A Time for Superheroes

The past few days have been harrowing for many of us, myself included. The fear in my community is palpable, an anxiety-inducing energy that would cause palpitations in the dead. I could go into all the reasons why people I work with and work for are unsettled, but that’s not the point of this post – no, dear reader, I have something much more powerful to talk about. Tonight I was rescued by Dr. Strange.

The lady is ill! I imagine you thinking. She’s hallucinating about comic book characters and such. This can’t be healthy. Please, hear me out.

The Dr. Strange movie was good. The writing was decent, the visuals stunning, and it always helps to have a special fondness for Benedict Cumberbatch. The movie took me away from the things I was feeling – powerlessness, grief, anger – and reminded me of something I had apparently forgotten… stories are important.

This is about more than just distraction through escapism, though that has its own valid purpose. At any point in history, in any culture, you will find stories. We humans can’t seem to stop telling them. We use them to communicate experiences and provide each other with amusement, but more than that, stories remind of us of values greater than ourselves, especially in times where we’ve lost sight of those values. Dr. Strange did not fly through a window and bend space and time to fix my problems (not that I’d mind all that); the story of Dr. Strange brought to mind the important things in life that will never change. The power of fantasy, connection, a desire to do good, the mind’s ability to influence reality – those concepts exist no matter who our leaders are or how our personal circumstances change. As a character-driven writer it struck me that it’s not about the setting; twists of plot are interesting to me only insofar as the plot guides the reactions of the characters. Events happen, many of which the characters had little or no control over, but how the characters respond is what matters.

We, too, play parts in real-life stories. Our roles shift depending on the day and the perspective, one day the hero, the next the helper, later the antihero. What’s true of stories is just as true of real life. It may not seem like the time for fantasy, reading, writing, and movie-going, but I would argue that now is exactly the time for these things. We need the experiences of story-telling and story-receiving as a means of centering ourselves; ancient human experience, a higher power of sorts, connecting us to ideals and each other. Don’t stop reading. Don’t stop watching. Don’t stop creating.

Don’t stop believing in what matters most.


My Physician Alter-Ego

We are hardcore.

We don’t like to say it. Doctors, nurses, and other folks in the medical profession known for the long shifts, the 80-hour weeks and the life-and-death scenarios, we like to say “Ah well, it’s just what it is. We signed up for this.”

That may be true, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

I say this as someone who is on the “softer” side of the medical profession with my choice of specialty; this week I will have only worked 72 hours in six 12-hour increments. I’m in the emergency department as part of my overall intern-year curriculum, though it is not my area of study – it is expected that I be able to manage these patients with the help of my attending physician and make halfway decent decisions if I have an unstable patient while waiting for the real expert to show up. I feel tired probably 70% of the time, and when I look back on my week I wonder how in the world I made it through. It takes a huge amount of energy to go to work every morning and deal with serial emergencies (major props to my friends in emergency med and internal med – I really don’t know how y’all deal with this forever).

I’m not saying this to be all “hey, look at me,” I’m saying hey, look at us. We live weird lives compared to everyone else – that’s why they make television shows about us, along with cops and military folks. Those three groups are the fodder for countless stories because it’s just generally something that most people will not experience in life. We made some of the most critical moments in life our jobs, every single day. The majority of everyday people will not see day after day of psychosis, suicide attempts, and crippling anxiety. They don’t routinely welcome new humans into the world or watch as children die way too young.

Maybe it’s different for people from medical families, but from my perspective, this life is incredible. When I was a kid doctors were somewhat mysterious (perhaps more so for me than other people – my mother didn’t really believe in doctors). They didn’t seem like fully formed people; they were mystical folks who fixed things and knew things. Surely these people were just born this way. No one becomes a doctor, they just are. The universe declared them so.

I was almost old enough to drive when I came to the seemingly obvious realization that doctors were people who went through years of school to learn a profession which is way beyond the realm of normal experience (turns out that the few doctors I met as a kid were the most educated folks I had any contact with – who knew?). It was a shock for me to find out that I could be one – a kid who grew up in a town of 6,000 people, raised by a single mother who cleaned houses and waited tables. They let people like me into school, with the right grades and extracurriculars.

Turns out this doctoring thing really is an acquired skill, or so they tell me. I’ve officially been a doctor for six months and I still have a hard time believing I’m part of this world. “Dr. Cooper, radiology for you on line two,” the department secretary calls over the loudspeaker. Dr. Cooper, who? Why are nurses looking to me for advice and direction? Plenty of them are close to twice my age. Surely not – surely not me.

I believed every day for the four years I spent in med school that I was going to fail out, despite never failing a class. Every board exam was another opportunity to prove that my admission to med school was some kind of mistake. I was not born a doctor; any time now, they’re going to figure out that I’m a fraud dressed in a white coat, trying to pretend I’m one of them.

I passed my third and final licensing exam a couple weeks ago, and now I can’t really make that argument anymore. I didn’t just pass it, either – I did well, so well that you’d almost think I was one of those doctors spontaneously formed from the fabric of the universe.

In six hours I start an overnight emergency shift. I will bike myself up the hill, take off the tie-dye and don hospital-issued scrubs. My nametag says “Physician,” the whitecoat inspires confidence. I’ll hit the floor running in my tennis shoes, ready to take on whatever comes in. I’ve been on the service long enough that the attendings have started to trust me.

