This is my personal blog and does not necessarily reflect the collective views of Hard Limits Press

Friday, April 18, 2014

Narcissus in Chains Chapter One Part B

We have the expected description of Anita's outfit, which is fine if a bit long. What I definitely don't understand, though, is Anita's obsession with guns. The description of the clothing is basically there to show the reader how many firearms Anita can strap on under her barely there dress. It's implied that Ronnie talked her in to this outfit precisely so Anita could not carry a gun. Anita's best friend is so worried about her reliance on firearms that she's trying to trick Anita in to leaving the weapons at home.

I don't get it. This woman has magical powers. I realize she isn't as high powered at this point as she is in later books, but really how many magical problems can you conceivably solve with a gun? It's not a good weapon of choice for urban warfare in this context, since there are plenty of civilians around just minding their own business and a single stray bullet could easily kill a bystander. What about hand to hand fighting, if for some reason magic didn't work? What about learning a little diplomacy so you can try freaking talking before busting out the arsenal? It just makes her seem pathetic and ill prepared to do her job properly, rather than making me think of her as a stone cold badass as obviously LKH wants me to do.

More wankery about how turning thirty is just so horrible, and Ronnie is desperate and weird, and Anita angsts about probably not making thirty herself, blah blah blah. A lot of these things would seem more innocuous from a different author, but with LKH's abysmal track record re: writing women, I find it grating that apparently these two professional, supposedly competent females are just in a tizzy over aging. Thirty is hardly a huge milestone anymore for most people in first world countries, considering our healthcare (yes, even with its horrid limitations), social programs, food choice etc. This is not to say that impoverished areas and food deserts don't exist--I actually live in a food desert--but the fact remains that the average American is going to live well beyond thirty, less any other circumstances that expose one to a high level of poverty, violence, untreated mental illness etc. Granted, Anita works in a violent field but she's also in wonderful health and has more magical powers than god, so I think she's doing pretty well for herself considering.

Still, at this point Anita is fairly relateable. She realizes she doesn't need any more complications in her life. She owns up to the fact that maybe she's an eensy bit paranoid. Though I don't understand why both Richard and J.C. seem deeply affected by Anita's every whim. Would you wait for someone for six months? I think at the end of OB it was supposedly even longer than that, but psh timeline, what's that? It was also implied that she hadn't even been in contact with J.C. and Richard that whole time. And they're still hoping she'll come round and decide which one of them to bang?

And, we're deep in to the first chapter and there's still no inkling of plot. I like slice of life scenes. People getting coffee together, going to dinner, hanging out doing something unrelated to monster hunting. But at the very beginning of a book? You'd better be a damn good author to pull that off, and unfortunately LKH is not that author.

Then there's this gem: "I'm not mad, Ronnie, just tired, Tired of you, my family, Dolph, Zebrowski, everyone being so damned judgmental." And this is where the implied comparison to minority relationships fall apart. The whole scene thus far has been modeled after say, someone experiencing discrimination for an interracial relationship. The problem is, the fear of interracial love and breeding is completely unfounded, with no justification for the stance beyond bigotry. On the other hand a goddamn vampire can tear your throat out, mindrape you, turn you in to one of them, and a host of other terrible things. A black person can't transform in to a giant wolf monster that has claws the size of a garden rake. In short, people have every reason to judge Anita's choices. It's like having a lion for a pet, or dating a mafia don. The danger is real and obvious, plus Anita's ethics are all kinds of fucked considering she's supposed to oppose vampires behaving badly, even killing them when required. Talk about a conflict of interests! No wonder her coworkers are pissed at her.

Just a minor nitpick again, but Ronnie is wearing four inch heels. Damn, girl.

FINALLY THE PLOT MAKES AN APPEARANCE. Gregory, one of the wereleopards, calls to tell Anita that Nathaniel is in trouble. Why the book couldn't have opened with that, I don't know. A few sentences about Anita and Ronnie getting back from dinner, getting the message, Ronnie arguing with her a bit to try and keep Anita from getting involved, Anita goes anyway. Bam, done. A hundred times better.

"Wereanimals without a dominant to protect them were anyone's meat, and if someone moved in and slaughtered them, it would sort of be my fault." This I will never understand. I could see with certain prey animals, even though prey animals are more likely to fuck you up than a predator animal thanks to survival instincts and moving in groups. But yes, these groups do sometimes have dominance hierarchies. But these guys are leopards! Why are they all so slavish? Why can't they defend themselves? This just smacks of D&D campaign; the guy with the prestige path lords it over everyone else. I am forced to conclude that the leopards are helpless simply so Anita can come in and rescue and protect them, in an effort to once again highlight how freaking badass she's supposed ot be. Again. Even though all she's done so far is carry leftovers and ramble about guns.

