Portrayals of Mental Health In Genre Fiction

Portrayals of people with mental illnesses have come a long way. From variety to accuracy to ending stereotypes.

In the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Alasdair Stuart, Penny Jones, Dr. Glyn Morgan, and Devin Madson, discussed who gets it right… and who gets it wrong.

Why Are There More Portrayals of Mental Illness In Genre Fiction Today?

  1. People are more comfortable discussing it
  2. Nearly everyone will suffer at some point in their lives, even if it’s just temporary stress
  3. People are being rewarded for opening the discussion
  4. The audience is welcoming

What Informed Older Portrayals of Mental Illness?

  1. Mental illness as a reaction to trauma was accepted — it had an external reason.
    • Rod Serling of the original Twilight Zone’s work was often based on his WW2 experience, characters named after friends he’d lost
  2. Murderers and manic pixies were given mental illness as reasons people could do horrific things

Who Got It Wrong?

Some illnesses are hard to make palatable, like schizophrenia. Some are misused or misrepresented like psychopaths. And some, start off strong, but then stumble and disappoint us.

  1. Sheldon from The Big Bang — seems like an autistic stereotype, but the writers claim it’s not, so claim they’re not negatively portraying autism.
  2. Drax from the Guardians of the Galaxy — set him up in the first movie as a great autistic/Aspergers portrayal, but then turned him into mere comic relief.
  3. Fat Thor — Fans debate if he was a punchline or still worthy
  4. ‘Magical lab technician’ – CSI/House/etc – using their illness as a plot device

Who Got It Right?

  1. City in the Middle of the Nights – Charlie Jane Anders – PTSD
  2. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal – Anxiety
  3. City of Lies – Sam Hawke – OCD
  4. Station Blue – (Audio Drama) – Bipolar
  5. The Far Meridian – (Audio Drama)
  6. Bright Sessions – (Audio Drama) – Empathy
  7. Gone – (Audio Drama) – Running low on meds
  8. Sleeping Beauties – Stephen King
  9. Hereditary – Psychosis
  10. American Horror Story
  11. Vast Horizon – PTSD
  12. Brooklyn 99
  13. The Crow Garden
  14. Final Approach
  15. Shutter Island
  16. Planetfall – Emma Neuman
  17. Emma Donahue

What Do People Want To See More Of?

  1. More.
  2. Aspergers
  3. Better portrayals of early treatment — before things hit crisis level
  4. Trauma — is resolved too easily (unless it’s a character quirk)
  5. Relapse NOT seen as a failure, just as a thing that happens and has to be taken care of.
  6. Postpartum depression

Mental Illnesses As A Sign Of Their Time

Some illnesses are triggered by environmental factors. Some are diagnosed based on limited information. The panel discussed how mental illnesses used to be designated and what might the future hold for humanity?

  1. Different diagnoses — we used to think epilepsy was a mental illness. Now we can treat it. As we learn more about the root causes, hopefully, we can help more people live better lives.
  2. Isolation

What about you?

Where do you see genre fiction getting mental illness right? Where do you see them messing up big time?

What do you want to see more of?

And what do you think the future will hold?


Finding Your Own Pace: A Writer’s Struggle

Flashback to NaNoWriMo 2018! This year, I’m doing a series of short stories. The first week went great. The second week was a struggle. I’m only just keeping pace with my wordcount though. We’ll see how this week goes.

Finding Your Own Pace: A Writer’s Struggle

All writers work differently, but since I started with NaNoWriMo, I’ve come to look at NaNo as my novel kick-off season. Even if it takes me months and months after to finish the story, (not to mention editing, revising, and querying the sucker) I can get at least the first 50,000 words out. Usually.
 
When it comes to daily word targets, like NaNoWriMo encourages, I’ve run the gamut.
 
For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo sets the goal at 50,000 words– approximately 200 pages which is a bit short for a novel. Which breaks down to 1,666 words per day, or about 6 pages.
 

Pick Your Pace

I’ve failed NaNo, won NaNo by the skin of my teeth, and done 75k one glorious November. Different stories, voices, and points-of-view write faster or slower for me.Some writers wait for the spirit to be upon them and crank out 30,000 words in a weekend. Some write 5-6k on the weekends and a couple hundred on the occasional workday.

 

This might be you!

Me? Not so much.

 

As I’ve talked about before, I’m not a sprinter, I’m a marathoner, but 1,666 words is usually achievable for me. With the right story? I can hit an average of 2,500 words per day.

But.

I can only do it by writing EVERY DAY. If I wait until the weekend to sprint? I’m doomed.