I think I’m slowly getting to the point in my life where I’m beginning to trust myself. I’m not sure that the title will ever merge with my identity the way I imagined it as a kid. Healthcare providers are people, some of them people just like me. Tie-dye, fantasy writing, and all.

The First Reader You Disappoint

Today is a good day. Today I got my first sub-4-star review from someone who was disappointed in Broken. When I got it I paused and felt the initial punch of sadness – They read it and walked away unhappy?! – and then intrigue – What did they see in the words that they didn’t like?

I’m pleased to say that this is a new experience for me after a year and a half (ish) of positive reviews across the board. It’s hard to complain about that, so I’m not going to. I’m also not writing this post to confront the reader, as per author’s etiquette. I side with the large group of writers who feel it is poor form to get into arguments with readers over differences of opinion. I have certainly disliked books that other people loved in the past (Lord of the Rings, for one, even though I respect the story as a whole). What I’m writing about here is the thing that I love about art in general – no single piece of art is viewed the same way by all people, and that is okay. I would argue that it’s the entire point.

The same story does not have exactly the same meaning to any two people, and as a character-driven author and reader, I see those differences of opinions through the relationships we have with characters (sure, we can get bogged down in plot points and technicalities, but I find those problems much less interesting). If we look at the well-dramatized TV show Mad Men, for instance, we can find a divide in fans between those who like Don Draper and those who find him beyond redemption. Draper is an adulterer, a liar, and a drinker. He is also someone who is tormented by what he’s done and memories of where he came from; he has sparkles of kindness that show up through the lying/cheating/drinking (i.e. his care for Anna), great charisma, and a brilliant mind for advertising. What a viewer sees in Don Draper depends so much on their own experiences – to one who has been cheated on, he may be the embodiment of deep hurts. To the child of an alcoholic, he may be a reminder of a father too infrequently present. At the same time, he could actually evoke sympathy in the same person, not just for the character, but for the real-life incarnation of his indiscretions.

The prism of characterization, molded by our own experiences.

My own experiences have come into play rather prominently with the latest book I opened up, the semi-autobiographical Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov. Mikhail is a classically acclaimed physician-writer, best known for his novel, The Master and the Margarita. In Country Doctor’s Notebook he describes his experiences as a new doctor in 1917 rural Russia. As I started reading the book I felt this overwhelming sense of kinship with a man now long dead; somehow, between the pages of an almost 100-year-old book, I met a friend. There are obvious differences between our experiences as young physicians – while Mikhail was stranded in snowy Russia with inadequate resources and no other physicians to advise him, I am working in a well-appointed hospital with supervision. Where he is expected to do everything from surgery to psychiatry, I am training in a narrower specialty.

Those obvious differences aside, in so many ways our experiences are not different at all (starting with the fact that we are both physicians who write). I think every healer has felt that sudden doomsday sensation with the first patient you see as a qualified practitioner, knowing that you are the one with the answers now, or you’re supposed to be. I laughed when Mikhail wrote about concealing a textbook on the procedure he was about to perform on top of the patient’s chart, when not a week ago I was googling the steps to procedures and drugs I was about to initiate as I was walking into a room. His desperate thoughts on his first day ‘please don’t let this be a hernia,’ are not so different than my own ‘please don’t let this be a stroke.’ Through his work I came to understand that the insecurities of the young healer are a function of who we are, regardless of when we are – all of us through time have had the same fears, and that… is kind of awesome.

As the story went on Mikhail revealed the increasingly dark side of his early years as a doctor, when he became addicted to morphine. His description of the descent into addiction was surprisingly frank for someone of his time and profession; I could not help but admire his courage. Courage aside, there’s no way to defend practicing medicine while intoxicated; what he did was not right. It was bad.

I understood it, and think what you will of me, I still felt the same connection to him. What he did wasn’t what I would ever do, and still I found him sympathetic, for whatever reason that may be.

We look at these sorts of characters in their most broken times, and for us they are so many shards of glass – tilt them one way and we see something we want to see, tilt another way and we see quite the opposite. When you have a reaction to a character, what are you seeing? Are you seeing them for who they are, or are you seeing your friends, your family?

Do you see yourself?

We will not all agree on stories, characters, or values, but what we see in them is always a part of us in some way. I could never fault someone for that. Thank you for the reviews, no matter what they say.

Kickstarting Diversity in Fiction: An Interview with S.E. Doster

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to connect with fellow fantasy author S.E. Doster, writer of The Alliance Series. Her first book, The Alliance: Bloodlines, tells the supernaturally-charged story of unlikely heroes and their fight to take back their city. Doster is now working on the sequel, Drakon, while she is running a Kickstarter campaign to support her upcoming Sacrifice novel. She, like myself, is a strong supporter of character diversity in genre fiction, and took the time to answer a few questions about the topic and her latest work.

Tell me about Sacrifice and your Kickstarter. What inspired you to go the Kickstarter route?

