General, Personal

Hustle and Bustle, and the Dangers Therein

Long post is long. You have been warned.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a Tumblr thread that made me incandescent with rage; I remain tweaked enough about it to make this worth posting. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my initial rant on the topic. It involved a new trend among fanfiction writers to charge commissions for writing fic.

I went down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have, because all it did was make me livid. Some of the arguments were so staggeringly entitled. Just breathtaking.

Y-Yes? Fanfiction should remain free. It has to.

It’s wild to me that one type of entitlement seems to be responding to another. If people are really bitching and moaning because they can’t find fics specifically catered to them — Well, they’ve misunderstood what’s going on. Fanfiction is such a gorgeous thing precisely because it’s born out of a writer’s relationship with the original work. You as a reader don’t get to demand that their relationship be what you want it to be. You go looking for what’s there and hopefully find something to delight you. You are accepting gifts that the writers have put out there for anyone who wants to enjoy them.

Now, there have always been fic exchanges and such where requests may be filled, but that’s still happening in the spirit of sharing mutually in excitement over the source material. Outside of that, if you can’t find exactly the fic that tickles your fancy, the answer has always been: Write it yourself!

The solution is not to decide people should accept commissions for derivative work!

I feel like these are the same people who defend piracy with the “all knowledge should be free, I’m just sticking it to The Man” arguments — which are equally ill-informed, ignorant, and just a cover for selfishness. (I’m restraining the impulse to delve into that tangent for the moment, but just know, given the current shape of how writers are compensated and in lieu of a currency-free society a la Star Trek, there is absolutely no ethical justification for book piracy). Apart from the illegality, your actions are not going to hurt the people you think you’re hurting. Accepting commissions for fanfic jeopardizes sites like AO3 and undermines the entire foundation that allows fanfic to exist for public consumption in the first place.

And then there’s nonsense like this:

Sugarplum, d’you know why we don’t have a platform like that? Why we cannot, should not, must not have a platform like that?

It violates Fair Use.

Fair Use is the legal defense against accusations of copyright infringement that protects, among other things, satire and educational use of materials. Whether or not it applies to fanfiction is, honestly, murky at best. To my knowledge, no statute has yet added fanfiction to the list of things explicitly protected by Fair Use. It’s just the best defense we currently have.

Here’s what the Organization for Transformative Works, the company that runs AO3, has to say about it:

What exactly is fair use?

Fair use is the right to make some use of copyrighted material without getting permission or paying. It is a basic limit on copyright law that protects free expression. “Fair use” is an American phrase, although all copyright laws have some limits that keep copyright from being private censorship.

Fair use favors uses that (1) are noncommercial and not sold for a profit; (2) are transformative, adding new meaning and messages to the original; (3) are limited, not copying the entirety of the original; and (4) do not substitute for the original work.

It’s worth noting that I’m largely talking about US law here, though I believe the UK has similar statutes and understanding of derivative works. Fanlore has a lot more in-depth information, but at the base of it all is this: the current Fair Use defense depends upon not profiting from the derivative work.

Case law has seen mixed results, and when the authors of derivative works have prevailed, that has usually hinged on the critical or parodic nature of the derivative work. While the OTW argues that fanfiction is sufficiently transformative by nature, providing a commentary on the original works, that has by no means been settled into law. Copyright holders and publishing houses simply have not chosen, in most cases, to press the point. But if you start profiting off of your derivative works? If that becomes a common trend? If you have the utter gall to try and build a website based on that concept? You will be baiting them to come after you — or decide to use your infringement as a reason to screw over a content creator.

Here is my authorial understanding of the issue with copyright law and fanfiction (with the caveat that I am not a lawyer): The reason many authors still won’t take a public stance condoning fanfiction and why almost no author will read fanfiction of their own works? Is because of the legal jeopardy it can put them in. If an author is considered to have abandoned their copyright, their intellectual property can be redistributed. Not defending against infringements — like fanfiction that violates Fair Use! — can be grounds for being considered to have abandoned copyright.

