On Writing Mental Illness in Speculative Fiction

I’m not sure if write what you know is the most common piece of writing advice out there, but it’s got to be in the top three. And taking that advice, one of the themes I usually include in my work is mental illness and wellness. I struggle with it. I have an anxiety disorder, and I am no stranger to depression either. And a lot of people in my life deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and a smattering of other more arcane diagnoses.

So you’d think mental illness and wellness would be a natural pairing with my interest in creative writing. Especially since writing is one of my favorite coping mechanisms. And yet, I have found it to be an incredibly difficult theme to handle. It takes a deft touch to handle a suicidal or deeply anxious major character without the reader losing interest, or disliking that character.

I think that’s the nature of mental illness. It’s a stopping force, and a story (and the characters in it) need to go go go. Especially in speculative fiction. Maybe Holden Caulfield can mope around in his depression for a hundred pages, but Harry Potter sure can’t. Which is probably why Potter doesn’t seem to have PTSD despite nine years of abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dursleys.

That said, mental illness is something I’m going to keep including in my stories. I want to write about it, and I need to write about it. The trick I’m working on now is keeping a plot moving even when my depressed or anxious characters would rather just hide in their rooms all day. Through trial and error, it seems like the key is to not let a character’s state be static. If a character is struggling with mental illness, they need to be either getting better, or getting worse.

Which isn’t how mental illness works in real life. It’s a never-ending slog of medication, therapy, and maintaining healthy habits (like exercise, writing, and knitting) while avoiding unhealthy behaviors (like overwhelming myself with my own expectations). “Better” or “worse” is something that can happen quickly, but more it can take months. Or years. So it becomes a balance of mentioning the slog, but keeping it “off page”, and then forcing the depressed or anxious character into action through events out of their control.

The young necromancer spent years repressing his unsettling, unwanted powers. But outlaws just kidnapped his little sister. So who cares about upsetting people any more? It’s zombie time! He’ll just have to deal with his issues later, once things settle down and several months fly by in a brief passage.


It’s not easy to get that to work over the course of a novel. But I like how it’s turned out in a couple of short stories I’ve written (links below). Check them out if you’re interested in finished examples of my writing theories in action, or if you just enjoy short speculative fiction and have a few minutes.

“Saint Peter” — an artificial intelligence reaches out to a suicidal young man in an attempt to save his life. I posted this one not too long ago, but here it is again anyway.

“She Swallowed a God” — a family’s dysfunction and mental illness reframed as a fairy tale. This one is a flash fiction contest entry that didn’t win, but I really like how it turned out anyway. So there.

Art & Lit Dump #2

Today brought the news that Mr. Trump’s new budget will slash funding for the arts if passed. So to stick it to The Orange Man and go high, here are some drawings I did and some short works of fiction I wrote last year. Enjoy!

ART:

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“Column” and “Unguent” are in ink pen. Both were inspired from nouns I got from Give Me A Noun (Art Dump) — Unguent happened to be the name of a D&D character my husband plays, unbeknownst to the person who gave me that noun. So that was convenient. “Heidi”, “Benson”, and “Killer” are in India ink and watercolor. They were gifts for my sister and her wife. They are portraits of their pets. “Honey Glowfang” is ink and art marker. It is an in joke from the same D&D campaign as Unguent, and was made as a label for a gift of homebrew honey cider. My husband brewed the cider, and did the calligraphy.

 

WRITING:

SAINT PETERThis short science fiction story popped into my head wholly formed, and I wrote it all down in one go.

THE BARROW WITCHLosing entry for Fiction War Fall 2016. Eh, I still like it. The requirement was a story of no more than a thousand words inspired by these words: “I can’t leave her now. She’s already gone.”

SYMPATHETIC GESTAPOThis writing exercise was given to attendees of the 2016 Pima Writer’s Workshop by Michael Carr, an agent from Veritas Literary Agency. Writing exercises aren’t something I would normally share, but the subject matter seems appropriate.

Darkness and Light

It’s a dark time of year. The nights are longer, the days are darkened by storms, and Seasonal Affective Disorder is raging. Not only that, but it’s been a dark year. We’ve lost what seems like an unusual number of beloved celebrities (David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Gene Wilder, etc.), and if you’re paying attention to politics and world events you are probably feeling frustration, anger, perhaps even despair.

