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That’s not what defines a complete story


I have been trying to circle back to writing a longer review of the finale to the Loki series, but I kept getting bogged down in a rant related more to other comments I had seen. So I decided to bite the bullet and give the rant its own blog entry.

The comments that set me off have been made about all three of the Marvel streaming series released thus far this year (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki), specifically: these aren’t complete stories (and therefore inherently objectively bad) because they have loose ends which will presumably be subplots or even major plots in upcoming Marvel productions.

That’s not what defines a complete story, though.

Now, it is perfectly acceptable for someone to dislike a series for any reason at all. And it is always open to debate about whether a particular ending worked. That isn’t the issue that was being stated. It was specifically the claim that each of these series don’t tell complete stories. At least one such commenter included a rant that the art of storytelling is being ruined because no one is telling complete stories any more.

At some point I need to finish another post I started about the problems with having what are becoming our culture’s major myths be trademarked properties owned by corporations. But that’s also a separate issue.

For as long as storytelling has existed (and storytelling is an essential component of the definition of out species, so that’s a really long time), stories have had loose ends which potentially could be the seeds of more stories. Not just some stories, but all stories.

Let’s look at a classic for an example: Cinderella. It’s a story with which nearly everyone is familiar. After Cinderella’s mother dies, her father remarries, but then he dies, and she is left in the care of her wicked stepmother. She is forced to be a servant to her step-mother and the two equally wicked step-sisters, until one magic night (with the help of her fairy godmother) she attends a royal ball, meets and falls in love with the handsome prince. And through the macguffin of a lost glass slipper, she and the prince marry and live happily ever after.

A nice, complete story, right?

But hang on a minute! There are so many unanswered questions and loose ends to this story:

  1. What happened to the wicked stepmother after Cinderella went off with the prince?
  2. How did Cinderella adjust to royal life?
  3. Did Cinderella and the prince have children? If so, how did Cinderella’s experience with her wicked step-mother inform her parenting?
  4. Presuming that "happily ever after" meant a long life together, then they probably lived long enough for the king to die and the prince to inherit the throne. How did that go?

I have left at least one item out of the list: What happened to the wicked stepsisters?

I left it out because some versions of the story give us a bit more on this loose end. In the version recorded by the Brothers Grimm, the two wicked stepsisters are attacked by wild birds after the wedding ceremony and have their eyes pecked out. The brothers end the tail with the line, "And so they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood."

So one version of the story tells us what happened to them, implying that the birds were sent as a punishment by the universe or god, right? But the stepmother was no less wicked to Cinderella, and told no fewer lies in the story than the two daughters. As a woman who took sacred vows when she married Cinderella’s father, she had a great obligation to care for and nurture Cinderella than the sisters did. Her not getting punished certainly opens even more questions that someone could turn into a sequel or a prequel.

And even with the Brothers Grimm ending for the stepsisters, it said they lived out the rest of their days blind. So:

  1. Did Cinderella and the prince take pity on them and provide them with caretakers?
  2. Were they left to suffer alone?
  3. Did their mother attempt to care for them?

Again, so many questions left open that could easily be turned into a sequel. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that Cinderella isn’t a complete story (nor that it is objectively a bad story) because there are unanswered questions that could lead to a sequel.

It could be argued that what these commenters are saying isn’t that having a few loose ends isn’t the problem, but rather the issue is that the writer(s) intentionally left those loose ends and are plotting sequels. But again, it leaves me wondering how they managed to miss that fact that authors have been doing that on purpose for (at least) hundreds of years?

While I was ranting to a friend about this, they suggested that maybe the comments I’ve seen are referring to plotholes, which are frequently cited as proof that a story is flawed. I have two problems with this: several of the people I saw making the "it’s not a complete story!" are people who review other works and have used the term plothole before. So I don’t think that’s the argument.

Even if that were the case, a lot of times of time what people call plotholes are not that at all, as I’ve blogged about before. I listed then things that people often mistake for plotholes, which include:

  1. things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
  2. character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
  3. things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
  4. things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
  5. things the author(s) didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills,
  6. things that are implied by the resolution of the main plot which are often variants of, "Now what?"

I’m more than willing to debate whether the endings of the shows could have been better, and so on, but the three series mentioned each answered the questions/mysteries that were posed in the opening by the end. And that is the definition of resolving a plot.

