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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

How would you rather be remembered?

On Twitter the other week I posed the question:

Would you rather be remembered as having a large body of work with both some amazing things and some crap ones, or a small body of work where everything was a gem?

The results were interesting. Sixty-one percent voted for a small body of all gems; thirty-nine percent for the larger mixed body. In hindsight, I should have phrased my question better (bad anthropologist; no biscuit), because people may have interpreted “amazing things” as being not the same thing as “gems,” which was how I intended it. But maybe not; it’s entirely possible people knew what I meant, and that’s just where their particular preferences lie.

Me, I’m on the side of “large mixed body.” Because here’s the thing: even a really amazing work isn’t going to speak to absolutely everybody, and even a less-than-perfect story can brighten someone‘s day. If I have a large body of work, there will probably be more people overall who really felt touched by something I wrote — even if discussions of my writing include people saying “yeah, but let’s just pretend X never happened.”

Plus — as several people pointed out in their responses on Twitter — we can’t really control what is and is not received as a classic or a groundbreaking work. We can try our best, but in the end, that judgment is in the hands of other people. We can’t fully control how much work we produce, either; factors like health, day jobs, family demands, and the like will also cut into that. But it’s more within our grasp than reception is. If you step up to the plate a bunch of times, you won’t hit a home run every time, but your odds having at least a few are better than if you only took half a dozen swings.

So I’d rather produce a lot of work, even if some of it is meh or even (in hindsight) a bit embarrassing. And maybe somewhere in that pile, I’ll manage a few gems.

Ten pounds of story in a five-pound sack

I can’t say a lot about the work I do for Legend of the Five Rings because I signed an NDA. But the most recent round of brainstorming for a fiction has me reflecting on what this job is teaching me about making sure that the material I write pulls as much weight per word as possible, and I want to discuss that a little. So let’s see what balance I can strike between specificity and deliberately vague generalities!

The context here is that I have a fairly strict word count for each of my fictions: 3000 words max if they’re going into a pack, and 3000 with some wiggle room if they’re being published on the website. That is . . . not a whole lot. And the story of L5R is so sprawling that even with a bunch of writers producing a bunch of fictions, making sure that everything gets mentioned and explored and moved forward means we can’t afford to waste words. It isn’t enough for a given fiction to do one thing; it needs to do at least two, more like three or four, as many as we can stuff in there at once. Ten pounds of story in a five-pound sack.

Take the one I’ve got on my plate right now. The original query from the person I work with Fantasy Flight Games was, “Are you willing to write a story about Character and Group? Something to flesh them out.”

Me: “Sure! What do you think of Scenario?”

FFG: “Sounds good. Maybe you could work in how Character feels about Key Theme, and also expand a bit on Group’s Main Focus.”

Me: “I lean toward having Character feel this way about Key Theme, because that lets me make a contrast with Previously Mentioned Backstory Character. And for Group, maybe Side Character says XYZ — that adds depth to their personality because of Probable Reader Interpretation. Heck, I could even put in Callback to Other Plot A, in a way that layers in some ambiguity.”

FFG: “Great!”

Me: “OOOH. And — just spitballing here — but given the timing, what if we say that Side Character also has Information about Other Plot B, which of course they interpret in Particular Way?”

FFG: “Go for it. But maybe spin it a bit more to the left to emphasize Aspect.”

Me: “Awesome. I’ll have an outline for you shortly.”

It could have just been a story about Character and Group. It probably would have been a perfectly fine story. But the more we can build up these elements, expanding on some things and contrasting with others, making callbacks to previous material and introducing points of linkage in all directions, the richer the fiction becomes.

Not all of this will stand out, of course. Sometimes the work the fiction is doing is fairly subterranean, and only somebody who’s digging into the craft of it will notice that, for example, we’re spinning that last bit to heighten a particular flavor. The overall effect is there, though, and in the long run it pays off: you can poll the readership and they’ll agree that Character Q would never do a particular thing, without you ever saying that outright, because you’ve put enough data points on the table that they can extrapolate as needed. Things become three-dimensional; they feel interconnected. The world feels real.

In my novels I have a lot more room to work with, but it’s still a good lesson to bear in mind. Why just have two characters converse with each other, when their conversation could also be making metaphorical allusions to something from earlier and enriching the reader’s understanding of someone else not present for that scene? Why solve conflicts one at a time, when the solution could be taking out two problems, creating a third, and sending a fourth in an unexpected new direction? This is pretty standard advice for writing, but I feel like the level to which I’m doing it here is higher than usual, and rewardingly so.

Sustaining that over the long run is tough, of course. On the other hand, this is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it will get. So I’ll keep pumping narrative iron.

