Why Money Matters in Fantasy

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One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

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A Self-Portrait

A friend dared me to draw a self-portrait. What he’s getting: ballpoint pen, notepad, five minutes of my time. Self-portrait, my ass. Maybe someday when I have a scanner.

Thought I’d share it here, just for fun. It looks pretty much like me, since I’m a cartoon and also two dimensional. Can I draw? No. But I know enough to draw myself close to the weight I am, thanks very much. Still working on the ‘legs like two white Twinkies’ art style.

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Why It’s Wrong to Motivate Your Villain

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Female Villains and The Impossibilty of Motive

(A note: there are mild Star Wars spoilers contained in this post. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but still care enough about Star Wars to be upset with me: don’t read. Also, quit breathing. Are we supposed to not talk about the damned movie for an entire month while you get your shit together?)

So it was around June or so that I started hearing rumors about the new Star Wars movie–interesting rumors. I was trying to go rumor-free until I saw it, but that proved pretty difficult: if you touched the Internet, the Internet told you something about Star Wars. I’m telling you this to explain how I heard this rumor and then didn’t unhear it shortly after. That’s important, you see, for the story.

Anyway, the rumor I heard, and then cherished, and then never unheard until I set foot in the theatre:

Kylo Ren is going to be a girl.

I felt a warm flush of pride deep in my bloated old-woman craw. What a victory, really, for those of us who grew up wanting the red lightsaber.

That rumor stuck with me for a while. Mostly because, at first, I couldn’t see why I found it so fascinating.

Of course, when I finally saw Star Wars, I was horribly disappointed. We traded the possibility of that for Anakin Lite?

I liked the idea of Kylo Ren a lot better when that masked and looming figure was female. Just because you don’t see it much–a woman villain, power-hungry, under a mask. Not wearing a low-cut lady outfit, not flirting. The sort of villain even boys want to be, because they could be that villain.

The hard truth of it is, it’s tough to find a good female villain. And when you do find one, she usually has one of these motivations:

1) A tragic love affair (in love with the man villain, hero did her wrong, etc.)
2) Revenge (someone wronged her–often sexually–and she goes too far to the other side taking revenge.)
3) A Devastating Trauma (family killed, kids killed, husband killed, etc.)
4) Life Is Just Too Hard As a Woman (so she has to go to the Dark Side to gain ‘freedom’.)

Nothing wrong with these motivations. They’re perfectly decent motivations. It’s just–they all depend on the actions or lives of somebody else. It weakens the perception of a villain, to start with this sort of backstory. And it doesn’t half explain away the evil.

The had truth of it is, as much as you see the advice ‘give your villain motivation’ spattered about online, you can over-motivate a villain. We tend to do this with women especially, since you don’t usually see a girl when you picture a power-mad despot taking over a small South American country. What could lead to that? What made her go from painting her nails with those cute Bonne Bell tiny nail polishes and dreaming about prom to military dictatorship?

It’s tough for us to grasp that a woman could be doing both (or not be into painting her nails in the first place, even weirder). So we overcompensate–we make out Evil Empress a great haughty beauty, we put her in a slinky dress, we make her a good person deep down, no really. (Don’t worry, I’m guilty of this too. It’s a hard taboo to break).

The thing is. Any villain, male or female, has one motivation for being a villain: being a shitty human being.

You might start down the path to the Dark Side because you’re frightened, or lonely, or angry. And there should be a starting point, and you should know what it is. But that’s not what takes you all the way. The one thing that makes you truly evil is being truly evil. Whether you’re a woman or a man, girl or boy, you don’t reach the point where you’re killing every elf in the city because your ex was an elf. You reach that point because you’re a despicable, genocidal person. You do other things that aren’t nice, too: obviously, you’re racist, but you probably also don’t tip. You probably have an inflated sense of your own importance (after all, you’re human, so you’ve got to be pretty decent, right?) and you’ve probably never held the door for one of those awful elves in your life. Actually, you probably make a stink when they walk down the same side of the street as you do. You won’t eat something if elf hands have touched it. When your sister moved into a house near the Elf Quarter, you probably said, horrified: but elves might have lived there. You probably made her move, because you’re also a domineering and forceful person. Or: you burned her house down and made it look like an accident. It’s okay, it’s better for her in the end anyway.

