Sometimes I try to rationalize this by pointing out the my husband has more computers than I do… and more iPads, and… and… but that’s really deflecting.
Now one thing that I will say in my defense is that many of these things were not paid for at full retail. Most of the iPods, for instance, were picked up used, some of them with more than one previous owner before I got them. And, as I explained in Confessions of a penny pinching packrat, my childhood and early adulthood spent living (barely) paycheck to paycheck taught me to hang on to things. When I buy a new appliance or gadget or whatever the old one is seldom disposed of. Instead it is held onto as a backup in case the new thing breaks. Often older computers and such are passed on to friends and family who need them, and when that isn’t the case, I can frequently find away to sell them or trade them in to get a discount on something else we need.
But, I also love tools that work well, and I especially love tools that work well for particular tasks. The headphones I use for commuting, for instance, need to meet several requirements: they need to be wireless and feel comfortable and not awkward when worn with various hats and scarves and such that I need in various types of weather. They also need to be able to hold up to rain. Because of some issues with my inner ears, they can’t be in-ear. The models that meet those requirements don’t usually have fantastic sound fidelity. But I don’t necessarily want that, because I don’t want headphones to block out traffic noise, and so forth, because since I take a bus, a part of my commute involves walking on sidewalks along busy city streets. So I need to be able to hear what’s going on around me.
That means that the commute headphones aren’t ideal for other listening situations. So I have a pair of wired noise-cancelling headphones that live in my desk drawer at my office, so on those days that I need to block out conversations going on in the cubes and halls around me, I can. And also, if I’m going to listen to music while working, I’d like the quality of the sound to be a bit better than what I’m willing to settle for during my bus ride and walking, right?
Then I have a nice pair of wireless headphones to use at home for listening to music or podcasts while I’m writing or editing. And again, I prefer them to have better music quality than the commute headphones. Unfortunately, it is often the case the wireless headphone with great sound, have inferior microphones. So if I’m trying to have conversations or gaming sessions with friends online, I need a headset that has good sound and a good microphone, which winds up being a wired headset.
And then… well… so the nice bluetooth and wired headsets I mentioned in the above paragraph basically live with my laptop. So there is another set of headphones, wired, that some years ago used to be the primary for listening to music on the laptop, that have been handed-down to the desktop Mac Pro, so that when I use that machine, I can listen to my music without disturbing my husband on the other side of the computer room. And there is a pair of really nice wired noise-cancelling headphones that permanently live in the On The Go computer bag, so that when we’re at cons or whatever, I’ll have a good set on those occasions I need them…
…and then there is a small stash of some older ones that still work well enough in a pinch, and usually one or two pairs of still in box backups for the commute headphones, because when they die, they tend to completely die, and I need a backup right away, right?
It’s a little harder to explain how the primary laptop, iPad, desktop, and Windows-based laptop all fit some of my use cases but aren’t the best tool for some of my other tasks. I mean, I have the Windows laptop because occasionally I need to process a file in software that is only available on Windows. And some of my old backups were done on Windows, since I used that operating system for many years. My new laptop is, in theory, pretty water resistant, but I’m still a bit reluctant to take it outside when rain is likely. And now that we have such a nice veranda, I spend a little bit of pretty much every day out there either writing, reading, or chatting with friends. So the iPad is a better tool for that location, since it is much much much more water resistant than the laptop, right?
I also, whenever possible, I spend my lunch break at the office writing or editing my own fiction, and that happens on the iPad. Which is much tinier and easier to transport along with my lunch and stuff than the laptop.
This is a long way of saying: what works for me, works for me, but may not meet the your needs. Likewise, what works for you may not meet my specific needs at all. And it’s okay if some of us spend more of our time and resources on different things than other people.
You do you. I’ll do me. Okay?
