Monday, January 31, 2022

We Need to Talk About Pretty Privilege

Happy Lunar New Year's Eve, everyone! Mary here, and I've been thinking a lot about pretty privilege lately for various reasons. A lot of it has to do with redemption arc discussions like the one Karissa wrote about on this blog earlier this month, and the ceaseless appetite for enemies-to-lovers romances (across all genres I'm sure, but especially in the YA sci-fi/fantasy world I write in).

Let's start with a story. Once upon a time, there was a 19-year-old boy with a radical older brother. This guy was, by all accounts, fairly normal--popular, even. But then he became angered by the injustices committed by the mighty empire he lived in, and he followed his brother into battle, in a manner of speaking. They struck hard, and the brother was killed by the authorities. The boy was sentenced to death. Then his face was featured on the cover of a major entertainment magazine, in glamorous celebrity fashion, and an outpouring of sympathy ensued from those who found him attractive.

I am talking about the Boston Marathon Bomber, whose actions killed 3 and injured hundreds more.

I don't know whether, in my various rantings and ramblings, I've brought this up before, but that incident came to mind following the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, when countless fans immediately walked out of the theater and began romanticizing the genocidal villain Kylo Ren, whose first on-screen action is to slice an unarmed old man in half and order the burning of a village, and whose interactions with the heroine, Rey, are to kidnap her, interrogate her as she weeps in terror, knock her out by throwing her into a tree, put her best friend in a coma, and then chase her through the woods with a laser sword. How romantic. Kylo Ren was, of course, played by the striking Adam Driver. 

And that, my friends, is pretty privilege playing out: No matter how atrocious their actions, some people will be glamorized and romanticized simply because they have a pretty face. Particularly young men, based on my casual observations.

And then there's the common pop culture trope that physical attractiveness equates to moral goodness, and unattractiveness equates to wickedness. In pretty much every fairy tale, the morally good character is described as beautiful, while the wicked villain is ugly - a hideous old witch, or a grotesque goblin. This holds even across notable exceptions: In Beauty and the Beast, the ugly Beast transforms into a handsome young man after finding love - he is rewarded for goodness with attractiveness. In Snow White, the beautiful Evil Queen transforms into an ugly hag before her death.

It seems as if society has conditioned us to automatically equate physical attractiveness with goodness, and few question that instinct. Back when Disney's animated Aladdin movie was released, I don't think anyone wanted to see the beautiful Princess Jasmine end up with a "tall, dark, and sinister ugly man," as the Genie described Jafar. When the live action cast was announced, with the handsome Marwan Kenzari cast as Jafar, the shipping began almost immediately. I remember even seeing the cover of an indie romance novel with look-a-likes for Kenzari and Naomi Scott (who played Jasmine) as the cover models, with a plot that was clearly Jasmine/Jafar fan fic.

Meanwhile, has anyone ever hoped for a redemption arc for Emperor Palpatine, whose face was scarred by Force lightning until he resembled an undead alien? In the years before it was revealed that Darth Vader was Leia's father, did anyone ever dream of a romance between the helmeted villain and the young heroine?

Come to think of it, Leia and Darth Vader's interactions in Star Wars: A New Hope are pretty similar to Rey and Kylo Ren's in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which many have argued (with some merit) is basically a remake of A New Hope. But one villain kept his helmet on and the other took it off to reveal a pretty actor.

There are, of course, a lot of less extreme examples of pretty privilege at work, in real life and in fiction. People who fit society's ideas of beauty get treated better and are assumed to be better at things, as parodied in the 30 Rock episode "The Bubble." 

In the world of fiction, it's easy to brush off arguments about redemption and romance arcs for beautiful villains by saying, "Hey, it's just entertainment." It's just fun, so what's the big deal? 

And let's face it, we all like watching and reading about pretty characters. To quote Lem from my Better Off Ted, my favorite office parody, "I like it when attractive people do anything." I'm as guilty as anyone... I'm pretty sure every major character in anything I've ever written has been described as physically attractive at some point.

Of course, one can say that all people are beautiful, and I don't think it's a problem in prose fiction to describe characters as such, especially when it's from a close POV and we're viewing from the eye of the beholder, the POV character. But I do think it's worth thinking about why, whenever a villainous character's attractiveness is called out, they're pretty much automatically romanticized.

Oh, that reminds me, in an attempt to push back against the "ugly is evil" trope, I described the villainous Viceroy Kang in Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon as being visually handsome, and the main girl finds him unattractive because of his cruelty rather than his physical features. Yet because of that one short description, I actually had a reader say she was shipping them... *shudder*

Anyway, I'm not saying that there's anything inherently wrong with redemption arcs or enemies-to-lovers tropes... goodness knows those have been around since the dawn of storytelling. But it is worth thinking about who is considered worthy of redemption and/or romance, and questioning the innate gut instinct to equate attractiveness with goodness (or, in the case of a pretty villain, potential for goodness, with more benefit of the doubt than anyone can reasonably expect).

Because like it or not, these instincts translate into the real world, into the snap judgements we make about those around us, into the way we treat the people we interact with, and the way we're treated in return.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

So Your Favorite Writer Turned Out To Be An Asshole...

     Last week, Joss Whedon took to the pages of New York Magazine to set what was left of his reputation on fire and then dance about in the ashes. 

Who brought the marshmallows?

