Mid-Week Update: Where Tales of MU Is Right Now

Okay, so. I’m both farther behind and farther ahead than I thought I’d be with Tales of MU.

I’m farther ahead in that I now have solid ideas for *two* subsequent stories I want to tell after the current one is put to bed. I was kind of hopeful that taking off some of the pressure would make things easier, and my mind responded by racing ahead.

The “coda” chapter to wind up the current storyline is getting some re-writes to support the other future storyline. I was trying really hard to get it up during the calendar month of January in order to maximize the usefulness of the Patreon payout for it, but that felt hollow and forced.

My early experiences publishing online got me hooked on the rush of instant gratification. After spending January writing reams and reams of stuff for later publication, taking time to polish and arrange it. And the extreme pace at which the political and civic landscape of the United States has been changing has generated a lot of work for someone who can take in information and synthesize an understanding of it quickly, so the financial hit of deferring Tales of MU’s post didn’t actually hurt much.

I’m still putting together the schedule for when Tales of MU resumes. The fact that I keep jumping ahead mentally to the next-next story is making it complicated. It’s about 50/50 that the next MU story will begin updating beginning this month, or next month.

Status Report: Tales of MU

I am feeling a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about my writing this week. I’m going to digress here to say: this is not me fishing for external reassurance, nor do I want any. The odds of anyone reading this coming up with something that is helpful that I haven’t already considered are very low; the odds of saying something that aggravates the situation is considerably higher. So please respect the fact that I’m writing this out to 1) process what I’m feeling and 2) let anyone interested know where I am at, and sit on your hands until the urge to say something about it passes.

Back at the start of January—the start of the year, it now feels like it was months ago—I started a new approach to writing that balances my desire to Make All The Things at once with my need to hyperfocus on a single thing to get anything done: Make All The Things, but one at a time, about a week at a time.

My first week test case was extremely successful, and I talked about having a sort of rotating semi-regular roster of projects I would work on one week at a time, getting material to publish over the course of a month or more each time. I got three months’ worth of material out of my first week, and two months’ out of my second one.  The idea is that if, with a week of focused production I tend to produce more than a month’s worth of material, I could easily have 3 or more ongoing serial projects with room for side projects (like standalone short stories, game stuff, etc.) and interruptions in the work schedule.

I was coy at the time about what projects I was going to try the experiment with after my test, because I didn’t want to either disappoint people when their favorite long-simmering story wasn’t on the initial short list or get their hopes up by mentioning something that might not pan out. This was, after all, an experiment.

The most concrete example of this is Tales of MU, which I knew back at the start of January would either be the story I worked on during the last week of the month, or it wouldn’t be.

My feelings about Tales of MU are complicated. From the start, I thought of it as a freshman story… a story about people making a lot of mistakes and learning from some of them. At the same time, it was (unintentionally and, at first, unwittingly), my freshman story… a story where I made a lot of mistakes, and one hopes, learned from them.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of when I started writing it. It’s a weird thing to be tethered to a story from ten years ago. I was a very different person ten years ago. I thought I knew a lot of stuff that I didn’t, and I didn’t know a lot of stuff that I think I do now. I was working through some pretty heady issues at the time, and it shows in the writing which includes themes I would have avoided if I’d started it now. But, of course, if I hadn’t worked through them in my writing, I probably wouldn’t be able to say that. Certainly I would have made the campus’s human majority population less homogeneously white if I’d started writing it today, and not been as cavalier about applying stereotypical racial tropes to fantasy creatures. I really didn’t know the difference between “saying something about a thing” and “having something to say about a thing” back then.

Tales of MU grew out of my nostalgic memories of Basic D&D and 2nd Edition AD&D at a time when I wasn’t playing then-current 3rd Edition D&D, and it has a lot of original stuff I put in or changed to make things better or more interesting than the distant source material. Since I started writing it, I got really into 4th and 5th Edition D&D, which makes the nostalgia base of TOMU a lot less emotionally resonant to me.

These things might weigh on me a little less if this were a conventional book series. A long running series of books still has each book as a self-contained volume with their own beginning and end. It’s easier to see the “now” of such a series as being self-contained compared to what came before.

Tales of MU is not like that; the “books” are more divisions of convenience and one of my goals when writing it was to tell a story for people who prefer to live in the middle part of a story rather than the beginning or end.

I’ve done that, and I don’t regret doing that, but the problem is, such a story has no natural ending point.

(This is the part where people want to jump in to tell me what they think the natural ending point is. Restrain yourself. That impulse is not your friend.)

Financially, it’s also complicated. I can make more money writing Tales of MU than not writing it, but there was only a very brief window when I first broke out in the crowdfunded writing scene where it was enough to justify the work it takes to make that money. At the same time, the fact that I didn’t write or publish any Tales of MU during my “fiction drought” around the election hurt my finances more than anything else about that period. The financial benefit is not likely to increase meaningfully, as new material is tied to ten years of previously written material of widely varying tone and quality.

Ultimately, whether I want to and am able to continue writing it is not going to be a financial decision so much as a creative and personal one.

And then we get to the fanbase, which is also complicated. The thing is, I know even as I write this that I’m going to see commentary to the effect of “I knew her heart was in it.” or “It was obvious she’d given up and moved on.” I see those messages all the time. Part of the vicious cycle of trying to keep up an update schedule is that any time it slips—even by an hour, literally an hour—I start hearing “SO I GUESS YOU’VE GIVEN UP WRITING TALES OF MU MIGHT HAVE SAID SOMETHING INSTEAD OF GHOSTING” or “please Ms. Erin tell us what we did wrong”… and honestly, it’s hard for me to explain why both of those messages are so disheartening, but they are.

