Why you should write contemporary romance, even if you never publish it

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Anyone who knows me will also know that I’m not a great fan of romance. I’ve read a good deal of it (eons ago) and while I don’t hate reading it, I find other genres much more interesting.

But I think to be able to write contemporary romance is a great skill. Genre books often have romantic subplots, and it’s not unusual that the romance feels forced. Moreover, it’s likely that genre books have characters, and that you’d like the characters to be full and well-developed.

Writing contemporary romance can help immensely with both.

In contemporary romance, you strip away everything that makes a setting cool. You take away the space ships, the magic, the historical context, and you’re left with just characters and an everyday setting that’s well-known to all readers and needs no explanation…

Leaving the author to craft a story solely based on the characters and the developing of their relationship.

To the non-romance writer, it might seem that the daily tasks of the characters are full of “mundane, trivial shit” that we do ourselves day in day out. You know, cook, eat, go shopping, catch the bus to work. Stuff like that. Bo-ho-ring!

Yes, if you look at it that way, it is boring.

But. Big but.

Every action the characters perform, every choice they make, builds their personality. Don’t believe me? Look at these three guys:

1. Goes to the gym regularly.
2. Hates gyms with a passion.
3. Goes to the gym no matter what come hell or high water and gets upset if he can’t.

Can you see character types form in your mind from just these three life choices?

These little, insignificant, boring life choices shape the supposedly “mundane shit” that your characters do. Every. Single. Step. If they see someone trip, do they help? How often do they ring their partner during the working day? Do they perform well in their job or do they hate it? Add up all these things, and you have a fully-formed character. It requires a lot of disciple (no, you can’t throw in a gun chase if a scene gets boring) and makes you really think about how to portray characters, what makes them likable or what makes people go “eew, no” in a nuanced way that’s not over the top.

Characters acting way over the top is one of the ways to tell a new writer from a more experienced one. Writing contemporary romance, even if you never sell a single word of it, is a great way of learning how the environment shapes the character.

Why you should write contemporary romance, even if you never publish it was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

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Thoughts on female protagonists in YA fantasy

The other day, may daughter finally bought an ereader. It’s a bit sad that my kids wanted to read “real” books long after I’d gone digital, but the physical size of a particular book that she wanted to read on public transport finally won her over.

Anyway, having read said book, I was sitting with her in the Berkelouw second hand book cafe on the bridge thingie in Westfield Hornsby today (if you know this place, it’s very nice), and we were talking about books. The book in question was a sequel, and she said about it: but it’s about a different main character who is a relative of the character in book 1, because at the end of book 1, that character gets married.

And I thought: that just about says it all. When a girl gets married, her story is finished and no longer worth telling.

Which fantasy do you know where female protagonists get married early in the series, and continue to play an important role in the story? So much of this fantasy, especially in YA, is driven by the romance, and once this is resolved, there doesn’t seem to be a story left to tell. Or the author doesn’t think it’s worth telling. Skipping to another character for the next book is very common.

Often these are female authors,many of whom would be married and would be mothers. Do they think that mothers of small children lead such sheltered lives that nothing can happen to them (that doesn’t involve the children, but impacts on the entire family?) Married women and mothers are pretty invisible in real life. They’re pretty invisible in speculative fiction.

Thoughts on female protagonists in YA fantasy was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why learning to write is only the beginning

Trader's HonourI’m going to do something REALLY embarrassing. I’ll be posting, below, a small snippet of the very first novel I completed. By the time I penned this, I had already spent some time in various workshops and I’d taken my dutiful dose of No adverbs, no forbidden words, no weasel words and no repetition, and there are indeed very few of those crimes in the manuscript. In fact, I admit that I now use more adverbs than I did back then. I use more passive constructions, and I use more “forbidden” words. Because these words or constructions evolved in the language for a reason, and sometimes a sentence is genuinely clearer when you add the word “that”. Trust me.

So, without further ado, here is the snippet from Trader’s Honour as I wrote it in 2005, with excuses for the absolutely TERRIBLE writing. I’ll elaborate on that after the piece.

