Saturday, March 29, 2014

Living With Dogs: A Sense of Order

We used to joke that one of the jobs our old German Shepherd Dog, Oka, had taken upon himself,
Oka herding his ball
was to break up any disputes – real or imagined – between the cats. One of our cats tends to bully the others, pushing them out of their favorite sunbathing spots and persisting in playing “wrestle” when they very clearly are not interested. Both are usually accompanied by hisses and yowls and small furred bodies moving very quickly. Oka would immediately place his very considerable (90 lbs) bulk between them. We imagined him saying, “Break it up! Break it up! Move along now…”
Oka, like all dogs, had a very firm notion of what was good, orderly behavior and what was not to be allowed. Dogs are strongly oriented to routine, which is one of the things makes them so trainable. They make very specific associations (leash = walkies; vet’s office = horrible things happening to doggies; “Sit!” spoken in front of the refrigerator = sit in front of the refrigerator and no place else). We monkeys like to interpret this as our dogs having fixed ideas about the Way Things Should Be.
Oka’s Rules (as interpreted by his resident monkeys) included:
  • Cats shall not hiss at one another. Cats have razor blades on their feet and must not be closely approached.
  • Deborah must be accompanied to and from the laundry area in the garage.
  • The sole redeeming value of company is that the Evil Laser Bug comes out to play (therefore, Oka hung out in the living room, patiently watching the carpet for the first sign of the red dot.)
  • The blue horse ball must be herded and barked at (see photo).
  • Bodies of water deeper than a couple of inches are evil.

Monday, March 24, 2014

[rant] Ethics in Fiction: Don't Glamorize Murder

I've been thinking about my best friend, who died last year from ovarian cancer, and about my mother, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor teenager on drugs in 1986. Over the last couple of decades since the latter, I've exchanged stories (and tears, and laughter, and anguish) with other family members of murder victims. Sometimes when I read a story in which killing someone is presented as praiseworthy, I want to scream at the author, "Do you have any idea what you're doing? Do you understand how much pain your characters are causing?" I want to sit down with the writers and make them listen to what it's like to lose someone you love and all the years you might have had together for no good reason. I'm feeling really angry about it right now. Hence the rant below.


I admit that I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that deliberately ending someone's life is laudable. Yes, things happen by accident. People drive around in lethal weapons all the time. People get angry or frightened and lash out. But writing a story is not something that's over in a flash and can never be taken back. It's an act of deliberate creation and as such, calls on us to be mindful. Listen, folks. Life is all too brief, and incredibly precious. It's totally not okay with me to deliberately cut short a human life. For greed, for bigotry, for revenge, for patriotism. In fiction we often do kill off characters. If you do it, do it with full awareness of the cost.

Don't say it's only entertainment. That is such a bullshit excuse for not paying attention to human suffering. Go shoot up tin cans or climb a mountain instead of filling your stories with shooting galleries. Scream at clouds. Get some professional help - but don't pretend that blowing up characters left and right has no consequences. It's even worse if your "hero" is laughing and spouting nonsense like "That'll teach them" or "They had it coming."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Grief in Real Life and Fiction

My best friend died last October, and I spent 7 weeks taking care of her and her family. I just finished a draft of a memorial for our college alumni magazine, to be reviewed by her husband, so I've been thinking about loss and grief. Because we haven't lived in the same state for -- oh, 40 years, I think -- I didn't see her on a daily basis. Our contacts were more along the lines of picking up the phone to chat or convey some noteworthy news or ask for support. So periods of time will go by in which I would not normally see or speak to her, and in these times, I'm not aware of sadness at her absence.

For her husband, though, her death means a daily -- maybe hourly -- reminder that she is no longer there. He is surrounded by physical reminders, not to mention the rhythms of their daily lives. Our grief therefore has a different pattern.

