Category Archives: Story behind the story

Undead Sexist Cliches: why I wrote it

When my family arrived in the U.S. in 1969, second-wave feminism was just revving up. It was in the news a lot and to my tween mind it made perfect sense.

Not that I had any deep understanding of the issues, or of misogyny — see this old post, for instance — but treating men and women equally? Same rights for all? Who could object to that? The 1960s had gotten a start on solving all that racism stuff, now the 1970s would fix the sexism!

Yes, I was young.

IIRC, I knew one classmate in high school besides myself who supported the Equal Rights Amendment (that’s not to say there were some who didn’t want to come out and say it). No surprise; Fort Walton Beach Fla. was a very conservative community. Frustratingly, when discussing politics I couldn’t quite put into words why the ERA was important: my gut said yes, but I couldn’t explain why.

When I returned to FWB after college, it was still right-wing as shit. The letters to the editor routinely blasted working women (destroying their children’s lives!), women who get abortion (promiscuous sluts!) and women who didn’t want to accept Men Are The Boss. There were also lots of rants about how this is a Christian nation and we should pass laws based on what (the letter writer imagines) God wants. A number of right-wing syndicate columnists (Suzanne Fields, Walter Williams, Charley Reese) echoed the same points. In hindsight it’s interesting that these were within the Overton window of acceptable discourse; anti-Semitism and racism weren’t as acceptable as misogyny (though we got occasional bits of both).

In my early twenties I felt an obligation to use my skills for good; the letters page was an outlet even an unemployed writer could use to contribute to the commonweal. I started writing letters explaining why God Wants It and Women Are Inferior, however phrased, were never logically constructed arguments.

I wrote a lot of letters. Eventually the paper imposed a one-letter-a-month rule; I think I was one of the prime reasons. I’ve had a number of people tell me how much they appreciated my writing. I also know I drove a lot of right-wingers to distraction, in which I take a small, petty satisfaction. Providing a dose of left-wing reality to a right-wing community is a good thing to do. I don’t know I ever changed any minds but at least I could provide facts to anyone like me who can’t rationalize their gut instinct.

That went on for the next 30 years. Then I went to work for the Destin Log and became a regular columnist. Slightly different venue, same themes. Plus a lot of criticism of the Bush II presidency’s militarism, national security state policies and the way local Republicans treated W as God’s anointed king (a dry run for treating Trump as the messiah).

About 11 years back I was living in Durham, writing full-time and doing political writing at various outlets. Those dried up so I’d begun posting political content on this blog (regrettably a much smaller audience). In 2011 I was struck by arguments I’d encountered that men will never accomplish anything unless women stand aside and let men be the boss. What struck me was that I’d read similar claims all the way back to the early 1970s. And so my first post on Undead Sexist Cliches — stuff that lives on, no matter how many times it’s disproven — was born.

I followed it up with a post on how women should never give away the milk and how feminists ruined television. The latter is a good example of how these cliches shamble on: the stuff I cover is a precursor to the online freakouts and troll campaigns about how SJWs are ruining comics, TV, Marvel movies, Star Wars etc. by creating protagonists who aren’t white men (since writing the article I’ve also seen complaints going as far back as the bullshit).

I thought that would be it, but more undead sexist cliches kept cropping up, so I kept writing. Several years ago, the idea of compiling them all into a short, snarky (but logical) book hit me and I began work. Trouble was, I had to provide examples of the right-wing bullshit  I was writing against and there are so many … and several of the arguments required some research (evolutionary psychology stuff for instance) to refute. So it became much more detailed and footnotes, much longer. And took correspondingly long to write. It’s telling that I didn’t originally have a harassment chapter but added one after #metoo blew up big a few years ago.

And now it’s done. It hasn’t exorcised my frustration at the misogyny flowing through society (I will have many more posts on the topic I’m sure), but if it gives someone like my teenage self an understanding of why gender equality is right, then I’ve done something worth doing.

Undead Sexist Clichesis live in paperback on Amazon, with the Kindle version listed separately. It’s also available from multiple other ebook retailers.


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Filed under Nonfiction, Politics, Story behind the story, Undead sexist cliches, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

The story behind the story: Rabbits Indignateonem

So my flash fiction story, Rabbits Indignateonem — “Rabbit Wrath” more or less — is out at Flash in a Flash. I can’t provide a link because the stories go out by email and I didn’t realize that in time to alert y’all. However, Flash will republish it in an anthology so I’ll alert everyone when that’s available. And in the meantime, here’s the usual story of how it came to be written.

