Category Archives: Personal

Yearly Book Recap 2015 (Fiction)

Good evening fine word connoisseurs,

As you know, this year I undertook the challenge to read more female authors than usual. My goal was a clean 50 / 50 split, but when failure struck my goal was to work harder at including other narratives than cis white male ones in my literature landscape.

This is the recap of that (very modest) goal. As I’ve read both non-fiction and fiction works this year, I ‘ve split them into two separate posts.  For the fiction post I’ll be using the below categories:

Fiction:

  • Change-your-life good.
  • Worth purchasing. (Fantastic, but not amazing.)
  • You decide. (Might contain some good ideas, some decent writing or interesting characters. Depends on your personal taste if you’re going to get your money’s worth.)
  • Nice try / Gold star. (The author put a lot of work into this, but it didn’t quite come off as well as it could have.)
  • WTF Random Publisher? (How was this even published? For indie authors, they are automatically excluded from this category. Quality control should mean something.)

+ Note: the list numbers do not indicate quality or ranking of the individual books against each other.

Change-your-life Good

  1. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is gritty, raw and punches the reader so hard in the face they’ll have to wipe away the literary stains. Imagine if Raymond Chandler was still alive, still wrote and embraced multi-cultural narratives. That’s what Zoo City feels like.

2. The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi

Here’s a book that grabs the 21st century, and pulls it screaming onto the page. It doesn’t know what american-centric story-telling is or why white people should be the coolest characters in the narrative. It’s the first (and only) book I’ve read so far that seems to have a global vision when it comes to where Sci-Fi should go.

3. Push by Sapphire

This novel is ridiculous. In 100 pages it manages to worm its  way under your skin and just stick there. Like an ooze. It’s about Precious, a sixteen-year-old with a horrific home life. Even though it takes you into this hell hole of humanity, it also gives you hope. It shows you how Precious (with the help of a good support network) is able to overcome and escape the cycle she was born into.

Female Authors: 2   Male Authors: 1    Various: 0

Worth Purchasing

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

A multi-generational tale about a family of immigrants who moved from Bengal to Boston. Although a little too focussed on the male-side of the family, it covers a range of perspectives and has a snappy pace to it. Highly accessible and very enlightening reading.

5. Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis

(Full Disclosure: S. Elliot Brandis and I belonged to the same writing club several years ago. ) 

Once Upon a Time at the End of the World is a novella about an android and a prostitute who form an unlikely alliance and engage in bounty hunts after the apocalypse. Exceptionally well written, but at times the dialogue and the themes explored contradict each other.

6. 2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke

An oldie but a goodie. The movie was a wash for my brother and I, but the book fleshes out a lot of the characters’ motivations and creates a fascinating world full of possibilities. Highlights why Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greats.

7. The Real StoryForbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson

An exploration of, or treatise on, the darker side of humanity. Stephen R. Donaldson seems to not know where the line is for the reader’s comfort, but creates a compelling story all the same. Consume at your own risk.

8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fun, whimsical and almost impossible not to enjoy. Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie as she struggles to inspire Howl to be brave, all while hoping not to fall in love with him. The characters are more selfish than the animated movie, but loveable all the same.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Difficult to categorise, Let the Right One In is a fine example of cross-genre literature. It takes the disquiet of horror, the character-building of drama and the poignancy of a coming-of-age novel and mixes them all together. The result is a captivating slow burn of a story that builds to a pitch-perfect crescendo.

Movie Note: Oskar is more complex than the Swedish movie, but possibly not as likeable.

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman knows how to write. He knows how to create diverse characters and infuse a story with compelling supernatural elements. Unfortunately, he can also get carried away. American Gods is full of profound ideas, but feels a little too loose on the narrative structure and sometimes events happen  that don’t propel the story forward. If it had been trimmed a touch, it would’ve been one of the best reads of 2015.

11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A coming-of-age / boarding-school drama that uses a sci-fi hook to hold the reader. Although the stakes are small and this type of story of love and loss has been told before, Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a tight little tale about 3 students which compels you to read on. Not the most original work to add to your library, but worthwhile to admire simply for its execution.

12. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

In many ways, a mess of a book. Plot threads are often left dangling in a strong breeze, the story takes too long to start, and then jumps around too much until it finds its focus. There are way too many characters. However, it’s well written and there are ideas piled on top of ideas wrapped in a sandwich of even bigger ideas. However, After the uproar about Patrick Rothfuss’s depiction of women in the Ademre society, The Mirror Empire may be questionably sexist depending on which lens you view it through.

Definitely worthwhile if you’re a writer for inspiration, as a reader of fantasy it might leave too many things dependent on a sequel for a satisfying finale.

13. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is an oddity. It’s a really good novel that’s about the lengths a mother will go to to save her son from his own foolishness. A story that features zombies, regret, a steampunk setting and several heart-clenching set pieces. Unfortunately, the front cover makes it look like a wild ride about air pirates. Not what the novel is about at all. So, if you can get over the shock and initial disappointment of not having any awesome dogfights or cussing air pirates in there, you’ll be alright.

14. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

It’s short, the stories are interesting and it’s … J.K. Rowling. If you’ve got Harry Potter fans in your house they’ll love it. If you don’t, they’ll enjoy the twists J.K. Rowling puts on our old myths and creates something new. Good fun for a rainy hour or so.

Female Authors: 6    Male Authors: 8    Various: 0

You Decide

15. All Over Him By Casey Chase

Hot, dumb, erotic fiction. Not quite paranormal though, despite the blurb promising it would be. If you like your sex hard and your men obnoxiously stalker-ish then this is for you.

16. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg

Part of the post-Harry Potter fantasy novels which take pre-existing rules and try to tweak them a little bit. Starts out well with a frustrated teenager (one just legal enough to be romantically involved with an older man) who gets put into the ‘worst’ field of magic: paper. This happens despite her ‘mad’ skills.

At the commencement of the novel, the book seems to want to have a conversation about sexism and how it affects women, but then undoes all that by having the main protagonist fall in love with her teacher.

Full of whimsy, but its main plot hook loses momentum half way through and the tone shifts drastically between scenes for drama purposes. The Paper Magician seems unsure if it wants to a contemplation on love and loss or a flighty road through a magical landscape. It tries to do both, but struggles under the thematic weight and collapses by the end.

17. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

Centers on the tribulations of Yeine Darr and her unexpected rise to the city of Sky. Takes some of the ideas of American Gods and twists them splendidly only to have all that setup undone by a passive protagonist. A novel that’s supposed to be about empowering women to challenge the world order, has Yeine’s actions mean nothing all while falling in love with the masculine (and emotionally distant) dark god in the novel.

18. Acid Row by Minette Walters

A thriller with a fantastic hook: what if a town rioted because a pedophile was placed in their neighbourhood? The story starts well with a little mystery and lots of suspense, but gets caught on its social message and psychologist jargon. The author attempts to convey that the community isn’t really bad, nor is the pedophile, it’s the way he was raised and proceeds to explain that three or four times to the reader. Eventually the story and likability of the characters gets buried under useless exposition and over-explained character motivation.

19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A classic, but one that was struggle to enjoy. Everything is there: a foreboding father, the backdrop of the moors, inter-generational hatred and domestic violence, but it fell short. I can’t identify why, but unfortunately it didn’t connect with me.

20. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A frustrating read. The first half, maybe even 3/4, is excellent. Great pacing, fantastic flashbacks and a powerful emotional ride through what seems to be an autobiographical story. However, the last 1/4 destroys all of that. There’s too much lumped in which feels tossed together at the end to make Amir’s life seem less messy than it was.  There’s the confrontation between the protagonist and his childhood antagonist, the mirroring of his friend’s son’s actions against an all too similar event earlier in the novel, a finale which only happens because the Amir forgets everything he knows about kids and says something inopportune, plus the shrinking of a village from many individuals into only those that are relevant to the story. If it was an autobiography, you could write it off. Life is strange. But when it’s fiction the coincidences can only get piled so high before it feels like the author is twisting the world inside-out to get the end out of the tale they want. This is one of those potential greats that got lost on its own trail.

21. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Magic for hipsters. Perhaps more precisely, magic for ivy-league, male hipsters. They kind of book that struts around pretending to be grown up but is simply a teenager trying on an executive-looking pair of pants. It spends 510 pages trying to get the reader to sympathise with a character who (SPOILERS) cheats on his girlfriend, brings about the death of a classmate and runs away from all his responsibilities. All the while bitching about how life has done ‘im hard. If that sounds like someone you love spending time with then buy away.

Female Authors: 11   Male Authors: 10    Various: 0

Nice Try / Gold Star

22.The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry

It features a pixie king and his human love interest  Otherwise a standard paranormal romance. A more comprehensive review can be found here.

23. Elis Royd by Ron Sanders

One of the few novels that starts out with the writer taking shots at some imaginary straw-authors before penning a poorly written tome. Clearly some thought has gone into it, but the execution struggles and the ideas could still with a few more hours in peculation.

24. Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher

A book based on many ideas which has forgotten that an interesting world does not make a novel. Starts out with a solid chase scene but slides into talking heads after that. You might enjoy it if you’re deeply in love with the prose of Atlas Shrugged. More details here.

25. Winter by S.D. Rasheed

A paranormal romance that features one strangely inserted sex scene and ever-changing character motivations. At times forgets its own story and then spirals out of control with a main character who must fall in love with the dark demon to propel the plot along. Possibly the only novel I’ve read this year where I’ve wanted more description from the author so I know what’s going on.

26. Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe

A thriller / mystery / romance about a lost ghost that returns to Canada to find her killer. (Perhaps?) Introduces a world full of drugs, violence and angry sex in the tourist section of Vancouver. All the ghosts have a confusing set of powers and none of the characters are believable or scary. At times I accidentally laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Unfortunately, you can feel the author had a clear vision they wanted to show in this work but it got lost in the execution.

27. Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle

Wanted to like it, but struggled with the character motivations. Full review can be found here.

28. Wool by Hugh Howey

I don’t want to put Wool here. I don’t. Yet here it is. Two of the best writers I know recommended this work. I read Hugh Howey’s posts on The Passive Voice and head nod along with him, but Wool was not good.

Wool starts with an interesting idea: what if we had to live in a silo due to a nuclear attack? Then he adds a conspiracy dimension to it, and a lot of events that don’t make sense. He kills characters for no reason, has villains pop out of nowhere to increase suspense and has the main character fall in love with a guy she’s met twice. What? How is that even a thing in 2015? Also, it’s long with extended introversion sequences that neither advance the plot nor the characters’ motivation. Overall, it’s a book that loses out due to pacing and plotting problems rather than writing skill.

29. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If Scott Pilgrim could come alive and write a novel, this would be it. Except it would’ve been written by the Scott Pilgrim before he had met Ramona. It features a protagonist that is cis, white and a HERO! Because … reasons dammit. He leads his multi-racial crew to justice against the evil corporate empire by cyber-stalking a woman, signing contracts without a lawyer looking them over, and acting like a teenager in front of a director of a company. If you don’t mind that, and the long sections which are not at all related to 1980s pop-culture, then you might want to snatch this up.

30. Speculative Japan by Various

A series of old sci-fi short stories that were translated from Japanese authors. It features 3 opening / introduction essays and 2 afterword pieces, which should give an indicator of what type of book it is. Many of the stories feel uninspired by today’s standards and of the ones that are solid, it’s difficult to know if the original story was blandly worded or the translation turned them into uninspired pieces of prose. Often it feels like a vanity project by those involved and is a tad expensive when compared to the many great anthologies are already available.

31. HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

It breaks my heart that this is here. I love Alistair Maclean. The Dark Crusader and Puppet on a Chain are two of my favourite novels of all time. In saying that, HMS Ulysses is chock full of b-grade war movie dialogue and overly dramatic scenes. Everyone is heroic and the characters, when not advising how dangerous things are, are unable to stop praising the dying captain. Interesting only as a reference point for how Alistair Maclean grew as an author.

Female Authors: 13  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

WTF Random Publisher?

32. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An Irish take on Push that goes completely wrong. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, A Girl if a Half-formed Thing is so full style that it forgets to tell a story. It speaks from the first person in a dialect so difficult to piece together that I simply gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I understood what was being said, but it was so painful and the main character continued to be so annoying that I quit of frustration and read the ending. Surprise: it’s dark ending. If you like art house books, almost impenetrable novels and think reading should be a chore then this is for you.

Female Authors: 14  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

Picture (c) sebra. Used under Standard License with Dollar Photo Club. 

The Inevitable Screech of the Bourgeois

I believe — though I have no empirical data to prove this — every writer / writing critic / reader eventually encounters the inexplicable-author-success story. Perhaps you know of what I speak? The best-selling novellist who cannot write. Goddammit!

Their prose is archaic yet filled with jargon. Everything is too vague despite all the details. Women exclaim, introverts prance and characters stutter through their consonants as if they’re speaking for their first time. Worse still, everyone’s racist, sexist, leftist, rightist, downist, upist and topped-to-the-brim with idealogical fervor.

A true reader — you, me and your neighbour’s cat wouldn’t touch it. We wouldn’t embrace those kinds of terrible, torrid and torturous pamphlets of pettiness, would we? I say NO to you good ma’am, no we will not.

And yet the words “New York Times Best-seller” adorne the crisp card holding those printed vowels together.

“Why?” you cry to the ceiling at Big W. “Why have the masses failed us so?”

Today it’s Stephen King’s turn. Apparently, and to my surprise, he can’t write very well. He uses the word “mazelike” and also “steep”. He also utters this phrase  in Mr. Mercedes:

“When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting”

Michael Conniff argues that the descriptors used in this passage are too vague.  Too simplistic. What kind of auditorium? Red, pink, blue? 19 doors?  How steep? 16 degrees? 17?

He posits (let’s fancy it up on this blog) that Stephen King isn’t a good writer because he doesn’t respect words. And words are the basis of writing. As such, Mr. King has clearly violated the nobellious (go with me here) writerius decree or some such and should hand in his literary card.

He clearly shouldn’t have assembled (and published!) a book about the craft.

Firstly, I’ve read On Writing — right to the end, and the advice on how to put nouns and verbs one after each other recently. I can’t recall where he’s anti-words. There’s a section where he shows how an author can be effective with simple, or literary phrases. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to how your love of vocabulary shouldn’t overtake the story element of a novel. How sounding smart and communicating well are two different things.

Let’s put all of my opinions on the luminous-bench of public judgement: I found Steven King’s handling of our current erudite legacy very even-handed. He advocated that anything goes, that you should speak from your truth, and use any literary tool as is your won’t AS LONG AS it doesn’t get in the way of the story. (A big but, if there ever was one.)

 Clearly, I’m sympathetic to Steven. Friends even.

Secondly though, I support Michael’s frustration with those he deems are not worthy of their financial success. I too have a cadre (a whole cadre!) of authors that have achieved a measure of success I am uncomfortable with. Woeful, wonky, wretched yarns they spew. Yarns that have beguiled the reading public all the while reaping their creators nothing less than wads of yuan.

Alone (yet in unison with Michael) I stand in front of the ‘great’ legacy of printed documents and fend off the uninvited. Who do they think they are? Popular support does not a classic make.

