It’s the most natural thing to do, because you know you don’t have a bigoted bone in your body, so of course you aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semetic or whatever the person has just said. So of course you feel the need to defend yourself. But you’re wrong. That’s because what you think they mean is that you are a horrible bigot, but that isn’t what’s going on here. What the person is actually trying to communicate is this: “I felt devalued or erased by some of the content of your story.” Nothing you say can change the feelings they had when they read your book. So the first sense in which it is wrong to argue is that you see this as an attack on you, whereas they are explaining how attacks on them that society has been subjecting them to their entire lives are being unintentionally aided and abetted by your story.
The other sense in which you are wrong is the belief that you don’t have any bigotry at all. Because all of us do. It is impossible to grow up in human society without absorbing a lot of prejudice. Including prejudice aimed at ourselves. Queer people have to overcome a lot of internalized homophobia just to come out of the closet. Women learn and internalize misogyny and sexism. Ethnic minorities learn and internal racial prejudice, and so forth. So it doesn’t matter how much you feel you aren’t bigoted, there is going to be some unconscious prejudices boiling around inside. And problematic content isn’t usually about overt bigotry, but is often more subtle.
So, when someone confronts you about any unintentional bigotry in your work, you need to do three things:
It is tempting, even if you stop yourself from getting defensive, to respond to this sort of criticism as just another kind of negative review and say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it” then try to change the subject. But this is a different category of discourse entirely. And quite often the people who bring this criticism to you did enjoy most of your story. That’s why they’re taking the time to tell you about this problem. So a better response would be, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you in this way.” If you can say that sincerely, you might also say that you didn’t intend to do that, but don’t let it become an attempt to prove they’re wrong. Better to say, “I’ll try to do better.”
If the person wants to explain to you what it was in your work that made them feel this way, listen. Don’t argue, listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk in more detail about it, that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’ve someone won the argument. As uncomfortable as it is for you to hear that something you wrote made someone feel de-valued, it is just as uncomfortable (and riskier) for them to bring it up. Dealing with every day discrimination and microagressions means that members of marginalized communities have already had to defend themselves and explain how they are hurt by discrimination thousands of times. And they don’t have the energy to try to educate you in depth on the issue.
Which is where we get to the learning. Once it has been brought to your attention that some readers feel this way (which you never intended) while reading your work, it’s your job to decide how to do better. I love quoting the advice “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” That’s part of a Neil Gaiman quote. One of the truths Gaiman is getting at is that if one reader feels a particular way about your work, many other readers will, too. The rest of Neil’s quote talks about fixing problems, and fixing it is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. They’ve told you how it made them feel. If you don’t want some of your audience feeling that way, you have to decide how you’re going to fix that going forward.
I want to emphasize that I know this process isn’t easy. The first time someone told me a story I wrote had sexist bits in it I became extremely defensive and reacted like a complete jerk. I was wrong to do that. Fortunately, I also spent some time, after I acted like a jerk, re-reading the story and trying to see it from the reader’s point of view.
And she was right. There were several little things I had done just because that’s what women characters do in that situation in millions of books and television episodes and movies that we’ve all watched. And it was a simple matter to make some very minor changes to get rid of them. I didn’t become suddenly a sexism-free writer after that. I found myself a couple years later being asked by someone why after six chapters into a book I was writing, not one single female character had appeared or had a line of dialog—in a story that was set in a ordinary public school in a small modern American city. There were a number of women and girls in my imaginary world, some of whom were going to figure in the plot later, but for whatever reason, I had omitted them in the opening chapters. This, by the way, was the incident I’ve mentioned before that prompted me to re-read a whole bunch of my work applying the Bechdel–Wallace test1, and finding myself very embarrassed at how many of my stories failed it.
And even though since then, I have tried to educate myself on it, and made several changes to the way I tell some stories, I still find problems. I was editing a scene in one of my currently still-in-progress novels not that long ago when I happened upon a line of dialog that I barely remembered writing, and it was a very clichéd and sexist line. I changed it. Now not only is it not sexist, I think it’s funnier.
Again, not every such criticism is going to be spot-on. A few years ago I got a long angry letter about how a story I wrote perpetrated hate against religious people. The rant included accusations that I had been “brainwashed by the femi-nazis” so I wasn’t inclined to take it completely to heart. I asked some religious acquaintances to read the story (without mentioning the negative review) to give me feedback on the portrayal of religion and the various religious people in the story. Not that if they disagreed that proved the reviewer wrong, it was just two more perspectives from people who I trusted.
I ultimately had to make the decision about whether the story perpetuated anti-religious bigotry.
That’s all we can do: try to learn, try to see things from other perspectives, and find people we trust to check our conclusions from time to time. Members of particular marginalized groups can disagree. A few years back I and another gay male sci fi fan and writer got into a really long discussion about whether something I had written perpetuated negative stereotypes about gay men3. We never came to a complete meeting of minds on the topic.
There’s an excellent post over at Patheo by Libby Anne which makes really good reading on this topic: What to Do If Someone Calls You Sexist: A Short Primer. And it doesn’t just apply to sexism.
1. Based on a 1985 comic strip from the series Dykes to Watch For by Allison Bechdel, in which one woman asks another if she wants to go to the movie, and the second woman explains that she has a rule, she will only go to a movie if “…one, it has at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about something other than a man.” Then she confesses that the last movie she’d been able to go to was Alien, because there is one scene where the two women on the spaceship crew talk about the monster. But only the one. Bechdel herself expressed some discomfort with people naming the test after her, since she said she got the idea for the rule from a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.2
2. If a movie or book passes the test, that doesn’t prove that said work isn’t sexist. All the Bechdel-Wallace test is assess whether women appear in the work to specific degree. That fact that so many works fail to achieve even this level of inclusion is just sad.
