General Writing

Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A few weeks ago, someone asked for general advice about writing. My reply was, “Take the work seriously, and yourself not at all.”

I was trying to capture the combination of attitudes I have observed in successful writers over the years. However, as an aphorism, my reply needs more explanation. So let me add a few comments. I’ll start with the second half first.

As a writer, you can easily develop an egocentric opinion of yourself. You have a skill that most people cannot match. Probably, you are surrounded by family and friends who want to be agreeable and praise you so that everybody is pleased. Moreover, as you settle to work, you face long hours alone, much of which involves learning what works and what doesn’t. Under these conditions, to look for compensation is only natural. After all, it is arrogant think that you can write a whole book. Even a non-fiction book, which placed no demand for dialog or metaphor, is difficult simply in terms of size.

Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that you might daydream about finishing your current work, or imagine your future success. My critique partner, for instance, jokes about her future six-figure income. She’s as wistful as she is serious, however, so she does herself no harm.

However, the problem sets in when you start thinking of yourself as special — when you think of yourself as misunderstood, as lacking the respect you think you deserve. You rant about how other people don’t understand the importance of art (or, by implication, of yourself as a servant of the muse). Perhaps you start talking of visions, or of epiphanies, like James Joyce. You bristle at any critique that is less than wildly enthusiastically supportive. If the subject of diversity arises, you insist that no one should dare to tell you how to write, and allude to freedom of expression and the arrogance of encroaching on your sacred vision (see above).

The problem with such attitudes is that they make you miss opportunities for development. Moreover, by rejecting all criticisms, you miss the chance to learn how to separate the valid comments from the useless. That kind of attitude is especially harmful if you aim for traditional publishing, in which the transition from an agent to a publisher to publication is all about knowing how to learn to evaluate criticism. Before long, you are off on the wings of ambition, planning twenty book series when you are stuck on the first thousand words.

If you ever have thoughts like these, stop and have a look at yourself. You are not special; one Facebook writing group alone has over ninety thousand members, all a little ahead of you or behind you in their writing careers. The most that the majority of us can say is that we have — or might have — potential. That potential does not mean we are misunderstood or special (although it might mean that our ranting puts people out of sympathy with us). And if you find yourself rambling on about epiphanies, you might gains some perspective by recalling Ursula K. Le Guin’s comment that Joyce used have a lot of epiphanies, especially, apparently, in his bathroom. In other words. get over yourself. None of us are important because of our potential, only because of what we manage to actually do.

Instead, focus on making each work the best you can manage. Instead of isolating yourself in self-referential dreams, look at the trees and streets around, you, and the river of voices and noises around you. In the words of Fritz Leiber, the creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, make gathering snippets for your stories part of your everyday adjustment to living. If you see a good bit in someone else’s work, see if you can repurpose it and make it your own. If you need to information, research it. Learn to love editing. Listen to critiques until you can tell which are useless and why might deserve consideration. In short, put your ego away, and dedicate yourself to perfecting your craft generally, and your work in progress in particular.

It’s the work that matters. Not you. Repeat those seven words until you believe them, and they describe how you work. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. And when you feel pride in your work, it will because you earned it.

General Writing

Harp and Carp: The Fantasy of Medieval Ballads

Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer

In the writing community, you often hear that Europe is exhausted as a source for fantasy. Europe, people say, has been the default for so long that not much original can be done with it any more. Instead, writers are advised to look to other cultures. Nothing is wrong with that advice — providing, of course, that you observe any rules in the culture about who can tell which stories, and familiarize yourself with your culture of choice. However, Europe still has plenty of untapped inspirations, and, among those, my favorite are the English and Scots ballads that flourished 1300-1700. In fact, I go so far as to say that some of the most evocative fantasy ever written can be found in some of those ballads.

