Doctor Who and the Sin of Sloppy Storytelling


Warning to Whovians: This post contains spoilers for the most recent season, including this week’s episode.

Warning to everyone else: You’re probably not going to care much about the particulars of this post, so feel free to wander on by.

Storytelling.  No matter what medium you choose – movies, TV, novels, flash fiction, or comic books – there’s nothing more important.  Storytelling is the overarching competency with which you build your world, develop your characters, and follow the actual series of events that constitute your plot.  There’s nothing more important because there’s nothing else you’re trying to achieve, really.

Storytelling is everything – and Doctor Who is really bad at it.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a die-hard fan, by the most stringent definition.  I’ve only picked through a couple of the classic episodes just to get my bearings, and I started watching the new series a mere three years ago, so I’m late to the game.

But I really enjoy it, and I think it’s done some excellent things over its (gasp) nearly ten-year-long run.  I think Peter Capaldi is a fantastic actor, and I love the passion and wryness that he’s bringing to the role.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to see him fall victim to really terrible plotting and some cringe-worthy, elementary storytelling mistakes.  This season has been especially dismal, as the showrunners try to jazz things up and make everything cool and dark and edgy.  It’s been nothing but failure after failure, and there are lessons for storytellers of all kinds in those rudimentary errors.

Here are four of the biggest pitfalls that the Doctor has failed to avoid in recent weeks.

Detail doesn’t always equal world building

Little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashioning a realistic society.  A mention of a past cataclysmic event, the unique wording of a minced oath or a prayer, and the way a woman dresses or a man greets his friends can add life and color to an otherwise flat environment.

But knowing where to put in details – and where to leave them out – is what distinguishes a rich world from a cobbled-together mess of cultural clichés.  Let’s take the Indo-Japanese set-up in Sleep No More, for example.  You may remember that each of the soldiers talking over their communication device would say something like, “Come in, Ando.  May the gods look favorably upon you.  Are you dead yet?”

Now, I’m sure the writers intended that phrase to bring a bit of Neo Asian spice to the rather haphazard and poorly-presented 38th century cultural landscape, but here’s the rub.

Number one, I guarantee half of you misremembered the phrase as the one from The Hunger Games, so that was poorly planned.  Number two, there was nothing about gods in the rest of the plot, so who cares if they’re looking favorably at anyone?  Everyone dies anyway, so clearly it doesn’t work as a benediction.

Number three, extraneous words like that have no place in military communications, where they could be garbled and confused, and they certainly waste time and effort when speaking on a two-way radio.

So what did that detail bring to the party, other than confusion?  Did it make you feel more connected to a world you never even really got to see?

Suspension of disbelief?  Rubbish.

In the same episode, the Doctor commits the cardinal sin of storytelling: he gets roped into telling, not showing.

“Well, of course the vicious sand men are the sleep from the corner of your eye,” he says based on no evidence whatsoever.  “You’re just going to accept that dead skin and mucous can become sentient and kill people, aren’t you?  I’ve never encountered this before, and I’m not even going to bother making up some silly technical jargon to explain how they came to life, but let’s just take this as a given because we have to get to the pointless ‘twist’ at the end pretty soon.”

He did the same thing with the quantum shade in Face the Raven this week.  What is it?  Why does Me have it?  Why can she only control it to the exact degree required to manipulate the rest of the plot into shape?  Why should we just accept that Clara is destined to die, when the Doctor is so good at getting out of all these other “inevitable” situations?

Now, the episode will be continued next week, so I guess we can’t discount the possibility of an explanation.  But with the way things are going, I wouldn’t bet my hat on it.

This is especially frustrating because you can look back at an episode like Mummy on the Orient Express, where the Doctor spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the monster is.  Because we already know the Doctor hasn’t come across every single type of lifeform in the universe.  And when you see something new, you have to figure out what it is before you can kill it.

He actually solved a mystery, instead of stating that a) there is no mystery because the Doctor knows things he really has no way of knowing, or b) the mystery is simply unsolvable or irrelevant, so you’ve just got to accept it because they said so.

You can’t just say things that are outrageous or unfamiliar to an audience and expect them to go with it.  You have to at least throw them a little bit of a bone.  Even if you’re just going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, you must have some sort of justification for why things happen the way they do.  “Trust me, I’m the Doctor” only works in some situations, not all of them.

The Doctor has (nearly) infinite time, but we don’t

Cut to the chase.  Really.  I mean, can we talk about Odin in The Girl Who Died?  What was the point of that?  Unless it was some kind of subtle homage to Monty Python, I haven’t seen anything so ridiculous since the low-budget days of the 1970s.

Tell me I'm not the only one who saw this.

Tell me I’m not the only one who saw this.

