Sunday, June 30, 2019

Just Like Magic: Why You Must Avoid the Magical Cure Trope

Whether it’s the misuse, the lack, or the excess of it, magic usually holds sway over our fantasy worlds. If you’re more a sci-fi person, you know that technology takes the place of magic here. With this, however, comes a problematic road: everything is an easy fix.
Many fantasy authors argue that magic must have a cost. While I don’t necessarily agree, I do think the relationship between magic and people must be carefully constructed. It needs laws, or limits, whether those are because the wielder must draw their own blood to cast a spell, or because they did not survive the Water of Life, like in Dune. 
Magic healing, for example, becomes even more complex when characters have disabilities--even ones caused by magic itself.
I don’t disagree at all with portraying magic that causes a character to become disabled, depending on the context. But battling through an entire book by a character's side should never be cheapened by a magical cure. 
Often the cure is rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind or their limb is restored, or the voices of anxiety and depression stop their incessant yammering.
But that’s not how things work.  At the end of the day, magic is as real a cure as a parent’s kiss on a scraped knees. It paints a dark picture that if we’re not Good, if we’re in fact Bad, or Fearful, or Confident, then we will remain or become disabled. Follow that thought through to the next step:
Disabled people are Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would have been cured by now.
That’s not very inspiring or helpful to anyone, now is it? Plus, it’s way more interesting to read and write a book where the easy route isn’t an option. Sure, fantasy and science fiction are supposed to push the boundaries of our understanding of society, but I’ve always felt they also serve as examples of how people can live and what they face, regardless of the source. 
Another issue with the magical cure trope is it perpetuates the idea that all disabled people want a cure. Many, do. But often, like in the case of Autism Speaks, seeking a cure is actually driven by abled people’s need to be free of the “effort” of accommodating disabled people. What’s so wonderful about fantasy and science fiction, though, is you can build entirely different reasons why your character doesn’t feel they need or want a cure. Cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility. Example: they don’t need to be magically able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid.
I’m in pain most days. Obviously, I wish I wasn’t, but I can’t change it. What I can change is how I navigate the world and how others interact with me in regards to my disability. Perhaps your character doesn’t want to be able to hear, they just want to communicate and connect with people more easily. Besides, if you’re going for wow factor: changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one pesky human body!
All this to say: magical wounds and madness are fantastic ways to explore disability and metaphor in alternate realities. Just be sure you’re exploring all the nuances of life as a disabled person, and giving us real rewards to aim for. You’ll find our wants are like most people’s: peace, friendship, and food!
Are you near Denver, CO? I’m teaching a workshop at the Siren’s Conference this October titled Navigating New Waters: Understanding the Nuances of Creating Disabled and Mentally Ill Characters. Let me know if you’re in the area!

Tune in on the fourth Sunday of every month for more on disability in fantasy and sci-fi. Learn more.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Bowl of Peanuts: What to Write About

My dad just told me a story in which he, returned from a late-night gig, wanted to wind down with a snack before bed. He took a bowl of peanuts and a glass of wine to the recliner and started to watch TV, only to wake four hours later, the bowl of peanuts on his chest, the TV blaring. 

I laugh at this, because my dad loves portraying himself as a silly old coot and telling me the goofy things he forgets. My favorite was the story about thinking a guy forgot his bag on the bus and readying himself to leap off the bus and heroically restore it to its rightful owner, only to see it claimed by... a totally different guy. 

When my dad tells my these stories, I can see him playing out the action in my mind. I can summon a vision of him in his fluffy maroon bathrobe, an updated version of the original "Big Red" I was comforted by as a kid. His slippered feet are kicked up in the recliner, and a dumb old cowboy movie is playing on the TV. I can see him drifting to sleep while the bowl of peanuts is perched precariously in that little divet between his chest and belly, which he jokingly calls a built-in cupholder. I can craft the time passing in my head, shape it into a story where something changes when he wakes up, drawing a picture of his character as he realizes his folly and immediately begins to laugh at himself. 

I used to think that to write creative nonfiction or memoir, I had to tell my whole story each time. Or that I would have to deliver pieces of my childhood trauma or the problems of my family. I do write about those things, but usually for myself, not to be shared. Often, the things I write bear some truth of my life or reveal something about who I am. But no one thing I write is going to perfectly represent my entire identity. Throwing out that pressure has been helpful- it has freed me from the unfair expectation that everything I write must be significant in a grave way. 

But I still need things to write about. Especially if I am writing every day (which I actually live up to for about a month at a time). I draw from memory, things I notice about people, things I see on walks through my neighborhood. Things happen - ordinary things - and if I can draw a conclusion or make a connection to something else, this might be fruit for writing. 

One of the people who encouraged me to do this was Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, which remains one of my favorite books about writing. She emphasizes that in order to be a writer, you have to write. What should you write about? Anything you can write about. One of the exercises she suggests is: tell me everything you know about school lunches. So I'll try that now, in my notebook, and share whatever comes out as (Lamott's term) a "shitty first draft." 

