Guest Post: Lesley Smith on Disability in Fiction

I first “met” Changing of the SunLesley Smith a year and a half ago, while looking for beta readers for a short story. Lesley is also an author herself. Her book The Changing of the Sun came out this month, and she’s currently working on a Kickstarter for the second book in the series, The Parting of the Waters.

Her guest post is about disability in fiction, and about her own choices along those lines as a writer.

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One of the great maxims told to newbie writers is ‘write what you know’. I’m never sure if that’s true, but it’s a good a place to start as any. To understand my writing, you need to know that I was born with a visual impairment caused from wanting to get into the world at twenty four weeks, rather than the usual forty. Too much oxygen left me with brain damage, Asperger’s and, most obviously, a visual disability. I’m blind in one eye and so short sighted in my left that I’m functionally useless outside without a long cane or my beloved guide dog, Unis.

When I started writing The Changing of the Sun, I’d just finished Camp NaNoWriMo and was itching to write anything but the project I’d put aside at fifty thousand words: an urban scifi about an alien priestess trying to solve a murder while an engineered plague began decimating London’s alien community.

I realised I couldn’t write this story before I’d set up the one which forged my protagonist, or at least her past selves and her civilisation. I knew the basics: an alien world devastated by a solar storm, an order of blind seers who ruled in wisdom and passed the mantle down through centuries, and great adversity tempered by common sense and the desire to survive the impossible. I started writing and the short story became a novella, then a proper novel. Just over a year and a Kickstarter later, I’ve just unleashed that novel on the world.

Key to the universe in which the Changing trilogy is set is disabled characters being more than just set pieces. There might be miracles, but curing disabilities isn’t one of them. Yes, the oracles have lost their vision, but like Odin and Tiresias, they’ve gained something in exchange. However, this doesn’t mean an easy ride. Far from it. Having a disability doesn’t give you an instant pass and the people aren’t there to be inspirational … they’re just trying to get through the day.

For example, the stereotype of a blind person is that they are a) totally blind and b) have heightened senses. This is rubbish. All is means is that most blind people have some useful vision and that we pay more attention; I have better hearing than you simply because I don’t have as much visual noise that prevents me focusing.

Saiara, the POV character, is blinded as part of a ritual gone wrong. She finds herself banished to a shabby tower where the blind oracles are kept locked away, too close to the divine to be allowed near the populace except on the high holy days. The powers don’t want them to be self-reliant or capable of surviving without servants, guards and being beholden to the High Chamberlain’s ‘compassion’. There’s the elderly Eirian, the former ruler of the planet, who is coming to the end of her life, and is just trying to keep their collapsing ordering intact so someone is left to lead even as she goes to her grave. She tries to teach every woman in her care how to go beyond their blindness, to find their way, to use their other senses, to regain power in a place which would rather they be powerless.

Back when I was writing Changing, I read an excellent post on this very blog and it made me decide that if there was one rule I was going to stick to, it was that if you lost a limb, nothing could restore it to you. You might lose your vision and gain the grace of knowledge, but you’d still be blind, still be lost in a world not designed to help you or make allowances for your disability. This makes the idea of an exodus north, though the desert with limited supplies and the thinning ranks of a sacred order of blind women, much more complicated.

One of the biggest scenes involves Jeiana, one of these alien beings incarnated as a Kashinai woman, having her writing hand amputated after a tiny scratch turns septic. She’s borrowed the body of a woman who drowned at the beginning of the book and has been slowly losing her sense of self, almost like a kind of dementia. When she collapses, her lover, the healer Senara, has to make the decision between Jeiana’s life and the infected limb.

The problem is, because Jeiana is slowly forgetting who she is, a side-effect of her corporeal state, she has been trying to write down all the secrets she has brought with her from beyond their little world. Losing her hand means she can’t record the words for posterity, and there comes a point where the fate of an entire planet relies on Senna’s decision. While Jeiana eventually gains an amanuensis, she is never able to write, and the loss of her hand forces her to have to relearn how to walk, how to move and live with a limb which stops just above her elbow, suffering phantom pain from the amputated limb that she doesn’t really remember losing.