Obviously, I’m in solidarity with Michael’s hypothesis. Chummy even.

Except …

As someone who has penned two tomes (a fictional biography! a fantasy!)  that exist in relative obscurity  I must concede that, perhaps, it is my pride showing. A dash of green flicking beneath the collar. It took me a while, but I got there.

See, no matter what technical flaws I believe those books (and writers) have, they had something I didn’t. An ability to connect. An ability to connect with an audience I did not. (And perhaps do not at the moment.)

And, in finality, when you think about it — isn’t that what a writer does? Communicate? John talks. Kazuki runs. Smith gambols. Do I need to know how fast? How quick? How well? Surely all I need to know is what’s happening to John, Kazuki and Smith.

Do all these tools in my toolbox even matter if my truth on the page fails to reverberate with the reader? Isn’t everything else dressing? Do people really pick up a novel to find out the width, colour, height and style of a man’s chin? Am I paying $3 or $5 or $19.95 to discover new English words?

Or is it because I want to know why the slovenly man, with gun poised, decides to ramble about the CIA into a reporter’s camera?

Or, like all flawed thinkers, am I wrong? Is the story supreme, or only another topping to be served on a lexicon of lifting lights?

Where Things Are

So, it’s been a long, quiet summer. A long, quiet spring. A long, quiet year.

This is the point where I stand up and declare … a new book is out! Buy now! But, alas, that’s not what this post is about.

You may not know this, but I write under pseudonym. Kenneth A. Mugi is not my real name. It’s a play on my last name in Japanese with my grandfather’s first name slipped in. I used it (instead of my own) because I wrote a semi-autobiographical story in The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer. I needed the protection an alias provided. I didn’t think about it much beyond that in all honesty.

I wasn’t in this for the cash. I was in this for the rage. Not the rage of being an indie author, but because I was enraged. I was mad at work, mad at life, and I took that fury and wrote. I write when I’m angry. I write when I’m spitting sinister soliloquies under the night sky. I take the darkness churning in my soul and use it to scream words until I can tie my imagination down in paper form.

Back then I wrote because … I could. Before The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer, I’d written 3 novels and an anthology of short stories during my time at uni. Before the internet revolution happened, before there was a place to market them. So I knew I could do it, hell, I’d already done it.

Let’s not mince words though, they were awful. Eye destroying, burnt out crap which would’ve been mocked in the slush pile. Someone has a copy of them somewhere, I feel sorry for them. I wish to avert their eyes and promise I’ll get better. That I am better.

So I wrote and edited in a rage, and my job didn’t change. So I wrote some more. I wrote a supernatural YA. Got a good review for it too. (Thanks Midu.) I wrote the sequel and didn’t like it. My wife (who is my before-market critic) didn’t like it either. So it got shelved. I wrote a high-fantasy novel.

In total, I probably wrote around 240,000 words or something that year. I honestly don’t know know how much because some of the edits were extensive and I don’t add edits in my word counts.

Despite my delusions that I would get rich and swim in greenbacks (things that I knew were delusions), I didn’t think any of it through. I was a mad rapper with a corner block and a voice that hollered.

Yet, I joined a writer’s group soon after that because … I met the President of a writer’s group during the course of my job and she was … really nice. Amazingly nice. You don’t meet people that nice very often. And she was kind and invited me.

So I went. And I took my bag of anxiety with me.  And I met people. Let’s say most of them were nice. Let’s say a couple of them were nice at the start, but turned into something else at the end. Let’s say that overall, despite some really not great experiences with (only) a couple of people there, I had a pretty good time overall. I still do. I still love my writer’s group.

Will do it again. Heart them all, even the two I had conflicts with.

The thing is … and this is the thing … when you write for no reason, when you invest your time and energy in something to escape your demons, some people don’t understand that. They’ve got their goals, they’ve got their ambitions and their targets. They have all these plans, and you’re not… you’re not playing the same game. And if you have any skill (which in my case is debatable), somehow they don’t know what to do with you. It’s as if you’re a mercenary who heads into a combat but doesn’t ask for coin when payment is due.

That kind of action is stupid to them. They need to help you. They need to put you on a path. The righteous path, the path laid with silver. That path filled with gold.

Except, I was on a path. I didn’t know it then, but I was on a path out of my inner hell and they were trying to turn me around. They wanted me to trudge back to the demon dog and steal its purse.

They almost got there, and who knows, maybe it would’ve been for the best.  Maybe I’d be rich now. The problem is / was I’m stubborn. I know this. I’m stubborn because I’m cynical and I’m cynical because the world is shrouded in fog.  People even more so. Self-awareness about this doesn’t excuse me, it just means that I know part of myself and I live with it. Like I live with all the demons screaming in my mind. The thing is when you tell someone that X is part of you, you need them to believe you.

You are asking them to draw lines around the activities they want you to undertake and when they don’t, when they continue to push you against your will, you give in and let that cold core become you.

You get mad, you get angry, you get furious and yell at the stars in the heavens because you’ve opened your heart to them so that they don’t accidently put in a situation which could push you to your breaking point. And if you’re like me, then in these hours you write.

The seas of tumult become nothing more than words etched through the lines of the cosmos. You see nothing, you hear nothing but the faint whispering of the fantasy land. When you sweep your net into the sea of ideas, it comes back full. Nanowrimo? Fuck that shit. Finish it in a week.

I wrote the first draft of The Salvation of Yellow in 7 days. I wrote a 50,000 novel in 3 weeks while working a 16-hour-a-day job and with only 3 hours of sleep a day.

Because I was mad. Because I was going to tear through the universe and put my foot down God’s throat.

And when that same someone decided to be an asshole to me because, y’know, they didn’t uphold their end of a bargain they’d made with me, and I was being pulled apart by the cosmos, I just gave up. I dismantled everything I had to do with them and drifted.

The thing is … I’m still drifting. Sure, I finished The Salvation of Yellow, but that was mostly due to latent fury. I’m not consumed with a tinge of red now, I’m here. I’m being more careful with my triggers, I’m keeping my barriers higher and my vigilance keener. I’ve learned. Perhaps.

Yet the problem is that in this “good” state, a state where I can live, I don’t write. I don’t edit. I don’t need to run and hide and trundle into fantasies. I work on practical things. The things that have to be done.

Right now I live in Japan and if you’ve read any of my acknowledgements you’ve probably figured out that my wife is Japanese. It’s likely we’ll be here for a while. Perhaps forever which means I need to work on my (dismal) Japanese. That’s a more important life goal than creating novels which may or may not succeed.

Being a good teacher (the profession I earn my dollars from) is another excellent practical goal. Practical, cynical. Me.

Losing weight, spending time with my wife: all important things. Reading books, playing video games: all good things.

And the Kenneth A. Mugi name, it doesn’t quite work. It does, but it doesn’t. I don’t want to write under my name. I think there’s a narcissistic danger in that. Yet, I do want to write and Kenneth A. Mugi is great, but he needs to be separate from the genres I create.

With that in mind, I launched an experiment based on the idea that a traditional, white male name would obtain more sales. Actually, the idea that a white name would obtain more sales. And, I’ve got to say, they were right.

I released the same novel: The Salvation of Yellow, under two different names and with two different titles.

Alexa Robertson: Borrowed Gods

William J. Grant: The God Thief

They didn’t do well, not by a long stretch, but The God Thief outsold Borrowed Gods by about 2:1. And Borrowed Gods outsold The Salvation of Yellow by about 3:1.

To whatever side of the debate you’re on that data can mean a lot of things. What it does mean, however, is that I need to switch things up. I need to make some changes.

