General Writing

What Writers Can’t Learn from Dungeons and Dragons

“If you’ve played a character, you are ten steps further towards being a writer than anyone else. You’ve made a character, you have a backstory, and you’ve engaged in narrative, just playing a character in a game. If you’ve DMed, you’re like thirty steps farther towards being a writer of a novel or a story; you’re an active storyteller.”
-Patrick Rothfuss

Like many writers, I went through a period of Dungeon Mastering. For almost two years, I spent every Friday evening masterminding a story for half a dozen friends, setting up a backdrop against which they could play out their fantasies and work through their real-life relationships with each other. Not surprisingly, when I started to write, I began with some of the characters and maps I produced for gaming. Some of that material survives to this day, mutated out of recognition from its origins.

But did Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk make me a better writer? Or give me transferable practice? Unlike countless of writers like Patrick Rothfuss, I would have to say it didn’t. The differences between gaming and writing are simply too great for one to influence the other.

Yeah, both games and fiction involve storytelling. However, like movies or graphic novels, they are different media for storytelling. Each media has its own advantages and restrictions, and moving from one to the other is a form of translation, in which some things are lost and some things are gained. Writing and gaming are no different.

To start with, D&D is an oral form of storytelling. As you might expect, oral stories are geared to the speed at which human ears can comprehend. This speed is much slower than when reading. To remain comprehensible, oral stories develop more slowly than written ones. Typically, too, they involve a lot of repetition. In Homer, that repetition consists largely of metrical phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” or “Achilles, fleet of foot,” and patterns of action, while in D&D, it takes the form of meta-actions like rolling for initiative and damage done. In fact, being free-form, D&D has a lot of repetition that has no place on the page. Unlike in writing, there is no room for pacing, or a departure from chronological order.

Moreover, D&D is group storytelling, whereas a writer is generally on their own. A gaming session has more in common with improv theater than writing. DMs are closer to a writer than the other players, yet even they provide no more than a framework for the others to develop. That framework must provide space for the other players to improvise, and for the effect of chance. A skilled DM may try to take alternative storylines into account, but more than one has had to cancel the rest of the session or work on the fly when characters do something unforeseen. Writing, in comparison, has so little room for randomness or alternative storylines that examples are hard to find. I have heard that Phillip K. Dick used the I Ching to develop the story of The Man in the High Castle, but, if he did, no sign is visible on the page.

Still another important difference is that gaming requires much more material than the average piece of fiction. For a once a week session, DMs generally have to spend several hours a week in preparation — and I know more than one student whose DMing placed them on academic probation. To lighten the burden, DMs have endless sources of reference material, but often the result is a lack of originality. What matters is an entertaining session, not originality. By contrast, while clichés abound in fiction, too, to many readers’ apparent satisfaction, originality is prized, no matter how small.

However, the main difference is that D&D tends more to story, and writing to plot. Except with the most thoughtful DMs, D&D tends to be episodic. A main quest may exist, but the point is to stage an engaging session. Only rarely is a session complete in itself, with self-contained goals that advance the main quest while being complete in itself, like the best of TV series. More often, a session consists of events that are linked only by chronological order and that contain a large amount of randomness.

By contrast, with rare exceptions like Jack Kerourac’s On the Road, fiction is plotted. The first event causes the second, beginning a chain of cause and effect that only ends in the climax and resolution. This structure is extremely artificial, and less true to life than a gaming session, but is too well-established to be often challenged.

Really, I can barely begin to list all the writing skills you won’t learn by gaming: flashbacks, internal monologues, elegant prose, and much more besides. About all that gaming and fiction have in common is a love of the fantastic. Other elements of their storytelling do not translate. In fact, to assume any closer connection is an easy way to get lost when writing. I sometimes wonder how many of the beginning writers on Internet forums who are always asking for help with plotting are gamers who feel lost developing stories on their own, who feel lost telling stories by themselves. In the end, no matter how much they squirm, writers must rely on themselves. If they want inspiration to learn from, they are far more likely to learn from other books than from games — or from other forms of storytelling.

