The Most Powerful Piece on the Board

queenmmoves

They never talk about strong-willed male characters. It never needs to be spelled out. I’m neither an actor nor a casting director, but I would bet the farm that there has never been a call out for male actors to play a king or a superhero, a pirate or an astronaut or an apocalyptic warrior where the notes supplied say, “this is a strong-willed, strong-minded character, independent, able to stand on his own two feet, who doesn’t need to define himself through his significant other. Or his boobs.”

Yeah, okay, I sorta added that last part myself.

When did writers forget how to write women? I taught Advanced English Literature for ten years. We read about many women. Women who lived in snowy Russia. Women who survived abusive husbands and fathers, fires and tempests. Women who didn’t need saving, but saved others instead. Women who survived death camps. Women who sought life on their own terms.

When did the women in our favorite stories become simply foils for their male partners? Simpering, eyelash batting simpletons who don’t know enough to call the police when they find a boy watching them when they sleep? The mother figure who picks up after her foolish boys? Or the innocent chick the rich playboy convinces that it’s all the rage if he ties her up and slaps her around? Have human beings actually become shallower? Less appreciative of intelligence and strength?

There will always be a place for romance. For thinly plotted tales with the grand story arc of “Oh, I hate him.” “Oh, he’s not so bad.” “Oh, I love him.” Romances have their place. There are expectations going in that the princess will be rescued by the knight, that long gazes and sexual tension will be at the heart of the story, and there’ll be a happily ever after.

Perhaps it was the growth of visual media that made physical appearance more important that character. That created a yearning to watch perfectly formed men and women, and emphasized what we could see rather than what was happening in these characters’ minds. Maybe it was a shift from reading classics – prose and poetry – from learning how to critique and analyze and pull the true depth of meaning from characters and stories that has reduced us all to trying to choose between Magic Mike XXL and Inside Out at the movie theater – a bro movie and a tale about how emotions rule a young girl’s life. And, no, I don’t believe the Magic Mike franchise (I cannot believe I really just typed that) is in any way empowering to women. Turning men into idiots and sex objects in no way makes women stronger, it just makes men weaker. There’s no scale, no immediate gain for women when a man loses character and IQ points.

Fascinating.

My favorite on-screen genre is suspense/action/sci fi/fantasy. What, that isn’t all one genre? Okay, fine then. THOSE are my favorites. And, frankly, I’ve looked long and hard to try to come up with a well written female character among them all. Let’s discuss.

Ellen Ripley is towards the top of my list. She is not perfect, not a superwoman, not even clothed in seduction. She is the epitome of a survivor. Of course, in the second movie they had to create a child for her so that she could be a real woman. Le sigh.

Buffy Summers. Teen angst, yes, plus the pesky romance with the bad boy, but at least Buffy had friends, both male and female. She was sarcastic and eye-rolly and kicked serious ass. And saved the world a lot.

Samantha Carter. Beautiful and brilliant and excellent with a gun. Held her own in the man’s military world and with the brainiacs. I loved the early seasons of SG-1 when the four of them were friends, proving that male/female relations was not as important as the team interaction. And then they went and spoiled it all with a – and I sigh again – romance that could never beeeeeeeee.

Sarah Conner. Grows up fast, and by T2 she is a gun toting, shoot first and ask questions never lady. But also kinda crazy. And, really, this is all about her son.

Princess Leia. Love her in A New Hope, or, as I like to call it, Star Wars Original. Tough and a little mean and a better shooter than any stormtrooper. Damsel in distress my aunt fanny. The Han and Leia, unfortunately, takes over her role as the movies progress. Leia needed her own ship. Her own base of operations. Her own military behind her, not just to be an adjunct for the male characters. And don’t get me started on Padma.

Zoe Washburne. Nicely done, Joss Whedon. Zoe is, perhaps, the best written adult female in sci fi. Yes, she’s married, and she sticks up for her husband. Good. But she is also second in command and a warrior in her own right. This is what a strong female character looks like, people. Because, first of all, she is simply a strong CHARACTER.

