Writing Retreats, or: Why I Can’t Teach Anyone A Damn Thing About Writing

My most vivid memories of Wizard World are of the times I disagreed with people.

Of course, it wasn’t always a wise choice. On one panel, offering strategies for writer’s block, I quoted an audience member from an earlier discussion: “Drinking and drugs.” (Which was meant as humor, of course, but I think the moderator wished I’d found a different joke.)

But sometimes I learn that my experience is completely different from everyone else’s. And at those times, I feel like I have to point out that conventional wisdom isn’t the same as You Must Do This. Which is exactly what I did when people started talking about writing retreats.

The panel was about launching your creative career, and the topic at hand was what kind of education might be helpful. There are professions, I learned–notably many areas of filmmaking–where it’s not just the degree, but the specific school that can make a difference. For writing, though, the panel immediately gravitated toward talking about MFAs, and then to writing retreats. Panelists discussed how lovely it was to have all those weeks dedicated to writing, meeting people, making contacts.

I didn’t know anything about the people who in the audience, but a lot of them were young. Some of them may even have been in high school. And I tried to imagine myself at 15 or 16, being told the key to becoming a writer was more school–and more debt.

I didn’t get an MFA. (I didn’t even know, until a few years ago, that you could actually get a master’s in creative writing.) I didn’t attend Clarion or Hedgebrook or any of the lovely writing retreats. Had I known about them, I’d have pined for them, but when I was 22 and right out of college, I didn’t have the money. And even if I’d managed to borrow it or get a scholarship, the job I had didn’t accommodate a six week leave of absence.

So what do you do if you’re a writer, and you can’t afford a retreat, and you can’t take time off from your job without losing it? Are you supposed to give up? Are you supposed to stop calling yourself a writer, let it all go?

Yes, that’s meant to sound ridiculous. But that’s the message a lot of people hear when you say things to them like MFA. To be blunt: Writing has a class problem, and it hits from all sides.

Better people than me have written about the income and diversity problem in the publishing industry. It’s not intentional exclusion, but when you have an industry largely based in cities with expensive costs of living, where careers are built on internships, the majority of your professionals are going to be people who come from (relatively) financially privileged backgrounds. I haven’t spoken to a single person in the industry who wouldn’t like to see it more diverse, more universal–they love stories, after all, and more stories are always wonderful–but we’re talking about a business that basically brokers art. Altering the economic structure is neither fast nor easy.

But on the writing side of it…extolling the virtues of master’s degrees and elite retreats is the same problem. Except that on the writing side of it, it’s rubbish, and you can’t even make the economic argument to support it.

You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. You don’t need a writer’s retreat to be a writer. To be a writer, you need a way to record your words, and that’s it.

And please understand, I’m not suggesting an MFA isn’t valuable. I would have loved dedicating years to writing. I’d have loved a writing retreat, spending six weeks with other authors, sharing struggles, learning from them, even if I’d had to live in my car. (And having said that–I wouldn’t have had to. When I graduated from college I was itching for independence, financial and otherwise, but if I’d approached my family they’d have made me a loan. So I’m privileged even in my lack of education, because I had a choice.) I have no doubt that being able to concentrate so thoroughly on writing can provide tremendous benefits, can present incredible opportunities to learn from fellow authors, can help to build your voice with confidence.

If you can afford the time and money for these programs and they speak to you, pursue them. Fling yourself into them with your whole heart, just as you have to do with anything if you’re going to grow as a writer. Work and work and work, and take everything you can from the experience.

But for pity’s sake–if none of that is in your future, don’t stop writing. Because whatever your framework, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

It’s probably part of my particular brand of neuroatypicality that leads me to analyze my own writing process. I’ve thought about the stages I went through, how I went from telling myself bedtime stories to being able to take a few months to draft a novel. (Finished a first draft yesterday, and boy are my arms tired.) I’ve been writing since I was five years old, but I was closing in on 46 before I figured out how to complete something novel-length, and it was another three years before I finished something I could sell. This makes me wonder if everyone goes through the stages I went through, just much more quickly–maybe too quickly to be able to see the changes. I had the benefit of creeping through the process in slow motion, allowing me to recognize what was happening while I was going through it.

