Friday, September 18, 2015

Pin-Up Mentality

After college I spent a few years experimenting with the idea of drawing graphic novels for a living. It was fun. I worked really hard and developed my mediocre drawing skills into fairly decent people-drawing skills. Not so much life drawing, but sketching little characters.

I was part of a forum (sadly now defunct) that had some big names as members (folks like Immonen and Francavilla) and I got a lot of excellent feedback and advice while I was there. But, in the end, I don't do well at drawing things. And I'm pretty damn slow at everything else.

For a while I thought maybe I would just focus on pin-ups; drawing women was fun and very popular and I could probably have made some money at it if I'd really wanted to. But I kept finding I wasn't especially happy with only drawing women as... sexy things. And I was still hideously slow so I turned to other pursuits.

Recently though, I've been thinking about pin-ups again. It started with a cartoon I saw on FaceBook (but cannot seem to locate for specific reference so bear with my word version of it.) On the left hand side was a (roughly drawn) woman in a chainmail bikini type costume. (It was generic, and poorly rendered, but it may have been supposed to be Wonder Woman or perhaps Red Sonja or maybe just a woman in a chainmail bikini.) And the caption was something like "When a woman wears this to ComicCon she's strong and empowered." And there was (I think) a voice balloon that said "You go girl!". On the right hand side there was a dude sitting in front of an easel with (essentially) the same sketch of the scantily clad woman on the left. And the caption said "When an artist draws a woman like this he's a sexist pig." And (again, I think) a voice balloon that said something like "Misogynist!". [I tried really hard to find the original to link to, but I don't know who drew it and Google searches under relevant terms were distressing. So, I am paraphrasing and leaning on my (sometimes) faulty memory.]

The obvious thrust of the cartoon was to imply that there's a double standard about how women portray themselves and how men portray women. Especially in SF/F. Especially in the visual arts.

And my initial thought was "This is missing the point." Because we all know that women are sexy sometimes. We are known to wear things that we think make us look attractive. (Even I, on occasion, take off my battered jeans and worn out t-shirt and put on some fancies.) But, and this is the missing thought in the above mentioned cartoon, we are more than just a sexy thing in a chainmail bikini.

The objection to artists who consistently draw women as first-and-foremost sexy/attractive is that they are reducing them, reducing us, to something to be looked at. Admired. Drooled over, even. Praised because of how sweet we look or how luscious our curves are. They are reducing us to objects. Again.

It feels like I shouldn't even have to point that out. But then I see things like Game of Thrones Women as Pin-Ups. (A Google search will turn up a lot more than just those five.) Or Disney Princesses as Pin-ups. (And there are a lot of those too besides the artist I linked to. He's just the most recent to get a write up.) And I see the previously mentioned cartoon and I realize it needs to be said again.

Women are more than just sex objects. We aren't just pretty things who are there for the Hero to ogle and take home as a prize after he saves the world. We are more than a bikini (chainmail or otherwise). More than a pretty smile.

Does this mean that no one should ever draw pin-ups? Or that men should never draw women in a way that suggests they are attractive or desirable?

Of course not.

It does mean that it behooves all of us (men and women alike) to remember that we are first and foremost humans. Sure, our dangly bits are different, but we are defined by more than just that.

"Fine," you say. "But I'm not an artist so why should I care?"

Because this is a lesson for all of our creative endeavors. There are still too many books being written in which the women or the PoC or the LGBTQ folk are just sidenotes - summed up into a single aspect of their humanity. Women as sex objects, PoC and LGBTQ as "other" and foreign and tragic friends who do not get to reap the rewards that the Hero receives. There are still too many books being written in which the Hero is likewise put in a box and distilled down to a handful of characteristics that limit his growth and depth by relegating him to a role which can only be those things which are not identified as a part of Women or PoC or LGBTQ characters.

And this doesn't mean that every book must represent all parts of every spectrum of humanity. Just as it doesn't mean that no one should ever draw pin-ups. But it does mean that consistently seeing a particular group in a specific way will limit the stories you tell and cramp (if not cripple) your skills to present characters that are fully rounded.