I wanted to have empowered characters who accurately reflected my own view of the world. Jeiana, Saiara, Eirian, Lyse and the others are not there to be pitied. They might not always know the answers or have an easy ride but they’re stronger for every trial. They are not there to be tokens or to make up the numbers but to reflect that just as the world is full of people with disabilities, so alien worlds should have their share of differently abled individuals.

Victim or Perpetrator?

The Guardian recently published a piece called “Am I Being Catfished?” An Author Confronts Her Number One Online Critic. In the article, author Kathleen Hale describes her anxiety after her first book came out, how she obsessed over Amazon and Goodreads and other review sites. I can definitely relate to this part. Book #10 comes out in January for me, and I expect I’ll still be auto-refreshing the Amazon page every 15 minutes…

Hale asked Twitter for ideas about her next book, as a way to “connect with readers.” A woman named Blythe offered suggestions, which led to Hale checking to see if Blythe had read the book, and discovering not only that she had, but that she’d apparently given it a harsh one-star review and was warning other readers away from the book.

Yeah, that sucks. Especially if a reviewer is complaining about stuff that you don’t think was even in the book. (My favorite bad review of The Stepsister Scheme compares it to an S&M porno. WTF???)  Hale’s mother pointed her to the Stop the Goodreads Bullies site, where Blythe was listed along with more than 150 other reviewers, for crimes ranging from participating in organizing attacks on authors to “derogatory shelving” to reviews considered to be “bullying.” One of the StGB founders talked to Hale about her reviewer, no doubt reinforcing Hale’s belief that she was the victim of a bully.

Foz Meadows has a blog post about why the StGB site is…problematic.

Blythe apparently began tweeting about Hale online. And Hale began to engage in what she describes as “light stalking.” She eventually pulled herself away, but then a few months later, when a book club wanted Hale to do an interview with a book blogger, Hale suggested Blythe. Because she “longed to engage with Blythe directly.” This also involved doing a book giveaway, which allowed Hale to get Blythe’s home address.

I’ve done giveaways myself, which involves readers trusting me with their home addresses. I’ve also sent books to reviewers’ home addresses. I consider this a matter of trust and privacy, which is one of many reasons I get very angry about what happened next.

Hale dug into Blythe’s identity, questioning whether “Blythe” was a pseudonym. She rented a car and, in what she describes as “a personal rock bottom,” drove to Blythe’s home. She called Blythe at home work, pretending to be a fact-checker. She called again, this time identifying herself as Kathleen Hale and confronting her.

Blythe unfollowed her on Twitter, made her Instagram private, and blocked her on Facebook, essentially cutting off Hale’s options for online communication.

Dear authors: don’t do this. Just don’t.

When I tweeted about this, one woman told that Hale is the real victim here, and accused me of victim-blaming. She compared Blythe’s tactics to those of GamerGate (though I’m having a hard time finding where Blythe threatened to rape or murder Hale, or drove Hale out of her own home).

Online bullying is a thing. Trolling is a thing.

Bad reviews are also a thing. Hating someone’s book is not bullying. Sharing your opinion, suggesting others stay away from a book or an author, is not bullying. It might cost you some sales, and that sucks, but it’s not bullying, nor is it an organized campaign to destroy someone’s career.

Hale’s account does not convince me that she was a victim of online bullying. But even if she was, there comes a point where she crossed a line from victim to perpetrator. She admits to stalking Blythe online. She then began stalking her in real life. She showed up at Blythe’s home, called her on the phone.

Blythe criticized Hale’s book and probably cost her some sales. Hale stalked Blythe, presenting herself as a very real threat. She went to Blythe’s home. She called her to say, “I know who you are.”

Not okay. Even if someone said mean things about your book. Even if you’re anxious and depressed.

Which leads me to wonder why the Guardian published this piece in the first place. My friend Barbarienne sees it as a cautionary tale. She also sees it as a warning from the author: “Don’t do what I did.”