Uncategorized

My 9 Year Old Writes Fanfic

My nine year old daughter, Annika, has sat beside me many evenings and watched me typing away at my computer. At first, she would simply watch. Later, as she became more curious about what her mother was up to, she started to ask questions — what are you writing? What are your characters’ names? What’s happening in your story now? Finally, she brought her iPad over to me and asked if I could put a “writing program” on it. I gave her Google docs and handed it back, and she announced that she was going to write with me. So now, not every day, but occasionally, when I start writing, Annika will come and sit beside me, and she’ll write as well.

What does a 9 year old write, you might ask? Well, my nine year old writes fan-fiction. In particular, she writes fan-fiction for the series Warriors, which is about sentient cats and the battles between different cat clans, and the similar series Wings of Fire, which is about sentient dragons. She has her own OCs (original characters, for the uninitiated), she’s involved in the fan group on the app Amino, where she posts her stories for likes and feedback, and she also draws fan art.

Myself, I’ve never written fanfiction, not technically. True, my first attempt at a novel was practically Star Trek fanfiction, but the universe was ultimately not the Star Trek universe. When I was nine I didn’t know anything of fandom, but I also wrote stories based upon one of my favorite topics — in my case, ancient Egypt. In fact, I wrote an entire play in five acts based upon the lives of the pharaohs and their queens.  So it didn’t surprise me that my daughter would write about her favorites — the cats and dragons that populate the novels she reads.

Some writers look down on fan-fiction, and I’m sure there are some author moms who would encourage their children to write original fiction instead of fan-fiction. However, I’m not one of them. Although I’m not a fanfic writer myself, I am an English teacher. I work every day with teenagers, many of whom are reluctant to write anything at all, and many of them are incredibly intimidated by the idea of writing creatively. “I can’t think of what to write about,” they say. My daughter, at nine years old, already has made writing a habit and a hobby. Although currently she’s writing fanfiction, I have no doubt that with age and maturity, she’ll be able to transfer the skills she picked up with her fan-fiction writing to original works.

Fan-fiction, to me, is like a pair of training wheels for a young writer. Because the intimidating business of creating a world and characters to populate that world is already taken care of, the writer is free to imagine scenarios, to work on plotting and pacing, dialogue and description, which are harder, more technical skills to master than worldbuilding or character creation. Later, once a young writer has accumulated more experience and has seen more of their own world, world creation will come easier. This young writer, who has already mastered the basics of the craft, will be in a great position to create entirely original works.

I’m proud of my daughter’s fanfiction and I brag about it often. Of course I hope that one day she will begin to write her own original fiction, but for now, it is enough for me that she treats writing as a pastime, rather than a chore to be dreaded. A child who has discovered the pleasure found in the written word will keep that pleasure in her heart for a lifetime. Whether that pleasure comes from fan-fiction, comics, or original fiction, is unimportant, what’s important is the joy itself.

Diversity

Diversity: The Strange Case of James Tiptree, Jr.

Whenever someone insists that no one can can write a culture or gender not their own, my mind strays to James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s story used to be well-known in science fiction and fantasy, but recently I’ve become aware that younger readers and writers have never heard it, so it seems worth repeating.

Tiptree emerged in the late Sixties as a star of the New Wave — that loose group of emerging writers intent on experimentation and introducing mainstream sensibilities to science fiction. Primarily a short story writer, Tiptree came seemingly out of nowhere and quickly gained a reputation for brilliant, original writing. The titles alone were a lesson in writing: “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” “With Delicate Mad Hands,” and countless others that instantly lure you into reading.

At the same time, Tiptree remained a mystery. Tiptree never attended conventions, and from broad hints, the science fiction community understood that the name on the stories was a pseudonym for someone in the counter-intelligence community. Gardner Dozois wrote:

No one […] has, to my knowledge, ever met Tiptree, ever seen him, ever talked with him on the phone. No one knows where he lives, what he looks like, what he does for a living. […] He volunteers no information about his personal life, and politely refuses to answer questions about it. […] Most SF people […] are wild to know who Tiptree “really” is.

Some fans began to try to track Tiptree down. All sorts of speculation abounded.

Meanwhile, Tiptree’s reputation continued to grow. In Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison enthused that, “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man,” and the implication that the male writer was the more important one in no way lessened the compliment to Tiptree.