This was not his intention. Whedon was responding to the many reports of the past year that highlighted his abusive behavior, capping off a precipitous fall from grace for the one time wunderkind of TV and film. New York Magazine gave him all the rope he could want and he went to town. Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in the Justice League movie, said that Whedon was abusive and unprofessional. Whedon responded by calling him a “malevolent force” and “ a bad actor in both senses.” Gal Gadot also complained about Whedon, saying that he told her he’d make her “career miserable,” and also objected to a “comic” scene where the clumsy Flash would trip and fall and land on her breasts. Whedon responded that english was not “her first language” so she must’ve misunderstood. him. (Gadot’s response: “I understood perfectly.”)

That would be enough to send any PR person scrambling to end the interview, but Whedon went on. Charisma Carpenter, one of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went public with her experiences with Whedon. She said he made her life hell when she became pregnant during a season of Angel, calling her fat, and asking if she was going to keep it. Numerous people said he was casually cruel, one writer recalling how he spent an hour mocking her writing in front of the entire writing staff. His ex-wife wrote an open letter a few years ago, talking about how he had numerous affairs with cast members and fans, while claiming to be a feminist. Whedon justifies his actions in the interview by saying  “I had to sleep with them… I was powerless to resist!” (Guys, just try that on your wives or girlfriends and see how well it works for you!)

That’s a lot of giant red flags. Whedon’s own words established him as a Grade A douchebag at best and a cruel and abusive predator at worst, happy to bask in the adulation of a female fanbase while preying on them for sex. 

To anyone involved in fandoms of the late ‘90s all the way through the mid 2010s, this was a terrible letdown. Whedon was famous for his snappy dialogue, full of zingers and jokes, his strong female characters, and his casts full of found families. Thousands of young women grew up enamored with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, inspired by her and they created a strong online fanbase. There was a period on the internet from about 2002-2015 where if you even dared to imply that Firefly might NOT be the single greatest contribution to the medium of television in human history, then you would get swarmed by the Browncoats.

It's a fine show, but the fandom was a smidge over the top. 

Whedon also directed what I consider to be the best superhero film ever, the first Avengers movie. I think it’s the perfect combination - funny, but not campy; there are stakes, but it’s not dour; the characters understand heroism, and it's the antidote to the SERIOUS grimdark movies with monotone color palettes. 

Now, this is a whole lot of preamble to say: yet another creator that I respected and admired and whose output I am a fan of has turned out to be a repellent human being. He joins an unfortunately long list of people. I grew up listening to Bill Cosby’s stand up and watching the Cosby Show, and I’m sure you know all about what has been revealed about “America’s Dad.”  Issac Asimov practically invented the modern concept of robotics in science fiction, and he was a serial groper. Louis CK is a hilarious comedian, who likes to masturbate in front of women who didn’t volunteer for it. Plus, there's Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and on and on. 

One of us! One of us!

And that’s just the sexual assaulters! That’s not even getting into people who create art that just have repellent opinions, such as Orson Scott Card (anti-gay), Gina Carano (anti-trans), and JK Rowling (anti-trans). Even my favorite animated series is not immune. Jay Johnston, who voiced the role of Bob Belcher’s nemesis Jimmy Pesto on Bob’s Burgers was seen at the Jan. 6th insurrection and is no longer on the show. (To be fair, if any character on Bob’s Burgers was going to be a part of the insurrection, it would 100% be Jimmy Pesto.)

(Please note that I’m not going to claim that anyone has been “canceled.” I absolutely hate that phrase. It’s an invention of people who’ve dreamed up this fantasy that they’ll tell a woman she had a pretty dress on and then the “woke mob” will descend on them. Cosby isn’t “canceled” because he was politically incorrect. He raped dozens of women and had to finally face consequences for his actions. And just like Carano and Rowling are free to opine about trans people, others are also free to call them out on their bullshit.)

All of this has brought the question to the forefront of my thoughts. How much should the real world actions of artists affect my enjoyment of their art? Should I feel bad that I watch the battle of New York in Avengers about once a week or that my wife and I quote lines from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog to each other? There are still Cosby routines that are burned into my memory from 30 years ago, should I invest in a Men In Black neuralyser to erase them? 

The cop out answer: it’s complicated. My honest answer: sometimes, maybe. I guess?

Some of these are easy. Bob’s Burgers is one of my favorite shows and Johnston was just a hired voice actor, and his character is supposed to be a dick. Neither am I going to fast forward through Carano’s scenes in The Mandalorian, even though I’m fine with Disney firing her.  

I alway enjoyed Woody Allen movies, but it’s certainly harder to watch Manhattan. It was a running joke for decades how Allen always cast himself as a love interest to 18 year olds, but it certainly hits differently with Mr. Soon-Yi Previn now. Is that enough to keep me from ever watching again? There are some great one liners and jokes in them, but I’m probably not going to cue up Midnight in Paris or Annie Hall anytime soon.

Stand ups are different for me than writers, since a lot of them are presenting a version of themselves as their comedic persona. Cosby was one of the all time great stand ups, but I haven’t listened to any of his stuff since all his accusers came forward. All those routines about Spanish Fly and “playfully” smacking his wife are super uncomfortable now. Louis CK presented himself as an everyman sad sack, joking about his struggles with dating and parenting. It’s hard to reconcile that comic persona with the dude who likes to crank it in public.

After Whedon’s article, there were a rash of people on twitter loudly and proudly claiming that they’d never liked Whedon. And sure, good for you, I guess. But there are millions of us who did. And him being an abusive jerk doesn’t make Avengers less good. Or Buffy. Or Firefly. Will it make me less likely to check out a new Whedon project. Almost certainly. Is that consistent? Probably not. I can justify it by saying I already own the Avengers on blu ray, and I pay for Hulu whether or not I watch Buffy, but I won’t watch a new show or movie of his. I can say that, but I’d still buy tickets if he got rehired to do another Avengers movie. Is that hypocritical? Absolutely.