* * *

Two days. That was all that stood between happiness and despair.
Two days ago, the morning of the election had dawned without a cloud in the sky and the city of Miran was covered in a sparkling blanket of snow. The beauty of the morning was lost on Rehan. He was tired; it had been very late when he had returned home the previous night. He was sitting at breakfast in the dining room, leafing aimlessly through a bundle of election brochures, wondering who he was going to vote for. The successful candidate would take up the post of commander of the Mirani armed forces and one of the four High-councillors of Miran. It was an important election, but Rehan felt too tired to care.
‘I don’t like the sound of what Nemedor Satarin is proposing,’ Braedon said, gesturing to the election brochures Rehan was holding.
Rehan leafed through the papers until he came to the relevant brochure. It was printed on orange paper and bore just a few slogans “Free Miran of foreign influences,” “Restore our nation to its former glory,” and “Bring back order to our streets.”
‘It doesn’t say much, doesn’t it?’ he said, breaking his fish bread in pieces and dropping them in his soup.
‘No,’ Braedon said, ‘but he has strong opinions that many of the upper classes find appealing.’
Rehan looked up with a frown.
‘What is appealing about freeing Miran of foreign influences? How can we or the merchants function without foreigners?’
‘People haven’t forgotten the war, Rehan,’ came Isandra Andrahar’s sharp voice from the other end of the table.
Rehan looked at his mother, her back bathed in sunlight, which made her hair glow like silver.
‘What does the war have to do with this?’ he asked.
‘You were too young,’ the way she said this made it sound like an accusation. ‘The Asto fighters raided the warehouses in our agricultural district, and what could the Mirani army do? Nothing! The Asto army could easily have pushed their way to our capital!’
‘But they didn’t,’ Rehan said; he looked down at his plate to fish a piece of bread out of his soup. ‘They only wanted to free up their food supplies, which were rightfully theirs anyway. They are not interested in conquering other colonies.’
He still couldn’t see how this had anything to do with the local election.
His mother drew herself up and waved a bony finger at him.
‘When I was a girl, and that dreadful Palayi man – whatever his first name was – was Chief coordinator of Asto, there was a constant threat of war,’ she continued. ‘We should never trust those Coldi people. They are barbarians – incapable of tolerating any opposition. Thania Lingui may seem a lot more peaceful, but what happens when he retires? Will the next Chief coordinator want to have absolute control over Asto’s food supply? We are close, we have much fertile land, we already produce a lot of their food. We need strong defenses to stop them invading!’ and as Rehan was about to put the bread in his mouth, she snapped. ‘And don’t do that! You’re eating like a commoner!’
Rehan sighed, put the bread down and picked up his spoon. Table manners, table manners! Was that all she ever cared about? He was at home, for goodness sake!

* * *

OMG, this is truly embarrassingly bad. It does not violate many Creative Writing 101 Rules, but it’s bad, bad, bad. I’ll explain why.

I used this novel as learning-to-write exercise. I was probably halfway through when it occurred to me that it had to have a plot. I was so wrapped up in my characters that I merely enjoyed seeing what they did. And they did a lot of things. Plenty happens in this novel. In fact, all these happenings are what made me decide to salvage the story, because GOOD stuff happens, but it wasn’t connected, was connected in the wrong way with way too much bullshit that went off at right angles. In other words: I hadn’t learned to write a solid plot and keep that plot on the rails while I was writing.

The POV is weak. I bet that in this piece you can’t even tell who the POV character is (hint: it’s Rehan). There is very little direct internal thought. It just hadn’t occurred to me yet that I could write in that way.

All the characters act like arseholes. They’re also far too forthcoming with information. This is classic immaturity in character development. One of the most important things a writer needs to learn is that what a character says is that character’s perception of the truth, unless the character is lying, but the character doesn’t even need to lie outright for their replies to be coloured. Also, what is not being said is often more powerful than what is being said. Over-the-top-ness of character reactions, as in this snippet, is also classic beginner prose.

Worst of all, I’m using the wrong main character. There is a reason why all the characters are arseholes, that is because they ARE arseholes of some kind, at least in this point in the story. It only occurred to me much later that I was trying to write The Devil Wears Prada from Anna Wintour’s POV. Doesn’t work. You need another character.

