May 30, 2013

Tropes vs Women in Video Games

This week, Anita Sarkeesian released the second video in her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series.

Predictably, given the feathers she's ruffled in the gaming scene, critics flagged her video as inappropriate and taken down by Youtube, despite the fact that there's nothing inappropriate in the video. That said, it does warrant a trigger warning for depictions of violence against women.

I know Anita Sarkeesian takes a lot of flak, but I'll be honest, I think she's totally on the ball when it comes to gender issues in games. The important points that many of her critics overlook are that (1) she'd not saying you can't enjoy games that depict women negatively and (2) just because the mistreatment of women might be considered realistic or believable (which are not the same thing, I assure you), that doesn't mean it's appropriate or should be used without due consideration to the implications and impact it may have.

I don't believe these tropes are used maliciously. And I don't believe they have to be avoided all the time. But I do think that writers/developers and readers/players alike need to be aware of them, because they do play a part in normalizing violence against women.

Anita Sarkeesian has come under fire for "forgetting" or "ignoring" games like Metroid and the heroine Samus Aran. However my response to that is to ask whether Uhura being on Star Trek meant there was no more racism on TV? Or if Will & Grace brought on a golden age of gay characters in lead roles? One exception does not disprove a pattern. If anything, the presence of these few exceptions should be taken as just a starting point, something to build on, instead of stepping away and saying "There, that's enough."

Does anyone have any other examples of this kind of treatment of women in games or other entertainment? Or any counter-arguments to the video?

May 28, 2013

Silent Oath Announcement

I got some great news over the weekend and I'm delighted to share it with you all now.

Silent Oath, the second book in the Locked Within series, will be released on Tuesday, the 8th of October!

This gives me four and a half months to get in gear for promotion. As successful as the launch of Locked Within was, I want Silent Oath to be even bigger. I'll soon be organising a massive blog tour as well as holding Goodreads giveaways for signed copies of both Silent Oath and Locked Within. Like last year, I'll be arranging a launch party and a virtual launch with a reading broadcast over webcam.

This is starting to feel real!

May 23, 2013

Writers' Responsibilities

As many of you know, I'm pretty outspoken on issues of discrimination, particularly when it comes to how people of particular gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion are depicted in fiction.

Yesterday I read an amazing piece by Kameron Hurley about how stereotypes have become so ingrained in our minds that we can't conceive of a world where those stereotypes are wrong, even when faced with proof that they really are wrong.

This led my friend and fellow author, Celine Kiernan, to direct me to a similar article by Foz Meadows. This goes further to reveal how society has chronically ignored the roles played by women throughout history.

Women have been soliders, teachers, philosophers, scientists, explorers, rulers, and contributed in every way we commonly associate only with men. I can't imagine what happened to us that we started separating out contributions to civilisation by gender. Why do we need courses in Womens' Studies to learn that women have been just as important in history as men? Why do bookstores need "Womens' Fiction" shelves? Why does Wikipedia have one page for "American Authors" and another page for "Female American Authors"?

When did women stop being people, and start being "female people"?

I don't have answers to these questions. What I do have is a pair of wonderful daughters who deserve to grow up in a world where their accomplishments don't have to be qualified by their sex. To have an education, and careers where "Oh, and she's a woman" doesn't have to be appended to the goals they achieve.

I've often spoken about how entertainment can change the world, and how people view it. I may not know how we got to the state we're in, but I do know that it can change. Authors can turn expected conventions on their heads, writing characters who accomplish great things, not in spite of their gender, nor even because of their gender. But where their gender is just one more aspect of their character. Where all characters are people first, not solely defined by gender or racial stereotypes.

This is one of the reasons I love writing the kinds of books I do. In fantasy, action and adventure, I have every chance to play with convention, to challenge expectations in new and interesting ways.

It might be a simplistic way of looking at the problem, but I find that the simplest solutions are often the ones that stand the test of time. I have no illusions of writing a book that will change the world, but if every book I write manages to touch just one person and inspire them, then I've made a difference.

I believe writers have a responsibility to challenge themselves and their readers to re-examine their outlook. Ask why you expect a hero to look or act a certain way. Could you change it? What amazing stories could we tell if we stepped out of our comfort zones just once in a while?

