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Writers’ Asylum: Murder in Mind: Epilogue

The party is over. It’s time to clean up the mess and try not to notice how sticky the floor is.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our party, and solved a mystery while you were here. You now have a bunch of stories, to do with as you please!

Thank you for coming along and taking part. The Asylum wouldn’t exist without its inmates. If you have any suggestions about things we could try or improve, let me know!

In the meantime, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out. You are released!

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Writers’ Asylum: Murder in Mind: Prologue

Welcome to the Asylum. Today, we’re going to commit murder.

But first, we’re going to throw a party. We’re going to climb into the lives of the host and his or her guests, we’re going to see how they tick, and why. More interestingly, we’re going to see what happens when they’re mixed together.

I’m going to give you a series of instructions and prompts. You can take these instructions in any direction you wish: your imagination is encouraged to play. When each challenge is presented, you have an hour to write. Aim for 1,000 words and see where each challenge takes you!

So, get a drink, turn up the music, and settle in. It’s going to be a fun and perilous ride!

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A plethora of love

Why must there always be smoochies?
(Picture: not mine)

Western society and its fictional media seem obsessed with sexual relationships. Not necessarily sex itself (because being too sexual is bad); rather, romance and sexual attraction, and the promise of sex.

I have no problem with these ideas on their own. I love a good romantic subplot, or even main plot when the mood strikes. I like a bit of raunchy goodness. I adore seeing couples come together. (I’m currently in the middle of writing a very romance/sex-heavy part of a story, and loving it!)

I start to have an issue when it becomes ubiquitous. Too often, romances are shoe-horned into stories, whether books or TV shows or movies. Fan-fiction takes non-romantic relationships and adds sexual heat. I start to object not because I dislike romances, but because of all the things that these couplings are replacing, and for the messages it sends.

One of the things that worries me most about this trend is that it erases other types of love and relationship. Relationships are so much more than just sex and attraction, and they can be deep and valuable without a hint of sexual chemistry. Too often, I see that if a man and woman work closely together, or are in close proximity for long periods, they must, at some point, hook up. Or if two men are very close, loyal to each other, often comrades of some sort, they must also be fucking.

It’s unrealistic, and honestly, childish (in its desperate clamouring for simplicity, not in that children do this). It is entirely possible to be devoted friends with someone of your preferred will-boink gender and type, and have it never go anywhere near sex. You can be utterly loyal to them, to a fault, have a deep affection, and for it to be completely non-sexual (or asexual; I’m using ‘non-sexual’ to avoid confusion with the asexual orientation).

But so many of the stories we read and see deny that this is a possibility. If two people get on really well, at least one of them will want to get naked and sweaty with the other. This is particularly pervasive in fan-fiction, which is notorious for taking non-sexual relationships and turning them sexual (the Wincest and Twincest* fandoms are so notable they have their own names, and turn brothers into lovers). Why can’t brothers just love each other? Support each other and have each other’s backs? Why is that not beautiful and satisfying in its own right?

Talking about fan-fiction is tricky, because it’s a minefield of people striving to tell the stories they want to tell. I’m not trying to bash fan-ficcers; they are, unfortunately, the extreme example that illustrates the point. I get that two hot guys fucking is sometimes the point, and that’s fine. I also understand that, for minorities, often these pairings are about representation and putting themselves (or people like themselves) into media in a way that mainstream media is currently failing to do. (Glorifying incest is a shade too far in my book, but that’s a personal opinion.)

I mention it because it’s all part of this worrying trend that turns every relationship into a boink-fest. Like there’s nothing else.

It’s got to the point where the exceptions jump out at me, and I’m desperately grateful for them. Like the end of Pacific Rim, when the two lead characters, despite some chemistry in the movie and being in each other’s heads, embrace platonically at the end instead of the snog I was expecting Hollywood to produce. It was a natural progression of their relationship, rather than the usual rush-to-squishiness that happens. That moment wasn’t about romance; it was about appreciating each other, with affection, and was nice to see.

Sometimes, the best way we can support and comfort one another is with a hug.

Similarly, Zoe and Mal in Firefly/Serenity are a great example. They’re inseparable, utterly and fiercely loyal to each other, they live together, they’re both physically-capable characters, and go through high-stakes combat situations (and we all know that adrenaline leads inevitably to boinking, right? Like we can’t help ourselves).

