Review: New novel tackles sexual assault on campus amid the #MeToo debate

Yes Means Yes cover image

Yes Means Yes is a new novel exploring the meaning of mutual consent in sexual relationships.

One of the most compelling scenes in the downfall of producer Harvey Weinstein was a secretly recorded dialog between him and a young model, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. In the audio, Weinstein pressures the young woman to follow him into his room. In a grotesque framing of the “Will she or won’t she?” trope, the dialog encapsulates the struggle of women against the power of men.

It’s a pattern as old as human history, and it repeated this week with the resignation of Sen. Al Franken.

Except this time, it’s different. After the New Yorker expose of Weinstein’s abuses, women by the millions—counting those who’ve used the #MeToo hashtag on social media—have lifted the veil of secrecy over their fear and shame. Americans are adjusting the power balance between men and women, though the road to a new landscape is far from straight and narrow. For one thing, the nation refuses to address Weinstein-like behavior by Donald Trump before he was elected President of the United States.

The novel is at once a seminar on the law concerning sexual assault on campus and the story of a young woman discovering its complexities at a personal level.

Since the early days of the feminist revolution, the cultural and legal issues around sexual harassment and sexual assault have clouded the never-crystal-clear relations between men and women. College campuses are often the crucible for change, as young men and women navigate a dynamic society’s mating rituals. The latest iteration stems from the meaning of mutual consent, that is, how do you know when it’s okay to move from mere attraction to a passionate kiss to a romp between the sheets?

Author Steven M. Wells explores the issues in a fictional narrative that is at once a seminar on the law concerning sexual assault on campus and the story of a young woman discovering its complexities at a personal level. The novel, Yes Means Yes, takes its title from a 2014 California law that defines sexual consent. The statute goes beyond the traditional “no means no” standard, which places the boundary of consent at the point when one of the partners says, in effect, “No further.” The California law says the partner must now explicitly says “yes” if the other partner wants sex, or else the initiating partner risks a charge of sexual assault.

In Yes Means Yes, new graduate student Katie Russell arrives on the campus of Colorado University ready to study philosophy. Facing a mountain of debt, she takes a job that makes her a kind of bounty hunter for sexual assault. The prize? $50,000. When her neighbor is raped, all evidence points to the all-star captain of the football team, who happens to be the worst kind of lout. In the meantime, Katie falls for a assistant professor who is the essence of the Western gentleman: thoughtful, handsome, ethical to a fault, and a rancher. Trouble, is, their relationship probably breaks the university’s code of conduct, threatening his career.

What follows are multiple Kafka-esque journeys that leave the reader wondering if fear of lawsuits will overwhelm the desire to mate. How could a man ever be sure that his lover really wanted him, if she happened to forget to say “Yes” during that romantic weekend alone? How could a woman be sure that her memory recalled “No” when a selfie turns up showing her and her partner apparently enjoying themselves? Suddenly, the rule is, there are no rules, as if there were ever rules in the first place.

Wells tells his story with the appropriate complexity, though it sometimes reads like a legal brief than the mystery it tries to be. That said, it’s a timely novel that gets underneath society’s confusion over the evolving roles of men and women in private and in public. A nation of laws expresses its values through its statutes and court decisions, and the country appears to be on its way toward another reset of the power balance between the sexes. Yes Means Yes is an excellent and well-written addition to the debate.

The author provided a copy to me in exchange for an honest review.

Carbon Run small image

My new dystopian thriller, Carbon Run, is on sale now!

Carbon Run cover reveal! And check out the novel’s official release date

Carbon Run cover

Tales From A Warming Planet: Carbon Run

I will release Carbon Run, the second story and the first novel in my series Tales From A Warming Planet, on Saturday, October 21, 2017. Woohoo! To celebrate, I’m giving you a sneak preview of the cover, created by Christian Bentulan. He’s done an amazing job.

