Nudity on Mars: Dejah Thoris, meet Thelana

Skimpy outfit, yes, but not “entirely naked”

In anticipation for the upcoming John Carter film, I decided to pick up Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the first of eleven books in the John Carter series. During my research, I was completely floored to learn about the character of Dejah Thoris. Burroughs describes her this way,

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

Those familiar with my work can attest to my passion for naturism in fiction. In my novel, Ages of Aenya, the two main characters are entirely naked throughout most of it. My most popular blog to date, Nudity in Aenya, makes the case for a resurgence of the heroic nude in modern fantasy. I have spent a lifetime developing, what I believed to be, the first true naturist heroes, only to discover that Edgar Rice Burroughs beat me to the punch by 100 years! Am I bitter? No. In fact, I couldn’t be more thrilled. I have often argued that there is no such thing as an original idea. Plus, Dejah Thoris isn’t the first entirely nude female character in fiction—that would be Eve, followed closely by Aphrodite. But with the popular John Carter series, I know I am not alone; I have proof that a market for the Ilmar exists. But being familiar with the works of Frank Frazetta, who was of the first to draw the people of Barsoom (Burroughs’ name for Mars), the nudity in the books came as a complete surprise to me. A quick search on Google shows Dejah Thoris in skimpy attire, but only rarely naked. Why? when Burroughs makes it clear that she is entirely naked? I can only speculate that in words alone, the reader is allowed to imagine her, clothed or otherwise, whereas a visual representation thrusts the “obscenity” upon the viewer.

Speculative fiction frees our minds to explore other ways of living, helping us consider whether certain taboos make sense in our world. Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, is known for advocating non-marital sex in his books, which only later became socially acceptable. But despite one hundred years of changing mores, I doubt we’ll be seeing Lynn Collins shedding her clothes in the Disney adaptation of John Carter, just as Tarzan, raised by apes, needed a loincloth in the animated feature. The advent of the Internet has made nudity infinitely more accessible, especially to young teens, but society is not ready to give up shame. Our youth and beauty obsessed culture continues to fuel this outdated taboo. Does the inaccuracy between book and film worry me? On the contrary, I am relieved. I know now that my fears of a Xandr and Thelana film being rejected for nakedness is unfounded. What will go on the cover of Ages of Aenya? Perhaps a moment when the Ilmar are clothed (it happens), or better yet, something abstract, or better still, a tasteful nude. But what would an Ages of Aenya graphic novel look like? Maybe, like Dejah Thoris, Thelana will be forced into a skimpy outfit. Or maybe society will come to embrace social nudity, just as fear and hate of homosexuality is declining. There are already a number of accurate depictions of Dejah Thoris on deviantArt.

There are important differences between Aenya and the Barsoom novels, however. Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thelana would never bother with heavy ornamentation when even underwear, for her people, is confining. I use naturism as a theme throughout Ages of Aenya, the unclothed body serving as a metaphor for humanity in a tale that explores the dehumanizing effects of technology, but Burroughs was not a naturist himself, so the nudity in John Carter is entirely incidental, existing to titillate young male readers. For me, nature matters more than mere nudity. The Ilmar connect to the natural world by freeing their bodies of all material possessions; this sense of oneness is what Xandr and Thelana call the Goddess or Alashiya.

In my craziest fantasies, I imagine an actor and actress playing Xandr and Thelana entirely in the buff, but most performers are unlikely to be comfortable using their bodies as costumes. It’s hard to act normally with things dangling (I can relate). So I came up with an idea that, at the time, seemed completely absurd: CGI nudity. The actors would wear blue screen underwear and the naughty bits would be added in post using digital bits (and bytes). I was actually too embarrassed to tell anyone about this idea until . . . it happened! In the 2010 film Machete, Jessica Alba is CGI’d to appear naked on screen. So is this a possible future for a Xandr and Thelana film? Never mind instances of gratuitous nudity, a faithful adaptation of Ages of Aenya would make nudity the norm. It would certainly be a unique visual experience. Add some tasteful framing and shadows, and by the time the credits roll, audiences might even see things as naturists do. But is society ready for the Ilmar? Or will they, like Dejah Thoris, have to wait another hundred years for Burroughs’ vision of a world without clothes? Only time will tell.

