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The Autobiography, It Burns...

So "Black Dogs," my first novel, was on sale at Anthrocon, and I gave a copy to my mother since I happened to be up there, and awhile later she called me and uttered a phrase that I suspect no author on earth wants to hear--"This is you, isn't it?"

I love my mother dearly. I am sure her intent was not to make me cringe in my chair or weakly say "Well...not really...I mean...it's not...quite...uh..."


This is particularly awkward when you know that book two has sex, bondage, and prolonged and grisly torture, and that your mother's going to be reading it with you in mind as the main character. Ouch. If they ever had an Afterschool Special to cover this situation, I must've missed it. Mom's deeply cool, but one still feels a little...exposed.

The thing is, she's not wrong, precisely. All characters get dredged up out of what you are, or what you want to be, or what you're afraid of, or at the very least, who you can pretend to be. (Well, all my characters. I can't presume to speak for other authors.) The esteemable shatterstripes once pointed out that my comics have a distinct tendency towards a stocky heroine with no pants who is unrelentingly rational in the face of madness, and yeah, that's me, even if I don't qualify as stocky these days, and I'm pretty good about the pants. But I'm everybody else in there, too. Boneclaw Mother is the dirty old woman I hope to someday become, and Jhalm is that burning sense of condescending self-righteousness that I attempt to squelch,* and if I was ever going to be a villain, I would be a pleasant, efficient, ruthless one, like Vade, and Sadrao is every dog I ever loved, walking upright and carrying a sword.


Still, I can't even say that's the case in Black Dogs. It'd be more comfortable to make that claim, but denial ain't just a river in Egypt. I wrote the first draft at seventeen, and I wrote what I knew. Most of what I knew was about being seventeen and confused and horny and out of my depth and just putting one foot in front of the other and a whole lot of whistling in the dark. So the heroine isn't me--not the thirty-year-old woman--but if you put her in a room with myself of thirteen years ago, the only way to tell them apart would be the clothes. Hell, we've even got the same tattoo, although mine came after hers, a  definite case of life imitating art.

How embarrassing.

I suppose we're all the heroes of our early work. That's why Mary Sue runs rampant. The urge to play up our good points rather than our flaws is strong. (If there's any redeeming quality to Black Dogs, I suspect it's that the main character is not actually the hero of the story, and does not save the day, and in fact mostly just muddles along with a lot of help from her friends. At one early point in the book, she says "My incompetence will surprise you," and that pretty much holds true.)

Perhaps it's simply that it was my very first novel, and I had not yet learned to cover my tracks.

It's easier to have strangers read your books. They can't look at it with beady little eyes and see you hiding between the pages, and even if they could, they wouldn't care. I think it was Robin McKinley who said how embarrassed she was by an early book, by how much of her adolescent self it revealed (it was "The Blue Sword" I think...) and I can sympathize, even though I loved the book.

It gets easier as you write more, I think. There's a whole lot of me in Digger, but nobody ever looks at it and goes "You're Digger!" because I'm really not. She's tougher than I am, more logical than I am, and has less imagination. I say a great many things that she would never say, and she says a few that I wouldn't either. You learn to ask "What would she do?" instead of "What would I do, in this situation?" (I think RPGs are great practice for this, frankly. Mouse the samurai and Severl the thief were two of the best writing teachers I ever had, because ideally you learn to be an internally consistent other. I can't really explain it more clearly--either you know exactly what I'm talking about, or you need to go find a good GM for a couple of months.)

Mind you, my characters also frequently channel my grandmother, but that's probably a post for another day...

*Oddly enough, he's the character closest down the road from all my favorite RPG characters. The it-is-right-because-I-am-doing-it rises very naturally to the surface, and works equally well for paladins, samurai and assassins. Disturbingly similar to the mindset required to be a forum admin.

Writers are somewhat like Actors in that way. They both have to be their characters, except of course that they're not really their characters. Writers do tend to have more say in what the characters become of course, so the tendancy towards them 'being you' is increased. I find the same mindset of 'being a character who is not me' I used when an actor helps when 'writing a character who is not me' too. Of course, no one can 'not be themselves' fully.

Thank you for this post. For some strange reason i found it to be comforting.

The things you learn in role playing games...

It is all the worse because your mother does know you so well. Better than you ever realized that she did. The proper answer to her question is either that all the characters are part of me, or They are just fictional characters. Both, even.
Many years ago, I was GMing a D&D game and I had a dirty rotten scoundrel of a gang leader get the drop on one of the palidens in a party. I had expected the palidan to whip out his sword and chop the miscreat down. But the dice had other plans, and the paliden made a few goofs, and so the gang had this paliden captive. What followed was an hour of pure pull-it-out-of-thin-air, and the paliden ends up tortured, raped, and tied up left as food for a monster.
I was surprised on a couple of levels. One, that I could come up with this vile creature of a gang leader out of the dark recesses of my imagination. But even more surprising, that I was, after a while, cheering internnaly for the gang to do more terrible things to the paliden. Then, that evening, as I was reflecting on the session and writing up my notes, how much I enjoyed doing all those horrible things to the character.
It was a rather eye opening expereince to some of the nasty stuff that lurks in my subconcious. That I didn't like learning about myself.

Re: The things you learn in role playing games...

I'll agree about the nasty stuff. My characters in RP, a lot of the time, have their darker sides that border on sadistic. I just like playing them.

I have trouble making a 'good' character that isn't childlike.

Yes Mom, there are some bits of me in there, and you may recognize some of them, but not everything about her is me, and I'm never going to tell you which bits are me, and which bits are made up. If you have to wonder, you can be pretty sure that that particular bit isn't me.