The first deep grief of my life came in my late 20s, when my father died. It was after a series of strokes over the course of 6 months or so, following a period of declining health. Even so, I felt overwhelmed by the pain of his loss. In retrospect, I believe I wasn't fully adult, even though I was married and working full time. I could not imagine a life without my parents, their constant love and support, their kindness, their lively intellectual conversations. The intensity of my grief lessened, and then returned. After a while, I began to recognize the wave-like rhythm. I knew that the pain would subside and then rise up again - "This too shall pass." One of the most helpful things I did was to give myself time. I told myself it would take 5 years to do the majority of the grieving, and as it turns out, I was right.

Mourning my mother was far more complicated because of the suddenness and violence involved. She'd been in excellent health, and the murder/rape was exceptionally brutal. My sister and I had to deal with the criminal justice system -- the police investigation, the indictment and sentencing of the perpetrator,  his subsequent parole hearings, etc. -- as well as the newspaper headlines and how shocked everyone around us was at the same time as  attempting to negotiate the natural grieving process. Five years wasn't nearly enough to grapple with the emotional pain. But time and lots of therapy, seeking out healing, slowly loosened the knots, let sunshine into wounded places, and brought me to a place where it felt I would have been if my mother had died naturally.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gorgeous lace-weight yarn from Peace Fleece

I'm an avid knitter, and one of my favorite places to buy yarn is Peace Fleece. They started during the Cold War as a way to bring together Russian and American sheepfarmers. Now they buy wool not only from Russia but Native American and Palestinian sources. Proceeds from their "Baghdad Blue" yarn help support "Neve Shalom," a Palestinian/Israeli village that is a workshop for friendship and cooperation.

Now they've partnered with a nonprofit to make available lace-weight mohair yarn that's just gorgeous.

Peace Fleece is working together with Adventure Yarns, a non-profit that assists Tajik women farmers in the production of quality Angora goat fiber and teaches spinners, knitters and weavers how to produce luxury mohair yarns for export. (Click through for more amazing pictures).


These mohair spinners have very few sources of income besides seasonal agricultural work picking fruit or cotton. Their main source of livelihood is money sent by men in the family who work in Russia. About 50% of Tajikistan's GDP comes from these funds - the highest % in the world. Spinning is their only stable source of income. Working part time they can spin 1 skein of yarn in 2 days. With the money they earn from spinning one skein of yarn they can buy: 1 kg of chicken, 1 liter of milk, 1 loaf of bread, 1 kg of potatoes.

 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Negotiating With Cats

DSCN0661One of my favorite lines from Ghost Busters is a description of Armageddon, the End of Times – “dogs and cats, living together!” The stereotype is that that dogs and cats are fundamentally incompatible, born enemies. But dogs and cats can form communities – families – based on learned communication, play, and safety. To do this, especially with adult animals, requires a little help from their resident monkeys.

Tajji, our “new-to-us” retired seeing eye dog, lived most of her adult life in a household without cats. We assumed that at some point in her early socialization, before her intensive seeing eye training, she was exposed to them. When she came for a preliminary visit, we locked the cats behind closed bedroom doors. She was very excited when off-leash, checking out the house. We gave her a chance to calm down, then put up a baby gate so that we could open the bedroom doors, the cats could come out, and the animals could see and smell one another without undue risk to the cats. Tajji was very interested in checking them out, up close and personal. Shakir hid, but Gayatri came out and sat in the living room, being very polite with her back turned to the dog.

A word about our cats. They’re both rescue adoptees, so we don’t know their early history with dogs, but clearly each of them had had some exposure. The important thing for cats to learn is not to run, because a small critter moving swiftly away will engage the dog’s prey drive. Shakir (black male) was exceptionally friendly with our old dog, relentlessly pursing play behavior even when the dog was clearly not up for close contact with any creature that had razor blades on its feet. Gayatri (brown tabby and white, one eyed female) was more outgoing with our puppy, Darcy. So each of them had had the experience of living with a dog. Cats who are confident with dogs will teach the dogs how to behave, especially if their resident monkeys are careful to set things up so everyone stays calm and safe during the introductory period.