At launch, the 327-page novel will be available in paperback and exclusively as a Kindle ebook. Here’s the description from the back cover:

What if your father had to run for his life? Carbon Run is an exciting thriller set in a dystopian world ravaged by climate change. Fossil fuels are banned, pirates smuggle oil, and governments erase citizens’ identities. Anne Penn dreamed of saving an endangered species of birds. When a fire destroys the birds’ last home, her beloved father Bill is accused of starting the blaze. Fanatic officer Janine Kilel comes to arrest Anne’s father, but Bill escapes, because in the 22nd century, destroying a species means execution. How will Anne find her father in a Russian city where the difference between good and evil is as murky as the choking smog?

Reminder: The first book in the series, The Mother Earth Insurgency, is still available as a free download from Instafreebie. The ebook features the first ten pages of chapter one in Carbon Run. However, the giveaway won’t last much longer. Soon, I’ll start selling it on Amazon, so don’t wait if you want it for free.

By the way, I’m also offering Insurgency as a free download in partnership with dozens of other independent writers. Our Thriller & Mystery Giveaway runs through September 9. Don’t miss out!

Thank you for your continued support of my work!

Grow or die: What happens when a story’s protagonist doesn’t change?

Alexander Dreyman

Alexander Dreymon stars at Uhtred of Bebbanburg in The Last Kingdom. Image courtesy Carnival Film & Television.

Fishermen love a good fish story, especially the one that got away. I was hooked by the BBC America television series The Last Kingdom, but the hook is loosening and I may spit it out. Why? Because the writers made a huge narrative mistake.

Premiering in 2015, The Last Kingdom stars Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a dispossessed Saxon noble who fights, often reluctantly, for a united England envisioned by the ninth century king of Wessex, Alfred the Great. The series is based on novels by Bernard Cornwell, who counts the historical Uhtred as an ancestor.

I’m halfway through season two, but I’m fast losing interest. It’s too bad, because this historical drama dives deep into each of its characters, from the intelligent, fearless warrior Uhtred to the pious, visionary Alfred. Each of the series’ minor characters are multi-dimensional, all fully fleshed by uniformly good performances. With a forceful plot driven by internal court intrigue and external enemies—the Viking raiders that still frighten English children—The Last Kingdom presses all my buttons.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Unfortunately, the series stumbles badly in episode three, when Uhtred returns after an enemy in an allied camp has him seized and sold as a slave. After six months as a galley slave a la Charleton Heston in Ben Hur, Uhtred is broken in body and nearly in spirit.

The protagonist is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

Herein lies the rub. One of the great joys of reading and watching fiction is seeing how a character changes over time. How do his experiences within the story change him? What does he learn? This mimics the normal growth of most people; I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, due in part to my unique experiences as a worker, a husband, a parent, and as a writer. Good fiction compresses this universal process.

In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred goes through a horrific experience as a slave. Up to this point, the character of Uhtred is predictably immature and self-serving. By the time he returns, he has lost virtually all his dignity as a man and a nobleman, feels responsible for the death of a companion, and is nearly handed over to his ultimate enemies, the Danes. His recovery is slow and painful, physically and emotionally. He is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

The experience poses fascinating questions, broad and narrow. What happens to your personality when abuse is routine and escape from captivity is out of reach? Will Uhtred understand how his womanizing hurts himself as well as the women he’s lost? Will he see that theft as a way of gaining wealth invites deadly retribution? How does this experience affect his view of life?

The answer: Not at all. A short time after his rescue from the slaver, Uhtred kills the man who orchestrated his betrayal. It’s a murder that shocks everyone, except Uhtred. Even if he hadn’t been sold into slavery, Uhtred might kill his enemy, because that’s what he does. It’s who he is. What’s more, he resumes his former life without offering the audience any reflections on his experience or more importantly, change in his behavior. No reference is made to the experience in succeeding episodes; Uhtred is the same warrior who fears nothing, chafes at his obligations, and acts almost entirely out of self-interest.

It’s hard to believe that a human being could go through six months of degradation without some damage that affects how he lives afterward. It’s a scenario for hopelessness, suggesting humans are forever trapped by their own prejudices and habits, and not even a daily brush with death can alter the course of a life. While one could argue this reflects real life, it makes for a disappointing narrative, because nothing emotionally substantive has changed after 11 episodes. A viewer could almost turn from liking Uhtred to not liking him, and perhaps abandoning him.

