Writing the Right Way

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There is no right or wrong way to write.


Okay, I suppose I should expand a little.

First, this can’t be said enough: all writing advice, regardless of who gives it, is very, very, very (you get it) much your mileage may vary. What works perfectly well for one person is completely useless to another. Everyone has to find their own way to create, and while some pieces of advice can be useful (a controversial opinion from someone who writes a lot of writing advice) it’s up to you decide which is useful to you. As seems to be happening more, this post is inspired by interactions I’ve seen on various social media platforms.

Outline – to pants or plot!

You might’ve come across the terms pantster and plotter. A panster is just someone writes by the seat of their pants, and a plotter, well, plots out the story. I’m 99% pantster. I do create an outline for everything I write, though it’s rarely more than a two pages, three at most. It’s little more than the chapter number, the point-of-view character, and what key event needs to happen in that chapter. With the exception of The Forgotten, every outline I’ve created is generally useless by chapter 4. As the story develops, the sequence changes, new ideas come into fruition, etc. I’ll usually update the outline for a while, but before long I say screw it and just focus on writing the damn story. I’ve never thought of it this way before, but for me outlines are like the towers for rocket launches. It’s necessary to get me started, but it gets left behind in a fiery explosion. Not really. Well, okay, there was that one time, but I can’t legally discuss it.

On the other end of the spectrum, I know authors who build outlines that are nearly novels on their own. For them, this is the skeleton around which the story is built. I also know some people who don’t outline at all. If you find them useful, use them, If not, don’t.

Write the book start to finish!

Guess what? You don’t have to! This can also tie into the different software people prefer. I have several friends who use Scrivener and they love it because they can write chapter 21 then chapter 7 then 8, then 1. Apparently you can also move the chapters around with ease and it’s just awesome. I wouldn’t know as I don’t like Scrivener and thus don’t use it. To me, it’s overly complicated for what I need and while I generally love learning new software, I’m happy to stick with Word and just get the writing done.

I do write from start to finish and in a completely fictional and non-scientific study I’ve done, it appears that those who can and do write chapters (or sections) out of order also rely on robust outlines. As I don’t, I don’t. For me, the story grows and develops as I write it, and the very idea of writing a later chapter before a preceding one fills me with dread. The ability to do so is clearly witchcraft, and while I approve of witchcraft in general, writing witchcraft is beyond me. But you can do that magic, get witchy with it. Just please don’t turn me into a newt. I’m not going through that again.


(college was a wild time)

You must use (enter software name here)!

Yes, I’ve actually seen this argument and, you guessed it, it is grade A bullshit. Use whatever works for you (are you noticing a recurring theme here?). G.R.R. Martin uses an old DOS machine running WordStar because it works for him, and he’s George R. R. Martin so people work around it. I use Word because I’ve used it forever, or at least since Word Perfect died, and I know how to use it. In the past, I’ve written long hand (my hands hurt just thinking about this), and used word processors, as in an actual word processing machine. They were like computers that only ran Word. I’ve also used manual typewriters, not because it was iron but because that was all that existed. Yes, I’m old, get off my lawn.

To make a long story short—too late—find what tools work for you. If the ones you’re using don’t, try something else, and keep trying until you find something that does. I’m a computer geek from the way-way back, when the old ones walked streets lined with boothy-phones and the internet was called Encyclopedia Britannica. So, I prefer to do all my work on a computer. I outline, keep notes, create story bibles, write, and edit on a computer. Some people can’t edit if they don’t print it out and mark it up, which is cool for them. One author I know uses a whiteboard and 3×5 cards to plot and layout a story. It’s a little too Beautiful Mind for me, but she rocks it and good on her.

TLDR: Writing can be hard. Chuck Wendig—very funny man and skilled writer—once said something along the lines of: writing can be rainbow unicorns that poop cupcakes, and sometimes it’s digging ditches. I imagine many of you reading this know the truth of that statement. Writing is hard, so don’t make it any harder than it needs to be. Grab a shovel, even if that college professor, famous author, weird guy on the street, the Dalai Lama, or a weird Dalai Lama on the street said you should dig with your hands first. It’s a creative process and no one knows how to do it your way, but you. If anyone tells you otherwise, tell them I said they should piss off. This will probably confuse them, but if they’re Catholic it could terrify them, so, have fun with it!


(Avoid all advice from the Llama Dalai Lama)

The Myth of Natural Born Talent

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I saw a conversation on Twitter recently about a writer “starting from nothing” and it got me thinking. There’s a fairly prevalent myth regarding not just writers, but nearly everyone in the creative arts. Hell, if we’re being honest about it, it extends into most aspects of life. This myth (and it is a myth) is that some people are just born artists, or singers, or mechanics, or mathematicians, or scientists, etc.

“She’s always had a gift for math.”

“He was drawing the most amazing things by five.”

“She was always helping with car repairs.”

“They were always making people laugh.”

It’s true some people have a natural aptitude: i.e. their brains are wired in such a way that they grasp some concepts quickly. However, this doesn’t mean someone is born with a best-selling novel in their tiny hands (thankfully for mothers everywhere), or a paint brush, or singing Ave Maria. Well maybe the last one, but it just comes across as crying. I don’t know any writer, musician, artist, or the like who never had to work at their art. Make no mistake, while some people might have a natural advantage, damn near anything you can imagine is a skill developed over time. Let’s take a common go to when the topic of geniuses come up.

A common misconception about Mozart is that he was born a gifted musician for whom music came as natural as breathing. The truth is more nuanced and complicated. Amadeus’s father was a music teacher and composer; more successful at the former than the latter. Amadeus sat in on his older sister’s lessons at age three and developed an interest in music. His father began teaching Amadeus, and by four, the child was playing the piano. The story goes that he was composing original music by five, but there is some debate about how true this is. His father stopped composing at the same time his son started, and most of the handwriting of the music was his father’s. Additionally, his father made money from his children, touting them as prodigies and having them play in front of the well to do of Europe.

This is not to say Amadeus wasn’t brilliant, but he also spent literal years learning his craft. It’s been shown that young children learn much quicker than adults, by necessity. Consider for a moment just how much kids learn in just the first few years of life: motor skills, language (sometimes more than one), social interaction, spatial awareness, and a whole long list of other things. We’ve all heard how young Olympians are when they start training. A lot of what we recognize as natural born talent is simply an interest sparked at a young age that isn’t lost. If your friend in high school who was an amazing sketch artist started drawing when they were six, is it any wonder that ten years later they’re pretty freaking good? Could it be that if you start something early enough (while the brain is still developing) that a natural aptitude is created? Regardless of how, some people are just better at somethings, but how is that different than all the other advantages people have over each other (better schools, food security, support and encouragement, a stable home life)?

When I was very young, five or six I think, my brother (nine years older) had an open house at his high school. This would’ve been the early eighties and Apple computers were just beginning to show up. While my mother talked with my brother’s teachers, I found a computer, booted it up, loaded a game, and set to playing. For anyone unfamiliar with the Apple II, let me assure you this wasn’t a herculean feat. Maybe I had some natural aptitude with computers, but more likely I got lucky. However, this event got the attention of my mother and the teacher. As such, I got branded a computer genius at an early age. When most kids were getting Atari 2600s, Colecovisions, or the like, I got a commodore Vic-20 (yes, I’m old, I’ve come to terms with it). When I complained that I couldn’t play many games on it (it had a cartridge slot and cassette tape input, but few options) I was told I could make my own games. So I did. I’ve used the Vic-20, the Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, Wang (the computer, I was a kid you perve!), several Tandy models, and eventually windows and Apple computers (including the early Macintosh). I remember hearing about Cray supercomputers and losing my mind.

After working with computers for almost forty years (we’ve established that I’m old) I can be functional in a program or system in a few days, and be showing others better ways to use them in a couple weeks. This isn’t to brag. I’m not a genius, I’ve just spent a lot of years developing this skill.

I’ve also been writing, at varying levels of seriousness, for just about as long. That skill however wasn’t born from the encouragement and support of my above example. I’ve mentioned before that my childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s wasn’t the brutal hellscape some grow up in, but it left its mark. I lived in near constant fear and amid near constant conflict. Like many families in that situation, we projected the appearance of normalcy. Most of my friends knew things weren’t great for me, but only a few knew the whole truth. I grew up believing that maintaining this illusion was of the utmost importance. This meant lying, a lot. My instinct to “keep the peace” at any cost took a long time to overcome. I have a feeling more than a few of you reading this know what I’m talking about.

But a useful aspect of this skill is that it translates well into storytelling, both writing and acting. I wrote my first stories in either kindergarten or first grade, I’m not sure which. I don’t imagine they were terribly inventive, but my teacher would read them to the class at story time. I don’t remember those instances in detail, but I remember how amazing they felt. I wrote poetry through junior high and high school. Yes, most of it was terrible and will never see the light of day, but some of it was good enough to win contests. When I got into college, I started taking writing more seriously. It took me ten years to finish my first novel, but only three months to finish the second. That second, The Stolen, would be my first published novel.

