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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

Let’s have a chapter on men

I’m starting to wonder what it would be like to read a book on daily life in X place and time that starts out by telling you most people, even among the upper classes, spent their days running their households, engaging in textile production, raising children, or (if they were wealthy enough) overseeing servants who did that work for them, and then has a section describing how men’s lives differed from that norm.

I know there are reasons other than direct patriarchy why such books aren’t organized that way — because men’s lives have historically been more varied, the descriptions of their activities requires more words if you aren’t just going to blow them off with a few sentences, which would make for a hell of a long chapter on the male experience — but I’ve read a lot of works in this informal genre, and after a while you really start to notice how thoroughly that experience is centered, and then women’s lives are a sidebar. It would be an interesting trick to flip it around, highlighting the fact that by far the most common occupation across a given society was “domestic manager,” and most of ’em were women.

picking a series type and laying a foundation

Having made a general typology of series (with a lot of good comments on the DW version of that post in particular, unpacking the various gradations between what I called the Setting Series and the Cast Series — I’ll include those when I make a more polished version of these posts), I want to start chewing on “so how does one write one of these things, anyway?”

I mean, you can just start typing and not stop until you have lots of books. But I don’t recommend just charging in blindfolded like that. 😛

Obligatory Disclaimer: prescriptive writing advice is a mug’s game, since somebody will always come along with an example of people not doing it that way and ending up fine. This is me talking about what I suspect may be helpful, not what is required. It’s what I would say to somebody who feels adrift and needs some direction. And in that vein, I welcome comments about how other people view this process.

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Perpetuating the Cult of the Badass — Or Not

I know some of you have started to read A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, either via my rec or elsewhere, so you’ll have already seen Devereaux’s sequence of posts about the idea of the “universal warrior.” (If not, then tl;dr — he thinks the notion is absolute bollocks.)

But I want to particularly highlight the last post in the series, about the “Cult of the Badass.” I’d picked up this general vibe before, of course: the idealization and idolization of a certain kind of tough masculinity that we see all the time in books and movies, in TV and video games, and in real life (at least aspirationally). And it isn’t hard to miss flaws like the toxicity of that concept, or the sexism baked pretty much into its core.

What’s new to me is the extent to which the Cult of the Badass maps to the values of fascism.

I’m not going to recap Devereaux’s points in that essay; you can go read them for yourself (the part about fascism is under the header “Echoes of Eco”). The reason I reference his argument — apart from the fact that it’s a good one — is because recently I also read an essay by Ada Palmer that . . . okay, has vanished from her blog in the time since I read it, and I’m not sure why. I guess this is what I get for not posting about this until now? Anyway, it was her transcribed remarks from (I think) a convention she was a guest of honor at, talking about how we commonly teach the Renaissance as being about these few visionary guys who knew what the future could look like and tried to bring that vision into reality, which — surprise! — is a massive misrepresentation. They were trying to change the world, sure, but not to look like the world we have now. And much of what we have now is the product, not of a few visionary guys, but of huge quantities of people having their own little conversations all over the place. The essay had a great example of this, in the form of how the unknown individuals who wrote the printer’s forewords to various editions of a particular Greek philosopher (I can’t remember which one, dammit) led to this philosopher being taught all over the place, in ways that very much influenced the change in culture.

Anyway, here’s my point, somewhat undermined by not having Palmer’s piece available for linking. When she talked about lots and lots of people having their conversations about things and the power of that to change society, I found myself thinking about Devereaux and the Cult of the Badass and fascism. Because the more we tell and consume stories about how awesome it is to be a warrior at heart, the more we repeat and reify the notion of a particular kind of strength (and implicitly, screw all the people without that strength) . . . the more we nudge society in that direction. But by telling other kinds of stories, by reading different books and watching different movies and recommending them to our friends, we dilute that trend.

I got tired of those stories a long time ago. But now I’m more than tired of them: I reject them. I don’t want to give them my time, my money, or a place in my skull. War is not the metaphor around which we should be organizing our lives. There are better ways, and I’m going to try to have the conversations that lead to them.

towards some thoughts on series

I’ve had discussions with other writers about how there’s tons of advice out there on writing novels, but very little on writing series.

File this one under “stuff I know how to do, but don’t know how to articulate or explain.” But this one will be less polished than the pieces I wrote on the structure of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, because I’m really thinking out loud as I go here.

Step one, I think, is to take a look at what a series is. A set of interconnected books, okay. But there are ways and ways of connecting things, and they’re not all going to operate the same. After chewing on this for a while, I’ve decided that you can very roughly sort different types of series into a spectrum from discrete to linked (with two semi-outliers that I’ll note as we pass them.) So:

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Novella thoughts

I’m noodling around with an idea that I think will be a novella, and part of that noodling involves thinking about novellas in general.