I disagree. While I see some recognition that maybe Hale made mistakes, and that she was personally in a bad emotional space, I don’t see any understanding or awareness of the lines and boundaries she crossed, or how serious those violations were. Nor does the Guardian provide any sort of context or acknowledgement of the same. Hale ends her post with the nostalgic admission that she still wishes from time to time for confirmation that Blythe has seen those old messages. There are people reading this article as if Hale is a hero standing up to the bullies of the internet.

She’s not. She’s someone who stalked and harassed a book blogger and reviewer. Someone who, to my reading, still doesn’t seem to recognize the lines she crossed. Someone who leveraged her harassment into an article for the Guardian.

Writer’s Ink: N. K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin recently posted a pic of her brand new tattoo on Facebook. Naturally, I immediately asked if she’d be willing to talk about it for Writer’s Ink :-)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jemisin … where exactly have you been? I’ve reviewed her books here and here. She’s a good writer, both in her fantasy novels and with her blog. Her next work is a novella called “The Awakened Kingdom,” coming out in December.

Here’s Jemisin talking about the inspiration behind her tattoo:

I’ve never really wanted a tattoo just to have a tattoo, even though I’ve liked and admired them on other people all my life. I’m a big believer in acknowledging life-milestones, however, whatever those might be — and on the day I sold my first novel (in 2007) and thus began my career as a professional writer, I decided that I wanted this tattoo. For those who’ve ready my Dreamblood duology, the inspiration for the tattoo is probably obvious. In the novel, Gatherers are symbols rather than people, and thus they’re known more by the unique tattoos they wear on their shoulders than by their faces. Nijiri, a young apprentice Gatherer, is “the blue lotus”. I chose his tattoo rather than that of Nijiri’s master Ehiru — “the black rose” — because even though I’ve achieved a lifelong dream, getting published was only the beginning of the next stage of my life; I have a lot to learn, still. It’s possible that at some point in the future, when I feel like I’ve achieved some major goal as a writer, I might add Ehiru’s tattoo to the other shoulder. For now, I haven’t earned that yet.

This was to be my first tattoo, and I’m picky, so I chose to wait several years to find the perfect design rather than go ahead and get something I might be less than happy with. After awhile I started to despair of ever finding a design I might like — and then, out of the blue, in preparation for Arisia (where we’ll both be Guests of Honor), I saw a blue lotus that artist Lee Moyer had created based on my descriptions of Nijiri’s tattoo. That was it! And hey, I had a birthday coming up on September 19th, which meant it was time to treat myself to a very special present. So with Lee’s gracious permission, I took the design to Willie, the tattoo artist I’d researched, and he modified it slightly to suit my skin tone, etc. (He’s awesome, BTW.) It took 3.5 hours in the chair, and it’s only now stopped peeling, etc. I’m super-happy with it. Been wearing sleeveless stuff more than usual, lately, to show it off all the damn time.

WI-Jemisin

Kindle Scout

A tweet from Damien Walter led me to Amazon’s Kindle Scout page, which I hadn’t heard about before. It looks to me like an Amazonian hybrid approach to publishing.

Basically, you submit your unpublished book of 50K words or more. After a short review period (to make sure your book is acceptable), you get a Kindle Scout “Campaign Page,” that includes the first 5000 or so words of the book. Readers nominate their favorites, and at the end of the 30-day campaign, the Kindle Scout team selects books to publish. From the FAQs:

“Nominations give us an idea of which books readers think are great; the rest is up to the Kindle Scout team who then reviews books for potential publication.”

If a book you nominated gets a Kindle Scout contract, you receive a free copy of the ebook. But you can only nominate up to three books at a time. Basically, Amazon is crowdsourcing their slush pile. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Baen does something similar at the Baen Bar, as I understand it. But I wince to think of the campaigning and clumsy self-promotion Amazon’s approach will likely create.