To facilitate safe introductions, we used barriers and escape places. We placed baby gates across strategic doorways (and a big one to divide the living room from dining/kitchen areas). We made sure that every room had high places for the cats to escape to. We transitioned from hello-across-gates, where the cats could determine their comfort distance, to placing the dog in her crate and then letting the cats loose in the same room. This involves a “foundational” skill for the dog – happily going into her crate on command. High-value (super extra tasty) treats and chew toys are useful!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

GUEST POST: Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff on Reviewing Bad Books

It's a joy to review books I've enjoyed, even when they have flaws. Sometimes the flaws not only don't spoil my reading pleasure, but they add charm. But what about books I thought were just awful? Or so crippled by flaws -- diction, plot holes, character idiocies, anachronisms, flabby pacing, you name it -- that I just wanted to grab the author by the lapels and scream, Learn the basics! As satisfying as that might be, is it a good idea? Why or why not? When and when not?

Here's what Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff has to say:

I comment negatively on authors who are “big” enough to take it. Dan Brown isn’t going to be crushed by my frustration with the way he dumbs down his characters in key places or tries to milk a reveal by repeating it several times as if you’ve never heard it before. Nor is it going to put a wrinkle in his sales. But I hesitate to be as blunt with writers who are just getting their sea legs. What I might do is praise what I find praiseworthy first, give a sort of “on the other hand” commentary about the things I found bothered me, then end on a note of general uplift. For example, “if you aren’t bothered by X, the book might win you over.”

In all cases I think it’s better to say as precisely as possible what you do and don’t like and why so that the person reading the critique or hearing it, can decide for themselves whether the elements that drove me nuts even matter to them. I found Rick Riordan’s “Lightning Thief” so flawed that I was reluctant to keep buying the series for my daughter, though I found the characters very engaging. It had plot holes you could sail a galleas through (oars and all) yet other readers (many of them writers) were so caught up in the story those didn’t register.

So for me, that’s the key: try to critique in such a way that your own biases or sensibilities are also revealed instead of saying, “I didn’t like it” or the dreaded “It didn’t work for me.”



Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is the New York Times Bestselling author of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: Shadow Games.  Maya became addicted to science fiction when her dad let her stay up late to watch The Day the Earth Stood Still. Mom was horrified. Dad was unrepentant. Maya slept with a night-light in her room until she was 15. She started her writing career sketching science fiction comic books in the last row of her third grade classroom. She was never apprehended. Since then her short fiction has been published in Analog, Amazing Stories, Century, Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, Paradox and Jim Baen’s Universe. Her debut novel, The Meri (Baen), was a Locus Magazine 1992 Best First Novel nominee (now available as a trade paperback from Sense of Wonder Press). Since, she has published ten more speculative fiction novels, including collaborations with Marc Scott Zicree and Michael Reaves.

Check out her work on Book View Cafe.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Characters Hurling Insults For Fun and Profit



How many times has a discussion escalated into an argument, or an argument into violence, with the hurling of insults? It seems we human beings never outgrow the impulse to call people who disagree with us nasty names. There have been enough compilations of creative, gleeful, or historical insults to fill entire libraries. We so much enjoy our own cleverness that we blithely ignore whether calling someone names actually encourages them to change their behavior or whether it firmly cements their own negative opinion of us and their determination to not do whatever it is we want. The words we use and the comparisons we make say as much about us as about those we are insulting. The same is true for characters in fiction.

Let’s accept as given that the purpose of insults is not reconciliation. If that were true, we’d have long since achieved peace in the Middle East, not to mention a few dozen other places around the globe. What are the other possibilities? 


  • Venting ill temper, including displaced aggression – that’s the man who kicks his dog instead of his boss, the real target of his anger.
  • Showing off for a third party.
  • Parroting what has been said by those the character respects.
  • Being out of control. If violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, then surely hurling insults is an expression of frustration in a person who simply can’t come up with a constructive response.
  • Trying to provoke a reaction, whether it’s loss of control in the other character or an escalation of violence.
  • Justifying previous ill-treatment of the person being insulted.

