Tag Archives: Writing

Waxing Lyrical : Asexuality in Fantasy

Images added by Aunty Fox, also check this out for some illustrations of asexuality and dumb things people say.

Asexuality in Fantasy

By Joel Cornah

Writing characters is so often about letting the reader know what they are, rather than what they are not. In our world, so much of how people’s identities are perceived is bound up in ideas of sexuality and romance that, in the words of comedian Charlie Brooker;

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing characters pairing off with one another that it’s now almost impossible to see a man and a woman together on screen at once without internally speculating about whether they’re going to have sex or not.”

 Indeed, the trope of having two people (often of different genders) who do little but argue and despise one another but end up falling madly in love is incredibly prominent. I might even go so far as to say that for a lot of people, seeing two characters bicker has become an almost sure-fire way of predicting if they’ll end up together. But even in these cases, the writers will often tie them together through some reconciliation scene that ends with physical intimacy of some sort. Just to hammer home the point.

When it comes to writing asexual characters, those who lack sexual attraction, it can be somewhat jarring to audiences who are used to characters getting off with one another simply by being in the same room. I think this might be the source of some anti-ace feeling some publishers may have, especially as a sexual or romantic subplot is expected of most stories as a matter of course.

With the world I created for The Sea-Stone Sword and The Sky Slayer, I decided that prejudices based on sexuality were not really a thing in most societies. It made the writing process a lot more open and gave me much more creative freedom. Openly gay and bisexual characters are comparatively easy to show through the relationships and romances the characters endure and pursue. The age old ‘show don’t tell’ rule runs smoothly in these cases. But when it comes to asexual characters it’s much harder to make it explicit.

So how do you address it in a way that can be easily grasped? Is it as simple as having characters who just never experience sexual attraction or is it something we should actively point out in a character? Should they internally reflect on their lack of attraction, should they explain it to others, should it be discussed openly or simply allowed to exist.

I have one ace character in The Sea-Stone Sword, but it is not explicit because the issue doesn’t come up. She is quite young, and there were also other aspects to her character that were a lot more active and so became the focal point.

For asexual characters, the temptation for me was to simply never address it at all, and to delve into nonsexual aspects of their relationships. I wanted to explore the friendships they made, the loyalties they formed and causes for which they fought. It was important to me to flesh them out as characters and how they related to others and have that be the focus.

However, asexuality is, perhaps by its nature, something of an invisible identity. Easily overlooked, easily ignored. As such, many of us feel decidedly alone, left out, and isolated. Rarely do we see explicate representation of people who feel the way we feel and experience the world as we do. Part of this is down to social assumptions where we automatically expect characters to be sexual in some way. This worried me as I continued to write.

In my second novel, The Sky Slayer, there is another ace character, but this time I made it explicit. She’s a smartass, a sarcastic brains-of-the-outfit who pulls everyone’s strings. As a result, other character slowly start asking her advice. Once you get past the put-downs and jibes, she can be quite wise, so it made sense to me. This I immediately saw as a way in to give her sexuality some notice. When asked for relationship advice, she raises an eyebrow and informs them, “Ask the Doctor. I have no interest or experience with these carnal matters.”

It was also important to me that the character accept this, rather than pressing her into something with the old ‘go on just try it!’ routine. When another character shows an interest in her, they are told, “She doesn’t feel that kind of attraction.” and all parties accept this as a real answer, rather than objecting or insisting on pushing her.

I think it is important to have multiple ace characters, to explore the variety of ways asexuality can be experienced. As with any demographic, the less characters within it you have, the less fairly you will represent it.

But even these examples from my own work sometimes make me cringe a little and I feel uncertain about whether I took the right path. On the one hand, I want it to be respected and given a real place in a characters’ identity. But on the other hand, I don’t want to bring it up for the sake of bringing it up. So how do we tackle this issue?

Being asexual myself, it isn’t an issue that comes up terribly often. I don’t have conversations about it, I don’t go out and tell my story precisely because, so often, if feels like there isn’t a story to tell. How many ways can you say, ‘nothing happened’ and have it be interesting? Except by way of contrast to the expected norm, it has rarely felt like an aspect of my life that is ripe for creative exploration.

The obvious answer is to look to other people’s experiences. Talking to other asexual people from different background and cultures grants a view into the wide range of stories that are there. The struggles and triumphs, the attitudes and fears, and the whole spectrum of people. That is where the spark of creativity lies.

I think this allies to a lot of aspects of writing, not just regarding sexuality. Our own life can seem mundane to us simply because we experience them every day and end up thinking they are unremarkable. The remarkable only becomes so when compared to other things, and if we don’t seek out other experiences and stories, we might not find the spark at all.

 

Links for books;

The Sea-Stone Sword

The Sky Slayer

Respectable Horror: Matthew Pegg

MR James Ghost StoriesHaunted Objects.

Sometimes it can be quite hard to put your finger on exactly where a story came from or what inspired it, because so much of writing happens in the subconscious. I usually start out with a snippet of a plot, or a character or an idea, but once I start writing other things accrue and attach themselves to it; events occur that I wasn’t expecting, characters pop up and demand to take part, the story takes on a life of its own.

But I can put my finger on some of the influences on The Well Wisher.

I’ve always liked classic horror and ghost stories, ever since reading my grandparent’s copy of A Century of Thrillers: From Poe to Arlen, which sat on their small and only bookshelf, along with The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. (I’ve still got the book and the bookshelf.) A Century of Thrillers is a chunky volume, published by The Daily Express newspaper in the 1930s. Its a great collection of classic tales and well worth tracking down.

I wanted to write a story in that vein and thought it would be interesting to write about a haunted object. M.R. James’s The Mezzotint, A Candle in Her Room, (a terrifying children’s book by Ruth M. Arthur,) and Stephen King’s Christine all tackle this concept in quite different ways.

James’s haunted engraving replays a horrific incident from the past but doesn’t offer any real threat to its observers. You could argue that the true horror of the tale lies in the fact that the protagonist is powerless to influence the events he sees slowly unfolding in the picture.

