Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Diversity

The Purpose of a Gun

What is the purpose of a gun?

It’s a  question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Las Vegas massacre, and has come to the fore again with the massacre in Parkland and the national discussion about gun violence that has followed. It’s a simple question, but it’s one that I think doesn’t get enough attention, because the answers get to the heart of the gun debate in the United States.

The simple answer to this question is that a gun is a device for propelling projectiles at high enough velocities to kill animals at a distance. More specifically, many guns are for killing human beings. That’s what guns are designed to do. But when I ask about the purpose of a gun, I don’t mean “what do they literally do?” I mean, “why do people buy them? Why do people think they need guns?”

Many gun owners will say that they own guns for defense. They want to protect their property, themselves, and their families from harm. Others will say that they own guns for hunting: killing animals for sport and/or food, and all of the culture and traditions that go with that.  Polls show that those are far and away the two main reasons people own guns. Of course, guns serve another purpose as well: they are used in war for killing people. Our species has put a lot of effort into finding better ways to kill each other, and modern firearms are one result.

So, guns are for self defense, hunting, and war. But guns are more than just simple tools. Guns have a deep cultural significance that other tools don’t. People get emotional about guns. Why is that?

It helps to look at those three purposes more closely. Self defense, hunting, and war are intimately linked with our culture’s ideas of masculinity. The “man of the house” is traditionally responsible for keeping his wife and kids safe. Hunting is a manly thing to do: it is a rite of passage for boys to go out hunting with their fathers, and bringing home meat to feed the family again plays into the idea of the man’s role as provider for the household. And soldiers are seen as the epitome of masculinity, taking the man’s role of defender of the family and expanding to to defender of the country. Historically, killing has been a man’s job.

The purpose of a gun in modern American culture is not just as a tool, but as a talisman of masculinity. A fetish, worshiped for its power to confer masculinity on its wielder.

Couple the gun’s near-mystical status with a culture that is deeply misogynistic, where men seek to distance themselves from anything that seems even remotely feminine. The easiest way to insult a man in our culture is to question his masculinity, to imply that he is in some way woman-like. Men are taught that they must constantly prove their masculinity to themselves and each other, so what better way than to acquire guns? Surely nobody can question my masculinity if I own an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

At the same time, expressing any emotion other than anger is seen as feminine and therefore forbidden to any self-respecting red-blooded man. Boys don’t cry. Boys are supposed to like gym class and play sports so they can prove their physical prowess against other boys. Boys are not supposed to like poetry or drama, because those activities involve openly sharing emotions other than anger.

That said, our culture is changing fast. Women are breaking down barriers everywhere you look. Same sex couples can get married. Nerds are cool. The #MeToo movement is exposing rampant sexual harassment and men who have long gotten away with it are finally facing consequences. We had 8 years with an African American president. Cherished bastions of popular culture like Star Wars and superhero movies are having success after success by featuring women and people of color.

There’s a saying that goes: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right now a lot of white men, raised in a hyper-masculine culture, are seeing these shifts and feel like they are under attack. Plenty of men are able to adapt to the changing culture and celebrate it, but there is a segment of the population who instead double down on toxic masculinity. They perceive a threat to their way of life, and in response they acquire arsenals and continue to repress emotions to prove their masculinity at any cost.

There is another facet to guns that also comes into play here. Not only are they powerful symbols of masculinity, but guns offer the illusion of control. It is terrifying to think of an armed intruder breaking into your house and threatening your family, so many people want a gun so that if such a situation arises, they will not feel helpless. They can take control of the situation rather than wait for the cops to arrive. Studies show that having a gun in your house actually puts your family at greater risk, but it feels like it does the exact opposite. Likewise, the idea of a mass shooting is terrifying, and makes people feel helpless. You hear gun advocates say that they want to carry weapons to prevent such attacks, that if we just had more “good guys with guns” then we’d be safer. What they are really saying is that they cannot deal with feeling helpless if such a situation were to arise. By carrying a gun, they feel like if they found themselves in an attack, they could do something about it. This is of course not backed up by reality, where having numerous armed civilians in a shooting is likely to just add to the chaos, cause additional unwanted injuries, and make it much harder for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively. But the idea of having a gun is comforting because it gives an illusion of control.