Robert Silverberg, Tiptree’s editor and correspondent, imagined “Tip” as “a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly unmarried, fond of outdoor life, restless in his everyday existence, a man who has seen much of the world and understands it well.” Hearing one fan theory that Tiptree might be a woman, Silverberg declared the idea “absurd, for there is something inelectably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. In fact, Silverberg declared Tiptree more masculine a writer than Hemingway. Similarly, Joanna Russ, another correspondent, wrote that, although obviously a feminist, Tiptree had ideas that “no woman could even think, or understand, let alone assent to.”

You can probably see it coming: in 1976, fannish detective work revealed that Tiptree was not a man. As Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, “The thing is, I am a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon — nickname Alli – solitary by nature but married for 37 years to a very nice man considerably older, who doesn’t read my stuff but is glad I like writing.” For a decade, a woman had passed herself off as a man, deceiving virtually everyone. She never slipped, and what revealed her secret was not her prose.

The Secrets of Tradecraft

When Tiptree’s story is told today, it is often with ridicule for the men who declare her male (but rarely Russ). And there is humor, of course, in over-confident pronouncements being debunked. However, in all fairness, the assumption was not completely unfounded. Although the field was opening up, science fiction in 1967-1977 was still largely written by and for men. By statistics alone, the assumption seemed reasonable.

Even more importantly, all that Sheldon had lied about was her sex. She really had led the adventurous life she claimed. She had lived in masculine company and she knew how men in the company of men talked to each other, and how they envisioned women. The men in her stories are forever eyeing woman and sizing them up. In stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” Sheldon mimics to precision a macho man imagining a woman:

“Sitting up in the bed is the darlingest girl child you’ve EVER seen. She quivers –porno for angels. She sticks both her little arms straight up, flips her hair, looks around full of sleepy pazazz. Then she can’t resist rubbing her hands down her minibreasts and belly.”

At the time, it would have been easy to miss the sense of mockery.

The same combination of mockery and realism appears in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when a drugged manly man finds that the world below him is entirely female:

“Gawd…” Bud’s hand clasps his dropping penis, jiggles it absently until it stiffens. “Two million hot little cunts down there waiting for old Buddy. The last man on earth…”

By contrast, the constant feminist perspective is more muted — more a matter of theme and plot and the occasional comment.

The truth is, Sheldon enjoyed playing a role successfully, passing as one of the boys. She was so secure in her double identity that she even started releasing stories as Racoona Sheldon, a pen name that was identified with Tiptree almost immediately (It could have been an effort to mislead with a partial admission). And what are story titles like “The Women Men Don’t See” if not private jokes that nobody except her understood? Sheldon worked hard to maintain her male identity, and used her knowledge of a spy’s tradecraft to maintain it.

Aftermath

Sheldon continued to write for another decade after her unmasking, meeting many of her correspondents, and adding to her reputation before her suicide alongside her husband in 1987.

She was not the first woman to begin a writing career under a male pseudonym. The Bronte sisters originally wrote under male names, and George Elliot was the name assumed by Mary Anne Evans. In science fiction, C. L. Moore was not known as a woman initially, either. But none maintained the deception with the success that Alice Sheldon did. Her success shows that, contrary to common assumptions, identifying personal details about the author from their stories is unreliable.

Of course writers can depict other genders or cultures. For obvious reasons, woman do so more often men, but I also remember how F. M. Busby was thought a woman because of his sympathetic women characters and his use of initials (Ironically, with no intent to deceive, but because he was Francis Marion Busby). Writing a gender or culture not your own takes motivation and knowledge, but unquestionably it can be done.

And who can be surprised? If writing is not about empathy, what is its point?

 

Uncategorized

The Poetry of Names

Naming our characters can be one of the best parts of writing fantasy, or even contemporary fiction. Many writers choose their characters’ names with as much love and care as they would give to choosing their own children’s names. Poring over baby name sites, foreign language dictionaries, studying mythologies and genealogies, they finally arrive at the perfect name, or so they think. The reality is, there is one aspect of naming that is often forgotten by writers, particularly white English speaking writers, and that aspect is cultural naming conventions.

