Fiction, General Writing

Good Intentions vs. Imagination

“Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
-Philip Pullman

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival would feature one country each — preferably one undergoing social strife. My wife and I used to refer to this habit as the revolution of the month. Reading the frequent discussions online about diversity in writing, I am reminded of those times, and my mixed reaction to them.

You see, the problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiments of each revolution of the month. I was a supporter of the causes, and even donated to them. However, it was a music festival, so I thought it only fitting that musicianship be at least as important as a band’s political opinions. For me, choruses like “US Out of El Salvador” lacked a certain artistry, no matter how loudly they were shouted, or how many of the crowd joined in. The bands meant well, but they were so caught up in their causes that they had forgot that they were supposed to be musicians as well as activists.

Reading recent discussions about diversity in fantasy, I have much the same ambivalence. Posters frequently discuss representation in their stories, and what stories they have the right to discuss. They talk about how to depict people of color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. All these topics are major concerns of mine, and I cannot fault the earnestness and sincerity of the posters. Yet, aside from the occasional reminder not to make a checklist of representation among your characters, I rarely see much discussion of technique.

Often, it sounds as though diversity is the aim, not storytelling. When samples of writing are posted, often they are wooden and unconvincing. Some posters are so focused on diversity that they fail to see the unintentional humor of developing stories concerned with the socially aware name for demons. Many more agonize so much about doing representation properly that they nobble themselves and never write out of a fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this lopsided focus is a matter of age. With rare exceptions, few writers in their twenties have developed their social awareness far more than their writing skills. So, for many, it is unsurprising that they dwell on what they are most familiar with.

However, the problem is not just one of age. At least once, I made the same mistake without the excuse of inexperience. In my current work, I wanted to make the ghost of my main character an example of toxic masculinity, and give him his comeuppance. I thought of several creepy things for him to say –some of which, much to my surprise, were later said by Donald Trump, which suggested uncomfortably that I had understanding of such a character. I thought of even creepier ones for the ghost to do. But do you think I could make that ghost interesting? Nor in the least. He refused to become a character. He remained a puppet, with his strings clearly visible, through several drafts. I could hardly write him, because I was bored with the contrivance.

In my desperation I remembered the advice that Carl Gustav Jung was supposed to have given to his students of psychoanalysis. He told them that the first thing they should do to prepare for their careers was to learn everything they could about symbols and metaphors. The second thing, he added, was to forget everything they had learned.

Jung did not mean that his students should totally ignore their study of symbols. Rather, he meant that they should learn it so well that they no longer had to think consciously about their knowledge. They had to let their knowledge become part of their unconscious, freeing their conscious minds for interaction with their patients.

The same advice, I realized, could help me with my writing. I tried and tried until I could hear the ghostly father speak and imagine how he would move. Then, I carefully submerged my knowledge that the ghost was a satire of the ultra-macho. Even more importantly, I did not let myself think how clever and woke I was in making the portrayal. Instead, in the scenes where he appeared, I focused on my main character’s reactions and the drama of the encounter. The scenes were still a struggle, but I inched forward, and completed the scenes at last. In the end, the ghost was stronger, I believe, because the character was not simply a piece of heavy-handed didacticism.

From this experience, I learned something important: My well-meaning political opinions could only take my writing so far. To write even halfway decently, I had to think about storytelling and suspense first, and my political outlook second. Otherwise, I was writing propaganda, not fiction, and wasting my time, as well as that of any future readers. I don’t know why that surprised me — after all, which would most people prefer to read, Ayn Rand who never forgets her purpose for a moment, or George Orwell, who tied his political purposes in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the life of an average man?

Social awareness, I discovered, might be desirable, but it was not nearly enough. To work, it needed to take second place to storytelling. Once the social awareness is fixed in my mind, I need to switch my focus to storytelling if either is to succeed.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.

