Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women

This post was originally published at Autistic Academic.

Yesterday, I stumbled across a listicle at My Aspergers Child, titled “Married to an Aspie: 25 Tips for Spouses.”  As you might expect from a title containing the word “Aspie” and the improbable number “25,” this list was terrible (and did not, in fact, contain 25 tips).  Emma and I unpacked several of its varied problematic assumptions here; I spoofed it on Field Notes on Allistics here, and The Digital Hyperlexic did some more unpacking here.

What I’d like to do now is to discuss the intersection of gender, assumptions about emotional labor, and the erasure or overlooking of autistic women that results.  This is a topic I’ve discussed more than once on this blog in various ways, although I’ve never quite gotten to the heart of the emotional labor question.

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor is the work done to organize, remember, prioritize, sort, and structure daily lives and relationships.  In short, it’s the effort put into giving a fuck about other people’s thoughts, needs, and desires.  There’s an excellent introduction to emotional labor and the ways it manifests (as well as ways to do it) at Brute Reason here.

The problem with emotional labor, of course, is that generally speaking it is not considered “work” at all.  Rather, women in particular are expected to provide it “out of the goodness of our hearts.”  Emotional labor is actively cast as not-work by being cast instead as a natural urge women simply have – as if, rather than calling on women to generate effort, we’re actually doing them a favor by foisting the world’s give-a-fuck duties onto them.

In cishet relationships in particular, women are raised to, are generally expected to, and frequently end up doing a disproportionate amount of the emotional labor, as this massive MetaFilter thread on the topic attests.  (The days – literal days – it will take you to read the entire thread are wholly worthwhile.)  We cast emotional labor not only as “women’s work,” but as not even work.  Women who fail to put up with “affirmation, forbearance, consultation, pacifying, guidance, tutorial, weathering abuse,” as Jess Zimmerman sums up emotional labor (at the link in the above paragraph), are not only punished for it socially but are in a sense not considered women at all – and the enforcers of this, as N.I. Nicholson also points out (at the Digital Hyperlexic), are frequently other women.  Certainly, as Nicholson also points out, failing to do the emotional labor “correctly” is cast as social and romantic suicide: “no man will ever want you.”

What does this have to do with autism?

Consider, first, how autism in general and Asperger syndrome in particular are portrayed as deficits in emotional labor, specifically.  The DSM-IV criteria for Asperger Syndrome (which differ from the criteria for autism only in their willingness to allow for a broader range of features in speech development) specifically target certain differences, difficulties, or absences in expected displays of emotional labor:

  • marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction,
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level,
  • a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people (e.g. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

The last criteria in this section, “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” is a demand for emotional labor, full stop.  Emotional reciprocity is the one thing all forms of emotional labor have in common.  The other three are more specific examples of emotional labor: using nonverbals that make the other person feel noticed and attended to, energy invested in “appropriate” relationships, and “sharing” (the ambiguous construction “of interest to other people” in the list of examples, implying “of interest to the patient, pointed out to other people” and “of interest to the other person”, is particularly telling).

It is the lack of “appropriately” displayed emotional labor that leads researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen to cling to the notion of a “theory of mind” deficit in autism and similar developmental disorders.  In In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, authors Donvan and Zucker accuse ASAN founder Ari Ne’eman of “unmistakably” having autism and of possessing no Theory of Mind because, in a conversation with “autism parent” Liz Bell, Ne’eman expressed disagreement with Bell’s position on autism, but did not do the emotional labor of making that disagreement palatable to Bell.

And, of course, “25 Tips for Spouses,” many of which boil down to assumptions that the “Aspie” half of an Aspie-NT marriage is failing to do his (always his, according to “25 Tips”) fair share of the emotional labor, and that this is somehow autism’s fault:

3. Although he genuinely loves his spouse, the Aspie does not know how to show this in a practical way sometimes.
12. Because the Aspie does not have the same relational needs as the NT partner, he may be unable to recognize instinctively or to meet the emotional needs of his partner. Marriages can thus form some dysfunctional relationship patterns.
13. For NTs who had normal expectations of the mutuality of marriage, there may be a sense of betrayal and a feeling of being used and trapped while in a relationship with an Aspie.
15. In the privacy of their relationship, the NT partner may become physically and emotionally drained, working overtime to keep life on track for both of them.

18. NT partners may begin to feel that they are entirely defined by the role they fill for their Aspie partner. There can be a sense that there is little mutuality, equality and justice.
19. NT partners may feel that they are daily sacrificing their own sense of self to help fulfill the priorities of the Aspie partner.
20. NT partners may resent the reality of living on terms dictated by the needs and priorities of the Aspie partner.