Or maybe that’s bullshit. Maybe my growth was mine, at my pace, in my way, and nothing that’s happened to me will make sense to anyone else. Maybe, if I’d gone to a retreat, I’d have leapfrogged most of the stages I went through and learned much earlier how to regurgitate an entire novel.

But just in case any of this is worth it to anyone else, here are the lessons I’ve learned since the age of five:

It’s more important to gain confidence in your work than it is to be critiqued. One of the most common questions I see on my writing group is “How do I know which critique I should listen to?” Critiques are by nature subjective, and without a solid sense of what your objective is, it’s nearly impossible to make a reasoned assessment about what someone else has told you to change.

To that end, I think it doesn’t hurt to have your first critters be people who aren’t going to give you a lot of negatives: your mom, your friends, a reflexively supportive online group. Because positive feedback makes you want to write, and the more you write, the more you’ll fine-tune your own sense of what you’re accomplishing. Once you can stand up and say with confidence “I want this work to provoke X response” that’s when you hand your manuscript out for more objective critiques.

When push comes to shove, you only get better one way: by writing. A lot. Over and over again. Don’t do anything that’s going to make you want to stop.

Every word you put down has value. Please don’t mistake me here: This doesn’t mean everything you write is going to be brilliant, or even readable. A massive amount of what you write is going to get tossed. Even for long-term published authors, a huge percentage of what gets written down is just plain rubbish.

But it’s rubbish that serves a critical purpose. Sometimes you have to build the scene badly to figure out how to build it well. Sometimes you have to write far into a novel–even all the way–before you can see that the project isn’t worth pursuing. Sometimes you have to write the wrong words before you can unearth the right ones.

Writing is a non-linear process. You’re not rummaging through a box of Legos and picking out bits to build a house; you’re creating something that only you can create. It’s art, for real, and more often than you’d like you’re going to have to cough up absolute crap to get to the stuff you want.

Finishing is a different skill than writing. Here’s where an MFA might have accelerated my progress. I’m a magpie: I always want to write the shiny thing. And of course I want to write it perfectly, to have it be as beautiful as it is in my head. I spent so much time writing the first chapter or two of something, and then revising it into bland, horrible death.

There’s value in writing partial stories, in scenes and vignettes. As above, it’s all writing. I do it a lot to work through characters (I send them to therapy now and then when I need to get at where they’re coming from). But getting to the end of a story means it has to hold your interest for a long time. Stephen King may be able to write a book in a weekend, but most of us can’t.

For me, that meant learning how to push through without turning back. It’s not a method that works for everyone, but with my skill set, it was NaNoWriMo that gave me the last piece I needed. Being obligated to move forward no matter what my feelings about what came before felt strange–but being able to write THE END was weird and astonishing and wonderful and addictive.

I’ve finished seven drafts now, including my first trunked NaNo novel and the two that got combined into THE COLD BETWEEN. It’s no easier than it was the first time–but now I know, if I focus on the means and not the end, I’ll get where I need to be.

Editing is a different skill than finishing. There are some people who tell me their first drafts are very close to finished quality. I’ll take them at their word, but that’s not true for me. My first drafts are full of trial and error and dangling red herrings and blind alleys and dead chapters and whole scenes that need to be longer.

Once I have a first draft, then I actually have to pay attention to the story.

This is not, as a rule, as much fun as letting your imagination go bananas because you know you can get it in editing. This is the nitpicky stuff, the research and the continuity checking, the purging of those beautiful passages that you love but that are repetitive or bog down your narrative. This is the place where you worry about pacing and structure and making sure each scene has a purpose and a shape.

This is the part where it helps to be a reader. So much of pacing and structure is instinct and personal taste. The more you’ve read of books you love, the easier it’ll be to see when your own work is (and isn’t) flowing the way you want it to flow.

