The Accidental Femdom Writer

Like nearly everyone else reading this blog, I’ve loved romance for a long time. I love the fact that it’s a genre devoted to a woman’s emotional journey, to the development of two characters as they grow and change because of each other. I love the way the genre takes sexuality seriously, and affirms that yes, this part of a woman’s life is important, is crucial, even, to her fulfillment as she develops in her self-awareness and strength. I know I’m not the first person to note that very little other media is devoted to this aspect of women’s lives from a woman’s point of view, as the drivers of desire rather than as simply objects of male desire, or the first to note how subversive and radical that is.

When I started writing Have Mercy, my first real attempt at writing romance, I thought a lot about what it means to be a woman with sexual desires in this culture, particularly a woman in the public eye, where every aspect of our contradictory relationship with women and sex is amplified. I realized that what seemed to be considered most deviant was a woman who actively wanted. Even in my own fantasies, I was afraid to let myself want– I had to turn myself into an object, someone to be wanted by someone else. What kind of woman, I wondered, could free herself enough to turn that social conditioning around? And what kind of consequences would she face for it?

But even after deciding that about Emme, my protagonist, I still couldn’t make myself cross the final barrier into femdom. I wrote and wrote, and there was something about my sex scenes that was just off. It wasn’t until I finally shared half a manuscript with Mary Ann Rivers that she did a close reading and pointed out all the clues that were lurking there in the text, and suggested that maybe, just maybe, there was a dynamic that I was writing around instead of tackling head-on.

And I was writing around it instead of just writing it because it was fucking terrifying.

Those social consequences I’d written for my character were the very ones I was afraid of facing myself, if I wrote femdom. Even if what I wrote was the mildest version of BDSM (and in many ways, it is), femdom is still sexually in-your-face. Shocking. Outside of the norm. If writing romance in general might give away the fact that you’re a woman who experiences desire, writing femdom might give away the fact that you’re a woman who should probably be locked in the attic because otherwise you’ll chain up innocent men and ruin their lives by sucking out their souls. Or something.

But the more I thought about Emme, and the more I thought about Tom, the more I realized that I couldn’t write their dynamic any other way. I’d written a woman who wanted, a woman who fought to be taken seriously at every turn, and to have one man who trusted her judgment, believed in her without constantly questioning her skill, her professionalism, her talent, or her very sanity would be such a relief for her. To have one man who just did what she asked, for once, would be so appealing. And as for Tom, to know a woman who was so competent that he could trust her, and could let go, would be the best gift he could be given. He would cherish being able to give love and affection without having to worry about whether or not she could take care of herself.

Starting off with one “what-if” that reversed a gendered stereotype– a woman who wanted, rather than a woman who was wanted– led me all the way to femdom. It doesn’t have to work that way, but it did for me, for this book, for these characters. I’d like to think that we’ll see more and more of this kind of dynamic in romance, that it will begin to seem less deviant, soon, not only because I love reading it, but because on a larger cultural level, it might indicate that we have finally begun to accept a more flexible view of sexuality, both male and female. I’m hopeful, since there have been some fantastic femdom books written by writers of this very blog, as well as some of my favorites: Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, and Del Dryden; and short stories by Anne Calhoun and Edie Harris in the Agony/Ecstasy anthology.

For writers, have you ever accidentally written a theme that scares you? For readers, do you have a favorite femdom book?

And, since this is shameless self-promotion, have a buy link: Have Mercy at Amazon or at Barnes and Noble

Posted in Reading, Shameless Self-Promotion | 6 Comments

Guest Post: Jeffe Kennedy (with bonus sparkly princess castles!)

Today we have a very special guest on Wonkomance: fabulous writer and all-around nifty person Jeffe Kennedy! She’s here to talk to us about grownup fairytales (also winning at grandparenting). Take it away, Jeffe:


Jeffe KennedyThis past weekend I had occasion to visit a Toys R Us in Denver. Not, by any stretch, my usual habitat.

It was my grandson’s birthday and he wanted a LEGO thing, of a very particular variety. Those of you with younger kids are likely nodding along at this point, because you *know* about this phenomenon, which is apparently pretty huge. Something we never dealt with when our own kids were little. In our ongoing attempt to be at least decent grandparents – those of you how know me will understand I am not a cookie-baking, babysitting sort of grandmother – David and I wanted to get our grandson something he would enjoy. He’s a serious minded kid, with an almost scary level of concentration for all things engineering. All around, we can get behind giving him things to build for hours on end.