In A Candle in Her Room the wooden doll Dido exerts a malign influence over three generations of the same family. It is the way that possession of the doll changes its owner that is frightening.

The Witch DollChristine, the 1950s Plymouth Fury, is the most concrete haunted object of the three, quite capable of killing you on its own. But like Dido, possession of Christine changes its owner. I like the way King turns the classic 1950s car, a symbol of the American Dream, into something evil. I also like the detail, missing from the film, that Christine’s milometer runs backwards: the more you drive it the newer the car gets. When thugs trash the car, owner Arnie pushes it round the block all night, putting his back out in the process, until the car repairs itself. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of that action.

I had a feeling that if you’re going to write about a haunted object then it should be a functional object, and if its normal function can become threatening in some way then that seemed to me to be satisfyingly neat. Of the three examples of haunted objects above, I think only in Christine do you get a sense of what has caused an inanimate object to turn nasty: Christine has been created by the human hatred of its previous owner, rather than any supernatural force. So its progenitors are Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rather than Dracula: we create the monster and we become the monster, rather than the monster being a threat from elsewhere.

I like structure in stories. I find it satisfying when things have some kind of internal logic. So I wanted to know why my haunted object behaved the way it did. And that ‘why’ had to also be something to do with it’s function. That was what I was trying to achieve and I hope it works.

I’m being a bit coy about revealing too much about The Well Wisher because I hope you’ll read it and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Miss Andrews, the central character, evolved all on her own to become a troubled, clever, kind, brave, flawed person. And I can’t claim to have planned any of that, it just happened. I do know that one influence on her was Jane Eyre. I’d recently seen a theatre version of the story and it was rattling round in my brain, especially Jane’s orphan status and poverty, which define the choices she can make in life.

For an unmarried Victorian woman, educated but not wealthy, being a governess was one of the few options available. Charlotte and Anne Bronte did this in real life and that experience is reflected in both Jane Eyre and Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey.

I felt that the Victorian governess was in a rather uneasy position, not quite one of the servants, but not truly a member of the family either. I liked that sense of isolation, unease and insecurity.

So Miss Andrews became a governess, sometimes too forthright for her own good but worried about her future, and much braver than me. I would like to know what happens to her next.

But as I said at the start, a lot of any story emerges from the subconscious. So when I was reading the proof copy of Respectable Horror, I was struck by how much of The Well Wisher seemed quite unfamiliar. “Where did that come from,” I wondered, “And that?”

I can’t even claim credit for the double meaning in the title….
 
Matthew Pegg is a writer based in Leicestershire in the UK. Most of his writing has been for theatre and includes work for puppet companies, youth theatres, community plays and a script designed to be performed during a medieval banquet. His most recent theatre work was Escaping Alice, a love story with chains and handcuffs, for York Theatre Royal. He’s also completed a community radio play based on the life of Wordsworth and has been commissioned to create a puppet play to tour to care homes for people suffering from dementia. In 2012 he completed an MA in Creative Writing, and since then he has been working on a novel, and placing short fiction with a variety of publishers. Website: http://www.mpegg.co.uk 

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Editing Round Table

I reached out to a whole bunch of my favourite editors with a few basic questions around short story collections and the editors perspective.  For today’s session I am delighted to welcome Jonathan Oliver of Solaris/Abaddon, Mhairi Simpson and Margret Helgadottir who have edited for Fox Spirit and Farhana Shaikh who runs Dahlia publishing. 

When you put a call out do you already know exactly what you are looking for?

Jonathan Oliver : I start with a theme, so generally I know what I’m looking for, but when I put together submissions guidelines, I always say to authors ‘here’s the brief, but play with it, stretch it to its limits.’ So, I want to give my writers as much room as possible to explore within the theme I’ve given them. After all, I don’t want to end up with an anthology of similar stories.

Mhairi Simpson : No. When I did my first call I had a very specific idea in mind. By the end of it I realised I knew nothing and was just happy to be astonished at the wide variety of tales even a relatively narrow prompt can produce.

Farhana Shaikh: I try not to be too clear about what I’m looking for because I don’t want a piece of writing to fail before I’ve had the chance to consider it properly. This is especially true for an anthology because the breadth of style tends to be so broad and different writers respond to themes in such different ways.

What I’ve realised though is that a short story is successful as long as it does what the writer set out to do. In the simplest of terms, I could try and break down what that success often looks like. For example it might mean strong characterisation and a refreshing voice, but I find those terms can be reductive because it might also just be a beautiful story told in the simplest of ways. 

Margrét Helgadottir : I have only put out an open call one time, for the Winter Tales anthology. I knew then what kind of stories I wanted – a strong voice, an interesting plot, atmosphere, and also a more unspoken chill of the dark and cold winter season – but other than this I tried to be very open both in the call and when I read the submissions. As for the monster books (working on volume four now), they are invitations only. I am hunting for monster stories. They can be written in all genres but they have to have something monstrous about them and they have to be dark. I am very clear in the invitation what I am not looking for (satire, erotica etc).

 

What things will make you discount a story quickly?

Jon : Badly presented and with obvious errors. The other thing is if the story has completely ignored the brief. So, if I say this anthology has to be about a haunted house, and I get a submission that’s about a mutant spider or something, with no haunted house in sight, then that will be pretty quickly rejected. Fortunately it’s not something I have to worry about a lot as all of my anthologies are invite only.

Mhairi  : Condescension on the part of the author. A pushy author asking if I’ve made a decision yet when the submission period is still open. Any mention of sexual assault which doesn’t feel right in the story.

Farhana : My pet hate is writing that is cluttered with adjectives or flowery language. I tend to steer away from writing that is trying too hard or clever, or where the writer clearly hasn’t worked out what the heart of the story really is. Having said that, I do like to re-read writing (this is especially true for short stories) because I don’t like to make too rash a decision about whether something works or not. Editing is after all, hugely subjective and sometimes I have to challenge myself to work with writing that is not necessarily to my taste.

