Lucky

It’s Halloween today – which, for most people, means either the joy of jack o’ lanterns and the perfect excuse to dress up in the most outrageously slutty outfit imaginable, or the annoyance of children knocking on your door to pester you for sweets. But for me, it now signifies a rueful anniversary: one year since I did my back in.

It’s been an interesting twelve months: living with chronic pain takes some getting used to, and I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been a lot of frustrations. Cancelled holidays. Agonising journeys. Living a very restricted life, for many months. But the thing which strikes me mostly powerfully, when I look back and reflect on the past year, is how lucky I am. I mean, yeah sure, I had some bad luck with my injuries, but that is more than made up for by the good luck. I was lucky with my work; I had an understanding boss and a generous sick pay provision, so I could concentrate on recovering rather than worrying about getting fired. I was lucky with my home; I have a spacious and beautiful house, so spending so much time at home didn’t drive me stir crazy. I was lucky with my family and friends, and most of all my husband, who were all loving and supportive. I was lucky with the area I live in, surrounded by safe and pleasant streets and parks, so I could walk around and get my exercise without it ever feeling like a chore. I was lucky in any number of ways, so that, while I can’t claim it’s been a good year, it was a whole lot better than it could have been.

At this point, I’ve recovered a great deal from the state I was in last November, and although I’m still far from back to perfect health, I’m now able to do most of the things that make up a satisfying life. So long as I remember to do my stretches and take my cocktail of painkillers. Ideal? No. Better than many? Yes. Enough to get on with the things that are truly important? Definitely.

I’m hoping that, by this time next year, I might be taking fewer drugs, and able to fly off on holiday to the Med. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t. But more than the physical improvement, I want to make sure I remember what it felt like, and how much worse it could have been. To remember how lucky I was, how lucky I still am. I believe the old school phrase is to count one’s blessings. So I will. And I may as well check my privilege while I’m at it, to bring myself bang up to date.

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Strong Female Characters in Distress

If – like me – you’re a hopeless social media addict, you may have noticed a shitstorm going off lately in cyberspace under the loose collective term of #GamerGate. I’m not going to attempt to recount the whole distasteful and – sadly – ongoing saga here, but if you’re interested, see the links below. When I attempted to explain it to my husband, his first question was ‘is this a thing on Twitter?’ to which the answer is, yes, it is a thing on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact IRL: actual people have been forced out of their actual homes in actual fear for their actual lives because of this shit. A movement which was kicked off by concerns about the ethics of game journalists and developers has culminated in threats to shoot up an entire university campus in order to stop a talk by Anita Sarkeesian – who is neither a journalist, nor a developer. Sarkeesian is a feminist cultural commentator whose series of videos criticising the representation of women in video games has, it’s fair to say, raised a few hackles, and has been raising them since long before GamerGate became a thing. The most succinct summary I can give here is this:

Sarkeesian: The portrayal of women in many popular video games is kinda sexist, and this has troubling implications for the attitudes of those who play them.

Trolls: You’re wrong you stupid lying c%&$ and if you don’t shut up we’ll rape and kill you.

Me (thinks): Yep, those guys have definitely made an excellent argument for how video games definitely don’t encourage violent misogyny.

Sigh.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with little me, back in meatspace? Well, if there’s one conclusion you can draw from the escalating hysteria, it’s this: people care about the representation of women in media. They care a lot – one way or the other, whether it’s the gamer dudes who are screaming someone is trying to take away their T&A, or the critics who are suggesting there should perhaps be more to creating female characters than the jiggle physics. Literary women seem – thankfully – to inspire fewer death threats, but they still matter. They certainly matter a lot to me: from my love for Sophie Hatter, the lead character in Howl’s Moving Castle – a shy young girl who spends most of the book magically transformed into a cantankerous old woman – to the nausea I recently experienced when reading Raymond E. Feist describe an elven princess with the words ‘her terror as thinly veiled as her body’ (sorry, got to take a vom, BRB).