It’s especially hurtful to have people bruiting about their commentary on my “decision” when I’m wrestling with a story, struggling to overcome difficulties in writing. Imagine you’re buried in an avalanche and you’re trying to dig your way out, and people are standing in earshot debating about whether you’re selfish for deciding to be buried, or if your decision to be buried is valid and must be respected. Even the people defending you are calmly talking about how you decided to be trapped under tons of earth, and blithely assuming that at the very moment you decide to, you will effortlessly shift it away.

The thing is, I do better at things—at any thing—when I can document my process and process my feelings here, butI I long ago gave up writing anything about writing Tales of MU and where I am, because every process post attracts these comments. At one point I made a post saying that conditions were untenable in the home office so I was taking my laptop to a coffee shop to finish the day’s chapter and I received a tweet saying “So I guess you’re saying there’s no chapter today.” Not even exaggerating. I made a blog post about my plans to finish the chapter and someone took it as confirmation that there wasn’t going to be one.

This isn’t even getting into the people who don’t understand that writing is not mechanical labor, that it is not a simple matter of sitting in front of a keyboard and pressing the Make Story Button fifteen thousand times in a row. But that’s relevant, because the cumulative effect of the weight of expectations and entitlement and misguided/errant advice is that it makes the creative aspect of the work harder. It pulls me out of my creative brainspace.

Call me a precious special snowflake with delicate feelings (out loud, preferably, where I don’t have to hear it), but this is the quantum interference aspect of direct author/audience interaction – the act of observing an author at work has ways of affecting an author at work. This is a big part of why I’ve been increasingly distant from my fanbase and hard to reach over time. It’s not even about abusive or obviously over-entitled fans. It’s getting the same advice, having people make the same assumptions about what’s going on in my head, hearing my circumstances or outcomes dissected as decisions, over and over again. I’ve been working on toughening myself up and shifting into a mindset of “If they don’t know me, it doesn’t matter what they think.”, but the catch-22 of it is that it’s really hard to do this kind of self-improvement work while you’re still being peppered with it.

To use a metaphor: it’s a lot easier to repair the shields on the starship Enterprise when it’s not actively taking fire.

Anyway. People have assumed that Tales of MU is over or that I’m “on the bubble” for canceling it many times, often while I was trying to gear up to breathe new life into it. There have been maybe two times I have seriously considered canceling it. One of them was last summer, just before my most recent revitalization attempt.

That attempt fizzled out not just because of the election stuff, but because I got right up to the end of the current storyline and found I had no idea what to write next. Perversely, this made it impossible for me to write the last installment of the current story. I know exactly what happens. I could tell someone the nutshell version of it. It’s not very exciting or important as everything about the problem at hand was more or less wrapped up in the currently-last chapter. The last chapter of the storyline was meant to just be a coda.

It’s just that the weight of not knowing what comes next and the need to continue the story makes it hard to tie off the current one with a bow.

 

This is the third time I’ve thought seriously about ending the series. I made the decision at the start of the month that I would, in fact, and I have to tell you: it felt liberating. I don’t think I could have written a NaNo worth of a single story in under eight days if I’d had “…but I need to be writing Tales of MU” running through my head.

During my family vacation, I thought about how I would end it, if I would do a “flash forward/montage” of the characters or reveal some of the things that have been lurking in the background, stuff like that. Which got me thinking about the things about the story that do still resonate with me, and made me start to vacillate a little bit.

And so I ultimately decided that this week would be Tales of MU week in my great experiment. I’d write the coda for the current storyline and then see if I could work out What Comes Next and how it goes, writing it out in advance. I could do regular updates if I could summon a week’s worth of enthusiasm for the story every month, month and a half, or so. And recent events have given me more stories I want to tell in the world.

Now that we’re here… I’m less sure I can commit to having a week’s worth of enthusiasm for the story every 4 to 6 weeks. I’m also less sure that I could walk away from it. To tell you the honest truth, when I started writing this post I had one idea about which of the two options I was going to pick, and it switched back and forth a few times as I’m writing this.

This is what I mean by “processing”, by the way, when I talk about how I process things on my blog.

And as this post approaches what I consider the minimum length for a decent chapter, I come to a decision, or rather a realization: when you’re faced with two choices and neither one is palatable, you should ask yourself if you’re really limited to those two.

Are my choices really to commit to an ongoing writing/publishing schedule or to wash my hands and walk away? No, no they are not.

So, to get to the meat of it: I am going to spend this week working on Tales of MU, finishing the current storyline and beginning the next one. I am not going to stop writing it, officially cancel it, etc. But from here on out, I will be writing stories in the Tales of MU universe and posting them to the Tales of MU site when I have something to say, not merely to perform the rote act of filling out a quota or hitting a schedule.

How many years have I been repeating the line about creativity not being a mechanical act? I’m finally starting to believe it myself.

Anyone trying to glean hints about the frequency of updates going forward from this is going to be shooting in the dark. I don’t know. I can’t tell you. It’s possible that the act of unburdening myself from expectations will turn me into a writing machine and re-ignite the spark of passion completely. It’s possible that it will just be a side thing, an occasional dalliance, going forward. Who can say?

I’ll avoid posting more than two chapters a week, for the benefit of the folks on the Tales of MU patreon who are pledged on a per-update basis (the only fair way to proceed, since I’m not guaranteeing production in a given month), though most of them seem to have sensible caps on their patronage based on their monthly budget anyway.

But that’s a best case scenario, not a baseline.

So here is where the post ends. I’ll tack on a caveat – everything I’m doing this month is experimental. This week’s experiment is Tales of MU. If it goes very well, I will tie off the current storyline with a bow and start the next one immediately. If it goes well, I will tie off the current storyline with a bow and begin prepping the next storyline, for when the next time Tales of MU comes up in my informal, shifting rota.

If it goes terribly? Well, that might be the end. I’m making no decisions in advance here.

