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.

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…

Potter (No) More

So I guess there’s more Harry Potter stuff happening. A movie in the works, a play, some short stories on Pottermore about American wizardry.

And I can’t really get into any of it.

Part of it is that I spent the last decade analyzing and re-analyzing the Harry Potter books with my fellow nerds and by myself, for fun. I picked the Wizarding World apart already in a previous post, and I’m done with it as a concept. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Pottermore stories all sound like prequel material, the kind where, yeah, we really do know or can infer all this stuff already.

Moreover, much of the new material is set in America, which feels like pandering. I don’t know who decided that Fantastic Beasts and the new stories should be set in America, but I’d bet that’s a marketing decision, not an authoring one. Harry Potter’s charm is in part that it’s British! That it comes from a place dotted with castles and teapots, and not my own coffee-fueled, sky-scraper-studded land. Countries are not all the same, and JK Rowling’s style of whimsy doesn’t hold up well in an American context.

For instance, the new stories have already upset actual Native Americans. I assume (you assume, we all assume) that Rowling meant to be inclusive. But the fact is that certain Native Americans took offense at Rowling’s appropriation of their mythology, specifically “skinwalkers”.

Now, Harry Potter has always cherry picked from history and mythology, but it has largely been European history and mythology. In America, that’s default, that’s baseline, everyone’s welcome to do whatever they want to European history and mythology. But with Native Americans, their stories are still their own.

In the Wizarding World, there is no religion, no pandemics, no global warming. Racism is replaced by anti-muggle, anti-mudblood, anti-poor, and speciesist sentiments. There is no Al Quaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh, or KKK, just Death Eaters. That works in England, island alone by itself, relatively pure until the last decade or so as darker-skinned immigrants started pouring in to make the food better.

But that kind of whitewashing doesn’t work in the intersectional morass that is America. Well, not without complaint and ridicule by the left.

Me, I don’t mean to complain or ridicule. I’m just checked out of the Potter Club. Oh sure, I’ll probably go to the theme park when I get the chance, and I’ll reread the books someday — they’re good books, they’ll be fun to revisit. But that’s the thing. They’re books, a private conversation between me and Jo. A conversation she ended by saying, “Their adult lives were stable and boring. Don’t try to get more out of me because the story is over, there is no more.”

I want to respect that statement (even if the epilogue that contained it was objectively not good). Although, if Rowling had changed her mind, and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was going to be an eighth book by Rowling, I would go buy it.

But it’s not. It’s a play by some other guy. Rowling had a hand in it, but it isn’t hers. It’s half fan fiction.

It’s hard to watch this happen to Rowling. While I’ve been privately picking apart her stories, learning this craft of fantasy storytelling from many authors but especially her, the marketers have made her their cow. And all the Potter milk is coming out pasteurized now.

As much as I want to be JK Rowling, get that popular, touch that many lives, maybe it isn’t worth it when others start to write your stories for you.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Is a Drag (a Review)

I’ve talked a few times about my reading practice — and considering how easy it is to take all your enter/edu-tainment by screen these days, it is a practice. I’m always reading at least one book. I choose books to fill in gaps — foundational speculative fiction I missed growing up, more current books by female or minority authors, and the odd piece of classic straight fiction.

So when we were sorting through my grandparents’ stuff, I kept a few choice pieces of straight fiction for myself. And one of those books was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

If my copy had not once belonged to my dearly departed grandparents, I would have put it down about 100 pages in, because this book is not worth it. Certainly it has its good points — it wasn’t a bestseller in the 80’s for nothing — but it is not worth it. It’s 900+ pages, it’s a friggin’ commitment. What do I expect in 900 pages? I expect an adventure, a transformation, a truly notable series of events, enjoyable characters. What did I get?

A vivid picture of what history looked like on the ground, among the commons, during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American South. A memorable narrator, plucky Lucy Marsden, the titular widow.

And victims.

Every single character is developed as a tragic victim of circumstance, pushed into a certain mindset and mode of behavior by the intersections of gender, race, age, and the politics of the post-Civil War South. Even the characters who should have been villains — the slave-owning grandmother-in-law, the abusive and neglectful Confederate veteran husband, the parents who force Lucy (fourteen year old) into her burdensome marriage with said husband (who is fifty) — are instead portrayed as victims with their own struggles.

And that’s fine, except no one is held accountable. It’s all just a tragedy embedded in distant, impersonal history.

Don’t get me wrong, I love historical fiction. But Gurganus makes a big mistake. He frames the whole novel as a story told by elderly Lucy to a visitor in her retirement home. So rather than tell the past as if it were present, Lucy/Gurganus keeps reminding us that it’s the past. Everyone’s already dead. Lucy’s story is over, and no, she never left her husband.

And even that would be fine, except Lucy Marsden likes to pretend there was some love in her travesty of a marriage. She reassures us there were good times with Captain William Marsden, but never tells us about them.

And maybe that’s just fine too. There are lots of battered, neglected wives who don’t leave their abusive, self-centered husbands. But to ask me to spend 900+ pages worth of my time in their loveless disaster of a marriage?

Yuck.

But hark — 400 pages in, Lucy hints that she does spend some time on the loose, run away from her old Captain. So that’s what I was banking on for the next 400 pages. When does Lucy run away? How does she handle her nine kids when she does? Is it anything like Carolyn Jessop’s FLDS memoir Escape, only fleeing her bearded husband-patriarch in a Model-T instead of an SUV?