You’ll notice I’m using “dark” in both a literal and a figurative sense. Actual, physical darkness, the absence of light and sunshine. And emotional darkness — uncomfortable feelings of loss, sadness, and rage.

To stick to the literal for a moment, it has also been a dark year in that darker skinned people have often dominated the news. Black Lives Matter rose to prominence. Native Americans managed to at least postpone ecological and spiritual disaster on their lands in the forms of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Latinos and Muslims were undeservedly blamed for our country’s woes by the GOP and their leading candidate, our President Elect.

And it’s been a light year if you look at Donald Trump. His glass towers filled with gaudy gold rooms. His candy floss hair and orange skin. He’s a badly-aged sun god, and that’s not what Evil is supposed to look like. Evil is a Dark Lord, in a Dark Tower, with dark skinned, dark haired, black-clad minions.

That’s what fantasy tells us, starting with Tolkein. Dark is bad. Light is good. The Dark Lord Voldemort. R’hllor, Lord of Light. We know we’re not supposed to turn around and apply that to real people, people who come in all shades from albino to ebony. But can you really avoid it, when it’s that ingrained?

That’s what my rabbi asked at services this past Friday Night. She asked a room of largely light-skinned, dark-haired people to consider breaking with that metaphorical use. It’s not even part of our culture. In Judaism, everything starts in the dark. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, starts at sundown, as does every Jewish holiday. Before God said, “Let there be light,” there was only darkness. Before a plant can grow, its seed must be planted in dark soil.

Dark is comfort, closeness, time to gather round and rest and enjoy. We build ritual huts called sukkot for the festival of Sukkot, temporary structures that field workers once used to rest in the shade during harvest time. The creamy white pages of Torah are given meaning by black Hebrew letters. The days turn, the seasons turn, and without that turning we’d be stuck in either lightness or darkness for too long, to our detriment.

My rabbi asked her congregation to decouple our thoughts about light and dark from the metaphorical baggage they have accrued in the English language. So, at this physically dark time of year, I would like to echo her plea. If you’re a writer (and with social media, we are all writers), don’t fall into the hackneyed temptation to create yourself a Dark Lord or a Lord of Light. Don’t lean on that tired old metaphor to color your prose, your poems, or your posts. Because with that aging sun god entering our White House, we are going to need a much more nuanced understanding of good and evil to get through the year ahead.

Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and peace and love to all.

Find Other Writers

Hello again! I’m back to blogging. Did you miss me? (All five of you?) I didn’t mean to go on hiatus, but I’ve been through a weird, unsteady, totally blocked time in my writing journey. I sent my novel out, got rejected, and got hit with some other, more personal issues at the same time. It took me awhile to figure out how to move forward again.

I’d say more about it, but there is already a glut of information out there. So many blogs and Twitter feeds and Pintrest boards dedicated to writing advice. So much overwhelming and sometimes contradictory information. So I’ll keep it simple.

Ordinarily, writing is a solo activity. But if you’re stuck, and get rejected over and over, you’ve got to get beyond your circle of friends and family. Find a bunch of writers, and ask for help. Go to a writer’s workshop with an option for a manuscript critique. Enter a flash fiction or other writing contest that provides critique in return for your entry fee. There are local writer’s guilds, and bookshops and libraries sometimes have readings or other events that bring writers together. You can take a continuing education class, or join a writer’s group.

There is so much help and connection out there, and the best thing about it is meeting other writers. When I went to my first writer’s workshop earlier this year, it was wonderful to walk into a room full of people like myself, with my quirks, my obsession with story form and well-turned phrases. And everyone was so positive, so kind. I’m a life-long introvert, but I felt comfortable enough around my fellow writers that I found myself acting like an extrovert.

I can’t promise that reaching out to your fellow writers is a sure path to success. But it sure is nice to not be alone any more.

Don’t Publish Your First Draft! Go Set a Watchman Reviewed

I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman. My interest was piqued enough by the sketchy circumstances surrounding its publication that I read “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise” by Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel, which I thought told me everything I needed to know.

Then Harper Lee died, another round of articles came out, and for some reason I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll read Watchman now.” I do like to be Well Read after all, and I was in need of another book at the time. I guess news as advertising works.

So I read it. And my first impulse was right. It was not worth my time. It is not worth anyone’s time.

It’s a goddamn first draft.

