Rant over modern series writing

(Sarah is a cuckoo—a breed of human-looking cryptid that’s biologically more like a giant wasp than any sort of primate, and telepathic to boot. Evolution is funky sometimes.)

Excerpt From: Seanan McGuire. “Midnight Blue-Light Special.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/midnight-blue-light-special/id592216584?mt=11

So, at the moment, I’m rereading Midnight Blue-Light Special.  And it made me have to say something about why I don’t read a lot of newer series.

There are 3 fundamental approaches to series.

The Discworld Model:

This is for series like Bernie Rhodenbarr, the Rita Mae Brown & Sneakie Pie Brown mysteries, Discworld, Mithgar, and similar.  In these (and Mithgar is, quite possibly, the most amazingly perfect example) the books stand alone.  There’s little reference to the prior events, or they’re referenced in off-hand manner if relevant to the moment in the same way you or I will make off-hand references to our own pasts.  Other than that the book of the moment is pretty thoroughly divorced from the books before and after.  You can literally pick up at any point in the series and not be missing anything besides the fun of the other books … which you can just pick up and enjoy as you go.

The Serial Model:

This is the classic Book 1, Book 2, etc model.  This is Now & Forever, this is Harry Potter, this is – frankly – most series.  This is “To Be Continued” through to “The End”.  Sometimes you can muddle through if you pick up part way in.  Harry PotterLittle House, and others aren’t nonsense if you pick up later than the beginning, but it helps.  Well … Little House might be more of a Discworld Model, now I think of it, but humour me.

The thing with these is that you write them assuming that the person reading book 2 read book 1.  If you write something that was explained in book 1 you don’t explain it again, you move on because you’re not worried about confusing anyone because they read book 1 or bloody well best have done.

The Modern Model:

This is one I really don’t like.  I’ve read things, namely InCryptid, that use it.  But it annoys the hell out of me and the stories have to be very good for me to let it slide and keep going … or you have to not do a very good job of it, thus begging the question of why the author bothered instead of sticking with the Serial Model (possibly the actual case with InCryptid … I’m not actually 100% certain).

In this you try to do the bastardisation of the Discworld Model and the Serial Model.  Your books are very “to be continued”, and rely heavily on what came before, but you try to accommodate the ones who are coming in a bit late.  Now, some series are a blending of these. Mithgar has Serials (duologies, trilogies, etc) tossed in amongst the larger tapestry of things.  Shannara too.  But series of Serials is a whole other kettle of popcorn.

I don’t like this one as a reader, nor as a writer.  It’s this philosophy that your Serial should be accessible to any and sundry who walk in 5min before the closing credits.  That really doesn’t work.  You have to insert little obnoxious infodumps that irritate those who have been there since the curtain went up, and unless you want to make your books exponentially thicker by basically reprinting the prior book into the following books –building them into an omnibus edition as you go – you’re going to annoy the mid-streamer who is like “well, she explained this, but why doesn’t she explain that?!”

There.  Was I going anywhere with this?

No, not especially.  Just saying that I don’t grok the modern method of serialising and it irritates me when I encounter it.  All the other crap about the other 2 methods was to illustrate what I meant.  Now, back to the book; it has Aeslin Mice in 😍

“Oh dear, maths” — J K Rowling

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ready or Not it turns out is not going as quickly as I estimated.

As J K Rowling has said in more than one interview I’ve read:  “Oh dear, maths …”

It’s gong well, but I am not always a world class mathematician.  It would seem that there were some flaws in my calculations.  First, would you believe that 13 ≠ 20?!  It’s true!  I checked with a friend of mine who has a math degree, apparently they do use maths sometimes where 13 = 20 is true, but that wouldn’t be ordinary arithmetic, who knew?  Next I got the page count of a modified margins, font size, and page dimensions I’d done to conserve paper for an editorial print out stuck in my head and was doing my math against that.  Needless to say, even if I knew how to count to 13, my calculations would have been off by a day or two … forgetting the real page count, however, means that the whole thing is off by something more on the order of weeks.

