Writing Characters Who Aren’t Like You

Someone on a mailing list posted this link (thanks Lyn!) and I had to pass it on. Daniel Jose Older, an SFF writer and editor, wrote an article called 12 Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” (And The Self). If you write, or have considered writing, about characters who are different from you in some basic way, this’ll give you some good stuff to think about.

I particularly like #5 — “Racist writing is craft failure.” Absolutely. It’s easy to reach for obvious traits or characteristics without thinking about it, and have your hand fall onto a racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) cliche. If bigoted cliches end up in your story, they’re like any other cliches and make the writing weaker and more shallow.

Good stuff, check it out.


Marriage Equality, Finally

The Supreme Court finally grants marriage equality.

Try as they might, people opposed to marriage equality haven’t been able to come up with any rational reasons for their stand. “Because our god disapproves,” is not a rational reason in a nation with separation of church and state. “Because the children,” is not supported by any legitimate research. (In fact, I can’t give a link because I didn’t save it at the time, but I remember reading an article a few years ago discussing research that showed the best outcome for children, looking at emotional adjustment, behavior, and performance in school, came from having two lesbian parents.) “Because pedophiles,” is a null argument because adults having sex with minors (ignoring the complications of what that means and where the lines are drawn) is still illegal. And that idiot in California who tried to get a proposition on the ballot requiring that anyone who commits “sodomy” be executed by whatever member of the general public got to them first (no, seriously) just makes the anti-GLBT side look even more whacked than it actually is.

I’m sure there are plenty of people moaning and gnashing their teeth today. But look, the sky isn’t falling. If you think gay sex is icky, then good news: you’re not required to have gay sex. Your kids are no more likely to be gay now than they were last week. And if your kid does come out to you, you’re still free to disown him or her, and the people around you who disapprove would probably have disapproved last week, while people who would’ve agreed you did the right thing last week will probably still think that now. And if your church doesn’t recognize gay marriage, your church still isn’t required to marry gay couples. Nothing has changed for straight people.

Which is the whole point. Nothing has changed for straight people. We can go about our lives as we always have, because the world still treats us the way it always did.

And in fact, only thirteen states still banned marriage between same-sex couples yesterday. We were already mostly there; the Supremes just acknowledged the way society was moving.

Note, though, that this decision doesn’t mean homophobia is dead in the US, any more than the election of President Obama meant racism is dead. There are still plenty of people who see straight as “normal” and gay as “deviant,” and who want the laws of the land to reflect their views, some of whom are active on the political stage.

Ted Cruz and Scott Walker are two Republican presidential hopefuls who support a Constitutional amendment allowing states to ban same-sex marriage. Considering that the majority of states allowed it yesterday, and polls show a majority of Americans are in favor of it, I have no idea where these guys thought that amendment would come from. There’s no way they’d ever get the two-thirds ratification required to pass it, so…? Marriage equality doesn’t affect them, so it looks like either their own fears and squicks on display, or (more likely IMO) it’s a flag-waving act, aimed at the very small but very loud radical-right voting pool. “Hey, look how conservative I am! Vote for me!” Of course, that tactic hasn’t worked in the last couple of presidential elections, but if these guys want to give it another whirl, bully for them.

And others have already discussed Clarence Thomas’s dissenting opinion against marriage equality. From Thomas’s opinion:

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Seriously? Because being a slave, confined and beaten and raped, isn’t at all undignified. Because being dragged away from your property (often losing it permanently) and locked up in an internment camp, declared a danger to the country of which you’re a citizen, hated and reviled by your fellow citizens, isn’t at all undignified. And having people sneer and snark at your marriage, telling you it’s just pretend, and having your children harassed and mocked because their parents aren’t really married and they don’t really have a normal family, that’s not at all undignified.

The fact that Justice Thomas, who’s married to a white woman, clearly benefits from the results of Loving v. the State of Virginia, and yet declares that Obergefell v. Hodges — which grants the exact same kind of marriage rights (and dignity) to a group of people who were discriminated against exactly the way interracial couples were discriminated against before Loving — is wrong and pointless, is bogglingly irrational. It reflects a lack of compassion, and an “I’ve got mine so you all can go suck it” attitude.

There are plenty of people, though, even in conservative states, who are ready to jump right into getting gay and lesbian couples married, because “conservative” is not the same as “asshole.”

Gerard Rickhoff, who oversees marriage licenses in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, has removed the words “male” and “female” from the licenses. He’s prepared extra work stations and is ready to keep the office open late. He’s planning to have security on site to deal with protesters, “so there’s no possibility of discomfort or hate speech.” And if same-sex couples are turned away by clerks in other counties, he has a message for them: “Just get in your car and come on down the highway. You’ll be embraced here.”