I’m a bit of a rarity among the published authors I know in that I don’t have a sizeable stack of novels (finished or not) in the proverbial drawer. Before The Stolen was published, I’d only worked on two novels, and only finished one (the other won’t ever be finished because, well, it’s crap). I don’t think this is because I’m some literary genius or naturally gifted writer. Rather than writing more novels, I took one (guess which) and started working with freelance editors to improve it. That’s when I learned that coming up with a story, and telling it well, were two different skill sets. I’d gotten pretty good at the first, but had no idea how to do the second. I learned a LOT from those early editors, and even more from my editor at Harper. In the years since, I’ve learned even more and continue to improve my craft. I hope I’ll continue to learn and improve for the rest of my life.

I know this has been a long post, and thanks to those of you who made it all the way through, but it has all been prelude to a simple idea. Anyone can learn the skills to become a writer (or nearly anything else) at any point in your life. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing since you were five, or you didn’t start until you were in your sixties.I don’t know for sure why we assign an almost magical air to people who are exceptionally successful or talented in a given field. Maybe it’s because it makes it easier to dismiss our dreams (or worse, the dreams of others).

“You’ll never be as good as Yo-Yo Ma.”

It’s worth noting here that he started on the cello at four-and-a-half.

It’s true you might not be the next Amadeus Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Johnny Cash, or Van Gogh, but that doesn’t mean that if you put in the time effort, that you can’t ever be amazing at something. It might take you longer that some, or less than others. It’ll be hard, and sometimes it will just plain suck, but you can do it.

And don’t try to be the next anything, or berate yourself because you won’t be. We already have one. Work to be the first you. That’s something we don’t have, and no one else can do it.

The Author’s Voice

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Recently, a writer friend posted about a conversation he had with his agent regarding his voice. The writer is a self-confessed style chameleon, meaning he can mimic the styles of other writers, a laudable skill. However, the agent was curious what his voice would be when he wasn’t copying someone else. I tried to express what I thought the agent meant, but I’m not sure I expressed my thoughts well, so I’ve decided to tackle it here in a longer form.

If you’re a writer, or in the writing world, you’ve probably heard the term ‘writer’s voice’ before, but what is it? Unfortunately, a lot of people see it a bit like pornography in that “you know it when you see it.” It’s also one of the hardest, and most important, things a writer will do. As I’m a fan of philosophy, particularly Socrates, let’s start by trying to define the ineffable voice.

First, to be clear, I don’t mean a character’s voice. Each character (hopefully) has their own distinct voice expressed through word choice, emotional responses, and the like. A writer’s voice is a style, or feel to their writing. It doesn’t matter what genre the story is, their voice is the foundation upon which the story is told. Here’s an analogy that might help. There are some musicians who have such a well-defined style, or voice, that you can recognize one of their songs that you’ve never heard before. I think Santana is an excellent example of this because of his guitar. Mumford and Sons, the Pogues, Gaelic Storm, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Social Distortion are a few more examples just off the top of my head. Just about any die-hard fan can recognize the style of their favorite bands though.

So how does this translate into writing? Well, like music, style is built from different factors. Not many people make it a point to sit down and dissect a piece of writing to try and find the author’s voice, but it can prove to be a useful exercise in your own work. Here are just a few examples of what makes up a writer’s style or voice:

Word choice and sentence structure is often a key element in an author’s voice. Are their sentences long, or do they tend to use shorter, more clipped sentences? Do they use a lot of descriptive terms, or are they more direct? Anne Rice is a good example of the former and Hemingway of the latter. Do they use a lot of ‘ten dollar words’? Does the use of them come across as authentic? What about profanity/curse words? How much? Is it creative? i.e. does someone get called an asshole or a bloviated shit weasel.

The pacing of a book can be another aspect of the writer’s voice. It goes without saying that most stories, and (hopefully) all novels have a pace that varies: faster in action scenes, slower during deliberations, etc. But the story will also have an overall pace. Most people have read books where a hundred pages feels like ten, and other books that are the reverse. That level of pacing is determined by things like exposition, plot complexity, and even the characters.

Dialogue use versus narration could be considered part of pacing. The more dialogue used, the more ‘white space’ there will be (usually), and the more pages a book will have. The denser the text, the slower a book tends to feel. Despite the impact they can have on pace, I think dialogue versus narration deserves its own consideration. Narration doesn’t always have to feel slow and dialogue doesn’t have to feel fast. A long stretch of dialogue can be as dry as narration, and I’ve read narration that is more thrilling and energetic than the dialogue. Genre can have some impact in which way things lean, epic fantasy tends to have more narration for example, but there are exceptions. I tend to favor dialogue over narration, sometimes too much, even in my high fantasy stories.

The tone, or feel, of a story is a bit harder to define, but just as key. I’ll use my books as an example. They tend to the darker side, but not dark as in horror. If my books were people, they’d carry the scars—physical and emotional—of a hard lived life. They’d know how it feels to be hungry, and not know when you’ll eat again. They’ve been preyed upon by someone more powerful, and regularly come out on the losing end. But they still cling to hope, and in fact derive their strength from it. I’d classify my books in the neighborhood as Richard Kadrey and Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files particularly). This obviously begs the question: doesn’t the individual story drive the tone? Of course it will have an impact, but with my work at least, I find the story adds depth to the tone rather than wholly defining it.

Lastly, there’s plot. I don’t just mean complex versus simple, but how the plots tend to be constructed. Does the story have seemingly disparate pieces that don’t come together till the end, or is each branch obviously part of the whole? Does the author use misdirection, throwing twists that turn out to have nothing to do with the main thread? Do they rely more on subtext, or are the hints more overt? Does the plot twist and turn, or does it just emerge from the fog? Again, the plot structure can shift from book to book, but it can also be a common thread that adds to the writer’s voice.

I could list other elements that can define a writer’s voice, but I think these are the easiest to see and breakdown. But style isn’t a recipe. Some writer’s might find their voice from all the examples I listed, some from only a couple, and others from elements I didn’t list at all. As writers we tend to start by mimicking the style of writers we like, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more you write though, the more you’ll probably see your own voice shining through. There’s no secret to finding your voice, and no timeline. I started to find mine by the second book I wrote, and really felt like I’d found my groove by the fourth. Some people may need more time and some lucky bastards might find their voice right out of the gate. It’s okay to hate those people, we all hate them.

However long it takes to find your voice is how long it takes. It isn’t a race and taking more or less time to find it doesn’t make you a better or worse writer. Regardless, I hope this post helps you along the way. It’s rarely an easy journey (unless you’re one of those previously mentioned lucky bastards) but it’s an important one, perhaps the most important. At least that’s my opinion.

Seriously though, if you found your voice the first time you sat down to write, screw you.

Morality and Motivation

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Please note, in the following discussion I use the term hero and villain. I’m using it in a non-gendered sense, much like actor is now used. Nothing I’ll be discussing need vary based on gender.

It’s common writing advice to make sure your characters, all of your characters, have a motivation; they need to want something. In some cases this can be as simple as wanting a glass of water because they’re thirsty. This might serve in the short term, or for very minor characters. For the protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) of your story—assuming they’re people—your story will be better served if they have a deeper motivation driving them, beyond just the scene, but for the overall story. I’ve found establishing the morality of the characters makes this much simpler. It’s also helpful because you have something against which you can judge their actions; does is fit the character, or is it just a means to fit the story?

If you suspect my choice of topic for this post was influenced by current events, you’d be correct. This post isn’t about the principles we proclaim or project to the world, it’s about the true core of who we are, and what we believe is right.

I make no secret of the fact I majored in philosophy in college. As such, I enjoy a good and spirited debate. So long as it’s based on reason and fact. Sure, opinion can be a valid point if what you’re arguing has no objective answer. Chocolate being a superior ice cream flavor over chocolate doesn’t have an objective answer, but you’ll still need a reasoned argument if the debate will have any value. Because I like it, is not a reasoned argument. With that in mind, let’s start this discussion in a manner that would make Socrates proud, let’s define our topic.

A great many people confuse morality and ethics, and use the terms interchangeably. In point of fact, not only are they different, they are in some ways complete opposites. Morality is an internal set of principles you use to determine if something is wrong or right. Ethics are guidelines exerted by an external entity to moderate behavior. You workplace code of conduct for example, or the rules the doctors (and most medical professionals) and lawyers have to abide by. Obviously the two can overlap but they can also be opposed. In those cases a person with either remove themselves from the circumstance those ethics are applied, compromise their morality to fit, fight to have those ethical guidelines changed, or attempt to justify why such guidelines can’t or shouldn’t be applied to them. A prime example of this are the laws of commerce in the U.S. that preclude discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, or gender (or gender identity). The now famous, or perhaps infamous, case of the wedding cake maker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple was argued on the basis that customized cakes were an artistic expression over a commercial endeavor and as such should be excluded from the commerce guidelines.

Another common misconception is that a person’s morality is an immoveable, unchanging thing. A normal part of life is reexamining our morals and deciding if they still fit what we currently believe. In some cases it is an honest reassessment based on our changing selves and understanding of the world. In others something of greater value causes of us compromise, or abandon all together, some principles. I don’t have to tell you that in the latter example, a great deal of self-delusion and/or justification often follows when questioned on it.

