Monday, September 1, 2014

What's Wrong with Tit for Tat?

I self-published my first novel this year, on Kindle in March and again for Print-on-Demand via CreateSpace in July. Like every indy author out there, I've been scrambling for reviews. Ten years ago, the number of reviewers online appears to have been sufficient for the number of active authors. At the time, new book review websites seemed to be popping up every day, begging authors for review copies and responding with  thorough and vivid reviews. Fortunately, many of those review websites are still active, and about half (just an educated guess) still provide instructions for submitting books for reviews. The rest often still maintain posted instructions for submitting reviews but also have added notices that they are no longer accepting reviews or have suspended acceptance of unsolicited reviews for some unspecified period.

In the past four months, I've posted about five dozen requests for review. I've received only three return offers to accept my submissions, and none of those reviewers have yet responded with a review. I've also asked several of my readers for Amazon reviews. So far, only one has responded by posting an Amazon review. The other two reviews Gifts received on Amazon were unsolicited. Remarkably, the unsolicited reviews are both outstanding and were quite humbling. I'm grateful for what I've received, but it would be good to get some broader coverage. Like, I suppose, any indy author, I believe my novel is well-written and worth the read. I'd like to believe it's as good as the reviewers on Amazon claim (the first reviewer said the book deserves 6 stars out of 5), but I would still like to see a broader range of inputs. And yeah, to be perfectly honest, I would also like to make a little more money on the novel, considering how much time and effort went into it.

With these concerns in mind, I've looked into the efforts of other indy authors. How did they get the word out? How do they manage to turn enthusiastic reader responses into enthusiastic word of mouth? I've seen a lot of interesting advertising in this regard, and frankly, a lot of it strikes me as just plain wrong. At last year's WorldCon in San Antonio, for example, I saw a number of indy authors hawking their books in the merchants' area. Authors handed out bookmarks, coasters, leaflets, even ball caps printed with their book title, a logo from the cover, or even a copy of the cover image. Some of these freebies included URLs for accessing free copies of the books in question. I'm sorry to say, the three such novels (ebooks) I looked at were universally bad—badly written, grammatically flawed, clumsily plotted, full of lifeless characters and bland morals. Why do so many seem to think the ease of publishing an ebook means good writing is no longer necessary? And what's with all the zombies and vampires? Perhaps I just missed the good books that were being promoted in this fashion. I hope that's the case. I hope one of those clever entrepreneurs was promoting a little-known masterwork. Sturgeon's Law, right?

Still in all, the pushy, heavy-handed sales methods I saw at the WorldCon have the virtue of being, at least, honest. I never felt that any of those authors were being anything but straightforward and enthusiastic. I wish I could say the same of the games I've seen other indy authors pulling via Facebook and Twitter and in the Amazon reader reviews. Recently, I saw another author complain about indy authors who attempt to sell their wares on Twitter. She said that she is quick to unfollow anyone who does such a thing. Another practice she says she unfollows is authors who quote their own novels. I knew exactly the authors she meant. I've seen them do this in an attempt to gain interest for their novels. I suppose, if the quotes were at all interesting, that might be worthwhile, but seriously, how much context can you establish in 140 characters? Those quote tweets are typically just silly. Still, silly strikes me far less a misdemeanor than the evil of tit-for-tat requests.

Ironically, just before the first time I saw one of these requests, I read a blog entry from another author who recommended against offering to review someone else's work in return for a review. He said (more or less, I'm not quoting) such a choice involved too many minefields. What if the other author's work sucks? If she gives you a five-star review, are you beholden to return the favor? Or what if she just doesn't like your novel? Ultimately, if you offer to cross-review another author, you'll run into one or the other of these situations: either one of you is dishonest or one of you winds up feeling cheated. Even if you both give one another good reviews, one of you could inadvertently insult the other. Some people don't take criticism at all well. For example, I recently had an incident in which another author tweeted a line from her own works about a belly dancer and included the phrase "with a clinking of cymbals." Now, I saw nothing actually wrong with the overall quote; in fact, I rather liked her use of verbs. I had one tiny problem with the sentence. The word cymbals jarred me out of the moment. When I read cymbals, I think of 18" diameter pieces of spun brass, one held in either hand, crashing together. To me, cymbals don't clink. So, I tweeted back, "@<author's name> just an FYI, those little finger cymbals are called 'zills.'"

From the author's response, you'd think I'd just written a scathing one-star review of her novel. In response, she posted that she knows what they're called and that she had been teaching belly dancing for several years.  She also listed a couple other names for zills. I apologized in a direct message, explained that I'd meant no criticism of anything but her use of the word cymbals. She told me I was "arrogant" to offer my one-word correction without first finding out about her background (think about that: before mentioning a word choice disagreement, I'm supposed to review her CV), unfollowed me, and tweeted out several angry versions of how I had criticized her entire oeuvre as inaccurate based on some passing acquaintance I'd had with belly dancers in the past. Not one word of what she posted was true, but after a half-dozen such malicious tweets, I unfollowed her. I know, some of the people on Twitter are not altogether there, but I never expected such a violent response to a disagreement over one word.

Now, imagine what might have happened if I'd agreed to trade reviews with someone like that. Clearly, anything anyone says by way of critique is out to get her. Worse, I've seen what happens with the opposite end of the tit-for-tat review scale. Earlier this week, I was followed by an indy epic fantasy writer who self-published his premier ebook on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) and CreateSpace, about a year ago. Currently, he's selling the ebook for 99 cents (the paperback for $9.49), and I went to the Amazon page to have a look. I read the author's product description for the novel, and I was disappointed. The summary is hard to read, it throws in too many characters and tries to give too much information about everything happening across multiple races, including passing judgment on each character's motivation, while spouting dozens of cliches and managing to really tell nothing much of any consequence about the novel. In a phrase, the description is badly written. In my experience, this bodes ill for the novel. I know, everyone makes mistakes now and then, and most of us hate writing those synopses, and a typo or even a missing word or two I can overlook. When the entire description is such a mess, I usually find the author's works in exactly the same state.

Still, this author has accumulated 18 Amazon reader reviews: 14 five-star,  four four-star, and one two-star. Not a bad set of reviews, I thought. As usual, I checked the outlier first: the two-star review. I expected to see the usual two-star review—a pair of angry sentences disdaining some minor aspect of the author's work or complaining that he was just another hack ripping off Tolkien or Pratchett or Martin. Instead, I found a detailed, multi-paragraph review of the novel, describing what the reader (Alexander Crommich, who also operates one of those book review websites) found promising in the work but also carefully explaining what the reviewer believes are the author's weaknesses and foibles. Despite the length and thoroughness of the review, it doesn't read like an English teacher or professional editor taking apart and examining every little nit. The two-star review reads like an earnest effort to help the author.

Next, I looked over the five- and four-star reviews. Most of them were written within two weeks of the book's publication and appear to have the same voice. I hate to cast such aspersions, but that voice is awfully similar to the author's voice (in his product description). A few of the positive reviews are from other indy authors who admit they are writing reviews as a favor for a fellow author based on interactions in social media. Altogether, the four- and five-star reviews are badly written and as jam-packed with cliches as the product description. Deciding that I wanted to write this blog post, I surrendered my 99 cents and purchased the ebook. Perhaps I can be faulted for approaching the work with too much prejudice, but I really hoped I was going to be pleasantly surprised and find a hidden gem. Sadly, the book reads pretty much like Crommich says. It's a misshapen conglomeration of tenses, peppered throughout with cliches and just all 'round bad writing. Metaphors are mixed; descriptions tend to be highly detailed without delivering up much real information; subject-verb agreement is often lost in the mess; the author seems to confuse telling us what's going to happen for foreshadowing; heroes and villains alike are stereotypes; and the entire plot reads like a ripoff of Moorcock's Eternal Champion series (long-dead hero rises from the grave to kick ass and restore the Cosmic Balance between the forces of Law and Chaos) filtered through someone's Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

I considered returning the ebook and writing my own one-star review, but—screw it. Let the guy keep his $0.64. As for a review, all I'd be saying would be tantamount to "Look at Crommich's review. He nailed it. Don't waste your money." You may have noticed that I did not mention the author's name or the name of the book. Nor will I. Yes, it's a badly written book. Yes, I feel shenanigans are at play in the author's accumulation of unwarranted positive reviews. Just as with the psycho-author who turned a one-word disagreement on Twitter into a war over the validity of her every written word, I will not lambaste someone in a public forum. I would like to see those fallacious four- and five-star reviews go away, but as I really have no solid evidence of wrongdoing on the author's part, that wish will have to remain a personal preference.

