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Writing Without Motivation

This post is part of the Writers Write All Blog Hop hosted by A Writer Named Charley. Thank you for organizing, Charley.

It was more satisfying in the era of typewriters

It was more satisfying in the era of typewriters

One of the hardest shifts I had to make as I moved from being a hobby writer to a professional was having to meet deadlines and put words on the page whether I feel like it or not. It’s quite a shock for someone who previously put about as much dedication into writing as I did into playing video games. We like to imagine writers moodily smoking cigarettes and staring out windows into the rain as they wait for inspiration to strike, but inspiration tends not to strike on a very convenient schedule, and unless you’re someone like George R. R. Martin, you can’t let your career languish for years on end as you wait for the right feeling. The rest of us have to write whether we feel like it or not.

I started out naïve to this difficulty. I fast-drafted my first two manuscripts with no problem, which was sufficient for me to decide that fast-drafting was how I wrote and all future manuscripts would be produced with equal ease. So I waited for it to happen again. And waited. After a year, I had to admit that this book wasn’t going to leap out of my forehead fully formed, Athena-style, and if I wanted it, I was going to have to drag it out by force.

Full disclosure states that I haven’t actually finished said manuscript, so you may want to take my advice with a grain of salt, but I have identified a few of the common reasons writing motivation just isn’t there and the course of action I find the most helpful in each case.

Life Intervenes

This is by far the most common obstacle that prevents writing from happening. It’s not writer’s block, per se; you’d like to write, but something more important always comes up.

On one hand, emergencies happen and of course they take precedence. But the things that most often interrupt writing are ordinary things. It’s finals week; the kids needed a ride to soccer practice; there was overtime at work. These sorts of things will always be there. It’s a classic mistake to think that when you graduate, or your kids are in school, or you have a job closer to home, then you’ll have time to write. That’s how you end up becoming that relative who’s been saying “I’ll write a book someday” for twenty years.

If this is the problem, you’ve got to push through it one way or another. Whether that means penciling in writing time on your calendar, going to your local distraction-free coffee shop or park, hiring a babysitter, you have to find a way to prioritize writing as part of your daily life, no matter how busy you are. In essence, that’s what it means to be a writer.

The Wrong Project

Busyness isn’t an easy problem to solve, but at least it’s an easy problem to identify. The remainder of this post deals with situations where you could be writing, but just can’t put words on the page.

Occasionally this is a sign that you should rethink the whole project. For one reason or another, you’re not completely invested in this project. Maybe you’re writing it because you heard it was selling right now, or because someone really wanted you to (my in-laws are convinced that the hamster comic I drew a few pages of right after college is my literary future), or maybe the premise seemed like a better idea than it actually is. In those cases, the right course of action may be to set it aside and work on something else.

Exercise caution. It’s much more common to throw away a viable project in a moment of discouragement than it is to soberly recognize that the project isn’t going to work out. If you’re anything like me, your computer is littered with aborted projects that could have gone somewhere if you’d been more persistent. And moving on to something else isn’t always an option. If you sign a book deal for a trilogy, your editor won’t be amused if you fail to deliver the last book because you weren’t feeling it.

Talking to someone else is helpful here. Find a friend who really cares about you but also has good judgment and high standards and ask them whether your project has potential. A second set of eyes can help you overcome your own biases and look more objectively at whether a project is worth the continued effort. Most often, it is.

That One Scene

Writer’s block doesn’t apply evenly to everything. It may strike a single scene, inevitably the scene you absolutely need to finish for your deadline today.

The obvious solution might be to skip the scene and come back to it later. I don’t recommend this. In my experience a difficult scene rarely becomes less difficult if you let it sit, and if you get into the habit of skipping around you can end up with a Swiss cheese manuscript where you already wrote the kisses, fights, and other fun bits and now have to slog through all the boring parts at once. (Everyone has a different workflow, so if skipping around works for you, don’t let me tell you otherwise, but I’ve never finished a manuscript that way.)

The best advice I’ve ever heard for writing difficult scenes—and some of the best writing advice I’ve received, period—is that if you don’t want to write a scene, readers won’t want to read it, either. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. So take a good look at that difficult scene and consider whether it’s really necessary to the story. If it is (for instance, if it conveys plot-important information), try reframing the scene in a more interesting context. In a well-known example, Spielberg spruced up a dull informational scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark by including a bowl of poisoned dates.

When it’s the opening scene of the story, a difficult scene can fool you into thinking that the whole project is difficult. It’s common to begin stories too early and end up with a lot of dull, everyday scenes to get through before you hit the part you and the reader really care about. If you’re having trouble getting a project off the ground, try starting in a different place before you conclude that the whole story isn’t working.

The Symptom, Not The Disease

Finally, in many cases, when you can’t find the motivation to write, writing isn’t the core problem. It’s a sign that something else is wrong. Maybe you’re wondering about your place in the writing community and whether the world really needs your stories. It’s next to impossible to write with in that mentality, and it’s one all writers wrestle with. I can tell you that the world does need your stories because everyone brings a unique perspective that enriches the literary landscape, but while that’s true, most people won’t find a boilerplate statement much of a consolation. You’ll need to find your own reason why your writing gives something to the world that no one else could provide.

