Goodbye, Leonard Nimoy. Live Long and Prosper, Mr. Spock

SPOCK-mr-spock-35423717-500-451I’ve been crying on and off all afternoon.

I just happened to be online when word of Leonard Nimoy’s passing was announced, and though I’d known in my heart that his time was near, I was still stunned by the news. I quickly shared it with my friends, as one does, and only gradually did the truth of it sink in.

Mr. Spock was dead.

Now before I go any further, I’d like to say that I know everyone and their mother is going to post some sort of statement about their reaction to the news. This isn’t about jumping on the bandwagon and getting people to come read what I have to say because I’m going to be amazingly articulate and say something worthwhile. No, in fact, I’m having a hard time typing through the tears. This is just one fangirl mourning the loss of an icon, and a lifelong hero, and the man who gave that character brilliant, enduring life. It doesn’t matter that I never met Leonard Nimoy, or that he was an actor on a very old television show. His portrayal of Mr. Spock has been, and always shall be, a big part of my life.

Star Trek, and my love for Mr. Spock in particular, woke in me a fierce love for science fiction. After I devoured the James Blish novelizations, I wanted more. I needed more stories about these wonderful characters and their adventures. Star Trek was one of the few sci-fi universes that believed we’d solve our problems, that we weren’t stupid enough to kill ourselves or poison our planet. I didn’t grow up thinking that a woman’s place was in the kitchen because I saw a woman right there on the bridge. I didn’t think the Russians were our enemies because, even though Chekov endearingly thought all great things came from Russia, well, he was Chekov. They weren’t black, or Russian, or Asian, or alien to me. They were the crew of the starship Enterprise, and I wanted so very badly to be a part of their five year mission. More than that, I wanted to be good enough to be a part of their mission. Above all, I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, or Bones. The fact that I was a girl was immaterial to me. It never even registered that I might not have a place on the Enterprise. You have no idea how powerful, how liberating that kind of life lesson that is for a young girl. I credit it with helping shape who I am today.

StarTrekoldpixI read all the tie-in novels, but when I ran out of those, I desperately tried to get on one of those mailing lists for these things called ‘fanzines.’ Failing that, I read some of the published short stories written by dedicated fans, and let me tell you, some of these works were utterly brilliant. I began writing my own stories, horrible self-insert tales where I would miraculously get beamed aboard the Enterprise and save the day (despite being twelve at the time). Still needing my sci-fi fix, I went to the library, where I discovered Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and more. You should have heard the dolphin squeals of glee the day I realized that the ST episode Arena was actually adapted from a short story by Fred Brown. It was like running into a member of a secret club right there in the library.

I became a dedicated sci-fi fan thanks to Star Trek, and my love of sci-fi has brought me my most enduring friendships, introduced me to some of the best people (including my boyfriend of seven years) and brought me back to writing after a decade-long hiatus. So yes, I owe Star Trek–and Mr. Spock–so very much. More than a lifetime of shared jokes and laughter. More than some tears at storylines that hurt and cheers when things were put right again. Star Trek is one of those foundational cornerstones in my life. I can’t imagine the person I’d be without having experienced it. Mr. Spock made science cool. He made science sexy.

As the news broke today, people took to the airways to express their sorrow and to say their goodbyes. I think that’s when it really began to hit me.

As John Scalzi put it on Twitter: every geek has just lost their favorite grandfather. William Shatner tweeted that he’d loved Leonard Nimoy as a brother. My friends began expressing their sorrow, sharing their memories, their pictures, their stories. Every time I’d pull myself together, I’d read another tribute and I’d start tearing up again.

Leonard Nimoy brought Mr. Spock to life and made him the iconic character he became. He wasn’t always comfortable with being so closely associated with the role (hence the book: I am not Spock) but he came to embrace the role of Spock as being part of his legacy (hence the book: I am Spock) later on. He portrayed the character with a subtly that was the perfect counterpoint to the more bombastic style of Shatner’s Kirk. In fact, the on-screen chemistry between Nimoy, Shatner, and DeForrest Kelley was part of what made Star Trek resonate to such a degree with so many people for so many years. And though other people will play the role, it was Leonard Nimoy who first breathed life into a writer’s words and a creator’s vision, and made Spock unforgettable. He is the reason why other people will continue to play the role. Spock will live on.

I think perhaps this letter Nimoy wrote to a young fan in 1968, bullied for being biracial, shows best who Leonard Nimoy was and how much Spock has meant to so many throughout the years.

Yep, Crying again.

I’ll leave you with Nathan Fillion’s words, tweeted this afternoon:

“I have been, and always shall be, your fan.”

Goodbye, Leonard Nimoy. Your legacy will live on as long as even one person remembers Spock. Live long and prosper, Mr. Spock.

 

 

Agent Carter Hits It Out of the Park

Agent Carter PosterAnyone who follows this blog knows I’ve been a Peggy Carter fan from the moment Captain America: The First Avenger was released. So, be prepared, this post is going to be a bit of social commentary combined with fangirl glee.

Captain America was one of my favorite Avenger movies from the Marvel Universe collection. I’ve written about my love for Steve Rogers before, and why I think we need more heroes like him. I adored Peggy Carter in that film, and was sorry to realize that we’d probably never see Hayley Atwell in that role again. Once Rogers wakes in modern-day New York, after being in the deep freeze all those years, the following movies are all about Captain America in the contemporary world. But the funny thing is, fandom loved Peggy Carter, too. She got a 15 minute short film as a DVD extra in the Blu-Ray version of Iron Man 3, and we got a glimpse of what her life was like post WW2, an agent who was treated more like a file clerk and grieving for Steve’s loss. The agent who took it upon herself to get the job done where other agents had failed. The fans, myself included, loved it! Then she appeared in Captain America 2:The Winter Soldier, both in newsreels about her role in S.H.I.E.L.D. and then later, Steve visits her in a nursing home, in one of the most painfully poignant reunion scenes I can recall in a movie. My father lost the ability to put anything new into long-term memory toward the end of his life. I could completely identify with Steve having a conversation with Peggy, who was lucid and clear one moment, only to turn for a second and have to watch Peggy re-discover that he was alive all over again in the next. Oh, my heart!