All these things above are not really teachable. They are not what most critique groups deal with. They are skills you have to develop through practice, and through reading awesome fiction and listening to experienced writers. Still, if you happen to get commentary of this nature when you begin, you will most likely not understand it at the level that it needs to be understood. The above things are largely intuitive and are why it is so hard to quantify “good writing”. The writing “rules” are really only the beginning.

So, I decided to salvage, gut and re-write the story. I added a completely new character who is not related to this highly dysfunctional family but comes into it as newcomer. To be sure, she has her own stakes, as you have seen in the snippet I posted a few days ago. Because we now see the story through the eyes of someone who is more sympathetic at the start of the story, it doesn’t matter that the three brothers and their mother behave like boors right now. Yes, some of it is only an act, and as my character’s stakes and that of the family intertwine, the abrasiveness will vanish.

Like so (and three cheers to the reader of this blog who can spot the future love affair):

Mikandra stomped the snow off her boots on the mat, slipped them off and put them next to the men’s boots lined up next to the door. She selected the smallest pair of slippers she could find on the rack under the cloak stand. They enfolded her feet with luxurious warmth, and the fur that lined the inside had not yet flattened with use.
She followed Taerzo–wearing similar footwear–across the hall into the living room, where traditional oil lamps burned on the walls and their flapping flames made grotesque shadows on the walls. With its marble flooring, antique hearth and hand-crafted furniture, the house was the epitome of old-fashioned noble households. Well, except for the hub with its blinking lights in the corner of the hall.
In the living room, Braedon sat at the table behind a huge pile of books. He glanced up when Taerzo came in, looked back at his books and then up again at Mikandra. He raised his eyebrows and raked his hair behind his ear. Apart from Taerzo, who was not that much older than her and was considered to be the joker of the family, she found Braedon least intimidating. He was rather plain, straightforward and quiet. He did not wear lots of jewellery or other display of status like his two older brothers. He came into the hospital quite a bit, and was always courteous and kind to the nurses or surgeons.
Braedon gestured to the seat next to him.
Mikandra sat, still clutching the letter. On the page in the book facing him were long columns of financial data. He had a reader on his other side, which was, apart from the hub in the hall, the only concession to technology in this very traditional house. The screen glared more columns of figures.
She was going to show them the letter, but Braedon brought his fingers to his lips.
There were voices at the back of the room, in a section partitioned off from the dining area by a sliding door.
Through the glass in the door, she could see second-oldest brother Rehan in front of the hearth, facing a man who sat on the couch.
“Anyway,” Rehan was saying, the words only slightly muffled by the door. “Whatever has caused it and why ever you did this, your behaviour has been nothing short of grossly inadequate. You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do, and unless I’m satisfied, I will call in the Guild Lawkeepers, and they will get to the bottom of this.”
“You’re not going to sack me?” The man sounded incredulous.
“You’ve worked with us for long enough to know that is not our style. I would very much like to sack you, but it does not solve anything. Sacking you does not put our accounts in order.”
“Uhm . . . I guess.”
Mikandra realised the man on the couch was the Andrahar account keeper, Trimor Estredin, the husband of one of her mother’s theatre friends.
“You guess?” Rehan continued. “What will go a long way towards putting our accounts in order is your story about what happened. Why did you approve these books? Why did you sign all these pages that clearly have mistakes on them? Where is the missing money?”
“I honestly don’t remember doing all that.”
There was a heavy thud of some object hitting wood. “Bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit and you know it. You know what happened. You were there. This is your work! Get the fuck out of here. Go to the office. Come back when you have something to say. Don’t dare run away. Don’t think we won’t find you.”
The man rose and left the room at a run. A moment later, the door shut.
Heaving a big sign, Rehan opened the partition doors. “Fucking numbskull. Blubbering nitwit.” He stopped a few paces into the room, and frowned at Mikandra. Met her eyes. His hair, normally a silk-like curtain over his back, had become entangled in the clasp of his cloak. His cheeks were red. “What’s this about? Any more problems?”
Mikandra lifted the letter.
“I got my letter of acceptance,” she said, but she no longer felt exuberant. Something was very wrong.
“The fuck you did?” He still sounded angry.
Braedon said, “Rehan, please mind your–”
“Don’t tell me what I can or can’t say in my own house. We don’t have the time to deal with fucking pambies.”
He looked at Mikandra. His expression was so penetrating that she felt like fleeing. He was very tall, his appearance immaculate. At least he wore his Trading uniform, the khaki shirt and trousers with the ornate belt and his high boots. But no medallion.
“All right, you win. No more fucking swearing in the presence of women, eh?” He blew out a breath and turned to the window.
Mikandra looked back at Braedon who at least didn’t terrify her as much. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve had our licence suspended by court order.”
What? A big black hole opened in Mikandra’s mind. A suspended licence meant no sponsorship. It meant no work, no place for her to go to. It meant–how was that even possible? These were the Andrahar Traders, the most influential in all of Miran. “What happened?” Black spots crept into her vision.