In keeping with Burroughs’ spirit, Thelana is “entirely naked.”

For more about Thelana, the first naturist heroine, please check out: Ages of Aenya Prologue or check out her biography here: Thelana Bio.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this post, naturist articles have been popping up all over the place. Not a day goes by that I am not surprised by the positive things I read regarding naturism’s growing acceptance. Huffpost recently posted an article featuring full frontal nudity, writing, What is “attractiveness”? Artist Gracie Hagen devised one way of addressing the question. In an effort to explore distance between media-propagated imagery — the ones that star photoshopped men and women with impossibly pristine bodies — and the genuine reality of our own flesh, she embarked on a project titled “Illusions of the Body.” The article not only challenges what we deem beautiful, but also the notion that the unclothed body is indecent and shameful. On another front, Actress Hellen Mirren had this to say, after she was voted Naturist of the Year, “Many thanks to British Naturism for this great honour. I do believe in naturism and am my happiest on a nude beach with people of all ages and races!” OK, that was back in 2004, but now you know! But what prompted me to do this update is this great bit of art from Cracked.com


The joke? Disney’s John Carter was a box office disaster, but maybe if it were more faithful to the books, it might have made more $$$. The point: PEOPLE LOVE NUDITY (and not exclusively fans of NC-17 films)! While agents and editors and big budget producers may lack the audacity to meet with changing mores, the Internet will inevitably push us beyond our Puritanical hangups to a Renaissance future, where nude heroes like John Carter, Tarzan, and Xandr and Thelana will become the norm. I only can’t wait for Ages of Aenya on Blu-Ray.

Never Knew Another

With a title like Never Knew Another, I imagined life deep in the woods, far from other human beings. It’s amazing what another writer can imagine when looking at a book cover—and how different the actual story turns out to be. Never Knew Another by J.M. McDermott reads like a noir crime thriller set in inner city Chicago. But this is fantasy, so the plot revolves around people born of demon parentage. With some effort, demon kin can pass for human, which reminded me of the many Twilight knockoffs weighing bookshelves these days. Themes of alienation and prejudice abound, but unlike vampires, there is nothing attractive or romantic about these demon kin. Their blood and sweat burns like acid, wipes out vegetation for years, and sickens people like the black plague.

About halfway through the novel’s 240 pages, I almost decided not to review the book. McDermott offers a new depth of meaning to the term dark. Everything in this dark, dank setting revolves around slaughterhouses, sewage, whorehouses, and of course, murder. Things bleed and ooze and drip, and there are so many references to bad odors I have to give the author credit for his attention to the so often ignored sense of smell. The writing style is modern to a fault. Sentences are short and choppy, mostly beginning with subject-verb. On the plus side, you won’t find any passive voice here. The book is narrated by two characters we learn nothing about. Even their names are withheld, as they are referred to only as “I” and “my husband” throughout. I and my husband are either wolves than turn into humans, or humans that turn into wolves. The story never makes it clear. They are also clerics, in a very Dungeons & Dragons way, so they have the power of clairvoyance. By touching the body of another creature, even a dead skull, they absorb its memories. McDermott uses this technique to great effect. As the wolf people search the memories of a dead demon-spawn named Jona, Jona’s story gradually unfolds.

Most of the book focuses on Jona, as the wolf priests search his memories for other demon-kin he may have known. Despite having acid blood and an inclination toward violence, Jona comes across as a sympathetic protagonist, at first. He is a loner alienated by his heritage, who doesn’t want to be evil. He wanders the city, terrified of being burned for what he is, and the story wanders with him, like a demonic version of Catcher in the Rye. The problem is that—despite sympathizing with his situation, Jona comes across as a horrible person. Perhaps McDermott was trying to say something about how a person’s inner nature is inescapable, but it’s hard to care about a guy who murders indiscriminately on a nightly basis. I almost gave up reading then, but a little further on, the another comes to town, Rachel, who suffers from the same malady of birth. Seventy percent into the novel (according to my Kindle) and Never Knew Another finds its focus in a love story. McDermott here does an excellent job of grounding these characters in reality. I found myself genuinely caring about Jona and Rachel, and I eagerly anticipated a great deal of drama between them. Unfortunately, the author seems to have run out of paper, because the book simply stops (a frustrating trend these days). Nothing is resolved, except for a mystery of minor importance.