Now that we’ve established a definition of morality, let’s look at some basic schools of moral thought. A discussion on the vast and complicated points of a person’s guiding principles would take far too long for a simple blog post. There are in fact countless books on this. So let’s focus instead on core morality. The roots of the morality tree if you will. In philosophy there are two basic schools of thought in terms of morality; the more complex and nuanced areas of study or almost always based on one of these two schools.

The first is absolutism. This is the idea that there are a set of moral standards to which all people, everywhere, and regardless of cultural or societal acceptance can be held to. The other, as you’d imagine, is the opposite. Relativism is the idea that there are no absolute moral principles and instead, every society (or even individual) must be permitted to determine their own moral guidelines. As such, in relativism anyway, it is inherently immoral to foist your principles/beliefs on anyone else. You can try and persuade them of course, but you can’t hold them to your moral standard.

A lot of people (at least people from western based cultures) would go with absolutism, at first anyway. We tend to believe there is a bedrock morality that can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, ever be compromised. Some will dismiss relativism, until you mention the part about the immorality of pushing your beliefs on another. That often gives people pause, especially Americans, which in the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of. A heavy cultural importance on the idea of individual freedom runs very deep. And make no mistake, it is cultural.

Odds are if you’re from a western (or westernized) country, the choice between these two schools isn’t an obvious one. Yes, of course a person should be allowed to determine and live by their own beliefs, but there are also some things that are just wrong. Abuse of a child is never right, be it sexual, physical, or emotional. Right? Well, if you’ve watched the news lately, you know a great many people feel it can be justified. Understand we’re talking about absolutism here. There is no justification, there is no “yes it’s wrong, but” explaining away. If there are things that are absolutely wrong, then it must be absolute. I could also use murder, but even our laws allow for self-defense. Rape? Well, for me that it is an absolute wrong, but if you spend any time on the internet and social media, you’ll find a sizeable population who feel otherwise. Often, as retaliation for a woman (or other marginalized person who isn’t male) having the audacity to speak their mind, or refuse to accept a predominantly male opinion.

Does that mean then that there are no moral absolutes? By default then the choice would be relativism. Do societies only go on because of some agreed upon tenets of behavior? That’s a good question. In order to answer it, I’ll need to reveal my own moral point of view. You’re of course welcome to challenge it and debate me on it. Understand however, if it isn’t well reasoned and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, I’ll dismiss it as lacking any value to the overall discussion. I expect no less from others in regards to my arguments. I’m sure some people are already prepared to argue against my inclusion of gender identity mentioned above. To briefly digress, I included it not because I’m a gender studies expert, that but because I am not. As such, I defer to the experts in that area of study, the majority of who, through scientific study, have concluded that gender and biological sex aren’t interchangeable, and in fact, gender is much more of a spectrum than a binary classification. Yes, there are dissenters, but those I’ve looked over either started from a conclusion and sought to “prove” it correct, which is not scientific study. Or, they define gender as a social construct and as a member of that society we should adhere to it. By this argument, the very fact our society is starting to accept gender classification makes it self-negating.  Or, it’s simply a philosophical argument, which is fine, except this is something with an objective truth and as such, science wins out. Argue if you like, but gut feelings, just knowing what’s right, or other such arguments will be ignored. If you have scientific studies, feel free to link to them and I’ll look them over. If they turn out to be as I noted above, I’ll dismiss them. If not, I’ll recognize there are valid dissenting conclusions and look forward to further study on the topic.

Now, as you might’ve deduced, I’m a liberal minded person. As such, it might be a surprise to learn that I’m an absolutist. Yes, I can already hear some people grumbling about the “tolerant” only being so in regards to points of view they agree with. It might also be surprise that I will agree with that, and I have no moral confusion on the point; being liberal minded and an absolutist is not mutually exclusive. How? Well, I’m an absolutist because I believe there is one single principle that is absolute, and that all people should be answerable to. Yes, even having a single absolute belief means I’m an absolutist. What is that one thing? It’s simple. I believe every person has the right to live their life how so ever they chose, up until it prevents someone else from living their life however they chose. Thomas Jefferson had a similar mind in terms of ethics.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Which has also been paraphrased as, “the reach of my arm should stop at my neighbor’s nose.” Of course I have can and do have varying opinions on individual actions (by individuals or governments), but I weigh all them against that single principle. It’s important to note here that something being moral (fitting within your moral principles) doesn’t mean it also kind. Likewise, just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it is evil. Not to say you can’t try, as I do, to always be kind, it just means that there is a higher standard which can overrule that desire.

You’re probably starting to see why there are countless books written on this topic. Like much of philosophy, and life, there are rarely easy answers and those we find might well be wrong.

Now, you’ve stayed with me for two and half pages of philosophical waxing, let’s talk about how all this helps in character development.

If you’re going to write compelling characters, they’ll need some motivation for their actions. For that motivation to be believable, it has to be consistent. The exception to this is if something happens that makes them reanalyze their own beliefs and motivations. While you’re free to delve deep and establish a complicated moral grounding for your characters, you rarely need to go that far. I find a get a deeper understanding of my characters and what they believe as the story develops. However, you still need a starting point. I’m sure the idea of developing motivation seems obvious, but I’m also sure we’ve all read stories where this wasn’t done, or not done well. Like much of your character development, these foundational principles don’t need to be obvious, or even stated in your story; your characters don’t all need to make a grand speech as to their values and beliefs. That being said, as the write, YOU damn sure should know what those motivations, values, and beliefs are. You needn’t have an in-depth understanding right away, or even for the entire first draft, but by the time you start revisions you should. It goes without saying that the sooner, and the deeper, you really understand your character, the better. It’s this understanding that will ensure a characters actions (with very, very, few exceptions, and those for good reason) is consistent and within their own morality.

Why is this important? Well you obviously want your readers to find your characters interesting. They don’t have to like them, though I believe there should always be at least one they can relate to and like. They do have to be compelling though. Readers are more likely to forgive a weaker story, or one with issues, if they like or are interested in the character. I’ve rarely heard of a story written so well the reader will keep going even if they find the characters blah. Heroes can’t just be the good person, and the villain can’t just be the bad one. Their motivations/beliefs don’t need to be a twisted web of complexity, but they must not ever be simple “because”. Why did the hero shoot that person? Because they’re a hero and the person they shot was the villain! What else would a hero do? While that’s a perfectly valid answer, it’s not a compelling one. Why did they shoot? Why didn’t they try to stop or subdue the villain without killing them? Why didn’t the hero try to reason with the villain? Or any number of other options? As the writer, you should be able to answer those questions. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to articulate it, though it’s not a bad thing if they can. They should however have a strong enough sense of who the character is that when presented with moral dilemmas, or complicated situation, they hero’s choice will feel correct at the end.

This sort of shallow simplicity does happen for heroes in a story, but it is much more commonly applied to the villains. Why did the villain blow up that building? Because they’re the villain, they’re evil! It’s what villains do. To be fair, being evil can be a legitimate motivation; some people just want to watch the world burn and all that. But apart from being a pretty lazy motivation, it’s only the surface. What is the deeper drive? What is the morality that drives them to be evil? With the exception of sever sociopaths and psychopaths, nearly all villains see themselves as the ones doing the right thing. Remember, something being moral doesn’t means it’s “good” or that it fits with societal normals and ethical standards. Likewise, morality, particularly of the villain, doesn’t need to make sense to you, or even the reader. It must however be consistent, apart from the examples I noted above.

This can be confusing, so let’s take a few villains from popular culture and dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the Joker, and since the comics have had different artists and writers, which lend itself to inconsistency, we’ll stick with the one from the movies. In the Dark Night movie, the Joker wanted to make people (or possibly just Batman) see that the order and structure of polite society was all a lie. Further, that once people (and by consequence society) were shown that lie, they would devolve into monsters with no care for others. This is actually a very common theme, particularly in dystopian stories. When society and its norms begin to vanish, people will naturally become focused on themselves to the exclusion of others. If it helps them survive, anything is justifiable. The problem, which doesn’t have to matter to the villain in question, is that reality counters this fairly decisively. Whenever there is destruction and/or tragedy, some selfish people emerge, but many more reach out to offer help and aid. In many cases it brings people together much more than it drives them apart. We see this after natural disasters, and even manmade destruction. Some might argue this is only because the overall structure of society remains intact, and provides some comfort even amid the destruction. But for those amid that destruction, have any thought to society beyond what their own experiences. To them, everything is burning, or destroyed. I wonder how many of those amid the destruction, see others suffering or hurt (including total strangers), actually ignore them and trust for someone of something else (society) to help. Some certainly, and some might be unable to help either because of injury or circumstance, but it always seems many more become that someone else. They become the helpers Mister Rogers said to look for. Again, my argument doesn’t discount the validity of the Joker’s motivation and morality (at least to him), it’s simply to show that morality, especially a villain’s, doesn’t need to be grounded in reality.

