Beyond Paul, Mark, and David: Tips for Naming Your Characters, Part 1

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The naming of cats is a difficult matter

It isn’t just one of your holiday games

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you a cat must have three different names

 

First of all is the name that the family use daily

Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James

Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey

All of them sensible everyday names…

-T.S. Eliot, The Naming of Cats

It happens like clockwork. Every few weeks, one of my writer friends will bemoan the fact that they can’t think of a name for a particular character, that this is the part of writing that they hate the most, that inventing a person is easy but giving them the right moniker is mission: impossible.

At first, this surprised me. Why? Because I LOVE to name things. Not just characters or places or cars or stuffed animals, a favorite armchair or sex toy, but anything. I obsess over the names of my characters, doing hours of research until I find the exact right one. To me, a character doesn’t really exist until they have the right name.

I am what is called a name nerd. I have bought more baby naming books than I care to admit, and I never intend to have any children. But I’ve had an ever-changing list of what I would call my hypothetical children that will never exist since I was ten years old (current faves: Persephone and Lorcan). I fret and debate and fiddle with potential names far more than actual parents do over what to call the baby that is at that very moment gestating and will soon be a living, breathing person.

But I came to understand my fellow authors’ grief. When you think about it, unless you’re having a quiverful of J-named tots, most parents will only name one to four children in their lifetime. A successful author could potentially name hundreds of people, from their main protagonist to all the incidental people in a book to family members who get a one-time mention but never appear in a scene. And if you’re writing about a fictional place and/or fantasy world, the number of names rises exponentially. There’s a reason Tolkien invented two languages in order to name his characters with some consistency. When you are a creator of worlds, you’re responsible for the well-being—and the names—of the people and creatures that populate that world. But relief is in sight because…

Authors friends, I’m here to help. Nearly thirty years of name-nerding has taught me more than a few tricks, and I’m happy to share. This post is the first in a three-part series of tips and tricks for naming your characters (and places, and things, etc…). This first one centers on contemporary names, and the two that follow will be on historical names and fantasy names.

Before we dive in, I also want to offer my service as a character name consultant. Email me at selinakray@hotmail.ca if you like these tips and need some help/advice/inspiration. This kind of thing is like crack to me, so don’t be shy!

And now, without further ado, five tips for naming contemporary characters:

1. Think beyond Paul and Sarah. Please. For the love of all that’s literary. In the romance genre, there’s always the fear of being too flowery, too cutesy, too try. We’ve all read those books, where characters have crazy, improbable names that distract from who they are or just don’t fit. I write and read M/M, and a particular dislike of mine is all the macho-man names like Stone, Brock, Jock, or Rip. Soap opera names. These don’t always have to be a bad thing, though. They can be used ironically, or to tell you something about the character. No name is a bad name if it fits the character wearing it.

As a reaction to that, some authors go the complete opposite direction and give their characters the most simple name possible. You know the ones: Mark, Dave, Steve, John, Mary, Sarah, Catherine, Elizabeth. There was a point at which if I read another book with a character named Paul, I considered returning the book on principle.

We can do better, without cracking out the weird Y’s, extra consonants, and Gaelic spelling. There are hundreds of simple, classic names that are a little left of center—maybe a little old-fashioned, maybe too long out of use—that could fit your character. Oscar, Felix, Dario, Stellan, Bram, Lionel, Rufus, Arturo, Barney, Jerome, or Sabine, Clara, Simone, Nadine, Mira, Juniper, Faye, Lena, Carly. All easy to pronounce, all easy to read. Each with their own unique flavor.

A good baby name book, like my bible Beyond Jason and Jennifer, Madison and Montana, or website like Nameberry, will give you thousands of options that don’t get into Jerramy and Kaetelynn territory. So please, go explore the possibilities!

2. Law and Order is your friend. Once upon a time for work, I had to watch around 200 episodes of Law and Order over a period of maybe four months. What struck me at the time—other than, “Please, please don’t let me be assigned another episode of Law and Order”—is the variety of names that the writers of that show had to come up with over 20 seasons of 22 episodes per season. They couldn’t all be variations on John Smith.

