Uncategorized

No True Scotsman: Arguments from Purity

The anecdote that gave the “No True Scotsman” fallacy its name goes something like this: I make the claim that no Scotsman would ever put sugar in their tea. My friend says “I’m a Scotsman, and I put sugar in my tea.” I then counter by saying “well, no true Scotsman would put sugar in his tea.” The fallacy is in the variable definition of what constitutes a Scotsman, basically a “true” Scotsman being only someone who I deem appropriately Scottish. The fallacy applies to all sorts of arguments that base their premise on purity. “No true American would ever support Communism,” or “no true Black person would ever vote for Trump,” or even, more recently, “no true trans person would ever write a story based upon the attack helicopter meme.”

Aside from the inherent logic in arguing from purity — after all, who gets to decide what constitutes a true Scotsman —  there is something dangerous in the way that the fallacy is used to discount and diminish marginalized voices that do not adhere to the acceptable and expected parameters for those voices. While cis het white folks seem to exist in a great variety of forms — allies and enemies, harmful and helpful, and everything in between, marginalized peoples are often held to a higher standard, and are not allowed to step outside of accepted lines. Notice the vitriolic reaction when Angie Thomas, author of bestsellers The Hate U Give and On The Come Up tweeted in support of a white author Sarah Dressen. Dressen had expressed sadness when her books were rejected for a college reading list for being too juvenile and feminine, citing a quote from a young college student as the source of her ire. Thomas, a Black woman, was expected to support the young college student, person in the exchange who had less power as opposed to Dressen, the “powerful” famous writer. Although many white authors also tweeted in support of Dressen, Thomas and other writers of color in particular were called out because it seemed they, of all people, was not expected to side with power. “No true Black woman writer would support a fellow writer instead of a college student,” the message seemed to be.

The No True Scotsman fallacy reared its head again recently in response to the short story published in the speculative fiction publication Clarksworld, entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”  The story, author, and publication received substantial backlash, and it was assumed, when the story first appeared online, that the author was certainly a cisgender heterosexual white person. Many even assumed that the author’s name, Isabel Fall, must be a pen name, for only a man would write something so blatantly offensive. “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” played upon the right-wing meme that has oft been used to denigrate non-binary and gender-queer individuals. The author, in response to the “no LGBTQ person would ever write such a story” sentiment of her attackers, felt the need to out herself as a trans woman. The attacks then followed the No True Scotsman fallacy almost to the letter, simply replacing trans woman with Scotsman. Despite the fact that many trans people felt the story resonated with them, and enjoyed the story for the satire that it was meant to be, many felt like the author’s use of right-wing terminology in her story was disloyal and hurtful. A true trans person would never write something that might hurt members of her trans community … right? The author eventually asked Clarksworld to remove her story, a move which reveals the extent to which the controversy personally affected her.

The question then became, are trans writers, Black writers, Asian writers, any marginalized writers, not allowed to take the risks that cis het white people regularly take in their writing? When a white person writes something potentially Harmful (capital H intended), the reaction of the industry is often to close ranks and support the person’s brave effort to do something controversial with their writing. Consider, for instance, when Laurie Forest wrote the controversial The Black Witch, Kirkus gave it a starred review and later even addressed the haters directly, reaffirming its support of the author and the book. The third book in the series will be published later this month. Marginalized people, on the other hand, are often proverbially cast out of the protective circle of the progressive community. In the case of Isabel Fall, even after she revealed herself as a trans women, many still denied her intentions, questioning whether or not she might be a rightist plant. Ethnic Chinese writer Amelie Wen-Zhao actually pulled her own book from publication after Twitter users named her book anti-Black. The author herself claimed that she drew upon her own experience of human trafficking in East Asia, and was not meant as a commentary on chattel slavery (the book was later published, but which much less fanfare and little buzz).  Online Progressive spaces invoke the No True Scottsman fallacy with alarming frequency, but rarely is it invoked equally. Marginalized people must, it seems, be perfect representatives for their group, at all times. They must align with the right people, have the right thoughts, and write the right words. Satire, anger, messy, off the wall, edgy, boundary pushing, and especially in-group critiques — these are dangerous for a marginalized writer, whereas a white writer like me might be celebrated for the same.