Insofar as Asperger syndrome is understood as a deficit of emotional labor, these statements make a certain amount of sense.  But notice how “Aspie” and “man” are perpetually conflated – not only here, but in most dating guides for people with Asperger syndrome (as Emma and I have discussed in previous posts), and in the literature on so-called “Cassandra Syndrome.”  The overwhelming majority of people who claim “Cassandra Syndrome” are non-autistic women married to autistic men, and the fundamental claim is that the man in question has so terribly neglected the emotional labor of the marriage that it has caused actual trauma to the woman.

How Autistic Women Get Lost

Emotional labor is a demand we place primarily on women.  We expect men to do far less emotional labor than women; socially, we tend to punish men who do “too much” emotional labor as excessively “effeminate.”  We expect autistic people to do even less emotional labor – to the point of doing none at all – and we pathologize this lack of emotional labor-doing as both a tragedy and a fault.  Meanwhile, autistic girls and women get lost, both before and after diagnosis.

We know that girls and women don’t get diagnosed with autism as frequently as men and boys.  There have been a spate of articles in recent years on why this might be happening and how to address it.

One answer that has been floated in several circles is that we “miss” autistic girls and women in diagnosis because girls are taught and socialized, from birth, to perform emotional labor.  When the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder still emphasize deficits in emotional labor, clinicians are looking for lack – not for difference, which is more likely to appear in girls who have been socialized to perform emotional-labor rituals without being given any insight as to their meaning or purpose.

(This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether girls are “innately better” at emotional labor than boys.  It has everything to do with how both girls and boys are raised.  Girls are expected to at least make the effort; boys are not.  Girls, therefore, show up in clinicians’ offices making the effort; boys do not.  While no studies exist yet, I suspect that a study of boys who are raised in households that demand more emotional labor from them also “fly under the radar” of diagnosis more easily than boys who are raised without such demands.)

What of the girls and women who are diagnosed – who are, as I was, probed by clinicans until our difference in emotional labor’s performance becomes apparent?  Well, if you ask the authors of “25 Steps,” we don’t exist – or we don’t marry NTs, or our marriages are never affected by our autism.

(If this last one were true, one would expect a crusade to demand equal emotional labor from boys and men.  Emotional labor “cures” autism!  Except, of course, it does not.)

I’ve written about this question before.  Long story short, autistic girls and women are subjected to the continued demand, attached to our (actual or perceived) gender, to do the emotional labor, no matter what it is, and certainly no matter whether or not we have a developmental disability that specifically lists deficits in emotional labor ability in its diagnostic criteria.  What becomes a convenient scapegoat for men in emotional-labor-lopsided marriages (it’s not him, it’s his autism!) becomes a whiny excuse for women.

This is also why creepy male behavior is excusable with the reasoning “but he might be autistic!,” while curt female behavior is not.  His autism is a reason to pity and excuse his lack of emotional labor; our autism is no excuse to skip out on our expected over-share of the emotional labor.

And this is why there are no “25 Tips” for autistic women married to non-autistic men (like me).  I’m presumed not to need them.  As a woman, I’m presumed to have the (innate or trained) ability to do a disproportionately large share of the emotional labor, to absorb my husband’s disproportionately small share.  (It is also assumed that the shares are lopsided in exactly that way; no one asks how my husband and I have negotiated the emotional labor in our own marriage.)  It is presumed that he will never feel “betrayed,” “used,” or “trapped” by me and my autism, or that he will never need to turn to an Internet listicle for help if he does.  Because I’m a woman, and disproportionate unpaid emotional labor is my birthright.

Thus autistic girls and women get overlooked before diagnosis and erased after it.  Our cultural presumptions about who is able and equipped to do emotional labor make it easy to both diagnose and dismiss autistic men as “just like that,” while blaming and burdening autistic women with “doing it anyway.”  When autistic women don’t “do it anyway,” they’re de-feminized in countless ways.  It’s a lose-lose game.  Crone Island beckons.


How Much Is My Girl Scout Handbook Worth? Part Two: The Market

Part One of this post ran in 2011, and it’s always been in the top five most popular posts on this blog. Based on the search terms folks use to find it, it appears that the sequel is both desired and long overdue. So here it is.

Part One covered the basics of appraising the condition of your handbook(s). I highly recommend reading it before moving on to Part Two, since it explains why not every book actually has value as a collectible (and how to tell if your book does or not).

Assuming you’ve already determined that your handbooks are in Very Fine or Fine condition, however, here’s what you need to know about the state of the market.

Which Girl Scout books are worth the most?