Finally, when each was released, all three were described as a streaming series. It said it right there on the tin that the stories were part of a serial tale.

Again, not saying that anyone is wrong for not liking any of these series or how they ended (in my reviews I had a lot of critiques about one of the series in particular, even though I was mostly happy with the ending). I’m just saying, if you know ahead of time that you don’t like stories which might have sequels planned, maybe you should not watch something that is explicitly labeled a series?

Write what you know is not good advice, but ignorance is not a good tool, either


So, there’s a blog post about writing and plotting that I keep not finishing in no small part because I keep going on digressions that quickly turn into fractal rabbit holes and the next thing I know I’m writing about something so unrelated to the original subject that even when I stop and re-read the string of digressions I have a hard time understanding how I got there.

I decided that this particular digression was worth it’s own post. And maybe if I get the rant out of my system I’ll have one less digression to avoid in the other post.

I have mentioned many times how my mom, who is a both a science fiction and murder mystery fan, would read aloud to me from whatever book she had checked out of the library for herself and picked up at the used bookstore when I was a small child. From a very early age, therefore, I heard a lot of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and a lot of Andre Norton sci fi and fantasy, and so forth.

Because of the Christies, I have always had a great fondness for murder mysteries, police procedurals, and the like. Which means that I usually watch at least the first episode of any new series in that vein, to see if it might become my new obsession.

But I also have a few pet peeves, and one of them is the serial killer. Some series seem to decide to throw in a serial killer when other plotlines in the series are fizzling out. Some series can’t seem to go a month without throwing in a serial killer plot.

Why do I almost always dislike serial killers in these shows? First of all, fictional serial killers are almost always portrayed as super geniuses who have been getting away with it because no one can keep up with the blazing brilliance. That doesn’t match reality, at all. Most serial killers range from borderline intellectual functioning /(well below average intelligence/) to just a bit above average intelligence.

The reasons that most serial killers manage to rack up sometimes mind-boggling numbers of murders before they get caught are much more mundane. According to FBI statistics, on average only 58% of murder investigations result in an identification of a perpetrator. In a number of cities, that percentage is lower, less that 50%. So the odds are already pretty good that a serial killer will get away with it for a while.

Another big reason is that a lot of serial killers target strangers. There is no social connection between the killer and their victims. Police investigations always focus at the beginning on people who knew the victim. One reason they do this is because it’s easy, once you know who the victim is, to compile a list of neighbors, relatives, and co-workers. Then you got investigate all of them.

The second reason that police investigations always focus on people who knew the victim well first is a kind of confirmation bias. To explain in, I’m going to go on a planned digression.

Several years ago the place I was employed at at the time experienced a number of workplace thefts. Thousands of dollars in hard drives alone was walking out the door somehow. They brought in a consultant to give us all pointers in how to secure our work areas and so forth. This consultant turned out to be one of these guys who is really good at sounding like an expert but not really that bright. And he had apparently never given his presentation to a room full of computer engineers and other kinds of math nerds before. Early in the presentation he had a slide that included a statistic that at most 5% of the perpetrators of workplace theft are ever caught. Sometime later in the presentation he said, "Nine times out of ten the workplace thief turns out to be an employee."

A zillion hands shot up. "But you just said that only 5% are caught, that means the 95 times out of 100 we don’t know who the thief is. At best, you can only so that 4 times out of 100 the perpetrator turns out to be an employee."

It became really painful to watch, because the guy didn’t understand the flaw in the statistics. At all.

That example applies to the cliches that a number of police believe about murders. "It’s also the boyfriend!" or "It’s almost always someone who knew the victim well." Those beliefs are the a result at looking at that 58% or less of the murders that are "solved." I put solved in quotes because the FBI statistics don’t require an actual conviction to designate a murder case as having been cleared, and they don’t take into account the growing number of wrongful convictions that are being discovered through testing of DNA evidence that wasn’t tested at the time.

The important thing is that if we accept the 58% number as a rough estimate of how many murders get solved, that means we have absolutely no idea how many of the unsolved murders were committed by someone the victim knew. At best, it seems that a little over half time someone is charged, it’s usually someone the victim knew. That that’s 51% of the 58% solved, which is less than 30% of all the murders.

Meanwhile the serial killer has gone back to their normal life and never gets looked at by the cops.

