Grammar, rule exceptions, and thinking in words, pictures and raw data

Did you know that words are not things?

Well, they are, in the sense that a word is a type of thing. But a word is not the thing that it’s a word for. It is a symbol to represent that thing. The word “apple” isn’t an apple. An apple is an apple. It doesn’t need to be called by that word. It doesn’t have an inherent name of its own. Names are just tools that humans invented for talking about it. It doesn’t need to be called by any word to be what it is.

Of course you knew that. But you’d be surprised how often people forget.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

One last reminder: today SpringCon begins!! Head on over!

Springcon: a local comic book festival at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul, on the weekend of Saturday May 17th and Sunday May 18th.

More info in this older blog post

Jewelry, Abby and Norma merchandise, and various self-published books will be for sale!

Last day for the fantastic kaleidoscopic Abby and Norma poster!

Attention, fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma: the exclusive poster sale is alllllmost over! Tomorrow it ends! Become a backer at app.net!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Another reminder: 15 more days for the amazing Abby and Norma poster!

Attention, fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma: the exclusive poster sale is halfway over! Become a backer at app.net before they’re all gone!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Review of “The Uncovering,” a fantasy novel by Jes Young

“The Uncovering,” by Jes Young, isn’t a book I would have decided to read on my own. The fantasy genre isn’t first on my list of interests (though I have deeply enjoyed some fantasy novels), and this one was labeled as “romance” as well, which I had come to associate with a writing style that interested me even less.

I encountered the book because I was on the Enchanted Book Tours mailing list, and despite its deviations from my usual fare, something about the synopsis must have caught my eye… I decided to give it a try and post a review.

The story is centered around a young woman named Tabitha who finds out that she is really an elvish princess, destined to take her place as queen in a magical realm and marry an elvish man called Alex. But while her family prepares to put her on the throne, other forces are plotting to kill or capture her.

An enchantment, placed for the purpose of ensuring a happy marriage, causes Tabitha and her betrothed to feel irresistibly attracted to each other, which leads to some quite intense sexual scenes. But the story isn’t just built as an afterthought around the sexy parts, as many romance novels are. It’s a complete story, with fight scenes, snappy dialogue and lots of cleverly worded lines that stuck in my head long after reading them. Like this one, reminiscing on her sister Rivers’ long disappearance years ago:

Rivers left abruptly and without warning, which is, I guess, the crucial part of running away. If you plan it and tell everyone you’re going to do it, that’s just called moving.

Or this moment when she confronts her caretaker and asks him to “break the enchantment”:

“Spells are broken,” he said wearily. “Enchantments are laid and then, like a blanket, they are lifted. In any case we hardly make a habit of shouting about either in front of the staff.”
I didn’t think it was the time for a lesson in vocabulary or manners. Emily Post herself could have appeared to present me with a copy of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and I wouldn’t have cared even one bit.

There is a lot of description of characters’ appearances, from the color and style of their hair to the scarves and shoes they’re wearing, and at times (as a somewhat fashion-unconscious nerd) I found it tiresome. But such visual descriptions did reliably paint a clear picture in my mind, and some scenes felt to me like small but memorable bits of a blockbuster fantasy movie:

After a moment of hesitation I picked up the ornate wooden box and carefully worked open the silver clasp. Inside lay a circlet, a delicate ring of braided platinum vines and flowers and diamonds flashed and sparkled. I touched it tentatively, just with the tip of my finger, and the flowers and vines burst to life, transforming into living roses and ivy and vibrant blue forget-me-nots. Clustered around the diamonds, the living flowers were more beautiful than the platinum imitation could ever hope to be. The flowers disappeared, becoming metal again, when I took my hand away.

This doesn’t go down on my list of all-time favorite fantasy novels, because the plot doesn’t contain quite enough complexity and originality to make a strong impression on me. I had hoped that the main character would do more exciting and ingenious things on her own, instead of just watching events unfold, and a few times barely managing, by not-all-that-creative means, to fight off people who want to attack her. I also hoped I’d get to see her spend some time in her destined fairyland, which, sadly, she doesn’t get to visit before the book ends.

But then, this is only the first book in a series, and Tabitha does pretty well for a beginner who was thrown into the whole mess after a lifetime of thinking she would never have to handle crap like this. And if we don’t get to see the inside of the elf realm she’s destined to rule, that’s all the more reason to read the next book in the series. I’m in no position to condemn that, in any case, since my novel “Kea’s Flight” got criticism in one review for not ending with the ship landing on a planet. The planet is planned for the sequel, folks; I will get to it eventually. And, I’m sure, so will Jes Young.

I count it as a victory that the book managed to rack up more pros than cons for me, despite the annoying perfectionism I can sometimes have. My language obsession messed with the enjoyment in some parts, as it usually does when I’m trying to enjoy fiction. Sometimes I found sentences that contained errors or unclarity, like the second sentence in the paragraph about the crown. (Should the comma be a semicolon, or should “platinum vines and” be replaced with “platinum vines on which”?)

