So I’m sketching out my next novel – you know, the one I’m live-writing for charity, please please donate, plug ends now – and I’m up against a weird stumbling block:
I’m writing a girl protagonist.
Which is a weird issue for me. I don’t have a problem writing female characters – my two most popular stories involve an adolescent girl growing up in a space, and a teenaged girl caught in a time loop as she tries to rescue her terrorist brother – but most of my female characters are the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails sort. My co-protagonist Valentine dresses up in a lot of frilly dresses, but she’s also very alpha and confrontational.
Yet this novel calls for a more ephemeral sort of woman, a Stevie Nicks sort with a hippieish streak at the center, and I’m like, “Okay, how do I do that?”
What I’m realizing is that I’m intersecting two issues here, and both of them are only tangentially about women.
The first revolves around ask culture versus guess culture – and all of my female protagonists have been very ask culture. If they have an emotional need, they’ve got no shame in collaring someone and saying, “Hey, gimme.” They experience no embarrassment about being turned down for something they asked for, and they’re not afraid to ruffle feathers.
Which is interesting, because what I realize I’m trying to write is not a girl per se, but a prototypically “nice” person, i.e., someone who values harmony and other people’s feelings equally to their own concerns (if not higher). In guess culture, the whole point is that you never outright ask for what you want, because you don’t want to embarrass both of you by forcing someone to refuse you. Women are more traditionally groomed to be that sort of person, often because the cost of open confrontation for women is a lot higher, but that’s not a female problem per se. There are prototypically “nice” men, too.
And honestly, “nice” isn’t hard to write. What I’m struggling with is how to make the nice person a protagonist who’s initially proactive in their lives against heavy external suppression. I’m currently reading Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED, which has a very sweet and caring protagonist early on – but the structure of the novel is how that character goes from passivity to power, and she literally has to be kidnapped to a tower with a wizard before anything happens.
I’m not looking for a “spunky” protagonist who gets roped into an adventure she didn’t go looking for, but rather a very sweet person who goes out and grabs adventures with both hands and yet is not the oft-clueless Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
I want a driving force.
So what I realize I’m having trouble with is understanding how a smart and ambitious guess culture person does anything. I’m too New York, and all the artists I’ve known have been bite-your-face-off sorta people, and I’m trying to internalize how they actually function when they can’t just bellow, “This is what I want.”
Particularly since this lead character is a musician, and part of any artist’s struggle is sliding that foot in the door.
Then I’m trying to figure out how that intersects with a concern with for looking good for other people. Valentine dresses very extravagantly in the ‘Mancer series, but you’ll note that she often sticks out like a sore thumb; she dresses because it makes her feel sexy, not other people.
And here’s the issue: as I’ve talked about before, my mind often tells me that something is important to this plot without actually explaining why. Currently, my subconscious is telling me very strongly that this character dresses well because she’s hoping to impress others, which reveals something vital about her character that I don’t know yet, but when I do understand why she’s that way then I’ll understand.
Let’s quote the They Might Be Giants song again, children: “I already know the ending; it’s the part that makes your face implode. I don’t know what makes your face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends.”
So in addition to being nice, I’m also trying to get my headspace into someone who dresses well largely to project a socially-approved image, which is… not something I’ve ever done. Or largely experienced. And I know men certainly do it (I can point to any number of guys who dress up for the club), and I know that women who dress to fit in also often get a sense of personal satisfaction out of it as well.
But I’m trying to figure the distress of someone who, at various points in the novel, won’t be able to dress appropriately – and to express that concern without turning her into stereotypically idiotic ZOMG FUCK THESE DINOSAURS WHAT ABOUT MY HEEEEEEELS woman from Jurassic World.
Which is part of my stupid writer-brain. It wants to stretch, to write a type of character I’ve never written before, and of course it’s the sort of person who I have seen a lot but never known that well. And what I want to do is write someone realistic, not a cobbled-together bunch of personality traits, and so trying to import all the necessary libraries for this character to function is going to be tricksy, tricksy, tricksy.
