Tag Archive | literature

Getting the words down

“If the pen fits, write it.”

“If the pen fits, write it.”

One of a writer’s worst enemies is procrastination. And procrastination can be very clever. Research is a common trap procrastination lays for the writer. Research is often vital for writing projects, but it is insanely easy to waste a lot of time running down research rabbit holes. A lot of people blame the internet for this, but trust me, it happened to me all the time with paper research before the internet1. But then, I was the kind of guy that would use one book that had some of my research data as a bookmark inside another book for a spot I kept trying to find.

So in the old days I would have piles of books around my typewriter, some with note paper stuck in them to hold a place2, others with multiple bookmarks7 stuck in them so I could find multiple facts scattered over multiple pages, and so forth. The internet has only changed the amount of physical exercise that is necessary to run down rabbit holes on the research front, at least for me.

Tools and implements is another class of thing8 that can be either a help or a procrastination trap. But tools are important. So while it is possible for procrastination to latch onto the exploration of new tools as a means to keep you from writing, talking about good tools can also be a help in the writing process. Therefore, here is a list of my current favorites:

  • Scrivener 2 – the absolute best writing project managing tool/word processor available for Windows, macOS, or iOS, bar none. For all the features it packs, it’s also incredibly affordable! It’s multi-platform. I use it on both of my Macs and my iPad, and they make it easy to move back and forth. If you don’t have an iPad but do need to work on other platforms, you can use the Sync to External Folder feature in conjunction with Dropbox or Copy or Box to edit files in application that can open Rich Text Files when you’re on the go, then sync back to Scrivener on your Windows or macOS box later. I’ve used this latter feature before the iOS version was available, and it worked well. Not as cool as having all of the features of the full product on my iPad or iPhone works now, but… .
  • Scapple – by the same people who make Scrivener, this is a brainstorming/outlining tool. I’ve used it for charting plots and subplots that had gotten out of hand. It’s also really good at family trees and charting out character relationships.
  • iA Writer – a full featured word processor available for macOS and iOS. I use it when I need to format something I made in Scrivener, or just to type out notes for later. I’m particularly enamored with the iOS version’s built-in “share as PDF” because I’m often working on large projects in Scrivener on the iPad, and just need to send a single chapter or some other small bit to someone for comments, et cetera.
  • Honorable Mentions: There are some products that I used to use a lot more than I do. Particularly before the advent of Scrivener of iOS.
    • Textilus – iPad text/rtf editor. This is a good word processor for working from iPads and integrating with Dropbox and similar cloud sharing services.
    • SimpleNote – this is a good multiplatform Note taking program that is useful for getting down something quickly, that will automatically be available on all of your devices so you can copy into a main writing program later.
    • Pages – Apple’s free word processor that works on macOS, iOS, and iCloud. I liked the mac version of the program a lot before they decided to unify the features in all versions. It’s still a good program and they keep updating it. Just not quite as good as it used to be.
    • Scrivo Pro – A Scrivener-like word processor for iOS when Scrivener’s official word processor that could read Scrivener projects in their native format if you saved them to Dropbox. It was pretty good. I used if for several months until Scrivener for iOS became available.
    • WriteRoom – If you need a good, simple distraction-free writing program on the Mac, I highly recommend WriteRoom for macOS. I originally bought the iOS version to write on the bus and other places when I was away from my computer back in the days before I had an iPhone or iPad (it ran on my iPod Touch just fine). The software maker has stopped supporting the iOS version, as it wasn’t generating enough income to justify the work. Since it hasn’t been updated for a long time, it will still work if you already have it installed on your phone, but it’s clear that iOS is going to stop supporting it, so I finally have stopped using it on the phone.
  • RhymeGenie – I use this for poems and song writing… and for composing prophecies14.
  • AffinityDesigner – has become my replacement for Adobe Illustrator for many illustration tasks, including drawning maps for my fantasy stories.
  • iTunes – I often listen to music while I’m writing. Not just random music; I make special playlists for certain characters or projects. My oldest playlist, called uncreatively enough “Writing”15 was created in 2003, when iTunes first became available for Windows18. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
  • Leuchtturm 1917 – These notebooks are awesome and are available in a lot of cool colors. Occasionally I like to write on paper. Certain types of thinking process just work better for me that way. But I know it doesn’t work for everyone.
  • Goulet Pens – I love a good medium- or broad-tip fountain pen for fun colored inks. Again, when I’m in one of those moods where I need to write it needs to be a good pen or…
  • a 0.9mm or 2mm mechanical pencil – my very favorite pencil is a tigerwood mechanical pencil that was handmade by Pandora House Crafts. If I don’t happen to have that specific pencil with me, any mechanical pencil with at least a 0.9mm lead will do.
  • And of course, 20+ paper dictionaries at home – I use the paper dictionaries often, because they tend to have more information than the affordable software versions. But the software ones don’t usually require me to stand up, so I often go to them first:
    • Shorter Oxford – I have this version of the Oxford English Dictionary20 installed on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
    • Merriam-Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus21 – I have more than one electronic version of this dictionary on all my devices.
    • The Chambers Dictionary22 – I keep this on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
    • Chambers Thesaurus – Companion to the Chambers Dictionary.
    • WordBook Universal English Dictionary and Thesaurus – another one that I’m not sure why I have it on iPad and Mac, but not the phone.
    • SPQR – a Latin dictionary app on my iPad and iPhone, very useful when I need to make up incantations for one of my wizards or sorceresses.
    • American Heritage Dictionary23 – I have this one on the iPad only.

Anyway, so that’s my current set of favorite tools. Though the truth is that my real tools are sentences. I can compose those with word processors, typewriters, pen & paper, or pencil, or technically anything I can scratch symbols into a medium with. The important thing is to start writing.

Neil Gaiman24 is fond of saying that the only secret of writing is to just keep putting one word after the other. That advice is true and succinct. It is also extremely difficult to do, while sounding quite simple. We have to make ourselves sit down and write. That’s what makes a writer.