But when push comes to shove? This is the fiddly phyllo dough portion of constructing a book. It’s difficult, it’s often unfun, and it’s very easy to get wrong. And it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes out the other end.

If you can’t tell the truth, don’t bother. Years ago, when I was in a bad relationship, I stopped writing. I spent every day of that relationship lying to myself, telling myself it wasn’t what it was, convincing myself that it would improve and turn into something positive. I tried, during that time, to write, but nothing would come out. For-real writer’s block, for the first time in my life.

Fiction is nothing less than the absolute unvarnished truth of your heart. If you can’t look into yourself and admit what you find, nothing you write is going to feel authentic. And if you look into yourself and feel you can’t write it down…look at your life. Really. Pretty good chance there’s something there that needs a change.

If you don’t love it, nobody else will, either. Remember that trunked NaNo novel I mentioned? I liked it. A lot. I loved parts of it. (I borrowed bits to create Volhynia for THE COLD BETWEEN.) I wanted to edit it and turn it into a real book. And I worked on it pretty seriously for a couple of months, before I realized I didn’t care enough. Making it what it would need to be was going mean steeping myself in the story day after day for a very long time, and when push came to shove, I didn’t want to do that. I liked the story, and that’s not enough.

We’ve probably all had the experience of reading a favorite author’s latest book and wondering what the hell happened. Some writers seem to just fall off a cliff, going from compelling, irresistible storylines to bland cardboard. I have to think, in cases like that, that they’ve just stopped loving what they write. The craft is still there, the plots still worthwhile, but the writing itself has lost passion, and the reader can feel it.

This theory would hold more water if everyone agreed with me on which authors fell off the cliff, and they don’t. But my point still stands: if you don’t love your work, it’s going to show. And that’s a risk, if you want readers.

Write what you love. It matters.

I’ve always been a writer. And at the same time, I feel I’ll never be a writer. When you’re an artist, it’s hard to separate yourself from a dependence on your audience. But here’s the truth of it: if you write, you’re already an artist. Maybe a beginner, maybe a pro, maybe an MFA, maybe a weekender. Doesn’t matter.

If you write, you’re a writer. If you write, you’re learning. Your path is your path. Don’t give it up just because it doesn’t look like anyone else’s.

I said this, in Philadelphia. I told the audience they didn’t need an MFA. I told them they didn’t need writing workshops. There was a bit of an awkward pause at that, but there’s no rebuttal to it, because it’s the truth. Programs are valuable, and can give some people a real jump-start, and if that’s your dream, find a way. But I couldn’t sit there in front of people looking for answers and tell them they were doomed if they weren’t going after a secondary degree. There’s enough class stratification in publishing; we don’t need it in writing. Every path brings with it different experiences.

As a reader, I want them all.

Are You Sure? (Y/N)

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

Don’t do it.

Love,
Liz

…Wait. You need more than that? Oh. Okay.

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

If you love writing and value your sanity, don’t do it.

Love, and really, I mean it,
Liz

I can hear you from here, you know. “Well, of course she’d say that. She’s done it. This is just sour grapes or some competitive bullshit because she knows my book is better than hers.”

Dearest fellow writer, I hope your book is better than mine. I hope it’s Shakespeare or Melville or Butler or Rowling or Gay or whatever massively-selling author you idolize. I hope you are brilliant and productive and creative and beautiful, and that publishing brings you massive success and recognition and love from strangers all over the world.

Spoiler alert: It probably won’t. Even if your book is better than mine. Even if it is better than Shakespeare and Melville and Butler and Rowling and Gay.

And even if it does bring you massive success and recognition and love from strangers, it’s not going to feel the way you think it will.

We are storytellers, you and I. It’s a strong desire, and a motivating one. (It has to be motivating, because damn, finishing a book is hard.) We are storytellers in part because we’ve had stories told to us. We’ve read, some of us more widely than others. We’ve had that window into another world, another mind, another framework. That window has changed us and taught us who we are, and who we want to be.