A third reason that a lot of serial killers get away with it a lot is not just that thereis no prior known social connection between the killer and the victim, is that a significant number of serial killers target people in various marginalized communities. It’s not just that a number of police don’t think the victims are worth the time and effort (though that is a factor), but that other prejudices and facts of systemic bigotry makes a lot of potential evidence essentially invisible.

The most famous example of this is one of Jeffery Dahmer’s victim. The young man was clearly injured, had escaped the clutches of the cannibal Dahmer, and was begging for help. Except he spoke almost no english. The police who found him handed him back over to the cannibal, because Dahmer was a white guy who spoke well, and he convinced the cops that the young asian man was simply his boyfriend and they had had a lovers spat.

Another example are some of the known victims of Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. They were closeted gay men, several of them either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. They led double-lives which meant that for those that were reported missing, the families simply didn’t know a lot about their lives. At least one victim was never reported missing because his family feared deportation.

There are a lot of other myths about serial killers that almost always are used in these shows, but this evil genius myth is particularly irritating to me. Now, I get it. If the writers’ wrote a serial killer case truthfully, the cops wouldn’t arrest anyone and not get to be shown as heroes. That’s not as fun a story to write.

One easy solution to that problem, in my opinion, is not to write about serial killers at all. Find other ways to put your characters into difficult situations. There are millions of other possibilities. Give them a try.

When the real world becomes too stressful, write a better world

Usually either just before the end of October or at the very beginning of November, I make a post about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I mentioned on Twitter a few times this year, but, well, between being in a slow rolling apocalypse, trying to be cheerful for Halloween, and keeping an eye on the election, I never got around to saying anything here. In case you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is:

…each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand-new novel. You may know this mass creative explosion by the name National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo

The basic idea is that you commit to writing 50,000 words of either a brand new novel, or to continue one started previously, or to revise one started previously. People who sign up for accounts can join regional forums, set up NaNoWriMo buddies to encourage (or compete with) each other, attend in-person or virtual write-ins, and so forth. It can be a lot of fun, particularly if you jump in with the notion that you’re just trying to get the first draft—no matter who bad it is—down so that you can edit and rewrite later.

I’ve been doing it for years, sometimes working on one book, sometimes several. I find posting daily word counts and encouraging others to get their word counts up, et cetera, a good way to make myself focus on a project.

I started working on my project shortly after midnight on Halloween. Since I also had Monday off from work, I managed to get a nice amount of writing done the first two days. Then, between a busy work day and watching election returns, I essentially got nothing written yesterday. So I need to try to make up for that tonight.

In what might have been a strategic error, of my novels in progress that needed work, I decided to work on the one full of political intrigue. I may decide to set that aside and grab one of the others. Because a book where the bad guy is a necromancer with mystical allies might be a better way to keep me from fretting about our future as a nation than the book where competing heirs to a throne are maneuvering and plotting against one another, you know?

Confessions of an older homo devil, or, Some of us had baggage to deal with

“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” —James Baldwin

Truth

I was reading on two different services people discussing some problematic tropes, and for part of the conversation I found myself feeling attacked. By which I do not mean the funny meme-sense of that phrase where you recognize an unflattering truth about yourself in a generalized comment someone is making. No, I mean I felt as if the people discussing the issue were either dismissing my lived experience, or at least making the decision that people such as myself don’t matter. And for different, though related reasons. Which shouldn’t be that surprising since the problematic tropes in question are related to one another.

One of the troublesome tropes under discussion was that Old Canard, Bury Your Gays. If you aren’t familiar, the trope refers to the fact that often in fiction, queer characters are killed off and written out of series far more often than non-queers. I wrote about this a few years ago (Invisible or tragically dead… reflections on representation) in a year where over the course of the first 80 days of that TV season, 22% of all the queer regular or recurring characters across all network shows had been killed. And I pointed out that if the same rate of “anyone could die” actually applied across all of the casts of network shows regardless of orientation, that that would mean 2.5 characters being killed every single night of prime time television, and would mean that each season shows would have to replace more than 94% of their casts.

Many people have rightfully pointed out that a major contributor to the problem is that so many series, movies, novels, et cetera have at most one queer character (and rarely a pair of queer characters). In those cases that means that the only representation a show has of nonheterosexual people is erased by one character death. And even in those rare cases where there is a second queer character, since the second character is almost always in some sort of relationship with the first, that means that the sole queer representative left in the series is now an example of the equally bigoted/stereotypical Tragic Backstory Gay.