Other times I took issue with the way made-up terms were used, even though a fiction author has every right to use made-up terms however she wishes. (In this book, light elves are called “We of the Light” and dark elves are called “They of the Dark”– even when they’re the object of the sentence. On reading sentences like “You won’t need to hide from They of the Dark,” my pedantry kept screaming out, “From THEM of the Dark! THEM!” I’m glad I don’t know any actual elves, because they would certainly not appreciate my attempts to police their use of their own elvish terminology.)

I really liked many of the descriptions of romance– not just the sex scenes, but the handful of random realistic details about life and love that happened to catch my eye. I may not be one to talk, because my love life has consisted of pretty much just John, but I feel the author paints a believable picture of being torn between an old love and a new one, still having feelings for both.

For a romance novel, this is a surprisingly clever and entertaining book. The dialogue and internal monologues are witty and very alive, and I never had to make any effort to keep turning pages. It may not be a powerful and epic work of literature, but it’s a fun read and I’m pretty sure the sequels will be even better, with the potential I see in this author.

Speaking of destiny, when I started reading this book I had no idea that it had starlings in it! Pleasant surprise there. They’re not normal starlings, they’re magical ones with red eyes and apparent psychic powers, but they’re in the book:

“Well, one of them may have indicated that he wanted me to go outside.”
“He said that?”
“He didn’t say anything, because he was a bird. But he tapped on the window when I asked if he wanted me to come out.”
“That wasn’t a bird, it was a harbinger.”
“A harbinger of what?” I asked. “You better not say doom.”
“Not doom,” George laughed, “change. The starlings means change is coming to you; one part of your life is over and another part is about to begin.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “they’re certainly right about that.”

“The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Here’s an interview with Jes Young! Thanks for joining me on my blog, Jes!

Erika: I’m very entertained by your style of narrative. What fantasy and romance authors have inspired you?
 
Jes: A few years ago I decided I wanted to write a book about elves. I imagined it as your basic good versus evil, light versus dark, princess in disguise fantasy story with a beautiful heroine, a handsome prince, some unresolved daddy issues, and a quest for revenge. It sounded simple. I sat down and, drawing on everything I learned about writing fantasy fiction by watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I wrote the first draft of The Uncovering. And that’s when I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance. I was in way over my head.
 
As is so often the case, I found the solution to my problem in a book, in many books actually but I feel most indebted to Karen Marie Moning and Kresley Cole. They both do, seemingly effortlessly, what I want to do with my writing. That is create fun, engaging, sexy, moving stories about people you really like and care about.

Erika: As I was reading the story, I found many of the scenes easy to imagine in a movie. I’m sure most of us authors fantasize from time to time about our work being made into a film. If “The Uncovering” were a movie, what actors would you imagine playing the characters?
 
Jes: Would you believe that I have a Pinterest.com board dedicated to this very thing? http://www.pinterest.com/jesyoungwrites/characters/
 

Erika: I once heard someone complain about some elf-related movie because the elves didn’t have pointed ears.  He said pointed ears are the defining feature of an elf, and if the ears are round you can’t call it an elf at all. I can’t say I agree with him, but I’m still surprised when I see elves that don’t have distinguishing features of some kind.  What factors affected your decision to make your elves look physically pretty much identical to humans (instead of having them look “traditionally” elvish and hide their appearance through some enchantment when in the human world)?
 
Jes: I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Tolkien made that whole pointy ears thing up, and that before that the shape of elf’s ear was not an issue. He was a storyteller, and a great one, so that’s absolutely his right. Making stuff up, creating your world and the rules of it and what everyone looks like is a big part of what makes telling this kind of story fun. In my own work, I decided that what set the Elvish apart from the humans was their beauty, their, strength, and their eyes which change colors based on their emotional state. I liked the idea that they could almost blend in – but then not quite. I suppose it was a way of making them my own.
 
In the second book there’s a character, a water witch named Jenny Greenteeth, who’s green and she uses magic to blend in.
 
Erika: This may sound weird, but I love it that you included starlings in the book! I’m a bird-lover, and I have a pet starling that was raised from an abandoned baby. Sure, starlings are an invasive species and a pest in the USA– probably because they’re too smart for their own good– but they just have a charm I can’t resist. What reasons did you have for making starlings the “harbingers of change” in Tabitha’s life?
 

Jes: The starlings are in the book because someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of a starling murmuration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY

I watched the birds flying around together, looping and swirling in a way that seemed random and yet perfectly choreographed, and I thought it was beautiful and a little spooky.
 
When I sat down to write, that image was in my head. With no particular plan for them in my mind, I added them into the story – as atmosphere mostly. The more I wrote about them though, the more important they became until finally they’d taken on a life of their own. In the second book, they’re a major character.