Usually, these ballads are not closely tied to time or place. Even when they allude to historical events, they are not always bound by fact. However, they usually depict a land ruled by feuding lords who are a law to themselves, and where raiding and revenge are a way of life. Many seem to derive from the Anglo-Scots border, where lawlessness prevailed even after the unification of England and Scotland.

Even when fantasy is not a major element, a sense of the uncanny is rarely far away. Consider, for example, this verse from “The Battle of Otterburn“:

Last night I dreamed the drearest dream,
Beyond the isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I thought that man was I.

Some ballads may not have been considered fantasy at the time they were written, but would be considered fantasy now — although, even 800 years ago, prophecies and visitations by the devil were presumably not the stuff of everyday life. In “The False Knight on the Road,” a child meets the devil, and his only hope is to stand firm, answering promptly until morning forces the devil to withdraw:

“Methinks I hear a bell,” says the knight on the road,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” said the child where he stood,
And he stood and he stood, and ’tis well that he stood,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” says the child.

. And in “The Great Silkie,” a man who shape-changes into a seal comes to retrieve the son he got on a helpless woman, and leaves with this eerie prophecy (presented here , as all other quotes, with modern wording):

And you shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And with the first shot that e’er he fires,
He’ll kill my son and me.

Others are murder ballads that could have come straight from The Game of Thrones, straying from the improbable to the fantastic. For example, in “The Famous Flower of Serving Men,” a woman’s husband and baby is killed for unknown reasons by her mother. After burying her husband, the woman disguises herself as a man and takes service with the king. The king discovers the murder after being led to the grave by the husband’s spirit in the form of a stag and a singing dove, and realizing that his court favorite is a woman, kisses her the next time they meet. and takes revenge on the mother:

“And don’t you think that her heart was sore
As she laid the mould on his yellow hair
And don’t you think her heart was woe
As she turned about, all away to go.

“And how she wept as she changed her name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William,
Went to court to serve her king
As the famous flower of serving men.”

Still others are outright fantasies. “The Elf Knight” is a Blackbeard-like story, while “Allison Gross” is about a spurned witch who turns the man who rejects her advances into a giant worm. In two of the most popular ballads, the elves feature prominently. In “Tam Lin,” a young pregnant woman rescues her lover from the elves by dragging him from his horse as the elven host rides by a lonely place at midnight, holding on to him as the Elven Queen transforms him into dangerous shapes:

Well they changed him then – it was all in her arms
To a lion roaring wild
But she held him tight, she feared him not
He was the father of her child, she knew that he was
The father of her child.

Similarly, in “Thomas the Rhymer,” Thomas of Ercildoune — a historical figure in Scotland — meets the Queen of Elfland and is carried off to her realm, after being given the gift of prophecy. The song ends with one of the loveliest expressions of medieval Christianity, in which the Queen shows Thomas three paths: one to Heaven, Hell, and Elfland:

And do you see yon narrow, narrow road,
All beset by thorns and briars,
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it but few inquire.

Don’t you see yon broad, broad road
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness
Though some call it the road to heaven

Don’t you see yon bonnie, bonnie road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elf land
Where you and I this night must stray.

I could go on and on, but I think I already have. For those interested in learning more, Child Ballads collects over three hundred of these ballads, complete with variations. Many recordings are available on Youtube from folk acts like Fairport Convention, The Corries, June Tabor, and Steeleye Span. Together they represent a rich source of mostly unused material in fiction, despite the current popularity of retold fairy tales. If you don’t find some inspiration in them, you might at least find some music to write by.

General Writing

Finding the Right Title

Titles

Titles are the most important half dozen words in a piece of fiction. However, the right title can be nightmarishly hard to hunt down, and matters for more reasons than most people think.

A non-fiction title is relatively easy. The potential readers are a select audience, interested mainly in an accurate summary of the article. As a result, a title is often no more complicated than “Setting Up Bluetooth Speakers” or “Ghosts in Shakespeare.” Sometimes, though, I pun shamelessly — more because I can than for any valid reason. For instance, in writing about Gaël Duval’s eelo project (now /e/) to produce a free-licensed phone, I couldn’t resist “You say goodbye, and I say eelo.”