Many writers struggle with depression, which can cause this kind of self-doubt and lack of motivation. It can feel easier to acknowledge the writer’s block in isolation than to step back and acknowledge a larger problem. But it’s extremely difficult to overcome writer’s block while depressed, and the attempt can plunge you into a bottomless spiral of guilt. Trying to write with depression is very much like trying to write with any other serious illness: It’s hard for reasons that are not your fault and mostly beyond your control.

I’m no expert on dealing with depression, but I can tell you that beating yourself up over your inability to write won’t help. Sucky as it is, there are sometimes seasons in life when writing intensively isn’t helpful to your well-being. In those cases, you have to cut yourself as much slack as you need.

This is not an exhaustive list of the reasons for writer’s block. It wouldn’t be such a universal problem if it were easily summarized in a bulleted list of causes and solutions. It can be caused by a combination of factors or it can strike for no discernible reason. In the end, every writer comes up with a blend of strategies and superstitions that works for them. I hope this post will help you figure out your own.

Image is from Superman: Under a Yellow Sun. Even Supes is not immune.


An Introduction to Damsels in Distress

The damsel in distress is one of the oldest and most pervasive clichés in fiction and also one of the most reviled. So wide is the knowledge that damsels in distress are bad writing (or the meta-knowledge that other people think so) that it’s difficult to find articles that clearly, concisely explain why. There is no seminal essay challenging damsels in distress, the way there is with the manic pixie dream girl or the Smurfette principle. As a result, damsels in distress can feel like an empty taboo: a serviceable, time-honored plot device that everyone has decided to rally against for no real reason.

But the objections to damsels in distress are anything but empty. It’s both a hackneyed symptom of lazy writing and a harmful idea rooted in old-fashioned misogyny. This introductory post aims to lay out the serious problems with damsels in distress and why they rightfully belong on the literary scrap heap.


Defining the term

Conversations about damsels in distress often get derailed by arguments about whether a particular character falls into that category or not. These arguments are smokescreens; if you’re splitting hairs about what counts as helpless, the character is at the very least swimming in the same sea of toxic gender dynamics as the damsel in distress. In the interests of avoiding such a derail, I’ll define the term as specifically as possible.

A damsel in distress is a female character who gets kidnapped or placed in a perilous situation by a villain in order to motivate a male protagonist.


A damsel is almost always a loved one of the male protagonist, usually a love interest but sometimes a daughter, other relative, or friend. While she may have any number of skills or personality traits and may seem very capable in other scenes (see myth #1), she typically has no role in advancing the plot beyond motivating the male hero to save her, and her competence evaporates or proves useless in the scenes where she’s in danger. In plot terms, she’s essentially an inanimate object who could be replaced with any person or thing the protagonist cares about.

The villain or monster who kidnaps her is essentially always male. Sometimes there’s sexual violence or the threat thereof. In darker works, the villain may outright kill the damsel to further increase the hero’s motivation, overlapping with women in refrigerators. The damsel might be kidnapped abruptly while minding her own business, but often endangers herself due to her own stupidity; many damsels in distress are portrayed, intentionally or not, as vapid, useless women who can’t take care of themselves. Despite a modern push for more complex-seeming damsels, they are still often flat, one-dimensional characters who fall into various unflattering female stereotypes.

However, a character needn’t have any of these attendant traits in order to be a damsel in distress. She can be a complex, capable person who directly drives the plot in other scenes, but if she gets kidnapped and the male protagonist must save her, she becomes a damsel in distress.

Male variants do exist, but they’re vanishingly rare in comparison and they usually play out extremely differently. See myth #2.

What’s the problem?

In the first place, it’s the cliché to end all clichés. Even the damsels get sick of it sometimes.

According to a lot of people, the problem ends there. Damsels in distress are bad because they’re overused and usually prop up lazy writing, and because the damsels themselves are often one-dimensional characters with no narrative purpose except to be kidnapped. But if the love interest is complex and has an important role in the story, then it’s perfectly fine for her to get kidnapped and rescued by the male hero.

This view fails for two reasons. First, it’s essentially a meaningless metric. No one thinks they’re writing cardboard characters in a hackneyed plot, so literally everyone will respond with “My love interest is three-dimensional and important, so I don’t need to change anything.” At most, they’ll think they need to pile a few more scenes or traits onto her and then the problematic scene will become okay. This is how Hollywood continues to crank out cliché after cliché: When people say “Stop doing this,” they hear “Keep doing this, but make it look slightly different.” (See myth #4.)


Second, the problems with damsels in distress run far deeper than overuse and clumsy use. Our society is saturated with a stew of misogynistic attitudes. In 2015, women made up only 1/3 of speaking roles in movies, and just 22% of protagonists. Women are still viewed as less important and less capable and often treated as accessories to the men in their lives, regardless of their accomplishments. Successful women who take charge of their own lives are widely disliked for being bossy and emasculating. These aren’t outmoded ideas from the 1950s, but modern stereotypes that have real effects on women’s lives (see myth #3).

When you render your female character helpless so that a male character can rescue her, no matter how well-written or complex she is, you’re reinforcing all those harmful ideas. In some ways, it’s even worse when the character is otherwise interesting and capable. It reinforces the idea that, no matter what they accomplish, women will always be plot objects that exist to motivate the real heroes: the men.