Once more, “The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Abby and Norma Promotional Post!

Is your favorite thing about “Abby and Norma” the vicious deconstruction of neurotypical social norms? Or Abby’s obsessive exploration of legal loopholes and gray areas? Do you love the puns, but feel sad when Abby bashes down her mom’s wistful hopes for grandchildren? Love the mom-bashing, but get annoyed when she debates religion with Chrissy? Love the religious debates, but hate Abby’s badly-drawn doodles? Or do you read “Abby and Norma” solely for Ron and his palindromes?

Well, “Abby and Norma” Mini-Books are the answer for you! They’re short printed collections ranging from 50 to 80 pages, and separated by topic.

Each costs only $5 or less, is printed on 8.5 x 11″ paper with a grayscale interior and a full-color cover, and contains two bonuses (boni?) at the end:

(1). a pencil drawing of one of the characters in a realistic style, with an acrostic,

and

(2). an Abby and Norma Blooper– a screencap of a moment during the copying-and-pasting process when some unintended humor or weirdness existed for a few seconds.

(Like this one, where I had just taken a panel where Abby had two speech bubbles, and flipped the second one to become Norma’s bubble in the next panel, but I had not yet changed the text in them. I’ll leave it to the slash shippers to try and come up with an explanation for how Norma “uses” Abby’s left leg. o_O)

———-

Collect all eleven (if you’re into that) :

The Abby and Norma Antheology
Wherein we make fun of religion.

The Abby and Norma Anthologician
Wherein we mess with logic, reason and everyone’s head.

The Abby and Norma Compilegation
Wherein we deconstruct laws, rules and government.

The Abby and Norma Compundium
Wherein we play with SO MANY WORDS.

The Abby and Norma Cultlection
Wherein we laugh at popular culture, both mainstream and geeky.

The Abby and Norma Festivitreasury
Wherein we survive the holidays, from Halloween to Christmas.

The Abby and Norma Momnibus
Wherein Abby’s mom fails to convince her to pass on the family genes.

The Abby and Norma Palindromicon
Wherein we play with palindromes; semordnilap htiw yalp ew nierehw.

The Abby and Norma Psychosortment
Wherein we explore psychology. Also there’s a doodle gallery!

The Abby and Norma Scianthology
Wherein we play with science! For Science!

The Abby and Norma Sociellany
Wherein Abby makes fun of social customs… how dare she!

Spectacular, symmetrical, eloquent, elaborate, kaleidoscopic Abby and Norma poster! VERY limited time!

Attention fans of my webcomic Abby and Norma, and anyone else who likes fantastic posters! Please read, please share and pass it on to your friends! Become a backer at app.net!

There is a Backer campaign to make a crazily cool, very exclusive limited-edition Abby and Norma poster! It will be a psychedelic geometric explosion of images and quotations from the comic, and will look awesome on your wall regardless of the style of your home.

And after this campaign is over, there will be NO MORE. You will own one of the very few posters like this in existence!

Remember Ron’s art? He would absolutely approve.

Become a backer at app.net and get your own poster, plus loads of other cool stuff like books, stickers, t-shirts and even a chance to add your own idea to the poster design!

Portrayal of sexual violence in one of my short stories (Trigger warning!)

In my short story collection “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?” I have one story called “Ardent,” which is set in the same world as our science-fiction novel “Kea’s Flight.”

As warned in the mini-introduction on the page preceding it, “Ardent” is a dark story, portraying the descent into madness of one of the villains of “Kea’s Flight.” And it may bother some readers that it contains what appears to be a scene of attempted rape, from the point of view of the aggressor, who is undergoing a mental breakdown and losing control of his actions.

Even as a woman with openly liberal political views, I know I’m taking a risk by having a scene like that in a story. Every day I see more and more articles online complaining about rape being used as a plot device, giving the impression that many people don’t find any fictional depiction of rape or attempted rape acceptable.

And because of the nature of my story’s depiction, I’ve been feeling some concern about the possibility that people might interpret the story as an expression of support for rapists, a sympathetic account of what it’s like from the rapist’s perspective, or a statement that rapists “just can’t control themselves” and are “driven” to commit the crime.

This is obviously not what I intended, but I understand the complaint, and I’d like to do what I can to explain why I wrote the scene as I did. First, a clarification of exactly what the scene entails. (Possible triggers and spoilers after the cut.)

Continue reading

My one regret: I didn’t spend enough time working

They say that people never die wishing they had worked more.

But I’m pretty sure that if I died now, that would be my one big regret. I fully expect to die someday wishing I’d worked more.

Not at my job, necessarily, but at writing, participating in events, talking to people, making connections. Perhaps even if I worked harder at my paying job, earned more money, earned promotions, that would have contributed something to my life’s goal.