 
I have NEVER written two-NaNo days worth of words (3,332) in a single day. If I get more than 1 or 2 days behind, I cannot catch up.
 
Left on my own, when it’s not November, I set daily word count goals (or at least weekly ones), but my writing pace (fit in around my day job) is approximately half-the-speed of a NaNo.
 

If you’ve never NaNo-ed before (look, I verbed it!), it can seem daunting. And it feels like there are just people who can commit and do it, and people who can’t.

But just because I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo once (by hitting that 50k target before midnight on November 30th), doesn’t mean I always win.

 

My Past NaNoWriMo’s

I’ve rebelled with half-Nano’s, spent a November edited instead. I’ve started to draft a sequel, but it petered out. My first NaNo win was my 3rd NaNo attempt — at writing the exact same book.
 
Two years ago, I did that nano-and-a-half in November. It was a sequel, so I knew the world and the characters, and how the magic works. Plus? My life was pretty settled that month.

 

Last year? I started a new job, had a full outline I wanted to follow because my story was a Robin Hood variant, and I barely squeaked out my words.
 

When my life is settled, I commit and focus — that’s what it takes for me to win NaNoWriMo.

 

NaNoWriMo18

This year? I’ve got a very rough outline that I need to revamp for the age range I’m writing for.

My story involves school-aged kids dealing with parents. So, that means middle grade or younger. YA typically are coming-of-age stories, where they have adventures without adults.

In prep, I’ve already created a list of about 50 names that fit my world, so I can grab and go. Left to my own devices, picking a name for a character can take longer than my daily allotment of time for writing.

But, placeholder names don’t really work for me. Remember that nano-and-a-half I mentioned? It’s filled with 30 place-holder names and is sitting as a rough draft on my googleDrive. (No offense, but Alice, Bob, Carol, and the invaders from Canadia don’t actually fit my fantasy world’s aesthetic.) I’ve gotta admit, it feels pretty daunting to fix.

I’ve got a few obstacles:

  • I’ve never written for this age range
    • so I’m not familiar with writing at this pacing.
  • I’ve never written a story in this world
    • so I’ll be having to think through the intricacies of the world as I go.
  • Plus, I’ve got a day-job deadline coming up.
  • It might end up being a chapter book
    • Those are typically around 20,000 words.
    • If that’s the case, what do I do?
      • write 2 novels? Start a series?
      • or call it a day

So now? The only way for me to find out what happens to those cool characters I’ve got half-formed in my head though? Is to write it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

So You’ve Decided To Write A Novel – Here are 7 Tips To Get Started

[Throwback Thursday: Just as true as when I first posted. And? Those placeholder names are still in that rough draft I’m scared to touch.]

7 Tips for Preparing to Write A Novel

For Pantsers AND Plotters and #NaNoPrepMo

Whether you’ve just decided it’s finally time to write that book you’ve been thinking about on your own or you’ve been bit by the NaNoWriMo bug, starting a novel can be intimidating!

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants), a plotter, or something in between, there’s still stuff you can do to prepare yourself before you start writing.

Plotters, you have your to-do lists, but even you can get stuck. Here are some things that may be on your list, and a few things that might not be.

Pantsers and plantsers? You might not want to do all the planning that the plotters do. You might be just along for the journey to see where the story takes you. BUT! That doesn’t mean you have to be left out of writing prep!

That said, here are my top 7 writing prep activities.

1. Outlining

Clearly, the plotter’s first choice and the fear of every pantser, but outlining can be as extensive — or as sparse — as you want it to be.

– You can have 10 pages of notes for every chapter
– A basic “[Main character] wants [objective] but [obstacle] stands in their way.” statement
– Just pre-write a query letter!
– Even most pantsers find having a starting point and an end target at least moderately useful.

(Here’s my level of outlining)

2. Beat Sheets!

The cousin of outlining. These help you check your pacing — whether you’re going for a 3 act, 4 act, or another sort of structure.

Jami Gold has a great collection of Beat Sheet Worksheets to help you plan out your story’s emotional arcs AND plot arcs.

OR — save the beat sheet and use it when you’re pantsing to decide what to do next!

3. Mood Boards

Gathering together pictures that suggest your characters, your settings, your wardrobe, and your world.

You’d think this would be most helpful for those writers who are more visually oriented — literally helping them see their story. But, my imagination isn’t very visual, and I say that mood boards can be INVALUABLE for those of us whose imaginations are more conceptual.

If you have a vague idea in your head of a character’s look or the settings, you can google image search until you have something that works for your story — then you can use that image to help describe your people, places, and things to your readers.

