Fantasy Title Generator

Pick two nouns and one adjective based on the initials of your first, middle, and last name. Arrange and modify as works best. Feel free to use synonyms – “blade” or “sword” instead of “knife,” “old” instead of “ancient.”

First Name Middle Name Last Name
A-B Empire Ancient Knife
C-D City Lost Blood
E-F Road Black/Dark Crown
G-H Throne White/Radiant Thorn
I-J Supernatural Monster of Your Choice Hidden Mirror
K-L Spell Cursed Clock
M-N Prince/ss/King/Queen High Bone
O-P Sea Cold Tomb
R-S Wizard Red Wind
T-U Time Grim Lamp
V-W Name Twisted Shadow
Q-X-Y-Z Wanderer Stolen Moon

So, for example, mine would be Road of the Ancient Clock. My husband’s could be Empire of the Cursed Thorn or Thorn of the Cursed Empire.

Armadillos, Chinchillas, and Writing Something New

I spent Labor Day reading over stuff I wrote a long time ago to see if any of it was salvageable. It was very encouraging to see how much better I write now, yet dispiriting to see places where I haven’t changed. Many of the characters are very similar to each other, structural weaknesses are unchanged, and I even used some of the same phrases. My brain has this box of things that go in a novel, and I keep picking the same ones. It’s like always getting chocolate ice cream at the ice cream parlor. Even though chocolate is my favorite, I really ought to try something different. Comfort reads have their place, and comfort writings do too, but they shouldn’t be exclusive.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to try writing a science fiction novel. Given a different environment and a different social structure, my characters have to behave differently, and I can’t rely on things I’ve described a hundred times before. Habit has less power over me, because I am actively challenging it. This should force my imagination to stretch. It’s why I’m glad I wrote a sequel to Moth and Spark; I forced the characters to live in a different set of circumstances, which taught me a lot. I’m also writing the SF book in the present tense, which definitely changes my style and makes me more attentive to the effects of my language.

But at a deeper level, there’s another thing that’s troubling me more than my reliance on habits. I can come up with all sorts of setting, plots, and themes to work on, any number of stories that interest me. But those all come from my head; I’m wondering a bit right now if I have very many stories in my heart. Are my writerly passions a few narrowly confined ones? And if they are, is that a bad thing for me? If the only stories I can put all of my self behind are ones about armadillos fighting in bars, should I give up on writing stories about chinchillas stowing away on clipper ships? Should I try to write the very best armadillo story, or should I try to fall in love with chinchillas? If I get sick of or bored with armadillos, is my writing life over?

There are plenty of writers who repeat themselves in one way or another, and plenty of readers who want a story they are familiar with. This is not just the case for series books; William Faulkner’s novels are set in Yoknapatawphna County and have interlocking casts of characters. Many of the themes are similar. Jane Austen’s novels are all love stories. Yet Sanctuary is a very different book from Absalom, Absalom!, which is itself different from The Sound and the Fury, and Emma is quite distinct from Sense and Sensibility. I haven’t yet found ways to take the same material and make a different story of it.

I don’t want to write the same story over and over, but sometimes when I try new things the result has a hollow feeling to it. It’s an exercise. It’s like having a crush on someone, and when the crush wears off there’s nothing left.

One obvious way to deal with this is to take more risks and to go places in myself that I don’t want to go. Another way is to extend my empathy, to try to feel what it really is to be a chinchilla instead of an armadillo. A third way is to consciously do more exercises, to practice writing when nothing is on the line and see what happens to come out. These activities are all challenging, sometimes painful, often exhausting, but I think they’re necessary. I have a hard time letting go, not staying in control, and that gets in my way at times. I need to get over this. There will be more stories that come from my heart if my heart is freer.

This is hard; it has little to do with words and much more with identity. But it has to be done.


Amazon vs. Hachette, Power, and Mediation

I am finally weighing in on the Amazon/Hachette dispute. For those people who may not know, the basic issue is that Amazon is unhappy with the (lack of) money it makes on the sale of Hachette titles, and is refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette forthcoming titles, while also delaying shipment on existing titles by several weeks. It has also suggested that customers purchase other book instead of the unavailable Hachette title. It is now using the same strategy with Disney movies.