Black Widow. First Avengers movie Black Widow. She uses what the Red Room turned her into to fight for the good guys. She’s nasty and tough and gives the bad guys enough rope to hang themselves. She gets herself captured to gain intel and rescues herself, thank you very much. She has deep friendships and shows fear and still does her job. But, as we learn in Avengers AOU, her REALLY TRULY AWFUL regret is not that the Red Room turned her into an assassin, but that she can’t have babies.

There’s a pattern here. In the earliest stages, these women are good characters. They push the plot along. They have skills that are useful. They make it work and give 110%. They stand beside their male counterparts to get the prize or save the day or save the world. BUT, as time goes on, as these characters move forward in a franchise or a series, inevitably their storylines are narrowed down to their lady parts. Love. Children. Harry or Ron. Angel or Spike. Which of the other heroes will get together with her? What happens when her womanly weaknesses make her less useful? When she, again inevitably, falls apart? Because that is the other option. Romance or madness. The Bride. Sarah Conner.

That’s it. Those are the only options. Because that’s all women are. That’s all they care about. Love. Children. Feeeeeeelings.

I haven’t seen Inside Out, but I have seen the previews, so please correct me if I’m wrong. The girl is playing hockey, hustling down the ice, and she sees a defender coming towards her to take her out. Does she rely on skill? On her training? On the discipline she’s learned in practice to dodge or pass? No. She has to rely on her emotions to tell her what to do. In this case, anger. I’m fairly sure that any athlete will tell you that getting angry is not the way to win games, it is a distraction.

We’ve all been distracted. We’ve turned our attention from character and story and focused on the simple. The basic. The most primitive urges of humanity. Sex is something everyone can understand. Teenaged romantic pining, too. Don’t have to think about it. No need to analyze it. If all of a writer’s characters interact on a hormonal level, they don’t have to develop personality, or motivation, inner drives or outer responsibilities. Easy peasy. So easy, a caveman could do it, people.

Dumbed down. Appealing to the adolescent – all emotions and hormones. Today’s writers have never read the classics: Bronté, Dostoevsky, Montgomery, or Melville. They didn’t learn history: Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I. And they certainly never read poetry:

“You misconceive the question like a man,

Who sees a woman as the complement

Of his sex merely. You forget too much

That every creature, female as the male,

Stands single in responsible act and thought

As also in birth and death.”

  Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Single. Responsible. Not the complement of another.

In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. She moves in any direction, for any number of spaces. She protects the King, but moves independently of him. Takes out enemies. Is strategic. No emotions trouble her.

Believe it or not, real women are like that, too.

I hereby call for more Zoe Washburne. More Melinda May. More Hermione Granger. More Emily Prentiss. Jane Eyre. Anne of Green Gables. Jo March. Pippi Longstocking. Give her a role to play. Give her work to do. Give her friends – male and female. Give her victories and failures.

Give her life.

Cue the Spotlight

FNS_9-Bobby-Giada-Alton_s4x3_lg

Do you want to know what it’s like to try to “hook” an agent with a pitch or a query? Watch the very first episode of this current season of Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star.

There are all the hopefuls who believe that they are “sure of who I am and know what I can cook” and they are given 30 seconds to sell the judges on the way that they are PERFECT for this opportunity. They are standing there in a line, and are told they must sell their personality and their concept to these professionals. That’s it. First impressions are the ONLY impressions you are going to get.

Cue spotlight. Every eye is on you. No matter that you’ve cooked a gajillion fantabulous meals (written a book where you created an entirely new world), you can’t win if you don’t get past these gatekeepers.

And…. GO!

Yep, that’s just what a pitch/query is like.

It’s you. On a page. One page. Just a few short paragraphs. And if you don’t hook them, you’re on the reject pile.

It’s HORRIFYING.

Fear-and-Love-Quotes-A-Miracle-is-a-shift-in-perception-from-fear-to-love.-Marianne-Williamson-quotes

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Childhood Revisited.”  … is there anything you wish had been different about your childhood? If you have kids, is there anything you wish were different for them?

