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Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Dogs Project: Part Seven

02.27.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

“You’re looking for a dog?”

The man behind the counter seemed amused, but Chartlie couldn’t guess why.  Outside, the street traffic was thick.  Cars and busses and pedestrians locked in the perpetual daily struggle of lunchtime at the edge of the business district.  Inside the pet shop, birds shrieked and complained and puppies yapped.  The display cages ran down the wall, little rooms the size of closets with stainless steel bowls for food and water, oversized cushions to rest on, and in each one at least one dog.  The walls facing the shop’s main room were thick plexiglass, claw-scratched and pitted but clean.

“Thinking about it,” Charlie said.

The days since Dickens left had been much like the days before, only a sense of isolation had grown up where there had only been guilt before.  He’d found himself looking at pet shops and animal rescues online like he was testing too see whether a wound had healed by pressing on it.  More and more in the past week, he’d found himself daydreaming at work or at the office, thinking how he could have done things differently or telling himself that it was the change that had made the difference.  A new dog would never know what kind of person he’d been before, and so wouldn’t be disappointed in who he was now.

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Malice, Rape, and the Curry Rule

02.21.12
by Daniel Abraham

So, because of a few conversations and at least one dreadful and graceless shouting match I’ve been having and/or spectating one place and another online, I’ve been thinking more about my idiosyncratic attitude toward writing about sexual assault and its aftermath.  (And, yeah, poking along on the Dogs Project is part of that.) I tried to make my position clear way back when I posted about why I was consciously not including rape in my urban fantasy series, but I think I’ve found an example in the world that gives a good illustration of what I’m getting at.

No, not that Mali . . . No. Wait. Yes, exactly that Malice.

And so, a movie review.

Let me begin by saying how reassuring it is to me as a writer to see brilliant people stumble.  A cast filled not just with first class actors, but first class actors of whom I’m actually fond: Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman.  A script by Aaron Sorkin, one of my all-time favorite screenwriters, second only to Tom Stoppard.  Malice came out in 1993, and I have to say, it failed for me.  Badly.

The main plot involves a man figuring out that his wife and their friend the doctor are running an complex grift.  (Protip:  If your cunning criminal plan begins “Step One:  Go to medical school and become a top-flight surgeon” you may be overthinking it.)  There are machinations and reveals, and red herrings and complex subterfuge all written in Sorkin-esque brilliancies and delivered with a weird awkwardness (with the exception of one line by Baldwin, which was a perfect delivery, and so stood out like an emerald in gravel).  But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

This was also the first film appearance by Gwynneth Paltrow, who had a blink-and-you-miss-her role as an undergraduate who on a campus that was being used as hunting ground for a serial killer.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention a serial killer in my plot synopsis.  That’s because the subplot was really just an aside.  The movie asked us to pay lots of attention to Bill Pullman’s betrayal by his wife, and the intricacies of medial malpractice while there’s a serial killer stalking the freaking campus.   My experience as a viewer was “Who gives a crap about medical malpractice?  You have a serial killer on campus!  Let’s take care of *that*.”

Which is to say, they put something in that overpowered the main story and then  tried to treat it as minor.

My curry rule is this (as I’ve stated it elsewhere), once you add some curry to your dish, you’re making a curry dish.  You can say it about really good fresh garlic too.  It’s almost impossible to add something that strong and compelling in and not have it be central to the experience.  Malice failed, in part, because it took something more compelling than its own story and tried to use it as background.  I think sexual assault is like that in prose fiction.  I think you can write about rape if you’re writing about rape (and even then, go with God, because it’s a terrible and complex subject) or if it’s not what you’re writing about, you can pass over the subject lightly, but including it as a side-note seems doomed to fail.

In the urban fantasy series, I’ve intentionally touched on things that I think relate to the problematic relationship between women and power in the culture, and while there’s a lot of overlap in subject matter, I’d like this to be a pleasant, somewhat escapist experience so I don’t want to go there with that story.  With Dogs, I’m specifically trying to take on one aspect of the aftermath of sexual assault.  It’s not that I don’t think rape should be written about or thought about or considered.  It’s very much that I think it defines the work in which it appears — it’s pretty much all anyone says about Thomas Covenant anymore — and so if that’s not central what I’m writing, it’s a mistake to include it.