Maybe we started with Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing spoke to us until we had to read Clarissa for that college 18th century lit class we only took because nothing else fit into our schedule. Maybe it started when we were 35 and waiting at the airport and the only thing on the racks was Stephen King’s It.

We love being told stories. And you and I, fellow writers, decide, at some point, that we want to tell stories of our own. For all the stories that have made us feel less alone–maybe you and I think that perhaps if we write down our own stories, we can give that feeling to someone else.

We tell stories out of love.

Dearest fellow writers, I tell you this as someone who has been making up stories for 47 years, since before I could write, since before I knew what an adverb was (or why I should use as few as possible): Write and write and write and write. Tell all your stories. Pour all your love into your work. Share it with your friends. Have beautiful bound copies made (there are some places that do very nice low-volume binding work these days) and give them as holiday gifts.

But if you love to write, don’t publish.

There are lovely aspects to it, of course. Beautiful covers. Your name in print. The feeling of seeing your words neatly typeset, like all of the stories you’ve read all your life. The feeling that now you’re one of them. You’re one of the storytellers, the ones that tell stories to strangers, just as you were once a stranger who picked up a book. You belong.

Except you don’t.

Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can walk into a room full of strangers completely relaxed, feeling entirely at home, able to blend in a way that makes other people gravitate toward you, assuming that of course you belong there, even if they don’t know you. Perhaps your name and your cover and your words for sale at your favorite retailer is enough.

And right now, you’re certain it will be. I sure was. I knew exactly how all this was going to feel, how all this was going to go. I was prepared for the inevitable bad reviews, the sales that didn’t go quite where I wanted them to. So many authors I love have had bad reviews, have taken years to build proper sales (if they ever did). Belonging doesn’t mean there are no downsides. The downsides are part of belonging, because they hit everyone.

Dearest fellow writers. I was not prepared. I was not.

There are bad reviews. There are always bad reviews. I don’t read them. (I don’t generally read the good ones, either, although my spouse sometimes emails them to me, and some of my readers are genuinely lovely people, I have to say.) But it’s not the bad reviews that will get you. It’s the conversation. It’s the people at that party you’ve just walked into, the ones you think will welcome you. Fellow storytellers, and fellow consumers of stories. We are all one. We Are The World. We all belong, right?

People will talk about you. And it will not always be nice. People you like will say genuinely awful things. Because being published doesn’t mean you join the party. It means you become a topic of conversation for the partygoers. They are, of course, welcome to say whatever they choose; but they will say it as if you are not there.

Because you’re not.

This is the bit that I know you’re not going to get when I explain it, but it’s not you that’s joining the party. It’s not you that’s dealing with belonging or not belonging. It’s your story. That thing you wrote out of love, that you tortured yourself over, that you polished and perfected and fought with editors over, that you finally found a way to offer to the world. It’s all of your heart and parts of yourself you never knew you had.

And to the rest of the world, it’s just another story. And it does not matter a bit how much the story matters to you.

It’s often true that when authors get successful, personalities emerge. There are a number of personalities right now in the SFF world. Most of them I like. Some of them, not so much. But there’s one thing I notice, even about the ones who are successful to a degree I will never, ever see: They don’t frequent those places where they are discussed. They interact with people in their own spaces, on their own terms. And in all of those other places? They’re discussed as if they’re not there, just like the rest of us.

Sometimes, of course, you hear things that make you say “Huh?” My favorite was bashing into a “review” of my book in a random comments thread, in which the reader had been unhappy with my characters. “People who should know better behaving badly.” I remember thinking, “Do you even know people?” And then I started wondering if maybe software, where I spent most of my adulthood, was just full of weirdos. (It’s a valid reaction to the book, of course. If you don’t like my people, you’re not going to like the story. But goodness.)