And I suspect, sadly, that I know what will happen – it’s what happened with Flex. I remember writing 50,000 words on Flex before finally getting to That One Scene With The Buzzsects, and going, “Oh, hey, I’ve written half a novel, how can I be meeting my protagonist for the first time?” Yet, in fact, I didn’t really know who he was until he first touched that Broach.
So I suspect that I’m going to have to write a lot of words before I connect with this as-of-now nameless character. And I’m going to have to reshade a lot of conversations after I finally clamber inside her head and understand what makes her her, but goddamn if I am not hoping to avoid all that bullshit and just get her right on the first draft.
The issue is that I don’t want a stereotypical anything. Despite the title, I want to move beyond “feminine” as a descriptor – as honestly, it’s sort of an insulting shorthand – and shift into the place I get to with my best characters, which is knowing them so well that I have a hard time condensing their personalities down for marketing purposes. I’m trying to figure out how this person works so that “feminine” is merely one of several things that could be said to describe her, and I want to do it before I start the novel.
Probably won’t happen, though. I start live-writing the novel Friday. As mentioned, $10 will get you an entry to watch a man who’s written nine novels flail his way through the tenth.
As also mentioned, sometimes I write essays that point towards a wise and noble conclusion; other times I’m just sort of flailing and discussing difficulties. This isn’t a wise conclusion. It’s just a bunch of concerns I’m noting before I launch into this novel.
Let’s hope I can figure out how this works before then.
“How can I be sure my partner won’t leave me?”
If there’s a Poly Greatest Hits album, that track is #3, right after the smash hit “How Do You Deal With Jealousy?” and everyone’s favorite poly anthem, “You Can’t Be In Love With More Than One Person.”
But I won’t lie. Partners leaving happens all the time when people open up their relationships.
Fortunately, my wife gave me some great advice for that one.
See, back when my wife and I were on the verge of getting divorced – a divorce, I should add, that had zippo to do with polyamory, as we were monogamous at the time – we fought.
We fought every moment of every day, because we had to. We had so many goddamned issues to deal with! I was too insecure! Gini hid her emotions! We kept slamming ultimatums onto the table and then walking them back!
God, we were two inept carpenters trying to patch a leaky boat in a storm. All of our interactions were about Fixing The Relationship – and to this day, the words “The Relationship” make both of us shudder, because The Relationship became this huge ongoing chore that we were eternally battling to repair. There wasn’t a conversation we had that didn’t eventually metastasize into some problem with The Relationship.
Eventually, Gini lost her shit at me.
“Can’t we just go out somewhere?” she cried. “Have a dinner! See a movie! Forget all of the reasons we’re not getting along, and try to remember why we fucking liked one another once?!?”
“That won’t work!” I cried back. “We need to fix The Relationship first!”
We did need to fix The Relationship, it was true. But at that point, after having spent the better part of a year constantly fighting, we’d sort of forgotten why we wanted The Relationship. We were together largely because we’d gotten married and moved in together, lashed to each other by a combination of stubbornness and logistics.
What we needed to do was to remember why we liked each other.
We had a leaky boat, and a storm. But what we actually needed was a dinner and a movie and some sexy cuddlings afterwards that gave us a lighthouse on the shore. That was what we were heading towards.
That’s how you handle your partner leaving.
It’s counterintuitive, sure, but what I see a lot in the early days of polyamory is too much struggling to keep The Relationship among the other, newer lovers, and too few reminders of the tremendous love you’ve actually got at the core.
What happens is that they go out on a date with someone new, have a great time, and come back to discover their old partner’s a wretched mess. And then they go out for drinks and dinner with the old partner, and the old partner spends the entire time moping, asking plaintively if they’re really having a good time, they just feel so insecure these days…
…let’s talk about The Relationship.
(If I sound a bit harsh here, I assure you: I am this person.)
And slowly but surely, the old relationship transforms into this leaky boat with no lighthouse, just a lot of work to keep this pitching, yawing boat afloat, and they wonder “Wait, why am I stuck on Leaky Boat when there’s a wonderful yacht over there?”
And the problem is that the wonderful yacht is, in truth, often just as leaky as the boat you just left – you just haven’t been asked to do any patchwork on it yet. You’ll see a lot of partners swimming from boat to boat, continually astonished that whoah, this boat is a fixer-upper too.
