to make millions of dollars for network executives – she’s trying to earn enough to pay for her apartment, which means that she doesn’t have to be as financially successful.
That’s the glory of producing in an Internet age. If you’re willing to accept a certain level of money, you can do whatever you want. And if you’re lucky and connect with an audience, your Patreon will let you get by with Oatmeal levels of money.
But if you, say, need to make back the money it takes to rent a theater on Broadway and pay a cast full of musicians and actors and directors… well, maybe you can’t afford to go, “HEY, AUDIENCE, YOU SUCK IF YOU DON’T LIKE THIS.” Maybe you need to fine-tune. Maybe you need to take that female House and figure out a way to make her more palatable to mainstream audiences without defanging her.
Or maybe you don’t, and risk going bankrupt if the play fails. Or you risk not having your vision shown at all, as your investors refuse to buy in to your vision.
Is it better to have a noble vision that no one but you gets to see? Or is it better to have a slightly-massaged version of that vision that’s still going to push the envelope, but also appeal to enough folks that you can make buck? Choose carefully, because there’s not actually a correct answer here.
Point is, you can be uncompromising. It’s just harder, when you’re wearing that producer hat. And it leads to a greater risk. Which if you’ve got the cash and the passion to go for it, then great! Godspeed, you bold person you. I hope it works out. But it might not, and if it doesn’t, well, you might be talking to my wife to file for bankruptcy. There’s a balance to be struck, and I think every good producer’s had that moment of “I don’t know if this will sell, but fuck it, let’s hope this is so weird it carves out a new territory as the next big hit.” (It usually doesn’t. But the ones that channel that lightning make enough cash for you to fund a hundred failures.)
Which is why I wear two hats myself. When I’m writing, I could care less if it’s salable. This is what I want to see, and I’m making it happen.
Then I switch to my producer’s hat. And I realize Jesus, why the hell did that stupid creator give me that, what market could I possibly sell this to?
But that’s the producer’s job. Let that bastard suffer. Even when he’s me.
DISCLAIMER: I do not actually promise to fix your love life. But if you’re poly and havin’ issues, I can probably give you some tools to help fix things.
I’ll be presenting down in Columbus at the kink event Winter Wickedness, where I’ll be giving two presentations on polyamory:
* Fucking Lots Of People Without Fucking Over Your Partner: How To Open Up Your Relationship
* Jealousy Is Not A Crime: Troubleshooting Broken Polyamory
It all happens on Saturday, February 7th, and the event has a ton of other neat classes if you’re at all into kink – in particular, one suspects @IPCookieMonster will have some damned smart things to say. Tickets are still available, so if you’re curious, get in there now!
Last night, I caught myself defaulting to male again.
Which is to say, I was writing a novel, and my protagonist was wandering through a cargo bay. A dockworker told him to scurry off.
The dockworker was male. Because my default characters are always male. It’s an unthinking bias I’ve picked up over the years from various cartoons and movies – stories where you have a bunch of guys and one woman, whose role in the group is often “Just be a woman.” The guys are these strong personality types – the hot-head, the wounded soldier, the brain – and then you have Smurfette.
So what you come to internalize over time is that “guy” is the default mode of “human.” And when you create a character at random, what pops out unless you specifically fight this urge is Yet Another Dude. This is something that the creator of BoJack Horseman goes into in a lot more depth in a rather infamous Tumblr post.
I caught this one, and switched the dockworker to a woman. Another victory against a nasty template – because if you aren’t careful about populating your world with female characters, you wind up creating yet another Smurfette world where every incidental character your protagonists encounter is male, creating a world with an implied alternate biology where hey, females are born only 3% of the time! They must be! We certainly don’t see ‘em elsewhere.
But I had people saying, “That’s cool! I should roll dice to determine what the gender of my characters is.” Which is something I’d thought about doing, early on in my career – just randomly assigning genders via the nerdiest fucking methodology possible.
If you wanna see how weird gender is, assign your genders randomly.
Because while you can do it – I tried for a while – the thing that’ll leap out at you in critiques is how the exact same personality gets viewed in different ways, merely based on whether they’re sporting a pair of breasts or not.
Remember, you’re not just creating “a character,” as in rolling up their stats. Good writers give their characters strong personality traits, and don’t just stop when you’ve discovered what’s lurking between their legs. So you don’t just roll up a woman – you decide “Hey, I want a hard-drinking, alienated ex-soldier who passive-aggressively seeks intimacy” and then roll your dice and go “BING! Woman.”