Just as my Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Clown (available in Atlas Shagged) was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges,  so this story began with a throwaway line from another of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones. The father of the protagonist in her novel Archer’s Goon is a writer whose daily writing exercise — one thousand words on any topic — becomes vitally important to a clan of wizards. As they harass the family repeatedly, he starts turning out ridiculous stories to meet the quota, one of which was titled “The Day the Rabbits Started Eating People.” Jones doesn’t offer any details about the story, but the title intrigued me. Hmm, I said, what if rabbits did turn carnivore  …

My early drafts, as much as I can remember them, involved a family holing up as the rabbits attacked. The almost-final draft was much different. It focuses on Steve, a corporate drone, who’s desperate to close a big sale. As Steve’s refining his pitch, one of his coworkers insists on showing him a YouTube video where a rabbit bites off a human’s fingers; he dismisses it as a fake (yes, there’s a Monty Python reference) and heads off to the meeting. He ignores all the evidence that it’s not a fake until it’s too late …

It had a lot of amusing elements, I think, but it lacked a satisfactory finish. After trying without success to come up with something, I showed it to my friend Cindy Holbrook, who suggested it needed a little more heart. Based on her suggestions, I eventually revised it to its current form. Now Steve’s torn: he’s falling behind at work, not making quota, he hates missing his little girl’s birthday party but dammit, he’s got a job to do! And over the course of a thousand words — well, click on the link and you’ll see.


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Story Behind the Story: Heads Up

Woot! Altered Reality just reprinted my short story Heads Up. It first came out in 2013, now it lives again! And it’s my first sale in more than a year so it’s very welcome.

So as usual here’s the backstory on its genesis, taken from the post I made when it debuted on Every Day Fiction: The last time I stayed out at my brother’s house for Thanksgiving (2009, I believe), I had a dream about finding a head in his washing machine. That thought stayed with me, so I decided to write a story about it. Except, of course, the head would be alive and talking (I don’t remember now if that was part of the dream, though I think it was)

My first version was just a long gag. The narrator can’t believe what’s happening, but at the same time he has no trouble believing all kinds of absurdity (the Earth is flat, Obama is the Antichrist, NASA faked the moon landing). It was kind of an ironic observation on how we’re not as rational as we think.

It also wasn’t very good. As one editor pointed out (and while I forget which magazine it was, I thank you for the feedback), there was no real plot, no conflict, so I set out to fix that. Instead of irony, I went with the classics: Along with man vs. god, man vs. man, man vs. nature, we would now have man with a load of laundry vs. a head in the washing machine that doesn’t want to be disturbed.

This partly draws on my own early twenties experience of being dead broke (my struggling, starving writer days. Don’t miss’em). Getting access to a friend or family member’s washing machine was a blessing. So my protagonist has a big date, he’s worn the same briefs for two days, he has no other clean ones and he can’t afford to buy dinner if he has to use the laundromat. And then he discovers the uncooperative head. (Before you ask, no, the situation of washing two-day-old briefs before a big date was not based on personal experience).

After several further turndowns, I sent it to Every Day Fiction. The reviewers said they liked it, but the emphasis on just how grungy and gross his underwear was needed to get toned waaaaay down. I was fine with that, and with the other changes requested.

They liked the rewrite.”

And so did Altered Reality. So go read it!


Filed under Short Stories, Story behind the story

Story Behind the Story: Cover Stories

Writing the final story in Atoms for Peace posed the same problem as Who Watches the Watchmen. I was still planning to start Brain From Outer SpaceInstruments of Science with the events in so I didn’t want to advance the timeline any further. I was figuring how to do that, and then I thought of Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s Marvels.

Marvels tells the story of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of Phil, a photojournalist. He witnesses the debut of the Human Torch in the Golden Age. Years later, he’s in New York, working for the Bugle, when the Silver Age is in full swing. He sees the Avengers battle the Masters of Evil, the Sentinels hunting mutants, the arrival of Galactus and Spider-Man’s failed attempt to save Gwen Stacey from death. But he’s seeing it as an outsider, a regular guy. He has no idea what’s going on in the heroes’ minds, what mutants are really like, or exactly how the Fantastic Four defeated Galactus.

Yeah, I said to myself, that would work. Show life as a Science Investigator from an outside viewpoint, rather than the people who sleep, breathe and eat the fight against rogue science. The protagonist of Cover Stories became Cassie Sato (sister to FBI agent Harry Sato), freelance journalist. Atlanta is doing some big celebration of Gwen Montgomery’s father so Cassie pitched the Atlanta Journal a profile on “Mile High” Montgomery’s daughter, the science investigator. We open with Cassie along with Steve and Gwen on an investigation that turns nasty. Then she gets to talk to Claire, Dani, visit the local nightclub the Tower of Mordor, get Gwen’s thoughts on why she does what she does and watch the other agents at work (“A couple of desks down, a fat guy nicknamed Slim flipped through a file about a lab in Ojai that had dissolved overnight. His partner, an Italian woman named DiNaldi, was trying to calm a hysterical leather-jacketed teenager claiming his “chick” had only broken up with him because she’d been mind-controlled.”)