The lack of adequate representation is only part of the problem. Another very big part of the problem is that many writers think that queer characters are only suitable for queer plotlines, and so once the series has dealt with an incident of homophobia and an relative/friend learning to truly accept and support the queer character, that there is absolutely nothing else one can write for the character so they are now dead weight. But there are folks—most of them members of the queer community or allies—who genuinely think that the lack of realistic numbers of queer characters is the only reason Bury Your Gays is a problem. And unfortunately this causes other problems.

The discussion that I saw this week illustrated this well. One person was explaining what Bury Your Gays means, and went on to express their personal opinion that because they have read or watched so many queer characters get killed off so many times that they just don’t want to ever watch or read such a storyline again.

And people got very angry about that assertion. “How dare you say that I can never kill a queer character in my story!” “How dare you demand representation but also special treatment!” And so on.

Which is absolutely not what the person said.

Let’s switch topics for a minute. I was physically and emotionally abused by my father as a child. For that reason, I find it very difficult to sit through storylines involving abusing characters in stories I read or watch. This means that sometimes I stop watching a series or I put down a book never to pick it up again. I experienced a lot of that in real life and would rather spend my free time (which is what the reading of novels and watching of series or movies is, my free time) on other things. Similarly, many years ago a particular series I and friends were reading seemed to be obsessed with rape (and the gleeful humiliation and torment of vulnerable characters in general) as a plot engine. I decided that I didn’t need anymore of those kinds of scenes in my imagination, and I stopped reading the series (and when the editor of said series later became the author of an international best-selling fantasy series that similarly pruriently reveled in rape and torture, I swore off that, too).

In neither case am I saying that no one has the right to write such stories. Nor am I saying that people who want to read them should be legally banned from doing so. I’m just saying that I am done that that. I don’t want to read that. I exercise my right to choose what I read and watch and will go read and watch something else.

That doesn’t mean that I am weak. It doesn’t mean that I’m fragile. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong or immature about me. I am making a choice and stating a preference. That’s all.

And yes, I’m generally in sympathy with the commenter who said she’d rather not read any more deaths of queer characters. For 59 years I have read stories in which if gay people like me were included at all we were the depraved villains or the tragic victims. And if I could go another 59 years of life and never, ever read or watch another story in which that happens, I would be happy (and not just because it would be cool to live to be 118 years old).

It’s not that I refuse to read stories where that happens. I do, even when I have been warned, sometimes. And full disclosure: in the series of fantasy novels I’m working on a lot of queer characters have bad things happen to them. In book one a canonically pansexual character appears to die (and his apparent death is quite important to the plot), though it is revealed later he survived. But as the series goes on I kill off an asexual character, a bisexual character, a genderfluid character, and (in flashback) a trans character. So as a queer author I’m doing this. But I also point out that there are a lot of other gay, lesbian, bi, pan, genderfluid, ace, and trans are in the story who don’t come to untimely ends. And as I’ve mentioned in blog posts before, I’m one of those authors who literally cries at the keyboard while writing a death scene, so I don’t take these things lightly.

So I’m saying that it is perfectly reasonable for a reader/viewer to make a decision about what kinds of stories they want to watch. And while writers get to decide what they do in their own stories—readers, viewers, and other writers are allowed to point out if we think they are portraying harmful stereotypes or perpetuating bigotry.

There was a second trope discussion where I felt attacked. People were lamenting the Gayngst trope. This is the tendency of many writers to portray all queer people as being unhappy with their lives, and specifically wishing that they weren’t gay. The people participating in this thread were unhappy with this trope because they were convinced that it is never true. One person asserted that there were no queer people anywhere who, once they got past the questioning stage and realized that they are queer, wished that they weren’t queer.

Which is where I really felt attacked. I realized that I was a gay boy at the age of eleven. Puberty hit like a freight train, as I said in that post, and finally I knew that all those people (including my father, some pastors, numerous teachers, and other adults in my life) who had bullied me for being a sissy, pussy, c*cksucker, and f*ggot had been correct.

I did not magickally become a wildly pro-gay activist at the moment of that realization.

To use the terminology of the the great James Baldwin quoted above, among the filth that I had been forcefed throughout my life up to that time was the absolute certainty that queers like me were going to spent eternity burning in Hell. And, since god is supposedly a Just Creator, we deserved it.