Two weeks ago I started the discussion about beginnings in fiction by referencing a great running gag in the movie Throw Mama From the Train. I’ve covered when (in time) to start the story (The Night Was Sultry, part 1), and how to select an internal conflict to go with the external plot (The Night Was Sultry, part 2). In other words, we’ve talked about the narrative hook and setting the stakes.
But in addition to the narrative hook, you need an emotional hook.
Last week when I talked about the internal conflict, that was in relationship to how the protagonist feels about the process, what they care about, and what is going to drive them to solve the problem. While that involves the protagonist’s feelings, it isn’t what I mean by emotional hook. The emotional hooks is the answer to this question: why should the reader care about the protagonist’s success or failure? And most importantly, why should they care from the beginning?
The narrative hook engages the reader’s curiosity, but the emotional hook engages the reader’s heart. You want the reader to root for your protagonist to succeed, and to do that the reader has to care—the reader has to find redeeming qualities in your protagonist, something the reader will sympathize and/or identify with. This doesn’t mean that your lead character must be a paragon of virtue, or obviously heroic. Just that they are worth the reader’s time.
Two weeks ago I talked about a couple of notorious bad ways to begin a story, one of which is the dreaded alarm clock going off. The problem with that beginning isn’t that there is inherently something wrong with beginning with your protagonist waking up for the day, but that generally that sort of beginning doesn’t involve the character interacting with anyone or anything important. But, there are ways to start with the character waking up that do intrigue the reader, hint at the stakes, and deliver the emotional hook. And a particularly brilliant and sneaky one is this opening paragraph:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
You may recognize that as the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Clark. Just take a moment to marvel at the first sentence: ‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.’ You have no idea who this character is, but you infer that there should be someone in bed with the character, but they are missing. Who is it? What is their relationship to the narrator? If they’re sharing a bed, does that mean they are romantically involved? And why are they missing?
In the next sentence you get a name, but you also get the detail of the rough canvas cover of the mattress. Not a satin sheet—not any sheet at all. They sleep directly on the mattress cover, which implies things about their circumstances, probably indicating that they are poor, or at least struggling.
In the third sentence, ‘She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.’ Now we know it is a sibling, not a lover, and since they are sharing a bed in the home shared with their mother, they are probably fairly young. But also that guess at bad dreams tells us that our narrator knows the sibling cares enough to understand the sibling’s likely state of mind. This isn’t one of those sibling relationships where one resents the other or things of the other as a nuisance. The narrator’s first thought on waking is to notice their sibling is missing and to reach for them, tells us that the narrator cares, right?
Then we finally get to the ‘day of the reaping.’ We don’t know what that means, yet, but since it gives Prim nightmares, we can assume it doesn’t mean harvesting grain or vegetables.
By the time you reach the end of that paragraph, you’ve been hooked, you have an idea of what the stakes of the story might be, and you know that the narrator is someone who cares about their sister. You still don’t know the name or even gender of the narrator (you might infer that only sisters would share a bed, but that’s not necessarily so), but it’s likely that by the time you reach the end of that paragraph, you’re both curious enough and are beginning to suspect this character is worth caring about—at least enough to read for a few more pages.
How do you create the emotional hook? You do it by spending some time thinking about what your character cares about. Think about their admirable qualities. This may seem difficult at first if you’re telling a tragedy or a tale centered on an anti-hero, but remember that the character isn’t expected to be perfect, merely someone that the reader can identify and sympathize with. Who or what does your character love? What or who would they risk their life for? Who do they feel loyal to?
Once you’ve spent some time thinking about the protagonist’s yearnings and fears in a general sense, bring it back in: look at your narrative hook—the moment the brick hits your character. Ask yourself: before the brick hits the character, what are things they care about at that point in their life? Who does the protagonist care about? Were there any urgent matters on their mind before this issue surfaced? What does your protagonist worry about (and what will they worry about once the issue arrives)? What brings them joy at this point in their life? Who or what would they be happy to see?