Along with three books, one of them a lushly illustrated fairy tale. *ahem*

So, I had picked out the books – since I am a book-obsessed sort of grandmother – and David was in charge of selecting the ideal LEGO thing. Because, for better or worse, he’s got the knack for picking out what lights up our boy’s heart. While he did that, I searched for a little present for our granddaughter, who is two years younger than her brother and still doesn’t quite understand if there’s nothing for her, too. I wandered over to the pink area of the LEGO stuff. (And no, this won’t be a rant about the Big Pink Aisles, though I’ve read the rants from you parents of little girls and I get what you’re saying.) I spotted a glass case with sparkly castles inside. And they were on spinners, so you could rotate them. Two little girls stood there, playing and chattering in electrified excitement.

When they ran off, I couldn’t help but give a castle a little spin, too.

Because Sparkly Fairy Tale Castle.

Yeah, I have that in me. I dressed up as a princess – in fact I reduced my mother’s tiered, ruffled, taffeta-and-net wedding dress slip to tatters over successive years because it made the perfect ball gown. Especially when draped with a floral former bed skirt. (Scarlett O’Hara, eat your heart out!) Even today, I have shelves of fairy tale books and all of those princess fantasies left over. Yes, I absolutely dreamed of being rescued by my prince charming. The idea of the hero who would fight his way through a wall of thorns to wake me with a kiss sent my girlish heart thumping.

True confession: It still does.

For me – maybe for a whole lot of girls, as the marketing gurus seem to have figured out – romance has long been tangled up with princes, heroes, a taste of peril, a pretty ball gown and, yes, sparkly castles. More than just romance. It’s about the sex, too.

I mean, come on, the princess gets carried off by the prince – after he wakes her, or brings her to life, with a kiss. I know I’m not the only one whose girlish dreams of pretty dresses and handsome rescuers morphed into adolescent fantasies of being tossed over the prince’s lap and having those colorful taffeta skirts lifted. Locked in a tower? Oh yes. Married off to the Beast? Mmm hmm. Getting to be queen and taking revenge on anyone who’d ever slighted me?? Yes yes yes!

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t sexual so much.

Mark of the TalaJanet Webb from Heroes & Heartbreakers, who did a tremendously insightful (okay, really flattering) First Look at my new book The Mark of the Tala, wrote me she doesn’t read the genre – if there is a genre label that fits, she added – but I’d hooked her and she’s waiting for the sequel. I told her my publisher calls it Fantasy, but that I think Fantasy Romance also fits. Janet suggested Grown-up Fantasy Fairytale. I replied with “YES! All of our princess fantasies, but with the sex overt instead of subtext.”

Which led to this post.

Because that’s what it comes down to for me – the intersection of romance, fantasy and sexuality. It’s not hip these days, to be into the princess thing. I get why, with the Big Pink Aisles and the problematic Disney princesses. I’m an independent woman, a feminist, a scientist. I have a graduate degree in a fairly rarified field (neuroscience) and I make the lion’s share of the money in our household working for an environmental consulting firm. Which makes me the kind of grandmother who gives her granddaughter books about animal bones.

But I’m also a romance writer. I believe in love, intimacy and living out one’s sexual fantasies – in fiction or nonfiction.

Thus, when David found me in another aisle, I had in my hands a sparkly unicorn, being ridden by a fairy girl with big translucent wings and flowers in her hair. He frowned at it a little, and remarked that our granddaughter had really liked the soccer ball he’d gotten for her last. I said, yes, but now she has a soccer ball and I wanted to give her this. A little girl walked by just then and I held out my find and asked her if she liked it.

Her lips parted, eyes went big – I probably could have tracked the pupil dilation – and she breathed out, reverently, “oh yes – that is awesome.”

Nothing at all wrong with indulging in what lights up our hearts.

Sparkly Castles

You can find Jeffe all over the internet at:

Her website:

Her blog:

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Posted in Guest Post, Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | 17 Comments

When Heroes Fall

It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

Scratch that.

It’s been a rough couple of decades.

My heroes, writers whose work I have loved with a passion, who I have admired and promoted and hoped to emulate some day, have turned out to be . . . Oh, what’s the phrase I’m looking for?

Idols with feet of clay?

Less than perfect?

Ah, no. I’ve got it.

Horrible fucking human beings.