SO!  New estimate:  I’ll let you know when it’s half way.  Seriously, that point usually — barring disaster — is a better estimate since I can go “well, we’ve taken sixty five years to get this far … but the last thirty five pages have only taken a month … Book’ll be out in Fall 2237”.

Sorry.  I really should never ever ever do division before coffee.  Division is not my friend at the best of times, without coffee it’s a mortal foe.

“True art is angsty & inaccessible”

I desperately wish I could fathom just where this idea originates.

It is a remarkably pervasive idea, and to such an extent that things that were popular and contain no angst will frequently receive interpreted doses of the latter to make literary scholars feel better about enjoying them.  And obscurity is, somehow, a hallmark of awesomeness and brilliance; though this one I think they feel no need to bother over much with — odds are even that those literary scholars have read more about Gilgamesh than of it.  They remind me of Star Wars fandom … enough I oft wonder if there’s significant overlap.

Why, though, must art be tragedy and sorrow?  Drama, angst, etc.?  Why can art not, too, be sunshine and kittens, laughter and love, romance and spiritual awakening?

Why cannot literary brilliance be measured, in part, by lasting popularity?  Why must The Hobbit and Harry Potter be “guilty pleasures”?

Why is the only fiction, supposedly, worth reading ‘literary fiction’ (a pretentious name for any genre or work, I feel)?  Why does a story need to answer any question more than ‘what happens next?!’ or ‘will they live happily ever after?’ and so on?  It’s not ‘will the hero survive?’ it’s ‘how will the hero get out of this mess?’  Why does this lack literary merit as opposed to twenty pages of someone’s thoughts who is standing in line at a post office (not making it up, don’t remember the title)?

I propose a new definition of art and brilliance.  Angst and obscurity be damned!

Any fool with crayons, a pack of construction paper, and enough spare time can write a truly depressing work read by all of twenty-five people — twenty-two of whom share a skull with the author and at least one of whom is a plush horse or a rubber plant.

I hold that art should be, first and foremost, something that you put something of yourself into — I’m not sure if this works for painting and sculpture or not, so we’ll refine that to literary art, just to be safe.  That ought to be art; so by that, our madman’s crayoned insanity is still art, but the novelist version of Sven Bianchi from Questionable Content does not make art and probably doesn’t claim to.  Second, the brilliance should be measured by if it speaks to people and degree of brilliance should be:  Does it do so over and over?  If it instils a passion once, it its brilliant — Twilight or Interview With a Vampire, are both art and, to some extent must be brilliant to have sparked such reactions and readerships from people.  The Hobbit and Little Women do it, though, through hundreds of repeat readings for uncounted readers.  People come back to Mr Baggins rushing out the door without hat nor handkerchief, and relive the (mis)adventures of Jo and her sisters.  They are masterpieces.

There is, and ever has been, too much literature to say popularity alone speaks of brilliance.  Always some really amazing work lurks, largely, undiscovered.  Game of Thrones is a fair example.  It languished in veritable obscurity for nearly a decade.  Black Trillium is, I feel, another fine example.  With a, sadly, increasing tendency, the strange dreams of young Alice is not read — but for those who take the notion, they come ever back again to Wonderland.  Still, popularity and its perpetuity is a fine test.  No one disputes that old Bill Shakespeare is a literary legend … well, not anyone who wasn’t alive when his plays were new.  The poems of Lady Sappho must have been phenomenal — they are all of them lost yet, still, she is not forgotten.

Why must we make things so blasted cerebral to feel good about them?  Fun and beautiful should not be so shameful.  Perhaps ‘the masses’ know better what is good and will stand the test of time better than the literary elitist.

Few are liable to agree with me who are ‘serious writers’, but such is life.  I’ll read my Princess of Mars, they’ll read Pride and Prejudice; I’ll read Wizard of Oz and they can read The Yellow Wallpaper … to each her own.  After all, there’s no accounting for taste.

Happy New Year

New Year Sunrise

New Year Sunrise (Photo credit: joka2000)

2014 is nearly here.

With it comes Ready or Not, not right away (sadly), but it’s coming.

The holiday sale on Love or Lust will come to an end – last chance to get it for 99¢ before sometime after Ready or Not comes out.

Obamacare takes full effect … I’ll refrain from comment on that.

