Thursday, 14 June 2018

Heroine Fix: Finding Family in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Quake

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at characters whom I admire and who influence my own writing. (Warning: this article will contain spoilers.)

I've been enjoying Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since it first came out in 2013 and I've already done one Heroine Fix about the laconic and powerful Agent Melinda May, aka The Calvary.  But today I want to look at another of the awesome ladies of S.H.I.E.L.D: Skye/Daisy Johnson/Quake, played by Chloe Bennet.

As I went back to rewatch some of the early episodes, it occurred to me that the character's story is really a modern Cinderella story with a superhero twist and no need for a rescuing prince.  When we begin, Skye is living in her van and running a resistance movement online.  She's an incredibly talented hacker (which strikes me as a more useful skill set than cleaning house with the aid of lyric-directed mice and birds) and is recruited by Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Bennet gives a masterfully nuanced performance, showing Skye's suspicion of Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as her desire to belong, both which make sense for someone who has been surviving on her own with no family and who has been subject to the foster care system.  For the first season, she is the Everyman, getting to demonstrate the audience's wonder at the amazing things that S.H.I.E.L.D. has to deal with.  There's a bit of a stepmother vibe between Skye and Agent May, who is continually pushing Skye to do better and Skye resisting those expectations as unrealistic.  And there's a prince, the handsome Agent Grant Ward, who definitely shows signs of being smitten.

In season 2, the story shifts outside of the usual expectations for a fairytale or superhero narrative.  We learn Skye's father, Cal, is still alive and searching for her (and is apparently a bad guy).  When they meet, Cal tells Skye that her real name is Daisy and that H.Y.D.R.A. killed her mother.  We also discover that Ward is a double-agent working for H.Y.D.R.A., making him forevermore ineligible as any kind of Prince Charming.   Daisy is transformed, not by a fairy godmother, but by alien terragen crystals.  She is cocooned in stone before shattering free.

Daisy is devastated by the multiple betrayals and shuts herself off from S.H.I.E.L.D.  She has these incredible powers but they are destroying her.  This part of her character arc was my favourite because it showed the value of chosen family.  Agent Coulson and the others may not be Daisy's blood family, but they care about her in a way that her father can't.  Her father's love is conditional, she must behave in a way that he approves and follow his example or his love is withdrawn.  Her family at S.H.I.E.L.D. loves her and cares about her no matter what.  They will protect her, fight beside her, and when necessary, fight against her to keep her from doing something she'll regret.  They put themselves on the line to reach her.

The next complication in Daisy's life is the reintroduction of her mother, Jiaying, who runs a sanctuary/training camp for inhumans (those who gain powers from the terragen crystals).  At first, Daisy is seduced by the apparent acceptance of those like her.  And there's another handsome prince on the scene, the dashing Lincoln.  And this one really does love her and want what's best for her.  But Daisy's mother isn't what she appears.  She only cares about the inhumans and doesn't care if the rest of humanity burns.  She's also willing to sacrifice anything, including Daisy, to achieve her goals.

The power of Daisy's arc comes from the fact that she is given everything she wishes for in season one: her parents are alive, she becomes a respected member of S.H.I.E.L.D. (even leading the team for the most recent season), and she learns to fight so that she'll never be vulnerable again.  But those gains also come with loss: her parents aren't the caring, supportive people that she hoped for, Ward is a traitor and Lincoln sacrifices himself for her, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't always the good guys, and knowing how to punch and force-fling enemies aside doesn't mean she'll never be hurt again.  When faced with this pain, her instinct is to cut herself off from the world and bear the burden alone.

But the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents won't let her.  Whether she wants them there or not, they are always there to support her, just as a family should.  And they may not always get it right (because families are still just people and people make mistakes) but they don't give up.

That kind of family means a lot to me and it's one that I create for my own characters.  No matter how strong, badass, and powerful a person is, a family always makes them stronger and DNA overlap is not the only kind of family.  When we're most damaged, families are the ones who step up and say: don't worry, we got this.

(Keep on reading for more information on next month's Heroine Fix and a special offer on my books.)

Are you addicted to strong and interesting heroines like I am?  Share your favourite heroines with me on Twitter with the hashtag #HeroineFix.