Other folks, clearly, have different views.  But I think I’m right.

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The Dogs Project: Part Six

02.20.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

Back home, Charlie sat at the little kitchen table for a long time, his hands on his thighs.  His mind felt empty and raw.  Sandblasted.  Dickens didn’t come near, didn’t press his nose into Charlie’s lap.  Instead, he curled up on the couch where he wasn’t supposed to be and looked away.  The sun shifted, the angles of the shadows growing thinner, the light turning darker and red.  Near sundown, Charlie became aware that his bladder was screamingly full, pulled himself up to standing, and made his way back to the bathroom.  He sat on the toilet, head in his hands.  Guilt and shame and a bone-deep exhaustion made the early evening feel like midnight.  If it hadn’t been for the autonomic demands of his body, he’d have sat still as a stone until morning.

He took a shower, the hot water making his skin pinker, the pale scars white by comparison.  When he got out, he stood in front of the mirror for a long time, his gaze tracing what damage could be seen.  The bedroom clock told him it was just past seven, and he had to check his phone to convince himself it was true.

Dinner was a frozen serving of butter chicken run through the microwave until the apartment smelled rich with it, a glass of ice water.  There were sitcoms on TV, so he sat there, letting other people’s laughter wash over him, and joining in by reflex.  By the time the evening news came on, he felt almost like himself again.  Still fragile, but himself.  He cleaned the dishes, put on some music.  He needed to get up a little early.  He was going to take the bus, and he wanted to leave a little extra time to walk there.

Dickens hadn’t moved except to shift from time to time.  Charlie knew he should have made the dog get down from the couch, but that little breaking of rules seemed important; an apology for the shortcomings of the afternoon.  After all, if one pattern had changed, maybe they all had.  Maybe everything was up for grabs.  Charlie finished cleaning, put a bowl of food down for Dickens, and listened to the soft sounds of the dog eating.  He wasn’t looking forward to the walk that would follow.  It was cold outside now, and dark.  When the little steel bowl was clean, Dickens walked over to the leash and looked up at him.

Charlie hadn’t meant to hesitate, but it was there.  That little half-beat that marked the difference between enthusiasm and reluctance.  Dickens sighed and went back to the couch.

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The Dogs Project: Part Five

02.16.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

The week passed slowly, old patterns slowly remaking themselves in slightly altered forms.  He took himself to the lunch bar at the side of the fancy steakhouse across from the office.  Meetings became more and more comprehensible as he put together what he’d missed during his time in hospital.  His still-healing wounds bothered him less; he found ways to move and sit and stretch that worked with the new limitations of his body.  Every morning and evening, he allowed himself the luxury of a taxi home, swearing that this would be the last, that he’d get back to being responsible with his money next time, and then changing his mind when the next time came.

He hadn’t thought to dread Sunday until Sunday came.

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The Dogs Project: Part Four

02.12.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

“Hey,” Adam said.  “Sorry about that.”

“Well.  Can’t say you didn’t warn me.”

“They mean well.”

“I know,” Charlie said.  “And I appreciate the thought, it’s just . . .”

“Yeah.”

Adam stood, neither in the room nor out, his expression friendly.  The moment stretched just a little too long.  If Charlie wasn’t looking to talk, it wasn’t an invitation.  If he did want to, then it was.

“They didn’t find them,” Charlie said.  “The dogs who . . . They never found them.”

Adam stepped in the room, sat in the chair beside Charlie’s desk.  Charlie’s fingers hovered over his keyboard, then folded into fists and sank slowly to his lap.  A telephone rang in someone else’s office.

“It bothers you,” Adam said.

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The Dogs Project: Part Three

02.09.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

The effort of going home exhausted him.  The effort of being home.  Charlie had spent weeks in his new nightmare life, and all his things waited for him, unchanged.  It was like walking into his room in his parents’ house and finding all his things from high school still where he’d left them.  The artifacts of a previous life.