I never bought school lunch in elementary school. Our school didn't have it except one Friday a month when there was HOT LUNCH, which was to delineate freshly prepared food rather than bags that had been sitting in lockers all day, but which to me always seemed literally piping HOT! LUNCH! 
Usually it was pizza. 
So we were all brown bag kids on all the other days, but when your parents forgot to pay for HOT! LUNCH! you were especially noticeable on that day. That was me. I was also especially noticeable for the amount of mustard I put on things. The Catholics were suspicious of mustard; it had too much flavor to be virgin-Mary approved. I was dark German (baked potatoes and brown mustard among my favorite foods) and they were almost all Irish with a few Italians thrown in for excitement. I don't know why this was so significant but at some point it dawned on me that this might be the reason I was so very different from all of them.  
You were also especially noticeable if your Dad made your lunch instead of your Mom. I thought at the time I was the only one in this situation, but now I think I should have looked for the signs. It was immediately detectable from the handwriting on the brown bag, which also told if you were an only child (no name written). Most kids with siblings had full names written out in Mom handwriting. I had my first initial in black sharpie. And if I'd had a particularly bad day with the Catholics the day before, a funky angular heart went with it. <3 Moms also write cute little notes on napkins. Dads did not. No Dad would cut crust off of bread, but Moms did it all the time.  
But I never would have stopped dumping three or four packets of deli mustard on my ham and cheese when HOT! LUNCH! was sandwiches. And I never asked my dad to write out my full name or put a note on my napkin. I liked that he knew what kind of sandwich I wanted and wrote N to show me my lunch was distinguishable from my sisters. I loved that he absorbed the habit of initials in black sharpie and signed everything from then on: <3, D. 

See? You can write about anything. I know, I know. Now it seems I've taken this problem and whipped it around to the opposite side. If I don't have to write about everything that's ever happened to me, but I also can write about anything at all that ever happens, what the heck do I write about? 

I face this problem every time I write, it seems, which right now (thankfully) is every day. What's interesting to me varies, so I might write about how there is so much pollen around Providence right now, which would probably lead me to compare it to the pollen in Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the most aggressive Spring ever. Sometimes I write about a topic just long enough to know I don't want to write about it. This just happened for me with an essay about yoga and learning. I might write about my houseplants, or a little kid's funny comment on the street, or about ice cream shops or block parties. 

If you've read this whole post, you probably think I need to write about my Dad. Maybe. I certainly want him to know how important he is to me (if you're reading this, Dad, ahoy!). But right now I'm more interested in investigating news stories about how trees around the White House are dying (I know of at least two). The thing is, once you open your eyes and start noticing, like writers do, there is no end to the things you can write about.

Your assignments this week are all inspired by Anne Lamott. (You really should read her book).  

1. Write about your school lunches. 

2. Choose a topic to examine through a 1-inch picture frame. How can you describe that moment, that memory, that sight? 

3. Practice remembering. Choose a holiday or birthday party from when you were a kid and write everything you can see, smell, and hear. 

A final word of advice: sometimes (maybe most of the time!) the value is in doing the writing, not in what comes out. Translating my memories and the view from my little frame of reference into words gives me hope that I'll keep finding things to write about for the rest of my life.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review of A Drop of Rain, My journey to Post-Traumatic Growth by Heather Smith Callahan

On a rainy April evening in 1993, a serial killer responding to an ad for Heather Callahan’s used car, attacked her on the street in front of her Denver home and left her for dead. Heather didn’t die. She refused to, thinking, as her blood pooled in the rain-soaked street: This is wrong. I am not going to die, not now, not this way. 

Heather not only survived in the aftermath of this terrible attack, she thrived, her indomitable spirit a testament to her physical, emotional, and psychological recovery. She came to understand this unexpected and powerful blossoming as Post-Traumatic Growth. 

A Drop of Rain, her extraordinaire memoir, demonstrates in no uncertain terms that life doesn’t stop when you become a victim. Indeed, she is living proof that the most horrific traumas we face may also, in the long run, be the most significant turning points in our lives.

Amazon   Goodreads 

*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*

When I pick books out it can sometimes take a while, as I try to "feel" the book and sense if it is the right book for me to read at this time. Doing review requests on this blog I just read down the list, often missing this connection with a book. This time though, with this book, the timing was perfect. 

Heather's story of living and growing through a traumatic experience mirrored what I myself have gone through. No, I wasn't stabbed five times and left for dead, but I, along with everyone else at some point, have experienced trauma. 

When something life-shattering/life-changing happens to you, your whole world is shaken. Heather is able to express this process of rebuilding and all the work and questions that go into it in a beautiful and relatable way. 

If you have experienced trauma of any kind before, you will find this book encouraging as you grow through your own experience. I would also say to those that haven't experienced trauma in their life (yet, sadly) that this book still has something to offer to you. Hearing others stories increases our empathy and understanding of the people around us every day. 

Thank you, Heather, for sharing your story and letting your readers see an inside look into healing and growing from a trauma. Your story has helped me as I am recovering from a life-changing surgery and starting a new phase in life. 