It’s hard, I think, for us to see women in this light. I don’t know why we like to see women as better people in stories (or, at worst, as ineffectual bitches), but we do. Maybe it’s the residual effects of Coventry Patmore and all the rest of those Victorian moralizers, but it’s not a good thing. Women can be shitty people too. We know that from our personal lives–we just have trouble carrying it over into fiction without stereotyping.

And a good villain is a shitty person. That’s what makes him or her a villain in the first place. There might be a tragic story (loss of a loved one, etc) that acts as impetus for the villain’s transformation, but this is not motive. A villain’s motives are hard for a good person to understand, and you want them to be.

Because this is your villain. This isn’t Barney the Purple Dinosaur, it isn’t that chick from your book club, and it isn’t your sister. This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Pol Pot. This is an awful goddamned human being. This is someone you want your audience to loathe.

And we don’t understand the people we loathe. When we do–and maybe this in and of itself is a part of your story–when we do, they cease to become villains.

Hitler had to take a dump every once in a while. He was vegetarian. He had a girlfriend, whom he probably loved. He probably had bad hair days, trouble tying his tie right, socks with holes in them, all the things that make us human. Maybe he loved skiing, dogs, relaxing evenings at home reading a book.

We all have these things.

But Hitler was also a genocidal maniac. We can understand why he did the things he did, inasmuch as we can see the logical train from reason to result. But we can’t understand why why. We’re decent people, so there is no great burning truth to us for Hitler’s motivations. It simply doesn’t exist, and the fact that it doesn’t should be immensely reassuring.

Long story short: let women be shitty, too. Shitty, occasionally, without sex and beauty (because sex and beauty don’t make someone shitty, nor do they cover up an innately shitty soul). Remember that your villain is a villain, and make them, regardless of sex, act like villains. A power-mad despot doesn’t have a lot of time for longing after old loves. It’s hard to take over the world when part of your brain is always focused on your dead children. Just let her be shitty. For women everywhere: let her.

A Note: For an excellent example of a villain who is ‘humanized’ without ever once becoming less of a villain, check out John Fowles’s The Collector. This book is one of the great exercises in point-of-view, rotating as it does between the collector and his collected. Read it all the way through, and then read Part I again. Trust me.

Twitter for Nonvultures

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Twitter for Nonvultures

I took a Twitter break recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about Twitter. So, a Twitter post.

I’m not one of those people who thinks Twitter is absolutely integral to your success as an indie writer. I think there are loads of ways to be successful as an indie writer, and I can see how Twitter might be one of them, but, well.

What Twitter’s really good for, at least for me, is promoting my blog. A lot of my views come from Twitter, and it’s not a wild coincidence. The Twitter gods haven’t smiled on me, and I haven’t sacrificed my soul for followers (I don’t even know how many I have, off the top of my head. It’s somewhere around 1400. Not a ton. If you’re visiting this blog from Twitter, by the way: heeeeey. This is, like, totally ironic.).

Twitter’s best, in my humble opinion, for promoting things that are serial in nature–a blog, or a Wattpad story published in parts, a weekly paper, etc. That way, you’re giving folks new content every time you link: or, well, you have the chance to vary up your content a little, at least. Most folks who are active Twitter users do, after all, have large lists of followers, and a link travels down their Twitter feed pretty quickly, likely to never be checked again.

Yes, you can promote your book on Twitter. You probably should throw a link to it in there, every once in a while. But if you do the same thing every time you tweet, you sound like a broken bird call, and that’s positively fucking annoying. People will mute you. They’ll unfollow you. And good luck selling your book to an audience that can’t even see you advertising.

So, for new tweeps, here’s my Twitter plan of attack for writers:

1) Make your profile. Put ‘writer’ somewhere in your bio: you are, after all, networking. Be brief. Be funny, Stand out.

2) Immediately–immediately, you hear?–start using Twitter Lists. Make a list for Advertising, a list for Writers, a list for Spammy Writers, and a list for Friends/Family. Basically, make whatever lists make you feel organized and perky, but please please please at least make a list for writers who actually do things other than post spammy book links. As you get followers, check out their feeds and add them to their appropriate categories. It might not seem so important now, but take it from someone who didn’t do this: a thousand followers down the line, your feed will be innundated with shittily photoshopped pictures of half naked women and aliens and other automated bullshit, and you will have no easy way of finding your actual Tweety friends on a list that moves at five to ten tweets per minute. Just because someone’s profile has ‘writer’ in it doesn’t mean you want to see every tweet this person fires off. Some writers spam. Y’hear? Some writers. Spam.