As such, here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. Kenneth A. Mugi will be used for stories based on my biography. Tales set in real life. It will also be used for short stories with my writing group because … why change now?
  2. Alexa Robertson will become my Y.A. / contemporary issue persona. I’m not sure what I’ll write under her, but eventually He was a hero will be re-released under her name.
  3. William J. Grant will be the sci-fi fantasy guy. I’ll start transferring all the fantasy titles under him soon. For the next few months though, I’ll keep my little experiment going and see what the results turn up.

Also, I’m going to go black for a while. Not on this site, but in regards to novel and novellas being published. I want to have a series of works to release within a certain time window. A novella a month or something like that. I doubt this will lead to increased sales and writerly freedom, but I want to do it right. I want to take a few extra months and have everything prepared for a tight launch.

Why? Why am I telling you all this? Simply because it’s unlikely I’m going to get angry again. Those days are over and I have to be realistic: this is who I am, this is who’ve always been. And this is what I can bring to the writing world. I wish it was more, but my hands are small and my skills meagre.

A big thank you to Midu (if you’re reading this) who took a chance on my works and reviewed them. I didn’t expect such good reviews (although I hoped for them), but I got them and they helped give me the confidence to continue.  Thanks.

A big shout out goes to Allan Walsh as well. Like his site, enjoy his journey. He’s a great guy and gives great feedback.

Also, a big thank you to the 99% of the writing crew I roll with and still roll with. You’re beyond awesome, stay sweet.

Trahern

(Kenneth A. Mugi)

P.S: The good news? I’ve created some bad-ass covers over the years. Check them out:

(All stock images are licensed from Dollar Photo Club. Copyright of their respective creators. Stock images were purchased under the Standard Royalty License Agreement and modified by myself.)

Darkest-Depths Borrowed Gods V1 -- Alexa Robertson

The God Thief V2 The Cowardice of Green V4 Mid The Salvation of Yellow V3 He was a hero - iPod Cover I am a hero - iPad Promotion SERA V4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Your Isms (or Ics)

At some point in  your writing career (today, tomorrow, after you’ve died), someone is going to say your work is sexist, racist or homophobic. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re peering into your work and discovering uncomfortable truths about themselves that they don’t like. Critics of Something Positive might run along those lines.

Unfortunately, they’re not often far from the mark.

“This isn’t true,” you might declare. “I’m not sexist. I’m not racist. I think of everyone equally. I just write racist characters. Some folk are simply over sensitive.”

Sure. Some people are. Centuries of being denied promotions, having a campaign of domestic violence inflicted against your ancestors, and being cyber-stalked might do that. Hundreds of years of exploitation, state violence against your neighbours and your family might lead to you being a ‘touch’ on the angry side too.

However, structural sexism / racism is a vile thing. It’s this worm that gets in you, winds itself through your thought process and is almost impossible to remove. Once it’s in there, it whispers and says, “This is normal. This is how the world is, this is how things are. Everything else is a lie. All those other perspective are distortions. Mistruths.”

It’s why Lena Durham wrote a show about women in NYC with only white female characters and still won’t accept that maybe she’s got a racist spore somewhere in her body. It’s why there are 22 women in The Wise Man’s Fear and hundreds of male ones, but Patrick Rothfuss is not quite convinced he’s got a piece of that icky lurking in his profound heart.

Hey, let’s face it, that’s the way the world is, right? And, if we’re really truthful with ourselves, we can’t sympathise with a racist character. As a post-racial / sexual human, we get all angry and shit about those racist / sexist / homophobic white, male folk out there who demean others. We hate them so much. We will punch any book that contains those characters in the cover.

Unless it’s Ready Player One. Or Brooklyn Nine Nine. Or Old Man’s War.  Or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Or Twilight. Or Tomb Raider. Or… Or…

I’m going to start with Ready Player One because it was heralded by the Daily Mail as the stand out sci-fi novel of 2011. It has an endorsement from Terry freakin’ Pratchett. From feminist / activist John Scalzi himself. A man, who despite fighting for women rights every other second, tells me I need to experience a nerdgasm over this work.

What is it though? Ready Player One features six main characters. Parzival (male), Art3mis (female), Aech (male), Daito (male), Shoto (male) and Sorrento (male). You can see from that list alone there’s a problem.

“But Daito and Shoto are Japanese!” you might exclaim. “So it’s ok. Minorities!”

Sure. Oh, by the way, SPOILER ALERT! because that’s the turf we need to go to.

Firstly, there is no reason why Daito and Shoto couldn’t have been female characters and female avatars. I know a number of super Japanese geeks who happen to be women. It’s pretty common. It’s not rare. Why do they both have to be male? Why didn’t the entire editing division of Random House say that he needs to switch their genders?  It wouldn’t have been that hard, they only have about twenty lines of dialogue between them.

(Did you know that 9/13 people involved with this project at the  original publisher were women? It tells us so in the acknowledgements.)

Secondly, Parzival (the protagonist) spends the whole time getting hero worshipped by Shoto. Shoto can’t revenge his brother? No worries, the white guy will sort that out. A rare pill that could’ve helped Shoto with his quest is given to the pale-skinned dude from the U.S. by Daito because, hey, that’s how the world should work.

Ignoring that small slice of white racial supremacy which crept into the text, let’s have a look at Art3mis and Parzival’s relationship. Art3mis is a famous gunter who writes a popular blog about the quest they’re both on. Our main man has an infatuation with her. That’s fine. We all have crushes. He then proceeds to cyber-stalk her, which again, kind of fine. It happens. Guys do that, Google it.

Except instead of freaking out and never talking to him again, Art3mis responds and they become besties. Not only that, but at the end of the story she admits that when she suggested splits-ville it was a mistake and she’s so sorry. Hey, why not? Parzival’s such an awesome guy. Who knew that the random, cyber-stalking, privacy snooping, crazy-man fan would turn into such a compassionate guy? All you have to do is just give in. Let him kiss you.

Not only does she serve as his motivation, love interest and digital helper, but the story treats this situation as if no other male has ever done this before. As if this activity is a good idea. As if cyber-stalking (done with the best of intentions) is ok.

No, it’s not ok. It is never ok. If you want to freak out about the stalker-abuse relationship in Twilight that’s fine, but you’ll also need to write long-winded posts about the same issues in Ready Player One too. 80s nostalgia doesn’t make it all go away. Computer generated worlds set in the future don’t change ethics, bro.

Which leaves us with Aech, the totes awesome friend. So this is a weird one. You have a male avatar, who acts like a male avatar, yet who is actually an African-American female. (Let’s ignore the issue of all the characters, who are nineteen / twenty, acting like 13-year-olds for the moment. Or forever. It’s a different issue.) This secret is revealed right at the end and Parzival gets upset as he thinks he’s been betrayed. Which is strange because the world is full of people who look like aliens. Some avatars have six arms, others are hundreds of feet tall. Would he have gotten upset if she’d been a six-hundred pound, wobbly, extra-terrestrial but then he discovered she’d been an Indian American from Oklahoma?

Is that the worst part this reveal? Probably not. This reveal is normalising whiteness. It’s saying that if you can create any character, you should generate one that’s white and male (even in the year 2044) because it will be the standard identity for everybody in the future. Where’s the multi-ethnic Earth we all dream of? The effect of the growing Asian economic powerhouses? The changing demographics of our society?

Forget it, let’s brush past all that terrible universe building. If famous authors can give it the thumbs up, so can I. Except, something else happens. Parzival struggles to accept the real identity of Aech. Even though she’s identified herself as an African American lesbian, that’s too much for our hero. Even though she explained the only reason her avatar is white and male is to appease people like Parzival and get them to treat her normally, he strips her of real identity in the next few pages. He calls her a male. He removes her agency and re-labels her with an artificial name that’s socially acceptable to him.