Margrét: Except for not following the guidelines and the idea of the book, I will quickly put a “no” on any story that uses racism, rape, violence, discrimination of gender or sexual orientation, when it is clear that it doesn’t do anything for the plot. I don’t discount a story because of bad grammar or language if I see a potential—a core in the story that will shine if the story is polished in the edits. I have had 2-3 stories in all the volumes I have edited that required more work from me and the author than the other stories but I am very satisfied that they are part of the books today.

 

Would you consider taking a story that doesn’t quite fit the idea behind the call and whatever your answer, why?

Jon: I like to be pleasantly surprised by submissions. So, for example, we all have an idea about what constitutes a haunted house and a haunting, but I also like to see new takes on such traditional subject matter, new twists on the formula. Sure, I’m a sucker for a traditional ghost story, but more so I love the possibilities that new fiction explores.

Mhairi: Yes. I’ve initially said no to a story which didn’t seem to quite fit the call. I had something else in mind. Then as more stories came in I realised I had an opportunity to show ideas which weren’t in line with my own thinking, because none of the stories quite fit the call, certainly not what I’d been expecting to get. It was a learning experience – I learned not to make assumptions about what did and did not fit. It broadened my mind and was a tad humbling, too.

Farhana: I’d be reluctant to accept anything that was too far from the initial concept, purely because I think collections have an odd way of working in that the stories once ordered have their own life and rhythm. I’d be reluctant to upset the balance of that. But as I’ve said, the scope for an anthology tends to be quite wide, so it’s rare that such a thing happens. Where this has been the case, I’ve simply asked the original contributor to submit something else.

Margret: No and yes. If it’s far out from the book idea, no. If the book is about Europe I will not include a story that takes place on the Moon. However I can include a story if it plays with the boundaries of the sub call but still has one foot inside the frame. I have done this a few times but only when the stories were so excellent in both language and plot that I just couldn’t say no. Often they can be shaped a little bit in the edits so they fit the book better.

How do you approach running order?

Jon: You want to start with a belter right out of the gate. You want something substantial in the middle and you want to end on a story that packs some sort of punch. In between you can get the reader settled and explore all the wonderful variations on the ideas your authors have sent you.

Mhairi: I try to find a thread or arc which links all the stories together and then decide where each story falls along that arc. For Tales of Eve it was a genre thread, varying from hard sci-fi to high fantasy so I started with the hardest sci-fi and ended with the highest fantasy. It was actually really difficult!

Farahna: By the time I get to a running order, I’ve probably read the work separately a good few times and something will be emerging about how I’d like to start and where I’d like to begin. Of course, a reader may choose to go in whatever order they wish, but sometimes as an editor I think such things are important.

Margrét: I try to put the strongest stories up front and in the back. You need to catch the readers right away. A short excellent story as number one is a very good tactic. It sets the tone of the rest of the book quickly. The last two stories should be the after thought of the book, something to make the book live a little bit longer in the readers’ minds, make them reflect a little bit about the book theme. Other than this I am concerned about putting the stories in anthologies in a natural flow, vary it a little for the reader. This goes for both the length of the stories, style and theme. I don’t put two vampire stories next to each other of the other ten stories are about were wolves for instance.

Cover by S.L. Johnson

What are some of the things you think people underestimate in regards to the time/effort involved in the anthology editors role?

Jon: Coming up with the theme always takes the most time. You want something iconic enough that people will pick the book of the shelf, and bring some sort of expectation, but you also want something different enough that you stand out. In an invite only situation you know to some extent the strengths of your authors, so editing the stories is the easiest and most pleasurable part of the whole affair.

Mhairi: It’s not the typos – if a story’s got that many mistakes I’d send it back and tell them to run it through spellcheck or a beta reader. When it comes to figuring out what a story is trying to say and if it can be said better, however, that can take a while. It’s usually a clarity issue – I’m not sure what’s going on and the author makes some changes and through the various changes we get closer to the diamond at the heart of the tale.

Farhana: I don’t know if anyone does underestimate what an editor brings to a collection but of course, they bring a whole deal of experience and expertise. It’s the editor’s role to not only select the stories and collate these in some order, but often it can mean a lengthy battle with contributors to undertake revisions, and ensure these come back on time, as well as project manage the entire thing. It’s fine, if you have around ten contributors or so, but once you start veering in to the twenties and beyond it can become challenging. An editor may also be involved in promoting the book, and keeping all the contributors in the know, so it’s a huge effort with lots of emailing back and forth. If the editor is also the publisher, as in my case, then there’s lots more going on behind the scenes away from the anthology with regards to choosing the title, managing the jacket cover designs, and working with suppliers to ensure the project can be delivered on time and on a shoe-string budget.

Margrét: I think many don´t realize what the editor job is. If you are editor for books from small presses you must involve yourself in the book production and getting the book out there. In addition to the editing of the language and grammar, editing of the story flow and angles, proofreading and all that, I would say that at least 30 percent of my tasks in a book production is preparing the book production (researching the book, invitations to contributors etc) and all the work when the book is published with marketing, trying to get reviews and spreading the word amongst the thousands of other titles. I spend a lot of time researching what magazines and venues which might be interested in looking at the book. The monster books are a challenge since I try to reach book bloggers and media also in the continents we cover: Africa, Asia etc. It is hard work but it is so satisfying when you see results.

 

Waxing Lyrical : Accept no Substitutes

Accept no Substitutes.

by Adele Wearing

Please see the Waxing Lyrical category for more information on being part of this series. 

***

A little while ago there was a lot of excitement over an openly gay character appearing in an established science fiction universe. The author was a straight white man. There is a lot of this going on, with writers recognising (at last) that people like to have the option of reading about characters more like them. The rise of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, targeting mainly the young adult arena, certainly drives this point home.

diverse books

In itself, this greater representation seems like a good thing. We do need diverse books, we need to see the real variety the world provides represented in our reading, so on the one hand, yes we should all be pleased people are writing more diverse characters. For one thing, it makes books a bit more interesting. For another it’s important that everyone recognises the need for diversity and engages with it the best they can. I just want to take a moment here to stress; no one is saying that anyone else shouldn’t write more diverse characters. Not here anyway.