In a perfect world, all the art we consume would be created by individuals who are decent people. But it’s not a perfect world. Artists are people who often have shitty opinions and do terrible things. (Just look up the backgrounds of the artists in your nearest art gallery.) It’s impossible to completely separate art from the artist, but by the same token it's not fair to assume that a piece of art represents an artist's views perfectly. (Otherwise, you'd have to believe that Martin Scorsese endorses mafia murders.) Also, it'd get extremely boring if you only read or watched stuff from the same perfect people.

Everyone's line is different. I'm never going to listen to a Cosby routine again, but I'm ok with watching Rosemary's Baby come Halloween time. And when the mood strikes, I'll cue up Once More WIth Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy. It won't be the same as when I first saw it, when I was blissfully unaware of what a giant creep Whedon is. The music and lyrics are the same, the writing hasn't changed. All that is different is that I know that I should probably know better.

Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim, and his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon

Monday, January 24, 2022

New From Leonard Delaney: The Office Photocopier Wants to Have Sex With Me

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame

I started Forest City Pulp to ensure I wouldn’t have any limits. My friends and I can publish whatever the hell we want, and we can share a common brand to help communicate what sorts of books we write—“provocative fiction,” whatever that means.
For a while we were putting out a few books a year, but then the pandemic sort of killed our momentum. Like I said before, I didn’t write much in the last few years. For my “very close friend” Leonard Delaney, the situation was the same, but he did have a story that was out of print sitting around, so I am proud to announce that Forest City Pulp finally has a new book out, and I can finally use this blog to shamelessly self promote!
Leonard’s short story The Office Photocopier Wants to Have Sex With Me was originally published in the anthology Strange Sex 3, published by Rooster Republic Press. Things happened over there that I don’t know much about, but I know the book is no longer available, so it seemed like a good time to resurrect Leonard’s story.
I think it’s a good one. Like I said, FCP doesn’t play well with limits, so it’s hard to say what genre this story is; bizarro erotica? Sci-fi comedy? Maybe a bit of satirical body horror? Who knows, but I think it’s worth a read. Here’s the cover, which I hand illustrated … sorry about that.


Sometimes, every day can feel like a copy of a copy. But today is different, because the office photocopier wants to have sex with me. It’s the future, so business equipment can do that now.
Look, the title is self-explanatory. This short story is about a woman becoming so bored with office life that she considers sexual relations with a photocopier.
Leonard Delaney branches out with a mature tale of the horrors of modern capitalism disguised as a sexy short story. Serious readers only, please.
If it seems like your sort of thing, you can get it on, or, for only 3 bucks or free-ish in Kindle Unlimited. If it’s not your sort of thing, I totally understand.

Right here on ATB Writers, there’s an interview with Leonard Delaney that provides some insight into where all this comes from. For more literary fare from FCP, try this interview with cal chayce.
Thanks for reading—this particular post, and just reading in general. Ok bye.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Working for Redemption

 My kiddo, who is now 19 y.o. and isn't that much of a kiddo anymore, has loved Spiderman above all other superheroes for as long as I can remember. Wherever we went, he would climb things--shelves, walls, benches, landscaping features at shopping centers--with his arm extended, middle fingers curled for ideal web extrusion. For a long time he believed the only reason he couldn't shoot webs or wall-crawl was because he simply wasn't old enough yet. Peter Parker was a teenager, so to my young son, his Spidey abilities had something to do with puberty, perhaps. 

The point of all this is to say that when the newest Spiderman movie, Spiderman: No Way Home, came out, it was imperative for us to go see it. We've seen all the Spiderman movies together. Also, if I went with him, it meant I would pay for the tickets and popcorn, so my kiddo was willing to wait for me to organize our movie date. But I'd been reluctant, with COVID numbers on a steep increase, to go sit in a theater with a bunch of strangers for two hours. I'm vaccinated and boosted, and so is he, and I don't mind wearing a mask, but I don't *enjoy* it. Mostly we've been doing early access streaming in our own home, but I knew Spiderman would be the movie for which I would have to make an exception.

Fortunately, I had discovered a few years ago that our part of the state has a rare, vintage drive-in movie theater still in operation. When I say "our part of the state", though, I don't mean in our neighborhood. The drive-in is still an hour away--a two-hour round trip to sit in our pick-up truck huddled together on a frigid January night to watch Tom Holland bound across the screen in blue and red spandex. Was it worth it? Actually, it was. We had a really great time not only watching the movie but having a new/vintage experience.

I worked hard to avoid spoilers before we saw the movie. If you're working hard to avoid spoilers, I recommend not reading any farther because this post is going to talk about pivotal plot issues in detail. Also spoilers for the latest episode of The Book of Boba Fett.




You've Been Warned!


Spoilers in 3...



Rather than a in depth review of No Way Home, I actually wanted to use this post to talk about the theme/plot element that struck me the hardest. Based on the title, you've probably guessed that has to do with redemption. Not only for Peter, but even more for the villains. This movie was chock-full of bad-guys, ones we had seen and thought we knew very well from all the previous Spiderman movies. Yes it was a nostalgic, fan-service filled blast to see Molina's Doc Ock again. Ifan's Lizard. Defoe's Green Goblin. Fox's Electro. And Haden Church's Sandman. But to see Peter's devotion to giving them a second chance...well that was something novel.

