Writing Terra Incognita

It’s just two days and change from NaNoWriMo, and I’m really not feeling ready.  Part of it, I think, is that I’m afraid of fucking up the main character.

Roban is my first non-romance male protagonist in, I think, ever.  (I’m not sure why my brain categorized male romance protagonist as different from male every-other-genre protagonist, but there we are.)

Not only that, he’s a binary trans man, and a father.   So he’s kind of the perfect storm of things I’m not.

In a way, the dude part is the scariest.  I can hire a transmasculine sensitivity reader (or three) and I’m sure that I can find either an editor or a beta who’s a parent, maybe even one with a kid Ethziri’s age.

But maleness seems like a minefield, and my own experiences with it are both fleeting, and complicated by the fact that even when I feel like I’m a man remote-operating a woman’s body, the social reality of my life is that body, the expectations and limitations that come with it.

Maleness is terra incognita.  I’ve made occasional forays, but have never gotten more than a few steps past the border.

Really, it’s character creation that’s the problem.  I don’t know how to make sure a male character is real.

This isn’t a problem in fanfic: there, I’m not trying to write A DUDE, I’m trying to write a version of Dean Winchester, or whoever, who is in line with his characterization from Show.  (And given the fandom’s love of AUs, I would bet good money that somewhere on AO3 there is at least one fic about trans single dad Dean Winchester.)

I suspect I may be overthinking it.  Men are people, men are individuals, there are as many ways to be a man as they are men.

And anyway, I can always fix it in revisions, right?  (RIGHT!?)

Virtue and Vegetarianism, or, Why Would an Atheist Give Up Meat for Lent?

On a recent episode of “The Atheist Experience,” one of the hosts, Matt Dillahunty, had a conversation with a caller about veganism https://youtu.be/7jRPgDAHuoI Along the way, he talked about the difference between a moral obligation and a moral virtue. He said that he doesn’t consider not eating meat a moral obligation, but that it might be virtuous.

I agree on both points. My sister, my aunt and uncle, and one of my cousins have been vegetarian for the past several years. I definitely view them as more virtuous.

Even if I can’t say that humans have no moral obligation not to eat meat, I’m becoming less and less able to ignore the treatment of animals by the meat industry. These are animals whose lives are miserable, from beginning to end. There are alternatives, but they are more expensive, and my mother (who does most of the food shopping for the household) is not willing to spend two or three times the money for meat. My sister’s solution was to go vegetarian.

I’ve tried to go vegetarian previously, but I ran into trouble; rather than helping my bipolar disorder (which the internet had assured me it would) it made things worse. (I’ve had a lot of statistically unlikely reactions to various medications; for example, Nyquil keeps me awake.) I ended up going manic.

This time, though, I’m going to be taking a multivitamin as a nutritional “backstop.” And since I have my family around, they’ll be able to make sure that I’m still on an even keel. If I have to, I’ll bail on the whole project; I’m not going to sacrifice my health, mental or otherwise.

So why Lent?

The short answer is, I was an Episcopalian for a lot longer than I’ve been an atheist. Lent still seems like an appropriate time of year to give something up.

The longer answer is, if I think about never eating meat for the rest of my life, it seems overwhelming. It’s way too much of a commitment. But giving up meat for a month and a half? I can do that. I’ve given up chocolate multiple times, and, in what was the longest and most frustrating 40 days of my life, I gave up profanity. I can do this. And hopefully, it will be the springboard for a more lasting change, and a more virtuous life.

Of Alphas and Asses

I used to read a lot of romance novels.  For the past several years, though, I’ve hardly read any.  And until recently, I couldn’t have pointed to why, exactly.  I’d just been less interested in the genre.

Recently, though, I read an article https://bookriot.com/2017/04/10/if-it-doesnt-have-an-hea-or-hfn-its-not-romance/ that started “If a love story does not have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” (via Romance Writers of America) does it fit in the romance genre?  In a word: nope.”

And I realized; a lot of the romance novels I’d been trying to read hadn’t been emotionally satisfying me.  Even ones that came highly recommended.

I’m not going to name any names here, but I am going to name a trend; the “alpha” hero who acts like a jerk to the heroine (and everyone else) and still gets the girl.  Maybe with a token apology, maybe he says that “I was such a jerk because I didn’t like how you made me feel” but really?  Far too many times, I had no reason to believe that the “hero” was really going to change.

Why should he?  The Heroine has  accepted his apology, without seeing any real work on his part.

To clarify, I’m not talking about a hero who is brusque, or rough-around-the-edges, or even suffering from a bout of situational rudeness.  I’m not talking about a guy who takes charge in an emergency situation, or because he’s genuinely the expert.   I’m talking about entitled “heroes” who boss the heroine around because they can, because they view her as potentially or actually their property.