And if you'd like to see how my version of a chosen family with superpowers works, please check out my lalassu series about a secret society of superheroes living among us.  Book 4 was just released and Book 1 is on sale for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Previous Heroine Fix: Celebrating Angry Girls with Meg Murry

Previous post: Happy Pride Month

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Next month, I'll be going darkside to look at the magnificent and terrifying Hela from Thor: Ragnarok.  Join me on July 12th as I take on the Goddess of Death for my next Heroine Fix.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Weekly Update: June 3 to June 9

Weekly word count: 9 036

I've been averaging completing a chapter a day for the last two weeks.  If I can keep that up, the manuscript will be ready before RWA.

I'm nervous about the whole idea of pitching to the traditional publishers.  My work doesn't fit neatly in a box (though I've made an effort to make sure that Deadly Potential has less bleed over than usual) and the media is full of doom and gloom reports about how the publishing industry is in trouble.  There's also the typical self-doubt: I'll be asking someone to judge something that has taken almost a year of my life in the course of a 3 minute conversation.  That's nerve-wracking no matter how you slice it.

I've been struggling some this week after the Ontario election results.  It is disheartening to see someone elected who is so antithetical to what I believe is important.  There's also been a challenge with the high-profile suicides and my own struggles with depression.  Some of the discussions have been really hard to see playing out.  It's hard not to despair when it happens to people who seem to have every advantage and if they can't do it, then what chance does anyone else have?  (My intention isn't to dismiss their pain, which must have been overwhelming, but to recognize how difficult and chronic depression is.)  There's also the usual messages of anger and attack against those who are suffering from depression, which is hard to see.

But it's also life and part of my self-care is reminding myself that I can only do the parts that I can.  And it is perfectly okay to take time to create something beautiful.  Maybe it's not "serious" work, but even tiny bits of beauty, joy, and hope are necessary to keep us going, especially in difficult times.   

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Happy Pride Month

I'm a romance writer which means I am a sucker for stories about people falling in love.  Finding that sense of connection can be one of the most transcendent and uplifting experiences we can have in our lives and there's nothing as intoxicating as the mix of intimacy and attraction that solidify a romantic partnership.

This is why it pisses me off when people try to dismiss other people's experience of falling in love.  That sense of exultation should never have to be tarnished with fear of being hurt or judged or otherwise made to feel less.  (And this post is not intended to diminish the experience of asexual or aromantic people, who also deserve to be be happy, comfortable and judgment-free.)  I don't care why people feel they have the right to quash love that doesn't fall into the cis-hetero-allo box, they don't have the right to hurt others.

I've gotten into a number of arguments over the years with people who don't see themselves as spreading pain and hatred because they don't associate their own words, actions, and reactions with the more virulent and violent forms of bigotry.  And there is a point in saying that assuming that two men checking into a hotel must want two beds is not the same as shooting people in a gay club.  Okay, not the same.  But both are still harmful.  

Imagine how exhausting and demoralizing it must be to have to constantly be prepared to justify oneself.  To not be sure whether or not someone's rejection of you will be supported by those in authority and the public around you.  To constantly hear dismissals, insults presented as crappy jokes, and outright mean comments.  And even worse, all that negativity is aimed at one of the happiest parts of your life: the person that you love and the connection between the two of you (or more, to include those who are polyamorous).

Tackling hatred can feel overwhelming but there are some things we all can do.  First and most important, educate ourselves.  Know what you're talking about in terms of homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality (and any other prefixes you run across).  And the best way to educate yourself is to listen to those who wear those labels.

Be willing to speak up against the crappy jokes and casual insults.  Don't wait to see if someone else is offended.  And don't expect someone else to carry all the weight of explaining why that's a problem.

Be representative in your language and examples.  This one is surprisingly hard and not everyone is always going to be happy with what you use.  But to give an example, you can avoid reinforcing a false gender binary by using "they" instead of "he/she".  It's small, but sometimes it can help.

And last but not least, remind yourself that people's relationships are not actually your business.  If someone chooses to share, that's great (and you can be supportive).  But otherwise, the odds are good that you don't actually need to know whether or not two people are roommates, lovers, friends, siblings, or married.  By being accepting, then you can avoid reinforcing stereotypes and certainly avoid pushing someone beyond their comfort levels.

Then maybe we can work our way to a point where no one has to worry about who they fall in love with and they can just get on with enjoying it.