I don’t have the world’s best grasp on how to pace a story of this size. I’ve written five of them, but two weren’t planned that way — both Deeds of Men and Dancing the Warrior were me saying “well, let’s write this idea and see how many words I end up with” — and really, five isn’t all that many in general. Nor do I think I’m alone in being uncertain about how best to structure such things: a lot of the novellas I’ve read feel like they aren’t paced quite right, going too slow in some places, too fast in others. I speculated to a writer-friend on a forum that it’s because novellas were kind of a dead zone in SF/F for a long time (few good ways to publish them, so very few people writing them), and we can’t look to the novellas of the more distant past for much guidance, because our expectations of storytelling have changed. We’re sort of reinventing the wheel, now with suspension and treads and spinning rims.

Whether I’m right about that or not, the fact remains that novellas feel like terra barely cognita to me. Plus I’m not the kind of writer with much in the way of overt understanding of pacing anyway; what I do, I tend to do on instinct. I know plenty of writers who love making use of beat sheets and the like, which map out what kinds of events should happen when in a novel, but those are deadly to my process. So even if you had a beat sheet for a novella, I wouldn’t get much use out of it.

But the other day I realized that I do have one useful framework for thinking about this. I need to ask myself: is what I’m writing more like a short story, or more like a novel?

With a novel, I usually have a couple of set points I vaguely map out ahead of time, pegging them to what feels like the right moment in the story — most often either the 1/3 and 2/3 marks, or 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4. The Night Parade of 100 Demons is a thirds novel; The Mask of Mirrors is a quarters novel. Sometimes I can tell you why; In Ashes Lie is done in quarters because the Great Fire of London burned for four days, and I knew I wanted to interleave two timelines (the fire and what led up to it), so that meant breaking the preceding history into four chunks. Sometimes I have no idea. Any novel I break into an odd number of segments often winds up with a midpoint marker as well; that’s true of both Night Parade and Midnight Never Come (which is in five parts because I wanted to echo the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play). I don’t push too hard for them to wind up exactly on their marks, but since I have a general sense of how long I want the book to be, I use the set points to gauge how much complication and side plot should develop on the way to the next milestone.

That is not at all how I approach a short story. With those, it’s never a matter of me wanting to place narrative turning-points at certain percentages of the way through the total. My short stories are usually built as a sequence of scenes: whether they get scene breaks between them or not, I know we need X to set things up, Y to develop them, and Z to conclude them. For highly variable quantities of X, Y, and Z, of course, and sometimes the structure is non-linear or whatever — but it doesn’t change the essential point that I know what needs to happen, and the quantity of words needed to do that properly determines how long the story is. Which nearly the opposite of the novels, where I’ve got a ballpark target for length and a few key fragments of what’s going to happen, with the bricks being filled in as I feel my way through the story.

(Obligatory disclaimer: writing it out this way makes it all sound much tidier than it is in reality. For example, tons of my short stories start out with me having no idea where I’m going with my shiny new idea. Then they sit around until I’ve figured out enough of the remainder to write the rest. Sometimes this takes years.)

So where do novellas fit into this? As soon as I asked myself “should I approach them like a short story or like a novel,” the answer was obvious. They’re ickle novels, not gigantor short fiction. I’m not going to be able to see the full sequence of scenes ahead of time, no matter how long I let it sit. Which means the thing to do is to find myself a couple of fixed points and then decide where they should go. This feels like a thirds story to me: at roughly the one-third mark, the protagonist will succeed in getting E and G out of the situation they’re in, and then at the two-thirds mark they’ll . . . either get to where she promised to take them (only to find more complications there), if I decide that’s the way the story is headed, or they’ll abandon that goal and do something else. I don’t know which, but I don’t have to. It’s enough for me to say, okay, something like 8-12K of “getting them out of their situation” plot, then another 8-12K of “difficulties and developments along the complete lack of road” plot. Writing the latter will tell me what’s going to happen at the two-thirds mark — or if it doesn’t, then I’ll let it sit for a while. (That happens sometimes with novels, too. A Natural History of Dragons stalled out one-third done for several years.)

I can’t swear this is going to produce good results, because I haven’t tried it yet. But it feels right, y’know? It feels like an approach that will help me thread the Goldilocks needle of too much or too little plot for the space available. I know when the narrative is going to change its trajectory, so now it’s just a matter of feeling my way through the smaller conflicts and alterations before then.

I will report back!

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.

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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.