This isn’t news. It’s there in the Wikipedia. Harper Lee wrote Watchman in the 1950s. She used this manuscript to attract a publisher, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff really liked Lee’s work — she described Watchman by saying, “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” But she also noted that it was, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

So Hohoff helped Lee through several drafts, until Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way, the focus of the story changed. Watchman is about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young woman, coming to grips with the fact that her paragon father Atticus is merely human after all in rather dramatic fashion, against the backdrop of late 1940s southern race relations (which were shockingly bad). Mockingbird, by contrast, features Scout as a child who observes Atticus’s struggles as a white lawyer defending a black man in court in the early twentieth century south (when race relations were even worse).

It is true that at one point there were two sequels planned for Mockingbird, and if Watchman had been edited it might have served as book three of that planned series. But it has not been edited. As a result, there are some big issues. Tom Robinson, the black defendant, is found guilty in Mockingbird, but acquitted in Watchman. There are passages copied from one book to the other. Some characters are more thinly conceived of in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which is weird for something marketed as a sequel.

But the worst offense in my mind is the ending of Watchman. It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is. Jean Louise is dismayed by the overt racism of Atticus, her pseudo-boyfriend Henry “Hank” Clinton, and diverse other characters. She does not remember these characters being so racist during her childhood, and doesn’t understand what has changed. She fights with Atticus, Hank, and her uncle Jack about it, and eventually comes to an understanding with them. And part of that understanding is a good laugh at the notion that most people would ever marry outside of their race.

Maybe that was one of the more centrist positions on the issue in the 1940s and ‘50s, but as the key plank in Atticus’s bridge across the philosophical gap between himself and his daughter it is groan-worthy. This is a book about race published in 2015. It was predestined that people in mixed-race marriages would read it, and they did, including myself.

I don’t know why Lee didn’t edit Watchman, whip it into shape at least a little for its twenty-first century audience. I imagine she must not have been capable — the soundness of her mind was extensively questioned when news of Watchman’s impending publication first surfaced. I can’t imagine she simply didn’t want to expend the effort.

Whatever the reason, Watchman remains a first draft, an early version of a thing that got better. Yes, the focus and plot are substantially different from what it became. That doesn’t make it a stand-alone object, worthy of being contemplated on its own.

And while it could be argued that seeing a Great Novelist’s creative process laid bare is instructive, I argue otherwise. You learn writing by reading a lot of finished texts (both ones that you love and ones that you hate), and then by writing your own. Lee’s process is only meaningful to me because I already know it, and can relate to it. I have learned nothing by seeing Lee in her proverbial underwear, and I don’t even have the benefit of voyeuristic thrill. I just feel mildly embarrassed for her.

Alright. I guess I could have learned that Atticus Finch was a racist all along. But like Nichols said, if you paid attention, Atticus always was.

Why So Serious? Captain America: Civil War Reviewed

In many respects, the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a triumph. The cinematography was beautiful, the acting was excellent, the costuming was marvelous. The fight scenes were well choreographed and easy to follow, and they did indeed drop my jaw. Not to mention that the story held together with only a few holes  despite an enormous number of important characters. But alas, there was something missing from Captain America: Civil War that has been such a major part of the franchise.

What happened to the witty banter and quirky moments?

Like, we get it. Big, serious things are happening. Everyone’s down in the dumps. Are they really going to crack jokes when their friends keep running off to who-knows-where (like Thor and the Hulk)? Or falling on opposing sides in a political power struggle? Or getting seriously injured?

Sure, Iron Man makes a few fun comments. But there’s a reason that Spiderman webbed in and stole the show — he was having fun! Why wasn’t anyone else having fun? Or at least chilling out with some shawarma after a hard day of misunderstanding and brutally beating their friends?

And this is not just a problem with Civil War. I’m sure you’ve all noticed that grit is having a moment right now. Has been for the last few years. From Game of Thrones to Batman v Superman to The Walking Dead, what’s popular in broadly defined speculative fiction is dark and dour.

And I’m kind of done with it, because we can actually do better. I haven’t seen the show, but the book series of The Magicians walks the tightrope between realistic with realistic consequences and big colorful magic, and then finishes with a triple backflip and sticks the landing. Robert Kirkman’s other big comic book series, Invincible, isn’t a TV show like The Walking Dead yet, but it too manages to juggle serious and fun. Deadpool continues to blow my mind for being so crass, so funny, so over-the-top, and so real all at once.

