Mind leakage

Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes)

Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, very recently I posted this which contemplated the ‘obligation’ of those of us who have a voice in the public ear to be out about … ourselves, really.

After much thought and discussion I’ve decide that I agree with myself.  I’ve no obligation whatsoever to say if I’m straight or gay, bi- or pansexual.  If I’m married, single, dating, taken a vow of chastity (though in all sincerity I share Sally’s view of that) that’s my own business.  Hell the only validity to saying if I’m male or female is because English has gendered pronouns; what anatomy I currently posses or have previously possessed is certainly no business to anyone except one who intends to make any use of that anatomy.

Hobbes (Calvin and Hobbes)

Hobbes (Calvin and Hobbes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It can be argued that, were I gay or were I trans, or were I a particularly gifted gibbon that I ought to say so in order to show other gay writers, other trans writers, other gibbons that they too can be a published author.  No.  I can see a certain validity in that for things like acting or other things that truly put you in the public eye.  Writing is nothing at all like that.  I cite as my reference and infallible proof:  Bill Watterson.  This is a man who wrote a comic beloved by millions (billions?) through a number of years (decades?) and who some believe to be mythical as there is exactly one photograph that most anyone has ever seen and it’s been joked/rumoured that even his agent has no idea where he lives or what his phone number is.  He could be a she under a pen name.  We certainly know nothing about him – does he like men?  Women?  Sheep?  Does he speak Welsh, Russian, or Portugese?  Does he have testicles?  No one knows … and few have any reason to care.

What Bill teaches us is that, when we are invisible creators, us writers, we are as much or more inspirational than when we are visible.  Visible I’m clearly a 6′ tall transsexual lesbian gibbon with a unicorn horn and seven breasts.  Invisible I’m whatever and whoever I need to be to make you feel better.  I prefer semi-visible.  I mean, we learn a little of Bill from his incomparable Calvin and Hobbes comics (if you have been under a rock and know not of what I speak I suggest you hie thee to the nearest place of obtainment and remedy this unspeakable deficiency with all available alacrity); just as we learn a little of any author by taking her collected works as a whole.  I’ll talk about whole work versus single character/works later.  We learn a little from his name and that one photograph.  And we learn one more thing from his reclusiveness:  clearly he is a shy or at least not terribly egotistical man.

Lucy Pevensie

Lucy Pevensie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These little clues tell us some things.  Okay, he’s probably not a woman, he’s not a self-centred loudmouth, etc. and his characters tell us he’s probably a pretty swell and thoughtful person with a keen and well-read wit.  Does this help you decide if a cisgender llamaphilic lesbian nanny goat can make it big in the comics world?  Sort of, yes, actually – as I said, he proves that we’re anonymous behind our pages.  People see us as our creations on the page, not as the people our families look at during dinner.  Stephen King is a slightly known geekish face, a few people know he writes from his nightmares, and some know about his alcoholism – most people know him as a byline that scares the living shit out of them.

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's T...

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to authors who’ve discussed it, yes, in the publishing industry there are agents, editors, publishing overlords, etc. who will take one sex or another more seriously than the opposite.  SF tends to be dismissive of women is the biggest complaint, but men are sometimes given a little less attention in the romance universe, and people get funny ideas in mysteries and … stuff.  But look around.  There’re published women in SF (Elaine Cunningham, Andre Norton, etc.), men published under romance (Nicholas Sparks, lots of pseudonyms, etc.), Mary Shelly anyone?  Lord Byron?  No, in the end, the publishing world is wide open.  For one thing, if you must, just do it yourself.  Your work is what should matter.

My work shows that I’m sympathetic – be I an ally or member – of the LGBTQ community.  My blogposts affirm this.  I am colourblind (not in the disability sense, but in the racial sense) – to me a human is a human, their skin colour is nothing but melanin, I even spent formative years of my life somewhere that it was white people who were not the racial powerhouses and, in fact, were discriminated against and bullied – the people of Hawai’i haven’t forgot the whole annexed at gunpoint and the very dubious circumstances of the vote for statehood things.  My name is in the feminine form.

