Saturday, 31 March 2012

What is sweetest in life

I'm so in the mood to write fantasy, I can't possibly express it. (I'm on the up of my cycle right now. I've written 2,600 words today right after breakfast, and those were really good words, too. I'm maybe 3-4 away from wrapping up my current sci-fi project, too, which is shaping up really nicely).

The thing I always loved about epic fantasy was the pure butch masculinity of it all (that appealed to my teenage self, hormones and all). I'm pretty sure that my love for epic and sword and sorcery fantasy gave birth to me studying history, specifically military history. Hey, big battles, big ideas, and the highest stakes of all: life and death.

There are anecdotes in history that can inspire whole novels. Like this one, which I'm lifting from another page, because I can't find my own copy of this. Here's how these fit together - those words were borrowed from Genghis Khan (Khan of Khans) for Conan the Barbarian. Inspiration from history that turns into epic/S&S fantasy:

"One day in the pavilion at Karakorum he [Genghis Kahn] asked an officer of the Mongol guard what, in all the world, could bring the greatest happiness.

"The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse under you," responded the officer after a little thought, "and a falcon on your wrist to start up hares."

"Nay," responded the Kahn, "to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet -- to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best."

I mean, seriously? Whole gritty fantasy trilogy in this.

But I'm wrapping up my sci-fi first. Go shapechangers!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Real life stuff

I owe people a gazillion blog comments and emails. (I will get to it, just not right now, I'm all typed out.)

In any case, today I talked to a landscaper about the pretty pathetic mess that is my back garden, its potential, and the cost involved. And there's also the tiny detail of a huge pine that stands at the back of the garden and doesn't really fit there - I call it the "feral Christmas tree", because it looks a lot like somebody planted it there, oh, many years ago and now it dominates a part of the garden it has no reason and justification for dominating. Also, it ruins the soil in the back, killing everything around it. My partner wants it to stay, I want it to go. I foresee a direct conflict there (but, as long I get everything else I want, he can keep his tree, so at the very worst, it's a bargaining chip).

The landscaper walked around the garden with me and said that I was best off with a "clear canvas" approach. I totally agree. No plan or rhyme or reason to this garden as it currently stands, and I'm heartily sick of it, too.

The main issue is that I do have an expensive taste; this is a big project and will result in a really dramatic change, digging out soil, laying lots of natural stone, raised beds, all new flowers and plants, totally new grass and new fences all round. The plants will all be about the wildlife - I want something that feeds birds and butterflies and bees - so lots of flowers and probably an area for a bird feeder and stuff (I assume the grey squirrels will eat everything, but we can try).

I'm very intrigued by an option he brought up, that's a summer house - a self-sustained "shed" in the back of the garden we (I) could use as a second office. Ideally, it would have a reading/resting couch, a desk, a plug for a laptop, and no internet. This shit ain't cheap, but I want it. Mostly because the internet is a real drain on my productivity, and sitting outside surrounded by green stuff in the summer sounds like sheer heaven. And I can just see the possibilities for such a space. (Or something.)

We do have this really long garden we're not actually using - so placing a work-focused space out there seems like the way to go.

But with all the possibilities, I'm going for the Expensive Option. Considering that in the last six months, we had double glazing put in, replaced the boiler and remodelled the front garden, I think I just broke our budget with all my habitual (that is, habitat-related) ambition. So, err, stepping slowly back from the idea of having everything done up as I want it this year, and do it in steps.

Sandstone porch first (with bonsai display area, for which, obviously, I'll need to buy a few bonsais, too, but then, I've been dreaming about maple bonsais for a long, long time), new fences second, clearing some of the feral plants for the rest of our budget, and then crazy ideas like raised vegetable/flower beds and summer house and a total re-do of the vegetation next year. (And those involve camellias and climbing roses EVERYWHERE - bring on the flowers and colours and LIFE!) Also, we'll need garden furniture... which, holy hell, expensive.