(Now, I will privately, however, point any curious individual to the Amazon page of the novel in question. Drop me a line, and you can read the reviews and decide for yourself. I strongly recommend you not buy the novel, though. Trust Crommich's review.)

My point? When it comes to reviews, tit-for-tat is a bad contract. Bypassing the obvious point that authors who agree to such nonsense are unlikely to give an honest assessment of your work, even a writer you admire can occasionally produce a work of lesser quality. What are you going to do then? Pretend the lesser work is worthy of praise because she usually produces good work? Bad plan. Better to avoid these contracts altogether.

NB: I am not saying authors should never review the work of other authors. Author reviews are among of the best reviews. I just don't think any strings ought to be attached to the review requests—especially not "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Bit More on that Sequel

As I explained  before, Gifts pretty much said everything I wanted to say about my four changeling characters. Thus, initially, I considered the novel a complete, standalone product. Since my primary interest is in SF with a political or police-procedural bent, having completed my first Urban Fantasy was something of a relief.

It's not that I didn't enjoy writing the book. I got to know and respect my characters; some of their voices I'll probably be hearing in my sleep for years to come. Creating a system of magic, however, and maintaining a semblance of verisimilitude in descriptions of that system is something of a pain in the ass. It's rather like creating a new branch of science, complete with axioms, laws, and theorems. Just the simple act of keeping in mind which principles are inviolable and which are merely traditional becomes something of a headache. I solved a large set of problems by simply postulating that my system of magic would not violate the First Law of Thermodynamics. Of course, most magic in epic fantasy is designed precisely to allow violating that Law, so I was, in a sense, making things hard for myself. It's not all that difficult to manage, though. It's just a matter of controlling the scope of the system in any given conjuration. Of course, that's only one aspect of the magical system I devised. I also had to specify—off-stage, so to speak—classifications of magic, sources of power, methods of spell casting. I had to decide whether names like mage, sorcerer, witch, wizard, and thaumaturge had any caste significance (they don't) and how I would differentiate between conjuration, manifestation, transformation, glamour, illusion and how or in what manner I would invoke clairvoyance, clairaudience, prescience, and telepathy.

Ultimately, it was that system of magic (and two other lacunae I'll address in a moment) that convinced me I still had a wealth of story-potential begging to be tapped. Before I could get the continuation of Gifts corralled into some semblance of plot, I had to come up with a framework. The system of magic provided that framework. Actually, it was a combination of the system of magic and the politics of the collective of mages (which—both the politics and the collective—I only hinted at in Gifts) that gave me the outline for the series, which I currently plan to include Talents and a third book yet to be named. In Gifts, one of the first claims Melchior makes is that no written record exists describing the Supernal Fyrd. No histories; no biographies; no directory of mages; no books of spells, runes, incantations; no compendia of rules, regulations, laws, traditions, best practices—not even a (much needed) glossary of magical terms. Now, while it's easy to justify such a tradition, it's damned near impossible to police it. Nor, in a world of 10,000 mages hiding among seven billion mundanes, is consensus on such a practice likely. Zane, the antagonist of Gifts, says he doesn't consider himself a member of the Fyrd nor subject to their legislation. Surely, I thought, others would share this attitude. I began compiling a likely structure of the politics of the Fyrd, and the plot followed.

As for those lacunae, first, I wanted to explore at least one case of the opposite transformation: one female-to-male transition. The patriarchal hegemony is, sadly, alive and—eh, I wouldn't say it's "well," but it isn't showing many signs of dying. The vast majority of US Senators are male. We still haven't elected a woman president or VP, and the average woman in the US still only makes $0.79 for every dollar her male counterpart makes. Sexism alone might be enough to make remaining male worthwhile for a woman magically transformed to male. Of course, the transformation is still difficult, energy intensive, and would likely require a loss of life to accomplish. All good reasons not to try reversing such a change.

The other lacuna I meant to address in Gifts (it just never seemed to fit anywhere) is a matter of how people in a supposedly-scientific, civil society react to magic. I think magic could easily be all around us, and that we ourselves would provide the majority of the propaganda of disbelief as a matter of course. If, for example, a man were standing on a sidewalk in the downtown area of any major city and suddenly collapsed into a pile of serpents, which then wriggled out of his clothing and writhed en masse into the gutter and down a nearby storm drain, how do you think onlookers would respond? I believe they'd applaud. Even if several people videoed the entire event on their smart phones, pundits, panelists, entertainers, and "experts" would spend the next day or so dissecting the event on the news. Every unexplained glint of light would be proof of mirrors. Speculation would abound that this event was advertising for a coming movie, TV special, or broadway extravaganza. Holographic projection and such names as Chris Angel, David Copperfield, and Penn & Teller would be bandied about. Do you seriously believe anyone would openly say, "I think it's a magical transformation"? Of course not. Everyone knows such a thing is impossible. Denial is a powerful weapon, and we tend to wield it against ourselves.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Writing a Sequel

So, I finally got the trade paperback version of Gifts (publication on demand) up and for sale via CreateSpace.
Kathy did a brilliant job on the book design. Take a look with the Amazon LookInside feature to get some idea how the whole thing turned out.

Also, if you buy the trade paperback, the Kindle version is free.

For the past few months, I've been trying, off and on, to write a sequel to Gifts. I say "off and on because" I've also been working on another novel (a very stubborn novel) and occasional short works. Anyway, I'm finally making progress. The sequel has a definite direction, so to celebrate, I've put the ebook version of Gifts on sale for the following week. Act early this week and get the electronic version of Gifts for just $2.99.

Gifts concentrated on the effects of a curse on four men turned into women and unable to turn back. Their experience was my primary concern in Gifts, but in thinking about following up with a continuation of their story, the scope has expanded considerably. In Talents, Angelica and Georgia are still major players, but their personal interests are less important. Talents is about the larger question of how to survive as a mage in a world where, generally, only the gifted know that magic is a real possibility. I'm calling the series the Unofficial History of the Supernal Fyrd of the Gifted and Talented. The book I'm currently writing, Talents, will be book two of a trilogy. Book three is not yet named.

Just as a taste, here's the opening paragraphs of Talents.

Angelica closed her eyes and saw the man as clearly as if he stood there in the closet-sized space with her: head shaved a few days before and now covered in a thin scurf that outlined a receding hairline, taller than average height, thin but strong, the tendons on his wrists standing out like tram cables. The tension in his wrists was because of the guns. They looked light, plastic, almost like boxy toys, but the strain in his arms told the truth about their weight. The guns fired, one after another. She could see each bullet, as though they were spaced a second apart and flying with no more speed than a badminton bird. The screams of the retreating audience reverberated in low tones—another effect of everything moving so slowly. Angelica could feel her guitar strings, could hear the strumming, but she didn’t know what she was playing. This wasn’t one of their songs—one of the band’s numbers. This was something from deep within her psyche. She didn’t know what or why, but she knew she had to play it. She felt Slim’s strong hand grab her ankle, heard him shouting to getdownAngelOGodgetdown, but she had to keep playing—had to play the bullets back whence they’d come.
The detonation blossomed slowly, time-lapse film of an opening flower, the split black strips of gunmetal—the broken barrel of the blocky machine pistol in the man’s left hand—opening like black sepals beneath the expanding, brilliant blue-white rose petals of unexpected pyrotechnics. The bloom expanded improbably large, already a yard wide and spreading to blot out the gunman’s face.