Fear. I would choose less fear.

Children are amazingly adaptive. At two or three they’ve already attained a yardstick, a ‘normal’ beside which everything else is measured. Whether they share one room with their family – dirt floor, leaky roof, pallets of straw for beds and, very rarely, a piece of chicken from a bird caught and killed out back – or they are well fed, well-groomed children of plenty, this is their normal. An overwhelmed mother. An absent father. Close, annoying brothers. Smiles. Hugs. Slaps. Vacations. Pain. Dad holding you tight as you learn to ride a bike. Mom all snuggly in her bathrobe. Hunger. Silence. Shouts. Tears. Good schools or the horrifying school of the street. Normal is what a child sees when she looks around.

My normal was fear. The sick feeling in your stomach. The overwhelming need to watch, to listen, to gauge the temperature of the room as your foot steps over the threshold. It wasn’t the fear of hunger, or need, alcoholism or abandonment, but it was fear. And it was as real to me as the green shag carpeting or the tiny B&W television with four channels.

I remember anger. Yelling. Learned all my swear words pretty young. There was some hitting, some hair pulling, some cruelty – but it was usually couched as games, as discipline, as clever tricks, and any pain or hurt or despair on my part was labelled “too sensitive,” or “you should be smarter,” or “toughening you up,” or “haven’t you figured it out yet?”

Do you know what the expectation of harm does? It makes you afraid, yes, but it also makes you into a liar. A manipulator. Someone who can show the right face in the right circumstances in order to avoid harmful results. It makes you into an avoider. A sometimes oily, sometimes deceitful person who is always trying to figure out what particular combination of words, attitude, and actions to deploy to receive affection instead of anger, love instead of loathing, and peace instead of violence. You want to control everything, because, only then, can you be safe.

Fear was my reaction. My brother and sister had their own means of coping – or non-coping, I guess. We love each other, but we weren’t there for each other back then. We didn’t know how to do that. We learned, my sister and I – about the Love that drives away all fear – but that’s a different story.

I wish I could say that my daughter is free from fear. That she grew up with a perfect mom and dad; that I’d learned so much from past generations that her childhood was one for the storybooks. Too bad I don’t seem able to lie to myself quite as easily as I learned to lie to others. But she’s fierce and fabulous, smart and loving, a giver, a loyal friend and unselfish helper.

I suppose, to answer the second part of the prompt, I wish her a life of courage. Of strength. Of peace and joy. I hope she will find a spouse that will love her, comfort her, and show her there is another way to live, just like her father did for me. I want her to be able to let go, laugh long and hard with milk dripping from her nose, wear nerdy t-shirts or formal gowns, stop to help strangers. Trust God. Trust herself.

And I’ll continue to pray daily for my daughter’s safety, because, as far as I’ve come, some fear is still there. Like a child squeezed into a corner of my soul, eyes closed so that I don’t see her, fear sits in the dark. I do see her. I hear her in nightmares, and sometimes, in the words coming from my own mouth. Yeah, I’m a work in progress. Progressing out of darkness and into the light.

From Fear to Love

An Open Letter to the Great Joss Whedon

744349_640x640wcAvast! There be Spoilers Here! And possibly some very unpopular opinions about a current box office mega-hit! Very, very unpopular. You’ve been warned!

Dear Joss,

 

I’m such a big fan! My daughter and I grew to love your writing while watching Buffy and Angel together. Such funny, smart stuff that even a mom could appreciate the teen angst. Great characters, heroes and heroines, great fight scenes – and the sarcasm! Fantastic! Sure, there were misses. But, geez, you had a long run there, and a few misses among the masterpieces are easy to forget. Although, the Adam storyline… well. We’ll say no more about that.

And then, Firefly! Oh, I wrote my share of letters to Fox when they screwed all of us over, let me tell you. A true tragedy that we didn’t get years and years of the adventures of Captain Tightpants and his crew of misfits. You were certainly ahead of your time.

