General Writing

Slaying the Dragon of Writer’s Block

To inexperienced writers, writer’s block is like a dragon – implacable, unexpected, and leaving behind a desolation of ruined hopes and desires. Probably, no other writing topic occurs so often on Quora, or in Facebook writing groups. Yet, strangely, for more seasoned writers, writer’s block is hardly worth discussing, and for good reason: like any dragon, it doesn’t exist.

Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t exist the way inexperienced writers seem to believe. True, upset or grief can sometimes interfere with writing (although writing is just as likely to help to with either), but, for the most part, writer’s block is not a mysterious, inevitable force so much as a misunderstanding of how writing works.

Sometimes, of course, writer’s block is more than that. In the vast sub-culture of wannabes, having writer’s block can be a rite of passage, a sign that you are part of the tribe. For some, it seems a convenient excuse for not for writing. If that sounds harsh, consider how many veterans say that the likeliest cure for writer’s block is a deadline. If you have responsibility, or when money’s on the line, you don’t have time to posture. You have to produce, so generally you do.

That is not to say that veteran writers never have problems. It means instead that they define problems as problems, not mysterious afflictions. By describing moments when the words won’t come as problem, practicing writers define those moments as situations that have solutions rather than some obtrusive force. Moreover, those solutions are based on a working knowledge of the writing process that newer writers usually lack.

When I taught first year composition at university, I did my best to teach that working knowledge to students, and for many of them, writer’s block disappeared in a matter of weeks. Basically, I taught that there were three distinct approaches to handling writer’s block:

Mixing Writing and Editing

One of the most common reasons for writer’s block is that you are trying to mix writing and editing at the same time. You can tell if you are doing this if you are continually writing a few words, then going back and correcting them, writing a few more, and then making more corrections, growing increasingly frustrated.

This effort is usually a mistake for the simple reason that most of us are hopeless multi-taskers. Moreover, writing and editing are two very distinctive tasks. Broadly speaking, writing draws heavily on the intuitive, unconscious part of the brain, while editing depends on the analytical consciousness. The two do not naturally mix, and constantly switching back and forth between the two only makes both harder.

The solution is simple: don’t mix writing and editing. When writing, relax your critical side and write. Get something down. Then, when you are editing, relax your creative side, and start thinking how you can improve the whole piece that you are writing. Ignore your attachment to a phrase or a paragraph, and decide whether to improve it or delete it based on whether it helps a piece or drag it down. Probably, you can’t completely separate writing and editing, but the more that you can, the easier and more efficient everything is likely to become.

The Road Not Traveled

Other times, a block is a hint from your unconscious that you are doing something wrong. Unlike your conscious self, your unconscious does not express itself in words. If it did, the need for art would not exist. Instead, the unconscious works with symbols, emotions and reactions.

If you find yourself at a lost of words or uncertain what comes next, consider whether your unconscious is signaling that you are not doing something right. If that is what is happening, then trying to push on will rarely work. To keep moving, take a look at your outline, no matter whether it is detailed or just a few scrawled notes, and look for an alternative. Often , the simpler alternative will be the better one.

If you are writing an essay, consider whether the point you are making should be mentioned at all. Or perhaps it is in the wrong place? Similarly, if you writing fiction, maybe something else should be happening? In either case, backing up and finding an alternate route can often get you writing again.

The Curse of Linear Writing

The new writers I have taught often have a very straightforward approach to writing anything. They start at the beginning, and continue step by step to the end.

That can work, particularly if you have a detailed outline. However, when any sort of outline does not develop and change as you work, something is very wrong. Stick too closely to whatever form of outline you made before writing, and you can end up blocking that creative development. At some point, that denial can transform into writer’s block. The discrepancy between what you want to write and what you are writing may simply become too great. Give in to the changes that happen along the way, and you can often start writing again.

However, if you are still blocked, take advantage of the fact that you have an outline. You know where you going, and that means you do not have get there in linear order. You can jump around. Start with the parts you know you can write – usually the parts that give uncontroversial information, such as the historical background to an essay, or the scene where your characters meet. By the time you have finished that passage, you will frequently find that you now know how to write another passage somewhere else in the essay.

Keeping jumping around, saving the start and finish for last. Both will be easier to write once you know what you are introducing and drawing conclusions from. The same goes for the title.

You and the Dragon

What these three tactics have in common is that they treat so-called writer’s block practically. They view writer’s block as something you can work with, as a friendly warning from the deeper parts of your mind.

If all of them fail, look for another perspective. Sleep on the problem, or ask someone for another perspective. Read what you have written out loud, or read it from a print out rather than a screen.

Whatever you do, do not surrender to helplessness. If writer’s block can sometimes seems like a dragon from a myth, remember what those myths tell us about dragons: namely that with courage and planning, dragons can be slain.


Morally Grey, or Just an Asshole?