The gendered asymmetry becomes undeniable if you gender flip any well-known damsel in distress. A man who doesn’t have any role in the plot except to get rescued feels underwritten and implausible and leaves the audience constantly expecting him to show more competence. In fact, in many works, the male lead and the female love interest face essentially the same situation (for instance, both entering the villain’s lair to confront the villain), but the female character fails and gets captured, while the male character succeeds and rescues her.

Our culture is strongly resistant to change, especially change regarding social roles, so criticism of the damsel in distress has been quickly met with a backlash from hegemonic voices who insist there’s no problem and no need for change. A lot of this backlash comes from, or is closely connected to, alt-right communities like GamerGate and the Sad Puppies who make no bones about their desire to put women in their place, but nevertheless it’s been successful at muddying the waters and propagating misinformation about gender dynamics in fiction. So I’ll take a moment here to debunk some of the most common myths about damsels in distress.

Myth #1: She’s not a damsel if she knows how to fight.

While the classic image of the damsel in distress is a screaming, fainting princess who doesn’t do anything except fall in love with the hero (and there are still plenty of examples of that type), the basic principle is plot agency, not personality. In the wake of Princess Leia, one of the most common types of damsel is the sassy warrior princess who knows kung fu and constantly talks back to the hero.


Another common misconception is that, if she has any moment of competence in the story, she can’t be a damsel in distress. Many recent works try to justify otherwise by-the-book damsels in distress by having them hit or throw something at the villain to distract him at a key moment in the final fight, allowing the hero to get the upper hand. Sometimes she even takes out her captors (lesser mooks, never the main villain) and only needs to be picked up. But, and this is the key point, the plot still follows the male character’s quest to save her.

All of this is akin to putting up different drapes and saying you have a new house. The window dressing might have changed, but the basic character role is the same: a plot football whose purpose in the story is to be rescued. She’s just a plot football with a sword now.

A true aversion is a scene where a woman gets captured in the course of advancing the plot herself, rather than as a secondary character in a plotline driven by a male character. She both gets into and out of the trouble on her own without involving a male hero at all, just as a man would be expected to, and the story follows her.

Myth #2: I can name a male damsel in distress, so it isn’t sexist.

This argument is false for three reasons. First, it misses the forest for the trees. Naming one male damsel doesn’t cancel out the hundreds and hundreds of female damsels. No one can tenably claim that male characters get damseled equally often. There’s a reason the cliché has a gendered name.

Second, your example may not actually be equivalent. When a male character get kidnapped, he’s usually treated with more agency. He’s less likely to be a love interest, more likely to be a point-of-view character, more likely to escape on his own, and more likely to actively advance the plot in other scenes. In other cases, the gender swap is played for laughs, the joke being that it’s funny to see a man being weak and helpless when we all know that in reality, it’s women who are weak and helpless.


Third, even if the male character is a true, bona fide damsel in distress, the cliché isn’t truly fair because the world we live in isn’t truly fair. Portraying a woman being kidnapped and getting rescued reinforces the pervasive view that women are useless and dependent on men; portraying a man the same way doesn’t. Which brings us to the third myth.

Myth #3: It doesn’t hurt anyone.

It’s just a story, right? You’re not actually locking women in towers, and just because you enjoy stories where strong, powerful men save helpless, beautiful women doesn’t force women to act weak and useless in real life.

But stories affect real life. Just about any young girl can relate to the disappointment of play-acting your favorite show or movie and being forced to once again play the girl character and sit in the corner waiting to be rescued by the boys. What we see modeled for us, especially as children, shapes what we understand as possible, and that affects both how we ourselves behave and how we view those around us. The idea that women need men to protect them is so pervasive that the army is only opening its final positions to women this year. The damsel in distress cliché reinforce the real-world attitude that women belong at home while men are the ones who should be out accomplishing things.


It harms men, too. Setting up men protecting women as the natural order of things (which you do, whether you intend to or not, when you show heroes behaving that way) places a heavy burden on men who feel pressured into a role they can’t or don’t want to fill due to disability, social position, or simple lack of inclination.

Myth #4: Other people do it, so I should be able to.

New examples of damsels in distress spring up every year in high-profile works like Batman V Superman and Deadpool. Maybe you look at these and feel that, if they were allowed to use damsels in distress, you should be able to as well. Or maybe you in all innocence wrote a story about a damsel in distress because that’s what you saw modeled in the media you consume, and now you don’t see why you should have to revise a perfectly good story.


But the ubiquity of damsels in distress is precisely the problem: Our society doesn’t value women, so it continues to make stories that portray us in harmful ways, and it doesn’t value women’s voices, so women are naysayed or simply ignored when we point out the problem.

You probably could get away with a damsel in distress in your story, just like all those high-profile works. But you shouldn’t do things that harm people just because no one will stop you. You’re better than that, and your readers deserve better, too.

Plus, you know, it’s a cliché.

Images are from King Kong (1933), Super Mario 3D Land, Spider-Man (2003), the Rocket Raccoon Free Comic Book Day 2014 comic, Disney’s Enchanted, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Deadpool.

Causal Realism and Jared Leto’s Joker

Ever since those first stills of his character design, Jared Leto’s Joker has left many of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out why the portrayal seems so wrong. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but the Joker is supposed to be that way; writing “damaged” on his forehead is very on-the-nose, but this character was never intended to be subtle. The problem isn’t that his appearance is silly and over-the-top; it’s that his appearance is silly and over-the-top in a way that looks designed. You can imagine the Joker wanting to look that way, but you can’t imagine him actually going to all the work to make it happen.