Footnotes:

1. This might be less true for people who didn’t have multiple encylopedia sets in their houses.

2. And with notes written3 on said pages related to things I wanted to do with the information in said book.

3. Well, most often scribbled. Have I mentioned that my handwriting is atrocious4?

4. Part of the problem is that I learned how to type on a mechanical typewriter when I was ten, for reasons. And so I stopped doing the work at school where they were taught us cursive writing. So I only ever formally learned how to print5

5. If pressed, I can produce by hat writing in cursive, but I have to visualize what the letters look like, and then draw them individually. I just don’t have the muscle memory to write. It’s is painstakingly slow and frustrating6.

6. But I still consider learning to write that way as an archaic and obsolete waste of time. Learning how to read it is much, much easier than writing it.

7. Another thing that has changed a lot in my life the last decade or so: I no longer go to great lengths to save and collect bookmarks. It used to be extremely important to have physical bookmarks I could stick in books. I still am usually reading multiple books at the same time, but more than half of them are e-books, so I don’t need physical bookmarks any longer. And it’s kind of sad.

8. thing Old English, noun 7. That which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entityThat which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entity9.

9. Please note that this is the seventh sense of the word to be defined in the Oxford dictionary, while it is closest to what I think most people would say is the primary definition. The first definition in Oxford is “A meeting, an assembly; a court, a council.” which happens to be the oldest known meaning of the word, but only seems to be known among most modern speakers of English who are also into the history of England and Northern Europe. I used this particular meaning in a draft scene in my fantasy novel series without thinking, and of the people in my Writers’ group, only my husband10 understood the meaning I was going from when I used it. So I switched to on Old Norse derived word instead, folkmoot.

10. My husband who has been described by more than one of our friends as “the most capable man I know” and his areas of expertise include computers, repairing computers and other electronics, bartending, history, obscure languages, science fiction and fantasy, science, electrical engineering, farm equipment repair and maintenance, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and cooking11

11. The latter is an understatement. The state he lived in at the time allowed children as young as 14 to work as prep cooks12, and that’s one of the two jobs he held down at that age. I have commented many times that if you want to be amazed just hand my husband and nice sharp knife and a box of vegetables and ask him to assemble a veggie tray. He will chop up all of the veggies you give him, no matter what they are, into exactly uniform slices, in a time frame that will make you suspect that he is actually super powered. I am not exaggerating in the least13.

12. Most state in the U.S. don’t allow children under the ages of 15 or 16 to work around commercial kitchen equipment, because limbs can be chopped off, basically. Although the are often exceptions carved out for children working in family businesses, which is how my Great-grandmother and a Great-uncle got away with teaching me how to drive a truck when I was about 12 years old.

13. When people who have only interacted with him in certain social situations have scoffed at this, I have smirked, because I’ve seen his school records, which include IQ tests, and most of the scoffers are nowhere near as smart ass he is13.

13. No, I really don’t know why he settles for such a jerk as me. I really don’t.

14. I have a lot of characters in my fantasy universe who can see the future: the Oracle, Madame Valentina, Brother Ishmael…

15. Followed by “Writing II,” then “Laying Out an Issue of the Fanzine” then “Writing Faust and “Writing III.”16

16. I have since become slightly more creative with playlist names17. The playlists I’ve been using while working on my latest novel have names such as “Dead Witch,” “Ballad of a Lost Soul,” “Only the Wicked,” “Ballad of a Would Be Dark Lord,” “Zombie vs Dragon,” “Ballad of the Unrepentant,” “Night of the Monkey’s Uncle,” or “Ballad of Dueling Masterminds.”

17. I previously thought that I had hundreds of playlists, but since I recently merged together two previously separate iTunes libraries18, I now really I have nearly 4000 playlists.

18. Remember that I started using iTunes many years before owning on iPod (and later an iPhone). So my main iTunes library started on my old Windows 98/Windows 2000 machine, was imported to my early 2009 model Mac Pro Tower, and was updated over the years as I bought music and finished importing the rest of my old physical CD library. Meanwhile, the machine that slowly took over my day-to-day computer was on old white plastic Macbook, which was built from an import of one of on old Windows laptop that only had a subset of the Windows desktop, and then was augmented and updated to a Macbook Pro, then updated to a newer Macbook Pro, and then for a bit over five years I tried to maintain to similar libraries: one on the old Mac Tower which contained six-and-a-half terrabytes of internal storage, and my Macbook Pro laptop that only had a a 512 gigabyte drive, and therefore not enough room for my entire music, video, and film library plus all my story files and so forth.

19: I have a lot of characters in my primary fantasy series who can see the future in various ways: the Oracle of the Church of the Great Shepherdess, Madame Valentina (a.k.a. Alicia), Brother Jude, the Zombie Lord, Brother Ishmael, Mother Sirena, Brother Theodore, Mother Bedlam…

20. The platinum standard of English language dictionaries. In hard copy I have the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, a pocket version, as well as the single volume version of the unabridged that you need to have a good magnifying glass in order to read.

21. Genuine Merriam-Webster dictionary is the gold standard of U.S. desk dictionaries. I have a couple different editions of the Collegiate version in hard cover, a pocket version, and a hard cover of the giant unabridged Third International.

22. Chambers was the dictionary most commonly found on bookshelves and desks in the U.K. for years, much as the original Merriam-Webster was in the U.S.

23. The American Heritage Dictionary has a very interesting history. A publisher and dictionary enthusiast was angry when the Merriam-Webster Third Edition shifted to a more descriptive philosophy, and so set out to make a competing dictionary. Then he hit on an interesting marketing scheme. They published a huge unabridged version which they offered for sale at less than cost to public libraries and schools, along with a discounted pedestal or lectern that ensured the dictionaries were prominently displayed in libraries. Then after getting these dictionaries in hundreds of libraries and school for a few years, they released a subset of the dictionary as a desk edition, which made the desk edition an immediate best seller.