1947. From my personal collection. Background courtesy of our linen closet.

As of late 2018, here’s a rough approximation of which Girl Scout items fetch the highest prices in the rare and used book world and what their price ranges look like:

1. Well-preserved personal ephemera.

Items like scrapbooks and photo albums are by far the most valuable, especially if they are well-preserved and provide details about the people, places, and dates shown in the photos/clippings within them. Prices for these items currently run in the $500 to $2,500 range, with higher values typically being set on photographs taken prior to World War II.

As far as price goes, I strongly suspect that Mariner Scout documents also fall in this category. I say “suspect” because I have yet to actually find any for sale.

2. Ephemera from the National office.

Cookie campaign advertisements, brochures from events held by the National office, and similar non-book items fetch higher prices than nearly any book. Currently, most of these fall in the $200 to $500 range (and yes, that means sellers are asking $500 for a single piece of paper in some cases!).

3. Certain books.

Currently, only a handful of Girl Scout-related books exist that are consistently listed at $100.00 or above – and only one handbook makes that list.

That handbook is How Girls Can Help Their Country, the first Girl Scout handbook ever written, published in several editions from 1912 to about 1917. Most editions I’ve seen on the market are priced at about $150.

How Girls Can Help Their Country was very cheaply produced. At least one edition is bound together with actual staples. Like most cheap books published in the 1910s, it was printed on acid-containing paper. Very few of these still exist, and those that do are disintegrating rapidly. My rule of thumb is to buy any copy I find for under $100 (so far, that’s been one).

If you want to read How Girls Can Help Their Country without investing in one of the delicate few remaining copies, Applewood Books issued a reprint a few years ago.

The other “Girl Scout books” that consistently sell for around $150 apiece are Very Fine copies of Edith Lavell’s and Lilian Garis’s respective adventure series, published in the 1920s and 1930s. If you have one or more with pristine dust jackets, congratulations.

4. Ephemera at the council level.

Songbooks, training manuals, and other items published at the council level typically run anywhere from $0 to $150, depending on the item and the demand for it. Training manuals from National tend to fall into this category as well, rather than category #2 above.

5.  Everything else.

Some old handbooks are more in demand than others, and surprise: they don’t follow any predictable pattern. For instance, handbooks published in the 1940s and 1950s tend to be cheapest to acquire – probably because a lot of them were published and they were the only ones published in hardcover, making them more durable.

The handbooks published in 1994 and in 2001 are selling, on average, for more than the 1940s/1950s handbooks. Copies in their original packaging can easily fall in the $100-$150 range. But before you get too excited: Copies in anything but new-in-the-package condition are selling for about $10 or less, which is probably less than you paid for it in the 90s.

Where can I find up to date prices for comparison?

The best way to figure out how much your Girl Scout handbook, novel, or ephemera might sell for is to look up similar books through used and rare book dealers.

Luckily, there’s an easy one-stop way to do this: AddALL (link opens in new window). AddALL searches several used and rare book databases, and it can give you a look at what’s out there and what people are asking for it.

That said, remember: Used and rare books are ultimately worth only what someone is willing to pay for them. Until you have cash in hand, all you have is a book.

Gambling on Gamble: The Case That Made Us All Wish We’d Paid Attention in Civics

What’s the deal with Gamble v. United States?

The case, on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket for 2018-2019, is getting a lot of attention in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings. So far, I’ve spotted this Facebook meme:


Facebook meme text:

On next month’s SCOTUS docket is Gamble v. US No. 17-646. This is what the rush is about. Yes, they want him to overturn Roe, yes they want him to drag us all back, but they need him seated for October to rule on that specific case. At stakes [sic] is the “separate sovereigns” exception to double jeopardy. If he (and the other 4 conservative judges) vote to overrule it, people given presidential pardons for federal crimes cannot be tried for that crime at the state level. Bam. Trump can pardon the lot of them and they have nothing to fear from state’s attorneys. We’re all looking at the shiny coin and not seeing the bigger picture.

The Atlantic has this article, which appears more or less to support the meme’s position; but see this post by Ed Brayton at Patreon, which points out at least one flaw in the meme’s reasoning.

A fun true fact about me, for new readers: I used to be a lawyer. These days, pretty much all I do with my law degree is use it to interpret one of my top hobbies, SCOTUS-watching, for amusement and edification. Here’s what I can tell you about Gamble.

What is Gamble v. US all about, anyway?

On its face, Gamble is pretty straightforward. Back in the day, Mr. Gamble got convicted of a felony. Under both the law of his state (Alabama) and federal law, that felony conviction meant he couldn’t legally possess a firearm.

Fast-forward a few years. Mr. Gamble is pulled over by police one day. Inside his vehicle, the cops find a loaded weapon. Mr. Gamble is prosecuted by the state of Alabama for being a felon in possession of a firearm and convicted, under Alabama state law.