Angelica opened her eyes. She crossed herself and began, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been—quite a long while since my last confession.”

Sitting in the dark booth, looking down, Angelica could see the tops of her thigh-highs peeking out from her black skirt and wondered if her attire was quite as appropriate as she’d initially hoped. This was, after all, the same outfit she’d worn a month before to her own funeral. Even with black stockings, she wondered, Am I dressing appropriately? Is this too short for church? What a stupid thing to fret over.

The heavy shadow through the screen shook with silent laughter. Angelica couldn’t make out any kind of distinct silhouette through the screen, but the priest was a huge, warm, imposing presence. She could feel his every exhalation—slow, ponderous—hear his seat complain with every tiny adjustment. “Come now, Child, the formula is there for a reason. How long—ah—roughly, is ‘quite a long while’? Weeks? Months? A few years?”

Angelica frowned and did the math. She could feel the heat of her reddening face. “Sorry, Father. It’s been twenty—uh, twenty-five years since my last confession.”

The confessional echoed the silence of the entire church—tiny sounds creeping in—footsteps in another space, sparrows rustling in the rafters, wind cutting across the buttresses, traffic on some distant freeway.

The shadow cleared his throat. “I see. Tell me, my child, are you carrying any sort of identification? A driver’s license? Passport? Something like that?”

Angelica frowned. “Yes. Is it standard these days to card penitents in confessional?”

“Tut. What is the—ah—date of birth given on that ID?”

“June 29th, 1991.”

“I see. Well, that answers a number of my questions.”


The shadow chuckled, a heavy but warm rumble. “I think you know what I’m getting at, Child. You asked for me by name, but I only do a limited number of confessions these days. I’m a supernumerary apostolic protonotary—something of a glorified accountant for the see.”

Angelica could feel her face heat with unseen blush. “I’m so sorry, Monsignor, I didn’t realize.”

“That’s fine, Child. The—ah—folks in this church have explicit instructions to contact me, immediately—ah—if anyone requests me by name. You say your last confession was before your registered birthdate. Thus, I think you know at least one of the—ah—reasons. Now, who gave you my name?”

Angelica sighed softly. “I know him only as Melchior.”

“The adjutant. No doubt the recommendation came with warnings. May I ask what those warnings were?”

Angelica blushed. “He said I should avoid talking Fyrd politics with you, but I don’t know anything about Fyrd politics. Nor do I care.”

The monsignor chuckled. “Typical. All right, then, let’s start with who and what you really are. So, what was your—ah—original date of birth? Don’t worry, no one else can hear you.”

Angelica swallowed. “August , 1952. Terrence Murphy.”

The monsignor hmmed. “Interesting. I’ve never known a Talent who—ah—who could change genders. Unless this is a glamour, of course.”

Angelica shook her head. “No, father. No glamour. I’m still not clear on what that means, actually. I was caught in the crossfire of a curse. It’s a long story.”

“And not, I take it, the one you’re here to tell. I apologize for interrupting, Child. Please—ah—continue.”

“Monsignor, I believe I’ve committed a mortal sin.”

The confessor remained silent.

“Monsignor, I think I killed a man.”
That's just a small chunk of the first chapter. I might add a bit more over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, check out Gifts on Kindle, on sale for a limited time.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Publishing My First Novel - the Adventure 'Til Now

The link to my ebook is over to the right of this entry. I thought perhaps it was time I explained why I have an ebook available without having published a print version. First, I should note that I am in the process of making the printed version available through CreateSpace. I've already proofed the digital version of the book and should be receiving the physical book this coming week for final proofing. More on that process next time. For now, back to the matter of the ebook:

I've done my research, and the traditional publishing route looks less penetrable and less appetizing all the time. The major publishers prefer to publish known quantities, and the smaller houses have a similar bias. If you've published in popular magazines (including ezines), some of the smaller and genre-oriented publishing houses are more likely to give your work a serious look. My experience here is all with fantasy, SF, and horror, but what I've seen suggests the same is true across other genres as well. Getting a book published is very much about getting a foot in the door—getting someone above a slushpile reader to give the work a careful read. If you have short works in publication, the editors believe they know something about your abilities. Don't have short works in current circulation? Well, you can try the direct route, but very few writers get published that way. And most of the few who do, see only minimal support.

The next possibility often recommended is getting an agent. Of course, the process in getting an agent is pretty much the same as cold-contacting publishers. The agents have slush piles, too. I've spoken with several writers who've had luck with agents, and their stories all fit into a small number of categories:

  1. They were already published and needed help with extended book rights, international rights, sequels, and so forth
  2. A corollary to that first item, many were approached by the agents, not the other way 'round. (Quite a few long-standing professionals say this is the only way you should ever get an agent).
  3. The author contacted and got to know the agent before ever suggesting a business arrangement.  

Method number 2 is the only method endorsed by successful online novelist Hugh Howey. It's also quite close to the advice Frederik Pohl used to give, forty years ago. Pohl always said authors should already have a novel before ever considering an agent. Pohl was a successful SF author, editor, and agent, so I tend to value his advice—even with the advent of the internet and the explosion of ebook and POD publishing.

It's hard to miss the evolution in publishing occurring all round us. Some days it seems everyone who can string together twenty or so pages of story or advice, and publish same as a Kindle ebook, has done so. No, it's really not that bad, but it is getting a bit outrageous. In some ways, it's bad. The noise-to-signal ratio is getting outrageously high. I'm truly thankful for Amazon's LookInside funtion. Without it, I might have been tempted to buy some of the crap that been published. You look at the description and think, "That sounds pretty good," but then the LookInside says otherwise. I think some of these people are asking friends to write their descriptions for them. Either that or their skill with a synopsis is far and away beyond their ability to carry a narrative or capture a dialogue.

So, it's easier? Is that all there is to it? No gatekeepers?

Well, it helps. At times I wish Amazon at least imposed some sort of editing standards on their Kindle publications, but the fact that anyone can publish, choose their own price structures, and have a completed book online for sales in under 24 hours seems remarkably democratic. It's also quite in keeping with the ideals of laissez-faire capitalism. You'll succeed if the market will bear it. Advertising helps, but most rely entirely on word-of-mouse. Good reviews help (though some authors tell me they help less than you'd think they should), and Amazon screens their reviewers pretty effectively. You can only review if you are an actual person who has actually made purchases from them. This, of course, doesn't stop people from getting endorsements from friends and family, but it does make it damned nigh impossible to flood the site with fake reviews.

I have to admit, the advice of other Kindle authors struck me as hard to refute. Consider the first-time published author with a book offered by one of the small genre houses. Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that a few of those have gone belly-up in the past decade, how much support does the publishing house really provide for a junior author? From what I've seen, they get front page promotional advantage from most houses on the house web page and they get a few paid ads with major genre magazines and ezines. As far as I can tell, however, those ads only stay up for a few months. The publishers will also likely schedule bookstore signings. This is usually contingent on the author getting to the stores. Most small houses can't afford to fly junior authors around the country. If the author is so lucky as to get a nomination for a major genre prize (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, Dick, Campbell), the ads might go up again for a month or two before the awards are determined. Of course, winning the award means the ads will continue to get paid for another six months, and the author might then actually get financial support in making a tour, but what then?