It is not impossible to imagine a situation where an author, “failing” to defend against copyright infringement perpetuated by someone taking commissions for fic based on their work, has their IP taken off of them and handed to another writer. Now imagine a publishing house doing that to an author who is a member of a marginalized community and handing their characters and ideas off to a more popular author (who is likely not of that marginalized community). It’s not impossible. It might not even be improbable. A lot of publishing “wisdom” already purports that there’s more value to be found in piling all your eggs into a basket of proven ROI. You see it in how it’s the already-successful authors who receive the largest advances and the heftiest marketing budgets. Fanfic commissions, like piracy, could directly jeopardize the original content creators — but they’re not going to hurt The Man a bit. If anything, they just hand the Powers That Be more tools they can use to control who gets to produce what kinds of content.

“But Cass?” some people may be thinking. “You’re a professional writer. Surely you agree that writers deserve to be paid for their work?”

Well. Yes. They deserve to be paid for their work. Derivative works are not the same. And I say this as someone who’s written derivative works for a very, very long time. Longer than these commission-hungry ficcers have been alive. I know the difference between work I do as a hobby and work I do as a job — The same way that if you cook a meal for your family and friends, you don’t expect to be paid for it, but if a caterer prepares that meal, you’d damn well better pay them. Now, maybe your friends and family reward you in some other fashion — cooking for you at another time, bringing wine, bringing dessert, etc — but that’s not payment. You’re not doing it to get paid; you’re doing it to share joy.

Fanfiction is supposed to be an act of joy.

I mean, it might be rage-joy, as you reclaim what you believe the source material has irredeemably destroyed. As I’ve said before, sometimes fanfic is a love letter to canon, sometimes it’s a strongly worded letter of correction, and sometimes it’s 95 theses on what canon did wrong nailed to a door. But it has always been something done for the sake of doing it, born of attachment to the original material. It is, inherently, a leisure activity. If you view it as an income source, you have fundamentally misunderstood what it is. I mean, apart from the fact that you’re breaking copyright law, you have just absolutely missed the point of fanfiction.

“But some fanfic writers work really hard!”

Yes. I certainly did. Would you like to know how much research I did on pre-Norman England and Scotland in order to write historically accurate Hogwarts Founders fic? It was way more than JKR ever did into that period, I can tell you that. (She seems to think the 11th and 15th centuries were indistinguishable, to say nothing of metalworking and gem-cutting techniques that wouldn’t evolve for centuries but I digress). Or would you like to know how many schematics of Federation and Klingon starships I have saved to my hard drive? The extensive family trees I’ve drawn? The hours spent teaching myself details about the lead-up to the French Revolution that no teacher ever though essential enough to impart? The sheer total tonnage of trivia permanently lodged in my head about a galaxy far, far away?

Many hobbyists work very hard on their hobbies. They invest time and energy and money into their leisure activities. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be paid for that investment. You’ve chosen to do it.

I took fic writing very seriously. I still do! I don’t write a lot of fic these days, but when I do, I put as much of my heart into it as I do my original works. And back in the heyday of my fic-writing, on LJ, ohh, I took such pride in being known for what I did. It was within niche corners and small fandoms, but I won contests and cherished every comment and celebrated when my works appeared on rec lists. I sought recognition, even when the only tangible reward was a little graphic to post in my bio. I wanted people to acknowledge how hard I worked and, frankly, how good I was at it.

But I never, ever, ever sought to make a dime off of it. The very concept would have been absurd, and I knew full well that we all put those “not mine, just borrowing the characters!” disclaimers up precisely so there could be no doubt of that. (This is how I know I’d do well in a Star Trek style “prestige economy” as interpreted by Manu Saadia: I am very happy when striving to be acknowledged as the best at the thing I’ve chosen to do; I am unhappy that we live in a world where financial value is the only kind of acknowledgement society accepts as real).

Your hobby might be great training for a job. But it’s not a job. A hobby is leisure. That distinction is actually important, not only for your mental and emotional well-being, but as a way of pushing back against certain capitalistic pressures dominating our world. And that brings me to the thing I actually want to talk about. (Yes, all of that was just build-up).

Your hobbies do not need to be monetized.