Then, the federal government decides that it wants to prosecute Mr. Gamble for being a felon in possession of a firearm, too. It convicts him under federal law. The federal conviction adds about three years to the almost-four-year sentence he’s already received for the state conviction.

Throughout the process, Mr. Gamble continually points out that, hey, this should be double jeopardy. And judges agree with him! One even said that, were it not for the “separate sovereigns” exception to double jeopardy, Mr. Gamble could not possibly be tried twice for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

So Mr. Gamble appealed. And has kept appealing. And now he’s got a hot date with the U.S. Supreme Court.

So is this really “double jeopardy”?

Yes. The Fifth Amendment reads:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

(Important bit in bold.)

Mr. Gamble was convicted in Alabama under Alabama Code section 13-11-72(a), which reads:


No person who has been convicted in this state or elsewhere of committing or attempting to commit a crime of violence, misdemeanor offense of domestic violence, violent offense as listed in § 12-25-32(15), anyone who is subject to a valid protection order for domestic abuse, or anyone of unsound mind shall own a firearm or have one in his or her possession or under his or her control.
He was also convicted in federal court under 18 USC 922(g)(1), which reads:

(g) It shall be unlawful for any person— (1) who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year…

to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.
The text matters in double jeopardy cases, because being tried on two charges for the same action isn’t always double jeopardy. How many acts occurred matters less than how similar the charges are. (I’ll come back to this in a bit.)
For now, just keep in your head that yes, being convicted of both of the crimes quoted here counts as being convicted twice for the same crime.


What’s the “separate sovereigns” exception?

The short and dirty version is “Trying someone twice for the same crime is not okay, unless two separate governments do it.” And in the U.S. federal system, a state government and the federal government count as “two separate governments.”

The “separate sovereigns” exception isn’t in the text of the Constitution. It arises from British common law, much of which we imported way back in the late 1700s because it was, frankly, what we were used to. I won’t get into its background here, but if you want to read 150 years of precedent supporting it, check out the lists of cited cases in the briefs for Gamble, which are available at the SCOTUSblog link at the top of this post.

Does the “separate sovereigns” exception really make it possible for the President to pardon people for state crimes?

No. But it does make possible a result with nearly-identical consequences, in a handful of specific cases.

For example, suppose that Mr. Gamble had been tried by the federal government first – but the President stepped in to pardon him. Under our current system, Alabama can still try him for the same crime.

Without the separate sovereigns exception, however, Alabama would not be able to try Mr. Gamble for being a felon in possession of a firearm once the President had pardoned him, because the Fifth Amendment’s bar to double jeopardy would prevent it. The federal charges and the pardon would be the end of it (assuming Mr. Gamble had not committed some other crime).

That sounds pretty ominous if you’re not keen on our current President pardoning anyone. But here’s the number-one reason it’s unlikely to occur except in a minute handful of cases:

When people face multiple charges from the same single act, in most cases, double jeopardy doesn’t even apply in the first place.

The relevant test comes from Blockburger v. United States, and it states (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s not double jeopardy to face two charges for the same act, as long as each charge contains at least one element the other does not.

This can be confusing in the abstract, so here’s an example.

Suppose that a completely hypothetical defendant named Maul Panafort is accused of committing tax fraud – basically, of hiding millions of dollars so that he didn’t have to pay either the IRS or his home state of Michissippi any taxes on that money.

Now, it’s pretty tough to lie on your federal tax return without lying on your state tax return, or vice versa. State tax returns use information like your adjusted gross income, calculated on your federal return. When those numbers don’t match up, folks get suspicious.

Wanting to evade suspicion, Maul Panafort naturally used the same fake numbers on his state tax return as he did on his federal tax return. But both the state and the feds found out, and now they both want to charge him with criminal tax fraud.

It’s not double jeopardy if they do. Take a look at the charges:

  • Federal: “you lied on your federal tax return.”
  • State: “you lied on your state tax return.”

Both charges include “you lied” and “on your tax return.” But the federal charge includes the “federal” element, which the state charge does not. The state charge includes the “state” element, which the federal charge does not.

Even if Mr. Panafort receives a Presidential pardon for federal tax fraud, the state can still prosecute him for state tax fraud. It’s not double jeopardy, because each charge contains an element not contained in the other.

The overwhelming majority of cases that both the state and federal governments can prosecute will fall into this category. There’s a reason it’s taken several years for SCOTUS to receive a petition in a case that cleanly addresses the separate sovereigns doctrine (and why Mr. Gamble’s attorneys went to great pains in that petition to stress that this was a “clean case”).