3. Remember, it is not a valid defense against an observation of bigotry to be a member of the marginalized group in question, any more than claiming to have a friend in the group absolves you of all culpability. Internalized homophobia can manifest in even the most woke queer person.
Everything I need to know about responding to reviews of my books I learned from my choral directors
There have been a few really notorious cases of this type. There’s the author who seemed to become obsessed by one person who had given lots of negative reviews online to a lot of books. The author tracked down the reader in real life, going to rather absurd lengths to document all the things the reader had said in her various personal profiles on different social which appeared to be false or exaggerations. It culminated in the author going to the reader’s home and confronting her. That’s not only not cool, it’s stalking under the legal definition in most states in the U.S., and could be prosecutable.
Another author tried to sue Amazon and a reviewer for libel.
Then there’s the various Anne Rice incidents: posting a link to a bad review on a book blog on her Facebook page and encouraging 740,000 plus fans to harass the reviewer in 2013; writing a scathing 1100 reply to a reader review on Amazon in 2004; issuing a petition to try to force Amazon to reveal the real names (and contact information) of customer reviewers; trying to get bad reviews reclassifyed as cyberbulling in 2015; et cetera.
I’ve seen some really good articles and at least one of those humorous flow charts about how to respond to negative reviews. And those are great. But negative reviews are only a subset of the problem. And I realized that when I shared and commented on one of the recent posts about this, that I was repeating advice that I’d received from some of my music directors back in the day. I was in orchestra, band, choir, and a small men’s ensemble in school, and then choir and small ensemble in college, and later sang in a gay & lesbian community chorus. I’ve had a lot of music directors, but it was always the choral directors who gave advice about responding to negative comments and other sorts of reviews one might receive to a concert. And what they said can apply to any creative work, so here we go:
When someone tells you they disliked your performance/your story/et cetera: Your response should always be limited to a simple and sincere, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” As one choral director said, “Don’t give in to the temptation to try to convince the person that the concert was great. Don’t try to educate them about the significance of the piece, the history of the composer, and especially about how much hard work you put in. Just say, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it’ and move on.” Doing anything else just makes people feel angry and defensive.
Personally, I think this response is best deployed with someone contacts you directly or tells you in person that they didn’t like your story/book/painting/what-have-you. In the case of published reviews or reviews posted online, the best response to negative reviews is to pretend you didn’t see them. Maybe talk to a close friend about any particularly badly phrased review, if you need to vent a bit, but don’t respond online or publicly in any way. Don’t send the reviewer private messages. Don’t post links to the negative review.
Arguing with someone is not going to change how they feel about it. And it may well convert them from someone who merely didn’t like this story, to someone who has a grudge and goes out of their way to bad mouth all of your other work.
Negative reviews aren’t the only kind that can be problematic:
When someone tells you they really liked it: Say, “Thank you. I’m so happy you enjoyed it.” This may really seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t count the number of times that a musician, artist, or writer I’ve known has responded to positive comments by saying something like, “But we did it wrong!” or “I hated it! Look at all of these mistakes I made!”
One choral director put it really well: “What you just said to that person is, ‘You have really bad taste in music or are really clueless because you didn’t notice the mistake.’ It’s an insult. Even if you are convinced that they are merely being polite, just say ‘Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.’”
It’s really easy when I look a something I wrote to see all the flaws. Particularly if it is something I wrote a while ago. Even if the story has prompted more than one reader to contact me to tell me they were so enthralled by my tale that they missed their train stop or their cue or stayed up way too late reading it. When I look at the story, I just think how the characterization of one of the supporting characters was inconsistent, or that I could have done a more subtle job revealing that clue, or why did I include the lyrics of the song one of my suspects was performing in that pivotal scene?
But those readers enjoyed it. They didn’t have to send me a comment. I might have never known they had even seen that story if they hadn’t gone out of their way to do so. They liked it. And that’s why I wrote it! I wanted someone to read it and like it! I shouldn’t try to talk a fan of my work into hating.
We’re socialized to be self-effacing. We’re taught that being overly proud of our work means we’re an arrogant jerk. Some of us have self-esteem issues and sincerely have trouble believing that people actually like our work. Don’t give in to either of those tendencies. Just say, ‘Thank you.’ Bank the compliment, and remember it the next time you read a negative review.
When someone asks questions about it: This one is tricky. We’re all socialized to answer questions when asked. Some of us are a bit too happy to expound at length if someone shows the slightest interest it our work.
It’s okay to answer questions. As one director put it, “It’s understandable that someone might ask why we performed a classical piece in German for an English-speaking audience, for instance. It’s perfectly reasonable to answer the question. Just make sure you simply answer it, and don’t try to pick a fight. Don’t assume that they are trying to start an argument. Tell them that the piece was originally written in German, and that you think music is beautiful in any language.” Questions about minor things in the plot of your book or character motivations which seem to be genuine confusion on the part of the reader can be answered in person or direct conversations as long as you don’t get defensive. Similarly to factual question about the publishing process—but keep it as simple as possible.
When it comes to published/online reviews as opposed to someone contacting you directly, don’t get drawn into an argument. Straightforward questions with a simple, factual answer are fine. For instance, I once saw in a review of a story that was part of a continuing series but had been picked up for reprint in another publication the comment: “I liked the story well enough, but wish I knew more about these characters.” It was simple to post a comment: “For more stories set in this universe using these characters, check out [Link to a place to buy them].” I said absolutely nothing else. Just an answer to the one question that had a simple answer.