I don’t know if jerkass “alpha” heroes who end the story not much less jerky than when they began it have really become more common, or if I’m just more aware that they’re probably going to continue to be assholes than when I was younger, or less willing to tolerate a “hero” who acts like an ass, no matter what kind of tragic backstory the author gives him.

I’m not saying that these books should never be written or published or given good reviews.  I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I know that (despite what critics of the Romance genre might imply) the overwhelming majority of readers also know the difference.  

But that doesn’t mean that the Duke of Summerseve is my fantasy.

It’s not “emotionally satisfying” for me to watch a character that I’ve come to care about decide to stay with someone with a proven track record of jerkass behavior just because he’s apologized once.  (Especially if she’s living in a historical period where she has little or no ability to divorce him when he inevitably relapses to jerktitude.)  I need to see some indications that he’s actually working on changing his behavior.  And not just when the heroine is around to see it, either.  

Furthermore, it needs to be clear that he’s actually realized a) that he was wrong, and b) why.  

“I’m sorry that I called you a tramp; I don’t own you and I was completely out of line, and to make sure I never treat you or anyone else like that again I’ve signed up for anger-management classes,” is a completely different beast from “I’m sorry I didn’t wait to find out that the guy you were talking to was your cousin before calling you a skank in front of a room full of people.”

Also, it matters that he’s not just changing so that the heroine will let him back in her pants.  I want to see that he’s actually changing because it’s the right thing to do, because he wants to be a better person, not just because it will get him laid.

In short, I want to have some confidence that he’s actually changed, rather than putting on a show for long enough to get the heroine to the altar or the bedroom.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell from the first chapter whether any given book is going to have the jerkass “hero” rehabilitate into a mature, emotionally healthy guy, or whether this is going to be one of those books where his big “character growth moment” is just going to be excusing his own douchery by blaming it on being in love.

And really, what I want isn’t just the knowledge that the hero will stop being a giant tool by the end of the story.  I want stories where he doesn’t even start out that way.  Stories where my main question isn’t “why the hell hasn’t she bailed on this douchebag already?”

I realize that for a story to be satisfying, both characters have to grow.  And to have room to grow, characters need to start out with a character flaw.  But does it always have to be that he’s a big bag of dicks?  After all, there are many other starting places for a character arc than “total jerk.”

I know that there are stories like that out there; I’ve read some.  (Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose is one series that springs to mind.)  And now that I know what I’m looking for, I can figure out a strategy to actually find the kind of stories I like, with heroes that are worthy of the title through the story, not just in the last chapter.

Erotica, Romance, and the Straw Pornographer.

So there’s this article that’s making the rounds on author pages on Facebook: http://booksbywomen.org/why-its-important-to-write-and-read-romance-and-erotica-in-an-age-of-plentiful-porn/ by M. Jane Colette. The short version: one of her friends describes her as a “pornographer” and she doesn’t like it.

If Colette doesn’t want to be called a pornographer, that’s her choice, and should be respected. But the definitional gymnastics she uses to get to “Erotica Good, Porn Bad” are kind of making my brain hurt.

Though the article’s author says she does consume pornography “in a variety of media. Photographs, videos, words,” when her her friend describes the romance genre as “Emotionally exploitative,” rather than addressing the charge directly, Colette engages in some blatant whataboutery, with a side order of equivocation fallacy.

“I’m so glad you brought up exploitation,” Colette writes, and then launches into a stinging indictment of the mainstream pornography industry.

“I am not underpaying a young woman who does not quite understand what it is she is getting into to strip naked in front of a camera and act out someone else’s fantasies,” Colette writes, as if the industrial output of the San Fernando Valley is the sum total of the works created primarily for sexual gratification.

There is indie porn, gay porn, porn created by couples in their own bedrooms and porn made by women who unapologetically describe themselves as pornographers, for the consumption of other women. There is drawn and written porn, where there are no actors to be exploited.

The slipperiness of the definitions made for frustrating reading; maybe because there is no bright line between the two genres. Ultimately, we’re left with erotica being what Colette likes and finds satisfying, and pornography being works that don’t pass her personal test. And, okay, “I’ll know it when I see it” has historical precedent.

But there’s a lot of subtext here, a lot of assumptions floating around just beneath the surface. Her lines of argument at some points seem to almost define erotica, or at least “woman-centered erotica” as being part of the romance genre, which “puts the woman and her desires, love and relationship-creation, at the center of the story.”  As if there aren’t woman who enjoy sex for its own sake, and men who prioritize connections above orgasms.