Heather is a storyteller and surviving a serial killer attack is a big story to tell.  What happened? How did she survive? What helped her get through it?  Sharing her story started as a means of healing. It began with classroom presentations and keynotes for fundraisers. Then there were media interviews of all kinds and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Soon she found that sharing her story enabled Heather to give back and help others.  

Heather used her storytelling skills to build a successful career in IT, data storage management, and security.  Her success was due in great measure to her tenacity, her refusal to give in to fear, and her ability to fuse compassion into long-standing and trustful partnerships.   

Along the way, she discovered that Post-Traumatic Growth had, unbeknownst to her, become a significant part of her life. The trauma of her attack was fueling her recovery and propelling her to new heights of discovery.  

Heather made a promise to herself. She would tell her entire story, and she would do so by writing a book that chronicled her attack and the amazing growth and change she has experienced post-trauma. The healing and growth, she has been surprised to discover, have continued to evolve. This evolution includes the active Colorado lifestyle she enjoys with her husband and three energetic boys.  


Monday, June 10, 2019

It All Starts with a Murder

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, when you’re writing a mystery, you must have a strategy. Unlike other genres, with a mystery, if you don’t begin with a general idea of what’s going to happen, you’re going to paint yourself into at least one corner, if not more.

Because of my years of experience as a technical writer, I generally can get away with not creating a detailed outline for my novels. In fact, I’m more creative and write faster without one; however, I’ve always had a plan, not a detailed plan, mind you, but a plan nonetheless.

It’s usually something like this one I made for Devil Take Me Down:

  • It’s Southern Decadence in New Orleans.
  • Q and Ben are happily engaged, she’s still suffering a bit of PSTD from the ending of That Old Devil Sin
  • They find one of Ben’s employees dead.
  • Ben is accused of the crime.
  • Q starts investing with the help of Detective Sanger.
  • They discover X is the killer because of Y clue/motive (no spoilers here).
  • Q confronts X at Z (again no spoilers).

That’s not much to go on and to be honest, the plan for that particular book was a little more detailed than what I’ve listed above (not much more, but a little); it was, however, enough for me to write an entire book. The rest? The scenes, the characters, the music, the vibe? Well, that’s all in my head.

Having written the first five Clementine Toledano Mysteries to completion and the seventh waiting in the wings just needing a couple of edits, when I started writing the sixth Clementine Toledano Mystery, I got cocky. Don’t get me wrong; I had a plan:

  • Q flees New Orleans to Grand Cayman because of the ending of Until the Devil Weeps (no spoilers).
  • She repairs her relationship with her father.
  • She finds her father’s married girlfriend dead.
  • Her father is accused of the crime.
  • Q teams up with a local constable to solve the crime.
  • The woman’s business partner is actually the killer, but her husband is the one the reader should suspect.

The following problems quickly unfolded as I began writing:

  1. I liked Henry Toledano too much to kill his first girlfriend in many years. Also, his girlfriend’s character was cool AF and I was immediately attached to her, which means the reader would be as well, which means I would be in the doghouse for killing her dead.
  2. Henry Toledano would never ever engage in an extra-marital affair; it’s just not in his nature.
  3. I felt like the plot was a rehash of two previous novels and a giant, predictable snoozefest.

And that’s when I got over-confident. I deleted the scenes from my plan and started writing from the hip and the writing was good but, yep, you guessed it, the story was quite literally going nowhere. I had no victim, no killer, and no plan.

When I finally decided who was going to die and how, I had to pick a killer, and that’s where I am…still. I still don’t have a killer, which means I have no motive, which means I have no mystery.

And so, I write this Mystery Monday post humbled by my recent discovery that I fell into the most deadly of writers’ traps; the one that simply says ‘I got this.’

Don’t get me wrong, it takes a healthy dose of confidence, chutzpah, ego, and inner-strength to sit down in front of a blank page and begin to create an entire universe into being. But like anything, you can’t get ahead of yourself. There are still processes that need to be followed and in a mystery, that means you have to know at the very least the following four things before you begin to write a single word:

  • The victim
  • The crime
  • The killer
  • The motive

Once you’ve committed to those, you can write by the seat of your pants to your heart’s content (sorry, planners) or sit down and write the most detailed outline that was ever written (sorry, pantsers). But without those bits of information, you don’t have a mystery. You might have a kickass story, amazing characters, and the best version of “it was a dark and stormy night” first paragraph you’ve ever read. But you don’t have a mystery.

Having learned from my mistake, I am now doing the painstaking work of going back to the beginning of my story with a plan. It’s not a great place to be with 50,000 words done and a completion deadline that’s three months in the rearview mirror. I should be speeding along solving a crime and scheming up an exciting ending. Unfortunately, without a killer or a motive, nothing is going to be exciting unless I do the work to make it happen.

In Louisiana cooking, there’s an adage that goes something like: oil, flour, onions, green peppers, and celery…what’s for dinner?

The reason is that almost without exception, every single savory Cajun or Creole culinary delight includes those five ingredients. And in many ways, writing is just like cooking, especially series writing. You find a recipe that works and you can make variations on that recipe until you have a complete menu. But you can’t skip the basics. Creole cooking may all start with a roux, but a mystery? Well, that starts with a murder.