Also, think about it.  If a big alien guy is going to come to a Viking village, eat all its warriors, and then immediately leave, why does it have to cloak itself in a form familiar to the culture?  Any big scary monster is going to make the warriors come out to fight.  It doesn’t have to insinuate itself into the mindset of its enemies.  It wasn’t planning to stay until Aschildr antagonized him.  Why waste our valuable time pretending that it matters?

The whole episode was a bit of a stretch, with the montage of preparing for the battle with the Mire and whatnot.  It definitely felt like they had enough material for one-and-a-half episodes with Maisie Williams, but they had to stretch it out into two.

The thing is, they really didn’t.  Doesn’t the Doctor have enough to say about immortality (or something like it)?  Couldn’t they have done some better foreshadowing if they knew Me was going to come back and kill Clara a few episodes later?  After all, they’ve made such a big deal about Clara’s drawn-out leaving saga that they could have spent more than five minutes on the fact that she was actually, finally going to die.

TV episodes have 42 minutes to make us care.  Doctor Who tries to make a brand new big, complex world fit into that tiny block of time each and every week.  There isn’t room for meandering and filler.  There isn’t room for loose writing and pointless detail.  Tighten up on the reins and give us the punch in the gut we know you can.

Tugging on the wrong heartstrings

Speaking of which.  Am I the only one who had absolutely no recollection of Rigsy?  I was not given any indication that I had to remember him when his primary episode ended, so I spent the whole time trying to recall where he was from.

And that meant that I didn’t particularly care that he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  Yes, the wife and baby at home gave it a gloss of tragedy, but let’s imagine something else for a minute.

Imagine if the episode started with Clara in her bathroom.  Wait – first imagine that you’re not totally sick and tired of Clara.  Then imagine her in the bathroom looking at the back of her neck.  She picks up the phone, her hand shaking slightly.  “Doctor, I seem to have a tattoo…and it’s counting down.”

You’re immediately invested, because you know Clara and you care about her.  You’re intrigued if she blanks out for a whole day, because you know she’s smart enough and experienced enough to be aware of alien things that might happen to her.  So why can’t she remember?  Bam, instant tension and mystery.

Bam, the Doctor has an immediate and pressing motive to figure out what happened.  He has to fret about losing Clara for the whole episode, not just the last two minutes.  They both have to face the inevitability of mortality, and they get to do it together.  Clara can do more than throw away a single line about courting death this whole time.  She can explore who the Doctor has turned her into, and she can either forgive him or blame him for it as she stares down her final moments.

The Doctor has to face the fact that he can’t save everyone – not because Clara made a stupid and clumsy mistake just to further a plot point, but because sometimes there are evil forces in the world greater than he is.  The Doctor doesn’t always win – and we could have had 42 minutes to explore his pain at that notion.

But we didn’t.  We had five minutes, and it felt like a total waste of time.  Because the writers missed this golden opportunity for some serious drama.  They misjudged the audience, and they misjudged their own capabilities to craft an absorbing farewell for a long-running character.

The problem is that they’re trying too hard and they don’t have enough of a critical eye to make it work.  Everyone needs to be a little brutal with the red pen before anything gets finalized, and I don’t think they have an editor that can ask the tough questions and make the right calls.

It’s very disappointing that this season has struck such a sour tone.  It isn’t all bad – I liked the underwater ghost episodes, and I enjoyed Peter Capaldi yelling at the Zygons about peace in our time.  But there are so many amateur mistakes in the construction of these episodes that there’s so little incentive for me to keep watching as faithfully as I have.

So please, showrunners.  Get it together.  Trim the nonsense, find a way to get under our skin, and skip the silly meandering around what really matters.  You’ve done it before.  I’m sure you can do it again.  And if you want me to fly over there and set you all straight, I’ll start booking my tickets.

Out for the Count

First of all, hello to all my new followers!  Thank you so much for joining my little circle of readers.  Normally, I write a lot about fantasy novels, creativity, and self-publishing matters, but today I’m just taking a little detour to make an unfortunate announcement.  Aren’t you glad you signed up just in time?

Anyway.  So, do you guys remember that time all the way back in August when I fell down the stairs?  I hurt my wrist quite badly, though the doctor I saw at the time seemed to think it was all in my head.  It’s been bothering me since then, to varying degrees, but I’ve been doing my best to ignore it.  After all, doctors know what they’re talking about, right?

Fast forward almost exactly three months later, and guess what?  I was right.  There’s something really wrong with my wrist!  Yay!  No, wait…

This is one of those occasions where I’d like to be wrong, but a second opinion from a second orthopedist has confirmed what I diagnosed myself with several weeks ago.  I’ve got trauma-induced De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, which is basically a very painful inflammation of some of the tendons and things that run along your thumb.

I won’t get into all my medical details, partly because you don’t really care, and partly because it’s unpleasant to type with the big, clunky, cast-like brace they gave me.  I’m supposed to wear it all the time for the next three weeks, and then see how I feel.  If it’s still very painful, there are a few more options I can pursue.  But I’m hoping I won’t have to.

