Tuesday, March 27, 2012

THE VOID cover reveal

It's finally here!

At last, I present the cover for The Void, Book 2 in The Weaver Saga! I think you'll agree with me that it was very much worth the wait (and so is the book!).

I can also announce that the final, for-real, not-changing-this-time release date for the book is May 12th!

Until then, look for Weaver to go free next month, and read the Who Is The Stitch-Faced Man? teaser to whet your appetites!

Be afraid ... be very afraid...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Weaver: Special Edition cover reveal!

I am approaching the end of principal writing work on The Void, Book 2 in The Weaver Saga. It's been a long, hard slog, with almost every chapter being re-written multiple times. But, it's finally over, and after talking to the copy editors and the review bloggers, it looks like we're going to have an early May release date.

Before that happens, however, the first book in the Saga, Weaver, is getting a re-launch. Weaver: Special Edition will hit the virtual shelves early next month. What's special about it, you may ask? Well, a few things. First, there will be a sneak peek of The Void at the back -- a different sneak peek than the "Who Is The Stitch-Faced Man" teaser I posted here earlier. Second, I'll be fixing a few technical problems in the book that I caught after publication and which have bugged me ever since. These are only technical fixes, the story will remain unchanged. Third, the book will now be free on all formats (assuming Amazon will let me do that without going KDP Select). And fourth, the book is getting a new cover, thanks to our friends at Novak Illustration. Take a look at this little beauty!

Now, does that make you want to pick up a copy, or what?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Politics of Storytelling

"So, why do you write these strong women characters? Because you're still asking me that question."
-Joss Whedon

*I started writing this before reading Jane Espenson's marvelous discussion on women in screen writing. I didn't intend it to be a "second act" to my contribution to that discussion, but it serves that purpose well.

It's time to tackle an uncomfortable subject: the intersection of gender, social politics, and storytelling. What does that mean in English, you might ask? It means I'm going to talk about how I square my personal politics (i.e., my belief in the need for gender equality and my dislike of the weak female characters that have traditionally dominated fantasy stories) with my beliefs about storytelling and my need to keep my audience hooked.

I start from the belief that fantasy fiction should not be a "man's game". Traditional fantasy fiction relegated women to supporting roles (at best) far too often, with most of the plot-critical action (and certainly the brave, heroic acts) being performed by men. This is absurd. There are many, many women in the world who are just as strong and smart and capable and clever as any man, and there's no reason that they shouldn't have their turn at picking up a sword and killing a Ring-Wraith (or whatever the action of the story demands). I have little tolerance for female protagonists who exist only to have their boyfriends save them at every turn when I'm consuming fiction, and I have even less patience for such characters in the fiction that I create. If that's what you want in a girl, you should look elsewhere.

And yet, we're all human -- women and men alike. None of us are perfect, none of us are good at everything. So I think it's important that all my characters have flaws, and that none of them be instantly able to handle any sort of challenge that's thrown at them. That's not realistic. I consider myself a decent writer, but if you put a physics problem in front of me? I'm a confused mess. Someone who's good at football might be terrible at debate, or vice versa. Etc.

So I treat my characters -- male and female -- the same way. All of them have strong points, but those strong points are counterbalanced with weaknesses, blind spots, or failings. Sometimes I feel bad about the weak points I give my female characters, because I worry that they feed into traditional stereotypes about women. For instance, Alex Cronlord, one of the protagonists of The Weaver Saga, isn't particularly physically strong, and tends to run from things rather than confront them.

I can hear the screams of protest already: But wait, John!, you say, didn't you just say that you weren't interested in writing weak women? What's up? Well, I'll tell you what's up: Alex may not be great in a fight, but she's also a psychic. That's something that no one else in the story -- male or female -- can do. If she could see the future and kick ass? Well, there's a two-word term to describe that, and it's something I also have no interest in writing. (Mary Sue.)

It's also no accident that one of Alex's main character arcs in the story is being confronted with her own tendency toward flight, rather than fight, and working to overcome it. People have flaws. When the circumstances demand it, they work on those flaws. This is realistic, and it avoids the creation of one-dimensional Mary Sue characters. In addition, I deliberately made the person in the story who is arguably the most physically capable, Moira McBain, female (whose weakness, in turn, is being emotionally stunted due  to events in her past that I'll not reveal here).