Speed vs Quality: the eternal debate

I’m probably venturing into dangerous territory with this one, but here goes.

I consider myself a reasonably fast writer. Mostly, it’s because I spend a lot of time writing, more than someone with a full-time job, but also because I think my writing process is reasonably efficient. I am, however, a pantser extra-ordinaire, and this brings a measure of inefficiency. I tried, but cannot write any other way. I could write faster if I was better organised, but my process doesn’t allow it. My process involves going over the manuscript again and again, and again just for good measure, until I’m willing to set the piece free into the world.

There are a lot of writers with different writing speeds, from really fast detective writers to writers who only complete a book every few years. There is, however, nothing that gets fast writers riled up so much as the suggestion that fast writing equates poor quality, and the suggestion that a writer ‘should’ only write two books a year.

I’m on the fence on this one. I could write faster, but I could write a heck of a lot slower.

Does faster writing equate poor quality? I’ll stick my toe in the too-hot tub and I’ll say that it does, sometimes. It does when you can tell that a piece of fiction is written fast.

These are what I consider symptoms of writing that suffers from too little time spent on it:

The introduction of each new character is accompanied by a character sheet, in other words, an infodump (usually peppered with the word ‘had’) that lets the reader know exactly and unambiguously who the character is and what events have shaped him or her. It often spells out clearly whether the character is good or bad, and what their main aims in life are. I use character sheets in-text in early drafts. Remember I’m a pantser–I just stop the show and waffle on for a page or so to get myself acquainted with the character. The important bit is that a character sheet in the final version of your novel is boring as hell. It takes any tension out of the character by taking away the reader’s opportunity to wonder and question. A character sheet is first drafty stuff and should be deleted in a final draft. If that hasn’t been done, the story was sent out one draft too soon.

Too much throat-clearing. A character spends an entire chapter musing about the past and nothing much of note happens in the chapter. This is an extension of the character sheet problem. I write chapters like this in order to become further familiar with the character. It happens at a point where I’m at a loss as to what to write, so I start bullshitting the character’s internal thoughts to get the ball rolling again. This sort of stuff doesn’t belong in a final draft.

Simplistic characters. In early drafts, characters often do the job they need to do, and little more. At this stage, they’re merely chess pieces. Subsequent drafts add depth, quirks or ambiguity. If vital characters are one-dimensional, the work hasn’t seen enough drafts.

Sloppy research or worldbuilding. Facts are untrue or inconsistent. Sometimes the facts aren’t untrue as such but lack depth. The worldbuilding doesn’t venture beyond what can be gleaned in five seconds from Wikipedia.

If you can write really fast and not do any of this, great! But I know that I can’t. For me, fast writing definitely equates poorer quality. Then again, fast means something different for each writer, and I think setting limits as to how fast is too fast is pretty silly. Too fast is when the quality suffers. End of story.

unreliable narrators

An unreliable narrator is a main character who has a secret, and keeps that secret from the reader for quite some time. Or it is a character who feeds the readers lies about him/herself or about the other characters.

I’ve realised I have two stories with unreliable narrators.

In one, a novel, the narrator has been mentally doctored, so in effect probably has an excuse not to remember everything truthfully. That said, he does not reveal a major detail about himself. It has been his character, for a long time, to keep this detail an utter secret. He loathes talking about it, and goes through extraordinary pains to keep it a secret. I thought it would be natural to also keep it a secret from the reader. Yes? No? What do you feel about this?