Disclaimers: I am not published by Hachette in the US, although the UK version of Moth and Spark is published by Headline, which is a Hachette imprint. Nevertheless, I signed the Authors United letter which was published in the New York Times.

I do not know what is fair as far as the business end of the dispute goes. Maybe Amazon has a point. Maybe Hachette is in the right. In all likelihood, they are each right on some issues and wrong on others. Nor am I going to get into the Amazon is good for writers or Amazon is terrible for writers dispute (which is often linked with self-publishing issues, and I’m not going there either).

I signed the letter because triangulation is a sleazy thing to do, and that’s what Amazon is doing by punishing authors for its disagreement with Hachette. It’s like taking away your child’s allowance because your co-parent disagrees with you on when bedtime should be. It’s bad when it happens in families, and it’s not supposed to happen in business either. Amazon is in essence taking hostages by reducing sales of Hachette books and trying to use that as leverage to get Hachette to cave. I don’t expect the letter to solve anything either, but I did want to go on the record as against unethical business practices.

What’s really going on, of course, is that the dispute is not about how much of a cut on e-books is fair. It may have started this way, but it has now devolved to a dispute about power. Amazon wants to claim power that is traditionally held by publishing companies; Hachette, unsurprisingly, wants to retain its power.

And once a dispute becomes about a core issue such as power, becomes in effect personal, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to settle. Both sides dig in because something fundamental to their existence is threatened. When humans do this, pride and fear and self-worth all get involved. It becomes hard to give up something even if you “know” the other side is right, because conceding means admitting weakness and losing face. Compromise looks like defeat. Small hills turn into mountain ranges. Amazon and Hachette are not humans, but they are run by humans. Even if Jeff Bezos wakes up at 3 a.m. and tosses and turns about how he’s treating writers, he can’t back down now. That might make him back down the next time, and the next time, and the next . . . .

One of the best ways to solve these issues with human beings is through mediation. Mediation is not arbitration. An arbitrator will decide for one side or the other. It’s win or lose with arbitration. A mediator, on the other hand, will negotiate a settlement that is good for both sides. Often all that one side really wants is to feel heard and be given an apology.

As part of the mediation course I took in law school, I was required to observe an actual mediation. The mediation I observed was a court-ordered mediation regarding a child-support dispute and how much the non-custodial party should be paying to the custodial party. The mediator and I started by listening to one side’s position. It seemed justified and reasonable. Then we switched rooms and heard the other side’s position. It too seemed justified and reasonable. Then we got the two parties into the same room and got them talking to each other. By the end of the two mandatory hours of mediation, it was obvious to both me and the mediator that what was at issue was not how much money was paid by whom to take care of the child; the issue was about each party’s relationship with the child and the deeper kinds of care she needed. Each side was genuinely concerned about the child’s well-being. Each was afraid of losing her to the other party. Both sides cried. The party asking for more money would have been happy with a lot less than asked for if they could have received assurances that they weren’t going to lose either the child’s love or the chance to love her.

Because of a procedural oddity in the case and the stakes the lawyers had in it, the mediation ended after the mandatory period, still unresolved. But in just two hours both sides had moved considerably closer to a settlement, and one probably would have been achieved had the mediation been allowed to continue to its natural conclusion.

To solve this dispute, Amazon and Hachette need to go to mediation. Getting the transactional lawyers together to hammer out a contract has not worked, and pitting litigators at each other is not really going to solve anything now, because the issue isn’t a legal one. It’s a personal, existential issue about the survival of the two companies. The CEOs of the two companies (not their subordinates, not their lawyers) need to be locked together with an experienced mediator for however long it takes for them to be able to hear each other’s fears and figure out a way to make the pie bigger for everyone: publisher, distributor, author, and reader.

Stuck on Something New and Different

I’ve started writing a different kind of book, which is going to be a mash-up alternate history, cli-fi, dystopia, and roadtrip novel. I have a reasonable sense of both the narrative and emotional arcs, the main character’s motivation, the kind of things that are going to happen to her, and how the end will play out. This is a very detailed outline for me. I’m also writing in the present tense, which is not my usual style for books (I’ve used it in short stories fairly frequently). But I’m 6K words in and already I’m stuck.