Adam had stacked the mail neatly on the dining table.  Charlie sat there, his new aluminum cane against his leg, and went through them, envelope by envelope.  Dickens capered and danced and brought his old fetch toy, a ragged penguin.  Charlie only had the energy to toss it half-heartedly across the apartment a few times, and Dickens seemed to recognize his lack of enthusiasm.  The little dog hopped up on the couch with a sigh, and rested his head on his forepaws for the rest of the evening.

In the morning, Charlie took Dickens on a quick walk around the block, then fed the dog, fixed himself a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, and called a taxi to carry him to work.  The indulgence wouldn’t work as an everyday occurrence, but for his first day back to the office, he didn’t wan’t to push.  And, secretly, it meant one more day before he had to walk down past the strip mall, past the parking lot.  Better to spend a few dollars and treat himself gently.  There would be plenty of time to face unpleasant memories later, when he had more strength.

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The Dogs Project: Part Two

02.08.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

[NOTE FROM THE MANAGEMENT: The scene following this is part of a horror story.  It's violent, unpleasant, and possibly triggering.  You have my permission to skip it.]

It had happened on the walk from his apartment to the bus stop.  The morning air was clean and crisp.  The leaves of the trees still held the rich green of summer, but the morning chill was autumn clearing its throat.  Running late, Charlie trotted along the familiar streets the way he did every morning. Past the corner deli with its hand-drawn signs, past the dog park where he’d take Dickens to run on the weekends, past the little strip mall with the head shop that never seemed to be open and the laundromat that always was.  There was a meeting scheduled for ten o’clock and the quarterly reports needed to have the numbers crunched.  Charlie’s mind ran ahead of him, preparing for the day ahead.

The dogs started following him at the park, and at first, he saw them but didn’t particularly take note.  There were three: a buff-colored hound with long, loose ears and a joyful canine smile; a dane cross, broad-jawed and tall; and a bull terrier whose white fur was so short that the pink of its skin showed through.  They were facts of the landscape, like the grass pushing up from cracks in the sidewalk and the smell of garbage from the dumpster.

As Charlie cut across the parking lot, one barked, a high, happy sound.  The dane ran in front of Charlie, blocking his way.  When he tried to walk around it, the big dog shifted into his path again and growled, and Charlie thought it was being playful.  Running claws tapped against the pavement behind him.

Even when the first bite tore into his leg, the pain blaring and sudden, Charlie didn’t understand.  He reached for his calf, thinking that something had gone wrong, that there’d been some sort of accident.  The bull terrier leaped away from him.  Blood reddened its muzzle, and its tail wagged.  Charlie tried to walk, but his foot wouldn’t support him, the tendon cut.  Bitten through.  The fear came on him like he was waking up from a dream.  The parking lot seemed too real and suddenly unfamiliar.

“Hey,” he said, and the smiling hound lunged at him, yellow teeth snapping at the air as Charlie danced back, lost his balance, fell.  A white minivan drove by, not pausing.  The bull terrier jumped forward, and Charlie tried to pull his foot away from it.  The dane cross stepped over to him, bent down, and fastened its teeth around his throat.  The thick saliva dripped down the sides of Charlie’s neck, and for a moment, all four of them were still.  When Charlie lifted his hand toward the dane’s muzzle, it growled once, faintly — almost conversationally — and the jaw tightened.  You live if I let you live.  Charlie put his hand back down.

The attack began in earnest, but he didn’t get to see it happen.  The only thing in his field of vision was the side of the dane’s head, its sharp-cropped ear, the curve of its eye, and beyond that, the clear blue of the sky.  Teeth dug into Charlie’s leg, into his arm.  One of the dogs stood on his chest, its weight pressing down on him, bit deep into the softness of his belly, and then shook its head back and forth.  The pain was intense, but also distant, implausible.  Intimate, and happening to somebody else.  It seemed to go on forever.

The dane growled again, shifting its grip on Charlie’s neck.  Its breath warmed Charlie’s ear.  The smell of its mouth filled his nostrils.  The voices of hound and terrier mixed, growls and yips and barks.  Violence and threat and pleasure.  Something bit into this foot, and he felt the teeth scraping against the small bones of his toe.  A pigeon flew overhead, landed on a power line.  Another bite to his belly, and then something deep and internal slipped and tugged.  The dogs had chewed through the muscle and were pulling out his intestine.