When I had this rant on Twitter, a friend pointed out that the younger generation has been indoctrinated to believe that their hobbies only have worth if they are making money off of them. The pressure to “go viral”, the monetization of TikToks, affiliate marketing, IG influencers — It all sends the message that it’s not enough to enjoy something and share that joy. No, you have to make a Brand out of it. If you’re not getting paid, it’s not worth doing.

It honestly makes me so sad.

I mean, underneath the fury I’ve been wrangling since becoming aware of this whole commission debacle, I’m just heartbroken for all these people who are viewing fic as a commodity rather than a freely shared gift. It’s so cynical and so depressing and such a capitulation to the very worst aspects of how our society is constructed.

It ties into something else I’ve thought, which is that people who’ve been on the internet since, oh, 2007 or so had a fundamentally different experience than folk of my internet-generation. (I reference Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet for an explanation of internet-generations, which may overlap but are not synonymous with traditional societal generations). If you were on the internet in the late-90s and early-00s, especially if you are what we would now call Very Online, you sort of had to build your own experience. I started teaching myself html to build my AOL Hometown page and really refined those skills on LiveJournal. I learned how to link to an image and how to turn an image into a link. I learned about hex codes so that I could find just the right shade for my background.

That’s not the way it is now. Everything is pre-packaged for you. There’s no customization in Facebook or Twitter besides being able to upload a header banner (the dimensions of which you cannot control, and which will change without notice several times a year). In some ways, yes, that’s easier; it’s nice that most blogging sites now automatically include white space around an image without my having to set the h-space and v-space for them. But at the same time, I hate having sacrificed customization for convenience. It’s so frustrating to want to change something and not have these options available to me, because the Powers That Be have decided, nope, these margins are correct, this much white space is correct, this color palate is correct. Corporations have control of our online experience. And that feels inextricable from the urge people now feel to monetize what they do on the internet.

We have confused hobbies with jobs. We have forgotten what hobbies are. We have forgotten leisure. The pressure to always be productive and performative has reached absolutely ludicrous force.

And the thing is, I am not innocent of falling into this mindset. I am deeply uncomfortable on days I feel like I’ve “done nothing”. I post to my Patreon three times a week, and I’m constantly trying to entice new members to join up. It’s part of my hustle. But I do try to maintain some barriers between my hobbies and what I do for cash. Someone once suggested that I sell my embroidery on Etsy, and I had to gently push back: No. Embroidery is something I do for myself, for the sheer pleasure of it, and something I give as a gift to people I love. I do not want that to become something I have to fret over because it’s not giving me good enough ROI.

I feel there’s another larger issue here, too, which is the loss of art for the sake of art. And leisure for the sake of leisure. I’m not enough of a theorist to go too deeply into that, but I suspect others have said clever things about it. It fits hand-in-glove with the increased corporatization of our world. Algorithms drive everything. Movies plots are influenced by focus groups. Everything is a Brand. And I do not believe that encourages the proliferation of good art. It makes art safe, predictable, palatable. Boring. It discourages invention and innovation.

Fanfiction has long been a push back against that corporatization. It’s a reclaiming of storytelling for and by the public. Fanfic commissions are playing into capitalism’s hands.

So that ties back to what I was saying before, about how, yes, you might work very hard on this hobby. But you should be doing it for the sake of the final product, for the pride you can take in that work, for the pleasure of sharing it with others. Not because you expect to get paid.

I don’t want to discourage fanfiction. That is the last thing in the world I want to do. I owe my career to my experience writing fanfic, and it would make me the happiest person on the planet to discover someone had decided to write Aven Cycle fanfic, even though I could never read it. But if I discovered someone was profiting off of that fanfic, I’d be furious — not least because it would be so galling, considering the various legal and financial eccentricities of how authors are currently rewarded for their efforts. Someone else making money off of my stories could very well impair my own compensation, and nothing in the world will convince me that would be fair.

What I want people to remember is the spirit fanfiction is supposed to come from — not the hustle, not the monetization of the internet, but the attachment to the original material. Fanfiction is supposed to be something you do for you, before anyone else! And that is liberating! You can do whatever you want! No one’s going to come tell you that you have to change something, tighten the pacing, get rid of that character, take out that scene, add a conversation about this topic. You are beholden to no one but yourself and your own pleasure — and how often is that true, in our modern world? Own that.