The Joker might like tattoos, but would he actually sit still through multiple hours-long sessions in order to get them done? The Joker might collect knives, but does he have the patience to line them all up in a neat circle just so he can lie in the middle of it? And would anyone, however damaged, choose to write “damaged” on their forehead? What would be going through their mind?

The overall impression isn’t that this is the Joker, but rather that this is someone dressed up as the Joker. Compare this to Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose clown makeup looks slapdash and several days old. It’s actually possible to imagine him applying it.

The principle here is something I’ll call “causal realism.” Causal realism states that a design in fiction should not only look right for the character and setting, but should also have a plausible explanation for how it came to be. Causal realism is violated when, for instance, a punk street kid wears a leather jacket, fancy piercings, and elaborate hair that would cost hundreds of dollars, or when a nerdy character has a name like Dwight or Eugene, as though his parents knew at birth that he’d grow up to be a nerd.

Causal realism applies to settings, too. Somewhere in the Star Wars universe there’s an architect who keeps designing structures featuring narrow, railless catwalks over enormous drops, despite the lack of purpose for either the drop or the catwalk, and despite repeated fatalities from falls. Science fiction has a real problem with designing sets to look cool rather than to serve any practical function.

Depending on the work, causal realism may not always be an important consideration. Comedies, lighter works, and works for children may lean more heavily on suspension of disbelief. Nobody gets distracted from Harry Potter wondering who named the streets in the wizarding world and what the logic was for picking a bunch of puns.

But most works, especially those in more realistic or “hard” settings, benefit from a close examination of how all the set and character designs came to be in-universe and whether the characters actually had the time, resources, and ability they would have needed to make it happen.

This post is an expanded version of a Twitter thread posted on August 9.

Pokémon Go: An App for the Modern Flâneur

Pokémon Go has created a new class of urban pedestrians, and as I watch them walking to hatch eggs or loitering around lured PokéStops, I have one overwhelming impression: Nineteenth-century Paris.

gerard-de-nerval-walking-pet-lobster-300x260The nineteenth century was a slower-paced time, and if you had the luxury of being in the upper class, you enjoyed long stretches with nothing to do. In Paris, having nothing to do became a virtue in and of itself, and the fashionable solution was to go for a stroll around the city. Getting somewhere wasn’t the point, so the pace of the stroll was slow; for a while, it was fashionable to take your pet tortoise for a walk (or, in the case of poet Gerard de Nerval, your pet lobster). These Parisian amblers soon became an entire subculture, complete with a name: flâneur.

A flâneur was an idle stroller who wandered aimlessly around a city, usually alone. Not himself an object of observation, blending into the crowd with near-invisibility, he walked around looking without a plan or destination, enjoying looking at points of interest and whatever unexpected sights might present themselves. Sound familiar?

The flâneur was the essence of the everyman. Yet, as today, the nineteenth-century French image of an everyman did not apply equally to everyone. For starters, a flâneur had to live in the city. The country lacked the requisite people and points of interest for the flâneur to observe. Naturally, the domain of the flâneur was also restricted to the better parts of the city.

More importantly, the flâneur had to be the right gender, race, and social class. A woman wandering aimlessly around the city by herself sent an entirely different, and far less innocent, message. Even if she really was just out for a walk, she couldn’t fill the role of the unseen observer; she was likely to attract unwanted attention and would find amenities like restaurants closed to her, either by law or by social convention. A nonwhite man couldn’t be a flâneur either; his skin color made him an object of attention rather than an anonymous everyman. And a lower-class man who had the free time to stroll around was a good-for-nothing idler and troublemaker.

imageIn Pokémon Go, we see those age-old cultural assumptions playing out once again. A free app is an everyman’s game, yet not everyone gets to participate in it equally. Both PokéStops and Pokémon are almost exclusively found in urban areas, even though it would make more sense to find Pokémon in wild areas, so rural dwellers effectively can’t play unless they drive long distances to the city.

Other groups of people face obstacles which are cultural, not geographical. Women may not feel safe wandering around a city alone and might feel the need to only play this fundamentally solitary game if they can get a group of people together. People of color, especially black men, don’t benefit from the assumption of innocent motives when they present themselves in public; there are already cases of police stopping them. Compounding the problem, certain Pokémon only come out at night.

Flâneur culture was a charming part of nineteenth-century history. We can benefit from a return to an understanding that we’re a part of the city we occupy, and there are more than just health benefits to going outside and simply experiencing the urban spaces around us. But we need to take steps to ensure that, this time, the flâneur’s experience is open to all.

Images found here and here.

The Measure of an Alien

It’s a curiosity that Star Wars and Star Trek are so often grouped together when they’re so patently different in themes, appearance, and format. The differences can be obvious or subtle. An example of the latter is the design of the two works’ aliens.

Ro_LarenStar Trek is famous for its “rubber forehead” aliens, actors with latex prosthetics on their foreheads, eyebrows, or ears that give them an alien appearance. The modifications are usually minor, like Vulcans’ pointed ears, and leave the actor easily identifiable. More “otherworldly” aliens are rare. The full-CG Species 8472 from Voyager is the exception that proves the rule: in one episode, they take human form so they can be played by human actors. While Trek crews occasionally run into truly ineffable lifeforms like the Crystalline Entity, they virtually never see alien monsters or animals, no matter how many planets they visit. Finally, thanks to the Universal Translator, Star Trek aliens almost always speak English.