While it is true that this is due almost entirely to the way cis het white people view marginalized individuals — as ambassadors for their groups. Marginalized peoples must be wary, at all times, of perpetuating negative stereotypes or Harmful perceptions of their group. Ultimately however, requiring ideological purity from marginalized people simply perpetuates the othering idea of a monoculture, the myth of sameness. After all, even positive stereotypes do harm because they deny the fact that marginalized people have myriad voices, experiences, and truths. Sometimes those voices might make us uncomfortable. They might challenge what we think we know about a group, or about ourselves. We do not have to agree with those voices, but we neither should we suppress them, for they serve as a reminder of the diversity of thought that is inherent in all communities. All Scotsmen, as it turns out, are true Scotsmen.

Critiquing, Uncategorized

What to Look for in a Critique Partner

Writing is a lonely passion. You spend hours alone, and sooner or later, you want someone to read your efforts. No wonder, then, that, online forums are crowded with aspiring writers desperately seeking feedback. Any feedback. There are even sites where you can find someone to exchange manuscripts with, the literary equivalent of dating sites. The trouble is, to find a suitable critique partner, you usually need to go through several. I went through six myself, each of various degrees of satisfaction — but my writing is all the better for it.

Some writers look for beta readers, a term borrowed from software development via fan fiction. However, for me, that term implies a one-way, perhaps one-time relationship involving a finished work, and reminds me uncomfortably of Brave New World, where betas are inferior people. I much prefer the the term “critique partner,” which is less one-sided and can start as soon as you have a finished passage to show.

So what should you look for in a critique partner? Here’s what I learned:

To start with, despite your eagerness, don’t accept just anyone. You may not be compatible on even a basic emotional level, which may make working together hard. Get to know a potential partner first, before you begin to swap stories. If you want more than a general reaction, you need someone in sympathy with your work. Usually — although not always — that means another writer. In addition, you are likely to get only general feedback from someone who neither reads nor writes your genre. That is particularly so in fantasy or science fiction, which has traditions like world-building that mainstream books simply don’t have. Without an understanding of your genre, a critiquer is likely to be of limited use.

A first critique can reveal other limitations as well. Someone who only corrects typos and grammar is not a critiquer — they’re copy editors. What they give you may be useful, but probably you want something more. Similarly, someone who keeps telling you how they would write the story, or who the main character should be without being asked is not going to be much help, either. I had one potential partner who insisted that militias named for animals must be were-creatures — which led to jokes about were-salmon swimming up river to spawn on the night of the full moon, but was otherwise useless to me. Someone who tells you what works, or what might work better is one thing, but someone who wants to continually rewrite your story is not working in the spirit of critiquing.

Even more importantly, do you respect their work? It can be difficult, if not impossible, to take advice from someone you don’t respect. Ideally, critiquing partners should have a mutual respect, even enthusiasm, for each other’s work. That doesn’t mean they can’t criticize each other deeply, but someone who points out only the flaws and never what works, is likely to quickly become an annoyance. Partners needs a mutual sympathy. Otherwise, how can the two of you have an interest in making each other’s work as strong as possible?

In addition to mutual sympathy, successful critiquers also require a deep honesty. With any luck, a critiquer will also be diplomatic, and point out faults discretely to make them more acceptable, but the key requirement is complete frankness about what works and how to fix what doesn’t. That means a family member or an existing friend generally makes a poor partner — probably they want to encourage you and to avoid hurting your feelings. By contrast, a useful critiquer makes honesty the higher priority. They should also be willing to talk out their comments in general. Such conversations, I find, are where I learn the most about writing. The conversations tend to turn into brainstorming, and both you and your critiquer can end up learning something.