The appeal of morally grey anti-heroes is easy to understand – characters with flaws – real flaws, big flaws, flaws that sometimes cause them to do awful things – are realer than characters who always act morally all of the time. After all, most real people make mistakes, and sometimes we even make big ones. We might not, most of us anyhow, be as flawed as Tony Soprano, or Arya in A Song of Ice and Fire, but we struggle too. so naturally, we want to read about characters who also struggle, not perfect heroes to whom everything comes easily. Creating characters who sometimes cross the line into amorality, or even immorality, while also making sure those same characters elicit the reader’s sympathy is no easy task either, and astute readers know it, and will applaud the story that makes them feel for someone they should hate. However, characters who act without any regard whatsoever for others, or any sort of awareness of the consequences of their actions, are hard to get behind. As readers, we enjoy seeing characters struggle, but we do not enjoy seeing assholes get a free pass. Writing these types of characters takes a delicate hand, because it is easy to go too far in creating a character whose actions are simply unredeemable, or, alternately, to try too hard to find sympathetic motivations for character behavior. Below are a few common errors that writers make that make the motivations behind characters’ bad behavior feel instead more like excuses.

The Tragic Childhood

Creating sympathy in morally grey characters is not necessarily simply a matter of giving them a childhood trauma – an abusive mother, an absent father – particularly if the morally grey character mistreats those closest to them. While trauma is terrible, it does not excuse abusive behavior, not ever. We see this particularly often in the young adult market, in which a “bad-boy” love interest treats the object of his affection terribly and yet, when a tragic backstory is revealed, all is forgiven by the love interest, and the expectation is that the reader will forgive this character too. After all, haven’t they suffered? In reality, we don’t usually care why people treat us terribly, what we care about is whether they recognize their behavior as wrong and take steps to correct it. Knowing about the character’s tragic past is important because the character cannot heal if they don’t acknowledge the root of their actions, it is important for the reader because it adds depth to a character, just as any backstory does. However, other characters (and the readers) are under no obligation to forgive a character for poor behavior because of this tragic backstory. Beware of using a sad story to fish for sympathy when your character has not yet done any of the hard work towards redemption. Keep in mind too, plenty of people have tragic and traumatic childhoods and yet do not grow into abusive adults and teenagers, so a traumatic childhood alone isn’t going to get your character off the hook.

I Did it All for You!

We’ve all read this story: Our anti-hero, let’s call him Bob, has done some pretty bad things, despicable things even, but, as we learn more about Bob’s story, it turns out that the bad things he did were really done because he was trying to protect Kevin, the man he loves. Bob feels bad about said actions, but he really had no choice, see? He was only doing what he had to do. He may have taken agency away from Kevin, he may have killed innocents, he may have betrayed trust – but it was all done to protect Kevin, and what’s more, Kevin better appreciate it. Of all of the copout excuses for morally grey behavior, this one is probably my least favorite because it creates a great false dichotomy between choosing the moral path, and keeping others safe, which is rarely realistic. On top of that, it is incredibly manipulative – Kevin can’t really reject Bob now, can he, not after Bob has given up his very morality for Kevin’s sake? It paints sacrificing one’s morality as the ultimate act of love, which it isn’t. Ultimate acts of love treat our loved ones as equals and partners, and do not require us to make terrible decisions on their behalf. Furthermore, often, when we sacrifice our morality we are doing it for much more selfish reasons, so ask yourself some questions. Did your character really do it all for someone else, or did your character gain anything personally from their actions? Were there really no other options? If Bob  had discussed the situation Kevin beforehand, what would Kevin have said? If you can’t answer these questions, perhaps you need to rethink your character’s motivation.


Don’t misunderstand — addiction can be compelling, and a great many books, shows, and films have tackled the subject and done it well. Addiction can, in itself, be a way to show your character’s struggles to do the right thing, and addiction can certainly make people act in amoral and immoral ways. Addiction is also hard to overcome, and can wreak havoc on a person’s life, and can be a source of great personal tragedy. What addiction is not, however, is an excuse to treat others poorly. If you want to write a character with addiction, and still maintain sympathy for this character, it is imperative that this character not get a free pass due to their struggles. This is mostly addressed through how other characters react to your character struggling with addiction, but it can also be addressed by the addicted character too. Does the character feel remorse when their actions harm others? Does the character want to change? Does the character try to change, but ultimately fails? A character with an addiction who has no interest in changing can make for a great tragic character, but that character is also going to cause a world of hurt for their loved ones, so how do the characters react to this? Does your addicted character care about the people they hurt? If they know their actions cause hurt to others and they simply don’t care and do it anyway, it will be very hard for your reader to muster any sympathy for them. Further, beware of perpetuating damaging ideas that the loved ones of a person suffering from addiction somehow are responsible for saving that person, or even that someone else can, in fact, save someone from addiction.

Mental Illness

Similar to addiction, mental illness is a realistic situation that can add nuance to characters. People with mental illnesses exist in the world, and they also deserve representation. However, even people with mental illnesses do not want to see those illnesses treated as catch-all excuses for hurting others. My husband, for example, struggles with depression. Sometimes his depression causes him to say hurtful things, but he has never asked me to accept him saying hurtful things to him just because he suffers from depression. When his depression has caused him to say hurtful things, he acknowledges it, and apologizes.  I may forgive him, but I don’t give him a free pass, instead, I ask him to work on himself and try harder next time not to be hurtful. Because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding mental illness, it is a topic that needs to be handled particularly carefully, and should never be used simply as a plot device. And remember, mentally ill people can still be jerks. Have your other characters call them out on their jerkiness if they deserve it. Don’t send the message that just because someone is mentally ill that the people around them have to put up with all manner of abusive behavior.  Your other characters can be understanding, and they might even be more tolerant than they would be with a non-mentally ill person, but they should have their limits too. And if your character is just too involved and cannot see how the mentally ill character is crossing the line, introduce another character who can. And remember, you can also write mentally ill characters who are not abusive too. In fact, “madness” as a motivation for immoral acts is more than a bit overdone.