And yet, there’s absolutely no chemistry between them (it’s even explicitly addressed in the TV show). In any other show, they’d be all over each other (see, for example, Farscape for a different choice with similar archetypes). In Firefly, though, they’re allowed to be attached to each other and romantically (and sexually) independent. Their orientations even mesh, so it’s not that they couldn’t be attracted to each other that way; they simply aren’t. I love this!

These two examples also allow something that is erased by much Western fiction: men and women can be friends and not want to fuck at any point in the relationship. No ‘friendzoning’ required (I hate that whole idea because of everything it carries with it).

And this is where I mention the messages that this trend sends. That every close relationship must involve sex at some point, like it’s expected. This is where the ‘friendzoning’ trend/trope annoys me, because our media encourages men, in particular, to expect sex as part of being friends with a girl.

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve dated guys that I’ve been friends with for some time. I’ve had that type of relationship evolution myself, so I’m the last person to deny that it can happen. I’ve also had a lot of close male friends in my life that have involved no chemistry on either side (despite compatible sexual preferences), and have just been great mateships. I value those relationships greatly. So the denial that the latter can happen annoys me intensely. Why would you deny yourself the wonderful friends you could have?

Then there’s the trend that people in intense situations must get together, because that’s a healthy way to start a relationship. The movie Speed addressed this explicitly, and it’s no surprise that the relationship at the end of the first movie has fallen apart by the sequel (it’s also convenient for their casting/plot choices, of course). Too many times, I’ve looked at a couple snogging at the end of a story with its ‘and they boinked happily ever after and had little tiny protagonists of their own’ tone, and wound up thinking ‘but they have nothing in common and returning to their real lives is going to be a hell of a shock’. Enjoy the sweaty sex while it lasts, kids, because that’s only a happily-for-now ending, not a happily-ever-after.

More worrying is the trope that we still see all over the place that uses a romantic hookup as the hero’s reward at the end of his struggles. Because women are still prizes to be fought over and won, and we, apparently, can’t help but get all weak-kneed in the presence of a successful protagonist. These are usually the most ill-matched pairings, because the girl must be hot and male heroes have had a trend in recent years of being more ordinary-looking, delving into nerdy (Transformers, I’m looking at you).

It’s not to say that the nerd can’t get the hot girl, because sure, we all love to see someone punching above their weight. But it’s the notion that all you need to do is succeed at whatever is in front of you to ‘get’ her that rankles. In Transformers, it’s particularly obvious, because they spend no time at all developing why the girl would want to be with this boy on a relationship level (and there’s not a whisper of chemistry between them). He’s the ‘hero’ of the story, so therefore, getting the girl is a foregone conclusion and the story does nothing to provide any other reason for the hook-up.

Too often, the romance aspect is pushed in at the last minute, like they’re ticking a box.

Turning a relationship to sex can also cheapen whatever it had been growing into in the story. It’s so frustrating to see burgeoning friendships turn into ‘nah, they’re just going to fuck’, and what might have been an interesting aspect to the story be cut off. Because a lot of how we deal with sex, particularly in the media, is cheap and distancing, and lacks complexity, by replacing emotional or affectionate intimacy with physical intimacy.

Turning a relationship romantic can also cut off other avenues of expression, exploration and discussion. ‘Because love’ becomes the reason for everything, and I’m so terribly bored with that. We do things for so many reasons, and being in love with someone doesn’t have to be at the top of the list.

One example that comes to mind is the current Stucky (Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes) fan pairing. There is some desire to make this pairing canon in the MCU, and fans who will claim that it’s subtext in the movies. At least part of this is because the MCU is desperately lacking in gay representation and having a notable character like Captain America be gay (or bi, really) would be huge. I get that, and I support the sentiment that there should be more gay representation (in the MCU and media in general). However.

I think that giving Steve and Bucky’s relationship a sexual or romantic angle would cheapen and over-simplify it. Steve’s relationship with and feelings towards Bucky are complicated, and not entirely about Bucky. His dogged support and pursuit of Bucky through Civil War shows us a lot about him and about the trauma that he is struggling to deal with: losing everyone he knew to the passage of time while he was frozen; survivor’s guilt, particularly with what happened to Bucky; a desperate belief in the possibility of redemption; and the loyalty between comrades and friends.