Traditional publishing can be a hard industry to break into, but trying to find a home for such a diverse novel proves to be even harder. I originally intended my first Kickstarter to be one of my comic book projects, but the passionate enthusiasm of my beta readers convinced me to try Sacrifice first. I self-published the Bloodlines novel with a meager budget and the help of friends, but the overall quality of the product suffered. I wanted to give Sacrifice professional editing, formatting and cover design, but each of those come with such costly fees.

Sacrifice is an Urban Fantasy thriller that involves meta-humans and supernatural creatures. The story includes the romance of a lesbian couple, but that factor doesn’t define the story. There are gay and straight characters of all races, but it’s shown in a community that already accepts equality.

Diversity in literature… what are your thoughts on its importance?

I think it’s very important that we work to increase the diversity in literature. There are so many groups of kids that don’t get to see main characters like them. It sends the wrong message when bookshelves are filled with books that contain mostly straight, white male protagonists. Characters of color or even queer characters seem to fill the much smaller roles in novels, but how does that even make sense? Mainstream literature shouldn’t be filled with primarily straight white characters because the world is not made up solely of straight white people. I have a very diverse group of friends of all races both gay and straight, so I decided to write a book that reflects real life for me.

Over the last few years we have seen a small increase in diversity on television, but the publishing industry seems stubborn to accept the change. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, or we’ll continue to give future generations literature that does not reflect real life or teach equality.

How do you think independent authors impact diversity in literature?

Indie authors have the ability to be their own boss, and choose to include diversity that maybe wouldn’t be accepted with a traditional publisher. They can write without fear of an editor demanding changes to avoid too much risk. I’ve seen many indie authors embracing diversity, some are writers like me that don’t want to wait for publishers to wake up and smell the diversity (pun intended) so they create the stories they want to read.

The one negative impact I see with indie authors is the percentage that lacks the polish of a traditionally published novel. I want to read LGBT fantasy novels, but I’m usually discouraged when I search Amazon or Goodreads for LGBTQ or lesbian fiction. I usually locate novels with poor reviews and covers, which makes me incredibly sad. The stories may actually be wonderful on the inside, but poor editing, formatting and covers can still be a detriment to sales and reviews.

I know how tough self-publishing can be when you’re paying out of pocket, and I understand why some indie authors settle on quality, but this is why the Kickstarter was important for Sacrifice. We need more quality diverse novels if we hope to see them hit the shelves of our favorite book store.

What can readers do to help promote diversity? What can writers do?

Readers can send letters to publishers to demand for more diversity, and support books that are diverse. There are some campaigns right now that promote diversity, and one of them focuses on children’s literature. You can find their site here: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ This group offers great suggestions for diverse YA and children’s books.

Writers should make a conscious effort to bring diversity into their own stories, as well as supporting fellow writers who do the same.

How can we help with the Kickstarter, and when do you expect Sacrifice to come out?

Every little bit helps with crowdfunding. Like and share the Kickstarter post on social media. Tell your friends and family why diversity is important, and donate to the campaign if you can! Every single dollar helps. If every single person who saw my Kickstarter could donate just one dollar, (which is less than the price of one soda or cup of coffee) and asked/shared with their friends, we could make self-publishing Sacrifice a reality.

The Kickstarter launched on September 4th, and still needs your help to be successful!

Many thanks to S.E. Doster for participating in the interview! I for one am very happy to support her cause for all the reasons she’s given. As I’ve said before, media is an incredible vehicle for self-discovery and change; by promoting diversity in our entertainment we expand our own ideas of who we are and what we can be. Please visit the link above to donate and/or share her message.

Suicide is (not) Painless

This is probably a giant bandwagon that I am getting on here. With the recent devastating loss of Robin Williams – one of many great artists to fall to suicide (I should say presumed suicide, since they are still examining the evidence to this point) – came a slew of facebook and twitter posts about the national suicide hotline and depression/mental health awareness. There are thousands of people out there talking about this issue right now, probably saying many of the things I’m about to say.

I don’t mind being one voice among many on a topic for which there are never enough voices.

At once it seems strange that there aren’t enough voices – it seems like there should be plenty, just based on my own personal experiences. I was introduced to the idea of suicide when I was quite young – probably five or six, due to some interactions with a habitually suicidal family member. I saw the anguish that this person went through, and experienced my own every time they said they were thinking of taking their own life.

I remember the day I learned that one of my classmates killed himself – we were fourteen at the time. I remember my friends from high school who lived in horrible situations where they frequently thought of suicide, cut themselves, called me in the middle of the night in tears saying that they just couldn’t take the pain anymore. As an adult in healthcare I’ve seen many people who were contemplating or had attempted suicide, and witnessed one death by suicide – the person who died surrounded by weeping friends and family. I didn’t know this person and never got to talk to them, yet I stood outside their room and cried, wondering what must have gone through their head the moment before the gun went off. Did they think their family was better off without them? Was the pain of breathing so great that one more breath would have been too much?

Would it have helped even a little if I’d met this person a day before and somewhere else?

Perhaps I grew up in a particularly bad place for suicidality – perhaps I just happen to attract people to my life with this particular experience. Certainly as a healthcare professional I willingly expose myself to it, and hope that I can make some small difference in my clinical role. It seems to me that more people should be speaking out about this topic, and more should be understanding when a stranger, friend, colleague has the courage to speak up and say, ‘I’m depressed, I need help.’