While revenge is a valid motivation for a character, beware that readers generally have a limited tolerance for the extent to which they will accept revenge as an excuse for a character’s amoral or immoral behavior. Generally, watching a character wallow in misery due to some past wrong done to them is not particularly interesting unless the character is on a path towards acceptance, if not forgiveness. Revenge can work in the short term, but in the long term, a character that holds onto revenge, particularly if that revenge is directed anywhere other than at the people who directly caused your character harm, your reader is going to lose sympathy. Personally, next to “I did it all for you,” revenge is one of my least favorite character motivators simply because it is so unsustainable. How long can you hold a grudge? Let’s say you can hold a grudge pretty long — can you hold it for years? Decades? And how many of us go from relatively well-adjusted people to single-minded revenge driven killers just because of one tragedy? Lots of people experience loss without turning to revenge, so what is it about your character that makes him choose this particular path? Personally, I like to think about the afterwards. Let’s say your character gets revenge, what next? Do they live life on the straight and narrow? Do they feel guilty because they’ve perpetuated a vicious cycle? These are the more interesting questions to ask of a revenge-motivated character. But keep in mind — revenge generally isn’t a good look for anyone. While we might feel sad for a character whose husband and child were slaughtered, that sympathy is going to be fairly limited if your character never shows any growth.

A final word of advice: don’t be afraid to write a character that is simply a human being struggling to always do the right thing.  We don’t always need a fancy backstory or a convoluted reason for the character’s actions. Even people with relatively “normal” childhoods, or pasts without any obvious traumas can still make mistakes and act in amoral or even immoral ways. While you can explain actions in a number of ways, sympathy comes, above all else, from making sure your characters themselves understand the nature of their actions. Make sure your characters recognize their own faults, and struggle with them, struggle to make the right choices, or struggle to somehow right past wrongs. Characters who don’t recognize their own faults aren’t morally grey, they’re just assholes, no matter how many excuses they make.


Next week I will discuss how far a character can go before they lose all reader support. Are there any lines a character simply cannot cross if the author wants that character to remain sympathetic?


Diversity: The Added Bonus

I take pride in my efforts at fiction. I like to believe that, eventually, readers will enjoy both my stories and my writing. I have trouble, though, understanding those whose response to even the barest mention of diversity is to insist that nobody can tell them what to write, and to denounce diversity as an infringement on their freedom of speech. I just don’t think that my work is so sacred as to be beyond reproach. Besides, in my experience, diversity is not only right, but its own reward.

Resistance to diversity, of course, is a struggle against historical inevitability. Increasingly diverse populations want diversity in their fiction. You can already see the demand on best-sellers’ lists, and it is only going to continue. Moreover, the call for diversity is one of the best things that could have happened in fantasy. Far from shunning it, or acquiescing with grumbles, any writer with ambition should welcome diversity for the new stories and maturity it brings when you attempt it.

To explain what I mean, I need to talk about my work in progress. Ordinarily, I dislike doing that – it seems a form of boasting, and a claim to a status that I do not currently have. I also believe that talking about an unfinished work to anyone except my critique partners is the surest way to ensure that it is never finished. But please bear with me so I can make my point:

My current work in progress has its origins in a long-ago D&D campaign. From there, it morphed in a failed attempt to sell an outline for a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book. With these origins, my first attempts to write a novel was heavily imitative. It had a wise old dwarf, and a horde of evil barbarians, against whom my Chosen One hero would eventually prevail. Kind readers would have called it generic, a faded photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of J.R.R. Tolkien and T. H. White. Blunter readers would have called it garbage.

Increasingly, so did I. All the same, I struggled on, increasingly puzzled about why I could barely get past the first few chapters. And why couldn’t I get more than the haziest idea of what would happen later in the book? For once in my life, persistence was not paying off. I put the manuscript aside many times, and took it up again just as often, never making much progress.

Then people began to advocate diversity and representation. Books that practiced diversity started to appear. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that, as much as I admire Tolkien, he might not be the last word in how to write fantasy. After all, Tolkien had published over sixty-five years ago. Virtuous elves and evil orcs might have been fine in his day, but just maybe the world had moved on a little?

Slowly, like a spring thaw, my manuscripts began to change. The dwarf changed to my version of dwarves, became human, and a member of a minority. My barbarians stopped being brutish and primitive, and became another culture, driven from their homelands by the ancestors of my main character. Suddenly, my crude concepts of good and evil became a clash of cultures, with something to be said on both sides. My pallid love interest became a young woman caught between two cultures and inclined to be sarcastic about her situation.

Best of all, I realized that, instead of imitating earlier fantasies, I could draw on my own experience. For over a decade, I have collected Northwest Coast art. In the process, I have become tolerated in certain First Nations circles locally. Those who had started out as barbarians in my novel became a beleaguered culture threatened with extinction, and my hero’s proud family history tainted with genocide.