Props to Mr. Rickhoff, and others like him in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Michigan, mentioned in the above HuffPo article, and to people in all states, of all political orientations around the country whose action and support, however loud or quiet, let this happen.

I’ll wrap with a quote from President Obama: “Today we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect … America should be very proud.”

What Are We Paying For Again…?

From ABC News:

An internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials, ABC News has learned.

Wow. So we get lined up, barked at, irradiated and/or groped, little tin dictators in spiffy blue shirts with official looking epaulettes and shiny fake badges[1] treat us like cattle or prisoners, and… for what again?

According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General’s report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.

Gee, I’m so glad we have TSA making us feel so much safer than we were before 9/11. Oh, wait….

Security experts have said before that all the security rules put into place at the airport at the security checkpoints can be defeated without too much trouble, and I’ve discussed that here before. It’s common knowledge; I’m sure all the terrorists know.

Or maybe this is a one-time thing?

This is not the first time the TSA has had trouble spotting Red Team agents. A similar episode played out in 2013, when an undercover investigator with a fake bomb hidden on his body passed through a metal detector, went through a pat-down at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport, and was never caught.

[T]he review determined that despite spending $540 million for checked baggage screening equipment and another $11 million for training since a previous review in 2009, the TSA failed to make any noticeable improvements in that time.

And according to a USA Today story in 2007, about failure rate of screener tests:

Howe said the increased difficulty explains why screeners at Los Angeles and Chicago O’Hare airports failed to find more than 60% of fake explosives that TSA agents tried to get through checkpoints last year.

The failure rates — about 75% at Los Angeles and 60% at O’Hare — are higher than some tests of screeners a few years ago and equivalent to other previous tests.

So I guess that’s a “nope” on the one-time failure thing.

And of course, part of the problem is that so much of the effort is focused at airports. It’s as if Homeland Security thinks terrorists have some kind of a compulsion to attack airports and airplanes. News flash: terrorists want to cause terror. They’ll do that anywhere they think will be effective. Other places will do just as well, places like sports stadiums, shopping malls, theme parks and other tourist attractions — anywhere large groups of people gather. There’s no way to guard every possible target against terrorist activity without turning the US into the ultimate police state. Money wasted on TSA would be much better spent on intelligence, stopping terrorists before they ever get near their targets.

David Burge, on Twitter, has it right IMO:


At $8 billion per year, the TSA is the most expensive theatrical production in history.

Yeah, that’s just about right. [sigh]

Thanks to Bruce Schneier for posting about this.

[1] Yes, fake badges. The TSA screener uniforms and badges are designed to make travellers assume that the screeners are law enforcement officers, for purposes of intimidation and compliance. They are not law enforcement, and have no arrest powers. If a TSA screener thinks you should be arrested, they have to call a real cop like everyone else.


Putting Ferguson Into Perspective

Yes, what’s going on in Ferguson is awful, and is causing hardship for a lot of people, most of them black. Yes, it would be better for everyone if they’d go home and get on with their lives, as Michael Brown’s family has asked. But at least in this case, the people rioting have a significant reason to be angry — a pretty clear miscarriage of justice, with an obvious racial motive. All the white people looking down their noses and crying shame on those violent black rioters for being so violent (salted with racist epithets, because of course all this violence is because that’s what people of their race do) should perhaps remember all the So Much More Worthy [cough] reasons for which white people have violently rioted.

Thanks to Jason for sending me a link to this. Very telling.


Homophobia Taken to Ridiculous Extremes

So Tim Torkildson was hired to do social media for the Nomen Global Language Center, a school that serves primarily people learning English as a foreign language. Part of his job was writing the school’s language blog. He did a post about homophones, and was fired.


Torkildson’s boss, Clarke Woodger, who owns the school, called him in and fired him.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune:

When the social-media specialist for a private Provo-based English language learning center wrote a blog explaining homophones, he was let go for creating the perception that the school promoted a gay agenda.

As Torkildson tells it, Woodger said he could not trust him and that the blog about homophones was the last straw.

“Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality,” Woodger complained, according to Torkildson, who posted the exchange on his Facebook page.

I have to ask, how ignorant does someone have to be to think homophones have anything at all to do with homosexuality? And how ignorant about language can you be and still own a language school? I think the answer to both questions is, pretty darned ignorant.

Techdirt says:

Torkildson’s account includes some eyebrow-raising quotes of Woodger claiming not to know what homophones were, claiming that they don’t teach that kind of “advanced” language study to their English language students, and worrying that the post would associate the school with homosexuality for reasons uknown to this writer.

So the difference between “there” and “their,” or “to,” “too” and “two” is an advanced concept? Umm, sure. ‘Cause I totally didn’t get that in first grade. Since a lot of simple, basic words are homophones, I would expect this to be taught to foreign students very early in their English studies, because it’s going to be darned confusing if it’s not explained.