Sadly it seems that our world does not respond well to these cries. If you look around the internet for a minute you’ll see strangers posting into the ether asking for help, met by other strangers internet-shouting to ‘get over it!’ or calling these people selfish, worthless, failures. I first encountered this in real life during my early pre-med years while volunteering in an ER with some other pre-meds. One of my patients was a woman who had attempted suicide. My pre-med colleague was also on the case, and she said some things I’ll never forget.

“I don’t understand why they don’t call the police,” she said disdainfully, her eyes narrowed with what I can only describe as disgust. “That woman should be in jail.”

Never in my life had it occurred to me that the reaction to ‘this person was so distraught that they saw no alternative but to slit their own wrists’ would be one of disgust and punishment. Naiive little me, I suppose, I fought back with my words, demanded that she see how this was not a moral failing or a matter of choice – attempting or completing suicide is the endpoint of an awful series of events, and if the person who has done it thought there was any other way, they would have chosen it. We are hardwired to live. Taking our own life means that something has gone seriously wrong.

I call this post “Suicide is (not) Painless” because I know – quite intimately – that it isn’t. Suicide is the ultimate culmination of years of hideous pain; when it is completed that pain ripples out to dozens and maybe hundreds of people. In cases where the people driven to take their own lives are great artists who brought us joy and wonder, this pain is amplified to thousands. Nothing about suicide is painless – and nothing about it should be shameful, either, even though we as a society have made it out to be.

If you need help, please ask for it from people you know will be sympathetic – close friends, a therapist, a doctor, the national suicide hotline if you’re in a pinch (1-800-273-TALK) or the boys town national hotline if you’re a teen in trouble (1-800-448-3000). You are not bad, wrong, or selfish. The pain is real.

Thanks for the laughs, Robin Williams. I hope you find joy somewhere out there.

To KDP Select or Not to KDP Select

This post is targeted particularly at writers (and even more specifically indie writers). I’m about to get a little technical about things, which will probably be very boring if it does not apply to you… fair warning. 😉

While working up Broken I came to a decision point: did I want to use Kindle Direct Publishing Select, or did I want to just do Kindle publishing + extended distribution on Smashwords? For those who are unfamiliar with the topic (and for those who are coming here specifically looking for a discussion on it), KDP Select is an optional agreement that an indie author can make with Amazon when they publish their ebook. Opting in to KDP Select gives Amazon 90 days of exclusivity on your ebook, meaning that you cannot e-publish your book on any other web-based outlets (Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Wattpad, personal blogs, etc.) during the KDP Select period. During this time you make a 70% royalty on all sales and your book must be priced between $2.99 and $9.99 – no more and no less (this obviously limits the utility of using Select with shorter works better suited for a $0.99 price range). Once the exclusivity period is over you can either continue with KDP Select (automatic enrollment is selected when you start unless you change it) or choose to go with regular old KDP, the latter of which would allow you to then publish on other outlets as you would normally. It should be noted that none of these agreements affect print books, so you can do KDP Select and publish a paperback copy on Createspace without problems.

Amazon’s exclusivity alone would be rather meaningless if it did not come with some advantages, of course. In exchange for not publishing your ebook in other places, Amazon allows you access to certain promotional tools. You can choose to either list your book as free for 5 days (which can be spread throughout your 30 day enrollment period) or use a relatively new feature called Kindle Countdown Deals. During a countdown deal, you set your book price lower than the usual list price (even as low as $0.99) while retaining the 70% royalty rate for a period of 1 hour to 5 days. During the course of the countdown deal the price slowly goes up. Amazon has a special section where it advertises countdown deals, which gives your book more visibility – some authors have claimed increases of more than 900% in their sales from countdown deals alone without additional advertising, which is pretty hefty. As a caveat, you can only use a countdown period once during your 90 days. In other words, even if you only do a 1-hour countdown, once you use it you cannot use another countdown until your next enrollment period (as opposed to the free days which you can break up and use over time). You also cannot use both free promotions and countdown deals in the same period – you must choose one or the other.

Free days by themselves garner quite a bit of attention. When I had Tragedy in KDP Select I ran some free days, and each time I did I saw more than 100 downloads. Of course, the issue with this is that many readers will just troll for free books to download which they may or may not ever read, and this doesn’t always generate fans. Even if it does generate genuine readers, it doesn’t necessarily help your sales if you don’t have any other books out yet. I think that KDP Select probably helped Tragedy early on, but honestly I feel that the best thing to do to increase sales is to produce more work. This is of course based on what I’ve read from other authors more than anything – I’m still trying to get to where I have multiple novels, novellas, and short stories out there.

As you can see, KDP Select comes with some obvious pros and cons. The promotions can be useful to spring a relatively unknown book into the hands of readers, but you can only choose one kind of promotion to do per period. You cannot sell on other outlets, and you have to price your book at a minimum of $2.99, which may or may not be reasonable for your particular work.

In the case of Broken I’ve been rather torn on the subject. Broken is on the short end for a novella at 18,000 words (20k if you count the bonus material), so $2.99 is a bit of a stretch. However, I am very proud of this particular novella, and I don’t think that $2.99 is wholly unreasonable considering the quality and time spent, it just might be hard in a market where there are so many free and $0.99 books. I’m also already on the other outlets with Tragedy and Fathers and Sons, so it seems a little odd to have this one novella exclusive to Amazon.