Sometimes a person asking a question is looking to start an argument. And sometimes it’s quite obvious that they’re doing it. I once got a question about one story along the lines of, “Why did you have to give us a happy ending, again? Your stories really draw me in and get me interested in all the characters, but then you have yet another unrealistic ending. In real life things never work out like that!” If someone is doing this sort of back-handed compliment disguised as a question, you need to treat it as a negative review. “I told the story as I saw it. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
Other questions may be less obviously a back-handed compliment, but still not have a simple factual answer, such as, “I don’t understand why the author made such an unlikeable character the hero of this story” or “Why are there so many sub-plots in this book? Why can’t we just stick to one character?” or “Why did the main character spend all that time moping and talking? He should have kicked some butt and showed them who’s boss!” There is no answer you can give to this person that will make them happy. You had your reasons for writing the story, they wanted to be reading a different story. Again, you need to treat these sorts of questions the same as a negative review. If it’s in a published or on-line review, don’t respond. If a reader is asking you directly, say as simply and sincerely as possible, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
You can elaborate a little bit. “That isn’t the story I was telling” or “This was the best way I could think of to tell this particular story with these characters” or something like that. It is so tempting to try to convince the person that what you did was the right thingFinally, remember that sometimes the reason you got a bad review has nothing to do with you or your story. Mark Kloos recently shared on twitter: “Don’t fret about your Amazon reviews. I just got a three-star review because my novel isn’t a 36-count package of Jimmy Dean sausages.” And he included a screen capture of the review. While technically this violates the negative review advice above, it’s clear that the reviewer wasn’t actually reviewing the book, and Kloos didn’t ask people to go harass the reviewer.
That example leads to the final piece of advice from several of my choral directors: “Once the concert is sung the only thing you can do is be proud of the parts that went well, laugh about the parts that didn’t, and start practicing for the next performance.”
Another in my series of posts recommending web comics that I think more people should read:Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) by Jorge Cham is a comic about trying to survive the world of academia. Cham has a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and has been a professor. In addition to the comic which follows the adventures of several grad students, their families, instructors, and so on, Cham is one of the co-founders od PHDtv which is a cooperative education and science outreach video project. This is another of those comics that I found by people sharing specific strips on various social media, and I go read the strips that have come out since last one was shared and then I forget to check it again until someone posts another. It funny, occasionally educational, and always geeky!
If you like his work and want to support him, he’s got several books collecting earlier strips, mugs, and other fun things for sale!
Some of the comics I’ve previously recommended: Some of these have stopped publishing new episodes. Some have been on hiatus for a while. I’ve culled from the list those that have gone away entirely.
“Deer Me,” by Sheryl Schopfer tells the tales from the lives of three friends (and former roommates) who couldn’t be more dissimilar while being surprisingly compatible. If you enjoy Deer Me, you can support the artist by going to her Patreon Page!
Scurry by Mac Smith is the story of a colony of mice trying to survive a long, strange winter in a world where humans have mysteriously vanished, and food is becoming ever more scarce.
And I love this impish girl thief with a tail and her reluctant undead sorcerer/bodyguard: “Unsounded,” by Ashley Cope.
Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu is the story of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former junior figure skating champion from a southern state who is attending fictitious Samwell College in Massachusetts, where he plays on the men’s hockey team. Bitty is the smallest guy on the team, and in the early comics is dealing with a phobia of being body-checked in the games. He’s an enthusiastic baker, and a die hard Beyoncé fan.
Muddler’s Beat by Tony Breed is the fun, expanded cast sequel to Finn and Charlie Are Hitched.
The Young Protectors by Alex Wolfson begins when a young, closeted teen-age superhero who has just snuck into a gay bar for the first time is seen exiting said bar by a not-so-young, very experienced, very powerful, super-villain. Trouble, of course, ensues.
Fowl Language by Brian Gordon is a fun strip about parenting, tech, science, and other geeky things. The strips are funny, and he also has a bonus panel link to click on under the day’s strip.
Tripping Over You by Suzana Harcum and Owen White is a strip about a pair of friends in school who just happen to fall in love… which eventually necessitates one of them coming out of the closet. Tripping Over You has several books, comics, and prints available for purchase.
The Junior Science Power Hour by Abby Howard. is frequently autobiographical take on the artist’s journey to creating the crazy strip about science, science nerds, why girls are just as good at being science nerds as boys, and so much more. It will definitely appeal to dinosaur nerds, anyone who has ever been enthusiastic about any science topic, and especially to people who has ever felt like a square peg being forced into round holes by society.
The Last Halloween by Abby Howard is the creepy story of 10-year-old Mona who is reluctantly drafted to save the world on Halloween night. This is by the same artist who does the Junior Science Power Hour. She created this strip as her pitch in the final round of Penny Arcade’s Strip Search, which was a reality game show where web cartoonists competed for a cash prize and other assistance to get their strip launched. Though Abby didn’t win, she started writing the strip anyway. If you like the comic, you can support Abby in a couple of ways: she has some cool stuff related to both of her strips in her store, and she also has a Patreon.
If you want to read a nice, long graphic-novel style story which recently published its conclusion, check-out the not quite accurately named, The Less Than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal by E.K. Weaver. I say inaccurate because I found their story quite epic (not to mention engaging, moving, surprising, fulfilling… I could go on). Some sections of the tale are Not Safe For Work, as they say, though she marks them clearly. The complete graphic novels are available for sale in both ebook and paper versions, by the way.
Oglaf, by Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne is a Not Safe For Work web comic about… well, it’s sort a generic “medieval” high fantasy universe, but with adult themes, often sexual. Jokes are based on fantasy story and movie clichés, gaming tropes, and the like. And let me repeat, since I got a startled message from someone in response to a previous posting of this recommendation: Oglaf is Not Safe For Work (NSFW)!