4. Character Sheets

It’s official. I’m a geek. I’ve been playing D&D and its cousins since 2000. But even if it’s not a true ‘character sheet’, writing out your characters strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits is very helpful when you’re deciding during the story how your character will react.

You can use things like Myers-Briggs designations, star signs, or zodiacs to help flesh out your character and keep them consistent.

5. Creating a List of Names

I can spend weeks picking the perfect name for a main character. During NaNoWriMo, I’ve definitely lost hours of writing time trying to come up with names for characters, places, and my magic system.

Two NaNos ago, I decided to save a lot of time by just giving everyone placeholder names: Alice, Bob, Carol… I went through the entire alphabet and ended up naming the enemy country Canadia. It helped me accomplish a NaNo-and-a-half, but it had consequences (yep! 75k!). The editing this is going to require has me scared off starting that rewrite. Don’t make my mistake.

This year? I intend to have a list of at least 20 random names that fit my story and world that I can grab-and-go with once I start writing. So far I’ve got 6.

6. World Building

Is your story happening in the real world or a made up one? Do the laws of physics work the same?

Having a good idea of how far apart places are, the transport times, and key landmarks is super helpful.

I spent a couple hours last NaNoWriMo figuring out how far it was from Loxley to Nottingham. And the number of times I’ve redrawn my fantasy map because of average pilgrim walking paces versus bicycle paces… is more than twice.

I also have 2 moons in one of my worlds, so I keep an eye on the tides and the moon fullness in regards to the aforementioned travel times. It can get tricky!

7. Minimize Real World Distractions

I’ve mentioned this before, but for me? Having a stocked fridge, clean clothes, and straightened house when NaNoWriMo starts means I can ignore those things for longer while I dedicate more time to writing.

It usually takes a week or so after a good clean for my house to start really getting piled up.

I try to keep my calendar light, preload the Panera app on my phone for write-ins (getting hungry? Keep writing and the food will come to me), and work hard to build up momentum. Once I’ve got a good streak going, meeting that daily word target, I don’t want to break it.


And that’s it! Are you starting a new novel? Tell me about it!

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Feel free to friend me: morganhazelwood!

( Are you new to NaNoWriMo or an old hat? )

Making the Asexual Textual

Some people are sexually attracted to the opposite gender, some are attracted to the same gender, while others are attracted to more than one gender, and yet others are only sexually attracted under specific circumstances?

But, not all people are sexually attracted to someone. Those people? Identify as asexual.

Especially in Western culture, so many of our stories — be they folktales of yore, current tv shows, books, or movies — center around the main character’s relationship. Even if it’s not the main plot point.

For asexual people, they’ve had to read-between-the-lines to look for characters that represent them.

Is this character asexual? Or did the story just not cover a period of their life where they were in a relationship.

Is that character sexual? Or are they in a consensual sex-free romantic relationship?

At the titular panel, at WorldCon 77, Wendy Metcalfe, Darcie Little Badger, Dr. Edmund Schleussel, and Jasmine Gower discussed ways to make the asexual textual, without making it feel forced.

3 Reasons Not Making the Asexual Textual is a Problem

  1. There is already a sparsity of asexual representation
  2. Readers will project on the asexual characters and make assumptions
  3. Many readers enjoy ‘shipping characters, and will mentally pair them up, or insist that there’s subtext
    • Shipping characters – Shipping is short for ‘relationship”, it’s when readers (and/or fanfic writers) decide they think two (or more characters) should be in a relationship.

      Fanfic – is fiction written by fans about the characters from tv/movies/books that they want to see. Unofficial spin-offs. Like Paradise Lost is Biblical fanfic.

      In fanfiction circles, “slash fiction” originated as stories pairing character A – slash – character B. A lot of the derivative stories have been traditionally homosexual pairings, but not always. And some of them, explicit erotica.

4 Approaches Making Asexual Characters Textual

  1. Avoid the terms, but make it obvious in the plot
  2. Make up terms in your story to represent asexual — or the reverse. Why not make a story where asexual is the default, and everything else must be defined?
  3. Slip in the term
    • Worries it will feel dated
  4. Have it as a small detail in a larger descriptive sentence

4 Overdone Asexual Tropes To Avoid

  1. Having them focus on how their asexuality makes them weird or different. Asexual people typically don’t dwell on their lack of sexuality during their normal day-to-day lives.
    • Morgan question: What about thinking about how sexuality makes everyone ELSE weird?
  2. Naivety – not understanding what sex is
  3. Being repulsed by sex
  4. Making the asexual character alien, or a robot, or inhumane in some way (very often Death itself).
  5. Non-heterosexual characters being used as code for a ‘bad person’

How Being Asexual Affects A Person’s Life

  1. No co-dependencies. Living alone is expensive and is easier with a profession.
  2. Seen as naive or “just haven’t met the right person”
  3. People trying to pair you up.
  4. Seen as ‘frigid’ or ‘sexually dysfunctional’

Asexual people are normal people. They’ve always been out there.