Depth of character means depth of skill, depth of perception, depth of understanding.

It means putting aside the pin-up mentality that turns every character with girl-parts into something to be ogled. It means writing not about the Hero or the Love Interest or the Queer Friend.

It means writing about humans. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Irons in the Fire: Update 9.6.15

This year has been different than last in that I keep getting this feeling like I've not gotten much accomplished. To the point that a month or so ago I had a really down moment where I started wondering if I was going to have to write this year off as a complete wash.

Of course, then I started looking at what I've actually done this year and realized I have been writing and finishing things. I just haven't been writing and finishing novels at the pace I was last year. But that's a topic for a different day.

One of the projects I've been working on is an OGN (Original Graphic Novel) script. The project is still in the early stages - the script is finished and I have an amazing artist working with me as we put together a pitch for the book - but this week I got the first batch of character sketches and (with Tony's permission) I'm sharing them here.

First, here is the brief summary of the book.

For nineteen years, Gwen has avoided a future in which she ushers in the apocalypse, and resisted the plans her father, Odin, has made for her. Her unwelcome companions, the ravens Munin and Hugin, nag her to take up Odin's spear and defend Valhalla in the coming war. Gwen's mother coaxes her toward the paths of peace and positive change.

When the soul of Arthur Pendragon wakes up in the body of seventeen year old Tristan Morgan, Gwen reluctantly agrees to help the ravens and finds the warrior-turned-teenager to be an unexpected soul-mate. Gwen can keep her semi-ordinary life and lose Tristan to the magical schemes threatening Yggdrasil and all its connecting Realms. Or she can take her father's place, save Tristan, and become the Champion of Valhalla. With the threat of Ragnarok still hanging in the balance, Gwen clings to the one truth she knows: if you want to change the world, start with yourself.

And character sketches (property/copyright Tony D'Amato 2015). 

Gwen Sinister


I'm incredibly excited about this particular project. Tony is knocking it out of the park as he brings these characters into a visual medium. 

If you would like to check out some of his other work (storyboards and illustrations) you can visit Tony D'Amato Dot Net or his Tumblr page at TD'

In the meantime, I am still working on several other "words only" projects, including finding a home for the Southern Gothic novella trilogy, and finishing up an epic little Steampunk Apocalypse novel. You can also look for more reprinted or new short stories coming closer to Christmas. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Not a Zero-Sum Game

One thing that comes up periodically from certain corners of the author world is the idea that for every book published by one of the Big 5, that's one less book someone else will successfully sell to that publisher. Or that for every major book deal and advance given out, that means a certain number of smaller, debut authors will never get a shot because there is no money for them anymore.

It's an argument used by certain proponents of "traditional" genre fiction when discussing the push to have more diversity in the author pool.

"When you argue for diversity, you're taking food off the plates of other authors who just happen to be straight, white and male!" And then there's usually some twaddle about discrimination and quality and wahwahwah.

I'm not going to talk about that today.

Instead, let me remind folks that publishing is not a zero-sum game. Broadening the author pool also means broadening the reader pool and that means not only more books - as opposed to the same number of books only with different authors than last year - but more money. It means more folks saying "Hey! Maybe this SF and Fantasy stuff isn't so bad after all. Where can I find more books?"

Recently DC announced it was adding a line of comics they intend to be focused more on female characters and in general appeal to the femme comic buyers. Notice, they aren't replacing the existing lines, they are adding to them. More books, not less. New authors, and old ones. More readers. More money. More good.

It's not a zero-sum game. It is a "Let's make money!" game. Although it is untrue that publishers never take risks on books (because they do), the key thing to remember is that it is a business. If they are buying and publishing a certain thing it's because they are reasonably confident it will sell. If they are buying from a more diverse pool of talent, it's because they are reasonably confident that there is a market for those books and those authors and that more money means more books, and more books means fewer authors of any color/gender/orientation subsisting on Ramen for extended periods of time.