Star Wars aliens couldn’t be more different. Prosthetics are rare, much more pronounced, and mostly restricted to sexy aliens like the Twi’lek. Instead, Star Wars’ trademark aliens are Jim Henson’s puppets. These are fully constructed props performed either by puppeteers or by actors completely concealed within the suit. They exhibit a wide amount of variation not seen on Star Trek: Extremely large or small size, varying numbers of limbs, bizarre faces, and so on. They often speak alien languages or communicate only through grunts, clicks, or roars, even when talking to an English-speaking human. And Star Wars’ landscapes are crawling with alien wildlife.

Some of this may be put down to budget, but both franchises have such a purposeful aesthetic that it’s obviously an intentional choice, not merely a budget-enforced limitation. Let’s look at the basic themes of each franchise and how their alien designs fit in.

Jabba's_daisStar Wars is an adventure. The franchise is fundamentally less thematic than experiential: You’re meant to feel as though you’ve been transported to a completely different world and to enjoy all the sights that world has to offer. Therefore, Star Wars’ aliens are supposed to be fundamentally “other.” They don’t look, talk, or behave like us because we’re tourists in the Star Wars world enjoying an escape from our mundane lives and the more unusual the aliens, the better the escape. The variety of alien animals give the whole thing the feel of an off-world safari.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is a metaphor. It’s not just about seeing other cultures, but about getting to know them, learning to communicate, and understanding that we’re fundamentally more alike than different. The aliens look like us and talk like us because they are us. When the crew meets a civilization that ages backwards or speaks only in metaphors, we’re supposed to recognize all the human cultures who do things differently than we do, and when they and the crew inevitably come to an understanding, Star Trek is presenting a model for how people can learn to get along despite our differences.

The different types of aliens portrayed in Star Wars and Star Trek are well-chosen to fit the different types of stories the two franchises are telling. Both demonstrate how strong, thoughtful world-building not only fleshes out a fictional universe, but also makes the message of the work stronger.

Images are from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Return of the Jedi.

Haircuts: A Tale of Katz and Valya

My discussion of fictional haircuts leaves out one possibly pertinent fact: I included a dramatic haircut in my own novel Among the Red Stars. So I’m going to talk about my reasons for making that choice and the message I was trying to convey.

img024The short answer for why my protagonist, Valya, gets her hair cut is because it happened historically. Like most Russian girls at the time, young Valya has long braids, and all the members of Aviation Group 122 were required to get short “boy-style” haircuts (as shown in the early doodle at left). But historicity is an incomplete answer. Of course I could have found a way to keep Valya’s hair long if I’d wanted to. One Night Witch even avoided cutting her hair by hiding it under her hat, and was later held up as an example by a male general who didn’t approve of the other girls’ boyish hairstyles.

Additionally, unlike most of the Night Witches, Valya chooses to keep her hair short. So in her case it’s a real turning point that marks a permanent change. All this is deliberate artistic choice beyond the dictates of historicity.

Picture2To get into the real reason, I have to share a bit of my own history. Like Valya, I had very long hair as a teenager, but never as part of a very cohesive or well-developed visual identity. I took poor care of it and unconsciously tended toward male-coded styles, such as pulling it into low ponytails and not tucking it behind my ears even though that was ubiquitous at the time. An inveterate goofball, I often joked around by doing imitations of Cousin It or Samara from The Ring, in retrospect obvious signs of discomfort with an appearance that didn’t suit me.

No one ever forbade me from cutting my hair, but implicit social pressures are strong. None of the girls I knew had short hair, certainly not the male-coded styles I now like best. I longed to buck conformity, but didn’t feel equipped to do so. Walking into a hair salon and demanding that they cut off all my hair was simply outside my realm of possibilities.

IMG_4590My personal turning point came during my senior year, when hair-donation charity Locks of Love experienced a surge of popularity and a group of my friends all got our hair cut. I lost 16 inches of hair in one go. Once I got past the initial novelty of showering in half the time and not feeling like an Old English sheepdog in the summer, I found a whole new world of self-expression open to me. For the first time in my life, I actually liked my hair and wanted to do something with it other than check the box of minimum social acceptability. I dyed it and put it into liberty spikes and finally did all the things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.

Valya’s experience parallels my own. We both grew up with socially acceptable haircuts that did not suit us particularly well, but the inertia of social pressures was strong enough that we never really considered other options. It took an outside reason other than self-expression to allow us to embrace an appearance outside the norm.

Of course the choice is gendered. All of society is gendered. Valya doesn’t cut her hair because she needs to “become a man” in order to become a warrior, but the two choices harmonize becoming a warrior is already a male-coded decision in our society, and embracing a minor male-coded choice—a haircut—makes it easier to embrace a larger male-coded choice that reads as real social deviance.

So that’s why Valya cuts her hair short. It’s not a referendum on female self-expression. It’s a personal choice for her, as it was for me, and it happens within the context of a variety of women making different choices: Some keep their hair long, some had short hair to begin with, and some cut it but grow it out again. There are many ways to be female and many ways to perform gender, and I hope Among the Red Stars will help girls see that.