That one wasn’t upsetting, really. What was upsetting was that shortly afterward I had to stop reading those random comment threads. Because other people would say things. And they were not always polite, and they were not always about the work. These were people I respected, whose recommendations I had taken. Some of them I had even interacted with. The brutality of the tossed-off remarks was startling. Some of this is just the nature of the internet (and before anyone tells me to toughen up: I’ve been on the net since 1988, and I know from toxic flame wars, children). But it’s a bit like road rage: at a real party, nobody would say those things to your face, even if they were thinking them. And reading that from someone you respect…it does change the way you see them.

And if I’d been a raving Shakespeare/Melville/Butler/Rowling/Gay success, maybe I wouldn’t have cared.

But I suppose my ultimate point to you, dear fellow writer, is that with all of the success that may be awaiting you, you’re not wandering into the party you think you’re wandering into. You’re wandering into some gazebo on the side, maybe full of gold and champagne, maybe full of warm fruit punch and bad lighting. You can watch the party. You can wonder if they’re talking about you, and maybe they are, and maybe every word is lovely. But you are never going to be a part of that. You are a storyteller now, and you’re cut off in a way that you weren’t before you opened your heart and let your stories into the world.

It can be very, very hard to write in that gazebo. Because you can’t go to the party and take your stories back. You can’t stop all those people, the ones you thought would let you in, from talking about you however they will. It’s too late now that you’ve published, and you’ll know it’s happening, and you cannot do anything at all about it. You cannot ever go back to the party, you cannot ever untell your stories.

You cannot ever have those dreams again, the ones where you belong.

And now you know, when you write a story, what’s going to happen to it. You know what people will say about it, and about you. You’ve lost that purity of impulse, the story that grows inside you so big and so complete that it has to come out, that joy of writing for that one person who will just Get It. You know now that you may not find them. That they may not exist. You’re not painting on a neutral canvas anymore, and even if you’re writing only for yourself, you can’t unknow that.

I suppose I’ll get used to it. REMNANTS OF TRUST was finished before THE COLD BETWEEN was published, so it lives in innocence. BREACH OF CONTAINMENT was written in a constant state of anxiety and consciousness of dismal failure. But I wrote it anyway. It’s still being whacked with the editing stick (and I will admit, dear fellow writer, that I adore having an editor, and I highly recommend that part of the experience), but I wrote it and finished it and it ends where I want it to, so there’s that, at least.

But it is a different experience. And I can’t go back. And I’m not the sort of person who’s good at doing the hypothetical “What if I could go back and talk to my younger self?” thing. No matter what I said to that woman back in 2013, when I first started querying, she wouldn’t listen.

You won’t either, dear fellow writer. But I can warn you. What makes you write now, what feeds you, those evergreen dreams of sharing your stories…it’s not going to be like that afterward. No matter what your success, no matter what your failure, it’s not going to be what you think it will be.

You may think it’ll be better. You may be right. Maybe this is just me, just the sort of person I am, just my own particular sensitivities. Maybe it’s just how I write and exist in the world, and everybody else is wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

But I will ask you, dear fellow writer, to think long and hard about publishing before you pull the trigger.

Are you sure?

Are you?

The Romance Thing

I actually wrote this a while ago, and tabled it. But here, on the cusp of the release of REMNANTS OF TRUST–which is also not a romance novel–it seemed like a good one to resurrect.


WARNING: This post contains spoilers for THE COLD BETWEEN, although if you’ve read any reviews, they’re probably spoilers you’ve already seen. Still: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

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If you want to discuss genre, it’s probably closest to say that I write military SF (or possibly space opera).

But the first two chapters of THE COLD BETWEEN read very much like a romance novel. (You have to skip the prologue to get the full effect of that, which is part of why the prologue is there.) I always liked that about it. I like the idea of launching the story with an intimate and personal incident, something private between two people. Something nice.

Because boy, it runs off the rails pretty quickly. There’s not a ton of nice in this book, and I wanted to have a little bit of time when Elena could actually be happy and not angry and stressed out. I wanted to let people see the sort of person she was most of the time, the kind of person who could believably be someone’s best friend and trusted colleague.