And then I find that you’re writing the first Avengers movie. I was over the moon! And you didn’t disappoint, did you? It was funny, it was angsty, it was filled with teamy goodness. I’ve been a Marvel comic book fan since my girlhood – always loved the Avengers – so this was a marriage made in heaven for me. You + Hawkeye + Black Widow + the rest of them = genius! I was sad that Hawkeye didn’t get to do much in movie #1, but I had faith. And the funny moments? No one will ever forget the Hulk slamming Loki into the floor. “Puny god.” I’m pretty sure I was not the only one snorting Coca-Cola out of my nose.

So it is with a heavy heart that I pen this letter after my second viewing of Avengers 2, or, as I like to call it, Buffy and Angel, the Greener Years.

First and foremost, I regret your clear case of retrograde amnesia. How much of your life have you forgotten? Obviously, there is some lasting damage, as you’ve forgotten that Clint had no family to worry about or ask about or be in the least little bit concerned about in A1. Or that Black Widow was wearing an arrow necklace, a token of her man, throughout Captain America 2. Or that they both are actually superheroes and not Buffy and Xander reincarnated. Or that Black Widow is not a damsel in distress whose most terrible memory/regret from the Red Room is that she can’t have babies with her man.

Your amnesia must be a horrible burden, just as you’ve burdened us with a re-do of your Buffy/Angel trope that the woman must never get to, er, consummate her romance with her man because he’ll turn into a monster. Vampire or Hulk, a monster is a monster. I hope Mark Ruffalo didn’t mind being relegated to sad faces and David Boreanaz’s re-worked dialogue. Weird that your mind keeps coming back to this teen angst, even in your tender state. You’ll laugh, but, honestly, after Natasha stared at that wall for a long time because her man done gone away, I was waiting for her to say, “Fire bad, tree pretty.” If the Hulk ends up in LA battling an evil law firm, well, won’t that be a surprise?

I was happy to see Spike and Drusilla again! They were some of my favorite bad guys who turned into not so bad guys! Sure, they have new names – Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – but the hair and the bad accents, well, they were a dead giveaway! Although, I was a little confused – or you were – to find that the Scarlet Witch turned into Willow in the middle of the flick. What with the red eyes, red hair, magic, and total meltdown and revenge-mode when her buddy got whacked.

Then there’s Hawkeye. Did I mention that Xander was always my favorite? The heart of the team, the only one who didn’t have any super powers, just fixed the furniture and remodeled the Summers’ house whenever it was wrecked. I did have a bit of a moment when Hawkeye walked in on his very sudden family – shades of Dawn! Is Laura going to turn out to be some kind of mystical key? I have to say that I sure hope so because that would be the least depressing explanation for this madness. And, yikes, the name of the character is just a little on the nose, isn’t it? Xander, the one who “watches,” and with his one eye, and Hawkeye, the guy with the amazing vision? It is kind of a shame that The Amazing Hawkeye now is stuck babysitting and remodeling the dining room instead of actually being considered a founding member of the Avengers. Coulson must be rolling in his not-grave for recruiting the guy. Unless he did all his house repairs on the cheap.

About halfway through your trip down memory lane, I was honestly wishing Faith would appear. You know, like in Season 7? The one with all the Potentials and the time-outs for speeches? For long, boring monologues on the part of the main characters? And then Faith calls Buffy on it, rolling her eyes and taking everyone out for tequila?? Yeah, I really missed that character, because you sure made time for the speechifying, didn’t you? And, frankly, we all could have used that tequila. Adam, er, I mean Ultron made speeches. Spike/Pietro made speeches. The Vision made speeches. Giles, er, I mean Fury made speeches. Yikes.