Cassie turned out nowhere near as tough as Dani or Gwen. Which is cool; not everyone’s suited for the front lines of a war. She’s a competent writer, dogged in getting the story, more than a little claustrophobic. Talking to Gwen and Steve in Science Investigations underground base makes her more than a little nervous.

And there my saga ends until I try to replot Brain From Outer Space and get it right.

#SFWApro. Cover by Alex Ross, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Story Behind the Story: Who Watches the Watchmen?

So along with the 10 Atoms for Peace stories published on Big Pulp, I sold them two stories that never went up (they paid, I’m not complaining). Who Watches the Watchmen? and Cover Stories see daylight for the first time in Atoms for Peace.

The central character of Watchmen, Kate Meara, wasn’t even in my early drafts of Brain From Outer Space. Instead, I had the head of TSC security, Falconi, taking an interest in the suspicious nature of what was going on, and whether it implied Steve was corrupt or a ceecee (carbon copy, an alien duplicate of the real Steve). A couple of drafts later, it occurred to me that having the head of a national organization watching this one case — they had no way to know how important it was — didn’t make sense. I turned it over to his assistant, a heavyset (Camryn Mannheim is the physique I have in mind) Irish-American woman. Then I wondered why I even needed Falconi. Eventually I dropped him and made Meara the head of just the one base’s security, which made it more plausible she’d have time to focus on Steve.

When I started writing the Atoms for Peace stories, my unconscious asserted itself. Instead of the hefty, motherly-looking woman, I suddenly saw her as small, bony, younger, and plain (“horse-faced” is the adjective some people use). And in a wheelchair. Which was a good idea of my unconscious, I think; while I show several people with scars or prosthetics walking through the story, I didn’t have any in lead roles. Though I decided rather than a victim of some invasion or mecha, Meara had lost the use of her legs due to polio.

As the previous 10 stories took us up to the start of Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t want to go past the time of Instruments of Science. So I told Meara’s story from 1955 up to the “present.” At the start, she’s at low ebb. Boston-born daughter of union leader “Big Mike” Meara, she’s bright, capable, does a lot of office work for dad, plays chess with Senator John F. Kennedy when he visits (Big Mike delivers a lot of labor votes). However she’s married to a faithless cheat, separated but can’t get an annulment, as hubby is in tight with the diocese. JFK, who was instrumental in setting up the Technology and Science Commission, suggests a fresh start: work as the assistant to Donovan, security head of the TSC’s southwestern branch. Kate accepts; if only because it gets her out of Boston winters. And the new Veterans Access Act guarantees the base will have ramps and elevators — after all the craziness of the Invasion and the kaiju, the need for an ADA-style law became obvious.

In California she meets the stiff-necked Donovan who warns her security must be totally detached. No friends. Nothing to compromise your objectivity. She meets Johnny, a handsome young man Donovan hired to push her wheelchair around (she quickly explains she’d rather steer herself), and Nate Strawn, the chief of Science Investigations. And over the next four years, deals not only with conventional security risks but the growing threat of ceecees and alien mind-controllers. When the threats get personal, it turns out Kate has more friends than she realizes …

I think Kate turned out well as a character. She’s an enthusiastic, skilled chess player who interprets life in chess terms, hates smoking (too bad she’s living in a time when tobacco is everywhere), and while it’s only alluded to briefly, is part of a small disabled community. Unlike most of my cast, as she’s a good Catholic and still married, she’s chaste. I know “disabled people are sexless” is a stereotype, but it felt right (I do establish she’s able to “perform the act,” as they used to say). If not, my bad.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, copyright is mine.

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Story Behind the Story: Instruments of Science

In hindsight, the tenth story in Atoms for Peace is an odd duck.

This is the one I wrote as the first chapter of Brain From Outer Space, so I originally conceived it as introducing readers to this world. It’s a morning Science Investigations briefing at the southwest branch of the Technology and Science Commission; Nate Strawn hands out the assignments, mostly dealing with a new panic about “ceecees” (carbon copies, AKA pod people). Sure they’ve had panics before, but learning the ETs this time were actually marrying human women? Real scary!

