Uncategorized

Writing: How Do You Find the Time?

Like many writers, I dream of the day when I might be able to quit my day job and write full time. Unfortunately for me, that day has not yet come. Fortunately for me, my day job is fairly rewarding and mentally stimulating. Most of the time, I even enjoy it. That said, my job is mentally and emotionally draining, and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to still pull out my computer, night after night, and work on fiction writing.
What do I do? I’m a teacher, a high school English teacher to be exact. And yes, we teachers are have it rough — we generally work long hours, are under immense pressure to produce standardized test result, and are notoriously underpaid. In my case, on top of my teaching duties, I’m also our districts testing coordinator and technology manager. I have a pretty full plate, and as a result, what free time I have is often split between caring for my two kids, writing, and then taking the time to relax and wind down that we all need. Therefore, in order for me to be productive a writer, I’ve had to develop some habits when it comes to writing and scheduling. Some of this might run contrary to the usual received wisdom, but hear me out. I’ve managed to finish a first draft in roughly seven months and have begun the revision process, all while juggling a demanding job and a young family. If I can do it, anyone can.
It might surprise some readers to learn that I don’t adhere to the standard “you must write every day” advice. I do, however, set aside time every night for writing, after the kids are asleep. Every night, from about 9:30-12:00, I bring out my laptop and I attempt to work on my manuscript. Some nights, I might not manage more than a couple hundred words. Some nights, I might not manage any. If the mood strikes me, however, I might write several thousand. What I do not do is give myself pressure, particularly on weeknights, that I must write a certain number of words. I have found that focusing excessively on word count, while it can work for some people, can be demoralizing for those of us who sometimes just do not have the mental energy to write 1000 words a day. Better to write no words on a day when you’re just not feeling it, and one thousand quality words on a day that you are. And when you are feeling it, you’re much more likely to meet and even exceed your goals, more than making up for the days you had to take a writing break. However, the key to this more relaxed approach is still making sure to carve out the time every night, pulling out your computer, and trying to write. If you end up zoning out in front of AuthorTube videos, then you’re still working on your craft. In fact, time spent planning, or brainstorming with a critique partner, or researching travel routes or fighting styles, is all productive time spent.
Somewhat connected to the above point, at some point in the process of writing my manuscript, I stopped tracking my word count altogether, except to occasionally look at it and make sure it wasn’t getting too long. Now, I do not stress about having a certain number of words, instead, I give myself different goals. For instance, I wanted to start my revision process before summer vacation ended, and now, my goal is to have my revision process done by December. Sometimes I set goals in terms of chapters — I want to get this chapter at least halfway finished by the end of the week, or I want to revise this chapter over the weekend. Giving myself more flexible goals, instead of setting a hard and fast word count mark that I had to hit daily or weekly resulted in less stress overall. I have enough stress in my day job, and writing, something that is supposed to be fun, shouldn’t cause more of it. Furthermore, for my overall progress, these sorts of goals are more meaningful. 1000 words might be usable, or not, but a chapter represents definite progress.
Another strategy I utilize is to make absolutely certain that I use my true downtime wisely. That means weekends and holidays are quality writing time, and I would plan ahead of time to set aside at the very least a good five or six hours a day on weekends or holidays. Figure out whether you’re a morning person or a night owl and get into the habit of either waking early or staying up extra late in order to give yourself extra writing time. For me, late nights are especially productive because my kids are asleep, the house is quiet, and I can focus my mind. My critique partner, Bruce, prefers the morning. To be a productive writer with a day job, however, you may have to get used to the idea of keeping rather odd hours on the days when you’re not working. If you have kids, talk to your partner about letting you sleep in on those Saturday and Sunday mornings so that you can stay up a bit later writing. My husband does this without complaint because he’s supportive of my writing goals and is willing to sacrifice a bit to help me be successful (well, and now, our kids are old enough luckily to fend for themselves weekend mornings — I thought the day would never come, but it did!). The point is, when you have time, grab ahold of it. For us teachers, summers are golden. I probably got a good half of my manuscript finished during the summer because I knew, going into the vacation, that this was my best chance to knock out a huge chunk for the next year. If you don’t have summer vacation, but have vacation time, think about taking a writing vacation. Use that paid time off to get productive writing done for a whole week or two.
I’m a busy person. Being a full time writer sounds like a dream to me, but right now it is just not financially feasible, and it may never be. That’s okay though. Even with my day job I manage to be a very productive writer by using my time wisely and setting useful goals, and building writing time into my downtime, whether I use it or not. No one should be too busy to write, and if you find yourself thinking so, instead think about how you might change your process to facilitate your writing goals.

Critiquing

Lessons I’ve Learned from My Critiquing Partner

I’ve had half-hearted critiques from people who would rather be reading anything else.  I’ve had promised critiques that were late, incomplete, or never sent. Then there was the critiquer who got side-tracked by his own expectations, and expected my militias named for animals to become shape-changers, and urged me to make a secondary character the hero. All these experiences leave me grateful for my critiquing partner of the last six months, Jessica Larson-Wang. Her contributions have improved my work in so many ways that I can only name a few.

On the face of things, we make odd partners. More than two decades separate us. I am a childless widower, while she is married and the mother of two. I have never been off the North American continent, while she lived for fourteen years in China. Nor have we ever met, except online. Yet we share the common experiences of teaching and selling non-fiction, and both of us are widely read. Somehow, against the odds, with hardly any effort at all, we have reached a state of sympathetic interest in each others’ work in progress combined with a diplomatic frankness that allows us to discusss almost anything. We’ve even gone beyond critiques to writing this blog together called Prentice Pieces.