The publishing contract is for five years, and includes a $1500 advance and 50% ebook royalties. No indication of whether or not the terms are negotiable. For that $1500 advance, Amazon gets “the exclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right to publish e-book and audio editions of your Work, in whole and in part, in all languages, along with those rights reasonably necessary to effectuate those rights” for the duration of the contract.

(Data points: $1500 isn’t a bad advance for a small press, though I’d want to negotiate the rights grab. However, $1500 would be unacceptably low from a major publisher. Also, it’s not at all unusual to get a $1500 advance for a book’s English language audio rights alone.)

I find it curious that the ebook royalty rate is 50% for direct sales, lower than the 70% rate most self-published authors get for their e-books on Amazon. That royalty rate is definitely better than most traditional publishers offer. However, Kindle Scout royalties for third party sales are 75% of net, which is less desirable.

Clause 13 makes me rather nervous. “You acknowledge that we have no obligation to publish, market, distribute or offer for sale your Work, or continue publishing, marketing, distributing or selling your Work after we have started doing so. We may stop publishing your Work and cease further exploitation of the rights granted in this Agreement at any time in our sole discretion without notice to you.”

So the author gets a small advance with a good royalty rate for direct sales (though not as good as you’d get by publishing it yourself). You may receive some Amazon marketing, which is potentially helpful and important. But then again, you may not. Amazon also has the right to give up on you at any time, per clause 13. The author is stuck with the contract for at least two years, at which point you can request the reversion of your rights.

What I don’t see is any indication of what Amazon provides when they publish the book. Do you get an editor? A copy-editor? How much will they invest in cover art, if anything? What sort of publicity might they offer, and will that publicity extend beyond the borders of Amazon?

That makes me very uncomfortable. The whole thing feels a bit like a chimera of traditional and vanity publishing, combined with a manuscript display service.

I could be wrong. It looks like they’re just rolling this sucker out, so it’s possible the terms will be revised, or that more information will be forthcoming. But right now, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a top choice for new writers looking to get published.

ETA: Author Beth Bernobich contacted Amazon, and passed along the following information: “The book and cover must be ready to publish when you submit. So, they do not provide any editing, copyediting, or proofreading. Nor any cover art or design. And that contract? Non-negotiable. If you submit, it means you agree to the contract as is, and you cannot back out.”

Unbound: Chapter One

UnboundThe next Magic ex Libris book, Unbound, comes out on January 6, 2015.

I did a highly scientific poll over on Facebook, asking when I should post the first chapter online. While answers varied, the majority of people suggested “Right now!!!”

Who am I to argue? I put together the preview in both .pdf and .epub formats. Both files looked good and passed validation, but please let me know if you find a problem:

Unbound Chapter One [pdfepub]

There will be at least four books in the series, but in a lot of ways, books one through three have their own complete story arc. If I got eaten by a robot dinosaur today, I think this could work as a satisfying conclusion. And I’m very excited to share some of the twists and changes I’ve been building toward since book one.

A few people on Facebook suggested not posting the preview until the book was available for pre-order. Which makes me think I haven’t done as good a job as I should of letting everyone know that it is, in fact, available for pre-order :-)

Twelve weeks and counting…

Lovecraft Apologists and the World Fantasy Award

About three years ago, World Fantasy Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor wrote an essay about Lovecraft’s Racism and the World Fantasy Award Statuette. Earlier this year, author and editor Daniel José Older started a petition to change the World Fantasy Award trophy to Octavia Butler. There’s been plenty of other discussion, but those are two of the pieces that stood out to me, and seemed to generate a lot of awareness and debate.

There is now a counter-petition to keep Lovecraft and fight back against the forces of the Social Justice League, or something like that.

I’m not sure we should make Octavia Butler the new WFA statuette, in part because I’m not sure any specific individual is the best image for an award meant to represent the world of fantasy. But I am 100% on board with getting rid of the trophy we have now.