Sadly, the next three weeks include the second half of NaNoWriMo.  While I hate the idea of quitting one of my favorite events of the year, I think it’s best if I take care of myself as best I can.  I’m going to bow out of the rest of the month, and conserve my limited typing power for the nine-to-five stuff I actually get paid to do.

Just like with my attempts to keep Oliver off this chair, I give up.

Just like with my attempts to keep Oliver off this chair, I give up.

Even though I have been struggling mightily this month with the novel I started, and I’m not sure it really has the wherewithal to become something worthwhile, it’s upsetting to have to put things on hold for such an annoying and frustrating reason.  I hate feeling crippled, and I hate being unable to pursue the things I want to do just because of happenstance and accidents.

This also means absolutely no archery for the foreseeable future, which might be even worse.  Once again, circumstances stop me in my tracks, taking away so many of my few pleasures as time just drains helplessly away.

But if I don’t commit to resting the stupid limb now, I may be setting myself up for an even longer time-out in the future, should surgery become my only remaining option.  So this is what has to be done, and I’m going to try to do it cheerfully.  Or at least not miserably.  Or at least not so miserably that I’m tweeting about it all the time.

So I’m sorry in advance if I’m a little grouchy over the next couple of weeks.  We are turning over our house at the end of the month, both my mom and my dad are going to be moving to new places, and it’s getting cold and nasty up here already, which makes everything that much harder.

For those of you continuing on with your November adventures, I salute you.  Write some great words for me, will ya?  Let me know how it goes!

Ready? Set? Wait for it…


If you’re reading this two and a half days from now, feel free to yell “GO” whenever the clock strikes twelve in your particular time zone.

Yes, we’re only a few short hours from the annual literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo, and I have to tell you, I wasn’t even sure I’d be running this year.

I had some grand ideas earlier in the month, which promptly crumbled in front of me when I sat down to sketch out my opening scenes.

Normally my novels start out a bit on the slow side, with background and introduction instead of bang-boom-crazy action.  I’m generally okay with this (after all, I’m the one who’s writing it like that), but every time I send a manuscript off to an agent, they tell me the story didn’t grab them the way they wanted it to.

So this time, I tried making something explode in the first sentence.  That’ll do it, right?  Well…it turns out it’s hard to establish the right tone for your sensible, intelligent, domestically-focused character when you blow up her house without giving her a chance to say anything about it.

The subsequent confusion, blood, and urgency may be flashy, but it left Abigale Calloway with nothing to do but scream and be shocked and get rescued in her very first scene, since she didn’t know what the hell was going on and would not have the training or experience to do anything except panic in such a situation.

I have enough trouble writing female main characters (a subject for another post, maybe) without turning them into damsels in distress on page one, so I scrapped those thousand words.  Then I wrote another scene, where someone else’s house exploded instead, but that didn’t work either.  The logistics were all wrong, and Abigale would have had to run into a village under attack to do some things that would be entirely out of character for her anyway.

So I scrapped that one, too.  Twice.  I changed Abigale’s history; I changed the setup of her world; I changed the potential outcome of the story in an effort to get myself excited about writing it, but it all seemed dreary, dull, lame, and lackluster.  And this is all a fortnight before NaNoWriMo was even going to begin.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have seen my angsty post about potentially throwing the whole notion out the window (where it would promptly explode in a dissatisfactory manner, no doubt), but as soon as I published something about my conundrum, I realized what I was doing wrong.

Wishful thinking?

Wishful thinking?

You know, sometimes in archery, I will start off the hour doing very well, and then something will shift without my notice, and I’ll end up with six or seven rounds of off-target garbage.  I’ll get mad at myself for sucking, and try to fix one thing or another, and nothing will work.

Five minutes before I get so frustrated that I’m about to give up, I’ll realize that it all comes back to the one fundamental thing I lose sight of sometimes: my grip on the bow.  I’m so busy worrying about the dynamics of pulling the string back and aiming each time that I forget how important it is to have a solid start.  When I reposition my fingers and relax my arm, suddenly everything comes back into alignment and hitting the gold is easy again.

It’s the same thing with writing.  When I grip the story wrong, nothing else works.  I had planned to write The Night Heron’s War as a stand-alone novel and market it traditionally while I continue to self-publish the rest of The Paderborn Chronicles, just to see what would happen.

Agents tell me my openings are boring, so I was trying to wrestle my novel into a mold that would sell to them.  I wasn’t writing for myself.  I was gripping way too hard, approaching it from the wrong angle, and wrenching my storytelling out of alignment.

I’m all for listening to feedback and incorporating it appropriately, but this particular piece of advice just doesn’t work for me.  If I don’t block out the world sometimes, I succumb to my inferiority complex and end up floundering around in a sea of self-pity.  Some writers like to be pushed to write a best-seller, because the pressure inspires them.  For me, it just makes me want to cry.