Unsurprisingly, we chat daily online. Often, our conversations drift into brainstorming sessions. Recently, for instance, a discussion of whether I should re-name a character caused me to create an origin story for the character. His name, I decided, had the same effect as the name of the narrator in “A Boy Named Sue,” causing him to become a hardened fighter when people mocked him as a boy.

Similarly, I turned to her when I considered aging my characters from sixteen to seventeen or eighteen. Nineteen seemed too much, but some of their thoughts and actions seemed too old for sixteen. A year or two can make a huge difference at that age. Besides, the story’s background events would benefit if they happened over a longer time. Discussing the pros and cons, we meandered through the history of marriage and the dividing line between Young Adult and general Fantasy. By the time we were done, I had decided that my characters would become eighteen in the next draft, and my critiquing partner had decided to write about age in fiction in a blog. In fact, a lot of our discussions seem to turn into blog topics, at least when we are not gossiping or discussing TV shows and books.

Even more importantly, her critiques regularly reveal weaknesses that I am too close to my story to see. More — she comes up with solutions to the weaknesses, not always immediately nor at first  try, but reliably. For instance, after reading my prologue, she pointed out that my picture of a six year old boy facing a monster was not as true to life as it should have been. He might be stoic, but, as she said, at that age he would also be terrified. So I rewrote the scene with him fighting back tears, and suddenly the character came alive as never before. People who read the revised prologue instantly identify him as the hero, which didn’t happen with the original version.

Later in the story, the same character, now a teenager, was separated from his lover in the wilderness, and underwent a series of uncanny encounters before she reappeared. Worried about how long the chapter was getting, I had made the character nonchalant about about the reunion. This, as my critiquing partner patiently explained, would never do. The character needed to react, and I needed to explain what his lover had being doing in the meanwhile. The moment I read the comment, I knew at once that my partner was right, so I didn’t hesitate to revise. The length of the chapter didn’t matter as much as the characters being true to themselves.

At another point, I have a magical item show up that could only be used by members of my male character’s family. This trope, my partner noted, had been done to death too many times. Besides, we agreed, after so many generations, how much heredity could my character share with his remote ancestors? Forced to think, I also admitted that the implied racialism did not belong in a book being written with diversity in mind.

Maybe, my partner suggested, the magical item would take my character’s betrothed as a member of the family?There would be no heredity involved, but magic is arbitrary after all. I liked the idea of the item bringing these two characters closer together, but the family requirement no longer seemed tenable. Instead, I substituted another requirement, and if it was a bit cornball, as my partner pointed out, fantasy is allowed to be cornball sometimes. It’s almost required, in fact.

Yet perhaps the greatest benefit my partner has gifted me so far is the name of my novel. Early on, I had chosen the working title “Raven Winter,” but I had always thought that bland. Finally, two-thirds of the way through my first draft, I wanted to solve the problem of the title once and for all. I came up with names based on the characters, on the big picture in the story, and on the small. I even got symbolic. Several dozen titles later, I was no closer to settling on a title than I was when I started.

At that point, I turned to my partner. She immediately suggested titles that I had already discarded, showing that we were at least thinking along similar lines. Then, just as I was about to abandon the quest for a while, she suggested “The Bone Ransom,” plucking a phrase out of my manuscript. Immediately, I knew perfection when I heard it. “The Bone Ransom” referred to a major plot element, and a quick poll showed not a single person disliked the phrase, and almost everyone was intrigued by it. I also knew how the title would require me to rewrite in my second draft. Beyond that, knowing the title of what I am writing always increases my confidence. Yet while the title phrase was meant to be atmospheric, I might never have thought of using it by myself.

These are only the insights that I remember first. There are many more. But I mention them as examples of what a trusted critiquing partnership can do for your writing. Like an editor, a critiquing partner should have an interest in making you look as good as possible. I can only hope that I have reciprocated. Otherwise, I am indebted so deeply that I have no hopes of repaying.

Thanks, Jessica. I can’t say that my manuscript wouldn’t exist without you, but it definitely would be far worse.