I don't fault the publishing houses for ceasing to promote books after such a short time. Who can blame them? They have other new authors, and old authors, to promote. The problem, however, remains. Books don't die after a year and a half. Even after three or four decades, many novels maintain their relevance—regardless of genre. Not all, of course, but many do.

On the other hand, how many traditionally-published novels have managed the run of popularity of Hugh Howey's Silo Saga?

Well, I have a long way to go before I can compare my success with Howey's. I've sold a few dozen works in the US, UK, and Germany. So far, I have only three reviews up on Amazon, but they're all glowing reviews from strangers, which meant a lot to me.

Next time, I'll discuss the CreateSpace experience. It's been interesting.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Changing the Description

So, before I put my first novel up for sale in Amazon's Kindle store, I did a lot of research into blurbs for stories. I found that, according to some writers, anyway, there are actual rules about what you should and should not include in these blurbs. One of these rules says you should concentrate on your protagonist; tell what the story is about based on that one individual, and just forget about the rest. I didn't like this rule. In the case of Gifts, it felt like a betrayal. Still, I didn't want to hurt my chances for selling the book, so I conformed. Here's what I wrote:

[Trigger warning - drug-facilitated, forcible, and violent rape.]

Terry lost his chance at rock stardom over 30 years ago, but he's had a good life: happily married, a grandfather—and he still has his music.

Then the asshole in apartment B raped a blood witch, who curses the men of the quadruplex. In an explosion of light and pain, four men become women, with no chance of future reversal. Terry is now young, beautiful, and—per the terms of the curse—destined for success.

This is a curse?

Actually, it's just the first half of the curse. For a fall to be truly tragic, it must be a long fall. The newly minted women are destined to know frailty, to be treated like things, to be subjected to casual indignities.

On the cusp of realizing her 30-year-old dream of stardom, Terry suffers one such indignity. Is this the end of the curse or just the beginning of her fall?

Now a stranger comes forth, claiming he can reverse the curse, can return Terry's old life. All she need do is give up the magical gifts and allow someone to die a hideous death.
As I said, though, this felt like a betrayal. Gifts was conceived as an examination of the effects a sudden gender change on four very different men. Now, I'm finally seeing reviews on Amazon, and they lead me to think I should have stuck to my original idea. With those reviews in mind, here's the new version I'm working on. Once I'm satisfied with it, it will go up in about twelve hours (Amazon's been remarkably consistent in this).
[Trigger warning - drug-facilitated, forcible, and violent rape.]
 On the night of the blood-red moon, four men were living in the quadriplex:
TERRY – a happily married grandfather on the cusp of retirement, Terry’s one regret in life was not pursuing his dream of rock stardom. Now Terry is Angelica—beautiful, talented and in easy reach of that dream, but how does a twenty-year-old chanteuse relate to a sixty-year-old wife?
DANNY – everyone knew that Daniel was a thirty-something, out gay man, madly in love with his hunky boyfriend, Jason. But everyone was wrong. Now, the curse that afflicts the other three men is the lovely new Danielle’s blessing. 
JASON – Jason was about as comfortably gay as a man could be. He loved men, loved being a man, loved working out to be the biggest, strongest, manliest man he could be. Jason didn’t dislike women, but they did make him uncomfortable. So, now, as Athena, why does she no longer find handsome men exciting? 
WAYNE – a user of men, an abuser of women, a rapist—one of Wayne’s victims gave her life to put Wayne in her shoes, to make him feel her pain, to teach him a lesson. Now, as the alluring Georgia, the only lesson she’s learned is how easy it is to get away with murder.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Expanding My Offerings

I have some excellent works, some previously published, some a little too out there for the current markets, and I've decided to make them available for purchase in the Amazon Kindle Store. This way, I get the stories out in ebook format so they're easier to read for all you Kindle lovers. Because they're single stories, I've marked them at the Amazon rock bottom price of $0.99 apiece, about the cost of a candy bar. fair warning, these particular confections both deal with psycho-killers. This is not YA fiction.

"Otherwise" was my first professional science fiction sale back in the early 90s. The story appeared in a slightly different form and under a different title in the now-defunct Aboriginal Science Fiction. "Otherwise" was born from one of those old standard SF what-ifs. What if we discovered a way to travel between the stars, through a hyper-dimensional, super-aethereal space time, but found that in that otherspace, only a schizophrenic pilot could navigate the shifting causalities. How would we ensure the safety of the ship, passengers, and cargo with a psychotic driving? Who would pilot the pilots?

The other new offering is "The Mentor," which has not seen publication anywhere else and might be classified as horror, police-procedural, dark fantasy, or even splatterpunk. With the airwaves filled with serial killers—Dexter, Criminal Minds, and Hannibal being perhaps the three principal purveyors of serial killer fare—it's become difficult to find a market for stories on that topic. Honestly, I haven't seen good serial killer fiction published since Poppy Z. Brite gave us Exquisite Corpse back in 1996. I think you'll find "The Mentor" offers a fresh take on dealing with a serial killer.

Both of these offerings have the Amazon Look inside feature, so you can get a glimpse of what you'll get when you purchase the story. I hope you enjoy these.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Just in Time for Tax Day

Title: Gifts
Author: D. G. Grace
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Print Length: 351 pages
Seller:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Release date: March 2014
Tax day is Tuesday—just three days away. It's also my stepdaughter's 21st birthday. In honor of this momentous occasion, I've chosen this week to offer Gifts on a Kindle Countdown Deal. 

If you're looking for a good deal on a sexy (well, sometimes, anyway) Urban Fantasy, Gifts will be available at a discounted price, Monday April, 14th through Thursday April 17th, so you have almost all week to decide.

Don't wait too long, though. As with most Amazon Kindle Countdown Deals, the early bird gets the savings. Monday's price will be just $0.99, and the price will increase daily, returning to full price on Friday.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

This Time for Sure!

Title: Gifts
Author: D. G. Grace
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Print Length: 351 pages
Seller:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Release date: March 2014
So, just over two weeks ago, I posted that I'd  published Gifts in the Amazon Kindle Store. Now, I'm waiting for a half-dozen reviews that are supposed to be in progress (friends, bloggers, others).

Incidentally, I forgot to mention at the time that—if you have an Amazon Prime account—you can borrow the book for free via the Kindle Online lending Library. If you're not sure about being among the first to read a book with no reviews, the Amazon page's Look inside function lets you read the first two and a half chapters of teh book for free. I know, that doesn't soud like much, but quite a lot happens in the first two chapters: pyrotechnic magic, major physical transformations, gratuitous nudity. I hate opening a book and seeing nothing happen for forty pages, so I was careful to start pretty much in medias res.

Honestly, though, I wish now that I'd waited a teeny bit before announcing, mainly because I did such a crappy job of formatting on the first go 'round. I thought I was following some instructions from a would-be Kindle guru. I think those instructions were questionable at best. I soon learned, contrary to the advice I read, that converting from MS Word to HTML and then—after almost a week of code cleanup—uploading that HTML to the Amazon KDP site is not a good methodology. It's a bad methodology. It's a huge waste of time and results in a butt-ugly output.