Either way, a big thank you to everyone for reading… both this blog post, and anything else I’ve written that you’ve read.

Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes Preview: PROLOGUE

In many worlds, the star never fell screaming from the heavens once, let alone three times.

In these worlds, there is no Falling Star Bay, east of the mighty Chesapeake and south of the Delaware, and smaller than both but no less important in the scheme of things. In your world, perhaps, there is no such state in the union as Hamilton.

So perhaps our story must begin with a lesson in history and geography.

Occupying the southeastern portion of what is there called the Delmarvaton Peninsula, Hamilton crowns itself the jewel of the Mid-Atlantic region, that “particularly American” stretch of the east coast where the north meets the south and they swirl around and mix together just as easily and pleasantly as hot and cold water mix in a bathtub you are already sitting in. It is the part of the United States that gave it its most enduring capital and the bloodiest, bitterest battles of its first civil war.

Whether Hamilton was the jewel of the Mid-Atlantic would be hard to say. All the states had their own opinions on the matter, and their own means to back them up. They could all agree that they were at least not Delaware, save for Delaware, which could not get away with making this claim and made up for it by getting away with whatever else it could.

Regardless, Star Harbor was clearly the jewel of the state of Hamilton. Sometimes called a rival city to Baltimore, Star Harbor carved out a unique identity of its own.

Its importance in national politics was little known and less acknowledged, even among those serious historians who recognized the power that the state of Hamilton had wielded prior to the civil war. Star Harbor was the largest and wealthiest city in the state, but not its capital and official seat of governance.

If the star never fell in your world, then what must in all likelihood then be called the Delmarva Peninsula would have a very different shape. Perhaps its southern tip would be long and tapered, rather than big and knobby. If this were the case, there would have been no Falling Star Bay. With no Falling Star Bay, there would have been no Falling Star Harbor and no city established on it.

Without these exigencies, there would have been no letter of entreaty sent to Alexander Hamilton at a pivotal moment in his New York political rivalry with Aaron Burr. Without this extra land on Virginia’s end of the peninsula, there could have been no breakaway state to take its name after the man who shepherded it into existence and served as its first and third governor.

Without the inclusion of this odd state in the tally, the legislative balance between pro-slavery states and the rest would have been maintained until 1850, preventing any one state from wielding outsized power in quietly shaping the national policy of the young United States of America.

If the star never fell in your world, when Alexander Hamilton fought his famous duel with Aaron Burr—for this is no world that had both an Alexander Hamilton and an Aaron Burr in which it did not come down to this—it must have come at a different time, had a different proximate cause, and it may have ended very differently. If nothing happened in your world to call Alexander Hamilton away from New York in 1804, then it is possible he died a senseless, pointless, preventable death at the age of forty-eight, with the lion’s share of his designs for the true system of American government unrealized.

These are only the merest handful of surface differences between a world where the star fell and one where it didn’t. There are many others, awesome and awful, terrible and terrific, wondrous and strange.

One difference more: if the star never fell from the heavens, and it never threw up a mass of land east of Virginia, then there could be no Falling Star Bay. With no Falling Star Bay, there could no island almost but not quite big enough to hold a city called Calvary Crossing, and without such an island and such a city, we would have no story about how an ordinary woman from Calvary Crossing came to save her world.

We are not here to tell you what happened at that time and in that place, but to tell you a story about what happened there. If parts of it seem fantastic, that it is because it is a story about fantastic things. If parts of it seem too strange to be believed, that is because it is a story about true things, which lack the imperative of fiction to be plausible.

Yet, if it lacks some of the rough edges you might expect to find in a story concerning people from many walks of life contending with those who might hate, despise, fear, or exploit them… well, whatever this story might be about, it is after all, a story, and we have the power to tell a story in any way in which we choose. A story is made of words, and a good story is made of words chosen carefully.

If we were to tell you a story about aliens who lived and died in another galaxy eons before you were born, we would still render their speech in a familiar language, using words you might understand. If we were to tell a story for children, we would use certain sets of words to a greater degree and others to a lesser one. If we told a story to teach a concept, we might vary our vocabulary throughout as the audience learns new words and new ideas along with the characters.

And if we were to tell a story that is meant to be refuge, celebration, and inspiration to those who find their souls besieged, we might leave certain words and ideas out of it in order to allow them to find themselves within the story while leaving certain of their troubles behind.

This is not what happened. This is a story about what happened. There are certain words it does not contain and will not contain, and some that are only used in specific contexts, never as a weapon and never by those who wield them as weapons.

Some will say this is not realistic. They are right and they are wrong. It is neither realistic nor unrealistic.

It is fantastic.

It is a story.

Listen.

We will tell you.


THE SECRET SISTERHOOD OF SUPERHEROES is an unapologetically queer, unabashedly fun and goofy serial story about a diverse cast of people with superpowers being people and having superpowers that will debut sometime in the first half of 2017, once I have secured some initial funding for beta/sensitivity readers as necessary and appropriate to the project. It will be published in the form of monthly “issues” that will each go up on my Patreon all at once for paying customers and in a slow trickle of smaller installments for everybody else.

If all goes to plan, it should start publishing in February or March.

 

Secret Sisterhood & Sundry Serials: Update!

So, I’ve spent the last couple of days resting and recovering from travel and looking back at the tens of thousands of words I had written for Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes the week before, trying to get a better feel for the structure of the story, making some incidental improvements that occurred to me while I was in transit, and figuring out how I will serialize it.

I had been thinking of the whole 30,000+ word story as one “issue” of the series, and thinking it would collectively represent one month’s worth of publication. This would be a hard feat to match on a monthly basis, so I considered calling the first “issue” a “Giant-Sized” or “Double-Sized” issue, to continue the comic metaphor.