Think about all of those things, then write a paragraph or two describing what is going on inside your character’s mind. This is before the brick, so don’t write about how they will feel once they realize that they are in a plot. You’re trying to get yourself into the head of the character without the conflict.
After you do that. Look at the opening sentences you had already written. Is there any hint of these things going on in the character’s head in there? Do you find yourself wanting to rephrase a couple of sentences now that you’ve been trying to think like your character? The emotional hook is about nuance and color. Look back at the example I pulled from Hunger Games, see how the narrator’s feelings are only hinted at in each sentence. That’s what you’re going for when you’re laying the emotional hook.
It’s something that is hard to plan. You have to feel your way into it. But doing so makes it much more likely that you will continue to write your character in a way that keeps the reader’s sympathies.
And that keeps them turning pages!
Now, once you’ve figured all of this out, how do you decide whether the opening you have is working? We’ll talk about that next week!
It’s National Coming Out Day! And just for the record, in case it isn’t clear: I’m queer! Specifically I am a gay man married to a bisexual man. For many years I lived in the closet, and am ever so happy that those days are far, far behind me. So, if you’re a person living in the closet, I urge you to consider coming out. Being in the closet is scary—you live in a constant state of high anxiety about people finding out and what they might do when it happens. Studies show that this affects us the same as extended trauma, inducing the same sorts of stress changes to the central nervous system as PTSD.
The problem is that coming out is also scary. 40% of homeless teen-agers are living on the streets because their parents either kicked them out because the teens were gay (or suspected of being gay), or drove them away through the constant abuse intended to beat the gay out of their kids. This statistic is the main reason I advise kids not to come out until they are no longer financially dependent on their parents. Yeah, there are many stories of kids who came out to their parents and those parents became supportive allies. But not all, by any means.Even if you are a self-supporting adult, coming out is often accompanied by drama. Some of your family and friends will not take it well. You will be surprised at some of the ones who you thought would be okay with it being exactly the opposite. On the other hand, some people will surprise you with how fiercely supportive they become.
In the long run, being out is better than living in the closet. You will finally know who loves you for who you are, rather than those who love the idea of who they think you ought to be. You will also find out that you were expending far more energy than you realized constantly being on the look out for signs your secret is discovered. There will be a moment when you feel the burden lifted. But you will also discover the coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal.
But the freedom of no longer living a lie is incredible. So when you’re ready, come out, come out, where ever you are!
Don’t just take my word for it:
America was inhabited already when Columbus blundered his way into the West Indies. They are called the West Indies, in case you didn’t know, because he thought he had sailed all the way around the world to Japan, China, and India. Seriously. He was convinced that San Salvador was Japan, and Cuba was China.
Columbus wasn’t a great thinker. Contrary to what school teachers were still telling us when I was in grade school, Europeans had known for centuries that the world was round. And Pythagoras and Aristotle had both deduced that the Earth was a sphere because of the shape of the Earth’s shadow on the moon during Lunar eclipses. Eratosthenes calculated the size of the Earth pretty accurately based on shadows at different latitudes more than 200 years before the time of Christ (He also correctly deduced the tilt of the Earth’s axis a bit later).
Columbus thought that Eratosthenes was wrong, that the Earth was much smaller, and that it would take only a short time sailing west to reach Asia. He was very wrong. And not just because there were two continents Europe didn’t know about.
And then there was the abominable way the Columbus and the Europeans that followed treated the people who lived here. It was not, as some of my other teachers used to say, merely that the Europeans had more advanced technology. The Europeans were fond of making written agreements with the people who already lived here, and then when it suited them, ignore the agreements and take, kill, or pillage whatever they wanted.
So, yeah, even though I am a pasty-skinned, blue-eyeed white guy with ancestors from places like Ireland, England, and France, count me as one of the people who celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day.
The movement to replace Columbus Day with a holiday honoring Native Americans have been around for a long time. In 1989 the state of South Dakota abolished the state observance of Columbus Day and enacted a Native American Day to be observed on the same day as the Federal Observance fo Columbus Day.