But their pain is your treasure. The show is set in New York, the original melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, and all of these are represented in the names used on Law and Order and its various spinoffs. Need inspiration? Go to their IMDb page and scroll through the list of names. I guarantee you will find something offbeat but authentic.

Any favorite television show, film, or book can provide character name inspiration. Are you a fan of Judy Blume? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The Godfather films? All great starting points.  

This brings up a prickly issue in the character naming game, which is cultural background. Most of the names I’m going to suggest in this post are from a white North American perspective because I am a white North American and not qualified to speak about other traditions. But I hope we are all committed to writing diverse characters and, when doing so, using the naming traditions of that particular culture. All names are beautiful! So do your research, reach out to people within that particular culture, and get it right. We’ll get into this more in the historical post.

3. Balance is key. The person who inspired me to write this series of posts and my personal naming guru—though she prefers the moniker ‘name therapist’—is the wise and wonderful Duana Taha, who gives name advice in her bi-weekly column over on LaineyGossip.com (search for the name nerd tag in Lifestyle).

Duana, who has one of the loveliest and most unique names I’ve ever heard, is the ne plus ultra of name nerds. I just finished her book, The Name Therapist, which I suggest all authors pick up, and it is a goldmine of naming tips and theories.

One of the things I’ve learned from her over the years is that names need balance and flow. To achieve this: first, middle, and last names shouldn’t have the same number of syllables. The ideal would be any variation on a 1-2-3 balance, i.e. 3-1-2, 2-3-1, etc. Richard Brice Westinghouse. Francesca Ines Behar. Gideon Abel Dershowitz. Catriona Leigh Byrne.

She tends to come down against alliteration, again because of the cutesy-twee aspect. But that cutesy-tweeness might tell you something about that character or their parents, so try to avoid it, but don’t rule it out entirely. She counsels against too many names ending in A for girls—especially in both a first and middle name—and also having a first name end with the same vowel that a last name begins with.

Say the name out loud, listen to the flow. If you stutter or stumble, go back to the drawing board.

4. Avoid stereotypes. We’ve all read books with a cop named Jake or Mac (apologies to Josh Lanyon) or a plain girl named Jane. A doctor named Richard. A princess named Kate. These names take on lives of their own by being used over and over again in similar contexts, leading us to make associations with jobs or characteristics, even causing us to categorize certain names as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Staying away from these stereotypes helps to avoid reinforcing them.

But names aren’t neutral, far from it. We each have our specific, personal experience of people with certain names that are either beloved or have bad associations. For instance, I love the name Astrid because of a dear friend, while childhood bullies have forever soured me to the names Louise and Kerri. A fun exercise might be to name a misbehaving or misunderstood character one of the names you dislike, or an annoying character a name that doesn’t have music in order to help shape their identity. But using a name you love might spell trouble for you as a writer. If you love the person behind the name too much, you might not have the right perspective on the character’s actions.

Whether a name ‘fits’ your character’s identity can help shape them in your mind and define for you some of the major challenges/traits/flaws they have as a person, so choose wisely.

5. Think generationally. Another thing Duana talks about in her excellent book is the popularity boom of Jennifer in the ’70s and ’80s, a phenomenon that is unlikely to be repeated. I lived through that era and knew my share of Jennifers (and Julies, since I live in Quebec). But nowadays, Jennifer is a mom name. So is Stephanie or Jessica or Pamela or Karen. Dad names are Kevin and Josh and Jason and Steve and Patrick.

Some names, like Michael, are classics that transcend generations, but most common names speak volumes about specific decades or eras. What do names like Ethel, Doris, Herman, and Bernard evoke? The 1920s and ’30s, when our grandparents—and for this generation, great-grandparents—had their heyday. Conversely, someone who’s in their teens/early 20s in 2016 is unlikely to have the name Judy or William. Don’t believe me? Go hang out at a playground.

A simple Google search can clue you in to era-appropriate names. But don’t be too reliant on those top-ten lists. One thing that never goes out of style? Originality. There are thousands of names that have no decade or era association at all. Yet another reason to research, research, research.

Or consult your friendly neighborhood name nerd. I hope this post has been helpful! Drop me a line in the comments and let me know your name obsessions and pet peeves.