People can make of that data, as they can with what they know of Bill Watterson, what they will.  No, I’m not going to make an evangelical Christian fundamentalist with very strong anti-LGBT philosophies feel much of a connection with me or my characters, not unless they’re inclined to changing their minds or at least have an open mind for lesbian characters despite their Views against their ‘lifestyle choices’.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those looking for a rolemodel … in writing your role model should be the text on the page.  I’ve next to nothing whatsoever in common with Professor J R R Tolkien, the great man who brought us The Hobbit; I’ve little in common with C S Lewis, little in common with A A Milne or Ed Greenwood.  Spider Robinson, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Terry Pratchett, Lawrence Block, or William Shatner.  All of those are authors whose works I’ve enjoyed, authors who – along with many more – taught me to write by having themselves written and by my having read them and learned from those pages.  I do not know them, I do not feel I know them, I do not feel I must know them.  I do know Granny Weatherwax, Bilbo Baggins, Winnie the Pooh, Storm Silverhand, Lady Sally, HAL 9000, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Jake Cardigan, and Lucy Pevensiethey are the ones I met and the ones whose adventures I shared and share again & again.  They are the ones who taught me what is possible and how to dream and hope.  Those characters told me that it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman; they told me it doesn’t matter one way or the other who I love – just that I should love, and well; they taught me wonder, they taught me many things.

I think in most ways public figures only matter in what they do, not what they are.  Exceptions – always exceptions – would be those who rely on others to see their dreams through, like actors.  If, after coming out, Neil Patric Harris was never seen nor heard from again in Hollywood … well, that’s a pretty strong message.  Thing is, yeah, it makes sense that he should be out, and his career being so strong is inspirational – despite being a married gay father he is a beloved STAR, but actors have directors and producers who can decide to never give them a part because “I just can’t work with someone with green eyes, oh God no!  They’re really Satan come to Earth in disguise” and, necessarily, artistic pursuit is left open to some discrimination (hey, I’m sorry, if you’re not tall enough nor leggy enough you just can’t be a Radio City Rockette … the routines won’t work for it, learn ’em and start a competing group of shorter folk, might work though) so stupid discrimination gets by far too often; sad but true.

But as writers we’re not selling ourselves – recently popular advice to the contrary exists, but it’s bull as the good Mr Watterson so fabulously illustrates (uhm … no pun intended).  We do not inspire with our selves, we inspire with our creations.  Writer is a, largely, crappy job – pay sucks, it’s sometimes (for some, rather often) thankless, it’s lonely … it’s a lot of things, none of them glamorous.  It is those who populate our pages they are our contributions to societal change and philosophical debate.  Professor Tolkien may have been a force to be reckoned with in the world of academia, but that inspired people studying philology and myths; Bilbo Baggins inspired people, lots of them.  Suddenly it didn’t matter how small or inexperienced you were, you could out riddle a voice in the dark, escape goblins, face down dragons, ride the skies with the eagles, meet elves, and live through the war of five armies – not bad for a timid little hobbit from The Shire.  Classics have few (no?) LGBTQ characters … at one time, including them would have actually got the authors worse than just shunned and boycotted, so give ’em breaks.  Today … today we have Lauren & Sally, we have Dumbledore (I’m sorry, but I was not surprised when Ms Rowling said he’s gay).   We’re lacking, admittedly, in trans* representation.  I’ve only got Sally’s cousin Joe, and he’s pretty minor.  I’m sorry, I’ve just not met any trans characters in my head with a story to tell, just a few who exist as … decoration.  Maybe that’ll change one day, I certainly hope so, it’d be interesting to see what stories they tell.  I’m no expert, but I think it’s not unheard of in manga, for what it’s worth.

That doesn’t matter, though, today you write your story.  You tell of the heroism of your pansexual Japanese trans woman, then you put it out there.  The more who do this the more it becomes visible.  Sooner or later someone else has to rise to the ranks of Pratchett and Rowling, King and Meyer … sooner or later no one will notice that a character in a story is a lesbian because it won’t be that important a detail, or that he’s transgender, or that she’s black, or that he’s Asian or … already that’s starting to happen, and it’s a Good Thing.  The key isn’t to make the books about being black, or about being Asian, or about being a sentient dolphin – not that those books aren’t helpful too, but they’re not necessarily as generally accessible as books not about those things – it’s to make books about fighting dragons, about saving the princess, about climbing Everest, about life but with characters who aren’t status quo.  Few, if any, who read The Hobbit were, themselves, hobbits … and it wasn’t exactly about him being a hobbit, it was about him being on an adventure despite all the things that define a hobbit, and proving that Gandalf was right in suggesting that one, this one in particular, be brought along; and who has never, not once in their lives, had something they had to be overcome, especially something that was no handicap whatsoever but rather only perceived as so by the short-sighted?

That is the obligation of a writer, I think, if we wish to be inspiring and to Change The World – we need to all have more Bilbo Bagginses.  We all need more Tiggers, and more Aslans, more Prince Thorks, and more Tee Tuckers.  It’s them who spread the message.  If your book preaches to the choir, you do a service and your book is important – it tells those who may feel excluded and alone that they are not alone; please by all means do still write and keep on writing them.  But if you don’t want to write a book about someone being gay, but you want to have a gay character … well … that’s a damned fine idea too – that‘s leading by example.