Acceptable to the reader. 

To us. 

Did I miss the outrage? The part where message boards were lit up describing how cyber-stalking is not an acceptable behaviour? Where warping someone’s real life personality into something else you’re more comfortable with is not just uncool, but also an atrocious and unacceptable social act?

Ok. Ready Player One and I have issues together. We’re not friends. We don’t sleep in the same room any more.

Let’s glance over at Brooklyn Nine Nine. I love Brooklyn Nine Nine. It’s witty, it’s funny, it makes me laugh. My wife and I spend hours chortling it up with the crew.

It also can’t change the fact that Jake Parelta (a character I adore) is a little sexist, maybe a little racist. Sure, it’s accidental racism. And certainly, it seems the writers have deliberately constructed him that way. They know what they’re doing.

Still, when people rush out and say, “You can’t like a racist character,” it’s a big statement. We do. All the time. 

Let’s take two situations. One is Parelta’s use of ‘boy’. Boy is not a good term to use for any grown man. It’s infantilizing them. It’s reducing them to something less than they are. When you use it to refer to African American man though, it carries a lot more history and bigotry with it. It is dredging up a past where if you were white, you could use the threat of state-sponsored terror to force a person of colour to do what you want. Or else.

Jake uses this controversial phrase several times to refer to his boss, Captain Ray Holt. This is despite the fact the Captain has specifically advised Parelta to never call him boy.

Secondly, Jake slyly disrespects Amy Santiago. Sure, it looks innocent enough. A joke here and there about her sex life, the way he doesn’t do what she wants when she asks and how he’s always poking at her for her seriousness. They’re friends? Right? That’s how things go down.

Yet then there’s the way he’s uncomfortable with her having relationships outside of his sphere of control because he likes her. Not enough to admit this, but just enough to keep trying to passive-aggressively dominate her life.

Fortunately, the show pushes back against these ideas — and hard — it knows that these actions are hurtful and makes Jake Parelta the butt of the jokes for being…sexist and racist. If those words make you a might uncomfortable, that’s fine, we can call him immature. A man-boy. A character with father issues.

We can keep smudging the real undercurrent of why he’s doing those things with external factors until the reality of his isms against others go away.

“He’s misunderstood,” some might cry. “He’s complex,” other straw-people might say.

Yes, he is. Yes, he’s one of my favourite characters. (Along with Captain Ray Holt and Rosa Diaz.) But, part of that complexity is that he’s a little racist and a tad sexist.

So, structural sexism. It’s real. It’s as real as the Earth is round and the sky exists. The worst part, perhaps the most terrifying aspect, is that it isn’t going to dissolve in us. We can’t snap our fingers, spin around three times, and have it disappear.

It’s our worldview, it’s buried deep inside of our identity about how things are. How things should be. How the world works. It is there in the micro-seconds we assess people, and the fraction of a moment before we open our mouth to reply to a person’s comment. It haunts us as we write, as we create, and as we breathe.

There’s a way to fight it though. It’s not easy. It’s not the simple path of virtue and long-winded speeches. It’s this: to admit you’ve got it. To admit that somewhere, hidden inside your construct of humanity, is a dash of sexism, homophobia and racism. To realise that it isn’t going away and you’re going to have to fight against those things until you die.

I do it. Most times I fail. I craft a character or write a scene and realise it’s full of a culture that puts white males at the peak of the hierarchy. That says it’s ok to objectify and silence LGBTI folk, women and people of colour. I err, but I know that I do that. I know that can be my default mode when I’m not careful, so I go back over everything and check it for structural issues. I ask not what kind of society the book should be set in to appeal to the current culture, but what kind of society should it be set in to encourage true equality.

And even then I fall, stumble and find my pen gushing out things that hold us tight to the old world order. Yet I fight — badly and inadequately — to conquer myself.

How about you? Are you willing to enter the fray? To do battle against your greatest opponent? The dark-self hiding in the mirror world?

The world is waiting.

Diversifying Your Reading

I read a blog post, a few months back, about how we generally purchase and consume authors who are the same gender as us. The argument went that if you were a man then it was likely you’d buy 90% male authors and only 10% female writers.

The study implied the opposite was also true: a female reader would procure 90% female authors, but just a mere 10% male wordsmiths would end up in her shopping basket. As you can probably guess both of these situations are problematic. They’re challenging for authors who wish to include male and female perspectives in their works but primarily only read one side of the continuum, and an issue for those of us grasping at empathy without a solid foundation of the other gender’s point of view.

So, I took up the challenge. I became more conscious of my book choices and looked more critically at the author’s name and life experiences before walking the tome to the till.  At first, I thought it was going to be easy. I mean, it’s just swapping out one fantasy author who is male for  one who is a female. Simple, right?

It wasn’t though. Perhaps you’re smarter than I am and have already guessed the problems, but one of things that I didn’t expect was that the blurbs on the back of the (white) male novels seemed much more in line with what I wanted to read. There was some violence, a little bit of banter and a rip-roaring ride. Tragically, the blurbs on the back of female writers’ works (or, at least the ones I perused) were more focussed on relationships. In some cases, forbidden love.

So, it took more work to find female authors that I thought would be interesting. Or (at the very least) informative for me to read. How have I done so far? Let’s see:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (M)
Jarhead by Anthony Swofford (M)
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (F)
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (F)
Tesla by W. Bernard Carlson (M)
The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi (M)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (M)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (F)
Capital by Thomas Piketty (M)
A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia (M)
On Book Design by Richard Hendel (M)
All Over Him by Casey Chase (F)
1001 First Lines by Scarlett Archer (F)
The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry (F)
Elis Royd by Ron Sanders (M)
Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher (M)
Winter by S.D. Rasheed (F)
Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe (M)
Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle (M)
Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis (M)
The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg (F)
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (F)
The Purposeful Classroom by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (MF)
Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa (M)
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (F)

  • Total Number of Works: 25
  • Total Number of Male Only Works: 14 / 25
  • Total Number of Female Only Works: 10/25
  • Total Number of Male & Female Works: 1 / 25
  • Percentage of Female Authors Read: 40%

That’s super depressing. Even though I was working on reading more female authors (ones I thought would be interesting!), I still selected males 60% of the time. And you have no idea how many male-written works I put back on the shelf because I checked their names and realised I’d picked up yet another masculine-filled tome.

In my head, I’d thought I’d done so well (definitely over 50%!) so I relaxed a little and purchased the rest of this year’s reading. Here’s the full list:

The Chieko Poems by Takamura Kotaro (halfway) (M)(G)
2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke (M)
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith  (M)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemsin (F)
HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean (M)
Forbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson (M)
Basilica of the Sagrada Familia (Corporate)(MF) (G)
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (F)
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (F)
Wool by Hugh Howey (M)
Ready Player One by Ernest Clive (M)
On Writing by Stephen King (halfway) (M)
Pacific Rift by Michael Lewis (M)
Acid Row by Minette Walters (F)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (F)
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (M)
Speculative Japan by Various Writers (MF)
The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (MF)
Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (M)
Understanding Iran by William Polk (M)
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (M)
Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (F)
Distortion by Jesse Duplantais (M) (G)
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello (M)
Unmerited Favour by Joseph Prince (M) (G)
Body of Secrets by James Bamford (almost finished) (M)

  • Total Number of Works: 26
  • Total Number of Male Only Works: 17 / 26
  • Total Number of Female Only Works: 6 /26
  • Total Number of Male & Female Works: 3 / 26
  • Percentage of Female Authors to Read: 23%

NOTE: (G) indicates that the book is a gift from a friend / family member.