Several other states: California, Nevada, and Tennessee all observe a Native American Day in September (the California holiday first called for by then-Governor Ronald Reagan in 1968, though not enacted into law until 1998).
Governors in Alaska and Vermont (and probably others, but I haven’t found them, yet) have issued proclamations to declare and Indigenous Peoples Day, but neither state’s legislature has enacted it into law, and such proclamation tend to be ceremonial, usually assumed only to apply to the year issued.
On the other hand, a rather huge number of cities and towns all over the country have adopted ordinances replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Maybe when more follow more states will join South Dakota.
Last week I started the discussion about beginnings in fiction by referencing a wonderful running gag in the movie Throw Mama From the Train. I covered the first two things to remember when you are stuck about the opening of a story you’re trying to write: 1) Don’t let yourself get hung up trying to think of the perfect word—write what you can and get the first draft done, then worry about the best sentences in the edit phase, 2) Start the story at the moment your protagonist is hit with the brick (the moment she realizes something is terribly wrong, isn’t going to get something she needs/wants, et cetera) and not the moment that someone began manufacturing the brick.
I’m not saying that you have to start the story with gunshots ringing out or in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. The brick can be metaphorical. It can be very abstract. But the point of a story is that a protagonist faces a problem, obstacle, or riddle, and struggles with that problem to achieve something they want. So the story gets underway when the character knows there is a problem.
When people talk about opening lines, they often focus on the narrative hook—something that grabs the reader’s attention. And that something is usually an external conflict: the evil step-mother doesn’t want Cinderella to go the the ball, for instance. Or the dragon must be fed a virgin at regular intervals lest the kingdom be destroyed.
But if the only conflict in the story of Cinderella is her step-mother keeping her from the ball, why doesn’t the story end when Cindy arrives at the palace? The reason is that there is also an internal conflict: Cinderella doubts herself. Depending on which version of the story you read, Cinderella can be interpreted as not believing she is worthy of love. Why else do her stepmother and stepsisters treat her so cruelly? The point is that getting to the ball doesn’t solve Cinderella’s inner conflict.
If looked at this way, it can seem as if figuring out the inner conflict is only about how you keep the story going and how you find your ending, but it is just as important to the beginning of the story. Because the inner conflict tells you how the protagonist feels about the outer conflict. When the brick hits the the protagonist in your opening, is it a minor annoyance, or a serious problem? The difference between those comes down to how your main character feels about it. How important it is to her or to him. What are the stakes in this problem.
Of course, that’s what gives the problem drama, isn’t it?
So, don’t just think about what the conflict is. Think about what it means to your protagonist, how they feel, what’s at stake, why it matters, and why the solution isn’t obvious. Not just what’s going on outside, but what is happening in their head and heart.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what the inner conflict is, go back to the conflict. I said before that point of the story is a character facing a problem, obstacle, or riddle—struggling to achieve something they want. That’s the key. What do they want? And make sure that what the character wants is something, not nothing.
That may seem obvious, but surprisingly it isn’t. You don’t know how many times, when I was editing the ‘zine with the mission of fostering creative skills, that I would ask a writer what their main character wanted, and they would answer, “She wants to be left alone” or “He doesn’t want to be involved; he wants all this to go away.” That isn’t something the character wants. And it should be no surprise that the authors who said this were all struggling in the middle of their story with no idea how to move forward.
They didn’t know what the characters wanted. Above I suggested that Cinderella’s inner conflict can be interpreted as believing she is unworthy of love. So what does she want? She wants to be loved.
So rather than think that your character wants to be left alone, ask why? That’s where you should be able to find several whats that can be the inner conflict and drive your character to keep fighting. Does the character have family members they love and want to be happy? Does your character have a passion? Does your character long for something they don’t have? Figure out which of those things is threatened by your external conflict, and that will lead you to the inner conflict, and help you see how the story begins and how your character feels and behaves when that brick first hits.