I think I’ve wandered and meandered long enough.  I’m going to stop here and hit publish.  I’m tired and almost afraid to actually spellcheck or proofread this.

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How do people shop for books?

English: Author and musician Seanan Mcguire at...

English: Author and musician Seanan Mcguire at Dezenovecon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, in perfect honestly I almost never read the comments of blogs (other than my own), YouTube videos … I’m not even wont to read internet forums much.  So I never noticed, until it was pointed out to me, a very peculiar phenomenon that just blows my mind and makes me wonder just how pervasive this is … I mean is it just a Paranormal Romance/SF thing, or is it all books?  Did I get some of my initial sales from this, for example?

What phenomenon is this?  People buying the author rather than the book.

I don’t understand this.  I mean, I do in the sense of, for example, I’ve met next to no Heinlein books I didn’t like, thus I will often buy a Robert Heinlein penned  story without doing more than glancing at the synopsis, and (given the single Heinlein I can’t stand, Starship Troopers) I read the first page to be sure I can get past it.  Same with Dennis L. McKiernan.   Thing is, I’m not buying the person, I don’t really care, I’m buying the writer or writing.

Now, it is true and fair to say that I’ll not be in any hurry to put money in Orson Scott Card‘s pockets, but if I discover a story of his is particularly fantastic, I can always pick it up at a second hand bookshop with no itch of conscience, he doesn’t see a dime from that.  Why?  Well, because his homophobic tirades were just a little too offensive to want to give him my cash when I can help it.

I guess I can’t understand this idea that the producer of something is the brand that needs selling.  I mean, yes, Starbucks, this is somewhat the case – that said, though, I don’t care how awesome they are as a company, how good they are to employees, how they use fair trade coffee and such … they make awful coffee!  And, in the end, the coffee is their brand!  Tazo, on the other hand, is fantastic, and Starbucks gets lots of my money for that stuff.

So I have to wonder now, did someone buy Love or Lust because they were impressed with one of my random blog posts about writing or about … stuff?  Because I shared something from The Kindness Blog?  Before tonight I’d have never wondered that.  “Of course not,” I’d say.  Then I learnt that in the comments of authors like Seanan McGuire and John Scalzi are people going “Wow, this post moved me so much, I’ve got to buy your book!”  All I can think is, I like Scalzi’s blog, he’s got a fun way with putting things … doesn’t change that his stories don’t interest me, I don’t care how much his blog posts inspire or move me, I’m not buying a copy of Redshirts, I’m sorry.  Certainly a blogpost of Seanan’s is how I got addicted to Incryptid stories, but that had to do with a part of one that was describing Verity Price from Discount Armageddon and Midnight Blue-Light Special that involved her being like the bastard offspring of Dazzler and Batman; who wouldn’t want to read that!?  It, admittedly, was in conjunction with her post about being annoyed that so many people equate rape and tragedy with character growth and … I already blogged about it, here but that’s irrelevant, I didn’t buy the book because of her views of rape, I bought the book because of Verity, I bought the sequel because of Seanan’s talented writing.

I always assumed everyone else thought this same way, certainly no readers I’ve ever once had the chance to converse with seemed to operate on any other basis besides the few who shop by genre and will read anything that’s from the Science Fiction section, or the Fantasy, or anything that’s a Warhammer 40k title, or Star Wars Expanded Universe (a rant for some other time), etc. which is understandable enough if you just enjoy wizards and warriors, or ray guns and spaceships and the rest be damned.

I’d be interested in comments on this, but I’ve learnt in the past that most people will just click like.  C’est la vie.  It’s an interesting insight into someone’s psychology … I’ve no idea what to think of it, or how to interpret it, certainly no idea what I’m supposed to actually do with this knowledge, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

“The door irised open”

Today I’m going to talk, more as a reader than a writer — though I’ll probably be unable to resist putting my author voice in here somewhere.

I love to read speculative fiction.  Fantastic genre.  I’ve said this again and again.  Princess of MarsTriplanetaryStranger in a Strange LandTime Enough for Love2001: A Space Odyssey, Callahan’s Crosstime SaloonThe Hobbit, Dragondoom, A Song of Ice and Fire, Black TrilliumForgotten Realms, and so very many more!  To stretch things further:  the adventures of young Ms Alice in the strange world of Wonderland, or of Dorothy and her friends in the great fairy land of Oz.

Lately, though, I’ve been rather disappointed in new SF.  Once the genre(s) came to life in vivid and exciting worlds and adventures, not I feel as though I’m reading a textbook.