On the other hand, I'm a storyteller, not a polemicist. I have a strong political and social belief system (anyone who knows me in person will tell you that), but I have no interest in using my stories to make political statements. That's not to say that my stories don't have messages, they do, but I convey those messages in the context of telling a good tale. If I have to choose between the narrative and the message, I'll choose the former every time. I won't name any here, but lots of authors have written "characters" who are basically belief systems or arguments dressed up in human clothing. You won't find that here.

The trick, I think, is to avoid "howlers". A character who's entirely passive and brings nothing to the problem at hand is rarely very interesting, and is also "extra baggage" on the story -- that character takes up narrative space while serving no useful narrative purpose. So I don't write those characters. A "Chicken Little" character, who is always whining and running to others to solve her problems, is both uninteresting and unsympathetic. So I don't write those characters. And I don't write people who always need saving (which isn't to say that they never do).

In short, I think it's very possible to write non-misogynistic portrayals of female characters without writing a feminist tract. (You can write a feminist tract if you want to, but that's not a story.) Most of the secrets to writing strong, interesting women characters are the same secrets that apply to writing strong, interesting men. It's all in their actions (or lack thereof).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

In response to Jane Espenson

Deep breath.

So, I'm going to do something really scary here and wade in to a conversation with the bigwigs. Namely, Jane Espenson, an exceptional screenwriter who's right up there with Joss Whedon in my affections, and the writer of the Eve's Apple blog, who I had never encountered before today but who gets great credit from me for the Ani Difranco quote under the picture on her blog.

Ms. Espenson argues, quite compellingly (and correctly) that there is a need for more women in the screenwriting business. She then goes on to say, however, that aspiring women writers do themselves no favors by arguing that the reason we need more women on Hollywood writing staffs is because they can better write strong female characters or more compellingly provide a female perspective. This argument, she says, is not only demonstrably false (with the examples of Mr. Whedon's Buffy and Ron Moore's Starbuck, from the most excellent Battlestar Galactica, provided as proof. I would add Chris Carter's Agent Scully and J.J. Abrams' Olivia Dunham to the roster, among others.) but potentially makes it less likely that a woman will get hired for a screenwriting job. After all, if the only purpose a female writer serves that can't be served by a male writer is to provide a "female perspective," then why would any showrunner hire more than one woman on a writing staff?

I basically agree with this. I do not think that a person being of one gender (or race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) necessarily translates into an inability to write the other gender (or another race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) well. I have heard this argument before and I reject it every time. Like so many things in life, it comes down to the person.

This is the second time in my life I wanted to be a writer (in my case, a novelist, not screenwriter). Like so many other aspiring writers, I shelved that dream for a while when I realized that my writing, frankly, sucked. In between my two periods of aspring writer-dom, I did something many fantasy writers do -- I played, and ran, so many roleplaying games that they practically oozed out my eyes. In the process, I GMed for, and played with, several people who liked to play characters of the opposite gender. (Usually it was men playing women, but sometimes the reverse.) I found that some who attempted the task of playing an opposite-gender character did so very well, while others were simply wretched. (In a few cases, I wanted to say to the player in question, "Please. Stop. Never again.")

Certainly writing opposite-gender characters poses an additional challenge (even if men's and women's brains are biologically exactly the same, we're socialized differently), but like most challenges, it is a surmountable one. There are all sorts of ways to learn to write opposite gender characters. Perhaps the most obvious one -- interact with the opposite gender. If you want to know the secrets of how (wo)men think, spend some time talking to them. Ask them about their lives and how they handled situations.

You could also try watching shows with strong opposite-gender characters. I find this a less awesome way to do things, however, because then you run the risk that your own characters will simply be  "clones" of what came before. That's less creatively fulfilling for you and runs the risk of attracting a copyright infringement lawsuit (and I'm a lawyer, I would know).

The third way is the way you get better at anything: practice. In the roleplaying games I played in and ran, I deliberately shied away from playing opposite-gender characters because I was sure I was bad at it. So, not wanting to elicit a "Please. Stop. Never again." from the other people at the gaming table, I didn't do it. Then, when I decided I wanted to take back up the authorial mantle, I knew I would have to do it -- worlds with no women aren't particularly realistic, and I don't want to write that way, anyway. So I forced myself to write them often.