 

Selina

Best Books of 2015

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As the last grains of sand pour through the hourglass that was 2015, every one of us, I think, is taking a few moments to reminisce about the year that was. It’s the time of year to shift around the beads on the abacus of life and, if you’re a geek like me, to remind yourself of all the indelible pop culture experiences you had this year. A tough year for me personally, but an epic one in terms of the entertainment I consumed, and the thoughts about it I shared with my social media friends. So, over the next couple of days, I’m rolling out my best of 2015 in books, TV, and film. Because who doesn’t love a good list?

Thanks to the lovely folks at GoodReads, putting together my best books of 2015 list was a breeze! I pressed a button and presto, changeo, they tallied all the stats and collected all the book covers for me. A huge help! But also surprising. The year has been a busy one, and that’s reflected in the smaller number of books I got through. Not a surprise, since as I type this there are at least a dozen on my waiting list, with at least five by major authors. I also tend to rate books quite highly, but I attribute this to the fact that I’m very good at selecting books for myself that I will enjoy. I have my stable of trusted authors, and though I do sample works by new writers (four of which made it to this list), just keeping up with my favorites eats up the largest chunk of my reading time.

So, without further ado, here are the seven best books I read in 2015 (in no particular order).

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A Death at the Dionysus Club by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold–A Victorian mystery series with occult leanings, beautifully drawn characters, a fascinating and terrifying underworld, and a complex, touching romance. What’s not to love?

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Captive Prince 1&2 by C.S. Pacat–I’ve written about them before. If you’ve read this series, you know how expertly plotted, devastatingly smart, and utterly riveting they are. Laurent is one of the best characters of all time.

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Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme–If you, like me, love old movies and are just as fascinated by the stories behind the making of those movies, you will love this book. A film buff’s romance with strong mystery element, with a lovely, complicated, silent film-loving heroine and her dashing mathematician foil. I ached when this one was over.

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Hoarfrost by Jordan L. Hawk–A new Whyborne & Griffin book is always a cause for celebration. This one’s winter setting hit close to home, and made for a particularly emotional outing. I marvel at the depth of Mrs. Hawk’s imagination, which conjures up civilizations and creatures that, like the best episodes of Doctor Who, touch the head and the heart.

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Jackdaw by K.J. Charles–What else is there to say about Mrs. Charles other than she is the best historical M/M writer working today? I could have put all of her releases on this list, but my love for the Charm of Magpies world knows no bounds, so Jonah and Ben it is.

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Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates–A pitch-black book about six Oxford University students who start a game of dares that transforms all their lives. Twisty and addictive, Mr. Yates pushes all of his characters to the brink and beyond.

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Unnatural by Joanna Chambers–An engrossing historical that had me by the heart for its entire length. I just loved James and Iain to bits. But it’s the brushstrokes of her writing that stay with me, the quiet moments and the compelling images that linger in the mind long after the last page.

What books made you stay up into the wee hours to finish them this year? Hit me up in the comments!

 

Miss Kray’s Editing Tips #4 — Pattern Recognition

Tip #1: Earworms. We’ve all had them. That song that gets stuck in your head and just won’t go away. You hear it everywhere, in everything, from raindrops to ringtones to the drip-drippity-drip of your coffee maker. The melody creeps up on you when you’re doing something mundane but distracting, like dishes or laundry. Before you know it, you’re humming it again. Some heinous Justin Bieber song. Bad Romance. The jingle from that annoying Triple-Dent gum commercial. The theme song from one of your kids’ favorite shows. Even songs you like can get your back up after a while. There’s only one thing to do…

Actually, there’s nothing you can do about earworms, sorry! They are like the hiccups; they’ll go away if you ignore them. But writers have their own form of earworms, and those are much easier to excise. Like the song that haunts your every waking moment with its poppy melody, every writer has words, phrases, or syntax that they overuse. Sometimes the problem is exclusive to a scene or a section of a book, where your brain catches on a word and, like a skipping record, keeps coming back to it. Sometimes it’s like the killer in a slasher flick that keeps coming back from the dead, not just in the first film, but in multiple sequels. No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to put that word down for good.