Even then, Marvel wasn’t done with this character. The fandom reaction to the One-Shot Agent Carter film was so positive, rumors began to circulate that they were considering a series. I can tell you, I was both excited and nervous. I loved this character and I sincerely hoped they wouldn’t get her wrong. Now that might sound odd, considering that Marvel put her on the screen for me to fall in love with in the first place, but I’ve seen it happen before. Take a great actress in a terrific movie role and try to build a weekly television series around her, and before you know it, the character isn’t even recognizable anymore. Even my boyfriend fell into the habit of muttering, “Please don’t let them screw this up…” every time a promo came on.

Marvel is a wonder for tie-ins and story-arcs across their universe, but in many ways, Agent Carter is fresh ground for them. They have some facts they need to retain, and they can seed the series with nods toward future events (like they did with an appearance by a younger Anton Vanko, who goes on to create the arc reactor with Howard Stark), but they aren’t tied into comic-book events the way the Avengers are. In many ways, it’s like what they did with the reboot of the Star Trek franchise–since the new movies follow an alternative timeline, the writers aren’t locked into re-telling old stories, but can play around in this brave new world of their own making.

I was encouraged that the showrunners were on track for getting things right when I read that the same writers for Captain America, Markus and McFeely, wrote the pilot and the first episode. I was reassured when I read this interview with Atwell in which she is quoted as saying the show “feels like a small triumph for women on television.”

But it all boiled down to the premiere. Would it live up to my expectations?

Agent Carter promoOh man, did it ever.

I’ve never been moved to live-Tweet during a program before, but I joined the legions of others on Twitter that made #AgentCarter trend on Tuesday evening. The show had everything I wanted: a strong female lead who doesn’t take the crap she’s handed out by her co-workers lying down, who is fiercely independent, but it’s because she is the most competent person she knows–and that people she cares about tend to wind up dead. She just also happens to dress fabulously, too. I’ll be honest, half of my fascination with Peggy Carter is the juxtaposition of her kick-ass toughness with her ‘ladylike’ appearance. (Not to mention I simply adore 1940s style clothing)

I found the scene between her and Agent Daniel Sousa interesting. At one point, Sousa demands an apology to Carter from co-workers that had speculated on how many men Carter had ‘known’ during the war. Sousa is far more sympathetic to Carter than most of the field agents, perhaps in part because he is a disabled war veteran who also is discriminated against. When Carter first speaks to Sousa about the incident, he assumes she’s going to thank him for sticking up for her, but instead she lets him know in no uncertain terms that Sousa isn’t doing her any favors by making such a distinction–and that she doesn’t need his intervention on her behalf. It’s interesting because it sets the tone for Carter as a character–no sooner does she give Sousa a mild set-down, she softens it with an acknowledgment of their commonalities, and then sharply takes on one of her co-workers who sticks her with his filing–thus proving her point that she doesn’t need a man to stand up for her. While I was thinking that she should be giving encouragement to anyone who sides with equality in the workplace, I am reminded that this is 1946. A male customer can slap a waitress on the ass and she has no recourse. The customer is always right, especially if he is a man. Carter has learned when and where to take up for herself because she can’t count on having a man step in on her behalf. This is Peggy Carter: independent. Not used to asking for, or receiving help. Not a bitch, as some would probably label her. She’s just not a whiner.

This doesn’t mean that she can’t be hurt. She can feel pain. She can cry. Her hands shook as she tried to deactivate a deadly bomb, and she reached for the whiskey as soon as it was done. If she’s hard on the people in her life, it’s because the bad guys don’t show any mercy, and she doesn’t want anyone else to die simply because they know her. She curses when she hits her head. She likes nice things. She isn’t above using her sexuality to meet her goals, but she’s more than a beautiful woman. She’s not afraid to play the ‘female’ card, however. And why not? Sometimes it’s the best card in a woman’s hand, especially when the rest of the deck is stacked against her. She’s tough, and smart, and sexy, and she gets the job done. Better still, she has to learn to ask for help. To accept that she ‘cannot carry the weight of the world on her shoulders alone.” I know a lot of women who struggle with this concept. I am one of them.

Ultimately, that’s what makes Peggy Carter the heroine I can admire. She gets things done through grit, courage, and ingenuity. She thinks fast on her feet and meets new developments with aplomb. She didn’t take a super serum. She didn’t gain special abilities through a lab accident. She gets by on guts, brains, and training. And yes, this is a comic-book universe, but she is closer to any one of us than the average superhero. She could be the cashier at Wal-Mart, or your dental hygienist, or the data entry person for a large company. She is us.

Besame Red VelvetBesides, who among us hasn’t felt like we weren’t appreciated by our bosses? Who hasn’t longed for a secret identity or mission that sets us apart from the other people we meet in our daily lives? The appeal of this basic scenario is HUGE, at least it is for me. Which is why I squealed like a fangirl when one of my friends told me Hayley Atwell tweeted an “Agent Carter Starter Kit”, letting fans know what color nail polish, lipstick, and perfume Carter wears. Because let me tell you, if I can paint my nails with OPI’s Cinnamon Sweet and spritz on a little Besame’s 1940’s perfume, and walk out the door asking myself, “What Would Peggy Do?” then there is nothing I can’t face during my day.

That’s what fictional heroes are for. To make everyday heroes out of all of us.

Is Our Thirst for Kink Promoting Rape Culture?

Keep off the Grass_flickrI shouldn’t be writing this blog post right now. I have a story on a tight deadline that’s kicking my ass and if I don’t get it DONE then I might well conclude that I have no business being a writer. I’ve been going through some deeply upsetting things in my personal life which has left me with the emotional stability of a three-year-old coming down from a sugar rush. And I know this post will piss a lot of people off. Also, there is no way I can say these things without sounding like a disgruntled old woman yelling at the neighborhood kids to say off her lawn.

Well, there you have it. I confess: I am a grumpy old woman yelling at the kids. Stay off my lawn!