Here comes the shameless plugging: I've just released book 4 of my Lalassu series about a secret society of superheroes living among us and if you'd like to check out book 1, now you can do so for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Previous post: Ink Tip: Writing Influences: a look at the amazing writers who have inspired and influenced me.  

Monday, 4 June 2018

Weekly Update: May 27 to June 2

Weekly word count: 11 998

It's been another flying week of working on Deadly Potential.  I've got my gaze focused on pitching at RWA Nationals and it's going to be a solid race to get it all done.

But I've also started to find myself thinking of what will happen afterward.  I've really pushed myself this year and while I don't regret that, I don't want to keep on at this pace.  I don't want to burn myself out.

I'm considering giving myself a few weeks away from writing once Deadly Potential is finished.  A few weeks to tackle other things that have gone undone around my house (specifically, I have some rooms that need painting).  Maybe another week or two to update my series guide.  I think that might help me to come back fresher and better.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Ink Tip: Writing Influences

I was speaking to some other authors recently and one of them made a comment to the effect that they didn't watch or read anything in the genre that they write because they didn't want to be inadvertently influenced into copying anything.  At the time, I had a strong "But..?" reaction but let it go since I couldn't articulate why I was having such a negative reaction.

Since then, I've been doing a lot of thinking about that statement and now I can articulate why I vehemently disagree with it.  There are a couple of over-all reasons.  First, I write what I love and therefore not watching or reading stories in that genre would deprive me of a huge source of pleasure.  Second, it's way easier to avoid copying someone else's work if you know what's out there.
I know!  I could have a cop who's part robot!... Already done.  Okay, back to the drawing board.
But it also got me thinking about the writers who have influenced my writing.  The ones I aspire to match.  And so for this month's Ink Tip, I'm sharing my learn-by-example authors and I'd highly encourage people to check them out.

The first one on the list is a fellow Canadian gal: Tanya Huff, who writes in a wide variety of genres: high fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction.  One of her series is about a vampire living in Toronto, the son of Henry the VIIIth and it was made into a television series, Blood Ties.  But my favourites of hers are the Keeper and Gale Women series, though I am also really enjoying her Peacekeeper series.

Tanya Huff was the first author I read who wrote the kind of stories that I wanted to write: fast-paced action, elements of humour that didn't undercut the characters or plot, and with strong female characters who weren't always taking time out to be kidnapped, rescued or threatened.  When I read her books, I'm not even aware of the process of internalizing the words: I'm living the story along with her characters.  She is also absolutely brilliant at creating diverse casts of characters.  She's stated that readers should assume that all of her characters are bisexual, unless otherwise made clear in the text.  And unlike many authors who have claimed that their characters are diverse but haven't included actual references in the text, there are plenty of examples to cite from within the books.  The most powerful people in her Gale Women series are the aunties, who come into their true power once they are post-menopausal.  Older women aren't sidelined, they're the magical equivalent of thermonuclear weapons.  

The next one on my list is JMS (J. Michael Stracynski) who has a long list of writing credits on various shows over the last forty years.  My favourites are the television show Babylon 5 and the comics, Midnight Nation, the Amazing Spider-Man and Rising Stars.

To say that JMS changed how television works is a fair statement.  He wrote the vast majority of the individual shows for Babylon 5 and rather than finish each episode by effectively re-setting, he allowed the characters to grow and change.  There wasn't a Big Bad each season to defeat, instead the characters dealt with a complicated world that felt real.  And that's one of the aspect of JMS's writing that I strive to recreate: how real both his characters and his world felt.  An episode might focus on the search to catch a killer, but then a newspaper headline in the background will give the result of the trial ten episodes later.  I have to remind myself that Londo and G'Kar are not real people because they were presented as such solid, three-dimensional, shades-of-gray characters that they felt absolutely real.

The other aspect of his writing that inspires me is his ability to evoke powerful emotions through his words.  In the aftermath of 9/11, the Marvel writers were trying to decide if the Marvel superheros (most of whom live in New York) would acknowledge the tragedy or if their stories would pretend it hadn't happened.  JMS wrote an incredibly powerful and moving story about Spider-Man and the other heroes dealing with the tragedy and coming to terms with not having been able to stop it.  The Declaration of Principles from Babylon 5 is still recited around the world.