Or well, maybe not so new. Over the years, I've come to learn as a writer and as a story consumer that there are often vast differences in the way Eastern and Western storytellers approach conflict. I found a nice summary of the difference here on  the Pulse of Asia website in a post titled "The Difference Between Western and Eastern Storytelling" by Nikol Haytova. 

In the West, the leading character is somebody who has a strong will, is exceptionally smart and chases a certain big goal. The villains are bad people who want to stop the protagonist. The clash is comprehensible — a fight between good and evil, where good should win!

 In the East, writers create characters whose main drive is to do something good for society. They’re not going usually through tough challenges for their own sake. The antagonists are usually initially good people, who are confused, manipulated or have been lied to. Some stories don’t even have an actual antagonist (nature, spirits and gods). Oftentimes, there is no actual clash in Eastern stories, because people believe that there is good in everything, and the real fight is to find this good and help it thrive.

 We see that philosophy somewhat reflected in Tom Holland's version of Peter Parker in this movie. It does seem like a much less "Western" approach to fighting villains. Against great odds and immense personal tragedy, he stays true to his philosophy of trying to cure the villains rather than kill them.

What does that really mean, though? For the movie's sake, it meant fixing a bad chip in Doc Ock's operating system, giving Green Goblin and Lizard a chemical dose that fixed Goblin's split personality and turned Lizard back into the human Dr. Connors, undoing the radiation harm that turned Flint Marko into Sandman, and giving Electro one of Stark's arc reactors to help control his electrical surges. With the help of Doctor Strange, everyone goes back to their correct timelines.

But then what?

The immediate source of the villain's motivations for evil doings is removed, but what about the harm they did before they were cured? Have they served their time, paid their penance, and are ready to return to society, or is there still work to be done?

A big part of the philosophy behind current reform movement in the American criminal justice system is not just the idea of fairer punishment, but also for reconciliation and restitution. It's about making victims whole again, if that's at all possible. It's one thing to cure the bad guy but it takes more than a little self-sacrifice to find redemption. It takes work. And I wonder what these "cured" villains did once they returned home. Did they attempt to make their victims whole again?

In this same line of thought, I couldn't help but remember Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's death at the end of Episode IX, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. Oh so romantically, Evil Kylo morphs into Good Ben at the last moment and sacrifices himself to save Rey from the Wrath of Khan--no that's another movie. The Wrath of Palpatine! Kylo/Ben took off his creepy mask, put on a Boyfriend Sweater™, gave Rey a big smooch full of his own life-saving life force, and then he died in her arms, his angelic face speckled with her tears.

How convenient!

Dying saved him from having to go on trial for all the, you know, GENOCIDE! I'm here to tell you definitively that his death did not undo all the harm he caused by blowing up whole planets and bajillions of people with his Super Space Laser ™. In fact, I'd even argue that by dying in her arms, he basically left all that work for Rey and her friends to do. 


Kylo Ren is not redeemed, okay? Not even close.

But, a surprising place where this theme of Redemption has been showing up again in the Star Wars universe is in the Disney+ spinoffs, The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. The Tusken Raiders, formerly known as The Sand People, must have hired a great PR team, because their fan stock has been sharply on the rise. Originally, they were a (literally) faceless band of ruthless dessert bandits--attacking, raiding, and murdering. In the prequel movies, we learned they killed Anakin's mom (or did they?)! Horrible, right?  But Mando and Boba Fett have been working hard to redeem them, giving them language, culture, cute little Tusken children, and a sad backstory full of colonialist exploitation.

They're still violent. They're still brutal. But apparently, they're also very misunderstood. If you give them a chance, they might help you survive the harsh desert climate. Might even adopt you into their clan and teach you how to kick ass. The Star Wars Powers That Be (Kevin Feige, Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, Robert Rodriguez, Kathleen Kennedy, and Colin Wilson) have invested in making the Tuskens do the work, and I think they have successfully earned their redemption.

They're even making Rancors into cuddly puppies, now. In the last episode, my Book of  Boba Fett watch party friends (fellow ATB contributors, Mary Fan, Christian Angeles, Victor Catano) and I feared that they might even be attempting to redeem the Sarlacc pit.  Never fear, though, not all villains need to be redeemed. Thankfully we got to keep at least one of our classic Star Wars monsters. ...And I don't expect to see the Hutt twins doing any great charity works any time soon.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Everything Old is New Again

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

This blog has been around since fall of 2014 (hard to believe, right?) and I've had Monday posts since at least 2017.  Consequently, I've had to write about civil rights on Martin Luther King Day at least three or four times during the nightmarish phantasmagoria of the Trump years in this country.

I can't say I've done the topic any justice.  I certainly know that I can't say anything particularly lived-in about the minority experience in America.  Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly basic, I say to myself, "Well, technically you're a minority: you're a veteran, you're an atheist, you're a bisexual," and so forth.  But the stark fact is I go through life with all of the privilege being a white man in America can afford me.  I'd have to actively seek out discrimination in a country where it's so lavishly bandied about.

One year when faced with this challenge I asked a colleague if it was even appropriate for me to write about this topic.  And he replied something to the effect that, "Yes, it's your job to think about it and to talk about it, because it's hard, and most white people don't want to think about it or talk about it."