After reviewing it again, I have realized it divides pretty neatly into thirds, with each third focusing strongly on a character (J.J., Cassandra, Princess) who holds the viewpoint for most of the story. Each major viewpoint shift quite naturally comes at a pivotal/transitional point in the story, which makes for a decent issue break.

Each of the issues has about six major segments of similar lengths, so my first impulse here is to release them with a M-W-F schedule, with each issue then being two weeks. This would mean in a little over a week, I created six weeks of content. That seems like a lot of padding.

But on the other hand, part of the reason I’m doing this “weekly writing marathon” approach to different projects is I want to be able to do lots of different projects without worrying about falling behind. And I don’t expect to have quite as fruitful writing weeks every week, and most weeks I’m going to want to confine my major editing to the same week that I’m writing.

So I think I’m just going to follow the comic book metaphor whole hog and release each issue in multiple installments over the course of a month. Patrons will get the whole issue at the time the first installment goes live, on my Patreon.

I’ll follow a similar model for whatever else I wind up continuing on a serial basis: writing as much as I can in a week, dividing that up into monthly issues made up of smaller installments as makes sense for the material and project, and then releasing them in installments to the public and as entire issues to my patrons.

As for the big question of when I’m going to start publishing: that’s still to be determined and to be announced. I’m going to be consulting with some folks about the depiction of the Afro-Latina characters such as Princess. This will involve paid sensitivity readers, which will require me to do some crowdfunding before the story is live since I’m working with a starting budget of $0. It’s something I’m committed to doing right, though.

Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes Profiles: LADY SCIENTIST

Cassandra Davies, Lady Scientist

Cassandra Davies is the most classical Star Harbor Nights character of the bunch, by which I mean morally gray and emotionally conflicted. Nobody else is perfect and everyone has room to grow, but Cassandra is the character most “about” those things. She’s the problematic fave of the bunch, right down to her slightly regressive code name.

Cassandra is the twin sister of a character from the pre-production version of Star Harbor Nights; her sister, Shandra Davies, is the first 4B agent I ever created, and was conceived of as the liaison for a super team. In the published version of SHN, she was meant to be the government handler for the rarely featured, oft-mentioned Star Harbor Champion League (a world-class, cosmic-level superteam). I don’t recall if she ever actually appeared on the page, but the idea was that the fed assigned to the most superhuman superteam had to be a Batman-type “super normal” character, so Shandra was a Darkwell with highly developed investigative instincts and fighting reflexes.

Cassandra is also a Darkwell (they are identical twins, so same genomes), but the exact expression of a Darkwell trait is epigenetic in nature; it may be triggered by a single formative event, or develop over time through incremental decisions and environmental factors, or a combination of the two. Cassandra’s talents lie in sciences, principally but not exclusively computer sciences.

Her crowning achievements are a pair of augmented reality sunglasses (like Google Glass, but better in every conceivable way) and a tied-in AI assistant named Augury (actually AugRI, Augmented Reality Interface).

Her glasses can feed her a constant stream of data, let her interface with entirely virtual computers, phones, and other devices, and also just paint a sunnier picture of the world than the actual one. She has no way of keeping her secret warehouse lab clean, so she programs out the dinginess. She fills her dark, cramped office with light and plants and a big picture window.

She’s been editing the world she sees to her liking for so long that she’s not sure how to live in the real world. Augury is programmed to have her best interests at heart, so will act to gently burst her bubble when it’s needed.

Cassandra is a major driver of the story early on. Acting as an underdog rival to her more successful sister, she is attempting to recruit her own superhero team for her own purposes, some of which are big and important, but part of it really is just competing with her sister because she really is just that petty. She could just help other people handle the stuff she’s trying to handle, but she’s got something to prove. J.J. is her first recruit, and the operative she uses to recruit others.

Cassandra and J.J.

Cassandra is a foil for J.J. and vice-versa. J.J. is out and loud, Cassandra is still sorting through her baggage. J.J. has a queer kid punk aesthetic, Cassandra wears sharp suits. J.J. wants to hold everybody’s hand and kiss them. Cassandra wants to punch J.J. in the middle of her ridiculous face (for science) and also maybe kiss her muscles. J.J. is intensely honest but doesn’t understand how humans word right. Cassandra is almost reflexively dishonest but very skilled at framing statements to lead people to believe she’s said something she didn’t. The differences in their communication styles are fairly pivotal to the story in a couple of different ways.

For example, her “superhero name” comes about as a result of her telling the very literal-minded J.J. to stop calling her dude, she is not a dude, but “a lady and a scientist”. Henceforth, J.J. makes a point of referring to her as “[a/the] lady scientist” in her social media posts, which eventually become widely read after her actual superhero debut. Cassandra is not a big fan of this moniker, but J.J. points out that no one will ever forget that she is a lady or a scientist.

Because Cassandra is still figuring stuff out, she’s the character in the story with the most boundary issues, but they’re fairly mild (finding paper-thin excuses for things like creeping J.J. on social media and studying her pictures). As referenced in the previews I’ve teased on social media, she does wind up with custody of an awful lot of J.J.’s undergarments, but that wasn’t her idea.

Unlike a lot of my earlier work (including Star Harbor Nights), this is a firmly sex-positive, no-sexual-violence (including threats thereof) story. Cassandra never uses her position of nominal authority over J.J. to her advantage, for instance.

It certainly helps her likability that J.J. is also interested in her, but has no idea how to express it in a way she’ll understand. When she tries, Cassandra mostly thinks she’s making fun of her, because part of her issue is that she can’t actually believe someone would be interested in her.

She will probably eventually figure out that her issues with J.J. are all her baggage; she doesn’t like athletic women because they remind her of her sister, she’s threatened by athletic J.J.’s own peculiar intellect because that’s the area where she believes she can beat her sister, and she’s fought to keep her appearance and conduct “respectable” while J.J. is just J.J. Whether these revelations enable her to have a more personal relationship with J.J. or move on to a healthy relationship with someone else is up in the air; it might be that once she works out her resentment, the fascination will be gone.