Though every writer is hobbled by this to some extent, it’s a crutch new writers often lean on while honing their craft. Back in my fanfic days, inspired by Homer and the oral tradition, I deliberately used certain phrases over and over again to give my work a kind of epic quality (it was Lord of the Rings fanfic, after all), à la “the rosy-fingered dawn.” I remember a friend taking me to task for the overuse of the word “dulcet” in particular, and many a writing group has pointed out my tendency towards overlong, essay-like sewrintence structure. I guess I’m just an academic at heart.

Pattern recognition isn’t just about identifying overused words. Keep a weather eye out for too-similar sentence structure as well. This post was inspired by a book I’m editing at the moment, in which the writer uses ‘and’ in virtually every sentence of the prose. “He jumped on the bus and walked to the back. He found a seat and settled in. He took out his laptop and pulled up a file. He scanned through the pictures and found the one he wanted.” (Not an actual quote from the book.) That’s an exaggeration, but you get my point. Don’t just look out for word repetition, try and spot other patterns in your writing and break them.

As a writer, it’s vital to become familiar with the words and syntax that recur in your work and to look out for them during the editing process. A good editor will spot those kinds of things, but even better if they don’t have to. After all, the cleaner the manuscript you give them, the more time they’ll have to concentrate on the important things, like plot and character development—and it might shave some editing time off your bill.

Tip #2: What’s in a name?

“-Jack!

-Rose!

-Jack! Jack! Jack!

-Rose!

-Jack!

-Swim, Rose! I need you to swim! Keep swimming.

-It’s so cold.

-Swim, Rose! Come on. Here. Keep swimming. Come on. Come on, Rose. Stay on it. Stay on, Rose. It’ll be all right now.”

–Actual dialogue from the movie Titanic, by James Cameron.

Disaster movies are lousy with name repetition, sometimes for good reason. You’re not going to stop and give a soliloquy when an axe murderer is chasing you or you’re stuck on a luxury liner that’s about to break in two. But we’ve all seen those movies where the characters call out each other’s names too often, to the point where it becomes almost laughable and nowhere near true to life.

In the first five lines above, Rose and Jack are trying to stay together amidst harrowing circumstances, so the fact that they are using each other’s names makes sense. In the rest of the quote, there is absolutely no reason why he needs to keep saying “Rose”. At that point they are alone in the water—who else would he be shouting at? Every time I catch some of Titanic, I remember all over again how annoying and unrealistic the name repetition is.

Books are a much less forgiving medium than film in this regard, especially given the frequency with which characters’ names appear in the prose sections or speaker tags. So it’s best to edit out the proper names from all dialogue unless absolutely necessary.

Think about how often and under what circumstances you would call someone by their name in real life. I don’t know about you, but I almost never say my friends’ names unless I’m calling to them from far away or we’ve been separated in a large crowd. I also tend to use their first names when underlining a point or in anger. The latter is especially true for my dog. I almost exclusively call her by her real name when I’m annoyed; otherwise, it’s one of her 10,000 nicknames.

Use a similar rule of thumb when you’re editing. If your character has an emotional motivation for calling someone by their name, then leave it in. If it’s window dressing, cut, cut, cut! An exception can be made for historical fiction, since in certain cases it would be normal for your characters to use an honorific, or there’s an established protocol to how people are addressed. But even there, don’t overdo the ‘sir’s’, ‘ma’am’s’, and ‘my lord’s’/’my lady’s’. As always, read these sections out loud to get a sense of how the flow is working.

Recognizing these patterns in your writing can help sharpen your editing skills and make for a better experience for your readers. Earworms can burrow their way deep into your brain, so make sure you don’t inspire any of your own.

Too Much Is Not Enough: Being an Author in the Age of Binge

And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that.
And you can dream, so dream out loud
And you can find your own way out.
And you can build, and I can will
And you can call, I can’t wait until
You can stash and you can seize
In dreams begin responsibilities
And I can love, and I can love
And I know that the tide is turning ’round
So don’t let the bastards grind you down.

-U2, Acrobat

I am a slow writer. Even if I didn’t work a full-time job, pick up extra editing work in the evenings, try to maintain at least a few friendships, not to mention take care of all the other minutiae of living (one of which barks and demands three walks a day), I would still be a slow writer. I envy those authors who can pound out 4,000-7,000 words in an afternoon. That is not me.