So, yes, I spent the next 13 years of my life frequently crying myself to sleep at night and begging god to take those feelings away.

It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I started to believe that maybe, just maybe being queer wasn’t a curse that absolutely meant I would never know love, that I would constantly be fighting off depraved urges, and that I would ultimately deserve to be thrown into the Lake of Fire.

I was well past questioning for those years. And it wasn’t until I was 24 that I let a female friend talk me into the notion that maybe I wasn’t gay, but was actually bisexual. I would say that was the beginning of my questioning years, not when I first realized back at age eleven.

If some queer people younger than me really do immediately go from, “I don’t know why I seem to be different than what society expects me to be” to “Hey! It’s great to be queer” than I am very happy for them. I have my doubts that the transition is that instantaneous, but maybe it is.

Regardless, I know for a fact that millions of us spent a number of years mired in that self-loathing. And it isn’t just old fogies like me—earlier this year gay millennial Presidential hopeful Pete Butigeig admitted that “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight” he would have taken it.

So, while Gaynst shouldn’t be the universal portrayal of all queer people in stories and pop cultural, it’s okay to admit that some of us experienced that as part of our process of becoming who we are. And you should be able to criticize the stereotype without also erasing the queer people who experienced coming out differently than you.

It wasn’t until I was 31 years old—literally 20 years after I first realized and understood that I was a gay man—that I finally vomited up enough of that self-loathing and other filth to start walking this earth as if I had a right to be here. And the struggle of getting that point is something which should be honored, not erased.

Invert the advice, see what happens?

“There are only so many plots in the world. It's how they unfold that make them interesting.”— Lauren Beukes

Click to embiggen


I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.

Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.

When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.

All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.

I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.

And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.

Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.

And that’s good advice.

But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.

Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?

And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?

It’s worth thinking about, at least!

But how will the reader know that they are really evil? Or, maybe shortcuts have no place in your writing

When the fail is so strong, one facepalm isn't enough...

When the fail is so strong, one facepalm isn’t enough…

There’s a particular story that I’ve seen shared on social media here and there, where a woman relates some feedback she got in a college creative writing class. The woman wrote a story in which a rape victim takes revenge on her rapist. The professor indicated that the story didn’t work because the writer hadn’t established sufficiently that the rapist was evil. The writer points out that it is well established that the fictional man in the story has raped the fictional woman in the story. “Yes, yes,” the professor agrees, “But before you kill him, you need to show that he is really evil.” Most of the male students in the class agree, with multiple people suggesting that the writer could show the rapist being cruel to a dog, so that we recognize that he’s not just a rapist, but actually evil.

I had no trouble believing this anecdote, because I have gotten into more than one argument over the years with people (almost always cisheterosexual men) insisting that just because a character in a particular movie or television series or book raped someone, it doesn’t mean that he’s bad.

What’s most appalling about the anecdote is that a really large number of men think that kicking a puppy is ten-thousand times more evil than sexually assaulting a woman.

But on a less intense level, it’s also pathetic that a number of movies and stories without any rape at all have chosen to show the villain kicking or shooting or otherwise attacking a dog/puppy just to drive home the point that this character is really, really evil. It isn’t just dogs. In the original Terminator, for example, one of the ways the director hammers home that the titular character is a heartless killer is to show a close up of the robot callously stepping on a child’s toy, destroying it.

Puppies and toys aren’t the only kind of shorthand which lazy writers have used to indicator a character is not just a bad person, but despicably, unredeemably bad. One of the other ways that has been used a lot is queer-coding of villains. Queer-coding is where certain behaviors, mannerisms, or means of talking that hint that the character isn’t heterosexual (or possibly not cisgender). It frequently has been used with villains. People often point to villainous characters in Disney films (Jafar, Ursula, Scar) but it’s been around longer than that. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Rope is a frequently cited example.

And some works don’t even bother with coding. For instance, Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, (and the sequels) explicitly depicts the most depraved and evil characters as gay. There is one character who slowly develops bisexual curiosity as she is corrupted, and then goes full queer as her moral corruption reaches its pinnacle.

Full disclosure: I didn’t even notice the correlation between queerness and evil in the Dune books (which I have loved since my early teens), until someone pointed out to me in my mid-to-late-twenties that I, a queer writer, was doing the same thing in stories I was writing at the time. It’s a pervasive culture notion, coming out of the homophobic belief that simply being non-heterosexual is a deep moral failing.

