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Strong Female Characters – John Konecsni

*Mike Barker suggested I write a post on “Angels of Workshops” and I will, but I’m REALLY (REALLY REALLY REALLY) trying to finish Through Fire before the end of the year (or before it finishes me.)  So, I twisted John Konecsni’s arm into writing a post for me.  Give him a warm Mad Genius Welcome, please.  (No, that doesn’t mean you set fire to his socks.  Remember the talk we had?  Right.  Just be really nice, because he’s a nice man.*

Strong Female Characters – John Konecsni

In private correspondence, I once had a reader and interviewer – an interesting fellow named Stuart West – tell me that he appreciated how many “strong female characters” I have.

 

I was a little thrown there because it took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about.

 

In my novels, I have Manana Shushurin, who’s a spy that’s more James Bond than George Smiley.  She reads, likes music, has a degree from Wittenberg university …. has no social life, and technically, lives with her mother (technically, I say, because she really lives in her office). She also has a secret that’s eating a hole in her life.

 

I also have Maureen McGrail.  She’s an Interpol detective, local Dublin cop, relentless, tenacious, and she knows about three martial arts.  She’s also pining for a guy who came into her life, swept her off of her feet (just by being himself, really) and disappeared, without showing even a hint of romantic interest in her.

 

Then there’s Wilhelmina Goldberg, who is 4’11”, computer nerd, daughter of two esoteric languages nerds. She likes science fiction and fantasy, programs her computer to talk like characters out of Lord of the Rings, and has a subscription to Security magazine. And her biggest fighting ability is a handgun.

 

In Codename: Winterborn, I have an antagonist / sort-of love interest named Mandy, who is a mercenary, hired to hunt the protagonist, and respects his skill. She’s a bit of a daddy’s girl, but she was homeschooled by her mother, which included how to shoot.

 

So every time I hear about “strong female characters,” all I can think is “if your protagonists aren’t strong is some way, how are they going to survive?” Who the bleep cares if they’re women or not?

 

In context, I should point out that Stuart was using the strong female character comment as a segue into a completely different point, an issue he found in my writing.(Apparently, I shouldn’t be putting in bust size as far as describing a female character.  I neglected to tell Stuart that if I knew anything about clothing, I would probably include men’s jacket sizes to paint a clearer, more accurate picture of them, too. But I don’t know any men who are the sizes I need. Me? OCD?  Nah….)

 

In any case, the SFC term struck me, and stuck with me.

 

And then there was this article, entitled I hate Strong Female Characters.  If you read through it, you might find a few points to agree with, and a few problems.

 

Now, I agree with the author on the initial point.  I also have problems with the SFC label. I really do, because it tends to detract from, oh, the point. In the example they used of Buffy– she was smart, witty, with outside the box solutions to non-vampire problems (shall we start with the fertilizer bomb or the rocket launcher?).  But “Strong” is the only descriptor one can come up with?

 

In my own work, I spent so much time on developing characters like Manana, Mandy, Wilhelmina, etc, their quirks and habits and hobbies, that I feel a little awkward if the best description anyone can come up with about them is just “strong.” It’s like people are just jamming the well-crafted and well-designed characters I made, and jamming them into a box labeled “X,” where Buffy and Xena are right next to Black Widow and Mandy.

 

Though you want my problem with this author?

 

1)  “I want good complex characters!”

 

…. And then the article focuses completely on Buffy, because she’s the STRONG character…. and ignores Willow, who saves the day repeatedly, but is physically as strong as your average anemic? Faith, who’s as physically strong as Buffy, but a broken character? How about Cordelia, who starts out a vacuous California mean girl, and becomes more interesting within the first half of season 1? Or Anya, who goes through a fairly strange character arc of her own?

 

And, while they’re talking about complex characters, they boiled Buffy down to only “SFC.” How about witty? Smart? Creative? The example used in the article was the end point of a two-episode arc exposing just how vulnerable Buffy really is. Yes, she’s got superpowers, but she’s still a teenager, with all the problems that comes with it, in addition to waging a constant war against everything that came to kill her, swallow the Earth, etc. The author managed to ignore the entire point of a two-part story!

 

Who demands good complex characters! and then ignores them when s/he gets them?  If this article had said that the “SFC” label shoved a character into a box and left them there, then I could agree to some degree.  But this author seems to be guilty of doing just that.

 

2) I want a 1:1 ratio of complex characters, male and female! 

 

The author prattles on about Peggy Carter of Captain America: The First Avenger, complaining that she was unbalanced and cartoonish, making a lot of assumptions.

 

The author mentions that Peggy Carter shooting Captain America’s shield is a temper tantrum that no guy would have gotten away with. Obviously, this person never saw the 100 generic Stupid People Tricks that are on cable, and mostly male.  The author assumed that in firing, Peggy had been too stupid to not be listening to the toymaker Stark prattle on about his cool toys for however long she’d been in his general orbit. The author also assumed that no one in the entire room knew that the shield was bulletproof– which is kind of like people in Q’s lab not knowing to duck on a regular basis.

 

The author then insists that this “over-the-top” reaction is because she’s one of two women with a speaking part, and there be more women on screen to counter stuff like this. (Which is odd, since I counted four — which included a grandma with a tommy gun, and a SHIELD agent at the end of the film).

 

My real problem?  First, the author makes these above assumptions and then kvetches that they could have shoe-horned in more women. Why? Just to shoe-horn in more women. So we could have a 1:1 ratio of women in the film. Really?

 

Hey, maybe we could have put in more cardboard cutouts. Besides, if you really want equality, then Captain America: The First Avenger, was perfectly equal. There were only two complex characters in the whole film.  Tommy Lee Jones was playing….Tommy Lee Jones…. Zola was Mad Scientist #2 … The Red Skull was Psycho Villain #6 … Eskine was “Dr. Littleoldmun” from Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. And Stark was very much “Howard Hughes Carbon Copy #1.”  Outside of the sidekick Bucky (Plucky Sidekick #9), are any of Captain America’s team even referred to by name?

 

In short, Carter and Rodgers were the only two characters of any substance in the film. This isn’t a complaint. I’m sure they were plenty deep in character design, but there was little enough of it on the screen. Not to mention– it’s a movie. If you’re Peter Jackson, you get nine hours of films for develop all of your characters. If you’re a Marvel film, you have, at most two hours and thirty minutes.  If you have two well-written and developed characters, you’re ahead of the game.  I feel fortunate to have one, some days.

 

But for the 1:1 ratio this author wants?

 

Maybe this author would have liked more 2D characters. As she suggest, let’s gender swap…. Dr. Zola?  So we can have a weak, simpering little woman be bullied by Tommy Lee Jones? Dr. Erskine? So we can have a little grandmother figure play the martyr?  Hey, we could gender swap Tommy Lee Jones, and have him played by Kathy Bates! Why not have the Red Skull played by Angelina Jolie?

 

Now, a reasonable argument I got from fellow author Karina Fabian is from the point of view that, there were certainly a heck of a lot more women in the WW2 military than were seen in the film. There were secretaries, WACs, women who transported planes, codebreakers, nurses, etc.  That way, we could have had a lot of women…. but they would have been in the background, and probably would have completely boiled away this author’s argument.

 

3) Women are at the back of the bus…um, movie poster, like Black Widow.

 

 

“Strong women are supposed to kick ass and keep their mouth shut.” Really?

 

How about, oh, that Black Widow WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO OUTSMARTED LOKI?  IN THE ENTIRE MOVIE! GAAAHHHH!!!

 

How about that BLACK WIDOW WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO COULD CLOSE THE PLOT DEVICE DESTROYING NEW YORK?

 

How about the fact that there were maybe five deep moments in the entire film, and Black Widow was in two of them (The five moments were Stark and Banner in Lab, Stark and Rodgers reconcile, Coulson, interrogating Loki, and Black Widow and Barton, post-brainwashing….six scenes, if you count Black Widow and Bruce Banner in India, giving her half the deep moments in the film).

 

Oh, hey, how about Sam Jackson? Maybe we should say The Avengers was racist, because he was in the back of the poster?

 

I’m sorry, but unless you’re Iron Man or Thor, you’re in the back of this poster.

 

4) Where’s Thor?


