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.

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?

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Diversity

9 Things to Avoid When Trying for Diversity

Today, diversity is a fact of life – and, increasingly, of fiction. Look at the publication lists of any major publisher today, and you can’t miss the interest in the experience of women, ethnic minorities, and LGBQT+ communities. However, writing diversity is not as easy as sympathy or a will to justice. Unless you think about what you doing, your attempt at researching and writing diversity can falter from carelessness, misguided good intentions, or unexamined assumptions. If you are not careful, you can even bog down in outdated perspectives in a new disguise.

Here are nine potential ways efforts at diversity can be a problem:

Thinking It’s About You

A few years ago, I came across an article entitled, “How to write a sexist character without being sexist.” However, a more accurate description would have been, “How to write a sexist character without the character’s opinions being mistaken for yours.” That intent has always seemed to me a distracting intrusion of the writer into the story — as well as an extreme case of insecurity. It’s also a waste of effort, because any story can be misread by some reader, no matter how careful you are. If you want to express your social opinions, write an essay.

Checklist characters

Hang around any online writer’s group, and sooner or later you will come across an aspiring writer who is going to Do Things Properly. Their cast of characters will include at least one disabled character, one ethnic, and one for each letter of LGBTQ+. Aside from the unlikelihood of a perfectly distributed group of people getting together, the result is an awkwardly large task. The fact that many of those characters are likely to exist only to fill out the roster only interferes with the storytelling. Unsurprisingly, this tokenism gone wild rarely results in a finished book, let alone a publishable one.

Assuming that those you write about are willing to help you

Your research or a sensitivity reading may matter to you, but are probably unimportant to those you write about. They have lives that don’t include you, and many have grown tired of misrepresentations.

Believing that one person speaks for an entire group

No, not even if they hold an elected office. Get a variety of comments so that you know the range of opinions. Then depict that range.

Thinking you know better than the group you depict

The willingness of a group to be portrayed, or to have its stories told varies. Some cultures are exclusionary, and view their stories as property. Others have stories that can be freely told, and stories that are family property. A few might even be unconcerned who depicts them or tells their stories. It should go without saying that these preferences should be respected without any qualification. Your opinion does not give you the right to say what is appropriate one way or the other.

Insisting that the right to storytelling or depiction is a matter of blood

Too often, people who pride themselves on their sensitivity maintain that you can only approach certain topics if you belong to the group itself. This position is embarrassingly close to racialism.

Moreover, it quickly descends into an absurdity that is never discussed, but hovers at the edge of awareness. If only one of your parents belongs to a culture, do you still have the right to depict it? What about only one grandparent? Are the rights matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilineal? What if your ancestors belong to the culture, but you were raised in another one? Culture is not a matter of genetics.

Denying expertise

You do not need to belong to a group to understand it. However, the assumption that rights in a culture depend on the family you were born into discounts this self-evident fact out of hand. For example, my blogging partner, Jessica Larson-Wang is American, but lived in China for nearly two decades and married a Chinese citizen. Obviously, she has picked up some understanding of the cultures in China. Yet a surprising number of people insist she has no right to express that understanding, much less write about China herself. Possibly, her knowledge might be incomplete or contradicted by another source, and must be evaluated like any other sources, but an unexamined rejection is simply absurd. These days, outside experts may even be hired by a culture for their knowledge — and if they are good enough for members of the culture, they should be good enough for you.

Woke-splaining

“Woke-splaining” is a word I have coined by analogy to “mansplaining.” Just as a mansplainer is a man who explains to women what they already know, a woke-splainer insists that, by virtue of their social and political opinions, they know better than the members of a group they write about. Sometimes, they may actually do so, but the fallacy lies in the automatic assumption. For instance, one commenter attacked my article about whether the painter Emily Carr was guilty of cultural appropriation, insisting that what was discussed was not really cultural appropriation. Yet I consulted several of the First Nations that Carr depicted — most of them artists — and every single one of them saw some of her work as appropriation, and discussed it in those terms. Sorry — you don’t get to make judgments on the assumption that you know better because of your views.

Assuming that cultures are static

History shows that cultures continually change, often as the result of contact with other cultures For example, the cultures of the Pacific Northwest have altered drastically in over two centuries of contact with European settlers — not only through subjugation and epidemics, but also through the introduction of steel tools and paints and dyes that have enhanced their arts. True, through those two centuries, a core of customs and values has survived, but to deny that change happens goes against observable fact. Yet fantasies in particular are prone to depit cultures that have stayed the same for centuries, especially low-tech ones.

