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.

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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.

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!

The Love Triangle Kingdoms: The Inheritance Trilogy Reviewed

You’ve seen a little of my own project now, and there will be more illustrations, more glimpses into the world of Endrion and the story of Proper Magic. But a writer has to keep reading, and I’ve been reading, so I’d like to share my thoughts on NK Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy.

Let’s face it, fantasy is a genre founded by and dominated by white men. There are a good number of female writers, but most of them are white too. Really, apart from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a full length fantasy novel by a minority writer. (And because she’s Toni Morrison, I’m probably the only person who classifies Beloved, a ghost story, as fantasy.)

I wanted to change that. I wanted to diversify my reading just as I try to diversify my writing. So I poked around online, discovered The Inheritance Trilogy, and devoured all three books.

This is some classy fantasy. The three stories are all tightly woven, each one self contained but progressing from the last. They focus on the three gods of the unnamed world and all their children (both godlings and half-mortal demons), and how their family dramas have shaped their world.

It threatens to get cheesy at times, as so much of the story rests on the relationships between characters who are not remotely human. But Jemisin knows how to depict these godly characters. They are at once fluid in form and rigid in nature, comfortable with taking multiple lovers and yet jealous all the same. They are powerful, and use that power convincingly.

The writing is lush, the tales are epic, and Jemisin is confident and skilled enough to take us to some dark places while still giving us a big helping of whimsy and a happy-ish ending.

I have some niggling issues, the biggest of which is that the title of the first book — The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — promises a big, varied world.  Instead, the world ends up feeling small. All three books are centered around one city, Sky (later Sky-in-Shadow). About 90% of the trilogy happens in Sky, and about 50% of it happens in one palace in that city. The rest of the world is described from time to time, but we don’t get to ramble and roam there much.

But that’s my biggest complaint; I want more.

So if you like character-driven fantasy that is both sweeping and intimate, powerful and mercurial gods, family and romantic drama, and political intrigue, definitely pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods.

And if you know of any other minority fantasy or science fiction writers you think I should check out, let me know in the comments.

On Writing What You Know

I had an unusual experience for a Southern Californian over the weekend.  Like thousands of other sun-entitled San Diegans, I made a cursory search for that ordinarily useless umbrella, couldn’t find it, and left to go to the Pride Parade without it.  And then I got drenched by the aftermath of Hurricane Dolores.

Rainwater stung my eyes.  My body chilled to the point of shivering.  I got blisters from walking in wet shoes.  I ended up trespassing on private property with my husband, two good friends, and a dog so we could shelter under someone’s eaves while we waited for my brother-in-law and his car to rescue us from our own stupidity.

I have no regrets though, because now I have a whole new set of sensory experiences I can bring to my writing!

If you want to be a writer, this is how you have to see the world.  Any new experience is writing fuel, be it pleasant, awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful.  Remember the details — what it felt like, looked like, smelled like.  Journal about it if you like, or just let it sit in that big stewpot on the back burner in your head.

When you sit down to write, put your characters through your own experiences.  And when you have the time, make some experiences for yourself.

Are your characters in a lot of fights?  Consider some martial arts classes.  You don’t need to be a kung fu master or skilled swordsperson.  A few classes in martial arts — or any discipline, from painting to piano to plumbing — will give you some idea about what the skilled practitioners are doing.

Are your characters on a long trek across your fantasy world?  Go for a hike!  You don’t have to stay out for months and months — a few nights camping without a toilet or a shower will give you ideas about how glorious, yet uncomfortable and exhausting, living on the road and sleeping in the open can be.

Straining to create a new character?  Take traits from people you know.  Are your characters in love?  Draw from your own loves, and crushes, and one-night-stands, and that short, awkward relationship with that guy who was into you, but you weren’t into him.

Do your characters intoxicate themselves?  If you aren’t going to intoxicate yourself — or even if you are — spend some time watching other people intoxicate themselves while sober, and talk to them about the experience.  The last thing the world needs is one more stereotyped, inaccurate ‘drug scene.’

You often hear the writerly advice, “Read, read, read!”  Do that, read everything, but get out and live too.

You’re Not Yuccie, You’re an Artist

I came across this article this morning on my Facebook feed.

TL;DR*?  That’s okay, I’ll summarize.

In “The hipster is dead, and you might not like who comes next”, David Infante coins a new word to describe himself and people like him; Millennials living in urban areas who are willing to take uncertain, poorly paid positions so long as they allow for some form of creative expression/fulfillment/validation.  These folk want to start their own artisanal businesses, and hopefully get rich quick off their creative talents.

And despite their financial struggles, these folk are ultimately privileged.  They trust the system (and their families) to carry them through hard times.  They’ve never been screwed over enough to give up their dreams and take a sensible job.

Infante calls himself, and those like him, Young Urban Creatives, or “yuccies”.  (Like “yucky”, get it?!)  More sensible than the hipster, poorer than the yuppie, but full of “creative entitlement”.

This is myopic, self-hating nonsense, and I’m tired of it.

The problem is not the “yuccies” themselves, but a dwindling supply of good, stable jobs on “traditional career paths” coupled with a complete lack of respect for creative types.  I’ve experienced this lack of respect first hand, and it nearly destroyed me.