Queer-coding and overt queer-villaining still happen, but more people (and not just queer people) in the audience are willing to speak up and object when it happens. But the sort of writers/directors/et al who feel they need to hammer the depravity of their characters home seem to have switched to a new shorthand: incest.

In my review of a recent episode of Star Trek: Picard I blamed Game of Thrones for this problem. I stand by my explicit statement (as well as the implicit one) that the series (television and books) commits a huge number of literary and ethical sins, but I do have to admit that the encroachment of the incest meme as shorthand for very evil goes back further than that. In Cora Buhlert’s review of the same episode of Picard she points out the incest=villain trope goes back at least to 1974’s movie, Chinatown.

And obviously incest has been mentioned in fiction and folklore for a long time, including the Greek story of Oedipus, Arthurian legend (Mordred sometimes being depicted as the product of an incestuous tryst between Arthur and his sister or half—sister), and more than a few times in the Old Testatment. Though it is worth mentioning that one of the times it happens in the Old Testament the narrative is less than condemning of it.

But in most of those tales the incest plays out as a tragedy. Real life incest is also almost always tragic (since most often it is part of an abusive relationship). So, I’m not saying that incest should be off-limits in narrative fiction, because real human failings are fair game for your fictional works. I’m just annoyed that it seems recently that it’s being thrown in as a lazy way to show that a character is particularly twistedly evil. And it’s not necessary.

You can show the character doing evil things. Physically choking her subordinate tells me plenty about the character of the evil sister of the Hot Romulan, for instance. Sending death squads after people shows us that the character is evil. The narrative didn’t have to make them siblings for any part of the story to work. There are millions of ways you can have your villain behaving cruelly or coldly or viciously to demonstrate that they are a despicable, vile, dastardly, abominable, loathsome person.

Don’t use shorthand to indicate a character is evil. Write the story in such a way to show us the character is evil. But keep it in character, make sure that everything you show the reader also moves the plot along, and so forth. And if a reader is the sort of person who doesn’t recognize that coldly ordering someone’s death (or whatever things that happen in your story that are in character for your villain) is a bad person, maybe your story isn’t for them.

Being a discerning reader: Explaining why you’re taking a pass is a valid form of criticism

position to have, and people don’t have to justify it beyond that. Hot Take: “I’m sure this work of fiction has artistic merit, but it does something that I’m sick to death of seeing, and I don’t want to consume it” is an entirely reasonable, valid position to have, and people don’t have to justify it beyond that. (Click to embiggen)

I didn’t think it was my place to write about the Helicopter story, other than to link to a few of what I thought were the more thoughtful pieces about it. The story uses for its title a meme that has been a popular attack from certain kinds of bigots against trans people. It was an attempt by the author to take a painful attack and turn it around. As one of the stories I linked in this week’s Friday Five showed, for some trans readers it succeeded in that goal. For others it didn’t. Art is risky like that, even when you aren’t tackling such fraught topics.

I’m not trans myself, and as such when trans people are talking about problems they face and issues they are struggling with, I believe my first duty is to listen, and when I can, amplify their words. Thus linking to two pieces by trans people in the Friday Five but not commenting myself.

The author has since asked the publisher to pull the story. The editor of the online zine has done so and issued a explanation.

In the aftermath, I’m seeing certain accusations being hurled around about those who didn’t react well to the story. One of the accusations is that every person who explained why they were uncomfortable with using that meme as a title was attacking the author. Similarly, people are characterizing criticism of parts of the story that didn’t work for them as a reader, again, as a personal attack on the author. Others are making the cliched attack that people who admit they didn’t read the story (and then carefully explained why just seeing the title brought up painful memories) have no right to comment.

Here’s why I disagree with all of those accusations:

In the early 90s I made the decision to do what a small fraction of the LGBT community was doing at that time: to take back the word “queer.” It was hardly a popular idea. My own (now deceased) husband was dubious at first. The word had been hurled at me and at him and others like us as an attack throughout our childhoods and beyond. I decided to pick up the those stones and turn them into a shield. But that was my decision.

It’s been 28 years, and I still occasionally get grief whenever I use the word queer to refer to myself or the community. Quite often from old white gay guys just like me.

