sympathetic villains: fair!?

Alternate, listicle-style title:

Three Times A Villain Lectured the Hero About How Their Optimism Was Solely a Result of Their Privileged Upbringing, and We Kind of Saw Their Point

1. Magneto versus Professor X

X-Men-Professor-X-and-Magneto-Play-Chess

Let’s go over this again.

This is basically their WHOLE BEEF, so I can hardly pick a single monologue. The conflict between Xavier and Magneto resonated so much in the original movies that the reboots then hammered on it ALL OVER AGAIN instead of drawing on the many, many other diverse characters and viewpoints the comics are known for. But I digress.

Charles Xavier was born into wealth! His mutation is invisible! He grew up knowing good people and little-to-no oppression, and as a result believes whole-heartedly in peaceful co-existence with non-mutant humans.

Erik Lensherr lost his family in the friggin Holocaust! His mutation is also invisible, but his message is very attractive to all of the mutants who can’t hide what they were, because they’ve all seen the worst of humanity and understand that humans inevitably lash out at anyone perceived as Other.

And I mean… Magneto ain’t wrong. The best part about this hero/villain dynamic is that you can see exactly what led the villain down their current path, and can sympathize with their motivations. What they choose to do about it is still wrong, and that’s their core tragedy.

2. Killmonger versus Black Panther

killmonger black panther

You’re not… wrong…

Better writers than I have broken down the thematic/historical underpinnings of Killmonger, so I’ll summarize in my usual haphazard, exclamation-point-heavy style.

T’Challa was born into royalty! In a super advanced secret civilization utopia that deliberately ignored shit going down in the rest of the world! Of course he’s hesitant to disrupt the policy of isolationism that gives his people this cushion of safety.

Erik Killmonger was abandoned in poverty, and his father murdered, due to that very same policy! He grew up under systemic racism, bitterly aware of the legacy of colonialism on the African continent despite the existence of a secret utopia that could have saved them! Of course he’s right to want their liberation, and to want Wakanda to step in and help.

But the dude goes too far down that path and becomes exactly like the people he hates. He straight shoots his girlfriend! He wants to turn Wakanda into an empire and dominate the world! The way he’s going about it is wrong, but…what he wants is entirely understandable, isn’t it? Magneto never budges Charles, but in this case Killmonger does nudge T’Challa to a more responsible middle road. His monologuing is top notch.

3. Stinky Pete versus Woody

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FAIR?! I’ll tell you what’s not fair!

Hear me out, it’s the same thing!

Woody gets some shade in the first movie for always being so confident about his place (he’s been Andy’s favorite toy since kindergarten!) but the Prospector lays it out even more explicitly in the sequel.

Toys like Woody are beloved by their children! They get all the play time they want! They’re passed down as family heirlooms, loved all over again! Of course he sees the best in the situation, and believes a toy’s sole purpose in life is to make a child happy.

Toys like Stinky Pete either get bought and neglected, or never bought at all! They aren’t cool, they aren’t likable, they certainly aren’t lovingly preserved over generations! Of course he’s bitter about this (let’s face it) nightmarish world in which toys are sentient and immortal but doomed to an eternity in a landfill one day if they aren’t broken to pieces first.

Does that give Stinky Pete license to kidnap Woody and force him to live out his days in a museum? Of course not. But is he right to be bitter? Well yeah. Did I mention this world is a horrorshow? The older I get the more these movies make me recoil in grief. I love ’em, but. Damn.

In conclusion

This is one of my favorite hero/villain dynamics. I’m an absolute sucker for the sorta-justified-but-took-it-too-far villain every time. I’m equally a sucker for bringing the hero down a peg when they’ve had things too easy.

What I like even better is to have the hero also come from difficult circumstances, because then you get a stronger contrast between their character arcs. Heroes and villains can both spring from the same origin. A hero overcomes their flaw/tragic backstory. A villain doesn’t. They lean into their flaws, they give in to their bitterness, they use their tragic backstory as an excuse to turn around and inflict pain on others in service to their own ambitions. A villain is the abusive parent who declares, “I’m like this because I had a terrible childhood!!” Sure. But you’re still being a shit. The best kind of hero is the one who also had a terrible childhood, consciously decided they don’t want to raise their kid the same way, and doesn’t.