I have a few more episodes to go, and the producers could still redeem themselves with Uhtred showing that he is not the same man he was when he lost his family in the early episodes of season one. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure I’ll make the time to see how he fares in season three.

Netflix has yet to announce a season three for The Last Kingdom.

Review: Don’t worry. Everything will be fixed by 2037. Or will it?

artwork

Art by Saiful Haque from Seat14C.com

In the year 2037, all the uber-wealthy will be Canadian. Because they will have all the NiceCoin.

In 2037, you earn NiceCoin by being nice. For example, you open the door to let a lady through before you, instead of hitting her up for sex. Canadians, by reputation at least, are the nicest people on earth. Therefore, they will snatch up NiceCoin as if it were poutine.

NiceCoin is a fantasy, one of nearly two dozen visions of the future at Seat14C.com, a project of the XPrize Foundation, best known for its high-tech contests. In 2004, the foundation awarded its inaugural prize to SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded craft to make a suborbital flight.

XPrize wants to encourage ideas, not just firsts, and sci-fi writers love to speculate.

Continue reading

Just signed a four-book publishing deal. With myself.

publishing meme

Batman set me straight on the whole legacy publishing thing.

I’ve made a decision. Screw traditional publishing. I’ll sink or swim on my own.

I feel I’m pretty good with quick decision-making, but this one took a while, more than three years. That’s how long I’ve been pitching my climate-themed science fiction novel Carbon Run to agents and publishers, starting in December 2013 and ending in August 2016. I’ve sent 163 queries, and got back 72 rejections. The balance of my pitch letters disappeared into the publishing world ether.

That’s just Carbon Run. My two other novels in the series, City of Ice and Dreams, and Restoration, had pretty much the same fate.

A few agents and publishers asked for excerpts of Carbon Run. A few asked for full manuscripts. One agent asked for rewrites after a professional editor—whom I hired—suggested improvements. The agent still rejected the manuscript. (I’m forever grateful to the editor, John Paine, for his work. It was worth every penny. My experience with agents and publishers had nothing to do with him.)

I don’t have enough years left in my life to wait for the publishing industry to say Yes to me.

This week, after having Carbon Run in its hands for nearly eight months, the final publisher on my list of “possibles” sent its rejection. Then it sent a second rejection for City of Ice and Dreams two minutes—and I mean 120 seconds—later. I have never felt so small and dissed as a writer.

I had decided many months ago that if I could not land a traditional book publishing contract by July 1, I would self-publish the whole series. I picked that date partly to get the book into the marketplace by the Christmas buying season, and partly because I don’t have enough years left in my life to wait for the publishing industry to say Yes to me.

I admit I’m worried about the investment I have to make in time and money. I’m a full-time, career-change student, and I’ll likely dip into my retirement savings to make this indie publishing project happen. If I don’t do this, however, Carbon Run and the other novels may never see the light of day.

So today I signed a four-book publishing deal with myself: Carbon Run, City of Ice and Dreams, Restoration, and a book of short stories I’ve been pitching to magazines. (At least I got some good news on the shorts front; Bards and Sages Quarterly will publish one of my shorts early next year.)

Congratulations. To me.

School is a huge time suck, which isn’t a bad thing

Taking apart a computer

I’m practicing my new techie skills by disassembling and assembling old computers.



It’s been tough to maintain my blog lately.
Under the best of circumstances, I like to post about once a week, but school has a way of sucking time out of the universe, at least my universe.

It’s not a bad thing. I’ve never regretted my decision to go back to South Seattle College after my layoff in 2016, especially after I qualified for a little help from the state of Washington. I’ve been interested in computers most of my life, and the school’s network administration program is a natural fit. If you look at the totality of my interests and occupations, you might think that it was inevitable that I make a go of computers as a career.

The jury’s still out on whether I’ll succeed, but I’m having fun, all the same.