Recently a friend, knowing that I’m a Chinese speaker who has more or less married into the culture, asked me for some feedback about a name she’d chosen for a Beijing-based Chinese character in her upcoming urban fantasy. The name struck me as a bit odd, and I asked my friend how she’d chosen it. She went on to explain that the name was the name of a Chinese goddess, and that she’d chosen it because of the characteristics the goddess embodied. This was nice idea, but, as it turned out, an entirely inappropriate approach to Chinese names.


I explained to my friend that while in English speaking naming culture we certainly name people after gods, goddesses, mythical characters, folk heroes and the like, in China it was just not done. Whereas in the English speaking world you can name a child Diana, Athena, Barrack, or even Arya, in China it is not socially acceptable name your child Wukong after the Monkey King, Guanyin after the goddess of mercy, or Zedong after Chairman Mao. Chinese cultural naming conventions dictate parents sholudn’t even name children after family members (especially dead family members), much less easily recognizable mythical figure.

Naming conventions are deeply rooted in our cultures, and ways that sometimes it is hard even for the culture’s natives to understand or articulate. While the English-speaking world may have relatively flexible naming practices compared to some cultures, there are still rules aplenty. Many of my former students unknowingly blundered their way into unfortunate English names by through mistaken assumptions about naming conventions. My favorite example is the name Yan 燕 in Chinese. I’ve had to take several students aside and quietly tell them that “Swallow” is not really the best choice for an English name. And yet, it is a ridiculously easy mistake to make — we have perfectly acceptable bird-based names in English, names like Robin, Paloma, Wren, and Lark, so why not Swallow? Perhaps the number one naming convention of the English speaking world? Don’t set your child up for a lifetime of name-based taunts. Forever conscious of all of the terrible ways a simple name can be transformed into something filthy, Americans recognize the horrible potential of the name Swallow almost immediately.

For some cultures, however, names are more serious business. I asked my critique partner, Bruce, who is heavily involved in the promotion and growth of First Nations artists in his region, about the naming practices of the northern First Nations such as the Haida and the Tsimshian, who are native to British Colombia. He explained that for the Haida, there are different kinds of names — use names, hereditary names, and bestowed names. There are pools of names that should only be used within a family, and adoptees would be given names outside of this pool of names. Some names are only used with certain titles, and some names are titles. Use names, or the names used to refer to a person on a daily basis, are never said out loud once the owner of the name has died. Needless to say, the naming conventions of the Haida are complex, and it would be incredibly easy for someone whose research only went as far as a cursory Google search to make offensive mistakes when naming characters.
When we chose my daughter’s name, my husband lamented the fact that we could not name her Wang Cuiqiao 王翠翘. We were stuck with the character Cui 翠 because it was her generational name, and there aren’t many original options that go with Cui 翠. Wang Cuiqiao, he said, was really a very nice name, but there was just one problem — Wang Cuiqiao was the name of a famous Ming Dynasty prostitute. Now, I have more than a passing familiarity with Chinese history, but this, I would not have known. Imagine if I’d been going through characters to match Cui on my own and hand stumbled upon this character Qiao? Luckily my husband was in charge of Chinese names and he ultimately chose the very lovely character shi 诗 to go with her name, so my daughter is called Wang Cuishi 王翠诗, an unusual but not outlandish name.

And as for my friend, the one with the Chinese character in her urban fantasy? I turned to my husband as well, and told him what sort of feeling my friend wanted to evoke with the character’s name, and he came up with something pretty great — something unique, a bit unconventional, but still socially acceptable.

W.H. Auden once said, “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” Sometimes, it isn’t enough to be familiar with a culture or to speak a language. I lived in China for fifteen years and speak the language fluently, but when naming Chinese characters I always defer to a native speaker (usually my husband). The would-be-Swallows were competent English speakers after all, and me being a more than competent Chinese speaker is not enough for me to be able to wield the subtle cultural and historical knowledge required to choose perfect Chinese names. Writers should, equally, use caution when naming characters outside of their own culture. No matter how much of an expert you consider yourself to be, or how much research you’ve done, names are tricky. They’re tricker than the language itself, carrying with them an entire cultural history that often goes back beyond living memory. At the most basic level, names are the most visible representations of the culture itself, and as such, the writer has an absolute obligation to get them right.