Maybe my stories do start off a little more slowly than commercial publishers like to see, but I feel like I do better work when I can do a bit of world building that puts the action into context first.  Maybe this isn’t what will grab the attention of someone who skims through a hundred queries a day, but it’s what makes a good story, as far as I’m concerned.

So I pushed the explosion back a bit, and let Abigale say some intelligent, character-defining things first before I ruined her life forever.  My excitement about the story is back, and I’m looking forward to writing it in a meaningful way.  The rest comes later.

During November, it’s the journey that matters, and I’m ready to get as far as I can in the next thirty days.  Are you?

The Diversity in Fantasy Survey: Your Responses

At the beginning of the week, I asked you, my cherished readers, to give me your opinions on a sensitive but important subject: the diversity of characters in fantasy novels.

It’s not the easiest topic to talk about, especially because the arguments on every side can quickly devolve into name calling and finger pointing, privilege shaming and plain old ugly racism.  This is especially common on the internet, where anonymity brings out the worst in us all.

I am happy to report, however, that all of my participants took a thoughtful and respectful approach to these questions, and I feel no need to filter or censor any of the responses I’ve collected.  Thank you all for contributing positively to this experiment.

So let’s get down to the data.  I didn’t receive a ton of responses, but I think I’ve got enough to draw some broad strokes.

Background demographics

Respondents were evenly split between the 18 to 29 age group and the 30 to 50 age group.  The majority of respondents were comfortable self-identifying as “male” or “female” (63 percent male), while a couple of people considered themselves to be elsewhere on the gender spectrum.

Y’all are really white.  Only two respondents said that they were not of white/Caucasian/Euro-American descent.  There was a little more variation with sexual orientation: a few not-quite straight participants, a few bisexuals, and a few who said they were gay.

How do you define a “diverse” character?

The answers to this question sort of surprised me.  While I intended the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/male/culturally stereotypical,” not all of you interpreted it that way.

A third of you said that a “diverse character” is simply a character with emotional depth and personal agency, and didn’t even mention race/gender/cultural/sexuality…which kind of makes me wonder what kind of books you’re reading where those characters are uncommon enough to be notable.

Most of you included something similar to this one respondent:

“[A diverse character is one whose] (sub)culture is not the biggest part of their character – unless one of the themes of the work is about that (sub)culture. I prefer more than ‘he’s a black cop’ or ‘she’s an Asian lawyer’ or ‘they’re the genderqueer miner’ to the character. The ‘diverse’ is interesting but the ‘character’ matters more.”

Another interesting comment:

“What is diverse? Nothing can be diverse in a vacuum. Token white and black characters in Asian fiction represent diversity there as much as the reverse is true here. I don’t want diversity, I want interesting. These days, a lumberjack who played all-state college football that fights against evil alien overlord seems a lot more ‘diverse’ than it was in 1947. So, uh, being blue-collar and from Mars are both +s in the diversity field, but I do feel that Venusians and Neptunians are underrepresented in fiction.”

Do you seek out or gravitate towards fantasy novels that promote the presence of “diverse” characters?

This isn’t really a big deal to most of you, which could be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing.


Since most of the respondents are white, this could be interpreted as “white people don’t care about diversity, and won’t go out of their way for it because they’re happy to read about white people in books written by other white people.”

But it can also be interpreted as “readers only care about good stories,” which I think is what most of you intended to communicate, based on the next few responses.

When reading a fantasy novel that does not specifically point out the ethnic or racial appearance of characters, do you assume that means they are “white”?

white assumptions

Here’s where the mostly-white participants get kind of telling, and depending on your perspective, the answers might seem a little…meh.

First of all, my non-white respondents all said “no” to this question, and didn’t seem too bothered by the issue.  Several participants of all backgrounds said that the character him/her/itself is significantly more important than their skin color, and added that they would simply change their mental image of the character if the author revealed a new detail about their appearance or history.

A white male respondent said: “I personally tend to imagine what would seem normal for the given setting. That being said, stories set in Europe, I’ll imagine as white. That does not necessarily bother me. If later on, I’m proven wrong, I’ll not like the character any less.”

A white female said: “I guess it does [bother me that I assume characters are white unless told otherwise]. I like to believe that I’m tolerant, but I refuse to feel guilty on the same hand, just because I’m white. I hadn’t really thought about it, but since I am white myself it seems normal to just assume my own experience. I feel like if I were a race/orientation other than what I am, I would assume that experience instead – but, of course, I have no way of proving that.”

Do you believe that “white” authors can authentically create characters with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds?

No one had too much of a problem with this.  Three-quarters of you said “yes, this is almost always fine,” and the rest said “sometimes, but it’s difficult to get right.”