What I’m stuck on is the motivations of other characters. I’ve set up my situation/ problem/ change for my main character in a way that I think works. But now I have to figure out what other people were doing that got her into that situation. What are they hoping to gain by using her, why did they do what they did when, and what’s the threat she poses? I’m okay with her being a pawn, but not a random pawn, someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So I have to raise the stakes, even if only in my own head. Essentially, I need to reverse-engineer the storyline. Making up history and backstory and so forth has always been one of the things I enjoy most about writing. (It may be why I wrote novels instead of short stories – I think novels have more space for backstory.) This has a different feel to it, though, because it’s really plot, not character development. I’ve been trying out a lot of different things, and they aren’t landing. I know that when I get it, it will be really simple and obvious.

I run into this problem fairly frequently in my writing. Usually it shows up when I’ve created a great big knot that is snarling the story. What’s different for me this time is that I am recognizing the issue early, not ignoring it and plodding on in the hope that it will resolve itself. This is going to lead to a better book ultimately, and one that will likely need less major revision, but it’s a bit frustrating now as I love that moment of diving in to a new story and letting it surprise me in all sorts of ways, even if 80% of them turn out to be crap.

I think the way I’ll get out of this will be by talking it out. I’ll talk the problem out with a couple of listeners, such as my family, and I may write out a conversation between characters. It won’t go in the book, because it won’t be very interesting to read, but in one of those real or fictional conversations I’ll say something that unlocks the problem. That’s the way my mind works.

In the meantime, however, I’ll find some other way to be creative. Take pictures or draw maps or play a game. If I consciously work too hard at the problem, it will have the effect of stripping a screw. It’s hard to give myself permission to walk away from a blank page and do something else that feels “lazy” or “unproductive”; writing time is so precious that I hate “wasting” it with some other activity. But I know myself well enough to know that’s what I have to do.


On Reading Only Writers Whose Surnames Begin With “M”

Last night I went to the bookstore and came home with 4 books by Cormac McCarthy and 2 by Hilary Mantel. The Mantel books and No Country For Old Men I have already read but decided I needed to own them, though I have no idea where they will live in my overflowing book pile. The other 3 McCarthy books are new. I’m really looking forward to them.

But my eagerness for this book pile has renewed my vow to read only books written by authors whose surnames begin with “M.”

I mean, I have nothing against writers whose surnames start with other letters (or who are in other alphabets altogether). I’m sure that non-M authors write really well. And in the past, I haven’t noticed when I’m reading a non-M author; it hasn’t mattered at all. I’ve been letter-blind. But my purchases last night made me realize that I’m really not interested in non-M authors. They just don’t speak to me. There are plenty of great M authors, so I won’t lack for good stuff to read. And, you know, I don’t really care how hard the M authors work at portraying people who have non-M surnames. There are plenty of other books for those people. Since my last name starts with L, it’s a bit of a risk to embrace only the M authors. They might say something about us L people that I don’t like. But I won’t let it bother me if I do.

So, if that wasn’t obvious, the above paragraph was Tongue-in-Cheek. But with a serious purpose.

Why do men say they won’t read books written by women? Why do they not try writing good women characters?

I think it’s because one of the foundations of patriarchy is cowardice.

Patriarchy is all about the fear of losing power to a perceived weaker person.

It’s about shutting off certain human emotions and assigning them to women because strong emotions are scary.

It’s about worrying that other men (or women!) will think you’re not good/strong/brave enough.

It’s about avoiding unpredictability.


Let’s think about the idealized knight. He has adventures. He faces dragons. He is kind to those in need. He doesn’t run away when he is frightened. He takes on challenges. He continually strives to become better.

Now, most people don’t live up to this standard. But it is a standard worth striving for. It’s idealized for a reason.

Readers and writers who don’t take risks at least some of the time are basically performing the equivalent act of staying in their hut or offering sacrifices to the dragon instead of heading into its lair. They’re walking around the block over and over and over. Yes, it’s sometimes stupid to walk straight into a dragon’s lair. Yes, it’s nice to be enclosed in what’s familiar and comforting and safe. Yes, if you try to write a woman and do a bad job you will get tons of criticism from women.