I will become a NYT Bestselling author with better numbers than J K Rowling (yeah, I wish).

Bigotry and hatred for and toward our fellow beings will end and world peace and harmony will be achieved, finally (if we don’t aim for it we’ll only reach it by random chance. I don’t like those odds).

The Mars One mission will begin!

We will all strive to do even one little kindness to a person or animal who needs help every day we get the opportunity (oh, come on, you’ve never spent an entire rainy day in bed with a book?!); just imagine it … 7Bil human beings so much as getting a glass of water for someone who needs it … that hatred and bigotry thing doesn’t seem so hard to be rid of, now, does it?

Someone will throw off the bonds of societal expectation to dance in the rain, then stomp and splash in puddles. Wouldn’t it be great fun to be that person?

Wouldn’t be awesome if, in addition to being a witty and brilliant author (hey, it’s my blog, I’ll call me what I wish to!) I were psychic too?

Great stories

It’s funny really.  A lot of literature can be useful.  It gives us a language for discussing what it is we like about a story, or a poem.  It gives us a language for discussing the differences between two works.  But that’s all it is, a language.

Literature geeks, lit majors, professional and armchair critics alike try to use that language as ammunition for trying to set up definitions for what is or isn’t good art.

Thing is, no art is truly bad or good.  It’s what is made of it.  Frankly, I think if an artist made no effort — put nothing of herself into a work — then perhaps there is some room to argue a work is bad, mostly because is it still art at that point?  A painter who really is only making goopy pain swirls, or a writer who really is only stitching clichés together into some insane travesty of a plot …

Neverminding that, though.  Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, J K Rowling and Professor Tolkein, Yoko Ono and Leonardo DaVinci, Mozard and John Prine … these are artist.  Maybe you think they’re fantastic, maybe you think them mad, maybe you think them crap — but they are artists.

People may laugh at Rice and Meyer — their stories, from a technical stand point, can be pretty hard to take.  Still, there are those to whom those characters spark.  The stories, the plots … they speak to these people and the technical failings become ignorable.  Certainly those women feel they have put something of themselves into those works — a spiritual, metaphoric, blood sacrifice was made in the construction of those texts and some people feel that and are moved.  This is why they are successful.

Rowling and Tolkien are beloved by many, though there are those who, again, using the language of Literature, call them poor and silly.  They had the audacity not to follow The Rules.  Their books, however, change people’s lives — clearly, they are artists (or were, in the late professor’s case).

Yoko and DaVinci inspire some, bore others.  Still, they are artists — they believe in their work.  A pile of rocks to one person, is a brilliant statement to the next.  Does this make it bad?

Mozart and Prine … ah, music.  The very language of the soul.  Apparently souls have dialects.  To some the beat is most essential, to others it must be everything that comes together to make it jazz, and yet others believe that music must sound angry and loud and screeching — thus is born metal.  Still, they aren’t canned nonsense — they are art.

Some things are all technique — maybe they’re good, and maybe that was the point.  In that case, perhaps this too is art, though pure technical expertise without any spirit, soul, passion … you border on the mechanical, and it’s been shown that machines cannot make art, “perfect” music played by a machine without so much as a nanosecond mistake in a beat or a note, not one subtle mistuning is actually unpleasant to the human ear.  So too can be said of too perfect a story or painting to the eye, or the imagination.  Machines have never spoken to anyone (Siri notwithstanding).

This, I think, is why I tend to dislike literary discussions and a lot of literary criticism in general.  What makes a story great or not isn’t if they do or don’t use too many adverbs or clichés; it’s not about the three act structure; it’s not about character arcs.  What makes a story great is when it speaks to someone’s soul, or sparks their imagination, tugs at their emotions, or makes them happy and bubble with laughter.  That is a great story.

In that way, Twilight and Interview With a Vampire are terrific stories.  Maybe they’re not as good as others — something about them doesn’t as often speak to people twice.  You will find people saying “God, why did I like this, again?”  That doesn’t mean they’re bad, just less great, because they did speak to them in the first place … just not anymore.

