Gray Hats

In the old TV melodramas I watched as a child, it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. You didn’t need to look further than the color of their hats. You’ve got the Lone Ranger in his giant white hat riding on his tall, white horse. He’s a straight shooter, both literally and figuratively. No sneak attacks or subterfuge. No shady deals. His nose is clean as his record.

The sneaky, slouchy bad guys, on the other hand, ambush the sidekick and threaten civilians. They drink and spit. They don’t even take off their dirty black hats when a lady walks by. They have messy facial hair, or maybe a scar. Clearly, they are the villains.

That was good enough for me when I was a kid watching reruns with my cousins. I found comfort in the idea that villainy would be so easy to recognize. I wasn’t yet bored by the patterns, or concerned that certain types of people were always shown as bad guys.

Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s cynicism, but these days, the cardboard scenery doesn’t fool me even for a moment. One good stiff breeze knocks it over.  The story underneath is a lot more complicated, with good people doing bad things and villains who have reasons, sometimes very compelling reasons, for what they do. It’s messy.

And that’s the good stuff. Those moral quandaries are fertile ground for growing a compelling story. The gray areas of life, where you can’t say with certainty that you wouldn’t cross that line in the same circumstances. There but for the grace of G-d go I, as they say.

When I think about my favorite villains, they’re not moustache twirling madmen. They’re people making desperate choices when their backs are against the wall. They are motivated by love and fear, just like the heroes are. Under other circumstances, they might have been the heroes, or at least antiheroes. To some, they are the heroes.

In superhero fiction, these sorts of gray characters abound.

Characters like Magneto, who has powerful reasons to distrust government registration, and who, in many story lines, is proven right in his mistrust. He’s been written as a hero and villain, sometimes within the same story. And both versions are true simultaneously.

Other characters are clearly villains, but still have some goodness in them, a line they won’t cross or some basic humanity. Like Mr. Freeze, like many a mad scientist, who is motivated by love, grief, and anger. Or The Mayor on Buffy, who plans to eat the town, but is still the best father Faith ever had.

Some characters just have different boundaries than the average bear. Like Amanda Waller who thinks she knows what the greater good is, and believes the ends will justify her definitely shady means. Some of these are people who move from villainy to heroism, like Emma Frost or Black Widow. Others merely cling to one bright thing in a world full of muck.

These stories are not simple, and that’s what makes them wonderful. Speculative fiction, even more so than other types of fiction, is driven by “what if” questions. Not only the superpowers and paranormal elements like “what if there are aliens?” or “what if people could fly?”, but the deeper soul-examining situations like “what if killing one saves many?” or “what if you have to choose which ones to save?”

A well-written morally ambiguous character can have you shifting in your seat, giving yourself the side-eye. It’s uncomfortable, and you can’t look away. You’ve got to see what they’ll do, what their limits really are, and what happens when they cross those invisible lines. So, sorry Kemosabe. Both my heroes and my villains look better in gray.

The Marriage of True Minds

Shakespeare’s Sonnet #116 is one of my favorites. Who can forget Kate Winslet reciting it in the rain, her broken heart ravaging her face in Sense and Sensibility? She thought she and Willoughby had something eternal, but he broke her heart over mere money.

In particular I love this line: “Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds.” People change. Life throws you curve balls. That’s the true test of the strength of a love–how it holds up under duress, what happens when circumstances change. If a little change is a deal-breaker, then maybe that wasn’t really love after all.

There are many stories out there about the obstacles couples overcome to be with each other. There are a lot fewer about what a couple will do to stay together. Marriage in the fairy tales is the end of the story, but, in real life, it’s the beginning. The real adventures come afterwards, in keeping your happily ever after and keeping it happy.

It’s a theme I’ve been exploring in the Menopausal Superhero series with my character Linda/Leonel Alvarez. There’s a lot of change to be weathered in a long marriage: becoming parents, getting or losing jobs, moving, struggling with illness, suffering a loss, gaining a windfall. Linda and her husband David had been married for twenty years at the beginning of Going Through the Change, when Linda underwent a shocking transformation (spoiler alert! though it happens in chapter one):

She became a man. Talk about an alteration! You’ll have to read the book to get the details, but I’ll tell you that it was an accident, a freak event, not a considered decision. Something that happened to her.

When I was writing the novel, I really fell in love with Linda and David and with their marriage and family as well. It broke my heart nearly as much as it did Linda’s to think about losing her husband. “She was going to lose him. Her David. Her vida.”

So, then I wondered. What if he stayed?

It’s been a fascinating ride, watching Linda (now Leonel) and David navigate the new waters of their relationship after so many years of established patterns and expectations. The second book, Change of Life,  brought them additional challenges in Leonel’s new line of work. The third book is due out this summer, and their relationship continues to evolve.

But I believe in them. Theirs is really love. They’ll find a way.

Building a Chain: The Joys of a Daily Writing Habit by: Samantha Bryant

In the history of my writing life, beginning when I was a child and continuing until I was 42 years old, I started hundreds of projects and never finished one. I’d write until I hit something that stopped me (either within the story, or in my life)…then I’d give up. When I came back, I always started something new.

That’s fine, if you want to write just for the enjoyment of writing. But I wanted to *be* a Writer, with books for sale in bookstores. Maybe even make my living at it someday. You can’t do that on unfinished work.

So, when I turned 42, that magical number that we learned from Douglas Adams is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, I decided it was time to get serious. Writers write, dang-gummit. Every single day.