Will cases exist in which a Presidential pardon could bar state prosecution, if the separate sovereigns doctrine is overturned? Yes. It would have saved Mr. Gamble, for instance. But these cases are likely to be so few and far between as to be highly unusual – and I predict that anyone the current President wishes to pardon is likely to face non-double-jeopardy state charges anyway.

Are the conservatives really going to overturn the separate sovereigns exception?

My prediction: If the Court overturns the separate sovereigns exception, the vote will not be along political lines.

The strongest support for that position appears in the last case in which the Court considered the “separate sovereigns” question, Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle. There, the Court looked at whether Puerto Rico had sovereignty separate from the U.S. federal government (the Court’s answer: no).

Justice Ginsburg wrote a concurring opinion in which she pointed out that sooner or later, the Court needed to address the question of double jeopardy as it related to being prosecuted by both the state and federal governments – and she signaled that the exception may be overdue for retirement. Justice Thomas joined that opinion.

The Court may or may not overturn the exception, but there is no reason, currently, to think it would do so along conventionally-accepted political lines.

In fact, the separate sovereigns exception is fascinating precisely because it is so hard to come to a conclusion on based on traditional political leanings: its existence supports a certain type of bounded federalism that conservatives and libertarians traditionally support, but at the cost of increased police intervention in individuals’ lives and a counterintuitive reading of the Fifth Amendment, which they traditionally eschew.

Is there a good reason to support (or to oppose) getting rid of the separate sovereigns exception?

Off the top of my head, the biggest to support getting rid of it is fewer prosecutions: you’d be prosecuted in state or federal court, but not both. It’d also make the prohibition against double jeopardy clearer to ordinary folks, although it’s not going to make it exactly clear.

Reasons to support keeping it include that it’s a 150+ year old component of our federalist system, one that arguably supports the concept that the states really do have powers the federal government does not within their own borders. There’s a chance that ending it would have unforeseen consequences for the balance of power between the states and the federal government, which may not tilt in the favor of individual liberty.

It’s not an easy question, either way. But I do look forward to seeing which justices have what things to say about it after oral arguments.

I no longer practice law and this post isn’t legal advice, but feel free to share a coffee with me anyway.

What Do You Keep In Your Writing Notebook?

Another Quora response that became a blog post.

Literally everything.

To be clear, I only keep one notebook. It’s a single subject, college ruled, spiral bound notebook. I buy a dozen or so during back to school season, when I can get them for about $0.25 apiece, and I go through about one a month.

This is last month’s:

To keep track of what’s on which page, I color in “tabs” on the page ends:

…and write an index on the back of the last page.

“Novel” is all work related to my novels.

“My work” ranges from blog post outlines to grocery lists.

“Journal” is my journal, “band work” is choreography, counts, etc, and “other people’s work” is stuff for my freelance clients or projects I agreed to take on for friends/family (in this particular notebook, it’s mostly notes on stuff for my best friend’s wedding).

The index varies depending on what’s in each notebook, but “novel” is always the top tab.

“Novel” is either written draft or notes.

Drafts get typed into Microsoft Word.

Notes I need for longer than it takes to type the draft, like worldbuilding stuff, get typed into my Microsoft OneNote file for worldbuilding. Right now, the sections in OneNote look like this:

“Bookshelf” has a complete draft of every in-world piece I have published so far, as well as copies of every piece from other authors’ canons that I have referenced or that references my work (like that page of Weird Luck that has a hidden reference to Interstellar Science in it).

As my current primary setting and most detailed alien species, respectively, “The Jemison” and “Niralans” each get their own tabs.

Everything else is pretty self-explanatory. “Languages” contains notes on plural conlangs; it’s actually the longest section, even though “Bookshelf” contains three full novels and a dozen short stories. (I started writing novels to have context for conlangs, because I am that kind of nerd.)

“Organizations” gives me the most trouble, because it’s so unwieldy. Six massive corporations cause most of the trouble in my novel universe, so keeping track of them, plus their departments, plus all the non-corporation political actors and their subdivisions, gets exponentially more difficult the more I write. This section is very likely to become three: “Corps,” “Minor Corps,” and “Governments.” “Planets” will likely hive off “Locations” at some point as well.

The paper notebook acts as an extension of my brain and prevents me from scrolling Twitter for six hours when I meant to write. The OneNote file saves me from digging through several years’ worth of paper notebooks every time I need to remember some detail. So far, it’s a workable system.

How to Write an Action or Thriller Novel

I want to write an action novel with a slight of thriller essence. Can someone give me an idea for a start?