And to me, it was very clear from the beginning that these two people weren’t going to have a life together.

Elena loves her career. Loves it. More than that, she loves living on a starship. She loves space and travel, and the sound of machines. It’s in her blood, and it gives her strength and comfort. Trey, on the other hand, loves his home planet. He has longed for home for decades. Even feeling ostracized by his fellow colonists, not to mention his own family, there’s a contentment he gets from being there that nothing else in his entire eventful, productive life has ever given him.

How can these people stay together? Spoiler: They can’t. And I wrote it that way on purpose.

Y’all know I’m no spring chicken. I’m 52 years old. I was nearly 38 when I got married. I have a couple of exes for whom I wish nothing but loneliness and unrelenting misery. (Pretty sure grudge-holding is my superpower.) And I have a couple with whom I would sit down for coffee, catch up, and listen with delight to what I hope are the lovely things that have happened to them since we parted.

Because for me, while love was not always Happily Ever After, it was also not always acrimony and bitterness. For me, as often as not, love was real, and nurturing, and not meant to last any longer than it did.

I wanted to write about that: the sort of truly loving relationship that ends not because of betrayal or foolishness, but because sometimes you’re not headed the same way as your partner, and that’s all right. You can be sad, and wish things were different, and still know that the best thing for both you and them is to part.

I love reading romance novels, but I didn’t write one. I enjoy happy endings, but sometimes the best choices life offers you don’t give you a Happily Ever After option, and it doesn’t mean your life is over or you have to be miserable. Or celibate. Or never fall in love again.

I wanted to write that kind of love story, because that kind of love has been part of my life, and I suspect I’m not alone.

There’s sadness in the ending. I love Elena and Trey together. They are so good for each other in so many ways. He helps her see shades of gray. She helps him choose happiness. I cried when I wrote their last scene together. It’s a sad thing, that their paths are so divergent.

But they do not belong together.

In its own way, this book does have a happy ending, despite the severing of Elena and Trey’s romance. The romance is a piece of the story, not the point of it. The point of it is a bunch of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. There’s mystery, and friendship, and mistrust, and misunderstanding, and lies, and explosions, and betrayal. Melodrama.

And if it’s enjoyed as such…that’s exactly what I intended.

KILL IT WITH FIRE

I tend, these days, to be cautious on the internet.

A lot of this is because of all the years I spent not being cautious on the internet. I started on Usenet back in 1988, and I did my share of ranting and piling on. I have a temper, and the reason so few people know this about me is because I have spent a lifetime practicing how to think before I react. I still sometimes fail, but it’s rare these days, and I almost always regret it after the fact.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t rant much in public. I’ll do it on message boards from time to time, but even then, I’m careful, and I spend a lot of time typing and deleting. I’ve spent hours on posts that have never gone up. On many forums, all I need to do is wait, and someone else will say what I was thinking, and they’ll be more rational and make a better argument and do, overall, a much better job of actually debating an issue.

But sometimes I wake up early and read a forum and see an excerpt from an article that sets my teeth on edge. And hours later, I end up writing a blog post.

Welcome to my Saturday!

So there’s this thing that people talk about, sometimes, when they discuss female characters – in particular, “strong” female characters. Often, someone ends up saying something like “strong female characters should not just be women who act like men.” Which, in an interview I read this morning, someone did.

And in fairness, I know what that person meant. We all know what they meant, right? Because in any culture, there are going to be norms that NO NO NO ENOUGH I WILL NOT FANWANK IT AWAY KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE.

It is a bloody meaningless phrase and every time I see it my eyelid starts to twitch and I dwell on fond memories of all those tequila shots I did in my youth.

Look. I don’t know much, really. I know some things about the software business, because I was in it for 27 years. I know about why startups fail, and about the degree of luck involved, and the shocking fragility of all this intertwined software we have come to depend on. (It’s hair-raising, really. Back up your stuff, people. I mean it.)