Of course this apparent progress has given rise to its own issues. How valuable is diversity that is only page deep? What is it people really want? Do we want straight white cis men to be representing everyone? Is that actually diversity or is it just the old guard hanging on to their dominance of genre fiction by telling other people’s stories for them instead of letting them tell their own.

In awards terms this year; The Hugo’s have shown that women and writers of colour are more than capable of writing their own stories and representing themselves, so perhaps the industry needs to open up more space for that and let them. As a side note, the Clarke award demonstrated that it is still ok to be white and male in science fiction, it turns out you just have to write really great books (therein may lie the actual problem for many of the writers crying SJW).

speak for myself

It’s an insidious issue, because it’s easy to claim the mantle of ‘ally’ by writing diverse characters and it’s very difficult to challenge reasonably. After all it’s not generally that LGBT writers don’t want straight writers having LGBT characters, it’s just, they want a chance to write their own books, their own characters and tell their own stories their way. It’s a near perfect soap box, it’s hard to tell a man who is trying to be an ally to women that he’s not helping, especially as the intentions may be entirely genuine, but if women can’t be heard, can’t be seen due to the sheer number of men selling feminism, then isn’t that at risk of silencing women just as effectively as the people who openly tell them to sit down and be quiet? Effectively you are talking over them, drowning their voices out and you might as well order off the menu for them while you are at it.

It amounts to this for me. If you really want to be an ally draw gay writers into your discussions about gay characters, help them to share some of your platform and be heard.  Readers, if you really want to support diversity you need to read diverse books and that means you need to seek out diverse authors: Nnedi Okorafor, James Bennett, Tade Thompson, and Zen Cho are a few good starting points. You may have to look a little further but when it comes to diverse reading accept no substitutes.

What I Learned from Cult TV: Friendship is Magic

Cult TV show My Little Pony

This is about my My Little Pony epiphany. I have sighed my way through a lot of bad entertainment consumption with the Executive Princess, much of it day-glo and glittery. I think the bottom of the barrel might be Barbie’s Life in the Dream House but it could also apply to the endless package openings on YouTube where that woman with the grating voice goes into orgasmic raptures in that sing-song way over every product that she’s paid to drool over.

If you do not know her, be grateful.

So I expected no less of MLP, which originally kicked off in the 80s with a film promoting a toy line (the horror of that 80s animation! If you have seen that travesty, you know of what I speak: believe me, anything that Madeline Kahn cannot rescue is irredeemable). Sure, I had heard of Bronies and other cutesy appropriations as every pony knows, but considering the unearned fanaticism that makes some folks fawn over that saccharine Speilbergian horror, Goonies, I didn’t pay much attention. I figured it was another ‘I love it because I grew up with it’ phenomenon (I grew up with war pictures and Westerns: I do not generally love either). I really didn’t think MLP would be any different from, say, those interminable Strawberry Shortcake episodes (scarring, I assure you).

I certainly never expected to fight off tears watching MLP’s Rainbow Rocks.

Somehow a bunch of things collided in my head last summer while I first got immersed in Ponyville. I was also reading some Megan Abbott (Fever and then later The End of Everything) and also noticing stories like the Slenderman stabbing. They stirred up a lot of the best and worst of girlhood. There’s a darkness in it that no one much likes to admit; it can be a very claustrophobic world.

Girls lives are circumscribed by society. Much as we like to think we are free and liberal (all current evidence to the contrary), the truth remains that girls lives are tightly bound. At the far end of the spectrum, they’re literally locked away until handed over to a husband or some other patriarchal organisation; at the more lenient end, they’re hemmed in by social constructions that breed fear into their very skin. They’re both disparaged and protected. They don’t have a choice. So what happens?

Girls expand to fill the spaces allowed them.

It may be very little, it may be a little bit more. But it’s almost always less: less than they want, less than they need, leaving a permanent curvature to their psyches like bound feet. In countless ways they are encouraged to be girly: ‘you look so pretty!’ ‘isn’t she adorable?’ ‘just like a little lady.’

Yet ‘girly’ is usually a slur. I know, I’m still dealing with that one, being a former tomboy now step-monster to a quintessentially girly girl. Do you know how much glitter there is in this house? Everything seems to sparkle. It makes me feel like Lou Grant sometimes, because this girl: she’s got spunk and there is not enough pink in the world for her. She has lots of princess dresses and I don’t know how many Elsa dolls. She’s better at applying makeup and not even six. It’s not my thing: and she sighs at my mostly black clothes. She paints my nails. There’s a part of me that finds rebellion in that. Because girly gets sneers. What’s more derided in pop culture than girls and their selfies? Could it be because selfies allow girls to choose how they’re represented?

Me and Executive Princess

Because girls are never right: if they’re girly, they’re denying themselves—if they’re not girly, they’re denying everyone else (‘Can’t you wear a dress at least once in a while?’). I hear parents who claim they raise their boys and girls the same; I also hear them say things to the girls they would never say to the boys. That’s because I remember too well not being allowed to do things my brothers were allowed. Seldom said ‘because you’re a girl’ but I knew that was why.

Everything girly is tainted: pop stars, for example. Is there anyone more despised than the floppy-haired pop stars girls scream for? Cultural disdain for them is one of the few things seemingly everyone can get away with. Girls like those safe, sexless, moronic pop stars, you say. No, girls are allowed them. They channel all the passion that frightens their parents into cute and inoffensive stars. Look at all the audiences at Beatle concerts: the tears, the ecstatic expressions, the clenched fists and contorted bodies. Where else do girls get to show that? Read Abbott’s books: she’s great at revealing how girls’ desires terrify their parents — and often themselves.

One of the keys to surviving girlhood is friendship, but that’s problematic, too. Friendship when it’s manly is the stuff of Oscars and literary prizes: important. For girls it’s rivals and mean girls and frenemies, at least that’s what popular culture tells us. For girls friendship is both safety and danger. When Lauren Faust worked on MLP to demonstrate Friendship is Magic she delved into one of the most rich veins of human existence: the compressed world of girls’ power.