This was a question request I got on Quora the other day, and the answer I started drafting really wanted to be a blog post. So here it is:  how to write an action novel that’s also a thriller.

action thriller image

1.  Choose your main character.

Main characters in action/thriller novels are pretty stock. You can, of course, differentiate your novel from the rest of the genre by deviating cleverly from the stock elements, but for the sake of this tutorial, let’s stick with a recognizable action protagonist.

Main character: Bud Steelabs, age 36, ruggedly good-looking.

2.  Decide where the story ends. 

Most action/thriller novels and films end with the main character prevailing over the bad guys, so let’s go with that.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the bad guys.

Okay, but who are the bad guys? Terrorists? Let’s go with terrorists.

The story ends when Bud Steelabs defeats the terrorists.

Once you know where the novel ends, you have a pretty good idea where it begins. Its start should be more or less the opposite of its end.

The story starts when Bud Steelabs learns that the terrorists are ____.

The terrorists are probably terrorizing someone in some place. Since most thriller plots are plausible enough to happen in the real world, it’s important to do enough research to understand the place in the world the primary action of the plot takes place, who is likely to be involved, and so on.

But what the terrorists are up to isn’t actually the most important part of the plot. How Bud Steelabs stops them isn’t the most important part, either. More important than either of these is question number 3:

3.  Decide where the main character ends.

Sure, Bud Steelabs stops the terrorists. But who is Bud Steelabs when he does this – and how is the Bud Steelabs at the end of the book different from the Bud Steelabs at the beginning?

Good novels differ from forgettable novels in one key way: in good novels, the main character, not the external events, is the one who undergoes the biggest change. This is even true of action stories and thrillers.

In order to decide how Bud Steelabs changes, ask yourself: Why is Bud Steelabs going after the terrorists in the first place? Sure, it’s his job, but no one is required to be the main character of an action novel; Bud could just as easily decide to retire and take a weekend job at Home Depot. Why does stopping these terrorists matter to Bud?

Maybe the terrorists have kidnapped his wife and child. (See: several Liam Neeson films.)

Maybe Bud is getting a little long in the tooth and needs to prove he’s still relevant in a rapidly-changing world. (See: Skyfall.)

Maybe the terrorists are his wife and child, or his best friend. (See: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Bud needs a personal reason to go after the terrorists. A reason that’s going to gnaw at him. A reason that will trip him up a bunch of times, but that also keeps driving him forward.

Once you know what kind of person Bud Steelabs will be once he ends the plot….

4. Decide where the main character begins.

Do not start the book with a recount of The Glorious Birth of Bud Steelabs. Do not. No one cares how Bud Steelabs got born.

Instead, start with where Bud Steelabs is internally; the thing that’s going to change for him over the course of the story. If Bud Steelabs is feeling a little old and irrelevant, the story might start with him failing a physical, or failing to catch a pickpocket. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his best friend is a terrorist, the story might start with a co-worker chiding Bud about how all he does is work and he has no real friends. If Bud Steelabs is about to learn his daughter was kidnapped by terrorists, the story might start with Bud missing a soccer game in which she scored the winning goal.

This is where the story starts: by setting up the main character for an important change in a way that also introduces the stakes of his inevitable fight with the terrorists.

5.  Then other stuff happens.

Generally speaking, every story gets worse before it gets better, and The Saga of Bud Steelabs is no exception.

One good rule of thumb for action and thriller-type plots is to introduce two problems for every one problem the protagonist solves. Eventually the main character will need to start wrapping these problems up, but for about 4/5 of the book, make things continually harder for him.

Jam his gun. Make him run out of ammo. Give him a serious, mobility-limiting injury. Kidnap more children. Hire more terrorists. Just generally make his life suck more and more. (Die Hard does an excellent job of this.)


6. Make the action the least important part of the plot.

But wait! It’s an action story, right? Shouldn’t there be action?

Yes, there should. There should be action. There should be plenty of action.

But the action is actually the least important part of writing an action novel. The most important part, from the writer’s perspective, is to make the audience care about the main character.

Give readers a reason to root for the main character – not for just any generic “good guy” who might stop the “bad guys,” but for Bud Steelabs specifically. Why should we want Bud to succeed – so he can be reunited with his adorable daughter, save his best friend, prove his relevance, learn the meaning of Christmas?

A main character we care about is the difference between a good novel and a mediocre one. Bud Steelabs wouldn’t write a mediocre novel, and neither should you.

Like this post? Buy me a coffee. It’s what Bud Steelabs would do.



Good Characters: Who Are They?

Everyone who reads (or watches films) can remember characters that stuck with them: characters we loved, characters we were in love with, characters we wanted to be, characters who terrified us. But what makes them memorable? What makes them good?