In the end it’s only 90 days, though. If I go with a $2.99 pricepoint through KDP Select and it doesn’t work, and even if the promos do not help me whatsoever, I can open things up to other outlets and lower the price after one period. Some other authors have been successful with KDP Select novellas, as well, which has helped nudge me over the edge into trying it. It’s very hard to go with multiple distributors and then condense back to just Amazon, so this is a decision I will only be able to make once – I may as well give it a shot.

There you have a basic rundown of KDP regular vs. KDP Select, and my reasons for going Select with Broken in particular. I hope it was helpful!

In other news, I would like to congratulate Chris B., Julia W., and CJ R. for winning the Broken giveaway! For those who entered and did not win, please do check out the novella which releases on 6/26. Since I have decided on KDP Select there will be some deals ahead, and you will be the first to know. 🙂

Peace and long life.

The Strength of One’s Heroine (don’t forget that last ‘e’)

Talking about “strong female characters” has been in vogue for a while. The argument was very hot after the fiasco that was Twilight, then gained popularity again with the wild success of The Hunger Games with its stellar lady-protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Having a cast which features one or more “strong female characters” is a thing these days – a lot of people would say it’s an important or significant thing. Those that have read my posts in the past already know that I also value the utility of having women (and minorities and LGBTQ people, while we’re at it) represented in media of all forms, and I have briefly touched on the strong/independent female character before. Today I’d like to take that a little deeper.

The problem with this whole “strong female character” (henceforth known as ‘SFC’s’) thing is that a lot of people are fuzzy on what it means to write them, how to do it, and why. Further, there’s a lot of talk about the SFC and significantly less talk about the not strong but still developed female character. There’s no right answer here, of course, and I wouldn’t presume to possess the elusive strong heroine absolute truth. I would like to chat about my own observations and how I personally approach the issue as a self-proclaimed genre-writing feminist (one who probably fails at this task as much as she succeeds).

First off we have to have a definition – what is a strong female character? I recently had a conversation with a friend on the subject, and when I asked what elements he thought of when discussing SFC’s he initially identified it as being a “badass,” particularly when it comes to fighting and physical strength. I think this is a pretty common outlook – when people hear the SFC term, they think of a weapon-wielding take-no-prisoners woman with a take-charge attitude. A great recent example of such a character is Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which any comic book movie lover should watch, if you haven’t tried it). May is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with just as many ninja skills as any man on the show, and some pretty impressive leadership skills when she lets them shine through. That said, to me it’s not really her physical strength that makes her such an impressive character – it’s how she interacts with her team. If May was just a hand-to-hand savant with no backstory or emotional attachments to people on her team, she would just be a shell of a character – more a weapon or an object than a representation of a person, which is just as 2-dimensional as the damsel in distress whose only function is damsel-dom.

This reflective conversation led me to the conclusion – one that is not terribly surprising – that I find strength in female characters who are detailed, appropriately flawed, and show strength through their personalities more than just in their physical abilities. This is of course a common feeling, and echoed nicely in a blog post by author Megan Cashman aptly titled Why I Don’t Write Strong Female Characters. Some of my favorite SFC’s have been women whose strongest attributes are mental/emotional, and who manage to maintain their femininity alongside an awesome character arc – among them Avry from Maria Snyder’s Touch of Power, Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine, and Dr. Elizabeth Weir of Stargate Atlantis (yeah, I’m a sci-fi geek).  What’s interesting is the fact that we have this SFC term at all, while very few people go out looking for a “strong male role” in movies, TV and books. I have a theory on this one.

Women are chronically underrepresented in movies (could not find data on books) and for many years have taken the backseat as secondary characters as damsels or plot devices in books, TV, and of course in video games (just look at how few movies actually pass the Bechdel Test, imperfect as that test may be). A very recent post in The Mary Sue on Disney’s Maleficent did a pretty nice discussion on past portrayals of Disney women as compared to some of their more recent productions. Over time Disney has taken a more modern approach to female characters – i.e., making them “strong and interesting.” Part of this was attributed to having more women involved in the creative process, per an interview with Maleficent screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Disney has long suffered from portraying women as being tied to their ability to get a man, limiting their character development and reducing them to story tools at times. This isn’t specific to Disney, but Disney does make for a big shiny target. Disney, along with the rest of the media world, is slowly coming to realize that audiences want to see interesting, developed female characters.

The issue is not just that the audience wants more SFC’s, but that they want good characters in general, strong or weak, of all genders. I would argue that writing good, interesting, varied characters means having a number of characters of different characters, rather than the over-used pack of men with a single token “badass” female. Joss Whedon, who I’ve mentioned many times, does a great job of incorporating women with various strengths and weaknesses. Firefly had a very balanced and fleshed-out cast, with men and women who were all over the spectrum for both physical and mental attributes. If anything, the underrepresentation of women in media has led to a very narrow playing field in which people group characters by “strong” or “weak,” when more than anything, we just need a better balance of all types.