This serves to set up the premise, plus introduce Steve (fully recovered from Roboticus breaking his arm), Gwen, Jo and Trueblood, plus a couple of other agents to round things out (I never want to write undifferentiated crowds of supporting characters). There are also some rogue science cases to deal with: strange lights outside a desert shack, an attempted theft of Edward Teller’s notes for a super-bomb (in this timeline, knowing the horrible effects of radioactive mutation, the H-bomb never got into development), a werewolf in a girl’s dormitory, some prostitutes apparently being used as guinea pigs. And several impossible deaths at a high powered commercial laboratory in Yuma. Steve and Gwen get assigned that one.

The odd part is that this is the 10th story in the book, so nobody really needs an introduction to any of this. I rewrote the story to eliminate any info-dumping readers would already know and approached it as showing a typical day for Science Investigators. As such, I think it worked.

Dani only appears off-camera, talking to Steve on his wrist-radio. In the original chapter one we got to see her day, but that made things a little too crowded for a 5,000-word story. I cut that, and cut a scene with the Science Police setting up the main plotline. I also dropped a reference to Steve finally finding a lead on his missing brother Tommy.

All of which means I’ll need a new opening chapter for Brain if I want it to be continuous with Atoms for Peace (and I do) as I’ve pruned out all the hooks that would lead the reader onward. Still, I think Instruments of Science works as a short, perhaps better than in the book, so I can’t complain.

Big Pulp accepted last two stories, which I’ll get to over the next couple of weeks, but never posted them, so Who Watches the Watchmen and Cover Stories will give you something you can’t get on the website.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.


Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Story behind the story

Story Behind the Story: Mayhem Ex Machina

I conceived the ninth story in Atoms for Peace to lay the groundwork for the Steve/Dani relationship in Brain From Outer Space. Specifically, as they’ve been together for several years, and they’re in love, why aren’t they married?

Of course there’s lots of reasons that could be the case, but I took the one that promised the most conflict: Steve’s proposed, Dani’s said no. She still wants to be with him, and she’s not saying she’ll never, ever say yes, but every time he asks, it’s no. Partly that’s because Steve wants them both off the front lines, so they can live to raise children, and Dani likes her work as a medic. Partly classism: she’s upper-class Boston and Steve’s blue collar. Dani’s not entirely sure she wants to get married at all, but she’s very sure she doesn’t want to break up with Steve. So they’re a couple, but with a big elephant in the room. My original plan for the novel would have her say the L word by the ending, but not the M word.

In Mayhem Ex Machina Steve proposes for the first time and Dani panics. She can’t say yes, but will he end things if she says no? The story shows (I hope) that they make a good couple (I think Blood and Steel already showed that) and that Steve respects what she does: when she has to make a triage decision to help someone else, he understands.

But of course this is a series about my heroes battling 1950s SF-movie-style menaces, so I needed a menace. I’d included a scene in Brain where Gwen deactivates a robot threatening a black LA neighborhood, and initially decided to work it into this story as the B plot. Only when I looked at the scene, it came across very White Savior-ish, so I decided no. Instead I brought back FBI agents Harry Satao and Mickey Moon from Hunting Hidden Faces and switched the setting to LA’s Little Tokyo. And rather than a robot built with a white supremacist agenda, I reinvisioned him as a well-meaning idiot. In his big scene, he tells Mickey and Harry that yes, he built a super-robot (modeled on the ET tech from the film Kronos) without any research permit because the government just wouldn’t let him have one. But his ideas were so awesome, he just couldn’t pass them up! He’s raised the robot as a kind of surrogate son, but unfortunately his little boy has run away and it’s getting into trouble. And here come Dani and Steve, wandering right into its path …

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.


Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Story behind the story

Story Behind the Story: Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves

As I’ve mentioned before, my protagonists in Atoms for Peace are a lot less racist than they’d probably be in the real world. In some vague gesture of realism, one of the leads in Not In Our Stars, Not in Ourselves, is a good deal more bigoted.

L.G. “Elegy” Walker was born in East Jesus, Kentucky, grew up poor white, but by 1958, he’s a mid-level official at Cape Canaveral. The space program, a joint US/USSR effort, is about to launch humanity’s first lunar mission (reverse-engineering alien ships has jump-started space flight). Walker has remade himself into a calm, accomplished professional. He’s shrewd about who to kiss up to and who he can safely ignore, and intensely career focused. Like a lot of people who know what it’s like to have nothing, he’s a little intense about not losing what he has, hence security officer Valentina Eisenstein nicknamking him Elegy.