So.  It's been about a year since the Nazis tried to overthrow the government.  Not a sentence I ever thought I'd be writing in America, but there it is.  And doubtless people will wish I'd equivocated over the use of the word "Nazi," but I'm tired of equivocating and I don't feel like doing it anymore.  The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and their fellow travelers and a good portion of the MAGA movement are in form, function, personality and intent identical to the Sturmabteilung (and the SS who displaced them) of pre-war Germany.  It's not worth spilling any more digital ink over the distinction.

And equivocating is, frustratingly, all I've seen done for the last year.  Yes, I know there were little old Republican grannies at 1/6 who don't know the difference between Trump and Eisenhower because they don't pay attention to politics.  And I know QAnon has brainwashed a disturbingly broad swathe of the population.  I even know, and have always known, that prisons are not particularly nice, happy places, even in the richest country in the world.

But you spend enough time saying, "Oh, there were mostly little old grannies there and just a few bad apples" or "Well, it was just some of the extreme folks on the fringe who actually broke any windows" or "Well, they're political prisoners now, look at the shitholes they've been thrown into" and it's all just a lot of smoke and mirrors.  My favorite "distinction," though, I think, is that "It wasn't really an insurrection."  And that's probably because I'm a writer and the meaning of words is important to me.  But call something an insurrection instead of a protest and the people who planned it might look like the bad guys!

I could submerge in despair, and I have plenty of times in the last year.  But Dr. King, I think, would exhort us to hope.  And I am somewhat hopeful for the future.  One thing I've started to grok in the last year through my never ending goal of political education is the stark power of the state.  There are very dark elements to that, strikebreaking, warmongering, Wounded Knee, and so forth.  But the mighty power of the state can also be wielded for good.  I've seen 700 Nazi assholes get their comeuppance in the last year.  Just last week 10 of them were charged with seditious conspiracy, which is to say, plotting to overthrow the government.  Which means it sounds like the gloves are off with the equivocating, at least from the DOJ.

Richard Spencer and the other scumbaccios responsible for the 2017 Unite the Right massacre were just (in November, four years later!) found financially liable for that debacle.  It seems likely the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys will be next up to be bankrupted.  It's nice, I guess is what I'm saying, to see government power wielded in the pursuit of justice.  I guess that's why, when you boil everything down, it's so important that that power is kept in the right hands.

Tomorrow the Senate will vote on the Voting Rights Bill which has the power to reverse the horrific voter suppression laws so many states passed in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.  The new law almost certainly won't pass because of the simple fact that the right in the country is certainy united in not wanting the "wrong type of people" to vote.  So in a perverse sense, minority voting rights are worse off in this country in 2021 than they were in 1963, from a legal perspective.  From a cultural perspective we've come a long way.  But, then again, the partisanship of that culture is probably not much different from Germany in 1932.

Everything old is new again.  I'll remain tentatively hopeful, but also deeply worried.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Interview: On Romance with Author Roland Hulme


I always looked at book writing as sort of tales of love and war. One where the author goes about faceting words together into these tiny little weapons they call their story, poking and proding about against the critics of the world, in attempts of striking at the heart box of human emotions. 

I think novels have a more intimate relationship between author and reader than most forms of entertainment. Which is why writing a book seems scary to me. It’s all so… personal. You’re basically selling you and your words, with no little departments or creatives in-between.

There’s just something to be said about the power behind that. Your voice. Your genre. Your brand. It’s something that I’m incredibly uncomfortable in doing, which is why, for my first interview with ATB Writers, I wanted to speak a bit about genre literature. What it is and why it’s relevant. Since Valentine’s day coming around next month, I figured, why not bring on a dear friend of mine to talk about finding your brand: romance author, Roland Hulme. 

Several years ago I’d met Roland through a mutual friend. He attended a writing workshop that I was teaching, where I discussed a bit about story structure and Roland had shown me about how his career evolved over time into becoming a successful romance fiction author. WIlling to sit down and share his journey with Across the Board, we spoke about Romantic fiction and what it is about authors finding their genre that’s sort of special in that… “I love you, writing process,” sort of way only writers understand.

First and foremost, can you tell us about your writer’s journey in finding Romance as your brand? What about it feels so compelling?

I grew up reading Tintin, The Saint, and Ian Fleming’s James Bond books (interspersed with Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes.) Therefore I’d had plans to write “old-fashioned adventure stories” as I grew up - except the problem is, every boring British white man does that, and they eventually all kind of read the same. There are so many books with characters “like Jack Reacher” for example that it’s difficult to stand out.

On the other hand, I’d also grown up reading my mother’s racy romance and blockbuster novels (think Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins.) I loved those stories because of the structure of romance, and how certain stylistic choices (like writing in first-person) make it much easier to thrust a reader into the action.

I found my success when I found my “schtick” which was to write the old-fashioned adventure stories I wanted to write, except I focused on the romance between the hero and heroine and wrote them in first-person and through the narrative structure of a romance novel. It made them more fun to write, more fun to read, and because my thing remains fairly unique, it enabled me to create a level of success as a writer that I’d have never achieved trying to stick to traditional men’s adventure books. 

Romance is just a GREAT way to tell a story - it’s a totally misunderstood and misrepresented genre. Given the sheer volume of romance written today (it’s something like 70% of all new books published), I don’t doubt that the best (and worst) of all modern writing goes undiscovered and unappreciated in books that snobs dismiss as “only romance.”

Okay, so you’re a successfully published romance author who’s released tons of books, but also, experimented in the genre. Can you talk a little about that? Particularly your interest in Ian Flemming?