You might ask what prompted this need to vent. Well, it’s simple, really. A few days ago I came across two things in close sequence that made me scratch my head and go WTF? The combination of the two things kind of solidified some thoughts I’ve been having for a while now. Namely that I’m concerned that some women might inadvertently be prompting the very rape culture they claim to abhor. That the freedom we experience now to indulge in our kinky fantasies celebrates the very opposite of a healthy romantic relationship.

Mind you, the rape-trope has always been popular in romance fiction for reasons I don’t fully understand. Maybe some readers readers enjoy it because they like the idea having all control (and responsibility) for their actions taken from them. For someone else to call all the shots. Okay, it’s a fantasy. I get that. The notion that you could fall in love with this person and enter into a healthy, loving relationship with your rapist is ludicrous, but persistent. Yes, I’m looking at you, Luke and Laura from General Hospital. No. That never worked for me, sorry. Face it, these fantasies were developed in an industry that, at the time, demanded purity from their heroines. God forbid your lead female character *wanted* sex, that made her a slut! Certainly we’ve moved beyond that, right? Women are allowed to want sex, think about it, talk about it. Nothing wrong there.

And I’m not condemning BDSM stories out of hand by any means! In the right hands, the depiction of a dominant-submissive relationship is not only incredibly hot, but completely understandable as well. The dynamics of the D-S relationship help me better understand what makes the characters tick as people outside of their sexuality. I get the intensity that the fine edge of pain can bring to a sexual situation. I love seeing a different side of a character–how who they are in the bedroom can be entirely different from the face they show the rest of the world. It’s fascinating storytelling.

I believe that the reason 50 Shades of Grey smashed sales records had much to do with the fact that for the majority of readers, this was an entirely new-to-them genre. For readers tired of the usual pirate-capturing-the-heroine story, or the handsome boss/faithful secretary, or even the vampire-slayer and her undead boyfriend, 50 Shades was something new. Romance readers are some of the most voracious consumers of fiction, and for some jaded readers it had to be like finding another wing of their library that they didn’t know existed. Suddenly BDSM became wildly popular, reflected in the explosion of popularity of kink-memes in fandom as well. For those of you that are unfamiliar with kink-memes, these are story fests where people write fanfic about their favorite characters in a kinky sexual situation. The stories are frequently what is referred to as ‘PWP’, which stands for “plot, what plot?” as the only purpose for the story is the depiction of the kinky act.

Redhead bondageI have nothing against any of that. I think it’s great that we as women can express ourselves and explore our sexual fantasies and desires. But the other day, I ran across a promo for a book that caught my attention. I don’t remember the title, but it apparently was doing *very* well on Amazon, better than anything I’d ever written, that’s for sure (so feel free to assign me the obligatory ‘sour grapes’ attitude now). In the blurb, however, someone was described as being in the position of finding subs for his Dom, and that he was ‘going to find out that this little sub came up swinging’. I read that and blinked. Okay, I know NOTHING about the bondage culture. What I know about the BDSM lifestyle comes entirely from stories that I’ve read. But correct me if I’m wrong, here. Doesn’t finding ‘subs for his Dom’ and a sub that ‘comes up swinging’ sound a bit like the woman in question doesn’t have a choice in the matter? Or am I totally missing something here?

I’m willing to concede that I am. After all, I don’t read in the genre very much, and there are certainly subtleties to the lifestyle I might be completely clueless about. But it made me raise an eyebrow, that’s for sure. The fact that this story was selling like hotcakes also made me wonder if anyone reading those stories questioned the relationship between the main characters at all, or if they ate it up with a spoon and reached for the next one just like it. And if the latter were true, what did our fantasies say about our ability to choose healthy relationships for ourselves?

man in handcuffsThe second thing I ran across was less ambiguous as far as I’m concerned. I stumbled onto a conversation on Facebook that kind of shocked me. Again, don’t get me wrong, here. I think we’ve come a long way from the kinds of stories written in the 70s in which the only way a ‘good’ girl could have sex in a romance novel was if she was captured by pirates and raped–or got married. I frankly enjoy seeing pictures of attractive people in sexy situations. We’re a visual beast, after all, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many pictures of cats doing funny things on our timelines. I’ve posted sexy pictures, and have entered into conversations where my contribution is largely to wipe drool off my chin and ask if anyone else thought it was hot in here? I’ve fantasized about favorite characters in sexual situations that explore different dynamics of their relationship.

But in all of those scenarios, my two characters were in a consensual situation.

The conversation I ran across was about two adversarial characters in which one is at the mercy of the other. Again, I’ll be the first to admit I read Draco/Harry stories or any other such pairing that might make you scratch your head and wonder how anyone can picture the two characters together at all. A good writer can make me *believe* in an unlikely pairing–even between enemies. I’m also not above hurting my characters. I’m not against dark stories filled with angst, either. Granted, these days I like to know that there will eventually be a happy ending, but sometimes there is great solace in suffering along with your favorite character. I’m fond of the Hurt/Comfort trope myself, but you know what? Usually the hurting and the comforting take place by two different agencies.

So I was completely taken aback by the conversation about the bad guy hurting the good guy–the inherent hotness of this non-consensual attack on someone’s person and his powerlessness to stop it–as well as the statement that ‘you know you were thinking this, too’.

Um. No. I wasn’t thinking that. And I’m not sure why someone would find this titillating and sexually gratifying, either.

There’s a scene in the 2006 version of Casino Royale in which Bond has been captured by the baddies and is being tortured. Okay, talk about a series of movies that has a long history of objectifying women (and I’ll be the first to say I had some problems with scenes in Skyfall as a result). However, Casino Royale played with traditional Bond film treatment of women by making Bond himself the objectification in the film. Yes, most women I know remember well the scene in the beginning of the movie in which Daniel Craig rises out of the sea. I know I do! I noticed as well how mighty fine Chris Helmsworth was in that completely unnecessary half-naked scene in Thor: The Dark World.