Which is really more than I'd ever say. Generally it's best to just maintain the stance that it's fiction therefore, not real, not me, no. However, Moms can be a tad more perceptive than the average reader who doesn't know what you were like at seventeen.

I can't really point any fingers and claim higher ground on main characters who are the self! My first attempt at a major comic, Drowning City, starred... um... a gangly, tall, angsty girl with long stringy hair. Who is turning into a monster due to events beyond her control. GEE, that's not about anything in MY life at the time. Not at ALL. And the one I'm working on now stars a raccoon girl. Who is kinda self-absorbed. And has a cock. And starts out the story in an old, cluttered city from which she escapes. No, that's not ANYTHING about my life at ALL.

And then horrible things happen to them, because the stupid decisions they make come back to haunt them, instead of being able to run away from them. And because conflict for a more interesting story. Mary Sues are boring because they always win; when the character who owes a lot to the writer stops always winning, they stop being a Mary Sue.

It's easier for an involuted person to write about themselves - because it requires no effort to model someone else. Imagining someone else in your head is a skill. And it's not one a lot of us have when we're twelve. Especially not those of us who are primed to stick their heads into a craft, instead of going out and, well, being social. Which involves making mental models of people all the time.

I know exactly what you mean. My book was on sale for the first time at Anthrocon, too, and I'm almost dreading what my father will see when he reads it. There is so, so much of me, especially in the female lead, and a fair amount in Captain Sal, too, though I didn't create him. (The book started out as a roleplaying campaign in the Ironclaw universe, so only one of the main characters was created by me. I couldn't have written a decent novel before that campaign - I needed to see good role-players in action, and that group taught me how to do that.)

So Black Dogs is on sale now? Or was it only at the 'con? Because, honestly, if I can get that book into my store (I work at a large corporate monstrosity bookstore), it would be an easy handsell seeing as I know you. (Well, sort of. But easy sell all the same.)
Not to mention I've been really eager to read it all this time. You got an ISBN for it yet? *goes to dig for it*

I found it. (that was easy.) So here are my new questions: is there going to be another print run, and can I purchase a copy directly from you? or does your agent have any plans at all to sell it in major chains?

"...when you know that book two has sex, bondage, and prolonged and grisly torture"

on reading this, I have to wonder. Will the Nurk book have on the cover "by the author of Black Dogs" on it anywhere? :3

I suspect that it will be the reverse after Nurk's success puts it out of her control. Like the printings of Strata that say "The first Discworld novel!" or the DVDs of Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles that say "By the Director of the Lord of the Rings" on them.

They say you write what you know.

The first trick is to find the universal in the personal -- to not just write Mary Sues, but developed characters who comment on the human condition.

The second trick is to avoid "many fingers on the same hand," where every character has the same voice or some strange rapport. Related to this is the problem of "villains are icky and get no screen time", where the neato-keen reader-identification heroes get all the good lines and all the description, and the bad guys are always off-stage or (even worse) dully inexplicable in how they hate our heroes and get in their way.

Of course, your stuff is awesome. Needs more vampire squashes.

Re: They say you write what you know.

Icon love!

I haven't seen Ratatouille yet -- is this an actual scene from the movie, or did the animators have a little extra fun with the character?

"There's a whole lot of me in Digger, but nobody ever looks at it and goes 'You're Digger!' because I'm really not."

First response that came into my head: "Of course they don't say that. She's a wombat."

Second response that came into my head: "Of course they don't say it. If they're like me, they take it as a given that you're Digger, and don't find it surprising enough to remark upon-- in fact, I find the idea that you AREN'T more suprising (because look, I'm remarking)-- I just took it as a given that you were."

I mean, you're not a wombat, but if you were suddenly transported to a strange fantasy world, and had the right survival skills (Digger will react to hungry hyenas with fight or flight-- I suspect you would lose precious seconds stopping and commenting on the culture that would produce such beings), I think your basic reactions to things would be somewhat similar.


Characters based on the author are very seldom very good. They may seem good to the author, but there's not enough *there*. They assume the reader knows more about them than they do, or that what they see as normal actually is, and it doesn't work out very well.
My problem is that I have a very fun little story that I fear to sell because Mom will read it, and it is made of mom issues. Pushy, overbearing, point-not-getting mom issues. I don't think I dread, "Is this you?" nearly as much as I dread, "Is this what you think of me?"

I vaguely recall Anne MacCaffery saying that she found writing easier once she stopped trying to be the heroine - I think she was talking about her first novel (Restoree?) at the time.

I loved the heroine of the Blue Sword. She was *real* and spoke to me with her gawky, shy adolescent self. I don't see that Robin had anything to be ashamed of.

That said, I don't think I'd want my mother reading my bondage porn. I remember that I gave her number six or seven in the Anita Blake books - right around the time Anita started banging headboards with every werewolf in town - and told her that this was the last one I'd share in the series, since I drew the line at peddling smut to my mom.

Lyra may be a touch of Mary Sue, but she is a tremendously flawed character, and far from any degree of power. Sweet light, she was abused horribly in the first book because she really isn't that good, I don't think anyone can fault you for making a perfect heroine. ;D

"(I think RPGs are great practice for this, frankly. Mouse the samurai and Severl the thief were two of the best writing teachers I ever had, because ideally you learn to be an internally consistent other. I can't really explain it more clearly--either you know exactly what I'm talking about,"


"or you need to go find a good GM for a couple of months.)"

These can be very hard to find, and harder to be! I've tried. Made me appreciate my GM buddies all the more.

MUCKs can work for this too, they were some of my first serious roleplaying.