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.

Advertisements

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“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.

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.

—————————————–

*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!

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.

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.

Renn and the Wyrms

Illustration is Hard!

The life stuff that’s been keeping me super busy is not over, but at least it’s taking up a lot less of my time/energy.  So hey look, another illustration. Finally! Right?

Wrong.

I just spent about six hours inking this beautiful thing, and I was going to post it with a short preview from my (as yet unpublished) novel, Proper Magic. Namely, with the scene it illustrates. But when I went to copy-paste that scene into this blog post, I realized that I had drawn my character Renn holding the wrong weapon. Renn was holding a knife in the first two drafts, but in the third, present draft I had switched that out with his trusty sword. And completely forgotten about that.

I try not to swear too much here, but there is only one proper expression for this:

FUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!

So next chance I get I’ll be redoing this illustration. Which isn’t so terrible. Really, this was practice, getting back into the swing of things. I tried out some new techniques I learned from Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s illustration blog. I had to run to the art store halfway through because I lacked the right brush as well as the “white ink” I used to make those bubbles after salt and rubbing alcohol did not do at all what I wanted them to do. The pose could be tweaked a bit to make it look more active, and maybe more bubbles would add to that action-feeling.

Besides, odds are that IF my future publisher lets me illustrate my own work, they (specifically their art director) will make me redo everything because the aspect ratio is wrong, or I shouldn’t have used cold-press (slightly bumpy) paper (hey, it’s what I still have leftover from art school), or they don’t like some other detail. Heck, maybe I’m wrong in assuming they’ll prefer black and white ink drawings over full color. I love color, but I’m working black and white because it’s cheaper to print — something I assume a publisher will find attractive.

My point is that, just like writers, illustrators have to produce a lot of, “I’m never showing this to anyone, it’s awful!” before they become satisfied with their work — it takes practice, practice, practice. And even then, once they finally like what they are producing, they still work in drafts. And that “final” draft may not be so final after all once a publisher and their very specific expectations get into the mix.

————————————–

If you’re interested, here’s a quick look at the process I used today:

Renn and the Wyrms Process
1 and 2 are preliminary sketches — the proportions on 1 turned out awful, so I did 2 to try and get them in hand. To be perfectly candid, this pose is a real stretch for me. I don’t usually draw two figures touching each other, let along wrapped around each other and underwater.

3 is a Photoshop composite of 1 and 2. Yay Photoshop! This is a trick that Law frequently uses. She then prints out her composites, and transfers the sketch onto an appropriate piece of paper or other ground. This way, she gets a nice, clean sketch without any extra pencil lines or eraser marks.

If she can cheat that way, so can I.

I used a simpler transfer method than she does — I rubbed graphite all over the back of my printed-out composite (4), then traced over my drawing (5) with a red pen so I could see what I was doing and make any minor corrections I wanted to (proportions are still off, as you can see).

6 and 7 are just shots of the work-in-progress taken with my smartphone. In 7, you can see the black blobs the rubbing alcohol and salt left behind. Sprinkling on salt or rubbing alcohol is supposed to be a good “resist” technique — they move pigment away from an area, leaving a white, aesthetically pleasing splotch in the middle of a dark field. But mine left black blobs in the middle of those resist areas.

Clearly I have something to learn about how to properly use these techniques still. But I was still able to turn them into pretty bubbles by painting over the dark blobs with “white ink”.  I then used some on Renn’s head, his knife, and a little on the wyrm trying to drown him.  Using a technique throughout a piece instead of in just one area makes it look more like it belongs, and less like a mistake.

Unfortunately, I can’t turn just that knife into a sword with liberal use of white ink because the sword in question is curved, like a saber or a katana.