This isn’t a book review of Seanan McGuire’s beautiful book Every Heart a Doorway. I can’t do the book justice. You’ll just have to read it. You have to.

The book is about Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, a school for children whose parents are at their wits’ ends, because their children seem irredeemably mad. Many of the parents experienced losing the child: for a day, a week, even years. For some, the child never seemed lost. But in all cases, the child came to them changed; each child had experienced something, witnessed something. In McGuire’s book, there are worlds next door to ours: worlds of Logic or Nonsense, Virtue of Wickedness, Life or Death, and some worlds have traces of Whimsy or Timelessness. Each child stepped through a doorway and experienced… something. And then, one fateful day, they ended up back here. In some cases, it was because they’d grown, and the world had sent them back here to "be sure." In others, fate or trouble in their world forced them back into ours.

Eleanor herself went through a doorway and lived in a world of High Nonsense until the day came when she was too old to tolerate nonsense. Her heart broken by her world’s rejection, she founded the school for other children like her. Nancy, the protagonist, came from a world of Logic and Death, with some hints of Wickedness, and her innate nature made her a perfect fit, and someday she hopes to go back. In the meantime, she lives in our world, hot, fast, and noisy, and she hates it.

I won’t tell you more about the plot. The characters are what’s important here: Nancy, who loves stillness and quiet; Jack, the mad scientist; Kade, the boy who loves his world but never wants to go back; Sumi, the nonsense girl who never stops moving her hands; Lundy, the woman living backwards; Christopher, the boy who loves skeletons.

I laughed a lot while reading this book. I winced a couple of times, and cheered more than once. But mostly, I cried. I cried a lot. I had to fight tears to write this. Because my heart broke when I realized that I was one of the people who’ll never go back.

When I started writing The Journal Entries, I was one of those kids: the ones who didn’t understand the emotional waters of high school, who didn’t get what was going on, who didn’t feel like this was my place. I went somewhere else, and the experience was a lot like what McGuire described: I had absorbed enough of the world, my world, that I could find my door. The Journal Entries is many things: high Logic, high Life, only mildly Wicked, capable of Whimsy. It was where I could be me, and more importantly, where every story was about me figuring out something about me, about who I was or who I wanted to be. The Journal Entries started out as an expedition through the world I experienced, not a world of going in through any doors, but of coming out of many doors, out of closets, out of wardrobes, out of cages.

And then I started to write about other people. I started to care what other people thought about my stories. I started to treat my Mary Sue character (and I’ve learned to never, ever diss Mary Sue characters) as something other than a shield, the One Who Suffered the Lesson Learned, the one who mapped out what it meant to be me. I started to treat Kennet as a character. Material. Raw ore from which amusing and arousing stories could be told. Not people. Not friends I talk to once in a while. Not even dreams I walk through, touch, hold, smell, taste.

Once upon a time, my stories were about me, and the world, and the hard, hard barrier between us. I liked being on the other side. I’ll still write stories, and still hope to amuse and arouse and even educate. My heart is still a doorway, but today, at thrice Nancy’s age, all I can do these days is press my ear against it and hear the joy on the other side.

Many moons ago, when I was writing more often, I bought a few of books from Siren Publishing. I read one, decided I didn’t care much, and kinda skipped the rest. I picked up two from my collection and started reading them and I’m still convinced that I don’t like them.

I don’t remember the first one I read, but both stories were, well, pretty rapey. Both stories were depicted as menage a whatever, one with a beautiful woman and two firefighters who happened to be were-cheetahs, the other with a beautiful woman and seven (!) hot, hunky scientists who also happened to be were-yeti. In both cases, the woman started out extremely reluctant to associate with our heroes, only to ultimately succumb to some aggressive masculine pressures. Especially the yetis story, where the seven men had different sex styles, one of whom was the canonical angry fuck, another of whom was rough and kinky. The woman goes from having no interest in these men to basically doing punishment spanking and double-penetration anal sex in less than a week, because she’s the only woman with the seven horny were-yeti at their isolated Antarctic research station.

Both stories have the same trope (although they’re not by the same author, not even pseudonymously, as the writing styles are quite different): A human woman comes into the presence of a clan, group, family, or whatever of supernaturals, and with one sniff two (or more) of the men of the clan "recognize" her as their One True Mate For All Eternity, and the rest of the story is basically them "convincing" her, often roughly and with callous refusal to ask for her consent or to hear it being withdrawn.