Hamrful idea #2: I like Nathaniel as a concept. I have a weak spot for that character archetype. But Anita can seriously fuck off and die with this shit: "He was one of the few true submissives I have ever met." This probably seems like a silly thing to harp on, but this concept is actually quite dangerous. The BDSM world is a convenient place for the disturbed to hide, and this is one of the ways they protect their amoral behavior. They find a submissive, often one who is new to the scene, and browbeat them every time they balk with shit like, if you were a true submissive you would never protest my abusive treatment. There is no such thing as a true submissive. There are certainly people who desire to be 24/7 slaves and people who want to engage in consensual non-consent, but they are no more or less valid than people who purely see BDSM as a play concept, not to be engaged in outside of that context.

Harmful idea #3: I think Anita's instincts are right regarding sending Nate out with handlers, though, since he isn't capable of setting his own boundaries. That's not uncommon with survivors of abuse trying to live a BDSM lifestyle. In fact, I have this exact same problem, so I'm going to give Anita a couple of brownie points for this one. BUT and this is a very big but, here we go: "But Nathaniel was one of those rare subs who are almost incapable of saying no, and there had been hints made that his idea of pain and sex could be very extreme." Being a sub does NOT in ANY WAY, preclude you from saying no. Instead of Nate's lack of boundaries being attributed to his complex trauma, they're attributed to his submission. This is wrong. Flat out wrong. LKH is messing up BDSM in such an awful way. Sometimes these books are so bad they're fun, but this is just grimly offensive. On the next page she does say that part of it is that Nate isn't healthy, but the wording is suspect. Still, some brownie points here too for following up these statements with some reasonable stuff about how dominance and submission work, in that the submissive also has a responsibility to the dominant, a responsibility that includes knowing one's limits and when to use one's safeword.

I think my problem with this is that again I feel LKH has put the ideas in the wrong place. Leave out the true submissive bull and start with the little description of what healthy BDSM is like, and you'd have a much less problematic couple of paragraphs. She also does a good job of showing how the BDSM community policies itself, usually fairly well. I smiled in recognition at the whole, women in sex clubs must all be available submissives thing because that's a very common chestnut. At this point I'm still engaged in the narrative, so that counts for something.

My beef though is that I don't see Anita as being all that dominant, yet everyone around her acts like she's the archetypal dominant every submissive prays for at night. "The other wereleopards said I gave off so much dominant vibe that no dominant would ever approach Nathaniel while I was with him." Nothing in all the sporkings I've read has lead me to believe that Anita is particularly dominant or even capable. Also no other dominant approaching is bullshit, unless Nathaniel is her collared slave. Dominants do trade submissives around sometimes, it's not that crazy to think other dominants might approach them in the hopes of arranging something.

Wait, dominants will approach Anita and Nate, but the next page assures me "Though we'd had offers for menage a trois of every description." So which is it? People won't approach, yet they get offers for group sex on the regular?

Anita is pissed off and says "Well, that just fries my bacon." Of course Gregory has to ask what that means so Anita can explain that she's angry. I don't think we need to have this spelled out. Most regions in the U.S. have a saying like this. "That just chaps my ass" comes immediately to mind. One thing I don't like about LKH's writing is that she seems to assume her readers are stupid and require Anita to explain and re-explain every little thing that happens. It's condescending and rude.

People say hackneyed things like "We couldn't have anticipated this" and then the bad guy takes the phone from Gregory and makes some empty cliched threats. Anita asks whether Gregory is alive and Marco, said bad guy says "What sort of people are you used to dealing with, that you would ask if we've killed him first thing?" This is ONCE AGAIN meant to show how tough Anita is and how her life is so hard, and how she's always putting her ass on the line, but to me it's a bog standard conclusion to reach. Someone came on the phone unexpectedly to threaten her, and they won't let her speak to Gregory. Ergo, one could reasonably assume he's been badly hurt or even killed.

Gregory screaming in to the phone is a nice touch, really. I liked that bit. However this is an incredibly awkward sentence: "...and the sound raised the hairs on my neck and danced down my arms in goodebumps." Danced? In? Huh?

Marco's threats are so cliche and silly that I can't take the danger seriously. It would be "a shame to spoil all that [Nathaniel's] beauty" plus he implies sexual assault by asking if Gregory and Nathaniel really are strippers. Gag.