So what we end up with are heavily armed, emotionally stunted, white men who feel like their way of life is under attack, and turn to guns as a way to reassert control. It’s the perfect recipe for gun massacres.

It is obvious that this country needs better laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on weapons that make killing easy. But I think it is equally obvious that gun violence in this country is also a byproduct of a deeply toxic culture of masculinity, and that if we want to curb the violence we need to work hard to change that culture.

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception  that science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.

 

The Fight of Our Lives Has Begun

I know. Things are looking pretty grim these days.

The new administration rode a wave of nationalist and racist rhetoric to power and kicked off with an inauguration speech centered on the anti-semitic phrase “America First.” They vowed to publish a weekly list of supposed crimes committed by immigrants, drafted plans to have the military review what students are learning in school, and their official press briefings are  full of blatant lies, part of a broader campaign to gaslight us into questioning whether facts even exist. The president himself continues to work to undermine public trust in the free press, the electoral process, and even the judiciary branch. Government agencies are being censored for statements of fact. There is talk of the president establishing his own personal intelligence agency, and he has appointed a political adviser (and vocal white nationalist Nazi-sympathizer) to the National Security Council while demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is no longer hyperbolic to compare recent events to the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

On top of all that, the cabinet is being stuffed with billionaires with a combined net worth greater than a third of Americans (or the GDPs 70 small countries), many of whom seem to be hand-chosen to be as destructive as possible to the departments that they will lead. Our new Secretary of State will be an ex-oil CEO who is friends with Vladimir Putin, the man who meddled in our election to get Trump elected. The nominee for Secretary of Education has stated that she sees education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” The nominee for attorney general was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986. The nominee for secretary of health and human services wants to dismantle the Affordable Care act, denying insurance coverage to millions. And on and on and on.

Meanwhile, Republicans are striking while the iron is hot, pushing their own awful legislation at the national and local levels, and exhibiting such breathtaking hypocrisy regarding the supreme court position that became vacant with almost a year left of Obama’s second term that thinking about it too hard renders me incapable of coherent speech.

In the face of all of this, depending on your political persuasion it’s easy to either dismiss the ongoing freakout among liberals as overreaction, or to become overwhelmed and just give up.

We must do neither.

Believe me when I say that I sincerely hope that things won’t be as bad as they seem, but lives – and arguably, the foundations of our government – are in peril right now, so I’d much rather overreact than be complacent.

Believe me too when I say that I am living on the edge of being overwhelmed by all of the bad news every single day. I understand that feeling and the temptation to just tune out, look away, and hope for the best.

After all, none of this was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be self-evident that truth matters, that facts are real, that other human beings are deserving of our empathy rather than our hatred. We took for granted that a presidential candidate so mendacious and morally bankrupt, so openly racist and misogynist and ignorant could not win the nomination, let alone the election. That he did shines a harsh light on the flaws in our electoral process and our culture as a whole, and his actions in the first two weeks of his presidency reveal that the very edifice of our government is not as sturdy as we once thought.

It’s easy to despair, but despairing won’t make this better. It is clear that we can’t just count on progress to happen. It is time for us to stand up and fight, and despite the doom and gloom associated with the last couple weeks, I am also encouraged to see that people are doing just that.

It began with the amazing Women’s March, and continues with acts of resistance large and small. Lawyers working pro-bono in airports to help travelers stranded by the anti-Muslim ban. Strangers working together to erase Nazi graffiti on the subway. Tens of thousands planning a March for Science. Acting attorney general Sally Yates refusing to enforce the ban. The national parks service standing up for truth.

Just last week I attended my first political activism meeting ever, and I know I’m not alone. Other friends of mine are doing the same, or even organizing their own groups. Members of congress are complaining that they are being swamped by all of the phone calls they’re getting.

We must fight. And we must keep fighting every step of the way. We may have lost the white house due to the quirks of the electoral college, but we won the popular vote by more than 3 million. We are the majority. We have facts and human decency on our side. The Republicans won the latest battle, but they are going to lose the war.