My life’s goal is to make my way into a position where I have the influence to help fix the greatest problems in the world.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

Prejudice and promiscuity, and my own fictional archetypes

I’ve been thinking with some concern about two issues relating to my webcomic “Abby and Norma.”

One is the simplicity and one-dimensionality of some of the minor characters; their tendency to serve as cardboard cutout counterpoints to Abby’s arguments, and whether I should just let them be what they are, or try to build them into something more complex and interesting, if not realistic.

The second is one particular facet of that simplicity: the sexually promiscuous nature of Abby’s enemy Cathy.

The term “slut-shaming” has gained a lot of ground in recent years. People are becoming more and more aware that the world is cruel to those who have many sexual partners. Promiscuous women are labeled as “sluts” who have no self-respect. Promiscuous men are generally treated better, but still not great: they’re often seen as sexist “womanizers” who have no respect for their partners.

These characterizations are, of course, unfair, though they’re based on grains of truth. It’s totally possible to have lots of casual sex and still be careful, responsible, and respectful of everyone involved. Sex is perfectly fine as long as you’re honest about what you’re getting into, and considerate of other people’s happiness and well-being. It’s true that many promiscuous people break these rules, but that doesn’t mean promiscuity in itself is bad.

Certainly I didn’t intend for Cathy to be a slut-shaming stereotype. As I’ve said before, the character of Cathy is a mixture of all the things my school-age self found distasteful in other students. And back when this mixture was being formed, I had little or no knowledge of slut-shaming. In fact, in my own personal high-school and college experience, the very opposite seemed to be happening.

Maybe my view was warped by my social difficulties, but to me, in school, it always seemed that having a wildly active sex life was considered normal, and that I was considered a loser because I didn’t; because I focused my attention on nerdy, uncool things like art, writing and schoolwork, instead of sex. Everything I observed in high school and college indicated to me that being a slut was cool, popular– all the things I wasn’t.

I don’t remember ever seeing any slut-shaming. Maybe I just couldn’t recognize it, or maybe it wasn’t common in the state I grew up in or the schools I went to, or maybe the popular kids never did it around me. But I do remember a lot of virgin-shaming, aimed at me and other geeks.

Back then, the only social distinction I really saw was the distinction between nerds and non-nerds. From my perspective, the girls who had one long-term boyfriend, the girls who had a different boyfriend every month, and the girls who had one-night stands every week were all blurred together. To me, they were all just “the girls who looked down on me for having nothing.”

I realize that they probably didn’t look down on me as much as I thought, at least not for that reason. But at the time, I had a very long memory for all the moments when it seemed as if they did. I felt as if sluttiness was the prevailing world order, and I was the downtrodden underdog who dared to consider my grades more important than my sex life.

When I learned the word “slut,” it felt like a weapon of the resistance, a way for oppressed geeks like me to fight back against the insanity that was considered normal. It felt like learning that I could use the words “sheep” and “conformists” to insult those who followed social rules. I didn’t feel that I was oppressing sluts, I felt I was rebelling against their oppression of me.

Of course, being who I was, I didn’t actually go around calling anyone a slut. For the most part I stayed buried in my books and drawings, ignoring and ignored by my so-called peers. But sometimes I thought dark thoughts to myself about the popular and promiscuous. The word “slut” may have made its way into some of my internal rants.

I did eventually outgrow this simplistic hatefulness. As I grew up and built a more diverse and sophisticated circle of friends, I began to distinguish between promiscuity and virgin-shaming. I learned that people are complex, and not everyone who sleeps around is a nerd-abusing cheerleader or jock. But somewhere inside me remained the old, simplified view, the traces of how my schoolgirl mind had divided the whole world into geeks and antigeeks.

And even once I knew better, Cathy rose up out of those ancient feelings and took her place in the comic, because the feelings were too old and ingrained to stay out of all the things I created. The more I write Abby and Norma, the more I realize that Cathy is not like any real person I know, and that some people might even be hurt by her portrayal of promiscuity.

Cathy is evil not because of her slutty ways, but because she tries to force them on others, insulting and belittling Abby for not being slutty like her. She is what I used to think all normal students were like, back when I was in school and trying to figure out the world.

Abby is often a caricature of me, expressing opinions that are exaggerated versions of opinions I have or used to have. Abby’s mom is a caricature not of my own mother, but of the annoying traits of some other mothers I’ve known. Likewise, Cathy seems to be a caricature of non-autistic students, taking some of the things they occasionally do and exaggerating them to ridiculous extremes.

I don’t know how, or if, I could ever develop her into a more realistic character. I don’t know if “Abby and Norma” is even supposed to be the kind of comic that has realistic characters. But I felt I should write something to shed light on the origins of Cathy, and how the way the world looked to me as a teen and young adult is quite far from the way it looks to people today.