Uncategorized

Five Things That Writers Get Wrong About Character Motivation

I was recently listening to a writing podcast on character motivation in which one of the participants attempted to critique the (excellent) Priory of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. Despite being only a handful of chapters into a book that is nearly 850 pages long, the speaker had strong opinions about the motivations of one of the characters. Wrong opinions. And what happens when someone is wrong on the internet? You blog about it, of course. The following list consists of some of the more egregious misconceptions about character development, and particularly motivation, that I have seen from fellow writers.

  1. Characters must start at a low place

What is true about characters is that they must change over the course of the narrative, but there is no rule that says that the change must be growth. A character who starts off the story at their peak literally has nowhere to go but down. The podcast I mentioned used Tane from Priory of the Orange Tree as an example — her character wants to be a dragon rider and at the start of the story she is poised to get what she wants. The podcaster assumed, incorrectly, that this would lead to a bland narrative where the character who is at her peak remains there, at her peak, nothing left to achieve. However, if her motivation is to be a dragonrider and she achieves that within the first few chapters, clearly she’s being set up for a fall, which is, in fact, what happens in Priory. Shortly upon gaining what she so desired, Tane loses almost everything. But this doesn’t make her less interesting, it makes her story more compelling. In fact, writing a character who has nowhere to go but down can sometimes be even more satisfying that writing a character who has to work their way out of a bad situation. People who have it all are not used to losing, so if you want to throw your character out of their comfort zone, let them fail. Give them everything, and then take it away and see how they react. The result is unlikely to be a boring narrative.

  1. Characters must always be in control

A lot of fuss is made about agency, and yes, it is true that it is generally more interesting to see a character actively make decisions than it is to see a character pushed around by the plot. That said, there are times when it is alright to have external factors act upon your character. In particular, if your character is the type of person who is always in control, taking away that control can lead to very interesting challenges. In my current manuscript I recently made a change in which I actually took away my character’s agency in one specific instance (instead of her making a rather unrealistic decision to go somewhere, I decided that she would be sent to said place) and the decision was absolutely better for the story. Sending her ironed out some pesky plot holes, but also gave her something to push back against.

  1. A character’s motivation is static

As your character changes, it is natural that their goals and motivations might change too. The character who wanted nothing more than to join the elite guard might get what she wants only to discover that the elite guard is awful, at which point she decides to change the elite guard from within. Your characters motivations can change, but what are less likely to change are your character’s core values. Jude, in The Folk of the Air series, throughout the series places tremendous value on the idea of home and belonging. This core value shapes her immediate motivations, which change throughout the series. Redemption arcs in particular can highlight a character’s shifting motivations, and sometimes even shifting values. Think about Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose initial motivation is to hunt down the Avatar in order to end his exile, but who ultimately teams up with the Avatar to end the tyranny of his own people. So just as your character grows and changes, remember that their motivations will change along with them.

  1. Only young people have goals

Young protagonists are particularly common in fantasy, but it is important to remember that your older characters can have their own motivations as well, and those motivations do not always have to be centered on the younger characters. In fact, the older a person gets, the more likely it is that they will feel an urgency surrounding the things that motivate them. As a forty year old, I my motivation to write is stronger than it was when I was a twenty year old and felt I had plenty of time left to do things. Remember that you can have older characters that function as more than just mentors for the younger ones. And while we’re at it, it’s perfectly fine to write a main character who is older than twenty five. Older characters can have adventures too, and sometimes you might even find that it is easier to have a mature character make mature decisions than having to justify why a teenager is acting like they’re thirty five.

  1. Motivations must be altruistic in nature

While fantasy generally deals in high stakes, characters do not always have to be motivated to save the world or the kingdom out of their innate sense of justice and righteousness. Characters can be motivated in smaller, more personal ways. Perhaps the character wants to save the kingdom not because it’s the heroic thing to do, but because it’s the only place that has ever felt like home and they cannot bear the idea of losing it. Perhaps the character wants to save the world because they can’t stand the idea of their loved ones dying. Most of us can relate to more intimate motivations in ways that we don’t necessarily relate to entirely altruistic motivations. It is alright if your character is not entirely altruistic, and selfish motivations can be just as valid reasons for your characters to act as selfless ones are.