No one said that they don’t think white authors should attempt to write characters of different backgrounds, or that most of the time white authors get characters of other backgrounds painfully wrong.

Do you believe stories that do not include a high proportion of “diverse” characters are inherently less valuable for modern readers than stories that do?

The vast majority of you said that you don’t make value judgments about stories based on the diversity of characters…but the vast majority of you also don’t have to look too hard to find characters you can relate to when reading fantasy novels.

This is where I was hoping to get some more responses from people of non-white backgrounds, because the question was aiming at how traditionally underrepresented groups feel about the current state of the genre.  So I’m not sure this piece of data accurately reflects much of anything.

Note: I have purposely not addressed the whole issue of young adult literature in this survey, because I think it’s a much more complicated question for a different audience.  While it’s important for readers of all ages to be able to identify with and relate to characters in the books they read, I feel like it’s even more important for teenagers still rapidly developing their sense of self to have access to books with characters that make them feel accepted, normal, and part of the world they live in.

As an adult, I don’t feel desperate to find clues to my place in the world from my fantasy books.  As a teenager, I absolutely did.  If I was a teen who didn’t more or less fit the straight white female demographic, I may have been very disappointed in the available selection.  I am glad to see this is changing in the YA world, even if I’m not too keen on the rest of what YA literature tries to achieve.

Do you think some stories include a higher proportion of diverse characters just because it’s expected rather than because they are truly integral to the story?

A few of you thought this was problematic, but more of you chose to view token characters in a positive light.  More than a third of you chose to say “yes, but I believe recognizing the need for diverse characters is a good first step, even if it isn’t perfect.”


I would like to agree with you here, but then I think back to my frustration and rage at half-hearted, one-dimensional attempts at inclusion like Tauriel in The Hobbit, and I have to stand by what I said at the time: I would rather not have a token character than one that is done so badly.

One of you disagreed: “I think it’s dangerous to assume our imaginations and interpretations must be censored. I think evenly poorly done characters open important conversations as long as the author is willing to have them.”

Fair point, but I still hate Tauriel.

What are your other thoughts on diversity in fantasy?

I’m going to share these without comment, because I agree with some of them and disagree with others.  I would be happy to see you all discuss the issues raised here in the (moderated) comments, but since each of these responses could spark an entire series of blog posts on their own, I don’t want to take too much time dissecting everything.

Each response is from a different participant.

“I personally like to see a somewhat demographically accurate picture of the time and place a story is set in or based on. But nothing should be forced on the story, just to attain that. The story should be most important, not the diversity. Diversity, however, can be a driving factor in a story, and a meaningful element. But it needs to be done well. Discussions over who can or cannot include a certain character, should end at whether or not they can write well, and listen and research, as any author should.”

“Because of the quest for ‘check box diversity’ a lot of truly great writers and works that actually were diverse get written off because of a cultural myth being woven that everything was white men until just the last couple of years.”

“If there seems to be a lack of ‘authentic’ non-white experiences in the literary world, I think it should largely be the burden of the non-white authors to contribute to the medium and impart these experiences onto the audience. If cultural appropriation or misappropriation is to be frowned upon, the best way for people to learn and experience cultures other than their own is to be shown and taught by someone who is a member of said culture. There will always be the issue of a majority and a minority, but if there is a lack of diversity in the literary world, it isn’t necessarily the majority’s fault.”

“One of the great things about reading stories is that it helps us develop the important human quality of empathy. We can live the experience of others, even those who are very different from us. As a writer, I also develop my sense of empathy by creating characters who are different from me. Is it my responsibility to do my homework and make those characters as real as possible? Absolutely. But no one has the right to tell me what stories I can create. And readers certainly have the right not to read them.”

“I do think it’s important to realize that we all come from somewhere, and while it’s good to explore other cultures and bring diversity into a story, it in no way invalidates the stories we write that are based on what we know and understand. Depending on the context and culture of the story, having diversity might not make sense. Whether or not we understand or fully relate to another person’s culture does not determine the value of the work.”


Overall, I think this survey was an interesting and positive experiment.  I’m going to leave it open for more responses, in case anyone missed their chance to participate but wants to speak their piece.  If I get a lot more, maybe I’ll do another roundup in the near future.

For now, please do share your thoughts in the comments.  Were you surprised at some of the answers?  Taken aback?  Pleased?  What jumped out at you?  Be vocal!  Let me know!

The Privilege Index: Addressing Diversity in Fantasy Novels

Every once in a while, amidst the pictures of restaurant food and the inspirational memes and the promotional posts for TV shows I’m never going to watch, I come across a statement on social media that just gets right under my fingernails.  Whether it’s an article in the New York Times or a retweet from someone I follow, sometimes I just have to speak out.

Normally, I get a little adversarial when that happens, but I want to say right off the bat that this is not one of those times.  This is a time for a civil conversation about a very important topic – and, I sincerely hope, an opportunity for me to learn something from people who have different views than I do.