WFA TrophyFirst of all, I’m sorry, but I find the trophy to be almost obscenely ugly. I get that it’s intended to be a caricature, and artist Gahan Wilson is obviously a skilled sculptor and artist. But Wilson’s style is described as “fantasy-horror” and “playful grotesque,” and I just don’t think one of the top awards in our field should be embodied by the word “grotesque.”

As numerous others have pointed out, there’s a deeper level of grotesqueness. Lovecraft undeniably influenced the fantasy and horror genre. He was also undeniably racist. In Nnedi’s blog post, she quotes Lovecraft’s 1912 poem “On the Creation of Niggers“:

To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

This isn’t the only example of racism in Lovecraft’s work, though it’s one of the more blatant. Phenderson Djeli Clark has an essay examining Lovecraft’s racism at Racialicious.

Steven Stevenson disagrees, and posted a counter-petition to “Keep the beloved H.P. Lovecraft caricature busts (‘Howards’) as World Fantasy Awards trophies, don’t ban them to be PC!

The very first sentence describes Lovecraft’s “racism” in scare quotes — because sure, the guy’s writing was full of references to “subhuman swine” and the “negro problem” and “sneering, greasy mulattos” and how blacks are “vastly inferior” and “negro fetishism” and a cat called “Nigger Man” and so on. But let’s not leap to conclusions and label such things racist.

Stevenson admits that some of Lovecraft’s personal views were “less than ideal.” But he quickly explains that Lovecraft was a product of his time.

This excuse is, to use the technical term, bullshit.

Lovecraft was a product of his time, and spewed an awful lot of hateful, racist shit in his fiction and in his personal writing. There are a lot of other authors who were a product of that same time, and they somehow managed to avoid dousing every page in fetid, over-the-top racism.

This isn’t to say Lovecraft’s contemporaries were perfect. L. Frank Baum wrote a nasty editorial regarding the Sioux nation. I could barely finish Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Tarzan novel. But while it is important to acknowledge historical and cultural context, Lovecraft’s bigotry is pretty extreme, even when examined within that context.

Samuel Bowers co-founded the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and was convicted of murdering several civil rights leaders. He was a product of his time. You know who else was a product of that exact same time? Mister Rogers. Any given time will produce a whole range of people, from amazing, kind, compassionate human beings to frightened, hateful cowards.

There’s no need to deny that Lovecraft was an influential writer. And nobody’s saying you’re not allowed to read or even enjoy his stories. (Though you might want to check out How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things.) But let’s not pretend the man didn’t hold and espouse some despicable views on race.

Stevenson hits other tired buzzwords and phrases in his petition. It’s just the “humourless PC crowd” who want the trophy changed. Arguing for that change is suggested to be a “fascist act.” He also throws in an attack on “the misandry … promoted by many self-described ‘feminist authors’.” Because if you’re going to play Defensive Apologist Bingo, you want to fill the whole damn board!

The complaints about Lovecraft and the World Fantasy Award aren’t about “diminish[ing] him for being male and Caucasian.” It’s about wanting something other than the bulging decapitated head of an over-the-top racist to embody one of the highest honors in our genre.

So yeah, if I haven’t made it clear before, add my voice to the crowd calling for a change. I don’t know that the trophy should be any specific individual, but at this point, I think just about anything would be an improvement. (Please don’t take that as a challenge to come up with something worse.)

Perfection vs. Art

On Saturday, I took my wife out to Painting with a Twist as part of our anniversary celebration. They offer 2-hour and 3-hour sessions where the group all paints a 2′ x 3′ canvas with a particular picture. I signed us up for what was called “Blue Phone Booth” (presumably so they didn’t get into copyright or trademark trouble).

I was nervous going in, mostly because I haven’t tried to paint anything remotely artistic for about 25 years, since art class in 9th grade or so. And I wasn’t terribly good at it back then, either. But I’m rather pleased with Saturday’s results:

Tardis Painting

They had penciled in the rough outline of the TARDIS, but everything else was verbal instructions and guidelines from a woman at the front of the room. And one of the very first instructions was to relax and not worry about making it perfect.