I know it's going to be absolutely awesome, but I'm not going to bankrupt myself over a garden. As long as I get my porch soon-ish, I'll be still happy. I do want to spend part of the summer sitting in the garden, editing manuscripts. Step by step, this is becoming *mine*.

(Photos as it happens...)

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The purity of fear, prejudice, and intolerance (the m/m rainbow has only one colour: gay)

I should be telling you guys about a book. Or write a post about my lecturer at university who, I've learned today, died last August, way too young, a man I kept thinking of as "I want to be him when I grow up". RIP, Mr. Werth. You were (and still are) an inspiration.

Those will have to wait, however. What's been eating my brain (and you guys know it's bad when something is eating my brain, because then I brood and later come up with a lot of weird ideas) is this discussion on Dear Author, about fanfiction, slash and m/m and other things, but the discussion in the comments soon moved on to misogyny in m/m. The whole thing is interesting, and I'm not going to attempt a re-cap.

I believe the m/m genre is in a very large part, hostile to (fictional) women.

Back in the days - before November 2011, and boy, will I remember that date forever, even if those who "made it so memorable for me" - I'm trying very hard to stay civil here - have moved on and are pretending it never really happened - back in those days, the genre I write in was "gay only".

Not "gay gay", mind you, but "m/m", because the genre usually doesn't give a toss about depicting real life gay men. It's about the fantasy, stupid. Women in m/m writing are hated and loathed and reduced to the stereotypes of whore, bitch, fag hag, and disposable womb for the two men to get a child they can coo over without resorting to what fandom calls "assbabies" (a somewhat vulgar term for the concept of "m-preg" - or male pregnancy). Now, even the most gay scene gay guy I've met in my life has very strong female relationships; mothers, sisters, nieces, friends, friends and family of his partner.

Only gay men in m/m are stripped of female friends and family. The received wisdom is that "readers don't want to read about it". I've seen people loathe Jean, but I'd say Katya in Special Forces gets even more hate (this number is subjective).

It gets worse. Many gay men used to have sexual relationships with women in real life. Some were married to women. Fathered children. Oh wow, don't you dare write about that in m/m - people will not review you. The biggest, most important m/m blog out there will not review you if there's even one sexual encounter with a woman.

This abhorrence of what's called "girly bits" or "girl parts", or "vay jay" (the last expression makes me laugh; to my non-native ear, it's as bad as "her womanly molten core" from some horrendous m/f romance) is wide-spread.

They call it purity.

It's probably my cultural reflex, but using a word like "purity" for, in essence, erasing women, erasing bisexual men, and, if you think further, erasing trans* people (some of whom are men with "girl bits"), really gets my goat. Like it's something positive.

The hostility to trans* books is quite clear, too. I mean, here is a reviewer who reviews a book by a trans* guy ABOUT a trans* guy and says that it's not authentic.

And if a trans*/genderqueer book is written by an author who is too big (and way too good) to be ignored (you know, and wrote an award-winning book), they review it, but the comments immediately put the world back on its axis. It was a lapse, and it won't be a regular occurrence, Gods forbid we could actually include genderqueer and trans* characters in our oh-so-tolerant genre.

No, that's against the idea of purity.

Now, in my book, everybody can review on their blog what they want. People can post about how disgusting "vay jays" are and how authors are misleading readers, and how one m/f or m/m/f sex scene invalidates the whole book.

So, because there are three pages of m/m/f sex in Dark Soul, the other 306 pages are "sneak menage" and Dark Soul is no real m/m book (damn, and I thought Silvio being definitely coded as genderfluid in the third part would have given my game away).

According to some reactions, by not getting rid of Donata in Dark Soul, I've cheated, lied, misled my readers and I'm a liar, cheater and force my bisexuality down people's throats. The whole relationship between Silvio and Stefano is invalidated because they dare have fun with Stefano's wife for a night. It's a "let-down" and Silvio deserves better (yeah, destroying Stefano's marriage is clearly much better than his anonymous quick fucks that he normally goes for, TOTALLY agree).