So what?

Take risks.

Have adventures.

Be brave.


I’m going to close with one of my favorite scenes about facing a dragon:

“This grew to the unmistakeable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.

“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”


On Finishing a Sequel

I have started lots of sequels in my life. None of them ever got to the halfway point, either because I lost interest in the characters or because it was too obviously just the same old same old story. Some of them would make decent books on their own if I went back to them, so they aren’t trunked entirely.

The sequel to Moth and Spark is a different beast. Of course the first thing everybody asked when they liked the manuscript was what I was working on next. At the time, I was not really interested in doing a sequel, because I had been living in that world for the last five years and wanted to move on, but I wasn’t going to reject the idea entirely since the book was being received with enthusiasm. I said that I would do a sequel if I came up with an idea that was more than “The Further Adventures of Corin and Tam.”

I did. I whipped out lots of words really fast and then got a good cold reality check a few months in from my agent, which led to major revisions, followed by another partial review and idea-generating conversation. That was about a year ago. Then I stalled. I could see the ending, but I couldn’t get myself there. By February I had managed to write something that looked finished, but it really wasn’t adequate. Moth and Spark came out in February, and it became very hard to concentrate on writing anything new for the first 10 weeks or so after publication. But stuff finally settled down in early May, and I got cracking.

As I write this, the book is with my agent after he sent comments back a couple weeks ago and I made more revisions. It’s definitely not perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. (I know the story so well at this point that it’s hard to see it with any objectivity on more than the sentence level.) I unearthed a few minor plot holes that need to be filled in, but they don’t get in the way of evaluating the book as a hole.

Regardless of what happens with this manuscript, I’ve learned a lot as a writer from Book 2. I had two particular writing goals to work on: first, to create a more fully-fleshed, present villain, and, second, to develop minor characters without going into their POV (which turns out to be super hard), The biggest difference between this book and Moth and Spark is that there are multiple chapters in the point of view of the villain, who is basically a magic-wielding psychopath with no empathy. He kills people when they get in his way with about the same feelings I have when I clean house. At the same time, he has a set of principles that he lives by, so he’s not completely unsympathetic.

That was a lot of fun. Part of the fun was that I got to take the story new directions in terms of setting (such as the kinds of other people he interacted with and the places he lived), magic (he is busy learning about magic himself), and storyline (a specific antagonism depicted on both sides). Some of the fun was just because everyone loves a good villain. Some was writing a character I had never written before. It was work, too: one scene is particularly icky and was hard to write. Also, since this was a completely new kind of character for me, I didn’t have stuff already in my head to fall back on the way I did with the main characters in Moth and Spark.

Working on the minor characters without going into their heads was not a challenge in terms of imagining who they were or what they were like, but it was tough in the mechanics. They had to have a past created by the memories and thoughts of the POV characters, and it’s not very interesting to have a POV character spending a lot of time thinking about someone else’s life. (Well, it could be in the right hands, but not mine now.) So I had to work it in via dialogue, some thoughts, and the main characters actually talking to each other about the minor characters.

One of the things that was really interesting in this regard was reading some of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels; her hero in the first three Lymond books (The Game of Kings, Queens Play, and The Disorderly Knights) is always seen from other people’s POV. She is basically an omniscient narrator dipping into the heads of various characters, which is a separate technique from never going into the hero’s head. I didn’t try to imitate her – I was much too far along in the manuscript when I first read the books – but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the future.

I learned a lot of other things from writing a sequel too. Often I caught myself wishing something I had just thought of could go in the already written and published book; I did make a few tweaks early on in the editing stage of Moth and Spark while I had the chance, but mostly I saw only “might have beens.” Conversely, I was bound in this book by the limits I had established in Moth and Spark. I couldn’t suddenly introduce an entirely new element no matter how cool it was. Groundwork needed to be laid if there were going to be any changes.