Are you super bummed? I’m super bummed too. The worst part is that I’m winning. I’m 13% ahead of the average.

Even if I’m generous to myself and say that I include the female co-authors while removing the gift books that still only makes it 8/22. Or 36%.

*Sigh.*

I’ve got a long way to go.

Still, how about you out there? What’s your reading list look like? Can you recommend any great female authors to me that I can snatch up before I start buying next year’s books?

Sometimes I go on the internet and find things that…enrage…me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go hunting for this kind of thing, but having spent my whole life in and around education, there’s a whole swag of odd things that sweep past me on a daily basis.

There’s crazy politicians who think teachers are overpaid (but not CEOs), parents who believe their 2-year-old kid (and only their kid!) is a gift to humanity, music students who download copyrighted works while wondering why there’s no money in their industry, and this guy. (Why is it a guy? Why does it always have to be a guy?)

His first hard truth is:

Writers are born with talent.

Hear that? That’s your literary jaw being punched with a critical iron fist.  His main thesis is this:

The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

Let’s stop here. Firstly, who does he expect to be teaching — literary greats? People who are already sufficiently skilled enough to be published? Authors with a six-novel contract on their hands and have a few hours to spare on a degree?

Of course you’re not going to meet the ‘Real Deal’ writers (whatever that means) at the start of a MFA class. You’re the teacher, they’re supposed to leave the MFA course as the real deal. That’s your whole freakin’ job.

It would be like me getting upset with students who can’t speak English or understand business when they start a course I’m teaching. What am I supposed to do with them? Educate them? OMG! What an original idea.

Naturally, there’s (a few) students who walk in with all the skills already and just want the paper, or have such low self-esteem they haven’t realised how good they are just yet. They’re great, and wonderful to discover, because they’re already my equal. But, they’re supposed to be few and far between. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have a job. (And, come to think of it, neither would you.)

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

I don’t even know where he gets the science for this. People can learn (and master) second languages starting well into their twenties. Many can do it much, much later. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, it’s harder. Of course, if he linked to some (I don’t know) research that would be great.

Oh, and if we apply the same logic (is that what we call it?) to the world of businesses then you could say that if you weren’t taking your career seriously by the time you were a teenager, you probably aren’t going to be a successful entrepreneur.

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

I’ve been nice up to this point. I’ve listened to you talk and give the ‘hard’ truths, but now we’re mortal enemies on the field. You do not get to complain about this, ever. Not when you’re in your job, not when you’re out of it.

You are paid, paid, to teach. That is your job. It’s not supposed to be easy. Your students are not there to make it easy. They are not there to generate good outputs for your year-end evaluation. They are not there to hand in every half-thought-out, poorly constructed assessment you put together at 3am in-between binge reading sessions of Tolstoy.

You are there (in a professional capacity) to find a way to make them want to do their assessments. Everything is about them. If they don’t want to do it, then you’ve designed it wrong. The reading assigned isn’t filling them with a burning desire to learn more, it isn’t pushing them to new heights. Essentially, you’ve managed to disengage someone from their passion. That’s a skill, but not something you should be proud of.

They say (in the conferences I’ve been to) that 90% of student complaints  and disengagement arise from the teacher’s method and assessments. 90%.

And before you start yelling ‘it was a low-residency’ program at me, I taught at-risk kids. A chair was thrown in my class. I got hauled (and tossed) over hot coals because my CEO thought I marked too hard and cost his company money. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve erred on my path, but I know (and even then I knew) it was me making those errors. Don’t you dare put this on them.

Your classes were boring, your content uninspired and your inflexibility too damning for people who had lives. Or had a different opinion than you.

It’s all you, bro. Suck it up and go cry in the retirement corner.

If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.

I don’t even know what this means. It’s like Twilight never happened, it’s like 50 Shades of Grey never occurred, the fantasy genre never ripped off Tolkien and Nicholas Sparks doesn’t exist.

Ryan Boudinot seems to believe, with all his heart, that the new literary novel about a cheating professor with a sophomore student is actually original. Worse, he says this:

Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre.

Right, because it’s not the lecturer’s job to explain that the classic genre is actually a diverse collection of literature to a student. Or that, historically, it has been traditionally about middle-class white males and the very definition of ‘classic literature’ is changing with each passing year. Or perhaps he could’ve advised they should start their own ‘classic’ list, with books that challenged them in unique ways to think about the world. Then required them to search out other novels that were in different styles but covered similar themes.

Great work, shutting down that conversation with a look of disapproval Professor Boudinot.

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

The fact is very few people care about your problems even if you’re a very good writer. That’s why we learn (in MFA classes we’d hope!) to modify our story to encompass and appeal to a wide variety of people. It’s why we learn how to take a personal issue (social anxiety) and turn it into something compelling (a bad-ass assassin who can read people’s emotions well, but is also nervous in day-to-day conversations). The fault of being scared connects the reader to a fantasy (being a hard-ass who gets the job done) even though in real life we’d never go to the next step.

Is that the worst part? Don’t be stupid, listen to this:

Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

Right, because reading someone’s 500-page (probably double-spaced) work is worse than being abused as a child. As someone who has worked (on occasion) with individuals who have had self-harming tendencies, I can only say there is now a sphere of fury in my stomach.

I hope Seattle City of Literature fires you for simply making that statement.

I feel like I should say that I agree with him on the last three points: showing how smart you are probably isn’t the greatest way forward for your writing career (although Murakami has made a name out of it), you don’t need help getting published anymore, and spending time in the wilderness is great for growth. Although, there’s nothing wrong with asking your teacher if you’re a ‘real writer’ yet. You’re a student, you’re learning and you’re supposed to have insecurities. It’s the teacher / lecturer / tutor’s job to help you. Within reason. Not at 9:00pm at night. Not at 1:00am in the morning. And definitely not over drinks at their house.

In all honesty though, it sounds like whoever had previously hired Ryan Boudinot just lost access to a really awful teacher. And the education sector can (and does do) a lot better than him. So, my advice to future MFA students is this: shop around for your course. Meet the faculty, find out if they love books or love teaching and go with the latter because some assholes aren’t worth giving your money to.

The Never-ending Back End of Depression

I was sitting at a table one day, not long ago, talking with a newly made friend about my social anxiety. It’s a difficult topic for me because I’m partly ashamed of it, partly ashamed of what it makes me do. I don’t want it. I don’t need it, I want to claw it out of my heart and throw it into the abyss.

Yet it exists, so I feel I should talk about it. They say it helps. They say honesty with oneself, with your comrades, lessens the stress.

My friend rolled their eyes. This isn’t an uncommon reaction, I teach for a living–it’s difficult to compute that half the time I’m coming apart at the seams. “A family member of mine has anxiety,” they said. “They break out in sweats. They have the shakes.”

I do both of those at moments too, but I didn’t push the issue. I simply said there were levels to this thing. Layers of difficulty.

Another friend of mine asked me if I would be able to overcome it to save my wife. If I could, she implied, it was all mental. I was the one with the problem. That it was an excuse  to get out of things.

Of course, I want to get out of happiness. It’s my greatest goal. To run away from all those who are cheerful. My other is to look down on others with sour superiority. I didn’t push that point with her either, I just smiled and let her ramble on.

And on, and on.

I get snarky, and vicious when I’m in a bad way. I’m already cynical, it’s not a good combination. My mind shoots faster than my brain because my brain’s occupied with controlling the anxiety. Then I realise what fucked-up things I’ve said, and I feel embarrassed and like a failure. I failed someone else, and then I failed myself. Again.

Now I have to go and teach a lesson. Advanced marketing techniques? I can do that. Let me swagger through it like a drunkard, unfocussed with eyes roaming the top of the room. If I have enough energy, I might cook dinner at the end of the day.