I’m going to die, Charlie thought.

And then it was over.  The grip on his throat eased, the assaulting teeth went away.  Charlie looked down at the slaughterhouse floor that his body had become, the ruins of his blood-soaked clothes, the pink loop of gut spilling out onto the asphalt.  The hound with its friendly face and permanent goofy smile trotted to his head and hitched up its hind leg.  Its testicles seemed huge, its red, exposed pizzle obscene.  Urine spattered Charlie’s face, thick and rank.

Then they were gone, pelting down the street away from him.  They barked to each other, their voices growing softer with distance until they were just part of the background of the city.  Charlie listened to his own breath, half expecting it to stop.  It didn’t.  Another car drove by, slowed, and then sped away.  He felt a vague obligation to scream or weep.  Something.  The pigeon launched itself from the wire above him and flew away, black against the bright sky.

Some time later, he thought to pull the cell phone from his pocket and call 911.  The blood made dialing hard.

————————————–

Daniel here.

It would be really cool if there was a way to know that this story was working.  Usually, it’s a pretty good sign when I start having some kind of somatic reaction while I’m writing something.  This one, I was aiming for that, and I got there.  Not full on nausea, but a little lump at the base of my tongue.  That’s happened before when I was writing things.  I’ve also made myself cry and laugh.  I’ve got a weird job that way.

I had to make a real effort on this one not to take the language over the top.  It’s really tempting to start throwing in a bunch of abstract adjectives like horrible and terrible, but they don’t mean much.  Instead I tried for a lot of concrete, specific images and evoking as many direct sensory experiences as I could.  The dane’s breath against Charlie’s ear, ferinstance.  I hadn’t planned to have the cars going by at the beginning and end of the attack, or the pigeon.  I think the sense of help being nearby but not helping worked out pretty well.  For some reason, the pause after the dane gets Charlie’s neck — when Charlie puts his hand back down — is important to me.  Not sure why that’s true, but it is.  Also, I got to put in the dog park that comes up later in the story, so that’s already established.  I am starting to wonder what Charlie does at the office.  Clearly, he’s white collar, but beyond that, I got no clue yet.  If it’s important, I’ll put it in, but my guess is it doesn’t matter.

One of the weirdest pieces of advice writers get when they start learning is “Write what you know.”  I’ve been doing this for decades now, and I literally don’t know what that phrase is supposed to mean.  I am one of the 90% of men who hasn’t been on the bleak end of sexual violence.  I’ve also never been mauled by dogs — nipped on the ass by a doberman when I was maybe eight, and that’s it.  Clearly I don’t know from experience anything important in this scene.  Does that mean I shouldn’t have written it?  I have books set in fantasy lands that never existed and in futures that won’t be like that if we ever get there.  Are those somehow immoral writing, because these days, they buy my groceries.

My best guess is it’s an admonition to limit your imagination to things you’ve experienced because otherwise you get the details wrong, and God forbid that ever happen.  More useful advice would be do your best and understand sometimes you’ll get some details wrong.  Imagination’s a muscle.  Gets stronger if you use it.

But back to the scene.  My job with that one was to make it awful enough that the rest of the story makes sense.  I honestly don’t have any idea whether it works for that.  I’m in the middle of the project, and I have no perspective.  And I didn’t expect to.  I’ll take a look at it when the whole thing’s together and I’ve had some cooling off time.  Until then, I’m withholding judgment, except that I’m glad that scene’s done.

CONTINUE TO SCENE 3

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The Dogs Project: Part One

02.07.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

 

“Well, you’ve used a lot less morphine today,” the nurse said, tapping the feed with his thumbnail.  “Keep this up, Charlie, and we’ll have you out of here by the weekend.”

“Go dancing,” Charlie joked.

“That’s the spirit, my man.”

The nurse adjusted something in the suite of machines beside the bed, and the low, chiming alert stopped for the first time in an hour.  The sounds of the hospital came in to fill the void: the television in the next room, the murmur and laughter of nursing station shop talk, monitor alarms from all along the ward, someone crying.