Seriously, where’s the movie Thor in this discussion?  You know, the movie that was mostly Kat Denning and Natalie Portman handling Chris Hemsworth as he was enduring culture shock? With some occasional exposition from Mr. Skaarsgard? Portman’s character, astrophysicist Jane Foster, isn’t “strong,” in this sense, is she? Because last time I checked, most of my female friends could break her like a toothpick. Foster is instrumental in Thor’s change from prick to hero, but is she thrown on the bonfires of the blogger’s vanity because she doesn’t come with a complete bio and genealogy?

 

Or does this author consider her merely as a damsel in distress?  Which would be odd, because if you were in the New Mexico town in Thor, you were in distress, up to and including the three beefy supporting characters and the Valkyrie that (quite literally) drop down out of the sky.

 

Or does this not count, because the end of the movie involves the Warriors Three, Odin, and Loki? Making it three more male characters on screen than women?  Do we count Freya, who tried to stopped three assassins coming to get Odin? Or because she wasn’t on screen that often, should we throw her aside?

 

While not physically strong, I thought Jane Foster was very well written. She was the love interest, sure, but that love motivated both of them to be better.  He was motivated to be a better person, and she was motivated to continue pursuing interstellar/inter-dimensional travel.

 

Am I wrong? Or, as I asked, does she just not count?

 

Conclusion: Equality!

 

As I said at the beginning, I don’t like the SFC label.  If you can shove my characters into a nice neat little box, I’m going to be pissy — either at you for demeaning my characters, or at myself for making them cardboard cutouts.

 

I would have liked this article more if it were less obvious. It’s clearly pushing an agenda — not about creating good characters, but numerical “equality!” for “equality’s” sake. By the end, I felt like I was reading a review of 300 that insisted that there should have been 150 female Spartans at Thermopylae (this is not a joke, I did read one of those).

 

I honestly couldn’t tell you the ratio of my characters if you dared me to.

 

In Pius Man, I’ve got Maureen, Manana and Wilhelmina named above as main characters. Is the ratio 1:1 if I include Giovanni Figlia’s wife, the forensic specialist?

 

Is the ratio no longer 1:1 if I count the three priests in the background?

 

Is it all right if I have Scott “Mossad” Murphy, who can’t shoot, is pale, anemic-looking, and pair him up with the sexy gunslinger Manana?  Does that make him weak, even though he will take gunfire and is a pivotal part of the book?

 

Does Wilhelmina Goldberg not count if she doesn’t shoot anybody, but is a key part to hunting down the bad guys by the end?

 

At the end of the day, the SFC label is too simple. But so is reducing “equality” to numbers of people on screen and counting lines.  If you’re keeping score with 1:1 ratios, exactly what will satisfy you? I have no idea.

 

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go write a scene where Manana has to save Scott. Again.

Oh the whining and whinging

I do so love how some folks have to hunt to find some sliver of something that might, in some faraway galaxy, be construed as ill-will by Amazon. Once they find it, they run with it, doing their best to make it into a “big” deal, never considering what the actual facts might be. After all, it’s Amazon they are condemning, so why worry about such minor things like facts? The haters are going to hate, no matter what.

The latest example comes from the New York Times. Yes, yes, I know. It is a bastion of journalistic integrity. How could I doubt it when it hosts headlines like this: Amazon Offers All-You-Can-Eat Books. Authors Turn Up Noses.

The article starts out by saying that authors are mad — again — with Amazon. It goes on to note that “[f]or much of the last year, mainstream novelists were furious that Amazon was discouraging the sale of some titles in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette over e-books.”

Now, the teacher in me would take the reporter and the editor who approved the article to task for that sentence. After all, it implies that all mainstream novelists were “furious” with Amazon over the Hachette issue. Funny, I don’t remember it being every mainstream author. In fact, the only ones who seemed to really be furious were the favored few and those who felt it necessary to align their names with those same little darlings of the Hachete world. Most of the other so-called mainsteam authors — and what is a mainstream author? Could the article actually mean traditionally published authors? — were busy doing what writers do. They were writing. Note also how the article doesn’t mention once the suggestions made by Amazon to help these so-called furious authors, suggestions that would have put money into the pockets of the authors and that were summarily tossed aside by Hachette. But I digress.

According to the article, there is too much competition out there for writers now. Without the gatekeepers to limit the number — and “quality” — of books available, there are just too many choices for the poor reader to choose from. This is a variation of the argument that is also going around that Amazon is a purveyor of lettuce and shouldn’t also be selling books because, duh, they sell lettuce.

But the real issue the article has with Amazon is the new Kindle Unlimited program. For those of you not familiar with the KU program, it works like this. From the reader’s standpoint, you pay a monthly fee of $9.99. In return, you get the option of downloading up to 10 books at a time for free. These books have to be enrolled in the KU program, so most will be indie books. There is no time limit on when you have to read the books. You can’t loan them and you don’t own them. Think of it as a for pay library. You are paying for the ability to borrow a book for an unlimited period of time.

From the author’s point of view, you have to enroll your title first in the KDP Select program. That means you cannot sell your title anywhere else. Then, if you want to go into the KU program, you check the little box and your book is now enrolled. But don’t get your knickers in a twist — yet. You will get paid for those loans.

Maybe.

At some future point in time.

The problem with KU from an author’s point of view is two-fold. The first is that you don’t know how many times your book has been downloaded. You only find out about a download when it is read to a certain percentage of the book’s length. When that magical number is reached, you get your share of the common “pot”. And therein lies the second issue.

As with the Kindle Only Lending Library (KOLL), authors get paid out of a monthly fund set up by Amazon. The fund can vary in amount from month to month. Worse, there is no limit on the number of books that can be in the program at any one time. So, the more books downloaded and then read to the magic percentage point, the lower the monies paid out per download.

But the real problem with KU is the fact that there is no payment tier based on title price. Someone who puts up a title that normally sells for 99 cents will get the same amount of money per download as that $9.99 title gets. What that means is that those who are putting up titles that fall under the 30% royalty structure normally will get more money per download than they would for a straight sale. Conversely, depending on how much a title sells for you might make close to what you would for a sale if your title is priced at $2.99 but you will make substantially less for those books priced higher than that.

Now, how you look at that is up to you. Amazon is not, contrary to what the article says, making e-books an all-you-can-eat proposition. Most folks aren’t going to pay basically $10 a month just to maybe be able to download 10 books every 30 days or so. Some will, of course, but the average reader will quit the program after realizing they aren’t getting their money’s worth out of it.

But, as an author, you need to look at your sales stats — and that includes returns as well. My personal experience has seen a dramatic decrease in returns on the romance/paranormal romance novels. As I’ve blogged before, other authors I’ve talked to who write in the romance genres have complained of higher return rates for those books than for other genre novels they write. It has nothing to do with quality — usually — but more to do with a certain set of readers. Don’t get me wrong. Most romance genre readers are wonderful fans who would never think about buying a book, reading it and then returning it. However, there is a subset of readers who have no problem doing just that. It isn’t unusual for romance genre authors to have a return rate of 10% or more. Since KU premiered, my return rate for those particular novels has dropped dramatically. It is now at the same level as my other books, below 1% for most novels.

There is something else I’ve noticed. With the exception of my science fiction novels, sales — and borrows — of the other novels have picked up since KU began. That is a good thing. It means money in my pocket and kitty kibble for Demon Kitten and Her Royal Pussiness. Would I like a better way of accounting for the number of downloads vs reading to the magic number? You bet. Just like I’d appreciate knowing how long the average is between download to reading. But what I am finding out through reviews and emails is that a number of those who try a book on KU will then return the book and buy their own copy. Better yet, they will buy other books in the series. I know I am getting sales from KU that I might not otherwise because people do hesitate to buy from an author they aren’t familiar with.

I do wish Amazon would restructure the payment for KU to make it more difficult for authors to game the system. I don’t think something that normally sells for 99 cents should get the same payout that a $2.99 novel does, much less a novel that sells for $4.99 or more. For the system to really work, there needs to be modifiers based on price and length of the work. Without the latter, you will simply have those who want to game the system changing the price of their 2,500 work story from 99 cents to $2.99 (or whatever) to get the larger royalty payout.

The way I look at KU, however, is much like I look at the Baen Free Library. It is, in a way, a loss leader. People get my work for “free”. I don’t get as much money for their borrows but I do, hopefully, get sales out of it in the long run. Am I leaving everything in the program?  I’m not sure. I think I will tweak my offerings a bit over the next month or so to see what happens. But, for now, I’m not going to completely abandon it. Not when I do see positive results from the program.

Now if Amazon would only adjust it so the payout was based on price and length of the work, I’d be a happy camper.

