[guest post] Childhood Programming (a not terribly sneaky way to look at themes) by Michael R. Fletcher

I'm very happy to bring you the most amazing blog post that you almost didn't see, which is another blog post for another day.

TODAY is what is important, and Michael R. Fletcher is dropping by to entertain you while I hit the deadlines. Michael is a science fiction and fantasy author, whose novel, Beyond Redemption, just blew me away. You can read my review, or just take my word for it and buy his book.

Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn’t an axiom, it’s a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken—men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest’s own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates—The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left—have their own nefarious plans for the young god.

As these forces converge on the boy, there’s one more obstacle: time is running out. When one’s delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is: Who will rule there?

According to Michael, the next two Manifest Delusions novels, The Mirror's Truth, and The All Consuming, are currently in various stages of editing while Michael tries to be the best husband and dad he can be.

Beyond Redemption is Michael's second novel. His début novel, 88, is a cyberpunk tale about harvesting children for their brains.

Children, brains, and delusions. I hope you see where this is going ...

CHILDHOOD PROGRAMMING

(a not terribly sneaky way to look at themes)

This will ramble because that's the way I roll. I can't plan breakfast, never mind a blog post or a novel.

I have come to realize that I spend a lot more time thinking about themes than I do plot. I know what my next book's themes are long before I know what horrendous shit happens to the characters. Take Beyond Redemption for example. I had the title before I'd written the first word.

I wanted to write a book where no one learned anything. The novel starts with a host of shitty human beings and at the end of the book I wanted the few survivors to remain shitty. It didn't quite turn out that way, but I stayed true to that vision. This grew out of a suspicion that people are basically too stupid to learn or change. What can I say, I was in a bit of a dark place. If I wrote the book today it would be different. For one thing, I've managed to learn a few things myself—who I am and how I interact with people has changed in the last year.

And if I can change, anyone can.

There was a theme there I wanted to explore, a thorn in my side I wanted to worry at like a starved wombat. Can we escape the bonds of our childhood programming? Can we get beyond who we think we are? You'll see it in Beyond Redemption; virtually every character is haunted by something in their past. They are defined by their choices and actions.

As are we.

My father was brought up by uptight stiff-upper-lip parents in the UK. Religion was pushed on him from a young age. All the proper social mores were programmed into him from birth. He knew who the right kind of people were. He knew what kind of people to avoid. He knew how a proper boy acted. He knew which fork to use when, and how to eat without making a mess. He was told his father was perfect, without flaws of any kind. They tried to make my father perfect too, whatever the fuck perfect is.

They failed. And that's probably for the best.

At some point my father made a conscious decision to toss most of his childhood programming. He screwed around at school and got funky with as many women would let him. He was and is an unrepentant letch of the first degree. He had no interest in pursuing that upper-crust school and instead drove a truck around England's southern coast, drinking and playing rugby. Much to his parent's disgust he regularly consorted with exactly the wrong kind of people. In short, he had great fun.

I remember a friend once saying, it's better to be one of those people your parents warned you about than to be afraid of them.

Skip ahead some years and this is the person who was, at least in part, responsible for raising me. He tended to be somewhat distant—he's admitted he has little interest in small children and that I only became interesting in my late teens—but he was there and he definitely had an influence. Come to think of it, I think he first really noticed me when I came home drunk during high-school and threw up all over the house. My mother told me to clean it up and I, still extremely inebriated, used the vacuum cleaner.

I grew up hearing (over and over and over) how difficult it had been for him to overcome his childhood programming and how it would be different for me.

And it was. No one pushed religion on me and to this day I don't understand the fuss. I bring the same logic and reasoning to religion that I bring to everything else.

And it wasn't. But I didn't see it until I had a child of my own.

I found myself getting angry at my daughter in the same way—and over the same things—my father used to get angry at me about. I found myself reacting in the same ways and threatening the same punishments that I was threatened with. At some point I caught my wife staring at me like I was some kind of alien who'd replaced her calm and loving husband. When I finally managed to step back and question what was going on, I realized I didn't actually care about many of the things I was reacting to. I was, in fact, reacting because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.

The first step to overcoming one's childhood programming is recognizing it. And that is more difficult that one might think.

Childhood programming. It's insidious and just as we don't realize we have it, we tend to be blind to the fact we're perpetuating it with our own children. How are you reacting to your child's forays into individuality? When they test boundaries, do you react the same way your parents did? When you play games with them do you ever let them win? Do you always let them win? Are you willing to give your child a task you know they'll fail at and still stay out of their way as they try? Do you really believe in god, or are you just going through the motions? If you haven't questioned your own faith, are you sure you want to put that on your children without at least giving it some thought? How about your relationship with your partner, how much does that mirror the relationship you saw between your own parents?