Uncategorized

My Book is Diverse, But It’s Not YA

The past few years have witnessed a major call for diversity in the publishing industry. From #ownvoices to #divpit to We Need Diverse Books, the message to publishing, an industry long dominated by white males, usually of the cishet variety, has been that publishing needs to make room for people of color, for women, for trans folk, for queer folk, for disabled people, for writers from all marginalized groups. And certain sectors of the industry have responded. Currently, there is more representation in literature than ever before, but it is concentrated around a certain sector — young adult and children’s literature.
Young adult, as a publishing category, has evolved rapidly, and diversity is now prized and sought after by agents and publishers alike. On Twitter agent manuscript wishlists often include diverse books or ownvoices offerings, and while I haven’t compiled the data, I would be willing to bet that the past five years in YA publishing have been more diverse than the previous twenty. Children in schools all over the country will have brought home fliers from Scholastic Book Clubs with the words “We Need Diverse Books” — the September book club theme – written in colorful letters across the top, and kids and parents will have found great deals on books by diverse authors (I myself snagged copies of Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan, which I plan to read with my my 6th grade class, for $2.00 apiece). Outlets such as the New York Times and the Atlantic have covered the push for more diversity in children’s books, and the increasing diversity in Middle Grade and Young Adult publishing extensively. The movement is clearly mainstream.
And yet, we hear very little about the need for diversity and representation in adult books, even though adult readers need diversity just as much as children do. What’s possibly more troubling, however, is that when authors do write diverse adult books, those books are often shelved as Young Adult anyhow.  Even when the publishers nominally have categorized these books as adult, the marketing is clearly geared towards YA, and the books end up on YA lists. This is a trend that most women authors, particularly women sci-fi and fantasy authors, will recognize well. Books written by women featuring female leads have long been pushed into the YA category, regardless of the actual age of the characters. The received wisdom goes something like this: male readers will not read a female lead, and adult fantasy readers are a majority male. So, for a women-centric fantasy to do well, it needs to be marketed towards women, and that leaves two categories open — YA, and romance (in contemporary literature, there’s another option, so-called “chick-lit,” the main requirement of which being that the book features mostly women). And now, with the rise of diverse books, the same thing is happening. The corollary seems to be that white men want to read white worlds, or that straight men do not want to read queer stories. The reasoning aside (which doesn’t particularly interest me — the reasons amount to not much more than excuses), the trend seems to be that books written by  marginalized authors, particularly women of color, seem even more likely to be shelved or marketed as YA.
You might be thinking, well, if it sells the books, then so what? Who cares what marketing category the book gets put in? There are a few problems with the “call it YA” phenomenon. First, by relegating diverse books to YA, adult publishing absolves itself of the need to change. The implicit message seems to be that adult fantasy needs to cater to the “typical” white Tolkien nerd, the kind of guy who knows his way around a twenty-sided dice and also, quite possibly, Reddit’s incel community (my apologies to Tolkien nerds and dice fans who do not find themselves in that portion of the Venn diagram). Fantasy publishing says we can throw bones of representation into our YA imprints, whose readership are mostly women anyhow, and keep our core adult readership, who don’t want their grimdark spoiled by feminism or queer relationships or diversity. Only women and children really care about this diversity stuff anyhow, right? Certainly serious fantasy fans don’t.
If I sound a bit cynical, that’s because I am. My current manuscript is a diverse piece, featuring a non-white cast. Although my cast of characters are not teenagers, I’ve often wondered whether or not I should market my manuscript as YA, and target YA agents and publishers when I start querying. Am I doing myself a disservice by writing my piece as adult when it will likely be shelved and reviewed as YA anyhow? The thing is though, my piece is not YA — the only thing that makes it resemble YA is the diverse cast and female main character. Do I really want to send the message, with my own book, that diversity is just for kids? That diversity doesn’t belong in serious literature for serious readers? Certainly not.
The thing is, mainstream adult fans of fantasy — dare I say it, straight cis men — need to read these books too, and not just because everyone needs exposure to diverse books, but because they’d probably actually like them. Take R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, for instance, one of the books that often gets classed as YA by bloggers and bookstores (I didn’t realize it wasn’t YA until I bought it). The book is gritty, dark, and action packed. It’s also based on the Japanese invasion of China in World War two. There’s nothing YA about it, and in fact, has all of the ingredients that a typical fantasy reader should enjoy. The Priory of the Orange Tree also showed up on a lot of YA reading lists. In fact, in a Facebook discussion group about YA literature that I’m a part of, I defended this book several times against confused teenagers who found this book “hard” and “slow.” It was not the book’s fault — the book is an 800 page epic fantasy multi-POV tome, written in a fairly literary style, of course those who were expecting a young adult book would find it slow. What led to the case of mistaken identity? A female author and a lesbian romance. But the book also has intricate world-building, dragonlore, chivalric knights, and epic battles — things that should be right up the alley of an adult fantasy fan.
So, ultimately, I won’t pitch my book as YA, although I’ll have no real control over whether others decide to do this for me or not. I would encourage the powers that be in the publishing industry, however, to take a look at the message they send when they promote certain books as YA (this can include the types of interviews the author does, what bloggers get sent ARCs, and eventhe type of cover the book has), and ask themselves, if this book was written by a straight white man, with a straight white protagonist, would I be marketing it to teenagers? Don’t get me wrong, YA is a great category — some of my favorite reads are YA. But it does both YA and adult readers a disservice when we decide that books written for adults should be marketed to teenagers. Because the real message is not that adults won’t read these books, it is that straight white cis men won’t read these books, and the accompanying implication, that these men are not, and do not need to be interested in diversity, is simply untrue.

World Building

The Stories in the Map

Ever since Tolkien, maps have been a tradition of fantasy. Too often, though, they are an after-thought, like a bibliography cobbled together at the last minute and attached to a student essay. They neglect basic geography, like the mountains that conveniently meet at right-angles to seal Mordor off from the rest of Middle-Earth. They ignore economics, plunking cities down in the middle of nowhere. Often, they ignore the history and the migrations of people across the land. The results are not only implausible, but a missed opportunity to generate stories ideas.

For example, the map for my novel attempt is of the northern part of a continent. I wanted the northern part to be largely sealed off the rest, so I added some Himalaya-like mountains, with a single connecting pass. The pass stirred memories of the Khyber Pass (even though it’s not in the Himalayas), through which armies and caravans have passed for centuries. It made sense that, at the northern end of the pass, a major city should emerge as a staging area for those heading south. To add to the importance of the city, I placed it on a river that barges could sail. I also realized that, because of the trade, who controlled the pass would be a political issue.

Although I had developed an entire map, my story came to center on the pass and the struggle over it. What methods, I wondered, would various factions choose to control the pass and the trade that passed through it? In answering that question, I developed not only my plot, but, eventually, discovered the title of the novel — all because I had taken time to ponder the geography of the place, and how it affected the local economies. Before I knew it, the story was beginning in that city at the north end of the pass.