Monday, March 10, 2014

World-Building in Prose and Theatrical Set Design

Last year at Baycon, Juliette Wade and I did a discussion and reading on "World-building." One of the members of our audience, a theatrical set designer, offers some great insights into the similarities...and the lessons we can learn from one another.

The biggest lesson I learned from Ross was to present the world incidentally through the action of the story. I don’t want to imply that Ross was Worldbuilding by accident, far from it. Instead she introduced readers to the complex concepts of an alien world as she was dealing with other writerly stuff such as plot and character. While Wade’s reading demonstrated rich narrative passages that allowed the reader to see the world, Ross’s reading jumped straight in to the action, but carefully crafted that action and her telling of it to expose the world we were visiting. Ross’s approach is also one that relates organically to the theatrical designer. Theatrical designers do not get to give the audience a two minute guided tour of the design so that they can take in what it is and what it means. Instead, the curtain goes up, the actors enter, and the play is off and running. The audience has to pick up the world of the play while following the action. Is this the sort of play where a Styrofoam cup and some string symbolizes a phone? If so, designers show that to the audience. Whatever the world of the play is, it is important to show it through the action of the play.


Read the whole blog post here:
World Building | setsandlights

PS The selection I read was from Collaborators, my Lambda Award-Finalist novel that takes place on a planet whose indigenous race is gender-fluid.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Today's Thought on Writing



Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.
--Barbara Kingsolver

Thursday, March 6, 2014

COLLABORATORS is Lambda Awards Finalist!

My science fiction novel, Collaborators, is a Finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award! (It's under byline of Deborah Wheeler.) Needless to say, I'm thrilled! It was previously reviewed on the Lambda Literary site.

ve stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf
The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf
The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf
The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf
The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf
The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf
I've read sections from this book at Gaylaxicon 2004 in San Diego, and more recently at SF in SF. Special thanks to everyone who kept asking when the book was coming out and to Gabrielle Harbowy, my editor at Dragon Moon Press, for believing in it!

From the Lambda Literary review: The love stories between the alien pairs were the most important, and the most tender moments of the book, Not only for the fascinating look at sexual biology and the way Wheeler has shaken and blended gender norms like a Bond martini, but because they are also beautiful romances, familiar family issues, and heart-touchingly domestic. The aliens’ whole way of life is built on the family structure, the treasuring of the all-too-rare children, and the valuing of honesty and generosity between clan kin. The relationships span all ranges and makeups – from widowers to young lovers; from established partnerships with adult children to newlyweds with a baby on the way; from unrequited loves to loves cut tragically short. In this way, Wheeler has given us aliens with hearts as human as the readers, and that’s the point.
A starkly entertaining allegory of Middle East tensions, and a romantic and intellectually sexy gender discussion wrapped up in a compelling novel that solidifies Dragon Moon Press’ swiftly growing place amid the new wave of socially-aware and unafraid-to-make-its-readers-think genre fiction publishers.
- See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/06/18/collaborators-by-deborah-wheeler/#sthash.lAYqCGiL.dpuf



To read more about gender and gender roles in Collaborators, check out my previous blogs: Collaborators - Thinking About Gender and World-Building in Collaborators – Designing a Gender-Fluid Race


Collaborators is available in print and ebook editions from Amazon.com and in print from Powell's and probably from other places, too.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Seven-Petaled Shield - in Elvish!

While there are no elves, Tolkienesque or otherwise, in The Seven-Petaled Shield trilogy, there seems to be a huge overlap in reading readers. Someone joked that if The Lord of the Rings had been written by a woman, it would be these books. Kate Hoffman, my editor at DAW, wrote out the titles of the three books, transcribed into Tolkien's Elvish:






It is indeed a marvelous thing to discover that one's editor is as great a Tolkien fangirl as oneself.