As someone who tilts towards the “neurotic” end of the spectrum, I am not saying never to talk about The Relationship. Sometimes, you’re insecure when your partner goes out, and you need to talk about it. Sometimes you gotta do the heavy work of patching a leak before it capsizes the relationship.
But what I often see beginning poly couples do is getting so wrapped around the axle of “What if they leave me?” – spending so much time comparing everything they do to this new person, they forget to reserve time to do the wonderful experiences that only they can provide for each other.
Truth is, your partner started dating you because they saw something wondrous in you – and the trick to most successful poly relationships is making that homecoming feel more like a joy than a chore.
You have to talk, sure. You have to negotiate, sure. Don’t eat your feelings. But don’t make my idiot mistake and forget to also go out for dinner and a movie and some sexy cuddles along the way, because once your relationship turns into The Relationship, it’s awful hard to keep it afloat.
ME (thinking to myself): The appointment was at 9:15, now it’s 10:00 and the doctor’s not even here yet, what kind of asshole doesn’t bother to show up when he has patients waiting?
RECEPTIONIST: Excuse me! All of you here? The doctor’s not showing up until 11:00….
ME (grumbling): Asshole.
RECEPTIONIST: …because he had an emergency heart patient on the other side of town and the patient is finally stabilized.
ME: Okay, maybe there’s a reason doctors aren’t always on time.
So as you may remember, starting Friday, I’ll be live-writing my next novel to raise funds for the Clarion Writers’ Workshop.
But here’s a Professional Writers’ Secret: You gotta juggle multiple projects. So while I’m writing my next novel, I’ll be giving beta readers time to digest my last novel, Savor Station, so when I finish my Write-A-Thon I can launch myself directly into revisions. And I’m looking for about seven to ten people to beta-read for me and give me feedback.
(Why seven to ten? Because I’d like four to five people, and generally I find that you hit about 60% on getting beta readers to get back to you in time.)
Now, y’all should know that saying “I’m really good at proofreading” pretty much excludes you from a lot of writers’ beta circles, including mine. I’m going to mangle all the prose anyway before I’m done, and assuming I sell it to a publisher when it’s done, we’ll have professional copyeditors and proofreaders sniffing this sucker like a hound dog. Flagging misspelled words and minor grammatical errors is, actually, a hindrance.
No, what I want are the sorts of people who can tell me four separate things cogently:
• The things that confuse you (“Why would $character do that?” or “Why did this technology not work this way?”)
• The things that throw you out of the story (“Character wouldn’t do THAT!” or “Factually, that’s so wrong!”)
• The things that give you ass-creep (“I got bored here”)
• All the things that make you pump the fist (“This moment was truly awesome, and unless I tell you how awesome it is, you might cut this part out in edits”)
So if you think you can do all that in five weeks (or, preferably, way less), do me a favor and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the header “FERRETT, I WOULD LIKE TO BETA-READ YOUR SOUP.” This comes with the great reward of being name-checked in the acknowledgements, if this eventually sells, and the arguable reward of knowingly going “Oh, God, I read it, that was crap” if it doesn’t sell. I may get filled up on people, but if I do, I’ll put you on the list for the next revision, if there is one. (I think this one’s close.)
Today, I am the proud author of three books: Flex, which Barnes and Noble picked as one of their top 25 sci-fi books of 2015, its sequel The Flux, and its soon-to-be-released finale to the trilogy, Fix. I’ve had over thirty short stories published, for cash, and I’ve been nominated for the Nebula Award for my novella Sauerkraut Station.
Yet on this day in 2008, I had been writing for twenty years and had almost nothing published.
What unlocked this potential for me? The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. That’s where I (and seventeen other students) had our stories critiqued until we learned how to write at a professional level.
I’d like to thank them… but more importantly, I’d like to show you some of what the Clarion experience is like.
Because here’s the deal: Clarion needs money. So to fund-raise, each year they hold a write-a-thon, getting authors to write to raise money.