I saw bunch of tweets the other day that basically boiled down to an argument that goes something like this:

Books with mostly/all white characters – or books assumed to have mostly/all white characters when not explicitly identified as non-white – are pushing a white agenda.  We can’t all relate to white characters, so mostly/all white books are not really valuable to a modern audience. 

But if you’re a white author trying to include non-white characters in your stories, you’re probably engaging in cultural appropriation or misinterpretation.  You’re probably just doing it because diversity is trendy right now, anyway, and that’s wrong.  Don’t try to write books about cultures/gender identities/sexual orientations that aren’t part of your own authentic experience, because that’s insulting to people who have experienced negativity, violence, or other pain related to their various identities. 

But books about mostly/all white characters are bad…and around we go in a vicious circle.

Now, hold on a minute with whatever you’re thinking.  First, I am not defending this argument.  Second, I am not attacking this argument.  I am merely recording an argument I have seen.

The counter-argument seems to go something like this:

This logic maligns the rights of white people toscreeeech.

Let’s just put the brakes on that one for the moment.  It doesn’t lead anywhere worth going.

Even though I consider the fact that I’m Jewish to be a major cultural/ethnic marker, I usually check the “white” option on my demographic forms, because Ashkenazi is hard for people to spell. And I agree with the notion that white people are not really in a position to claim that they are being maligned about pretty much anything.  In the literary world, we still probably get most of the exposure and the dollars out there (I mean, I don’t, but that’s not the point) and straight white male voices still dominate the history and present of the fantasy genre.

But I’m not a straight white male.  I’m a woman, which gives me an inherent disadvantage and a stake in this conversation.  But…I’m a privately-educated woman with full-time employment, a small amount of disposable income, and a broadly accepted gender/sexuality identity.  But I struggle with depression and other mental illness.  But I’ve never experienced physical violence due to my gender/sexuality/ethic/racial/religious identities.  But I have certainly been verbally harassed and made to feel shame for some of my identity attributes.

But I’ve this, and I’ve that, and I’ve the other thing, et cetera, et cetera.  Pluses and minuses – the list goes on.  You can tally up your own privilege points with things like this hideously reductive Buzzfeed quiz, but I don’t think that adds much to anyone’s “right” to contribute their perspective.

So instead of spouting out a whole bunch of nonsense that falls prey to the flaws of the Privilege Index point of view, I just want to gather information from people who have all different takes on the world.  To that end, I’ve created a short survey.

It’s just ten questions, some of which are open-ended, to collect some data about how you guys (readers and authors) feel about the thorny problem of diversity in a genre that is clearly undergoing one heck of a major revolution that is long overdue.

The survey is anonymous.  I will not be collecting names or email addresses.  I do not know any of you well enough to guess who you are based on your responses to the demographic questions.  Feel free to say what’s on your mind, but remember to be kind, thoughtful, and honest.

Please note that for the purposes of this survey, I am using the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/cisgender” characters.  I’m aware that it’s a silly definition, because it assumes a whitewashed world is the standard and everything else is the “other,” but it’s a commonly accepted way of framing the issue, and SurveyMonkey will only let my questions be so long.

Click here to take the survey!

I would like to share your thoughts in a follow-up post, but please do be aware that malicious sentiments or hate speech will never see the light of day.  This is an opportunity for discussion, not for being an awful person.

Please share the survey with your friends and fellow readers.  The more responses I get, the better the conversation.  I’m looking forward to your feedback!

The Call of NaNoWriMo: November Approaches


I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble with the fact that it’s already well into October.  My summer has been filled with activity – and inactivity, unfortunately – and it seems like the warm days passed me by before I was even aware.

I think that happens every summer, but I never stop being surprised by it.  One moment it’s all flowers and oceans and walks in the park, and the next I’m tripping over decorative gourds and dodging Christmas tree displays at Kmart.

Autumn isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite things.  Massachusetts is the best place on earth to get your fill of orange leaves and apple orchards, cider and hay bales and cool, misty mornings rolling in over the hills.  There’s something in the air that makes you want to invest in some oversized, locally-spun wool garments and take a hike somewhere.

Whatever it is that makes me hoard sweaters and try to find where I put my Crock Pot also flips the switch in my creative brain that starts the wheels turning again.  It takes a little while to get the gears going, but as soon as the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) site boots up again and the tweets start pouring in from friends brainstorming their next novels, I can’t help but get excited.

I didn’t know if I was going to participate this year, actually, because I’m in the middle of trying to edit and finish the last two books of The Paderborn Chronicles.  Book 3, Dark the Chains of Treason, is in relatively decent shape for the moment, but the last volume, Dark the Wayward Dawn, is suffering from some structural issues (not the mention the fact that I need to write the last 20,000 words).