The Significance of Haircuts

For most of us, a haircut is a periodic necessity, but in fiction, haircuts only happen to make a statement. Being an appearance-related story element, the use and connotations of fictional haircuts are fraught with complex gendered implications. A character getting a haircut sends a message, and that message may contain layers of meaning that the author didn’t intend. Let’s have a look.

evey-haircutFictional haircuts come in two varieties: The traumatic and the dramatic. Traumatic haircuts are involuntary, either forcibly inflicted on a character by someone else (Evey in V for Vendetta) or carried out by the character out of necessity in response to an involuntary, traumatic situation (Fantine in Les Miserables). Dramatic haircuts, on the other hand, are carried out voluntarily by the character, often by their own hand, to signal a decision or turning point that they chose themselves. Thus, for instance, having one’s head shaved after being unwillingly drafted is a traumatic haircut, while having one’s head shaved after voluntarily enlisting is a dramatic haircut. There’s some interplay between the categories, but for the most part they’re easily distinguishable.

Traumatic haircuts are a form of violence because they violate bodily autonomy. These scenes are filled with rough physical imagery as the character is physically restrained and their hair roughly shorn with trimmers or hacked off unevenly with a razor blade or other crude instrument. The character usually cries. As a form of “soft” violence that causes no pain or permanent damage, they are sometimes used as a proxy in media where more graphic violence isn’t possible. And aside from Max Rockatansky, they virtually always happen to women.

newThus, traumatic haircuts are a type of gendered violence, with all the attendant implications. It’s easy to suggest that they’re specific to women simply because more female characters have long hair to begin with, but that’s an oversimplication. There’s also the fact that women are the disproportionate victims of all forms of fictional violence. But the most important factor is that long hair carries such strongly female-coded connotations that, culturally, depriving a woman of her hair carries much more weight than doing the same to a man. It may be a punishment for a woman’s sexual behavior (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); in any case it’s a punishment for being feminine. It’s a milder analogue to the fictional serial killer who carves up pretty women’s faces. Add in the lack of pain and there’s an additional implication that women are fragile and shallow for being traumatized by such a superficial act.

Traumatic haircuts tap into a deep vein of gendered violent imagery in fiction. They’re best avoided or used very carefully, with close consideration of the message being sent.

tumblr_n8penrzCbi1sfnn0mo4_r1_500Dramatic haircuts are extremely different. The character is usually alone, cutting their hair by themselves, often with a meaningful instrument (Mulan) or accompanied by some kind of ritual (Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender). The character’s expression tends to be stoic and resolute. This is not a form of violence at all, but rather a change in physical presentation more permanent than a clothing change but less so than a tattoo, either of which may accompany it. The hair need not have been especially long to begin with, and the new haircut need not be any particular style. Neat or messy, conforming or nonconforming—it all depends on what specific turning point the character is experiencing (in Stardust, Tristan even gets a magical haircut that lengthens his hair). Male characters may shave facial hair. Because this type of haircut is not strongly gendered. It happens to men, women, and even children (Ethan in Suburbia).

princess-mononoke-haircut-ashitakaNow, one could do a statistical analysis normalized for the preponderance of male characters and it might turn out that female characters get proportionately more dramatic haircuts, but the point is that they’re a common plot device for both genders. Men often get dramatic haircuts when they enter a new culture with different mores (Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke) or when they disguise themselves to go on the run (Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive). And, of course, everyone gets shorn in boot camp movies. Women’s haircuts might carry more weight or happen for more subjective reasons, but those are shades of difference within the same basic category.

d5cae3676409e03812e8707198b028caA gender difference finally emerges if you isolate haircuts that signify someone becoming a warrior, but not through modern boot camp (Tris in the Divergent series). This is getting down to a pretty small group, but it happens almost exclusively to women (rare male examples, like O’Neil in the Stargate movie, often signal some additional kind of change). Explanations like short hair being more practical are nothing but hand waves. Especially when coupled with a costume change from a dress into more masculine-coded battle gear, this carries the strong and damaging implication that women need to assume male-coded characteristics in order to fight.

But there are a multitude of other factors involved*. Certainly women in male-dominated fields (including warfare) can face pressure to present in male-coded ways in order to show that they belong, such as when Five Iron Frenzy’s sole female member adopted the moniker Jeff so she’d fit in. But some women also go into male-dominated fields because they like male-coded presentation and enjoy being in an environment where that’s acceptable (for instance, during WWII, some gender-nonconforming women enlisted in the army because they liked the idea of wearing a uniform). A fictional character, therefore, might not be getting forced into a form of expression she doesn’t want, but rather embracing a form of expression she wanted to take all along. This works on both an in-story level and a meta level: An author might feel the need to provide a reason why a female character has a short haircut instead of simply giving her one, especially when writing for an audience used to very female-coded presentation.

Because there’s also a pressure in the opposite direction, and it’s far more culturally dominant: The pressure for women to look feminine, especially if they’re in a male-dominated field. Far more than they get pressured into looking or acting male-coded, women who take up male-coded activities, like fighting, face cultural pressure to present in even more female-coded ways to demonstrate that they’re still “real” women and that their violation of gender norms is only an aberration. Thus every female politician who’s had to share a cookie recipe and every puff piece about a prominent woman that details her appearance and family life. And thus the endless parade of female warriors in silk gowns, stilettos, fancy updos, and what have you, whether or not such an outfit makes any logical sense for what they’re doing. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turned this subtext into text with the logline “Bloody Lovely.”)