That was a long way from where I had placed the capital city for the country. So, since mass communication hadn’t been invented yet, that city must be the capital for a semi-independence province. But how had it got that way? How had the province remained a province, rather than becoming an independent country? Given the state of roads in the past, there must be whole seasons when the place was cut off from the capital, especially since, being hard against those mountains, the place just had to be a temperate rain forest where rain and snow were a given. Thanks to the geography, back story and an important plot element started taking shape.

Oh, and one more thing: a rain forest suggests that the river beside the city would have salmon-runs. Cultures that grew up along the river would have a rich food supply. Feeding the population would be easy, so just like First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the cultures could emphasize the arts. Even their everyday utensils and clothes would be heavily decorated. They would not have European style agriculture, because the unaltered land provided generously, although hunting and foraging rights might be fiercely defended. This situation would not be well-understood by incoming farmers, and the result would be cultural clashes.

Migrations Across the Map

As I developed my map, I kept thinking of the historical atlases that fascinated me as a boy. A given region could change dramatically over the centuries, as populations entered or passed through it. A map, I realized, should reflect these migrations. In the United Kingdom, you can tell where the Vikings settled by names that end in “by” or “thorpe,” and where the Anglo Saxons settled by names that end in “burh” (“burg) or “wick” (“wich”). So shouldn’t a fantasy map have the same cultural traces? However, before I could add to those cultural layers, I had to invent the cultures that had passed through, and figure out when and where they had been on the map.

I decided that many of the traces of the original inhabitants would have been over-written by later migrations. However, the original inhabitants were still around, although sadly diminished, so pockets on the map still displayed their place names. It seemed useful, then, to have a character who was one of those original inhabitants.

Other influences on my place-names came from a nomadic culture with Frankish-inspired names. You can trace their path from the settlements they left in their wake, now long ago incorporated into the dominant culture. Some of the nomad’s personal names remain in use, as well the use of coinage based on cattle.

Yet by far the largest influence — and most recent — was the slow, eastward settlement of the province. In the western part of the country, names sound roughly Anglo-Saxon. In the middle of the province, names sound more Middle English. Originally, I thought the eastern-most settlements would be Modern English, and many are. However, since I wanted a sudden mass settlement that would conflict with the cultures already present, I decided on a situation similar to the settlement of the North American west. But what would cause such a settlement? In our history, land and gold provided the impetus, but, in my fantasy world, I decided, the ancestor of my main character had announced that any serfs who made it to the province would become free citizens and given a grant of land. Naturally, there was a rush to take up the offer, resulting in place names like Wain and Walk or Bonder’s Run that reflected those tumultuous times. Naturally, too, the older parts of the country were not enthusiastic about the departure of productive citizens. My main character’s ancestor might have filled the vacant country side, but it would have left resentments that lingered still, and needed to be part of the story as well. At the same time, the arriving serfs would have helped displace the original cultures. Just like the Welsh did with the arrival of the Romans, the original cultures were pushed up into the mountains, which told me who was fighting for control of trade.

The map as back story

By the time I was done, where the maps ended, and where the back story or plot begun was hard to see. I had developed them all at the same time. Even the street names when I drew the map of the city at the north end of the pass were influenced by the history of the region and the ideas going into my outline.

Consequently, my map became more than a pretty piece of front matter or a reference for readers who wanted to trace the journey of the characters. Instead, my map had become central to my storytelling. Of course, few readers would have the knowledge to appreciate how my map developed. But that doesn’t matter. Spending time on the map helped me. In fact, I believe that it it continues to help me to tell a richer story, as well as a more realistic one.

Uncategorized

Is Age Just a Number?

Recently my critique partner and I were discussing the age of his main character, and whether or not he might age his character up a year or two. His main character was a young boy of sixteen years old, and we had both realized that sixteen just sounded young. But why? Was there really much difference between a sixteen year old and a seventeen year old? As it turns out though, sometimes a year or two does make a difference.

To YA, or not to YA?
Most writers probably have an idea of whether they’re writing an adult novel or a young adult novel, but what some writers may not realize is that the exact age of the protagonist directly influences whether a publisher will publish it as adult, or young adult. A young adult novel must, generally speaking, have a main protagonist that is no older than eighteen years old, and generally, that protagonist will be closer to sixteen or seventeen. This does not mean that every novel with a teenage protagonist is a young adult novel, but what it does mean is if you intend to write a young adult novel, you have to limit the age of your protagonist. There may be exceptions, but an unpublished author shouldn’t count on being one. It also means that if you have an older protagonist, like mine, you might find your novel in a bit of an awkward place — not quite adult, not quite young adult. There was a point when it seemed like new adult may take off as a publishing category, but the category fizzled a few years ago. However, there is a growing market for books with protagonists on the younger side of adult — young adult crossover books, they’ve been called. Books such as the Daevabad Trilogy and the Winternight trilogy, featuring young women who are in their early adult years, their late teens and early twenties.

Explicit Content
If your manuscript has sexual content, particularly sex scenes that are more than just fade to black, consider aging your characters up to at least seventeen. While it is true that teenagers do have sex, and there is nothing really wrong with teenagers having sex, as long as it is consensual, some readers are going to feel uncomfortable reading about the sexual exploits of minors. If I think about smutty scenes, generally the older the character is, the more comfortable I feel with the smut, but if I had to draw a hard line at a particular age, seventeen seems to be, for me, where my comfort level is. Perhaps this has to do with the age of consent. While the age of consent is different in different countries (and in the United States it even varies from state to state — in my state the age is 17), by age seventeen a person has reached the age of consent in most places. And, before anyone says “yeah but back then,” remember that first of all, while it is true that in medieval times marriages were often arranged for young teenagers, those marriages were frequently not consummated until both parties were older. Second of all, regardless of what the norm might have been in medieval times, you are writing for a contemporary audience with contemporary sensibilities. A contemporary audience is likely going to find a sexually explicit scene involving a young teenager at best, awkward and at worst, disgusting. The television version of Game of Thrones famously aged up the main protagonists, the Stark children, as well as Daenerys Targaryen, from the young teens that they are in the novels, to older teens for precisely this reason. If you plan to have sexual content, think about the necessity of making your character young enough that having sex with them in our world would land their lover in jail.