Forcing the Changes

‘tis the season to… by golly!
Regulate the Christmas lights you got for little lolly…

Yes, apparently because there have been IIRC 250 deaths (since 1980) in the US which have fallen away to 1 per year… Nanny needs to pass new regulations, which will, inevitably be expensive, onerous and um… put the price of Christmas lights up. Maybe make it impossible for Joe Sixpack to waste his money on pleasing the kiddies. Now, the chances Joe will be struck by lightning and die are (on this year’s stats) 26 times higher than your chances of death-by-Christmas lights. With even the chances of death by lightning at 26/about 350 000 000, make the odds on a Darwin-award Christmas Decorator about as likely as a Hugo Awards going to anyone but yet another set of outspoken PC far leftists SJW this year (yes, they’re approaching infinite improbability). Yet, most certainly the regulations have only a slightly lower chance of occurring than the usual situation in the ‘It’s absolutely fair and un-politically unbiased’ Hugo awards.

It is in general a losing proposition for the ordinary consumer – of lights or Science Fiction. It’s pretty certain to be a losing proposition for the producers of both too (yes, even the ‘best’ winners and expensive light producers that comply fully with regulation ridiculous ad absurdum). It’s rather like taxation… too much is counterproductive. If Christmas lights become ludicrously expensive to keep that one potential Darwin-Award winner safe… people will find alternatives. LED’s run off 12 volt batteries. Or quietly decide that the regulators to stuff themselves in the orifice now available in a frozen supermarket turkey. The income, jobs and taxes the regulators (and their chums who probably paid some lobbyist to make sure their lights sold well, at premium prices) hoped to generate for themselves vanish… and such an attitude rapidly spreads. And yes. More Darwin-awardees, and even some who are not, die. In Zimbabwe where they made the rules impossible to survive, they now have a situation where disregard and distrust of regulations is the norm. No one obeys rules unless they think they’re being watched, or it suits them at the time. People who once would never, ever, deliberately flout even the silliest petty law, even if they knew they had no chance of being caught, had to, to survive. The black market, illegal currency trade, smuggling, and buying smuggled goods were all that kept starvation from winning. Everyone still alive in that country broke the law, with intent, regularly, largely with impunity, because there were too many to stop, and people knew that they had no choice.

Spin that attitude into publishing’s gate-keeping, or the various awards, and you actually see much same thing happening right now. The awards lose credibility, people buy self-published books. Once I automatically bought a Hugo or Nebula winner. Now I automatically don’t. Publishers once held automatic loyalty, and were the imprimatur of quality. Self-pubbed books were to be scorned. Only, if you stop publishing much I’d (and many others) like to read, and those pesky self-pubs are, well it could just end up the other way around. And if you somehow managed to shut self-publishing down, look to the death of the novel reading (as bounds get narrower) and professional writing (as the rewards get smaller still).

The short-term gains are not worth very much. That should be obvious to even the stupidest observer. That didn’t stop the dumb bunnies in their anti-sad-puppies campaign this last year. It hasn’t stopped most of traditional publishing outside of Baen going on down the same course they’ve been losing readers on for a generation. It won’t stop nanny calling for more and more Grinch regulations, even if she fails on this attempt.

Because it’s about control (and possibly short term reward and money). This is how they work. This is the only way they know. They cannot see otherwise.

In the meanwhile, we’re going to continue working around them.

We know we can!

And in the New Year I resolve I will.

Art!

There has been a long productive discussion in a private group I belong to on what defines art.

For the SJWs it means “be socially relevant in the ‘right’ (left) direction.”  For me, no, it doesn’t.

However they are historically ah justified, since historically art was used to support the church and state that defined the society.  And this day as far as the elites are concerned, the theology is marxism, which supports them in their technocrat “we know better” position and their pretense of working for others and therefore deserving rewards.

So before we can combat them, we need to create our own theory of art criticism.

I propose three legs to support art

Intention — what effect you achieve must be intentional.  Some branches covered in frost in the morning are beautiful, but not intentional.  (Well, maybe G-d amuses himself making mini-masterpieces, but we don’t know that and a lot of it seems to be random. Also, if this is G-d’s work of art, it would be beyond our ability to perceive or critique.  Moot.)  So — without intention and creating will there is no art.

Skill – This is slippery territory because we don’t know where skill ends and genius begins.  However, SOME skill is needed.  A writer needs to know the language he is working in.  A musician needs to be able to play his instrument, be it a stick and a bucket or a piano.  A painter needs to know how to draw basic forms and how colors interact.  (Yes, I know there’s a whole theory of noble savage art, particularly in plastic arts, which I think aren’t really, just a manifestation of utter decadence.)

Emotion – the ultimate effect of any art is emotion, whether it’s good emotion, bad emotion.  It is however a controlled emotional experience leading to catharsis.

And the ultimate test of art is whether it speaks to people through the centuries.  It is possible to be immensely popular in your own time for other factors, such as social signaling or heavy supporting of the elites line, and to be despised or, worse, ignored, in the future.

However, if you’re not popular in your own time — if you’re not entertaining enough to sustain interest, then you’ll ONLY be read for social signaling and your chances of ever achieving the emotional effect in your own day, much less the future, is zero.

So — discuss it.  I’m trying to come up with a coherent theory that leads to a book, or at least a monograph.

Oh, and why should we care as writers?  Good heavens — if we’re trying to improve, we need to know in which direction.  Beyond “make mo’ money” — though mind you I’m totally behind that too.

Tempus Fuggit

As I sit here, the sun refuses to peek over horizon. Well, over the trees and “hills” (I’ve seen what the East Part calls mountains, and I remain unimpressed) surrounding the Kilted Homestead. Frost is thick on the grass, the fence, likely the cars ringing the cul de sac, and likely the roof, as well. And I hear sirens. (They must have discovered my pending Minion of the ELOE status. Look like I’ll be spending New Year’s at Fallback Position Gamma-9) It seems like just yesterday that Wee Dave took his first coughing breaths and gave me his first dirty look (there have been plenty of both since) and I’m minded – as an ambulence goes past – that there are any number of people who won’t see the sun come up tomorrow. At least not on this world.

As the days march past, I’ve been watching my fellow genii from afar. Words are worked, projects begun, pounded at, finished, and announced (not necessarily in that order) and I wonder what I’m doing with my time. And then I remember: I’m the primary on a (now) seven month old. Plenty of people have suggested (gently; they understand the fragile state of mind of the new parent) that I’m doing just fine, but there’s that niggling part of my mind whispering poisonedly that I haven’t finished a story since July. Which is true, but the conclusions it’d have me draw are off. Or at least I tell myself this. It’s all part and parcel of the Fake-It-‘Til-Y’Make-It Method (copyright, patent pending, thought-banked at First Rigel).

Christmas is just past (unless you’re Catholic. Also, Merry’to’yer, Joyous Yule, Happy Hanukka, and an exciting Hogswatch!) and New Year’s is coming round the corner with martini glass in one hand and rattle in the other, the lush, and it’s the time when people think about transitions and turning points and what they have and haven’t accomplished during the year, and hope to during the next. As writers, we tend toward the morose and maudlin (or so I’ve noticed, and I don’t think I’m just projecting from my own experiences). The weight of books unfinished drags while half-formed plots and characters tease at the edge of thought. It’s quite distracting, really.

And that’s on a normal day. Any number of us have had the pleasure of what Kris Rusch and Dean Smith call “life rolls.” Birth, death, marriage, divorce, wild success or abject failure. Moving (I’m really learning to hate that one) or health that can only be called complicated. All of these, and more (can be had for four low, low payments…) fall under the Life Happens category, and most of us have experienced at least one such in the past year, it seems.

I know Wee Dave has drastically impacted my ability to get anything accomplished. Writing is something that happens very occasionally when I steal time from the normal routine (which suggests a solution, right there) and almost always when I have some kind of deadline, like when I realize I have a post to write as I’m getting ready for bed. That kind of thing. Fiction is harder, at least right now. I’m told things ease as the small creatures become more independent. I hope this is true, as writers write, and right now, I’m not so much with the writing, as the wanting to be writing.

But that’s just where I’m going with this. Life happens. It keeps happening all around us, and to us (without permission or blessing! the nerve!). It’s verges on the discouraging, but that seems to be how this particular vocation rolls. Oddly, and with much jouncing and bounding about. I’d like to have a few words with the Author about the whole set-up, let me tell you.