“Mr. Cow,” by Chuck Melville tells the tale of a clueless cow with Walter Cronkite dreams. If the twice-weekly gags about a barnyard of a newsroom aren’t enough excitement for you the same artist also writes and draws (and colors!) some awesome fantasy series: Champions of Katara and Felicia, Sorceress of Katara. If you like Mr. Cow, Felicia, or Flagstaff (the hero of Champions of Katara) you can support the artist by going to his Patreon Page. Also, can I interest you in a Mr. Cow Mug?
But I really love this local news site’s take: Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on Trumpcare Fail: “It Was Such a Sweet Moment To See”.
President Trump today blamed Democrats for
bungling internal party negotiations on a piece of legislation that they’ve been campaigning on for over seven yearsthe bill’s demise, to which Jayapal replied, “Hahahahahahah.”
They have a majority of both houses. They don’t need a single Democratic vote to pass anything. And we didn’t even get to the Senate and any attempt to filibuster, so there isn’t any way to put this on Democrats. Except that they will, and a certain number of their voters will believe it. Of course, they had a majority in both houses for most of Obama’s presidency, and they never managed to repeal Obamacare then, either. The ugly truth that they were keeping from themselves is that they only reason any of the votes to repeal passed in the house was because several factions within the Republican ranks knew it was a meaningless vote. Complete repeal wouldn’t pass in the Senate, and President Obama was ready to veto it if they did.Even pro-Republican news sites were reporting earlier in the week Only 17% of Americans support ‘Trumpcare’, yet just hours before the rescheduled vote, folks like Newt Gingrich were tweeting and bragging about how Obamacare was going down. I mention Newt because just 7 hours later, Newt had changed his tune to “Why would you even schedule a vote?”
One reason it failed is that, yes, thousands of constituents called their Republican congresspeople and urged them to vote no. But don’t forget that another reason it failed was because there exists a group in Congress who want the replacement to hurt even more poor people: TrumpCare Postponed: Too Horrible for Moderate Republicans, Not Horrible Enough for Freedom Caucus. Even when Donald tried to negotiate directly with this small group, they couldn’t get them. And each concession Donald and the Speaker of the House offered the Freedom Caucus drove more of the moderate Republicans into the no camp. Obamacare is seen favorably by 57% of voters, making it far more popular than the replacement, our so-called president, or congress itself. And the provisions that the Freedom Caucus want to remove enjoy a walloping 90% approval from voters (as mentioned in that article), which makes if really hard for me to see how, even if they got this thing through the House, how it would have passed in the Senate.
But that doesn’t mean we should relax!
So in the old days I would have piles of books around my typewriter, some with note paper stuck in them to hold a place2, others with multiple bookmarks7 stuck in them so I could find multiple facts scattered over multiple pages, and so forth. The internet has only changed the amount of physical exercise that is necessary to run down rabbit holes on the research front, at least for me.
Tools and implements is another class of thing8 that can be either a help or a procrastination trap. But tools are important. So while it is possible for procrastination to latch onto the exploration of new tools as a means to keep you from writing, talking about good tools can also be a help in the writing process. Therefore, here is a list of my current favorites:
- Scrivener 2 – the absolute best writing project managing tool/word processor available for Windows, macOS, or iOS, bar none. For all the features it packs, it’s also incredibly affordable! It’s multi-platform. I use it on both of my Macs and my iPad, and they make it easy to move back and forth. If you don’t have an iPad but do need to work on other platforms, you can use the Sync to External Folder feature in conjunction with Dropbox or Copy or Box to edit files in application that can open Rich Text Files when you’re on the go, then sync back to Scrivener on your Windows or macOS box later. I’ve used this latter feature before the iOS version was available, and it worked well. Not as cool as having all of the features of the full product on my iPad or iPhone works now, but… .
- Scapple – by the same people who make Scrivener, this is a brainstorming/outlining tool. I’ve used it for charting plots and subplots that had gotten out of hand. It’s also really good at family trees and charting out character relationships.
- iA Writer – a full featured word processor available for macOS and iOS. I use it when I need to format something I made in Scrivener, or just to type out notes for later. I’m particularly enamored with the iOS version’s built-in “share as PDF” because I’m often working on large projects in Scrivener on the iPad, and just need to send a single chapter or some other small bit to someone for comments, et cetera.
- Honorable Mentions: There are some products that I used to use a lot more than I do. Particularly before the advent of Scrivener of iOS.
- Textilus – iPad text/rtf editor. This is a good word processor for working from iPads and integrating with Dropbox and similar cloud sharing services.
- SimpleNote – this is a good multiplatform Note taking program that is useful for getting down something quickly, that will automatically be available on all of your devices so you can copy into a main writing program later.
- Pages – Apple’s free word processor that works on macOS, iOS, and iCloud. I liked the mac version of the program a lot before they decided to unify the features in all versions. It’s still a good program and they keep updating it. Just not quite as good as it used to be.
- Scrivo Pro – A Scrivener-like word processor for iOS when Scrivener’s official word processor that could read Scrivener projects in their native format if you saved them to Dropbox. It was pretty good. I used if for several months until Scrivener for iOS became available.
- WriteRoom – If you need a good, simple distraction-free writing program on the Mac, I highly recommend WriteRoom for macOS. I originally bought the iOS version to write on the bus and other places when I was away from my computer back in the days before I had an iPhone or iPad (it ran on my iPod Touch just fine). The software maker has stopped supporting the iOS version, as it wasn’t generating enough income to justify the work. Since it hasn’t been updated for a long time, it will still work if you already have it installed on your phone, but it’s clear that iOS is going to stop supporting it, so I finally have stopped using it on the phone.