The result? Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to write. My handful of chapters doubled, then tripled. I knew what was coming – not in a detailed way, but with a reasonable sense of the marks I had to hit, and how the story must end. I stopped struggling and learned to enjoy writing. I now believe that my inability to write was my unconscious, frantically telling me I was doing things the wrong way. Accepting the call to diversity freed me to write, because it changed the nature of my relationship to my materials.

I now believe that accepting diversity made me into someone who might one day have a decent chance to become a professional fiction writer. That, of course, is not its main purpose, but for me it was an important side benefit. It’s very satisfying to be able to do the right thing and help yourself at the same time.

If diversity places demands on writers, it gives as much as it demands. It gives us a new perspective and a new maturity. It gives us new stories to tell – deeper, more thoughtful stories. Original stories. Stories for our times, and stories truer to the historical past that is the basis of our fantasy. Even if diversity and representation were not right in themselves, writers should welcome them as gladly as they would anything that makes them better writers.

Better writing in return for being socially responsible? That seems more than fair to me.


Diaspora, Appropriation, and Authenticity

Recently Disney released a preview for the new live action Mulan movie. Mulan is, of course, based upon the Ballad of Hua Mulan, a Chinese legend, the first written account of which dates back to roughly the 5th – 6th century. Hua Mulan, a girl who shows filial piety by taking her ailing father’s place and fighting as a soldier, is a beloved folk hero, is well-known to Chinese all over the world. When Disney created the animated film in 1998 it was perhaps the first time a Chinese folk story became well known to audiences worldwide.

Astute viewers of the live-action preview noticed something interesting about the setting – amidst the sweeping landscapes, a Hakka (ke-jia in Mandarin) tulou, or roundhouse, is visible. On Twitter, some grumbled about authenticity, as Mulan’s story certainly did not originate in Fujian, or anywhere in south China. In fact, if Disney intended to make an entirely authentic Mulan, then Mulan herself woul td likely not even be Han Chinese, but rather Xianbei, a semi-nomadic group that ruled northern China during the time the ballad was written. In the ballad, Mulan herself uses the term ke-han, which means “khan,” when she refers to the emperor. This corresponds with how the Xianbei emperors styled themselves. It is even possible that Mulan was not Chinese at all, but a story borrowed from some Central Asian group, the original long since lost to time. 

Nevertheless, ask anyone in China, and depending on their level of education and interest in history, you might hear that Hua Mulan was certainly Han Chinese. Some will tell you she was likely a northern nomad of some sort (I posed this question to my own husband, and to his credit, he knew she was likely not Han). One thing they will all agree upon is that, regardless of where the story originated, Mulan is a Chinese story. Her story has been told in Han households, in ethnic Hmong households, in Vietnamese-Chinese households, in Chinese-American households, and yes, in Hakka households.

Chinese culture is a culture of diaspora, in fact, one of the most widespread diasporas in all of history. Chinese people live in nearly every corner of the earth, and, as communities, they tend to retain at least some of their home culture, bringing it with them no matter where they go. Diaspora makes the ideas of authenticity, of ownership of culture, and ultimately, cultural appropriation, tricky things indeed. Which culture lays claim to the Ballad of Hua Mulan? Which telling, as the story was told and retold, over years, over centuries, over millennia, is the true telling, when even the earliest written record of the ballad is certainly not the original – that was most likely lost to time, as so many stories in our ancient oral traditions were? If a Hakka child who grew up hearing the story of Hua Mulan, envisioning Hua Mulan in her own image, feels represented by a Mulan living in a tulou, is that wrong? In chasing authenticity, eager to assign ownership to culture, myths, legends and stories, do we exclude those cultures of diaspora, of mixing and blending?

Chinese culture is not, despite misconceptions to the contrary, a mono-culture. Nor was it, historically, particularly secluded until late imperial times. Chinese culture was expansive, a culture of conquest, a culture of trade, a culture of exchange. Even today, in modern China, there are Russians who live in China, not as immigrants, but as native-born Chinese. They speak fluent Chinese, their children attend Chinese schools, and they often have never stepped foot into Russia’s borders. China recognizes “Russian” as one of its fifty-six ethnic minorities. So then, are the Russian folk stories these Russian-Chinese tell, not also Chinese stories? If not, why not? How do we define the ownership of stories when the very essence of culture itself, and some cultures much moreso than others, is an ill-defined thing, something shifting and changing  throughout history as people move about the world and come into contact with one another.

I admit to having a personal stake in this question. As many of my readers know, I spent sixteen years living in China during my early adulthood and middle age. I left the United States when George W. Bush was still president, and returned during the Trump administration. I missed out on the Obama years entirely, and when I left the United States to live in China, Twitter had not even been invented yet, nor had Smartphones, or Netflix. Amazon was strictly for buying books, and books were never digital. That is to say, in many ways, I came of age in China, and by the time I returned to the USA I no longer knew how to be a proper American. Although I can never call myself Chinese, in many ways, Chinese culture is also my culture, as much as my students who immigrated to the United States as college students can call American culture theirs (and of course they can). I married in China and performed ke-tou to our ancestors and toasted every relative in the village and endured raunchy nao dong fang customs. My children were born in China, and I followed Chinese birth taboos when they were born. I know that you never eat ice-cream when you’re on your period, you always wear house-slippers inside, and you don’t write people’s names using red-ink. These aren’t simply cultural tidbits that I’ve learned through research, I live these things. After sixteen years, these customs, this culture, became my culture.