No, it’s nothing like Escape. Lucy doesn’t escape. She leaves for an evening, then creeps back at 4AM filled with guilt for nearly abandoning her kids. She makes plans for a second escape attempt, this time with the kids, only to learn the Captain just had a stroke on a hunting trip.

So she soldiers on, caring for her now disabled, senile husband along with their nine kids.

To add insult to injury, with less than 100 pages to go the book breaks character. The endless, relentless, historical “realism” of victimhood and tragedy lifts for a chapter about baby poop. Baby Marsden (the character’s actual name) swallows Lucy’s wedding ring, and the whole chapter that follows is a weirdly unfunny poop joke.

With the book’s character broken, I couldn’t take the ending seriously. Captain Marsden, intermittently violent throughout the book, has lost his mind to his stroke. So he tries to strangle Lucy. Twice. The second time, Lucy kills him with his own Civil War scabbard in self defense.

It’s a solid ending, but tacked onto 900 pages of poop (literally and figuratively) it’s too little too late.

Is It Sexist to Hit Her? Deadpool Reviewed

Deadpool is fantastic! Five stars, two thumbs up, new Facebook Wow FaceTM. Go see it before reading this, because you’ll laugh your ass off, and avast, thar be spoilers ahead.

Alright, so first I want to give a big shout out to my favorite joke: “Written by The Real Heroes”. Because it’s true. While the effects team worked pure magic and Ryan Reynolds knocked it out of the park (and dat ass…), without top-notch writing this movie would have been a big, obnoxious mess. My hats off to you, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.

And the runner-up jokes:

–The little figurine of “Deadpool” from X Men Origins: Wolverine.

–Going to meet Professor X. “Which one, Stewart or McAvoy?”

–Angel Dust’s boob popping out of her bustier mid-fight, and Colossus freaking out.

There are, of course, many, many more fine jokes from Deadpool to reminisce about. But at this point I’d rather take a long look at that last one. The boob, the gentlemanly freak-out, the coy acceptance of Colossus’s chivalry. And then Angel Dust hits Colossus hard with a sucker punch, because you don’t look away from your opponent in a life-or-death battle. Not even if she’s a pretty, and partially exposed, woman.

Thanks to Reese and Wernick, this movie gets exactly where we are in this conversation. Is it sexist to hit a woman? Is it more sexist not to hit a woman? Deadpool himself asks this question mid-movie. He answers by shooting the woman in question with comedic timing; perfect Deadpool. But yes, there is an automatic cringe upon seeing such a cute, petite woman gunned down by a masked maniac.

But we just saw Deadpool treat a dozen guys the same way. They’re all “bad guys”, they all work for Ajax/Francis, and Deadpool isn’t portrayed as heroic for killing them so it’s okay. His brutality is funny. Dark satire pratfalls.

So, in context, is it sexist to hit the woman? She’s just another hench(wo)man. No super powers to even out nature’s muscular imbalance — but those other henchmen weren’t powered up either. In context, it really seems more sexist not to hit her.

And that, oddly, is what makes Deadpool the “hero” in this film. He’s the only man on screen who isn’t sexist. Okay, yeah, so he encourages the cabbie Dopinder to treat the object of his desires as an object. But Deadpool is comfortable talking about masturbation with his roommate, Blind Al. Which is normal for male roommates, but Blind Al is a woman.

Similarly, Deadpool doesn’t get jealous about the chosen profession of his lady love. They never talk about it once — we have no idea if Vanessa is still turning tricks or not. Because it doesn’t matter. Deadpool and Vanessa love the heck out of each other. Whatever their relationship looks like, it’s working for them, and that’s what matters.

And there’s a streak of Bugs Bunny’s transvestitism in Reynold’s Deadpool. He never wears a dress, but he’s impressively comfortable with his own sexual objectification. His cross-acting (what else can I call it?) is used for comedic effect on screen, but it’s clear the character himself really doesn’t give a damn about gender norms. Unless he can use them to crack an excellent joke.

Meanwhile, Francis totally forgets about the Vanessa in the Fridge behind him. So when she escapes, grabs Deadpool’s sword, and stabs Francis…I can’t even call that a joke. That was cosmic justice for every damsel in distress who hasn’t waded into the fight the moment she could.

To acknowledge the naked elephant (stripper) in the room, yeah. We have a little full frontal female nudity in this film. But we also have a long shot of Ryan Reynold’s muscular butt, and another long shot of Everything when Francis leaves him to die in the burning laboratory. That, my friends, is gender equality.

It must also be mentioned that this movie is dark, intensely violent, and vulgar. It’s not the kind of movie I expect to find myself thinking good for people. Not good for kids, no. To the mom and dad who brought their two little boys to see Deadpool with them and sat in front of me — your boys are super well behaved, but what the heck is wrong with you?

For adults, though? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with depictions of violence in media, so long as the writers, directors, actors, etc. are honest with the audience. Violence is shocking, disgusting, and holds the possibility of dire, even mortal consequence.

Once that is stated (and it is, in spades), why not make fun of what squishy meatbags we are?

In short, if it’s fiction, just hit the girl already.