But, hey, Buffy was a wonderful era, so I don’t wonder that your mind is kind of stuck back there. I hope you get help, soon. Especially as this was supposed to be Avengers 2, so somewhat of a sequel to the first movie. The movie where Black Widow didn’t get kidnapped so that her man could rescue her, she got kidnapped as a plan of her own to get information out of her targets and then managed to beat them to a pulp and rescue herself. Where Fury was a badass and not a kind, gentle mentor who truly “cared” about his team. Where mind control was used against the team by a sarcastic, larger-than-life bad guy. Where Tony and Steve argue and fight until they realize they are, after all, on the same side. So, been there – done that.

The loss must be very painful. I hope all the money you’re making from the fans who were actually hoping for a sequel, with grown-up men and women – superheroes – not shabbily re-written teen angst eases your pain.

Still a fan,

 Me

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Satisfaction of a List.”

Fave SG-1 Episodes:

1. The First Ones

2. The Quest

3. Legacy

4. Prototype

5. The Curse

Yes, they are all Daniel Jackson heavy. Daniel holds the Stargate universe together for me. He’s the conscience, the scholar, the unlikely hero who makes friends with both the lizardy monster who wants to eat him and the race of whack-a-doo creatures who like Klingon opera. He’s played beautifully by Michael Shanks, the most underrated actor of all Canada. These are puzzle episodes, sad, episodes, dangerous episodes, but all episodes that reveal something of Daniel’s character. That take us behind the nerd glasses and into his heart. Daniel loses a lot. His wife. His home. His mind. His reputation. His life. His innocence. But he gains, too. Respect. Friends. A place.

No, you don’t see Window of Opportunity up there. Why do so many people love that episode?? Because there are funny bits? Really? Jack riding a bicycle does it for you? Someone explain why that is so many people’s absolute fave because I just don’t get it.

Give me a character that I can sink my teeth into and I’m all in. It worked that way for Stargate, for Criminal Minds (Spencer Reid), for Buffy (Xander and Anya), Star Trek (Spock), The Man from UNCLE (Illya), and NCIS (Tony). Give me someone who has a past, a secret, who is conflicted, or a fish out of water. These are my characters.

So, in writing my original fiction book, why didn’t I consider what I liked? Why didn’t I keep with the types of characters I would want to read about? My first readers – and thank you all again for wading through that first draft – did not connect with Deok. Why? Because I didn’t make her into the type of character that I love. The type of character that pulls you in, that makes whatever story you’re telling so much deeper and more cutting and more emotional.

Time to start my re-write. Time to make Deok into that character, that woman, who will center this world I’ve created. Matthias is there, he’s fleshed out and whole, with the right amount of strengths and weaknesses. But he’s only half of the story.

Time to write that strong female character that I’ve wished for all my life. The character that every girl wants to be and every actress wants to play. Janet Frasier and Samantha Carter and Anya and Black Widow combined.

New List: Things to Do with Deok:

1. Give her a past

2. Show her struggles to fit in

3. Show her strengths and her weaknesses

4. Let her lose

5. Let her win, sometimes, too

… Checking it Twice

Thanks, Mike

It’s a journey, this writing business. It started when I was a child, when I took the stories from my head and put them on paper. Stories about characters that I saw on my family’s one small television. Or characters I read about in comic books. Or science fiction novels.

My brother-in-law was a great supporter. In college, I began an original fantasy novel about brothers who were separated and found their way back to each other. I guess my love of “buddy” stories, the modern day “bromance,” is deeply rooted in my soul. Mike (said bro-in-law) is also a writer. A creative soul. He taught me a lot about patience, and being true to yourself and your voice. I wish he was still writing.

I’d like to think the novel I just finished, The Heir of Time, is that original brother story, all grown up.

Then came love and marriage and work and family. It was a busy time and, like many others have, I lost my love of writing for a while. It was only after falling in love with Stargate SG-1 and the characters of Jack and Daniel that the muse awoke. And, thankfully, fanfiction had finally found its home on the newfangled thing called the Internet. I found friends and fans, and outlets for my stories. I grew as a writer, as a reader, and as a critiquer, and everyone who ever left a comment on one of my stories helped along the way.