Her Evolving Role In The Story

Cassandra begins the story positioning herself as the founder/leader of the team that will become the Sisterhood. As it takes actual shape, though, as a council of equals, she’ll assume the role of data analyst/tactician, scienterrific expospeaker, and Q Branch-style quartermaster for the team’s communications equipment and special high-tech gear.

While her super-sisters will help her focus on seeing the world for what it is, she’ll never actually give up her casual augmentation of her personal reality. The filter provided by her glasses are a Darkwell coping mechanism, like Perfect Jones’s stuffed animals in the Star Harbor Nights stories, or J.J.’s verbal idiosyncrasies.

Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes Profile: PRINCESS

The Meta Skinny

In my post on J.J. “Labrys” Masterson, I mentioned how the character that became her was originally meant to be the closest to “mere mortal”on the team, and how J.J. herself is sort of the heart of the team as it will exist in the new story. But J.J. is an actual superhuman, and as I developed her character, I felt it was important to have someone whose presence would help keep her in touch with her human side, someone who would be “more human than human” to her, and this turned out to be Princess.

Short version is that I went from the idea of J.J. exclusively having relationships with her superpowered team members to J.J.’s primary relationship being with someone whose concerns are closer to home for the average human being. Princess’s initial worries in the story are things like affording house payments and repairs, juggling jobs, and finding a way to go back and get her master’s.

An aside about the writing process: I didn’t sit down before I started and say “Need Someone To Humanize J.J.”, then create a character to check that off. It was something I discovered through the process of writing and re-writing.

Princess was there as a minor character on day one. Each time I gave another pass over what I’d written so far in the first three days, Princess’s part got bigger and her personality and identity got more developed, and I started to think about what she was bringing to the story, and then worked to make sure that was happening to best effect. I can talk about my goals for a character and what they bring, but it’s all very organic. No one’s there just to fill in a gap or check an item off a list. While I can talk about “what Princess does for J.J.” on a story level, in-story a lot of how she does this is by letting J.J. do things for her.

Princess’s part actually grew so much over revisions that yesterday I realized she was actually a viewpoint character in her own right, and today I re-wrote a couple of J.J. segments accordingly. Princess is now the focal/viewpoint character for the sections of the story that focus on her and J.J.’s relationship, in particular, which includes the one love scene in the story so far. What was the story of J.J.’s budding relationship with her is now the story of her budding relationship with J.J.

This makes the scenes work so much better, because let’s face it, J.J. is a bit of a weirdo (proudly so!) and the scenes work better when the audience can see what exactly J.J. does for Princess, in Princess’s eyes, and when the audience knows why Princess is taking a chance on her. J.J.’s agency in the scenes is obvious, but when you can’t see what’s behind Princess’s eyes, Princess reads as a lot more passive than she actually is.

Who Princess Is

Princess Elena Martinez is an Afro-Latina lesbian and a registered nurse, currently underemployed in a museum (it’s an insurance thing) because hospitals have too many migraine triggers. “Princess” is not a code name or a title, it’s what her mother named her, and she won’t stand for anyone to say anything about her name or her mother. Early on, she tells J.J. the reason that if she needs to hear that there’s nothing wrong with her name, it isn’t because she doesn’t know it, but that she needs to know that other people know it.

Obviously I’m going to have a lot of work to do in terms of developing the character properly through revisions, hopefully with beta readers with actual relevant lived experience, but I made the decision to cast this character in this direction because she was shaping up to be what J.J. refers to as her “important kissing friend”, and I wanted her to be a part of the answer (or at least not be more of the problem) to some of the troublesome tropes around women of color in general and Black women in particular getting love stories, and Black queer presentation being automatically coded by the White Gaze as “butch” or “masc”.

This is a big part of the meta reason why her name is Princess: I want the femme coding to be there on the page, every time she comes up. You can’t even say her name without reifying her feminity and her femme-ininity. Her name means she’s valued. Her name means she’s important. Her name means she’s femme. She knows it; she doesn’t need to be told because she already knows it; she just needs to know you know it, too.

Princess and J.J.

She’s not the love interest in the sense of being the prize the hero wins, but in the sense of the person the hero loves and is interested in. She is J.J.’s closest confidante, the first person she reveals her powers to deliberately (side-stepping the “hero forced to keep lying to and eventually straight-up gaslighting love interest to maintain secret identity” trope), and the person she comes to admire most in the world. She’s also the person whose troubles J.J. is always ready to hear, whose burdens J.J. always wants to take on.

In a world of gods and monsters, Princess is the person J.J. can most look at with wonder and awe in her eyes, while being fully human. J.J. doesn’t try to win Princess by saving her or saving the world or doing good deeds or favors; she gets to know her and invites Princess to know her in return, and tries to do things that honor her needs and desires as a person.

I shared this on the social mediums earlier today, but here’s a (rough) teaser of the scene where J.J. declares her intentions:

“And you clocked me as a lesbian the very first time we met?” Princess said.

“Well, yeah?” J.J. replied. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Princess said. “And you swear to God you are not messing with me, jerking me around? You’re talking to me because you like me?”

“Yeah? Kind of a lot, maybe? I mean, I don’t know you, but you’re nice and smart and you’re a nurse who works in a museum and I think you’re neat?”

“Why do you care that I’m a nurse who works in a museum?”

“You don’t know? It’s exactly like being a cupcake baker who works in a haunted house.”

“Exactly… how is it like that?”

“It’s a neat job in a neat place!”

Neat,” Princess repeated. J.J. nodded. “So, you’re interested… what? Romantically? Sexually?”