Back in China, when my friends would complain about foreigners, they’d say to me, “not you, of course, you don’t count. You’re one of us.” They were happy to grant me insider status, something not easily granted, but which, once earned, is something your friends will constantly boast about on your behalf: “This is Jessica, and don’t mind her white appearance, she’s Chinese in her bones,” they would say. Of course, I would laugh this off – I’d never actually claim to be Chinese, even if citizenship were possible (and for all intents and purposes, it isn’t), but the intent was acknowledgement of my experience. And even so, my experience as a migrant living in China was not that of a Chinese person born in China. It was nearer to that experience than that of someone who has never set foot in China at all, but the subculture I occupied in China was indeed distinct.

Of course, I’ll never know the experience of a Chinese person in the United States. I cannot. I can watch as my children undergo those experiences, and as my husband does, for those experiences are based as much on race as upon culture, but I am an observer, not a participant. No one in America sees that side of me that came of age in China. They cannot. To them, someone who looks like me could not possibly belong to that culture. In my own writing, could not presume to write about the Chinese-American experience, for that experience is not my own. But in my writing, I do write about China, because China is my experience. If I write about a historical China, I am drawing upon a history that was, for the majority of my adult life, the most important history in my world. I looked at maps that put Asia front and center and read books that contained a sentence or two about the American revolution but chapters and chapters on the Tang and Song dynasties. If we are to write what we know, then China is what I know. It is quite nearly the entirety of what I know.

Cultural identity is not something fixed in time and place, belonging only to one set of people always and forevermore. This is hard for many Americans, who are, after-all, a relatively static people, not much prone to venturing outside of their own borders, to quite grasp. They tend to apply strict boundaries to cultures, whether it is “America, love it or leave it” rhetoric demanding strict loyalty to a jingoistic idea of American identity, or liberal ideology demanding cultural authenticity while failing to recognize that authenticity is a meaningless concept (the starry-eyed backpackers who would travel to China and be disappointed to see Starbucks. “Where’s the real China?” they would ask, as if the China they were seeing was somehow a pale imitation, fake, canned China, inauthentic.). Those whose families have ventured out in search of new homelands, whose people have been conquered, whose cultures have scattered, or who, like me, have scattered themselves outside of their homelands, know that culture grows in the heart. It is experienced firsthand, not dictated by blood. A Hakka child can claim Mulan as her own hero, and a Chinese-American child can claim Martin Luther King Jr. hers and I can claim Wu Zetian as mine. That is the beauty of cultural diaspora.


Characters, General Writing

Transcription and the Illusion of Dialog

Description is mostly observation. By contrast, when learning to write effective dialog, observation is not enough. Instead, you need to write the way people think they talk, not how they actually do.

This gap between illusion and reality is partly why hearing a recording of ourselves is such an unnerving process. However, even more important is most people’s conviction that they speak concisely.

In fact, almost none of us do. Most of us ramble. We repeat ourselves. We change direction. We lose track of syntax and drop threads and forget to return to them. In twenty years of interviewing people, I have only met one person who spoke in complete, articulate sentences – and he was a lawyer and a professor, and probably a genius.

Confront most of us with a word for word transcript, and our reaction is likely to be even worse. In conversation most of us have learned to mentally edit out each other’s verbal weaknesses. But on the page, the truth is there for all to see and to refer back to. That is why journalists say that the worst thing you can do to someone is quote them word for word. In fact, you can tell from how a person is quoted in the media how popular they are — the more faithful the reporting, the worse a person sounds and the more unpopular they are. More to the point, our misconception is also why writing dialog for an interview or fiction is not simply a matter of copying or imitating how someone speaks. Even the playwright Harold Pinter, whose dialog has a reputation for being life-like, is actually giving an imitation that at least partly preserves our illusions of how we speak.

As a writer of any sort, you need to learn how to present this illusion. Otherwise, your dialog will lie dead on arrival on the page, and encourage readers to skip it.

The Lesson in Transcription

Fortunately, the learning is simple. Download a recording app for your phone and interview a friend or family member for ten minutes. The subject of the interview can be anything – you are after the structure, not the content. If all else fails, the interviewee’s life story or opinion on a news story should get most people talking. Start slowly, asking questions with easy answers, like where they live and work. As your interviewee warms up, they are likely to become less careful in how they speak, which is what you want.

When you done, transcribe the interview. Transcribing is an unlovely process that often involves going over a single sentence over and over until you get it right, but the effort does make you notice the interviewer’s habits and idiosyncrancies – the length of their sentences, their favorite words, and more. Probably, you will get something like this excerpt that I did years ago with a cartoonist:

“I need very strong pressure to do anything at all. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting on the couch.”everything I’ve ever done is because some has said to me, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ And in the studio setting, I definitely need someone to tell me what to do.” Never use ‘plan’ in connection with me doing anything. It’s just that some of my research is more entertaining than the actual comic. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to refer to — use stuff from the documents I’ve found. Because they’re very rare and you just find this stuff, and it’s really funny or illuminating or something. And I’m just like, ‘Oh, God, just look at this thing. I have to fit it in somewhere.”I think that a lot of the things that we live with every day have a bit more of the story in them. It’s dramatic, and it’s very very human, and there’s failure and success — it’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it. I can’t get away from it.”