All these points matter, but the most important one is that critique partners should at about the same stage in the work in progress and knowledge of writing. Otherwise, the relationship is more of a teacher-student one, which is useful in itself, but a subject for another blog. The entire strength of a successful critiquing relationship is in its give and take, which is next to impossible if the expertise is too one-sided. If necessary, partners can even look for outside expertise, and learn together.

For example, I have worked with Jessica, my chief critique partner, for eleven months now. We both have teaching experience, and we both have sold numerous pieces of non-fiction. Both of us are writing fantasies underpinned by a knowledge of history and of the genre, and are currently somewhere over two-thirds finished. The problem that one of us has is often one that the other has had, or has at least been thinking about, so comments are almost always relevant. I know that my work has improved my work immensely thanks to her dead-on observations. In addition, we have become online friends, and between Christmas and New Years, I flew down to New Orleans to hobnob with her husband, children, and cousins. We plan on meeting again some time. Meanwhile, we have joined with a third writer, who is about on the same level as we are, who is on the way to being another online friend.

Nor are we the only one who have found that critique partners can become friends. One writer online told me that her critique partner felt like a sister, and I have hints of a similar closeness from others. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, when the relationship involves people sharing their dreams and helping each other to reach them. You may have to swipe right dozens of times to find critique partners, but when you do, the search is worth the effort.

Uncategorized

Making Bitter into Sweet: Learning to Take Criticism

Putting ourselves out there as writers is hard. The eternal dilemma of most writers is that what we write is often personal, private, and close to the heart, and yet, the very nature of writing is that it meant to be read by others, and we cannot keep it to ourselves forever.  We write alone, but we can’t become accomplished writers without the help of others. But, when we’ve poured our souls into a story, when it comes time to offer it up for critique, it can feel a bit like opening ourselves up for a knife through the heart.

By now you’re probably thinking yeah yeah, I know. If I don’t get critiques I’ll never get better. And that is true, of course, but reader, you have probably heard this before, and it probably hasn’t helped, otherwise you wouldn’t be stewing over that negative comment or getting teary-eyed because someone said your characters were flat. So instead, I’m not going to tell you that you need to take criticism, I’m going to tell you how to take criticism.

Criticism is never easy to receive, but in my nearly forty years on this earth, I’ve heard a lot of it. New writers, or those who have only recently started showing their work to others, take heart in this: criticism becomes easier to take the more you hear it. My own critique partner, Bruce, told me, “When I first started selling articles, I could brood for days on a negative comment. Now, an hour later, and I’ve forgotten it.” Taking that first step is always the hardest, but it gets easier and easier with time. I used to be deathly afraid of flying, not a good fear for someone who lived overseas to have. So, I researched how to get over this fear, and overwhelmingly, the advice was this: fly. So fly I did, and while, I still feel that prickle of fear at takeoff, I get over it quickly enough, and I book flights without a second thought, whereas before I would routinely take the train to avoid flying. Opening yourself up for critiquing is a bit the same. Once you start, the easier it becomes. Now, I actually look forward to posting new work for my critique partners, and while I might feel that tiny prickle of anxiety, it is overridden by the knowledge that my work has gotten better because I took their advice.

Here is the second secret to taking criticism: you don’t have to take it. Remember, your writing is your own, and if you don’t agree with the critique, then you thank the giver and move on. Now, this is said with the caveat that you certainly should not disregard every bit of criticism given, not if you actually want to improve your writing, and the caveat too, that if you hear a certain critique from multiple sources, its probably a valid critique. However, even valid critiques are critiques that you can disregard if they don’t sit right with you as the writer. Ultimately you have the final say. Remember this though: sometimes the hardest criticisms to hear are the ones that your work needs the most. Sometimes we don’t want to hear certain critiques because we know that fixing those issues will be a monumental task. For instance, I knew deep down that my main character was lacking something, but I avoided the issue, telling myself I would resolve the issue in revision. It was only through a conversation with my critique partner Bruce, that I realized exactly what was lacking. The result meant a rather large rewrite, but the new version is undoubtedly superior to the first. If you find yourself particularly resistant to a certain criticism, ask yourself why. What is it about this critique that makes it hurt so much?