“Whatever you want? I’ll be your friend who holds your hand if you want a hand-holding friend. I’ll kiss you if you want a kissing friend. And I’ll just hang out with you if you want a just hanging out friend. If there was like an app where you could swipe in all kinds of different directions for, you know, all whatever different kinds of things you might be up for or down for, I would swipe in all directions for you just to see which one you swiped.”

“I’m… going to need some time alone with that sentence and a dry erase board, but I think that might be the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. I mean, it’d sound desperate if it wasn’t so damned earnest.”

“Oh, no! It’s totally both? I’m totally both,” J.J. said. “Earnestly desperate. Desperately earnest. I mean, I just think you’re swell? That’s all.”

What wins Princess over is that J.J. really does have no expectations or demands of her. She just wants to be available, for hanging out or whatever, and isn’t sure how to signal this to people who might be interested. At the time of the story, Princess is a few months out from the end of a really bad long-term relationship with a partner who did nothing to take care of her while being very demanding of her time and energy, and given that she’s a nurse all day long, what Princess is looking for when she meets J.J. is someone who will take care of her.

She’s not looking for another U-Haul experience because she doesn’t want to be tied down herself after devoting years of her life to someone who never gave back, she’s not looking for someone who needs a commitment from her or someone who needs to be babied and taken care of (she’s initially apprehensive of J.J. because of J.J.’s pointedly youthful modes of self-expression, but when she realizes the extent to which J.J. is, as she puts it, “weirdly self-sufficient”, it’s another point for her.)

At the same time, she’s a very compassionate person. Her first interactions with J.J. are urging her to go to the hospital because she was knocked unconscious (which, by the way, is seriously a big deal, even if you wake up minutes later; turns out J.J. has superpowers, but most people don’t). She makes it clear to J.J. that wanting someone to treat her for a change doesn’t mean she’s looking for anyone to be a martyr, and that it’s important for J.J. to stay connected to human things like eating and sleeping, even if her body doesn’t seem to need them the same ways.

Power(ed) Princess?

Now, I anticipate a question regarding her as representation. This is a superhero fantasy story, so: is Princess going to have powers of her own?

As of this writing, Princess does not have any and I don’t specifically plan for her to have any. That’s not “no”, it’s “I don’t know. Maybe? Let’s find out together!”As I said: no one is in this story just to be something to someone else. She’s not ever going to be there just to keep J.J. grounded or to patch up wounds.

When the story is set at ground level, Princess is helping keep things grounded. Once the story really gets off the ground (literally and figuratively, it will eventually soar to great heights), Princess is going to take off with it. I just do not yet have a clear idea what that will entail for her or the story, but I’m committed to doing it in a way that maintains her status as The Human Element in the story. This doesn’t mean no powers or other fantasy elements! It’s about her perspective as much as anything else.

It’s like I said: Princess is a very recent, very organic addition to the story, and so naturally the long-term plans for her are very loose and open-ended. I’m juggling some options, none of them very firm. Who knows? She could even turn out to be an actual princess. It’s a fantasy story! Why not? Let’s see where it goes.

My Pledge As A Writer

I can tell you some things that won’t happen with Princess.

She’s not going to die or suffer trauma to give J.J. tragic motivation. She’s not going to sacrifice herself. She’s not going to be pushed aside by J.J. for someone else. If her relationship with J.J. ends, it’s going to be because she herself is moving on (there are some “rebound” elements to the relationship for her, after all) and it’s not going to be a drama bomb, maybe some sadness but no recrimination.

Sorry if these seem like spoilers, but back in the day when I was writing Star Harbor Nights and also when I started Tales of MU, my mantra was “wish fulfillment is boring and overdone”. As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve come to realize that not everybody gets to see their wishes fulfilled with equal frequency in fiction, and that stories that have been done to death with straight white cis guys and conventionally attractive thin white cis female leads still have plenty of room to break ground for everybody else. The character of Princess as she’s emerging is based on specific under-fulfilled wishes that I’ve heard friends express.

And again, I’m not putting all the representation eggs in a single basket. There will be Black and Latina heroines as main characters in the story with powers, no matter what happens with Princess. Again, the first chunk of story is concerned with introducing a small sub-section of the ensemble, but I have a whole team roster planned, and subsequent installments will shift the focus to the other characters who need introducing.

Now, the key word I want to emphasize again is “emerging”. She is an emerging character with an emerging story. The story as it exists now was written at a gallop pace (~30,000 words in one week), with the revisions that were made being substantial enough that they themselves are still basically first drafts. There’s a lot of room to grow and develop and change. I’m committed to this character, but I’m committed to doing her as well as I can. I won’t say “right” because there is no level of getting it right that’s 100%. Taking a risk with a character means taking responsibility for the character.

I’m going to be spending the next week with family, but when I get back, I will be looking into arrangements for getting sensitivity feedback on the story as it exists now, specifically with regards to this character, her presentation and treatment within the story.

Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes Profile: LABRYS

Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes is my first new writing project of 2017. It is going to be a serial, but I’m doing a ton of writing for it well in advance to allow for better editing and more consistent updates. To help generate interest and whet the appetite of potential audience members, I’m going to be sharing snippets about it, mostly in the form of character sketches, behind-the-scenes-info, and worldbuilding info.

This is the first such post, concerning the character of J.J. Masterson, AKA Labrys.

The Long Journey 

One of the things I’ve realized about my most prolific writing periods is that even though I never do a lot of prep before I start writing, I have a solid bedrock foundation for it in that I have spent most of my life making up characters and stories. The story that became Star Harbor Nights was based on a roleplaying game campaign I sketched out but never ran in college, which was based in a shared universe of superheroes that I bruited about with my older brother when we were teenagers. (Many of whom originated in various roleplaying game systems.)