Overall, I applaud McDermott’s efforts for writing something that takes the fantasy genre into new territory. I was also impressed by the level of emotion, the sense of alienation and fear you end up sharing with these demonic characters. I almost feel that Never Knew Another was a missed opportunity. The plight of individuals born to demon parents might have made an interesting commentary on social prejudices. After all, non-demon humans inflict much more pain and suffering. On the other hand, Jona is no Frankenstein. Sympathizing with demons in McDermott’s world is like having pity for the Ebola virus. By the end of the book, it’s hard not to come to the same conclusion as the narrator, that it’d be better to destroy them all, despite any redeeming values. But then again, maybe that was the author’s point all along. McDermott does not offer easy answers. He challenges the reader to evaluate his or her own conceptions of good and evil, and in fiction that is always a good thing.

Submission Guidelines for Publishing in 2012

Here are some submission guidelines, straight from the Writer’s Market 2012. I only wish I was making these up!

Don’t do what we do, do what we say.

“We are being inundated with queries and submissions that are wrongfully being submitted to us, which only results in more frustrated for the writers.” (That’s not the only thing frustrating the writers!)

We publish two types of material: 1) romance novels and short stories and 2) romantic stories involving spanking between consenting adults. We look for well-crafted stories with a high degree of emotional impact. (And physical impact, from spanking, apparently)

“We are no longer responding to your unsolicited submissions unless we are interested in publishing it.” (Huh?)

It must be/feel believable. That’s what the readers like. (So no fairy tales?)

Tell us why your book is different, not like other books. Give us a realistic idea of what you will do to market your book—that you will actually do. (And repeat)

Publishes book Time between acceptance of ms and publication is 6 months. after acceptance of ms. (Don’t expect any proof-reading, though.)

Accepts any fiction category as long as it is Kwell-written, original full length novel. (So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years . . . I’ve been writing well, not Kwell!)

The Devil’s Advocate: Everything You Know about Writing is Wrong

I always dress in my 18th century formal attire when I write.

How-To Write Fiction? Advice is everywhere, from books to magazines to the Internet. Most of this advice focuses on plot, character development, and style. If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ve probably gone over these before. But while I can’t argue that plot or character isn’t important, I consistently find a broad discrepancy between how writers are told to write and how things are actually written. The very best authors seem to have attended very different classes than I did. Conversely, if you study the basics of writing like a chemistry lab student studies the periodic table, you’ll often turn out fiction that is just plain blase. Sure, you might get lucky and get a “Good job!” or “Hey, I enjoyed that!” But honestly, who cares? The only words a writer wants to hear is, “Hey, when is the next part coming out? I can’t wait to read the rest!” Generating that kind of excitement, the kind that gets people to dress up in ridiculous costumes, is every writer’s wet dream. But the how-to books won’t get you there, and in many successful pieces of fiction, the basic ingredients of “good writing” are missing entirely (see: H.P. Lovecraft). Writing a book isn’t like baking a pie. It isn’t a science and shouldn’t be treated that way.

Here’s a quick synopsis of a popular young adult novel: At birth, a child is delivered to uncaring foster parents. When the child reaches a certain age, they meet a mysterious stranger who takes them far from the home they grew up in, revealing to them their special parentage in a world of magic, monsters and mystery. As the story progresses and the child enters young adulthood, they learn of a prophesy, that only they can save the world from a great evil.

Is it Harry Potter? Or is it The Golden Compass? The synopsis works for both. And yet, there is stark difference between the success of Rowling’s books and the success of Pullman’s. While the Harry Potter series sold a whopping 450 million copies, Pullman’s His Dark Materials sold only 15 million (still an incredibly high number). Of course, random factors are involved, like luck, timing, and the success of the films, but those factors alone cannot account for the difference. Even if you were to divide the Potter series into less than half, since there are seven Rowling books to Pullman’s three, Harry outsells Lyra by a factor of 12! Looking back at writing basics, the case could be made that Pullman’s character, Lyra, isn’t quite as well developed as Harry, or that his style isn’t quite as polished as Rowling’s. But I find the opposite to be true. On strictly technical terms, Pullman is a more accomplished writer. His numerous accolades attests to that fact. So how do we account for the difference in sales? Is it just a random numbers game? Did Rowling hit the literary lottery? I don’t think so. I believe, and most people would agree, Harry Potter is a better series. Why?