My best ideas, like a good pasta sauce, need to simmer awhile. I like to think, and think, and think again about a scene, stirring it through my mind until the character beats boil down to their essence. Only then will I sit down to write it and, on my better days, watch it transform into something unexpected. I can always tell when I’m forcing it, when I haven’t added enough seasoning to the sauce. Like any author, I have more than a few false-start books on my laptop. When a story isn’t working, I usually top out at about 40 pages. If I make it past that point, then I know I did my prep work.

Which is why my panic level is reaching DEFCON 1 in terms of having another book out this year. The “How am I going to make a career out of this if I can’t even get one book out a year?” merry-go-round in my brain is at full speed these days. Especially in the age of binge watching, where media is available in large, consumable chunks, I can’t afford  that long a space between publications. And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the pressure to produce.

Because I’ve been on the other side. I recently finished reading J.L. Merrow’s Played, and my reaction upon reaching the last page was: “Want. More. Now. NOM.” I hadn’t read anything by her in a while, and I love the worlds she builds for her characters. There’s a cosy feeling to them even when there’s angst, and I just wanted to snuggle down for the duration. Problem is, I’ve read all her other books.

I don’t feel this way about every author. I adore Harper Fox, but her books take a lot out of me. The journey of reading them is often thrilling, heart-wrenching, and joyous all at once; after those, I need a break. Some smoosh. So while not all my favorite authors are like crack, I know firsthand the impatience of waiting for a long-anticipated book, or even another book by a beloved author (nudge-nudge, Scarlett Thomas).

But is the bingeing tendency in our culture creating unreasonable reader expectations, especially in the romance industry, where many readers all but inhale books? Is it unrealistic to expect authors to crank out more than three titles a year to answer audience expectations? Does the law of diminishing returns apply if authors turn into book-churning mills?

The evidence is inconclusive. We all know of successful series, like Jordan L. Hawk’s SPECTER series, that have multiple volumes of excellent quality and narrative inventiveness, that could seemingly go on forever. And we all know of authors like Laurel K. Hamilton who can’t let her universe or her characters go, when maybe she should. Or series that start off great, like a popular M/M series mentioned by a member of the Hassell and Hall group on Facebook the other day, described as—to paraphrase—the first three were great, but the person lost interest when it started to be never-ending wedded bliss. I admire J.K. Rowling and Elizabeth George in equal measure, the former for setting an end to her series and sticking to it, the latter for making the hard decisions and keeping the emotional life of her lead detectives fresh over almost 20 mystery novels.

And then there is the peculiar case of my fellow slow writer, George R.R. Martin. I alternate between feeling really bad for him (and his millions, LOL) and thinking he must have known what he was getting into from the start. He will be perhaps the first series writer in history to have the long-anticipated final volume of his series spoiled by the TV show his books spawned. Other people will write the ending of his series before he does. That must be depressing as hell. On the other hand, some of those who’ve read the books (which does not include me) are of the opinion that they could have concluded with Book Four, and he’s been stretching the plot too thin ever since. No matter whether you’re a writer or a reader, it can be hard to let go.

Authors are also in the unique position that they work on a daily basis with things—invisible things, characters and worlds that are only in their heads—that they love unconditionally. Little wonder some authors never want to abandon the worlds they create, even when they have nothing original or compelling left to say. That they, like (possibly) me, fuss over every detail, never truly satisfied with their creation, no matter how much love and care they’ve devoted to it.

I may be in the minority, but I think pressuring authors to perform, whether it be writing the story you want to read or begging for an unnecessary sequel, results in less than spectacular work. But then, there’s something to be said for not being so precious and just writing the damn book. Either way, the key is finding your balance as an author, a reader, a creator, a consumer.

And, as a far better writer than me once said, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

-Selina

What Was Your M/M Gateway Book?