However, in fiction the stakes are higher. Probably, you won’t want to pun, except perhaps when doing humor. More often, an effective fiction title is like a good blurb: it should intrigue a reader and summarize the story without giving too much away. For me, the titles in Tolkien’s trilogy cover the full range of effectiveness: The Fellowship of the Ring intrigues, The Two Towers is neutral, and The Return of the King gives away a key plot point.

But how to find a title? That is the hard part. Ideally, you want a phrase that encapsulates the entire work. Unfortunately, though, that is a painstaking business. Too frequently, I need several dozen attempts, and even then I may not find a suitable title. The trouble is that I first have to decide what the main themes are — which, like most authors, I struggle with — and then have to find a way to express it in a few words. Personally, I’d rather write a Spencerian sonnet.

In desperation, I may turn to collections of quotations. Shakespeare has been largely mined out, so much so that the more famous passages can sound like a library catalog. I, for one, am unable to hear or read Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy without envisioning a stack of unmemorable Penguin mysteries from the 1930s. However, there are countless other writers whose quotes you can borrow. All you have to do is to scan a list until you find one that suggests one of the themes of your work.

Sometimes, too, you can echo a quote, changing it just enough to be intriguing. For instance, when I published my master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber, I knew that the academic title would never do. No one is going to stop to read the title, much less pick up “Divination and Self-Therapy:” Archetype and Stereotype in the Works of Fritz Leiber.” Instead, after countless self-starts, I remembered that Leiber had memorized most of Macbeth while playing in his parents’ theatrical company. Coming to the “dagger of the mind” passage, I finally found something with which I could work. The thesis was about the Anima, the female aspect of a man in Jungian psychology, which often gets tangled with the Shadow, or sinister aspect. With all this in mind, I settled on Witches of the Mind, which, to those who know the original passage, suggests that Leiber’s depiction of women was all about male perception, not actual women.

Similar twistings of familar phrases are especially common when a movie becomes popular. For instance, shortly after the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there were all sorts of plays upon its title.

Other times, a phrase within the work may provide the title. I avoid a phrase from the start or the end of the story, which when combined with the title can sound repetitious. For the same reason, I avoid chapter titles, if I am using them. I also suggest not using invented characters or place name, although many writers do. But that still leaves thousands of words to choose from. In my current work in progress, my critiquing partner Jessica suggested The Bone Ransom, highlighting an important piece of background detail. I admit that I had invented the bone ransom for some creepy atmosphere, but as soon as I heard the suggestion, I knew that I was unlikely to find another title half so intriguing.

No matter which method of finding a title you choose, it’s always wise to check the title before using it, especially if it’s only one or two words, and is therefore likely to have been already used. For instance, I thought I had a wonderful title in Sister Assassin, but, unfortunately it’s been used. I might have used it anyway, but I prefer for my titles to be unique. But even if a title is unique, it can never hurt to field-test it among friends or a Facebook writing group. You are unlikely to have a consensus, but if most of the respondents approve the title, and the negatives are minor, or for trivial reasons, you can adopt the title with some confidence.

The Reason Why

Asked why a title matters, many writers say that it is meant to catch a potential reader’s attention. With any luck, seeing the title will make people stop to read the blurb or maybe the first few pages. And if you are self-publishing that may be reason enough to labor over the title.

However, if you aiming for traditional publishing, it is not readers whose attention you are trying to attract: it’s agents or editors. This difference matters because the title you’ve labored over stands a good chance of being changed on the way to publication, sometimes for a sensible reason. For instance, your perfect title may have “blood” or “dark” in it, at a time when many other submissions have as well. In such a case, changing your title might keep your work from being lost in the crowd. For this reason, in traditional publishing, your working title becomes a way to prove your competence to agents and editors.