There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a rough few years, but I sincerely believe that if we fight, what we are experiencing right now will not be the beginning of a right-wing authoritarian regime, but the dying gasp of a toxic brand of politics that has been growing and festering for decades. The demographics of this country will continue to shift in our favor, and most people, even if they don’t identify as liberal, agree with liberal policies once they hear them. Trump’s election is horrible, and the policies that the white house and the Republican congress will put into place are going to harm our country and ruin countless lives. But I think this will also serve as the catalyst for a new era of left-leaning grassroots activism that will first minimize the damage done and then carry on to steer the country to become that “more perfect union” that president Obama always talked about.

For that to happen we must commit to our duty as citizens to speak out any way we can. Our resistance must not fade once the flurry of confirmation hearings and shocking executive orders dies down. Republicans are counting on us losing the interest and will to continue resisting. They think of liberals as spineless, poorly organized, easily distracted and discouraged. We must prove them wrong. We must accept the fact that this fight doesn’t end in a few weeks or months. This fight is going to continue for the rest of our lives, but if we can work together and keep up the pressure, we can do our part in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

We are the majority. We need to act like it. Stop second-guessing and questioning ourselves, stop playing nice in congress, and start fighting for what we know is right. We are going to face losses in the near term, and there will be times when each of us needs to step away from the news for a bit, take a mental health break and refocus. But the key is, once recovered we have to jump back in.

Keep calling.

Keep writing.

Keep protesting.

Keep resisting.

We are strong. Individually it may feel hopeless, but together our voices are too loud to ignore.

 

 

Orange is the New Black is the best show on TV

Yes, better than Game of Thrones. Those of you who know me and how much I enjoy Game of Thrones will recognize what it means for me to make a statement like that, but I just finished watching Season 4 of Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and it blew me away. Some shows are good at first but fizzle as they use up their source material and have to start inventing their own. OITNB is the exact opposite: Season 1 is easily the weakest because it tries to sort of follow the premise of the book that inspired the show. It focuses on Piper Chapman, the naive young white woman who finds herself in jail for transporting drug money a decade ago.  But it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman is actually the least interesting part of the show.

Each episode, in addition to the multiple different plot threads that are taking place in the present, we get to see the backstory of one of the inmates (and guards). What their life was like, and how they ended up in jail. Episode by episode, characters who at first are just bit parts or stereotypes or antagonists or the butts of jokes are fleshed out into real people. And it’s worth pointing out that most of the characters on this show are women of color. The show is unrivaled in its ability to focus on demographics that are usually neglected in TV and movies, and the ensemble cast is amazing.

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By telling the stories of such a diverse group of characters, OITNB is also able to touch on a wide range of real world issues and transform them from something abstract into concrete, often emotionally wrenching stories. Here are a few of the issues that I can think of off the top of my head that the show touches upon:

  • Privatization of prisons
  • White privilege
  • Racism
  • Drug addiction
  • LGBT rights
  • Mental health
  • Rape and consent
  • Veterans issues
  • Liberal guilt
  • Police violence
  • Sexism
  • Freedom of religion
  • Employment for former convicts
  • Overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent crimes
  • etc.

What I really love is that while one or another of these issues might take center stage on any given episode, the other ones don’t just go away. This is a show that recognizes that in the real world, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They are all interconnected, and that makes them that much harder to deal with.

With so many heavy issues, OITNB could easily veer into such a dark place as to become unwatchable. But instead, through possibly the most masterful use of comic relief I have ever seen, it manages to balance its dark and often depressing themes with moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. The show is often listed as a comedy, but I would not go that far. It’s primarily a drama. If you’re anything like me, watching this show will leave you emotionally devastated at times. But there is humor there too, in just the right amount.

Especially for someone like me with an interest in writing , OITNB is like a master class. I am seriously considering re-watching some episodes and taking notes. Each episode is crammed with multiple intertwining threads of story, with a host of amazing well-rounded diverse characters, touching on important real-world issues, while also managing to be truly entertaining. And the episodes together form excellent season-long story arcs with dramatic conclusions (and, of course, cliffhangers). I would say its only real weakness is that too many of the guards are pure villains, but even then there are other guards who are well-developed characters so it’s not just that all the men in the show are evil.