24. Winner of the Newberry Medal, numerous Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Awards, the Carnegie Medal, Eisner Awards, British Fantasy Awards, Shirley Jackson Awards, a World Fantasy Award, a Harvey Award… I could go on and on.

Let’s talk about (fictional) talking!

“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” —Jerome Stern

“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” —Jerome Stern

There’s a list being shared around tumblr of things that people do in the real world when we talk. People are treating it as a list of things one must to insert into your writing to improve it—which proves that most people don’t understand what dialog in fiction is.

I like to repeat the adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Storytelling is, among other things, the craft of weaving an illusion. You are attempting to evoke in the reader a dream. You want that dream to be similar to the one you’re holding in your own mind as you craft your story. It needs to feel real, while also making sense—narrative sense. In a narrative, the events that happen are always connected to each and to the overall story. Things happen for reasons that relate to the intent of the participants and the meaning of the plot. But the real world seldom makes sense narratively; real life events that take place near each other are often unconnected, for instance.

The paradox of storytelling is that you can’t achieve that sense of reality and making sense by slavishly imitating the real world.

That is especially true in dialog.

So, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk. It is about creating the illusion of the way people talk, while omitting parts that don’t move the story forward. To get back to the list that’s being shared around: it isn’t that you can’t use any of those suggestions, it is that you should dump all of them in just because they’re on the list.

If, like me, you read a lot of fanfic and self-published fiction, you see a lot of these awkward efforts to replicate in dialogue certain quirks and eccentricities of expression that people make in real life, or that actors do as part of their delivery of lines. Unfortunately, these replications often serve as a distraction rather than characterization. For example, in dialogue you might mention that when a character responded to a question with the word “yep” that the character popped the p at the end of the word. If the reader has ever known a person who does that in certain circumstances, or seen an actor doing it in a television series, say, they get it. If they don’t, they’re just puzzled. And during that moment that the reader is trying to figure out what it means, they are no longer in your story. You’ve bounced them from the narrative. You have destroyed the illusion you were so meticulously crafting. You are inviting the reader to stop reading your tale.

And if you do more of those things, you aren’t merely inviting the reader to leave, you’re actively chasing them away!

In real life people say “uh,” “um,” and similar non-words a lot more often than we realize. It’s a pause when we’re trying to pick a word, or figure out how to respond to something or just thinking through the situation we are discussing as we’re talking. If you put those non-verbal filler sounds in as often as they happen in real life, it becomes very annoying to read. Part of the reason we don’t notice is because the tone of voice and the cadence of the sentence (and if it’s a face to face conversation, facial expressions and other body language) give those non-words meaning to the listener. But the reader isn’t getting all of that. So, when writing dialogue, we use those non-verbal sound indicators more sparingly. We deploy them when we want to indicate the speaker is at a loss for words, or is uncomfortable in the situation, or something similar.

In real life we repeat words a lot. We may put the same word in to a sentence more often than it is needed. Like, we really can, you know, say what we mean to say, like, really, you know, in a really messy way. You know? And you can write a character talking in that manner, but you’ll find it’s difficult to keep up the pattern. And again, the reader needs to know why you’re doing it. If you have a character that is supposed to be annoying your protagonist, having all of their sentences ramble and repeat can make your reader as annoyed with the character as your protagonist is. Again, the key is to choose the non-standard grammar for a narrative reason.

Then there are facial expressions and gestures. I have a really bad habit during first drafts of having my characters nod a lot. You can read through a scene I just wrote and sometimes a third or even half of the switches in dialogue begin with the character who is about to speak nodding. And it’s really annoying after a while. In real life, people nod their heads, shake their heads, tilt their heads, waggle their heads and so on while talking. But just as with “uh,” we need to use it a bit less often than it happens.

The first time someone pointed that out in a rough draft, I went through and changed all of those “so-and-so nodded” to other things. I changed each and every one to a different thing. So the first character, instead of nodding, grinned. And then the next character wiggled his hand to indicate indecision. Then the first character frowned and tilted his head. And so on. When I read the scene to myself aloud after revising it, I started laughing part way through, because it sounded as if the two of them were dancing around each other in an elaborate musical number. So I had made it worse, not better. Not every line of dialogue needs a description of what the character is doing with their body. It is perfectly okay to use “[name] said.” Multiple times.

It’s also all right, if there are only two people in the conversation, to skip the name altogether every now and then. But don’t do it more three or four lines in a row. The reader will get confused, and it is really annoying to have to go back and count, “Susan, John, Susan, John…” when you lose track. And it is super duper annoying when you do that and find it doesn’t work. You get to a line that by your count should be John, but it says ‘Susan frowned in thought. “I don’t think so,” she said.’ I have had that happen in a book published by a large publishing house. I assume that during an edit round some lines of dialogue were removed, and the author didn’t double-check that everything still flowed.

On the other hand, you can get away with a lot of things in dialogue that don’t fly in the narrative portions of the text. People talk in sentence fragments and make grammatical errors, so you can do that in the dialogue. But make sure you know why you’re doing it. And don’t over do it.

While we’re on the subject of dialogue: someone sent me a link to this excellent blog post on how to punctuate dialog. Even if you think you know how to punctuate dialog, go take a look. Everyone can use a refresher every now and then.

There are worse things than invisibility—decoding is just another form of erasure

The Disney library (like that of most big studios) is already full of coded gay characters, as either villains, jokes, or both.

The Disney library (like that of most big studios) is already full of coded gay characters, as either villains, jokes, or both. (click to embiggen)

It’s happened twice so far this year: big media company makes an announcement about how they’re adding an explicitly gay character to an upcoming release, then reveal that it’s a character that everyone outside the company already assumed was gay and has been the butt of homophobic jokes about said media property for years. The one that’s getting all of the attention right now is Disney’s announcement that in the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast it will be revealed that Le Fou is “exclusively gay.” I think they meant explicitly, but lets ignore that weird phrasing for a moment, because it gets worse. The director clarified that Le Fou is confused about his feelings for Gaston. He’s oddly attracted to this man who abuses him and uses him to do his dirty work.