All this is a lead up to another—though definitely related—theme in Beyond Redemption: Taking responsibility for one's own choices and actions. We are all victim to childhood programming of some kind, and it's not all bad. Ideas like sharing and helping and being kind could all be considered programming. But sometimes it's a little more difficult to see.

Take anger, for example. We've all heard (and said) things like, that made me angry. But is that the truth? Are you sure you didn't decide to become angry, were you truly helpless in the angry/not angry equation? Is it possible you've merely been taught to shirk responsibility for your emotions?

Our inability to accept responsibility for our choices goes deeper than how we react to stimuli. Are you overweight, an alcoholic, depressed, having trouble sleeping? Perhaps your first response shouldn't be to seek something to blame or to reach for a chemical cure. Maybe you can accept responsibility and change whatever needs changing to rectify the situation. Responsibility is scary, but what most people miss is that it's also power. If it's my responsibility, I can change it. And before you get too angry with me, I have been and sometimes still am all of those things.

We are the result of our choices and actions. The lives we live—barring tragedies beyond our control—are the lives we deserve. Getting over the events of your childhood, be they large or small, is a choice. Perhaps it's not an easy choice, but it is within your power. Or you can be a character in my next book. 

The first step is making a decision.

* * *

Want to know more about Michael and his delusions? Check out his website, or give him a follow on Facebook, or Twitter.

being a woman and writing dark fiction--it's complicated (#SFWApro)

It's question and answer time at the old blog! Today's winner is Beverly Bambury, who asked: How do you feel being a woman has affected you as a writer of dark fiction?

Like everything else in publishing--it's complicated.

Beverly's question made me think of the time I surfed through some posts on Reddit about year ago. Someone once commented that women don't write complicated novels like [insert list of male fantasy authors here].

Hmmmmm, I thought.

That is the sound of my brain warming up.

Hmmmmmm, why would someone make such an outrageous statement? Surely women were writing complicated novels that could be marketed toward the mainstream reading public.

Of course, the Redditor's statement sat in the back of my mind and fermented until Beverly’s question resurrected it. Now I was curious and wanted to dispel the myth that women don’t write complicated dark fiction, because I know a lot of women who do write complicated, intelligent fiction.

I constructed a search for female authors of dark fiction whose works were marketed to mainstream audiences at the same promotional level as those by male authors. My results returned a few prominent names: Gillian Flynn, Sarah Waters, Mira Grant, Joyce Carol Oates, and Elizabeth Kostova (and Kostova is not really a dark fiction writer—she merely qualifies due to The Historian). This is, by no means, a comprehensive list—these are just the first names that floated to the top.

I switched up my methodology and retooled my search to examine what kinds of books were being published by women. I kept my research primarily on new authors and generally skipped over authors such as Robin Hobb and Joyce Carol Oates, not because they aren't worthy of discussion, but because they have been involved in publishing for so long, their fan base and reputations are well established.

Goodreads was nice place to browse due to their Goodreads Choice Awards. I found that women are primarily, although not exclusively, published with following types of works (in no particular order):

  • Feminist literature (this includes novels with a protagonist who is a "strong female character" / usually college educated career track women, but not necessarily—the emphasis is on badass women who kick ass)
  • Young Adult
  • Urban/Paranormal Fantasy
  • Time travel (most of these novels follow feminist examinations of cultural attitudes, especially those surrounding mother/daughter relationships, and are either romance or coming of age stories--remove the fantastical elements of magic or time travel and these novels could easily be categorized as "chick-lit")
  • Historical romance (if a woman writes anything historical, there must be a heavy male/female romantic element)

As I browsed through the blurbs, I began to pick up on keywords directed toward women. The phrasing varies, but a lot of blurbs on women's fantasy contain differing versions of "they must work (or join) together." This is usually indicative of a romantic element within the story and is marketing-speak for "romance isn't the primary focus of the novel; however, there is a strong romantic element."

In order to prove my point, I'm providing a sampling of blurbs and with the keywords highlighted. If you intend to write for publication, you need to be aware of marketing techniques so you can design your blurb accordingly.

From the Goodreads Choice Awards for fantasy [note: all emphasis is mine and of course, the comments in brackets are mine]:

  • The Golem and the Jinni: "But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice." [Parting, then bringing the protagonists back together is a common romance theme.]
  • The Firebird: "... unearthing a tale of love, courage, and redemption." [Notice that "love" is mentioned first.]
  • The Ghost Bride: "After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim's handsome new heir, Tian Bai." [Desire=love]
  • The River of No Return: "Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance." [FEEEEELINGS ...]
  • The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic: This one pops all of the switches from the title on down: "Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true. Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school ..." [Well, of course he's gorgeous ...]