I can’t just watch this crap go viral without responding, so here’s my story.

At fourteen, I discovered my deep love for creative writing, specifically long, speculative fiction.  I had always been good at writing, I loved to read, and I had a penchant for literary analysis — maybe I should have figured out who I was sooner, but I managed it at fourteen.

I started telling people.

My high school was entirely unprepared to help me achieve this kind of goal, and actively worked to quash it.  A surprising number of people thought it was supportive to talk to me about “day jobs” and “alternate careers”, and to remind me that the odds would not be in my favor.  It’s no wonder I wound up clinically depressed and burdened by generalized anxiety by the time I was fifteen.

I spent the next decade “finding myself” — that is, turning into a failure.

I dropped out of my prestigious university.  I moved back into my parents’ home, jobless and unable to function.  I took random classes at a community college, hoping that bit of structure and the achievement of completed classes would galvanize me into… something.  I floated, cushioned from real hardship by the incredible luck of having a generous and loving family, but bleak and barren inside.

And my psychiatric medication killed my creativity, the very thing that would eventually help me pull myself back together.

From my perspective, Infante’s “yuccies” are functioning much better than I did.  Privileged or not, they’re making pragmatic choices.  They’re walking a thin line between self-expression and “making it”, and managing it as creative work is increasingly outsourced overseas, underpaid, or divorced from any kind of stability.

Infante decries his own choices and the choices of other young, creative types — but that’s just whining, wishing he could have his stable job cake and decorate it too.

He decries the privilege of “yuccies”, but just how useful is all that child-of-middle-class guilt?  It isn’t going to break down income inequality, raise minimum wage, strengthen our social safety nets, get us universal health care, bring paid vacations, sick leave, and family leave to American workers, end racism, classism, or sexism, or even feed, clothe, or house the needy.  Know you’re privileged, be grateful for it, be generous to those you meet who aren’t, and vote socialist so we can share the privilege around.

He decries his need for constant validation — well, that’s almost a good point.  “Yuccies” may be needy, but that’s a perversion of their natural creative drive.  We’re told we need to make something of ourselves — and make money — and are given few opportunities to do it without killing our souls.  Public funding for the arts is pathetic.  Try to talk STEAM instead of STEM, and everyone but Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks you’re coddling drug-addled theater majors.

It isn’t easy to be an artsy, creative person.  If you can be something else, that might be in your best interest.  But if you can’t, if your soul will sicken without self expression, take your genius by the horns.  Every career path is uncertain now, so get that artsy degree.  Turn down that boring job.  Don’t worry so much about the opportunities you’re missing, focus on the ones you have.

You’re not “yuccie”, you’re an Artist.  And don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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*for those who aren’t hep to internet acronyms, this one means “Too Long; Didn’t Read”

How to Build Your Bestiary

In the earliest stages of building my world of Endrion, I took a lot of inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons.  Specifically, The Monster Manual.  I liked the idea of a world filled with every kind of imaginary creature, and I wasn’t the only one.  Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms were big.  Brian Froud was big.  JK Rowling even came out with a bestiary for the Wizarding World.

So I filled up my world with everything I could think of.

I had six mortal “races”; humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and ogres.  I had at least a dozen types of types of faerie, ranging from the great Aes Shi lords down to housekeeping brownies.  I had scores of magical beasts that traveled in and out of reality via The Mists.  I ended up with notes detailing more than a hundred different mythical species, some borrowed from world mythology, some cribbed from other writers.

And then I scrapped most of that nonsense on my second draft.

No, I didn’t lose interest in mythozoology.  It just wasn’t practical to have this Gygaxian cornucopia of beasts and beings.  It gummed up my story.  It took too long to introduce all six mortal “races”, and the faeries and their Mists — while fun — were so whimsical and powerful that they distracted from the seriousness of the perils faced by my mortal characters.

So I cut out the dwarves — all but one, who is now just a human afflicted with achondroplasia, because as much as George RR Martin frustrates me he still has some ideas worth stealing.  Goblins, trolls, and ogres became one “race”; orks.  All the faeries and more nebulous beings vanished along with their Mists into a cauldron on the back burner in my mind.  Someday I’ll recycle them, but they just didn’t fit in Endrion.  Most of the monsters also disappeared, or got themselves reclassified broadly as “chimera”.

A few, like duwende and merfolk, became myths within Endrion.  Because why would people stop making stuff up just because there’s magic in the world?

This is today’s lesson: streamline your bestiary.

Don’t throw it all out, just be smart.  Choose magical creatures for their symbolic potency, not just their cool factor.  Describe the ones you do include, even if you think everyone should know what a “dragon” is already — Smaug and Saphira may both be “dragons”, but every fantasy novelist has her own twist on just what a “dragon” is.

Be aware that the less human your major characters are, the less your reader will connect with them.  My elves used to live for hundreds of years; now, they have ordinary lifespans of eighty years, give or take.  Why?  Because you can’t feel empathy for bad life choices if the character always has more time to try some other walk of life.

Fantastic beasts and magical peoples are an intrinsic part of speculative fiction, and done right they will enhance and color your story.  Just remember, you’ve got to have a story too.