Which is exactly what homophobes have been sniggering and making fag jokes about with Le Fou since Disney released the animated version of the movie. Gaston is a parody of hetero hypermasculinity, and Le Fou is is craven, clownish sidekick willing to do anything at all to get the slightest bit of attention from Gaston. Le Fou’s lack of manliness in the animated film could be rationalized as being there to throw Gaston’s exaggerated masculinity into sharp contrast. Okay. Except that is exactly what the Hollywood sissy/coded gay sidekick has always been: he’s the example of what a “real man” isn’t. His whole point it to prove that unmanly men are jokes, at best. Not real people, but punchlines.

So they are taking the implicit hateful characterization and making it an explicitly hateful characterization. Thanks, but no thanks.

Le Fou is a typical unmanly minion.

Le Fou is a typical unmanly minion.

There will be people who insist that we shouldn’t judge it until we see it, but they’ve given me enough information that I already know they have messed this up. The fact that they decided to announce it, for one. Just as if a person begins a statement with, “I’m not a bigot, but…” we all know that pure bigotry is going to follow, if you feel the need to announce you’re enlightened and inclusive, you don’t know what those words mean. The director has described the classic negative stereotype (confused, obsessed with a straight man) is what they’re going for. Worse, they’ve referred to it more than once as a moment. Just a moment. You know why it’s a moment? Because they are already making plans to edit that moment out of the international release, because they knew as soon as word got out that countries would start threatening to ban the film. Heck, Alabama is already up in arms about it!

That means that it’s a tacked on joke. It’s not part of the plot. It’s not a meaningful part of Le Fou’s characterization.

Even if they do something with it. Let’s say that at the end of the film they have a moment that implies maybe Gaston is ready to return his feelings? What message does that send? It tells us that hating women (Gaston’s exaggerated masculinity includes a lot of misogyny in the animated feature, just sayin’) or being rejected by women is what makes men gay. And, oh, isn’t that great inclusion?

He was a pink lion without a mane wearing a string tie and cufflinks (despite not otherwise having clothes) whose dialog was littered with theatre jargon, delivered in a fey/swishy voice. He was a classic sassy gay character already!

He was a pink lion without a mane wearing a string tie and cufflinks (despite not otherwise having clothes) whose dialog was littered with theatre jargon, delivered in a fey/swishy voice. He was a classic sassy gay character already!

I mentioned that the Beauty and the Beast revelation was the second time this has happened this year. Previously it was Snagglepuss. Yes, DC Comics/Warner Brothers announced that the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character, Snagglepuss, was going to be reimagined in a new comic book series as “a gay Southern Gothic playwright.” Literally my reaction on twitter a nanosecond after I saw the first person retweeting the headline was, “reimagined? But that’s what he already was!”

Snagglepuss was a version of the sassy gay friend from the beginning. He was protagonist of his cartoon series, which wasn’t typical for the sassy gay friend (who is more typically a sidekick to one of the lead characters), but Snagglepuss broke the fourth wall constantly, addressing the viewer with his arch asides and sardonic observations. He was the viewer’s sassy gay friend, in other words. And he was cheerful and optimistic and always trying (but usually failing) to improve his life in some way. Despite the many setbacks, he remained cheerful and upbeat.

So the DC Comic (besides being drawn by an artist who has apparently never seen an athropomorphic character before—seriously, go hit that link above and tell me if that isn’t the worst comic book artwork you’ve ever seen!) takes the happy, upbeat fey lion and turns him into a bitter old queen. Again, thanks but, no thanks!

Coded queer characters have been appearing in pop culture for decades. Their portrayal as comic relief or as villains (and sometimes both) sent a clear message that they were not normal people. They are never the heroes. They can be loathed as villains, or tolerated and laughed at as sidekicks, but they will be lonely and unloved in either case. Neither of these supposedly inclusive announcements changes that homophobic message. It’s not, contrary to what certain evangelical hatemongers are saying, indoctrinating kids to be accepting of gays. It’s instead reinforcing the same old bigotry: we don’t matter, we are jokes, we are never the heroes, we are never loved.

Just another means of erasing the truth of our existence. No thanks!

Destiny, prophecy, self-discovery, and love — more of why I love sf/f

Cover of Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, cover design by Olga Grlic (click to embiggen)

Cover of Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, cover design by Olga Grlic (click to embiggen)

Carry On — The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery.” So begins the official blurb on this novel that I found myself enjoying far more than I thought I would. First, an explanation. Rainbow Rowell, the author of Carry On first came to my attention through a recommendation on a podcast. Her work was described by one of the people on the podcast as being young adult novels that didn’t feel like YA. They also noted that she handled non-heterosexual characters really well. So I looked up some of her books and put them on my wish lists, but I hadn’t gotten around to actually trying one.

And then fan art for a book that seemed to be about teen wizards (but not characters I recognized) started appearing on my tumblr dashboard for a series that I’d never heard of: the Simon Snow series. Except there is no Simon Snow series. One of the novels by Ms. Rowell that I’d put on my list was entitled, Fangirl, and the blurb was that the main character, Cath, is just starting college, and that for the last few years her life has been dominated by her love for a series of urban fantasy novels. And these novels star a young man named Simon Snow.

In order to write convincingly about a fan who is very active in writing fanfic and has a number of close friends within the fandom, Rowell had to plot out a fictitious fantasy series. At least enough for the characters to talk about it as if it were a real series. Fangirl was a success, and received a lot of praise, particularly in sf/f circles, despite not being a fantasy story itself, because the portrayal of fannish culture was considered spot on.

After finishing that book, Rowell wound up writing a Simon Snow book. She didn’t write the entire series, she wrote a book that can be looked on as the next book that was published after all the books that Cath and her friends had been fans of in 2013 (when Fangirl was published). So, Carry On is not a sequel to Fangirl. Carry On is a sequel to the fictitious series which is talked about in Fangirl.