And if she is a woman, she will often get entirely different reactions. What’d be seen as proof of competency from a dude – snapping off corrections – comes off as bitchy from a woman. (Imagine a female House insulting everyone in the emergency room as she yanks the scalpel out of their hands. She’s not gonna be nearly as lovable.) If a woman wants romance, she’s often seen as needier. People will have a harder time buying into the idea that a woman character defaults to violence.
You’ll also be saddened from critiquers – often female ones – who will point out that yes, your ass-kicking female character has been tied up and carried off by the bad guys and not been sexually assaulted. Maybe you have, quite consciously, decided to create a world where you’re just not dealing with that shit, in much the same way that somehow James Bond – who has enemies who want to humiliate him – never seem to rape his ass in all of this kinky bondage. And it’s a valid choice, to have your world just skip over the realities of sexual assault, in much the same way that gun-toting detective narratives often skip over the realities of the PTSD that would come from gunning down strangers.
Yet you’ll get pushback. Because for a lot of these readers, often and particularly female ones, the world doesn’t feel real to them unless you’re addressing the fears that they often deal with.
It goes both ways, of course. A woman who’d be a nice, supportive housewife will often read as a useless wimp when rolled up as male. An emotionally needy guy will often be seen as a douche, even if his worries about his partner’s infidelities are completely warranted. A depressive introvert with social anxiety? Beloved as female, often written off as a male. Gender roles cut both ways.
Which is not to say that you can’t make it work. You can. But you’ll be shocked when you take someone who you saw as sympathetic, and discover that they’re viewed as worthless, simply because of what gender you happened to assign them.
Hell, I have some fears on that level. I have my book Flex coming out soon, and one of the main characters is a videogame-obsessed, sexually voracious, overweight woman. She gets all the best lines, of course, because she’s also funny as hell and insightful. But she is, essentially, a gender-swapped detective archetype – loving kinky sex, reluctant to commit to anyone, prone to violence and passionate in all her desires – and I’m a little terrified of how people are going to interpret her.
And maybe Valentine will be as loved as I want her to be. Note how I have seeded this essay with the word “often,” because fiction is a magical art and sometimes characters work for people out of the box. I’m not saying that all angry women will be seen as irrational – I’m saying that in my experience an angry female character is more likely to be seen as irrational, and if you write enough characters you’ll start to go “Oh, yeah, if I don’t want to have people hating her I’m going to need to justify her anger more here.”
The point is, if you assign gender randomly, you’ll start to see how crazy our fucking society is. You’ll have someone who you need to be sympathetic for purposes of the narrative, and just because they’re the “wrong” gender you’ll have to work three times as hard to make them likeable. You’ll see the biases exposed right there in your fiction.
And you’ll to experience directly what many claim is the female experience: you gotta work three times as hard to be as good as a man. I don’t know, I’m not a woman.
But I do know that writing gender-blind isn’t as easy as rolling dice. Merely changing the gender can change the whole tone of a story. And monitoring how that tone shifts can provide a vital, vital education.
So if you hadn’t noticed somehow, I have a book coming out – and as such, am running around like an idiot signing it for people. Which means I’ll read from the book! I’ll shake hands! I’ll go out for drinks afterwards, because I like both people and alcohol!
And I’ll be in Seattle on Friday, March 20th!
Friday, March 20th: University Book Store, in Seattle
4326 University Way NE Seattle WA 981105
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Every time I’ve ever been to Seattle was on a rushed business trip, so I’m hoping to get here early and kick around for a bit. But please! Spread the word! And come about if you feel like saying “howdy”!
Also, Cleveland residents will note that my official book release party is a go for Friday, March 6th, at 7 p.m. Please show up! I’m scared and lonely! There will be cake and beautiful fingernails and I will critique your choice of donuts!
Friday, March 6th: Loganberry Books, in Cleveland
13015 Larchmere Blvd., Shaker Heights, Ohio 44120
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
And in case you’re going “Aw, man, I wanted to hang out Ferrett!” and you live in New York or Boston, remember these dates:
Friday, March 13th: WORD Bookstore Brooklyn
126 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 14th: Annie’s Book Stop Of Worcester
65 James Street, Worcester MA 01603
5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.