Critics of the SFC meme feel that having over-powered female characters can actually set a poor example, and can lead to highly un-interesting Mary Sues. Starting out with a character whose strength makes her near-perfect limits opportunities for character development, and an unchanging character both precludes the ability to show strength through change and makes for a mighty dull story arc. So-called SFC’s are also sometimes written in a way which makes them come off as angry, cold, or simply as un-feminine women. A cheap and dirty way to make a woman “strong” is to make her as manly as possible and remove any supposedly feminine traits, such as removing compassion from a character (frequently and wrongly associated as a primarily feminine trait) and replace it with assertiveness (again, frequently associated as a male trait). I could write a whole separate diatribe on breaking gender barriers with male characters, but I’ll hold off on that for now. This post is rather lengthy as it stands.

Ahem. Almost done, I swear.

As a feminist I would love to say I write SFC’s all day long – that it comes easy to me, and I’m the master of SFC’s. To be quite honest, I feel that billing myself as the writer of SFC’s would be a little disingenuous. To start with, I have to own up to falling prey to pack-of-men syndrome in that I didn’t write very many women into Tragedy. I’ll be the first to admit that Tragedy only barely passes the Bechdel Test. I wrote a majority-male cast without really thinking much about it – to be honest, I prefer to write about men for some reason. All of that changes in Forsaken Lands 2 (“FL2”)FL2 incorporates approximately 200% more women into the main plot. This was important to me both as someone who is actually gaining a readership – giving me a certain responsibility to live up to my own standards – and as a writer who needs to stretch her skills. Writing mostly men for as many words as I’ve written gets repetitive like you wouldn’t believe. I am also striving to include identities often forgotten in the world, including non-binary people (a work in progress).

I can say with some certainty that there are quite a few “strong” women in FL2 by almost any standard you can imagine. Two of the POV females meet “badass” criteria in physical ability and personality, but both also come with some emotional deficits (in one case some rather…extreme…emotional deficits). By contrast, Aia, the female protagonist from FL1 is… well, there’s a lot of *insert author here* with her character, so her traits came out very organically. Like me, Aia may be physically capable of many things, but she’s not very strong. I can’t imagine a situation in which someone could describe her as a “badass” with a straight face. In Tragedy she does not drive the story forward very much – but then nobody on her level is driving the story at that point. Tragedy is a lot of “WHAT IS THIS” followed by yelling and running, by design. It is about the unveiling of truths and the mad scramble to understand them.


While Aia is not a physically strong person, she is compassionate. She has endured a lot, and came through it without hating the world, and is also relatively intelligent. She has the Healing thing going on, which gives her a whole arena in which to be impressive. She may not be a whiz with daggers (like Teveres) or a leader (like Les), but she is a master at her particular trade. She is not an object to other people, unless you count the “evil forces” at work in the world (in which case all of the Deldri are treated as objects). She has self-determination, and she has flaws.

She is me, a woman, writing a female character – I feel it would be inadequate to simply categorize her as “strong” or “weak.” She’s herself. If you asked her, she wouldn’t understand what you could be referring to, either.

I think that’s quite enough from me. 🙂 It’s been one heck of a week over here with moving and entertaining houseguests. Slowly but surely life is starting to settle down and my writing life is getting more time to thrive. As a part of that thriving thing, I’ll be announcing a contest for early release copies of Broken on this blog tomorrow night. Check back to learn how to participate! You know you want to.

The Healer-Writer and Other Reflections on Med School

When I started writing I was faced with a decision: how much did I want to reveal about who I am and what I do to potential readers? At the time I started conservative. I decided to be a bit vague on my location, generally indicate that I have cats/not kids, and made reference to being a “medical professional.” I’ve been thinking about that last part a lot lately, and anyone who knows what’s going on in my life knows why. Five days ago I graduated from medical school. I’m a doctor.

There. I said it.

I had been reluctant to be upfront about what I do because of interviews and residency-related things that were taking up my time. Medical school is a long and treacherous journey in which any single person’s opinion of your “fitness” as a physician can bite you, and bite hard. I wasn’t sure what others might think if they dug into my creative pursuits. My imaginary world is rather personal – it reflects a lot about my values and identity. I’m proud of who I am, but I’m also an unassuming person who tries not to offend people in real life, particularly if they’re my supervisors. There were plenty of reasons not to specify my profession and schooling at the time, so I didn’t.

Having graduated and secured a residency, I’ve come to re-think this whole thing. At this point book sales are going relatively well by my standards (this isn’t saying a whole lot, mind you, but it buys my sandwiches), and I have a few people who are reading this blog stuff. With the increased attention I want to talk more – the trouble is finding things to say. I find that there’s always this block in front of doing anything besides promoting books and showing off snippets, because when you get down to it, >50% of my time in any given week is devoted to medical things. So much of what I could be saying has to do with what it’s like to be a med student (now a physician) and how I balance that with being a creative person.  Until today, I’ve avoided all that.

Another reason I’m doing this is because I wrote a piece a couple nights ago about my experiences in med school. I tend to reflect a lot (as so many writers do), and ended up with a decent writeup on what what the last four years look like from down here at the med school finish line (also known as the residency/actual job starting line). I was thinking, hey, I’ll post this on facebook, tag these friends that I’m talking about…

…and then I thought about how I could just put it on the blog where I post the rest of my writing anyway. People I meet in real life seem to find the ‘published a book in med school’ thing pretty interesting, so maybe you, dear reader, might also find it interesting. If you’re a medical student you might even find it inspiring regardless of whether you have any interest in my fiction. I know that I found it inspiring to read about students and docs who were still functional, complete human beings, especially during first year before I figured out how to make my life and my work jive together.