Maturity Level
Teenagers are teenagers. While it is true that people may have matured faster in the “old days” than they do now, an adolescent was still an adolescent. A sixteen year old is not going to be able to make decisions as carefully as a twenty year old. A twenty year old will not make decisions as carefully as a twenty five year old. Teenagers are going to be, to a certain degree, impulsive and emotional, no matter how mature they are. In the historical series by Sharon K. Penman following the lives of the Plantagenet dynasty in Europe, Penman writes the true story of how young Henry II invaded England with a group of his friends at age fourteen. He did this without his mother’s permission and ran out of money to pay his mercenaries while in England. Then, Henry had the audacity to turn to Stephen, then king of England, to ask for money to pay his troops and return home. Stephen was so amused by the whole thing that he actually agreed! In the novel Penman brings to life for us this young man who, despite being a prince and despite being born in the “old days” when teenagers were supposedly so mature, did an incredibly boneheaded teenage thing. Even medieval teenagers still need to act like teenagers in order to be believable. If you want your sixteen year old to be mature and levelheaded, give them a reason to be. Make it a part of their character, why they are unusually mature. Don’t assume, however, that a sixteen year old will handle things like a grown man. If your reader forgets how young your character is, then you’ve probably not done a good job portraying their age.
Age, in writing, isn’t just a number. Just like our age and maturity affects us as individuals, it will affect your characters as well. Not only that, it will affect the way the reader sees your characters, and the way your market sees your characters. So before you just pull a number out of thin air, think about the implications of this choice.

Diversity

The Dangers of Cultural Fundamentalism

Academics – especially junior ones – who concern themselves with the portrayal of other cultures are often fundamentalists. Under no circumstances, many insist, do you have any right to depict any culture other than your own. You are being disrespectful, the argument goes, and denying a member of that culture the chance to tell their own story, as though there is only one story, and, once it has been told, the story can never be told again. None of this is up for debate among these intellectual fundamentalists, and any questioning of the official line forever brands you as a colonialist exploiter. I suspect, though, in the effort to avoid the mistakes of the past, other mistakes are being made.

I understand the reasons behind this position. To a large degree, I sympathize with it. In the past, attempts to depict other cultures have been full of racism and inaccuracy that no caring person would care to perpetuate.

Yet, at the same time, the position seems to me anti-literature. Not in the sense that literature is above criticism, or in Ayn Rand’s position that the rights of the artist are more important than anything else. Rather, my reservation lies in the fact that literature – especially the novel – is all about attempts to understand others. At its best, writing is an empathic leap into the mind-set of others. Deny that basic function and you remove one of the main purposes of writing, generally leaving only polemic.

Rather than decry every attempt to portray other cultures, I prefer to advocate for responsible portrayals, based on a solid knowledge of the culture depicted, and in consultation with members of the culture. If nobody from the culture is making the same points, you might be doing the service of a good ally and using your privilege to bring general attention to important issues.

My position has solidified since I wrote a blog in early August 2019. It was a reporting of a conversation on Facebook between First Nations artists about Emily Carr, one of Canada’s greatest painters. Since Carr often depicted First Nations villages and sculpture, and even sold tourist wares, I had expected her to be denounced. Instead, while the words “cultural appropriation” hovered in the background, the artists who commented showed considerable respect for her work. Carr had made herself accepted in the villages where she stayed, and her work, if not traditional First Nations style, was credited with helping the modern revival of the art. She was seen as an ally, and remembered fondly.

That in itself was a revelation. Yet equally enlightening was the response I received from culturally Woke people. I was attacked as just another interfering white person – despite the fact that I was reporting First Nations opinions. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions that came from my reporting were rejected out of hand. Theory said that such opinions did not exist, so the evidence must be wrong. Or possibly, I was  imagined to be tacking my conclusions onto the comments I reported, although the relation between the comments and my conclusions could hardly be missed.

Yet in contrast, I received no negative comments whatsoever from those I quoted. I took that to mean that I had reported accurately and that responsible ventures into other cultures could, in fact, be acceptable under the right conditions – tricky, but acceptable.

Recently, this opinion was reinforced by a blog by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin was talking about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about how an Afro-American woman became the source of one of the most famous lines of cancer cells in medical research. Skloot, a white woman, carefully documented the complexity of the story, which Le Guin described as full of “thefts, discoveries, mistakes, deceits, coverups, exploitations, and reparations.” Skloots was also able to gain the trust of the Lacks family:

“These were people who had good reason to feel that they would be endangered or betrayed if they trust any white person. It took her literally years to win their confidence. Evidently she showed them that she deserved it by her patient willingness to listen and learn, her rigorous honesty, and her compassionate awareness of who and what was and is truly at risk.”

Le Guin’s review echoes the story of Carr. It shows that entry into another culture is slow and difficult, and requires the utmost integrity to succeed. If approval is lacking, it may even need to be abandoned. Yet despite what the academic fundamentalist say, it can be done to the satisfaction of those depicted. Instead of, “How dare they write that?” the questions that should be asked are, “Is the portrayal accurate? Is it honest? Is it is accepted by those depicted?”