More interesting, however, was to work on getting established characters to keep changing and growing. Some of it was easy, because the circumstances were so changed that they had to respond differently, but mostly I had to be very thoughtful about what went into each interaction and what the characters took away from it. I was also determined to avoid the two obvious cliché’s for what comes after Happily Every After: pregnancy or an immediately failing marriage. I had characters who barely knew each other when they got married, and no matter how deeply in love they were, they had a lot to learn about each other. Writing this without their conversations deteriorating into arguments was really hard.

I’ve started work on a third book, which is a dystopian SF/alternate history/road trip novel and I hope will be different from the first two in a lot of ways besides the setting. It’s much too early to see now. But I wouldn’t have tried such a thing a few years ago; my toolbox has really expanded. And I think doing a sequel, where I was able to forego some of the work of world- and character-building to try doing different things in an established world, was really helpful in broadening my writing skills and goals. So, regardless of what happens with Book 2, I’m really glad I wrote it.

Alternate History

I’m starting an SF alternate history/dystopia novel. The timelines diverge in 1799 in Haiti. I’m having a lot of fun making up alternate historical twists. Below is my chronology so far. I’ll add updates as I think of them. Interestingly, about a week after I started this, io9 had a post on alternate North America maps, some of which look a lot like what I am imagining. My map is roughly based on the National Atlas of the US’s map of territorial acquisitions (PDF).


Haiti, 1799: The “War of Knives” between Toussaint L’ouverture and André Rigaud begins. Toussaint leads his troops into battle personally and is killed. Without Toussaint’s leadership, the newly independent colony descends into civil strife and falls again under French control. Napoleon Bonaparte successfully reinstates slavery and France regains its economic footing in the Caribbean.

France and the United States of America, 1803: Napoleon refuses to sell the territory of Louisiana to the United States. The United States, fearing French power in the Caribbean, threatens to join forces with Britain. Thomas Jefferson faces strong opposition at home to a war against the French, and the U.S. ultimately remains neutral. New Orleans, Haute-Louisiane, and Basse-Louisiane, comprised of territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, remain French possessions.

Oregon Territory, 1818: In a treaty between the United States and Great Britain, the land becomes part of Canada in exchange for British lands which lie east of the Rocky Mountains and south of the 49th parallel. Mexico retains control of its lands west of Louisiane and south of the 42nd parallel.

California, 1846: Gold is discovered in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Spain goes to war against Mexico to reclaim California but loses. The Mexican Gold Rush draws thousands of people from North America, Mexico, and Europe.

France and Louisiana, 1848: Revolution in France, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the Second Republic, is accompanied with revolution by the French North American possessions. Louisiane becomes a sovereign state and abolishes slavery.

North America, 1854-1858: The Louisianan-American war is fought after Louisiane refuses to return escaped slaves to the United States. Pressure from abolitionists and massive losses on the American side leads to the Treaty of St. Louis, wherein the United States agrees not to pursue fugitive slaves into Louisiane.

The United States, 1867: The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, narrowly passes both houses of Congress.

Worldwide, 1940: The United States enters World War II after German planes bomb French and American territories in the Caribbean. In the North American West, Mexico relies on hydroelectric power to mass-produce bombers.

North America, 2023: Tensions arise between the United States and Louisiane over the cost and quantity of water imported to the United States from the Ogallala aquifer in Louisiane during the first of the Long Droughts.

North America, 2030-2036, 2039-2050, 2056-2068, 2075-2092: The Long Droughts. Cold war between the United States and Louisiane from 2033-2037 and again from 2060-2072.

The United States, 2062: Due to rising water levels of the Potomac River, plans for New Washington, to be built approximately fifty miles west of the District of Columbia and ten miles east of the Blue Ridge mountains.

The United States, 2088: The newly formed Peoples Coalition of America party picks up seats in Congress.

Worldwide, 2096: Petroleum reserves and groundwater are both exhausted. Temperatures in North America average 115 degrees Fahrenheit 43 days in a row during July and August. New drought begins. Global economic collapse occurs. The PCA is a powerful third party.

The United States, 2100: In a landslide, the PCA wins control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. Martial law is declared, and the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution are suspended.