We can discuss books, we can use Literature — as a language — to meaningfully say how a story makes us feel and what elements really inspire us.  Why should we use it to try to quantify art, though?  One man’s pornography is another man’s beautiful play of light on the human form and, even if it is hardcore fetish erotica, perhaps a statement of something — true, it certainly helps if there was any intention that the shot be any such thing, but still.  If we mean to make art, then we do, full stop.  If we mean to make a buck, then we do — but it’s a formula and nothing a clever enough machine couldn’t do one day in the future; there’s no art.

We can use the language to say, too, what we don’t like about a story.  Thus, through the fun quirks of English — we can discuss how “bad” Harry Potter or Motzart’s Fifth are, because we can now say what it is that we don’t like.  This is okay too, but we shouldn’t exactly say they’re bad stories — bad stories and bad music do not have the notoriety that those two have.

Some people like coffee, some like tea.  Just because two people don’t agree doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong, just that they’re human and no two humans are exactly the same (well, arguments regarding identical twins aside).

Sexism in the world of writing

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it fascinating to think about how the world of writing is often rampant with very profound sexism, and one enforced from all sides — including the consumer end.

Writing, I know, includes rhetorical writing, which has always been dripping with extremities of thought in every direction. Same goes for informative texts — everyone has a point to make.  I often find the term non-fiction a touch funny — sometimes I think the only honest writing is fiction; it admits to being made up, then so often proceeds to give you a glimpse of some life truth through this made up account.

Still, by the same token the sexism isn’t in depiction, it’s in the industry itself.  So, yes, even in the rhetorical and non-fiction worlds.  Thing is, I’m not talking about on the paper.  I’m talking about in the material, themes, genres.

Take SF, a favourite of mine.  Speculative fiction is a vivid place full of idealised histories and shining futures.  It’s a place where women could captain a starship with dignity and respect at a time when, perhaps, they couldn’t get taken seriously as the captain of a bass boat.  It’s a place where a sorceress could cross spells with an archmagus and none could know who would prevail, and both were looked at with awe and respect — even fear.  Yet it’s a place where authors, at times, find themselves thankful for a name with a masculine tone, or find themselves writing under pseudonym.  Because, of course, women don’t know the first thing about writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the like!  God, no, who ever heard of such a thing?!  Oh, not to say they can’t, but it’d certainly be all fairies, unicorns, and True Love — not a decent fight scene in sight, and no mighty castings.  It’d be court intrigue and … notice how I’m sticking with Fantasy here?  Yeah, there’s a reason for that.

Sexism works both ways.  Romance.  Oh, fellas, you poor dears.  Don’t you know, not a one of you has a romantic bone in your whole body?!  You couldn’t write a touching love scene if your lives depended upon it.  Oh, sure, a bodice ripper, all sex and “love muscle” this, and “throbbing” that might be seen as okay, though you’ll probably find you’ll have better luck if you called it erotica than romance, and throw in a few colourful vulgarities or just get rather more graphic about it.

Agents and publishers aren’t as bad about it, if they were then many of the authors writing under pseudonym couldn’t.  Clearly one cannot cash a royalty cheque made out to their pen name, so obviously the agent and publisher knows who really wrote it.  It’s the readership, though, they’re the worst.  Jo Rowling‘s middle initial isn’t K.  J. K. Rowling, just doesn’t sound as feminine — it does now that we all know that she is the lovely and talented author of the Harry Potter series, but when the stories were new … oh, my … let’s not put Jo, a distinctly feminine label, on this Boy’s Adventure Fiction, it won’t sell very well.

It’s true, too.  Oh, if you ask people directly they’ll say it’s more important what’s in the book.  But that’s while they’re thinking with their forebrain.  What happens when they’re scanning the bookshelves?  What happens when they see a cover with Fabio’s arms draped with a pert young blonde in a French Renaissance dress?  They might glance at the title and see something like Jasmine’s Desire (I am not going to find out how many books have that title and nor how many have a cover remotely as I’ve made up … I won’t), in many cases if it’s by Elaine Wrotabuk the expectations for what will be between those pages will be different than if it says Edward Wrotabuk.  Ever notice just how many names on the shelves of Science Fiction are ‘male’ and how many on Romance are ‘female’?  Ever notice how many are only initials?  Ever wonder who just got clever and picked a perfectly innocuous name?