If you want to make money off of writing, I support you in that as well. Going from fanfic to pro is an increasingly common track in publishing! I’ve been on multiple convention panels about it. But you have to do it with your own characters and concepts, or with those already in the public domain. It’s a different sort of endeavor than writing fanfic — because it is work, it is a job, not a hobby. Writing professionally means doing a lot of the large and small hard things that you don’t have to worry about as a ficcer — and then you get compensated for that work. Now, the issues related to that compensation in current structures are many, but they are entirely separate from the issue of fanfiction.

And, of course, there are other options if you want to be paid to write — journalism, for instance, which is another place many well-established authors have started. I want more people to be able to make a living off of writing, I want opportunities to be open to more people and to people from more backgrounds than most traditional avenues currently support — but that does not mean opening avenues to profit off of fanfic.

tl;dr? Don’t flipping try to make money off fanfic. You’re breaking the law and missing the point.

General, Personal

On Reading Tolkien

So I said I wanted to blog more, and Twitter has, this week, given me an opportunity.

If you’re a part of writing Twitter, and specifically of fantasy writing Twitter, you’ve likely seen the Tolkien-centric turmoil. It started when Chuck Wendig Said A Thing. In response to a prompt about unpopular epic fantasy opinions, Wendig said that Tolkien is not the end-all and the be-all of epic fantasy fiction. He then said some other things, which some readers took to be criticisms of Tolkien in particular when they were not, necessarily, and the whole thing spiraled from there. Some of those spirals were actually fairly erudite discussions of literary canon, who gets included in it, who decides what gets included in it, how we can disrupt the norms of who gets included in it, and so forth. Some of those spirals were… less erudite, as we might expect. And in the way of Twitter battles, it’s all wandered a great deal off-course from the initial discussion.

I’ve resisted commentary on Twitter because, honestly, I didn’t have enough of a dog in the fight. But then I started seeing one line of comment that I sort of bumped on, and I decided to blog rather than tweet about it because Twitter is not a great platform for nuanced discussion. The tenor of this line of commentary was, “I don’t owe Tolkien anything”. And that… Enh. Whether or not you like Tolkien, whether or not you’ve even read Tolkien, if you’re reading and writing fantasy in the English language, you owe something to Tolkien, at least indirectly.

The analogy that sprang to my mind was that Chaucer. Tolkien : fantasy fiction :: Chaucer : English language and literature.

Whether or not you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, if you’re speaking and reading in English today, you owe something to them. They had lasting influence and they helped in shaping the English language as we know it today. Part of that was sheer dumb luck, writing in the right place at the right time. Around 1400, English was still really fractured. For example, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both written in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales is hard, but not impossible, to read without a translation.

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And thereto hadde he riden (no man ferre)
As wel in cristendom as hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthinesse.

That’s recognizable as English, even if it’s quite clearly not the English we speak today. It’s not even the English of Shakespeare, two centuries later. But it’s English.

Now check out a sample of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at the same time, but in Northern England:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez

That is… not the same language. We call them both Middle English, but you can tell at a glance that they are not the same. The northern dialect in the 14th century was still much closer to Old English and its Nordic influences.

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Because The Canterbury Tales was written in London-English, it was written in the English which eventually “won”. London-English came to dominate because, a few decades later, London was where the printing presses were — and printing presses helped to begin the process of standardization of the language into what we know today. So Chaucer benefited from that — and he influenced it, since his work was proliferated in that dialect and influenced future works. He was also part of a trend towards vernacularization in English literature. He may not have been the first writer in Middle English to write in that fashion, but he was the most popular. And so, he became a tentpole of English literature.

Now, do you need to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to speak English or to tell stories in it? Of course not. But if you want to study how English language and literature came to be as they are today, it would be difficult to avoid engaging with the work. If that’s your goal, should you only study Chaucer? Of course not! Chaucer isn’t the end-all and the be-all of late medieval literature, let alone the whole of English literature. Even just looking at his era, many scholars credit the Chancery Courts with having a greater influence on the standardization of language that moved England towards its Early Modern form. Chaucer is not the sole definition of English language or literature, but a number of factors combined to make him an outsized influence on both.