If you have not watched Orange is the New Black, I cannot recommend it enough. If you tried a few episodes and stopped, I would urge you to try to get to the second season, where the focus begins to shift away from Piper more. So far every season has been better than the last, and the fourth season was so phenomenally good that I want to grab random people by the shoulders and shake them and make them watch it. Since that would probably not go over very well, this blog post will have to do!

 

Game Review: Dragon Age Inquisition

I got an Xbox One for Christmas, and the first game that I played on it was Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game has been winning all sorts of awards, and so I figured I might as well have my first Xbox One gaming experience be as epic as possible. So did it live up to the hype?

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The environments in this game are gorgeous.

Yes! Mostly. Inquisition blends the character-driven games that Bioware is now famous for (see: Mass Effect and the earlier Dragon Age games) with a much more open world (no doubt because of the great success of Skyrim). In some ways this was great: Inquisition allows you to explore many huge environments and get lost on side quests to your heart’s content, and unlike Skyrim there is much more variety in the different areas. You can explore desert wastelands, lush forests, rain-drenched rocky coasts, along with the more traditional “mountainous temperate European-like” landscapes like in Skyrim. And of course, these all look gorgeous on the Xbox One. The game generally looks great. My main complaint about the graphics are the characters. It seems as though the game designers got so excited about the ability to have specular reflections rendered in real time, that they made everything shiny, including people. The result: everyone looks like they are wet, and wearing extremely shiny lip gloss. Also, anything that is actually supposed to be shiny ends up looking like it is covered in sequins, especially if it’s in the background and slightly out of focus. But, after playing for a while I stopped noticing these graphical quirks, and for the most part the game looks awesome.

The downside of having all of these huge and beautiful environments to explore is that it tends to dilute the actual storyline of the game. By far the best thing about previous Bioware games were the character arcs of the various interesting party members that can join you in your adventures. There are some good character arcs in Inquisition too, but they sometimes felt less coherent and meaningful than in previous games. I should note, however, that as usual Bioware does a nice job with the diversity of its characters. There are strong women and people of color, and a variety of sexual orientations. In fact, one of my favorite subplots had no climactic battle or world-changing choices. Instead, you help your gay team-mate confront his disapproving father. These sorts of character-driven moments are often much better and more memorable than yet another battle with a dragon or a wizard. It helps that the writing and voice acting in Inquisition are among the best I’ve seen in a video game.

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These characters are the best part of the game.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting cast of characters, I found the main plot of the game to be pretty weak. This is likely because it was stretched so thin as I spent my time wandering around the open world doing other things and then occasionally checking back in to the plot once I ran out of other things to do. By the time I decided to finish the game, my character and team members were strong enough that the final battle was laughably easy, and because it had been many many hours since I last checked in with the plot, I didn’t really care that much about it. It didn’t help that the main bad guy is a very cliche and one-dimensional villain. The ending was so anti-climactic that I was sure there was going to be some shocking twist, but nope. That was that. For such a huge game, the ending felt small and unimportant.

All that said, as I think back to the major events in the game’s main story and subplots, I realize that they are full of some great scenes. There’s a very fun sequence where you have to infiltrate a royal ball and stop (or aid) an assassination attempt. You get to defend a town from an advancing army, explore ancient ruins in search of long-forgotten power, disrupt an illegal mining operation, stop an evil mage from distorting time to save his son, and of course you get to fight some dragons (hunting down all the dragons is much more exciting and challenging than the actual final boss battle).