Darth Vader, especially in A New Hope was pretty much just evil. He did what he did because he was a bad guy, and his boss the emperor was also a bad guy. Yes, he had a redemption in Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert), but let’s focus on the motivation behind his dark deeds. Though it pains me to admit, the prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith, added some depth to his character. Basically, he was angry. He was just so angry! He couldn’t save Padme, and besides she was cheating on him with Obi-Wan. He just loved Padme SO much! He did those dark deeds in the prequels, including murdering a bunch of children, just to get the power to keep her from dying. Yeah, it’s valid, also creepy, really childish, only slightly better than “because evil”, but still valid. Let’s ignore the prequels for now though (I can hear some cheering). In the original trilogy, it appears that Vader is just following the commands of the emperor. He does bad things because he’s told to. Why though? Without a doubt some people are content to follow orders and surrender any responsibility to someone else, even in the face of horrific acts. Those people don’t tend to be second in command of an freaking empire though. Vader has to lead, and good leaders aren’t just mindless followers. And he was a good leader, even considering what we’ll call an issue with blaster marksmanship on the part of the Stormtroopers. Despite years of trying, the rebellion never managed to bring down the empire. He also makes his own choices. The emperor gives him broad commands, but it’s up to Vader to figure out how to achieve them. I think, and I’m likely giving Lucas too much credit here, that Vader wasn’t driven by anger or love, but fear. Still ignoring the prequels, Vader took some serious damage. So much that, to quote Obi-Wan, he’s more machine than man. That kind of trauma leaves scars, and not just physical. I think Vader was driven by a fear of chaos, and the destruction it can bring. His morality was that order must be maintained at any cost. And real order only comes under the heel of a boot. People (or sentient beings) are willful and unpredictable. They do stupid things, and they must be kept in line. Everything he and the emperor do is for the greater good; a phrase responsible for countless pain and suffering. No amount of death, or suffering, is too much to pay. It’s nothing compared to the death and suffering that would come about if order is not maintained. In short, the suffering and/or death of an individual doesn’t matter when put against the preservation of society. Some modern laws in what we would consider progressive/democratic nations are based on this. Granted, it’s rarely carried to such an extreme.

If Vader’s motivation sounds like some political arguments you’ve heard over the years, and even recently, that’s not a coincidence. Fear is a powerful motivator. Now, even if we do consider the prequels (sorry) I’d argue my position is strengthened. Anakin lost his mother, the only family he knew and the only person (before Padme) who showed him kindness. When Palpatine lies about a vision of Padme dying, Anakin gets scared. Unfortunately, that fear drives him to really extreme lengths. When he loses Padme, he’s given up any hope that anything but complete control will serve. I could say that’s why episode IV is called “A New Hope” but that’s a reach even at my most optimistic.

Lastly, let’s look at Voldemort. Some of you might remember I used him in a post about villains and learning their motivations called “Interview with a villain”. This post digs a little deeper and is meant to give a better understanding. Now, no question, Voldemort is a massive dick. However, he does have a valid (if horrific) motivation. It’s one that comes up again and again in history: some people are simply inherently superior to others. Or to paraphrase another abhorrent group’s dogma, the preservation of the superior must be defended at all costs. To Voldemort, muggles and non-pureblood wizards are inferior to purebloods. As are other races such as house elves, centaurs, and the like. More than that though, they are a corrosive, infectious element. If left to their own devices, these “others” will destroy those worthy of power and the society they deserve. This means that the other must be destroyed, or at a minimum, subjugated entirely under their betters. Yep, he’s a bigot with a wand. And like all bigots and hatemongers, fear is the ultimate driver. Not quite the same fear as Vader, but certainly a different shade on the same color wheel. Most bigots will even admit this is their motivation. They’ll claim it’s a fear of losing their values, or culture, or even their very identity. They’ll wrap it in the robes of nobility and justify preemptive horrors in the name of self-defense. Of course it’s just a clever lie. So clever in fact that some actually believe it. The truth is they fear is being oppressed by those they themselves have been oppressing (either overtly or indirectly). They fear the very marginalization and injustice they put upon others, which they also discount. They see those others as empirically less than them. Theirs is a motivation of selfishness. Their morality is often of perversion of my own. Rather than everyone, it’s “I (and those like me) should be free to live however I chose, up until it stops me (or those like me) from living as I choose.” With no need to morally consider anyone not them, or like them, they are free to take any action they see fit. Not only are the complaints and fears of the bigot (in their minds) wholly justified, the complaints of the other (less than) is just petty whining and a refusal to see how good they have it. Voldemort is indeed evil, and being morally and rationally justified (again, to him) makes this brand of evil especially nightmarish, and one we’ve seen throughout history, and even the present.

With all the above in mind, you can see the separation between a hero and a villain usually comes down to few differences, or a combination of all three.

The first difference is a question of who is included in their moral principles. Heroes include and fight for everyone, or rather not just themselves and those like them. Even if they appear to only fight for themselves, ultimately it proves to be a lie. Villains on the other hand fight only for themselves and those like them (racially, culturally, of a similar mind, or any other standard). Villains might ally temporarily with those outside their group, but only if it benefits them and costs them little or nothing. When that changes, the villain will betray that alliance.

The second difference is the means they’ll use to achieve their goals. Heroes have lines they won’t cross. If they do, they either become a villain, or work to redeem themselves and make amends for the moral failing. This is often the basis for entire stories on its own. Villains do sometimes have a sense of honor, but it and their moral principles rarely extend beyond themselves, or those they see as their own.

The third difference is a question of offense or defense. Villains go on the offense; they work to impose their morality on others. No one is immune, no one is innocent. You’re either on board, or you’re on the tracks. Heroes tend to be defensive in their morality. While it could be argued they are also imposing their morality on others, it’s always to stop the villain from pushing their morality on an unwilling party, and when that imposition stops, so does the heroes. A hero won’t seek out and stop/kill a bigot just for being a bigot. They might confront the bigot openly, even make them face the societal consequences of bigotry, but they won’t try to stop them. However, when that bigot acts on their bigotry (through violence, subjugation, exclusion, or other means) the hero will get involved.

You might be wondering at this part how anti-heroes fit in all this. Well, anti-heroes are still heroes; they just lack some typical heroic features. They could be cowardly, lack idealism, or use questionable methods. Some would argue they might lack morality, but I’d disagree. Anti-heroes will still have a bedrock set of principles they won’t cross, often times with more vehemence than a typical hero. They might hunt down villains, but it must always be a villain who has done something, or is literally about to do something villainous. An anti-hero will rely on the third difference heavily.

One final important note is that villains don’t have to be, and rarely are, a villain through and through. To have depth, a villain needs to have a human side, possibly even characteristics more in line with a hero. Perhaps they’re kind to animals, or children. Maybe they volunteer at retirement homes, keeping lonely old people company. The key is that this human side must also be consistent with their morality. Don’t worry about it making them less of a villain; Hitler was an animal lover, and that love made him a vegetarian. The most disturbing, and frightening villains aren’t the creatures of nightmares. They aren’t made of evil and dripping darkness. The best villains (in terms of story and character) are those who look like everyone else, who go to the store, who repair a broken toy for a child. Monsters are easy to hate. But when they’re not always monstrous? Likewise, a good hero shouldn’t be perfect. No glint off their teeth when they smile, no gleaming armor. A good hero, a believable hero, a hero people will root for, should have issues they are dealing with. Maybe they’re poor, and even though they’re always on the verge of starving, the do what needs to be done. Or maybe they’re jaded, armor dented and dirty from a life of facing villainy. Maybe they don’t like kittens and puppies? Okay, that last one might be too far.

Holiday Wishes and a Short Story

#SFWAPRO

It’s Christmas Eve, for those of us who celebrate it. If you celebrate it, or don’t, I hope this season is filled with warmth, joy, family and/or friends, and lots of cookies/cake/pie/beer.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was considering sharing some short stories, and what better time to do so than right now? The first of these is one I’m rather proud of, and a bit disappointed no magazines were interested in. However, if they were, I wouldn’t able to share it now. I didn’t write it as a holiday themed story, but I think the overall message is one that fits quite nicely (you’ll see at the end). I hope you enjoy it. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, but also added a menu tab for short stories, and it’s the first.

I wish you all a wonderful, happy, and safe holidays.


A Quick Errand
By Bishop O’Connell

Sarah turned the music up loud and sang along as she drove to Bambi’s house; or rather her Aunt Carol’s. Sarah didn’t know all the details behind that situation, only that Bambi’s mom, aside from being a Disney fanatic—hence the name Bambi—had some kind some kind of mental illness. Neither Bambi nor her aunt had ever explained and Sarah didn’t pry.

“Hi, Carol,” Sarah said as she walked in, closing the door behind her.

“Hi, Sarah,” Carol said from the kitchen. “Are you staying for dinner? It’s meatloaf night.”

“Then I’m staying for dinner,” Sarah said.

“Bam is down in her cave,” Carol said.

“Thanks.” Sarah made her way to the basement door and descended the stairs.