The magical world of Carry On bears a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter series, though it isn’t a parody or a satire. It also bears certain parallels to other young adult fantasy series. The plot seems straightforward, at first. Simon Snow attends a wizarding school called Watford. He was not born in the wizarding world, but he has immense power and various prophetic signs indicate that he is the person who is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. The Insidious Humdrum is a mysterious being which, when it attacks, drains all of the magic out of the area, leaving what appear to be permanent dead zones where wizards and other magical creatures become powerless. Simon doesn’t know how he is going to defeat this creature, and has so far failed to master his magical powers. His powers are massive, but out of his control, and things tend to get destroyed when he tries to use them. His roommate at the school, Baz (full name, Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch) is Simon’s nemesis at school, and is assumed by everyone to be the person destined to try to kill Simon when the big battle with the Humdrum finally happens.

But the story isn’t really about the conflict between Simon and the Humdrum. It’s really about the nature of prophecy, what does it mean to be a chosen one, and how people (whether mortal politicians or master mages) twist belief and hope to fit their own agendas. It’s about identity, not just what it means to be a hero or villain (or the fact that it is seldom either/or), but there are allegories for ethnic identity issues and class identity issues. Oh, and more than a bit about sexual and romantic identity (which aren’t always the same thing).

There is a ghost story. There are several mysteries. And there is even a love story. There are battles magical, political, and personal. And it all hangs together very well. I have to admit, I think the wizarding world portrayed in Carry On makes a lot more sense than the world of Harry Potter, or a number of other fantasies of similar ilk, even though the magic part of the story isn’t the main focus of the plot.

I’m not sure that those two observations are unrelated.

I enjoyed the book a lot. I didn’t find most of the plot developments surprises. As one reviewer put it, the revelations as the story moves along feel more like confirmations of your existing suspicions than plot twists. But again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of why the story hangs together better than some other books we could name.

I enjoyed the book a lot. It didn’t end quite as I hoped it would, but it ended in a way that felt right and satisfying regardless. It did make me wish that some of the series and fantasy books had handled their characters as well as Rowell does. I hope that the next person who undertakes this sort of tale takes note.

The Secrets of the Universe

It’s been a really long time since I wrote any book reviews, so I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing them more often.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, cover by Chloë Foglia.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, cover by Chloë Foglia.

So, let’s start with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This novel is set in the late 80s and concerned a Mexican-American teenager named Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. Ari is the youngest child in his family, but there’s a significant age gap between him and the next oldest. The other kids were born before Ari’s dad went off to fight in Vietnam, while Ari was conceived after his father returned. Ari is troubled by at least two family secrets: his older brother was sent to prison when Ari was too young to understand what was going on, and no one in the family will talk about what happened. The other secretive thing bothering Ari is that his father never talks about his experiences in the war, and many other things which Ari thinks might be important.

Ari narrates the book, and frequently describes himself as having no friends, until one summer day when he met Dante Quintana at the city pool. Dante discovers that Ari is hanging around in the shallow end because he doesn’t know how to swim. So Dante undertakes to teach him, and soon Ari and Dante are inseparable.

Even when Dante confesses he is gay, while Ari assures Dante that he is not, their friendship remains strong.

The official summary the publisher slaps on the back cover is: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship – the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”

That summary doesn’t really do the book justice. But I can’t explain much more about the plot without giving things away which I think a reader will enjoy discovering right along with Ari and Dante. Two different events that could have been tragedies happen over the course of the two summers plus that the book describes. Neither comes out of the experiences unscathed. Along the way both young men make important discoveries. And yes, by the time the book is over, they really do discover secrets of the universe.

One of the things I love about the book is that despite Ari feeling that his father is keeping part of himself distant, the relationship between each of the boys and their families is close. Each set of parents express their love and respect for their sons in different ways, but despite the secrets in Ari’s family, the relationships being shown here are not dysfunctional. That’s refreshing in itself.

The story explores lots of themes. Yes, there’s a coming of age through-line, but the novel also deals with identity (particularly intersectional identity: class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation), social expectations (what does it mean to be a man; what does it mean to be a Latino, et cetera), familial expectations, the nature of friendship, the meaning of the many kinds of love, as well as what it means to find answers. The characters feel real, their problems feel real, and nothing in the plot every requires any of the characters to be stupid. Yes, the teen-age characters (not just Dante and Ari) make foolish choices, but they are realistic foolish choices.

Unlike some books (and movies and series) I could name, none of the characters suddenly start acting idiotically so the plot can go a particular way. This kind of storytelling leaves me, at least, rooting for most of the characters—and that is not at all a bad thing!

I’m hardly the first person to notice that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an awesome book. It was awarded a Youth Media Award by the American Library Association, as well as a Pura Belpré Narrative Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, a Michael L. Printz Award for the best writing in teen literature, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Amelia Elizabeth Walden honorable mention. Perhaps the most interesting recommendation I have read of it was a fellow subscriber to a literary mailing list who said that when another award-winning novel had wrenched her heart, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe had restored her soul.

This all may sound like hype, but the novel really is very good. I loved it so much, that after finishing the book, I bought the audiobook (narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda who does an incredible job), and listened to it again. (Spoiler: I cried and laughed at all the same points the second time through as I did the first).

If you want a story that will restore your faith in humanity—and restore your faith that good books are still to be had—you can’t go better than Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Writing Concoctions: scenes, chapters, and other artifices

http://www.gdefon.com/download/kitten_computer_keyboard/465238/1920x1280

If only I were this adorable when using my Mac.

In the last two weeks I’ve noticed several writers either writing new posts about how they decide where to end a chapter, or re-posting a link to an older blog post where they’ve already talked about that. From which I infer that someone somewhere asked about how writers decide where to end chapters and they’re all responding to it. I originally started this post quite a while back, and never got around to finishing it. Seems like now would be a good time to pick it back up!

Whether you write your story in order or more free form, there is usually some form of modularity within the story. A very short story may consist of a single scene, but longer stories are usually broken up into multiple scenes, groups of which may be gathered into chapters (or acts), and so on.