Many people have asked how I ever “found the time” to do what I’ve done, so I’d like to address that briefly before I go on. Those that ask the question act as if my writing was some tedious, required activity, a massive feat that must have taken dedication and strength. I always laugh when I get this question, because I’m not sure I would have survived the process without it. I wrote more during rotations I found distasteful (hello surgery, peds and OB-GYN) than on any other rotations. In fact, the entire scene from the temple in Torvid’s Rest was written in between delivering babies while I was on labor and delivery nightshift. I would love to encourage anyone in the medical field (physicians, NP’s, PA’s, what have you) to indulge in their passions outside of medicine, no matter what that passion is. I haven’t been in the profession that long, but I’ve already seen my share of burnout – I’d like to think that having an active non-medical life is one of the keys to avoiding that.

I could tell you a lot of stories about being the ninja fiction writer in med school, but this post is already getting too long, and there’s the whole thing about the reflective piece I wanted to share. I’m attaching that particular bit below.


Somebody told me once that the best part of medical education is the time between when you get your acceptance and when you matriculate. Well, I’m done with medical school now, so I guess I can have an opinion on that. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment. I see things a little differently.

Med school is an insane ride. Even periods of time that seem innocent like “after the match” or “before matriculation” can be fraught with anticipation, stress and busywork. Every step of the process had a little bit of horrible and a little bit of wonderful in it, in different proportions. It was akin to a giant swing or a poorly-constructed carnival ride wherein there are periods of abject terror – reaching the top and fearing you might fly off and die – followed by periods of the swing-back, where things are better, and even great.

I have snapshots of the last four years in my head, all floating free now that graduation is over. Sitting here and analyzing it, there was more than enough of the fear and anguish part – of thinking, “why didn’t I go into marine biology?” or “maybe I should have been a starving author,” or better yet, “I can’t tell if food service was better or worse than this.” I saw classmates who struggled personally and professionally at times, not one of us immune to the episodes of self-doubt, wondering if we did the right thing or if we would even make it out the other side. There was drama and professors who drove us batty, gossip and class-wide turmoil. More than anything else there was a whole lot of frantic studying just hoping to pass a test, bargaining with one’s preferred higher power (be it deity or luck) for one more day where we could prove that we belonged in this profession. On clinical rotations we saw the beginning of life and its end, people in pain, torn-up families and good people who were suffering for what seemed to be no greater purpose. We witnessed both the triumphs and the failures of medicine, sometimes because of holes in our science and other times because of simple human inadequacies.

Each one of those despairing memories is contrasted with events that still make me smile. I remember very clearly the first time my friend-crew got together, and the first of many times we celebrated following a test. There were late-night study sessions interrupted by hysterical bouts of laughter, trips to conferences and the fun we had after. There was time spent in class, chatting with the almost-back-row-gang, turning white as a sheet when a certain professor asked uncomfortable questions. We daydreamed about our future lives, and watched those dreams grow and change into what they are now. I worked alongside colleagues who were resilient in the face of unruly hours and ridiculous expectations, who met every challenge without sacrificing their compassion. We were privileged to meet and care for some incredible patients. We all have those private memories of the patients who called us “doc” when we insisted we were students, the ones who thanked us for our kindness, and those who said we were going to be great physicians.

The thing I remember best about this whole mess is the laughter and the people who I call friends – great human beings, and now, some of the greatest doctors I’ve ever met. We have stories that nobody can take from us and share a bond that is entirely unique.

In many ways I grew up in medical school, and I think that probably goes for a lot of us, no matter how old we were when we started. The changes induced by a medical education are inescapable. For some people, sadly, it stole things from them; surely I lost my share of hobbies and knowledge throughout this process, but I’d like to think that I’ve gained far more than I’ve shed in order to become the person I am now.  Intern year is going to be another swing upward with the stomach-dropping fear that goes along with it, but I have faith that all of us are going to make it. We made it this far.

Sequel Syndrome

“I can only hope it’s true enough/That every little thing I do for love/Redeems me from the moments I deem worthy of the worst things that I’ve done…”

I always have a song to go with every scene. It doesn’t have to be playing the whole time I’m writing, but generally it has to be playing when I start writing, and I have to replay it periodically while the scene is going. The tone of my environment is very important for my writing performance. Lately I’ve been working on some Les-heavy scenes, and Les tends to be a Panic at the Disco kind of guy. So, for fun, I give you today’s scene theme music before I launch into our discussion –

Things have slowly been calming down in my personal life while they’ve been ramping up in my writing life (two different lives, of course). The sequel is now at 52,000 words and climbing, and the further I go the more appreciation I have for every sequel I’ve ever read, particularly the good ones. Ask anyone who has talked to me in the last month and a half, and they will tell you that at some point I mentioned “book two” and some variation of “kicking my ass” in the same breath. Until the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from horrible writer’s block/writing anxiety and self-doubt, even as I’ve received praise from readers about Tragedy.Both the joy and the torment of writing is stretching yourself – forcing yourself to understand a new viewpoint, solve a new problem, or sharpen a new literary skill. For me, the sequel has been a challenge in ways I could not imagine.