Appealing to a diverse readership by default equals trying to broaden the readership. I don't know about you, but I always prefer more readers to fewer readers.

The publishing world is not like your grandma's pie which was delicious and always left everyone fighting over the last piece because there was only so much and you, your brother and your cousins all wanted it. No, this is like a Guinness Book of World Records pie - it can always get bigger next year.

More authors.
More books.
More readers.
More money.
More good.

We all win.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Competent Enough to Compete: Lessons Learned from Competitive Piano Performance

When I was eleven, I decided I wanted to learn how to properly play the piano. My mother had already showed me the basics of how to read music and I could fumble out a few things with right and left hand parts, but I wanted to learn classical music. So, my mother canceled our cable subscription to pay for piano lessons and signed me up with a teacher down at the local conservatory.

Because I had a head start on the basics I progressed quickly. After the first year my teacher suggested I compete in the local music teachers competition. The first year, she said, I would be only competing against myself. If I enjoyed it and wanted to continue the following year, we would see about putting me in the category where I would compete with everyone my own age.

Despite the nerves, I did, in fact, enjoy competing. Not so much for the competition factor, but because the real joy of music, like writing, is in sharing it with someone else. Sure, I enjoyed playing at home and getting lost in the fiddly, rolling-down-a-steep-hill harmonies of Bach's Inventions. But the real enjoyment, the biggest rush was in performing for someone else. Especially in performing for strangers who would appreciate the music without regard for me.

So, after two years of competing only against myself, I entered the local competition along with everyone else in my grade level. This was a challenge. Many of them had been playing much longer than I had. And let me tell you, six years of additional experience makes a big difference - in both the quality and complexity of the work being presented. My teacher and I carefully selected work that pushed my skills and showed off my range. For the remaining five years before I headed off to college, I competed at my grade level. Every year I placed high enough to continue on to the state level. Every year I received good marks at the state level, but I never won or progressed to the regional competition.

I was competent enough to compete. I was not skilled enough to win.

"Why this story?" you may be thinking.

Lately the SF/F realm has been rife with conspiracy theories about secret "liberal" cabals, active bloc-voting by particular "conservative" groups to narrow the playing field to works which they approved and endorsed, and then rejection of those works by a broader fan base. At this point it seems as if the attempts to put forth a complete slate will continue next year. Which also means more bitterness and vitriol and finding out that folks who have been positive about your work in the past didn't really mean "This is good," but rather "This is good for a girl-writer."

And much of it stems from the inability to grasp the idea that you may be competent enough to compete, but not competent enough to win. It is laden with fear about a broadening of the pool of talent to include voices that may not be just different but also better. It is laced with venom over the idea that fandom is bigger than you are, bigger than your group of friends, and in that larger sea you are a smaller fish than you thought. And all of it is wrapped up in an "us against them" narrative that transforms that fear and poison and lack of understanding into a conspiracy against some deeper way of life - the "culture wars" we keep hearing about.

This, more than anything else, is the reason I have no patience for the Puppies (Sad or Rabid) and their movement to "reclaim" SF/F for future generations.

At some point, you have to realize that maybe your work just isn't better than your competitors. And at that point you (and I), have two basic choices.

You can:
Accuse the judges of favoring the Asian-American over you because of a hidden affirmative action agenda.
Declare that the other contestants played newer, more modern work and were rewarded for it while your own more traditional selections were passed over because they are no longer en vogue.
Orchestrate and implement a plan to only allow those who play at your skill level to compete. Bonus if you can limit the works to the same style and content you perform.

Or you can:
Improve your skills.
Work harder.
Be persistent.

"Well," you may be thinking. "You only say that because you've never been nominated for a literary award."

And that's true. I haven't been nominated. I've been eligible since 2012. In fact, 2012-2013 I was eligible for the John Campbell "Not a Hugo" Award for Best New Writer. Those years came and went without any sort of recognition for my work. Aside from, you know, having been published, getting paid, and knowing that folks were reading my work. But even if I had been nominated, I learned years ago that sometimes my very best is not "the best".