Transcribing made clear that the interviewee is thorough, articulate, and excited about what she is doing. You can tell from the long sentences, and the way the same basic points are made several times in different ways.

However, to be honest, she rambles. Since providing information was my goal, I could easily reduce the original 180 words to less than 50, and even capture a hint of what the interview sounds like:

“I definitely need someone to tell me what to do. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to use stuff from the documents I’ve found. It’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it.

That reads far better on the page.

Transferring to Fiction

To seem realistic, your fictional dialog needs to be closer to the edited version than the original. However, because fiction is about expressing character,it can have a bit more of the original’s repetition.

For example, imagine that a friend named Jason is trying to persuade a writer named Leslie to go away on an overnight trip:

“You want me to do what?” Leslie said. “It takes a lot to get me off this couch.”

Jason clung to the door frame. “We’ve been planning for months.”

“Never use “plan” in connection with me,” Leslie looked up from her keyboard. “I’ve just found this new stuff for my comic. It’s funny, and Oh, God, I have to find a use for it. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, it’s very, very human. It’s a lot of story. I can’t get away from it, right now.”

See what just happened? Just from looking at a transcription, I have created a character who sounds realistic, and who reveals character in how she speaks. Substitute the unedited transcription, and all that disappears.

If you can, transcribe half a dozen interviews. To varying degrees, you will find the same difference between the original and the effective. If you choose, you could even collect a couple of dozen transcriptions and use them as sources when creating new characters. Yet, if you go no further than realizing that effective dialog is a conventional portrayal of how people actually speak, you will still have taken a major step forward in your writing.

Characters, Diversity, General Writing, Worldbuilding

Virtue Signalling versus Writing with Virtue

I strive to be a sensitive writer. Like most writers, I stress about whether my stories do justice to the people and places they portray. I want the people who read my stories to read then and take away something positive, and I hate the idea that my stories may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or depictions of marginalized communities, or perpetuate negative tropes that we as readers and consumers of media have become more and more aware of over the past twenty or so years. Sometimes, as a white cis woman, I find myself wanting my own writing to scream on my behalf, at the top of its lungs: I am one of the good ones!

But when writing does this, at the expense of organic story development, it is, at best, empty virtue signaling, a sign that the writer cares more about appearing to be the right kind of storyteller than in telling a cohesive story, and at worse offensive in its own right, a tone-deaf declaration of the writer’s supposed proper attitudes rather than a demonstration of true ally-ship. How can a writer weave ideology into the story seamlessly without having ideology taking over the narrative or worse, giving the impression that the writer cares more about being perceived as the write kind of writer than they do about writing the right kind of story? Here are three points to consider:

Character’s attitudes should be based upon their backgrounds and experience. Whether your characters are closed minded bigots or open and accepting, their attitudes can’t appear out of nowhere just to have an excuse for the writer to show off their own political or social attitudes. In my current work in progress, I have a lesbian character living in a society that is relatively homophobic. She is the main character’s best friend, and the main character knows about her sexuality and is very accepting. So how would a character who grew up in a homophobic society, with traditional parents reinforcing that society’s traditional values, end up being accepting of her friend’s sexuality? Personal experience. My main character was once forced into a marriage that she didn’t want, and it had disastrous results for her personally. Since then, she has always hated the idea of anyone not having the right to choose who they love. Gradually, from her own experience, her attitudes became more accepting.

Character attitudes come from their background, which is different from your background as an author. If you want your character to embody certain progressive ideals, then make sure they have personal history that supports this. This is less important in modern contemporary fiction, because our own world is full of diverse beliefs and attitudes, any of which could influence our characters, but it is very important to consider in fantasy, particularly medieval or pre-industrial fantasy. If your world is a typical medieval world but your main character embodies modern progressive ideals with no backstory to back these up, you run the risk of creating an empty vessel for your beliefs and not a fully developed character.

Worldbuilding needs to be internally consistent with its history and culture. In our world the dominance of heteronormative marriage practices, including patrilineal hereditary monarchy, arranged marriage, arose out of patriarchal views that saw women as property. Although eventually most human cultures mostly moved past the point where women were literally bought and sold, this was the starting point for many human cultures. If you want to create a quasi-medieval culture where, for instance, people can marry whomever they want, then you need to create a world that supports that right down to its very foundations, not a patriarchal Medieval Europe with magic.

I found a great example in the recent YA book Lady Smoke, by Laura Sebastian. In a part of the book where Sebastian is introducing royalty from several neighboring kingdoms as potential suitors and suitresses for the main character, she included a culture in which “marriage wasn’t limited to being between men and women.” One character explains to the main character that this kingdom isn’t a matriarchy OR a patriarchy. Heirs are chosen and adopted by the current ruler as children. Since producing children wasn’t the goal of marriage, and rule wasn’t decided through the male line, who married who became irrelevant. And this wasn’t the product of pages and pages of explanation or worldbuilding, it was a couple of lines of dialogue, but it added a hint of realism, showing a world that was both progressive but logically consistent. In fantasy circles you’ll often hear the refrain repeated, “it’s fantasy, write whatever you want? Why recreate the prejudices of our world in your fantasy world?” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment! However, too many writers take the easy way out with worldbuilding, creating social  The cultural norms of our own world did not appear at random, but rather grew out of historical and social factors, so make sure that whatever norms exist in your world are logically consistent.