I think it harkens back to some of that discussion about show and tell in writing — you want to show things, and sometimes you tell things, and there ought to be a careful balance.

Today it gets far too carried away trying to show the world-building.  Today it is not enough to, as the immortal Robert Heinlein so eloquently penned “the door irised open”.  Today … I’m going to stick with the door, though it had something to do with how the ship’s engines worked or something to that effect in the book I’m drawing from here; today it would be something on this line:

The door irised open as they approached, then irised closed shortly after they’d passed through.  Hank stared at it thoughtfully as they walked through and finally said, “You know … I’ve always wondered, why do our doors open like that?  Didn’t they used to swing open and closed on the old wet navy ships?”

Ginny stared at him, “Well, if you’d ever paid attention in History class …”

I believe the exact quote was something to the effect of “well, as you learned in school” or similar, and as I said, they were discussing something esoteric about the ship.  But regardless there then ensued a multipage explanation in dialogue.  I’ve found others that spend, I wish I were lying, giving you a 100+ page history lesson on the setting before you necessarily meet the characters, and even if you’ve met the characters, it’s after the dissertation when you get to meet our good friend The Plot.

Sure, as Sturgeon said:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1]

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

Sadly, however, this is no longer an isolated eccentricity of some authors.  This is becoming the expectation of … well, I will admit, among science fiction readership it seems to be the desire of the fans to read something that is rather more like a textbook than a novel; but it’s leaking terribly badly into the writing advice.  Of course, as always with writing advice, in remarkably contradictory fashion:  “Don’t info dump” and … I really can’t recall the short and snappy way of saying it, but “explain everything“.

Personally?  I find Heinlein’s approach great, or Sir Terry Pratchett best.  In the former you are given a quick adjective to give flavour to the setting and the scene; it’s as taken for granted by these people that a door should iris as we take for granted it should swing (or, for those in more east Asian countries, perhaps I ought to say ‘slide’?).  In the latter we might, or might not, depending how funny he can make it, a quick little footnote (or not so quick … but always funny) explaining it — Bloody Stupid Johnson was likely involved, I’d suspect.

Betimes we do need to explain things in our stories that, possibly, the characters know and take for granted that we in our world and time do not.  The opening of The Hobbit is a glorious example of this (I hope Tolkien estates will pardon my excerpt):

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The mother of our particular hobbit… what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, – and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Now, it is worth noting that this seems to contradict what I said.  But it’s this:  in Tolkien’s case the narrator is speaking to you and I, the character telling the tale needs you to understand a creature that has become scarce and little known to the likes of us — could he have explained hobbits through the course of the narrative?  Of course he could — he could have described Mr Baggins of Bag End as short and plump with his curly hair and jolly clothes, and gone on from there throughout the book.  Or could he?  Maybe by getting it out of the way upfront he does something in the tone of the story; now the meeting with Gandalf the Grey could go on in a manner a bit less puzzling to the audience.

It’s not wrong for your narrative to explain that which is normal in the time and place of the setting — but the explanation shouldn’t interrupt the story!  Pratchett achieves this with footnotes; Heinlein and Tolkien achieve this by keeping it quite important, relevant to the bit of narrative at hand, and — above all — relatively short and sweet.

Now, to return to our door … okay, this one’s stretching it a little since it’s a door, how important is that?!  Still, work with me.

The door irised open as they approached, and irised closed again after they’d gone through.  Henry looked back to be sure it’d closed.  In his youth, he’d been on a very ancient ship which still had swinging doors and a hull breach had yanked a hatch open killing several of his friends.  These modern doors would have to be severely damaged — or fail to close — for that to ever happen again; the sight of his friends being blown into the abyss of space, though, left him a little paranoid.

See?  I’m stretching.  Still, if it really was important why a door would iris instead of swing, we’ve just told you; it’s safer (I am not interested in a physics argument, I was making that up as I went along).

It’s this idea that you need to clearly establish your setting.  Yes, you do, but as a reader, you can give it to me in bites, pieces, and you can keep it relevant.  I don’t really care how the war between the Klothorian Empire and the Numbanji Consortium started, not if the story isn’t about that.  It’s enough to know that this band of shipwrecked Klothorians who washed up on a Numbanji shore are none too welcome.

Context.  Always always context.  An explanation is okay here, but terrible there.  And, as always, keep it short or keep it … interesting.  Heinlein’s old juvies would sometimes insert brief science lessons into things.  It was done in a mix of the adult explaining things to the kids who were joining in the adventure on a rocket ship, and a bit of narrative explaining esoteric bits of what they were doing and why; but he kept it fairly succinct, and the most science lessony bits were to make the young reader feel a bit of a part of the preparations for this trip into space so that it seems less dull.