And I feel similarly about Tolkien in the context of the fantasy genre. You don’t need to have read Tolkien to be a fan of fantasy fiction, to enjoy it, even to write it. But if you want to understand how the genre developed and came to be as it is today, it would be foolish to ignore him. And it would be equally foolish to study only Tolkien and to assume that he alone defines the genre.

There’s a lot to criticize in Tolkien, particularly where issues of race and gender are concerned. There’s also a lot to enjoy, if you’re the right sort of reader in the right frame of mind. I feel very fondly towards the books now, but I didn’t always, and I still can’t just pick them up to re-read in any sort of mood. I couldn’t get through them at all until after I’d seen the movies, a sin for which I’m sure many gatekeepers would be delighted to flagellate me. I’m someone who loves to luxuriate in detailed world-building, so my problem isn’t the pace or the digressions, but rather that I find the writing itself sometimes dense and stilted. And the lack of women is and always has been a big problem for me. But there’s still a lot in Tolkien that I appreciate. After the 2016 election, for example, I had basically lost all faith in humanity, and I couldn’t get through reading anything. Until I decided to pick The Fellowship of the Ring back up. In that moment, that was what I wanted: simple morality where good eventually triumphs, and I was happy to lose myself in the Middle Earth when the myriad complexities of the world I lived in felt overwhelmingly cruel. But I’m far more likely to revisit the stories by way of the movies than the books, because I find them more accessible and emotionally moving.

Eowynsword

I’m firmly of the opinion that Tolkien could never get published today. He’d be told his pacing is uneven, his story starts far too slowly, he spends too much time on world-building, he introduces too many characters in the first chapter and we never hear from many of them ever again. He couldn’t get published today. But if he hadn’t been published in the mid-20th century, a lot of other books never would have been, either — for better or for worse. I don’t know what the fantasy genre would look like if there had never been Tolkien. We’d likely still be facing the same issues of race and gender, because, considering the era, whoever stepped into the void he left would likely also be a white male. It might have taken the genre more time to achieve the popularity it currently enjoys and the faint measure of respect it’s still striving for in many literary circles. It might not have. Swords and sorcery might still have been the dominant form for decades, or maybe it would’ve been something else. I don’t know. No one can know. Because Tolkien was, and he shaped the genre.

We don’t owe him all, any more than modern English owes all it is to Chaucer. And maybe what we owe him is equal parts honor and a kick in the pants, for both the good and the ill in his work. But suggesting we owe him nothing strikes me as either incredibly naive or willfully childish. Even if you’ve never read him, doubtless some of the authors you do read were influenced by him. They may have been influenced in the negative, driven specifically to do something different, not to replicate his form and format, but that’s still an influence. And there’s no extricating Tolkien’s popularity from the development of the publishing industry’s fantasy wing. The publishing world we work in, whether or not we’ve read Tolkien ourselves, was partially shaped by Tolkien and his legacy.

Should you read Tolkien? I don’t know. What do you hope to get out of it? If you’re looking for a good tale, it may or may not suit your fancy. If you’re looking for detailed and well-researched world-building, you’ll get a lot of that (if in a narrow northern-and-western-European scope — Tolkien was a truly remarkable scholar of what he studied, but it certainly had its limits). If you’re looking to learn the history of the genre and how it developed, then yeah, you probably ought to have at least some familiarity with such a major tentpole. But you don’t have to know that history or have a desire to learn it just because you want to read or write in the genre. It’s a subset of what there is to enjoy, a dish on the menu. It doesn’t make a meal, and it’s not the only thing the restaurant serves.

Hobbiton

And that winds me around to the idea of literary canon and what one “must” read.

“Must” is a silly word. The books you “must” read to be a fan of a genre, or to create within it, are the books which speak to your soul, the ones that resonate with you.