I'm being told that I've misled people about this being an m/m romance, because, apparently, that's something that CANNOT happen in m/m romances, so I'm lying.

Funny, I didn't get the memo where a) I defined this book as an m/m romance, and b) where somebody defined those rules and every single m/m author and publisher actually signed this definition and defined penalties in case of breach.

I guess after writing three pages of (damn hot) sex with a woman, I'll get my m/m romance writer membership card torn up now - something I haven't managed even after killing a protagonist and writing about murder, torture, brother-incest, PTSD, rape, racism, genocide - I've FINALLY accomplished the biggest crime of them all: written a mixed-gender sex scene.

Mum would be so proud.

Actually, she would be. She raised me to be able to look in the mirror every morning and look myself in the eye. And I am getting sick and tired of this blatant woman-hating that goes on in a female-dominated genre. I know amazing, kick-ass women; I'm the child of one. I'm friends with women who can mop the floor with most men out there. Human beings who had to do real battle for everything they have. Women who sacrificed everything for their children, who stood up to abusive men and told them to get the fuck lost. Women who worked harder, for less pay and less praise than a comparable man. Women who rebuilt bombed cities without heavy machinery, stone by stone, with their own hands, because the men were dead and somebody had to rebuild the country and in the hope for a better life for their children, male AND female.

But that leads far away - I'm just saying that women are awesome, and just as strong, resourceful, intelligent and kick-ass as any man. There is no difference in gifts and abilities.

But, to return to the matter at hand. The problem I'm seeing is not for my own sales (frankly, writing is a financial sideshow for me - if I wanted to make money writing, I'd have gone mainstream ten years ago). The problem I'm seeing is the biggest reviewers in our genre have decided that "vay jay" is "yuck" and writers writing about bisexual men who are sexually active on the page, and protagonists who are not in the full possession of XY chromosomes and a penis, balls and prostate (read: trans*men) are not actually part of the genre.

Make no mistake: In our genre, reviews are everything.

Publishers know this; authors know this.

What this leads to is pre-emptive self-censorship.

It reminds me of the situation in Nazi-occupied Paris (I'm currently reading a book about it). In Paris at that time, more than 8,000 books were published a year (more than in the UK or the US). Everything had to pass German censorship (the Propaganda-Staffel). At first, the German censors read everything. But reading that many books is a huge drain on resources, so what they enforced was self-censorship. The publishers knew what was forbidden, and they were "trusted" not to break those rules.

If you're a publisher and depend on the Propaganda-Staffel for getting printing paper AT ALL, you made damn sure that the censors never had reason to complain.

I'm not using this example to fulfill Godwin's Law that every internet discussion WILL bring up the Nazis. I'm using the example to show how insidious and easy self-censorship is. All you have to do is teach authors and publishers what is not desired and threaten - in so many words - to withhold the primary resource, whether it's paper, attention, or reviews, doesn't matter.

And you *will* have publishers who internalize these things. Authors will not write books that have absolutely no chance to get reviewed. They'll "tone things down". Publishers will instruct their editors accordingly. Authors will learn from their publishers that trans* or bi content is to be avoided.

The problem is when the personal taste (or: kink) of the big reviewers DETERMINES the genre, steers it and defines it. It's very often veiled, like "it's not that we don't like trans* stuff, but we won't review it", or "We'd review it, but we can't find anybody who wants to read that", "anything but "pure" m/m will be a DNF or an F or a 1-out-of-5 star review, or..."

And this is the attitude I really struggle to comprehend. If they don't have reviewers, they can find some, quite easily. If they believe that only the "fantasy version of gay", namely m/m, is worthy of reviews, then they really shouldn't display Rainbow flags on their blogs.

Because the Rainbow flag does NOT stand for exclusion. Any GLBTQQ activist I know would be ashamed to think that the Rainbow has come to mean "gay only" in ANY part of the arts; and, yes, our little corner, where we create pulpy little stories, is part of the arts and wider culture.