Characters must interact with their world in realistic ways. Let’s say you create a world in which arranged marriage is the norm – common in many quasi-medieval fantasy worlds. If your characters resist arranged marriages and choose to marry for love or other reasons, what are the consequences? If they avoid consequences entirely, your reader will have a hard time suspending disbelief. Let’s say your world has slavery, but your main character is completely opposed to slavery and wants to dismantle the system and free all the slaves. How will the world react to this? George R.R. Martin actually handles this quite skillfully when Daenerys frees the slaves of Essos she has a very hard time handling the former slave owners, and as soon as she leaves, they’re pretty much right back to their old ways. It is great to have a character that fights for the rights of others, but those fights are rarely easily won. Just look at our own society – still feeling the effects of slavery over 150 years after slavery ended. Don’t make things too easy on your characters in order to showcase your own personal feelings about the issues. As Chairman Mao once said, “revolution is not a dinner party.” Your characters can change their world, or change their own place within the world, but the change should have lasting and serious repercussions.

Ultimately, stories can be a great way to showcase our own ideals and attitudes. The best stories are often indeed the stories that have a political or social message, and sometimes those messages are overt, not subtle. The artist can also be an activist, but the artist must never forget her duty is not just to the message, but to the art as well.  Orwell’s classic 1984 is not just an ant-fascist screed, but a good, compelling story. More recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give spotlights police brutality, but at its core is the of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Just as our beliefs do not exist for the sake of performing them for others, our works should be more than displays of our own virtue, signals that we stand on the “correct” side of the political and social divides that characterize modern life. Ultimately, our stories have to be able to stand on their own as stories and not rely on the virtue of the message to prop them up and avoid criticism. Weave your message into your story in a natural and skillful way and no one will know where the story ends and the message begins — one will be entirely indistinguishable from the other.


Critiquing, General Writing

Working with What Is on the Page (and not with what isn’t)

“Test readers, however useful in some areas (spelling! grammar! continuity! O please yes!) can become a hazard when they begin, on the basis of incomplete information, trying in all good faith to help you to write some other book than the one you intend.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold

This quote applies equally for test readers, beta readers, alpha readers, and critique partners. When I teach creative writing, one lesson I give my students is how to be an effective critique partner. One of the lessons is “evaluate the story on its own terms.” That is, don’t critique the writer for not writing the story you wish he or she were writing, but accept the premise of the story, the internal logic of the story, and evaluate it based upon the values, the world and the rules the author has laid out. If you don’t like those fundamental things, you shouldn’t be working with that book or author, because you’re never going to give the author the sort of advice they need.

I would never agree to critique, for example, a military thriller and then tell the author that they should write it more like The Things They Carried. Just because I prefer lyrical literary anti-war war stories to action packed bro-drama doesn’t mean that the writer must write the former, but it does mean that if I can’t be objective about my preferences, maybe I shouldn’t critique the latter. I wouldn’t read a story written from soft-spoken character X’s point of view and suggest that cynical and sarcastic character Y is actually a better main character because I personally prefer cynical sarcastic main characters (I might, however, suggest how to make soft spoken character X a more compelling character, if that was a trouble spot). I wouldn’t tell someone who has a very direct and two the point style that I wish they would write in a more poetic way.

Agreeing to critique someone’s work, particularly in a long-term mutual partnership, should be based upon respect for that person as a writer, and an assumption that they have made their basic story and style choices for a reason. Unless they’ve specifically asked for a certain kind of critique, you must respect that their choices might not be your own choices but that their storytelling and their writing style is their own, and these choices are theirs to make. You can tell someone what is and what isn’t working, and suggest how it might work better within the set parameters of the story, but you shouldn’t bring your own assumptions to the table and suggest an entirely different story from the one the author is trying to tell.

This happens a lot more often than you might think. A well-meaning critique partner says “well, I liked the story, but it would be better with a romance.” If a publisher is saying, this book won’t sell without romance, that’s one thing, but as a critique partner you can assume that the author knows that romance is an option, and has chosen not to include a romance for their own reasons.  Perhaps a lack of romance will sink the project in the end, and that would be a pity, but it doesn’t change the fact that if the author had wanted there to be a romance, there would have been a romance?

So how do you know, which aspects of the story are part of the story’s own terms? Think about the terms of the story as the blueprints for a house. An architect has designed a house, and while the house is being built, you might make some minor tweaks here and there, you might even change some of the materials used to build the house. You can change the decorations of the house, change all of the fixtures, the trim, the color – but you cannot change the basic structure of the house without compromising the whole thing. So it goes with a story. A writer builds a story with a world, characters, a POV, a basic premise, and a rough plot. Details might need to be tweaked along the way, but just as we wouldn’t ask an architect to change an adobe house into a log cabin, we shouldn’t tell a writer his story would be better if it had Vampires and Werewolves. If the author wanted Vampires and Werewolves, they would be there already.