As we look toward the coming of a new arbitrary division of time, we get the pleasure (for lack of a better term) of a stew of emotions, reactions and anticipations. Will Bezos the Conqueror choose 2015 as the Year of the Great Darkening, as the publishing prophets have foretold? Will relentlessly advancing technology unseat the Lords and Masters of this place from their positions of power? Will Skynet (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) arise? Or at least, will the world, and my part in it, settle just enough that I can knock out that multiple best-selling story and set my parents up in the manner to which they would like to become accustomed? Right now, I don’t much care, as it’s early, yet (lazy sun is just now getting with the program) and I haven’t had coffee, yet, much less the remains of last night’s eggnog and bacon-wrapped roast for breakfast. Not together; that would be odd.

I’m uncertain I’ll ever truly acclimatize to the shifting of the seasons, and I’m equally unsure that I actually want to. At the least, it keeps life a little more interesting. I wonder how true this is of humans, in general. Are we, as a species, always playing catch up? Regardless, the thrust of history can really only be determined with hindsight, regardless of the thoughts coming from certain quarters. As for me, I’ll be taking the new year as it comes. There’s already plenty on my plate, and I can’t see the portions getting any smaller. Which is oddly comforting.

Twas the Night Before Christmas as Edited by a Social Justice Warrior

(with abject apologies to Clement Moore)

Twas the sleep-preferred diurnal period before the non-denominational winter celebration, when all through the dwelling place

Not a life-privileged thing was stirring, not even a member of the species mus musculus.

The gift receptacles of choice were placed by the designated location with care,

In hopes that a culturally appropriate giver of gifts soon would be there.

The people of youth were nestled all snug in their sleeping places,

While visions of diverse comfort foods danced in their heads.

And the female caregiver in her gender-neutral attire, and I in my gender-neutral attire,

Had just settled our brains for a long cold seasonal nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my sleeping place to see if I needed to call the local law enforcement officers to negotiate.

Away to the window I flew like a very fast thing,

Tore open the shutters and opened the window.

The moon on the non-binary-gender chest analogy of the new-fallen snow

Gave the brightness of midday to objects below

When what to my wondering eyes should appear

But a miniature cold winter transportation device and eight reindeer of diverse size.

With a driver endowed with age but not stature so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be the cis-male quasi-religious figure associated with the non-denominational winter celebration.

More rapid than speed-privileged things zir reindeer they came,

And ze whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

Now Runner of Speed! Now, Mover with Grace! Now, Performer with Fancy Footwork and Fox with Femaleness!

On, Comet! On Pagan Love God, on Donner and Blitzen! (and I wondered if reindeer had orgies, for surely this was an invitation to one)

To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!

Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

As leaves of low moisture that before the non-hostile extreme weather fly

When they meet with a non-hostile obstacle, are drawn to the sky,

So up to the house-top the reindeer they flew

With the cold winter transportation device and the cis-male quasi-religious figure too.

And then, in a non-binary-gender twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each non-size-enhanced hoof.

As I drew in my head and was turning around,

Down the chimney the cis-male quasi-religious figure came with a bound.


Ze was dressed all in the skins of murdered animals, from zir head to zir foot,

And zir clothes were all smeared in a non-judgmental manner with ashes and soot.

A bundle of age-appropriate items ze had flung on his back,

And ze looked like an itinerant seller of items just opening zir pack.

Zir eyes they were twinkle-privileged! Zir dimples how merriness-enhanced!

Zir cheeks were like roses, not that zir cheeks being like roses is a bad thing, zir nose like a cherry!

Zir mouth of smallness was drawn up like a non-violent bow,

And the cis-normative male beard on zir chin was as white as the cold season precipitation.

The stump of a pipe ze held tight in zir teeth,

And despite the danger of lung cancer the smoke it encircled zir head like a seasonal garland.

Ze had a broad face and a little round belly from eating too much fatty food,

So it shook when ze laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

Ze was chubby and plump, a cis-male normative old white elf,

And even though it was disrespectful I laughed when I saw zir in spite of myself.

A wink of zir eye and a twist of zir head,

Soon gave me to know I need not be fear-enhanced.

Ze spoke not a word but went to zir occupation of choice,

And filled all the gift receptacles, then turned with a sharp motion.

And laying zir finger aside of zir nose,

And giving a nod up the chimney ze went!

 

Ze sprang to zir cold weather transportation, to zir team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

By I heard ze exclaim ere ze drove out of sight,

“Happy non-denominational seasonal festival to all, and to all a good night!”

In other news, if any of you should chance to find what passes for my sanity, please send it back. I miss it.

 

Update: Welcome to Instapundit readers!

The Demon Up close – Novel Workshop addendum

 

As I said before, I thought some of the workshop demons deserved a closer look than the list I gave.

This time we’re going to go over people, be they in a group or in beta reading, who can derail your writing for months, particularly if you’re a beginner and insecure.

I find it necessary to go over these, even though I named their types in the last post because frankly these are the ones who tend to derail me. PARTICULARLY if they’re well intentioned.

Now, in almost every one of these categories there is an element of malice, but often the person him/herself has no idea he/she is being malicious, and will be wounded to the heart if you tell them they are. They honestly – most of them, some more than others – think they’re helping you. So to confront them with what they’re really doing will just break a friendship and probably a group and accomplish nothing. It is best to be aware of what they’re doing and say nothing.

Unless of course the person gets frustrated at being balked and becomes more and more openly malicious, in which case you have a problem in your hands if it’s a close friend or a valued group member. We’ve had to disband a group, form under another name and change our meeting date and place to get rid of one man who would start EVERY critique with “To begin with, this didn’t work for me.” (My late friend Alan spoofed this the rest of the time our group was together by always starting the critique with that and giving us the fake critique first, “To begin with, this doesn’t work for me. Why are there these Good Men? Where is Starfleet, Uh?” For that alone, that annoying twit of a malicious group member was worth it.)

So, last week, I named the following “demons” which hinge on people/personalities rather than technique. These are important and difficult, because technique you can say “Look, I found this in a book” but if the problem is personality and you’re stuck with this critique for reasons of friendship or group dynamics you’re going to need a better understanding of THEIR mechanics, so you can either get rid of them or ignore them.

 

  • The person who never wrote/can’t write a novel and who will do his/her best to discourage you out of inadequacy, though that’s not what they say.
  • The amnesiac. If you’re bringing in a chapter a week, he’s forgotten the previous chapter and will query everything he doesn’t get.
  • The expert. Your novel is a nail and he has a hammer. My favorite of this was the guy who yelled at me for using burner and how I should give the make and model of the gun – completely missing the (described) fact it was a laser weapon.
  • The moralist. This critter confuses your characters with you and tries to tell you you’re all wrong. For instance, a story in which a man was so neurotic/confused, he lets a woman be dragged off in front of him got me accused of “supine cowardice” by one of these critters. (He also inferred my character was gay, which he wasn’t, but that’s beyond the point. Oh, and that was wrong, wrong, wrong too, and how dare I.) These people often belong to the traditional religions and sometimes to new credos. I’ve gotten blasted for using “ecologically unsound” materials in a novel. (No, seriously. Hey, the only trees killed are to print the novel, and that’s if it’s not an ebook.) I’ve gotten yelled at for having characters in high heels. (Females, even.)

 

We’ll go into the others later.

Let me first start by saying that yes, you might be muffing the book badly; that your words aren’t sacred; that someone saying “I don’t like this” or asking questions ad-nauseum, might in fact be absolutely right.

The only way to be sure it’s not you but the critiquer are a pattern of behavior, either because he also critiques other people this way or because he contradicts what trusted people say.

Also, I should point out all of these, often, flow into each other. Even the can’t/won’t can be an “expert” who in this case has several books written.

You see, the malice in both those cases is attempting to slow down someone who is doing what you can’t. And yes, it is possible for a writer to be envious of another writer producing, even when he/she has produced in the past. Mostly because he/she isn’t producing now. I’ve felt it myself and stopped it, hopefully before damaging anyone.

Now, even if there isn’t a pattern, there are critiques that, while valid, won’t help you. Sometimes it’s because you’re trying to do something quite difficult, fell on your butt, but changing it to what the critique sees will kill it. I’ve had awful critiques, of all people, from my husband, who is normally spot on. He loathed the voice in DST on first reading. Then it grew on him. I think it was where he was at the time, but if I’d listened, I’d have killed the book.

It’s always a judgment call, and I can’t make it for you.

There are occasions too when critiques hurt like hell, but they’re right. Look next week for “When to shut up and take it.”