In the above examples, the villains are absolutely right to call out the heroes for the easiness of their good guy roles. They’re good because nothing ever happened to tempt them to be bad. Give me sympathetic villains, hell yeah. But I also like to see them pitted against less likely heroes.

(P.S. And if you really want my money, make more of them ladies!)

reading roundup!

We’re already three months through 2018! How about one of my inconsistent, semiannual reading roundups?

I’ve read eighteen books/novellas/graphic collections so far. There are SO MANY great things going on in SFF right now that it pains me not to be able to go faster. My TBR pile is a TBR mountain. But the core tragedy of writing is this: you write because you love-love-love to read, but if you write, you won’t have nearly as much time to read. I can either read thirty pages or write one, them’s the breaks.

I’m not the only one in this boat, which is probably why novellas are making such a splashy return to the field. They’re shorter, more direct, but in the right hands pack just as powerful a punch. What’s not to love?

Last year I powered through works by Martha Wells (the Murderbot Diaries), Cassandra Khaw (Persons Non Grata), and Sarah Gailey (River of Teeth). This year I’m going to continue following those projects, and I’ve also discovered JY Yang (Tensorate series) and Brooke Bolander (The Only Harmless Great Thing). You see how the mountain grows…and grows…

In novels: I finally finished the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik! Somebody make my Napoleonic War dragon movies statttt, why is this taking so long? I also zoomed through the Darker Shade of Magic books by V.E. Schwab (fun!).

I’ve even been reining in my fickle, fiction-loving attention span to include some nonfiction books on writing and the industry. So, expect my Reading 2018 list to explode with all the works of Donald Maass. I’ve also got Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward queued up.

Pour it all into my brain, I’m ready.

FINAL is FINAL (unless it isn’t)

You gggUUUUUuuuyyysss! I finished the quote-unquote “final” draft of my cowboy vs mermaid high fantasy novel! A month ahead of schedule! It’s amazing what you can do when you start staying up an hour later at night.

I use quotes because it’s only truly the final draft if nobody picks it up. If I garner agent interest I’m sure there’ll be tweaks (if not revisions) before sub, and if I get as far as a publishing house there’ll be several rounds of work ahead.

BUT I DIGRESS. The important bit is that I’m one finished query package away from wading into the query trenches. The query itself is basically done. The synopses are in draft form. My documents are formatted and ready. LET’S DO DIS.

If you don’t care about the nitty-gritty of the query process, never fear! I am about to go radio silent on this matter until I have news. So it could be months or a year+ before I bring this up again.

In the meantime! I will be…

  • Sending out short stories
  • Sprucing up the website
  • Starting a newsletter (get ready, guinea pigs!)
  • Outlining the next book
  • …and then writing the next book

So there will be a good amount of work occupying my time/thoughts while I wait for the responses to roll in.

Wish me luck!

(Meanwhile: lap cats think they are getting their lap back. Alas, they are not.)

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17 years

Is there a MeToo for school shootings? Because ours happened seventeen years ago, and I’m grappling with it in a very different way today than I did at the time.

Yesterday I took my kids to a birthday party. Then I spent all afternoon on the verge of tears looking up photos and statements about the March For Our Lives events all over the country, millions of people supporting the high school students who pushed this miserable debate into high gear.

I had an opportunity to join the march here but couldn’t finagle the time constraint to get to my other obligation (I’m sorry laaadiiiiies). The scheduling woe was real, but if I’m being absolutely honest, I also leaned into the problem as an excuse to chicken out of a high-emotion atmosphere. If Twitter could bring me to tears, going in person was gonna be a mess.

I should have just let myself be a mess.

Our school shooting happened in the early days of this nightmare, 2001, when it genuinely seemed (to us, at least) to be a fluke tragedy. Something wild and unpredictable and how-could-it-happen, but rare, at least. With two dead and thirteen wounded, for a little while we were called the second-worst to Columbine, and wow have those numbers become commonplace. Hardly even newsworthy.

Our shooter (I won’t even bother naming him, let’s just say Some Piece of Shit) ran with a group of bullies, so the media latched on to the theory that he was being bullied by them. But, uh, according to my classmates he ran with bullies because he was a little bully himself. Next theory, plz. (The Columbine shooters weren’t bullied either…but that story was bought into so heavily it has shaped twenty years of rhetoric on this.)