While I’m not morally opposed to patchwork NaNoWriMo participation, I didn’t want to write the ending to Wayward Dawn and then have to launch into 30,000 make-up words on a new project without a breather.  It’s not really how I work, and I want to do a thorough overhaul and edit of the first part of the book before I sketch out the climax.

So, seeing as how I just released Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow two months ago and almost no one has actually read it, I’ve decided to give myself a short break from the world of Arran Swinn, and take this November to indulge in creating a new fantasy.  I think it’ll freshen me up to come back to the editing process over the winter, and it won’t seriously delay my (tentative) release schedule.

What am I going to be working on, then?  Well, I don’t have all the details fleshed out just yet, but it’s going to be a standalone novel preliminarily titled The Night Heron’s War.

As I mentioned on Facebook a few days ago, I’m thinking about taking elements of the American Revolution (colonies in fractious rebellion; underfunded guerilla combat; a middle/upper class torn in both directions) and approaching them from the viewpoint of an Abigail Adams type character: a smart, shrewd woman who ends up being much more than a good housewife and hostess for a well-connected husband drawn into dangerous circumstances more or less against his will.

First stab at a cover (no pun intended)

First stab at a cover (no pun intended)

She’s one of my favorite historical figures, and while I don’t envision that the story will be an alternate history of the Revolution or anything like that (it’s not set in the real world, for starters), I think she’d make a great fantasy character.  Her relationship with John and her steadying hand had such a huge impact on major events – it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if you throw a little sorcery at someone like that.

So that’s the plan for now.  I’ve done some very basic hands-free plotting (i.e. using my phone to record myself talking in the car on the way to work), and I’ll probably be working on a more solid outline over the next few weeks, before the fun really begins.

As usual, if you’d like to join me on the creative rollercoaster, please feel free to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo website.  If you’re not sure you want to take the plunge, but want to follow along as I gripe and grimace and grin my way through the month of November, consider a Twitter follow instead.  You can have all the cat pictures for free.

Who’s going to be jumping in this year?  What ideas do you have swirling in your heads?  Let me know in the comments!

Home is Behind; the World Ahead

IS5eqngy07rd5k0000000000I visited New York this weekend, for a short but multi-purpose trip back to my ancestral homeland.  As many of you know, I spent the first 17 years of my life on Long Island, in a bustling yet somewhat brutal suburb of the great City itself.

New Yorkers are generally very proud of where they live, and remain proud of where they come from if they happen to move away.  They retain their stereotypical attitude (which is, if anything, underplayed in the media) and their propensity for tailgating on the highway.

They can never eat a bagel or slice of pizza without loudly proclaiming its inferiority to the cuisine of their youth (it’s the water, don’t you know), and they will forever be shocked that businesses, restaurants, and public transportation options close before midnight in towns that approach life at a slower pace.

While I’m certainly guilty of maintaining some of these traits, despite my eight years as a Massachusetts resident, I’ve never been as enamored with New York as many of my compatriots.  It’s a fascinating place, and there is something to be said for growing up in such a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with world-class museums and attractions and beaches being such a routine part of my childhood.

There’s something to be said for leaving it behind, too.  I was never a very good New Yorker.  I didn’t really like the city; I didn’t care for our sports teams, or take pride in being mouthy and brash.  I didn’t frequent the salons and the tanning parlors, or the bars and the clubs.  I don’t like stucco on houses.  I don’t flat-iron my hair and I’ve never been to the Jersey Shore.  I don’t wear yoga pants or velour sweat suits, and I prefer not to have rhinestone logos associated with my rear end.

As a teenager, I felt this disconnect very strongly, and I fled to Massachusetts almost as soon as I had the choice.  As a college student, I fell in love with its expansive woodlands and winding roads and 18th century villages.  I don’t mind that everything closes at 8:00 at night, because I like to be in bed just an hour or so later.  I like the quiet, and the comparative friendliness (yes, even in Boston proper), and the progressively liberal bent to our politics.

I chose to live in Massachusetts, to settle here and make a life for myself.  It has become home, but no matter how many years I end up living here, I don’t know that it will ever be where I’m from.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that distinction, because my family is facing a big change in the coming months.  We are selling the house I grew up in.

That might not seem like a momentous thing for people who have moved around a lot during their lives, but it’s the only house I have ever lived in.  It was the place I ran to when I was feeling overwhelmed by people I didn’t understand; it’s where I could shut myself away with a book and a cat (or two or three) and pretend like I was in control of my world.  Its old-fashioned character shaped my aesthetic senses with rich cherry wood moldings and glass knobs on the rickety doors.