So excuse me if I pay less attention to theory and more to those depicted. Their opinion matters far more than that of those who claim to speak for them without the trouble of first receiving permission.

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A Child’s First Novel: Lessons Learned From Twelve Year Old Writers

My first attempt at a novel was a thinly veiled Star Trek fan-fiction that I wrote at age thirteen. This was pre-internet, and I had no idea fanfiction was even a thing, much less that people my age wrote it. Had I known, I probably would have been all over it, but I didn’t, and so I wrote my novel. It reached nearly four-hundred handwritten pages, kept in a massive three ring binder. The plot was relatively aimless, and I don’t remember a whole lot of it, except that the main character was a half-human half-alien girl who was a cadet at something roughly akin to Starfleet Academy. Because of course she was. There was a romance. A war. A possible pregnancy. Betrayal. All of the tropes thirteen year old me, drunk off of Peter David and Robert Heinlein (Time Enough For Love rocked my young world, dear reader), couldn’t get enough of.
My best friend Karen and I wrote our novels together, sprawled across her bedroom floor, for all of seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. Karen and I were the odd kids in middle school. I’d arrived at C.E. Williams Middle School in seventh grade, fresh out of my Montessori bubble and terrified beyond belief to be in this new and frightening public school world. I had never so much as kissed a boy, nor did I even know what detention was, but in this world, kids gave each other blowies in the back of the school bus,  my seventh grade classmates talked openly about their abortions, and there was once a knife fight in the hallway between classes. C.E. Williams was what my parents called a “rough school.” In Montessori school I’d spent my days researching and writing a play about ancient Egypt and learning Swedish. I’d performed in an opera at Spoleto Festival when I was nine called The Burning Rice Fields in which I portrayed a young Japanese girl and my mother had portrayed a tsunami. My Irish teachers taught us to sing IRA fight songs, and my brother and I would spend weekends at the beach with the other teachers’ children, listening to adult conversation, piping up about politics, and watching the adults get hammered. Public school, needless to say, with its strict no-talking rules, with its hawk-eyed teachers and low expectations, with its meaningless homework (that I made a habit of doing on the bus on the way to school) and standardized tests, was a culture shock, to say the least.
When Karen and I found each other, we stuck together with the kind of desperate tenacity that only terrified twelve year old girls could muster. Karen was a Jewish girl who had gone to Hebrew School in her earlier years and was on the J.C.C. swim team. I was on the J.C.C. gymnastics team (even though our family was not Jewish). It seemed serendipitous at the time. Not only that, but Karen had a hippie aesthetic that appealed to the side of me that was raised by heathen Montessorians. She wore leather sandals, save the planet t-shirts, and she loved tree frogs. And Karen was smart. She was one of the smartest people I’d ever met, and I quickly learned that in this entire godforsaken middle school, she was the one person with whom I could carry on a meaningful conversation. We both loved science fiction, and I introduced her to my favorite — Stranger in a Strange Land. She had me read Sphere. We talked about physics, about singularities, multiple dimensions, and the possibility of ancient aliens. Karen, like me, loved to write. We were star English students — and although Karen outshone me in math and science, we were equally gifted writers, albeit with different styles. First, we wrote poetry together, but then one of us had the idea to write a book. And so, our great project was born, the endeavor that would last into high school, that became a map of our friendship, and for both of us, our first ever fully finished novels.
Karen and I wrote together. We would have sleepovers on the weekends — usually I’d show up at her house on a Saturday evening, as Shabbat was drawing to a close, and Karen and I would sit in her room trading our stories.  Sometimes her mother would bring us snacks, baking having started up once again after a Saturday of rest. We’d munch on chocolate chip cookies and write. I’d write a chapter, and she’d write a chapter, and then we’d switch off, each reading the other’s work, glancing up surreptitiously to catch a glimpse of a reaction. Had she smiled at that part? Laughed? Did she like it? Karen’s own novel was shorter than mind, less Star Trek and more A Swiftly Tilting Planet. There was a sentient dolphin and a mysterious child with frizzy white-blonde hair and forest green eyes. There was an alien abduction, telepathy, and space magic. Both of our books were derivative, perhaps mine slightly more obviously so. It didn’t matter. Those days spent writing and reading not only solidified us as friends, it solidified my purpose as a writer. For three years, we worked on our novels. We had no clear idea of what we might do with those novels, we simply wrote.
When I moved away from Charleston five years later, at age seventeen, Karen and I had drifted apart somewhat due to high school foolishness that was entirely my fault (don’t worry reader, we later reconnected, and she’s still my best friend, despite said foolishness). However, when I said my goodbyes to Karen before getting in my family car and making the long drive to Texas, where I would spend my final years of high school, she handed me a blue cloth binder. Even now, I remember the look and feel of that binder in my hands — the rough fabric cover, slightly frayed around the edges, the title carefully penned on the center. Karen had handed me our shared adolescence, our days spent sprawled on the floor, pen to paper; she had handed me our dreams. It was the most precious gift I’d ever received, reminding me not only of the power of our friendship, but of those two little girls who became, improbably, novelists.
Now, as I near the completion of my second full novel (my first as an adult), I think back often on that first novel. When writing  seems tough, I often remind myself that if twelve year old me could write a novel, a novel at least good enough to hold the attention of my twelve year old best friend, surely thirty-nine year old me can do the same. Moreover, I think back to those days when writing was a pure pleasure — I had no thoughts of publication, of query letters, of agents or contracts. I wrote because I enjoyed writing. I enjoyed giving life to the characters in my head, to the places I dreamed up, to the situations created by my impossible imagination. When writing seems hard, I try to recapture the spirit of those two little girls, who wrote for no one but themselves and each other, whose novels were the source of three years’ worth of joy, laughter, and friendship. If writing now can still give me joy, especially in this world where joyfulness often seems in short supply, then regardless of the eventual outcome, writing has served its purpose. Perhaps one day I will be published — I have faith in myself and my abilities, and I’ll work hard to achieve that dream — but even if that never happens, for the sake of twelve year old me, I’ll keep finding my joy in the written word.