First though, let me tell you when not to take it. Take the can’t/won’t. If they’re in a writers group, they’re writing something. (If they’re not, kick them the heck out.) Presumably they either write shorts or they never finish anything.

You’ll see why they never finish anything as they take your book to pieces on “logic.”

“But if little Red Riding Hood knew about the wolf, why go to grandma? Why shouldn’t her dad go, instead, armed with a shot gun? Why???”

If you write like I do, the details fall in place as you write, and you sometimes go back and fix things. If you’re being questioned every step, you’ll block hard. (And if you’re doing this to yourself stop it already.)

So. Here is the key: no story was ever told that wasn’t internally inconsistent. No, not even stories from real life, which is often the most inconsistent of all. It’s the way the human brain works. So next time someone says “So, they have anti-grave and still use screws? Why?” tell them “we have computers and still use open fires to cook. Why?”

Then finish the dang thing and fix the more glaring issues in post if you have to. And unless the can’t/won’t is openly malicious, try to get this through his/her skull and set HIM free, too.

The amnesiac – usually not openly hostile. They might just have a lousy memory. I really don’t have anything to say to this except that after showing someone three chapters – to test the hook – you should just wait till you finish the novel. (And if you have to bring something in write short stories or short shorts. What the heck, a story a week will do more for your writing than all the workshops in the world.)

The expert… ah, the expert. Now SOME experts are useful people. Take me. I speak several languages and even though I can make bone-headed mistakes in them (it’s been almost thirty years) in general I can tell you “Why are you writing that in Spanish? Brazil doesn’t speak Spanish.” (Ran across this, recently in a published/acclaimed mystery. Never mind.)

I’m useful to have in a critique group if you need to have your character say a sentence in another language. Check my grammar in French, though. It’s apparently in fast decay. When the guys move out, I’m going to spend a few months brushing up on French again. Useful, French. (And I have a ton of research from the time of the musketeers that’s ONLY in French.)

However for my money the MOST damaging expert is the one who is ahead of you in his/her career. The ones that slowed our group the most were one who had taken a well-respected workshop, and one who had published a novel ten years before.

The problem in these cases was worse back when we didn’t have the internet. Anyone slightly ahead on the road was a respected source.

The problem is both of those people – horribly well intentioned – knew only ONE path. So the first tried to teach us “the way of the workshop” which is fine, except that I’ve noticed unless they have a strong personality all graduates of that workshop read like boiled oatmeal. (I had a small press magazine and could guess a graduate without looking at the cover letter. Impeccable grammar, rigid ideology, and… well, bland.)

The second tried to teach us to write “publishable” except that publishable to her was “as I do it” and she hadn’t been published in ten years because her first book didn’t sell all that well. Also, she hadn’t moved with times and both style and approach to publishers CHANGES in ten years. (Less than that now with indie.) She MEANT well. And she set us back two years, at least.

She wrote (pretty good) adventure SF but she had these internal barriers. Any thought-monologue for instance was right out – which is fine, unless you ARE writing first person, which she didn’t – and she approached stories from “problem to be solved or mcguffin to find” not from “character needs to change.” All character based plotting to her was Romance even if there was not a wiff of love interest on the page. (Which tells me she ALSO never READ romance.)

We drove ourselves nuts chasing our own tails for years…

What is the cure for this? Easy: if someone wants you to change everything about your writing to be another kind of writing, they’re probably wrong. Unless, of course, you’re writing in Martian or its English equivalent.

Look, once past the very basics, there will be good stuff about your writing, and you shouldn’t need to change EVERYTHING.

Also, check your experts. How are they doing career wise? Ignore those who are no longer WORKING writers. (I did a good imitation of that the last two years, but it’s mostly being very ill very often. Never mind.)

The point to remember is there is no magical bullet. No expert, descended from heaven, will hand it to you. If someone says “what you have to do is start with” the plot, or the mcguffin or whatever, be VERY suspicious. Every writer I know has different methods of approaching the story. If you’re comfortable with yours don’t go trading them in on the “expert’s.”

Now, the MORALIST – this is the hardest one. At least he is the hardest if you were brought up decently as I was and if you’re afraid of writing something that will “corrupt” someone else (Well, I used to be.)

They’re not all traditional morality, of course. I’ve had people object because my characters were not using ecologically friendly materials. But what they all are are people who will try to shame you for what you wrote on grounds other than the execution.

For instance the above, right pain in the neck, who started everything with “to begin with, this didn’t work for me” once blew his top because I had an hermaphrodite alien (actually modified human) in a story. (The short story is Lost. It’s up for sale, and gosh, does it need a new cover.) He blew his top because I was glorifying the gay lifestyle. Look, with the best intention in the world, I don’t get it. There’s nothing vaguely gay about the story, except this alien was living as a male (for reasons of looks) on earth. But the story is told from the POV of his sister and there’s NO SEX and certainly no gay … community if you will.

Not that there would be anything wrong if there was, mind you. There just wasn’t. But it must have been one of his triggers because he ranted on for half an hour about what a horrible person I was. (Next week all of us had gay characters. Some very badly written, because some people felt uncomfortable. When that failed to unload him – though it did make him unhinged – we had to resort to other things.)

Mind you, he was blatant. Some people are more … subtle. Some will approach you after the meeting (ALWAYS bad news) put their hand on your shoulder and say “I know you’re a good person. But that story? It will make people think you eat babies for breakfast.”

How to ignore them?

Unless there really is something in the story that disturbs you, remember you aren’t the story and the story isn’t you. If you’re a GOOD writer things come from so deep in your subconscious that they often have nothing to do with you. They’re just a way to make the story work and say what it has to say.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. And yes, some fools might think you eat babies. But they’d probably never read you and were only looking for something to beat you with. Ignore it.

When I wrote A Few Good Men I was afraid the characters’ orientation would offend people. It probably did, some people. But I tried to change it (to give the book wider appeal) and it simply wouldn’t work. So I rolled with it. Yes, it will offend some. But some will like it because it is a war story with gay characters. (NOT battle front. If you haven’t read it, chill.) Win some, lose some. I kept it clean, mostly because my characters tend to close the door in my face, but also because it widens the audience.

And that’s what you need to be sure of – don’t offend unnecessarily. If the story will still work without the threesome with the Martian, remove the threesome. If it won’t, leave it in. At best, you’ll have people like it despite it. At worst some of your fans will forever refer to that story as “Oh, [insert your name here] no!”

Next week: When to shut up and take it!

 

 

 

The holidays always bring out the weird

When the movie “Christmas Vacation” first came out back in 1989, I sat in the darkened movie theater wondering how in the world they’d managed to listen in on my family Christmases without me knowing. While he might not have gone all out on the outdoor lights, my Dad would turna Clark Giriswold-like energy to his baking. He was a wonderful baker but, boy, during the holidays did he try to do more than was humanly possible in a short period of time. Worse, he always found at least one recipe that he just had to do — and it always failed. Not that we’d dare tell him that. So Mom and I would plaster a fake smile on our faces as he started telling us about this latest recipe he’d just found and then we’d try to find a reason to be out of the house before the first batch came out of the oven. Neither of us wanted to be the one to try the first bite.

We went through years of homemade fruit cakes and, yes, to this day I can’t stand them. There were rum cakes that I swear would have exploded into flame if you lit a math near them. Cookies — at least I think they were cookies — that could have been used as weapons of mass destruction. All we’d have to do was drop them over an enemy encampment and we’d receive notice of surrender within minutes. Their only demand would be that we not “give” them any more of my father’s little experiments.

We never had a squirrel in our Christmas tree either. We didn’t need one. We had cats. One cat in particular loved Christmas because it was the one time of the year when he had his own indoor tree — at least that’s the way he saw it. The little devil would leave the tree alone that first day after bringing it in from the sales lot. Dad and I would set the tree in its stand and for the next 24 hours work to get it into just the right position to suit Mom (she could tell where the bare spots would be after the limbs shook out and the ornaments were on long before those two things happened.) But once the ornaments went on, it was as if the call went out to give permission for the cat to start climbing the tree.

Oh, he was smart about it. He would wait until we were gone or at least in another room. Then he’d scramble through the packages around the tree and up the trunk he’d go. If we were lucky, he would simply climb up the tree and look out, the king surveying his realm. Unfortunately, more often than not, we’d hear something drop. Then something else, then the clinking of glass ornaments hitting — and breaking — one upon the other. Of course, the cat would be nowhere to be found by the time we raced in to see what was happening. Or worse, he’d be sitting in the hall, looking into the room and then at us with an expression of pure innocence.