Bring romance into it, and all of those things fade into the background. We can sit back and stop questioning: Steve’s motivations are explained by ‘because love’, because love is such a powerful force that you don’t need any other explanation to shore it up. For someone to go to those lengths for a friend, though, that lets us know that there’s a lot more going on under the hood than is immediately obvious. We question, we watch more closely, because if not love, then why? We start to notice how much Steve is looking in the mirror when he looks at Bucky and seeing all the things that he could have been, if things had been different. If he hadn’t been lucky. If he had fallen off that train and into the enemy’s hands. The struggle with the friend who had protected him for so long suddenly needing his protection. His desperate need to believe in there being good underneath the mask of the Winter Soldier. Tucking all of this away under romance-tinted lenses is a disservice to otherwise complex and interesting characters.

As a creator and consumer of fiction, I’m interested in the human condition. I want to see it in all its dirty, complicated messiness. I want to see all the diverse aspects people and how we interact with and are influenced by the world around us.

Not every relationship can and should be about romance or sex or hearts. There are so many different ways to love others: some involve kisses, others hugs, and others supportive words.

For those who cry about representation, who want this character to be gay, or that character to be bi: what about asexual characters? Or aromantics? What about stories that are not about romance? Why must it be everywhere?

Why can’t we embrace the bromance or the sisterhood without sex getting in the way, or celebrate close familial love, or enjoy the notion of heterosexual life partners**? Why isn’t it okay for soulmates to be just friends? Why can’t we explore all the different flavours of love available to us?

Because there’s so much more out there worth exploring. Demand more from your fiction! Like Frozen, which revolved around the connection between two sisters (and lampooned romantic relationships and our childish obsession with them). Or Brave, which was about connecting with parents, and balancing compassion and understanding with duty.

Demand more, write more. Enjoy the breadth and depth of human emotion, and don’t let media pressure cheapen it with a thin veneer of sex. We’re so much better than that.

 

* For those unfamiliar: Wincest is the Winchester brothers from Supernatural hooking up; Twincest is the Weasley twins from Harry Potter doing the same.

** Jay and Silent Bob reference; another flavour of bromance without a hint of actual romance.

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Why I say ‘Merry Christmas’

Christmas in my house also includes helpful cats. Like Cinnamon here. (Picture: mine)

Christmas in my house also includes helpful cats. Like Cinnamon here.
(Picture: mine)

Every year at this time, the world is rife with decorations, marketing, propaganda, and strident advice about what it’s okay to say to people when you want to share good will and wishes with them. Every year, I roll my eyes at how people can bitch and complain about how someone expresses those will and wishes.

The way I see it, whatever words come out of your mouth, the intent is what’s important. And the intent here is to wish someone well. Taking offence at that just seems petty and overly precious.

The crux of the issue seems to be religion, and that’s also a large part of why I roll my eyes. That’s not to say that I’m denigrating religion: the part that annoys me is that this has become a religious issue.

The way I see it, Christmas is not a purely religious holiday. Christmas is a part of Western culture that has grown out of many faiths: originally Pagan, co-opted to have some Christian trappings and elements, and liberally sprinkled with folklore characters and details. Christmas is much bigger and broader than all of those sources. The way I look at it, it’s more cultural than religious.

My immediate family members are not Christians. We don’t celebrate the birth of Christ explicitly or intentionally. The same is true of most of my friends and their families.

To us, Christmas is about getting together with family and loved ones. In some cases, reconnecting. It’s about giving gifts and showing others that we think of them, we remember them, we appreciate and love them. It’s about spending time with them, usually so difficult in our hectic lives. It’s about feasting and indulging, which is so frowned-upon in this milieu of dietary rhetoric driven by whatever trend is making the health industry money right now, and rare in a life driven by budgets and careful spending. It’s about taking a break from the stress of our regular lives, just for a short time. (I know, Christmas itself can be stressful, but that’s still a break from the other stress, right?)

In many ways, it’s about loving life and each other, and celebrating that.

I love Christmas in my house. It’s laid-back, it’s warm with welcome company, and I get to share gifts with people I care about (I love giving people presents).

It means so much to me that, in recent years, I’ve been inviting friends over to spend it with us. Specifically, friends who are away from their families, or who can’t get back to them, or who would otherwise spend it on their own. I think it’s good to spend that part of the year with others, indulge in good company and food, and then do nothing more strenuous than move to the couch.

It’s such a pleasure to have them join us and be part of our little celebration. They make me make more of an effort, and I think we all have a better time of it as a result. It reminds me of how big our hearts are.