- RhymeGenie – I use this for poems and song writing… and for composing prophecies14.
- AffinityDesigner – has become my replacement for Adobe Illustrator for many illustration tasks, including drawning maps for my fantasy stories.
- iTunes – I often listen to music while I’m writing. Not just random music; I make special playlists for certain characters or projects. My oldest playlist, called uncreatively enough “Writing”15 was created in 2003, when iTunes first became available for Windows18. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
- Leuchtturm 1917 – These notebooks are awesome and are available in a lot of cool colors. Occasionally I like to write on paper. Certain types of thinking process just work better for me that way. But I know it doesn’t work for everyone.
- Goulet Pens – I love a good medium- or broad-tip fountain pen for fun colored inks. Again, when I’m in one of those moods where I need to write it needs to be a good pen or…
- a 0.9mm or 2mm mechanical pencil – my very favorite pencil is a tigerwood mechanical pencil that was handmade by Pandora House Crafts. If I don’t happen to have that specific pencil with me, any mechanical pencil with at least a 0.9mm lead will do.
- And of course, 20+ paper dictionaries at home – I use the paper dictionaries often, because they tend to have more information than the affordable software versions. But the software ones don’t usually require me to stand up, so I often go to them first:
- Shorter Oxford – I have this version of the Oxford English Dictionary20 installed on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus21 – I have more than one electronic version of this dictionary on all my devices.
- The Chambers Dictionary22 – I keep this on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
- Chambers Thesaurus – Companion to the Chambers Dictionary.
- WordBook Universal English Dictionary and Thesaurus – another one that I’m not sure why I have it on iPad and Mac, but not the phone.
- SPQR – a Latin dictionary app on my iPad and iPhone, very useful when I need to make up incantations for one of my wizards or sorceresses.
- American Heritage Dictionary23 – I have this one on the iPad only.
Anyway, so that’s my current set of favorite tools. Though the truth is that my real tools are sentences. I can compose those with word processors, typewriters, pen & paper, or pencil, or technically anything I can scratch symbols into a medium with. The important thing is to start writing.
Neil Gaiman24 is fond of saying that the only secret of writing is to just keep putting one word after the other. That advice is true and succinct. It is also extremely difficult to do, while sounding quite simple. We have to make ourselves sit down and write. That’s what makes a writer.
1. This might be less true for people who didn’t have multiple encylopedia sets in their houses.
2. And with notes written3 on said pages related to things I wanted to do with the information in said book.
3. Well, most often scribbled. Have I mentioned that my handwriting is atrocious4?
4. Part of the problem is that I learned how to type on a mechanical typewriter when I was ten, for reasons. And so I stopped doing the work at school where they were taught us cursive writing. So I only ever formally learned how to print5
5. If pressed, I can produce by hat writing in cursive, but I have to visualize what the letters look like, and then draw them individually. I just don’t have the muscle memory to write. It’s is painstakingly slow and frustrating6.
6. But I still consider learning to write that way as an archaic and obsolete waste of time. Learning how to read it is much, much easier than writing it.
7. Another thing that has changed a lot in my life the last decade or so: I no longer go to great lengths to save and collect bookmarks. It used to be extremely important to have physical bookmarks I could stick in books. I still am usually reading multiple books at the same time, but more than half of them are e-books, so I don’t need physical bookmarks any longer. And it’s kind of sad.
8. thing Old English, noun 7. That which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entityThat which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entity9.
9. Please note that this is the seventh sense of the word to be defined in the Oxford dictionary, while it is closest to what I think most people would say is the primary definition. The first definition in Oxford is “A meeting, an assembly; a court, a council.” which happens to be the oldest known meaning of the word, but only seems to be known among most modern speakers of English who are also into the history of England and Northern Europe. I used this particular meaning in a draft scene in my fantasy novel series without thinking, and of the people in my Writers’ group, only my husband10 understood the meaning I was going from when I used it. So I switched to on Old Norse derived word instead, folkmoot.
10. My husband who has been described by more than one of our friends as “the most capable man I know” and his areas of expertise include computers, repairing computers and other electronics, bartending, history, obscure languages, science fiction and fantasy, science, electrical engineering, farm equipment repair and maintenance, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and cooking11
11. The latter is an understatement. The state he lived in at the time allowed children as young as 14 to work as prep cooks12, and that’s one of the two jobs he held down at that age. I have commented many times that if you want to be amazed just hand my husband and nice sharp knife and a box of vegetables and ask him to assemble a veggie tray. He will chop up all of the veggies you give him, no matter what they are, into exactly uniform slices, in a time frame that will make you suspect that he is actually super powered. I am not exaggerating in the least13.
12. Most state in the U.S. don’t allow children under the ages of 15 or 16 to work around commercial kitchen equipment, because limbs can be chopped off, basically. Although the are often exceptions carved out for children working in family businesses, which is how my Great-grandmother and a Great-uncle got away with teaching me how to drive a truck when I was about 12 years old.
13. When people who have only interacted with him in certain social situations have scoffed at this, I have smirked, because I’ve seen his school records, which include IQ tests, and most of the scoffers are nowhere near as smart ass he is13.
13. No, I really don’t know why he settles for such a jerk as me. I really don’t.
14. I have a lot of characters in my fantasy universe who can see the future: the Oracle, Madame Valentina, Brother Ishmael…
15. Followed by “Writing II,” then “Laying Out an Issue of the Fanzine” then “Writing Faust and “Writing III.”16
16. I have since become slightly more creative with playlist names17. The playlists I’ve been using while working on my latest novel have names such as “Dead Witch,” “Ballad of a Lost Soul,” “Only the Wicked,” “Ballad of a Would Be Dark Lord,” “Zombie vs Dragon,” “Ballad of the Unrepentant,” “Night of the Monkey’s Uncle,” or “Ballad of Dueling Masterminds.”