Take It Like a Man

(Content warning: I, uh, talk about violence in this. Rather a lot. Not in gory detail, but if the discussion of traumatic and/or sexual violence bothers you, you may not want to read onward.)

My husband and I recently went to see Tomb Raider (short form: it’s ridiculous, but if it weren’t ridiculous it would be doing it wrong, and it has more to enjoy in the first ten minutes than I remember in the entirety of the Angelina Jolie version), and it’s freshened up some thoughts that have been percolating in my mind for a while now about violence and gender in media.


Strong and Femme

I’ve never bought into the argument that dismisses a certain kind of female character as badly written because “she’s just a man dressed up in women’s clothing.” I myself am not terribly feminine in the stereotypical sense: I rarely wear skirts, prefer action movies to romantic comedies, don’t readily share my feelings, etc.

But that’s not the same thing as saying that I have a problem with skirts, romantic comedies, and talking about your feelings.

I’ve seen a bunch of conversations lately around the whole Strong Female Character schtick — and I capitalize that for a reason, because a Strong Female Character is a specific archetype, not just a character who happens to be female and in some sense strong. You know the type: she wears leather, carries a gun, doesn’t take anybody’s shit, et cetera and so forth.

I like that character just fine, when she’s done well. What I don’t like is the sense that she’s the only type of female character who is strong. I don’t like watching her spit on the women around her who do show conventially feminine qualities, as if that somehow makes them lesser.

Which is why it’s made me so happy that lately, I’ve seen a number of female characters in media who are strong and still girly, feminine, femme, use whatever word you prefer for it. Characters who are allowed to like lipstick and still go to Narnia. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsis, and Mrs. Which in A Wrinkle in Time are in-your-face femme, and they’re amazing. Vice Admiral Holdo is a badass in a quasi-Grecian gown. Etta Candy is one of my favorite characters in Wonder Woman; Cassandra the math genius on The Librarians is 100% girly (and a useful counterbalance to Eve the ex-NATO counterterrorism expert). Having these things pinging on my radar led to me writing this passage in the sequel to the Memoirs of Lady Trent, after Audrey’s sister Lotte apologizes for writing her a letter full of gossip about her Season:

Never apologize for writing to me about frippery and husband-hunting. I might not have any interest in that for my own sake, but I care about it a great deal for your sake, because it makes you happy.

I used to not, you know. I thought I was obliged, as Lady Trent’s granddaughter, to sneer at all things feminine and frilly. I made the mistake once of saying something about that in Grandmama’s hearing, and oh, did she ever set me down hard. She didn’t raise her voice. She only explained to me, very calmly, that if any obligation accrued to me as her granddaughter, then it was to acknowledge the right of any person to pursue their own dreams instead of the ones I felt they ought to have. By the time she was done, I wanted to crawl under the rug and die. But I’m glad she did it, because of course she was right.

I’ve written Isabella as someone who, while not a Strong Female Character, is also not terribly interested in traditional femininity, and her granddaughter Audrey is in some ways the same. And I looked at that and thought, I don’t want my readers thinking I’m writing them this way because it’s the only good way for them to be. So Lotte is very conventionally feminine, and Audrey thinks that’s wonderful, rather than looking down on it.

I’d like our society to stop looking down on such things. If I could boil all the problems that worry and frustrate and upset and anger and baffle me right now down to one point, it would be the breathtaking failure of compassion that has overrun conservatism these days. The attitude that says, I’ve got mine, and if helping anybody else get theirs — or even just get by — costs me so much as a single penny or an ounce of effort, then they can go hang. The mentality that says, my ways is the only way, and everybody else’s way deserves to get paved under. The worldview that says, men and women are Totally Separate Things, and women’s side of things is stupid and unimportant and far less valuable than the men’s side, because it’s soft and soft is the worst thing you could possibly be.

We need the qualities that have long been labeled “feminine,” like compassion and caring and nurturing and empathy and kindness and a love of beauty for its own sake. We need to see there is strength in those things, too — not just in the willingness and ability to gun down whatever’s in your path and trample the corpse to get what you want.

So bring on your ladies. Give me more opportunities to revel in the awesomeness of women in skirts, women with lipstick, women who like all the girly things and that’s just fine. And while you’re at it, show me your Strong Female Characters painting their toenails and your badass men comforting small children and just people in general acknowledging that hey, being nice is a good thing. Solve some problems with compassion and understanding instead of violence.

It might just work in the real world, too.

Rogue One: The Heroes

I wanted to make this post weeks ago, but I was in a cast and not typing much. So instead you get it now — which might be better, since at this point I imagine that most people who intended to see Rogue One in theatres have already done so. This post and its sequel will be spoileriffic, so don’t click through unless you’ve either watched the movie or don’t care if I talk about what happens.