I don’t think you have to be religious to feel blessed.

So when I wish someone ‘Merry Christmas’, it’s because I want them to feel as heartful and happy as our version of Christmas is, even if they don’t celebrate it (at all, or in the same way). I hope they enjoy this time of year – or even just today – however they choose to spend it. It’s a way to share this celebration with others, even those I barely know. ‘Good will to all men’ is a holiday-appropriate phrase that applies here.

I’m sure that when Christians say it, they have a similar intent, if different because their experience and conception of Christmas isn’t the same as mine. And that’s fine. They, too, are sharing the good will of something that means something to them with others. Even strangers.

I don’t check to see what flavour of Christmas someone prefers. I honestly don’t really care. Similarly, I don’t take offence if someone wishes me ‘Happy Hanukkah’, or any other type of religious holiday or festival-related phrase; I receive it with gratitude.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter what religion the recipient is; the giver is the one to whom it means something, who gives it meaning. I understand that they are wishing me well, and I take it in that spirit.

For me to say ‘Happy Holidays’ is to mouth empty words, and I don’t see the point in that, so I choose not to. I don’t mind that people use the phrase, but I do dislike when people attempt to make others feel bad for not using it. That’s not okay, and it’s not in the spirit of the holiday.

(Note: I know that companies and government entities have different challenges and considerations, and therefore so do their representatives. I’m speaking from a personal point of view, here; not a representative or spokesperson for anyone or anything but myself.)

It’s like going to France and saying to a local, “No, it’s not ‘merci’; you should say ‘thank you’.” If what someone is saying isn’t in your language or lexicon, translate it and then react.

Ultimately, let’s not get hung up on the words falling off people’s lips. Let’s try to be considerate and respectful, and understand what someone is trying to say to us. Let’s appreciate a time of year in which people share kind, well-meaning sentiments with each other, even with strangers. So few of us, me included, seldom take the time to share positive wishes with the people around us, so let’s make the best of it.

So you. Yes, you. Merry Christmas.

May it be wonderful in your world, however and whatever you’re celebrating.

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Writers’ Asylum: Mental Battlefields: Epilogue

You’ve made it through the trials of war and a harrowing battle sequence. There was tension and doubt, lives on the line, loss and gain. At the end of it all, there was a victor, and a price for all to pay.

I hope you have found today’s challenges interesting and intriguing, and maybe even a little fun. We have barely scratched the surface of this story, have had only glimpses of these characters, but you’ve made them live and breathe.

Their story is done; their fate has been decided. You may go on to tell more of their stories, maybe even adjust their destinies if you wish. This world and this war is yours and yours alone. These battlefields are all in your mind.

Thank you for taking part in these challenges. I hope you go forward and continue to create new and interesting worlds, and the events that shape them.

The doors are open, a fresh breeze is coming in. The Asylum releases you. Good luck, and happy writing!

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Writers’ Asylum: Mental Battlefields: Prologue

Welcome to 2016’s Writers’ Asylum. Leave your coat and sanity at the door, and prepare for a day of fictional lunacy like you’re never experienced before. Don’t worry if you hear the doors lock behind you; that’s the least of your worries now. Because we’re going to war with our own minds today.

Today, we’re going to explore a single scenario. You’re going to assemble all the pieces and lay them out on the board, and then we’ll see how the game plays out. First, however, let’s create the board.

The stage for today’s play is a battlefield. Imagine any battlefield you choose, from any genre or era. It might be a wide, open plain, or a valley, or a stretch of ocean. It might be a particular area in space, perhaps made interesting by a streak of asteroids, perhaps stunningly empty. It might be a stronghold ripe for breaching. It might be a border, or have some strategic significance, or have religious or cultural meaning. It might be chance that makes this place a battlefield.

Whatever its significance – or lack thereof – this place is going to host the last battle of a war. Think Waterloo, or Serenity Valley, or the siege of Helm’s Deep.

This war has raged for some time now. Neither side is willing to back down; both have thrown everything they feasibly could into it. Think about what they’re fighting over. Ideals. Territory. Resources. Religion. Safety and security. Riches. It might be one or all of these things. The combatants might be human, or machine, or something else entirely. It’s all up to you. So choose.

By the time these two sides reach our battlefield, things are reaching their stretching-point. Perhaps support back home is waning, or supplies are running low, or the fresh recruits just aren’t there any more. Perhaps everyone is just tired of it by now. The war is almost over; whatever else is being debated, everyone seems to agree on that point.