For those looking for asexual stories:

  • Anything from the LessThan3Press (recently defunct)
  • Lesbian Reviews
  • Ancillary Justice (Anne Leckie)
  • Star Maker (Olaf Stapledon)

I’m not asexual. Let me know if I got anything wrong. Let me know if you have any suggestions for others trying to include asexual characters in their worlds.

Thank you for reading.

Logistics and Tactics: Writing Campaigns

Most writers end up writing fight scenes — be they verbal or physical. But some writers, especially if they’re writing historical novels, epic fantasy, or military fiction are going to be in the fight for the long haul. They’re going to writing a Military Campaign.

At Balticon 53, Eric Hardenbrook, Kim Headlee, John Appel, Mike McPhail, and Charles Gannon sat down to talk about the tricks to handling a campaign.

First off? A battle might be won by numbers or technology, but a campaign is run on logistics and tactics.

What Are Logistics?

Logistics are a way of providing whatever the soldier needs.

Be it physical things like beans, bullets, or boards. Or things like transportation, pay, and sleep.

Whatever it is that a soldier needs to do their job well, it’s up to the support staff to provide it. And? Logistics inform the tactics, just as much as terrain and enemy movement.

5 Ways To Portray The Effect Of Logistics When Writing

This is clearly not a comprehensive list, the panel wasn’t long enough for that. But here are some good concepts to consider when incorporating logistics into your writing.

  1. Living off the land. This is a traditional thing for armies to do. It sounds so hippy-dippy, maybe some hunting and trading. But, in reality? It was mostly stealing from farmers and merchants. Plus, plundering whatever cities and towns they conquered.
  2. Account for travel time. Horses need rest, rivers flow in one direction and oceans have tides. Mis-information can have you take 1 day to travel in the wrong direction, and 3 days to travel back. Plus? You still need to feed your army (and any animals or gas/etc your tanks/trucks)
  3. Scavenging. Just because something is broken beyond repair doesn’t mean it doesn’t have useful parts.
  4. Pay attention to carry weight.
    • With historical inspired writing, armour and gear can weigh a lot.As you get more modern, the gear and protection keep getting lighter — so we keep adding more stuff to keep our troops safer. And more trucks of supplies and gadgets.In modern/futuristic setting, you might just think you can print out what you need on demand. Just know that real-life 3d printers are SLOW. And you still have to carry the component materials.
  5. In The Field. When not in outright battle, securing parameters, calming citizens in your occupied territory, etc — all these things are going to require actual people, on their feet, face-to-face with hopefully non-violent citizens, often mixed with enemies in disguise. No matter how high tech you get, there’s probably going to be people involved on the front lines. Unless you annihilate everything.

Writing Campaigns Versus Battles, 7 Things To Think About.

Once again, this is just a list of suggestions. Things that come up during campaigns that show up less during a battle. There are millions of differences, but here are a few.

  1. Logistics matter. A lot.
  2. Soldiering has a lot of down time. What sort of mischief do the soldiers get into in their off time?
  3. There are more support personnel than front line fighters.
  4. What to do with the ‘problem soldiers’, that haven’t gotten themselves kicked out yet.
    • Great thing to do – if you’re a writer – give them a mission. You either get the mission accomplished, or you’ve got fewer mouths to feed.
  5. The modern Command and Control Center isn’t some guy standing there barking orders (typically). It’s more like 20 people staring at different screens with information coming in, and the guy ‘in charge’ standing around going “hmmmm…” and hopefully listening to his subject matter experts.
  6. Orders aren’t barked out last minute. Any halfway competent military is going to have multiple plans, and contingency plans. When it’s go time? The order’s more like: We’re good to go for Plan B, modification 3.
  7. Reverse engineering. Romans were huge into this! It’s been around for a while. Don’t assume just because one army has the technical advantage that they’re going to keep it for long.
    • In fantasy, if you’ve got magic with verbal and physical components, people are going to be spying.
    • My thought? Add some extra things, and hide some of the real requirements to throw them off!

A Few Closing Thoughts on War

Friendly fire. Is it?
Military intelligence. Is it?
Just-in-time supplies. Are they?

“War is entropy, not order.”

“If you would have peace, prepare for war”


Have you written any campaigns? Any tips that our panelists ran out of time to mention?

Thank you for tuning in, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips from my over-24-hours-of-Balticon53-programming to share!