17. I previously thought that I had hundreds of playlists, but since I recently merged together two previously separate iTunes libraries18, I now really I have nearly 4000 playlists.
18. Remember that I started using iTunes many years before owning on iPod (and later an iPhone). So my main iTunes library started on my old Windows 98/Windows 2000 machine, was imported to my early 2009 model Mac Pro Tower, and was updated over the years as I bought music and finished importing the rest of my old physical CD library. Meanwhile, the machine that slowly took over my day-to-day computer was on old white plastic Macbook, which was built from an import of one of on old Windows laptop that only had a subset of the Windows desktop, and then was augmented and updated to a Macbook Pro, then updated to a newer Macbook Pro, and then for a bit over five years I tried to maintain to similar libraries: one on the old Mac Tower which contained six-and-a-half terrabytes of internal storage, and my Macbook Pro laptop that only had a a 512 gigabyte drive, and therefore not enough room for my entire music, video, and film library plus all my story files and so forth.
19: I have a lot of characters in my primary fantasy series who can see the future in various ways: the Oracle of the Church of the Great Shepherdess, Madame Valentina (a.k.a. Alicia), Brother Jude, the Zombie Lord, Brother Ishmael, Mother Sirena, Brother Theodore, Mother Bedlam…
20. The platinum standard of English language dictionaries. In hard copy I have the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, a pocket version, as well as the single volume version of the unabridged that you need to have a good magnifying glass in order to read.
21. Genuine Merriam-Webster dictionary is the gold standard of U.S. desk dictionaries. I have a couple different editions of the Collegiate version in hard cover, a pocket version, and a hard cover of the giant unabridged Third International.
22. Chambers was the dictionary most commonly found on bookshelves and desks in the U.K. for years, much as the original Merriam-Webster was in the U.S.
23. The American Heritage Dictionary has a very interesting history. A publisher and dictionary enthusiast was angry when the Merriam-Webster Third Edition shifted to a more descriptive philosophy, and so set out to make a competing dictionary. Then he hit on an interesting marketing scheme. They published a huge unabridged version which they offered for sale at less than cost to public libraries and schools, along with a discounted pedestal or lectern that ensured the dictionaries were prominently displayed in libraries. Then after getting these dictionaries in hundreds of libraries and school for a few years, they released a subset of the dictionary as a desk edition, which made the desk edition an immediate best seller.
24. Winner of the Newberry Medal, numerous Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Awards, the Carnegie Medal, Eisner Awards, British Fantasy Awards, Shirley Jackson Awards, a World Fantasy Award, a Harvey Award… I could go on and on.
Without thinking, I nodded my head and said, “Yeah, it’s a pretty good book.”
The teacher turned on me as if I had just transformed into a rattlesnake and was switching my tail ready to strike4. He had the most appalled look on his face. Then the expression changed to very amused condescension, “Oh, Gene! You would never have read this book! It’s a book for girls, and is completely inappropriate for a boy!”
I shrugged and said, “If you say so…”
He shook his head, chuckling even more condescendingly, and then went back to his story.
But I had read the book, several years earlier. I had gone through a pretty intense Judy Blum phase6, see. It started with the novel, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t which was, among other things, about a boy dealing with puberty and significant changes in his family’s financial situation. I had loved the book so much, that I proceeded to read everything else of hers I could get at the public library (or through inter-library loan) in the small Colorado town we had been living in at the time. Sure, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is a book about (among other things) a girl going through puberty and all that entails. But it’s also a book about one’s relationship with the faith they were raised in, and learning to make adult decisions about what you yourself believe.
The idea of boy’s toys and girl’s toys and boy’s books and girl’s books is pretty messed up when talking about small children, but it seems to me it is much more messed up when talking about teen-agers8. Some people will immediately point out that the teacher may have been so appalled because he thinks of menstruation as a sexual topic9, and good Christian boys who are not yet married10 aren’t supposed to know anything about sex. As if that argument is any less BS than the idea that a boy could never possibly read and enjoy a book that some people think of as a girl’s book.
It’s all heteronormative BS. My church insisted on separating girls from boys in Sunday School classes in part to supposedly thwart sexual improprieties12. But heteronormative BS is not limited to members of fundamentalist evangelical churches.YouTube is hiding some videos touching on various topics related to the LGBT community17. Not sexual videos. Among the videos that have been found to be hidden the Restricted Due to Mature Content label are: trans people showing how to apply make-up, a gay vlogger talking about 8 LGBT African-Americans who ought to be remembered during Black History Month, music videos without sexual content that happen to have been made by queer musicians, some coming out videos, and so forth.
Before anyone tries to lecture me of all people that this doesn’t constitute censorship (which I never said it did), let me explain. YouTube is privately owned, yes. But it offers a service to the public, and therefore must abide by the legal and ethical obligations that comes with offering a public accommodation. They incur those obligations whether or not they charge fees for the service. Among those obligations is one that is sometimes referred to as truth in advertising19: if you represent that your product or service does a thing when it does not, you can face penalties. YouTube claims that it is simply labeling content of a “mature or inappropriate nature” so that other users who choose to surf in restricted mode will not see offensive20 material. They also keep referring to it as a voluntary program.
“8 Black LGBT Americans Who Inspire Me” is not mature content. How to apply foundation, eyeliner, and lipstick is not mature content. “How I Came Out to my Family” is not mature content. Nor are any of those inappropriate.