 

General Writing

Why I Sit Out NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (familarly known as NaNoWriMo) is not my least favorite sign of autumn. That would have to be the endless cold rain — no, the omnipresent pumpkin spice pastries and lattes. Still, as everyone online starts talking about their plans for the event, I feel like someone who has no interest in sports but is trapped in a city gripped by playoff fever. I just don’t see the point. In fact, NaNoWriMo seems to perpetuate ideas about writing that seem to me likely to be harmful.

Admittedly, the event starts off with a grating abbreviation. “NaNoWriMo” has a sharp staccato that always makes me think of Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Worse, it sounds like cute Newspeak, which is an oxymoron if I ever saw one. It makes me think of jackboots and the rats in Room 101.

Still, I could forget the cloying abbreviation, except for other irritants. To start with, the 50,000 word goal seems designed to be possible within a month, not because it leaves participants with anything useful. Either it leaves them with a novella, a length that is hard to sell to either publishers or readers, or with a fragment of a novel to be finished in the future. Both seem meager rewards for putting the rest of your life on hold for a month.

More importantly, like so many wannabe writers do, the guidelines emphasize quantity over quality. At first, 50,000 words may sound impressive — but do those words sing like the poetry of John Keats, or plod like the prose of Dan Brown? If those 50,000 words take five drafts to become acceptable, or a third of those words are eventually deleted, the accomplishment is not so impressive. A serious risk exists that you will only waste your time to make the word count and end up little that’s worth keeping.

Yes, I know that conventional wisdom has it that a rough draft’s quality doesn’t matter. However, there are people like me who need to put the rough draft into close approximation of the final form before moving on. Personally, if I ignored this need, I would increasingly start feeling like a swarm of bees had taken up residence in my skull. As I pressed on to my arbitrary goal, I would only feel more annoyed. Moreover, almost the entire end result would fall prey to the ravages of the Delete key. I can consistently knock off a publishable 1500 word article in a couple of hours, having written over two thousand over the last two decades, but my fiction oozes out more slowly. I like to think that I save time in the long run by needing fewer drafts to make fiction presentable, but the point is, NaNoWriMo is set up with the assumption that we all have the same writing habits. We don’t.

If NaNoWriMo wanted participants to end up with a useful manuscript, its goal would be something like the first three chapters of a novel. A goal like that would still be challenging, but it would be far less than 50,000 words, which would give writers a chance to produce their best work. But I know that’s not likely to happen. Whenever I raise the points I make here, the result is another classic example of one of Orwell’s concepts: double speak. “Of course I know that the number of words is not a reliable counter of progress,” is the typical response. “Do you think I’m stupid?” Yet sometimes the indignation has barely faded before the same person happily chirps, “I did 3000 words today!” and preens themselves on their progress anyway. So I doubt that many would agree with me.

The true point of NaNoWriMo, I think, is to turn the private act of writing into a social one. When not rushing to meet their daily word count, people can compare results with other participants. They can watch videos online, or, depending where they live, go to an event where they can get a much-needed boost of encouragement. Most of the timewhen I hear participants talk about NaNoWriMo, what enthuses them is the camaradery, the sense of shared hardship and of facing the same challenges as those around them. For some, that may be enough for them to take part in NaNoWriMo year after year. However, I have critiquing partners, so I generally don’t have to look for writing-centered socialization. I have it year round. I look at the circus surrounding NaNoWriMo, and I wonder what it all has to do with writing.

Besides, who has time to start NaNoWriMo with a reasonable chance of finishing? I’m not a student taking a semester off, or retired and looking for ways to fill my day. Nor do I live with anyone who could support me for a month, or who might agree to do my share of the cooking or the laundry for four weeks. The best I can do is limp along the same as always, slipping in a few hours of writing when I can. My normal output for a month is far below NaNoWriMo’s goal, but I will keep far more of it.

For these reasons, I’m going to pass on NaNoWriMo, the same as every year. All that NaNoWriMo can do is help me ready my Scrooge act so that I’ve perfected it by Christmas.