In another story, a character knows something that a second character very much wants to know. But it isn’t in this character’s nature to reveal such details about herself and about someone she protects. In fact, she thinks the man’s curiousity is amusing, but she thinks the subject of his curiosity is utterly unimportant. At what point in the story would you like to know as reader? When the man first asks her or when she chooses to reveal it?

In both cases, neither ‘secrets’ are vital to the plot of the story, but they are part of the character’s personality. Do you think personality is enhanced by revealing the secret early on or by keeping it a secret for a while longer?

this is not the 1950’s

I guess ‘most people’ will know that. One thing that disturbs me a bit is the frequency with which I come across 1950’s style fiction in workshops or the slush.

Yes, I totally get that you may have adored the SF greats. I am in no way suggesting that those writers weren’t great in their time, and some perhaps even now. However, a lot of that fiction has aged badly. I don’t mean technology. OK, we now have the net and computers, but sometimes it’s fun to read about a society at the time when a computer with the capacity of my geriatric laptop took up an entire room. This is part of the setting, and can be used successfully in new fiction.

I don’t mean 1950-style plots, those reminiscent of the great SF works. I love SF and space opera and while there is nothing edgy about the subgenre, it’s a lot of fun and still sells.

I mean the treatment of certain people in fiction, OK, ‘minorities’ and I’m especially talking about women.

The 1950’s style fiction will probably have women. It may even have women as major characters, but the way those characters are treated is patronising, or alternately, they exist solely to make a point. The woman is either a bitch or an object of sexual fancy, and viewed as a woman, not as a character or a person. The woman will be pretty and young. The woman will be a secretary in an office (if you’ve read my fiction, you’ll know that my secretaries are almost exclusively male). The woman won’t be a mother. If the woman is married, she will exist solely to serve dinner. The men will be protective and often kind.

The ultimate feeling I have about 1950’s style fiction is that the woman is a prop and a shallow character, a token, part of the scenery.

That’s why I will reject those stories which smack of 1950’s style fiction.

I am the last person to call myself a feminist. When I think of a one-word tag to identify myself, I think ‘writer’, ‘science nerd’ or ‘parent’. ‘Woman’ is a tag that comes very low on that list.

So, by all means, write golden-age-inspired SF, but treat all your characters like real people.

A book with a message

Does your work have a message? While I’d hazard a guess that most writers tend to write books or stories that support their worldviews, there are some who write books or short stories to deliver the message. I’m thinking foremost about Christian literature, but there are also large numbers of books that carry much more subtle messages.

Before you dismiss those books as ‘preaching’, think about it: haven’t you ever learnt anything, or changed your mind, no matter how insignificantly, because of something you read in a work of fiction?
I’m pretty sure everyone has done this. Every book carries many different messages. Usually, they’re buried deep in the text. Usually, they can be interpreted in more than one way.

Some examples off the top of my head, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi has several environmental messages. The most simplistic would be that all genetic engineering is bad, but you could also interpret the book as a warning that we should look better after our genetic heritage. The simple message you could take from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is that government is bad and reality TV is hideous. More subtle messages could be that common people will survive no matter what authorities do to them.

We don’t know what either author intended to say with the book, and that doesn’t really matter. The relationship of a reader with a book is one the author has little control over.

But say, you wanted to make sure that the reader understand and hears your message, but without being preachy.

Here is my take on inserting a message into a book:

The strongest opinions can be put in the mouths of your characters with nary a rise on the preachiness scale. Just make sure that the character’s opinion is not being bandied as the only right way to live, because this very quickly turns your character into a jerk.

Make sure that you leave plenty of space for the readers to think and draw their own conclusions.
Make the character put up some arguments against your message for a more balanced view. If you do this in dialogue, don’t resolve the discussion one way or another; characters should be allowed to have different opinions.

I always find it interesting to construct a story such that each reader can take home his or her own message, the message they are prepared to hear. Accept that some people will not agree with you about the underlying values of the story.

When your book or story makes the reader think in one way or another, you have succeeded.

That’s my take on messages in books. What about you?

the slush minion’s diary #4: sympathetic characters

This ‘slush minion’ post is more of a question than anything else.

There is a school of thought that says that ‘must have sympathetic main character’ is a box that must be ticked before a story is publishable.