It is my hope, it is my dearest wish, it is my belief that 50 years from now, people from all walks of life will grow up considering books about queer characters the norm. That there might still be an LGBTQ subcategory in bookstores and libraries, but only to direct customers to what they want, the same as ‘mystery’ or ‘cooking’ or ‘historical non-fiction’. That there will be no queer books because being queer or writing about queer characters won’t be not considered ‘other’, but everyday. Regular. Same old, same old, even. (I am struggling mightily not to type the word ‘normal’, as you can see, because I don’t believe there is such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to sexual orientation or gender identity. ‘Normal’ is the real enemy!)

Alas, we did not grow up in such a society. At least I didn’t—and if you did, please tell me where it is so I can move there. So those of us enthralled by the M/M romance world, or the world of queer authors and characters, each had the equivalent of the cherry pop. Maybe you learned about M/M, F/F, M/M/F, bi, trans, et al, romances through fan-fiction, as I did (Lindsay/Angel, hi!). Maybe a trusted friend of yours recced a book that you read against your better judgment, and then you found your craic. Maybe you read them for political reasons—who knows?

However you got there, I want to hear about it! Tell me about the first book that made you weak-kneed; made you rethink your reading choices; made you stay up until all hours of the night, frothing at the mouth like some were-thing until you’d consumed the whole book and collapsed on your bed, satisfied but devastated that it had to end. Hit me up in the comments—I want to hear your stories!

As for my own… I did start with fan-fiction, but in terms of original fiction there are two books specifically that shaped my tastes in the M/M genre and are the standard against which I measure greatness. I really wish I could include Brokeback Mountain in this list, but unfortunately I read it much, much later. But you won’t go wrong if you read either of these exceptional—if perhaps unsurprising—books.

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault

I know I’m not the only M/M reader to cite this book as their first or their favorite (ahem, Josh Lanyon), and there’s good reason for that. Though technically I first read The Last of the Wine, that book was much more about life as an ancient Greek, while in The Charioteer the romance aspect is much more prominent.

It’s the story of Laurie, a wounded British WWII soldier who is battling his own discomfort with being gay and all that means in the repressive society he lives in. Romantically, he is torn between Andrew, a Quaker and conscientious objector, and Ralph, a old friend and hard-partying naval officer who is involved in the gay subculture of the time.

Renault is a master of setting, indelibly recreating the time period that she herself lived through, and imbuing her characters with complexity, passion, and authenticity. If the storyline seems rudimentary to someone who has by now read a lot of these books, that’s because it’s the blueprint that so many ‘coming out’ and ‘coming to terms with your sexuality’ books used as inspiration. It is in every way a classic of the genre, and a deeply moving read.

And if the BBC had any balls, they would adapt this gem into an award-winner.

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Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Richard St. Vier is everything you could want in a romantic hero: noble, dashing, down-on-his-luck, loyal, stoic, and true. He is a sword for hire in a vicious caste society that puts the schemers of Westeros to shame. Alec Campion, a student of the strident and relentless variety, falls into his life and his bed at the worst possible time, and chaos ensues from there. Come for the compelling push-pull of their relationship as they learn exactly what they’ll have to sacrifice to protect each other; stay for the machinations and dirty dealings of a society that magic has abandoned, where the two-faced aristocrats of the Hill will do everything in their power to crush the people of Riverside and each other. This one will break your heart while making you believe again, it’s that good.

I feel a major re-read coming on…

Your turn. What M/M (or F/F, or M/M/F, etc.) was ‘the one’ for you? Can’t wait to put it on my own ‘to read’ list!

Happy reading,

Selina

Image Comics: Age of Auteurism

“You’re not a real geek if you don’t read comic books.”

If I had a dollar for every time this sentiment, or something like it, has been spat at a female geek by some ignoramus, I could retire in style and have enough left to form a kick-ass, “let’s get more girls in STEM” charity. There’s nothing geeks love more than to accuse some newbie of not knowing the secret handshake (see: #Gamergate). So, I’m hear to say it, loud and proud: I am a geek, and I do not read comic books!