Enter Calibre, the beautiful Open Source freeware brainchild of Kovid Goyal and (as usual for such projects) numerous contributors. Calibre is available in Windows (32 & 64 bit), Linux, Mac, and portable  flavors. The Windows version requires no build, loads promptly with Installshield, has a brilliantly intuitive GUI, and never requires any command line shenanigans. Calibre deftly converts DOCX or HTML files to EPUB or MOBI (as well as PDF, AZW, and several more formats), and the program provides its own previewer to verify the conversinos.. The Calibre downloads page also gives us a convenient means to send support to the development effort (via PayPal). Lately the bug fixes have been coming out at a regular clip, so I think they deserve all we monetary support we can muster. I realize I'm new to this ebook production circus, but seriously, if you're going to publish your own ebooks and you don't have the time or the computer chops to use the Kindle tools Amazon provides (or if like me, you cringe at the thought of compiling anything, get Calibre.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Dangerous Manifesto

Ansel giving a high five
Back in 1967, Harlan Ellison forever altered the face, the texture, the flavor—the very core of speculative fiction (SF). He managed this sea change not by writing a radically new type of SF story (he'd done that two years earlier with his publication of "'Repent, Harlequin!'Said the Ticktockman'" in Galaxy magazine). Nor did this change come with the coining or refinement of the term speculative fiction. Robert A. Heinlein likely invented speculative fiction as an alternative to the more limited-sounding science fiction (Heinlein insisted the term did not include fantasy, but words have a mind of their own). No, Harlan brought about his revolution by publishing an anthology of original SF stories, the first Dangerous Visions anthology.

I have, on occasion, heard arguments that Dangerous Visions initiated the so-called New Wave of SF (nope, the Brits already had that well underway by '67), or that it brought avant-garde and postmodernist sensibilities of the New Wave to American SF (no again, that distinction probably belongs to Damon Knight and his Orbit stable). Nor do I accept the claim that Dangerous Visions dragged SF up from the pulpy gutter genres and into the blinding light and rarefied atmosphere of Literature. See, that's really what the whole New Wave movement was all about, so—any such effects from DV would be little more than reinforcement.

No, Dangerous Visions really accomplished something more basic: DV was the Lolita of SF. Just as Lolita had done for mainstream literature—and as the anthology's title and introduction suggests, DV freed SF of many of the intractable taboos in the SF genre at the time. When Ellison put out his call for stories, he specified stories that the existing venues, magazines and anthologies, would not accept for publication. He wanted controversy, wanted mores twisted and taboos shattered. Critics in the intervening years have differed on how successful Ellison was in this regard. Quite a few editors then and since have claimed that nothing Ellison published in DV was really so beyond the pale as to be unpublishable in mainstream SF magazines. To be blunt: this is utter nonsense. Consider just four of the original 33 DV stories:
  • Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah" 
  • Harlan Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World"
  • Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"
  • Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage
The Delany and Farmer won awards, but the idea of finding either tale in a mainstream print SF magazine—today, let alone back in 1967—is laughable. Delany's short story examines humanity's seemingly inexhaustible ability to discover and exploit paraphilias. I can think of a few online zines that, today, might—but only just might—publish "Aye, and Gomorrah." But even for those, I wonder, would they publish such a story if it hadn't already won acclaim? How many SF stories have you seen in the past decade that described a new paraphilia? As for the Farmer novella—set in a future society that encourages parents to show affection for children by indulging them with oral sexual gratification—hah! No way. Likewise Sturgeon's tale of a world that builds its society upon a foundation of universal incest. Not a tale you're likely to see in any of the pulps or the online zines.

Okay, you might be thinking, but that's sex. Sex is a difficult sell for a lot of people. It can be difficult navigating the landmines pre-planted in any sexual landscape. What one writer sees as character essential sexual exposition, another sees as erotica, and still another wants to label pornography. Frankly, this kind of argument always sets off my bullshit detector. Sexuality is a major piece of the human experience. All great works of literature are about two things: living and dying. And without sex, nobody's doing much living. But to silence that prudery alarm for just a moment—well, that's why I included the Ellison in my list of four.

Ellison's story, a sequel to Robert Bloch's "A Toy for Juliette," about a future so starved for diversion as to bring Jack the Ripper into their midsts, breaks a lot of gore and violence taboos. Now, there have been a few zines—both print and online—that specialized in wetworks for the splatterpunk set, but Ellison's story doesn't belong in such fetishy company. "Prowler" is a deeply moralistic and philosophical story. The violence, labeled "gratuitous" by guardians of that particular taboo, is an essential component of the story. The depth of depravity of the violence is, in effect, part of the point. Still, this is not the kind of story I expect to see in print or in any of the current crop of online zines. Many of them say they'll accept violence "if the story justifies it," but I don't see much evidence of that claim in the stories they publish.

So, the good news, as Lolita did for mainstream publishing, DV opened the SF press to controversy by showing that you can discuss sex and violence and other taboo topics without producing smut. DV also demonstrated that you can discuss religion and bigotry and drugs and human trafficking, that you can include gay protagonists, and consider the possibility that the USA is not some kind of inevitable thought-leader in the world (and worlds) of tomorrow, all without the world coming to an end. In fact, DV showed that many readers want to see controversy, want to see taboos bent, want to see rules broken.

This was the seminal SF work of my youth. When I read DV in the 70s, the sequel—Again, Dangerous Visions—was already in print, and Ellison was already purchasing stories for the never-to-see-print Last Dangerous Visions. It's difficult to express exactly how important DV was for me. I was a weird kid (I know, not much has changed). I started reading when I was three. In kindergarten, while the teacher was trying to teach the rest of the class to recognize the difference between lower-case and upper-case letters, I was sneaking off to the school library to read science books. Until I was fifteen, I read mostly non-fiction. I didn't see the point of fiction. I figured, if it's fiction, it's not true, so what's the point. At fifteen, a teacher introduced me to Shakespeare and Dickens and science fiction. The science fiction was revelatory. In the next three years, I read everything I could find in the genre. Some I loved, some I disliked, some seemed downright silly.

Dangerous Visions opened new vistas for me. This kind of SF, writing to the controversies instead of around them, finding the taboos and bending, twisting, repurposing, or just flat breaking the damn things—nothing made a story more alive, more meaningful. Though DV had been in print for eight years when I discovered it, I believed that concept had to be the future of SF. This was what I wanted to read. This was what I wanted to write. This was all I ever wanted to write. Dangerous fiction. I read and found that, this was what all my favorite writers were doing. Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Ursula K. LeGuin, J. G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ—all their best works were dangerous fiction, controversial, thought-provoking, at times down exasperating or even downright maddening.

That was forty years ago. Today, the pulps are fewer, but the online zines have expanded into new spaces, so at least the number of markets has expanded. SF is everywhere. And not just in the genre zines. These days blockbuster movies, more often than not, are SF. Sadly—in my opinion, anyway—science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been forced back into their genres. Most science fiction zines won't take fantasy or horror, and vice versa. Even though the ghettos have achieved a state of gentrification—a lot more great so-called literary writers today (Chabon, Lethem, Mitchell) spend time in those ghettos—they're still ghettos. Thanks to a number of movie and TV producers like Cameron and Abrams, science fiction has lost some of its stigma. It's not just "that escapist crap for teenagers" anymore. Sadly, gentrification has also taken a lot of bite out of science fiction—even more out of fantasy and horror. If you disagree, I have two words for you: sparkly vampires. Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult are capturing the largest share of fantasy and horror, and it looks like they're snagging a huge chunk of SF readers (consider such recent box office fare as Ender's Game and After Earth, or just look at the submission guidelines for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show). Sure, thirteen-year-olds need fun stuff to read, too, but I think they already have more than enough of the market. Besides, we all know the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight readers aren't all tweens and teens. All that gentrified science fiction and fantasy could do with a serious dose of dangerous fiction.

I recently published an urban fantasy novel (Gifts) via the Amazon KDP. A friend of mine said, "But I thought you wanted to write science fiction?" I do. I also want to write fantasy and horror. I also enjoy dabbling in magic fiction and fairy tales, and I've considered possibly writing in the weird and slipstream genres. I want to write SF: speculative fiction. And I want to write for adults. I want to write dangerous fiction. I want to tell stories, but I also want to make people think. I've always felt the best stories are the ones that refuse to end when you put down the book.