That's chapter one done. The biggest issue I have as far as the writing is that everything feels like it's in the wrong place. It gives the whole thing a weird choppy feeling instead of the story flowing smoothly. It's also only chapter one and we've already encountered two or three really icky concepts.

Narcissus in Chains, Chapter One Part A

LKH's chapters are notoriously short, but unless Dottie decides to combine chapters I won't either. Fair warning, I am a lot wordier than Dottie so if you don't want to read my ramblings that's understandable. Still, dissimilar styles are probably good when the source material is the same. Plus this is one of the longest chapters I've ever seen in an Anita book, so I'm breaking it in to two parts. Read Dottie's breakdown of chapter one here. Onward!

So, Narcissus in Chains. This is the book, the one where fans of the series jumped ship en masse. Often I've heard them lament about how Obsidian Butterfly was the last good Anita tale. The problem with that is, as Dottie's breakdown shows, OB was a terrible book also. I think nostalgia figures heavily in to the opinions of former fans.

In fact, I picked up and read Guilty Pleasures not long after it came out. I thought it was serviceable. One of the reasons I didn't continue with the series was its attitude towards religion. A member of the bad guy squad had a gris gris and this was meant to imply that he was relying on a primitive or even evil belief system, whereas Anita with her glowing cross was portrayed as righteous.

I'm a polytheist and so of course I find the notion that an indigenous or traditional religion is lesser than Christianity startlingly offensive, but I'd like to think I'd feel offended even if I didn't have a horse in that particular race. LKH does not have a good track record with portraying vodou, either, continuously confusing vodou with some sort of ill-defined Devil worship. So I put the book down, never to return.

However, considering I enjoy writing about bondage, polyamory and the like, and because the anti-fans are so vocal, I picked up Narcissus in Chains. Surprisingly, I didn't hate it. But it definitely did not realize it's potential. Without further ado, let's delve in to why I feel it failed to do so.

Chapter one features our heroine having just returned from a fancy dinner out for her friend Ronnie's thirtieth birthday. This chapter is perfectly serviceable, though LKH has a bad habit whereby Anita tends to think the same thing over and over again with only slight variations on the theme. So the opener is:

"June had come in like it's hot, sweaty self, but a freak cold front had moved in during the night and the car radio had been full of the record low temperatures." That's already an odd sentence, considering it makes it sound as though the radio--as in the actual device--is somehow trapping cold within itself in a literal sense as opposed to a broadcaster updating Anita and Ronnie on the weather. Next we have this: "My best friend, Ronnie Sims (I'd like to know who thinks of their best friend as Firstname Lastname, but we'll give that one a pass, even though I should hope long term readers remember who Anita's best friend is) and I were sitting in my Jeep with the windows down, letting the unseasonably cool air drift in on us." This may be quite nitpicky of me, but we already know the weather is unseasonable. She's told us once before. And then again: "...maybe it was the sweet smell of springlike air coming through the windows..." 

Just in case anyone is still confused, the weather is unseasonable, you guys.

Now, I'm being a little snarky because that's the underpinnings of the exercise, but I do sympathize a bit. The manuscript I am currently working on (funnily enough loosely inspired by this book) is the only tale I've ever attempted in a first person perspective. It's very tempting to repeat yourself and work through your ideas on the page, resulting in this kind of repetition. However, I think an author with a team of professional editors at her disposal should probably take advantage of them and cut the fat.

On that note, her love of "like some" conceit. This is another temping hole to fall in to. " the caress of some half-remembered lover" followed by "like some modern painting." She also refers to Ronnie's hair as "yellow" which makes me wonder if she's actually died it an unnatural shade, because otherwise why wouldn't you say blond?

Anyway, she and Ronnie are primarily arguing over whether Anita should be dating J.C. I think those of us who are paying attention are shouting NO, NO YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULDN'T. I am not sure if this character has ever done an admirable thing in his entire life.

Hamrful idea #1: Okay warning, I am about to get on a soapbox here. STALKING IS NOT, HAS NEVER BEEN, AND WILL NEVER BE ROMANTIC. We have a serious problem with this in U.S. culture and I would venture to say around the world. A person who doesn't respect boundaries is at best horribly misguided and at worst terribly dangerous. We MUST learn to take people's actions before we consider their words. If someone say, kidnaps your cat and gives it away, or tampers with your food, drink, or medications, if someone continues to leave gifts and notes even after being told no, if someone blackmails you in to anything, that is not okay, and it does not matter what words they use in an attempt to justify it. Words are cheap and free. And what did J.C. do at the jump? Blackmailed Anita in to a relationship. That is so gross to me, I just can't. To paraphrase Maria Bamford, J.C. is a factory that only produces giant red flags.