But what if the basic building blocks of the story really are posing a problem? You help the character solve the problem while remaining within the parameters of the story. Once you’ve ruled out the problem is your own personal and subjective preference (if I simply prefer books with a romantic subplot, that’s my problem, not the author’s), ask yourself, what is really the problem here? If I am suggesting sarcastic character Y makes a better main character than character X, what I’m really saying is that character X is weak, and his character needs to come across better on the page. If I think a book would be better with vampires and werewolves, what do I really want to say about this book? Certainly you’ve enjoyed books without vampires and werewolves in the past, so the lack of vampires and werewolves can’t really be the problem. Perhaps the world-building is flat? Perhaps the plot lacks sufficient stakes (pun intended)? Whatever the case may be, help the author solve that problem within the terms of the story. It can almost certainly be done.

And of course, sometimes the author is specifically asking for a certain type of feedback (“tell me if you think this would work better in first person POV instead of third?” or “I am feeling Y more than X these days, tell me if you think Y should be the main character?”), in which case none of the above is applicable. But here’s the thing? If you’re being asked for that sort of a critique, you’ll know it.

Characters, Diversity

Writing Other Cultures

Depicting other cultures is one of the hardest tasks in writing fantasy. Done properly, it requires experience and research. Moreover, the standards have never been higher. Many say that it should not be done at all out of sensitivity to the oppressed, although the commonly suggested alternative –inventing a culture — frequently results in a patchwork that risks being even more offensive.

Besides, writers will try to depict other cultures anyway. The effort is too much a part of the empathic impulse that lies at the heart of writing. John Le Carré said that a good writer should be able to watch a house cat cross the street and know what if feels like to be pounced on by a Bengal tiger. In the same way, a writer should be able to experience and observe a culture and convey to readers what it feels to belong to it.

So how do you write another culture and minimize the chances of offending or getting everything wrong? Some risk will always remain, but here are seven guidelines I have found useful:

  1. Do your research: A quick crib is not enough. Anthropology has a long history, but its studies are uneven in quality. Even Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology, sometimes marred his work by relying on a single informant, or by throwing out raw data as irrelevant. Unless you know the range of observation and interpretation, you can easily fall prey to skewed opinions. For instance, Wikipedia’s entry for the potlatch of the Pacific Coast is based on late versions of Kwakwaka’wakw practices, which are vastly different from the northern potlatches. The most reliable studies are usually those done by academics hired by members of the culture.
  2. Experience the culture: Being a tourist gives you limited exposure. Visit a culture you are depicting as often as possible. Make friends with members of the culture, and, if you can, live among them. Don’t be surprised, though, if members of the culture often have better things to do than answer your questions.
  3. Discard all stereotypes: They are not only hostile, but inaccurate. Only mention them when — as often happens — members of the culture make fun of them. Tolkien got away cultures that were entirely good or evil, but modern writers cannot. Barbarians who talk like they are brain-damaged are equally outdated.
  4. Remember that even positive stereotypes are racist: A friend of mine who is a Haisla artist tells me that buyers often lecture him on how spiritual and in touch with nature he must be as a status Indian. He is more amused than the angry, but the point is that these assumptions are as inaccurate and offensive than the negative pictures of the First Nations as drunk and uneducated. Treat your characters from other cultures as people, and throw out the Noble Savage and the Mystic.
  5. Do not treat any character as a representative of their culture: No, not even a chieftain or king. Be particularly cautious about ethnic villains– if you must have them at all, make sure that their culture is not the reason for their opposition or evil. Show a variety of different characters from the same culture to remove even a hint of stereotyping.
  6. Never show your main character being immediately accepted by another culture: Nor should your character immediately gain status in another culture or impress everyone with magic, technology, or tricks. H. Rider Habbard’s characters might gain acceptance by claiming to control an eclipse, but those imperialist days are long gone (unless, as S. P. Somtow’s characters once did, yours make the mistake of trying to impress the Maya with their advanced knowledge of astronomy). An outsider generally gains acceptance slowly, and with the help of allies. Go down to the neighborhood pub and start treating the regulars as old friends, and the resulting startled looks will help you quickly understand this basic guideline.
  7. Remember that cultures change how they are expressed over time: Often, the change comes from interaction with other cultures. For example, European contact, and access to steel tools and bright new paints and dyes propelled the art of the Pacific Coast to new heights — a process that continues today in interaction with mainstream art. Similarly, contrary to stereotypes,most of the First Nation people on the coast in the early Twentieth Century were raised Christian. However, the old ways did not disappear: the feast for the birth of a child became a celebration of baptism, with traditions continued under the eyes of unsuspecting missionaries. Today, older spiritualism has been revived by some, and most are as agnostic as the dominant culture.

Of course, even if you follow all these suggestions, you can still expect some hostility. Some commenters are too dogmatic to accept any depiction of a culture unless you have the correct ethnic origin. Sometimes, too, a history of oppression and misunderstanding will cause people to reject your depiction — sometimes without having read it. However, in my experience, depicting another culture is like trying to speak another language when you travel: If you have done your best to learn and are obviously trying, most people will be pleased that you are at least making an effort, even if you don’t get everything right.

And, yes, a lot of effort is required. But how can you portray what you do not understand? And anyway, who said that writing was supposed to be easy?