Not that it fooled us.

But it was the crashing of the Christmas tree in the middle of the night — and the destruction of almost all the ornaments, many of which dated back to my great grandparents — that was the final straw. No, Mom didn’t cook the Christmas cat. Although, I think she would have if she’d been able to catch him. Instead, she went out as soon as the stores opened the next morning and bought three things. The first was the biggest spray bottle she could find. Then she bought some replacement ornaments. Finally, she brought home a small fake Christmas tree that she put up for the cat. Of course, Mom being Mom, she was evil about it and bought a foil tree. It didn’t take very long for the cat to decide he didn’t like either tree. One didn’t taste good and wasn’t tall enough to climb and the other resulted in — ACK!– water touching him.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying, things haven’t changed much at the old homestead. Now we have DK — Demon Kitten. He hasn’t — yet — tried to climb the Christmas tree. But that is probably only because it is a fake tree and he can’t get a good purchase on the trunk. But boy-oh-boy does he have a thing for the ornaments. He not only knocks them off the tree but he then carries them throughout the house. I wake in the middle of the night — almost every night since the tree went up — to the sounds of ornaments rolling across the tile of either the entry hall or the kitchen. We’ve learned to put on slippers or shoes when we first get up because there is no telling what we might step on. It could be a small ornament that would break under our foot or just the hanger used to place the ornament on the tree. It makes mornings more of an “adventure” than they already are and this isn’t a good thing for someone like me who has to have coffee before her eyes open.

Add to that the usual adventures in the kitchen. So far, they are starting early. Dad’s no longer with us so any baking mistakes are mine. At least I try my own baking first, before making someone else do it. As a result, the failures usually end up on the trash before anyone knows about them. But Mom has a love-hate relationship with the kitchen sink and related appliances during the holiday season. Usually, the trouble happens either right before or right after we’ve had company over. This year, the trouble started early. You can read the full story over at my blog but the short version is, she almost destroyed the disposal and did destroy a couple of plastic measuring spoons when she didn’t realize three of them had gone into the disposal before she turned it on. I worked to free the grinders for almost an hour before giving up and calling a friend to see if he could do it. Fortunately for my pocketbook, he could.

Now the weather isn’t playing along with my plans and it’s raining. That means no making of divinity today which means delivery of a tray of goodies to a friend has to wait at least one more day. Sigh. But that’s okay because there is still cooking and baking to do.

And somewhere in there, I have to find time for writing.

In the meantime, if you’re still looking for something to give to your family or friends who are readers, consider picking up something by the members of MGC. Yes, this is a shameless plug but, well, I never said I had any shame  😉

Here’s hoping everyone has a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday Season.

The white turkey excuse.

You’ve heard of the legends of hunting the white Hart? That mythical creature of great beauty and mortal danger, a magical creature, that roams between Faerie and here?

Well in a more prosaic form I was hunting the white turkey – there are a number of white birds in the feral flocks around here, and I’d winged it… but it was still running through the dense twisted thickets of ti-tree, with me panting on its heels, down all the little ‘roo paths.

If only I’d had a noble steed and grazehound… But instead I had me and my two-walk-go-fetch gun (a joke just for Peter, and any other South Africans – a shotgun.) and my little hairy feet, and a great deal of panting, sweating and swearing. It’s a near impossible place to chase anything successfully though, or to use a shotgun in.

I did eventually succeed in getting the Christmas Turkey. But I did end up getting a stick in my eye as well. So instead of being home writing a thoughtful piece for you to enjoy, I spent a great deal of time providing entertainment for the medical profession. Yes, it’ll be fine. Yes it is sore and somewhat uncomfortable. On that excuse, I will offer a piece of Bolg and go and close my eyes.
_______________
I sighed. “I need clients with money in the bank Fintan.”

“Well, they have that. A plenty. It’s getting it back from the bank that they seem to have a problem with. I’m here at Mons Repose, and the old ducks have an issue with their nest egg that needs you.’

But did I need it? With Fintan Mac Bochra calling me, I almost certainly didn’t, but equally almost certainly wouldn’t succeed in saying no. It was something tens of thousands of bits of skirt claimed about the old man too, so I was in good bad company. Which was where I was heading, slowly, the Harley barely rumbling along out of town. I liked that bike. The sound helps me to think, so I did, about what little I knew of Fintan’s old friends. Forewarned is four-armed, which must make buying shirts tough, and didn’t help me a bit with what I had to deal with at Mons Repose. It was a lovely old house on the small hillock set in charming blue-bell woodlands… with a mad old boar rampaging around the place.

Now as far as I’m concerned boar hunting is a stupid pastime unless you do it from an armored car and with an M240, with lots of ammunition. Fortunately for me Hildisvini – that’s the old girl’s battle-boar’s name, thought my Harley’s sound the hottest thing since the sow in red lacy underwear. He nearly knocked me off trying to give the bike a suggestive nuzzle, and suitable set of boar pick-up grunts. Obviously the Harley’s rumble sounded like pig-talk for ‘hello-sailor-won’t-you-buy-us-a-drink’ from something very luscious to him.
A thousand pound boar is not something that takes suggestions that you may blow its brains out, if its amorous interest scratches the chrome, lightly. Actually, it didn’t take them at all, paying me no attention, but instead asking the bike if it would like to come upstairs and look at its etchings… or the piggy-grunt equivalent.

Freyja yelled at her boar from the balcony. I’ve been around for about eighteen hundred years, but she was an education. The boar put his head down, twisty tail out straight and slunk off in the opposite direction. I should have followed suite, but instead I went in to the house.

Fintan mac Bochra met me half way into the crowded hallway, as I made my way past the lovemaking couples, trebles, and more unusual combination, in flagrante marmor so to speak. I’ve never really understood erotic art. It always struck me a turning participation sport into a crowd-pleaser, but it takes all kinds, and you certainly could find them here.

“Freyja says Gersemi carved them from life,” said Fintan of the statues. “I always want to know how she got the models to hold still for that long. She’s got talent, the old girl.”
“Need to work on her proportions and reign in her wishful thinking,” I said, skirting my way past a faun’s derriere and further marble mammaries. “Now, what is this about Fin? I need to meddle in affairs of retired fertility goddesses the way I need to buy something on credit, especially goddesses that are broke.”
“Well now, doing a fertility goddess a favor might be a way of being grateful that you are someone’s posterity, and besides, it’s a case of their money is missing. If you can get it back you can get paid. Simple, really.”

Yeah. Dead simple. “My own money is missing and I can’t get that back. The upkeep on this place must be enormous, and they’ve been out of the goddessing business awhile.”

“Yes, but the old girl was in one of the more profitable arms of it. Money can’t buy you love, but it’ll let you rent a pretty a pretty good approximation,” said Fin.

“While the money lasts. And she made sure it didn’t last long,” I said, sourly.

“Well, that’s true. She got bored quickly. But a lot of the money oddly stayed with her. Besides, if she manages to get sad and upset enough, she can still cry tears of red gold. But she’s not easily moved.”
The reason, once I got upstairs, was obvious enough. She couldn’t be moved. It would have disturbed the cats. The place was a cat-house in the literal sense these days.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear — Complete short story

itcameuponcover

 

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

 

The pounding on the doors, the words, “Open up in the name of the law.”

Juan Johnson who had been lying in the dark, in his little bed at the back of the house, half asleep, retained only a sense of explosions, a smell of something burning, papa up front saying he didn’t know anything of these Usaians and besides, he was a honest carpenter and what could they—

And mama! Mama, who had never left dad alone in any difficulty, Mama who rarely left the house without him and never at night, had gotten Juan and Angelita out of their beds, in the dark, wrapping the baby and putting her in a sling, and dressing Juan, fast, so fast that she’d put a sock of each different color on his feet.

This still bothered him, as they ran down the alley in the night, and then up another alley, all staying away from the police.

Juan could hear other pounding and “Open up—”

And fragments of other sentences, too, “Forbidden,” and “Dangerous elements” and “Seditious ideology.”

Juan knew what “dangerous elements” were. He was only ten, but Mama and Papa had taught him at home and he’d been allowed to read a lot of dad’s old books, the sort of thing they no longer taught in the school. Dangerous elements were things like Uranium and other things that gave off radiation that could kill you. Why the police would be looking for it, he didn’t know.