One word: ideas

What makes people want to read a book are the ideas the book contains. Like Jerry Seinfeld once said, who based his comedy on the obvious, people like things that are interesting. Start telling a person about a book and what’s the first question they ask? What’s the book about? That’s it. They never say, “Oh, how is the writing quality?” or “How are the characters developed?” What people want to know is, does the book contain information they want to process. And when I say ideas, I am not referring to grand literary themes, but every single concept, from the smallest kernel of a thought up to the main plot points. What makes Harry Potter great? Owls that bring the mail and chocolate frogs that jump and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean. Sorting hats and quidditch. Pullman also has a number of fantastic ideas, like souls that take the form of animals and a knife that cuts through dimensions and intelligent elephant-like creatures that rove around on wheels formed from giant seeds. But his ideas and characters were not as numerous, charming or clever. Rowling’s greatest talent is her ability to conjure up ideas. When Rowling talks about how she came up with Harry Potter, she first mentions the birth of the idea, which came fully formed into her mind. Since she’d been writing from a young age, she already knew the basics, so the rest was easy. Star Wars is another great example of the power of idea. The story is purposefully cliche, based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but Campbell never conceived of light-sabers or Darth Vader. Of course, a story is not an encyclopedia of interesting tidbits. A good writer takes a good idea, like a raw mineral, and forges it through plot and character into a cohesive narrative. If the writer is truly brilliant, these ideas will flow seamlessly and feel inevitable, never incidental. But where, oh where, do good ideas come from, you might ask? Well, this is where no how-to book will help. There is no magic formula for literary success. And what constitutes a good idea from a bad one is so subjective, so prone to variables of culture and taste, Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought would need a billion or so years to calculate it. This is why, whenever a best selling author is asked about their success, they look totally baffled by it. You never hear a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling owing their fortunes to a set of literary guidelines. But this isn’t to say that, as aspiring writers, we are entirely helpless to the whim of Fate, waiting around for a million dollar idea to strike.

If you’re serious about writing, elements of plot and character should come naturally. After all, writers are readers, and we know what we like and why. It’s the idea that separates the dreamers from the doers. Over the years, I’ve gathered a few kernels of wisdom that have helped me capture that all too elusive idea. So here’s my set of guidelines to add to the masses, in order of what I feel is most important:

1. Love what you write.
While it is important to consider reader tastes, too often we forget the most important demographic of all: ourselves. If you don’t love what you write, nobody else will. If you don’t honestly love an idea, if it doesn’t come from inside, you won’t make it work. Only J.K. Rowling could have written Harry Potter. Only you can write your masterpiece.

2. Live life.
Whether your novel is about romance between zombies or the adventures of squirrels in space, all fiction is about life. Life dictates your writing, which is a good thing. Instead of trying to fit some successful mold, embrace your existence. Don’t just write. Ride a bike, make love, hike naked through the woods. Ideas are hidden everywhere, and the ones that come from life are the most genuine.

3. Talk to real live human beings.
Forget the Internet. Meet people in real life. If fiction is about life, characters are about people, real people. Even if you write about thousand year old vampires, they must possess an element of relatable humanity. In Flatland, Edwin Abbot’s main character is literally a square, but you can believe in the story because of the square’s human attributes. An idea can be anything, from a MacGuffin to a plot device to a new kind of character.

4. Read books.
Lots of them. Reading is good for learning technique, but more importantly, it gives you perspective. You will find there are no absolutes in fiction, no right or wrong way. This will you give the courage to find your own voice and trust in your own crazy ideas.

5. Don’t just do something, sit there!
Remember when you were a child, how on-fire your imagination was? Ideas seemed limitless then. Children are more creative because they have time to be bored. Too often in our rush-rush lives, we forget the importance of doing nothing. Find time to stare into the abyss. Sip tea quietly and contemplate your exact location in space and time. Great ideas sit at the cusp of madness.