Consistency is the only way to be successful as a writer. I often tell people that if they do what I’ve done – write and publish 29 full-length novels and invest thousands of hours and dollars into learning how to self-publish – they’d probably have raced straight past me and be far more successful. The only thing that stands me apart is the stubborn, pig-headed insistence on continuing to write even when it’s difficult.

The secret to that is to write books that you’d want to write anyway, regardless of whether somebody would ever buy them or not. If you keep writing a “product” you’ll burn out, but if you can write the stories you want to write (for me, it’s adventure mixed with romance and lots of naughty sex) then you can keep on writing no matter what. It’s like a calling or an obsession.

Once you find your groove, it becomes a little more dangerous to experiment. I derailed some great earning streaks by shifting from motorcycle club romance (the core of my writing) to paranormal romance (a less popular genre) but ultimately, the books that I experimented with have often been the best ones I’ve written, even if they’re not as successful as the “regular” ones.

My current project is to write a series of books paying homage to the original James Bond movies, and the opportunity there is to write what I love (all that nerdy James Bond stuff) and write it in a way that appeals to my audience (all that romance) and it’s a hell of a thing to gamble weeks of your life and tens of thousands of words on a book that might not work; but then again, if it does, it’s going to give me years of stories to tell. 

Writing is such a weird thing because we writers are both total narcissists (“the world needs to read this”) and also completely insecure (“who would read this crap?”) and only by experimenting can we learn what works not just for our readers, but also for ourselves.

If you’re not excited about the book you’re writing, don’t expect readers to be excited about it, either.

Is there a trick to this wizardry of the heart? Do you think romantic fiction has a formula or is each book more like semi-awkward dating?

Romance is like long-form poetry. It’s one of the most rigidly structured genres of writing and I love it for that. The advertising legend David Ogilvy once said: “Give me the freedom of a tightly defined brief” and that’s the same with romance books. Each one has a step-by-step structure that forces you to shed the stuff that nobody’s interested in and focus on what’s important.

Literary fiction (vomit) and a lot of general fiction provides the author the opportunity to ramble on, to sprawl, and to lose focus on what their book is about. Romance forces you to be a better writer; and the discipline you learn writing romance makes you a better writer in everything else you write, too.

That being said, I’ve got some personal rules for writing romance. The first and most important is: “Always fall in love with your heroine.” That’s really why people read romance books - to have some big, burly guy fall in love with you (the reader.) I get the opportunity to tell the male side of that in a different and more authentic way, and I think the way I’m successful is by crafting female characters who have flaws, but you can’t help falling in love with. That’s the thing, at the end of the day, isn’t it? Nobody’s perfect. We’re all fuck-ups. Yet, as long as we keep trying to do the best we can, we’re all deserving of love. People should love us because of the flaws we’re trying to improve - not in spite of them. 

As someone learning how to self-market themselves better, I need to know, how did you advertise for your books? Where did you know where to network? Find your audience?

There’s a reason most successful fiction authors are self-published: It’s possible to build a career that way.

With Amazon, I get to keep 70% of my royalties - which means I earn SO MUCH MORE for each book I sell than I would if I’d been traditionally published. If I sell 1,000 copies of my book, I earn as much as a tradpub author who sold 7,000 copies - and these days, it’s a struggle for unestablished authors to reach that goal even with a traditional publisher supporting them.

That being said, you have to approach selling books the same way you approach writing them: As a career in which you’re constantly learning. I’ve invested thousands of dollars in courses like Mark Dawson’s Advertising for Authors and then twice as much in experimenting and learning what works (and, more frequently, what doesn’t.) It took me four years to publish my first best-seller and I’ve written my share of flops since then, too. 

The secret is exactly what you said: Finding your audience. Write the books you want to write and then use advertising to find the people who want to read them. Create a subscriber list of readers and the larger it gets, the bigger each new release will hit. Once you ‘find your tribe’ you can build and grow a career as an author as long as you keep giving them what they want; but to do that, you have to focus on their experience when you’re starting out, not immediately trying to turn a profit.

Thank you for your time, Roland. If I may ask, where can people find your work?

I write romance novels under the penname Simone Scarlet:

I also write under my own name, Roland Hulme, and have been publishing some of my romance books with covers aimed at a more traditional male audience:

I also recently created a course for people who’ve written a book, but don’t know how to get started marketing it:

Thanks so much for chatting with me! I hope my answers had some value in them!

Monday, January 10, 2022

Google Search - What Are Writers?

Happy New Year everybody! It's my turn to take a stab at the Google Search theme, and I sat here for quite some time mulling over what I should search. After much consideration, I thought, "hey, this is a writer's blog, so I'll google something about writers". So I typed in... "are writers..."

Oh boy. Here are the most popular auto-fills.

I was slightly surprised that there were, in my opinion, 3 (sort of) offensive questions among those top searches - are writers narcissists? - are writers crazy? - are writers selfish? But then I wondered why I was offended. Perhaps it was because instead of reading those searches as questions, I read them as assumptions - or even worse - facts. Then I wondered, even if the answers to all those questions is "yes", why would I take any of it personally? Unless..... unless I am, indeed, narcissistic, crazy, and selfish. Oh lord.

I jest. I wasn't offended... honestly. Maybe I bristled just a little.. but just a little! Those searches did lead me to wonder, though, what the typical impression of a writer is to those who aren't writers.