The basement was unremarkable: a couple of old wooden work benches, and stacks of colored plastic tubs against the wall. Bambi was nowhere in sight. Sarah proceeded to the metal cabinet on the far wall, opened the door, and typed a ten digit code into the old keyboard on the top shelf. There was a click before the cabinet slid to one side, and Sarah stepped through.

The surprise of learning her best friend had a hidden lab—one that looked like it belonged on the set of a sci-fi movie—in the basement of her Aunt’s house hadn’t lasted long. Knowing Bambi as well as she did, Sarah would’ve been more surprised if there hadn’t been one.

Bambi was working on what looked like a laser pistol made from a hairdryer, parts from a computer, and a DVD player

“Tell me that isn’t like a death ray or something,” Sarah said.

Bambi looked up. “Oh, hi. Thanks for coming over.”

Sarah waited.

Bambi blinked. “What?”

“Not a death ray, right?” Sarah asked again.

Bambi looked from her contraption to Sarah. “That’s a loaded question. I mean—”

“Never mind,” Sarah said. “Just promise me you’re not planning to use it to take over the world or anything.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t.” That was why she loved her friend, she didn’t have a mean bone in her body.

“Do you want a soda?” Bambi asked and went over to an old style vending machine, the kind that dropped cups and filled them.

“Sure.”

“Two Dr. Peppers,” Bambi said.

On the spot a paper cup would normally drop, a can of Dr. Pepper materialized. Bambi took it and handed it to Sarah. An instant later a second can appeared.

Sarah took a drink. “I’ve always meant to ask,” she said. “Does that thing work like a replicator on Star Trek, or does it like teleport the cans in from somewhere else?” She’d learned early on not to ask ‘how’ when it came to any of Bambi’s inventions; as their English teacher would say, that way lay only madness.

Bambi opened her mouth to answer when Sarah saw a cage in the far corner, and something inside it moved.

Sarah approached the cage for a better look. She glanced away for a moment, then back, making sure she wasn’t imagining it.

“Why do you have an otter in a cage?”

Bambi opened her mouth again.

“This crazy bitch is holding me against my will,” the otter said. “You gotta help me!”

Sarah blinked. “Why do you have a talking otter in a cage?” Anyone else would’ve probably freaked, but this wasn’t even close to the strangest thing she’d encountered in Bambi’s lab. That had probably been the failed attempt at semi-sentient cabbage.

“Because I don’t want him running around the lab,” Bambi said.

“I mean, why do you have a talking otter in your lab?”

The otter got on his hind legs and leered at Sarah. “Hey, sweets, you’re not too bad looking for a shaved monkey. Let me outta here and I’ll make it worth your while.” The otter winked.

Bambi pointed a modified garage door opener at the cage. “The warrant clearly states dead or alive.”

The otter muttered something and sank back down into the cage.

“He’s in my lab,” Bambi said, clearly unsure why Sarah was having a hard time with this. “Because where else would I keep him?”

Sarah closed her eyes, took a deep breath and reminded herself that this was Bambi and she wasn’t being intentionally obtuse.

“I’m missing something again, aren’t I?” Bambi asked. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Sarah said, her calm returned. “Let’s take one part at a time; why do you have a—rather skeevy—talking otter in your possession?”

“Hey, who you calling—?”

Bambi held up the garage door opener again and the otter went quiet. “He’s not really an otter,” she said. “He’s an alien that just happens to look like an otter. He’s here because my portal has to recharge before I could take him to Earth-771A and collect the bounty, which I need in order to—”

Sarah held up a finger. “Sorry, overload. I need a second.”

Bambi nodded and took another pull from her soda. This happened a lot in the lab.

“He’s an alien?”

“Yes, from—”

Sarah put up a hand. “What is Earth-771A?”

“It’s one of the infinite alternate earths,” Bambi said as if describing a chocolate chip cookie. “It’s technologically about sixty years ahead of us, and the dominant societies are matriarchal instead of patriarchal.”

“Seriously?” Sarah asked, smiling.

Bambi nodded.

“You should call it super awesome lady future earth,” she said.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Sarah said. “And you use this portal, which is currently recharging, to travel to these infinite Earths?”

“Yes,” Bambi said and pointed.

Sarah looked over and saw a thick a tablet plugged into— “That’s a radiation symbol.”

Bambi nodded. “Yes.”

Sarah massaged her temples. “It’s some kind of nuclear reactor, isn’t it?”

“Small scale fusion reactor, yes,” Bambi said. “It’s just a proof of concept though.”

“I’m just going to stop asking about the things in your lab,” Sarah said. “Okay, skeevy alien not-an-otter, is he from Earth-771A?”

Bambi nodded. “He’s a terrorist.”

Sarah blinked, glancing from Bambi to the otter and back. “A terrorist?”

“He’s part of a separatist group that opposes the treaty his people signed with Earth 771-A,” Bambi said. “He was convicted of war crimes, but he escaped on his way to prison and the government put a ten million dollar bounty on him.”

Sarah gave serious thought to taking up drinking. Sure she was only sixteen, but she could probably get her hands on a fake ID.

“And you caught him?” Sarah asked.

Bambi nodded.

“You.”

Bambi knitted her brows together but nodded again. “It wasn’t that difficult.”

“I’m going to regret this,” Sarah said and drew in a breath. “How?”

“He had a portal too,” Bambi said. “I tracked the quantum decay to Earth-97621B and found him hiding at a Sea World.”

Sarah looked at the skeevy not-an-otter. “Sea World? Really?”

“It was actually pretty sweet,” not-an-otter said. “I ran that joint. The humans kept their distance and I had all the female otters and clams I could want.” He glared at Bambi. “Until this—”

Bambi pressed the button on the garage door opener and the not-an-otter went in convulsions. When it stopped he collapsed.

“Did you just tase him?” Sarah asked.

“Taser is a copyrighted product made by Axom,” Bambi said. “But if you’re asking if I used a high voltage electric discharge to render him compliant, the answer is yes.”

“Nice,” Sarah said and opened her mouth but was interrupted by a microwave chime.

“Oh good, it’s ready,” Bambi said.

“Your burrito?” Sarah asked.

“The portal,” Bambi said and began putting some of her inventions into a backpack.

Sarah was afraid to ask what they were.

“Do you want to carry him or the portal?” Bambi asked, pointing at the still unconscious not-an-otter.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I suppose I could carry both if you get the doors,” Bambi said.

“Where are we going?” Sarah looked from the nuclear reactor to the not-an-otter, unsure which she wanted to be farther away from.

“Earth-771A to collect the bounty,” Bambi said.

Sarah opened her mouth to protest but stopped herself.

Ten million dollars. Awesome future earth.

“I’ll grab the not-an-otter,” she said. “I don’t want anywhere near that reactor.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Bambi said, unplugging the tablet. “So long as the containment field doesn’t collapse there’s no really risk at all.” She hit a button and the door opened onto the basement.

“Ten million dollars,” Sarah whispered to herself and followed with not-an-otter in hand. “Awesome future earth.”

Bambi made sure her Aunt Carol was still in the kitchen before motioning for Sarah to head for the front door.

Sarah opened it as quietly as she could.

“Where are you two going?” Carol asked from the kitchen.

“Just a quick errand,” Sarah said.

“Well don’t take long,” Carol said. “Dinner will be ready at six-thirty.”

“We should be back long before then, Aunt Carol,” Bambi said.

“While you’re out, would you pick up some butter and a gallon of milk?”

“No problem,” Sarah said from the doorway and motioned with her head for Bambi to hurry. When they were halfway down the steps, she stopped. “Wait a second,” she said, her voice low. “Why didn’t we portal from your lab?”

Bambi went past her and walked to Sarah’s car. “My lab doesn’t exist on that earth. The portal would just open into a block of solid earth. We also will need your car.”

“My car?” Sarah asked. “We’re taking my car to an alternate earth?”

“Yes.”

Sarah opened her mouth to argue, but knew it was pointless.

“Are you okay?” Bambi asked from inside the car.

“Fine,” Sarah said. She popped her trunk, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and stuck not-an-otter in before slamming it shut.

Sarah started the car. “Wait, if it’s an alternate earth, will the money be any good here?”

“Of course not,” Bambi said and pulled out her phone. She plugged it into the tablet and dialed a number. “They have different faces on most of the bills and they use a composite material instead of the cotton based paper here. Head to Grandston park.”

“Then what good is the ten million dollars?”

Bambi pointed to the phone.

Sarah let out a sigh, backed out of the driveway and headed to Grandston Park.

“Agent Pricilla Thompson,” Bambi said into her phone.

Bambi tried to stay focused on the road.

“This is Thumper,” Bambi said, presumably after agent Thompson got on the line. “Grandston park in twenty minutes.”

Sarah tried to listen in, but gave it up when she almost drove onto the sidewalk.

“I wouldn’t be calling if I didn’t have him,” Bambi said. “Have you made all the arrangements as we agreed?” She nodded. “Thank you, twenty minutes then.” She ended the call.

“Did you just call an alternate earth?” Sarah asked.