What makes static representations ironic is that they uncomfortably echo the views of capitalists and imperialists. When a culture is seen as a brand, as a commodity of value only when it can be sold, consistency of product is a necessary virtue. Yet to insist on that consistency is to deny the humanity of the people of those cultures – and that’s the opposite of what diversity and writing ought to be about.

Last Words

I realize that much of what I say here will provoke reflex outrage in certain circles. Many people act as though, having declared themselves supporters of diversity, they have no need to examine their own attitudes. However, that kind of arrogance easily overshadows the point of diversity: respect for others and the depiction of everyone as human and equal. It is no longer enough just to declare yourself empathic or against cultural appropriation. You have to avoid the arrogance that comes with holding correct opinions, and learn about and listen to those you are writing about.

At the same time, don’t let this list scare you away from diversity. Attempts to depict other people and other cultures are as old as the novel or the short story – especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction. However, these days, writing other cultures is under closer scrutiny than ever, and the standard is higher than ever before. We all make mistakes, and the point is not to be perfect, but to try and do better next time.

General Writing

Bricks Without Straw: Making Useless Critiques Useful

After a while, critiques start to fall into recognizable categories. As you work with many critiquers, their responses can be like the Baggins family in Tolkien’s stories – you know what they are going to say without the trouble of asking them. Even worse, every once in a while, you come across a critique so out of the ordinary – so outré – that you don’t know how to react. Your first reaction may be to ignore it, and often you may be right. However, sometimes, you can incorporate such a critique into your work, although not in the way intended. Here are three examples:

Masculine Women and Feminine Men

I once had a critiquer who, every time they read an excerpt from my work in progress, would insist that the name of the female lead character sounded masculine. Every single time. Sometimes, several times in the session. However, I was not about to change it. By coincidence, the name was a woman’s in Finnish. More importantly, changing a name, even if only its spelling, changes the character for me. To change the character’s name would make me change the character’s personality, and I had no reason to do that.

However, it occurred to me that the critiquer might not be the only one who thought the name masculine. So I decided to meet the criticism head on by adding this exchange when the character was introduced:

“That’s a man’s name.”

“It’s my name now.”

Considering the character’s toughness, this short exchange showed her personality concisely. Through no intent of the critiquer, the comment proved useful after all.

The Curse of the Were-Salmon

Another time, a critquer became fixated on the militia units in my story that were named for common animals, such as Wolves, Salmon, and Horses. For reasons unclear to me, the critiquer got it firmly embedded in their head that the members of these units were – or should be – shape-shifters.

Nothing could be further from my intention, and a careful analysis of my words convinced me that I had written nothing that would suggest that conclusion. The misconception was a huge, unwarranted leap of logic, so I ignored it, except to joke that no doubt were-Salmon would swim upstream to spawn on the night of the full-moon.

At the same time, I wanted to trample firmly on the idea. After many unsuccessful tries, I made the idea that the militias were shape-changers an idea of a boy too young to know better. The boy’s moment of disillusion, of course, was his confusion over why anyone would to change into a salmon. What better way, I thought, to hint that the child was imaginative and questioned what around him?

Appropriating Shamanism

Jessica Larson-Wang, my critique partner (whose own comments, let me hurriedly say, are always insightful and improve my work) provides a third example. Her own work in progress includes a shaman. However, a discussion in a Facebook group was started by someone asking if using the word “shaman” was appropriation.

Ten minutes’ research would have revealed the concern is needless. “Shaman” is a long-established term in anthropology, and is widely used in English, even by those whose cultures include shamans. The only appropriation that concerns anyone is when some spiritual shopper debases the word to describe some Western-invented ceremony for the gullible – a practice as far from the concerns of actual shamanistic practice as can be imagined. Otherwise, the question never comes up.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to do this basic research. Instead, the group members wittered on endlessly, worrying about appropriation from an extinct culture and getting so so heated that one poster ended up being banned. Some suggested “witch” as a substitute, ignoring the conflicting connotations. Others favored substitutes that only covered a small part of a shaman’s role, such as “healer” or “village leader.”One even proposed “Shintoist,” cleverly avoiding the non-appropriation of one word by substituting appropriation of a still-existing culture. A few suggested inventing a word, although invention apparently proved lacking, since no new coinings were posted. All that our delight lacked was someone to suggest “medicine man” or “witch doctor.” The discussion alarmed one poster so much that they decided to avoid the word “shaman,” just in case.