It is also misleading in the press release to say the program is voluntary. Yes, whether or not a viewer choose to see content that has been labeled “Restricted” is voluntary. Whether a creator’s material is thus labeled is not. Neither are the creators informed that their material has thus been labeled. They have to log into YouTube as a different account and set that account not to view Restricted material and then try to view their own videos to see which ones have been labeled “Restricted.”
So I’m exercising my free speech right to call BS on YouTube. This isn’t a misunderstanding on our part. It is a discriminatory business practice21. It is more of the same old heteronormative BS where anything that admits that queer people exist is treated as if it is pornography, even when they are doing something as innocuous as sharing make-up tips22.
1. By “we” I mean my mom, my oldest sister, and myself. Dad had remarried and was living in Utah by that time, with where my step-mom was had just given birth to the youngest of my half-siblings2.
2. It is worth pointing out that the precipitating event of my parents’ divorce was the discovery that Dad had been carrying on an affair with the woman who became my step-mom for years.
3. Many years later that particular church decided to allow a mixed gender Sunday School class, but only for the people over 65 years old. And members who happened to be that age but didn’t want to attend Sunday School in a mixed gender setting were allowed to attend the adult men’s or women’s class, instead. When my grandmother told me about it, she actually tittered and made a comment about how radical it was to let men and women discuss the Bible in the same room. My step-grandfather then commented that, “Well, I guess at our age they don’t expect anyone will misbehave.” From which you can correctly infer that one of the things at least some Evangelicals believe is that you can’t put people of the opposite gender in rooms with closed doors without the very real risk that sexual hijinks will ensue.
4. Which may seem like a really strangely specific metaphor, but because one of the churches we had briefly attended during my nomadic childhood had included some members who were into snake handling5, I actually had seen another man in a church have the exact expression as this teacher did when a rattlesnake in a jar that most of us didn’t realize one of the members had snuck into the church, suddenly got very tired of being trapped in said jar.
5. Snake-handling: A practice in certain Pentecostal and Evangelical churches inspired by a literalistic reading of Mark 16:17–18. Handling venomous snakes without being harmed is seen as a sign of one’s faith and possession of the Holy Spirit.
6. To be fair, many years later, when I mentioned something about Judy Blum during a conversation at work, at least one of my co-workers gave me a rather startled look and asked, “You read Judy Blum when you were a teen-ager?” When I said that I had and mentioned a couple of my favorites7, her response was a very emphatic, “Wow!”
7. Deenie, It’s Not the End of the World, and of course Then Again, Maybe I Won’t.
8. Although, attitudes like this teacher’s make it easy to believe the story that gets shared around from time to time of the adult male legislator with a wife and teen-age children who didn’t know that menstrual blood flow was an involuntary biological function.
9. It’s a biological function that occurs in members of one sex, yes. And it is related to the reproductive cycle, yes. But it’s biology. And sometimes a health issue. Fully functioning adult members of a society ought to have at least a passing knowledge about the health issues of their species, regardless of whether they experience it themselves.
10. I should mention that two of the guys sitting in that Sunday School room with me that morning would, in less than two years time, each have a rushed marriage to their respective girlfriends who would each give birth to their first child only a few months afterward9.
11. A situation which studies have shown again and again and again would happen much less frequently if kids are given accurate information about sex, sexuality, reproduction, et cetera.
12. Because sex (and flirting and dancing14) can only happen between people of opposite sexes, right16?
13. There is no thirteenth footnote.
14. An old joke which was much beloved by my college debate coach (though I’ve heard it from others before and since): “Why do Baptists condemn sex other than missionary position15? Because they’re afraid it might lead to dancing!”
15. It’s true, even married people are not supposed to do anything other than very vanilla sex. Which is the inspiration of a similar joke: “Why do Baptists say it’s sinful for a woman to smoke cigarettes? Because they’re afraid it might lead to oral sex!”
16. Which is ridiculous. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only queer boy sitting in that Sunday School classroom that morning. Not that I had any romantic or sexual relationship with the other guys, just that I and two others each came out of the closet years later. One of them I’ve run into a few times since, as he lives in Seattle, now, too. Last I heard, the other was living in San Diego.
18. You can read a bit more of YouTube’s side here: YouTube apologizes for blocking LGBT videos. Note that the headline is completely false. YouTube’s statement is not an apology for blocking the content. It says the word “apologize” but it’s for our supposed confusion at not realizing that they’re restricting LGBT content for reasons and not because of other reasons. Except we aren’t confused, we understand perfectly.
19. The principle is not limited to advertising. Any communication about the use of the product can be subject to this scrutiny.
20. Oddly enough, a lot of videos spouting off white supremacist, racist, and anti-queer bigotry (often making the kinds of hate speech which YouTube’s user guidelines says are not allowed) are freely available on the service without the Restricted label. So it is reasonable to conclude that the service is applying a definition of “offensive” that tilts cartoonishly far in one particular political direction.
21. Restricting or denying service due to the sexual orientation or gender identity of the people producing it, which is clearly the case in the vast majority of the identified videos.
22. And if you think that it’s universally offensive for people of some genders or some gender identities to wear make-up, then please explain why we keep having to see the horrific spray-on tan of our deplorable president.
In the post, she quoted a college professor who was once shocked that she read footnotes. “No one reads footnotes!” the professor claimed4.
The professor could not be more wrong6.Lots of people read footnotes. I have been doing a running gag on various blogs over the years where I would do posts several days in a row, each one with more footnotes than the day before, culminating in a blog post which consisted of a single word with a whole bunch of footnotes78. My footnotes often have footnotes of their own9. And sometimes the footnote of a footnote has more footnotes10. My point is that whenever I have done this, I get several favorable comments, often from people I didn’t know were reading my blog. And not just generic comments, but comments that clearly indicate the person tried to follow all the nesting structure.