If it’s important, or really neat, how the engines work — couldn’t you have just made it part of, say, a paragraph description when the drive activated?  It’s a time honoured SF trope to do so.

I don’t mind irrelevant and unimportant detail tossed in.  It helps set the scene and to characterise the people involved.  It serves nothing to tell me the door iris instead of swing — except now I’m further immersed in the realisation “this place is wholly unlike here and now”.  I don’t want to read textbooks, I want to read a novel.

This is why this isn’t in my author mode, just my reader.  If you want to write a novel length work by inserting several short textbooks interspersed inside a short story or novella, fine, do so.  Clearly some readers will love that, and if you and they are happy, I’m happy.  I’m just sad that it’s so terribly hard to find anything that isn’t that, and rather sick of writing advice everywhere that tries to turn the new, burgeoning writers into such authors; or the discussions that seem to be turning readers into such people.  The classics are fine, and nice, and there’s ample supply of them I can still discover … but they are finite.  I’m sad that even the 10% allowed for by Sturgeon’s Law feels like I’ve then got to dig to find MY 10% from within that.  I’m not sure, but I think 10% of 10% is 1% — slim pickings.

Writing about writing

I’m going to take a tiny break from my poking around the NaNoWriMo forums, and unburden my mind on something.

I spend an awful lot of time writing about writing when I only have one book out, don’t I?

Seems strange, especially to me.

Thing is, Tolkien wrote a bit about writing and he only ever released two books (Lord of the Rings, for those who don’t know, was only a trilogy due to paper shortages).  I certainly don’t believe I’m half the author that Tolkien was, nor do I disregard his academic writing … but his fiction is only two works.  Silmirilion, and others are unfinished and posthumous publications.

Thing is, a person who writes can know a lot about writing without being published.  If this were not true there would not be writer discussions everywhere on the internet, and before that on Usenet, and before that on Fidonet, and before that on select BBSes, and before that in various paper newsletters or coffee shoppe/library based clubs.  No, a person can have an hundred titles published and not know anything about writing, and a person can have nothing published and know everything.  It’s like saying someone with a degree in something is more knowledgeable than someone without one — not always true, the difference is that one met certain criterion in a university, the other just spent a lot of time in careful study.

I don’t propose to know all about writing.  I certainly would never claim to, on purpose, write literary works — if for no other reason than my outright distaste for every single example of such that I’ve ever encountered.

The thing is, we all find something that works for us — we share that for those who it might save some grief and pain.  Somewhere out there is another writer wired a bit like myself who is staring, tears in her/his eyes, struggling to compose a tale upon the cold, lifeless screen of a computer.  Sweety, turn off the machine, grab some ink and paper, give that a try.  Hurray, another story rescued!

Also, one cannot write without reading.  This is stated time and again.  Someone had to be the first writer, someone had to be the first blacksmith, so I suppose it’s not quite true — someone can work it out from nothing but it’s going to be pretty unlikely.  Even our friend Mr First Blacksmith, he probably knew something about making bronze, and Mr First Bronzesmith learnt something from Granddaddy Copper or Tin-smith, both of whom learnt all they needed from Ugh Goldsmith who figured out the shiny yellow rocks look neat if you smash them with some dull gray rocks, and goes all runny if you get it near that neat fire thing his cousin Og No Eyebrows discovered last week.  So, I say, you must read.  The first novelists read poetry.  What did the first poets read?  I honestly don’t know, it’s not an area of history that ever much intrigued me, but I would guess that they listened to story tellers who recited a kind of epic poetry.  From this you learn techniques (a hotter fire makes these funny rocks sweat out grey shiny stuff), you learn methodology (no, no, hit the metal, son, not your thumb, works better — trust me).  Most importantly you learn what inspires you (what?  I can’t turn everything into a smithing analogy)!

If you read enough, and then write enough, you discover these details (oh!  hit the metal with a hammer!  Who knew!?) which some will call rules of writing and others rules of thumb.  I provide rules of thumb.  For certain kinds of fiction it’s important to follow strict structures, to only put that she wore green shoes if it’s vital to some later or immediate aspect of the story (at the very least it has to be symbolic).  For others, this isn’t so important.

This is why I tend to say, do it or not, it’s up to you and the necessities of your story.  Because that is the key:  It’s.  Your.  Story.

Believe me, I haven’t read all there is to read, but I’ve read enough to know that one thing is Truth:  in the course of human history, there is no truly new idea in how to write.  Someone will have tried something like it somewhere.  And in this age, someone will have published it at some point and in some place.