3) Use your hashtags, Junior. Big ones for writers include #amwriting, #writetip, #amreading, #amediting, #1lineWed, #FlashFictionFriday, and genre tags (#fantasy, #romance, etc.). You might want to get into #NaNoWriMo, come November, or peddle your blog on #Mondayblogs. Perhaps you’d like to vent? #writerslife and #writerproblems are there for you. There are better lists of popular hashtags elsewhere (like here: Erica Verrillo went to a lot of trouble to organize this fantastic list.,) but one thing to remember is: hashtags don’t always stay popular. Remember to check your actual hashtag feeds every once in a while (cue: don’t just toss your tweets out into the ether) to see whether or not they’re moving quickly (and, of course, to interact with others, which you were smart enough to know to do already, right.).

Why You Should Care About Hashtags:

Posting under certain hashtags gives folks with larger accounts (your new tweeps) the chance to find your post, check it out, love it, and retweet it. Retweets help you reach a whole new audience, and are the sweet, sweet, Reddi-whip nippled treats of the gods. For best results, I recommend combining a general and larger hashtag (such as #amwriting) with a more specific second (#writetip, genre tag, #indiepub. Etc.).

But don’t make the classic mistake of making a #tweet that is #almost #entirely #hashtags. It looks like an automated bill-pay service just had its way with your tweet. Seriously. 

4) Take your serialized content (your blog, your webcomic, whatever it is), and go to the settings. Make sure every damn post you make auto-posts to Twitter. Want to get more personal? Fine. Make a second tweet later with all your pretty hashtags and a catchy text line. Two tweets isn’t spamming. But keep that first one, because that way, if all else fails, you’ve posted it on Twitter.

5) Remember those hashtags we were talking about? Check them out. Follow people who post to them. Talk to people. Favorite and retweet things you feel your followers would like to see. Retweets, after all, aren’t for you–they’re for the folks who look at your feed. Your follower base will grow.

6) You might want to check out HootSuite, or another similar scheduled social media service. You might not need it all the time–hell, I don’t use it much–but if you’ve got a lot of stuff to post and, say, an actual job, it might help you get things out when you want them out, and not just when you have the time. No, I’m not using it right now. Why? Because I’m an idiot. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t be like me.

A note: I’m not trying to teach you how to have a million bajillion followers here. There are plenty of people far more qualified than I to post about that. These are simple, efficient things to get you started using Twitter–ways to get the most out of it without spending your whole goddamn life stewing in it. Twitter can be a great marketing tool, but it can also be a soulless, heavily-abbreviated time suck.

Trick is, it’s up to you which one you want it to be.

A (succinct) guide to Getting Followers on Twitter, Which Is All Anyone Really Seems to Care About Anyway, Because Engagement Totally Doesn’t Matter, Right?:

1) Post witty things related to your intended network.
2) Use popular writing hashtags. Check out what other people are saying under those hashtags. Friend people who also post witty things in your intended network.
3) Post more witty things. Retweet other people’s witty things.
4) Legasp! It’s undifficult!

Have a nice Saturday, kids. Go pick up a drink and stay the hell away from the internet.

Writing Through the Lens of My Hair

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Writing Style

I have never had a bad hair cut.

You’re looking at the screen right now. You just reread that first sentence. You’re wondering what on Earth my lack of bad hair cuts could have to do with writing, or character building, or really anything you read this blog for.

Bear with me, Salisbury. For now.

I’ve had my hair, oh, lots of different ways over the years. First time I cut it short I was nine or ten, and it was short, short as a boy’s. I’ve varied it between long and short ever since. I’ve had bobs. I’ve had bangs. I’ve had boy cuts and stubble. I’ve had weird asymmetrical things. I’ve had mohawks. I’ve had pigtails.

I’ve been called a dyke for my hair. When it’s been long, I’ve been called boring and traditional (‘don’t you ever do anything interesting with it?’ whined a friend who, obviously, hadn’t known me for very long). I have, in spite of being an adult woman with large breasts, gotten sirred by waiters. I once, in my spiky bright pink days, had a psychiatrist ask me, almost as soon as I walked into his office: ‘so. Do you always wear your hair like that?’.