In contrast to the open floor plans and master suites of my friends’ houses, our 1923 American four-square organized its living spaces in smaller, more dedicated ways.  Having only one full bathroom for three kids and two parents required everyone to invest in some serious negotiating tactics in the mornings.  The bedrooms are small and the kitchen never had enough counter space, but high ceilings made everything feel bigger.  There’s a basement my dad finished himself.  A screened-in back room gave us a little more space to spread out, and let us spend leisurely summer dinners as a family overlooking a grassy yard large enough to be the envy of our carefully subdivided neighbors.

I spent a lot of time in the house as a child – I was homeschooled for several years, and even when I returned to public school, I did not waste a lot of my scarce energy on after-school activities or late evenings with friends.  I just went home.

I went home to my books, which never made me feel anxious or out of place.  I went home to my cats, who would listen to my secrets without judgement or comment.  I went home to the internet, and the ability to interact with the world from the safety of my own private castle.  When my parents divorced, I went home to the only place that seemed solid in a foreign and confusing new reality.

My room now...a little different than it was when I still lived there.

My room now…a little different (cleaner) than it was when I still lived there.

I went home and cried myself into exhaustion after I failed my first driver’s test, too embarrassed to tell any of my friends.  I went home while putting college on hold after a truly heinous semester at Boston University, and stared at the ceiling all night as I lay sleepless in my familiar bed, convinced I had ruined my life.

I stayed home when I was too sick or just too tired to go to high school; I came home almost every weekend for months as my cat Solomon started to come to the end of his days, just to spend as much time with him as I could.

Home has always been there for me, and home has always been that house.  I know that makes me lucky.  That sense of permanence has been a gift that kept me going through a tumultuous youth that left me feeling isolated, frustrated, and poorly understood more often than not.

When I visit these days, I feel those negative memories first.  I feel the pain of my slowly splintering family, and the resonating anger of so many heated disagreements over our fundamental differences.  I feel like a lost child again, rooting around helplessly in my overwhelming sadness, searching for some sense of self I could hardly define, let alone capture.

I feel all the missteps I made when I didn’t know better, and all the mistakes that other people didn’t even know they were making with me.  I feel the heartbreak of wishing so hard that things could be different, and the defeat of recognizing how many things are still the same, no matter how much older I get.

It’s in my nature, perhaps, to think about the bad things first, but they certainly don’t reflect the sum total of my life there.  There are so many good memories that made that house the sanctuary it will always remain in my mind.

There were sunlit mornings in the kitchen, eating breakfast while my mother washed the dishes, and winter afternoons charting new trails through the unbroken snow of the backyard grass.  There was my dogwood tree to climb, and a pool for a while, and the chaise in the screen room where I would fall asleep in the dappled shade.

There was the grill on the deck for steaks and chicken, and the terror of discovering a hornet’s nest under the eaves.  There was the ill-fated garden behind the garage, where we planted sickly tomatoes next to the sandy pit where I pretended to be an archaeologist.

There was the crawl space in the basement, where the original builders had left mysterious bottles and jugs, and the swing set, and the basketball hoop that was too tall for me, and the wooden playhouse that had more spiders than I quite liked.

There was chocolate milk on Sunday, and visits from my grandmother, and running to the corner to meet my dad when he came home on the train.  There were bike rides up and down the driveway along chalk-drawn streets, and camping in a pop-up tent we never really put together properly.

There were bedtime stories and silly dances and the day my mom spilled half her yogurt down the sink.  The ritual recital of Passover seders; the smells of Thanksgiving and latkes and snuffed out Hanukkah candles so the cats wouldn’t burn their whiskers.

Every corner has a story for me.  Every creak of the stairs is as familiar as my own name.  So much of my life has happened there, and even though I know it’s time to let that house become home for some other family with their future ahead of them, my heart aches when I think about never being in those rooms again.

We still have a month or two before we have to be out of there completely, and we’ve all planned to come down again for another weekend – the last time we will all be in the house together.  The finality of that is frightening.  So is the inevitability.  The sense of detachment may, in time, become liberating, but right now it just feels like I’m losing something very important to the way I have always seen myself.

Change is good, and this change is necessary on many levels, but it is hard to leave behind so much of myself in a place that is so strongly ingrained in my consciousness.

I don’t know how this is going to affect my family and the independent lives we are now living.  I don’t know where we’ll have our Thanksgivings and Passovers – or if those will be a thing of the past, as well.  I don’t know how the world will feel without a home like that to go back to.

I’m hoping that finally making the break from an idea that has slowly been fading over time anyway will just help me feel more settled and comfortable in the life I’ve built for myself.  I hope to have my own permanent house someday, with a yard and brick steps and dogwood trees for my theoretical children to climb.

I don’t know if I will ever feel as secure as I used to when I was a child in my fortress of books and bedding, before I became old enough and jaded enough to think about the bad things first.  But I hope I can build upon my treasured memories of happy times, and let the other ones drift away.

Home may be behind, but the world is ahead, and that will have to be the thought that sustains me as I watch one long chapter of my life come to a close and another begins.