But I didn't write this to talk about my own writing. I want to see someone take up the mantle Mr. Ellison dropped when Last Dangerous Visions fell through. I realize, considering Mr. Ellison's litigious history, only a masochist would try to publish a volume called Anything Dangerous Visions or Dangerous Visions Anything, but there must be a way to bring this rich conceptual field back to life without using those two words in the title. Come on, all you courageous editors, all you adventurous anthologists—I know you're out there somewhere. Let's start publishing some taboo-busting, envelope-pushing, mind-warping SF. Live dangerously.

And for Christ's sake, can someone please help Gordon Van Gelder set up a goddamned online submission system and drag the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Twenty-first Century so we can stop killing so many trees?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Triggers—A Question for Rape Survivors

Trigger warnings—does anyone remember approximately when those things started showing up on Web pages and in bulletin boards? As far as I can recall, I only started seeing them about a decade ago, when I subscribed to a mental health forum for reasons unrelated to this topic. The general rule of them there was, before you initiate a discussion that might cause any sort of traumatic reliving of an experience, you had to add a trigger warning (also called a trigger, TW, spoiler, or spoiler warning) to the subject line of your message. Common trigger warnings there included:








In recent years, even outside of mental health, addiction, and survivors-support sites, trigger warnings started showing up more and more frequently. The three that I can recall seeing most often are trigger warnings for rape, for domestic violence, and for battlefield trauma. This makes sense. Aside from rape and domestic violence, the most common source of PTSD is combat, and the USA is just ending twelve years of war in two separate countries on the other side of the world.

I understand the purported purpose of the trigger warnings. They're supposedly helping PTSD sufferers to avoid any descriptive material that could trigger a painful recollection and, worst case, reliving of the source stressor. In fact, I've employed trigger warnings myself. If you go to the Amazon page for my recently published Urban Fantasy, Gifts, and scroll down to the Book Description, you'll see that the first line reads:

[Trigger Warning - drug-facilitated, forcible, and violent rape.]

Generally, I have two qualms about this whole "trigger warning" concept. First and foremost, if all you're doing in your message is referring to yourself as a "rape survivor," what's the point of the TW? I mean, if we're really afraid of the mere word, you've already stated the nasty trigger word in the subject line. This, in my experience, describes a good 66% or more of the documents I've seen with a TW in the subject line.  Seriously, if you're only going to mention the word once in your letter, haven't you already done just as much harm by naming the trigger in the warning? How, then, does your warning help anyone?

My second qualm will take a little background. Bear with me for a few more lines.

Recently, I was speaking with a therapist friend of mine, and she told me the most successful PTSD treatment available today—providing the greatest notable relief and the longest-standing successes—is a new form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called "Prolonged Exposure" (PE) therapy. PE isn't really a new idea, just a revamped and more carefully modulated version of immersion therapy. Like all immersion therapy, the goal of PE is to get patients to a point where they can see, hear, read details of events similar to their own PTSD source without suffering any of the usual ill consequences (dissociation, hallucination, loss of sleep, loss of appetite, depression). Or, to put it more bluntly, the survivor of violence should be able to hear, see, or read about violence similar to what they suffered without reliving the experience.

Looking around on the Internet, the best lay-description I could find for PE is the one on the VA's National Center for PTSD. You can follow the link for more details, but the bare bones of PE is the following four steps:
  1. Education - they teach you about the next three bullets.
  2. Breathing - relaxation through breath control—something like Qi-Gong for beginners.
  3. Immersion - in dribs and drabs, they start feeding you images like what you experienced to cause your PTSD. This might include stories, videos, newscasts, or even play-acting traumatic experiences.
  4. Talking through it - this includes talking about your own experience and about those immersion exercises. This is where the actual therapy takes place.
My first reaction to PE was: Awesome sauce! I know some people who could really benefit from something like PE. Some of them have been suffering for over a decade. Sadly, like most psychotherapy, I quickly learned that PE comes with no guarantees. Although their success rates have been dramatic (I've heard and seen reports of upwards of 80%, which is phenomenal considering the variables involved), PE does not work for everyone.
My second reaction was to begin wondering about Trigger Warnings—in particular, my own trigger warning. If the most successful treatment for PTSD involves controlled immersion, is the widespread use of trigger warnings—the systematic conditioning of survivors to avoid reading about violence—is this doing PTSD sufferers a disservice? Now, I'm not so naïve as to think stumbling upon vivid descriptions of a violent sexual assault could ever be at all therapeutic for a rape survivor, but I have to wonder: when I provide that trigger warning—that little note saying "rape survivors should go no further"—am I perhaps circumventing a survivor's autonomous development of coping mechanisms? Am I protecting people or being overly-protective?

Understand, I'm not arguing for the elimination of all trigger warnings. I would just like to see a little healthy debate on the topic. So, whether you're a survivor or not, I'd like to hear from you. Where do you stand on the use of trigger warnings? Who should employ them? When? Where?


Thursday, March 13, 2014

O Frabjous Day!

Title: Gifts
Author: D. G. Grace
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Print Length: 342 pages
Seller:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Release date: March 2014
Announcement time. Gods, finally.

Almost two years ago, in just under a month, I wrote the first draft of the novel Gifts, which is now for sale in the Amazon Kindle store.

After running through a few rounds of edits, I browbeat my wife and several friends into reading and re-reading the novel. I got some great criticism.

Other stuff happened.

So, finally, with all my revisions completed, the novel reformatted for Kindle, and armed with a striking cover created by the brilliant Kathy Grace, I committed my novel to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing.

I am proud to say Gifts is not your typical Urban Fantasy: no crime-fighting werewolves, no sexy sparkling vampires, and no zombies of any sort. Urban Fantasy does, however, provide an excellent medium for a  gritty, occasionally violent examination of themes of sex, gender, and orientation.

[Trigger warning: drug-facilitated, forcible, and violent rapes]

For me, the fun part is (mostly) over. The novel is written. Now the really dirty work of marketing begins. I'll be querying reviewers who are interested in blogging about new Urban Fantasies. If you know anyone like that who might be interested, please let me know. I'm already overwhelmed by how many book review blogs are out there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sweet Mystery of Life - eh, not quite

[Trigger warning - rape]

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook link to an excellent article on Huffington Post (yeah, they still occasionally get one right). The piece, A "Rape Culture" Tutorial for Naysayers, by Toula Drimonis provides an excellent outline of the history and pervasiveness of rape culture. She opens her article with a description of the kind of replies she inevitably gets from well-meaning (mostly male) rape culture deniers any time she posts an article showing that rape culture is alive and showing no sign of weakening. She calls such replies "mansplaining" (not her coinage, but certainly appropriate to these circumstances). I call them the knee-jerk defense of the privileged.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the first response my friend received to posting the link came from a well-meaning rape-culture denier. Said denier (who, yes, denies being a denier) made it clearl he had not read all of the article by suggesting replacing the term "rape culture" with "street harassment culture." His objection to "rape culture," he said, is that the phrase is misandry and therefore politically unwise in terms of garnering support from male allies. When I pointed out that he was engaging in precisely the behavior described in the article, he accused me of delivering an ad hominem attack. My first thought upon reading his claim was, "O shit! He can read my mind!" I promise, I did not call him any of the things I was thinking—not even dumbass.

(*Sigh* Okay, I admit. I actually did call him a dumbass. Repeatedly. But I erased every use of that and similar terms before I published any of my comments. I double-checked.)

In part, I have to admit that I get it. I understand the sourfaced response some men throw back every time they hear "rape culture." Some of it. Not all of it. Certainly not all of it.