One side has been creeping ahead. There is a known favourite for this war, the ones that can’t seem to lose; we’ll call them the top dog. That makes the other side the underdog, and it’s dangerous to underestimate the underdog. This battle could be the top dog’s chance to put down any resistance to them once and for all, or it could be the underdog’s chance to turn the tide in their favour and break the back of a superior force.

There are lots of opinions about how this battle will shake out, and none of them seem to agree. The only things that anyone knows for sure is that there are two sides to this battle, and they are drawing up their forces around this one, last battlefield. They are assembled: in tents, or castles, or ships, or carriers. They are getting ready.

Are you ready? Do you know what your battlefield looks like, smells like, as this storm gathers?

Because it’s time to find out.

Warning: violence and war ahead. If that upsets you, these challenges are not for you!

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Catalyst characters

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive? (Picture via Videezy)

Is the character the fuse, the spark, or the explosive?
(Picture via Videezy)

I’ve seen catalyst characters crop up in a few books and stories, and I have to say, I’m not a fan.

What do I mean by ‘catalyst characters’? I mean characters around whom important things happen, but through no action or choice of their own. Their mere presence can cause things to happen or turn out differently than if they had not been there. This may or may not be recognised by others in the story, and may or may not be manipulated by others (to their benefit or detriment).

One of the most obvious examples is Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. He is called out explicitly as a catalyst in the text (I believe another character refers to him this way at one point), and he’s pretty much told that he serves no other purpose.

Similarly, Ara in Tanith Lee’s The Heroine of the World is a catalyst in the story. The prophecy states that ‘lightning is attracted’ and predicts that she will influence the events shaping the world, but at no point does she take a proactive or even particularly conscious part in it. She winds up moving through the story like a doll.

In both of these cases, the catalyst characters are our viewpoint. The protagonists and heroes of the story are other characters entirely, and we’re put in the position of watching the real struggles in the story happen to other people, from the perspective of someone who has no ability to change what’s going on (for better or worse). Also, these viewpoint characters barely seem to understand what’s going on.

It’s a strange choice for a writer to make. The point of view doesn’t have to be the hero of the story (as I mentioned in a recent CWG meeting, Sherlock Holmes would be very different if he told his own story; Watson’s viewpoint is humanising). The choice of viewpoint is important, as it frames the reader’s perspective and interpretation of the story.

Ultimately, both of the stories mentioned above felt slightly detached and out of touch with the real story that was happening around these characters. As a reader, I was increasingly frustrated, partly because I wanted to know more about what was really going on – the interesting parts of the story – and because I wanted to shake these catalysts into doing something.

I’ve come to realise that the lack of agency they employ is a big part of why I struggle to like these characters. Ara lacks even the desire for agency and floats along in the story like a doll in a bubble. Fitz is vastly out of his depth in both knowledge and skill, and doesn’t get beyond doing what he’s told (at least as far as I recall, and I’m only referring to the Farseer trilogy; I haven’t read the subsequent series revolving around the characters in the trilogy).

I kept wanting the catalysts to take an interest in what’s going around them, to at least think about it and try to do something. Even if it’s the wrong thing, even if it’s pointless: I wanted them to at least want to try. To have a goal, to strive, to fail, to care. To become involved and interesting. But they didn’t. They were just catalysts for external things, like the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a drought.

I keep trying to think of other examples of catalysts, and I struggle to name many. I think that Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz comes close: things happen around her, but she’s not the usual kind of hero that we tend to see in stories. She defeats the first witch by being in a house caught a storm, and the second is an accident (she doesn’t know that the water will kill the Wicked Witch).

However, Dorothy is a likeable character. She’s proactive: she actively sets out to find her way home, and has her own goals and struggles. She tries to do the right thing and to help, and it matters to her what’s going on around her.

In her own story – finding her way home – she’s the hero. In the story of Oz, however, her role is more of a catalyst. She inspires the other characters to do what’s necessary to resolve the issues at hand, simply by being herself. She helps the Scarecrow to go on to become the leader of Oz; at no point does she look likely to take the throne herself.

Through her, we get to see the whole story, including the parts she probably doesn’t understand well herself (like the Wizard and his manipulations). Unlike Ara and Fitz, she’s proactive and driven, and has an interesting journey within herself as well.