So we’ve gone over how to decide where the beginning is, and now how to decide what it means to the protagonist. Next…? Well, we’ll talk about that next week!
There were many reasons why I didn’t behave like a “normal” boy. And usually when I have written about this topic before I have focused on how as a queer kid I was gender non-conforming. But that wasn’t the only problem. There are queer kids who did a better job than I ever did of blending in. And there are lots of not-queer kids who were bullied for being different in other ways. I had other strikes against me.
One of my relatives, for instance, described me as “a lost adult trapped in a child’s body” when referring to my childhood. One reason several people perceived me in that way as a child is because my intelligence was several standard deviations above average. That had two very distinct effects on my behavior. One was that I often understood and knew things people didn’t expect a child to know, but the other was that there were very few of the kids my age that I got along with, so I kept forming close relationships with adults. And that increased the gap between myself and most of the kids my age.
Now, the word “normal” derives from the Latin normalis, which means made according to a right-angle or square. But ask most people what normal means and you’ll probably get something close to what Oxford calls sense 3: “Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. Also, physically or mentally sound, healthy.” Interestingly, that usage of the word in English only came about in the early 1800s. When in first came into the language, in the late 1400s, it referred exclusively to a regular verb. Then in the mid 1600s its meaning expanded to refer “Right-angled, standing at right angles; perpendicular.” Which is how it entered the lexicography of mathematics.
I was interested in science for as long as I can remember. We can blame my mom the science fiction fan for that. When I was a baby, she literally read aloud whichever Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or similar book she had checked out from the library. And mathematics is something I fell in love with early in school. We moved around a lot because of my dad’s job in the petroleum industry, but as luck would have it, the school district where I attended first grade and a portion of second was one that won awards for excellence year after year. They gave me a great start.
For instance, the explanation my second grade teacher in Fort Collins had given me of the Distributive Property, was how I got labeled a freak on the first day (three schools later) that I attended school in Cheyenne Wells. It was late spring in Third Grade when we moved to Cheyenne Wells, and they were just getting to things like the Distributive Property of Multiplication. The teacher tried to explain it to class, but her explanation wasn’t very good. And during the period when we were supposed to be going through a worksheet and helping each other with the problems, the teacher overheard me explaining the the kid next to me how it works, so she brought me to the front of the room and made me explain it to the whole class. And then they all knew I was a Math Freak, a Brain, and the Teachers new Pet.
It wasn’t just the first school, of course, it was also the fact that I loved to read so much, that whenever I was given a new set of books at school, I would read them all the way to the end on my own as soon as I could. And half the time that I spent in the library I was tracking down non-fiction books about topics that came up in the science fiction, mystery, and adventure books that I loved. And most of the time throughout grade school and middle school, I would rather sit in a corner and read than run around the playground or do other things the rest of the kids were doing any time we were turned loose.
That always failed to endear me to the other kids.
Despite the fact that at heart I was an introvert, I also loved explaining things to people. Which often came across as me being a show off or know it all.
As an adult, I work in a technology field writing and designing documentation and help systems explaining how systems work. So all of those characteristics eventually became useful, eventually.
But there was no amount of counseling from that therapist—or mentoring from my middle school wrestling coach (and pre-algebra teacher!), or the other attempts by specific teachers who tried to take me under their wing to steer me through the shoals of bullying—that would make a smart, queer, introverted, book- and science-loving, know-it-all pass for normal in a typical primary or secondary school.
Which isn’t a slam on the other kids, but rather the way we herd children together by age and leave them to their own devices to work out social dynamics. The theory is that we learn to get along with diverse people that way, but the system creates an artificial social environment that encourages some of our worst behaviors.