This is not a new thing, of course. I was an English Lit. major in college. I put in my time arguing about whether or not Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was truly racist or merely reflective of the general beliefs of his time—Chinua Achebe’s argument that “Great artists manage to be bigger than their times” absolutely convinced me of Conrad’s racism, by the way—or breaking down the misogyny in Lawrence’s Women in Love or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. (Although the recent discovery of an essay in which Lawrence argued “the revolutionary idea that women are human” casts some new light upon this issue. I bet the arguments in Lit. classes have been tweaked again!)

But it’s easier, having these debates about books whose authors are long dead. My emotional attachment to them as people is limited. The repercussions, particularly financial, of engaging with their work are also limited. My own personal involvement in the author in question’s life is non-existent. The excuse that “they lived so long ago that they simply didn’t know better, as we do today,” while not an all-absolving panacea (see Achebe), always hovers over the books, the plays, the essay, like a benevolent ghost who smooths away the rough edges and leaves us something soft and palatable. It is okay to enjoy these authors and their work still, because we know better these days.

I have been so very, very naive.

I’m also not sure I’m even capable of arguing coherently about the subject right now. There is a difference between pointing out racism or misogyny or what have you in a text and pointing out such things in an author’s personal life. There are crimes that are authorial and crimes that are actual, legal crimes for which one goes to prison. And I’m conflating these things right now, mostly because the number of horrifying things about which I am outraged is growing so rapidly that I’m having a hard time keeping track of them.

Orson Scott Card was one of my first heartbreaks.

I first read Ender’s Game in college, I think. I’d already become a fan of Card’s work while reading the Alvin Maker series, an alternative history of North America in frontier times that echoed, to me, the magical realism I was also discovering in my literature classes. Ender’s Game is a SFF classic and I connected with that text in a way that felt nearly primal in its essentialism. I understood Ender in my soul. (I will ask you to excuse the melodrama by remembering that I was still in my late teens. Nearly everything affected my soul, often also giving rise to some truly terrible poetry.) When Card, in Speaker for the Dead, took Ender away from Earth and on a journey of discovery through space and time, I went with him. He opened my mind. No doubt he did some more work on my soul too.

And then years later, I came across this:

“Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”

That’s Orson Scott Card in 1990 in an article called “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.”

Well, that sucked. I was already a feminist and a gay rights supporter, going to school at an East Coast women’s college where it was clear that one of the benefits of being at Mount Holyoke was a remarkable lack of fear that you’d get the shit beat out of you for holding hands with a girlfriend while walking around outside. Finding out that Card genuinely believed that homosexual behavior (and I particularly enjoy his careful phrasing there, so he can still talk about his homosexual friends who he knows and loves, because it’s not gay people who are bad, just any actions they take that express their, you know, gayness) was a valid reason to send someone to prison was shocking. It rang with cognitive dissonance.

Card, after all, was the man who wrote an entire book (Speaker for the Dead) about the concept of Otherness. One of his characters writes as an essayist under the pen name Demosthenes and describes an elaborate “hierarchy of exclusion” that delineates degrees of strangerhood or Otherness. The overarching theme of Speaker for the Dead is that we must not judge others unless we can take them in our hearts from being Other to being deeply understood. Until we can know them as we knows ourselves and, through that process, understand ourselves more truly than we did before.

And the same guy who wrote that book also said that gay people who do not deny themselves from ever having sexual contact with a same sex person “cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society”?


I was baffled. How could this be the same person? I wondered if maybe that essay merely reflected some old, outdated thinking.

Except, no.

As activism ramped up and states began legalizing marriage equality, via the judicial system or via the ballot box, it became clear that Card’s bigotry was no relic of the past. When the movie version of Ender’s Game was announced, it didn’t take more than a minute for people to start collecting examples that ranged all the way up until last year.

This was bad.

I found myself, along with countless Orson Scott Card fans, trying to figure out what to do. This was not a purely intellectual argument about whether or not an author who lived in a previous century was a bigot or a sexist or just an all around horrible human being. This man was a living, breathing, donating-his-money-to-campaigns-to-deny-basic-rights-to-others human being.

For me, this changes a lot. I understand the argument that Card has already been paid for the rights to film his book and that the money I spend on a movie ticket doesn’t go to him. That he no doubt sold the film rights to his book ages ago. That supporting the film supports actors and production people, electricians and costumers and the poor kids trying to get a foot in the door by fetching coffee for movie stars, almost all of whom were outspoken in their condemnation of Card’s bigotry.

Except, no.