I'm okay with that. You know why?
Because, for me, the answer is simple - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I sit down to put words on the page - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I see someone belittling my genre - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time someone implies that even if I were to be nominated it would be for something other than the quality of my work - write a better story.

Because there is only one way to compete - write a better story.

[Disclaimer (because, you know, ethics in journalism): I have been published by two of the Puppies nominees - Abyss & Apex, and Jennifer Brozek. And I split a reading time slot with Jason Cordova last year.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

New Release: Dust

Half-Fae cop, Jonas Flannery has lost enough partners in his years on the job - to drugs, to corruption, to the monsters that prowl the streets. When his current partner, Lola Rodriguez, is whammied by a dying pixie queen, he finds himself in a race against time to find the drug producing Dust farm, free the other Corlun, and save Lola before the magic breaks her mind.

Urban Fantasy

Monday, July 13, 2015

Legacy - New Release!

Available Now! Only $0.99!

When a skin-changer looking for passage to Lake Ponchartrain collapses at her feet, Willa Arch finds herself drawn into a conflict between the iron-willed Queen Elsbett of Brittania and Queen of the Dead, Marie Laveau. But survival means coming face to face with Willa's own deadly legacy of fur and teeth.

(Epub also available through Scribd, iTunes, Inktera.)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing for Others (Update 7.2.14)

An oft repeated piece of advice is to first write what you love. Don't worry about where you'll sell it or which readership or if the fans will like it - write for yourself first.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, if you don't love it then staring down the blank screen day after day to finish a story/novel/whatever will be a tedious business. Secondly, if you don't love it your readers will be able to tell. Passion for your story absolutely translates onto the page. So does boredom.

After I had my first story published (a little piece of flash about the aftermath of an argument between a husband and wife that wanders into suggestive territory) I quickly realized that writing for myself was the first step, but at some point I would have to deal with what the readers think. (Just a hint, for that particular story the words "softcore porn" showed up in the comments.) It was around that time I settled on another personal rule.

I do not write for those who don't like what I write.

I've gotten a few weird looks over that one, but the fact is that there are certain things you will find over and over in my work. If you don't like those things... chances are you are not the reader I meant the story for. And that's fine. I write what I like, for myself first. That anyone else likes (or even loves) what I put on the page is icing on the cake.

But there is a point in digging into the words that it gets difficult to remember that I'm not writing in a vacuum. The whole point of putting these stories on paper is to share them. If I wanted to keep them all to myself my head would be pretty crowded, but I'd have a lot more free time on my hands. But I write to share the things I enjoy.

A few weeks ago a friend introduced me to The Hillywood Show. I was absolutely delighted with their parodies. Not only are they very loving recreations of various creative entities, but they're funny. Even if you (like me) are only slightly familiar with the particulars of specific fandoms.

And then, yesterday, I discovered the reaction videos*. And I quickly realized that these videos were almost even better than the original parodies. Why? Because for folks who are creative, having fans who are genuinely excited about the content you produce is a kind of satisfaction all its own**.

I've spent the first half of this year digging on various projects. (The not-yet-finished Southern Gothic Horror novel. The OGN script. A novella that turned into an unfinished novel. A super-secret project for a different pen name. And some other stuff.) All of which are things I love. But what I love most about them is the fact that at some point I will get to share them with folks who are equally excited about the story and characters.

This is the value of remembering that while we write first for ourselves, we are also writing for our fans. Somewhere out there is someone who will be as excited as you are about that killer scene in the middle act. Someone who will laugh as hard as you do at that joke the MC made. Someone who will cry when that character you both loved dies.

We write for the folks who love our work.
We write for the fans.
Because we're fans too. 

*So, I didn't know this was even a thing. Kind of like unboxing videos. Only these are folks watching various shows or videos and recording their first reactions.

**Personally, I also appreciate the satisfaction of being paid for my work. But having happy fans is obviously in contention for the top spot.