I apologise for my existence because I feel, y’know, like I shouldn’t exist. There’s no money in anti-existence though, I need a profession. So I teach.

Don’t ask me why, I just do. It’s what I’m skilled in. Been doing it for years now. Taught the greatest and the worst. Seen violence in classrooms first-hand, seen drugs in them too. Don’t worry, I won’t tell you the bad stories. They’ll just make you sad about our education system.

The thing is…this isn’t depression. This is regular life. Depression’s worse. When I first arrived back in Australia, I went through it. I’d hyper-ventilate on a phone call, I’d be so nervous talking to someone my shirt would go damp from my sweat. I would work five hours, and then have to sleep during my lunch time. I slept in my chair because…I don’t know…it made sense?

One time I crawled under a desk and slept there. I had to get away from people, so I did. I had to get away from their eyes.

I would walk home and my heart would feel as if someone was pushing on it, these invisible hands squeezing it. I had to tell myself to breathe.

When I went to work and didn’t feel that pressure, I felt uncomfortable. When I could actually string sentences together and talk about my day with coworkers, I was elated. But when someone got too close, I would snap at them. “I don’t want you to know me,” I’d imply. “I don’t need you. You’ll leave me. I’m fine.”

A lot of awesome people have befriended me over the years. They’ve been so kind. So wonderful.

I’m working on it. I’m trying to be better.

But depression is strange, it lurks. You’re never free from it. People who’ve never had it don’t understand. They can’t.

Even when you’re ‘out’, you’re never out. You’re just in relapse. It could jump you at anytime. You could snap at the wrong person, your brain might stop working right when you need it to, your mouth could clam shut even though you wish to speak. Some days Depression’s swinging its blades at you, other days its not.

You believe you’re boring. You don’t talk about your life and brush off other people’s interest in it. You’re rude, and I hate being rude. I hate being a failure.

My last workplace did something to me. It hurt me. It took my soul and burned it in so many ways. I’m still recovering. I can’t even explain it, the way it twisted who I was, who I had been becoming and distorted it. Made it angry.

I met a few good folk in the trenches, and too many assholes up above.

I’m going to work through this. Like I did when I was in Australia. One day at a time. One breath at a time.

I’m sorry if you get caught on an angry day. I’m sorry if I snap and snark. I’ll get better, I’m on my way. The bag’s on the shoulder, the eyes are on the horizon and the sword’s out. The safety zone is far, but if we’re lucky, I’ll need to apologise less and become nicer throughout the journey.

Here’s to those days.

2015 Projects

UPDATE: 10/02/2015

So, 2015 is here and January is almost done. That means it’s time to set some goals. Here they are:

  1. Edit and self-publish The Cowardice of Green (Kayley’s second novella).
  2. Write The Emptiness of Blue (Kayley’s third novella).
  3. Edit and self-publish The Emptiness of Blue (Kayley’s third novella).
  4. Edit and self-publish Stay Home, Broken Blade (working title).
  5. Write a trilogy of high-fantasy novellas.
    1. TGOP: S (10/02/2015)
    2. TGOP: J
    3. TGOP: V
  6. Edit and self-publish a trilogy of high-fantasy novellas.
    1. TGOP: S
    2. TGOP: J
    3. TGOP: V
  7. Design The Emptiness of Blue‘s cover.
  8. Redesign Stay Home, Broken Blade‘s cover.
  9. Be more active in my writer’s group.
  10. Write one short story for this blog each week. (By the end of Tuesday.)

Maybe ambitious, maybe not too difficult. I don’t know. Let’s see how we go.

Why the Writing World Needs to Change (Part 1 of X)

There’s a war going on, if you didn’t know, between the traditionally published, righteous writers of the past, and the digital hustlers like myself. They are virtuous. They are erudite and mesmerising. Their professionalism and eloquence pushes down on their shoulders, weighing them with the burden of being the gilded snowflakes in an age of simple snow.

I know this because Margo Howard tells me so. And implores, with her shimmering hands, that I follow this track of thought to its rarified end.

Unfortunately, however, I am but a pleb and cannot see the elegance of her arguments. The wisdom of her discussion. In my mind, her 1,000 word essay could be boiled down to the following:

  1. Two people who requested to read her book before its release didn’t like it, and — gasp — had the audacity to say so online.
  2. Reeling from these (two) negative reviews, she ran into the comforting arms of more friendly comrades. People who compared her brilliance to Oscar Wilde(!) and Nancy Mitford (!!?!). Also people who are in the same industry as her, and she might possibly meet on the cocktail circuit. Reviews, might I note in passing, Margo Howard forgot to link to. They were simply quoted out of context, as a B-grade movie producer might do when slapping on reviewer praise for their promo material.
  3. Not satisfied with that, she (re-emphasised?) her credentials. Gee whizz, she writes a lot. And let us know that she’s made millions of dollars, MILLIONS … OF … DOLLARS, from her writing. Which, apparently, did little to ease the pain of reading two negative reviews about her work. If one may be so bold, as one must when writing online, it seems the things most  indie authors shrug off in the dark corners of the internet, traumatised Ms. Howard. She may never write again.
  4. Tragically, these Vine reviews were not flushed into the pile of waste as they should’ve been. People liked them. People (average, regular folk) thought they were worthy of reading, and this continued to damage Ms. Howard’s psyche, so she contacted Amazon directly. (I know. I know. Who the hell can manage that as an indie author?) First, she claimed the reviews were almost lawsuit worthy. Shockingly, as I discovered in the next sentence, her concerns were not dealt with and she was fobbed off to another department. The Amazon executive understood, and was sympathetic that Ms. Howard had received (two) negative reviews written by the very people who were in the book’s target market, but she couldn’t do anything. Policy is policy, after all.
  5. Still unsatisfied with the insensitivity of the world and how (two) people had ignored her genius (plus one syndicated reviewer), she penned an article about it in The New Republic. For some strange, and completely unknown reason, they ran it. I guess it had some Amazon bashing at the end.
  6. I rant about it on my blog because it’s Monday.

Twitter summary: #Author loses their #shit after reading two negative reviews. Car crash at 11.

As someone who writes and shoves my unvarnished prose into the cold streets of the free market, I have to ask: who did Margo Howard write for? Who does she expect to read her book?

Pulitzer Prize winners? Vanity Fair editors? I assume, perhaps, she intends it to be read by us. Regular folk, the kids on the corner who read on those grey devices called Kindles?

Maybe living on a decent wage and in a regular apartment has scrambled my brain somewhat, but I’ve always assumed people have had opinions about the books they’ve read. Y’know, real opinions. The kind of opinions you sit around and share over a bottle of wine with lots of R-rated language. The ones that sell others on books.

Folk don’t just read reviews and go, “Yep, I had a different experience, but I must be wrong because that Pu-lity guy said so.” It’s those opinions, the word-of-mouth ones that sell books and made Harry Potter the international success it is today.

They only difference is now that some of those same thoughts, the points of view from people who’ve read 10,000 novels but aren’t syndicated, can now get typed online. They can get shared digitally and other folk can say whether they thought it was a good or bad comment about the novel in question.

And let’s be honest, if I had to choose between the Wild West of publishing she imagines and the feudalism that was beforehand; I’d have to ask you to pass me my Stetson.

Cranium-sized Prisons

You don’t need to read this essay. It’s not essential for making you a better character writer because the best (and perhaps only) advice you’ll ever need is: “Keep writing and don’t stop no matter how many assholes tell you that you’re not good enough.” The truth is, nobody is good enough to be an author — until they are. And it happens suddenly and for reasons no one truly understands.