The Drought Continues

Epigraph for Book 2

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

–James Joyce, “The Dead”

The Isla Vista Shootings

I don’t usually write about political or social issues, but the shootings last Friday night won’t leave me alone. I think the worst part of it for me is that I am no longer surprised, shocked, or even outraged by such events; they have become something that happens, like thunderstorms or earthquakes. I have accepted this level of violence and hate in my supposedly civilized country as the norm. Because it sure as hell doesn’t seem like it’s going to change, does it?

My thoughts about the shooting are complicated and messy, so this is not going to be a very cohesive post. I think that’s okay. One of the things that happens after such events is a rush to explain, blame, and prevent, and that rush to restore order or make sense of the senseless gets in the way of experiencing how truly senseless it is. Isla Vista doesn’t make sense, and it shouldn’t. As soon as we start to make sense of it, we lose the horror.

When Fred Phelps died, I thought that for him to have so much hate, he must have been very full of fear, and I imagined how terrible it would be to live a life that afraid, that consumed by vulnerability. Something similar happened with the shooter here. (I am intentionally not using his name, so as to avoid feeding into the culture of celebrity that comes with such violence.) I should state clearly that in no way do I consider either of these men victims. They are accountable for their actions. But I think it is more accurate to characterize them as damaged or broken than as monsters.

A lot of the discussion of the Isla Vista shootings is focusing, as it should, on the shooter’s misogyny and the culture which fosters such misogyny. The thing I’m not seeing much (and I admit I’m kind of avoiding reading stuff) is that this is an example of how much patriarchal culture hurts men as well. Any culture that promotes the superiority of one kind of person over another does damage to the oppressor. By no means is it as much damage as is done to the oppressed – but oppression limits the human capacities for empathy, compassion, listening, and courage. People who oppress are always afraid of being toppled.

Men who say rape victims are at fault because “her dress was so provocative I couldn’t help myself” are men without the courage to face up to their own accountability, men without the courage to admit that their own weakness exists. In a less predatory culture, they would look for compassion instead of transforming shame to violence. In a less predatory culture, people would be there to give them compassion.

Being a successful male in our culture means having sexual prowess. Objectification of women occurs and continues because men feel defined by their virility, so they need ways to promote it. Other measures of success are wealth and power. We need to find ways of helping men feel that they are successful as people without needing to prove themselves by being “alpha males.” The shadow of entitlement is lack of self-worth.

Unfortunately, this message has been said for centuries and not been heard. I am not a Christian, but I do believe that a lot of the things Jesus said matter. “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? . . . you must love your enemies and do good. . . . Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:32, 35, 36.) “If, when you are bringing your gift to the altar you suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make peace with your brother, and only then come back and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24.) Compassion and peacemaking are as in short supply now as they were 2100 years ago. I think this is why I feel such futility.

The novel I am working on has a villain who is basically a high-functioning sociopath. He does not think in terms of right and wrong, good and evil; he thinks in terms of what serves his purposes. People, male and female both, are there for him to ignore most of the time and use or kill when they get in the way. He is capable of feeling neither guilt nor empathy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 16 months living in this guy’s head, because I don’t believe that 100% evil people exist (or make interesting villains). I try to see the world from his point of view. I see where he’s been hurt. I see where he is stunted as a person. He’s going to be defeated in the end not because the plot calls for it but because he has blinded himself so much to his own weaknesses that they will catch up to him. Because of this, I think I can imagine a little what was happening to the Isla Vista shooter. To the extent that he had inherent sociopathic tendencies, violence could not be prevented. But he apparently did not know how to feel compassion for other people or for himself. And at least some of that comes from living in a culture that rewards power over compassion.

Next time it won’t be misogyny that fuels the rage. It will be an unemployed MBA graduate mowing down customers in a bank. It will be a person who was turned away at an ER rampaging through a hospital. It will be in a church or a school or a mall or a theater or at a high school football game. The shooter will be young, male, white, and an outsider. The shooter may or may not have been identified by social services as mentally troubled. The shooter will blame others for his actions.

The cost of having a predatory culture is that innocent people die. If young white males see violence as the only way to resolve their loneliness, the culture is failing them too. But until predatory culture fails at the top, it will keep its clawhold.