I don't get the jackass judges who recently allowed rapists in the US and Canada to walk basically because they thought the victims in question, in words they carefully avoided making explicit, were asking for it. I don't get Congress allowing the rape culture within our own military to run rampant. I don't get Candy Crowley of CNN lamenting that the Steubenville rapists are "poor boys" whose "lives are over" because of the notoriety of the Steubenville rape trial. I don't get the assholes who respond to every woman who complains of sexual harassment by posting suggestions that they just need to be raped. I don't get the guys who feel they have a right to treat women (verbally, physically, and legally) like subhuman sex toys.

I DO get that no man wants to feel he's being held accountable for a crime he didn't commit and wouldn't think of committing. More specifically, when I first heard them, some of the claims about rape culture seemed a bit far-fetched. One such claim was the repeated reference to the pervasiveness of  "rape jokes."

Now, please don't mistake my position. I fully understood that such a pervasive presence would be poisonous. If men (women too, really) learn to think of rape as something comical, it makes it very difficult to take rape accusations seriously. If rape is something laughable, why should anyone ever want to prosecute?

No. My problem with claims about rape humor was something different. I couldn't believe it existed. I am at a loss to explain my own blindness, but I just couldn't think of any examples of anything you could call a rape joke.

Rape jokes. It hurts just saying it. I get a sour, nauseated pain in the pit of my stomach at the thought of laughing at a rape victim. How the hell could anyone tell a rape joke? To hell with the joke teller. How could an audience sit still for a joke, a story that ends with someone being raped, and laugh? Sure, I know humor can be pretty damned brutal at times, (Q - How many men does it take to tile a bathroom? A- Depends how thick you slice them.) but rape humor? I know lots of insensitive jokes. I had no difficulty digging around in my memory and dredging up jokes belittling women, men, queers, transgender people, various races and creeds. Blond jokes. Pollack jokes. Aggie jokes. But rape jokes? Really? I had some vague notion that we might be talking about variations on the dumb blonde joke, in which some mentally defective woman perhaps gives herself up sexually but erroneously believes she's done something clever. But, no, I couldn't even come up with anything like that.

Finally, I remembered one. A blatant rape joke. And I was devastated.

The joke in question is one of the principal set-pieces in a major motion picture. I've seen that movie dozens of times. It's generally a very funny movie, and one of the biggest jokes in the movie—established near the film's beginning but only realized near its climax (seriously, no pun intended)—is a rape. The movie?

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

I'm sure anyone familiar with the movie knows the joke (although it now feels pretty uncomfortable calling it that). The set up for the joke begins with Madeleine Kahn's first appearance as Dr. Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth. She's shown to be controlling and touch-averse, a bit of an ice princess. They part, touching elbows in farewell because Elizabeth won't let Frankenstein touch her hair, her face, or her dress.

Jump ahead to Transylvannia, Dr. Frankenstein decides to build the creature according to his father's specifications. In accordance with those specs, the creature has to be oversized. Frankenstein's assistant Inga (Teri Garr) notes: "His shvann-shstucker will be enormous." Shvann-shtucker (sorry if that's not the right spelling) is a bastardized scrap of language, combining a Yiddish slang word for vagina (shvann) with a bit of faux-German tacked on to mean sticker.

Later, when Elizabeth arrives in Transylvannia to spend some time with Dr. Frankenstein, she talks of their coming nuptials, but she still refuses to allow the young doctor any kind of intimacy. Soon thereafter, the monster kidnaps Elizabeth and carries her off to a cave where, when she regains consciousness, he rapes her. We don't see much of the actual rape. The monster leers. The damsel cringes and threatens. The monster begins unbuttoning his pants. The camera turns to Elizabeth's face. As the pants come down (or so the shadows suggest) she sees the monster's legendary shvann-shtucker, to which her first response is "Woof." She struggles and tells him to stop, but the monster falls on her. A couple of grunts later, Madeleine Kahn belts out the chorus line of a Jeannette MacDonald standard, singing a full-throated "O, sweet mystery of life at last I've found you."

Afterwords, following what Elizabeth describes as "six or seven quickies," the monster runs off, and Elizabeth tells us she's in love. It's supposed to be funny—ironic in that the frigid cocktease just needed to get raped to solve her sexual problems and make her realize that what's really important in life is a big dick and a man willing to wield it liberally.

Now, I realize that explaining a joke kills it, but I don't think I could possibly do enough to deliver the death this particular joke deserves. I'm going to miss Young Frankenstein, but I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through that movie again.

This so-called joke is just one small example of rape culture. Like Rhett Butler's rape of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), like Howard Roark's rape of Dominique Francon in Fountainhead (1949), like the Mysterious Stranger's rape of Callie Travers in Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), the monster's rape of Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein (1974) serves to normalize rape (O, and as to that claim of  misandry, it might be useful to remember that Gone with the Wind and Fountainhead were written by women). What's worse, these examples show rape to be a useful tool for correcting and controlling petulant, unruly women. As long as audiences continue to watch and accept movies like this, to laugh at Elizabeth's afterglow, to smile knowingly at Scarlett's cheerful morning-after demeanor, even to smirk at Callie's comeuppance, rape culture will continue to thrive.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Inglourious Bigots

Arizona SB 1062 is dead. There is hope for the human race—even in Arizona.

Hurrah for tolerance!


Sadly, not so much. Look, don't get me wrong. I'm happy for the Arizona LGBTQ+ community. At least they'll be spared the indignity of state-sanctioned hatred. For now. But, if you think SB 1062 was the last or most threatening attempt to outlaw Arizona Queerness—well, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Jim Wright, my fellow ex-Navy, progressive, All-American curmudgeon—in his latest Stonekettle Station entry—explains part of what I find so unsatisfying about Governor Jan Brewer's veto of SB 1062. Great work as always, Jim. Like Jim and like Quentin Tarantino's Lt. Aldo Raine (Inglourious Basterds, 2009), I prefer my evil bigots clearly labeled. Okay, maybe carving swastikas in their flesh is a bit much. Still, a law requiring them to wear white robes and swastika armbands would make it so much easier to know who I can trust. Goddamn bigots and homophobes insist on looking like everybody else. Sneaky bastards. Perhaps a tattoo or a small brand…

Whoa! Am I really advocating branding bigots? Carving swastikas in the foreheads of people like Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter? Jan Brewer?

[Hmmm, you know, now that I think about it,…
*Sigh.* Don't tempt me.]

No, I know better. The examples of outspoken assholes like Limbaugh and Coulter notwithstanding, bigots are not leopards. Human beings are reasoning beings. They can and do change their spots (well, their minds). Admittedly, such a drastic change as Ann Coulter embracing tolerance is extremely unlikely, but we have to be able to hope.

So, no swastikas in the foreheads. And now, thanks to Governor Brewer's veto, no swastikas carved into Arizona law. Tant pis.

Beyond the lost opportunity to label hypocrites, however, I have another serious qualm about the veto. As a number of commenters have already noted (Jim Wright and Jon Stewart are not the only two to notice), many Arizona Conservatives wanted this bill vetoed. The past week's media responses showed Arizona that SB 1062 was a step too far. They'd overestimated their ability to sell their religious freedom canard. That's not the same thing as recognizing that the law they were suggesting was, as Jon Stewart notes, "morally repugnant."

So, to summarize,
  • I am relieved for the LGBTQ+ community in Arizona
  • I agree that SB 1062 was morally repugnant 
  • I don't believe bigots should be permanently labeled
And I still object to the veto. Think about it. Arizona SB 1062 would have been easy to demolish in court. The first time anyone brought SB 1062 under legal scrutiny by trying to enforce it, the courts would have been tripping over each other to rule it unconstitutional. It would have been a great precedent to have on the books. Now, the AZ lege will go back and try again. Next time they're likely to narrow the focus of the law (SB 1062 was so broadly worded, it could have been used to discriminate against anyone based upon any religion). They'll couch their homophobia in a stealthier cloak, and we won't have easy access to a legal precedent.