Now I’m taking different steps on this path – steps that are harder, on steeper mountains with rocky, broken surfaces. I’m reaching out to find a handhold in the publishing world – a world with rules and regulations, with antique ideas and unclear requirements. The first steps are hard. Scary. Daunting. But I’m putting on my big-girl panties and getting on with it.

A writing friend pointed me in the direction of a local workshop taking place this weekend. It seems like an obvious handhold – a next step painted in neon orange and lit with blinking lights. It’s being presented by Chuck Sambuchino of Writers’ Digest, a man who knows a thing or two or a bazillion about publishing. I’m really thankful for kinfolit’s excitement, her support, and the chance to walk a little farther on this journey with a friend at my side.

Mr. Sambuchino offered a personal critique of attendees’ first query letter and I jumped at the chance. One-on-one advice from a professional? Yes, please, sign me up! Trying to write it brought me to hair-pulling frustration and my last blog post. Such a dilemma! Such contradictory advice posted on reputable on-line sites! It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Sambuchino had some criticism, which, after my usual knee-jerk denial, I took to heart.

But, here’s the problem: after perusing Mr. Sambuchino’s blog site, where he shares query letters that actually led to literary representation, I’ve found that agents’ reactions to query letters are completely subjective and idiosyncratic. Four paragraphs. Five paragraphs. Begin with a single sentence that has a compelling hook. Forget the hook and tell your main character’s story in simple language. Talk about why you chose this particular agent. Explain your background and platform. Don’t waste time. Be funny. Don’t try to be funny or unique. Unique voices catch agents’ attention.

Hence the hair-pulling.

So, what have I decided? It all goes back to the advice my brother-in-law once gave me. I’ve decided to be myself. To trust my own voice. And, above all, not to play games trying to mind read literary agents.

I don’t think I can go wrong with that advice.

Thanks, Mike

Where’s Tim the Enchanter When You Need Him?

Ah, the Query Letter.

To the writer, the skeleton key that opens the massive iron gates to the mysterious and fantastic Universe of the Printed Word. The single-spaced sheet of paper that, if the runes be carved properly and the ink simmered with the perfect pinch of sweat and blood, can be transformed into a message that spans continents, slips through the narrowest crack in a literary agent’s armor, and tickles the ear of the publishing sovereign.

The Writer-Penitent who seeks to enter the Halls of the Represented must make sure to follow each convention, to stay true to the decrees and directives of the Gatekeepers. The arrow ridden skeletons of those who raced ahead seeking entrance by stealth or bribery, heedless of sage advice, line the pathway. Dusty and mold-ridden, their bones lie upon the remnants of rotting manuscript pages dotted with the wicked smart-quote, typed in the fiendish Font of Not Times New Roman.

But, say the listeners, surely any true believer, any of the pious who can read and write can follow these formulae?

Students of this lore laugh at such a foolishly innocent question.

These regulations are not listed out in black and white, boldly lettered over every portal. Even in those few, well-guarded entries that proudly display their incantations, one halting error made by the Writer-Penitent can release the Kraken of Rejection.

The mere thought of undertaking this quest can chill the most ardent heart, can cause the steadiest pen to stutter. “Perhaps self-publishing,” the fearful acolyte whispers, alone before the towering gates that seem to be forever slammed in his face.

And yet, amidst the carnage, wading through shredded 20 lb. laser-printed paper floods, brow unbeaten beneath her helm of rusted confidence, one more comes to do battle for entry. She will throw her skills against the chains and bars, forge her tens of thousands of words into a single, sharp sentence that will slide between the tumblers of the Great Lock. She will avoid the Trapdoor of Triteness and the Cleavers of Cleverness, while balancing on the tightrope over the Chasm of Showing Not Telling.

One single page. One chance. One try.

It is a daunting and terrifying feat even to one who has already created new worlds and breathed life into sympathetic and multi-faceted characters. Let us wish her well.

“What is your name?”

“My name is AUTHOR.”

“What is your quest?”

“To be published.”

“What is your favorite color?”

“Um… red. No, blue!”

SPROING