That’s when I found the Magic Spreadsheet. Literally, this is a spreadsheet in which you track your daily wordcount. But more than that, it’s a community of writers on Facebook and Google+. It’s a tool that really changed my writing life and levelled me up in productivity.

This fancy spreadsheet, developed by Tony Pisculli, has a point and levelling system to gamify the daily writing habit. You get points for the number of days in your chain and for meeting your daily goal. So long as you write 250 words, that counts as a writing day. The daily expectation moves up as you accept higher levels, but you don’t have to do that either. It’s a very flexible tool that can accommodate a variety of approaches.

You can be as social or antisocial as you wish. You can see the wordcounts of others, and if you are a person inspired by competition, keep track of who’s on top with a Live Leaderboard.

People are motivated by different things. I honestly didn’t expect the Magic Spreadsheet to be as effective for me as it has been. After all, I had tried point systems and gamifications of various sorts for other aspects of my life (exercise, chores, etc.) and each only worked for a little while. These methods usually feel artificial and constricting to me–but this one was different.

Now, more than three years in, I find I don’t really care about my number of points or my rankings against other writers that much (Okay, maybe I do check to make sure that I’m ahead of Chad in points, since he’ll always be ahead of me on number of days). That’s not what keeps me going.

It’s the chain.

I have a chain of 1,199 days as I write this. Maintaining that chain has me writing every day, even when life is busy, even when I feel terrible, even when the children are sick and the Internet is down, even when I’m on vacation or so overloaded that I have to do my writing on the mom couch while my daughters take lessons. The longer the chain of days written in a row grows, the less likely it becomes that I will break it. I’ll cut myself the slack to make a weaker link on some days (only writing 250 words, the minimum), but mostly I write somewhere between 800 and 4,000 words a day now; and that adds up fast.

That explains why I write every day, but not why it helped me finish things. That, I think, is physics: momentum in particular. Momentum fed by sheer stubbornness.

If I’m not allowed to just drop a project (because that would break the chain!), then I have to find a way to move forward in it, thinking my way out of corners I’ve trapped myself in, digging my way out of holes I’ve fallen into. I have to find a way or I’ll break the chain, you see.

It’s been freeing in my writing process, too. I’ll let myself write something I’m not sure is going to be right. Wanting to get it “right” was part of what would stop me in the past–I wouldn’t write it until I was sure I knew where it was going. Now, I’ll write a scene three different ways to see which is better. They all go into the word count, and I’ll choose the right one (or combine them, or scrap them all and try again) in the final version. Once I got to “the end” for the first time, I was able to trust in the process in a way I never had before.

The best part is that, since I write every day, I’m productive with my writing time. I no longer have to spend the first two hours of a writing session trying to find the flow of the project again. It’s right there. It’s only been a day since I was there. I still feel at home.
Any creative endeavor requires finding a work-flow, a process that gets you there. I’m not a math-minded person, so who’d have guessed a spreadsheet ,of all things, would work for me? But it really has! Now I actually use two spreadsheets. Magic Spreadsheet and Jamie Raintree’s Writing and Revision Tracker, which lets me track word count by project, so I hold myself accountable not just for writing, but for writing the right things. Here’s to finding a tool that works for you.

Building a Hero I Can Believe In

She stands atop the building, the wind blowing her cape and long, flowing hair out behind her as she scans the horizon. Her perfectly-toned, eternally twenty-three-year-old body is poised to leap (a position that apparently involves torqueing your body to accentuate both your breasts and your butt at the same time for the viewing pleasure of anyone who might be watching). She only awaits the call…

That could be a description of many a comic book cover or movie poster.

I’ve always found it funny. Why in the world would a woman who can bend iron in her bare hands or melt through walls dress like that? Surely, with all that power comes some self-confidence and self-respect. I mean, sure, breasts can be wielded like a weapon, but when you’ve got other, more effective and direct weapons, it seems like overkill.

There’s also just suspension of disbelief. Yes, I know we’re talking about stories with superheroes in them, so we’re not exactly expecting John Steinbeck style realism. But all that bare flesh is a problem in battle, as are high heels, capes, and long, loosely hanging hair. Did we learn nothing from The Incredibles? “No capes!” It only makes sense to dress for maximum movement, flexibility, and protection of whatever parts of the hero are vulnerable.

Luckily, this is changing. Like any former all boys’ club, the superhero and comics industry is slow to come around, but change is in the air and it’s exciting. There have always been people trying to write well-rounded female characters in the hero business, but now those characters are going mainstream in a big way. Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, Alana from the Saga series, the most recent iterations of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl. And it’s happening off the comics page on the small and large screen, too.

Sure, Gamora was left off the Guardians of the Galaxy lunchboxes and tee shirts. But she was one of the stars of the movie and held her own on the screen even when she shared it with a giant sentient tree. Black Widow, too, was more than window-dressing in the Avengers movies. Neither of these characters was there in the role of victim, hostage, girlfriend, or comic relief. They were heroes alongside the other heroes. And both of them did it wearing pants and practical shoes more often than not. (Though I still question the hair. I know I pull mine back for things like washing dishes and playing tennis, so I doubt the warrior woman who lets it fall in her face when vision really matters).

It’s an exciting time to be writing in the superhero genre, trying to create characters that speak to grown women. In Going Through the Change and the rest of my Menopausal Superhero series, I’m writing about women with careers, families, and partners. I wanted heroes that I could connect with; and the older I get, the harder it is to connect with angsty underdressed teenagers. Helen, Patricia, Jessica and Linda are adults, with adult problems and situations in their lives. Of course, they can also throw fire or pianos, transform and fly. That’s the fun part.