General Writing

Writers Gotta Read

If you see an allusion in an online writer’s group, nine times out of ten it’s to a blockbuster movie or piece of Anime, or to a popular game. That’s not surprising. We live in a golden age of film and games, and I am no immune to their appeal than anyone else. I had to stop playing games more complicated than solitaire in order to get any work done, and the only time my streaming remote will leave my hand is when the batteries need replacing. Yet while the appeal is undeniable, may I suggest (already bracing for a barrage of criticism) that neither film nor game is the place for writers to learn their craft? Like writing, both are narratives, but if the general strategy is the same, the tactics are too different to be of much help in the development of the writer.

The reason is that film and other visuals are an analog medium, while writing is a digital one. A visual medium is a continual flow of information, while a digital one is made out of separate bits. As a result, analog and digital media can both do things that the other cannot. For example, an analog medium can give a panoramic view of the background in seconds. By contrast, in a digital medium, a panoramic view takes paragraphs, or even pages, and can take minutes for the audience to absorb. Similarly, a digital medium can present the inner thoughts of a character or offer background effortlessly, while to present the same information in analog requires a number of makeshift tactics like a voice-over or an info dump that halts the story in mid-stream.

This difference in tactics explains why the book and the movie of a story are rarely the same. The movie has to add scenes or even characters to convey the same information as the book. Often, an effective scene in a book simply doesn’t play on the screen. A classic example of this situation is the banquet scene in Dune. On the page, it is a scene full of nuances, of verbal sparring and interpretation. But attempts to film Dune floundered for years, partly because Frank Herbert, the author, insisted on including the banquet scene, which was essentially unfilmable – unless, perhaps, it was allowed to be forty-five minutes long.

Somewhat further afield, but related, you may have noticed that some of Neil Gaiman’s earliest fiction could be a little thinly developed. I am convinced that this flaw was due to the fact that Gaiman was used to writing scripts for graphic novels – another heavily analog medium – and leaving the description to the artists he worked with to flesh out. The habits suitable for graphic novels were not directly transferable to short stories and novels. Learning to be comfortable as he switched media was part of Gaiman’s evolution as a writer – and a lesson that, of course, he long ago learned.

For such reasons, the fact that a writer should read should be self-evident. In fact, a critical mass of reading seems to be needed for a writer to come into their own, which maybe one reason that few writers produce their best work before their thirties.

But read what? Ursula K. Le Guin had a few suggestions. In “Learning to Write Science Fiction From Virginia Wolf,” Le Guin begins by insisting that you need to know your own genre – not everything that is happening in it (since that would be impossible), but enough to know the conventions. That is solid commercial advice for anyone looking to traditional publication, but it also teaches you the traditions and conventions of the genre. Without that knowledge, you risk the fate of writers like Doris Lessing, who ventured into science fiction with no apparent knowledge of what had already been done in the field, only to produce tedious, didactic and almost unreadable novels.

Moreover, unless you know the genre, you can’t know what sort of writer you want to be: a genre writer, filling the expectations a genre, or a writer with ambition who exceeds genre expectations, and may one day produce art. Nothing is wrong with either of these ambitions, but as Le Guin says, “genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language, it becomes a jargon meaningful only to an in-group.”

However, to make an intelligent choice, you also need to read outside your genre. After all, how else can you know what the alternatives are? Just like different media, different genres have their own specialties. Mysteries, for example, are adept at scattering clues throughout the story, many of which only reveal themselves at the climax. Similarly, the mainstream tends to excel at characterization. The media is the same, even if the genre isn’t, and you can easily add another genre’s tactics to your genre of choice.

Moreover, you can often find unexpected models outside your genre. With deliberate provocation, Le Guin talks of learning science fiction from Virginia Woolf. She refers to Orlando, in which, like any good historical, Woolf recreates the past – in particular, Elizabethean England. Le Guin also refers to Flush, in which Woolf depicts the thoughts of a dog, a process not that different from writing from an alien’s perspective.

But who knows what else you might find? We have a very impoverished vocabulary when it comes to writing technique, and for this reason the easiest way to learn technique is through example. Example is a very hit and miss technique, but I believe that most writers will know what they need to learn when they see it. No list of recommended books could possibly teach every writer what they need to know, so the best strategy is to be an omnivorous reader and increase the chances of finding what you need.

The broader your reading, the more possibilities you become aware of, and the better, more original writer you have the chance to become. Ignore reading for film and games, or even graphic novels, and your prose is far more likely to be shallow or jarringly off the mark. In fact, if you balk at reading, maybe you should reconsider your ambitions and study how to make movies or games. Both are perfectly honorable and imaginative professions, but the point is, neither of them are prose writing. If you want to write, you need to read, not watch a screen or clutch a joystick.