These are books written by women, for women, specifically that segment of women who really get off on the "forced to like it" or "there’s at least one man out there who gets me and if he has to be rough so be it" fantasy. Research into (visual) porn habits reveals that more women than men enjoy hardcore pornography depicting women being treated violently, and these books are clearly trying to straddle a line between "rough but pleasurable" sex and the outright use of force by men to get sex. The yeti story works extra hard at this, with lots of depicted manpain about how hard the men work to control themselves no matter how good our heroine smells.

Reading these, I wonder sometimes if this is an audience I should pursue. I’ve tried super hard to depict good sex, between well-meaning adults, with all the consent culture bells and whistles: legitimate flirting contexts, explicit and mutual negotiation, safer sex (where necessary; I elide it in much of my fantasy and S/F), aftercare, check-up. I don’t always go through all of them; older and experienced people have the wisdom to know when something can be skipped, understood, or just gone with, and younger people sometimes lack these skills and are awkward about it but I’ve strived to depict decent people trying to get their needs met in decent ways. None of the space opera episodes have ever gone with the "your mouth says you’re not sure but your eyes say ‘yes, yes!’ so I’m just going to start" trope.

I doubt I would often write something like this. It really doesn’t float my boat that much.

David Mamet’s new "Masterclass" is being promoted as a hot new "learn how to write" on-line class. I’ve watched some of Mamet’s work over the years and I am indeed a fan of some of it, but I’ve also learned through the years that his formula doesn’t work for me.

Mamet’s most famous piece on writing isn’t a class or a lecture, it’s a memo. It’s an angry letter he wrote when he was a writer and producer for The Unit, in which he tried to get across to the other writers what he wanted from them as writers.

Mamet’s advice says:

we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions: 1) Who wants what? 2) What happens if she doesn’t get it? 3) Why now?

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not. The main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.

As a way of crafting a really good plot, Mamet’s advice is absolutely critical. Memorize this, learn this, use this, because it’s the One True Thing about making a story compelling.

Except it’s missing something. Something I learned from George Lucas, back when Lucas was a better writer. Any writing class will tell you that the worst thing a character can say in a story is, "I don’t know what I want." Like Mamet’s advice above, the character has to have a single, compelling desire that propels them forward.

The thing is, when a character enters a story, they’re entering a new world, the world of the story. As Blake Snyder writes in his own writing advice, a story starts wwhen the character finds themselves in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation, pushes to correct the situation, and makes the problem much, much worse (this is known as the gap). The character learns that the world they’re in is really different from their expectation, and all their old tools don’t work, and they have to master new ones (a’la Joseph Campbell).

What makes a character really compelling? False goals.

False goals are commonplace, but in most genres we don’t talk much about them. Romance writers are familiar with false goals, although they don’t call them that; romance writers talk about the mask (the role the characters say they want to play at the beginning of the story) and the essence (who the characters truly are, and how the romance strips off the mask to expose how good they’d be for one another). Star Wars: A New Hope was the first place I noticed a false goal: Luke "hated the Empire" but "wanted to join the Academy." He really just wants to get away from Tatooine (no surprise there) and become a professional pilot. He’s willing to compromise his shallow moral code for a chance to fly. It isn’t until the Empire makes it personal, killing his adoptive parents, that he adopts a true goal, one consistent with his moral instincts.

The story I’m working on has a character who’s deeply rural and culturally fundamentalist, but also nerdy, gay, and possibly kinky. They have a lot of false goals to work through, bargains they’re trying to make with God and themself and the image of their parents, as they discovers cities aren’t places of terrible mayhem, being gay is compatible with a loving god, and even kink has a place in a good life if the people doing it come from a place of compassion and exploration. Watching the character wrestle with their agenda, and their demons one by one, is part of the joy. (Pixar’s Rule of Writing #1: We admire a character more for their effort than for their success.)