Outside the cut, I will say that I enjoyed Rogue One . . . but it also frustrated me immensely, because I felt like it had so much excellent narrative potential that it just left on the table. In the comments on several friends’ posts, I said that it could have really punched me in the gut, but instead it just kind of socked me in the shoulder. I wound up seeing it twice, because we went again with my parents, and on the second pass Writer Brain kept niggling at things and going aw man, if only you’d . . . I know there were extensive reshoots, and I’m pretty sure I can see the fingerprints all over the film, though I can’t be sure which underdeveloped bits were shoehorned in by the revisions, and which ones are the leftover fragments of material that got cut. (The trailers offer only tantalizing clues: apparently none of the footage from the first two wound up in the actual film. You can definitely see different characterization for Jyn, but the rest is mere guesswork.) I just know there are all these loose ends sticking out throughout the film, and since story is not only my job but my favorite pastime, I can’t help but think about what I would have done to clean it up.

There will be two posts because my thoughts are extensive enough that I think they’ll go better if split up. First I’m going to talk about the good guys — what worked for me, what didn’t, and how the latter could have become the former — and then I’ll talk about the villains.


My decreasing sympathy for Captain Rogers

There are many things I liked about Captain America: Civil War, but probably the best aspect of the whole movie is the fact that I keep thinking about it, and about the arguments it presents. Just the other night I got into a discussion about it again, which prompted me to dust off this half-finished entry and post it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, first: from what little we know about the Sokovia Accords, it sounds like they’re a steaming pile of badly-thought-out crap. (Not to mention wildly unrealistic in so, so many ways; as one of my friends pointed out, the most implausible thing in this film isn’t super soldier serum or Iron Man’s suit or anything like that, but the idea that the Accords could spring into being so quickly, with so many countries on board, without three years of very public argument first.) So when I say I’m increasingly sympathetic to Tony’s side of the argument, I don’t mean its specific manifestation — nor his INCREDIBLY naive brush-off that “laws can be amended” after the fact — but rather the underlying principle that some kind of oversight and accountability is needed.

Because the more I think about the underlying principles on Steve’s side, the more they bother me.

I understand his starting point. He accepted oversight and followed orders; the organization giving those orders turned out to be a Hydra sock-puppet. Now he’s exceedingly leery of the potential for corruption — or even just so much bureaucratic red tape that nothing winds up getting done. And he’s presumably reluctant to sign a legal document saying he’ll follow orders when he already knows he’ll break his word the moment he feels his own moral compass requires him to do so. That part, I understand and sympathize with.

But here’s the thing. It sounds like he wants all the freedom of a private citizen to do what he wants . . . without any of the consequences of acting as a private citizen. Soldiers don’t get personally sued when they destroy people’s cars and houses or civic infrastructure; private individuals do. Is Steve prepared to pay restitution for all the damage he causes? (Or are the insurance companies supposed to classify him as an act of God, no different from a tornado or a hailstorm?) Would Steve accept it as just and fair if the Nigerian government arrested him for entering the country illegally? It sure didn’t sound like the Avengers came in through the Lagos airport and declared the purpose of their trip to officials there. Based on what we’ve seen, it looks like Steve wants all the upside, none of the downside, to acting wholly on his own.

And this gets especially troubling when you drill down into him acting that way in other countries. I’m sure he thinks that petitioning the Nigerian government for permission to chase Rumlow there would eat up too much precious time — and what if they refused permission? Does he trust them to deal with the problem themselves? No, of course not — Steve gives the strong impression of not trusting anybody else to deal with the problem, be they Nigerian or German or American. To him, it’s a moral question: will he stand by while there’s danger, just because a government told him not to get involved? Of course he won’t. And this is the part in my mental argument with him where I started saying, “right, I forgot that you slept through the end of the colonial era. Let me assemble a postcolonial reading list for you about the host of problems inherent in that kind of paternalistic ‘I know better than you do and will ride roughshod over your self-determination for your own good’ attitude.”

Captain America is, for better or for worse, the embodiment of the United States’ ideals circa 1942. Which means that along with the Boy Scout nobility, there’s also a streak of paternalism a mile wide.

Mind you, Tony’s side of the argument is also massively flawed. Taken to its extreme, it would recreate the dynamics of the Winter Soldier: that guy went where he was told and killed who his bosses wanted him to, without question, without exercising his own ethical judgment. And anything done by multinational committee will inherently fail to have the kind of flexibility and quick reaction time that’s needed for the kind of work the Avengers are expected to do. The politics of it would be a nightmare, you know that some countries will get the upper hand and this will exacerbate tensions between them and the rest of the world, and the potential for a re-creation of Steve’s Hydra problem is huge. Plus, how are they going to handle people who opt out of the program? What’s going to govern the use of their powers — or do the authors of the Accords intend to forbid that use, without government approval? That’s a civil rights nightmare right there.