By coincidence, Jessica was just finishing the chapter in which her shaman was introduced. After we finished laughing, she decided to use the thread with its implied criticism, inserting the partial descriptions to help any readers unfamiliar with shamans to understand their role, describing a shaman as “part healers, part shamans, part village leaders,” and later throwing in “witch” for good measure. Her use was partly an in-joke, but also for a practical purpose.

A Matter of Recycling

I suspect most people would simply ignore such off-the-wall comments. I used to do so myself. But as these examples show, even apparently irrelevant comments can sometimes contribute to your work – often despite themselves. And if there’s some nose-thumbing involved, you can’t say that the original critiques didn’t deserve it.

General Writing

The Color of Éowyn’s Eyes: Economy of Description

You remember Éowyn, the niece of the King of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings? The killer of the Nazgûl , for whom the confines of a woman’s life were not enough? You should remember her; she’s one of Tolkien’s only woman characters as well as one of his most fully realized. So try to tell me what color her eyes were, and I’ll suggest something important about description.

From the movies, or the fact that Rohirrim were based on the Anglo Saxons, you might deduce that her eyes were blue. However, no one can be sure, because her eye color is never mentioned. Not once. The closest Tolkien comes is when Aragorn observes a feeling of compassion in her eyes for her uncle’s condition. Éowyn’s eye color is irrelevant to her story and those who want to know it are likely to fill in the details for themselves. Readers don’t need to be given everything about her to appreciate her.

This observation runs contrary to the advice often given to beginning writers. Take, for example, bibisco, an open source equivalent of Scrivener. Bibisco’s first tip to users is that “in order to write believable characters, you must know everything about them.” All of them, apparently, from your protagonists down to the walk-ons. To help you, bibisco offers nearly a hundred different categories to fill, divided into categories like personal data, physical description, behavior, attitudes, psychology, ideas and passions. Under psychology, for instance, you are asked for “Each and every aspect of psychology.” The idea is silly beyond words, yet reviewers nod solemnly at it.

I don’t know about you, but that level of preparation would leave me with no desire to write at all. Just as importantly, it allows no space for the alterations of character due to the development of the plot, whose discoveries are one of the delights of writing.

Moreover, most of that information will never fit into the story. The days of Thomas Hardy starting a novel with a whole chapter of description are over a century past. Modern novels have no place for more than the essentials: the relevant physical descriptions and gestures are mostly all that readers will endure. And even then, you generally have to be selective. It is considered clumsy, these days, to pause the story for an info dump that reads like a police dossier. If more details prove necessary, you can give them as they become useful. For example, Tolkien might have chosen to give the color of Eowyn’s eyes from the perspective of Faramir as he proposes to her and gazes soulfully into them. Be careful, though, not to overdo the gradualism and have a character refer to his pale forehead as he brushes his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-green eyes – that’s just clumsy writing.

So how do you decide how much description is enough? In his master class, Neil Gaiman suggests that the general rule for any description is to ask how any object stands out from the rest. In the case of characters, I suggest asking yourself what you would notice when meeting the character for the first time. Is there a physical feature that is unusual? Something about the way they move? Or talk? Occupy physical space? Interact with others? It could even be the fact that nothing about them stands out (which might be a useful trait for a spy). Probably, you only have space for two or three features before the patience of the modern reader wears thin, so you can choose only what helps identifies the character, or anything that advances the plot. For instance, if you know there’s a scene coming up where the character needs to shout a warning, you could add some drama and character development by giving them a stutter to overcome. But you need to be economical.

One effective but difficult way to be economical in your description is to choose a theme in the details you choose. For example, if you describe a man as being as expressionless as a sheet of iron, and standing as immobile as a suit of armor, you create the impression of a hard, formidable person. Similarly, if you describe a woman in terms of the rich fabrics and embroideries she wears, you make her sound rich and fashion-conscious.

More simply, you can use a metaphor. The past master of description by metaphor was the mystery writer Raymond Chandler,who not only created vivid characters using metaphors, but let readers fill in the details and gave an impression of the viewpoint character in the description. Often, too, the metaphors were hilarious. For example, Chandler described one character as being “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” Another character described himself as being “an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Probably his best known description remains, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Notice how these examples concentrate on the impression that a character creates, leaving the reader to fill in most physical details. Chandler has been parodied so many times that many of his descriptions seem too over the top today, but a more subdued version of his technique remains possible. For instance, I recently described a character as looking like a plant that had been left unwatered for too long.

All these approaches to description demand thought and economy. All, too, are far more demanding than the encyclopedia-like info dump that novice writers often feel is required. But they are also more effective and efficient, and can move a story along in more way than one.