These modules of narrative provide a means of packaging bits of your story into digestible chunks. How you structure them controls the rhythm of the story, providing a sense of movement through time and or space.

And they can be tricky.

Unfortunately, the way I do a lot of my own writing is intuitive, now. I’ve been writing fiction since grade school, and I started reading articles in magazines such as The Writer and Writer’s Digest also during grade school, so I’ve internalized a lot of processes to an extent that I do them without a lot of conscious thought. My honest first answer to the question, “How do you decide where a chapter ends?” is, “It ends when you get to the end.”

So let’s start with some definitions. These aren’t necessarily authoritative definitions. You’ll find a lot of writers with similar but still different definitions of these things.

A scene is a building block of the story. You can think of it as a single brick in a wall, or the next pearl on a necklace. A scene usually happens at a single location and for a short, continuous period of time. Every scene in your story should fulfill a purpose. Ideally they should serve several purposes. The sorts of purposes scenes can serve are:

  • Advance the plot
  • Introduce a new character, theme, or problem
  • Create suspense
  • Establish or develop the setting, a character, or a problem
  • Provide information the reader will need later to understand the action
  • Foreshadow coming events
  • Create atmosphere

These aren’t the only purposes scenes can fulfill. It can be argued that some of the purposes I have listed are subsets of others. Creating atmosphere could be thought of as a specific type of establishing the setting and problems facing the characters in it. I’ve seen other lists of possible purposes for scenes include as separate items things with which, to me, are simply subsets of the ones above. For instance, a lot of people list building sympathy or antipathy for a character as a separate purpose, whereas I think of that as just one type of establishing or developing the character. But those are quibbling details.

The important thing to remember is: a scene shouldn’t be in your story if it doesn’t serve one of the purposes for furthering the story.

I like to write scenes from a particular viewpoint character. Most of my stories are written in third-person subjective. That means I look at the scene from a particular character’s perspective. I’ll tell you what that person sees, hears, and feels, but without getting into the head of any of the other characters in that scene. So that means that if I need to get into another character’s head, I need to have a separate scene for the character.

So you can think of a scene as a single incident in the chain of your story. For instance, “When the lieutenant asked the maid about the abbey,” or “When the young noble spoke to his imprisoned mother,” or “When the princess argued with her husband about a family visit.”

A chapter is harder to define. Chapters are, largely, the result of tradition, rather than having a clearly defined purpose in a story. The usual explanation is that chapters were invented when scrolls were replaced by books. A single bound book would contain stories, records, or other information that had been in a scroll. The pages which represented a single scroll would be demarked as a chapter. During the 19th century, when many novels were serialized in magazines before being gathered into a book (if at all), chapters were often the monthly or weekly installment of the story. So, one answer to why books have chapters is because people expect books to have chapters. They don’t always, of course. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, for instance, seldom have chapters. There are breaks between scenes, but no marked chapters.

If a book has chapters, one of the purposes they fill is to break the story into bite-sized chunks. They can provide breaking points where your reader knows she can set the story down and come back easily. Of course, one of the secrets of an enthralling book is chapter endings that entice the reader to keep going, so you don’t want the break to feel like a finale.

Chapters can help organize the story in ways other than “this happened, then this, then this…” If your characters aren’t all in the same place, you can use a chapter to gather all of the scenes which happen at the same (or nearly the same) time but with different characters. Or you can gather a bunch of scenes which have some thematic parallels (though if they are happening at very different times, you may have to take extra pains to communicate to the reader when each scene occurs).

I like to think of chapters as episodes in a serial story. If my book were a television show, for instance, with each season having an overarching plot, each chapter would represent a single episode of the series. So each scene is an incident, then each chapter is a collection of related incidents.

For me, a chapter needs to convey something that feels like a satisfying episode. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it tells a complete story, but when the reader reaches the end of a chapter, it should feel as if they have completely an important step in the journey, with a clear feeling that there is more journey ahead.

People often, therefore, recommend ending chapters on cliffhangers. And I agree with the sentiment, but dislike the terminology. Don’t get me wrong, I end plenty of chapters on cliffhangers. But the term cliffhanger is often interpreted to mean that one or more of your characters are in physical peril, and not everyone’s story has a lot of moments where characters finds themselves looking down the barrel of an unexpected gun. Cliffhanger can be any form of unresolved character tension. If one of your characters is being question by the police, most of the scene can be revealing the character’s personality while revealing various details about the situation, and a perfectly acceptable cliffhanger is for the interrogator to reveal a piece of damning evidence that ties the character to the scene of a crime. Even better if the character thought they were being questioned about a robbery, and the revelation is that there is also a dead body at the scene–you’ve raised the stakes to murder! Any situation that makes the reader asked, “Oh, no! How’s he/she going to deal with this?” can be your chapter ending.

You don’t have to end the chapter at each moment that evokes that curiosity, of course. Sometimes I have a bunch of cliffhangers within a single chapter. In a fantasy novel I’m working on right now, there’s a battle in which a dragon and her ally (a witch) attack a carriage carrying three monks and a runaway prince. I depict the battle in a number of scenes, each from the point of view of a different person involved in the battle. Each scene in the story ends at a moment where the viewpoint character has just tried to do something, or finds themself confronted with something unexpected. Then I move to a different character and show what’s happening from that viewpoint. You can do this with the other sorts of cliffhangers, too. If your chapter is a collection of scenes happening at nearly the same to characters who are in different locations, you might end each scene with that character making a discovery or realization that gives them pause.

I tend to be a seat of my pants writer in so far as I seldom write up a formal outline until I’m in a revision stage. But I usually have an idea when I start a new chapter which incidents I want the cover next. I also tend to make the chapters close to the same length. So sometimes if I notice the word count is getting higher than I thought in a scene, I’ll decide to move one of the scenes into the next chapter… which means I’ll have to think about how to make the scenes that share the next chapter feel as if they belong together.

I don’t always make chapters exactly the same length. In one of my current projects, for various dramatic reasons, I have one chapter that is a single sentence, and another that is only eight sentences.