“Good” characters are, above all, realistic – but what’s “realistic” in fiction usually departs in significant ways from the “reality” of everyday life. Here’s how to get better characters.

1. Good characters want something.

The first thing to ask, when you’re developing any character, isn’t their age, sex, eye color, or choice of wardrobe. It’s what they want.

Not “want” as in “man, I could really go for a soda right now,” but “want” as in the thing that is driving them through the story – the one thing they want, right now, more than anything else.

Depending on the size and scope of your story, that thing might be very large (save the world), or it might be very small (no, really, give me a soda). Whatever the thing is, the plot must involve that person moving towards that thing, and being thwarted repeatedly. Ultimately, they’ll either get the thing or not get it.

The ancient Greeks, in fact, divided all their drama along these lines. If the characters got what they wanted, the story was a comedy. If not, it was a tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays can be sorted the same way. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are both full of teenage lovers and raunchy jokes. What makes the first one a comedy and the second a tragedy? In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers end up married – and in Romeo and Juliet, they end up dead.

Very large stories often have characters who want more than one thing in progression, or  who want more than one thing at the same time (Harry Potter wants to stop Voldemort, but/and he also wants to have a family). Some small stories do too. When characters want more than one thing, point #2 comes in.

2. Good characters are their own worst enemies.

Think back to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry deals with any number of challenges and foes, including the Dursleys, Snape, Malfoy, Peeves, disposing of Norbert, troll in the dungeons, Devil’s Snare, flying keys, Quidditch matches, exams, staircases that go somewhere else on a Tuesday, and, ultimately, Voldemort. With a little help from his friends, Harry deals with all of these on his own.

Except one. There’s one obstacle in the entire book/film that someone else actually has to take out of his path. One obstacle that threatens to derail Harry completely, and against which Harry himself is powerless. Remember what it is?

It’s the Mirror of Erised.

Harry doesn’t stop vising the mirror of his own free will.  Dumbledore has it moved someplace Harry can’t get to it in the ordinary course of his life at Hogwarts. In fact, we’re given to understand that if the mirror had stayed where it was, Harry would have gone on visiting it. And, if he had, he might well have become so distracted that he failed to stop Voldemort entirely. The mirror, remember, shows Harry that other thing he wants most in the world: his family.

Sure, Voldemort’s a scary evil freaky half-alive dude. But he’s not actually the threat Harry can’t deal with on his own. The bigger threat to Harry Potter is Harry Potter – or rather, it’s the moment Harry’s two most important, crucial desires collide with one another.

A good plot needs both a good protagonist and a good antagonist. But a great plot needs characters whose desires are capable not only of tripping them up, but of tearing them apart.

3. Good characters aren’t particularly self-aware.

Writers, don’t let your characters grow up to understand why they do things.

You need to understand why characters do things. An effective plot, and effective characterization, requires you to understand not only what your characters are doing, seeing, and thinking, but also what they’re missing. And when you know a character has the information they need to solve the puzzle, it’s your job to make sure they don’t solve it until the right moment.

In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling does this primarily by not giving her characters the final piece until the last moment. But there are other ways to do it too. I like to distract mine: about two logical thought-steps away from a character realizing exactly what’s going on and how to stop it, I set something on fire, start a fight, or make the caffeine wear off so they decide to go to bed instead of thinking anymore.

Good writers are incredibly aware, not only of their characters, but of themselves. They’re constantly questioning why they react in certain ways and why other people react differently to the same situations. But good characters are horribly unaware. It’s what keeps the plot moving.

4. Good characters aren’t all that good.

About halfway through reading the draft of my first novel, my editor remarked that she’d begun reading with the assumption that I’d based one of my main characters on my husband, but that she’d had to revise that opinion. I replied, “Yeah, my husband is too comfortable with himself to be a good fiction character.”

She said, “Your husband is too good to be a good fiction character.”

The best people you know are probably horrible characters. The best characters you know are probably not very good people, when it comes down to it, even if they manage to do very good things.

The essential matter of all good fiction is conflict. Conflict between people (Harry vs. Voldemort, Kirk vs. Khan), conflict between a person and their environment or circumstances (Harry vs. the Dursleys, the Enterprise crew vs. every weird anomaly space has to offer), conflict between two of a person’s needs or desires (Harry’s desire to defeat Voldemort vs. his desire to belong, Kirk’s desire to save the woman he loves vs. saving the Enterprise from never having existed at all).

Conflict is messy. Conflict is mean. Conflict forces us to choose a side or an action, and in making that choice, we’re forced to face all available options – even those we’d rather not admit we thought of. When the conflict is in the way of a goal the character wants desperately to achieve, they may consider (or take) desperate measures to get it.