That leads me smoothly to the next example on my list and this one isn't a single author, but rather an entire company: Marvel Comics and the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  I've been a comic book geek for a long time and enjoy both the Marvel and DC Universes (among others).  But Marvel has done something extraordinary throughout its seventy year history.  They created individual worlds and stories that overlap and connect, giving their "fantastic and amazing" stories a sense of grounded reality.  Daredevil lives in the same world as Tony Stark or Wolverine and they are all effected by the same events.  

It makes for harder writing, since writers must come up with reasons why characters in one series wouldn't call for assistance from characters in another.  And I'm sure there have been many tooth-gnashing meetings as someone realized that what they were doing in one storyline would affect those in other storylines.  But for the most part, the different characters and stories have come together smoothly enough that I believe Marvel when they say they are plotting the key points out in advance (not all of them, but enough major plot points to keep everyone moving in the right direction).  That sense of interconnected realism is something that I strive for in my own stories, though it's much easier to keep track with only one brain doing the plotting.  They are why all of my novels and short stories are set in the same universe, even though they focus on different aspects of it.

The next favourite writer on my list is another Marvel alum, Joss Whedon, whose Astonishing X-Men series is still a favourite re-read of mine.  And of course, he is also the writer behind several of my favourite television series: Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, not to mention the Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron movie.

Joss is known for his clever dialogue which tends to be full of pop-culture references.  But his ability to play with language doesn't always rely on common experience.  For Firefly, he created a new vernacular for the show, one that was still comprehensible to us but was believable as how the language could have evolved over the next few centuries.  As a language geek, I enjoyed figuring out how "shiny" became the new "cool" almost as much as the stories.  But he is also highly skilled at including humour that works to accent the horror and thrills of his stories.  The tiny breaks in the tension keep the stories from becoming overwhelming and depressingly dark, but also don't distract from the emotional impact.  They endear his characters to the audience and keep us coming back to his worlds.

And last (because I have to end this post at some point, though I could keep on citing more and more writers) but certainly not least is a relatively new (at least to me) writer, Sherrilyn Kenyon.  Her Dark Hunter and League series are both great reads with strong characters and fast-paced plots.  But the aspect of her writing that impresses me most and that I strive to emulate is her ability to take villains from one story and show them as heroes in another.

"Your villain has to see themselves as the hero of their own story" is a fairly common piece of writing advice, mainly intended to curb the tendency to treat villains as only being interested in Evil, rather than being developed characters in their own right.  But what Sherrilyn Kenyon does is more that that.  She uses her characters to show that too often, we only know small pieces of someone else's story and we judge them for it as if it was the whole truth.  The best example of this occurs in her two books: Acheron and Styxx.  Though they are number 14 and 22 in her Dark Hunter series, they can be read independently.

I could keep fan-girling on about all of these writers and their work.  And hopefully if you're not familiar with them, you'll give some of these examples a try.  But I'm also hoping that I've made my original point: to cut yourself off from any genre is to deny yourself the chance to learn from the writers in it.  There are all kinds of amazing examples to learn from out there.

For those interested in seeing how well I incorporate these examples into my own work, you can check out my Lalassu series about a secret society of superheroes.  Book 1: Revelations is on sale for 99 cents US (or local equivalent) and Book 4: Judgment just released a few weeks ago.

Previous post: The Stages of Social Awareness.  As we move through life, we can only experience our own version of the world directly, but there are lots of worlds to become aware of.  I used the process of learning about these worlds as part of the structure of Judgment.

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Monday, 28 May 2018

Weekly Update: May 20 to 26

Weekly word count: 10 413 (new words, that doesn't count repurposed words from previous drafts)

Things are moving much faster on the writing front now that I'm getting into the final draft before I begin querying/pitching the manuscript to editors and agents.  It's a good illustration that the more you know about what you're writing, the faster it goes.  I now know my characters, the ins and out of my plot, how my bad guy works (as a serial killer).  It all makes it much easier to stay in voice and not have to look up previous details.

This weekend was Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston.  It was a fun weekend.  The con itself is fairly quiet, not a lot of sales at the vendor table, but lots of opportunities to network with readers and other authors.  I did some solid plugs for ORWA and the RWA, and I think I found some new recruits, which would be nice.

There were two highlights of the weekend for me:  

First and best, when Amelia bought Revelations on Saturday and came to me on Sunday to say that she'd gotten hooked on the story and if she hadn't been so exhausted, she would have stayed up all night reading.  That is the best compliment an author can ever get.