In the torture scene in Casino Royale, Bond is stripped naked and tied to a chair in what appears to be the hot, damp hold of ship, the only illumination coming from a couple of lanterns. Bond’s chair has had the bottom cut out of it, and it isn’t long before we find out why. From the shadows The Big Baddie asks him questions, swinging a weighted piece of rope. When Bond doesn’t give him the desired answers, the Big Bad smashes him in the balls with this homemade kosh. Bond is scared. He is in agony. He screams with each strike. When he is asked for the password, he takes a moment before he can come up with the Bond quip that will invite another hit to his balls. It is a brutal scene. It is meant to be.

The Bond we see recovering from this attack is a changed man. He’s questioning why he is doing what he is doing and whether it is all worth it. He resigns his commission in order to live some semblance of a normal life with Vesper. He doesn’t get that chance.

Casino Royale is one of my favorite Bond movies. And this from a girl who typically demands that happily ever after! Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond made him a human being to me, something more than just the suave spy or the government’s assassin. For the first time, I got the appeal of the franchise.

blindfolded man in handcuffsBut here’s the thing. Even though we have the interaction between Bond and The Big Baddie, and we can see the respect that LeChiffre has for Bond’s integrity and strength of will, at no point would I want to see the two ‘together’. At no point can I imagine the two of them getting together for more of the same. There is a huge difference in my mind between what took place in that torture scene and what happens between consenting adults. That’s entering into a situation with someone you trust out of your own choice, and I think that’s worlds away from the kind of gleeful suggestion that it would be hot and entertaining to see Loki brutalize a helpless Thor, or Sherlock at the sexually abusive hands of Moriarty.

I’m all for women being comfortable enough with their sexuality to discuss their hot-button kinks. I’m aware that some hot-button kinks are other people’s ‘hell, no, would never go there!’ But I wonder sometimes whether we are now celebrating that which we would despise if the characters in question were female. If maybe after all these years of forced silence, we now don’t know where to stop?

Or maybe this is just one more thing that I am hopelessly old-fashioned about and I should just duck my head and go back to working on that damned story…

 

 

Did Remington Steele do us a disservice? The bias against women

Smith CoronaI was a huge Remington Steele fan back in the day. It was the one show I had to watch each week.

I loved the premise: a woman trying to make it as a private detective figures out that she’ll be more successful if she creates an imaginary boss–a decidedly masculine boss. She cobbles the name together out of things in her office and Remington Steele is born. In many ways, it’s a sheer stroke of genius. Young, pretty, and female, Laura Holt probably didn’t inspire confidence in the sort of people who needed an private investigator. By creating an imaginary boss, she could present herself as his representative, could defer unpleasant decisions until she could speak with the boss; she could even make the boss the bad guy if the situation warranted it. It was a great plan, right until the time a con artist walks into her life and takes Steele’s identity. Laura is in the uncomfortable situation of not being able to out him without outing herself as well–and the con man needs a place to cool his heels. As premises for romantic dramedies go, this one was more clever than most.

I wanted to be Laura Holt. I admired her gumption, her classic sense of style. I wanted her shoes. I had a crush on Remington Steele. I loved Brosnan’s accent, I loved the banter between the characters. In fact, I think it was this show that made me fall in love with banter. It was like watching Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies, which was appropriate, given Steele’s ability to find similarities in each case to old movies that he loved to watch.

I enjoyed the show so much that I was delighted to run across it recently on DVD. But watching it again proved to be a big mistake. With hindsight, I remembered that Brosnan wanted out of his contract to play Bond (though really, he was far too young at the time–his is the attractiveness that gets better with age) and was upset when they wouldn’t let him go. Despite being good actors, this situation strained the working relationship between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, and it clearly shows in their romantic scenes together, at least to my more mature eyes. The banter feels more like bicker, and the plots, meant to reflect some of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, seem dated and cheesy now.

And then there’s the premise itself. Laura Holt can’t be taken seriously in a man’s profession without pretending to have a male boss. Despite having trained and apprenticed for her career (as she said in the opening narrative each week), it was usually Steele who solved the case, by recalling an old movie with a similar set up. So not only does Steele move in lock, stock and barrel into the identity she created, he’s better at solving crimes than she is, too.

handwriting_flickrI’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately. Recently I came across a NYT post by Fay Weldon, titled “Writer of a Certain Age.” She spoke of her long experience in television and the theater, as well as that of a writer. It was an extremely well-written and eye-opening essay.

It was also bloody depressing. In it, Weldon spoke of truisms in the various entertainment industries in which she’s worked–and in nearly all cases, the only time a women was considered important and worth listening to–be it in television, theater, or novels–is when she is young, pretty, and the love interest for a male lead.

Worse, Weldon seems to imply in her post that if you are so unfortunate as to be ‘a writer of a certain age’ and female, that you should really take advantage of the internet to lie to your fans and create a false persona like Remington Steele. Take a gender neutral pen name. Or if you acknowledge that you are, in fact, a woman, take this opportunity to pretend to be younger, thinner, prettier than you really are. Ouch.

ink pen_wikipedia_orgDiscussion of this post among my friends lead to whether or not bias still existed against women writers in this day and age. I found a blog post titled Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants, which seemed to parallel Laura Holt’s dilemma: she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman. It wasn’t until she took the pen name James Chartrand that her freelance writing business took off–and she was able to pay off her mortgage. The discussion among my friends turned inevitably to gender neutral pen names. In the thriller/mystery genre, a gender neutral pen name is almost mandatory–just look at J.D. Robb versus Nora Roberts. I argued that this was more about branding, about allowing your audience to know by your pen name what kind of story to expect. However, J. K. Rowling was born because her publisher thought a female name wouldn’t appeal to the primary audience for the Harry Potter series: adolescent boys.

The Boys of Summer400x600Then there is my own genre. I write primarily M/M romances. At the time I sold my first story and was selecting a pen name, there was a big brouhaha about an author who’d been discovered to be female instead of male. The anger readers felt, presumably for being deceived, was so great that I deliberately chose a feminine pen name because I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about my gender.