Because if that movie was a success, they’ll want to make another. If that movie is a success, new generations of readers will go out and buy Card’s book, which absolutely benefits him financially.

And I’m even torn about that. Because the books in that series are powerful and they speak directly in opposition to the very bigotry Card trumpets every chance he gets. I have a ten-year-old son. I want him to read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, to learn from them as I did. I think reading those books will make him a better person. It’s just that reading those books also supports a terrible human being.

How to draw this line?

I decided that as long as I kept my original copies of the books, so that no further financial gain was experienced by the author as a result of my son reading them, and as long as I committed to conversation with my son about Card’s beliefs and how strongly I disagreed with them–how I voted with my ballots and my wallet and my mouth every time I could to support equality–then I could expose my kid to these books that so changed my own thinking.

Are you exhausted yet? I’m exhausted. I was so, so tired of thinking about these issues. I was so, so glad this was the worst of the worst and that I’d reconciled my own mind and could move on.

Except, no.

Because it never stops. And the awfulness is sometimes less awful, but sometimes it is so, so much worse.

Greg Mortenson wrote Three Cups of Tea and once again, I fell in love. My Goodreads review of this book is still up, a reminder of how very wrong a reader’s judgment can be. I flogged this book to everyone I knew. I raised money for CAI, the nonprofit organization created by Mortenson that was building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the conditions that locals both participated in the building and committed to allowing their girls to go to school.

Much of Mortenson story has since been exposed as a fabrication (most exhaustively by Jon Krakauer in his exposé, Three Cups of Deceit) and his charity is under investigation for mismanagement of funds. I was not alone in my feelings of betrayal when this story broke. Three Cups of Tea, and its editions written for children, brought many people to activism. The passion readers developed for this book, readers as elevated as Admiral Mike Mullen and General Stanley McChrystal (and don’t think that didn’t thrill me…the military taking lessons from a nonprofit on how to engage more helpfully with the people whose country they were invading! This book was magic!), was amazing to see. The corresponding disbelief and depression were equally overwhelming. But surely, this is a rarity, this revelation that someone we have admired so much could be so flawed.

Except, no.

Two weeks ago, during the final proofreading edit of one of my manucripts, an error in attribution was caught. I had referenced a statement made by General Eisenhower about Field Marshal Montgomery as my heroine, a World War II history buff, explains the origin of her company’s unusual name. The comment in the margins said, “A quick Google search shows that Roosevelt said this (or some variation of this) about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. I can’t find any mention of Eisenhower saying this about Montgomery.”

I was confused. An error on my part was not impossible, but it seemed odd that I would mix up speaker and subject and era, all at the same time. Maybe Eisenhower stole the words from Roosevelt when he wanted to insult the Field Marshall? It was easy enough to investigate. Although I had first drafted this ms. more than a decade ago, I knew that I’d been in the middle of a Stephen Ambrose obsession and it was in one of his books where I’d come across the story. To Google I went, determined to figure out the mystery.

I typed Stephen Ambrose into Google . . . and the very first autofill that came up was Stephen Ambrose plagiarism.

You’d think these things would come as less and less of a surprise to me.

I’d missed it entirely when the scandal was first exposed, but Ambrose has since been revealed as both a plagiarist and a fabricator of his interviews, most notoriously with Eisenhower (ah ha . . . this explains my mis-attributed quote), but clearly a repeat offender, going all the way back to his college thesis.

Picture me sitting on the floor (my WWII history bookshelves are on the bottom of one bookcase) in shock. Stephen Ambrose? Stephen fucking Ambrose? The author of D-Day and Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers. The Founding Director of the Eisenhower Center for Leadership, where they have raced to collect oral histories of World War II from the men and women of that generation before they die and those stories are lost to us.

I have sat on Omaha beach in Normandy, Stephen Ambrose’s book in my hands, and read and cried because his words had the power to make the stories of so many individuals real to me at that moment. History is so often taught to us from on high, movements of governments and cultures and armies. The story of the individual is usually lost, or disregarded. Ambrose’s books, quoting extensively from oral histories, put the individual front and center. You never lose sight of the overall context of the war, but you read about the man who thought it was ridiculous that his supplies for the D-Day invasion included cigarettes, until his fear drove him to start smoking on the boat ride over. You read in their own words about men and women’s pain and suffering and fear until you understand that this big picture event in history, World War II, was composed of so many millions of individual stories, and this understanding changes you.