Incidentally, some of the best recent works in film and literature have dealt head-on with this point by looking at what happens to characters after they’re done being the “good guy” and have to deal with the fact that the “good guy” had to do some pretty bad stuff to beat the “bad guy.” The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is obsessed with this question, as were the Hunger Games novels. (Firefly went one step further by asking what happens when the good guys don’t even win.)

Tl;dr – Good characters are messy little balls of want. They want lots of things. Not all those things are compatible. On top of this, the world around them thwarts their wants at (nearly) every opportunity. They’re willing to contemplate, and even to do, some pretty un-noble things in order to resolve the tangled mess they find themselves in. And then they have to live with themselves.

How Finishing a Novel Changed My Writing

I finished and submitted the draft of my first novel a few weeks ago.

Since then, I’ve written several blog posts, about a dozen letters of various kinds, and my usual 20,000 words a week of paid freelance writing.  I’m currently working on a chapter for the upcoming Monstrosity and Disability anthology (Palgrave, sometime next year?).  And my understanding of writing has changed completely.

1. I only have one job.

For years, I’ve described my work to people as three or four separate jobs.  I’m a freelance copywriter.  I’m a marketing writer for an independent (actually, an Autonomous) press.  I’m an academic. I’m an author and an occasional poet.  I’ve always thought of these as separate spheres.

They’re not.  They’re different tasks I do in my one job, which is to put funny little marks on paper (or pixels) in ways that change actual human behavior.  That’s what I do.  I sit here, rattle my keyboard for a few hours every day, and actual things come to exist in the world that change what y’all do.



2.  I have no idea what counts as a “short” assignment anymore.  Or a “long” one.

A confession: this chapter draft I’m currently working on is due in two weeks.  I had more than a year to write it.  I started writing yesterday.

Another confession: my word limit for this chapter draft is around 10k to 12k words.  I have 8000 after two days of writing.

Before I finished the novel draft, 10,000 words on a single topic was dang near insurmountable.  In grad school I counted on coming in 20 percent short on every paper.  Professor wanted five pages?  I had four.  Ten pages?  My final draft would be eight.  Twenty pages?  Sorry, I’ve got sixteen.  And on and on.  This didn’t actually hurt me – in fact, I got praised for being able to say so much concisely – but it was a constant struggle.

I’m still that concise.  I can just be that concise for a lot longer.  Having once sustained a narrative arc through 70,000 words, I have absolutely no trouble thinking in a manuscript of that size – in any genre.  My problem with this chapter draft, actually, is keeping myself down to 10,000 or 12,000 words.  I could go on forever, but I’m not allowed to.  (Also I would be repeating a lot of what’s already been written, which is emphatically not the point of this piece.)

3.  I needed all that writing time.

I have nothing but bemusement now for the kind of folks who sit at their perfect desk in the perfect corner of their perfect room, sharpen their perfect pencil, open their perfect journal, and wait for Inspiration to stream in on a beam of perfect sunlight and turn them into authors.  I have the same bemusement for people who sit in Starbucks wearing their smugness hats (excuse me, “fedoras”) and announce to anyone who will listen, “I’m writing a screenplay.

Cool.  What are your rates?

Seven years of writing for a living, thirty years of journaling, nine years of post-high-school writing-intensive education, teaching writing, communicating primarily by writing: none of it was wasted.  All of it got me to the point where sustaining a narrative arc for 70,000 words was something I could do.

Until I actually finished my first novel draft, I didn’t know that.  I really believed that all that other writing was a “waste.”  Sure, it earned me degrees or made me money or whatever, but it didn’t matter because it wasn’t The Novel.  *heavens open, angels sing*

[cat hairball noise]

It’s all writing.  Sure, only writing on your novel draft will result in a finished novel.  But banging out 10,000 words a day of copy, ranting in my teenage journals, producing massive briefs detailing every one of the 26 ways in which the plaintiff does not have a case?  It all made writing that novel draft possible.  It’s all valuable.  The only way to write regularly, consistently, and cleanly is to do it all the damn time.

4.  Writing now involves zero anxiety.

Well, near-zero.  I still have moments in which I get stuck, or I realize I should have made a point three paragraphs earlier, or that I shouldn’t make a point until three paragraphs later.

But it’s no longer a mountain.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind now that when I sit down in front of the keyboard, something related to my intended topic is going to fall out and that something is going to be workable.  It won’t be a polished final draft; it rarely is, unless we’re talking about a sample of the most basic type of copy I’ve written every day for seven years.  But it’ll be something I can use.  Something relevant.  Sometimes, it’ll even be something that surprises me.

tl;dr I am Alexander Hamilton.  Just you wait.