It’s not just those two genres, they’re just the easiest to pick on.  I write one and read the other, so I’m more familiar — and there’s the fact that it often appears to be the worst for it.  They’re the ‘[sex] can’t write this stuff’ genres.  In other genres it’s just assumed the content will be different.  Also, if we’re talking Young Adult, Children’s, and other stuff that might, at times, be divided into girls’ fiction or boys’ fiction, then we run into the situation where you want a male name on The Hardy Boys, a girl’s name on Nancy Drew.  

It’s in other aspects of the readership.  Men just can’t possibly write a female protagonist.  Certainly not as a point of view character.  Just as Jo Rowling, clearly, could not have penned the work with this male star-of-the-show — obviously that was done by the ambiguous, but assumed to be Mr J. K. Rowling.  

So we’ve got expectation of content — male penned romance is smut, female romance is moving and passionate (even when it’s really smut).  Female written fantasies are just romances with pixies in it, but male penned ones are hobgoblins and epic, bloody battles.  Men can’t write convincing women, and women cannot write men to save their lives.  And women don’t know the first thing about science fiction.  Feel free to extrapolate into the expectations of horror and mystery, westerns and contemporary, and other such fictions.  

Those matters, though, I can largely be amused by.  I mean, an author can change her name for purposes of making the book on the shelf conform to societal expectations and, once the content between the pages is know — instead of only guessed at — her true name and face can be known and, now that everyone’s thinking with their higher brain functions, no one gives a damn.  J. K. can now, once more, be Jo — though for convenience’s sake the cover retains the J. K.  It’s the criticisms, analyses — the literary breakdowns that actually bother me.

It’s the feminist critique of works, for example, wherein a book by a woman (or perceived to be) can have lesbians, strong females, women who enjoy sexuality and women who loathe it, men who’re sensitive, and men who are brutish — and she is brilliant.  There’s so much spoke in this work!  Tell them though, that Sam Spade is Samuel, not Samantha, though and suddenly the lesbians are just perverse fantasy, the strong females are somehow sexist (I’ve never understood how that works), the sexual women are more perverse fantasy, and … need I go on?

It does work a little to the flip side.  A woman author who writes sensitive men, or weak men, or strong women and so forth is clearly a dyke femi-nazi or something.  Strangely I’ve noticed men tend to be less worried about this sort of thing.  Maybe it’s just taken for granted by the male of the species that women think them idiots and so are unfazed when a woman writes them as such, who knows?  Still, in all fairness, I’ve seen men get quite riled by the depiction of men in various writings.  

Why is it that something is positive for little boys, or little girls if it’s written by one gender, but horrible and perverse the other way ’round — even if the text is unchanged (I’ve actually encountered, sadly I cannot recall where or with regards to what, people reversing their attitudes when such data is brought to light)?  Why is it insulting when it’s discovered an inspiring story of homosexual romance was written by someone who’s straight?  Okay, so that’s not sexism, but prejudice is prejudice.

I know, I spoke at length of fiction, but I said rhetoric and information had the same issue.  It does.  Women aren’t supposed to know about some topics, and men aren’t.  Imagine a book on etiquette and protocol, or on flower arranging by a man — a straight one!  Or a book by a woman about DIY diesel engine repair that isn’t just Suzy Homemaker “if the sprocket-hose, this little thing right here, gets a hole in it and you’re on the interstate, don’t call triple-A, just grab your ballpoint pen and …”, no I mean “So once you have the engine mounts loose, we’ll hoist the son of a bitch out of there and get to work rebuilding it …”  