I’ll admit it: the MLP world is girly as girly can be: Twilight Sparkle, the solitary and bookish young royal, gets sent to Ponyville to understand the power of friendship. She hooks up with Flutter Shy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Apple Jack and Rarity to discover this strange thing just in time to deal with a real crisis—the return of Nightmare Moon! Okay, if you’re still with me, this is a lot more charming than the cutesy names indicate (which were chosen by marketers after all). The dialogue of the show is often clever and there’s loads of winking references and homages (especially in the music and the music is often really good).

The essence of MLP’s world is the elements of harmony: everyone is valued for their unique abilities. The 1984/Harrison Bergeron-esque episode ‘The Cutie Map’ makes this point well. The ponies go to the mysterious village and discover its chilling appropriation of the equality sign in an attempt to make everyone in the village the same. Blah blah blah libertarian blah: the more interesting aspect comes out when our heroines start bickering over how to deal with the situation. One of the villagers asks them with alarm if their friendship is ending. The ponies are surprised because they bicker all the time: they’re all so different after all. For the villagers, however, difference = danger.

The episode hits at the fear wrapped up in girls’ friendships: that tension between wanting to be safe and trusted versus the knowledge that they have power over someone and want to test it. Girls have power over so little. The nice thing about MLP is that they demonstrate all the ways that friendships can be stressed by these differences—the anger and the frustration—but they also show the rewards of bringing those differences together to celebrate their community. Not just each other: their community, their town Ponyville and all of Equestria. But it’s never easy.

You see, the thing I hadn’t anticipated was how dark MLP gets. One of the monsters they fight is a creature called Discord. His chief evil is turning all the friends against each other. Of course they need to come together to fight him and he’s vanquished by being turned into stone, yet the discord between the friends causes them a great deal of pain. Like Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings or Lord Tirek, antagonists are often removed or neutralized, but sometimes they’re brought back and rehabilitated. One of the foundational myths of Equestria is that Princess Luna is the restored Nightmare Moon. Even Discord’s magic is believed to have its uses. No one is doomed to being evil.

Rainbow Rocks

In the Equestria Girls narratives (where the ponies become girls in an alternate world no there’s no time to explain, just roll with it) this idea of reclaiming those who would abuse power is key. In the first EG film Sunset Shimmer tries to steal Equestrian magic for her own self-aggrandizement. The girls stop her selfish use of power with their collective cooperation, which Twilight Sparkle spends most of the story building because in this world, the friendships had soured. Despite the anger and hurt from misunderstandings,  that cooperation is something they all yearn for—and its power. Power for yourself alone is bad. There’s nothing wrong with competition (ask Rainbow Dash!) but when you think the world revolves around you, the girls will stop you.

Even more interesting is the follow-up Equestria Girls adventure, my fave Rainbow Rocks. You know I’m a sucker for a battle of the bands. The songs are seriously good pop songs. Part of the appeal of the story is that Sunset Shimmer spends most of the story being cold-shouldered for her past mistakes, even when she tries to help make things better. Twilight Sparkle insists on her being part of the gang, but the others find it difficult to get over her previous bad behaviour. Her outsider status allows her to see the clashes that begin to crack up their tight relationships, though of course no one wants to listen to her.

As their rivals, the magically powered Dazzlings, gain power—all for the glory of Adagio Dazzle (‘We Will Be Adored’)—the girls bicker bitterly with each other, trapped below the stage for the finale. Escaping by luck, they almost succeed in the supernatural fight, but the Dazzlings are too powerful what with their magic amulets. It’s only when the Equestria Girls realise they need to truly welcome Sunset Shimmer—not just tolerate her presence—that they have the power to stand up to the magical assault from the Dazzlings (also thanks to DJ Pon-3’s cool mobile DJ station–the unsung heroine!).

It may not sound like much, but it chokes me up every time. There’s just something about the exile being welcomed at last, the outsider invited in. Maybe all the scorned hope for understanding. We may only get it in fiction, yet it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m lucky: I have a secret cabal of powerful, creative, magical women in my corner (though literally around the world). It didn’t happen over night and there are always some bumps along the road. I know how important it is to tend that garden (she says mixing metaphors like assorted nuts). It’s essential to have that kind of support. We need to be there to call bullshit on those negative messages women all hear just because we’re female. There’s an incredible power in testifying, ‘No, it’s not just you’—that many of us have been in the same situation–especially when all the other voices of experience avalanche like candy from a piñata.

I’m hoping the that uphill battle is changing. While it’s a bit hard to believe as we inhale the last poisonous gasp of truly toxic misogyny, I’m hanging on for tomorrow. Largely because there’s this Executive Princess here. I want to see what she’s becoming. I’ve got a feeling it will be something amazing. When the generation of girls who bellow along with ‘Let It Go!’ come to power, we all better hang on to our hats.

I don’t care / what they’re going to say / let the storm rage on / the cold never bothered me anyway. [door slam]

Elsa slams door

Waxing Lyrical : Life after Law by Emma Heath

Life after Law: screenwriting festivals, writing competitions, and kaleidoscope tunnels

You know those Where I Write columns in writing magazines, in which authors are photographed in pastel-coloured sheds, or high-ceilinged rooms adorned with rows and rows of (inevitably highbrow) books? That was SO NOT ME back when I discovered Fox Spirit in 2012.

At the time, I was a bushy-tailed trainee at a corporate law firm, and I used to scribble away at my short story submissions on the train, hemmed in by zombified commuters. While the human equivalent of Droopy snored in my ear, I’d whisk myself off to the enchanted realms of space pirates, magicked kings, and shapeshifting baddies.

The problem was that Fox Spirit fantasy quickly became so much more enchanting than Corporate Law reality, and I’d find myself sneaking off to the firm’s canteen, or to a toilet cubicle, to continue writing. Then the partners would get grumpy (those millions don’t make themselves, after all) and I’d get told off.

For a while, I coped with a snatched twenty minutes here and stolen ten minutes there, but it soon became obvious – 30,000 words into a novel, and moving at 150 words a day – that I was grinding to a literary halt under the pressures of law. I was no longer bright eyed and bushy tailed; I was a cynical, grizzled old fox.