*huff huff* So, just to recap, stalking and blackmail = not sexy. That's not to say that can't be in the book. Books aren't meant to make you feel safe, or at least not every book is meant to make you feel safe. But this is clearly a topic that goes beyond LKH's ability to perceive nuance and her ability to deal in ethics.
Not once does J.C. truly get taken to task for his actions. It's explained away as love, or because he's an incubus and needs emotions/sex to feed on.

Unfortunately when it comes to stalking, these are the exact excuses used to absolve the stalker from responsibility. You see, it's Anita's fault. If she weren't so lovely, J.C. could resist her and retain control over his dangerous sexuality. And besides, he's just showing her that he can't live without her! I am amazed at how this manages to be offensive to both women AND men, claiming in one fell swoop that women should understand stalking behavior as being motivated by pure and good emotions, and that we should all realize that male sexuality is a dumb, poorly controlled beast that at any moment is sure to slip its lead. Ugh.

Then we're treated to some stuff meant to show that Anita is capable of murder, as opposed to Ronnie, who isn't. Fine, I'll buy in to this. I think a trope of the genre is the main character trying to figure where their boundaries lie. In fact I think urban fantasy and to a lesser degree paranormal romance almost requires that the main character live in a liminal space.

I actually also sympathize with both Anita and Ronnie in this scene. Ronnie realizes how fucked up it is that J.C. and Anita are together at all, and Anita feels judged for an alternative lifestyle choice. However, Ronnie is ultimately in the right because she realizes that stalking is not love, and she's doing the admirable thing by trying to protect her friend. She's also taking Anita to task for eschewing her duties as an executioner. I like Ronnie. I'm sure later she'll undergo some kind of character assassination so I'll try not to get too attached.

Part B to follow!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

24k on Morgandy MacNeil #1

24k on the witch novel, very loosely inspired by Anita Blake.

Today I discovered the joys of Scrivener's full screen mode, which lets you see your entire manuscript laid out in a continuous stream. I find this incredibly helpful, since it lets me note places that need better/more transitions. Also it blocks out the rest of your screen while you write so you can't answer the siren song of Reddit.

Here's some stuff from the beginning. As always this is a first draft:

“Hey MacNeil, congratulations on making S.W.A.T.”

From anyone else I would’ve thought it was mockery. Women didn’t make S.W.A.T very often (though in my case being a witch definitely gave me a leg up), and when they did a lot of the guys around the department thought they were just there to meet diversity quotas. Probably doubly so in my case considering I was (mostly, close enough for government work) Salish. But it was my partner, Horowitz, and I knew he meant it.

I went over to his desk. It was 2014 but the room still looked like something out of a 1940s cop drama, weathered desks with blotters, lamps that drew hazy circles of light around detectives staying past sundown. Beige phones and clunky computer monitors, though we’d got a minor upgrade on the computers a couple of months before.

Horrowitz fixed me with his pretty black eyes, his golden complexion making them stand out all the more. He had no magical abilities to speak of, no glamours or special aura. He was just attractive in a totally human way, though he didn’t do much for me personally. I could appreciate him and his Greek beauty, though, even if the needle on my sexuality dial pointed the other way.

I detoured to the coffee machine and brought two full styrofoam cups back, taking the chair in front of his workspace. I plunked the drinks down, planting my elbow on his desk and leaning my head in to my hand.

"Glad I’m not in Vice anymore.”

I’d been in Homicide for awhile now, but the S.W.A.T. appointment meant they weren’t going to bounce me to another department unless I did something really stupid.

“Yeah, the hell with that. I never minded too much, though. At least they can’t make me parade around in those tiny outfits.”

“I dunno, man, this is San Fran. One of these days you’re going to be out there on the corner in a banana hammock.”

“Let’s just hope today isn’t the day.” He stood up, putting his sidearm in its holster and tugging his suit jacket on. He picked up the cup of coffee and drained it in a single gulp. I stood up too, drank my coffee the same way, and grinned.

“What, forget to wax your balls?”