By the end of the story, I don’t think Dorothy still qualifies as a catalyst. She is sent on a mission and, in the end, succeeds in defeating the Wicked Witch. But she does seem to start out as a catalyst.

That growth is perhaps what I find most lacking in Ara and Fitz: they never grew beyond being a static catalyst. Ara has almost no arc at all, and Fitz doesn’t manage to escape the bounds of his catalyst role. This is why I got the urge to shake them, and rolled my eyes as I wanted them to step out of this role and into something more active in the story. I wanted them to get involved. This is why these charaters are the reason why I won’t ever re-read these books again.

This leaves me with some questions:

  • Can catalyst characters be effective, engaging viewpoints?
  • Can a story about a catalyst ever be interesting, if they never grow beyond being a catalyst?
  • What other other examples of catalysts are there? Are any of them likeable?
  • Is it just me who feels this way?

I’d love to here what you all think about this!

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My Samaritan

It was like this, but dirtier. (Picture by Counselling via pixabay)

It was like this, but dirtier.
(Picture by Counselling via pixabay)

I had an interesting experience recently. As I was driving to the movies with my dad and a friend, the car was pulling towards the left slightly. It was subtle, enough that I put it down to being a bit tired and not quite paying attention. It was easily corrected.

There was a strange noise a few minutes later. It was quiet, almost drowned out by our talking, but enough that I shushed my passengers to check that it was, in fact, being made by the car. Then I pulled over.

Yup, flat tyre. Bollocks.

Now, I like to think I’m fairly capable. I can check a certain amount of basic engine things: oil, water, washer fluid. I can change out a distributor cap (a car I had a few years ago needed a new cap about once a year). And I’ve changed a tyre before. It’s a pain in the ass, but I can do it.

So while we had the light and space to do it, I didn’t bother to call my roadside assistance service (I have one, thank goodness).

My dad was quick to grab the jack and get down beside the car to start the process. We had fun attempting to get the hub cap off, but it turns out that it goes under the wheel nuts (never seen that before), so my friend and I stood back out of the way while the jack was set up.

Next thing we knew, there was a car pulling up behind mine and a guy hopped out. He was a big, burly fella with a shaven head, of Maori descent, and with Maori-style tribal tattoos down both arms. The sort of guy who wouldn’t look out of place in a bikie gang, a dimly-lit bar, or a BBQ on the beach. The sort of guy that people warn you about. The sort of guy that people would make a lot of assumptions about, most of them not terribly complementary or reassuring.

It’s worth pointing out that the road we were on is a main road between two suburbs. There was a steady flow of traffic going in both directions. He came over to us with an offer of help with whatever was wrong, and I smiled and thanked him, because people don’t often do that.

It took me a moment to realise that this fella had seen two girls on the side of the road, standing by a car with its hazard lights on, and he had immediately turned around and come to help out. He hadn’t seen my dad because the car was in the way. He had assumed we were stuck and reacted without hesitation.

This kind Samaritan – whose name I never got, he was so quick to head off when it was all done – was pleasant and happy to help out, even though we probably didn’t need it. He wasn’t creepy or unsettling in any way; he was just a nice guy who took time out of his day to help out complete strangers that he thought needed it. Even after realising we had someone working on it already and probably weren’t quite what he had assumed, he insisted on jumping in to help and crouched down next to the wheel.

No-one else driving along that road stopped. (To be fair, they may have seen his car there and assumed we had enough help.)

I’m grateful for his appearance, even though we would have been okay on our own. It got me thinking about assumptions and how we react in these cases. I thought about whether I would stop if I saw the same thing (I’d like to think so, but it hasn’t come up yet). Mostly, I thought about how people might react to someone of his appearance approaching them in a time of need.

I was simply grateful to him, then and now. I was so touched by the fact that he stopped to help us that I didn’t have time to be anything but thankful and a bit embarrassed towards him.

But there was a part of my brain that wondered if he always got that reaction. I can imagine that people would judge him unfairly because of the way he looks: some might be guarded with him, or outright refuse his aid, or assume he had stopped for some other, less sympathetic purpose. I can imagine that stereotypes would get in the way, whether related to race or class or ink.

I came away from that stop by the side of the road with a good memory of something that was otherwise a pain in my ass (and was worse when I got the bill for fixing the tyre). I felt a little bit better about myself, because I try to take people as I find them and give them a fair go, despite all the scare-mongering that goes on in the public consciousness these days. I want to be the person that smiles and is pleasant, regardless, and I’m glad that I lived up to it that day. And I had some of my faith in humanity justified by this person who stopped to lend us a hand.