Which leads me to this: everyone gets bad reviews, because no one’s writing is perfect. Next time you’re feeling down over a harsh critique, go to Goodreads or Amazon and look at the one star reviews for your favorite book. Believe me, there will be at least a few, and those are fully formed books that have been through editing and revision and probably a few rewrites as well before assuming their final form. No one writes a perfect first draft, and even final drafts will have their detractors. It doesn’t mean the detractors are wrong, but it means that for every hater, there’s bound to be a fan. Find your fans, and make them your critiquers. My critique partners are two of my biggest fans. They love my book, and that’s why they want me to make it better. They want to see it succeed. The best critiques will come from people who genuinely enjoy your work, not people who are reading it out of a sense of duty. Critiques are easier to take too when you’re absolutely certain that they’re coming from a place of love. I know how much my critique partners believe in my work, which is why I don’t flinch when they give me notes.

And here too, is the upside of learning to take criticism well: writing is a lonely process, and it is only made lonelier if you isolate yourself and refuse to share your work with others. While being critiqued can be scary, and tough critiques can hurt, ultimately, if you find good partners, you will gain your biggest cheerleaders. You will gain people who can share with you the ups and downs of the writing process, with whom you can share ideas, who are more than willing to listen to your late night “so hear me out, but what if I …” conjectures. While these sorts of people are hard to find, they’ll be the first people you tell when you finally sign with an agent or land that publication deal, and they’ll be the people you thank first in your acknowledgements, because you know the book wouldn’t be half the book it is without their help. Criticism is hard to take, sure, but the people who take the time to give it, to give honest, thoughtful, and constructive criticism, are giving you a valuable gift. Learn to take it gratefully and graciously, just as you would any gift given with love, even the ones you plan to return the next day.

General Writing

Writing Infodumps without Slowing the Story

I reject the word “infodump” categorically — that’s a smartass word out of the cyberpunks’ workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject “expository lump” also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It’s an attempt to say “fiction can only be stage business” which is a stupid position.”

  • Kim Stanley Robinson

Sooner or later, a story has to give some background on the characters or the setting. That is especially true in fantasy and science fiction, both of which often have to sketch in an invented background. However, even in a mainstream story, at some point you need to describe characters or give some of their history. For this reason, “infodump” and “expository lump” are thrown around far too freely. As I reflected on Robinson’s comment at thirty thousand feet, my eyes closed against the vague claustrophobia of economy class, I concluded that he was right. Infodumps are an unavoidable part of writing. The question is not whether you should have them in your fiction, but whether they are done poorly or well.

Poor examples of infodumps are easy to find. They are common in novices’ writing, identifiable by the way they stop the story from advancing. Here’s an improvised example:

“We’re surrounded,” Tyler said. He was young giant, blonde haired and with outsized hands. He wore black jeans and wore a sleeveless shirt that might have been called a wife-beater on a man with a less cheery grin. The son of Appalachian coal miners, he spoke with a slow accent that many took for a slowness of mind until they heard his ideas.

“Better break out the guns,” Antoine replied. He was a small man, whose skin showed his Mexican ancestry. Wiry, he was quick with his feet and hands, and his tongue as well. He had met Tyler one night in the student pub, when his fast-talking had kept Tyler out of a fight with a woman’s jealous boy-friend.

This is a parody, but only barely. I have seen dozens of similar passages that interrupt the action to give background. They are the written equivalent of a stage actor who steps out of character to talk directly to the audience about their character.

However the usual correction is no better. Told to mix the background with the general narrative, many beginning writers come up with something like:

His white-skinned hand wiped his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-blue eyes.