He sighed a long suffering sigh instead of answering. I giggled and followed along, doing up my tie.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My promise to readers

I write about fucked up things. Dark twisted sexual things. Rape. Murder. Torture. Of course I write about admirable things too. Bravery, love, autonomy, integrity. But this post isn't about admirable things, or nice things, or comfortable things.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think the conversation about what should be in books has devolved to the point where a certain group is insisting that the "PC police" are out to censor and sanitize books. There's some truth to that. Some people really do want to micromanage and control what you put in your stories, and that ain't cool. But here's the thing, and here's my promise to my readers and potential readers as an author:

I may offend you with my writing. It may be too sexual for you, too morally ambiguous. It might be disgusting, explicit, and at the bare minimum uncomfortable. But what I will my damndest to avoid is offending you because my writing includes unexamined biases that go unchallenged by the narrative.

And really, I think that's what most readers want. Sure, push their boundaries. Or in my rough around the edges parlance, write some fucked up shit and tug your readers along for the ride. But at least when you read my stories, you hopefully won't have to deal with a black supporting character with no story of their own, who dies in the first three chapters. Or a Native who stands around in a loincloth saying How! and educating the white protagonist about loving nature. There won't be a gay best friend who only exists to prop up the straight female main character. Yes, I love to take tropes and twist them, but lord deliver me from writing these sorts of cut outs as legit.

The next part of my promise is this: if there's a problematic element in one of my stories, it will be intentional to the best of my abilities. Yes, I have privileges and even though I have done a lot of work around them sometimes I'm sure some unintentional bias will slip in to my novels. But at least you can rest assured that I've done my due diligence. I've done the research.  If it's there, it's very likely that it's meant to be there, and usually it will be dismantled by the end.

I will do my level best to tell you the story I want and need to tell in an honest manner, while also avoiding the slog through unexamined stereotypes so much media forces us all to confront. People want to make this so much more complicated than it is, but that's the long and short of it. Write honestly but elevate your work above the obvious.

Let's shake on it, okay?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Saying you want something fresh only goes so far

If you want something new and innovative, you have to buy it. This video is about video games, but can be applied to any creative medium.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cracked 20k on the Anita Blake inspired novel

This is a very rough draft:

“Come on, Saffie. Why do you make me come to this place?”

I had to admit it, Wicked Grounds always made me uncomfortable. Sure, you could get all the usual things, like rich mochas with pillowy snowdrifts of homemade whip cream on top. Or maybe a slice of blueberry lemon loaf and a double shot of espresso, a muddy cup of French press coffee, whatever your poison was. The room was comfortable enough, and rejuvenating light rolled in like a pale wave thanks to the big picture window up front. The black and white floor tiles glimmered, so clean you could eat off of them.

Hell, some people did.

It wasn’t uncommon to see customers come in with their slaves on leashes, barely clothed men and women crawling on hands and feet behind their owners, heavy collars clasped around their necks. If those slaves had been particularly good that day, Wicked Grounds might treat them to an espresso milkshake, served up a dog bowl. The smell of lovingly cared for leather competed with the aroma of roasted coffee beans and the bakery-sweet cloud that hung over the front counter.

Serafina knew how I felt about it, too. She liked making me uncomfortable, but not in any way that was too serious. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to tease me a little. I could wind myself too tight if I wasn’t careful, and Saffie had a way of keeping me honest.

"I like watching you squirm.” She informed me, an impish smile on her expressive mouth.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Changeling: the Lost or what am I doing now

Right now, Onyx Path Publishing is looking for freelance writers. I picked up my first Werewolf: the Apocalypse book at thirteen, and the World of Darkness has had an immeasurable effect on my work since then. One of the first novella length things I ever saw through to the end was a piece of Werewolf fanfiction. To say I want this job with a deep and all encompassing passion would be understating the case. So everything else is on hold while I go in to emergency mode and try and write the best thing I can for this all call. 

The game I think I love the most from their New World of Darkness line is Changeling: the Dreaming. Exploring trauma has always been a major theme of mine. No Deadly Thing revolves around it. In fact I would say it's the very heart of the story. 

For a long time the Werewolf: the Apocalypse tagline inspired me: "a story telling game of savage horror." But what grabbed my attention even more? "Changeling the Dreaming: a Storytelling Game of Beautiful Madness." 

Madness, insanity, lunacy and so forth matter to me just as much as trauma, and Changeling: the Lost has brought them all together in a mix I find completely irresistible. My little project therefore is Changeling: the Lost related and I feel cautiously optimistic about it. A close friend of mine is doing a write up for Mage: the Awakening and his project is also totally kick ass. To share in the creative process has been wonderful. Think good thoughts for both of us, okay? 

Back to the worktable with me.