You’re probably making a face right now. And, yes, you’re thinking: well, obviously, there has been a bad hair cut or two in there, Emily.

Here’s the thing, though.

Not to me.

I’ve enjoyed every hair cut I ever had. Even the shitty ones. (Except that one time I tried to bleach my hair after dying it black and fried it. This is simply because I couldn’t get a brush through it. Also, I looked like a purple-haired troll doll.) I like being different. I even like, to some extent, other human beings wondering what the fuck I was thinking. Pshaw! That’s for me to know, buddy. That’s for me to know.

I suppose I wanted (except in the psychiatrist’s case, because, well, no one wants to get tranquilized for a hairstyle choice) to never let other people’s opinions and social constructions rule me. I rather enjoyed being a nonconformist, and the brutal honesty in that is that, yes, of course I cared what other people were thinking. I just wanted something from them other than approval.

I spent over twenty years dressing myself in ways I thought were cool. They were not, needless to say, ways other people thought were cool, heavens no. A floor length silk skirt and a tshirt is, apparently, something people have trouble getting behind as a fashion statement. No one likes leopard print with zebra print except me. That picture in the grocery store of me wearing a crown of flowers and holding aloft a hamsteak probably wasn’t avant garde to everyone else in the supermarket.

I looked in my wardrobe recently: black tees, black sweaters, grey sweaters, black tees. Jeans. Sneakers. Slip-ons. I looked in the mirror at my unremarkable hair.

What changed?

Did I change?

Or did I finally, after a decade, cotton on to the fact that the world is watching me?

Writing is an odd thing. It’s something, professionally, that you do for public consumption: your piece will get criticized, misinterpreted, misquoted, maligned. People–the vast majority of them–won’t ‘get you’. Even the few who really liked it won’t ‘get you’.

But at the same time, to write effectively, you’ve got to do it as though it would never see the light of day. You’ve got to write like Emily Dickinson–as though your poems would be found years after your death in a musty box somewhere, mouldering patiently. Honesty is a thing that can never be manufactured, and it’s necessary for art of any kind. I won’t waste my time telling you why: you either understand that or you’ll never write well.

My point here is: writing is a tough tight rope to walk. You’ve got to like it–I mean, really. You’ve got to. If you don’t, no one else will. But how much? Can you bear seeing your masterwork pulped and pooped out by people who just don’t understand you, whine whine whine?

So. What do you do? Do you bare your soul’s cheetah and lime green interior to the world? Or do you opt out, for the inscrutable black sweaters of concealment?

Or perhaps there’s some in-between here. Because, after all, it’s still you wrapped up in that black sweater–and you can’t have changed too much. Maybe you’re repping that literary black hoodie now because it’s comfortable and it’s finally stretched to fit over your boobs. Maybe there’s a part of you that’s not being dishonest so much as it’s being adult: perhaps it’s recognized, finally, that there are things far deeper and more subtle than clashing patterns to make people uneasy over, and that those things are, by far, the more important ones to pay attention to.

Long story short: write what’s on the inside, yes. But if what’s on the inside is crazy as hell, be ready for people not to like you. You’re not a maligned genius. You’re not a Beat poet with a bottle of wine and a handwritten diary of eastern wisdom. You’re not Oscar Wilde, breathing your last disconsolate de profundis in stifling luxury. You’re just an untried, possibly unpublished, writer with the same dream as millions of scribblers the world over: to write a book that everyone has read. You might have it in you, you might not. All you can do is write it, possibly promote it, and let the public decide. A lot of people want to be writers. I mean, a lot.

It isn’t you, you see, who decides whether or not you’re a genius. It never has been. That’s up to other people, and, curious though you might be, it’s better for your writing if you don’t concern yourself too much with it. Just wear what you feel like wearing, at the end of the day. Write what you feel like writing.

People have advice for you all day: write something the public will like. Write what you think a publishing house will pick up. Write what’s in your heart. Try to find a balance. Fuck everybody, write the damndest thing you can think of.
 
My advice is, simply: fuck all of them. Do exactly what makes you most comfortable. Individuality, shameless conformity: it doesn’t matter. Write in a way that makes you feel comfortable, and let society sort out whether or not you’re conforming.

In short: stop being a writer and write.

Love,
E