Colette’s gender essentialism (even though she is careful to point out that “some 20 per cent of all romance readers are men,”) is really frustrating to me. As much as I want to agree with her that writing erotica is empowering for women, she can only make the statement when she defines erotica as being about relationships. And only when she can contrast it to the spectre of pornography, which is (the “just” is strongly implied) about sex.

“You’re changing the world,” Colette tells her hypothetical romance-author reader.  “One kiss, one steamy sex scene—one happily ever after (or for now) ending at a time.”

But trading in “good girls don’t” for “good girls do — but only if it’s love” isn’t some revolutionary idea, and the notion that romantic love is essential to a woman’s happiness is downright retrograde.

The Broad-Based Coalition of “Nope”

This past Sunday, I went to the protests at LAX.  I live close enough that I really had no excuse not to go.  (Unlike the Women’s March, where I had the excuse of being in Urgent Care with the crud that’s going around.)

It was incredible how many people were there, considering the timeframe.  President Trump’s Executive Order came out late Friday afternoon, and by Saturday there were protests across the country, organized on social media.

I saw a man and a woman who had obviously come straight from the Arrival gate to the protest; they had their rolling suitcases with them, and their signs had been made from a file folder.

There were people of all different races, different religions, different ideas for saving the world.  The representatives from the local Communist party were standing next to a woman with a quote from Mother Teresa on her sign.

If you asked all of these people how they would build an ideal world, they would probably give a lot of conflicting answers.  Trying to find a positive agenda that all of these people would support would probably be impossible.  But they all came together because, however different their worldviews, they could agree on one thing: that the bigotry of the Trump administration is not acceptable in our America.

LAX Protesters
LAX Protesters

On the Problem of Two-Parters: The Magician’s Apprentice

There’s a problem with writing about the first half of a two-parter.  It’s not a complete story; what happens in the second part will inevitably impact how I view what happened in the first part.  But it’s also an episode and can be judged on that basis.

This is, I suspect, part of the problem in writing a two-parter, as well: you have to balance the needs of the story as a whole with the needs to make the episode satisfying on its own.

(Spoilers, Sweetie) Continue reading On the Problem of Two-Parters: The Magician’s Apprentice

Crossing the WTF Horizon

Previously, Danny found out that Clara was lying to him.  The two-parter opens with Clara’s confession being interrupted by Danny’s death in a (seeming) accident.

Clara being Clara, she is not simply going to accept this.  She collects the TARDIS keys and destroys them, one by one, to blackmail the Doctor.  Who had set up the dreamscape to find out how far she would go.

Even though she betrayed him, he agrees to help her find Danny.  Who is in the Afterlife that we’ve seen all along with Missy.

The Doctor and Clara go to 3W, they see the creepy skeletons in water, Missy shows up and we get to see the Cyberman eyes.  It’s all fun and games until Danny BREAKS MY HEART FOREVER.

There were tears in my eyes at the last “I love you.”  Because he wanted her to be safe, because it was the truth, and for once, one of Moffat’s “big moments” dovetailed with the actual character arcs of both the characters.

Then we went back to the a-story and Cybermen and Missy is the Master and CLIFFHANGER.

And may I say, the whole “Clara never existed” line from the next episode is BRILLANTLY used in the trailer?  Well trolled!

Unfortunately, things went rapidly downhill in the second part.  Kate darts the Doctor so she can kidnap him so she can… force him to be the President of Earth.

Clara has most of the good stuff in this episode.  The Doctor has his moments, though, both of them to do with the Brigadier.  First, talking about his picture, and later, saluting the Cyber-Brig.

(And I have so many complicated thoughts and feelings about the Cyber-Brig.  They may be their own post, later.)

Osgood gets fridged.

The plane gets blown up.

In freefall, the Doctor manages to locate the TARDIS, and with the key in his hand, plunges directly toward it.  And I suppose that you could fanwank that there is some sort of emergency guidance system for exactly that situation, but in that moment, I crossed the WTF Event Horizon.

Sometimes, in a story, something happens that breaks your suspension of disbelief so seriously that it’s impossible to get it back.  This went one step further; I could not take the any of it seriously.  I was really glad that I was watching it home alone, because I was laughing like a loon at this utterly tragic story.

Rewatching the episode later, I could appreciate it.  “Love is a promise.”  The Doctor saluting the Brigadier.  The Doctor and Clara lying to each other.

And of course, anyone who knows the Master knew that Missy was coming back sooner or later.  (I, personally, was glad to hear that it was “sooner.”)