Enjoying a thing need not be the same as studying it, and studying the thing itself is not the same as studying its history. I’m a historian, so I know that influences my viewpoint. It’s why the Chaucer analogy leapt to my brain. It’s not the place everyone stands, nor the place everyone should. It does, though, lead me to the following consideration:

If we’re looking at fantasy from a scholarly viewpoint, perhaps we ought to consider that the genre is large enough and has been around long enough to need more than one intro course, as it were. A survey of fantasy literature and a history of fantasy in the English language would have different syllabi, and maybe you’d only find Tolkien in the latter. And that’s fine. It’s not like he’s suffering for exposure. Nor are many of the other authors you’d likely find in such a course — Lewis, Le Guin, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Gaiman, Martin — though some of the longer-ago forbears, like William Morris and Lord Dunsany, would be little-remembered outside of it. The purpose of such a course would not be to say that every work studied in it deserved to be a tentpole of the genre, but rather to acknowledge that they have become sofor a variety of reasons, and to examine the effect that each had on shaping the genre as we now know it. Whether or not you think Tolkien merits his outsized importance, he has long had it, and a scholarly course on the history of fantasy literature would have to address that — in part to understand why and how the “established canon” has so long excluded certain voices, and what needs to be done to remedy that in the future. Understanding how the past failed the present can help the present choose how to shape the future.

But a survey course in fantasy literature? Now, that ought to be different, more diverse, less focused on the history of the genre and more concerned with giving students a taste of everything the genre is and can be. It should look at alternate influences, and it should look at subgenres, and it should look at those works which have grand merits on their own yet did not spawn a legacy of imitations in the way that the tentpoles did. If I were to devise such a survey course, I’m sure my syllabus would look a little different from that of anyone else who might do so — and if I were teaching a real course, with real students, I’d be adjusting it a bit every semester, to take new works into account, and to try and provide representation for the cultural makeup of the class.

And all of that would be different from the books that were my “musts” — the books I have read which brought me to the place I am now. My tentpoles of the genre, which have shaped my reading and writing. Like a history course, it might have gaps and omissions — things I ought to have read, things I wish I’d read earlier than I had, things that slipped by me. It might have things I read and which shaped me which didn’t deserve that influence, or which were important at the time but which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone else now. That list is going to be different for everyone. Certainly there are things I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy, that were high-quality but didn’t resonate with me, that have had a huge influence on others. But the wonderful thing is, it need never be a finished list. As readers, we can always keep doing better, reading more broadly, exposing ourselves to new influences.

So when it comes to the idea of Tolkien and fantasy canon and all of that, what I really come down to, I guess, is this: Build your own canon. Figure out why you like the things you do — what calls to you, what resonates? Map your own personal history within and without the genre, and know how it has affected you. That’s what matters most.

General, Personal

Rosy

There is  moment, in Man of La Mancha, that struck me very powerfully from a very young age. Cervantes, in prison and interrupted in his tale of Don Quixote, is challenged by another prisoner, who asks him why poets are so fanciful, why poets can’t just face up to life as it is? And Cervantes responds gorgeously, bitterly, passionately:

I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

I have always been a storyteller, and I have always been an optimist. This, I think affects the way in which I tell stories.

I’ve said — and written — before about how sci-fi and fantasy hold a mirror up to life and question it, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. The dominant trend for the past fifteen years or so has been the grimdark version. Not so much a mirror as a magnifying glass, turning the saturation up on misery and pain. Everything from Batman Begins to A Game of Thrones to Altered Carbon — these things dwell on agony. They stripped down the glitz and color of the 80s and 90s, and with them, the hope. The prevailing message is that everything is terrible, everyone is terrible, and there is no escape.

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Now, obviously, that’s not 100% of what’s out there, but it’s quite a lot of it, especially in SFF. I consume this media, because it’s the current paradigm, but it’s not what I most enjoy. And it’s not what I write.

I’ve been analyzing this in myself lately, and I’ve realized that, when I write, I look at the way things were in the past or the way things could be in the future, and then I ask: “What would change if we, individually and as a people, made better choices?” I imagine life a little more as it should be.