Except… now I kind of do. And it’s all because of the stellar, creator-driven output of Image Comics.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. It’s not that I’ve never, ever read any comic books in my life. I had a brief flirtation with Wonder Woman in the late ’80s. I remember a Twilight Zone-like horror comic that I picked up at random at the library and which scarred me for life (seriously, I remember every suffocating panel of that thing). A few years ago, I read an article on Alan Moore and decided to finally read Watchmen, which, if you haven’t read it, drop what you’re doing now and Go. Read. It. That book is the blueprint for everything that’s come before it and after, and better than whatever the next generation will dream up. I also somehow fell into Y: The Last Man, and didn’t come up for air until I had read every last one (Filmmakers: Jennifer Carpenter is still young enough to play Hero!). That is when I discovered the beautiful mind of Brian K. Vaughan.

Before the holidays this year, I was reading The Mary Sue’s geek gift guide when, lo and behold, they recommend a new comic series by Brian K. Vaughan called Saga. And that, friends, is when I fell down the rabbit hole.

Saga and many other awesome comic book titles are published not by the big two, Marvel and DC, but by the number three comic book publisher, Image Comics. But unlike the big two rivals that we never stop hearing about–especially now that their Greeks vs. Trojans-level war has bled into their own respective cinematic universes–Image gives their creators free reign to let their imaginations go wild. They also allow them to own the rights to their comics and characters, something Marvel and DC would never permit (understandably, since it would be insane to let a single comics writer own Batman or Captain America). Much like the great auteurs of the cinema, this gives these writer/artist pairings the leeway to create original, complex, and fantastical worlds, full of multi-faceted characters of every color, gender, sexual orientation, or creed under the sun–or, you know, the three moons of Endor.

(Calm down, I know Endor doesn’t have three moons. It sort of is a moon. Maybe. The cannon is unclear.)

Image titles have women who equal men in their power, ferocity, and flaws—like in ODY-C, a phantasmagorical re-writing of the Odyssey by gender-switching the characters. People of color who are regularly cover stars—like in the pop fantasia The Wicked + The Divine. Queer characters—like the many trans characters in the dystopia Trees. Female creators allowed to push things to the limit—like in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new series set in a woman’s prison in outer space, Bitch Planet.

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Take Saga, a space opera with imagination to spare and themes as profound as any play by Shakespeare. Specifically, it references Romeo & Juliet in its story of two lovers from warring civilizations who have found each other despite cultural differences and being force-fed propaganda about the other since birth. But Alana and Marko are only the beginning of the story, which spans across galaxies but always stays with the impromptu family at its heart. It has warrior mommies, TV-headed closeted alien princes with short fuses, a disembowelled ghost nanny, a lie-detector cat, a tree spaceship, and just about the ugliest-looking spider assassin woman your worst nightmares couldn’t dream up. Most of all, it’s the story of two houses, both alike in savagery, who have been fighting so long that they couldn’t stop even if they could see the end of the conflict. But it’s so much more, and artist Fiona Staples jam-packs each frame with such atmosphere it’s as if you’re dreaming her panels, not reading them.

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I also picked up Sex Criminals, a bawdy and hilarious title by their number two go-to guy, Matt Fraction, and artist Chip Zdarsky. The best way to describe it is as some kind of X-rated rom-com noir, with a female lead character who is in charge of her own sexuality and is not shamed for it. If anything, she’s actually more in control and self-aware than her male love interest (no, that is not one enormous typo). The premise is insane (and I won’t spoil it), the artistry is moody and sensual—but best of all, it’s hella funny.
Whether your jam is personal stories or fantastical allegories, space tragedies or pop culture philosophizing, I’m betting there’s something here to tickle your synapses. Diversity. Originality. Author-controlled creative works with no boundaries save the limits of imagination. These are the kinds of stories we’re always begging Hollywood for. Well, Hollywood better get in line.

So, what are you waiting for? Dive in!

Five Things I’m Loving Right Now

This post is an act of thievery. I fully confess the crime. One of the things I look forward to seeing on my reader the most is one of Josh Lanyon’s occasional “Five Things I Love/Am Grateful For” posts (read the latest here), because I am all about sharing the love. I love that he shares his loves, and I love to share my loves. So get ready! (And apologies to Josh for the pick-pocketing.)

I am, to put it mildly, an enthusiastic person when I latch on to something great. I tell everyone I know about it (my friends can attest to this; I usually tell them at least five times each). I shout it from the rooftops. When I’m enamored by a person, place, or thing, I am like a cheerleader punch-drunk on pep and a gallon of Red Bull.