“I’ll get you some more ice,” the nurse said, taking the styrofoam cup from the little rolling bed table.  “Be right back.”

Charlie tried to say thank you, but it was hard to focus.  His mind didn’t feel right, and his body was a catalog of pains that he didn’t want to associate with.  They’d saved his toes, but in five days, he’d only glimpsed the complication of red flesh and black stitching that was his leg.  The muscles of his abdomen were compromised.  That was the word the surgeon had used, compromised.  As if there had been some sort of agreement, some give-and-take.  The fluid draining from his gut had moved down, feeding deep, bloody bruises down both his thighs and filling his scrotum until it swelled up to the size of a grapefruit, the skin tight, hot, painful and discolored.  Strangely, the punctures on his neck where the dog’s teeth had held him were the least of his injuries, and the quickest to heal.

The nurse stepped back in, put the cup where it had been.  Firm white foam holding crushed white ice.

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The Dogs Project: Outline

02.03.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

I have this thing about wordcount.  Anyone who’s worked with me can tell you about it.  It’s idiosyncratic, and usually when people find out how it works, they start looking at me funny.  But for outlining a story, it’s a wonderful little kink to have.

Usually, I can do something in about 750 to 1000 words.  The way I’m thinking about Dogs, it’s probably a novelette which puts it anywhere between 7500 and 17500 words.  So when the time came to make the outline, I figured I was looking at about ten things happening start to finish.  Now I knew what the last one was — the guy with the big dog saying “nice doggie” over and over.  Which only begged the question of what the nine things were that happened before.

This is a horror story; the mandate is to present a malefic universe.  I know I’m not going to end things in a conclusive, satisfying way because the ending scene gets its power from the uncertainty and also because pretending I had a solution to the underlying subject feels cheap and disingenuous.  I know that the well I’m drawing from is sexual violence and its aftermath with particular focus on the paradox of most men being good people, and there still being a lot of predators.  I also know I don’t want to have any of that be explicit in the final text.  One of the things that Orson Scott Card said that actually made sense to me (and he and I agree on essentially nothing) was that if a story’s about something, you never use the word.  In this case, I don’t want there to be a rape or any sex or — and this was a decision I wasn’t sure about, but I think I’m going to roll this way — women.  What I’m trying for here is a translation of how I imagine it would be to live in that world into a different context where that dread is fresh and shiny and new.

And I’ve got nine things to do it in.  Here’s what I came up with:

1) Protagonist in hospital, recovering from having been mauled.  His work buddy shows up to visit, bringing the protagonist’s dog along.  The dog is visibly distressed by the whole thing.

The idea here is that the scene give the reader a good hook — here’s a guy who’s in pain, and people who care about him.  We also set up the “good dog” who we’ll be taking away from the protagonist later.

2) Flashback.  The protagonist walking through the park and being attacked by dogs.

This is the scene I’m already dreading.  I have to traumatize the protagonist and the reader enough that all the stuff that comes after makes sense.  I have some ideas about what would make this particularly unpleasant and visceral. I think one of the dogs should have a very friendly face.  I think the attack should begin with the guy thinking that the dogs are playing.  I think the worst of the attack will be when he’s on the ground and one of the dogs has its neck around his throat to keep him from moving.  At some point, the protagonist needs to believe he’s going to die.  It won’t be like a real dog attack, because I’m not aiming for realism here.  And at the end, I’m pretty sure one of the attacking dogs pees on him.  The rest of the story is going to stand or fall on whether this scene does its job.

3) The protagonist goes back to work

This may be a fairly short scene.  We see the work buddy again, we watch the protagnost trying to get back to normal with the sense that it’s not really working.

4) The protagonist tries to take his dog to the park  [ED: In practice, it turns out this needs to be scene 5 and talking to the work buddy needs to be scene 4, but who knew, right?]

Our guy and the good dog head out to the dog park where they always used to go, but the guy can’t do it.  He sees the other animals and freaks out.  The good dog is confused and hurt, trying to go have fun the way he used to, and having his treat taken away (even though poor good dog didn’t do anything wrong).  Hopefully, there’s a growing sense here of claustrophobia and sorrow and resentment.

