As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole‘s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He is the author of the Shadow Ops military fantasy series, comprised of Control Point, Fortress Frontier, Breach Zone, and (new this month from Ace) Gemini Cell.
by Myke Cole
The most important skill a writer can have is empathy.
Think about driving a car. You do it every day, have been for decades, until the rhythms of steering and shifting gears are so ingrained that you don’t even notice them anymore. You feel the car, your responses to the thrumming of the road underneath you completely involuntary. If anyone ever asked you how you drive, you’d shrug your shoulders and say: “I don’t know. I just do.”
But you know that’s not true. You know that driving a car is an incredibly complex system. There are thousands of precision-machined parts operating with the aid of highly engineered chemical compounds, all interfacing with a one of the most sophisticated neurological systems ever seen in the animal world. You don’t just drive. A lot of crap is happening below the surface. But you don’t think about it, because you don’t have to. You need to get from point A to point B, and the car is getting you there. That’s good enough.
This is what preconception is. And when it comes to writing, it’s deadly. Compelling, believable characters are the single most important ingredient in good writing, and to create one, you must understand what is happening under the hood. You must understand how people who are nothing like you experience the world, in every detail, from the emotional, to the intellectual to the physical. More importantly, you must accept how they view the world. Standing in judgment of your own characters leaks into your work, poisons it. Your readers will wind up hating a character you hate. They’ll also wind up hating a character you love if you don’t explain their motives well enough, and you won’t if you rely merely on your own sense of them.
The best writers break out of the prison of their own perspective. Look at George R. R. Martin’s ensemble in A Song of Ice and Fire. Tyrion the crippled dwarf. Cersei the haughty queen. Reek, shell-shocked and brutalized. All nothing like the author, all living and breathing. That’s the kind of writer I want to be.
Preconception stands in the way. It lies. It tells you that you know something, that you don’t need to investigate further. It is the forked-tongued devil whispering, “that’s just the way things are.” Being empathetic forces you to constantly think critically, to stop to ask yourself, “how does this person feel?” It’s not enough to drive the car. You have to look under the hood and understand how the engine runs.
I’m really proud of my latest novel, Gemini Cell, which hits shelves at the end of this month. But the process of writing it was a reminder not only that empathy is critical, but of just how far I have to go to be the kind of writer, and the kind of person, I want to be. One of the things I’m most proud of in the book is the character of Sarah Schweitzer. I killed myself trying to understand her voice. She’s a maverick, a successful professional artist, a beautiful woman who has had to contend with people underestimating her and patronizing her all her life. She’s also a wife and a mother and an anime fan and a host of other things that I have only tangential experience with. I worked overtime to try to understand how she saw the world, and I thought I was making real progress.
And then she had sex.
I know you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me, but I have actually had sex. I’m getting on in years, and I’ve always taken a lot of pride in my open-mindedness, my strict adherence to Dan Savage’s doctrine of “GGG” (Good, Giving and Game, which you should read about). I have striven to be a generous and conscientious lover, following the advice of my father’s one bit of salty-talk, when he awkwardly told me to “make sure she gets hers before you get yours.” My girlfriend seems happy. All the right noises are made, so, I’m good, right? I’ve got this sex thing down.
This is what I mean about preconception. It’s insidious. It’s persistent. It’s eternal. Unless you are constantly forcing yourself to think critically, you will go on autopilot. You will forget the complexity of what’s happening under the hood and just drive the car.
Writing Sarah’s sex scene reminded me that I had managed to go through decades as a sexually active man without ever really, and I mean really, thinking about how women experience sex. Because it’s so complex and different that women might as well be another species, and also breathtakingly similar because, you know, they’re not. The point was that I’d never bothered to really think about it, and I was deeply ashamed. It made me remember an incident at a recent party: I got hit on by a guy, who took the opportunity to touch my chest before drunkenly reeling off toward the buffet. At the time, I laughed, flattered. Writing Sarah, I realized she wouldn’t have been laughing at all.
And I had a problem. At the time I was writing the novel, I was single. Who could I ask? The women in my social circle are almost entirely publishing professionals. The risk of an awkward conversation, or worse, a creepy one, wasn’t worth it. This wasn’t something I could ask my stepsisters, or my mom (because. Ick). And it isn’t really something you can bring up in casual conversation with a stranger.
So, I did my research the old fashioned way: on the Internet. I read romance novels, but I generally found the sex scenes in the category paperbacks I was reading to be overblown even on the male side of the equation. There was too much of the breathless and not enough of the comfort-in-awkwardness that makes sex scenes resonate with me. I grit my teeth and I sweated and I did a lot of thinking. At long last, desperate for feedback, I made my way to fellow author Carrie Vaughn at a party. I’d be careful, I told myself. I’d play it cool. I’d just sort of . . . casually bring it up you know? Not creepy. I wouldn’t be creepy.
“Hey Myke,” she said, “how’s it go . . .”
“I WROTE A SEX SCENE FROM A WOMAN’S POV AND I’M REALLY WORRIED I WROTE IT WRONG AND I’VE NEVER HAD SEX WHILE BEING A WOMAN AND WHAT IF I MESSED IT UP AND EVERYBODY HATES ME!”
In spite of the question not going precisely as I’d planned, Carrie agreed to read it, and felt it rang true. So did my editor.
And maybe it will for some of you, too. That would be grand.
But even if it doesn’t, even if it makes you think that I’m a hack who can’t write women to save his life, I still come out ahead.
Because, now, I’m not just driving the car. Now, I’m thinking. Pushing the envelope of my own assumptions may not have made Gemini Cell a better book, but I feel like it made me a better man.
I love this job.