The best thing about the series-ending two-parter Michelle Gomez as “Missy.”  She’s brilliant, she’s funny, she’s scary.  Her interpretation of the Master reminds me of Anthony Ainley’s performance in a lot of ways, but is, ultimately, her own.

Her plan is ridiculous.  It’s contrived, it’s downright daft.  But it isn’t even the Master’s most ridiculous plan ever.  It’s actually less contrived and roundabout than his whole “prevent the Magna Carta from being written” plot.

Let’s face it, the Master’s had a whole lot of plans that only made sense if his real objective was to troll the Doctor.

At the moment of revelation, I was shocked.  Not because I hadn’t made the Missy>Mistress>Master connection,  but because I’d thought “Nah, too obvious.”  Also, because the thought of one Time Lord referring to another as her “boyfriend” just made my brain go “nope.”

I was also initially annoyed that the canonical acknowledgement of Master’s feeling for the Doctor came when the characters were, for the first time, and opposite-sex pair.  It felt like the ultimate “NO HOMO” from Moffat.

But on reflection, Moffat’s No Homo renders all of those previous interactions, in retrospect, Pretty Damn Homo.

Also, Missy is a big step forward toward the Doctor also regenerating as a woman.  Someday.  (In my dreams, as Dame Judi Dench.)  No longer was this just a throwaway line about the Corsair.  Certain members of the fandom reacted badly, some  asking “would we have to call him the Nurse, then?”

(Gentlemen, Rory would like a word.)

For all of the symbolic importance (and the humor value of Moffat’s lack of self-awareness) the best part of Michelle Gomez’s casting is Michelle Gomez’s performance.  She can be downright chilling, but also, a little sad.  (Though never pathetic; she’s not an object of pity.)  She’s crazy, but she makes it work for her.

We understand; she’s not killing Osgood because she’s “bananas,” it’s not a random act, but a deliberate one.  She’s doing it to hurt the Doctor.

(I should probably say something about the Christmas episode, too.  Well: it wasn’t the worst Christmas special Doctor Who has ever had, by a long shot.)

On the Proper Application of Handwavium: More Series 8 Blatheration

So, continuing on my hitting the high points (and in this case, especially the low points) of Series 8 of Doctor Who.  In the middle part of the series the arc began to evolve from its previous episodic stories (though linked by some thematic elements and motifs), toward the climax.

The evolution starts with “The Caretaker.”    Danny finally finds out about Clara’s other life, and that sets the stage for the conflicts that play out in the rest of the series.

There were a lot of good character moments, and some not-so-good ones, in the episode itself.  For instance, the Doctor’s keeping Clara completely out of the loop.  I get what it was about thematically; mirroring the Clara’s lying to Danny, and setting up for the next episode’s profound shaking of Clara’s trust in the Doctor.   But it didn’t make sense; Clara would have been much more helpful if she knew what was going on.

Danny’s assessment of the Doctor hit uncomfortably close to home.  The Doctor fought in the Time War, and given both his status as a member of the hereditary nobility, and his skills honed by lifetimes of survival, it’s almost certain that the Time Lords gave him some kind of leadership role in the defense of Gallifrey.

It wouldn’t be a proper series of Doctor Who if there wasn’t at least one cringeworthy episode.  This time, it’s “Kill the Moon,” which takes what should be an emotional turning point for the story and wraps it in facepalm-inducingly bad science.

This isn’t just ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad science.  This is “Evolution of the Daleks” infusing-Time-Lord-DNA-by-lightning-strike bad science.  Except that this is baked into the premise, like a collapsing soufflé of Science Fail.

Eggs do not get heavier.  I googled this.  They get lighter, actually, as liquid is pushed out through the shell while the fetus develops.  In order for the moon to get heavier, it would have to be getting more matter.  That matter would have to come from somewhere.  The logical source is solar energy, so I guess we could fanwank that.

But of course, just killing the alien wouldn’t make the weight go back to previous, so the tidal forces would still be in play.  Nothing would be solved, they’re just hoping things wouldn’t get worse…

The sad thing is, the great confrontation at the end didn’t have to be attached to such a scientifically inept story.  With just a little thought and a liberal application of Handwavium (a necessary element for a lot of Doctor Who stories) it could have been, okay not great, but less faily.

With a little thought, I came up with something that would leave the story mostly intact, but 95% less headdesk-inducing.

Instead of always being there, it’s new.  The creature’s mother replaced the moon only recently.  It chose the location because it needed the sun to provide energy for the growing “chick” to use as it grows (therefore making the source of the extra mass explicit) and it needs the gravity from the Earth to develop properly.  So the mother disguised its egg as the moon, and pushed the real moon “out of phase.”