About the only positive thing I can say here is that this isn’t a public school — they get enough bad press, and usually deserve it. But the private side apparently isn’t immune to idiocy either.

Hopefully Mr. Torkildson will find another job soon, working for someone who has a functional brain. Best of luck, Mr. Torkildson.


Because Telling Teenagers “No” Always Works

The principal of Booker T Washington High has stepped in to cancel one of their school’s summer reading programs rather than let the students read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which is all about teenagers challenging wrongheaded authority. (Seriously, read it — it rocks.) An English teacher and a librarian had set up the One-Book-One-School program, which exists side-by-side with a more standard Summer Reading program, developing a study guide/brochure for students and parents. It explains the program, and gives questions the students should answer after they read. Notice that it also encourages the parents to read the book so they can discuss it with their kids, and allows parents who object to the book to contact the coordinating English teacher to get an alternate book for their kid to read.

Apparently giving the parents final authority over what their kids read isn’t enough for the BTW principal, though. When the program coordinators refused to choose a different book, the principal cancelled the whole program.

It was pointed out in comments to the Techdirt article, multiple times, that the principal could’ve done nothing to more effectively encourage all the students to eagerly read this book. [wry smile] A few people suggested that this might’ve been the hidden purpose behind the cancellation, but I think that’s giving too much credit where it’s probably not due.

In response, Cory Doctorow and his publisher, Tor, have donated 200 copies of the book to the school. I’d be interested in hearing what the school does with them, considering the principal’s actions so far.

Oh, and note that the school’s more standard summer reading program already includes Little Brother. o_O So apparently the principal is okay with the eleventh graders reading the book, but thinks it would be harmful for the ninth, tenth and twelfth graders…?

If you’re interested in reading Little Brother, which I highly recommend, Cory offers the e-book on his site for free, in pretty much any file format you might want. Check it out.


Follow-Up on the Libel of Quoting

I’m ridiculously busy right now so this is going to be short, but Mr. Sean Fodera, referenced in my previous post, has hired a lawyer to tell him that linking to an article that quotes him saying something stupid is not, in fact, a libelous action for which one can be sued. He’s posted a very thorough apology to Mary Robinette Kowal in which he also points out that he does not represent his employer (MacMillan) in any way when he says stupid things in public.

There are a few interesting roundaboutations and caveats in said apology, but whatever. I only hope he’s learned something, and is planning to duck out of sight for a while.

Angie, who still has about 90 stories to get through by Saturday

Quoting Now Equals Libel?

So apparently linking to an article where someone is quoted — with links to the original sources — as saying something that makes him look like a sexist asshat is now libel. That sounds like fun, so I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon.

Mr. Sean Fodera apparently thinks that any woman who wears attractive clothing can’t possibly be a feminist, because (I guess?) in order to qualify for the feminist club, you’re required to have nothing but army fatigues three sizes too big, or similar, in your closet. Okay then.

It just occurred to me that MRK seems to be deeply involved in this whole anti-sexism matter. I remember seeing her posing with Hines and Scalzi on one of their very scary cover parodies, and I know she chimed in with a snipe at the petition signers on the Radish thread.

I find it very funny and ironic that she would jump on this bandwagon. For a long time, her website featured an array of photos of her in a diaphanous white outfit, posing on a beach. No metal bikinis or such, but they were not innocuous writer headshots either. One of them, with her recumbent on the sand with legs exposed, made her somewhat attractive. I also recall she’s fond of wearing tight-fitting gowns and plunging necklines when she attends cons and award ceremonies.

I’ll have to add “phony” to “incompetent” and “arrogant” in the mental tags I’ve assigned her.

The Daily Dot has a screen grab of this bit from SFF.net, in case it gets deleted.

The whole Dot article is about the latest wave of sexist, racist crap coming out of the old guard SFWA types. It’s depressing, but at this point it’s really not surprising. What’s particularly eyerolly here is Mr. Fodera’s belief that this is actionable libel. John Scalzi commented on this, and I see it as a public service to spread it around. Not only to point out the sexist gluteal haberdashery, but to spread the word that no, this is not libel, and threatening to treat it as such just makes one look even more ignorant than the original commentary.

Also, note the Streisand effect in action here. I’ve never heard of Mr. Fodera before, and I’d wager most folks who read my blog haven’t either. Now we’ve heard of him, and the impression left isn’t exactly positive. Good job, Mr. Fodera!


But What About Readers and Reviewers?