“Yes.”

“Does your cell plan cover that?”

Bambi opened her mouth, then closed and looked at Sarah for a long second. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”

“I guess not,” Sarah said and made a left.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived at the park.

“Stop the car,” Bambi said, tapping the tablet screen.

“You’ve done this before, right?” Sarah asked, gripping the steering wheel with sweaty palms.

“Seventy-four times,” Bambi said and tapped one last time.

The air pressure increased and Sarah had to pop her ears. The portal rolled down like a projection screen a few feet in front of the car. It was a little anticlimactic. There was no bright white light, no glowing outline. In fact, if you didn’t view it at just the right angle you probably wouldn’t notice it at all. There was only the faintest hint of an edge to the portal, and the scene on the other side matched up perfectly with this side. The trees and grass looked more vibrant, but that was it.

“Drive through slowly,” Bambi said.

Sarah did and parked in the empty spot in front of them. A moment later the portal rolled closed behind them.

“We can get home, right?” Sarah asked.

“Of course,” Bambi said. “Fully charged the portal allows for four trips.”

“I’ll get not-an-otter,” Sarah said and climbed out.

Bambi slid the portal tablet into her backpack and pulled out a handful of what looked like metal golf balls.

“What are those?” Sarah asked, immediately regretting it.

“I call them multiphase disruption shield generators,” Bambi said. “They generate—”

“A multiphase disruption shield?”

Bambi smiled. “Exactly. They’ll stop the agents’ technological equipment from working, in case they try to bring us in for questioning. It won’t affect the functioning of the hover cars though, don’t worry about that.”

“Did you say hover cars?”

Bambi nodded.

“Awesome,” Sarah said and opened the trunk. She decided to just enjoy the trip. They might not be able to use the ten million dollars back home, but they could spend it here and bring stuff back. Right? Maybe she could talk Bambi into buying a hover car! Not that she didn’t love her old Camry, but, well, freaking hover car! Maybe she could land it on Bridget Thompson’s beloved BMW.

Bambi walked into the park and set the disruptor golf balls in a large circle. When it was done she motioned for Sarah to join her.

She hefted the cage and started walking.

“Where the hell are we?” not-an-otter asked.

“Getting ready to hand you over, creeper,” Sarah said.

“Listen, toots, I’m sorry about that shaved monkey thing,” he said. “I can pay you double the bounty. Triple even, my people have access to lots of cash.”

“Not a chance.”

“Listen, primate,” he said. “If you let me go now, I promise not to come after you and your friend and exact a terrible rev—eeee!”

“Thank you,” Sarah said.

Bambi nodded and tucked the garage door opener back in her pocket.

After a few minutes of waiting, Sarah decided to try her luck. “Any thoughts on what you want to buy? I mean, I know it’s your money, but how cool would it be to have a hover car? I mean, I do drive you everywhere right? We might as well do it in style.”

“It wouldn’t work in our world,” Bambi said. “There’s a phasic difference in the electric currents that would keep the car from being able to recharge.”

“Really?” Sarah had no idea what phasic difference meant, but she better than to ask.

Bambi nodded.

“Well that sucks.”

“You can get something else next time,” Bambi said.  “But I need to buy some tampons this time.”

Sarah blinked. “I’m sorry did you say—?”

Her words were drowned out by a collection of flying cars appearing overhead. They looked like, well, like futuristic flying cars: awesome. They formed a circle and hovered overhead. Three more hover cars—these only a foot or so off the ground—glided into the lot, parking next to, and behind, her car.

Sarah tried not to panic, unsuccessfully, and considered what jail in super awesome lady future earth would look like.

The cars set down on the ground. Four women and two men, all wearing dark suits and sunglasses got out. Apparently agents everywhere dressed the same.

Sarah swallowed and tried not to pee a little. Bambi looked as she always did; just this side of bored.

One of the women took up the lead and walked toward them. When they passed through the circle of golf balls, everyone stopped and began tapping at the side of their glasses.

The lead agent, Sarah assumed it was Thompson, looked at Bambi. “This isn’t a very good start to this meeting, Thumper.”

“It’s just a safety precaution,” she said. “We’re here to turn over Doctor Alstran and collect the reward. We have to be home for dinner soon, so we don’t have time for you to question us.”

Sarah winced.

Thompson gave Bambi a long look, then exchanged some words with her fellow agents. When they were done, two agents stepped back out of the circle. The remaining three and Agent Thomson approached.

“Hello, Doctor,” Thompson said to not-an-otter.

“There’s been a terrible mistake!” he protested. “This woman captured me and—”

“Really?” Thompson said. “You’re going that way? Aside from the fact I have your facial fur pattern memorized, we’ll be doing a DNA verification.”

“Well, it was worth a try,” no-an-otter said.

“You’ve performed a great service for your country and all humanity,” Thompson said to Sarah and Bambi then turned to the agent on her left. “Wing, take the Doctor into custody.”

Wing picked up the cage.

“No prison can hold me, toots,” Doctor Not-an-otter said to Sarah. “I’ll find you and your friend, you can’t hi—eeeeeeeee!” The doctor convulsed then collapsed back into unconsciousness.

Bambi released the button and offered the remote to Agent Wing. “It’s a strictly non-lethal voltage.”

Wing looked at Thompson, who nodded, then accepted the garage door opener. He looked from it to Bambi and back again before pocketing the device and carrying the Doctor to the waiting hover cars.

Thompson produced a couple of credit cards from her pocket and offered them to Bambi. “Ten million dollar reward,” she said. “Sequestered accounts keyed to the pin you provided.”

Bambi took the cards. “Thank you.”

“I have to ask,” Thompson said. “How did a couple teenagers capture the most wanted criminal on the planet?”

“Actually it was just her,” Sarah said and pointed to Bambi. “I’m the one with a car.”

Thompson looked back at the Camry. “Yes, and quite an interesting car at that.”

“So,” Thompson said to Bambi, “how’d you do it?”

“He used a quantum tunneling device to flee to an alternate dimensional earth,” Bambi said.

Sarah winced again.

“I tracked the quantum decay to Sea World Orlando on Earth 97621B,” she said. “Once I identified which of the otters he was, I shot him with a neural suppression ray—”

“So you have a quantum tunneling device?” Thompson asked.

“Whaaaaat?” Sarah said through what she hoped was a sincere smile and trying not to imagine becoming a test subject in some government lab. “No, she’s just kid—”

“Of course,” Bambi said. “How else could we have traveled here?”

“My friend has a really active imagination,” Sarah said.

“What are you talking about?” Bambi said. “She’s an authority figure, I wouldn’t lie to her.”

“Are you saying that you’re from an alternate earth?” Thompson asked.

“Yes,” Bambi said.

“No,” Sarah said.

“Look,” Thompson said looking from Sarah to Bambi and back. “You retrieved the most wanted being on this planet. That’s all I care about. I was curious how you pulled it off, but if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine.” She nodded at Bambi. “Let me know if you find and capture any other international war criminals.” Then she turned and walked back to the hover cars with her agents in tow.

“Thanks,” Sarah said and waved. “Love your shoes!”

A few minutes later they were alone in the park.

“Holy crap, you’re a freaking millionaire!” Sarah said, almost vibrating in excitement. Sure, they couldn’t spend it on their Earth but—

“So are you,” Bambi said and handed one of the credit cards to Sarah. “The PIN is your birthday; four digit year. I’m sorry, it’s only three million. I need the other seven. And I’m sorry you can’t spend it right now, but I promise we’ll come back so you can.”

Sarah just stared at her friend. She knew she had the ability to speak, but she couldn’t seem to remember how to do it just now.

Bambi furrowed her brow. “I missed something again, didn’t I?”

“No,” Sarah said and accepted the card. “No, not at all. But I am going to hug you now, okay?” She learned early in their friendship that Bambi needed to be asked to be touched.

“Okay.”

Sarah hugged her friend. “Thank you so much,” was all she could manage to say.

Bambi hugged back, stiff and awkward, but Sarah didn’t mind. It was a Bambi hug, and that meant it was awesome.

“We need to go,” Bambi said. “Aunt Carol will be mad if we’re late for dinner and we need to stop at the store.”

“Right,” Sarah said. “Let’s go.”

They returned to the car, got in, and Sarah started the engine. She backed out of the parking spot and waited, but Bambi didn’t move.

“Are you going to open the portal?”

“No,” Bambi said. “We have to go to the store.”

“We’re going to a store here?”

“I told you I needed buy tampons,” Bambi said.

“Um, I have some in my purse—”

“They’re not for me,” Bambi said.

Something in her tone told Sarah not to push, so she put the car into drive and headed for the exit.

“Which way? Is there a store in the same place as on our earth?”

“It is,” Bambi said. “But it’s a Safeway instead of Kroger.”

On the way to the store, Sarah had to admit she was a little disappointed in super awesome lady future earth. It was cool, and she saw quite a few hover cars, but other than being cleaner and more vibrant, it wasn’t much different than her earth. The houses were sleeker, there were more trees and grass, and the few people she saw all looked trim and fit, but that was it.