Frequently, the question of whether or not women should even be writing books about gay men and their sexual adventures is raised within the genre. Time and again, the same arguments come back: Tolkien never met a hobbit. Mystery writers usually aren’t murders themselves. Rowling never went to Hogwarts (I KNOW. Say it isn’t so!!) and to my knowledge, all science fiction is just that. Fiction. And yet I never seem to hear a single person take a male author to task for creating a female protagonist. This particular complaint about women writers seems to get raised every few months among my various lists and groups, too.

You will hear people say as long as the story is written well, they don’t give a hoot about the gender of the author, and since I feel that way myself, I believe people when they say this. But I have to wonder, especially in light of Weldon’s post. Of her encouragement to be anything other than what I actually am. Believe me, that post made me wonder if I’d made a serious mistake by going with a feminine pen name, and whether I should delete all my previous posts on aging and sexuality. Whether I should be someone other than who I really am. Because writing isn’t just a little hobby for me. I need it to help pay the bills.

I pretty much thought these arguments were limited to my genre (with the possible exception of the mystery genre as well). Lord knows, romance writers in general are considered the lowest of the low when it comes to ‘real’ writing. Turns out sci-fi and mystery writers also come pretty low on the ‘respect’ list, compared to the literary giants of the fiction world, which is sad because on any given day I’ll take a good mystery or sci-fi story over any self-indulgent, introspective Grand Literature novel. But I digress.

One of my friends pointed out this article to me on Literary Sexism: Still Pervasive and Real. It bears reading. While the beginning is about a critical review and the author’s response to it (which may not make a ton of sense if you aren’t familiar with Mary Gaitskill‘s essays and fiction), read it all the way through. There are some links to some searing examples of ongoing bias toward women. It’s enlightening as well as disheartening. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the pie chart graphs of the number of books reviewed by male versus female authors.

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image11166602I can’t change who Sarah Madison is now unless I want to start all over again building a platform and readership from scratch, but I can certainly give more thought to creating my new persona for my projected traditional romances. Ironically, Sarah Madison would be a good fit for that genre, better perhaps, that for writing about hot men in hot water. The jury is still out as to whether or not I will actually take another pen name to write traditional M/F romances. The polling has run about 50/50 either way. I myself think, like Nora Roberts, it will be easier for those readers who don’t care for gay romances to find what they like to read if I keep the names separate.

This is certainly not meant to be a ‘wah-wah, woe is me, I’m a woman and the world is out to get me’ post either. It’s just that it seems to me that we should have come farther than Remington Steele by now. I’d like to point to one of my favorite television heroines, Kate Beckett from Castle and say we have come a long way, baby. But then I recall how much Stana Katic’s appearance has changed over the six seasons of Castle and how little she resembles a NYPD homicide detective anymore and how much she looks like a fashion model instead. And Castle usually solves the crime, too.

So it is tempting here to say that Remington Steele was a bad, wrong message to send to impressionable young women. But that would be wrong. I recall not all that long ago getting very angry over some young person’s lambasting of Star Trek: The Original Series on Twitter–commenting on how sexist, nationalist, racist, etc the show was. I tried to point out that for its time, it was groundbreaking stuff. That yes, the women wore mini-skirts and go-go boots, but it was the first show that depicted a black woman in a role other than that of a maid or a cook. That it tackled big issues. That it envisioned a future in which we’d solved so many of our problems by working together instead of trying to kill each other. The Twitter Hater wouldn’t listen and I had to drop her from my feed. She couldn’t understand that it took those very baby steps taken in Star Trek to bring us forward to the kinds of diversity and equality we see in roles for characters today.

I have to give that same kind of credit to Remington Steele. It was groundbreaking in its way as well, giving us a strong unmarried female heroine who had an interesting career and did exciting things. Laura Holt was smart and independent and I wanted to be her. She was one of the first characters I can recall to influence me that way. That’s exactly the sort of baby step that was needed back then. Today we have Kate Beckett, and Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer), and Rizzoli and Isles, and Captain Sharon Raydor (Major Crimes), and Peggy Carter (Captain America) and I could go on. It’s getting better. We’re seeing better roles for women, more older women in good roles. But the numbers are still pretty small compared to the good parts for men.

The fact that men got all the best parts and best lines was one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to male characters my entire life. I very much want to try my hand at writing a female character I can like and respect. The thought terrifies me, to be honest, which is why I haven’t seriously attempted it so far. But I will. Some day I will. And I have Laura Holt to thank for it.

 

 

Jumping Ship: Will switching genres sink your writing vessel?

 

78812398_8I’ve been contemplating having an affair for a while now. No, not that kind of affair–in fact, my boyfriend is the one who put this idea in my head. For several years now, he’s been suggesting that I consider branching out into the M/F romance genre.

Interestingly enough, not because he is ashamed of my work. We met online, and because he is a geek extraordinaire, he actually discovered (and read) some of my slash fanfiction before we ever went out–and he still wanted to go out with me. But from the beginning, every now and then, he’s suggested that I should go for a bigger brass ring. It’s his feeling that I’m limiting myself by staying with M/M romance, despite the fact that it is currently one of the fastest growing genres in the romance industry today.

I’ve resisted the idea for many reasons. Not the least of which is, ironically, there were so few good strong female role models on television when I was growing up. I know, that sounds kind of backward, but back then, the men got all the cool parts on television. They were the ones in the thick of things–solving crimes and kicking ass, taking names and making us grin with their snappy comebacks and devil-may-care attitudes.  I was a tomboy as a kid. Well, to be honest, I still am. I entered a profession that was so male-dominated that when I first applied to school, only 15 applicants from my area would be considered–and 14 of them were men.

For me it was muddy boots instead of killer heels, a bulky-but-warm down parka instead of gorgeous wool coats in bright colors with silk scarves. Serviceable, practical haircuts instead of magnificent bedhead hair, and so on. Because it was worth it to me to be in on the action: to get the meaty roles. To have the best lines.

But hot boots are very cool...