Despite the changes in him, the racism Walker grew up with is alive and well in him. He’s able to accept that a few blacks can be as good as a white man (there are black astronauts in the program), but they’re the exception. When ‘s framed for murder, the horror isn’t the murder but the supposed motive: he had a black lover, she got pregnant so he killed her to avoid scandal. The thought that people might think he’d crossed the color line, the thought that his parents or the other folks back home might believe it … his brain pretty much shuts down with horror.

Fortunately Eisenstein’s brain is working. A WW II Soviet sniper turned security officer, she identifies with Elegy in a way; they’ve both had to work and fight to get their present position. She knows he wouldn’t take a black lover, or one who was bottom-drawer of the working class (that’s what he’s running away from). But can she prove it? And given that he’s not really anyone important, what possible motive could anyone have for the frame?

I really like Eisenstein. She’s smart, capable, smokes a pipe (it keeps men off balance, which is useful for a security officer), and hates life in Florida with its head, humidity and lack of culture. I’d love to use her in Brain From Outer Space but I doubt I can work her in.

This was the first story in the series I wrote after moving to Durham, and the writer’s group helped a lot, straightening out some plot points. Thanks, y’all!

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada.

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Story Behind the Story: A Many-Splendored Thing

So Buckshot Magazine‘s third issue came out last week, including my flash fiction story A Many Splendored Thing. Which I realize now is wildly different from the way I originally imagined it.

Back in 2008, I read Guyland by Michael Kimmel, and got creeped out by one of the twentysomething men Kimmel quotes, venting about how That Bitch he’d been hitting on shouldn’t have the power to decide whether he got laid that evening. Of course, she doesn’t, she only has the power to decide if he sleeps with her, but apparently he felt that was unreasonable. So I started with a simmering, pissed-off potential rapist and imagined someone egging him on, encouraging him to cross the line.

By itself, that wasn’t enough, so I began adding more incidents, more people out for sex or love and getting really bad advice. Why were they getting it? Well, read the story. Like Dark Satanic Mills in Atlas Shagged, it became a satire on lifestyle magazines and their endless advice about finding the right person, wearing the right suit to attract the right person, being sufficiently manly or sensitive or … well, whatever.

In the process, it got a lot funnier, so I had to rewrite the initial incident. A rape incident didn’t fit with a light-hearted satire, so I kept “why should she decide?” line but just made the guy resentful about being turned down, not a potential rapist.

It’s flash fiction so if you want to click on the link, it won’t take you long to read.

#SFWApro. Don’t know cover artist, but all rights to image remain with current copyright holder.

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Story Behind the Story: The Mind That Wanted the World

Story seven in Atoms for Peace, The Mind That Wanted the World, is the one that required the most changes.

In Brain From Outer Space, the bad guy was Torgo, an alien mind-creature Steve and Gwen had confronted a couple of years before. As the point of the Applied Science series on Big Pulp was to create a backstory for the book, telling the story of their first encounter with Torgo — inspired, but not based on, the villain in Brain From Planet Arous — was a natural for one chapter.

Unlike most aliens, Torgo’s not an evil envoy from an evil world, he’s a crook from a good world, or at least as good as Earth. That’s an advantage against the good guys: he favors cunning, subtlety and blackmail over brute force and ray weapons. Like the alien brain in Arous, Torgo finds having a body capable of physical sensation stimulating. In the movie, the brain-possessed John Agar attempts to rape his fiancee; in my story, Torgo does. He also has a dungeon full of kidnapped sex slaves, both sexes, as from his alien perspective it doesn’t matter which gender his partners are (only one woman shows up as a prisoner in Mind, but Brain establishes his tastes are broader).

So the opening scene is one woman telling Steve that her boyfriend has raped her, although she can’t bring herself to use the word. Steve, perpetual hater of bullies, is ready to bust the guy; Gwen, however dismissed the rape in the original version. Gwen was usually smarter and saw things clearer than anyone else; I thought it might be interesting to make her dead wrong for a change, representing the era’s outdated attitudes towards rape.

Going over the story for Atoms for Peace I found that didn’t work for me. After a year of #metoo, having one of my protagonists toss off standard rape-apology lines about how the woman was over-reacting, and just felt guilty about going all the way … it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. And I realized that I could make Gwen wrong even without that. In the book’s rewrite, she informs Steve that rape doesn’t prove Professor Caldwell is an alien; lots of respectable men turn into brutes when they get the chance. And if it’s not ET-related, they have no authority to take action (the woman has refused to call the police). Same result but a lot less repellent to read.

As revised, it remains one of my favorites in the twelve short stories. Atoms for Peace is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook (and someone just bought the ebook, woot!). #SFWApro, cover by Zakaria Nada. All rights to poster remain with current holder.



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