 

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Review: The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen

*Spoiler Warning — This post contains some light spoilers for The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Own.*

I haven’t felt compelled to write a book review in quite some time. In fact, I’m more likely to write reviews when I hate a book, usually writing out something scathing on Amazon or Goodreads which I then erase once my rage has passed. This time though, I’m writing good review, and I don’t plan to erase it.

The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Own, is a Young-Adult fantasy novel, part coming of age tale, part romance, part adventure, and part social commentary, about a young chief-to-be, Fie, who makes an oath with the heir to the throne in order to secure protection for her people, the Crows, who are the lowest caste of twelve castes in the world. The Crows are the undertakers of the realm, charged with disposing of the world’s plague-dead, and the prince Jasimir and his guard and body double, Tavin, have just faked their own deaths to escape the capital. They hope for the Crows help in disguising them and falling in with one of their nomadic bands, allowing the pair to seek out allies to help prevent the queen from using a group of religious radicals (who happen to want to see the Crows exterminated) to usurp the throne.

The Merciful Crow’s world-building is intricate and unique. With twelve castes all named for different birds, from the highest ranking Phoenixes (the royal caste), to the lower caste Sparrows, to the untouchable Crows, each caste has its own “birthright,” or magical gift that those born as “witches” in each caste are able to use. The Crows’ birthright gives Crow witches the ability to call magic from bones (usually in the form of teeth, which are often paid to the Crows as payment for their mortuary services), utilizing the birthrights of the other castes — fire for Phoenixes, disguise for Peacocks, invisibility for Sparrows — all in all twelve different abilities. The Crows are also the only caste, besides the Phoenixes, who are immune to the deadly Sinner’s Plague. It is their proximity to the plague and death, moreso than their magic, which makes Crows reviled throughout the kingdom.

And this is what prompted me to write this review. Many novels have attempted to incorporate social justice themes into fantasy worlds, with varying degrees of success, but rarely do they incorporate do it as well as The Merciful Crow. Owen makes certain that the reader understands that prejudice is more than just slurs and violence, and has her privileged characters, Prince Jasimir and his guard Tavin examine and come to terms with the reality of their privilege over the course of their journey. There are many little moments — in one particularly poignant scene, Tavin speaks with Fie about a game that is played in the palace. In the game, there are pieces which represent each caste. The pieces which represent the Crows, he says, are worthless, and if you want to win, you need to get rid of them. Fie isn’t surprised, she’s been dealing with this all of her life, but Tavin begins to realize all of the ways in which hatred for the Crows has been entrenched into their society. As Jasimir and Tavin walk the road along with the Crows they see firsthand how brutally they are treated. When the group encounters trouble, Jasimir repeatedly suggests going to the Hawks, the realm’s protectors, and cannot understand why the Crows scoff at this idea. The Crows know that the Hawks are just as likely to engage in violence against the Crows as the rest of the castes, and when Jasimir indignantly proclaims Not All Hawks (!) Fie and Tavin point out to him that while, true, perhaps not all Hawks are bad, all it takes is one.

There are other small touches that set The Merciful Crow apart from other books. The world seems broadly tolerant of various sexualities — Prince Jasimir is gay, Tavin has had liasons with both men and women, and polyamory seems common, with some of the royals having both husbands and wives at the same time. The Crows themselves marry sometimes, and sometimes they don’t. There is a character who is referred to by the pronoun “they,” presumably because the character is genderqueer or genderfluid, but no explanation is ever given, because none is needed. The author slips these details in as simply a given in this world, no fanfare, no big reveals. In The Merciful Crow, these characters are normal people, living their lives, no explanation required.

Being a young adult fantasy, of course The Merciful Crow has a romantic subplot which could broadly be categorized as enemies to grudging allies to friends to lovers. The main romance is a straight love story, between Tavin and Fie, a love which crosses caste boundaries, Tavin being a Hawk, and Fie a Crow. Initially suspicious of Tavin’s motives, Fie moves past her initial distrust of the Hawk caste when she realizes that Tavin’s care for her is sincere, and that his respect for her people is not an act. The relationship between the two is satisfying — we aren’t tortured with endless reasons why the two shouldn’t be together, or manufactured misunderstandings, nor do they treat each other horribly in order to deny their feelings. The two are honest and mature with each other, and the resulting romance is something the reader can really feel good about — a healthy relationship the likes of which is not seen very often in YA fantasy.

The Merciful Crow is the kind of book that, as an English teacher, I want my students to read. While the world is entirely original, not really based on any true life settings or cultures, it still manages to examine ideas about prejudice and privilege that are very pertinent to real life. The Merciful Crow never claims that the problems of its world will be solved easily. At the end of the first installment of this planned trilogy, Fie realizes that the oath that she’s sacrificed so much for will not be as easy for the Prince to uphold as either of them had thought. Even though Fie has won over Jasimir, who has come to see her as a friend and the Crows as his subjects, and equal to the other castes, Jasimir realizes that fighting against entrenched prejudice isn’t as easy as issuing a decree. Fie and her band of Crows have no choice but to put their faith in the Crown and keep fighting for a better world, even if that world might not be achieved in their own time, even if the prejudice against the Crows might never entirely disappear. This isn’t some savior tale where prejudice ends, the good guys prevail, and everything ends up happily the end — this world and the people in it, like our real one, are complex and often disappointing. For those of us who want to see change, sometimes change comes too slowly if it comes at all, and sometimes we have to settle for less than ideal solutions to the problems plague society, and learning that too, is part of growing up. Most of all, The Merciful Crow reminds us though that while we may have farther to go than we thought, and sometimes making sacrifices hurts, fighting for justice will always be the right choice.