Female characters in fantasy have thankfully evolved a bit from the days of being either largely absent (thanks, JRR) or terrified eye candy. But some writers still seem to struggle – like Patrick Rothfuss, who I heard speaking quite earnestly at World Fantasy Con last year about the importance of women’s representation, yet still couldn’t manage to put any women in The Name of the Wind who weren’t either sexy damsels-in-distress, or the protagonist’s dead mother. Funnily enough, women writers like Robin Hobb or the (by me) recently-discovered Elizabeth Bear usually seem to do a bit better, and it’s their example I’m endeavouring to follow.

In these discussions, you often hear bandied around that most dreaded phrase, ‘Strong Female Characters’ – a phrase which, frankly, makes me want to hurl. Again. Why? Because proper representation of women isn’t all about broads with swords. It’s about the fundamentals of good writing, about thinking your way inside someone’s head, about realistically portraying both weakness and more than one type of strength. Suzanne Collins gets it right in The Hunger Games: Katniss may be a BAMF, but she also has flaws: physically strong, but troubled and awkward, she’s beautifully counter-pointed with Peeta, who makes up for his lack of BAMFiness with emotional intelligence. The point about good characterisation of women is that that you shouldn’t just create a bunch of characters who are ‘strong’ and then give a few of them tits. The point is, you should create a whole cast of characters who are deep and rich and nuanced, who have fully realised personalities, who have hopes and dreams and fears which extend beyond being rescued or which boys they fancy, and then give slightly less than half of them dicks.

Links:

A brief summary of GamerGate http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

Interview with Anita Sarkeesian https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-interview-20141017

Cappuccino dreams

On the 8th of September, straight after returning from FantasyCon, I sat my ass down and started bashing out a new novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Now, just under four weeks later, I’ve passed the 20,000 words mark, and I’m confident at least half the time that at least 25% of what I’ve written isn’t total dross. So it’s going pretty well so far *crosses fingers and toes, backs up document*. Writing is not, of course, just a numbers game: it’s a voyage in your own imagination, a tour of your very own castle in the air. Even if nothing tangible ever comes of it, you can enjoy the ride. But most of the time, the reality of it is not terribly glamorous. It’s essentially sitting in front of a computer all day staring at words on the screen (or, worse, blank space), then tapping at the keyboard to make more appear, then deleting half of them, then going to make a cup of tea.

Sometimes, it’s good to remember why I’m doing it, to remind myself of what this dream I’m pursuing really is, why I’m getting up each morning and sitting at my desk. Now, it’s easy to fantasise about becoming ‘the next J.K. Rowling’, selling millions of copies, ascending the heights of the best-seller lists, getting a series of star-studded movie adaptations, sparking bitterly fought online shipping wars, being condemned by the Catholic Church. But there are other dreams, of slightly more attainable things, which I can indulge in with a sliver of hope that some day at least one of them might actually come to pass. Such as:

1. Seeing a book of mine, an actual book made of paper and glue, sitting on the actual shelf of an actual bookshop. Of course, if physical bookshops are on their way out, then this might be a dream with a limited shelf life (pun intended) but I’ll keep dreaming it for now.

2. A stranger telling me they’ve read my book, and then saying one of the following: ‘How could you kill that character? He was my favourite!’; ‘I don’t think that character would have done that, she’s just not that kind of person.’; ‘What are you doing here talking to me? Why aren’t you getting on with the sequel?’

3. Getting to sit on a panel at a convention and be all like ‘yeah, I’m a writer’ like it’s no biggie. Then getting asked questions about the stuff I’ve written. Even if they’re stupid and/or awkward questions. Hey, they’re showing an interest!

4. Being interviewed by Radio 4. As above, but with added ‘whoa I grew up listening to this station and now I’m on it and people are listening to me while they potter around the house.’

5. Hearing that my characters have been shipped and slashed. Especially if there’s a fierce online argument about who is *really* destined to be with whom.

6. Being condemned by The Daily Mail.

7. Buying a round of drinks with money I’ve received for something I wrote. Even if the amount is paltry, it’s still payment for words which have spilled out of my brain, and there’s no better encouragement to go and write some more and maybe get a less paltry amount next time. And even if my royalties never stretch to anything more than coffee for one, you know what, that cappuccino is going to taste So. Damn. Good.