So, thank you, mystery man. Thank you for taking time out of your day to help us out. Thank you for being unexpected and awesome. I’m sorry that I didn’t get your name.

In a world that is suffering under the weight of people judging each other harshly, when the media is full of the bullshit caused by people turning stereotypes into reasons for hate, thank you for reminding me that we can be free of that if we choose. We can just be people going about our business, reaching out and interacting with each other without that crap in the way, and we can brighten each other’s day in the process.

I hope you have some idea of the difference you made to us, beyond changing a tyre and helping us make our movie.

Thank you.

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The problem of representation

As an artist, representation is a problematic minefield.

Not all artists care about diversity and representation. I’m going to say up front that that’s fine: it’s completely up to the artist what elements they put into their work and what issues they want to tackle.

However, ignoring issues like representation and diversity opens an artist up to criticism. But trying to tackle them has the same effect.

To be clear: I think that representation and diversity is a problem in mainstream media. Western media is heavily biased towards straight white males. Women are not proportionally represented, people of differing races are not well represented, the presentation of religions is skewed, people of differing abilities aren’t well represented, and the LGBT+ groups struggle to be seen as well. You don’t even have to be a minority to be poorly represented in fictional media.

(For the purposes of this post, I’ll be talking about media in terms of fiction – TV shows, movies, books, etc – rather than journalism and news reporting, which is also very problematic but less about art.)

There is increasing pressure from all kinds of different groups to improve diversity in our media. There are calls for more lead characters that are female, or POCs, or not-straight, or not-cis, or non-binary, or not-Christian. And rightly so! Some mainstream media outlets are listening and responding. Some indie outlets have always been doing it.

At the same time, there’s a lot of criticism and resistance to who is writing and representing these characters (lead or otherwise).

‘Appropriation’ is the word that I keep seeing crop up in these arguments (and such sentiments usually devolve into arguments, though I personally try to stay out of it). A particular group is represented but not quite right or not by someone ‘authorised’ to do it, and so it’s vilified by the group that is being represented.

Cultural appropriation is something that I’ve seen crop up a lot in articles and posts over the last couple of years. (It has most likely been around a lot longer; that’s just when I started to notice the volume of it.) Those outside of the cultural group in question are not allowed to play with their toys, not welcome to join in. Just recently, a free yoga class was banned from an American university because someone complained about it being cultural appropriation. (Honestly, I can see what these objectors are saying, but I think it’s all gone a little far.)

Then, when it comes to fiction, there are those minorities who don’t believe that anyone outside of their group can properly write their situation. I’ve been personally told that I couldn’t possibly understand a particular person’s situation or journey because I haven’t walked it myself (this particular instance was in relation to trans issues, but it’s not the only time I’ve heard that sentiment and not the only group I’ve heard voice it).

This is particularly rankling for me. In one instance, we’ve got a group of people crying out for more understanding, acknowledgement, and inclusion, and in the next breath, they’re pushing people away because we couldn’t possibly understand and are not part of their group. You can’t ask for inclusion with one hand and demand exclusivity with the other. You can’t ask for understanding and then tell people it’s impossible for them to gain it. And stating that your personal experience is so special that no-one outside it could possibly understand is the height of arrogance, to me.

Most human being are empathic creatures. A lot of us make an effort to understand other people, and are even interested in the things that make us different. Artists, in particular, are very involved in this. Writers make their stories out of getting into other people’s heads, in understanding what makes a particular type of person tick, in understanding how their past has built them up to the point in their lives that we are writing about. These people are not all us. If we could only write the journeys we have personally walked, then I would not be able to write male characters, or gay characters, or black characters, or those of different creeds to me. I’ve done all of these things, and writers all over the world do it all the time.

Doing it well requires research and a whole heap of understanding. But it seems that even if people do their research and try to include diverse characters, they are criticised by various groups because they’re not ‘authorised’ to do it.

Or they’re criticised because they’ve included group X, but not group Y, and haven’t been inclusive enough. Sure, it’s nice that the lead character is a female, but is she a blind black transgender lesbian? Then you probably haven’t been representative enough and at least one group will complain. (This is reflective of some of the discussions I’ve seen about popular fiction (mostly movies and TV) on equalist websites.)