The point is we’re writers.  Writers are readers, then there’re the people who’re just readers.  We’re the weird people.  We’re not normal!  Why, then, are among the worst at maintaining stereotypes and prejudices?  Oh, sure, we love a good stereotype while writing, it’s useful for making things succinct, “For a redhead she was remarkably even tempered” and “what do you expect, he went to Oxford,” but we shouldn’t enforce the things in life.  I believe wholeheartedly that any woman who wants to know a camshaft from a steering column ought to be fully capable of showing any man at the local service shop a thing or two with a torque wrench (minds out of the gutter, folks), that a straight man can be a fantastically cultured individual with an eye for floral arrangements and interior decorating, that women are more likely to write an action filled blood and gore fightfest, and that any man who lets himself feel can write profoundly touching emotional explorations.  Some of the most scientifically and technically minded people I’ve met were female, and there’re certainly a good deal of double-Xs reading SF … and there’re straight men who don’t mind a good tearjerker and have all the technical and mechanical aptitude of an earthworm.  Maybe as the people who live in the world of facts (non-fiction), imagination (fiction), and trying to move people into new ways of seeing things (rhetoric) we ought to remember to think more forwardly in the real world just as well or more than we let ourselves in the worlds between the pages.  

Who knows, it might change the world.

Thoughts on “spoilers”

Not everything I plan to post here is going to be directly related to my work, but rather just thoughts on publishing, and writing in general, or even just thoughts on life, the universe and everything (R.I.P. Mr Adams).

I was contemplating the lengths people go to not to know what happens in a story. So much so that it occurred to me that I could very well get no end of static from people that the blurb for Ready or Not leaves little to the imagination as to whether or not Lauren and Salencia’s relationship continues through to the end of the first book.

I sincerely can’t understand this. Who can pick up a love story and not see the couple together through the end? Who watches The Princess Bride and doesn’t know, beyond all doubt, that Westley and Buttercup wind up together, even though Westley is dead within ten minutes of the movie starting? Who was surprised to learn The Man in Black is Westley (is this where I should have said “Spoiler Alert!”, oops)? Who is surprised when Westley dies again later and Miracle Max brings him back (err … spoiler alert?)?

The duty of a story teller is to draw you in, to encompass your mind such that, as you’re reading, you can just believe that, THIS time he won’t reach the top, that THIS time Inigo wins the duel, or that he DOESN’T outthink a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line. At the same time, the story teller has the duty to serve poetic and narrative justice. When Westley dies, you feel like the young Mr Savage and decry injustice! Foul! It simply cannot be! Westley must only be faking. When you violate that trust you must do so carefully, you must have Miracle Max and his pill. Not to do so is the injustice.

Dramatic tension should not be the mystery of what is to come. If that were the case we could never re-enjoy a work. We’d never read The Hobbit twice. We’d never pick up Princess of Mars after that first trip to the great red globe with John Carter. Never a second glance to Harry Potter: and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And, I think, the world would be far the poorer for it.

That is not to say that a mind-blowing, world shattering, awe inspiring twist isn’t a good thing. Isn’t something worth keeping hush hush, and letting be a surprise. Ask any good mystery or thriller writer and fan about that. It’s something that certainly has its place and purpose in fiction, and all genres can use it to some degree of good. Still, it should be the spice, the seasoning of a fiction. Like with food, sometimes spice is a major component – Indian or Thai? – and the mind boggling twist is a full-fledged trope of Thrillers/Mysteries, and they’d be not half as amazing without it.

In regards to myself, Now & Forever is a slice of life romantic comedy. A good ol’ fashioned happily ever after love story. I will not apologise if I’ve spoiled anything for you by saying so. If one hasn’t realised that early on then for that I am sorry either for my failure as a writer or the failure of those who taught you to read. The fun of such stories isn’t will they live happily ever after! It is how do they live happily ever after. You can see the destination coming from 12 parsecs away, but the journey, oh the journey is where the adventure is.

Maybe you agree, maybe you think I’m so full of shit I could singlehandedly stop a crop failure in Ethiopia. We’re all entitled to opinions. Mine is based on observation of those works I personally enjoy and the works that, regardless what I think of them, clearly stand the test of time by appealing very potently to many people. Simply put, they’re re-readable, re-watchable, re-listenable. They’re stories very rich in imagination, the characters have charm and you forget the world for a moment and are sucked into another time and another place and, for those pages or minutes or hours you are riding beside Bilbo Baggins as he crosses the mountains with the dwarves, or watching the epic duel between Inigo and Westley, or slaying great beasts with heroes of ancient legends as the bards paint a tapestry of words and song upon your mind.

Food for thought.
Love to All