Romance characters start with two false goals: the first is to stay "true to themselves," to the image of themselves they have at the beginning of the story (the "mask"), often an image given to them by someone else, the role they’ve been taught to play by parents and society. (The trope of the cultural straitjacket works best when it’s well-defined, which is why historical romance works so well.) In a great romance, the second is the way they deal with the external threat, whatever it is, that is conspiring to keep them apart from each other. The climax of a romance novel is when the two characters realize they’re fighting the wrong external fight, and that if they overcome the internal fight and reveal themselves fully and honestly, they’ll have the power to deal with the conflict correctly.

Human beings frequently don’t know what they want. It’s one thing for a character to find themselves thrown into a new world, the plot of "ordinary person accidentally gets involved with aliens / mobsters / monsters / spies." It’s another for a character to deliberately thrust themselves into a new world because they believe one thing about that distant, exotic, romantic place, only to discover that their original goal was wrong and came from a place of selfishness, ignorance, even cruelty.

The latter is much more interesting. The character has to reject their own baggage. Then and only then can a new and more humane goal emerge. Give your character explicit false goals, ones that show their depths. Give them opinions that the reader can accept or reject, and show how they themselves come to accept or reject them. The best conflicts are those between a character and their own sense of self. False goals are an explicit tool the writer can use to create this conflict.

I’ve been spending my week copyediting The Bastet, a short collection of contemporary stories I wrote to explore a single, absurdist idea: What is life really like for a catboy or catgirl? Which then requires a backstory: where do cat people come from, such that they can exist in an otherwise recognizable contemporary setting?

My solution was to play with a common trope, The Magic Goes Away. In the Bastet Universe, for a brief time (~400 BCE to ~200 CE), Magic worked. It worked pretty well. It ebbed and flowed, and sometimes skilled practitioners found their power almost completely inacessible, and other times so overwhelming they created disasters or just incinerated themselves. The “real” in-universe explanation is that magic works everywhere in the universe; it’s a mundane feature. Except in our region of space: 30 million years ago, a supernova either swept this space clear of whatever it is that turns will into reality, or filled it with a magic-dampening something. We’re the only place in the universe where something with a lemur’s consciousness and a need to escape a hungry tiger doesn’t automatically turn into nuking the planet. For that 600 year period, Earth drifted through a space where magic worked somewhat, but not reliably. And now, in our 20th century, we’re left with evidence of magic, but no way to work it. The Bastet are an Egyptian alchemist’s wild dream of a fierce soldier race, but we all know how bad cats are at following orders.

I have been tempted recently to write more in this series. It’s my only extant contemporary series, and the universe is a fantastic setting for other ideas. What magical creatures other than Bastet are there? I’ve had two ideas, one involving a tentacle monster, the other involving futanari. This slice-of-life smut which tries to take a wider look at how the world reacts to this sort of strangeness is my favorite kind of writing, since it’s about alienation and acceptance, which is pretty much how I’ve lived most of my life anyway.

I worry, though, that by writing about other ex-magica creatures, I’ll be diluting the original vision I had for The Bastet, which is taking catgirls seriously. I think I did okay (even if half the stories ended up M/M, and the other hand M/F; I realized I don’t have a single F/F catgirl story in the whole collection!), and I have more ideas in that theme alone, but would it wreck the original purpose of the series if I asked, “What other weird stuff did the great alchemists of ancient China, Rome, Egypt, and Mesoameria come up with?”

Note that this is set in the Bastet Universe, as that’s the only contemporary setting I currently have.

Janna walked through the showroom, affecting as best she could the disaffected curiosity of her profession, but no previous assignment had ever required she stand in a room of dramatically costumed and decorated naked people. Or "people." Or mannequins. True Companions wasn’t that new, but the opening of a βeta shop was already newsworthy. Three different womens’ organizations had already announced pickets and protests.

"Sorry," she said to the woman standing beside her. She shook herself. "It’s a bit… uncanny."

"They are, when they’re off." Carla Dietrich didn’t look like a degenerate panderer. In her grey pantsuit and bolo tie, she looked like the sort of woman owned herself and her own business. Janna had interviewed the women who ran the Cathouse, and the men who ran Toys4Boys, and they hadn’t seemed all that degenerate, either. There was a huge difference between the disembodied phallic dildos sold at those places— especially Toys4Boys, where the toys were measured in liters— and the whole-bodied companion robots this new business showcased. "In motion, they’re difficult to discern from ordinary people, though. As long as the battery lasts." Dietrich smiled, and it reached her eyes. She had the skill. "That’s why the tattoo." She pointed to the left hand of each robot, where a distinct triangle tattoo covered both the palm and the back of the hand. A matching tattoo was visible on the back of the neck and the roof of the mouth.