The Rainbow doesn't only have one colour. The alphabet soup "GLBTQQ" does NOT mean "gay only and everything else is ewwwww". It's not "gay-only voices, and everybody else shut up because you're not feeding our kinks."

Don't call your intolerance, fear and prejudice "purity".

I believe it's time to discuss this, without prejudice, fear and intolerance. We are the other colours out there, and I, for one, will never self-censor myself to just one colour. I'm way more than that.

ETA: I'm turning off approval of comments for sake of discussion, but I *will* delete abusive comments.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Beating the deadline

We've officially beaten the deadline at work, and some things I was fretting over worked out just fine. I guess over-fretting is better than under-fretting in any case. I'm just getting ready for my four-day weekend around my partner's birthday, which should see some relaxing and some catching up.

Right now, I'm using the quiet time at work to proof-read (again) the complete Dark Soul collection for the print edition. I'm 2/3 through my print-out, and there's enough I want to change (repetions, mostly, and a minuscule amount of "flab", or empty sentences) to make the extra pass worthwhile. Ideally, I'll finish that particular project today or maybe early tomorrow.

In house news (and you wouldn't believe how much thought and energy went into house-related things recently) I've decided to hire a lanscaper (landscape architect? What are they called in the UK?) to draft a concept for the garden. Nobody ever had a concept for that garden, and what concept somebody might have had was never followed through - there are abandoned plants in the back, overgrown by now, that were never taken out of their plastic pots, so nobody ever bothered to actually put them in the ground...

So I'm sucking it up and decide to treat the total re-vamp of the garden as a necessary re-vamp of the biggest room in the house. I've seen some samples of plans on the website, and while all that looks really outrageously expensive, it also looks like I want it. After visiting a friend's house over the weekend (and sitting in her garden), I really want a place outside to work and have guests.

So, the same brain that puts together stories is now mostly concerned with what kind of plants I want in the garden and whether to rip out the large white rose tree... bush ... forest - or cut it back and try to save it. For the most part, I've settled on more camellias, a bonsai display area (meaning I need to acquire some outdoor bonsais), and a hazelnut bush/tree. I also have a concept for a sandstone patio in my head, but whether I can afford the kind I want remains to be seen. And then big planting pots with herbs and maybe a raised bed or two (fresh potatoes taste awesome, after all). So, the older I get, the more I turn into the archetypical Taurus - happy mostly when surrounded by pretty and expensive things and both arms up to elbows in soil or with lots of plants around me. (Speaking of which, I need to get one for the office.) Also, Spring makes me restless - stuff is growing and flowering already, and the sense is very much of "now or never" or "now or next year", and I'm impatient.

On the writing front, it's quiet. I'm in editing mode, and I hope to switch over to research mode over the weekend. I got the second part of a DVD documentary on my setting, so that'll need watching and should put me back in the mood to write my WWII novel. The good news is that I've already researched so much that basically nothing in the first part of the documentary comes as a surprise.

And of course, I have a few novels to fix and a pile of developmental edits.

The long weekend is perfectly timed.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

"Kill the bitch" - a couple thoughts on women in m/m fiction

Real life is currently extremely busy, due in large part to a madcap deadline we're all chasing at the day job (and regulatory requirements - I'm not going into any kind of detail, but things are a bit frantic at the moment). It's definitely the kind of frantic where a slotted-in free day is necessary to preserve sanity (and catch up with important stuff). My to-do list is a good 40 items long, and people are starting to send me reminders about stuff, so I'm way behind on most of them, too.

Anyway. Writing's so slow you could say it's not happening (no, not even the 500 words "minimum" I've set myself at the start of the year). Real life has swallowed that, too, but I'm pretty optimistic still - the Muse is plotting in the background.