As a writer, though? I don’t know anything. I mean, I know things about writing, because I’ve been doing it for 47 years; but I can’t really tell anyone about it. I could tell you how write, and what things work for me, and what need to do to keep from procrastinating. I can’t even tell anyone how to get published, because from my own perspective it’s some mysterious alchemic relationship between persistence and luck.

And I’m a publishing newbie, and I’m out here, a tiny pebble tossed in the ocean, and nobody’s listening anyway, so here’s the thing: Please, for all that is good and beautiful in this world, stop saying “women who act like men” when you are talking about cardboard characters. Because “women who act like men” is gibberish.

I’m not even talking about the cringe-inducing gender-binariness of the phrase. (But I could talk about that, because WTF?) But I’ve got two big problems with this idea, and they’re related.

1. Why are men considered the immutable, ubiquitous norm that we all understand?

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. By virtue of the fact that I grew up in the US, educated in a US school system buying books mostly based on US culture, I’ve read a huge number of books by men. So on that level, I really do get it: without it even being explicitly taught, we’ve all learned that the norms of our culture, of our art, of our politics – the norms of everything come from men.

So it’s natural to think of men as “the norm,” right? And to measure everything against this norm, and to define everything in terms of how it deviates from the norm.

Except wait, no, that is utter bullshit. Men make up a wee bit more than half the population (and by a wee bit more, I mean a fraction of 1%), and that’s not the kind of percentage that justifies using them as some kind of elementary particle to define every other bit of matter in the literary universe. It would be nearly as justifiable to use women as “the norm,” because in any random sampling of the population, you’re going to get numbers roughly equal.

The only reason men are viewed as the norm is because men have always been viewed as the norm, humans remember cultural shifts for about four seconds, and generation after generation we keep passing this down.

But there’s another piece that’s frankly more interesting to me:

2. What does “act like men” mean, anyway? 

Okay, so I guess I’m going to touch on the cringe-inducing gender-binaryness of it after all. Because how the hell do men act?

I don’t actually think anybody has ever been told, ever in the world, that there is only one type of male character in fiction: The Man, who is the same everywhere. If you want to write The Man, just follow these twelve simple rules. Write The Man, and he will be a well-rounded character because he is the norm. Nobody ever has been told that. And that’s because it’s utter bullshit. Even if you stick with your 50%-plus-a-fraction-of-1% people in the world, there is no norm.

In much of Western culture, “act like a man” tends to mean “the only acceptable expression of emotion is violence,” and it’s a poisonous thing to tell anyone. We tell it to our children, and we get the expected result, and seriously, people, what the fuck kind of a message is that? This is why I write science fiction.

But let’s leave out the issue of toxic masculinity for a moment, shall we? “Act like a man” is another cultural constructAsk six people what it means, and you’ll get six answers. Using it as some sort of literary shorthand because “we all know what it means” is cheap and stupid and, yes, utter bullshit. If you argue using a phrase that has no concrete meaning, I am most likely going to tune you out.

Okay, I said there were two things that bothered me about this. But there’s a third, and it’s probably the most important:

3. Why is it bad to write a woman who acts like a man?

Because unless you also write your men to be cardboard, predictable, and uninteresting, there is nothing wrong with doing this.

Now, depending on the world you’ve built, there may be characteristics that are less realistic for a female to possess; but that’s not about stereotyping. That’s about paying attention to your worldbuilding, and making sure your characters make sense.

“Strong women characters should not just be women who act like men” is repeated enough that someone, somewhere must perceive this to be an actual problem. But let’s be honest about what the problem really is: badly drawn characters. Having those characters described with a weird, meaningless, culturally tone-deaf phrase doesn’t actually change the underlying issue. Good characters are genuinely hard to write, and screwing it up isn’t an unusual thing to do.

But if you do this? Own up to it. Say “I didn’t think this through.” Say “I fell back on tired stereotyping instead of trying to write a vivid individual.” Do not tell me “strong women shouldn’t be women who act like men,” because no. It is bullshit. KILL IT WITH FIRE.

Maybe next Saturday I’ll stay off the net.