I’m not going to say what we can do or must do or should do.

But what I wish we could do is practice mercy.


Comments on this post are disabled, for obvious reasons.

The Hotel as Metaphor for Cultural Oppression

Last weekend was the SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend, packed with all sorts of interesting stuff. I went to several panels on writing (including one on writing about spies!), was on a panel myself about diversity, sat in on the mass autograph session with Nalo Hopkinson on my left and Linda Nagata on my right, and heard some great readings from Daryl Gregory, Samuel R. Delany, Sofia Samatar, and Nicola Griffith. I met some good people, had a drink mixed by a robot, and all in all had a good time.

But… the event also reminded me of how much I loathe hotels.


In the diversity panel we were talking about race, and I was trying to describe to the mostly white audience how easy it is to not even be aware of being a member of a dominant culture. One’s own power is taken for granted. I couldn’t think of a good metaphor for the experience.

I was also grumpy with the hotel because I am a vegetarian (non-vegan) and there was almost nothing for me to eat. At the hotel bar, I was limited to chips and salsa or hummus with veggies. I couldn’t even eat the fries, because they were cooked in duck fat. The hotel restaurant menu included 3 varieties of salads but only one non-meat appetizer and no entrees. The side of creamed spinach was cooked with bacon. I could have had some of the other sides, but I really didn’t feel like paying ten dollars for three asparagus spears or a dollop of potatoes.

The hotel provided lunch for the SFWA board meeting. Cold cuts. The potato salad had a bacon-based dressing. I was stuck with a cheese sandwich and some greens.

Essentially, I as a vegetarian was invisible to the hotel.

I wondered how many meat-eaters would look at the menu and notice the lack of vegetarian dishes. I suspect most wouldn’t. They would be busy looking at what they wanted among the meat dishes. This must, on a very small scale, be what it is like to be a minority. The majority doesn’t even notice the exclusion.


There are other things about hotels that I hate: the wastefulness of the small plastic-packaged toiletries, the lack of recycling bins anywhere, the stairs tucked away and a bit creepy to be alone in so that one takes the elevator from 2 to 3 instead of walking, while pious notes in the bathroom says the hotel cares about the environment so please consider reusing your towels. Really now?

But what I most loathe about hotels is the reek of profit. 15 dollars for a continental breakfast. Opulent lobbies (with check-in counters that are probably too high for a person in a wheelchair and an almost entirely minority staff, who probably are not paid fabulously well). Special rewards and perks. Spa service. Don’t worry about money, they say. Consume consume consume! Spend without consideration of the cost! Feel rich! Count the impractical pillows on your bed! Then go home to your ordinary little house and be dissatisfied with your life, or return to your power boardroom and devise new ways to make more money.

The check-in person asked me if I had stayed in the hotel before, and when I said I hadn’t, she launched into her patter. I’m paying for a façade, a stage set. Whenever I come home from a hotel, I feel a little bit unclean. Cheated. They don’t actually give a damn who I am but they try to convince me they do. I don’t like being lied to.

I will concede that I enjoy walking into a clean bathroom every morning. But I’m not sure the emotional exhaustion of spending several days trying to maintain my integrity under the weight of ruthless capitalism is worth it. Instead of relaxing me, hotels grind me down.

Being in a hotel, where nothing is for me, where I am only there to be used, where there is no way to change the system, makes me realize how very difficult it must be to be part of a minority culture. I’m lucky. I can leave the hotel, go back home to a place where there is no meat in the refrigerator and the comfortable Ikea furniture fairly represents my income. Return to the messiness of cats and kid and study with lots of windows and greenery around me. I’m not invisible or unheard in my own house. I imagine that marginalized people feel as though they are in a hotel – all the time. Trapped.

It would be awful.


The hotel as a metaphor for cultural oppression won’t work for everyone. No metaphor will. But this realization – which illuminates to me why I never have as much fun at conferences as I hope to – is going to be tremendously useful to my writing. It hits me in an emotional center that will allow me to better write about what it is like to be outside of a culture, powerless. To be lied to on a daily basis.

So that’s my real take-away from the Nebulas. And I’m grateful for it.

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