We didn’t do anything about it except try to move on. The adults were supposed to take care of it. Now we’re the adults, and we’re still not taking care of it. So oh my god, these kids are so brave. They weren’t even born when this started. This fear has been hanging over their heads their entire lives. And they’re right to be furious.

My feelings have always been a muddle. I was lucky–didn’t see anything, didn’t know anybody, though I would eventually see the toll it took on my friends who did. I was in a classroom on the opposite side of campus at the time, stayed in there during the lockdown, and evacuated via a route that prevented us from seeing where it happened.

I remember being very calm during the evacuation. They led us to a massive grocery store parking lot across the street, where the lines all immediately lost structure, and everyone bolted to search for their friends, and parents started showing up. I found my bestie pretty quick, but it took forever to find my older sister. I was just starting to panic when we spotted each other. That is my clearest memory of the whole thing.

I barely remember the aftermath, on the other hand, and that is just bizarre. Kids started getting cell phones (this was 2001, babyyy, teens didn’t automatically have them yet). They had us do weird art projects to express our feelings. We got a therapist on campus and a permanently stationed deputy (I interviewed him for the school newspaper, dweeb that I was).

But otherwise: big blank. I know there must have been huge amounts of emotion permeating the school, but either I walled it off at the time or I’ve walled it off since then. I do remember thinking I should reach out, friendship-wise, to a boy in my class who had been directly affected. We did eventually become friends, mostly because some of our friends became friends and our groups merged. Ten years later we got married. So add one more convoluted layer to this mess, because despite not touching me at all, this incident subtly shaped the course of my life anyway.

I’m always hesitant to mention it, because it never felt like my experience. It wasn’t “my” shooting. It was a Thing That Happened in my vicinity, a thing that hurt other people so badly it seems ghoulish or disingenuous to make any kind of emotional claim to it. It’s a disorienting mindset. I might never untangle it.

I didn’t even realize I had any remaining deep-seated feelings until I had babies, and now every news story has me reeling. I imagine my kids there, and I imagine myself driving like a maniac to reach the school like my mom did, and I break out in a cold sweat. I don’t want them to grow up with this fear. I cannot comprehend the mindset of people who think it’s worth the risk to keep their arsenals. I could rant all day about how there’s no such thing as responsible ownership.

I don’t have a good ending for this blog post. I just felt compelled to write something down. I’m mad that this is still part of the tapestry of our lives. No, I’m furious.

the benefits of sleep deprivation

Now, hear me out! This may be the sleep deprivation talking, but I’m going to share the very limited, but potentially very valuable benefits of sleep deprivation.

I came across this great Twitter thread by Delilah Dawson:

And it struck a chord. Boy, did it! I started writing as a hobby when I was 10, so I had a pile of childish (but incrementally better) manuscripts in my trunk by the time I hit 30. However, my singularity moment (the book that finally leveled up to the point I’m eager to query it) was written in a delirious haze around my first kid’s first birthday. He STILL wasn’t sleeping, so I’d gone a solid year pacing the hallway every night, losing my mind with exhaustion and barely writing anything.

I was so sick of not writing that I decided: eff it! Let’s do this! And I set aside whatever scraps of time I could–at 4 a.m. or during naptime or after bedtime–and wrote in a feverish, stream-of-conscious delirium. I wrote about cowboys and ghosts and mermaids and saber-tooth cats and whatever else popped into my head.

The resulting rough draft was definitely, well, ROUGH. But it was also definitely a draft. Soon after I finished it, I started sleeping (sort of) through the night again, and I had the brainpower to edit that mess into something more coherent. And then edit it again. And again.

Something happened to me in that hazy period. I didn’t have enough free time to do anything but stick to my outline–I wrote wrote wrote forward and didn’t look back! And I didn’t have the brainpower to question myself on the sentence level–my doubts turned off, because there simply wasn’t room for them.

And it resulted in something weird, and fun, and full of voice. (She says hopefully.)

Do I recommend purposefully losing sleep to achieve a dream state of coffee-supplemented productivity? HELL NO, IT’S LITERAL TORTURE! But I do recommend treating a rough draft like something that will never see the light of day. Write forward, write for fun, write without worrying about who will ever read it.