I survived. I not only came out of the system free of bitterness and resentment, I often find myself in the position of defending public schools from the distorted statistics some people wave around trying to prove other options are better (spoiler alert: the statistics are on traditional public school’s favor). And when it comes to bullying, private schools and charter schools don’t handle those situations one iota better. In fact, for marginalized kids, they are much, much worse, statistically.
But I digress.
Learning to get along is a worthwhile goal. Conformity and trying to pretend you’re something you’re not, are toxic and destructive. I wish we were better at teaching the former, rather than enforcing the latter.
I think the first time I ever read a story when the author described a character’s skin as “coffee colored” I was about 12 or 13 years old. And I remember pausing and thinking, “Is it plain coffee, or coffee with cream? And if it’s with cream, how much?” Because, for instance, I had one aunt who put almost a half a cup of milk or cream in her cup if she had it before pouring the coffee in, whereas one grandmother who made coffee only put a small dollop in hers, so the coffee was very dark. The description completely bounced me out of the story for several minutes while I puzzled over that. I eventually went back to reading the tale, but I had a difficult time visually the character, because I couldn’t decide how dark her skin was supposed to be.
I don’t remember the story, so I can’t go back and check, but don’t think any character other than her had their skin color described.
A few years later I was reading another story where the author described a character’s skin as coffee-colored, and also described another character’s skin as the color of cream. And I immediately imagined the second woman as albino, because I had a few classmates with that condition, and it was the only skin I had ever seen literally that color, right? I only thought that for a few minutes, then realized the author was being a bit metaphorical.
Anyway, a little later in the novel I noticed that most of the male characters had not had their skin described. One guy had been described at one point as “bronzed” and there was a reference to another man as being “red-faced” but their physical descriptions were not as detailed as the women. I was fifteen or sixteen years old at this time, and midway through the book I had started developing a crush on one of the male characters (though I didn’t quite realize it, since I was still deeply closeted and in denial about my own sexuality) and found myself being actively annoyed at the author for not giving my more of a description of him. Which I wanted to know purely for accuracy, and not at all for any lustful reasons, ahem.
Even with the frustration, it would be a few more years before I finally realized there was a pattern in lots of books, particularly when written by men: describe the women’s looks using various food metaphors, but virtually never describe the men in detail, unless those characters were supposed to be comical or villainous or otherwise disliked. Then, of course, the men would have various physical features that emphasized their inferiority to the blue-eyed hero.
And the hero was almost always blue-eyed, wasn’t he? Which should be another clue. Of course, I was a pasty-skinned blue-eyed cisgendered nerd myself, so it took me longer than it should have to notice just how skewed all these treatments, in the narrative, of characters of various genders and races were.
To answer the question in the title of this post: What does it mean when an author describes a character as having coffee-colored skin? Well, it means that the author is falling back on a cliche that is deeply steeped in racism. And since these descriptions are almost always reserved for women in those narratives, and the women’s characterizations all center on how attractive or unattractive the women appear to men in the story, it is also steeped in a whole lot of sexism and misogyny.
So you should avoid doing it.
And this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about bad and cliched writing. Seriously, I am not the only reader who will come across a description like that and stop to wonder what kind of coffee. Or if you use another food, no matter what it is, there will be some readers who are unfamiliar with it.
But it’s also pretty creepy to describe characters as food, as if they’re meant to be consumed—as if their appearance is the only thing they have to contribute to the narrative.
I know that I sometimes under-describe. I’m a more minimalist storyteller where my focus is on what the characters say and do; I only include description when I feel I have to. But, nothing should be in your story if it doesn’t advance the plot, develop or reveal a character’s personality, foreshadow events to come in the plot, and so forth. And 99.9% of the time, a character’s appearance has nothing to do with those things. Yeah, you need to set a scene, and you want the reader to imagine the character while reading about them. But how much detail does someone really need to follow your story?
Let the reader fill in the details that don’t matter to the plot.
And don’t perpetuate cliches, whether racist, misogynist, heteronormative or not.