The Hunger Games: Tribute GuideAnd then there’s the female-coded equivalent of the dramatic haircut: the makeover scene. The gender politics of the makeover could be an article to themselves, but in brief, makeovers are essentially always female and deeply rooted in traditional concepts of gender. When a female character gets a makeover, it signifies that she deserves whatever goal she’s trying to achieve (a boyfriend, the throne, etc) because of her physical attractiveness and ability to perform femaleness. This applies whether or not the goal has anything to do with gender or appearance. In fact, female warriors often get makeovers too (Katniss in The Hunger Games series). This obviously has nothing to do with their fighting skill; the entire purpose is to demonstrate that they’re still “real women” even though they fight.

Female fighters who take on male-coded styles and female fighters who take on female-coded styles are in fact part of the same ecosystem, which is the ecosystem all women live in: a male-centric world where women are an aberration and their simple existence requires justification. Each of us makes a day-to-day choice of how to present ourselves within that system. Do we present the way someone (implicitly male) in our field is expected to present signaling our legitimacy in that field? Or do we present the way women are supposed to present, signaling our legitimacy as women? Whether you put on a leather jacket and combat boots or a sundress and strappy sandals, it’s a choice; one choice is just more socially acceptable and thus easier to make without conscious thought.

So, while it’s true that women who cut their hair to become fighters are reinforcing the idea that fighting is male-coded, it’s a wildly misleading statement because it only tells part of the story and implicitly suggests that gender conformity wouldn’t reinforce that idea. The truth is that every appearance choice is made within a male-centric system and can be used to reinforce that system, none more so than the choice to police another woman for her choices.

a5d732e9415434a919c663d346e2c953To break away from this mindset, our stories need to depict women in a wide variety of both roles and gender presentations without trying to use their appearance as a way to justify their acceptability as warriors or members of any other male-coded group. As individuals, we need to embrace appearance as free choice and not hold specific women, real or fictional, accountable for how their personal style affects the entirety of gender relations. And that means that women can get haircuts—and makeovers—for whatever reason they like.

*The final reason why men are less likely to get dramatic haircuts when they become warriors is that they’re more likely to already be warriors when the story starts (the Pacific Rim principle).

Screencaps are from V for Vendetta, Game of Thrones, Suburbia, Princess Mononoke, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Firefly.

WASPs at Arlington in Historical Context

The war ended 70 years ago, but the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) have only just won their final battle: On Friday, Congress passed a law finally allowing them to be interred at Arlington Cemetery. It’s a triumphant moment for the WASP, whose history is emblematic of the military’s troubling attitude towards women in the service.

71qg4xEc8KL._SY450_The US military, like most militaries, has a long history of using its human resources when it needs them and abandoning them when it doesn’t, and it’s treated few groups as shamefully as the women’s branches. Created during World War II to meet increasing personnel demands, these groups included the Army WACs, the Navy WAVES, the Coast Guard SPARs, and the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (I’ll get to the WASP later). Recruitment campaigns encouraged women to enlist, emphasizing both their patriotic duty and the benefits of a military career. Recruitment videos describe the various interesting jobs available and how they can lead to future civilian careers. Some 350,000 American women served in the military over the course of the war, filling clerical positions and other noncombat roles.

But when the war ended, there was a sudden change of attitude in the military. The personnel shortages over, the women’s branches were no longer needed. What’s more, thanks to the 1944 GI Bill, the government was faced with the prospect of providing generous benefits to 16 million veterans, women included. What had been an asset was now a liability. Meanwhile, the public’s attitude was shifting too. Prewar norms about the roles of men and women returned. While male veterans commanded respect, female veterans faced unflattering stereotypes that they were bossy, masculine, promiscuous, and probably a bunch of lesbians.

All in all, the military found it in their best interest to get rid of the women as efficiently as possible, preferably without honorable discharges. The WACs and WAVES went through a series of anti-lesbian purges in the postwar years, during which thousands of women received undesirable blue discharges. Veterans with blue discharges didn’t receive benefits and faced discrimination in employment and education—and unlike a dishonorable discharge, this classification didn’t require a court-martial.

Needless to say, as male GIs returned and pushed women out of the workforce, the promised civilian-sector jobs didn’t materialize, either.


Jacqeline Cochran

When it came to the WASP, the task was much simpler. It was an auxiliary organization, not technically part of the military. Even those who died in crashes were denied military funerals. Director Jacqueline Cochran’s repeated efforts to militarize the WASP failed. Therefore, when they were disbanded in late 1944, WASPs were not veterans and were entitled to no benefits. After the war, all records of the WASP were classified. For the next 35 years, it was as if they had never existed.

Justice for the WASP had to wait for a cultural shift. In the 1970s, as ideas about the role of women began to change, their story came to light, and in 1977, their records were unsealed and the WASP were finally given full military status. And in 2002, for the first time, they were eligible to be interred at Arlington Cemetery (along with the Merchant Marines, another neglected group). The WASP were finally getting the respect they deserved.

But last year, the WASP received a rude surprise: Army Secretary John McHugh issued a directive once again banning them from interrment at Arlington. This was part of a move toward more stringent eligibility rules for interrment due to Arlington’s rapidly dwindling remaining space. Why a group of just 1000 individuals, few of whom are still living, would create a space problem is a mystery, but it marks another point in a depressing trend: Whenever they become inconvenient, women in the military get the shaft.