I tend to think that the character could be unsympathetic, as long as he/she is interesting. An example: I’ve just watched District 9. The main character Wikus van der Merwe…man, he’s an annoying prick at the start. But he’s a CHARACTER with big fat capital letters, and after a while you feel sorry for him. He carries the story, because of what he was and what he becomes. But sympathetic… er…

So what’s your opinion? Do you automatically stop reading a story when you don’t like the main character? What are attributes that would make you stop reading?

from the slush minion’s diary 1

I have now logged more than 150 slush pieces for ASIM and I thought I’d write a bit about the experience.

I’d like to tackle the incredulous question asked by a dismayed writer: can you really tell within one paragraph whether or not a submission is going to work for you? (please note the for you in this sentence – every reader and editor is different).

The answer has to be: usually, yes.

Trying to quantify why is probably harder, aside from submissions with poor grammar (of which there are surprisingly few) or punctuation (of which there are a lot more – learn to punctuate dialogue, dudes!), but I’ve run across a few issues I can identify, one of which is:

The piece has a poor handle on POV (point of view).

Consider the following start of a short story (which I’m making up on the spot up for the purpose of demonstration):

She held the gun tightly.
David followed her up the stairs, wheezing and clutching his side. His hair was plastered to his forehead. ‘I’m not used to this anymore,’ he panted.
She pushed away revulsion. Since when had he let himself go? He used to be so fit.
‘In here?’ she asked, nodding at the door.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If I lay my hands on the bastard who has my son…’

This start does a number of things right: there is action, the prose is functional, not overly wordy, and we are thrown into a situation that makes the reader wonder.

But who is the POV character? This piece of text tells us far more about David than about the main character, who – for crying out loud – doesn’t even have a name yet. She seems to be some sort of kick-arse gun-wielding assassin, but we don’t know. We don’t know why she’s there (presumably because she’s paid, in which case her motivation for being there is not very strong) or what she’s feeling except for contempt for David (and this doesn’t make me like this anonymous person).

I’ve found this sort of thing very common in the slush pile. I wouldn’t press instant-reject, but I’d read on to see if the main character becomes more defined. Usually, though, this doesn’t happen. The POV in the story is neither well-defined, nor is the main character the person whose story the writer is telling. From the above crappy example, I’d say this is David’s story.

A few thoughts on this matter:

– For crying out loud, name your main character as soon as he/she enters the story (* and **).
– Consider who the best character is to carry the story. Who has most to lose?
– Write the story as if you were that person. The most prominent emotions and impressions will be that person’s.

* There are some plot types where not naming a character is a plot point. Try avoid this, though, unless you’re 100% certain that it’s necessary.

** Naming a character is impossible when you write in first person. In that case, I’d advocate getting an ‘I’ into a sentence before you mention any other characters. Definitely don’t wait until other characters have been doing things for half a page.

forgotten people

There’s been a lot of talk recently about representation of minority groups in SF. I don’t really want to go into this debate. I think what counts most is a good story, and I also think that we should all be willing to broaden our horizons. That said, I don’t think that those vocal minorities are the only ones that get bypassed. There is a very large group of people who rarely get ANY representation in SF, as characters: those over 50, especially women.

Yesterday I conducted a preliminary survey on Twitter to ask who knew of a SFF novel where the character is female and over 50. I don’t mean those novels, of which there are a few, where an older female recounts what happened to her in her youth. I mean a novel where an older woman (or man for that matter) is the main character, doesn’t get wonderful treatment so she/he becomes younger. I mean a novel where the character is on the wrong side of middle age and coping with creaky joints and reading glasses, while being challenged with whatever the plot happens to be.

Please let me know if you know of such novels in the replies. I’ll update the list as I go. Please mention specific titles.

I am also looking for older main characters that are in fact ‘old’ in the novel. Immortality or having been extensively rejuvenated doesn’t count. I want characters who are getting closer to an inevitable death, and cope with whatever physical and mental conditions your world throws at them in that stage of life. I want characters who cannot ignore age, and don’t have a cure for it.

Paladin of souls – Lois McMaster Bujold
A Remnant Population – Elizabeth Moon
Green Mars and Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Singularity Sky – Charles Stross
Tehanu – Ursula LeGuin
Hyperion – Dan Simmons
Hammered – Elizabeth Bear