In 2014, I met up with an old university friend who’d started screenwriting. I was a prolific playwright at primary school, but for some irrational reason had always been daunted by it as an adult. But over drinks one night, Kath convinced me to give it a shot, and I quickly found that (a) with fewer words, I could more easily squeeze a screenplay into my spare moments, and (b) I FRICKING LOVED IT!

I got shortlisted for a couple of screenwriting competitions, and in 2015 I decided to figuratively dive in, and booked a ticket to the London Screenwriters’ Festival, a three-day festival full of talks, script surgeries, actors’ table reads, and – most excitingly – Pitchfest (where delegates get to pitch to agents and producers).

emma

In the meantime, I had HAD ENOUGH of corporate law. I handed in my notice in July, and waved goodbye on 4th September (taking a dip in the office fountain on my way out). Part of me was thinking “What the bleeding heck am I doing?” but the flood of relief I experienced as I walked away from that stark beige building told me it was the right thing to do.

I started managing a tuition centre – I wasn’t yet ready to go it alone – and then in October headed to Regent’s Park for the LSF. Well, wow, did that blow away some cobwebs and drag out my own personal Wonder Woman (the unofficial LSF mascot)! I learnt things – including writing wisdom from Chris McQuarrie (of The Usual Suspects fame); I had a script MOT; I made new friends; I pitched, and managed to interest two producers in my work. I came away with goosebumps, and definitely ready to push things up a gear.

LSF runs Create50, which is a series of initiatives designed to get writers and filmmakers’ work published and produced. They run script projects (resulting in feature films) and short story projects (resulting in anthologies), and I entered both. The awesome thing about Create50 is that rather than just sending your work off and waiting for a “yay” or “nay”, you upload it to the website and then other writers get to feedback on your work, while you get the chance to submit two redrafts.

I got sucked into the Create50 matrix at the end of November, and was spat out in the New Year, having reviewed 130 other scripts, and made massive developments to my own. It was exhilarating, and educating, and I made a lot of new writer friends. I also got longlisted, which to be honest felt like simply an added bonus by the end.

I wanted to get MORE INVOLVED in this magical world of writing and writers. So I started doing volunteer work for Create50, helping draft some contracts (thank you, corporate law!) and then helping develop and launch the latest initiative, Singularity50, a short story project exploring the years leading up to, and the moment of, the Singularity.

POster vers 1 copy

And… last month I was taken on as a paid employee at London Screenwriters’ Festival! Now I get goosebumps most days, just going to work. I feel like I’m living in those enchanted realms I dreamt of on the train.

Why have I told you all this? Well, for one thing, to highlight how awesome Fox Spirit is at touching, and bringing to 252the surface, a part of you which has been neglected and buried by the System – or whatever you want to call that Very-Serious-and-Important-Adult-Society that shakes its head at pretend lightsaber fights and dancing in a wooded glade.

And also – and I’m focusing in particular on any of you scribbling away in a corner of a commuter train – to whisper into your ear and tell you to find the rabbit hole and bloody well throw yourself down it! There are kaleidoscope lights at the end of the tunnel, and it’s WONDERFUL.

Waxing Lyrical : Orange is the New Black by Ferdinand Page

(If you are interested in writing for Waxing Lyrical please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk)

Orange_is_the_new_Black

For every fiction writer, the book shares roughly the same gestation period of a newborn infant. On arrival, both share the same fate; however special, individual and unique, it gets a label stuck on it.

At the submission stage the infant book must be allocated an age range, readership and genre(s), rather like, to quote the magnificent Della in Raised By Wolves, “pushing an enraged otter into a jumpsuit.” When I drew up the first submission letter, I admit I’d pushed the idea of writing for the market around the plate, until my writer’s stomach rebelled, but the book was what it wanted to be by then, characters and plot repeatedly hijacked by a story which wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Unpacking the phrase I admit I’d pushed the idea of writing for the market in the interests of explanatory splainy, my first experience of writing commercially was on the fringes of a big concept. I got sucked in, like that time the Millenium Falcon got sucked into the pull of the Death Star, then spent a lot of time in start-up production companies in Soho or whatever space the leading commercial creative could cadge for meetings. Mostly it was in cafés where I found I was paying the bill. My bit of the project was to adjust the story to accommodate various amazeballs marketing opportunities. So Billy wasn’t dyslexic, he was a skateboarder; it was partly manga so the production company could play around with a very cool technique they were developing, but the sound therapy and dynamic yoga had to get in there somewhere. We were up to seven interlocking universes by the time I said I was losing my way a little amongst the high-concept stuff and I’d like to write my own book.

I still had Billy and he was dyslexic but everything else was completely different. Until the obvious market demands were removed, I didn’t realize the biggest force on writing in any genre, even bigger than the Death Star, is the story, an unstoppable, sucky, manipulative force breaking and re-making the outline and carefully constructed arcs of the first few drafts.

At some point the story has to be shoved, kicking and snarling, into the constraints of commercial publishing and marketing. Readers are as wide and diverse as people, but books go on shelves. Which shelf? You have to get slotty, or shelvish which is the same thing but looks like Lionel Bloom and has pointed ears. First you are brave and upfront in describing the book as written for, well anyone really, then you use the word crossover, then you realise you’ve gone over to the dark side and in a couple of sentences you’re going to stab Han Solo your own father between the second and third ribs. Didn’t you hate that bit? I hated that bit.

It gets worse. Having removed a few genre crossovers because anything that difficult to shelve isn’t going to get past the first submission (good plan) you find that the label your story goes under, the shelf allocation for your genre, isn’t fashionable.

Orange is the new black in your genre.

There is only one label left, the one they tie on the body in the morgue? No. Genre is always a matter of labelling, and the market in publishing is subject to fashions. As labels go, my speculative fiction is mainly urban fantasy. Some months ago an agent told me they were “not taking urban fantasy”, which another source informed me was, well – dead. But whatever the label, and still under that label, urban fantasy exists.