Second (and it was a close second) was hanging out and getting a chance to visit with Tanya Huff and Violette Malan, both funny, smart ladies with really good books.

I also had a lovely time hanging out with my con buddy, Julie from ORWA, who was gracious enough to man my table during panels and whose assistance made the weekend run super smoothly.

Big shout out and thank you to Liz for putting on a well-organized con.  I'm hoping that time and budget will let me come back next year.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Stages of Awareness

One of my favourite things about researching a book is getting to walk a mile in all sorts of shoes.  Sometimes those shoes take me to exciting places, like sleight of hand training or burlesque dancing.  And sometimes they take me to places I should have known existed, but didn't.  In the last three years, I've learned a lot about micro-aggressions and how relentless they can be.  It got me thinking about how many parallel worlds are out there, and I'm not talking about Star Trek multiple realities, but rather the worlds we all live in.  The world that I experience as a cishet white woman is different from the worlds that some of my friends live in.  I've been learning to see the worlds that they see and there are some amazing things in those worlds and there are some scary things, too.

That was why I decided to structure Judgment as a journey of awareness and use the stages of awareness to to define the acts of the story.  There's no official consensus on the stages but these are the ones I used.

Or not.  Depending on your point of view.
Denial: There's a temptation to vilify people who are in this stage, the ones who insist that the problem is blown out of proportion or that it can't possibly be as bad as people say.  The ones who think there must be innocent explanations and who urge those harmed to be understanding and not so sensitive.  And there's reason to be cautious, because a lot of trolls hide in the ranks of the deniers and they use fake ignorance as an attack technique to wear down their targets.

However, I also think there's a lot of wishfulness behind the denial stage.  I can understand the impulse to believe that the world is a better place than it is.  That everything can be solved with an explanation and nothing is ever more harmful than a misunderstanding.  It's the world most of us would like to live in.  But it isn't the real world and hiding in denial doesn't fix the problems that need to be solved.

Knowledge: Education is the opposite of denial.  Once a person acknowledges that the issues are real, then there's no choice but to begin to learn about them.  It takes time to educate oneself and it takes a critical mind to sort through the conflicting reports and the nuanced ways of seeing the world.

I'm very careful not to describe this stage as finding the truth.  Because it's not as simple as sorting through truth and lies.  There are multiple perspectives and each of them holds an aspect of the truth.  Some people will say that a situation isn't ideal, but not a big deal.  Others will be drastically hurt by the same situation.  Both are true and valid reactions.

Self-Awareness: As a person becomes aware of what's going on in the world around them, they also become aware of how their own actions may have impacted others.  A word choice, a joke that relies on harmful assumptions, inadvertent excluding of entire groups.  

This is a very hard stage to go through.  If a person is truly dedicated to doing better, the process of awareness can feel like it's eroding their self-confidence.  It can feel like the whole world is getting turned around and nothing is certain any more.  People don't deal well with uncertainty and it can be tempting to clamp down on convenient excuses rather than continuing.

Negotiation: As a person starts to navigate through the new landmarks, they often want to help others come to the same understanding that they've struggled through.  There's a get-it-done rush to "fix" the problem by educating others.  And there are a lot of people who will respond to education.

But there are also a lot of people who aren't interested in education or who don't care about harm that is being done to others.  This is where a lot of people burn out, feeling as if they are being endlessly drained in their efforts to educate.

Anger: There are certain situations where we should be angry.  Anger is our mind's way to signal that something is wrong.  Realizing that some people either don't care or are okay with deliberately harming others is a situation that should make us angry.  

Action: Once there's no longer a veil of denial to hide behind, and a person is aware that progress is not inevitable, then it's time for action beyond education.  Good intentions aren't enough to protect the vulnerable.  That's why we need laws, enforcement and accountability.

Like the stages of grieving, not everyone goes through every stage and certainly not in the same order.  But I've found that thinking about awareness this way has helped me to be more patient and less prone to burn out.  It gives me more hope that even though someone doesn't understand now, it doesn't mean they won't understand later.  And maybe then someday we can get the kind of world that we've always hoped for and that I think we deserve: one where a misunderstanding really is as bad as it gets.

Judgment is now available in ebook and print.  And if you'd new to the lalassu, give book one: Revelations a try for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Previous post: Ways to Separate the Malicious from the Ignorant

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