He did not however have any idea what Seditious ideology meant.

He repeated the words to himself as mama stopped in a dark alley, by a flyer. It wasn’t their flyer, but then Mama rarely drove their flyer, and she certainly never burned its genlock clean off, reaching in before it could do more than emit a bzzzt and burning something else, murmuring to herself as though to remember a list, “Alarm off,” Then went in, leaving Juan alone at the entrance for a moment. She came back and threw something to the floor. Juan didn’t know what it was – pieces of something electronic. “Tracker,” Mama said.

She pulled Juan in with one hand, and closed the door, then sat him in a seat, and – strangely – put the sling with Angelita around him. The baby was only three months old, but Juan was a slim boy and the sling – and the baby – very big and very heavy. He thought of protesting, but Mama looked as though she would start to cry, so he said nothing. He let Mama put the harness over both of them, and saw her consult a paper in Papa’s handwriting as she set the coordinates.

Moments later they were in the air, and Juan might have dozed, but he woke with the flare of explosions, and the shaking as Mama sent the flyer careening side to side.

“Mama!” he said.

“Say it, Juan, say it, my little Juanito.”

“I pledge allegian—”

Mama made a sound. It wasn’t quite laugh and not quite a cry. “Not that one. The other one. The human events one.”

Juan blinked. He’d learned all these from as soon as he could speak. The only time dad was really strict was in making sure he remembered everything, every single word. And the meaning. All the meaning. “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God—”

An explosion came very close, making them shake and showing Mama’s face, very pale and marked with trails as if she’d cried a lot. He hadn’t heard her cry. How could she cry so silently.

“Nature’s God?” Mama prompted.

“Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—”

Mama sobbed then, but didn’t say anything but “Go on,” so Juan did, as explosions rocked the small flyer, and Mama, finally, just took them really low, and did something, and pulled Juan out after her, but never took the baby sling of him, and she pushed him against a wall and put her hand over his mouth, while the flyer lifted off again and flew a programmed course.

“It was only a second,” Mama said. “Only a second. Maybe they won’t notice.”

But then she was pulling Juan, and running down an alley, and then another.

Juan heard heavy boots after them, and was surprised when Mama pulled out a burner and shot a man down. Juan didn’t have a very clear idea of what happened then, save the man fell, and mama pulled Juan after her again.

Up, up and up, they were climbing narrow stairs in the dark. Mama was talking to herself in Spanish, something she only did when she was really worried. Juan didn’t know Spanish, but he knew a few of the words. He knew “must do something” because mama used to say it at Papa when she was really mad or worried.

“Mama,” Juan said. “My legs hurt. And Angelita is heavy.”

“Yes,” Mama said, which seemed not to be an answer at all. From somewhere to their right came an explosion and then someone screamed, and screamed and screamed, the voice getting weaker as it went. Mama, who normally went to help all the neighbors, didn’t even slow down.

“Juan, you know what we’ve taught you? Papa and I?”

They’d taught him so many things. To read and to write, and to brush his teeth, and– “To mind and be a good boy?”

Again, Mama made that sound that wasn’t quite laughter or a sob, and her hand came down and touched his hair briefly. “That too, my love, but not that. About the Usa. About how it existed and was blessed by God as long as it kept to the precepts of liberty and equality before the law. And how it fell and gave its power to supposedly enlightened rulers and then—”

“It was reduced in size,” Juan said, puffing a little as it was hard to keep up with Mama as she ran down one alley, then another. “And punished.”

“Not reduced in size,” she said. “What remains calls itself United States, but it’s not.”

“But you said, if it returned to faithfulness and the…” He struggled for the words Papa had said so many times, “the inspired vision of the founders it would be forgiven and be great again.”

Sob-laugh and mama said, “It’s not the same place. It can’t return. We’ll have to remember and make it true again. Those of us who keep the faith.”

“Daddy said,” and now he was having true trouble catching his breath. “Daddy said that as long as the belief in the principles of the declaration of independence and the constitution-” deep breath. “As long as those remained in one human heart, the Usa wouldn’t be dead.”

“And so it won’t.” Mama stopped abruptly. Juan could hear the noise of people running after them, voices saying “They went this way. The Flyer was a ruse.”

There were flyers above too, with low-pointing floodlights. As one passed overhead, Mama pressed Juan against the wall. She spoke quickly, in a low voice, “That’s why they made us illegal. That’s why they’re trying to exterminate us. As long as liberty remains in one human heart, the bio-lords won’t have full sway. And they want full sway. They want to dictate our every thought. Listen, Juan, my son. Do you know where the Peace Tower is? From here?”

Juan thought. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he knew the neighborhood, and they hadn’t gone very far. Their flight had been too short. The Peace Tower, built to commemorate peace in the Americas, even if Papa said it wasn’t peace at all, just surrender, was big and lit up and right in the center of the city.

He shook his head a little, because if the peace tower were anywhere nearby, he would see its light. They lit it up in white and green every night.

“If you take that alley to the left, and keep going, mind, Juan, as fast as you can, you will come to the plaza where it is. Don’t go to the plaza. I don’t know if your description is out, but it might be. Instead, the alley that leads to the peace tower plaza, just before you leave it, it has a branch that turns left. Take that. It runs behind a lot of restaurants. Keep on that until you come to the back of a restaurant called Silver Palate – remember that. The name is on big red dumpsters in the back. Turn right there. Follow that alley till it ends, and climb over the wall to the right. It will be difficult, but mind, Juanito, keep Angelita from falling as you climb.

“You’ll be in the backyard of an apartment house. It’s what used to be a large house, long ago, but it’s now apartments. Go in through the back door, run up the stairs to the left, all the way to the top. There’s a door there, marked 4 B. Knock on it. Say Paul sent you. Say treason. They’ll know what to do. The man in the house, his name is James Remy. Do what he tells you. Can you remember?”

He nodded. One of the great advantages of the long stretches of memorizing Papa had made him do was that he could remember things much more easily than any other kid his age in school. But a worry remained, “Why Mama?”

“Never mind that. Just remember, you must do that, or thousands of people will die.” The light had passed overhead. It was dark in the alley, but the sounds of steps and the voices drew closer.

She reached in her pocket and pulled out something. It was a burner. Not a burner like they showed on tv, all glossy and pretty, but a short, battered thing, with a rounded butt, that looked as if it had been assembled together from spare parts. “Papa showed you how to fire these, right? You remember?”

Juan remembered. It was hard to forget as it had been only this week. Papa had taken him to the basement, set a burner on lowest, and had him fire at figures painted on the wall.

Mama said, “If someone tries to stop you, shoot them. Don’t stop to see if you hurt them or killed them. Burn center mass, and run on.”

“Papa said never to point it at a person.”

“No, dear,” she spoke very fast. “Never to point it at a person you don’t mean to kill. But everyone is allowed to kill, if the other person would kill them.”

“How do I know—”

“Trust me, Juan. If they try to stop you, if they catch you, they’ll kill you and Angelita. Or worse.” She pushed something into his pocket. He didn’t know what it was, but she said, “There are two scraps of flag there, Papa’s and mine. Papa’s is the one with the stain on the corner. Keep it when you grow up. Give mine to Angelita, when you’re sure she understands. Now go.”

“What about you?”

“Never mind me.” Mama leaned over and kissed him, a brief touch of lips on his hair, and then she pushed him, hard, down the alley.

He ran to keep from falling, and then he kept running, down the alley, at full speed. He was aware of burners firing and of cries. Was Mama shooting people or had she—

He couldn’t imagine Mama hurt, Mama dead, anymore than he could imagine the end of the world. And that’s what it would be if Mama died.

Instead, he held on to the idea that she would escape, she would join him.

He ran as fast as he could, the route she said.

He met no opposition, until, running so fast he almost couldn’t see, and sweat trickling into his eyes, making them sting, he almost ran into the Plaza of Peace. There a uniformed soldier turned around and said “You, Kid!”

Juan didn’t think this counted as trying to stop him, and he didn’t want to shoot the man, who was young and looked a lot like the brother of his friend Klaus, back at school. So instead he ignored him, and turned left, into the alley with the dumpsters. Mama hadn’t said it would be this long.

He ran down it as fast as he could, but it wasn’t very hard, because his legs felt as though they were made of water, and his breath was coming in short puffs. He felt like he would collapse, but he remembered what mama said. Could he live with knowing he’d caused the death of thousands of people? Or failed to save them? He tried to picture thousands of people, but he couldn’t. That would be like everyone he knew.