They don’t like the word because it and the memories it evokes are painful. And it doesn’t matter that I have just as painful memories as they do, I have no right to demand that they deal with the pain the same way I have decided to. It’s true that I have forcefully asserted my right to use the word queer, but that is in the face of a different kind of criticism. Yes, I have also had people tell me not to use the word and that I’m a bad person for doing so.

But mostly, the negative comments I’ve gotten after using the word have been along the lines of: “I can never bring myself to use that word. Please don’t call me that.”

They don’t disagree with the word because they lack the discernment to tell that I mean it in good faith. They don’t refuse to use the word for themselves because they think I’m a Nazi. They aren’t attacking me when they explain why they refuse to use the word for themselves. They aren’t spreading misinformation when they speculate about why people like me are comfortable with the word and they aren’t.

Taking back a slur isn’t an easy thing to do. And it is perfectly reasonable for people to avoid the pain of engaging with the slur. It is perfectly reasonable for people to explain why they don’t want to engage with the slur. Deciding not to engage with the slur isn’t an attack on the author.

The helicopter meme has been used as an attack (mostly) on trans people. Not just the meme, but many variants of it. I’m not trans, but I’ve had angry bigots use the attack on me when I’ve posted certain opinions online. Angry words, harassment, taunting, and badgering hurts. Yes, I block frequently and quickly, but still the initial blow lands and it stings.

When one has suffered through those attacks repeatedly, seeing that attack used as a title of a story in a magazine you may admire, understandably fills you with apprehension at the least. The first time I saw the book Faggots I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect to see that word in large red letters on a book. I didn’t know, at the time, who Larry Kramer (the author) was. I didn’t know he was a gay rights activist. My first response when seeing that title was pain and fear. It didn’t matter that I was in a queer-friendly bookstore at the time. The title caught me by surprise and like a punch in the gut. I learned later that a lot of people in the community who did know who Kramer was and had read the book hated it when it first came out and saw it as an attack on the community—and for many, the wounds still burn decades later.

That’s the power words have. As an author, I am constantly reminding myself that words matter, that words can hurt as well as heal. Editors and publishers are mindful of this, too. Unfortunately, even the best of us with the best of intentions sometimes make mistakes. Readers who are caught off-guard and given no context will react. Some of those reactions will be raw. Some of those reactions will be misinterpreted.

It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to take risks in art. I think attempting to take the power from slurs is a good and worthy pursuit. I also know that sometimes trying to do that causes discomfort or pain to some of the people that we’re trying to help. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means that we try to do better, next time.


There are other people writing very thoughtfully on the topic:

Well I guess I’m writing about Clarkesworld again.

Regardless of what your take is on the attack helicopter story….

I read the controversial “attack helicopter” short story in Clarkesworld, & its pretty intriguing… .

The Disturbing Case of the Disappearing Sci-Fi Story.

NaNoWriMo ’19 Retrospective

I did National Novel Writing Month again this year, with my project being to get The Trickster Alliance out of it’s doldrums and possibly finished. I hit the default NaNoWriMo word goal of 50,000 words on Nov 22. Since in the past I’ve hit higher numbers, I then went for my stretch goal of beating my previous high word count, was was 66,000+ words. I hit 66,000 on the 29, and got a bit over 68000 on the 30, though apparently I waiting until too close to midnight to post my final number, because my stats don’t show the final word count.

I’ve spent part of the last couple of days figuring out how many of those scenes to transfer over to the book file. I know not all of them. There were several scenes that I wound up re-writing from scratch four or more times before I had a version that actually worked, for instance. I also wrote a couple of scenes that I am 99% certain aren’t needed in the story, but I needed to write in order to figure something else out.

The book isn’t finished, but it is significantly closer to it, and two really big plot problems that had bee holding me up for a really long time were sorted out. Sometimes having a deadline makes my subconcious spit out an answer, you know?

Now I do my annual switching of gears. The Christmas party is only 18 days away, and I have to have the annual Christmas Ghost Story ready by then. Often at the end of November I haven’t yet decided which of my many possible Christmas Ghost Story plots I’m going to work on this year. I have a bunch, and every year I think of at one or three more, so I’m not in any danger of running out of ideas at the moment. I actually started on one of the ideas in late October, so that’s likely to be this year’s tale.

Not all of the plots I’ve thought up for Christmas Ghost stories are set in the same universe as my novels, but the last several years those have been the plots I’ve been going for. I think part of the reason is because it’s easy to transition from working on one of my fantasy novels to a short story in the same universe.