This is a rather long rambly way to get back to my original answer: I end chapters when they end.

Confessions of a sentence-wrangler

“There is no use crying over spilled milk… Spilled coffee however, may get you stabbed.”

“There is no use crying over spilled milk… Spilled coffee however, may get you stabbed.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone (often a co-worker) asked me an obscure grammar question (often to settle an argument with someone else), I’d probably have enough to buy a second car (and a really nice one, at that). If, however, I had a dollar for each time that one of those thousands of questions involved an actual rule of grammar, I might be able to get a latte or two. By which I mean, a lot of what people think of as grammar is actually about style or usage or it’s about spelling. And even more important, language isn’t like physics: it isn’t defined by anything analogous to the fundamental underlying properties of the universe. Language is something we have made-up (collectively), and continue to make-up as we go along. The process isn’t rational. And the resulting language doesn’t follow algorithmic rules like algebra or computer programming does.

A lot of people think that writers are obsessed with rules of grammar. They also think that good writing requires an extensive vocabulary of obscure words. Similarly they assume that anyone who has ever had the job title of editor is perfect at spelling and is even more obsessed with grammar. Those are copyeditor skills, which is different.

Don’t get me wrong, understanding how language works and having a facility with words are important skills for a writer, but words aren’t like gears and pulleys and cogwheels, and writing isn’t like assembling a machine. Words aren’t even the fundamental tool of a writer.

It is true that I am fascinated by dictionaries and have quite a collection of them. But open up a good dictionary and skim down the page and you will notice that just about every word has multiple definitions. Words have meaning, yes, but they have lots of meanings, and not always terribly precise ones at that. For example, let’s take the word “bear,” and imagine for a moment that you were explaining our language to an alien. If you told this alien that the word refers to a large omnivorous mammal with thick fur and plantigrade feet, what would that alien make of these sentences:

  • The petitioner will bear the cost of the investigation.
  • My manager is a real bear.
  • Before accepting the offer, bear in mind the responsibilities that come with it.
  • And then the bear flashed his lights, and I knew I was going to get a ticket.

That’s only four of the six definitions of “bear” that are listed in one of my dictionaries. Now at least one of those uses is metaphorical, but the verb “bear” meaning to carry something is spelled and sounds exactly like the noun “bear” which refers to an animal. The only way you can know which meaning of the word is meant is to hear it in a sentence.

The fundamental unit of a story isn’t the word, it’s the sentence. Yes, to understand a sentence you need to know the various meanings of the words in the sentence, but not necessarily all of them. You can often understand a sentence which uses a word you never heard before. Lewis Carroll composed a poem, “Jabberwocky,” in which nearly every sentence contained at lease one nonsense word he made up for the purpose:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Nobody knew what galumphing meant when Carroll wrote the poem, but everyone who read or heard it at the time inferred that it meant to move or run in some manner, perhaps similar to a gallop or maybe more of a loud blundering through the woods. In any case, an image of the triumphant hero making haste toward home carrying the head of the defeated creature was conjured by the sentence with the nonsense word. Never mind that vorpal was also a word that Carroll made up. Most nerds know exactly what it is: a magically sharp sword, right?

Anyway, being a writer isn’t about making text pretty. Nor is it about mastering the rules of grammar to somehow hypnotize readers with the mystic powers of predicates, prepositions, and pronouns. It’s about telling a story. In my day job I may be telling the story of what problems a particular software product solves. In my fiction writing I may be telling the story of how a thief with a cursed artifact will save the world. And here on the blog I may be telling the story of why marginalized people try to find hints of themselves in cultural events. Humans tell stories–we construct narratives–to give things meaning.

You can’t tell a story if you’re obsessing over the proper placement of a comma (the rules of which are infinitely less restrictive than you think). You can’t tell a story if you’re arguing with yourself about which synonym for brown best describes the color of your protagonist’s eyes. You can’t tell a story if you’re writing, deleting, and re-writing the opening sentence of your tale, each time changing just one adjective. Neither can you tell a story if you’re beating yourself up about the fact that you haven’t been able to finish it when you want to. It’s as useful as crying over spilled milk.

Which is about as useful as arguing about so-called rules of grammar. The final test is whether a reader understands it, and whether they care enough to get to the end. If they do, you wrote correctly.

Now, bring me a coffee, pour yourself your favorite beverage, and let’s see what kind of tales we will tell!

Don’t waste the reader’s time: avoiding the one-way street

“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That's why writing isn't a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen

Christopher Bollen explains that writing isn’t a one-way street (click to embiggen)

There was a lot of talk on social media this week because a group of jerks harassed the writer of an episode of a television show about said episode until the writer deleted their social media accounts. And it was harassment, not critique. You can be unhappy with a story, you can dislike it, you can even tell other people you don’t like it; but that doesn’t mean you can make ad hominem attacks on the writer, threaten the writer and their family, hurl bigoted slurs, and so forth.

Similarly, you can be unhappy with a story because you feel the story is reinforcing sexist, or homophobic, or racist, or ableist myths. You can call out the problem when a story pushes that agenda. You can express your disappointment. You can organize a boycott. But again, pointing out problems in a narrative should not turn into harassment of the people involved.

In this case it was actually two hordes of idiots harassing the writer. One group were angry because they thought the writer was pushing a relationship between two characters they didn’t want together. The other group were angry because the relationship wasn’t going where it had “clearly” been implied it was going.

Readers aren’t the only ones who can be jerks. Writers can disrespect their audience; they can make mistakes, abuse the reader’s trust, they can cheat and exploit their audience. Which isn’t to say that the writer owes any reader or group of readers a specific outcome, or a particular plot resolution. But as writers we must always remember Niven’s Law for Writers: It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.

In the simplest sense that means that as writers we owe the reader our best professional effort. We tell the story as best we can. No story and no draft will ever be perfect, so we can’t get hung up on revising until it is, but we don’t turn in a half-assed effort.