In a week, I’ll start writing my next novel: The Song That Shapes the World, a novel I am currently describing as “Pitch Perfect with magic.” It’s a crazy-ass tale involving the shadow world of Backstage, where the best performers in the multiverse battle to create the song that guides humanity: hope, fear, despair, anger. It involves dragon-riding cello players, dubstep warriors, and a scrappy femme protagonist from Earth who wasn’t meant to be here.
Give Clarion ten dollars, and I’ll let you watch me write the opening chapters.
No, it’s more than that: I’ll write the chapters, and I’ll write a blog entry detailing the techniques I’m using, the things I know I’ll have to fix on the second draft, the errors I made yesterday that I’m scratching out and writing today. I’ll do this for four weeks, and that’s the meat of it: the opening chapters are so critical, where most writers fail, so you’ll get to watch me agonize and dissect and perfect.
All for a minimum of ten bucks.
I’ll be doing this, as I’ve done for years now, at the Clarion Echo LiveJournal community – which, once you donate your shekels, I’ll give you access to. Sorry I can’t use 2016 technology, but the Clarion Echo also has all of my past Clarion Write-a-Thons – so once you join, you can scan back to see the novels and stories I wrote and/or revised then, including the first-draft opening chapters of my novel Flex and my unpublished novel The Upterlife.
Even if you’re not interested in being a writer yourself, you’ll get a look at some wild fiction and a DVD commentary track on the author’s process, done with my usual blogly flair. If you’re a fan of my work, you get to see a very advance preview of my next novel for $10.
I think that’s a preeeeetty good bargain.
So How’s This Work?
Step #1: Donate at least $10 to the Clarion Foundation. More is good if you can spare it. You don’t have to donate in my name or anything, because honestly, their Write-a-Thon webpage forms are dreadful.
Step #2: If you don’t already have one, create a LiveJournal account. Rejoice in this feeling of web page time-travel, as one suspects there’s not a lot of new LJ accounts created!
Step #3: Email email@example.com with your Clarion receipt and your LiveJournal handle, with a header of “HEY FERRETT LET ME IN.” I’ll do the mystical LJ gestures to get you access.
Step #4: Wait until next Friday, when I start to write this novel. Expect angsting and teeth-gnashing. Openings are hard, mang.
Step #5: While you’re waiting, may I gently suggest sharing this blog post somewhere to spread the word?
So anyway! Here we are! Me, and a crazy-ass novel I’m about to unleash to keep the Clarion Workshop alive!
Yesterday, I said this:
“Being poly and kinky, yet cis and straight, is a weird space. It’s like, I’m not QUILTBAG in any way, but I’m still on the fringe somewhere.”
I should have clarified (but then again, it was a Tweet): I’m not on the fringes of the LGBT/QUILTBAG experience, and I think it’s important to clarify that I’m not. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, we had a spate of white cisdudes feeling upset for some reason that they couldn’t feel personally included in a horrific mass murder, trying to erase the gayness to make this into a universal assault that they could participate in.
One wonders if they show up at strangers’ funerals to proclaim, “This is a tragedy for me, as I was also a human!”
Look. It’s okay for you to be upset at an atrocity without having to mark yourselves as a participant. You can mourn deeply without nudging your way to the front of the procession.
(You can also argue, as I know people will, that I’m stereotyping cis white dudes, but of the fifteen or so comments/posts I saw trying to hijack the discussion, all of them were dudes, and of the ones who seemed to have an ethnicity – which is hard to tell on FB/Fet/Twitter – all were cis and white. So, you know, one has to wonder whether it’s endemic to the community, or a sampling error.
(So if you’re a frothing white cisdude, you might wanna take a moment to ponder that your stereotypical behavior is currently perceived by many minorities as “melts down the minute the conversation does not center around them,” and take a moment to ponder whether you’re actually behaving in the way that people say you’re behaving. Because one of the things that triggers white cisdudes fastest, in my experience, is labelling them as “white cisdudes,” because good Lord a lot of y’all really get angry when someone labels you – even if that description is actually, literally, factually accurate.)
Anyway. The QUILTBAG experience is one that I don’t experience, and it would be wrong to say that I do. I think part of being a decent human being is recognizing that there are certain experiences that are not truly universal, and trying to tune into those aspects are significant.