And then, because of the way my brain works, I set about trying to figure out what tuns that should into a could. I’ve watched myself do it in far-off history, re-imagining the Romans; I’ve seen myself do it with nearer history, re-imagining America in the 19th century; I’ve seen myself do it with the future, imagining life in space. I never want to create a utopia. Those go too far; I tend to find them somewhere between boring and unbearably bleak, and they just don’t ring true. No matter how good we humans get, we’re never going to be perfect. We’re messy, emotional creatures, and we’ll always make messy, emotional mistakes. But if we were just a little better, a little kinder, a little more aware, a little less selfish, a little more long-seeing — How might that change things?

And it’s not just about the past or the future. As I started thinking about it, this desire to imagine a better world plays into the characters I’m drawn to in fiction, as well. It’s particularly noticeable in, though not exclusive to, romance.

Because let’s face it: scoundrels with hearts of gold are a rare commodity. Most of them are just irresponsible jackasses. Maybe they’re not bad guys, really, but they’ve never learned to be better. And those dark, brooding types? Entitled jerks, on the whole. Selfish and self-righteous. They are not really the kind of people you want to give your heart to.

But in fiction… they can be.

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In fiction, you can spend at least a few hours imagining that people can change for the better, and that the redemptive power of love can make them want to do so — that the Beast works to prove himself worthy of Belle’s love, that Han Solo does care about something other than his own skin, that the rake reforms. And yeah, I get the argument that portraying relationships like that in fiction sets a dangerous precedent in real life, that it encourages girls and women to think wrong-headedly and invest in men who don’t deserve them. I get it. I’ve lived it. Heart many-times-broken; lesson perhaps-eventually-learned.

It doesn’t stop the yearning to imagine that it still might be true, that loving someone enough could make them want to do better — by you and by themselves and by the whole damn galaxy.

Just like I understand the instinct for the grimdark stories. I understand the idea that forcing us to view our darkest natures might make us own up to them. There’s a place for all these stories. But there’s a place for the rosier versions, too. There’s a place for people to dream, to hope, and to imagine something less brutal. In some ways, that’s a relief; in other ways, it’s a necessary coping mechanism. It’s what keeps us from dying despairing. A story of hope gives us something to keep reaching for.

I know there are some who find that point of view naive, irrational, or unsophisticated. They’re wrong, of course, because they’re assuming it comes from a place of ignorance or insulation, and that’s often quite far from the case. Rather, when you’ve been battered about by the Real World, it’s not unreasonable to want to believe in a version of the universe that could be just a little bit better.

I rather think it’s a thing of courage, to gift your heart with such imaginings.

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This is why I like fluffy romance novels. It’s why I like Rogue One so much, because even through the tragedy, the message is one of hope, not of annihilation. It’s why I liked the X-Men of the 90s. It’s why Cap and Thor are my favorite MCU Avengers. It’s why I like the vision of the future that Star Trek presents. It’s why I still love and weep at Disney movies. And it’s why I write books the way that I do.

If I’m going to spend time in a fictional world, whether my own or someone else’s, I want it to be a place where I can imagine, at least for a little while, life as it should be.

Personal

Change is the constant

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix

[Warning: What follows is a heavy, introspective post broken up with humorous gifs, because that’s how I roll. I’ve been writing this post over the past few weeks, as I am wont to do, but it got harder to resolve myself to its spirit yesterday, when I lost the feline companion who has been my best friend since I was thirteen years old. But then I remember her royal sassiness looking at me, those beautiful yellow-green eyes seeming to say, “I love you, but get it together, woman.” And so I think I must do even better than I promised myself, for her.]

In the summer of 2012, I launched something that I called the Bold New Me Initiative. It was two years after the end of an abusive relationship, though it had taken me most of those two years to stop mourning for it and instead to realize that what had happened had been abuse. And, having realized it, I was mad as hell and determined to refashion myself into someone who could never have “let herself” be treated that way. I had finished drafting and doing initial edits on what would become From Unseen Fire. I was going to go to a convention and pitch it, and then I was going to query, and by the gods I was going to be the novelist I’d always said I would be, come hell or high water. I was going to glitter and glow as I knew I was meant to. I was going to recreate myself as something astonishing.

It almost worked.