“I expected it to look more futuristic,” Sarah said.

“It’s roughly fifty-eight years ahead of us in terms of technological advancement,” Bambi said. “If we drove around in the 1960’s, apart from fashion,  it wouldn’t look much different than our time.”

“Huh, I hadn’t thought about that,” Sarah said. “So how many different earths have you been to?”

“Thirty-seven,” Bambi said and pointed. “Here it is.”

“Thirty-seven?” Sarah asked as she pulled into the parking lot and found a spot.

Bambi checked her watch. “We don’t have much time,” she said, got out, and began walking to the store.

Sarah locked the car and hurried after. She couldn’t help but notice her car, which was a piece of crap—albeit her piece of crap—looked even more so among the sleek and shiny vehicles parked around them. She caught up with Bambi just as she was pushing a cart into the store. Sadly, it was not a hover cart.

The inside of the store was a let-down as well. There were holograms floating in the air instead of signs, which was cool, but other than that, nothing really impressed Sarah.

“What’s ‘everfresh’?” she asked as they walked by the produce department.

“Everfresh is the Safeway brand patented process that maintains produce in stasis,” A woman on the touch screen attached to the shopping carts handle said. “Ensuring fresh fruit and vegetables when you want them. We guarantee no spoilage, no matter what. That’s the Safeway difference.”

“You should develop that back home,” Sarah said to Bambi. “You could literally end world hunger.”

“That’s a good idea,” Bambi said, grabbing a couple of apples wrapped in plastic, and putting them in the cart.

Passing through the meat department, Sarah did not ask about the “100% lab grown” label on everything. She didn’t want to know.

“You don’t think it’ll be a problem bringing this stuff back with us?” Sarah asked as she put the butter into the cart next to the milk. “I mean, won’t she notice the difference?”

“It’s possible.”

“And you don’t see that as a problem?” Sarah asked as they went to collect Bambi’s tampons, which she decided would be the name of her next band.

As soon as they reached the personal health aisle, Bambi began loading boxes of tampons and pads into the cart.

“Jeez, how many do you need?”

“As many as we can carry,” Bambi said and continued stacking boxes.

Rather than question, Sarah helped fill the cart. When she spotted the price, she stopped and blinked. “Fifty cents for a forty pack? Is that right?”

Bambi nodded, still adding boxes. “They’re recognized as a necessity here, so they’re kept inexpensive. They’re also tax free.”

“It’s not personal jet packs, but I still call that a win,” Sarah said and topped off the cart.

“Did you find everything okay?” the young man at the register asked as Bambi began stacking boxes upon boxes of tampons and pads onto the little conveyor.

“Yep, thanks,” Sarah said.

He gave them a look but shrugged and started scanning.

“That’ll be sixty-seven, forty two,” he said when it was done.

“Damn that’s cheap,” Sarah whispered.

Bambi inserted the card Thompson had given her into the reader and entered the pin on the little keypad. Sarah’s stomach knotted a little when nothing happened for a long moment. She looked around, half expecting to see suited agents drop out of the ceiling or teleport in.

Instead, the receipt printed and the clerk handed it to Bambi.

“Have a nice day.”

They filled Sarah’s trunk—and most of her back seats—with the boxes and drove off.

Bambi activated the portal on a road with no one on it. And just like that, they were back on their own earth. Sarah couldn’t help but notice it seemed drabber than before, but she ignored it and drove on. Her baseline for “normal” was different than most people’s.

“Turn here,” Bambi said and pointed to the right.

“That’s not the way home,” Sarah said but made the turn.

“We need to make one more stop.”

“Okay, but we’re getting short on time.”

“It won’t take long.”

Sarah wanted to ask where they were going, but didn’t. Her friend was acting odd, odder than usual, but something told Sarah this was important. So she kept quiet and followed her friend’s directions.

“Turn in here,” Bambi said, pointing to a road next to what had once been a department store, but the sign out front now read ‘Women’s Shelter’. “Follow the driveway around to the back.”

Sarah made the turn and drove down the alley till they came to the back of the building. It had a couple of loading docks, complete with metal roll up doors but was otherwise empty.

Sarah looked over at Bambi. She was looking down and tapping her thumbs to each of her fingers in series. She was counting, one of the ways she coped with stressful situations.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked.

“No, but it’s okay,” Bambi said.

They got out and Bambi led them to a metal door. She hit the doorbell button four times and waited, still counting on her fingers. Sarah wished she could put her arm around her friend, but she knew that would only make things worse. So instead, she just stood next to her and waited, offering what comfort she could.

After a couple minutes, and a few more sets of four button presses, someone looked through the peephole. The door opened and a woman about Carol’s age smiled at Bambi.

“Hey, this is a nice surprise!” she said. “How are you? And who is this?”

“I’m okay,” Bambi said. “This is my best friend, Sarah.”

“I’m Nancy,” the woman said smiling at Sarah and offering her hand. “I run the place, or try to.”

“Very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Sarah said and shook the offered hand.

“I brought some donations,” Bambi said. “But there’s a lot and we need some help.”

“Donations?” Nancy asked.

“Eighty-three boxes of tampons and twenty four boxes of pads,” Bambi said.

“Sweetheart, that’s so generous, but how can you afford it?” Nancy asked.

Bambi opened her mouth, but Sarah cut her off. “We, um, did a fundraiser at school,” she said. “It went really well. Better than we expected.”

Bambi looked at her in confusion.

Nancy smiled and her eyes grew a little wet. “Thank you, you have no idea how much that will help.” She wiped her eyes. “Sorry, it’s just such a struggle sometimes and you start to think no one cares.”

“I imagine,” Sarah said. “Um, why don’t we start unloading the car, if you have a cart or something…”

“Yes, of course, I’ll get it,” Nancy said. She propped the door open and disappeared back into the building.

“You never cease to amaze me,” Sarah said as she began grabbing boxes from the back seat and handing them to Bambi.

“You lied to her,” Bambi said.

“Let’s just say it was easier, and harmless in the long run. What’s Haldermycin?” she asked, reading the box as she handed it over.

“It’s a broad spectrum antibiotic infusion designed specifically to prevent menstrual based toxic shock syndrome,” Bambi said. “It attacks the bacterial infection in a way that prevents resistant strains from developing.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Sarah said.

“It doesn’t exist on our earth,” Bambi said. “That’s why we needed to get them on Earth-771A.”

Bambi started carrying her arm load back to the door. Sarah filled her own arms and hurried after. Pieces started to come together. If women’s shelters were hard up for tampons and the like, it made sense the women they served would use whatever they could get, and probably longer than they should. She tried to imagine a life so hard that something as simple as access to tampons was a seen as a luxury.

“I’ve never seen this brand before,” Nancy said as she stacked the boxes on a flatbed cart.

“We, uh, found it on Kickstarter,” Sarah said, once again cutting Bambi off at the pass. “It has a special new antibiotic infused in it, see.” She pointed to the box.

Nancy looked at Bambi.

She didn’t look back. She never looked people in the eye.

“I’ll make sure your mom gets all she needs, sweetheart,” Nancy said.

“Thank you,” Bambi said. “Have you seen her lately?”

Nancy nodded. “A couple weeks ago.”

Sarah wished she could become invisible.

“How was she?” Bambi asked.

“I, um,” Nancy said, glancing at Sarah.

“It’s okay,” Bambi said. “She’s my best friend. You can talk in front of her.”

Nancy smiled at Sarah, but it was a sad smile. “I’m sorry, honey. She’s off her meds again.”

“She always said they made her feel numb,” Bambi said. “Was she still sick?”

“No,” Nancy said. “She looked really healthy, the antibiotics worked. We gave her some clean clothes, and she took a shower.” She gave another sad smile. “She asked about you. She always does, just like you ask about her. I know she said she didn’t want you to see her when—” She swallowed. “But I think she’d like to see you. She loves you very much.”

“I know,” Bambi said. “I love her too. Will you tell her for me?”

Nancy nodded. “Of course, sweetheart.”

“Thank you,” Bambi said then turned to Sarah. “We should get the rest.”

Sarah nodded and they finished unloading the car in short order.

“Thank you again,” Nancy said when the cart was fully loaded. “I can’t tell you how much this will help.”

“They’ll be more,” Bambi said. “Every two weeks, and it’ll be more than this.” She looked up, not meeting Nancy’s eyes, but almost. “Make sure my Mom always has some, okay?”

“I promise,” Nancy said. “Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome,” Bambi said. “Goodbye.” She turned and walked back to the car.

“Um, do you ever need volunteers?” Sarah asked.

“Always,” Nancy said and smiled.

Sarah nodded. “Okay, I’ll be back then.”

Bambi was already inside the car with her seatbelt fastened when Sarah got in.

“You know,” she said, “you never have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I know that,” Bambi said. “It’s just sad and I don’t want you to be sad too.”

“I’m your friend,” Sarah said. “It’s okay for us to be sad together.”

Bambi nodded. “My mom has schizophrenia,” she said. “She has a hard time telling what’s real and sometimes she forgets to keep herself clean—”

“And she got toxic shock syndrome?”