As I said:  Do the characters eat?  I don’t know, dear, do they?  Do the characters have sex?  Is it that kind of story?  Fade to black or graphic detail?  Is it that kind of story?  Do I describe their clothes?  Does the narrator notice the clothes, or care?

I cannot stress enough, that there are no literary police who will charge you with being in violation of code 43-b of the Rules of Writing if you don’t do what some literature professor or creative writing instructor told you to then confiscate your literary license.  TELLS, yes, sort of, it’s called marks and they tend to be bad if you don’t follow the instructor’s instructions — but that’s a whole other matter.  Believe me, Jo Rowling, Stephen King, J R R Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Charles Dickens, A A Milne, Frank L Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E E “Doc” Smith, Arthur C Clarke, William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Geoffrey Chaucer … and so many more, names we know, names we love, names we cherish, names that will live on or have already long endured … they broke The Rules, or at least some rules.  Other rules they followed, some rules weren’t rules yet, some rules aren’t rules any more.

And there’s another point.  It’s so hard to agree on these rules that it’s possible to have these discussions.  If Rules for writing truly existed, beyond those needed to codify how one communicates via the strange glyphs upon a page or screen, then there would be no question and no discussion:  one would become a writer the way one becomes a plumber, or an accountant.

Time and again:  Art has no rules, no boundaries.  Art is imagination, and creativity.  We say ‘think outside the box’ when we want someone to be creative — we tell them to step beyond the bounds of laws, rules, status quo, etc.  In our imaginations, men walk upon the moon, upon alien worlds; in our imaginations we explore the depths of the sea and soar among the clouds; in our imaginations we can send a picture around the world in the blink of an eye; in our imaginations we can converse with cats and have tea with dormice.  Some of these things have, since, become reality — but first they were imagined, and first they were the stuff of fiction, first they were novels or epic legends, dreams of eccentric geniuses.

It can never be stressed enough, and I am not alone, so many of the artists we all adore so often stress the same advice:  do not shackle your dreams.  Do not stifle your story with boundaries and Rules.  Reserve “should” only in name of advice, “Should Veronica wear high heels with that kind of dress, do you think?”  If you can dream it, write it, because if you can dream it you can inspire that dream in others — and that’s what it’s all about really, sharing our dreams and imaginings so that others can enjoy the same journey we did.

Another November, another NaNoWriMo

Well, it’s November and time for NaNoWriMo to begin again in earnest.

This year, and for the foreseeable future I shan’t be participating – it did my writing more harm than good, but for some it is the incentive and push needed to actually get their story written. For those people, good luck.

Still, the forums can be amusing, interesting, fun, frustrating, and many other things. So I’ve got this notion to take topics of interest and provide my more in-depth, blogpost length vs forum reply length thoughts on the matter. How often? Don’t know. Daily seems overly ambitious and too likely to end up driving me mad. I’ll aim for weekly and see if I can’t do a bit more than that.

Well, most recent to catch my attention was more than one thread on the subject of writing characters different from yourself. Men writing women, heterosexuals writing homosexuals, black writing white, etc.

This harkens back to my favourite Gore Vidal quote, not to mention various other things and wholes posts of my own wording.

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”
~~ Gore Vidal

Humans are humans. Whether we have a penis, vagina, more or less melanin, freckles, red hair, blue eyes, big nose or little we’re still humans. Write the character who fits the story, or write the character the story fits – whichever way around you feel works best. Men are no mystery, nor are women.

Stereotypes help, they communicate certain societal expectations. At a loss for something about a Western culture male? Either he does or doesn’t like sport is a good place; and if he doesn’t, then you can pick and choose from geek social norms for some inspirations. But never mind stereotypes, if you want a rugged all American boy whose as broad at the shoulder as he is tall, with neck and waist of the same circumference as each other, etc. Just because he’s blonde, blue eyed, built like John Carter, Warlord of Mars doesn’t mean he has to be a football or track star. He can be a ballet dancer, or he could be a champion chess player, he could be gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide, he can be a genius or idiot … it doesn’t matter! In the end it’s up to only yourself and your narrative.

If we stress over much about “Well, how do I write a convincing …” we end up with a cookie-cutter template. We wind up with something unimaginative, unalive, and flat. We get characters who are caricatures. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, hidden deep within the Russian steppes, in a convent or monastery, or otherwise lived an incredibly sheltered and isolated life you will have met other races, other creeds, other colours, other genders, other sexes; you’ll have seen TV shows or movies, read books, and so on with them. Women may not have a penis, men may not have a uterus, but we can draw from our life experiences.