It's no accident that both of the point-of-view characters in The Weaver Saga are female -- and not only that, they have strikingly different personalities. Women aren't Cylons (nor are men), there aren't many copies, and to be a truly effective writer of opposite-gender characters, you need to learn to write them in all their complexity. It's also no accident that while the main protagonist of Atticus for the Undead, Hunter Gamble, is male, both his colleague Kirsten and their assistant Sabrina (who just might be a teenage witch) are female.

So, Jane, I would actually take what you said a step further. Not only is the "only women can write strong women characters" argument bad for a woman's chances at getting hired, it's bad for the craft and its practicioners. One of the most rewarding aspects of writing characters (in this writer's opinion) is that you can use them as a vehicle to explore outlooks and value systems completely unlike yours. If we delegate the job of writing characters of a particular group only to people of that group, then all the other writers in the world who can write characters unlike themselves will likely find a very valuable skill of theirs growing rusty (what skill doesn't, with disuse?). More than that, we will find the writing experience less fulfilling. So, in short, we will hobble ourselves, as writers and people.

Jane ends her treatise by posing the problem that Eve takes a big bite out of on her Apple blog (sorry, I had to): HOW to cross gender off the list of reasons someone isn't getting the job. Eve, I don't necessarily disagree with you, but I don't think you've fully made your case, either.

I don't for a moment want to say that sexism doesn't exist and isn't real. That argument is absurd on its face (as any woman who's tried to pursue a career in the sciences will tell you). Nor do I even want to say that it doesn't exist in the screenwriting business -- I'm sure it does, and either way, I'm not really in a position to comment, am I?

The statistics you cite are indeed troubling. But let's assume for a moment that the makeup of television writing staffs mirrors the makeup of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (perhaps it does, I once again couldn't say). If that's true, while I certainly agree that TV shows need to hire more women writers, that isn't, in itself, evidence of discrimination.

To me, the extent to which hiring in screenwriting (or any profession, for that matter) is discriminatory is the difference between the number of women (or members of a race, religion, etc.) on TV shows staffs and the number of qualified women who applied and were turned down.

The lurking variable, in my view, is how many women are actually applying for screenwriting jobs? If far less women than men apply, then you're going to end up with far less women than men writing your shows. I'm sure not all of the gender gap in staff makeup is due to a disparity in the numbers of equally-qualified applicants. Some of it probably is male showrunners being, frankly, dicks. But I suspect (or at least, would like to hope) that more of the answer lies in drawing out writing talent in the women who have it, and convincing those women that a career in screenwriting is worth dealing with the many obstacles one faces on the ground floor. (My male cousins are currently trying to get jobs in screenwriting, I hear it's a very hard field to break into.)

As a final note -- I don't want to say much about Glee because I'm badly out of date on the show, not having watched it in months. But -- your post seems to indicate that you think Kurt got disproportionate character development on the show, at least before the new writers joined the staff.  Even if we assume that is true, is it necessarily a bad thing? If there's one demographic that has even fewer strong, well-written  characters in modern fiction than women, it's gays and lesbians. (Joss Whedon gets mad props from me for Willow and Tara for that very reason.) Not that I don't also want to see Mercedes and Santana and Puck (though I hated that character) develop and grow, but frankly, one thing for which I give Glee great credit is putting a gay character (two of them, now) front and center and making those characters people we like, empathize with, and want to succeed.

I agree that in the long run, balance is needed. But perhaps other shows, seeing Glee as an example, and also seeing how it remains popular despite such "controversial" subject matter, will feel more free to integrate gay and lesbian characters into their casts. Maybe this will help us reach a point where one day, we can see such characters on screen for what they are -- people, like everyone else, no more or less.

Interview with Ashley Barron!


Today I sat down with fellow author Ashley Barron! See what I had to say here.

A content-ful blog post is coming later this week.

John A

Friday, March 2, 2012

5 Stars for ATTICUS from Urban Fantasy Reviews!

My favorite part:

"Needless to say the book didn't disappoint ... I even got up early to finish reading the book, which if you knew me you would know that is a big accomplishment, I hate getting up early."

Read the full review here, and then join the team at McClain & Gamble! (Atticus for the Undead is now available in the Kindle Lending Library!)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Indie Book Spot!

I sat down for yet another interview today, this time with Indie Book Spot! See what I had to say!