But hot boots are very cool…

I detested the shows in which the the hero was presented each week with a temporary heroine that was Too Stupid To Live. She was pretty, feisty, and supposedly smart, and yet each episode we were given an example of how this apparently brainy woman-of-the-week would make stupid choices in the name of being independent, in order for the hero to conveniently swoop in and save her. Oh, yeah, and he wouldn’t stick around for the following week because he was off to save someone else. With his best bud/sidekick. Nice object lesson here, Hollywood. Smart, independent women have bad things happen to them and need rescuing. And wind up alone.

You know what one of my favorite movie scenes of all time is? It’s in the Drew Barrymore Cinderella Story, Ever After. She and the Incognito Prince have been taken captive by gypsies. They have been stripped of all their belongings, and a plea is made for her release. The gypsy ringleader tells her that she can leave, taking with her only what she can carry. She gets this gleam in her eye, walks over to the Prince, and hoists him up across her shoulders. She’s buckling with the weight of carrying him, but she faces the gypsy leader down with a gimlet eye as she staggers away under her burden.

The leader bursts out laughing and begs her to come back–and in the next scene, everyone is carousing around the campfire. I love it. Even at the end of the movie, when the Prince is rushing to save her from the nefarious (and ubiquitous) bad guy, he runs into her coming out of the palace where she has just rescued herself. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. And not something we see very often in today’s storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong. It is getting better for woman in movie and television roles. I loved this scene from the Avengers when Black Widow gets a phone call from Agent Coulson. She’s being held captive, things look bad for her, but from the moment she answers the phone, you can tell she’s in control of everything happening in that room. And when Coulson tells her that someone she cares about is in trouble, she busts her way out of the situation that only moments before looked incredibly dire for her.

But what happened when the cast was interviewed about their various roles in the movie? Scarlett Johansson ends up saying at one point to Robert Downey, Jr. “How come you get asked the really interesting existential question and I get like the ‘rabbit food’ question?” How come, indeed.

Why is it that Kate Beckett has gradually over the five seasons of Castle, morphed from someone who (to me) was visually believable as a sexy, street-savvy NYPD homicide detective into another fashion model? Don’t get me wrong, I think Stana Katic is gorgeous, and I myself go through frequent hair incarnations (having learned the hard way I really don’t look good with short hair), but on some level, I miss the edgy look she had in season one. And I can’t help but think she was forced to give into the pressure that Hollywood places on actresses to look a certain way. Don’t get me started, but it is rare to see an actress in my age bracket who doesn’t have long hair. Mind you, I prefer long hair myself–but I don’t have a colorist and a stylist following me around every day. I WISH.

So, you’d think that I would be delighted to tell more stories with strong, smart, savvy heroines like these, right? Well, to be honest, most traditional romance stories bore the heck out of me. I find myself yawning and unable to finish reading a story if it consists largely of two people meeting, falling gaga in love with each other, being completely incapable of sitting down and holding a ten minute conversation that would solve their communication issues, and then resolving said problems with a snap of the fingers (and some sort of rescue) to live happily ever after.  Where’s the car chase scene? The shoot out with aliens? The threat to civilization as we know it?

I know, write it, huh? If you want it, you must write it.

The problem is, every time I’ve thought about writing a traditional heroine as a main character, my brain automatically short-circuits into the ruts of characterization I’ve been force fed all my life. One of the reasons I think I wrote slash fanfic almost exclusively iwas because there was so much scope for story-telling between the two main male characters in most action/adventure shows. I fell in love with a set of characters and wanted to tell more stories about them. Why don’t I write Castle or The Closer fanfic? Because I think those shows are already doing a better job than I can with the characters I love.

The shows that are a little flawed, that present you with wonderful, compelling characters but also with great gaping plotholes and waffling storylines, or have no possibility of showing you the story you’d like to see–these are the shows that capture the fan writer’s imagination.

When I first discovered slash fanfiction (and from there, on to writing M/M romance) I felt like I’d finally discovered adult fiction for the first time. Here were the stories about characters in love with equal dynamics in their relationships. Here were the stories that were explicit and hot, not shying away into euphemisms or fade-to-black sex scenes. I spent a year absorbing the fanfic of my chosen fandom, and the next five years writing it myself. Somewhere along the way, I got the courage to submit a M/M romance story for publication, and the rest is history.

Saying I can’t do the same with a set of M/F characters is a bit of a cop-out, I know. Blaming it on the lack of good role models is a cop-out as well. The truth is, I’m scared. I have worked hard at creating the Sarah Madison platform. I’ve written a fair number of stories. I’ve won some awards and commendations. I’ve built up a social network. I have the sneaking suspicion that my stories got published in part because the genre I write in is much smaller than romance as a whole, and there was room for one more little fish in it. (I keep waiting for the Authorial Police to show up at my doorstep and demand that I stop calling myself a writer) It’s all I can do to keep the Sarah Madison Fiction plates spinning on their little poles now–do I really want to jump ships?

Up until very recently, I would have said no. Not interested. Not ready. Then, when brainstorming for a story the other night, it occurred to me that there were some very good reasons for making one of the main characters female instead of male. The character as I envisioned him/her is already pretty well-defined in my mind–a brilliant, arrogant genius with not very good social skills, yet with a vulnerable side that is aware of not being the popular kid on the block and deciding that being smart and right trumps being well-liked.

I find it interesting that character traits we tolerate and find endearing in men (think Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark) we’d very likely bash and malign in a woman. She’s a bitch, she’s mean, she’s rude, and the worst: “She’s stuck on herself.”

And yet, I’m tempted, so very tempted. Because I think in many ways, this character would be awesome.

But it would be a big departure for me...

But it would be a big departure for me…

 

You’re probably asking yourself, what the heck is there for me to be scared about? This should be easier, right? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I bet there are some of you reading right now who wouldn’t think twice about adopting another persona and cranking out another set of stories in a totally different field. Maybe you already write erotica and YA fiction. Maybe you write non-fiction and romance stories. You have three pen names, complete with websites, Facebook accounts, and tweet like mad.You’ve got different personas for each, and you can effortless keep them straight in your mind.