You’ll never please everyone. Heinlein is cricised frequently – sadly by those proclaiming themselves feminists or in support of the feminist cause – of having unbelievable female women who are too competent, and capable (especially given that they want to actually be mothers at some point in their lives! ~gasp~ what a horror!) to be real. He based his female characters on, first and foremost his wives, and to a lesser extent his female friends. Virginia Heinlein and … I can’t seem to recall nor find the names of his prior wives were, by all accounts I’ve ever encountered, brilliant and capable women. It was Ginny and Robert’s greatest sorry, according to many of their friends, that they seemed unable to have children. So, a very real human being is unbelievable? And worse, despite being strong and educated, capable and competent, she is anti-feminist for wishing to be a mother.

We could move on to other examples like Teddy Roosevelt and Jack Churchill, but I think I’ve made my point: Your character is real to those willing to believe, so long as you believe in them yourself. If this weren’t true Fantasy, as a genre, would have died long before the birth of Professor Tolkien’s great-great grandfathers.

The key, as I say again and again, to writing any character is to believe in them. If they are real to you, they’ll be read to someone else. Everyone? Probably not. Even as wildly popular as Terry Pratchett, J R R Tolkien, and J K Rowling are, there are still those who can’t take their characters. No matter how well acted and written the roles of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts … people believe what they’re willing to believe and you’ll never get them to change their minds – but believe me, someone will feel the same spark you feel, the same attachment and bond to the characters, etc. For them the story will come alive. It’s for them you’re writing, well they and yourself, so enjoy their wonder and belief, and don’t stress too much about those who elect to listen to a different voice and refuse to hear yours.

Release date selected

Love or Lust coverAfter carefully considering my rate of proofreading, the rate I ought to be proofreading, and the amount of work it will take to make the book ready for publication I have decided that the release date for Love or Lust will be 29 June 2013.

I will be making the final uploads on the evening/afternoon of the 28th so it’s possible that some sources (e.g. Smashwords) might have it sooner — and, sadly, a few (e.g. iBooks) might show it a bit later than that.  It can’t be helped, but Amazon, Nook, Kobo, CreateSpace, etc. should all take about 12 – 24 hours to actually make the book available, so we’ll call it the next day.

Keep a careful watch on the blog — the folks reading regularly may get a discount/free copy from one or more of the sources in the form of coupon codes or redemption vouchers.  It might just randomly be at the end of, or in the comments of a post one day.  Just a little gift from me to you.

I will probably, at some point in the year, do both a sale or two or an outright giveaway.  These will be announced as their own post.  I also intend to create a Goodreads give away (in fact I should have done that yesterday, but I kind of forgot about it).

I’m also looking around for reviewers.  Feel free, please, to recommend your favourite ones in the comments below, or here.  I was going to tackle a place I’ve discovered called The Indie View which looks fairly promising.  I don’t believe they actually do reviews, rather they’re more of a portal to fine reviewers more easily in much the same way as QueryTracker acts to help one find an agent or publisher.

I’m so excited I feel ill.  I wonder — did Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, or any other prolific author feel like this on every book?  I assume, naturally, we all feel like this on our earliest works, but after 25?  50?  100?  I guess I shall have to try to attain such a lofty back catalogue to find out.

The characters are people, too

One of the biggest question you’ll tend to find on a writers discussion forum is various takes on “How do I make my characters well rounded?”

You’ll find no end of advice in all manner of different formats.  Most popular, these days, involves these strange questionnaire things.  Honestly, I could see the merit in them if it weren’t for the very undeniable fact that I’ve met few people who can answer half of those questions for themselves, let alone their characters.

My approach, and one I suspect a few other more popular authors of using (if I’m to judge by things they’ve said about their writing process) is to approach things from the point of view of Heinlein’s fictons.  Put another way, to make your characters believable and real — well rounded and three-dimensional — simply assume they are real, somewhere.

Isn’t that what the questionnaire is supposed to do?  Or any of the other myriad writing exercises?  Possibly, I couldn’t say, those always leave me scratching my head in confusion at best, or crying in frustration at worst; I leave those methods to their proponents and move on to my paper, my pen, and The Voices.

I, and many of my favourite authors, approach the character development as a process of discovery.  We might start out with something rather flat.  Lauren, for example, started out as just a petite, religious girl with boyfriend trouble — I think I did already know she was a dancer.  Sally started out, mostly, a physical description and hardly aught else.  From there I discovered many things.  Lauren’s a vegetarian, Sally’s Italian/India/Puerto Rican mix.  I learnt all manner of interesting things in the course of writing and, I imagine, I’ll learn more yet.