Congratulations, though, to my queer friends in Arizona. You dodged a bullet this time. Be diligent, though. Next time, it might not be so easy to see it coming.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sex, Gender, Orientation

Here's a simple pair of questions for you: If you woke up tomorrow to find your sex changed, would it affect your gender? Would it affect your orientation?

To be a little more direct, if you're female and woke up in the body of a man, would it change your gender or orientation? Ask enough people, eventually you'll get every possible combination of yes and no answers to those two questions. I find it mystifying that most respondents answer these questions with unequivocal certainty. Why mystifying? Who do you know who's ever experienced such a change? Sudden, unbidden, complete? No one.

So, how can you be so sure?

One response I get is that gender is a mental construct, so changing someone's physical sexual attributes does not alter gender. Okay. I can see why you this might be so. If you don't ever feel female, can you actually identify as female? A growing, vocal transgender population says no. Still, this concept of gender as a construct remains unfamiliar to most people, regardless of education. Liberal talk show host Piers Morgan recently made himself look crude and transphobic in his interview with author Janet Mock, primarily through a simple lack of understanding. Matt Kailey, in his blog Tranifesto, succinctly explains the things you should never say to a transgender individual, and Piers, in all fairness to his detractors, hit almost every one of them. Katie Couric fared even worse in interviewing Carmen Carrera. Both hosts, I would contend, simply did not understand the concept of gender construction (okay, Couric also asked some blatantly stupid questions, tantamount to, "So, tell us about your genitals."). You see, when you use a phrase like "gender construction," many listeners mistakenly interpret it to mean that gender is a choice. No. Gender presentation is a choice. A preference for one set of gender pronouns is a choice. Even sexual morphology (to the surgical degree) is a choice. Gender? Not so much. Your mind and body will tell you whether you're male or female (or neither or a little of both), but you really don't have much (or possibly any) choice.

So, if you are decidedly female in your sexual morphology and gender, and you get inexplicably transformed physically and biologically male, are you female or male? Initially, I'd guess you're probably going to remain female. The question that arises for me is, how long will you remain female? How much of gender construction is reasoned? How much genetic? Consider, if you were initially a typical, average woman, and some magic suddenly poofed you male, what would that mean? Understand, I'm talking about male all the way down to the chromosomes. So, let's say you were initially 5'6" tall and weighed 120 pounds and sported all the usual female curves: breasts, buttocks, hips. Internally, of course, you had all the usual female plumbing and lots of female hormones. Microscopically, your cell nuclei contained no Y chromosomes. Let's say you were in your early thirties. You might even have had children.

But after the change, you're 5'11" and 185 pounds. Your skeletal structure is denser. You have larger joints, larger muscles, a larger nose, more body hair, and a blockier jaw. Your bloodstream contains massive amounts of testosterone. Your voice is deeper; your plumbing is different; you need to shave every day or grow a beard. You, in other words, have Y chromosomes.

So, assuming this change is permanent and irreversible, in a month or two, in a year, will you still think yourself a woman? Personally, I doubt it.

On a related topic, what about your orientation? If you were a normal straight woman, are you still attracted to men? Now, this one seems like a no-brainer to some folks, but I'm not so sure. A lot of (mostly self-appointed) sex experts like to claim that the brain is the most powerful sex organ. That may be, but does that mean the brain—the mind, really—can trump the endocrine system?

Consider this: when my baby brother (straight, married three times, father of two) was just 7 years old (I was 9), he and I discovered my Dad's cache of Playboy magazines. Yes, they were at the bottom of his sock drawer.  Our parents found us out, and my mother insisted that my father talk with us. Not The Talk, but she wanted him to answer our questions—if we had any—just to be sure we didn't go through high school asking pretty girls to show us the staples in their abdomens.

My brother asked what has to be the Classic Boy's-First-Look Question: "Daddy, when I look at those pictures, why does my pee-pee get hard?"

Seven years old, easily five years before puberty, chubby little pre-tween cherub with no concept of sexual orientation, seeing a naked woman gave him an erection. His body already knew his orientation (he'd seen naked men in the changing room at the swimming pool with no such effects). This was not a mental effect or a learned attraction. He didn't even understand that the erection had anything to do with attraction. And his story is not unusual.

My point is simply that orientation just might be largely genetic. So, if it were possible to change your chromosomes from XX to XY, would it affect your orientation? To make matters even more complex, what if you were initially a lesbian? Would you, as a man, still be attracted to women, or would the gay genetic function cause your attractions to shift?

I'm not trying to force a decision on these questions. I honestly don't believe we can answer them. Eventually, state-of-the-art transgender surgery might be able to accomplish something like this, but at the moment, we're a long way off.

I've written a pair of novels exploring some aspects of these questions—one urban fantasy (Gifts) and one science fiction novel (Ain't No Grave). In both, I examine the transition from male to female. Gifts is available for Kindle as of 13 March 2014. I'm planning to market the science fiction novel through more traditional channels.

I will let you know when each book is available.

Think I missed something or that I'm just way off target? Let's hear your version.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies

The photo at right is just a reminder that, yes, Ansel still rules the roost.

But on to the topic at hand. A few weeks ago, I watched a movie on cable. Sorry, I don't recall the station. The movie was one of those annoying found footage things in the mode of Cloverfield (which I loved) and The Blair Witch Project (which sucks out loud), and it relied heavily on stop-motion models that, sadly, looked like something Ray Harryhausen might have created while on a bad acid trip--in the third grade. Despite these serious flaws, the movie, Troll Hunter (originally Trolljegeren, Norwegian with English subtitles), is nothing short of brilliant. "Brilliant" I say, because the existence of the trolls, complete with information about their biology and ecology, is delivered with an air of nonchalance. The hunter of the title knows what he's doing, and he's spilling his guts to the junior journalists in this tale for reasons that ring true for anyone who has ever experienced bureaucratic stonewalling. Even the cheesiness of the troll artwork and the cliche of the found footage (complete with unsatisfying in medias res ending) could not diminish the brilliance of this story.

Then, after ruminating for a few weeks, it hit me: Troll Hunter had another strong point in its favor as a fantasy movie. It contained no vampires, no werewolves, and no f@<#ing zombies. I'm sick to death of all three. How do the networks and movie studios keep churning this shit out? How many questions are left unanswered in the VWZ trinity? Last year (2013), I went to the World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio. I met a half dozen people who were trying to push their self-published zombie novels. To my horror, even the smart and personable Paolo Bacigalupi (2010 Hugo Award winner best novel for The Wind-Up Girl) has written a young-adult zombie baseball novel.

Zombies. Why'd it have to be zombies?

I guess the zombies bother me most of the trinity. The brain-eating walking dead spawned by George Romero and others are really nothing like the traditional zombies of Voodoo tradition. Zombies have been done to death and beyond. Seriously, is anyone really afraid of shambling corpses? Even if they run like the dead in Zombieland, would something like that really scare you if it came at you, open-mouthed or muttering something about brains? No. Of course not. You'd nod, say, "nice costume," and that would be it. Even if--against all possible logic--this were a Real Thing, if a walking corpse could attack you--how dangerous is a rotting corpse, anyway?

Seriously, if you want to write fantasy, and you're determined to work from traditional horror or fairy-tale elements, please don't write another goddamn V,W, or Z story. Even witches, ghosts, dragons, angels, and demons have been less exploited in recent years than the trio, but there are lots of other areas to explore: goblins, trolls, ogres, fairies, elves, manitous, brownies, pixies, nixies, sylphs, unicorns.