Writing a heroine that I can admire isn’t the biggest part of my concern though–it is starting from scratch as a ‘new’ author in a genre where I have no contacts and in a field that is already enormous. Am I diluting my readership by expanding ships or increasing it by widening the playing field? I see that Nora Roberts maintains a link for her J.D. Robb books on her website. Interestingly enough, the J.D. Robb website does not obviously link back to Nora Roberts. So with that in mind, you know what this means: a poll! Or even more than one!

Can a romance writer successfully write in multiple genres?

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If I write in a different genre, do I need a different pen name and persona?

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Will readers of one genre be seriously weirded out by the other?

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If I decide to go M/F, what route should I take?

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I am very much interested in input from both readers and writers here. If you’d rather email me privately, you can contact me at akasarahmadison at gmail dot com. I’m interested in your experiences. Are you a reader that will read any romance, or do you prefer a specific genre? If you’re a writer, what kinds of experiences have you had, good or bad, by writing in divergent fields? Inquiring minds want to know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why M/M Romance?

I came across this thought-provoking commentary on jessewave last night regarding tropes in M/M romances and whether the genre was aimed at women or men.  I immediately sat down and wrote a long response to it–only the site ate my response and I hadn’t saved it.

You know that moment where your hand hovers over the ‘send’ button and you waffle about hitting it, which is when your brain tells you ‘if there’s any doubt, don’t do it!’ and you hit send anyway?

Yeah, I had one of those moments.

Fortunately, the site ate it, and it gave me an out. I could either sit on my hands altogether and go back to working the the WIP (which, though moving at a glacial pace, IS moving), or I could re-draft and repost my response here.

I know what the social media gurus would say: Are you nuts? Don’t make waves! Keep your online presence smiling and cheerful. Don’t do anything to offend your potential readership!

Yeah, I’m so good at that!  *eyes political ranting and frothing-at-the-mouth rage of the past year or so and has grace to look embarrassed*

I have to admit, I had a hard time even knowing how to title this post. I started out calling it “Why Women Read and Write M/M Romance” but the truth is, I can only speak for me.  It’s not like I haven’t written about the subject before. I’m not sure why I’m tentative now. Maybe it’s because I’m more aware of how controversial this subject can be now.  I dunno.

The jessewave post opens with the author describing a romantic interaction between him and his husband in the purple prose terms of many a common M/M novel. It was funny, it was ludicrous, and by the end of his demonstration, I could see where it could be called demeaning and insulting, as well.  And yet my first thought when I read this was, Yeah, so? Show me a typical romance novel that doesn’t simplify and stereotype the main characters.

Mind you, I’m not defending it because everyone else is doing the same. I think that this is part of the problem with the genre, not specifically M/M romance, but ROMANCE in general. I also think new writers learn by copying others–and it takes logging in many hours at the keyboard before you develop a strong enough style and sense of identity to step away from repeating patterns seen in other stories. Remember too, most of us write because we want to tell the kinds of stories we love to read–so breaking free from the herd can be tough at first.

As I read the article, the general gist of the complaint seemed to run along the lines of feminizing male characters in order to fulfill a traditional male/female relationship–and that the reason for doing this seems to be to sell more books in the M/M genre, which admittedly is one of the hottest subgenres at the moment.  I gotta tell you, though, one of the reasons I write M/M romance is because the main characters *aren’t* women. “Chicks with dicks” is the last thing I want to create. Also? I write because I love it. I write because it’s a compulsion (cheaper than therapy!), and it is harder to create in a vacuum, hence the attempt to market what I create in the hopes that someone else will like it too. I’m not going to Paris on the proceeds!

How do I best explain why I write M/M romance and not M/F? Maybe it is because every time we create a bad-ass awesome heroine in fiction, we find ourselves creating all these qualifiers to go along with her. If she is too tough and aggressive, then she’s a mean bitch. If she likes baking or knitting, then she’s a piss-poor throwback to the 1950s. I’ve been accused of being misogynistic simply because I didn’t like a female character and thought her ill-suited for her role in the story. When we create that bad-ass heroine, she either stands out as an exception to the rule, or else she is the clone of the last bad-ass heroine we’ve read about. We as writers just can’t win.

Now, that may sound like a weenie reason for abandoning my sex and running off to play with male characters, but it is more than that. When I was growing up, the men got all the good parts. Kirk got to go down to the planet and save the day, while Uhura sat on the bridge and announced that the hailing frequencies are open, Captain. Do I disparage the Uhura of the day? No! We needed her! We needed to see Nichelle Nichols on the bridge, depicting a black woman in some other role than a maid. Do I love the direction the remake made with Uhura? You damn betcha! I love her competence and her desire to reach out and get what she wants–what she deserves. But there was a forty year gap between those two incarnations, and it would have been impossible for us to bridge that gap without each new, slightly revised female role model along the way.  I keep insisting that one day I will write a female main protagonist that I won’t want to bitch-slap twenty pages into the story, but it hasn’t happened yet. Why? Because at this point in time, her story doesn’t grab me.

With the exception of such standout television shows as The Closer, it is often difficult to find an outstanding portrayal of a strong female character that is in some way not a caricature as well. One of the reasons The Closer worked for me was (unbelievably talented writing and production aside), that Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson was first and foremost a fully-fleshed out character–who happened to be a woman. I’ve been asked why I’ve never tried my hand at Closer fanfic. Well, damn.  How can you top that? The show provided everything I, as a viewer, could have hoped for. For me, fanfic was unnecessary.

I write M/M romances because these are the characters I most identify with and want to know more about. I identify with the marginalization and inequalities that members of the GLBT community feel, even though, as a straight, white women in the US, I have a lot less to complain about than any member of this community. I still ‘get’ being the outsider, though. The ‘outsider’ experience doesn’t usually take center stage in my stories–I’m writing romance, not gay fiction.  But it does color the actions of my characters even as it affects most of my interactions today. Bottom line, these are the characters that interest me, whose stories I want to tell.