First off, I find this method more fun.  It means, as I’m writing, I’m just as engrossed in the story as my reader (hopefully) will be, and just as amazed by new bits of information as they.  It has an advantage, too.  One major criticism I’ve seen for many of the pre-writing character development things is that they lead to info dumping.  You learn things about your characters that do not, and will not, have any bearing on the story but now that you’ve taken the time and effort to generate this data you feel inclined to put it in.  By letting the characteristics of the story’s population grow organically in the course of writing them, you avoid this — some.  There are things I know about my characters that aren’t in the stories.  Some are from bits of discarded sentences and paragraphs, others are from the fact that, in the course of writing them I get to meet and get to know the characters and, I suppose you could say, we have our little chats about one another where little bits of interesting trivia get learnt and dutifully jotted down in my little notebook; yes, a really for real little lined blank journal type notebook — cheap, blue, recycled materials, half off at Target.

Secondly I think this keeps the characters people in the mind of the author.  You stop trying to force the story to go where you thought you wanted it to, and let it go where it leads.  This sounds like absolute chaos, oh no!  Right?  Well, no.  You’re still in something like control.  For example, if you want a happily ever after fairy tale ending you work hard to prevent that breakup looming on the horizon — and failing that, you fight like Hell to bring them back together.  The thing is, by letting it all flow naturally so that you’re no more aware that the breakup was going to loom on the horizon than the fact that it was going to do far more than just loom … well, now you’ve added a layer of conflict and drama that, given your fairy tale notions, might never have happened — a new depth and suspense to your novel — you’ve prevented it from feeling arbitrary and stilted.

Oh, sure, we’re all advocates for the way we write and critics of the ways we don’t.  I’ll admit — my way has its flaws.  For one, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve got more trouble with writer’s block than some other authors who take a more organised approach.  Too, it might be said that my story can get away from me, I mean how does one prevent Lisa, Allison, and Sally from turning the entire 400-odd pages of story into an endless game of strip poker?!

The reality is that you do keep ahold of the reigns of the story, even if you don’t hold them tightly.  The other is that you do think about the characters, a lot, but more casually — during dinner, or as you’re drifting off to sleep.  You ask yourself little questions, envision little scenarios and daydreams.  You ponder.  The reasons for this is so you have an idea how to steer reality.  The character might make their own decisions, but the key to keeping them out of the game of strip poker is to give them a little nudge, or hang a carrot from a stick and lead them away.  Helps to know what kind of carrot or stick to use.  So, yes, there is a margin of planning ahead — just nothing formalised at all.

I find it insanely helpful to avoid stereotyping, or at least to avoid accidental stereotyping.  Some people are stereotypes; we’ve all met them.  But by not thinking hard about the character, by not building the character we avoid our own prejudices and expectations colouring the characters.  We can have the rather dense, muscle-bound farmer from Bangladesh who happens to be an avid fan of French operas, makes a mighty mean quiche, and sleeps with a beloved little fluffy teddy bear.  We wind up with the genius computer geek and hacker who uses a stove top percolator, an old fashioned ice box instead of a refrigerator, and makes her own soap from lye from the ashes from the cast iron stove from which she heats her home.

I suppose it depends on your own perspective on what makes someone a complete character.  Me?  I define them in terms of the old greats of Speculative Fiction.  Robert Heinlein was a master of it, in my opinion.  His characters were people.  Lazarus Long, Ishtar and Hamadryad, Andrew Libby, the Rolling Stones‘ family, the fashionly challenged E. C. Gordon of Glory Road, and Friday.  All of these characters were, yes, competent and intelligent.  But they were well rounded.  They were people who wanted families, who wanted love, who had hopes, fears, uncertainties, indecisions, prejudices, hatreds, passions — perfections and flaws.  Maybe you prefer little Nim, of Nim’s Island, or Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit two more characters brought to life by little touches that — generally — come from approaching the characters as people, not as parts of a story.

Lessons From Heinlein

Not a fan of Old Man’s War, but not surprising since I don’t like Starship Troopers either. Still, I do love Heinlein, and his aporoach to characters is one I do tend to hope I emulate well.

Whatever

I was re-reading the postscript I had on Old Man’s War just before I sold it, and which I subsequently removed from the Web site. I think it’s interesting enough as a discussion of the mechanics of writing that I’ll go ahead and repost it here. Astute observers will note that I wrote it before I actually sold OMW, and so the entire discussion of writing successful SF is a little presumptuous. On the other, it is sold now, so there you have it. The first graph, talks about OMW a little bit, but the meat of article — what I call Heinlein’s Theory of Characters — is generally applicable. Anyway, here it is.

Lessons From Heinlein

A number of readers have commented that Old Man’s War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In both cases…

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