A petition by the granddaughters of WASP Elaine Harmon brought this issue to national attention, and for now, at least, WASPs have the rights they earned all those decades ago. But McHugh’s directive is a sobering reminder that even the most hard-fought victories are never permanently won. Regressive cultural forces continually seek to strip women of their rights and diminish their accomplishments. The military still marginalizes women when they become inconvenient: Sexual assault victims are often less than honorably discharged if they complain, sometimes on the grounds of the same “personality disorders” that were once used to discharge gays and lesbians.

The WASP have done their part. It’s our fight now.

Award Arithmetic

Many people in the YA community were less than enthused when the Locus Awards announced their 2016 finalists. The YA finalists were all men, one of whom was nominated twice, and several of whom it’s questionable to classify as YA authors at all. The recommended reading list they were chosen from was itself 55% male, even though YA is vastly female-dominated, again full of authors dubiously classified as YA, and riddled with glaring omissions: No Renee Ahdieh, no Victoria Aveyard, and no Sabaa Tahir to name just a few, even though they’re all bestselling, critically acclaimed authors beloved by the YA community.

Notably, the recommended reading lists are variable length and the YA list had an odd-numbered 19 entries. So the Locus Awards didn’t exclude these and the dozens of other female authors of YA fantasy due to limited space; they simply didn’t think they were worthy of consideration for the award.

And then it came to light that in the award’s 13 years, 9 times the award has gone to a white man (not counting one coauthored book). Only two women and one man of color have ever won. Seven times–more than half–the award went to the same three men (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and China Miéville).

Coming just two weeks after the Hugos fell victim to their second ballot-stuffing debacle in as many years, this time hilariously leading to the nomination of the Chuck Tingles dinosaur erotica story Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the Locus Awards were the last holdout of respectability for SFF awards. Naturally, voices in the sci-fi community were quick to leap on them as an exemplar of how awards should be conducted.

When YA authors, so rarely given a seat at the grown-up’s table in the SFF community, expressed their objections, they were met with a shrug, even from usually sympathetic quarters. Sure, it’s too bad that the award completely excludes women, so the response from Neil Gaiman went, but nobody cheated, so that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

Yes, we have fallen so far that an absence of slate voting is a major plus instead of an assumed baseline.

But let’s look at the middle sentence of Gaiman’s response: “But also award-winning authors who wrote popular books.” In other words, the nominations are fair because all the nominated authors deserved to win, a sentiment I saw echoed by other people as well. Let’s take it as fact for a moment (setting aside the question of whether those authors should have been in the YA category at all, or whether Joe Abercrombie was really twice as deserving as all the snubbed authors put together). This is common logic that gets applied to everything from who gets into college to who wins an Oscar. On the surface, it seems sound. Who can argue with deserving people getting rewarded? But the underlying assumptions are more complex and less innocent than they appear.

The Hugos have overshadowed this fact, but true award snubs, where an obvious shoo-in loses out to an obviously undeserving contender, aren’t terribly common. Most of the time, there are several strong contenders for an award, and while you might maintain that one of the losers should have won, you can’t usually unequivocally say that the winner shouldn’t have. The white male authors who edge out women and minorities for recognition aren’t usually guys like Chuck Tingles; they’re usually people like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who are good writers and do deserve awards.

Thus, it’s hard to pinpoint bias in any individual case because you’d have to claim that Coraline, for instance, didn’t deserve an award. It’s only when you look at the entire landscape that a pattern develops where the deserving winners are almost always white men, while the equally deserving women and minorities walk away empty-handed time and time again.

Where are the female Gaimans and Pratchetts? The household names whose every release is a major event guaranteed to sweep the awards? There’s no lack of talented women, but without the recognition of power brokers like the ones who created the recommended reading list, they have little chance of achieving that kind of widespread recognition. Sure, there’s two-time Locus winner Catherynne Valente, but as the only solo female winner, she’s a token. She deserves better than to exist as proof that women can technically win the award. (For that matter, Gaiman deserves better than to win awards because he’s the default choice of readers who simply aren’t aware of any of the women who might provide serious competition.) Besides, she can’t be used to excuse this year’s all-male nominees.

The sentiment that it’s fair for white men to win all the awards as long as they’re sufficiently talented sends the message that women and minorities are supposed to sit down and shut up until the white men have gotten all the attention they deserve. And it sends another message, too: That the Locus Awards are just one more way the sci-fi community is out of touch.

The Big News

shahov_1It is my great pleasure to announce that my debut novel, Among the Red Stars, will be released by HarperTeen in fall 2017.

Among the Red Stars tells the story of the Night Witches, the all-female Russian bomber regiment that fought in World War II. It’s my privilege to bring this little-known but fascinating piece of history into the YA canon and I hope you’ll love these courageous women as much as I do.

So many people have helped bring this project to life. When I entered Pitch Wars in 2014, my mentor Fiona McLaren saw potential somewhere in my unpolished manuscript and patiently helped me craft it into presentable shape. My agent, Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, has been working tirelessly on this project and helping me through the labyrinth of the publishing industry. And my new editor at HarperTeen, Emilia Rhodes, is the perfect person to bring Among the Red Stars to the public. And countless wonderful friends, beta readers, and family members have provided the support to get me through.

I can’t wait to share Among the Red Stars with you.

You can see the deal announcement here.

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