There’s a discussion over at Jessewave’s that evolved into a thread with wider interest to fiction writers in general, so I brought one of my comments (and a bit of what I responded to) back here. Rick Reed wrote the original post, talking about women in m/m romances, and of course the conversation strayed over to the question of m/f sex in m/m books. For those of you who aren’t into romance, or aren’t into m/m, there’s a fairly sturdy divide between readers who are willing to follow a character’s story wherever it leads, and readers who, in their own words, don’t want anyone getting “girl cooties” in their m/m romance. You can probably tell what side of the debate I’m on. [cough]

Anyway, Carolyne wondered in comments whether it wouldn’t be practical to just avoid story elements that readers have said they dislike, in the name of maximizing sales and reviews, then said:

I don’t say all the above in a cranky way, but in asking myself whether it simply makes much more sense to make a reasonable compromise in one’s writing, to be practical and give a story its best chances in the world.

My response got kind of long, as is often the case. I posted it there, but thought I’d put it here too, because it has a larger application than just romance:

This is a question each writer has to answer for her/himself. My answer is no. I won’t compromise my work because a few people are loud about what they dislike. They’re entitled to their opinions, but my writing is mine.

Another way to think about it is that every subgenre, and quite a few full-blown genres, started out as a writer here or there writing something completely different, something that nobody had ever written before, despite the fact that there was no sign or clue that the readers of whatever the closest genre was “wanted” that kind of work. Paranormal romance started back in the 70s, and IIRC wasn’t even considered romance half the time — you don’t find Yarbro’s Saint Germain books in the Romance shelves even now, and that’s the first I recall. “Weird” romances snuck into the mainstream through the occasional one-off — anyone remember The Elsingham Portrait? — and then in the 80s, time travel romance were huge for a few years. There were a bunch of books on the shelf with pocket watches on their spines, so TT fans could find them, while people who preferred “normal” romances just thought they were weird and dumb. Fantasy romances and SF romances (oh, excuse me — “futuristic” romances) appeared in the late 80s as subgenres, when there had been little or nothing like them before in romance. Enough people glommed on to keep them going, which people who preferred “real” romances about doctors and secretaries and cake bakers and decorators made snarky comments. As late as 2008 a columnist at a major romance blog (now defunct) was griping about how there were “too many” of those weird romances around, about how they were pushing out the “normal” contemporary romances. She was kind enough to allow that there should be “a few” of the weird romances published, but only the very best. (Nice of her to allow people like me a few of The Very Best of the subgenres I like most — maybe she’d be the one to vet them for me?)

What would romance — het or GLBT — look like now if writers who love writing about vampires and aliens and mages and interstellar ambassadors and shifters had read the gripes and snarks of people who only want contemporary romances, and thought, “Gee, if I write this stuff I really love, nobody will read or review it! I’d better toe the line and write about doctors and secretaries and dog walkers, because I want my books to sell and be reviewed!”

Will writing what you love yourself limit your market? Sure. That’s always true. If you write mystery romances, there are people who don’t like those. If you write about shifters, there are people who’ll eyeroll and move on. If you write about cross-dressing main characters, there are people who aren’t into that. If you write BDSM romances, plenty of people will avoid them. That’s their choice to make, and always has been. I know that no matter what I write, I’ll never capture 100% of the market. Not even the biggest, most popular NYT bestsellers capture 100% of their target market, no matter how many marketing weasels call something “the must-read book of the year.”

Will writing certain things limit your reviews? Sure. Again, that’s always true. If I put a m/f sex scene in a book, Wave won’t review it. She pays the hosting fees, so the site runs by her rules. That’s not a limitation on what I can or should write, though, and I doubt very much that even Wave thinks it should be.

I’ll write what I want to write, and let each book find its audience. Some audiences are going to be bigger than others — that’s how the business works. Trying to guess ahead of time what’s going to be huge or what’s going to be smaller, and then writing only what you think will be huge, is a fool’s game, though. Coincidentally, Dean Wesley Smith posted about something like this just a day or two ago — The Myth: To sell either to editors or readers, you must write what is hot. Dean’s answer to this question is, “Kick all the editor and agent and online board voices out of your writing office and write what makes you passionate or angry or excited.” That, right there — do that, or IMO there’s no point in being a writer. We’re certainly not here to get rich, right? If your number one goal is making money, there are a lot of easier, less chancy ways of going about it. [wry smile] If I’m not having fun, if I’m not writing what I want and what I love, then I have no reason to be here.


Dear Dudebro

This is why John Scalzi pretty much owns the Internet.

Some months ago, Scalzi said that if his Twitter followers could raise $500 for Clarion within the next half hour, he’d have someone take a picture of him wearing a very nice Regency frock, and post it to his web site. They did, and he did. Much more recently, some misogynistic little boy whose insult quotient is about at the level of “Neener neener!” took the picture and memeized it, in a way he clearly thought would be distressing to Mr. Scalzi. [smirk]

Click through to see the picture, and enjoy seeing Scalzi hand it all back to this guy with a dumptruck. Seriously, this is awesome. 😀