Basically, my review boils down to this: Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great game, but it is trying to do too many things. If I were to play it again, I would resist my completionist urges and focus entirely on the main story and the sub-plots for my party members. I think doing that would make them much more enjoyable by essentially cutting out the filler and focusing on the good stuff. The alternative way to play is to basically ignore the stories and just run around doing whatever you want like in Skyrim. Learn to craft armor and weapons, find treasure in every nook and cranny, do every fetch quest for every villager in need of help.  This will let you see more of the game, but will rob the plot of its immediacy.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Bioware does next. The fad seems to be to make games have ever-more open worlds, but I really hope Bioware decides to buck that trend and turn all the effort that they put into making Inquisition so open, and instead direct that at crafting a great story with meaningful choices and interesting characters. Too much freedom makes it impossible to tell a good story, and for me the story is what makes Bioware games great.

The Dilemma of Writing “the Other”

One of my favorite sites on the internet is the Medieval People of Color tumblr. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the great stuff that is posted over there, but what I do read is inevitably fascinating: there’s so much history out there that isn’t taught in school, and it’s great inspiration for writing (I’ve been terrible about putting that inspiration to good use lately, but that’s a topic for a different post…).

Today I came across a link on the Medieval POC site pointing toward this article by Daniel José Older: 12 Fundamentals of Writing “the Other” (and the Self). It strikes at the heart of something I try to take very seriously: How can I, someone who has basically every privilege it is possible to have (white, male, cis, educated, financially secure, American, able-bodied, etc.), hope to respectfully write fiction about someone from a drastically different background? Do I even have the right to write their story?

This is particularly relevant because my current work in-very-slow-progress is essentially a retelling of the Spanish conquest of the Inca. It is set in a fictional world, permitting me some leeway in terms of accuracy, and the details of the cultures involved are changed, but my main characters are a teenaged boy and girl from the native culture and the story follows them as they end up on both sides of the conflict with the white invaders.

Reading the 12 Fundamentals that Older discusses in his article, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. I have absolutely no right to write about the European destruction of the Inca culture. My story involves multiple scenes with religious ceremonies. Am I violating point 7 (Ritual is not Spectacle)? What about if I find Christian rituals to be no more or less weird than Inca ones? I don’t doubt that people believe in their faiths deeply, but I’m not religious. And yet, a major component of my story is, of course, the conflict between the religion of the conquistadors and the natives. How can I do that justice? Neither religions in my book are identical to their real world counterparts: is that better or worse? Does it just reveal my ignorance about real religions, or does it provide a safe cushion from reality?

Point 12 is the most discouraging for me. “Why do you feel it falls to you to write someone else’s story? Why do you have the right to take on another’s voice? And should you do this? ” I’m not even sure how to answer these questions. I’m not trying to take someone else’s voice, and I don’t think “it falls to me” as if I have been ordained from on high to tell the saga of the Inca conquest. Is “because I find it fascinating” an acceptable answer? I find the early colonial era really interesting because it was a time when vastly different cultures came into contact, and the aftershocks of that contact are still felt today. I’m also interested in telling this story because I recognize that fiction is sorely lacking protagonists who aren’t white males, and frankly, I don’t want to read or write a story about someone like me. My life, and the life of people like me, is easy, and therefore it’s boring. I am drawn to speculative fiction and historical fiction because it’s a way to experience something different from my everyday life.

So here’s the dilemma: I could write about people like me, but not only would I find this boring, it would add yet another white male protagonist to a world that desperately needs more diversity in its fiction. On the other hand, if I write a story from the point of view of two Inca teenagers, I’m virtually guaranteed to get it wrong and offend someone. Not only that, but even if I get it right, will my telling of this story “occupy this space” and crowd out a voice that needs to be heard?

I don’t know. I think point 10 on this list is the one I need to focus on (emphasis added):

“You will jack it up. You’ll probably jack it up epically. I know I have. This doesn’t mean don’t do it. It means challenge yourself to do it better and better every time, to learn from your mistakes instead of letting them cower you into a defensive crouch. The net result is you become a better writer.”

That’s all I can really ask for right? To become a better writer? To do better next time? I have to hope that just being aware of the points in this list will help me avoid them. I have plenty of other reasons that I have yet to share my writing with anyone, I don’t need to use this as one more excuse.  I need to do the writing and learn from my mistakes. Just as that applies to crafting a compelling plot or a convincing protagonist, it applies to the points mentioned here.

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