And then oh my goodness, edit the shit out of it. D:

It might not be the book you ever share, but it might just be the book that helps your style shake loose.

papa lindsey strikes again

I’ve mentioned Papa Lindsey before: the demented handyman haunting our property. He keeps tabs on what we’re doing through his army of spiders. No matter what we do, there are daddy long-legs on the ceiling, black widows in the sheds, some enormous hideous monstrosity we call Aragog in the mailbox. Clearly they are all reporting back to Papa Lindsey, warning him when we decide to replace one of his precious power outlets or mismatched light bulbs.

But it turns out, the spiders might be protectors more than spies.

It turns out, Papa Lindsey was worried about worse problems than the sufficient proliferation of power outlets. Perhaps my home is a sort of Southern Californian Winchester House, and Papa Lindsey had to keep hand-building crummy additions to keep other ghosts at bay.

shack

Seriously, this hell shack was going to be your un-permitted laundry room?

This month we finally took action on a crack in the foundation beneath our dining room (these tears I’m shedding are made of dollar bills). The entire room was carpeted when we moved in, so if the damage was already there, we missed it in the home inspection.

Upon peeling back the carpet, we discovered THIS in the concrete where the dining room was added to the main house:

house

“As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD”

EXCUSE ME? This is far too insistent. Was my house the site of a religious cult? Or was this the work of a pious handyman trying to expel demons?

Upon seeing the ominous inscription, it occurred to me that when we first moved in, there were nails driven into the walls above the windows and doors. Is it possible that these were not the World’s Worst Curtain Fixtures, but in fact iron spikes intended to repel faerie creatures??

Before you accuse me of overreacting, consider this:

Within days of demolishing this piece of concrete and its aggressively protective carving, my sister broke out in all-body hives, my husband threw out his back, and my toddler dislocated his elbow.

DRAW YOUR OWN CONCLUSIONS.

patience, sam

Let’s pretend it’s January 1st, and I’m still hashing out goals for the year without explicitly calling them New Year’s Resolutions.

With me so far?

Good, because my aspirations for 2018 (baby milestones and reading goals and word counts and submissions) are all well and good, but my degree of success really hinges on one single, overarching, invisible goal underpinning the rest:

Patience, Sam. You’ve got to learn some patience.

(Also, overarching and underpinning? Yes. That’s how important it is.)

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This means taking a deep breath during sleep regressions and potty training setbacks. It means reading more slowly and mindfully and really absorbing content, even if it means I don’t hit a certain arbitrary number of texts.

It means slowing down to spend more time in the planning and revising periods of each book.

This is incredibly difficult for me! Once I get my teeth into something I FULLY COMMIT and I go LUDICROUSLY OVERBOARD and I just chug chug chug ahead without pausing for breath.

But manuscripts need to breathe. The longer they are, the more air they need. Every year I knock out a book, and then I do a round of structural edits to smooth out the bits I rewrote halfway, and then I bound off to the next project. This makes my word count spreadsheet pretty respectable, but as a result I have a pile of manuscripts I consider good but not yet great.

My biggest weakness stems from my primary strength. I love love love writing characters, and my plots revolve around the core character arcs I plan from the get-go. That’s great! It’s my favorite aspect of the books I read, so it’s the aspect I spend the most time writing!

But I write fantasy novels, and in order for a fantasy novel to stand out it needs vibrant worldbuilding to prop up those character arcs. In my eagerness to reach the emotional climax of a book, I have a tendency to start writing before I finish worldbuilding. I end up with a strong story in a plain setting, and that just won’t fly.

So, what does this mean for 2018? It means I’m starting draft five (ugh, FIVE!!) on my weird western 2016 novel, and it’s about to get a lot weirder. The bones of it are good. They just need a bit more flesh. It means I have to stop obsessing over my daily word count and acknowledge that days spent thinking can be just as productive as days spent typing. (So hell yeah they are getting a line on the spreadsheet.)

By waiting three or four more months to start querying (an eternity in impatient Sam time, but hopefully only a blip in my actual lifetime!), I’ll be sending out my best work instead of my best potential work.

And while that’s out in the world, I’ll start planning the next one.