“Three times now,” Bambi said. “The second time she almost died.”

“Is that why you built the portal?”

“No,” Bambi said. “I was looking for a world that had cured schizophrenia. None that I’ve travelled to have yet, though some appear close. I did find one that cured toxic shock syndrome so—”

Sarah smiled. “So you figured out a way to become a freaking millionaire just so you can ensure a steady stream of it to this world.”

Bambi smiled too. “Yes, exactly, I knew you’d understand.”

“I do,” Sarah said and started the car.

As they drove away, Bambi reached over and took Sarah’s hand. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome.” It took all Sarah had not to cry. Instead, she squeezed her friend’s hand. When Bambi squeezed back, she did cry, but only a little, and they were good tears.

Magic and Secrecy

#SFWPRO

There are a lot of common tropes in urban fantasy. One of the most popular is having the magical world, and those who live in it, keeping themselves hidden from the mundane world. One question I’ve heard asked is, why? Surely if someone with magical/miraculous powers would be welcomed by the world. The mundane world couldn’t possibly pose a real threat to these powerful people, and think of all they could accomplish! There are countless ways to answer: sometimes it’s answered in the work itself, or sometimes it’s obvious; plenty of people still have to hide who they are just because of who they love, for example. But, let’s explore some of the other reasons I’ve heard, and sometimes given.

  1. Suspension of disbelief:

Authors want their stories to feel believable. In stories about mystical creatures and people tossing around magic in our world, the fact we don’t ever see it needs to be explained. The easiest and most common method is to say it’s all a big secret. Sure, there are wizards/sorcerers/witches and all sorts of bizarre creatures, they’re just hiding. The “real” world exists just below the surface, and maybe we’d see it if we stumbled down the right alleyway on the right night. Of course, considering the tone of many urban fantasy stories, that might not end well for us. The problem is that this explanation is incomplete. It might clarify why you don’t see wizards hurling lightning and fire in the subway, it doesn’t explain why they’re hiding.

  1. People who are not-so-nice (super villains and douche-canoes):

In short, if it was known that some people could use magic, it’s exceedingly likely that someone without said abilities would want to use them for purposes less than legal or even kind. There’s a reason super heroes tend to hide their identity. Those who want the power they possess could, and likely would, do terrible things to get access to it, including hurting those you love. In comics it isn’t always portrayed well, often it comes off as condescending to the—almost always—female love interest who needs to be protected from her super-powered beau’s nemesis. But, there is a kernel of truth to this—not the female side, but the risk to loved ones. It’s why the first family has their own protection detail. It isn’t because they’re fragile things needing the defense of someone big and strong. It’s because there are those who would use them to make the president do what they want. For those without access to a security team, or some kind of constant protection detail, the risk to loved ones is something to consider.

  1. People who are normally nice, except…

People, even good people, can do really scary things when they’re scared: ask George Takei about that. In urban fantasy books the percentage of the population with magical abilities is usually very small. I can’t think of any where it’s over five percent of the population. If it suddenly became known, and accepted, that such a small group had amazing powers, it’s safe to say that some people would entirely lose their shit. If we go with five percent, that’s fifteen million people in the US alone. If they all worked together they might present a real threat, but how likely would that kind of cooperation be? Also, by sheer odds, not all of those people would be of the good, law abiding sort. Imagine magical crime sprees, or worse, magical terrorism. How do you think people would react? I’m not saying everyone would freak the hell out, maybe not even a majority, but it would be naïve to think a sizeable number wouldn’t demand something be done. Some, though they’d likely fall outside the “normally nice” demo, would even feel justified taking matters into their own hands. Humanity, sadly, doesn’t have such a good track record when it comes to those who are different; worse when we see them as a threat. Beyond those acting on their own, there would also be an outcry for our leaders to protect us, enough that said leaders would feel obligated to act.

  1. Douche canoes with power (The Government):

There’s no way some of the worse kind of people wouldn’t get magical abilities. Hell, plenty of urban fantasy stories have these people as the antagonist. When people started dying, the government would have to act; one of its primary purposes is protecting its citizens after all. In democratic nations, it’s possible (however unlikely) that the actions taken wouldn’t be in line with registration, or conscription, but there are a lot of places in the world which aren’t citizen friendly democracies/republics. Even in the best of nations, the reaction is unlikely to be kind and gentle,certainly not at first. For example, there would be some with magical talent who would want to join the military but there is almost no way some sort of conscription/draft wouldn’t be enacted. The argument of course would be that our enemies have supernatural soldiers, we need our own to defend against them! And with these abilities comes a moral obligation to use them for the public good, right? Add to that the near certainty that someone would want to weaponize magic in one way or another. Unfortunately, history is filled with nations, governments, and groups doing terrible things with the best of intentions.

  1. Life would become a massive pain in the ass:

Let’s assume all the above concerns are addressed. Steps are taken to ensure that the magically gifted are protected and their civil liberties aren’t brushed aside for the sake of the greater good. In such a utopia, there would still be more practical concerns. Like insurance for example. Don’t laugh, tossing around fire or lightning could lead to some serious property damage, aside from the person damage. This is particularly relevant when you think of how many stories involve characters having to learn to control (unsuccessfully at first) their newly found talents. What if you didn’t have offensive magics? What if you were, say, a safe and property friendly healer? Surely in that regard the populace would embrace such a person with open arms and celebrate all the good they could do. That’s actually a reasonable assumption (we’ll ignore any kind of malpractice insurance requirements). Assuming a healer was agreeable to using their powers to help others—I think most people would be—consider what their life would become. If their identity or home address were known (and it would), they’d almost certainly have an unending line of people beseeching them for help. Not bad people, but worse, good people: parents with sick children, or those who are just desperate with no other hope. It’d be hard for any decent person to turn them away, but at some point the healer would need to eat, sleep, or just earn money to pay the rent (if they didn’t charge for their services). Even if they did make money at it, it would take a very special person to not be weighed down by such demands on them.

I purposely skipped over the reaction from religious zealots of every stripe. Suffice to say some would see these magic wielding people as saints or angels, others as manifestations from Hell (or its equivalent). And obviously there are countless other reasons, but this gives you a general idea of what writers have to consider. It might seem like overthinking, or that authors just don’t like/trust people (for the record, I actually do like some people). But that’s what writers are supposed to do. We’re supposed to look at the world from the view of our characters and have them react accordingly. These concerns might seem overblown until you’re the one in the proverbial cross-hairs. When the result could be death, internment, or worse, even a remote possibility is one you need to consider very carefully. Would you take the risk if you were the wizard/witch in question?

Your Baby is Ugly…Again

#SFWAPRO

Almost four years ago I posted to this blog for the first time. The post, Your Baby is Ugly, is about dealing with rejection. And now we come full circle. Last year I submitted a proposal to Harper for the next several books in the American Faerie Tale series (four to be exact). It also contained the first four chapters of the very next book. After several months, they rejected that proposal. I was—and still am—disappointed but I will say I wasn’t entirely surprised. The sales numbers for my books haven’t been terrible, but each book has sold progressively less than the one before. Publishing is a business and, I hope, this was a business decision. As such, I hold no ill will toward Harper or anyone there. Sure, I would’ve liked to have gotten more support in terms of marketing and/or publicity, but I also knew from the beginning I was a very small fish and there was only so many dollars to go around. It should be noted that Harper has said they would be happy to look at anything new I might have. So what does this mean?

Well if you’ve read that first post, and several others, you know I’m sure as hell not giving up!

In the short term, however the series is done. I could finish the next book and self-publish it, but I’m not ready to go that path yet. It would be the fifth book in a series and I think would be more about my vanity than my readers. Besides, I would rather devote my limited time toward something new.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. As I write this post I’m about 30k words into the first draft and I think it’s pretty damned good, if I do say so myself. No, I won’t tell you the title or what it’s about. I’d rather wait until it’s at least close to finished, or has a publisher ready to put it out. I will say it continues my habit of genre bending, and I don’t recall seeing anything like it before. That could be good or bad, we’ll see.

I’ve also started writing some more short fiction. It hasn’t been picked up anywhere, I think I’m better at long fiction, but you only get better with time and practice. So I’m going to keep trying. I’m considering posting the things that don’t sell on here. What do you think? Post in the comments if you have a thought one way or the other. I also have one manuscript finished, Luna and the Star, and I’m going to see about shopping it around while I finish my current work in progress. It might be my first self-published work, but I haven’t decided. Stay tuned for more.

Without any new books coming out, obviously I won’t have as many appearances, but that doesn’t meet I won’t have any. I’ll be attending RavenCon (April 28th-30th) so if you’re going to be there, stop by and say hi. I’ll also be attending the Nebula awards, and will even be on some panels this year.

In the long term, my goals are still the same. Rejection is part of life, and especially part of being an author. I’m still working towards living on my writing, and I’m not about to stop. The only way I’m going to fail is if I stop trying, and I’m not going to do that. If you’ve read the books, I offer my sincerest thanks. If you haven’t, well they’re still out there and still worth reading.