Most of the characters who featured prominently in my Star Harbor stories were original creations to my twenties. The idea of the universe went back to my high school days, but the characters I created then tended to be a bit bland in terms of personality and overpowered. In fact, in retrospect, a lot of them were more like sets of powers than fully sketched-out characters.

So, when I started the project that became the Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes, I began by taking some of those character concepts and fleshing them out, attaching them to distinct personalities and identities.

One of my very first original superheroes was a character whose powers came from a magical golden axe. This character was created using the hilariously misnamed Palladium Heroes Unlimited system, whose flaws were not really that apparent to me as a starry-eyed tween. We’d just come back from a family vacation where I’d played a lot of the video game Golden Axe in the hotel’s arcade, and I was also kind of into Marvel’s Thor and even more so Black Knight, and “gets a limited selection of powers from a magical weapon” was one of the 12 or so character concepts the system supported, so.

I never came up with a better name for the character than “Golden Axe”, which wasn’t a great superhero name even if it wasn’t on the nose about the inspiration. So I called the character–who was then male–“Magic Axe”, which was shortened and went through various permutations until I arrived at “Majacks” and decided it was the character’s last name. I went between Jeffrey and Jonathan as first names, before deciding that it would be Jeffrey Jonathan Majacks.

I actually used this version of the character in a short-lived web fiction thing at some point (I don’t remember when, exactly), a shared universe experiment.

Majacks was the leader of a team of superheroes with JLA-type god-like cosmic power levels, and he held that position because was actually the closest to being a mere mortal. It was a matter of keeping the public’s trust and keeping some perspective for the team’s operations. His personality was pretty much generic tough guy hero. Principled and stubborn, yet rebellious.

I’ve tried writing the character into stuff (including the aforementioned experiment) but he never actually resonated with me, probably because large portions of him were based more in what I thought a superhero was supposed to be than anything else. His uniform was a vaguely organic suit of high tech armor that was conjured when he activated the axe, and I never found a great way to justify it, but it seemed like an essential part of the concept at the time?

The Revamp

So, the thing that became my design document/story bible for Secret Sisterhood began with my decision to bring my oldest superhero to life in a real way. I started by writing the name, then erased “Majacks” and wrote “Masterson” instead. The project was not yet about a sisterhood, but the next question I asked was: was there an actual reason the character was male? The original team had been envisioned as being six men and one woman at its core, with another couple guys and one more woman as a sort of auxiliary/occasional members. It’s the model I was most familiar with. The classic core of the Justice League is six men and one woman, for instance.

So I erased “Jeffrey Jonathan” and, after some consideration, wrote “Jennifer Joy” instead. I immediately realized the character would go by “J.J.” Already the names were suggesting more of a personality than Jeffery Jonathan Majacks ever had. I saw J.J. as being bouncy, friendly, ebullient.

While I was working with this, I had a conversation with Jack about a tweet that used the variant swear form of “hecking”. I don’t remember what the tweet said or even what it was about, only that it was both endearing and hilarious in the way that mis-minced oaths so often are. There is this childlike sub-set of the weird social media genre that has a lot of overlap with the “queer kid” sub-culture: those who self-identify as queer and perhaps even more aggressively as young. They’re the ones trying new things, pushing boundaries, playing with language and identity, developing and refining ideas and vocabulary like they’re plaything.

I started locating J.J.’s personality there. She’s is very immersed in internet culture, neither conversant nor concerned with social norms, and as a college graduate in her early twenties, she’s still connected to aspects of youth culture.

As I found her voice, I realized she was skewing towards a very particular point in the Venn diagram of weird internet and queer youth. There’s a phenomenon I’ve been noticing about the social mediums where younger queer folks are not just reclaiming “queer” but are also staking out the various negative associations “gay” has picked up over the schoolyards that have nothing to do with sexuality or identity: not gay as in queer, but gay as in cares about stuff. Gay as in has a lot of feelings. For decades (at least), kids have been using “gay” the way they use “dork”, and a generation of self-identified queer dorks who have come of age or are coming of age on the internet are embracing this connection.

I find this fascinating and liberating. So where other characters I’ve written who are lesbian or bisexual women in their late teens or early twenties have all had an element of angsty self-loathing to them, J.J. is an unapologetic “big gay dorkwad”. It says so right on the top of her blog, in the bio line right beneath the heading “only g*sh can judge me”. J.J. is the sort of person who would respond to a supervillain’s monologue with “Tag yourself: I’m ‘insolent bugs’.”

J.J. is something that Jeffery Jonathan wasn’t, and my angsty early 21st century superhero stories were not often enough: fun. She likes herself. She likes other people. She likes you, and she wants you to succeed. She represents feel-good Twitter/Tumblr. She retweets @RespectfulMemes and @a_single_bear. I’ve been sharing snippets of dialogue with and involving her on the social mediums because they make me smile so often.

The Powers of Labrys

The original version of Majacks never had a decent origin story. It was so deus ex machina (guy sort of finds a magical golden axe, just sort of there) that I eventually determined he was guided to it by a group of interdimensional aliens who had tried to make him a champion on a thousands of parallel worlds by running him through various superhero origin scenarios (most of them ended badly).

I kind of like that as an idea, to be honest, and it might make an appearance for J.J. or someone else, but J.J.’s origin as it appears in the story so far will give her a reason for being where she is and what happens that stand on its own.

The short version is that there is an apparently Minoan artifact that is actually an alien energy storage device that is on display in a museum. A man arrives just before closing and attempts to open the device, J.J. tussles with him, and they’re both bathed in its energies. The energy J.J. absorbs essentially converts her into the new storage medium, giving her a device (which manifests as a bronze double-bladed axe, or labrys) that can tap the power inside her body, and absorb or release additional energy. The alien energy sustains and enhances her body, giving her enhanced physical abilities.