When I was a kid, I always pictured writers as these well-educated, pompous yet majestic creatures that sit at their desks during the wee hours, drinking tumblers of whiskey, shrouded in cigarette smoke, hammering away at their typewriters in a creative frenzy, rushing to get every wonderful thought out before the burden of their genius crushed their brains. Oh, and they were always wearing waistcoats.

My favourite book was Matilda and I sincerely imagined that this was how Roald Dahl penned this tale... swearing over the keys, getting up every now and then to run his finger over an errant nail he'd hammered into the wall in order to envisage the Chokey. Don't ask me why, at this tender young age, plumes of smoke, alcohol, and insomnia were how I imagined writers - I don't know how I conjured this image. And definitely don't ask me why, even at the age of ten, this was a lifestyle I aspired towards. There must have been something romantic to me about the idea of stress-imbibing over a haphazard manuscript.

In my teens and young adult years, my impression of writers changed into something less chaotic. Instead, I imagined writers to be solitary, quiet, introspective beings with iron-clad discipline. You know, the kind of people who start their day with a hike and a grapefruit, and then retire for countless hours to their office. They would stop only now and then to gaze out of the window at the trees (or lake, or mountains, because for some reason I thought all writers wrote in remote cabins), in search of the fabled muse.

It was only when I started writing myself and made friends with other writers that I realised that mostly my notions of writing and writers were unrealistic. Writing isn't some magical process by which you're overtaken with inspiration and typing through visions of waterfalls and fairies whilst crafting the perfect character arc... it's realising four paragraphs in that you've used the word "realising" 20 times already. It's realising that you've just described someone's piercing blue eyes even though 3 months ago when you started the novel, you said their eyes were green and you didn't bother to write down this detail because you thought you'd remember...but you can't remember... wait a minute - why did I say they had middle-child syndrome and then make the fact that they're an only child a major plot point?! Oh.. and what's this... a plot thread that I planned to work on later so that it became a major theme but then it fizzled out because I took a break for a few weeks and then completely forgot about it because, as I previously mentioned, I didn't make a note of the things I was sure I'd remember, and I was distracted anyway by a glaring plot hole that I wrote myself into, but it's become an abyss I can't find my way out of.

Writing IS magical, but it's also really hard work, I guess is what I'm saying. You get so distracted by the many things involved in crafting but one piece of writing, like I have here actually, because didn't this rambling rant start with something about Google? Oh yeah - Google Search!

In answer to all of the most-searched questions, I say this: Yes. No. Maybe. I don't knowwwww. Can you repeat the question?

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Lucas, Service Dog


 Earlier this year, my friend and artist of my own book, 'The Littlest Cock', Stephanie Webb published her very own novel. 'Lucas, Service Dog' is a true story about how she adopted and trained a Border Collie pup to become her companion, therapist, and friend. The book was written and illustrated by Stephanie herself, and highlights their lives together and how service dogs can help so many people in their day to day struggles with PSTD, mental illness, and other health related issues. 

She got Lucas from a breeder in Illinois, and it was apparent from the start that he was very special. She started training him to be her service dog immediately, and he learned so fast that had it not been for Covid, he would have been certified by the time he was six months old. Stephanie used a combination of positive reinforcement and Pavlov's training techniques to teach Lucas basic commands and behaviors to help her manage her PSTD and Fibromyalgia. Lucas goes with her everywhere and keeps her calm when she has anxiety or panic issues, and when she has a lot of pain from the Fibro, he will retrieve things for her and keep her relaxed. 

This story highlights all the many ways Lucas helps Stephanie, and helps to teach a younger audience the importance of service animals and why they need to be respected for the jobs they do. It also teaches kids how to interact with service dogs, such as knowing when it is and isn't okay to pet them. Lucas gets rewarded for a job well done with playtime with kids when Stephanie gives him the okay, and boy does he love it!

I recommend this book for the message and story, as well as the beautiful heartfelt artwork Stephanie put into it to show the world how much Lucas means to her. It's available on Amazon.

Stay weird everyone, and Happy New Year!

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Tyranny of Contemporary Western-Style Fantasy

Happy 2022, everyone! Mary here, and earlier today I was trying to decide whether to kick off the new year with a fluffy 2021 look-back or a soap box rant. Before y'all say "well, Mary, OF COURSE you chose the soap box," let me mention that I am incredibly lazy, and soap box rants take more energy than fluff. But this is something that's been on my mind for a spell now, and I figured now is a good a time as any to let it out.

The very title of this post might have some of y'all riled up already. Let me start off by clarifying that I very much enjoy Western-style fantasies. I marathon the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- extended edition, of course! -- on the regular and binge watched all 8 episodes of The Witcher's second season within 24 hours of its release.

I've started noticing something about the kinds of fantasy stories that get popularized though. I say "popularized" as a quick way to summarize all the ways in which stories spread beyond a handful of the creator's closest devotees -- whether through big publishing deals, or TV/movie adaptations, or marketing pushes, etc. Because I'm sure plenty of stories of all kinds get told. Yet until they're popularized, few hear them.

Anyway, the type that gets popularized follows a certain set of rules that's been defined as "good writing" by The Powers that Be. And those rules arise out of Western-centric ideas.

At pretty much every convention I've ever been to, there's always been at least one panel on world-building for aspiring writers. The advice is usually some variation on "make sure you have internal rules and stick with them," and heaven knows I've given that same advice a million times (and there's always one author on the panel who spends far too long intricately detailing how he does it in HIS book, but I digress). 