One day, I want to blog at length about women in m/m fiction and reader responses to female characters. (I can use only the women in my stories, since I know them best, and get the responses pretty much directly). I'm not sure today is the day to do it; it's contentious like hell, and actually somewhat disturbing. I do hope I haven't created an "evil ex-wife" - the character that a huge amount of m/m writers seem to fall back onto when they need a villain and a knife-wielding maniac who jumps out of the bushes just as the two male lovers are about to set off into the sunset.

Then, there's Katya of Special Forces, a character who has my readers split about 70:30 in favour of hating her bones. (Amazing that Katya gets off far worse than Vadim, who's objectively committed far worse crimes than she has - and the one thing they did both, Vadim did with intent to kill and actually inflicted some serious injury, too).

I'm not sure how I feel about a number of reviewers hating Donata and wishing her dead so Stefano is free for Silvio. That sounds oddly like a gay relationship is somehow "better" than a heterosexual one - or is the "die, bitch die!" reflex somehow natural and conditioned into readers? Have readers read so many stories where the "old relationship" dies with the death of the previous partner that they expect it? Has it become a trope, a cliche, an expected turn of events, even "the way to do it"? (Yep, several people seem to expect Donata's death in part 5 - far more than those who expect either/or Silvio's or Stefano's death.)

I find that puzzling. As a bisexual writer, the "kill the woman!" reflex feels somewhat disturbing. I've been in love with women - gut-wrenchingly so. My best friends and business partners are women. It's entirely possible that I'll fall in love again with a woman. Just because a person is female doesn't make them "lesser" or "evil" or an "obstacle" in the context of fiction - not even m/m fiction (and how odd that women writers and women readers pour so much hatred out on women... but that ties into a different theory which I want to develop at some point in peace and quiet).

Katya had a number of hardcore haters, too, with people desiring the most gruesome deaths for her; how odd that her racist, rapist, genocidal husband gets off pretty much scott-free. Apparently the worst thing a woman can commit in m/m fiction is to love one of the main characters and have any claims over him.

That is an aspect of m/m fiction I will never understand - and I don't feel much like indulging the "kill the bitch!" reflex. I'm not doing it. I'm not killing any of these strong-hearted, courageous, tough women. Not one.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The dignity of labour

Today I'm staying at home to oversee the total revamp of my front garden - which involved putting up a brick wall instead of a moth-eaten fence, ripping out a cracked concrete walkway that kept one of the walls of the house nice and wet, put in drainage and rip out a number of old, berserking plants that were killing everything else and also made a gamely attempt at eating the house's foundations. With an Indian sandstone path laid (framed by bricks), plants and roots removed, gravel laid and a storm drain installed, it's all looking very good at the moment. My house is no longer the one with the ugly front in the terrace.

I'm rather looking forward to "Day Two" of the work, which involves planting a new tree (I'd say camellia) to structure all that empty space, and possibly removing the last bit of wood fencing in favour of another brick wall, and after that, I'll install a hanging basket with some flowers because the front of the house does look a little empty now. It's one of those things I've saved for and that completely transforms the front of my house. Also, the builder, who's currently doing a really good job in the front is going to give me a quote for a porch and revamp of the garden in the back, which then means I'll save money to have that done later in the year. To be honest, I really want a space outside the house where I could work if I wanted (especially in summer), and it was planned since we bought the house. It's a great house, but basically needed some investment in windows, boiler, front and back. Bathroom and kitchen are projects for next year, once I've secured the funding, as they say.

So, that's really where my mind is at the moment (that, and wrapping up the edits of Dark Soul 5). However, there's a huge plagiarism debate raging in our little corner of the genre, kicked off by, as usual, Dear Author, on this post with 500+ comments.

After the "he did - he didn't", "you meany - you ignorant asshole" cycles of the usual plagiarism debate appear to have run its course (Godwin's law, the invocation of Nazi Germany was fulfilled, I'm "happy" to report), some people seem to be dismayed that TJ Klune "is getting away with it".

Personally, my own interest in the debate is that it quickly moved into the "quality debate", which I have a much bigger interest in, because, frankly, I believe the main thing holding back our genre at this point is the lack of quality editing, which includes teaching authors how to be better and eventually grow into real writerly heavyweights who can stand on the same bookshelf as good, solid, mainstream writing.

