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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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!

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.

The Village of Aunbry from Proper Magic

A Home for Heroes to Leave From

This is Aunbry.

It’s a village, home of farmers, herdsmen, and a lone priest of the Five Temples of the Aegis.  It’s  small, dull, and narrow minded.  It echoes many other such small villages in fantasy literature, all designed to be left behind by the main characters.  I don’t know if my readers will like it much, or think it warrants a fancy map.

Certainly not, since Aunbry exists only so two of my main characters, Thades and Jenna Morgan*, can run away from it.

Yet I’m fond of Aunbry.

I think that’s one of the quirks of world building.  You generate piles of notes, and (if you’re like me) piles of sketches as you invent cultures, settings, and characters.  You end up knowing and loving corners of your world that are going to be overlooked by your readers, or that don’t even make it into your novel.

Besides, just because you leave a place behind in your narrative doesn’t mean it ceases to influence your characters.  Fantasies often begin in villages so the characters who leave them (and the readers looking over their shoulders) can view the rest of the world with wonder.  Characters left behind (or perhaps killed) give the new heroes quick and easy motivation.

But what else, what makes Aunbry special or memorable compared to all those home villages from Eragon, and The Eye of the World, and A Wizard of Earthsea that I can’t be bothered to remember the names of?

Unresolved conflict.

I don’t want to give too much away, but Thades and Jenna don’t get along with their neighbors in Aunbry for reasons that are not entirely their fault.  That conflict remains strong in their minds because it is the same conflict they find everywhere in their world; the conflict between magi and manuals**, between knowledge and ignorance, between youth and adults.

Aunbry isn’t the Shire — it isn’t remembered fondly, even its cranks seeming quaint from miles away.  But Thades and Jenna do remember it.  Hopefully, so too will my readers.

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*Magus Thades Morgan and his little sister Jenna star in my first fantasy novel, Proper Magic.  It hasn’t been published yet — you’ll hear about it here at The Drakehall Broadsheet first when I get lucky with an agent or publisher

**the non-magical — I couldn’t call them muggles, now could I?

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”

Fury Road, Genisys, and Men’s Rights

What a week for speculative fiction movies and gender role discussions, eh?  On the one hand, some of my fellow feminists are having trouble dealing with the problematic backstory Marvel has always had for Black Widow and the fact that Iron Man is a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” who would totally crack a rape joke in poor taste.  On the other, the so-called “Men’s Rights Activists” are going nuts over the new Mad Max and Terminator movies.

I’ll be candid — I haven’t seen the original Mad Max movie (shame on me, I know; it is, like so many books, video games, comics, tv shows, and movies, on my list).  I also haven’t seen Fury Road yet, and I certainly haven’t seen Genisys* (‘cause it ain’t even out ‘til July!), so there’s really only so much I can say.  But let’s start with what an MRA is.

An MRA is a person (male or female) who thinks that feminism is out to strip men of their rights.  And they have a point.  Before feminism, men got to keep their kids and their stuff when they got divorced from their wives.  After feminism, it is easier for women to collect alimony and take custody of their children than it is for men, no matter how deserving he or she is.  Fortune was historically unbalanced in favor of men, now (in some ways) it is unbalanced in favor of women, and really we should work to have fortune balanced between the sexes.

(Pssst, I’m totally with you there, MRAs.  That’s why I’m a feminist!)

There are a couple of different flavors of MRA.  Some call themselves Men Going Their Own Way (MIGTOW), and they say they’re after equality in their relationships, splitting the bill and such.  Others, like Pick-Up Artists (PUA) believe they have been denied their right to sex, and are interested in learning how to manipulate women to obtain sex.

Some MRAs seem like they are actually decent people.  They’ve been hurt by the women in their lives, and are trying to find ways to cope together, and that’s fine.  But a lot of the individuals involved in these groups are trolls and haters, some are openly and proudly misogynistic, and they bring that toxic energy into everything MRAs try to do more collectively.

Like find excuses to troll, dox, stalk, and make things generally miserable for female video game journalists and designers (Gamergate).  Or stuff the ballots for the Hugos in favor of less aware literature (Puppygate/Sick Puppies/Rabid Puppies).  Or cry out at the unfairness that is bad-ass women in post-apocalyptic, big budget movies, as we see here.

Seriously, that’s the complaint.  Hot women running around on screen, doing cool stuff.  Why is that a problem?  Because it means the man in the plot isn’t doing all the cool stuff.

I do get it.  For a whole bunch of political, social, and economic reasons, men are in a bind.  More women are graduating college than men.  More women are turning into the breadwinners of their household.  Catcalling is wrong, draw lady superheroes in more dignified postures, enthusiastic consent or it’s rape.  The definition of what it is to be a man and the rules about appropriate behavior are changing under your feet, so why can’t you at least have your manly movie franchises to yourselves?

Well, you can’t.  Slowly, slowly, Hollywood is getting it that women like big, action-packed movies too.  We’re a demographic with cash — thanks Disney’s Frozen for getting the point across at last!

So what can you do?

Enjoy the movies.

But how can you, with a woman potentially doing just fine on her own without a man to stomp faces for her?

What, do you think I’ve never enjoyed a movie without a woman in it?  I love Venture Bros. and Better Call Saul, and those are totally dude-centric shows.  And in books, I’ll take The Dark Tower over The Mists of Avalon any day.

It’s easy for me to empathize with men, to experience a story as a male main character.  It’s easy, because men and women aren’t that different.  We’re both in fleshy bodies that require near constant upkeep and care.  We both want to protect our loved ones.  We both like to be awesome, be the hero.  We both want to be loved.  We both can react badly to being hurt.

With that in mind, go watch Fury Road, and be Imperator Furiosa.  Go watch Genisys**, and be Sarah Connor.  Just like you would otherwise be Mad Max or Kyle Reese.

After all, going and enjoying these movies anyway is the manly thing to do.

*                   *                   *

*most awkward “cool” misspelling ever

**ugh…seriously that’s bad…