But at a convention I attended a few months back, one panelist said something that stuck with me: "I want magic to be more magical." (Since this is a soap box rant, I'm omitting names so I -- hopefully -- won't insult anyone. Nothing personal here!). This panelist then went on to describe how in a book, the "rules" of magic were inexplicably broken for dramatic effect. Another panelist immediately interrupted with a haughty, "See, that would take me right out of the story." What proceeded was a (rather supercilious) exchange of praise by magic rules-lawyers types.

You know, the kind who want to know precisely how much of which ingredient must go into a potion of what size to do how many points of damage and blah blah blah...

What was lost in all that back-and-forth was what the first panelist meant: "I want magic to be more magical." I would take that one step further and say, "I want fantasy to be more fantastical." 

What do I mean by that? Simply that not everything needs an explanation, that sometimes the mysterious and inexplicable can be impactful because of its lack of definitions. I dare say that most stories about magic from across time and across the world are like that. Do we need some logic behind why Rapunzel's hair could grow so improbably long? Animated fantasy films get away with it all the time... What are the limits of Elsa's wintery powers anyway? Who cares? It's magic!

As a fantasy writer myself, I've always dwelled in a murky in-between. Sure, my magic systems have rules when it makes sense for the stories -- like in the Flynn Nightsider tales, about teens who fight monsters, I defined what weapons can kill which monsters because it added an extra challenge for the characters. But sometimes, I'd rather just let magic be magic.

My last fantasy manuscript takes place in a world where humans live underwater (think the Nautilus navigating between Disney's Atlantis and the Gungan City in The Phantom Menace). The whole thing is so out-of-this-world, any screen adaptation would probably have to be animated. Yet I still got asked about the mechanics behind it all. My answer: Who cares? It's magic!

The people who made those comments were just doing what I'd asked, which was to give me their honest feedback, and this is not meant to be anything against them. But it's a mentality that's been hammered into us by the kinds of media that's been popularized lately, and the kinds of discussions that have come out of them. I'm sure the popularity of gaming has something to do with it. Hey, if you want all your magic battles to have specific, mathematically calculated damage points and whatnot, more power to you. But that's not the only way to tell a story.

I could go on about all the other ways in which contemporary Western-style fantasy is limiting the kinds of stories we get exposed to, but I've already gone on far too long on just one point. So I'll pick one more thing to rant about before calling it a night: Agency. Goddamn agency. 

What is agency in storytelling? Basically, it's giving the main character control of the narrative. It's the Hero's Journey -- which I love! -- or the Great Man theory of history -- which I don't love. It's your knight in shining armor choosing to sally forth and slay the dragon to rescue the princess.

As for the princess? Well, if you're going to tell it from her point of view, you'd better let her control the situation too. Which is awesome of course, but not everyone's story.

Because not everyone has agency. Some are faced with powers too great to defeat, and the story lies in how they survive when they don't have control of the narrative. That's worth telling too.

I'll give a (possibly silly) example: the animated Thumbelina movie from the 1990s. Like all the other little girls in my school, I loved it. I remembered it with the same fondness as the famous Disney movies from that era -- The Little Mermaid and whatnot. Which is why I was surprised to recently learn that critics panned it at the time. One of the reasons? Because Thumbelina had no agency.

I rewatched the movie a few weeks ago out of nostalgia, and poor Thumbelina really has no control over the story at all. She's basically a human trafficking victim: kidnapped from her bedroom and passed from male to male (these are critters so "man" doesn't seem like the right word) when all she wants is to go home and marry her true love. At two inches tall and with no superpowers (unless you count Jodi Benson's singing voice), she's unable to fight back as she's dragged from one unfortunate situation to another. In the end, she gets rescued.

She may have no agency, but hers is still a story of resilience and survival. Is it not worth telling then? I wonder if the reason why so many of us elementary school girls loved it is because we could relate to being tiny and powerless, always being told what to do by others and having virtually no control over anything. The story may not have been the kind of rah-rah-girl-power tale that usually gets held up as a good example for girls (and, again, I love those), but that doesn't mean it wasn't worthwhile.

Anyway, this wasn't meant to be a full-throated defense of the animated Thumbelina (heaven knows that movie has issues). The point is that a character doesn't have to have agency to mean something, yet we've all been hammered with the message that YOUR CHARACTER MUST HAVE AGENCY AND DRIVE THE STORY OR YOU MIGHT AS WELL RIP IT UP AND BURN THE PIECES.

Tyranny, I tell you.

It's easy to internalize these messages -- lord knows I have -- and repeat them over and over until they multiply like omicron (insert "what I see" "what you did there" pie chart meme). They've been repeated so many times that it's become accepted that these kinds of things -- world-building with rigid rules, characters with obvious agency -- are what make a fantasy story "good." You hear this advice, you heed it, you pass it along, and then you use it as a rubric when evaluating other stories (and by "you", I'm including me).

But what is "good" anyway? Who decided what was "good"?

It reminds me of the grudge I have against Stephen King's On Writing not because of anything that's written in there, but because of the number of people who treat it as God, unquestioningly, uncritically using it as the standard by which to judge all writing. It's one set of opinions and advice. Ignoring it won't tear the fabric of the universe.

So, what's to be done? Well, therein lies the challenge. To paraphrase Yoda, we must unlearn what we have learned. Read stories about characters without agency and see how they, too, are valuable, rather than dismissing them out of hand. Stay with a tale where magic is inexplicable, illogical even and feel the impact. Dig a little deeper when deciding what's good, rather than giving knee-jerk reactions based on someone else's rules.

All right, stepping off my soap box now. Good night, y'all.

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