May 21, 2013

When Disagreements Arise

In any professional endeavor, there are going to be disagreements between those involved. Writing is no different. As much as it's an exciting time to be an author, it's also a scary time to be one of those people taking the risks with your money and reputation. So everyone wants to be certain that each new book is the best it can possibly be.

So what happens when someone tells you that you need to change something you've written? It's going to happen. Whether agent, publisher, editor, or beta reader, at some point someone you depend on to help you get your work perfected is going to say something you don't want to hear.

Your hero is too bland. You don't have enough description. You have too much description. They can't empathize with the hero. The story is too similar to another book. The story is too different from other books.

There will be times when it feels like you can't win. Like no matter what you do, someone is going to disagree with your decisions.

And you know what? You're right. No matter how good you are, someone out there thinks you got it wrong or that they can do better. You just have to live with that. Take lessons from the sensible comments, grow a thicker skin for the rest, and move on.

But it's different when someone you're working with says something like that. You have to remember that the people providing you with the feedback are on your team. They all want Team You to win and be successful. They also have a stake in making sure of it, because if your book fails, that reflects badly on them. Whether as friends, as freelancers, or the staff of a publishing house, they share in the results of your work.

Before responding, make sure of one very important thing. Check to see whether their comments have simply hurt your feelings, or whether you genuinely believe they're wrong. If it's the first, odds are good you should make that change, and thank them for helping you learn. If it's the second, and making the change might damage the book, then for goodness' sake, do not pounce on them with a purely emotive response.

No, take your time. Be respectful. This is a person who cares enough about your work to tell you something you don't want to hear. How many people in your life can you genuinely rely on to hurt your feelings for your own good? Those people are dear to you, whether you think it or not. They're willing to risk your wrath because they believe it will help.

Answer their comments with tact, courtesy, and grace. Open a dialogue. Talk. Ask them why they felt this way, and ask for their help in fixing the problem. Remember that it's not black and white. Feedback can have both issues to be addressed and points to let slide, so be sure to keep an open mind and never, ever forget this important rule:

You are always the student, and there is always a teacher. When the teacher appears, accept that you have something new to learn and embrace it.

I speak from experience. Sometimes the most terrifying criticisms can become the most important lessons.

May 16, 2013

When Characters Won't Stay Dead

Sometimes characters die. It's tragic, heartbreaking, and powerfully fulfilling. The term Aristotle put forward is catharsis, a sense of satisfaction and contentment, an emotional cleansing that comes from witnessing tragedy in fiction.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for Marvel's recent superhero movies.

May 14, 2013


My wife is a big fan of Ashley Banjo's Secret Street Crew. Watching it with her has made me reflect on commitments and the level of discipline needed to juggle multiple responsibilities. For those who don't know, Secret Street Crew is a show in which Ashley Banjo, the front-man of a popular British street dance crew called Diversity, secretly teaches a group of people to dance. At the end of a month, they surprise their friends and loved ones with a performance.

As an author, I manage a number of different commitments. Day-job, being a new parent, running a weekly game night, running monthly weekend games, looking after two dogs, helping Jen with things around the house, and of course, writing, editing and promotion. It's safe to say I have a pretty full schedule.

But it rarely feels like that. I make sure to manage my time so that I can give each commitment the due attention it deserves and needs.

Often on Secret Street Crew, you see people who take on the training, and miss rehearsals due to other commitments. Often, they declare that responsibilities such as work or family take priority, and they can't let them down.

This is fair, and right. If there are things in your life that take highest priority, then you let other things suffer so that you can give them the time and attention they need.

Of course, this is all a choice. You could as easily choose to sacrifice those things others would hold as more important, or let your attention to them suffer in the short term for a greater reward at the end.

The key here is choice.

No-one forces you to take on challenges that take time away from your other commitments. When faced with the opportunity to try something new, or when forced to take stock of your existing responsibilities, it's your choice to put time towards those activities. And when you over stretch yourself, you end up letting someone down.

Will the people you let down understand that you needed to take time away from them to take care of something else? Probably. Is it okay to have to let someone down once in a while? Of course. There are times it can't be helped. Is it okay to let them down repeatedly? No. That's not fair to them or to you.

Sometimes you can't do all the things you want.