I want to make a brief digression here. Most of my fiction writing and publishing has been in small press and amateur publications. Occasionally, when as an editor I have given writers aspiring to those publications feedback and requests for re-writes, a writer has pushed back. “You can’t hold me to professional standards, I’m not getting paid!” I didn’t quibble over the fact that technically, because we were giving them free copies of the publication if we used their story it meant they were getting paid, instead I said, “I’m publishing to professional readers. They pay for the privilege of reading my zine. And even though what they pay barely covers the costs of printing, and doesn’t provide any monetary compensation to you, or me, or the copy editors, or the layout specialist, the reader is still paying.” Of course they didn’t have to make re-writes if they didn’t want to. But if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to publish the story, because I wasn’t going to ask my readers to spend their time or money on a story I didn’t think was ready.

To get back to what we mean when we say it is a sin to waste the reader’s time, in a deeper sense that means playing fair. If there are mysteries for the reader to try to solve, you can’t withhold information. Obscure it amongst a bunch of other description? Sure. Distract the reader by dangling a red herring in the same scene? Also perfectly reasonable, but you can’t simply not show the reader vital information.

Also, don’t spring surprises on the reader merely for the sake of shock. It’s easy to think that surprises and shocks and twists are the only way to create suspense, but that’s wrong. Suspense happens when the reader cares about your character. If you create characters the reader identifies with and cares about, you can create suspense out of anything that the character cares about. You create that caring by treating the reader with respect and showing the reader the hearts of your characters.

Don’t lead the reader down a painful emotional path without giving them a pay-off. If you make the reader care about the protagonist and then allow the reader to see a horrible thing happen to the protagonist, don’t skip past the messy emotional fallout. You don’t have to show blood and gore—often graphic descriptions of violence are more boring than engaging—but show us how the bad thing affected the characters. Let the reader experience their sorrow or anger or triumph. Don’t skip that to get to the next plot twist.

When you tell a story, you are asking the reader to give you their time and attention. Make sure that the journey your tale takes them on is worth it.

“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That’s why writing isn’t a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen

Lost Friends in the Dreamlands – more of why I love sf/f

My Boat by Joanna Russ was published in Fantasy And Science Fiction Magazine, January 1976, cover by David Hardy.

“My Boat” by Joanna Russ was published in Fantasy And Science Fiction Magazine, January 1976, cover by David Hardy. (click to embiggen)

By January of 1976, I was midway through my freshman year in high school, living in a tiny town in northwestern Colorado. My parents had been separated for a few months and their divorce was underway. My physically and verbally abusive father wasn’t living with us any more, which was a plus, but everything from our finances to our daily routines were far less certain and predictable. I had had a big break-up of my own that no one knew about—because we were both extremely closeted boys in a very redneck town so of course we had been keeping it a secret. And another boy who had been one of my most consistent bullies throughout middle-school had recently coerced me into an even more covert non-consensual relationship. So to say my life at the time was a bit of a nightmare would not be inaccurate.

I still had a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, thanks to my grandparents, and each time a new issue arrived in the mail, I would retreat to my room with it and stay up way past my bedtime devouring every page. These were the circumstances under which I first read the short story, “My Boat” by Joanna Russ… Read More…

Nothing wrong with a flawed hero…

Cat with a manual typewriter.I’ve had several partially drafted blog posts about protagonists and heroes and characters I love reading/watching and characters I love to hate and characters that disappoint and how my feelings as a writer are sometimes different than my reactions as a reader. Which I never seem to be able to finish.

One reason I have trouble finishing any of them is that in many ways it’s one great big nuanced topic in my head, which is impossible to condense into a thousands words, but is just as difficult to break up into meaningful sub-parts without wanting to cross-reference all the other sub-parts. And while the crazy info architect inside me thinks it would be awesome to compose a dozen blog posts each with a dozen footnotes and cross-references to the other, the practical side of me knows that way lies madness.

And then Watts Martin quoted Glen Weldon from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and this quote covers one of the big concepts in my nuanced ball in far less than a thousand words:

“We tell ourselves we embrace the antihero because we think it’s more sophisticated. We recognize that the world isn’t black and white, and that moral ambiguity and ambivalence is ‘more real.’ We tell ourselves that, and we’re awfully smug about it, but the real reason we’re doing that—that we embrace the antihero—is because we just don’t have the guts to embrace the hero. We’re too cowardly, we’re too cynical to believe in heroes. We distrust ideals because they’re too hopeful and sincere. If we believed in the heroes that embodied them, it means we’d actually have to risk something, put ourselves out there, be hopeful and sincere and look hokey and uncool. The default reflexive cynicism risks nothing.”
—Glen Weldon

Weldon is talking about anti-heroes, which is a protagonist with the opposite of the usual attributes of a hero (idealism, courage, selflessness), but that doesn’t mean that there are only two types of protagonist possible: hero and anti-hero. An anti-hero is different than an imperfect person being heroic. People rationalize the reflexive cynicism Weldon describes by pointing out that no one is perfect, therefore heroes don’t exist. While it is true that no one is perfect, a person doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect in order to be good.

As a reader, I love rooting for a character who isn’t perfect but is trying to do the right thing, any way. Dan Savage likes to say that a successful relationship is a myth two people build together. You each pretend that the other person is their best self—that best-foot-forward version of yourself you presented on your first date. As time goes on, you each try to do a better job of being that better self. It’s not simply a matter of overlooking imperfections, there is also a process of real change, of transforming yourself into someone who deserves the love of the person you love.

That isn’t just true of romantic relationship. A successful friendship is a similar jointly-created myth. And yes, a good relationship between a reader and a beloved character has some elements of that as well.

As a writer, I want readers to identify with my characters. I want them to root for the characters when the characters struggle. I want them to be disappointed when a character makes a mistake. But just as in real life when a good friend disappoints us, I want my reader to still cheer the character on when the character struggles to make amends. I want my character to be that kind of a hero: an imperfect person striving to be their better self.

It’s sincere and it’s hokey and it’s uncool, yes. But that doesn’t make it unrealistic.

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