Her Role In The Story

As the one going through a superhero origin, J.J. is the initial focal character for the ensemble story. Once the band gets together, she will not be the leader of the team (which will take a less hierarchical structure than my childhood version did) but instead be the heart of it, the team puppy dog and the impetus for the other members to try hard and give a care, and to get along. This will remain true even if some of the other people on the team find her personality and aesthetic grating; she’s just so hecking earnest about everything that it’s hard to let her down.

Personal Nemesis

The man who was trying to use the alien device intended to become a living god using it. The actual results (being transformed into a bull-monster who is strong and has certain powers, but not exactly god-like to his thinking) do not match his expectations, and he both blames J.J. for stealing “his” power and believes that she is the key to unlocking true omnipotence.

Dubbing himself Minos, he dedicates himself to wresting the axe from J.J. and using it to take her power from himself, a quest that is complicated by the fact that the axe is one of the only things that can easily hurt him. (It kind of cuts both ways, so to speak.)

In terms of personality and motivation, Minos is an alt-right supervillain. He identifies with the more tacitly respectable, suit-and-tie portion of the movement, and sees the recent electoral victory of their anointed candidate as an endorsement of the will to power, which emboldened to seize the opportunity to gain ultimate power for himself.

Other Relationships

J.J. is polyamorous and defines her long-term relationships more in terms of intense friendships than traditional romantic structures, though she enjoys making and receiving romantic gestures. She forms a strong bond with a nurse who briefly tends her (rapidly-vanishing) wounds after the incident where she gains her powers and who really needs someone to take care of her for a change after an unsatisfying long-term relationship, and shares an unacknowledged mutual attraction with future teammate Cassandra Davies, the scientist and secret operative who helps her evaluate her powers. She will form a relationship of mutual support with another future team member, whose uncontrollable energy generation/expulsion powers she’ll be able to help moderate with her energy control/absorption abilities, while also powering herself up using them.

Ties To Earlier Stories

J.J. is a fan of queer musician/mystic hero Tigerlily, whose debut solo album They Won’t Let Me Call This One Natalie Merchant just came out in 2015.

IN THE WORKS: The Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes

The long-awaited follow-up to my first adult web serial Star Harbor Nights, the Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes is a story about mostly women, mostly with superpowers.

Initially set in the fictional city of Calvary Crossing (a city of approximately two million souls, bedeviled by poor urban planning and geographical barriers, exacerbated when it was badly divided by a boondoggle of a crosstown expressway dubbed the Artery), S3 will explore queer identity, female friendship, romance, and contemporary politics while also delivering first-rate superhero world-building and some comic book-style action.

The main characters are a group of heroes operating outside the law and government authority under the name the Sisterhood.

When I started this post, I had planned on doing a bullet pointed “cast of characters” thing, but I think it might be more interesting to do some more in-depth character profiles. I’ll put the first one up later tonight or tomorrow.

Update on Ligature Works Update

So, our second issue of Ligature Works was meant to be coming out right about… oh, now. But this schedule was in retrospect always a bit ambitious with both members of the staff celebrating multiple holidays, and the sort of still-ongoing adjustment to our new political reality really robbed me in particular of a lot of time, energy, and focus.

So, we’re announcing two changes for Ligature Works. The first is specific to this issue (issue#2): It will go out in February instead of December. Rather than trying to catch up after that, we will be changing our ongoing publication schedule from quarterly to three times a year: One Spring/Winter, one Summer, one Fall. This gives our very small staff more leeway in responding to life changes and external events.

After I post this, I will be updating the Ligature website accordingly. We don’t as of issue 2 have an easy way to contact everybody who has submitted and let them know about the delay. I will be adding to a stage to our automation layer for issue 3 that creates a BCC mailing list I can use to communicate with prospective writers without violating our anonymity protocols. If you have submitted, we’re sorry about the lack of direct communication. We’ll be finalizing our decisions throughout January.

Whew.

Well, Ligature Works was all set to lunch after launch… wait, strike that. Reverse it. I just had a few last minute adjustments to make and then I could shove the whole thing out the door and do some writing of my own.

Then, disaster.

I had been playing with a magazine issue management plug-in since I set up the LW website, you see, and I had done everything in it except publish an issue. I had the issue set up. I had formatted all of the poems and stories for it. I had configured all the settings. I got to the point of launching it when I realized: all the posts I’d written were not connected to the magazine. It had its parallel infrastructure for issues. I wondered how I’d missed that, but no big deal. Copying them over would add some work, but not much.

Then I realized how I’d missed it: there was no link, no menu, no option or button anywhere, for adding articles to the magazine. Something was broken or missing. I tried for a while to figure it out, look for a companion plugin I was supposed to have installed, a setting that had to be turned on. Nothing. Checked the help guide, website, etc. Nothing.

So at the last minute, I had to find a whole new plugin, learn how to use it, and get everything set up again. It took up quite a bit of time this afternoon. I had blocked out an hour for finishing the Ligature Works launch; it took six.

But! The deed is done. The die is cast. The issue is out. It’s live. It lives.

http://www.ligatureworks.com

My plans for the rest of the afternoon and evening were shot by this, which means my plans for wrapping up the month of September are also kind of shot. I’ve got a lot of stuff of my own I was going to polish and publish today, but the only thing that made it out the door is the latest installment of Making Out Like Bandits. I’m kind of thinking to myself, “So much for finishing the month on a high note”, but… I did just publish a zine?

I’m mentally, emotionally, and even slightly physically exhausted now. There’s still more to do. Promotion. Figuring out the next issue’s submission window, revising our guidelines both to incorporate the lessons we learned and make them more approachable, and of course, sending out payments. I hope our contributors won’t mind if that waits until morning, though. Right now I really need to get away from the computer and out of the house for a bit.