You can choose another label, my submission letter now refers to ‘contemporary fiction’, or invent your own, or push it as retro-pastiche.

But don’t try and hack the unfashionable genre out of the story. The story knows what it is and fashions in genre apart, it is what it is. Stick whatever label on it you need to, what gets the book published is the story.

Trust the story.

Waxing Lyrical : The Business of Writing by Haralambi Markov

If you are interested in taking part in the Waxing Lyrical series please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk

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So You’ve Sold Your Writing…

(What Happens Next & Other Conundrums)

No two careers are alike in our field though one thing remains constant – you get paid for the work you do, unless you agree to do it for exposure (in which case, I hope you know that most living things die from exposure). What I’m saying is that once you start selling, you’re going to transform into a business and a player in the Great Game of Finance, something I didn’t at all grasp when I sold my first story back in 2012 at the age of 23.

I’d grown up in a financially inept family that’s always in debt and without additional income outside my parents’ main employment. Prior to my first sale, I’ve held positions in the tourist industry and several offices – all situations where the employer paid benefits and taxed my income as an expense. I never had a reason to know how to interpret the intricate rituals at the National Revenue Agency in Bulgaria, so I was in for a rude awakening when I finally had a reason to interact with the NRA.

How do I declare income? What is expected of me after I send in the right paperwork? What are the deadline for filing taxes for the previous year and how the hell do I make sense out of the form? Bulgaria as it turns out has a rather archaic, convoluted system, which feels as if it’s made to confuse regular people and make sure accountants never go out of clients. Perhaps in your country the set-up is different. Either way you need to get a feel for the lay of the land as soon as you start submitting your work, because I’m pretty sure failure to declare income is a subject to fines.

accounts

As I transitioned from the nine-to-five office lifestyle to freelancing as a copywriter (not quite identical to fiction writing, but a useful parallel for writers who have enough projects going), I had to file even more paperwork to the point where I hired an accountant to file my invoices and interact with the NRA on my behalf. This has only resulted in additional expenses on my part as I’m in charge of paying benefits, accountant fees, income tax every trimester and once I file an overall annual income declaration, I may have additional fees to pay (don’t ask).

This is where budgeting comes in. Before, I relied on steady income and as long as I had cash in my wallet until paycheck, I thought I was doing fine. Now, I have to plan for my spending in advance, factor vital expenses and always secure a small financial cushion for unexpected ones. I wish I had been smart enough to budget at the start so I’d have something to save me during my first dry spell in my freelancing when no work came and rent was due.

Fiction writers experience this dip in income due to how irregular payments can be. I waited a year or so to receive a payment for a short story once. Novelists are used to receiving spaced out payments. I recommend these articles by Chuck Wendig and Kameron Hurley that go into greater detail on the subject of advances. You can never rely on a paycheck. Budgeting has helped me mimic the stability I once enjoyed at my office jobs. It’s a hard trick to pull off and I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but those are the risks when you pursue a career in the arts.

filing

International writers who target US markets will also come in contact with the W-8BEN form – a means to avoid double taxation, since short story payments are subject to a 30% flat tax in the US. Bulgaria mercifully has an Income Tax Treaty with the United States, so filling out the W-8BEN form saves me from this 30% rate and my income is only subject to Bulgarian tax rates.

Has your country signed such a treaty? Is the W-8BEN applicable in your case? How do you fill out this form (you’ll be thankful to know it comes with thorough instructions)? All great questions to answer before you get to sign your first contract, but even if you don’t, the good thing about our field is that people are helpful and patient. I wouldn’t learn as much without a published friends reading my first contracts to check, if they’re all right, and helping me make sense of forms.

Turning writing into a career with its financial obligations is a long-term process. However, those who learn early to look at their craft as a business, too, have a much easier time later on.

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/09/23/peaks-and-valleys-the-financial-realities-of-the-writers-life/

http://www.kameronhurley.com/the-cold-publishing-equations-books-sold-marketability-love/

 

Waxing Lyrical : Not Working 9-5 by Theresa Derwin

Not 9-5 by Theresa Derwin

I’m not Dolly Parton (though I share some of her assets) yet I can still see the allure of working 9 ~ 5. But sometimes, it just isn’t possible.

I spent a good hour the other night chatting online to a fellow writer. As the chat progressed I discovered he has had a long term health condition since age nine, just as he discovered I’ve been ill for ten years and lost my job in 2011 because of the very utilitarian nature of the job. To cut a long story short, I suffer primarily from Fibromyalgia which manifests as exhaustion (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and muscular pain and spasms. The day job didn’t offer the right level of reasonable adjustments at that time to help me to stay in work. But things have changed since this. I adapted, made changes to my life style, discovered spoons (more on that later) and started submitting stories. Pretty soon I was getting acceptances and working in a way that felt write for me. And I’m not alone in this.
It’s not an unusual story. If I had a penny for every artist, writer or other creative with a health problem I’d be rich!

Which brings me to my next point. I had a form to fill in for official reasons recently. A form in which I would declare my weekly hours, rate of pay and employer.
Employer: Self/No one
Rate of pay: LMAO
Weekly hours: As many as I can manage between 4 – 8 per week, normally as vampires rise and other good little day folk go to bed.

So, why am I writing this?
Because ‘one size’ does not fit all.
What I’ve found in my time since becoming self employed is that there are a lot of folk like me. Creatives who work on the cusp of dawn, because they can only work when their strength allows them to. This is where spoon theory comes in, along with pacing and adaptations to my ‘workspace’ I.e. The sofa.
I’ll start with adaptions.
I learnt the hard way about three years ago, that with my condition I can’t sit at a standard desk and work 9 – 5.
I sleep odd hours, have restless nights and find it difficult using a laptop, because of the physical position and actually lifting it up. But there are ways and means.
I use an iPad. I’ve downloaded Word (basic version) and Evernote to my iPad to work on. I start a story or a blog/book review on Evernote. When the first draft is ready, I’ll email it to myself, copy it from my inbox using my finger and then insert to a brand new Word document saved to my ‘Cloud’. I have loads of fantastic friends in the community who support me, so I’ll generally forward that document to beta readers for proof Reading or editing.
When it come back, that’s when I worry about managing Tge edits, which I have to do on the laptop.
Occasionally a friend will tweak the edits for me. There are also other pieces of software such as Dragon Dictate that can help. Of course, I reckon I’d have problems teaching it to understand Brummie.
Then we get to the crux of the matter; spoons and pacing.
I’ve already mentioned my terrible sleeping patterns. This often means I’m awake between three and six am, which is when I write. At least, working for myself, I don’t have to ‘clock in’. But if I get excited an overdo it, I know about it the next day, I can tell you! So I pace myself using spoon theory.