Plagiarism is an appalling act (I'd call it a crime, but technically, it isn't, I believe), but what strikes me most about it is that plagiarists are actually pretty unhappy. Let me explain. The last big plagiarism case I followed was the rip-off of James Bond and other novel series by the Big Guns into a book called "Assassin of Secrets". Little, Brown, NOT a small publisher, was fooled into buying what sounds very much like a "best of" of Ian Fleming and his peers. So, it happens to much larger houses than the very young publishers in the m/m space - which is not me insinuating that the current thing IS a case of plagiarism, and in the following, I'm moving away from that specific case entirely. It was just a starting point for some more fundamental thoughts.

Bear with me, I'm pulling this whole thing together in the end.

Plagiarism has happened in our genre before and it's not a trait of indie publishing at all, or the fault of any specific publisher.

What I found striking about Markham (or even Manning, quoted in the Dear Author article right at the start) is that plagiarists are actually really miserable people. Markham's career is ruined - I don't imagine he can ever publish another thriller.

There's a long article about the fall-out from the Assassin of Secrets blow-up (ETA: I've located the link), that details why Markham did it, what he felt, how it has affected his real life. There's a lot of self-loathing in there, fear of failure, and fear of rejection.

I don't think plagiarist are totally sane, well-adjusted or happy people. Based on articles and from what I've learnt watching cheaters and thieves, it's usually not them being brazen-balled egomaniacs (yes, some writers are sociopaths, but I imagine they are rare, because writing requires a level of introspection/self-critique that I don't think many sociopaths have).

It's them being terribly afraid that they'll be found out, and they can't even enjoy the fruits of their labour, because they know it's not THEIR labour. They are not writers. They are just thieves. Every time they get an email saying "I loved your book" should feel like a red-hot needle piercing their heart. They know they cheated, that they haven't achieved anything but fooling some good people and wasting everybody's time. Deep down, plagiarists are very unhappy people, even if they sell a lot of books, even if they get away with it. The fear of being found out and the fundamental knowledge that they act like scum ruins those sweet moments of success. In a funny way, plagiarism is its own true punishment.

There's a lot of dignity for a writer in writing; in working hard, in being disciplined, humble, critical, in doing all the work as it should be done. We're the last artisans - we'll be left when everything else is being manufactured by machines. Every piece we do is a piece of craft that bears witness to our growth as people and to every month of commitment to our craft.

I think we as writers can learn much from the Japanese "do" system - where constant practice strives towards perfection, even it it might never get there. Practicing one craft with discipline, humility and diligence is its own reward. In Kyo-do, the path of the bow, students take weeks and months just to learn how to stand properly, and I've heard that in traditional Kyo-do, you don't actually shoot your first arrow before you've gone through two years of practice. Writing can be the same - we write a lot before we're anywhere near aiming for a publisher.

What I learn about myself while writing (and trying to write better) is astonishing. I wouldn't learn any of this if I'd rip off a book or a story. I'd feel the other artist's passages like burning coals in my flesh (that's how I feel about some rewrites one editor did to one of my books, and once I have the rights back, I'm reversing that change). Above all, I'm aiming to be a better writer and the best I can, and that's a process of self-discovery and self-discipline that knows absolutely no shortcuts.

So, to bring this to an end - I absolutely believe that plagiarism needs to be called out and named and shamed and punished. (And, again, I'm not commenting on the current suspected case.)

At the end of the day, however, even the undiscovered and unpunished plagiarist suffers from their actions, because although they want to be nothing more than writers, they know they aren't real writers. They are impostors who are so terribly afraid and so weak and conflicted that only another writer's strength can provide enough armour. But it's not their armour, their strength, their beauty. They are like the guy in Greek myth, who, cursed by the gods, dies of thirst surrounded by water.

ETA: I've located the link/source to the Markham piece.