Doctor: Like a cuckoo in the nest.

(Bonus points; he could mention how the Master did the same thing to his TARDIS, once.)

This could make killing it an actual, clear solution, rather than just a hope that things won’t get worse.

Clara: So if we kill it, the real Moon will just… pop back into place?  And everything will go back to normal?

It’s not 100% Hard SF, but at least it gives a nod to logic and physics in passing as it heads on its merry way.

Because the heart of the story, Doctor’s betrayal of Clara and her completely justified anger at him, deserved to be in a better story than the one it was in.

Though Clara one million percent done with the Doctor, in “The Mummy on the though, Clara is back with the Doctor, for one last trip.  Though by the end, she’s figured out that it’s an addiction.  She’s willing to lie to Danny about it (and I have to wonder why she thinks it’s necessary; Danny might not like the Doctor, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of controlling guy who would forbid her to go.)

“Hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like,” sounds like a description of the Doctor and the Master’s relationship.

“Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones” is a pretty good description of this series as a whole.

Clara has been acting more and more Doctorish as the series has gone on, and “Flatline” gave her a companion of her own.  Though she was still getting advice from the Doctor, she was the leader.  She had to make the decisions in the moment.  Clara has been growing more heroic, and in this episode, she was the Hero.

Like the Doctor, she was also lying.  To Danny, to the very people she was trying to save.

“In the Forest of the Night” was impressive, visually, even though it didn’t make all that much sense.  (How do the trees grow overnight?  We’re actually supposed to believe the Doctor is afraid of wolves?  The sister was just randomly hiding in the plants?)  It’s less obnoxiously bad than “Kill the Moon” because it’s clearly trying for a fairy tale feel, rather than SF.  But there are still plot holes you could drive the Dalek mothership through.

Clara, of course, got caught in her lies.  It was pretty much inevitable.  The Doctor is the only one who gets to lie and get away with it.

More Series 8 Blathering: Episodes Part One

While there is a lot to say about all the episodes, I suspect it’s already been said by other people.  I do want to point out what caught my attention.  Mostly, this is just going to be a quick tour of the high points.  And, inevitably, the low points.

I already talked at length about “Deep Breath.”  There is one additional note; I was complaining about the silliness of the whole “spontaneous combustion” thing as a method of body disposal.  My friend’s husband said that it was a common belief in the Victorian era.  It’s not something I’ve come across in my reading, but my research has been more of the “look for the answer to this particular question” so it might not have been something I’d come across

With all of the interesting stuff that went on in most of “Into the Dalek,” the scenes at the Coal Hill School were remarkably un-subtle.  Getting Danny Pink on stage, and introducing him to Clara, seemed like a rush job.

There’s a lot to chew on in this episode.  We’ve never been told exactly what Clara remembers from her “echoes,” and watching it, I had to wonder if she remembered being a mad, broken, “good” Dalek.  If she remembered sacrificing herself for the Doctor.

Does the Doctor know what she does or doesn’t remember?

In this one, the Doctor reminded me a lot of the Seventh Doctor.  (My Doctor.)  Manipulating people, talking them into sacrificing themselves for him.   He can be cold, he can be calculating, he can make the hard decisions in ways that his previous two incarnations couldn’t.

In retrospect, I wonder if Missy’s actions here were her trying to get the measure of this new Doctor.  To see what makes him tick.

After the intensity of “Into the Dalek,” “The Robots of Sherwood” was an entertaining bit of fluff.  Costumes, fencing with spoons, robots, an utterly daft plot, Clara taking charge, another mention of the Promised Land.  In retrospect, I wonder if having a villain bear a superficial resemblance to Ainley!Master was a deliberate choice.  The ship reminded me a little of the Jageroth ship.

“Listen” begins the whole “Clara is a lying liar” arc, among other things.  It’s also raises a bunch of questions that I have no actual confidence in Moffat giving a satisfactory answer to.  Though he has upped his showrunning game this series, so I suppose it is possible he won’t resort to an asspull the way he did with the Crack.

Or maybe we’re just not supposed to ask how, if Gallifrey is still in the Time Lock, how they can get there.

We might still get an answer on how the Pink genes get passed on, though.

Really, what I liked best about this episode was that it was Steven Moffat deconstructing himself.  Ordinary things turned scary is one of his trademarks, and in this episode, where the scariest things are the contents of our own heads, was a neat twist.

“Time Heist” was slick and stylish, with a neat twist and a feel-good ending, and it’s one of those stories that you shouldn’t actually examine too closely, lest you see the papered-over plot holes.

So far, the series had been a series of individual adventures.  But going forward, it would start to develop its theme and momentum…