I knew Suffering (which I am considering renaming to Sacrifice, but that’s beside the point) would be more complicated. At the end of book one the world opens up, and book two is all about the flood of information and the fallout from the climax of the previous story. In the beginning I’ve got four separate groups of people doing their own thing, which later consolidates to 2-3, depending on how you count. I thought to myself, sure, juggling that many plots/subplots is going to take a lot of mental energy, and that’s going to be hard. There’s going to be more action, which is not necessarily my forté, and also more interpersonal development; figuring out how to stay true to your characters while ensuring they have an actual arc takes a bit of a deft hand.

The problem I didn’t anticipate was the variable independent of my actual story – the problem is I’m writing a sequel, and sequels are just plain difficult. I’ve written two full novels by this point in my life, one that is published and one that never will be, but until now I’ve never written the continuation of a larger story.  Problems of writing a sequel widely include ruining something that was previously good, worrying about disappointing an audience, writing a story that is “all middle,inconsistencies, and my personal white whale, obsessively wondering why your sequel rough draft looks nothing like your beautifully polished first novel (I never claimed to have a rational muse, just an inconvenient one). One need not list the many sequels which failed to live up to their debut counterparts *ahem* but they are legion, and consumers have almost come to expect that the second installment of any story, regardless of the media form, will be somehow diminished.

Of course, there are some sequels that managed to dodge the sequel syndrome. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was actually my favorite of the series, and was pretty well-received by most readers; The Wrath of Khan is known to be one of the great classic Star Trek movies. The Two Towers is also well-regarded in the arena of sequels (and again was my favorite of that series), and nobody in the movie world should forget The Dark Knight as perhaps one of the best movie sequels to grace the screens (bias here – I adored Dark Knight). These sequels share several common traits; they stand well on their own as stories, in general, and they deepen the observer’s connection to the characters in some way. In Khan we had the heart-wrenching moment of Spock “dying” behind the glass. Dark Knight had its own fascinating arc within the Joker and his ever-escalating trail of violence. Many blogs out there in the world seem to agree that the keys to writing a good sequel are – as you might guess – the very opposite of what makes a bad sequel.

All that said, I’m doing my level best to avoid the sequel syndrome pitfalls by keeping things interesting, getting the plot moving, and throwing in a few surprises. It helps that one of my characters is unpredictable by nature, giving me a great tool to liven things up from time to time. As to the anxiety of ruining the series and the problem of trying to edit before I get words on the page, I’ve decided to forcibly restrain myself from editing as I type. The rough draft looks perhaps even rougher than it already was, but at least things are moving now. I have to remind myself that Tragedy wasn’t beautiful in its first iteration, either.

The learning curve sharpens. To you, dear reader, I leave a question: what do you think makes a good sequel?

The Incidentally Gay Character

A number of people who read Tragedy lately have specifically approached me about Garren. Some of those comments were from people who have not read Fathers and Sons, and they (perhaps understandably given the lack of representation in genre fiction) asked if my reference to Garren’s husband was a typo. Just to be clear to those who were not prepared for this: yes, Garren is a gay man. I am not afraid of that fact, and indeed, neither is he.

Incidentally, Garren was not originally written as a homosexual character; this fact evolved slowly from my experiences with him. When it came time to discuss his past it just seemed natural that he preferred relationships with men, and that was that. I made a conscious decision not to “hang a flag” on Garren’s sexuality while writing the scene in question, and I’d like to give you a little insight as to why.

Even though I didn’t set out with an agenda to have a gay character, I put considerable thought into how I wanted to deal with issues of skin color, gender, and sexuality before I started writing Tragedy. I think there is great merit in highlighting the struggles of minority groups through stories. As I’ve said before, societal shifts are slow and subtle, and the media can be an incredible vehicle for change. However, when I was thinking of what I wanted to portray in my work, I decided to take a radically different approach. I thought to myself, what if I made a series of societies in which color, gender, and sexual orientation were non-issues? What would that look like?

How could a story like that affect a reader’s perspective?

In the end I decided that I wanted to create a world where those problems are not paramount in order to showcase our human similarities. I’d like to think that all of us are more similar than we are different – I see it in my life every day. We all experience love, loss, hardship, and triumphs – these are things that bind us, and in my mind, these things are the most important. This was one of the chief motivators behind writing Fathers and Sons – it is a story about love, family, and loss in which the main character’s homosexuality is far less significant than his emotional journey.

I’m very pleased that most people seem to like Garren a lot, regardless of their views on his sexuality. Several have even pointed him out as a favorite character. Garren’s strength, honor, and compassion are the attributes that most people remember about him. It’s hard for me to play favorites with my imagination-children, but if I had to… well, I don’t want to make the kids jealous. 😉

As an aside, this is probably a good time for me to explicitly state that you’re not imagining things – yes, Elden is bisexual. He shows up only briefly in Tragedy, but rest assured I am having tons of fun with Elden in Suffering. 34,000 words and counting, folks. This is real!