One of my favorite authors, the creator of some kick-ass top-notch heroines, is male. He writes tech-heavy sci-fi space opera, and I love his work with a passion. Do I question his ability to write a believable heroine taking a lover for the first time at the age of 45? No, not really. I suspect it’s because his story is not fundamentally about the relationship–the relationship is but a small piece in the background of a much larger story.

Perhaps this is why the question of women writing M/M romances keeps getting raised. The fault lies in the fact that the entire story is built around the relationship, and that getting the characters together is the whole reason we’re here. As such, there is definitely a sense that we as women are inserting too much of what turns *us* on into our stories, rather than completely immersing ourselves in a man’s mentality. Or maybe I’m wrong in that impression. I can’t help but feel that if we were writing about hobbits, elves, dragons, serial killers or murderers, there would be less talk of how women can’t possibly write about something they are not.

At the same time, we need reminders of when tropes become outdated or offensive. We need reminders that what may be hot for our female readership might even be demeaning to the men we are trying to portray. We need someone to poke fun at purple prose and take us to task for falling into the trap of repeating everything we’ve read before us. Gotta tell you, I don’t see the old rape-turned-love trope as much anymore, and man, am I thankful for that! Talk about a trope to make me grind my teeth! I’m grateful for women writers, such as J. P. Barnaby, who will ask her male friends how often they really jack off in the shower, instead of mindlessly repeating what is admittedly a damn fine visual trope. So I salute Stuart, the author of the jessewave piece, for turning a spotlight on the subject.

A while back, I misread a prompt for a story, got 60 K into it, and realized I didn’t have a market for what I’d written. No problem, I decided. I’d already published with Dreamspinner Press at that time–I’d simply change the female leads into men and send it in.

There was no ‘simple’ to it. No mere matter of doing a find and replace on names and pronouns. I had to re-write every single line. Because men move differently, act differently, speak differently. Hell, they even think differently. It was a fascinating and eye-opening experience, and I’m glad that I did it. Not only that, but the story became ten times stronger for the revision. It turned into Crying for the Moon, and I can no longer imagine it in its original form.

I just wanted to state for the record that while we need gentle reminders, and it is up to us as writers to keep improving our information, I don’t want to feel as though I’m being deliberately exploitative. I just write what I love.

While I’m here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dreamspinner Press is celebrating getting over 10 K likes on their Facebook Fan Page by offering free stories, revolving discounts, and all kinds of giveaways! Do check them out (one of those free stories is a little ‘first kiss’ story of mine!)

2nd Annual International Walk Like Beckett Day!

Fandom is a funny place. I had to share this with you because, though I am a fan of ABC’s Castle, I’m not *in* the Castle fandom, as in, I don’t hang out in the fandom communities, or write fanfic for the show. I have nothing against either activity–I write fanfic myself for some other shows, but Castle isn’t one of them. Probably because I don’t think I could do justice to the complexities of the cases, or the banter between the leads.

Tonight is the season premiere of Castle, which I am looking forward to. Mondays are usually tough days at work–you get all the emergencies and critical cases that have been ill all weekend and now are truly a problem.  Mondays are usually little snapshots of heartbreak all day long.

I look forward to Castle because I enjoy the chemistry between the two stars, Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. I love the witty, snappy dialog, I enjoy the crime solving. It’s become a Monday night ritual with my BF– I look forward to it all day, especially when work is wearing me down.

That’s the beauty of fandom–the reason why I value it so much. Fandom provides such pleasure over such little things. There’s the community of like-minded fans, the excited anticipation of new episodes, the fun of finding a great picture or gif to share, the creativity of the fanfic writers, the vidders, the artists.

One of the fun things I ran across is International Walk Like Beckett Day. The idea is simple: on IWLBD, you pull out your power shoes, that little leather jacket, the colorful scarf–whatever it is that makes you feel like Kate Beckett when you put it on. You walk with confidence. You expect respect and you receive it. Watch as doors open for you, as people smile at you.

Note: this is not LOOK like Beckett day. Most of us haven’t a hope of looking as gorgeous as Stana Katic, but we can ‘act as if’. And I have to tell you, the results have been astonishing every time I do.

The first time I “Walked Like Beckett”, I stopped by my bank on a whim and successfully refinanced my house.  I went in with confidence and assurance, and things were going so well, I also asked for the equity loan I was sure I wouldn’t receive.

I got it.

The second time I “Walked like Beckett”, I impulsively made a suggestion to a business that we combine our services–and things have ended up working out better than my wildest expectations. If I hadn’t been playing WLB in my head, I doubt I would have had the nerve to make the suggestion in the first place.

I also love The Closer. I love well-written shows with strong female leads–you have to admit, they are few and far between. And while I wouldn’t want to run my personal life the way Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson does, I admire competence in the work place. Whenever I need some gumption, one of my friends tells me to get my Brenda Leigh on.

It makes me laugh every time, but it also makes me square my shoulders, raise my eyebrow, and refuse to back down from what I need or want (even as I toss in lots of ‘thank yews,’ along the way).

I know people who get inspiration from favorite characters to improve their fitness, to deal with a tough home life, to stand up to a not very nice boss. I look to my favorite characters for all of these things and more–including swallowing my anger at times and acting with grace when I’d rather blow a gasket (Thank you, Captain Steve Rogers!). This past weekend, it allowed me to calmly relocate a copperhead out of the campground where we were staying when everyone else was on the edge of panic. I should point out that the relocation process included trapping the snake in a trash can and toting it across an icy river (that proved to be deeper than expected!) to release it on the other side—so yeah, pretty kick-ass when I think about it!  It had to be done though–the snake was right in the middle of the campground, and less than 20 feet away from where the dogs were staying.

So, who are your heroes? Your favorite characters? Does putting on a certain outfit empower you with the class and nerve of Peggy Carter (Captain America)? Do you work out thinking about that boxing scene in The Avengers?  Prepare for a presentation like Tony Stark? Walk in the door like you know what you’re doing and you’re the best one to do it? With calm, cool logic like Spock?

Who do you walk like?  What do you do to give you that little boost to emulate your hero? Share your stories–I really want to know!