I get that there’s always going to be someone who is not going to be represented, and that’s not fair. It sucks to be left out. On the other hand, it’s not always possible to represent everyone; particularly, it’s hard to do that without gymnastics worthy of the olympics, and usually winds up with such a caricature that it fails to represent anyone.

Also, fiction shouldn’t be a checklist of ‘have I included every permutation of human experience’. That’s seldom good for the story. There are times it can work and times it doesn’t. But there are people who seem to think that every story should, and those that don’t, have failed in some fundamental way.

Again, I feel the need to point out: I don’t think that those who feel excluded should ‘shut up’, or ‘be happy with what they get’, or pat creators on the head for ticking some of the representation boxes. I don’t think this is an easy problem to solve. But demanding (or whining, as so often happens) that your particular group should be included and whatever doesn’t manage it is shit? That’s unfair, too.

So is the fact that whatever an artist does, it’s wrong. Ignore representation, and you’re vilified. Try to include it, and you’re criticised, because you’re not inclusive enough or because you don’t have the right to write that particular group. Do it badly, and wow, watch out, because how dare you. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is!

I strive to do my characters justice and present them fairly, whatever aspects may make up their history and personality. I try to mix up the elements of those characters, because I believe that a diverse cast is fairer and more interesting. I try to break down the barriers and include as many different kinds of people as I reasonably can. I’ve studied psychology and I do research when I delve into an area I’m less personally familiar with.

At the same time, I don’t write about the issues of any particular group. I’m not writing about a trans journey, or gay rights, or racial issues, or religious controversy. These might be elements that influence a story (because they might be part of a character’s journey), but that’s not what my work is about on the macro level.

Instead, one of the things I try to do is normalise diversity. To have gay and bi and racially different characters alongside each other and for it not to be the focus of events or discussions. To have them working together or butting heads for reasons other than those aspects of who they are. This is more reflective of how I would like the world to end up, not how it is right now. I’m more interested in exploring people with these as facets of who they are, not as the major thing they are.

In many ways, writing scifi frees me from some of the real-world restrictions and gives me the scope to normalise some of the diversity. Starwalker, in particular, gives me a lot of room for this. I still try to do the various elements justice, and it has allowed me to venture into some new areas. (For example, I find writing cultures I’m less familiar with challenging, because I don’t want to be accidentally insensitive, but I’m actively trying to stretch into some of these areas in Starwalker.)

In The Apocalypse Blog, I had a great opportunity to throw lots of different people together and took advantage of that. At the same time, I was writing a story set in a contemporary Western city, so I wasn’t as free to be as broad as I am in Starwalker. I was able to mix in gay and bi characters (some as main characters), though, and that made for a better story without taking it over, I think.

So I guess you’re probably wondering: what’s the point of all this? I think my point is mostly: if you want the stories in the media to be more diverse, support will get you much further than vilification and hatred. I’m not alone in trying to present diverse worlds, and while I’ve never been personally attacked about it, I’ve seen it happen to so many that it makes me sad.

For many creators, there’s no way to get it ‘right’ for everyone. We need to find a way for people to accept that a work of fiction doesn’t have to be perfect, or represent every group, or acknowledge every type of struggle in human experience, because that’s impossible.

Don’t ask the impossible. Find a way to make the possible great.

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Exciting calendar stuff

In an attempt to organise myself and make it easier for everyone to know when events are being held, I’ve added all of next year’s writing events to a handy calendar. This is the same calendar that we (Brisbane’s MLs*) use to schedule the NaNoWriMo events, and shows up on the Brisbane NaNoWriMo forum.

Having one calendar to coordinate all this stuff makes my life easier. So, it is now embedded into this website on the handy events page.

I’ve also added in some of the writing festivals that are happening next year. This helps me to arrange things so they don’t clash, which helps local writers be able to attend as much as possible.

So far, the list of writers festivals in/near Brisbane includes the Rock & Roll Writers Festival and Contact 2016. Geeky cons have been added as well because a lot of our writers attend those, and they can be really good for books. I’ll add in the Brisbane Writers Festival as soon as dates are announced (I couldn’t find the 2016 dates up anywhere yet).

Does anyone know of any other writing-related festivals in or near Brisbane (Australia)? Let me know in the comments!

* MLs = Municipal Liaisons; those who organise local events for NaNoWriMo, encourage others on the forum, and act as resource and moderator when required.

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