Imagine you’re fit and well, work a day job and have six ‘spoons’ to last all day. One spoon is getting ready for work and travelling home. Three spoons are the 9 – 5 activities and it costs another spoon travelling home then cooking dinner for the family. You only have one spoon left to use that evening on household tasks, hobbies or family time.
Now, imagine you have a long term health condition or disability. Imagine further, that getting up and out of bed costs a spoon, because it takes more of your limited energy. Getting showered and dressed takes another spoon. That’s two spoons gone, four left, and you haven’t even started thinking about eating or travelling, let alone working. You get the idea, so far. What it means in real terms, is you most likely have to work weird hours and part time hours.
Next, you decide to go to a convention. It’s necessary for your creative work. Besides, you meet friends there, and it’s bloody good fun.
So, you have to get ready and travel. Three spoons are gone. Let’s say you’re staying over, so minimal spoons needed to get back to your hotel. That leaves you three spoons for the entire convention. That’s why you’ll often see me spending mornings attending panels listening but sitting, or taking actual part on a panel later in the day, when my energy levels have increased and I’ve ‘gathered’ more spoons.
And if you don’t see me at breakfast the next morning? It’s probably because I can’t get out of bed. The aftermath of a weekend con normally takes me four days to recover from. And I know I’m not the only one.

spoons

So, the odds are if there are writers or artists like me out there, they’ll never make a true living. But what they’ll get is so much more important;
Self esteem
Creative free will
A voice ‘out there’
The chance to try a job without the 9 – 5 mentality and prejudice
I’m proud of the £15.83 I’ve earned this year.
It’s mine.
My talents netted that value.
And you know what? If I keep fighting, if I keep plugging away. One day, it might be more.
Thought it’s not about the money.
It’s about pride,
Pride for a job well done.
So, if you see a blog or a post from an author or an artist, remember this; they are sharing their soul with you this day.
Remember to share yours back.

Waxing Lyrical : What if I told you… by Alec McQuay

Welcome to the waxing lyrical series in 2016. I did a small number of these posts last year and have decided to change things up this year. The series is now open to any creative (writers, artists, publishers, editors, musicians etc) who want to air their opinions on the creative industries, from any perspective. If you are interested in contributing please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk for more information. The only real rule is no personal attacks, we don’t have to agree with you but we won’t support attacking a person or group of people. 

Without further ado, Alec McQuay with some thoughts on positivity and support in the new year.  It’s a bit sweary in places.

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What if I told you… by Alec McQuay

morpheus

Today, I’m going to have a little moan. Not about the gym, or at least not SPECIFICALLY about the gym, but on the subject of support.

It’s January at the time of writing this and the hills are alive with the sound of lives turning around, glass ceilings being smashed, goals being set and demons conquered and honestly, I think it’s brilliant. Even if a lot of the things people are promising themselves never come to fruition they’ve at least made that important first step of realising they’ve got a problem, or that there’s something in their lives that they want or something they wish to strive for. Say what you like about resolutions but pretty much everyone who achieves anything begins with that knowledge.

Now, that cheeky little meme up there. I find it funny, but it also irritates the living crap out of me, and not just because the lack of a question mark. Online and out in the wild I hear two things very often that tie into that poster for me. The first is that a person is unhappy with their health, fitness, weight or appearance and the other is that a person “has a book in them” or is struggling with their writing, getting published, getting a published book sold or whatever. That’s just my circle of friends and relations and your mileage will vary, but I’d bet good money against bad that we have something in our lives that people around us wish they could achieve. It might be signing up to the Open University, or learning to draw, learning a new language, getting a promotion, moving to a bigger house so they can finally have a baby, finally having two pennies to scratch their ass with…

There isn’t always anything you can do, but don’t hold other people back. It takes confidence to make a change in your life and that can be in short supply for some, for some people it’s never in anything but short supply, so when they finally do something the last thing they need is shit to make it harder. Especially from the people they call friends.

I’m not saying you have to take an interest in things that bore you senseless, but if you’ve got nothing constructive to add, would it kill you to just keep scrolling? If someone tells you they’ve finally managed to finish their manuscript, that’s not your moment to tell them you’ve always wanted to write a book but don’t have the time, or any one of the other bullshit excuses I’ve ever heard. Writing a book is hard for a lot of people and when they finally skid over the finish line, their radiator bursts, oil shoots into the air and all their wheels fall off, that’s their moment. It’s not yours. Back the fuck up a bit. You can have your turn later. Not now, Bernard.

Before you make some comment about “What if I told you you can go to the gym / dinner / on a date / get drunk / read a book / write a book / go to a movie / pass your degree / survive childbirth / teach your kid to ride a bike / complete Mortal Kombat without losing a single life (yeah right) / pass your driving test / learn Mandarin without telling Facebook about it,” try to remember that the people you put down today might well be the people you want support from in the future. Try to remember that what isn’t important to you might be the most important thing in another person’s life and that every now and then, all it takes is one last shitty, passive-aggressive, inconsiderate comment from someone to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down on them.

Chances are, there’s something you love that I would think was pretty stupid, but what do I know? I’m a 30 year old man who watches cartoons, plays with toy soldiers, thinks picking up heavy things is entertaining and emotionally fulfilling and writes stories in his spare (ha, “spare”) time. Try and be a bit supportive of people if you can, and if you can’t?

Jog the fuck on.