So, no, you don’t need to read this article. I just want to write it because I want to talk about characters with mental disorders and how I think they should be slotted into a novel.

With all that in your mind, let’s start with some background. I’ve been diagnosed with minor social anxiety. I don’t know when I became socially anxious. Maybe it was something which was always there, or perhaps it sneaked into my brain because of restrictive parenting. There’s even a chance it crept its way into my mind after I came back from Japan and went through severe depression due to my company’s bankruptcy. Or, we could go the whole fifty-seven yards and say I wasn’t exposed to enough social interactions during my formative years and so didn’t learn the necessary skills at the appropriate time.

Like all good mental orders though, it doesn’t matter. I have it. It’s been with me since I was 14 years of age and I’ve been actively working within its confines since I grasped the condition with both hands in 2006. Do I like it? Do I enjoy being socially anxious? No.

There are lots of things people do, everyday, which comes naturally to them that I struggle with. Maybe it’s a chat on Skype with their fiancee, a quick discussion with a close colleague on the phone or inviting their friends over for lunch. None of these are easy for me. None happen instantly.

Firstly, I imagine the conversation I’m going to have in my head. I run through it several times and most of the scenarios conjured end with my friend disliking me more or annoyed that I bothered them. In almost every case, I imagine that I’ve asked them to give up being with someone interesting, and instead to hang around me. (Which they secretly despise me for.) After I’ve let these thoughts wash over me, I remind myself that they’re my friend and they do honestly like me. I practice my deep breathing exercises and talk about agency. How they are choosing to spend time with me and would say if they hated my guts.

Then I pick up the phone. I still think they’re going to hate me as I push the buttons, but I’m determined. I’m determined to be polite, nice and not waste their time. When I’m talking with them, I run through my topics and listen intently to their responses. I try to end the conversation quickly, but this strategy doesn’t work all the time. My worst case scenario is that they actually want to chat.

When I realise this, my heart starts to beat quicker and I can feel my body become damp from sweat. My brain begins processing two things: the actual conversation and another dark, absurd dialogue occurring only in my mind. This fantasy chat always ends with cuss words and the loss of a friend. Phones are slamming, I’m being laughed at and humiliated. For some reason, I’m lying under a blanket crying in a dark room and alone. They always end with me alone.

I start to feel light-headed at this point, which is bad because it means my conscious processing ability is shutting off.  Have you ever lost the use of your arm? It’s gone numb and you can’t do everything you want with it? All those tiny, intricate actions you rely on to get you through the day are now mostly inaccessible? Imagine that happening to your brain. Imagine all the skills and abilities you have for talking with people disappearing as you stand there. You’re feeling it happen and you know you need to go get out… to get off this devil box. To leave or bad things will happen. Horrible things.

More sweat, I smile a lot, take longer to answer as I’m trying to sort through what they’ve said and what I think they’re saying. Sometimes there’s silence, which makes me even more nervous because I feel as if I’ve failed them. And not just them, but the entire human race so I apologize, profusely, for hurting them in some way. When this happens, they look at me funny (or made an odd noise on the other side of the phone) and wonder what’s wrong with me. Now I feel even worse. I’ve failed them, again. I’m being the worst thing ever: a burden. The dark vortex looms.

Then I take another deep breath, and focus on previous conversations where they’ve said we’re friends and how they enjoy my company, and try to calm down. I try to imagine they’re not mocking me or hating me secretly, that they want to be my friend and if I just be nice… things will be fine. Except my brain is still shutting itself down, I can feel it. I’m about to say something sarcastic because I have to get away from them, now. If I don’t… I’ll panic and yell. Or scream. I don’t know but people will see me being crazy and that’ll be the end.

Essentially, it’s like being on a first date with a person you’re attracted to. Except, you’re on a first date forever. And you can’t change it. You can’t snap your fingers and make it go away because it doesn’t go away. It builds and builds until you’ve got to get the f out of dodge before someone hurts you, or you hurt someone.

That’s mild social anxiety. During my worst days of it, I couldn’t even focus on two tasks at once. My heart would race and I would do things, really odd activities, which seemed perfectly logical at the time. I was tired and it was my break; so I slept at my desk. Yes, bad. But I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. I just had to escape all of their prying eyes.

You know what the biggest issue was? Nobody knew. Or if they did, kind of, they didn’t understand. Why couldn’t I pick up the phone and dial the pizza guy? It’s easy. (And it is!) Why did I act weird in groups of people? (Because my brain had shut down) Why couldn’t I talk to my best friend? Didn’t I want to?

They didn’t know because 90% of the time I could do everything they could. I went to school, university and work. I made polite conversation. I called the right people. Hell, I was the guy who wrote a novel at 16.5 and graduated at 19.5. Wasn’t I the human who moved to Japan and lived over there for a year and a half without any friends? How could there be something wrong with me?

It’s that 10% (or 20%) when the pressure had built for too long, when the stresses just kept building and building that I couldn’t handle. So I had to craft coping strategies. I had to choose the right places / events to go to, spend my energy on the people who mattered the most, make an effort with my colleagues. But most importantly, even when I felt worthless, I had to be brave enough to open my mouth and talk to them. I needed to remind myself that they liked me, that I couldn’t screw up years of friendship by saying some stupid shit and that they were choosing to be here, right now, with me.

As I was talking to them, sweat would roll down my body because this dark voice, this imaginary life, would be whispering to me at the exact same time I was trying to be brave.

So… what’s my personal demons got to do with character building? Well, your heroine, villain and other assorted humans weren’t born yesterday. You’ve probably done the right thing: Given them a tragic flaw or a weakness. Hell, maybe you’ve even given them two because you’re a gifted writer. In comedy, this “quirky” behaviour throws the scene into chaos. In fiction, when they encounter something they can’t handle, it messes up the expected plot line.

Except you’ve got it wrong. They weren’t normal until two seconds ago and then they suddenly changed into a crazy person. This isn’t their first time in the ring with their illness or condition, it’s their thousandth and just like me, they’ve got coping strategies. They know what’s going to happen if they go to a specific place or hang out with certain crowds. They know their limitations and they’ve made a series of small (and big) decisions regarding how best to move forward.

Sometimes it’s, “You either accept me as I am, or you leave me the f alone.” That’s one extreme. On the other side, there’s, “I want to be invisible and be nothing.” That’s the other. And that’s the side I err on. In the middle there’s a bevy of contradictions.

What’s important though is that their behaviour drives the plot. They don’t react to the plot, they are the plot. When I read characters who have mental illnesses in traditional narratives, they usually overcome their own inhibitions to do something heroic or to change their lives. That’s bullshit. They already are heroes. They already are changing their lives by just going to work and chatting around the water cooler. Things that you think are as easy as breathing, like talking with friends, is a marathon to them. You have no idea what their lives are like, how deep the abyss goes.

I want to repeat that once more: Being normal is heroic. Going to work takes five times as much energy for us as it does for you. So stop thinking we’ll overcome our issues or do something which you would consider “heroic” or “awesome”. We won’t because we can’t. I can’t.

If you’d told me, when I was eighteen, that I could meet my perfect partner and live happily, I would’ve been super excited. If you told me I had to call her… on a phone. I would’ve chickened out. If you’d said, her dad was going to call me that night and talk to me for two minutes, I would’ve panicked and hidden under the blankets.

So next time you’re writing a character who has a social anxiety disorder (or any mental disorder), think of me. Think about how my life’s actions have been controlled by my irrational fear. Yes, to you it looks like I’m wasting my life by doing what everybody else does, but I’m not. My (relative) inaction is action. It’s a mental action that requires bravery and I only have a limited supply of that resource. And you know what? Our outcomes may be different, but we both care about the same thing: survival.