Let's switch over to the Goodreads horror picks and see what happens:

  • White Trash Zombie Apocalpyse: "Soon she's fighting her way through mud, blood, bullets and intrigue, even as zombies, both real and fake, prowl the streets." [You can't tell me that Diana Rowland doesn't write kick ass women characters.]
  • The Fate of Mercy Alban: With the help of the disarmingly kindand attractive—Reverend Matthew Parker, Grace must uncover the truth about her home and its curse before she and her daughter become the next victims. ["With the help of" can be substituted for "they must work together" also note that the good Reverend is kind and "attractive," because in marketing-speak no one falls in love with ugly people. Obviously.]
  • Parasite by Mira Grant gets a pass, because the blurb mentions nothing about love, relationships, children, or women's issues. However, Parasite was marketed to the same mainstream audience that loved World War Z. Grant is the exception, not the rule.
  • Come Alive: It’s one thing to bring the woman you love back into your life. It’s another to try and keep her there. For Dex Foray, con­vinc­ing Perry Palomino to open her­self to their bur­geon­ing rela­tion­ship has been more chal­leng­ing than hunt­ing ghosts, bat­tling demons and stalk­ing Sasquatch com­bined. [Romance.]

The subliminal message that I'm now taking from all of this is that women are only supposed to write within certain paradigms that focus the work entirely on women’s issues, romance, or children. The trick is to keep the story-line as simple as possible, because marketing personnel obviously feel they can't easily slip a woman into the domain of traditionally male dominated "complicated" stories.

The other message is that women only buy books written by women, therefore any woman who writes a book that is not aimed at women is “unmarketable” or “too complicated.”

I am reminded of the dragon’s syllogism in Grendel: "All pigs eat cheese / Old Snaggle is a pig / If Snaggle is sick and refuses to eat, try cheese."

The publishers' syllogism is: All women love women’s issues, romance, and children / Women only read books by other women / If women want to be published, they must write books about women’s issues, romance, and children.

Whether we like it or not, that appears to be the mentality we’re dealing with.

Don't give up. I operate under the philosophy that one cannot break the rules until one thoroughly understands the rules. The cold, hard truth is that it is very difficult to break an establishment from the outside. I tend to follow the Taoist philosophy that implies I must penetrate gently and imitate the wind.

Sometimes I'm more like a hurricane, but those are the breaks.

Let me give you some advice:

  • If you are lucky enough to have an androgynous name such as Robin, Alex, Jesse, Gillian, etc., use it as your by-line. No pictures. Give scant information about your gender.
  • If you are like me and have a more gender specific name, use initials. Create a pseudonym. Go the KJ Parker route and submit to editors without them knowing your gender if at all possible. Design your website and all of your marketing with the pseudonym in mind.
  • Network, network, network, network with other authors and with publishers. This may mean going to the larger conventions that host multiple publisher tables in their dealer rooms. If are you are like me and don't have a large budget for cons, network online. Other authors and bloggers have done more to promote my work for me than all the publicists in New York. They are awesome! Thank them prolifically!
  • Take workshops with well-known authors and publishers and editors who offer them, either online or in person.
  • Join a professional organization and get involved as much as you can. I know some folks have had problems with the SFWA, but so far, I haven't. Since I can't travel as much, the forum has been an excellent place for me to get marketing tips and meet other members.
  • Learn how to use social media effectively. Watch your stats and your Google analytics. Measure which blog posts are working and which are not. You want your voice heard and spread across the Internet in a positive manner. I am merely one Who in Whoville, but hear me now, my friend, you never know precisely what is going to resonate with the masses. Keep at it. Horton is out there.
  • Utilize short stories as promotional tools. I sold two short stories to anthologies last year and wrote several more that I haven't placed yet. I've been known to give them away here and another one is here, because every little click bumps my name higher into Google's algorithms. I also intend to move into hybrid publishing and self-publish some works this year.

This will break your heart, because I know it did mine: writing a good book is not the same as being marketable. This makes me very sad, because when I started writing, I had this lofty notion that I would finally be evaluated by something other than my gender, or my education, or the social circles in which I moved. I thought I would be judged by my prose, by my stories. I know you thought these things too, but unfortunately that is not how it works.

I have a friend who tells me that acceptance is the key to all of my problems and it is. First, I have to accept the fact that in order to become published, I must write something marketable. In order to do that, I must understand what publishers and editors mean when they say "marketable."

Once you understand those terms, then you can either write a novel that fits within one of the standard paradigms, or go incognito.

The choice is yours.

Do we assume all women write YA fantasy; Or what’s in a name?

The first six months after Miserere was published, I felt that I made a mistake publishing under my real name. I am, after all, a woman—a woman who writes fantasy. I think a lot of genre fans made an automatic assumption that a woman who writes fantasy is either writing: a) young adult fantasy; or b) paranormal romance.