For spring quarter, my days are filled with figuring out MS Access databases, basic PC hardware, and Linux commands. The days rarely dull, and my skills are good enough that I can lend a hand to other students. That’s a big part of the fun. Continue reading

How LibreOffice freed my inner rebel from the shackles of Microsoft Office

meme

Yes, you do have a choice.

As moral beings, humans try to align their behavior with their values.

I don’t use Microsoft Word to write. I’ve successfully resisted putting Office on my laptop. I refuse to have anything to do with Office, if I can help it.

I admit it’s a quirk, but it’s how I live my values.

Why would a writer care about his word processing software? Do painters worry about the brand of paints they use, so long as the colors are true?

Writers don’t care about software, but they ought to.

Artists in general, and writers in particular, like to set themselves against The Man, whether it’s a corporation, a government, or some other institution that demands control and stereotyped thinking. But no writer ever thinks of the software they depend on.

I do.

Microsoft is a behemoth of a company that rakes in billions of dollars a year mostly because its convinced manufacturers and the general public that it’s the only game in town.

It isn’t.

Though they may grumble, individuals and independent businesses feel compelled to fork over hundreds of dollars every few years for the latest version of Office because they don’t think they have a choice.

They do.
Continue reading

Five Questions: Sherry Decker, author of A Summer with the Dead

A Summer with the Dead cover image

Sherry Decker’s A Summer with the Dead is scheduled for release May 1.

I heard author Sherry Decker read from her upcoming novel A Summer with the Dead at Two-Hour Transport, a monthly open mic and guest reading series at the famed Cafe Racer in the city’s Roosevelt neighborhood. I’m not normally a fan of horror, but her reading was so compelling, that I thought she was perfect for my Five Questions project. From her novel’s blurb:

“On the run from her abusive husband, Maya Pederson takes refuge with her Aunt Elly on her farm. Her first night there, Maya is wakened by a whisper. ‘Help me,’ someone begs. ‘Don’t leave me here.’ Thus begins a string of nightmarish events in Maya’s already stressful life. Disturbing dreams that seem far too real, dreams about the farm’s history, dreams about murder and blood and bodies buried under the house.”

Sounds pretty cool!

Do you remember the first character you created?
That would have been in fourth grade. The protagonist’s name escapes me, but it was about a little Native American girl who wanted to do something important, but was sickly and smaller than all the other kids. All I remember is that someone shot at her with an arrow. The arrow went through one of her long braids and she was carried up into the sky where she became a bright star.

Sherry Decker

Sherry Decker

How did you feel when you saw your work in print for the first time?
That was a short story was titled The Lender. It appeared in local writer/editor Lisa Jean Bothell’s magazine Heliocentric Net in 1994. I recall standing in my kitchen, holding the publication, heart pounding, staring at the story and my name in print, thinking . . . wow! It was a surreal feeling, something I had tried to picture since second grade. Even now it’s a miraculous feeling. I always feel honored and confused both. It’s amazing that other people not only want to read what I write, they apparently like it and will actually pay me for it.

What is your favorite piece of advice for new writers?
Persevere! Don’t give up! Don’t write what you know; write what you love! Also, read everything: advertisements, comic books, classics, experimental, fiction, nonfiction, movie reviews, books reviews, anthologies, collections . . . everything! Writers have their favorite parts regarding writing. Some love the imagination-creative process where we “open that vein and spill our blood all over the paper” and some love the editing process where we perfect our work. I’ve gone from one to the other and back again.

I also love marketing and communicating with editors and publishers. I pay close attention the writer’s guidelines provided by most editors and advise beginning writers to do the same. You can seriously irritate an editor by ignoring those guidelines.

This is usually ignored by most beginning writers: avoid adverbs! Seriously. Not in dialogue, of course, because people use adverbs when they talk, but you’ll be way ahead of other beginners if you refuse to use adverbs in your narrative. Instead, go to the effort and agony (I went through verbal gymnastics) to find a powerful verb instead. Dig for your verbs. And, attend conventions. Take a big breath and approach those editors, publishers and other authors. Continue reading

Two-Hour Transport: A journey into Seattle’s sci-fi and fantasy community

Two-Hour Transport

Podcaster Anaea Lay of Strange Horizons reads her work at Two-Hour Transport in Seattle.