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My intentions were certainly good, but there were still things in my life I was blind to. Those things held me back from managing to evolve entirely into the sort of person I wanted to be.

It’s rough to look at yourself and know you have been susceptible to toxic people. To know that you still have that susceptibility, that that weakness will always be in you, however strong and independent-minded you want to think yourself. To know you will have to learn to vigilantly guard against it.

It’s only a little mollifying to know you’re not alone, but the internet does occasionally help in that regard. I don’t know what reasons other people have that give birth to that vulnerability, but for me, it’s entirely because of how badly I want to be liked. Gods, I wish I didn’t. Life would be so much better if I gave as few fucks as I sometimes pretend I have to spare. But that’s just not who I am.

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I want to be liked, to be loved, to belong. And it makes me horrifyingly susceptible to the love-bombing that toxic people open and often sustain damaging relationships with. In 2012, I had freed myself from one poison but didn’t realize I was drinking another on a daily basis. And that would lead to… a whole lot of bad. It would keep me from living up to the image I have of myself. It would trap me and encourage me to make myself small in ways I wouldn’t be able to see clearly for years. It would cause me to isolate myself more than I realized, ignoring opportunities for fulfilling friendships and letting slip some of those I already had. It would dial my anxiety disorder up to 11 on an almost-constant basis.

Living like that… the center cannot hold.

Last year, I tried again. I left the city I’d lived in for close to a decade, the stable job I’d gotten right out of grad school. It all felt right, at the time — cleansing. So many things happened all at the same time — the car I’d had since I was 16, for example, finally gave up the ghost. It seemed like a sign. Yes, move out and move on. Let go of everything that has so ill-defined you these past few years. Start over, entirely fresh.

I still think the time was right for it. I very clearly needed to make some changes, or I was going to lose my grip on sanity entirely.

But I didn’t stick the landing.

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In a few weeks, I’m going to be going back to my high school to talk about careers and adulting. I’m likely to be a bit too honest about it. One of the things I’m going to stress? Don’t make decisions in crisis mode. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Because that’s really what I can trace this past Lost Year to. I had let myself get so knotted up that the only way I saw to get out was hacking through everything with a sword. And, I mean, that works… but then you’re left with a bunch of frayed ends that don’t do anyone any good.

I spent the dark of the year in a very dark place (literally as much as figuratively). I started my self-imposed exile a few weeks before the autumn equinox; I returned to a familiar home a few weeks before the vernal. The symbolism is too much for a pagan to ignore. A cold, lonely hibernation. Everything folding in on itself, unfed by the sun, blasted by icy winds. A journey to the Underworld, bleak and grey.

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But spring always comes. Snows always melt.

As miserable as it was, I’m starting to think this year nonetheless had Purpose. Perhaps I had to go through this year in order to really and truly strip away all those things I don’t want to be. I think I had to die a little in order to figure out how I want to live.

The phoenix, after all, has to reduce herself entirely to ash before she can blaze again.

So from here on out, I blaze. (And if I say it to all of you, perhaps that will force me to be accountable to myself and actually land on my feet this time.) No more excuses. No more ducking my head. No more making myself small. From Unseen Fire comes out in a few weeks, and I think I have a few lessons to learn from my own heroine. Starting now, I walk with my head up and my core tight and my hips under me, rather than slouching my way through the world. (You know, like this). I’m going to go back to wearing clothes that say “pay attention to me” rather than “please ignore me”. I’m going to start wearing high heels again. I will be the lioness, not the mouse. I will take what is mine — with fire and blood, should that prove necessary.

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I will live up to the image I want to have of myself — and I will live up to the image that those who love me have of me, because bless them, that my friends can still think me worthy of affection seems a miracle, some days. I don’t want to let them down any longer. I will spend more time nurturing those friendships. I will remember that I am an extrovert, that avoiding people makes me unhappy, and so I will engage with the world rather than shutting it out.

And wherever I land next, I am going to summon every ounce of regality in me, and I will own that place.

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Bold New Me Initiative, v2.0.

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And, as is appropriate, an accompanying 2.0 playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1270613493/playlist/4Kk5oVSgDDLaIl9qf6KIho