That's the harsh truth of it. If you want to do something in life, it's your responsibility, and yours alone, to make the time for it. If you have children, it's your responsibility to make time for them, to teach them and raise them well. If you have a job, you have to be there on time and put the work in. If you have commitments outside of work and family, it's your job to see to it they get what they need from you.

And if you can't manage that, and regularly find yourself letting people down or stressed out over demands on your time, then something has to go. Cut out those things that you find yourself putting off or missing most often. Consider that you might be holding on to these things out of habit or a sense of obligation (despite the fact that in most cases, you'd be better fulfilling that obligation by stepping back and letting those people carry on without you). Human beings are amazing, but our ability to spread our attention is limited. Odds are good, and I speak from experience, that the more you try to hold onto, the more likely you are to resent those responsibilities you keep trying to shirk, and the happier you're likely to feel once you shed some of them.

People will understand if you can't meet your commitments, but I think people have a responsibility to ensure that they don't take on more than they can handle. Of course you'll never really know what you can handle until you push past your limits, so it's important to make a mistake every now and again.

May 9, 2013

My Little Girls

Taking a break from my normal schedule this week.

Erica and Amy will be 5 months old this weekend. That's so crazy. I still remember how small they were when we brought them home, and now they're so big, cooing and gurgling, giggling and kicking like crazy.

Mischievous grin and contented independence
Joyous smiles and eagerness to explore
I'm sure all dads feel like this, but when I'm holding them or just watching them observe the huge world all around them, I feel incredible. Invincible. They make me feel like there's nothing in the world I can't accomplish. Like every challenge I'll ever face has already been overcome and I'm just waiting to see how it turns out.

May 7, 2013

Long Weekends

Last weekend was a bank holiday in Ireland, so Jen and I indulged ourselves a little.

Went to see Iron Man 3 on Saturday. Good, but I didn't feel it really lived up to the hype. Quite slow, in that there were several scenes where nothing at all happened, at least nothing which couldn't have happened in other scenes to keep the movie snappier. I think it could have been at least half an hour shorter and lost nothing. I still think the second movie is the best of the Iron Man series. As always, it's worth staying until the end of the credits.

On Sunday we had a barbecue with my parents. And on Monday we brought the girls for a walk down along the beach then spent the afternoon playing board games with some friends. It's great that the weather's turned so nice; it means we can get the girls out into some sunshine and fresh air.

I booked next Monday off work, so I have another long weekend coming up. The new Star Trek is out this week, so we might try to see that. And if the weather stays nice, I think a trip to the zoo is in order.

Hope everyone else is enjoying the nice weather!

May 2, 2013

Gaming as a Sounding Board for Authors

I confess. I cheat.

I liberally raid my gaming notes for book ideas. Dorian, one of the antagonists from the Locked Within series, is based on the villain from a Buffy The Vampire Slayer campaign I once ran. In fact, that villain was an intentional prototype for Nathan's enemy.

Authors, or anyone with aspirations to write, can fall victim to the trap of structuring their games in a very linear and forced manner. Many GMs are prone to frustration if their players de-rail their plot by killing and important NPC or taking a different route to achieve their goals. Writers, who get to spend so much of their time in the company of characters who do nothing but obey their every whim, can perhaps be even more prone to it.

But when we let go of that control and accept that being a GM is part of a collaborative process, something wonderful can happen. Not only can we apply our storytelling skills to the adventures and settings we create, but we can test out our ideas on other gamers.

Gamers are notorious for coming up with unexpected solutions to problems and, like many sci-fi and fantasy fans, for picking out plot holes or character inconsistencies. This is doubly so when it's their own characters on the line, and that one little nitpick could mean the difference between success and failure.

Not that I think nitpicking during a game is a good thing. Far from it, I hate when a good game session stalls because one player wants to bring everyone's attention to how radar really works or how ship rigging would get tangled in a scene like the climax from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

But, that drive to understand and make sense of things can be an excellent trial by fire for your ideas. I'm certain, that if a group of gamers all think your story, setting or characters have enough merit to pass by without criticism (or better yet, with praise) then you've got something special on your hands. I still toss new ideas into my games to see how they fly, then re-work them to suit the book. There's a reason why the names of several members of my gaming group can be found on the acknowledgements page of Locked Within!