Terry Pratchett published a whole book riddled with footnotes, in part because he had been known to throw footnotes in some of his fantasy novels, the footnotes frequently being the location of the funniest jokes in the book. In the early portion of my college career, I and some friends were involved in creating a bunch of faux adventure books where footnotes abounded11. We took delight in constructing footnotes that took up more of the page than the story text. We took even more delight in constructing footnotes that ran on for several pages. We had footnotes that had their own footnotes occasionally, though this was slightly less common than what I do now, because we were doing all of this on typewriters15—not with word processors.
The award-winning fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke makes good use of footnotes throughout, to give another example.
Footnotes are great. They are fun to construct19, fun to read, and serve a valuable role of allowing the author to digress in a way that gives the reader a bit more control over when they follow the writer down a rabbit hole20.
1. This was my fault, because my first contribution to the conversation that was already going on between three of my friends was simply to exclaim, “Marginalia!”2
2. marginalia noun, plural: marginal or incidental notes; written or printed in the margin of a page.
3. And I did love it!
4. I’ve had people just as emphatically insist that no one reads, period5!
5. When I was preparing to go away to university, an uncle and a cousin were recruited by my grandmother to help me move all the stuff I had packed up that needed to go into storage in her garage that I couldn’t take with me. About the fourth box of books one of my uncles picked up he asked, “You haven’t actually read all of these, have you?” And was shocked when I told him that 1) yes, most of them more than once and, 2) I had sold about of third of my collection to a couple of used bookstores recently.
6. All right, I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole, here. There are many things the professor could say that would be every more incorrect than this, but you get my point.
7. When I did this on LiveJournal, I put all the notes below a cut-tag, so at first glance it looked like a very short post with a bunch of small numbers in and ever-decreasing line of superscripts.
8. I am too easily amused, I know.
9. Because they often need elaborations of their own.
10. cf note #9.
11. Because sometimes just the fact that someone decided to put a footnote on some ridiculous parody of action-adventure dialog is funny before you even read the footnote12.
12. The problem with that particular technique is, that you have to make sure that whatever joke or other pay-off you deliver in said footnote is more entertaining and/or funnier than the mere existence of a footnote where no one13 would expect it.
13. At least, no sane person14.
14. But we were the sort of college students who were assembling our own hard copy books, sharing them among ourselves, and writing sequels, collaborating on sequels, et cetera. Clearly we were not entirely sane.
15. Half of my work was done on an IBM Selectric16 electric typewriter at the school, and the other half on the 1952 Remington manual typewriter17 which my grandmother had given me back when I was 11 or 12 year old.
16. I think what I miss most about those glorious machines isn’t the wonderful CLACK! CLACK of the big clicky keys and the immediate response of the motor spinning the typeball and striking the correct letter against the paper, but rather the constant vibration of the motor you felt constantly against your fingertips.
17. One friend called it ‘The Tank’ because the typewriter weighed at least fifteen pounds and most of it was built out of machine-grade steel. Another friends called it ‘The Threshing Machine’ because the clatter and clacking it made when I was on a roll (typing a bit over 60 words per minute18, which was considered screaming on the old mechanicals) reminded him of some big farm equipment.
18. My speed on modern computer keyboards is generally a bit over 105 words per minute. And I still can’t keep up with the voices in my head when I’m really into a scene in a story.
19. Even if sometimes a bit messy depending on your HTML parser.
20. Whether figuratively or not.
One of the stories in my weekly round up of the news this week was: Here’s What Happened At The Parents Of Trans Kids Mardi Gras Float. Which is actually a quite heartwarming stories about the parents of a bunch of trans people who put together a float about how much they love their trans kids and rode Sydney, Australia’s Mardi Gras parade. I originally planned to include that link in the section titles “News for Queers and our Allies,” but I also sometimes have a separate sections for news pertinent to particular portions of the Queer Community. And this week there were a lot of links related to trans people. So I kept moving those links around.
Unfortunately, several of the news pieces this time were about trans people were about less than happy things. Anyway, somehow in the course of moving all the trans pieces together, then moving some of them to another section, then moving others to yet another section, I accidentally moved the happy story about parents who love and support their trans kids to the “This Week in Awful People” section and didn’t notice until today!
So if you haven’t yet, go click on that link and look at the cool pictures and read some good news!
Since we’re on the subject of people being supportive of trans rights: Joe Biden Slams Trump Administration for Rescinding Protections for Trans Kids. Go, Joe! Now there’s a man who knows how to be an ally!
“Instead of focusing on the fact that 40 percent of the homeless youth on the street are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [and] rejected by their families out on the street, and what do we do about that, we’re now focusing on whether or not a transgender child, which bathroom they can use.” —form Vice President Joe Biden
And if Joe isn’t enough to convince you to support trans kids: Dear Cis People, Please Support Trans Kids
“In their most vulnerable and difficult stage of life, trans kids are not just facing opposition from their peers, but from the government, from society itself.”
Being supportive of your kid shouldn’t depend on whether your kid conforms to your pre-conceptions of the person or kind of person they should be. Antonia Elle D’orsay posted a great cartoon about this earlier in the month:
If you can, give a donation to: National Center for Transgender Equality. And if you want to help queer kids who have been rejected by their families and kicked out on the street : True Colors Fund or The Ali Forney Center are good places to start. Many communities have local programs focusing on teen homelessness and particularly queer teen homelessness, a quick Google search with the name of your city or town, and the words “queer teen homeless” should point you in the right way.