"Is that a legal requirement?"

"Liability. And owners are required not to cover them, for the same reason. No gloves." Janna nodded. She had done her homework and already knew the answer, but it was preferable to get it on tape.

The eight bodies in the front of the showroom were fit and trim, exemplars of physical beauty. Six were white, two black. Two of the white ones were male, and both were prominently well-endowned. "Do you limit or match the race to the buyer?"

"Of course not."

"Isn’t that problematic?"

Dietrich shrugged. "We’re not here to judge. Problematic relationships between buyers and their toys are between the buyers and their toys. Personally? Better that than with a real human being."

"What’s the strangest model you have?"

"The strangest?" Dietrich grinned. "Come into the main showcase." She led the way into the back of the store. There were more robots here standing on short circular plinths. The lighting picked out their features. Janna’s eyes took in very short, plump models, ridiculously well-hung models, and on the plinth to her far right, Janna stopped. "What is that?"

"That is the Model R," Dietrich said. Janna approached it. It was enormous, almost seven feet tall, clearly of feminine build with large breasts that dangled with a suggestion of weight and a bit of age, a softly rounded belly, and below that a rather large penis. The skin wasn’t any color found in humans, with a suggestive greenish-grey undertone that looked more like tree bark than flesh. "It might not be obvious, but the R does have a vaginal opening there, behind the small scrotum. It’s one of our most popular models. A fifth of all revists to our website are to the Model R page, although they don’t quite make up a fifth of all sales."


"Meaning there are a lot of men out there who want one but who can’t afford one."

Janna nodded, already thinking how she would work that detail into her final story. "How popular is it?"

"The model R makes up eight percent of sales. That puts it third in overall popularity, after the model V, which is second—" she pointed to one of the "shortstack" robots— "and the model B, the standard white female model out in front."

Janna contemplated the Model R. "Third?" she said, unable to believe it. "Why?"

Dietrich smiled. "We sent out a nice young man from the university to find out. He interviewed almost twenty purchasers. Overwhelmingly, model Rs are bought by white men in the lower middle class. There doesn’t seem to be a particular age, although they do trend a bit younger with the R." She paused. "As near as we can tell, purchasers of the R are uncomfortable with women." She gestured toward the robot’s penis. "That reassures them. It’s understandable. Someone with a penis isn’t a mystery, at least in their own minds. The shape provides them with a mix of details: feminine, so that in their own minds they’re not gay even if they fuck something with a dick, big and soft, a little motherly, so that they feel cared for afterward."

"And that skin color?"

"We’re not sure. We wanted to chalk it up to a kind of racism, since we couldn’t find a single non-white owner of a Model R, but Model R owners really love their toy, so we’re still out about that." Dietrich shrugged. "The most common aspect of Model R owners is they all feel alienated from real women. A lot of them expressed a kind of satisfaction in owning a Model R, a sense that by having this, they had a fully functional, meaningful way to express their desire for a woman-shaped thing without having to interact with real women. Some of them called it ‘revenge.’"

"On who?"

"Women, mostly. And the men who like women. They felt wronged by the way women ignored them, and felt that owning a Model R would be a suitable revenge because then no woman would get their ‘resources’"— Dietrich made air quotes— "like their time and money. Many said eventually all men would find something in here more attractive than a real woman. I remember one man said, ‘Biological women will be left begging for scraps in a world that doesn’t want them and never did.’" Dietrich shrugged.

"Well, the real men are still out there."

Dietrich laughed. "That they are! The good ones don’t even mind if you bring your own toy." She pointed one, a handsome, broad-shouldered man of superheroic proportions. "The Model S is a best seller, but you wouldn’t guess with whom." Janna made a ‘go on’ gesture. "Married couples."

"I can believe it. I almost want one myself."

"I guess the joke is on them. I hope they really are happy with the Model R. The more time they spend with their optimized sex toy, the less time they’ll have to stop people like you and me from running the world, right?"

Janna nodded, smiling back. "Truer words."

"Truer words," Dietrich said.

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