This strategy slows the story just as much as my first example, but by overloading the sentence with adjectives. Yet another doomed strategy is go to painful length to have a viewpoint character see themselves in a mirror or a reflection. All these mis-steps are often caused by a writer wanting to have done with the necessary exposition as soon as possible. After reading Robinson’s comment, I have reserved “infodump” and “expository lump” for passages like them.

So how do you fit necessary description or background into a story? One technique is to start each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional document, as John Brunner did in his classic, “The Sheep Look Up.” Removed from the action, such excerpts become more acceptable, especially when kept short. Similar excerpts can be added within the narrative itself as a character reads or hears them. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien frequently uses poems in this way, offering only snippets in moments of actions, such as the poetry that Theoden quotes before the Riders of Rohan break the siege of Minas Tirith, and long ones only in scenes where nothing much is happening, such as a quiet night in Rivendell.

However, the easiest way to weave information into a narrative is to take advantage of your viewpoint character. If a character has a background that includes the information you need to convey, all you need to do is put them in a position in which they would naturally think of it. For example:

Gareth leaped for the door, but he was too late. The door clicked shut, and he was trapped in precisely the part of the castle he had been warned not to go. In his childhood, he had heard stories of headless and hungry ghosts who haunted this wing, and now he looked around, half-expecting to see them.

In this passage, instead of halting the narrative, the background information is also used to give the character’s reaction to the setting, and add some tension. You could even make the information part of the character’s thoughts:

Gareth leaped for the door, but it had already clicked shut. Trapped, he thought, and in precisely the part of the castle I have been warned against. I wonder if the headless and hungry ghosts I heard about as a child are still around?

Or if you wanted to describe the character a bit:

Gareth had always prided himself on his speed, but his leap for the door was too late.

You might be able, too, to combine both the descriptive detail and reaction, although probably that would be too busy. Often, dialogue can convey information:

“I leaped, but the door had already clicked shut,” Gareth said.

“What do you do?” Linette said.

“Tried not to think of headless and hungry ghosts,” Gareth said ruefully. “Remember those tales we were told as children? I remember all of them.”

Any of these strategies would work, depending on what you want to do. Still, as a general rule, if a passage has more than one purpose, the chances are that it will convey information without any slowing of the story.

When integrated, background needn’t slow down the narrative at all. At times, as in Tolkien’s descriptions of Rivendell or Lothlorien, the description can even become an attraction in its own right. The next time you see background added to a story, don’t rush to condemn it. Rather, ask how well it integrates with the narrative. The question is not whether anyone can avoid such elements, but how well they serve your story.

Diversity, Uncategorized

Cutting Ties: Abandoning Our Problematic Favorites

When recent controversy revealed that J.K. Rowling was, to put it mildly, not an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t have much personal stake in the question of whether or not to support the fandom. While I am definitely an ally, I am not a Harry Potter fan. J.K. Rowling outing herself as TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist for those unfamiliar with the lingo), while disappointing, did not shatter any of my childhood illusions, did not make a wasteland out of a beloved fandom. I was too old for peak Potter mania by a good decade, and my own children a bit too young. I do not have my Hogwart’s house listed in my Twitter bio, and while I’ve seen the movies, I’ve never read the books.

However, J.K. Rowling is hardly the only problematic figure to produce beloved content. My first experiences with the phenomena were with the works of Woody Allen and Robert Heinlein. An aspiring filmaker in my teenage years, I watched Annie Hall enough times to memorize many of the lines. Later, I learned of the abuse allegations against him, and that he’d married his stepdaughter. I still think Annie Hall is a great movie, but I won’t spend money on Allen’s films any longer either (and yes, I’m aware he was never convicted of anything, but I tend to err on the side of abuse victims personally). I loved Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as a fourteen year old sci-fi nerd, and it was only much later, when I read Heinlein’s other work, that I realized the strange incestuous themes running through many of his books, his objectification of women. I was lucky enough never to have been a fan of Orson Scott Card, but many of my generation experienced that disillusionment as well. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on King Arthur’s court was my mother’s favorite book at one time, until even she turned out to be a horrible person.