But.

These infatuations of mine usually have a shelf life. Exclusivity + frequency – availability / distraction X work overload, or something. This is not to say that I stop loving these things–far from it–but that my enthusiasm powers down enough to let something else shove a spoke into the hamster wheel that is my brain. All this to say that, every so often on this blog, I’ll write a post about some things that I love. But I’m giving it a little twist so that the lovely Mr. Lanyon doesn’t sue (please don’t, I’m a writer. I literally have some sunflower seeds and a 15-year-old TV to my name), in that these are five things I’m loving right now. As in, if you see me this time next week, I’ll still like them. But I (probably) won’t go full-on Tracy Flick on your ass.

So, without further ado, here are Five Things I’m Loving Right Now:

1. It seems fitting to get the party started with the author who inspired it all. One of the first M/M anthologies I ever read was His For The Holidays, because I am a sucker for holiday-themed romance at Christmas time. I am normally one of the biggest bah-humbugers of all time, so the fact that I love nothing more during my few late-December days off than to cozy up with a cuppa and a smutty Christmas tale confounds me. But it’s truly one of my great loves of the season. I quickly hunted down Men Under the Mistletoe for the same reason. But the past few Christmases, there haven’t been such anthologies–or maybe just not of that caliber.

This year, Santa has been especially nice because this Sunday, the anthology Comfort and Joy is being released. It features the estimable Mr. Lanyon, as well as my faves Harper Fox, Joanna Chambers, and L.B. Gregg. Four presents for the price of one! If I read one a week, it’ll be like a literary advent calendar. But who am I kidding? I’m waiting for my Boxing Day mug of chai.

2. The Flash/Arrow crossover episodes, “Flash Vs. Arrow” and “The Brave and the Bold”.

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Best crossover in TV history. Exciting, angsty, and funny as hell, featuring hot guys in tight leather, science-girl power, scintillating sidekicks, formidable foes, and some touching, thrilling writing. If you’re not watching these shows, binge from the start!

3. London theater on demand. I thought it was a dream come true when I could go to my local cinema and see productions by the National Theatre live, like the incredible version of Frankenstein Danny Boyle directed, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller. Now there’s a web site that has a library of older productions you, like me, might have missed because… Oh, you live thousands of miles away and barely get a vacation every two years, if you’re lucky. Well, lady fortune has whammied you today, my theater-loving friends, because you can now watch “the best of British theater” in your jammies! Just subscribe to Digital Theatre, and let the streaming begin! It does cost a wee little something… but a lot less than a trip to London and a ticket, even from the half-price booth in Leicester Square.

4. This Medieval Princess Bathrobe from Think Geek. Because don’t we all want to pretend we’re Galadriel every once in a while?

5. I won’t often use this space to self-promote or talk about personal things, since it’s meant to be an exercise in fun, but I have just put out a new book and, as a consequence, I’ve had to confront some experiences that I’d been dreading for months. Namely, the reaction of my friends and family when they discovered I write M/M, and exactly what that means. I think most bookish introvert types like myself can relate to the fact that few of our online adventures spill into the real world, especially if you have a family that has very rigid/conservative ideas about things (I don’t mean that in the political sense). The point of it all is that it’s your private play time (though of course a lot of good can be done in the process) and people in your real life don’t know that much, if anything, about it. This was the case for me.

But when you publish a book, well, how can you keep that a secret? Especially from the people who love you. When I decided to focus on writing M/M, I knew that one day I would no longer be able to hide behind my computer. That actual living, breathing people I talk to on a regular basis would learn about this side-profession of mine, and I’d have to talk to them about it in the flesh. I should mention that I am not in any way ashamed of what I do. But I confess I was a bit nervous about how this all would play out.

Turns out, I didn’t need to be. My uncle joked that he wanted me to start writing M/F/F and my sister read some of the sex scenes to her friend over the phone. When I tried to hedge by saying that I know it’s weird, my sister corrected me and said it’s not. My mom read the book in two days and loved it. Something that had me quaking in my boots turned out to be no trouble at all, and I am so very grateful for that.

Hopefully you can find something in there to inspire you!

Selina 😀