Ironically, my son is also a WWII history buff and I had just introduced him to Ambrose via a collection of his essays, some of which my kid had devoured with his typical, quote everything aloud to me while reading, passion. So here I was again, not only fixing the problem in my manuscript and dealing with my own disillusionment, but also having to discuss with my son this unhappy revelation about his most recent historian idol. To introduce to him, at such a young age, the idea that you cannot simply trust people, even those we respect or who are in positions of authority that would lead you to believe they were worthy of that trust.

I’m going to stop using Except, no here, because what I have learned is that it doesn’t end. Ever. And I need to stop writing and thinking as if there is ever a finish line in this race.

Last week, I found out about SFF author Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband, Walter Breen. I am going to keep details limited, because they are horrifying and triggering. (The links here lead to posts that are nauseating and if you have any sensitivity to descriptions of assault, rape, child abuse, please prepare yourself before you click.) Suffice it to say that Bradley and Breen both participated in and covered for each other over decades of child abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Details of this abuse have been revealed in court documents, in journals from witnesses at the time, and in statements from Bradley’s daughter, Moira. Many people have been writing about this extensively in the past few weeks, including Deirdre Saoirse Moen on her blog and Natalie Luhrs at Radish Reviews, triggered by an author profile from Tor on the anniversary of her birth that has since been taken down.

I spent hours on Twitter talking to Deirdre and Natalie and others, trying to reconcile once again my understanding of an author with their real-life actions. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books might have been my earliest exposure to feminism. They were certainly my earliest exposure to positively-written queer characters (because I’d read Heinlein first, but even as a teenager I recognized that a man writing female characters who happily screwed each other at the drop of a hat, or the trousers of their male partners who enthusiastically joined in, was just creepy fantasizing). The first story I ever submitted professionally was to one of MZB’s Sword & Sorceress anthologies. I was in high school, and the personalized rejection I received which encouraged me to submit again is still in a file folder in my cabinet. The Mists of Avalon was revelatory to me as both a reader and a writer, showing me that you could take a story known by so many and completely change it’s meaning, merely by adding women as real people to the events so “clearly” understood previously. Bradley’s author notes in the backs of her books described her large, sprawling household as a writer/artist commune, with people (most of them young, coincidentally, and vulnerable) moving in with them for years at a time. I remember reading those notes and wishing I could go there. Wishing I too could live in that house, with that family of authors and songwriters and creative people of all kinds.

This is rather sickening, in retrospect. And although Marion Zimmer Bradley is no long alive, her estate apparently still profits an individual who is also currently defending Bradley’s reputation.

So, I am struggling. I am struggling to understand how to think about these writers. What to do going forward. I do not wish to erase their works from existence, although I completely understand and support those whose reaction is to throw away the books and never read one again. But I also know that these book have changed lives, saved lives (I have lost track of where I read a comment by someone who talked about how MZB’s books helped her at a time in life when she felt suicidal), and I don’t want to take away from future generations the possibility of finding that same mind-opening or comforting experience in these texts. I also believe that there is value in working on problematic texts, in analyzing them and understanding ourselves and our complicity in a culture that allows those who cause harm to continue doing so for years, decades, without the most basic examination of their actions.

Mostly I just don’t know what to do.

Maybe the problem is with me. Maybe I am the one who needs to grow up, to stop idolizing people based on their words, whether fiction or non-fiction. To stop believing so strongly that this thing that I do, this job that I love–telling stories–that has the ability to change a mind, change a heart, change the world, necessarily goes hand in hand with being a decent human being.

Because it doesn’t.

I’m not sure where I go from here. There are many people writing much more intelligently than I on all of these subjects. I am aware that I have made no coherent argument in this post. That this is simply an outpouring of my own personal grief, which is trivial in light of the damage that is has been and is being done to real people, whose suffering is both vastly worse than mine and also ongoing. I take some comfort from knowing that my participation in the Summer Rain anthology supports RAINN, a group whose work does so much good for survivors of abuse and assault. But how do I counteract the damage done by my support of all of these writers, over so many years? How do I stay on top of information as it comes to light so that my enthusiastic support for some book in the future doesn’t promote the fame and fortune of yet another person causing harm?

I don’t have enough answers. Any answers, really. And I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

ETA: Natalie Luhrs has corrected my mistaken impression that the MZB profile was issued by her publisher. It was posted by Tor, who regularly profiles important writers.

Posted in Formative Wonk, Reading, Thinky | 30 Comments