Which goes beyond QUILTBAG. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Muslim, or Southern, or female, and I think that attempting to translate your experiences to go, “Oh, yeah, I get what you’ve been through, it’s just like what happened to me!” is like those idiots who come up to you at a funeral for your beloved relative dying and go, “I know just what it’s like to lose someone you love, my cat died.”
Sometimes, you just have to leave people to their own space and acknowledge that there are overlaps, but it’s not the same.
Yet there are overlaps.
As someone who’s polyamorous and kinky, I’m also at the fringes of society in some ways. Being openly out affects the jobs I can take. As someone who’s poly, I’m an uncomfortable representative for everyone else who’s poly in the world. (And though my relationship with my wife is rock-solid, there’s always that worry in the back of our heads that if we divorced, we’d then be held up as proof that this poly shit doesn’t work.)
As someone who’s kinky, there’s stuff I’m not comfortable talking about in public sometimes, as people tend to misunderstand, and I’m often a little nervous that some day a great spotlight will shine down upon me – in the form of greater media attention than I’ve ever received – and the stuff I do completely consensually will be reviled.
And there’s that overlap, so I feel what happened at PULSE very clearly. Kink clubs have not been the traditional targets of maniacs (mainly because they’re often the bastions of straight white folks), but if someone shot up a kink convention or a dungeon, I’d feel that so personally that it gives me shivers now. I’ve seen mothers lose their kids for liking to be tied up, even if there was nothing sexual about it. I’ve seen folks lose their jobs for being outed as dominants.
And as usual, I have two sorts of essays: those where I wrap things up neatly in a big bow and tell you about the wise conclusion I’ve come to, and those where I just sort of toss all the balls in the air and shrug.
I’m not going to try to hijack the experience of QUILTBAG folks, but I’m also hard-pressed to say that there aren’t areas that are very similar. I don’t want to be the white cis person who comes in to make it all about me, but there are also places that poly and kinky overlaps with gay and bi and trans, and I think we can strengthen ourselves as a community by uniting those experiences properly, even if it’s only as a way to crack open the window wide enough to peer in and go, “Yeah, I get it.”
Because anything that increases empathy is good. Anything that increases solidarity is good. But anything that erases someone’s unique identity, particularly at a time of mourning, is bad, and that’s a delicate line that I’m never quite sure how to handle properly.
And it’s just out there. It’s messy. You don’t want to be that person at the funeral. But you also can acknowledge, if only internally, that this small facet of yours lines up with someone else’s, and do something good with it without inadvertently weaponizing it.
(And before someone complains, and I know they will – as a cis straight dude, yes, I absolutely believe there are central experiences to that experience that are unique to them… Particularly during dating, where I often feel that people don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for guys who are trying, although schmuckily, to figure out how to get intimacy in a world where frankly, so many men are trying to date women that it’s a larger problem than people often admit to stand out in the crowd. But that’s something I’ve discussed before, and will doubtless attempt to do so again.)
I’ve never walked down the street and wondered if someone was gonna chuck a brick at my head because I looked Muslim-like.
I’ve never gone to a high school where I worried about some maniac charging in through the door to shoot me and my friends dead.
I’ve never hugged my partner in public and had to worry if I was holding them too close, because some idiot might take a baseball bat to us if he saw queers being affectionate.
I’ve never had to scan a parking lot at night before I walked to my car because some douche might rape me. I’ve never had to measure my drinking because if I passed out, someone might rape me.
Hell, I’ve never had a bad poly experience. My friends were all tolerant, and cool with it. My mother and father are supportive, if a bit baffled. I’ve never had a family member tell me what a pervert I am and how I’m going to hell.
The truth is, a lot of bad shit happens to other people that I have never experienced directly. I can’t get it, deep down. I can make mushy parallels, understand these things *happen*, but I can’t really understand what it’s like for the seven hundredth time to say “I’m from San Francisco” and have some person squint at my Asian features and go, “…but where are you from?”
Whole worlds are cut off from me. I have it pretty good, in many ways. I don’t get the full experience.
But you know what I can do?
I can fucking listen.