“Hey, Kid, stop,” came from behind him. And as he ignored it, another voice told the first, “It’s just a kid, why are we chasing him.”

“It’s not just a kid. His description and that he’s carrying a baby is on the bulletins. He’s going to alert the other rebels. Those damned Usaians.”

Juan didn’t want to turn. Juan didn’t want to shoot these young men. But Mama’s words rang in his mind, and he could not doubt these people wanted to stop him. And they’d said damned Usaians. These men wanted to kill them. People like him and Mama. Mama had said–

He pulled the safety on the burner, as dad had taught him to do it, by touch. And he set it on high. Papa said it was just like the games, point and click.

Juan wanted to close his eyes, but he knew that if he did he’d miss, so he turned and fired, center mass, only he kept the beam on and cut straight across. He had the impression of cutting two bodies in half, but he didn’t stop to look.

Angelita had started crying and squirming. Papa used to joke she slept through everything, but judging by the smell, she must be dirt. He murmured soothing words he knew wouldn’t help, as he ran and hoped no one looked out the windows to see where the crying baby was.

He came to the dumpster and turned, in the almost blind dark, and ran. This alley was shorter, and it ended in a brick wall. There was ivy growing along the wall, and, fortunately, Juan was light. Fortunately, too, he’d always liked climbing.

Even so, Mama was right, and it was difficult. It was very difficult to hold on and not to squish Angelita against the wall. Particularly, since she was crying.

At the top of the wall, he hesitated. There was a man with the dog in the enclosure. He was old, about Papa’s age, and he had a pipe, and a little yellow puppy playing at his feet.

He looked up, as Juan sat there, and Juan didn’t want to kill him, because he didn’t think he was the authorities, but he had to go up and give the message… He had to.

The man blinked at him, in confusion. “Hello, there. What is wrong?”

The last was said in a tone of concern, as he looked from Juan to the baby.

“I must see my uncle,” Juan said. The idea just came to him. Anyway, at the great fall festival, when people gathered in some secret place to eat and trade stories, the kids called every older man uncle and every older woman aunt, so, it must fit. “James Remy.”

The man’s face froze. There was a long silence. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. He looked kindly, with pale hair streaked with white, and grey eyes, and he said, “I see, you must be my nephew, Jimmy.”

“No. Juan,” he said. “Juan Johnson.”

“Of course Juan. Sorry, I got confused with your brother. Here, let me help you down from the wall.”

There was a bad moment, as the man reached up and took Jimmy’s hands, and helped him, till he was holding him and Angelita in his arms, together, and Juan thought he would hold him and not let him go, and then Juan would have to kill him. But the man must have sensed Juan’s discomfort, and put him down. “We can’t talk here,” he said. “We’ll go on up to aunt Mary, shall we.” He whistled for the puppy, “Come on Pie.”

“Pie?” Juan asked, as he noted they were going in through the back door and trotting up the stairs Mama had described.

“Pumpkin pie. My daughter Jane named him. She’s very silly.”

The puppy followed at their heels, as they got to the top of the stairs.

The shock when the door opened was almost too much for Juan. He’d been living a bad dream for the last hour? Eternity? But here was normal life, just like it had been at home before that knock on the door. They had a Winter Holidays tree set up, all decorated and lit with lights, and presents under it, and there was a smell of food, and there were two kids, just older than him, and a baby, and a large blond woman, with a kind face, who looked at the man he’d come in with, and then at Juan, with Angelita, and said, “Now, Jim, what?”

But the man was walking past her, and telling the two children, “I think this is bugout. You know what to do. Go.”

The woman said, “Oh, no. Can’t be. They’ve eased the restrictions on religions. We can even have trees if we don’t call them—”

But the man turned to Juan and said, “Son, what is your message?”

“Paul sent me,” Juan said, feeling like he would cry, and he wasn’t sure why, repeating Mama’s words. “Treason.”

The man said a word. One of those words Papa said when he cut himself with one of his tools. And then took a deep breath. “I’ve been wondering. First the Christians, then us. Anything that might stop the state…” He looked at Juan’s uncomprehending face.

“How do we know?” his wife said. “how do we know it’s not a trap so we reveal ourselves?

The man looked at Juan and said, very softly, “In congress, July four, seventeen seventy six—”

Juan nodded and answered with the remembered words, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires—”

“Enough, son. He’s one of ours. Mary, I’ll pack, you change that baby and give this young man something to drink, and maybe something to eat. I think he’s been through hard times, just now.”

The big blond woman took him by the hand. She felt like Mama, even though she couldn’t be because Mama was small and dark. Presently, she was giving Angelita a bottle while Juan ate a bowl of warm oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and told her what had happened. Her eyes got misty when he talked about Mama being left behind.

Juan had been thinking, he said, “She’s dead now, isn’t she, ma’am?” It seemed impossible, and yet he was sure of it, in a way. “Papa said if you died defending the Usa, you’d be born again in a land of freedom, is it true? Do people live more than once?”

The woman’s eyes misted, blue beneath a veil of tears. “Some people think so. Some of our people. But my husband and I we’re Chri– We believe in another religion, too, an older one. We just think there is a better land, and your mama and papa are already there. You should call me mom now. It will make things easier. Your name is Juan? Maybe we should call you John.”

“Juan is the name on my birth certificate,” he said, “But Papa said my real name was John Adams. And Angelita is Martha Washington. Johnson.”

“Let’s forget the Adams and the Washington. We need to be even quieter than we’ve been,” the father of this family said, as he did things around them. Juan wasn’t sure what the things were, but he was bringing small bags from inside, and checking burners, as though to make sure they were okay, then setting them atop the bags. “Your name now is John Remy, can you remember that? And Mary is your mom and I’m your dad. And Angelita is Martha. Just Martha. I think we’ll call her Marty, shall we?”

Juan was too tired to protest. The oatmeal had hit his stomach and somehow made him feel warm and really sleepy.

“You go with your brother Jimmy and mom,” the man he was to call dad said. “You know where to go,” he told his wife. “Take the baby. I’ll take Jane and go the other way after I pass on the alarm. We’re just a normal family, going to visit relatives. If you run into trouble, send me signal. I’ll try to retrieve you. That message – someone gave away our enclaves and we don’t have very long. I’ll pass on the codes, and then I’ll join you.”

“Where are we going, sir—uh—dad?” Juan said.

“Olympus Seacity. We’re not forbidden there.”

“Yet,” his wife said.

“Yet, but we’ll survive this,” her husband said, and kissed her. “You can’t erase the idea of the USa until you kill every one of us. And they can’t. We’ll move on. We’ll be secret. We’ll keep going. And someday, someday, we’ll be free to be and to believe again. The idea of freedom and equality we hold might be small and frail compared to the will to power of the tyrants, and the idea that our betters should always lead. But once it had been kindled in human breasts, it is unquenchable. We’ll go to Olympus. We’ll start again. They always need skilled people. And if we should fail and if we should fall, someone will go on, someone will believe. Maybe one of these children.” He kissed his wife again. “Go on. Jane and I will join you and take Pie with us. And you too, Johnny, go on. Your Mama and Papa and you saved a lot of people tonight. And you might have saved the hope for a future in freedom.”

Juan didn’t understand it all, but as he went out into the night again, this time held in the arms of his adopted mom, he felt somehow that he’d accomplished something big, something that would be remembered. The young man, Jimmy, was carrying Angelita, who was asleep again.

They walked down the street, in the muted street lights. Above the moon shone with a bright, clear, silvery light.

And it seemed to Juanito that up there, somewhere, Mama was watching and smiling. Perhaps he’d saved many people, but he’d only done what she wanted.

That was enough for him.

She’d believed that the words he’d been taught, the beliefs she held, would one day make the world better.

He didn’t know if she was right, but she was Mama. Dead or alive, he’d follow her beliefs.

“Life, liberty,” he whispered to himself.

“And the pursuit of happiness,” his new mom said. She kissed his forehead. “And we will pursue all three, little one. We will. However long it takes to attain them.  There are dreams so big you must keep chasing them, no matter how long it takes.”

Juan only half heard her.  He was falling asleep, slipping into a dream where the great summer high holiday was held in the open, in a park with green grass, and there were red blue and white streamers floating in the wind, and fireworks, like what dad had told him about in the old days.

Mama and papa were there, holding hands and looking up at the fireworks.  And in their faces was the most radiant happiness he’d ever seen.

It was a terrible and beautiful sight, which he would never forget.