5) Talking with the work buddy (1 of 2)

I think it’ll be time to take a break from the horribly emotional stuff here, step back, and see our protagonist actually having a moment’s connection with someone.  This is also where I get to put in the idea that most dogs never bite anyone.

6) Losing the dog

The protagonist at home at night and his dog sulking.  When he tries to cajole the dog into being playful, the dog snaps.  At the end of the scene, the dog does and scratches at the door to be let out, and the protagonist lets him out, clear in the knowledge that the dog won’t come back and the protagonist isn’t going to go looking for him.  The metaphor here — in case y’all hadn’t picked it up — is of the nice guy who can’t handle that his lover’s been raped.  From a narrative perspective, this has the advantage of putting my character in even more pain, and also it frees him up to start looking for a new dog (and deciding if he even wants one).

7) Protagonist on the street, getting barked at.  No one else reacts. (Got this scene wrong too.  Seven and eight wound up switching places as well.)

So now that we’ve taken away the protagonist’s companion, I’m going to make him feel a little more threatened and hypervigilant.  We’ll have a scene — probably on his way to work — where a dog barks at him, and he has an anxiety attack.  But no one else seems to pay any attention, so he tries to keep his reaction hidden.

[grr.  numeral eight, close parentheses, not 8) ]The pet store, failing to get a new dog

Our protagonist in a pet shop, thinking that what he needs is a new dog.  Maybe a bigger one, that can also offer some protection.  We go in with him, talk to the shop guy, look at the dogs available for adoption, but our guy keeps seeing the new pets as possible predators, and he winds up leaving without getting a dog.  Chances are, he’d get a good dog, but the consequences of being wrong are too awful.

9) Talking to the work buddy (2 of 2)

We’re almost to the end here, so it’s time to start wrapping up.  I figure it’ll be a conversation about how to feel safe around dogs, with the work buddy pointing out the trade-offs in each one.  Yeah, you could carry a gun, as long as you never want to go to a bar, a bank, or a courthouse.  Yeah, you could do some martial arts class thing, with the understanding that dogs are always going to be faster and bite harder than you will and they hunt in packs, but sure.  We’ll find out that the work buddy was mauled when he was a kid (I’m thinking by a family pet).  When the protagonist asks how long the fear lasts, I think the work buddy will say something along the lines of “It never goes away, you just figure out how to work around it.”  I don’t know the details on that, but I figure I can put it together when I get there.

10) good doggie good doggie good doggie

I don’t know if I can really use a subway car.  I mean, seriously, what’s a Great Dane cross doing wandering around the subway on its own, right?  But I could put him at a bus stop by himself, maybe around twilight.  Have the dog show up, sit on the curb.  Huge animal.  Massive and young and strong.  Probably some scars on its ears.  Not growling or anything.  No expression on its face, or maybe that little smile dogs get sometimes.  The feeling of threat starts ramping up, and the story ends.

So like that.

Come back next time, and I’ll take a swing at that first scene.

CONTINUE TO THE FIRST SCENE

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The Dogs Project: Where do you get your ideas?

02.02.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs project?

So the standard question that writers always get asked is “Where do you get your ideas?”  And a lot of times it’s said in this tone of voice that is just loaded with impression that getting ideas is the impressive thing that we do.  This confuses and frustrates writers — by which I mean me — for several reasons.  First off, the part that I struggle with isn’t the having ideas part, it’s the making the ideas not suck in practice.  Having ideas is the easy part, figuring out how to deliver them is more than a lifetime’s work.  But the second part is that the question isn’t usually answerable in any satisfying way.  “Oh well, you know, I read a lot and things just kind of come together in my head and then I get excited about them.”  That’s exactly true, and sort of anticlimactic, right?

So anyway, I spend a certain amount of time hanging out on the Westeros forum, and there was this long-running sturm-und-drang conversation that spilled out over two threads about depictions of rape in fiction.  I came into it late, and a lot of it fel into the tl;dr category for me, but I was grazing it some.  For long-time blog readers, I’ve built my own opinions about sexual violence in fiction, which mostly comes down to two general guidelines:

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