But in the end, I come around to the side that says, there needs to be supervision and accountability. It’s all well and good that Steve feels bad when he fails to save people, but he wreaks a lot of havoc in the course of trying, and feeling bad about it doesn’t make the people he damages whole. (If memory serves, almost all of the destruction at the airport is caused by Steve’s allies, until Vision slices the top of that tower off: I doubt that was a narrative accident.) Is setting up that supervision and accountability going to be difficult? Hell yes. But there has to be some, because otherwise . . .

. . . well, otherwise we wind up with a larger-scale version of the problems we have right now with police violence. Which is a separate post, but I’ll see if I can’t get that one done soon.

thoughts on the depiction of rape in fiction

WARNING: this post is about rape in fiction, and considerations to bear in mind when including it.

Last week I posted some thoughts on Twitter about rape scenes in fiction — specifically, thinking about the possibility (the likelihood, sadly) that someone in your audience is a rape survivor, and contemplating what effect you want to have on that person. Those thoughts are the epiphany I arrived at while thinking through the larger issue; I want to write about that larger issue now.


Undermining the Unreliable Narrator

In my recent discussion of The Name of the Wind, one of the things that has come up is the way in which Kvothe is an unreliable narrator, and the text does or does not separate the character’s sexism out from the sexism of the story as a whole. This isn’t solely a problem that crops up with unreliable narrators — it can happen any time the protagonist holds objectionable views, or lives in a society with objectionable attitudes but you don’t want to make the protagonist a mouthpiece for modern opinions — but it’s especially key there. And since I brought it up in that discussion, I thought it might be worth making an additional post to talk about how one goes about differentiating between What the Protagonist Thinks (on the topic of gender, race, or any other problematic issue) and What the Author Thinks.

I don’t pretend to be a master of this particular craft. That kind of separation is tricky to pull off, and depends heavily on the reader to complete the process. The issue is one that’s been on my mind, though, because of the Lady Trent novels: Isabella is the product of a Victorianish society, and while my approach to the -isms there hasn’t been identical to that of real history, I’ve tried not to scrub them out entirely. Since the entire story is filtered through her perspective (which, while progressive for her time, is not always admirable by twenty-first century standards), I’ve had to put a lot of thought into ways I can divide her opinions from my own.

There are a variety of tactics. Because I think things go better with concrete data rather than vague generalities, I’m going to continue to use The Name of the Wind as an illustrative example.


I’ve had enough

The other day I was having to reinstall the operating system on my laptop, which is a tedious process that involves lots of waiting for things to be done. While this was going on, I poked around on Netflix, trying to find a new TV show to watch.

I actually watched a bunch of things that day, one of which was the first episode of Peaky Blinders. I like Cillian Murphy as an actor, and I’m a sucker for well-detailed historical periods, and the show is solidly written . . .

. . . and I just didn’t care.

Because I’m starting to feel like I’ve had enough. There’s a genre of TV right now that somebody on the internet once dubbed “blood, tits, and scowling,” and while there is a wide range of splendid material belonging to that type — for starters, look at just about everything HBO has done in the last decade — I think I’m hitting my saturation point. There’s a cynicism about human nature that tends to be endemic to the genre, and the representation of women is often problematic — though, in fairness’ sake, I should note that Peaky Blinders made a couple of moves with its female characters that I quite appreciated.

At dinner the other night, a friend of mine said he wanted to find a TV show where nobody died, nobody was murdered, nobody did awful criminal things, etc. Ironically, we wound up chatting about two shows that feature people getting murdered as a central plot point — but in both cases, the entire tone is different. One was Pushing Daisies, which is candy-colored and good-hearted even though the main character brings people back from the dead to solve crimes, and the other was Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, following an outrageous lady detective in early 20th century Australia. They are both very, very far from blood, tits, and scowling.

I’m starting to crave the change of pace. My taste leans toward drama, so people getting killed is going to be a regular feature of many of the things I watch (and read) — but I can do without the cynicism, the muted color palette, the parade of morally dubious people doing morally dubious things. Right now I’m enjoying the heck out of Agent Carter, with its cheerful pulp heroics. I need to get hold of The Librarians; the made-for-TV movies it’s based on are the best Indiana Jones films apart from Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. I want some light, some humour that isn’t grim, some fun.

It isn’t that the other stuff is bad. I’ve just had enough of it for now.