I watched The Witch, a horror film peopled entirely with unsmiling, sin-obsessed pilgrims.  And even they knew to punch up the MAGIC at the end. So what happened, Civil War? Why so serious?

My hypothesis is that our current wave of blockbuster comic book movies is still riding the wave whipped up by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which were notably dark and gritty in a complete departure from earlier comic book to film adaptations. They did have their fun, colorful moments (the Joker, cough cough), which is why they mostly worked, but grit was the main theme.

So maybe the big studio exec default thinking is if they don’t have utter genius writing the script, at least keep it serious. People take serious things seriously, right? And this is a big, serious story. But the problem is that serious by itself is boring.

Tell me, which would you rather see?

(1) A bunch of characters state that they will or will not sign the Sokovia Accords, give brief explanations as to their positions, and then rather than talk about it Captain America goes to a funeral for a character that — to be honest — only he really cared about.*

(2) A bunch of characters order Chinese take out and have an actual conversation about the Accords, argue its merits back and forth, make each other and the audience laugh about it, have difficulties with their chop sticks, and ultimately agree to disagree without yet fully grasping how bad things are about to get bad. Skip the funeral scene.

Two sounds better, doesn’t it? It still deals with the weighty subject material, but it doesn’t make the audience suffer for it.

I’m not arguing for pure escapism, like a certain serious “literary” subset seem to think all this super hero, giant robot, and magic stuff is. If you divest these characters of their moral confusion and PTSD and just have them fly around and hit each other with wiffle bats and rainbows, you’ve lost my interest and don’t have a story.** It’s a balance.

Here, I’ll make it simple. I liked Civil War, especially the big six-on-six fight which was the entire reason we were all there. But I would groan if you asked me to rewatch it.

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*It could be that Peggy Carter is a major character in Agents of SHIELD, and I’m just ignorant. I have my own books to write, I can’t watch, read, or otherwise imbibe everything! 😛

**Some amazing art though…

Submission Advice from a Failure

I’ve gotten to that point in my writing (pre)career where I’ve written some stuff, I feel pretty secure in my abilities, and I’m putting myself out there. I’ve sent out six query letters for my novel (two rejections, more to come), and spent a little time looking for homes for a pair of short stories.

Obviously, this does not make me an expert. I’ve only gotten rejections, and not many of those yet. But I’ve learned three important things that I would like to share with my fellow would-be-published-speculative-fiction-writers.

(1) Read this before writing your query letters. Apparently I wasted my time with those first six query letters, because I hadn’t read the SFWA’s guide to finding an agent yet. Turns out I messed up about six different ways. Giving information that I shouldn’t give, withholding information that I should, that sort of thing. I can’t prove that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America know what they’re talking about, but since they’ve all been published in my genre of interest I’ll assume they know a thing or two.

(And note: you’ll probably have to personalize part or all of most of your query letters. Every agent or publisher says they are looking for different things, so you’ll have to tell them how your work fulfills their desires.)

(2) Have some patience, and season your work. Put it in a drawer, or leave it alone on your hard drive, for at least a few months — six, if you can stand it. Then read it and edit it before sending it out. This advice comes from Steven King, enshrined in his excellent guide to writing, On Writing. This book should be your bible — it is mine. I followed this rule for my novel, but not my short stories until a kindly editor rejected my work and called it “rushed”. I know I can do better than rushed — but I’ve got to let some emotional space grow between me and my work before I can take a critical eye and editing-pen to it.

(3) Form rejections break your heart, personalized rejections are precious lessons. Notice how I called the editor who rejected my work “kindly”. That’s because he let me know WHY he rejected my work, in the form of real, critical advice I can use. I would rather he had accepted my work, of course, but I’m not even mad he didn’t, because I know what to try next. The form rejections I’ve gotten for my novel, on the other hand, have upset me. I don’t know what I did wrong, so I don’t know what to try next.

(The good news is that a few rejections do thicken your proverbial skin.)

If I have more professional query letter (see item 1) I assume that agents will take me more seriously, even the ones that reject me. If they take me more seriously, my hope is that they’ll send me personalized rejections with clues that will guide me to acceptance by another agent.

To reiterate — I am on this journey with you all right now. I have not reached the Peak of Publication yet, but I hope to soon. We’re running this grueling emotional marathon together, so if you have any additional advice or a cool anecdote feel free to leave it below in the comments.

I’ll let you know how it turns out!