The point being, every generation has it’s let-downs, our idols and heroes who turn out to be rather less than what we imagined. And when our heroes let us down, we’re left with the question of what to do, not with the heroes themselves, who most agree are no longer deserving of our devotion, but with the content that they created. Does the fact that Stranger in a Strange Land came from a man with a perhaps rather sexually twisted mind change the fact that I loved it as a fourteen year old? No. I can’t go back in time and stop fourteen year old me from loving it. Does it sully the memory, at least a bit? Perhaps. As much as I enjoyed the book at fourteen, I won’t hand a copy to my own child, which is a bit sad. My father introduced Stranger to me, and it would have been nice to have something of a literary legacy to hand down to my own children, but alas, that’s not meant to be.

Some suggest that we can continue to engage with the content, independent of the creator. For the Harry Potter fandom, which has taken on something a life of its own, with thousands of fan-created works, a theme park, spin-offs, and fans who consider Hogwarts houses as accurate as Myers-Briggs personality tests, perhaps the creation has indeed surpassed the creator. The sentiment seems to be this: don’t let good memories be overtaken by the bad, and don’t let fans who are new to the fandom be exposed only to bad takes, only to hateful rhetoric. If J.K. Rowling is a TERF, then the only way for fans to get trans positive Harry Potter content is for those fans to create it themselves. If trans and ally fans abandon the fandom, the argument goes, they’ll be leaving the fandom to TERFS and rightists, and perhaps exposing young fans to harmful messages with no correction.

The argument makes a certain kind of sense, and has an added benefit in that no one has to give up their beloved childhood memories, the beloved Hogwarts universe, the beloved Harry Potter community. Just pretend J.K. Rowling didn’t invent it, pretend Harry Potter exists in a vacuum, and continued engagement with the Harry Potter world will be just fine. The problem I have, however, is that ultimately, when Harry Potter continues to thrive, J.K. Rowling continues to thrive. J.K. Rowling has become rich beyond most authors’ wildest imaginings off the back of her creation. Whether we do it deliberately or not, engaging with her intellectual property means giving her a continued platform. As long as there is a thriving Harry Potter fandom, J.K. Rowling continues to make money.

I don’t think anyone needs to burn their Harry Potter books, mind. I still have my ragged copy of Stranger in a Strange Land on a bookshelf somewhere, and I still think Annie Hall is a great movie. I believe that we can acknowledge that sometimes highly problematic people create really good stuff. It’s an uncomfortable reality, that their problematic nature does not automatically make their creations bad. What it does mean, however, is that no matter how great their art is, just as we boycott Chic-fil-A even though their chicken sandwiches are mighty tasty, we do not financially support and give a platform to people who promote hateful politics and policies. Sometimes, the harder a thing is to give up, the more meaningful the sacrifice. Ultimately, if we want a wizarding world that is LGBTQ positive, we should lend our support to original creators, trans creators and allies, who can give us that. Instead of trying to turn the intellectual property of an anti-ally into something that it isn’t, why not give that voice, that platform, to trans creators themselves?

Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy, and enjoyment isn’t always a matter of choice. What we do have a choice in is how we spend our money, who we support, and whose voices we lift up. It is absolutely alright to still enjoy the Harry Potter books despite J.K. Rowling’s TERFiness. It is okay to like Woody Allen’s films, to have a soft spot for Stranger in a Strange Land. What is less okay is to continue to promote those creators (well, the living ones), to contribute to their wealth, to amplify the voices of people who do not contribute to the world in a positive way. Some people might suggest a massive boycott campaign, but quietly withdrawing support may be even better. After all, the worst fate of all, for those who once courted notoriety, might be to slip quietly into obscurity, unremembered and unloved.