Anyway, I need to get to it!

…and then what happened? And then? And then? — getting the story started and keeping it going

Just start writing.

Several years ago I was on a writing panel at a convention. I don’t remember the exact title of the panel, but it was about what happens when you’re stuck or otherwise can’t seem to get a story moving. I was supposed to have a co-panelist, but they had to cancel at the last minute. The crowd in the room wasn’t really big, so I suggested we do something a bit more interactive. I briefly explained who I was and that most of my writing advice came from (at the time) about 12 years of reading the slush pile for a semi-prozine I was involved with. Then, rather than throw it open for any question, I asked for examples of times they had been stuck, and gave every in the room an opportunity to respond to it if they wanted.

This got a nice back and forth going.

One guy described how he’d had this story he’d been working on for a long time where he kept writing a few sentences or paragraphs about his main character getting the news of a death in the family, which was supposed to kick the plot off where the character would meet another character and they would both get involved in looking into what had happened. His problem he said, was he never knew how to get the main character from getting the news to meeting the other character.

I (rather flippantly) ask, “Why not just hit return and then type, ‘Later that day…’ or ‘A week later…’?”

And he looked stunned. “But don’t I have to explain how he got there?”

“You only have to show the reader things that move the plot forward. You can skip the boring stuff. You can jump past interesting things that happen to the character but aren’t important to the plot. Just jump ahead. Particularly in a first draft. During the second draft if you realize there is something important that you skipped you can add it then. But don’t do stuff like that until you get to the end of your first draft.”

Someone else in the room asked a question about the plot which made it clear that they thought plot was merely a list of everything that happens to the character. So I explained that plot is a problem, mystery, or challenge which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved at the climax by the protagonist’s own actions, and is the thread the ties everything that you write about between those events together. It isn’t that every single thing the character does is part of the story, right? How many action movies show the characters going to the bathroom, for instance?

What a lot of people call writers’ block is a combination of indecision born out of the fear that what you write isn’t going to be perfect. So the first thing you need to do when you find yourself stuck is to realize that nothing anyone writes is ever perfect. Especially in the first draft. Your favorite book in the whole world was almost certainly a terrible mess in the first draft. It isn’t a great book because the author wrote exactly the perfect opening line, and then wrote every single sentence and scene that followed perfectly.

It’s great because the writer blundered along through the first draft until they had the skeleton of the story laid out before them—but not with all of the bones in exactly the right place. Then, during rewrite, the author got the bones arranged properly, added flesh to the bones, and eventually they had a living, breathing story that was ready to grab some readers and say, “Come one! Let’s have an adventure!”

Don’t let that fear of the imperfect prevent you from plunging in. Just start writing. And then keep writing until you reach the end.

Shakira – Try Everything (From “Zootopia”) [Official Music Video]:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

Time to fire up those word processors! #NaNoWriMo

I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once more. If you don’t know what that means… well, in the past I have quoted from the NaNoWriMo website to describe what the event is, but during the last year they migrated their old site and forums to a new host (and in the process did a re-design), and there is no nice way to say this: they have really messed up their web site. It took me a very long time poking around the website to find where they have moved the “What is NaNoWriMo” information to… don’t get me wrong, there are links called that in their menus, but if you don’t already have an account set up, those links don’t take you to pages that actually answer the question. The closest I could come to the old information is this:

…each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand-new novel. You may know this mass creative explosion by the name National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo

The basic idea is that thousands of us all over the world will, starting on November 1, attempt to write 50,000 words of either a brand new novel, or to continue one started previously, or to revise one started previously. People who sign up for accounts can join regional forums, set up NaNoWriMo buddies to encourage (or compete with) each other, attend in-person or virtual write-ins, and so forth. It can be a lot of fun, particularly if you jump in with the notion that you’re just trying to get the first draft—no matter who bad it is—down so that you can edit and rewrite later.

Another thing about the migration is that everyone’s Buddies have disappeared. I went through the archive site and sent invitations to people I used to be buddies with to try to re-establish my old network. But a lot of folks haven’t logged in, yet, this year.

Anyway, I have set up my project for this year. If you are doing NaNoWriMo this year and want to add me as a writing buddy, please do so! My username on NaNoWriMo is “fontfolly” just as it is here at my blog and on twitter.

Let’s tell some stories!

Please join me for National Novel Writing Month!

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