It’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn with writing, and I was amazed at how it’s carried over into other areas of life. With writing, it’s so easy to get caught up trying to make each paragraph perfect. I remember struggling to write Goblin Hero, and never being able to get through the first draft because it wasn’t right, and I knew it wasn’t right, and I couldn’t let myself write the next part until I fixed it.

With the painting, the two-hour time limit helped a bit. I wish she’d slowed down a little in the second hour, but on the other hand, I didn’t have much time to obsess over imperfection. (And the few times I did, trying to fix my mistakes generally just made them look worse.)

She said something else that stuck with me. As she was reminding us to not worry about making it look perfect, she added that getting all of the lines and colors and such “perfect” would actually make the end result look weird and wrong.

I’ve said for years — ever since I figured out how to write Goblin Hero — that it’s important to give yourself permission to write crap. Perfection is the destroyer of art. It’s paralyzing. Art, whether it’s writing or painting or anything else, requires risk. And risk means you’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes you’re going to fail.

Consider this your periodic reminder that it’s okay to fail. You have permission to write crap, to make mistakes in your art and to laugh them off, because those mistakes are a vital part of the process. And because when you keep working through the mistakes, you might just end up creating something amazing.

Rape Statistics

Earlier this week, I referenced a CDC study on rape statistics as part of my post about tiresome mansplainers and harassment. It was pointed out that this particular study was potentially problematic in the narrow way it defined the rape of men. Fair enough — and I agree that from my reading and experience, the actual number of male rape survivors is significantly higher than the CDC found in their study.

So let’s bring in some additional data. Looking through these statistics, please keep in mind that no single study is perfect. Also remember that rape tends to be underreported, due to a combination of factors including shame, fear, lack of support from friends & family, aggressive victim-blaming from law enforcement and the judicial system, confusion over rape myths and the definition of rape, and more.

  • “9 of every 10 rape victims in 2003 were female.” (Source)
  • A U.S. Department of Justice study in 2005 estimated 15,130 male victims of rape/sexual assault, and 176,540 female victims. (Source)
  • “The first and most inclusive set of measures we present are the number and percentage of undergraduate women who reported being a victim of attempted or completed sexual assault of any type before entering college (15.9% ) and since entering college (19.0%).” (Source – study did not examine male victims of rape)
  • “1 in 6 women (17 percent) and 1 in 33 men (3 percent) reported experiencing an attempted or completed rape at some time in their lives.” (Source)
  • “In 1994 victims reported about 1 rape/sexual assault victimization of a female victim for every 270 females in the general population; for males, the rate was substantially lower, with about 1 rape/sexual assault of a male victim for every 5,000 male residents age 12 or older. Overall, an estimated 91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault were female. Nearly 99% of the offenders they described in single-victim incidents were male.” (Source)
  • Another U. S. Department of Justice study found that 95.4% of single-offender rapes/sexual assaults were committed by men. (2.9% were committed by women, and in 1.8% of cases, the gender of the rapist was unknown.) When multiple offenders were involved, then the offenders were all male in 89.6% of cases. (Source)
  • “In a single year, more than 300,000 women and almost 93,000 men are estimated to have been raped [in the U.S.]” (Source)
  • “[E]stimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.” (Source)
  • The U.S. Department of Justice has consistently found that only about 1 in 4 rapes are committed by strangers. (Source)

I could go on all day, but I’ve got a doctor appointment to get to. My takeaway from everything I’ve read over the years, as well as my personal experiences and interactions, is that:

  1. No single study is perfect.
  2. Rape is too damn common.
  3. Women are far more likely to be raped/sexually assaulted than men.
  4. Men are also raped and sexually assaulted. This is a real and valid problem too, and male victims are just as deserving of support.
  5. Men are far more likely to commit rape/sexual assault than women.
  6. Most rapes/sexual assaults are committed by friends, romantic partners, or family members, not strangers.

And of course, no matter how many studies you cite, no matter how many people share their stories and experiences, there will always be people — often but not exclusively guys, in my experience — who get extremely defensive and refuse to believe it.