I say this for a couple of reasons. My first clue that assumptions were being made came from my initial reviewers. Many of the prominent genre fiction reviewers understood Miserere was an adult novel. However, there were several reviewers that obviously entered the novel fully expecting a Middle Grade or YA fantasy. I believe this little gem of a review encapsulates the confusion nicely:

I had trouble relating too or liking any of them [the characters]. It left me a bit confused about what age group this book is aimed at. Lindsay is a pre-teen, yet there is too much torture, violence and sex for this to be a middle grade or YA book. Rachael and Lucian appear to be older, in their forties or fifties maybe? Their older age and frame of mind made it harder to relate with them as characters either.”

The question that nagged me after I read that review was simply this: Why did she automatically assume this was a Middle Grade or YA novel?

Although Lindsay does have a significant role in the novel, she isn’t a main character. She is not mentioned in the blurb, nor is she pictured in the cover art. That was Night Shade Books’ decision and I thought it a wise one. As a matter of fact, Night Shade Books did not market Miserere as a YA fantasy at all.

Nor did I. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I enjoy reading and writing fantasy for adults. Middle Grade and Young Adult fantasies are wonderful and I occasionally indulge, but not often. I enjoy the complexity of adult themes. So I remained baffled as to why some readers continued to assess Miserere as if it was a YA novel.

At some point in all this, I read one angsty review too many and snapped. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often with debut authors. We’re under a tremendous amount of stress and every review influences the overall perception of our novels. Authors are told to say nothing. In some authors this “say nothing” rule creates a powder-keg effect, and mine erupted in the manifesto, “I write dark fantasy.”

Shortly after that blog post, people started taking me seriously as an adult fiction author. Suddenly, I noticed a 180 degree change in attitude regarding Miserere. People viewed the story differently.

Hmmmm, said my brain.

I became curious and looked at reviews for male authors such as George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Doug Hulick, Mark Lawrence. No one mistook their novels for YA or Middle Grade. Stina Leicht took some heat because her urban fantasy Of Blood and Honey was very dark and didn’t meet the hunky urban fantasy romance prototype, but no one banged Alex Bledsoe for doing the same type of dark urban fantasy with The Hum and the Shiver.

Hmmmm, said my brain. (My brain says that a lot.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a strong possibility existed that people automatically equated Miserere as being a YA novel because I am a woman. The reason I infer a “strong possibility” is simply because I have no data with which to support this hypothesis; all I have is circumstantial evidence. However, the more I evaluate the situation across the board, the more I realize it’s entirely possible.

I’m also quite cognizant of the fact there is an overall assumption by non-genre readers that all fantasy novels are written for young adults. However, the reviews and confusion about Miserere came from people who read genre fiction on a regular basis.

So. The unanswered question, of course, is: If I had published under the name T. Frohock, would people still have made the YA assumption about Miserere? I don’t know. The thought has haunted me from time to time over the last year, and it has certainly made me more aware of my initial assumptions when I see an author’s name.

Me?

I’m going to publish under Teresa Frohock. I’ve had that name for quite some time and I’ve grown rather fond of it. I will change your mind about how you perceive my work. I love a challenge.

And please allow me to clarify once more, so there is no confusion:

I write dark fantasy.

For adults.

You know the drill. *winks*

Tell me if you make assumptions about an author’s work simply by looking at his or her name. I’m in interested in what you think.

writing, thinking about dark fiction

I had an interesting Twitter discussion on dark fantasy versus "dark and gritty" fantasy earlier this week. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on dark fantasy. Personally, I always saw dark fantasy as being fiction that resonated much like fairytales and think of authors such as Tanith Lee. Yet I now see the term "dark" bantered around to define anything that isn't heroic fantasy.

What about you? What kind of fiction do you consider dark fantasy? And for a bonus round, what turns you off or turns you on about dark fantasy?

lost and found Saturday, Stoker winners, and going to the awards

I printed out the first 70 pages of The Garden for some serious edits today and decided I'd give the bike a ride before editing. Couldn't find my iPod, so I instigated a search party, found the iPod, then promptly realized I'd misplaced 70 pages of manuscript.

*sigh*

Some days are like this.

Meanwhile, I had a phone call with a dear, dear friend that some of you might know. Lisa W. Cantrell and I seriously caught up with one another today. She is a super nice lady and encouraged me so much when I was young and first starting out as a writer. It was wonderful hearing her voice again.

For those of you who don't know, Lisa won the very first Bram Stoker Award in 1987 for superior achievement for her first novel, The Manse.

Which brings me to my next bit of news: for those who couldn't make it to the Stoker Awards this weekend, you can watch the awards live via streaming video at 9:30 EST tonight (Saturday, June 18). Just click here.

And now that I've found those 70 pages of misplaced manuscript, I'm off to edit. I'll "see" you at the awards tonight where another divine lady named Lisa (as in Mannetti) has been nominated for a Stoker.