Seattle’s reputation as a literary town includes an enormous presence in the science fiction and fantasy universe. The great Octavia Butler, author of the Parable of the Sower, penned her works in the shadow of the Space Needle, the city’s iconic landmark. Other authors include Don McQuinn, Cat Rambo, and Shawn Speakman. Lesser known and budding writers are nurtured by a vibrant writing community, and recently a new series of events is encouraging fresh voices to speak up.

Theresa Barker, Nicole Bade, and other writers are producing “Two-Hour Transport,” a monthly series featuring readings by established sci-fi, fantasy, and horror authors. These invited readers share published work or test out new work on an audience at Cafe Racer, a funky, arts-oriented watering hole in Seattle a few blocks from the University of Washington. The most recent THT I attended was on March 22, and it featured horror writer Sherry Decker, reading from her upcoming novel A Summer With the Dead, and Anaea Lay, the fiction podcast editor for Strange Horizons magazine.

In a new group called “Brag-a-Thon,” participants win a sticker when rejected by an agent or publisher.

The quirkiest segment of the THT program is the open mic, when up to ten writers ranging from pure novices to experienced pros take five minutes to share something and build up their presentation chops. Almost anything goes, from poetry in the style of Lewis Carroll to excerpts of full-length science fiction novels in progress. I’ve had great fun presenting my own work a few times, and the audience is always friendly and appreciative, no matter the skill level. It helps that everyone sips a beer or a glass of wine to support a neighborhood business.

Two-Hour Transport is part of a larger ad hoc collection of meetups under the banner of the North Seattle SciFi and Fantasy Writers, which started out several years ago as reading groups meeting in local cafes. The meetups include a regular Sunday critique group at Wayward Cafe in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood, and a new group, a monthly “Brag-a-Thon,” in which participants win a sticker for having a story rejected by an agent or a publisher. It’s all intended to build solidarity in a traditional publishing business growing less and less welcoming of writers, ironically, particularly new writers, if they don’t fit into a pre-existing pigeonhole.

I’ve enjoyed every moment of my participation in these groups. It puts the lie to the image of the lonely scribbler at his or her word processor pounding out the next great American sci-fi novel. Though a writer can isolate himself, writing is a social act that depends on support from friends, feedback from colleagues, and if you’re very lucky, help from a publisher. Here’s to a long run for Two-Hour Transport and her sister activities.

The next Two-Hour Transport is Wednesday, April 26, at at Cafe Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle. To participate in the open mic, place your name in the hat near the stage.

Have you attended a Two-Hour Transport reading? What did you think?

How would King Arthur’s knights cope with a climate-changed world?

King Arthur painting

James Archer painted The Death of Arthur in 1861. King Arthur lays mortally wounded after his final battle. He waits for a ship to take him to the Isle of Avalon.

My wife and I drove from Seattle to Powell’s Books in Portland a couple of weeks ago to satisfy an itch. At this point, I’ve written three novels and eight shorts in the world of Carbon Run, but the project has run its course. Is there another way to explore the idea of a post-global warming world in which protecting the environment is the society’s single most important value?

For a variety of reasons, my mind turned to fantasy, which is odd, because I’ve never been attracted to epic fantasy, or high fantasy. I found Tolkien too dense and I shrugged at most other dragons-and-magic stories. Having said that, I enjoyed the early novels in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”). He plays down the wand-waving and flying lizards shtick in favor of character development and relationships.

This led to a realization: I do enjoy at least one fantasy tradition: the Arthurian legends. It’s easy to forget that these romances were the literary fiction of the High Middle Ages, and they’re full of magic objects, fabulous beasts, and so on. The stories of King Arthur are as much about greed, lust, pride, loyalty, bravery, and family drama as they are about enchantments and floating castles. Merlin, as an archetype, gets a lot of play in modern fantasy, but his role is relatively limited, though important, in the Arthurian stories. I like that. Continue reading