Titles may come at any point in a story, ranging from before you start to the completion of the final draft. I was lucky with an unfinished story called “Grendel Night,” but often, I can’t settle on the title until the very end, simply because until I finish, I don’t know what the story is about.

Yet whenever possible, I try to have a working title as early as possible. Why? Because the title works on you as a writer as much as it does on a potential reader. A well-chosen title is a way of thinking of your story as a whole, a kind of mental shortcut that makes thinking about the story easier. Moreover, the title can be a guideline for the direction of the story, or at least for revisions. For example, when I settled on The Bone Ransom, I immediately understood what parts I needed to emphasize in the next draft, and what I needed to add.

In this way, your title can help you as much as it does potential readers or editors. The influence of a title can be as much artistic as commercial — and either means the time devoted to finding the right one is justified.

Critiquing, Diversity

What does a sensitivity reader do?

I first heard of sensitivity readers a couple of years ago. Like many writers, the concept of someone examining my depiction of other cultures and genders intrigued and alarmed me at the same time. In theory, I liked the idea, but what if I failed to measure up? What if I was unintentionally racist or sexist? Then I had the chance to play a sensitivity reader myself, and saw what a difference a sensitivity reader could make.

The writer I agreed to help was writing Lone Ranger fan-fiction. Her goal was to update the Lone Ranger for modern times — deliberately ignoring the disastrous Johnny Depp movie — and she had already added a few scenes in support of her goal. For example, at one point, the story has a scene in which Tonto explains to the Lone Ranger that the law is not on the sides of non-whites. However, she was not sure she had done enough to realize her goal, so she asked for help.

From the first, I was painfully aware of how unprepared I was for the role. I am of Cornish and English descent, and my knowledge of First Nations is specifically centered on the tribes of British Columbia, from whom I buy art and whom I support with a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest art. From the first, I made clear that I had no experience of the Apache or Comanches, the tribes mentioned in the story.

All the same I brought two qualifications to the reading. First, I knew that research is one of the keys to depicting other cultures as human. Second, while the local cultures have no cultural relation to the Apache and Comanches, most First Nations share a common history of oppression by the dominant European-based culture in North America, a history full of broken faith and lies on the settlers’ side, and suspicion and of mistrust on the First Nations side. Only the details differ.

Doing the reading

After doing some research, I was able to make a few concrete suggestions. To start with, while acknowledging the violence of Apache raids, I suggested that it should also be mentioned that settlers committed their own share of atrocities against the Apaches.

However, most of my suggestions centered on Tonto. “Comanche” is not what members of his nation called themselves — that would be “Numinu” or something spelled similarly. More importantly, based on the ethnology of Tonto’s tribe, I could suggest some possible traits and habit that go beyond the stolid “faithful Indian companion” of TV and film. For example, he might tend to give older man respect, because the old men governed his tribe. He would almost certainly have knowledge and interest in the buffalo, whom his people relied upon. Probably, he would use a travois to carry his goods. All these are simple points, but even they start to flesh out the character.

What really matters, though, is that the mythos makes Tonto an orphan. Could that mean that he had never gone through the standard initiation for Comanche men, killing a buffalo on his own and going on a vision-quest? If so, that would explain his position as an outsider. He could be expected to feel himself lacking, and a stranger to the culture of his birth. Such feelings would also find their counterparts in the Lone Ranger, which would explain their friendships. Both would feel themselves exiled from their own cultures, and strangers in each other’s. Basically, they would be mirror images of each other.

The Revision

I sent these comments to the author, emphasizing that these comments were basic and she should do more research herself. Several months passed before I saw the revised story.

Unfortunately, she did not seem to have done the additional research I suggested, which I am sure would have improved her story still further. But she had listened to most of my comments, and I found the results interesting.

The simple mention of settler atrocities made mention of Apache raids more ambiguous. Even more interestingly, when added to her habit of giving Tonto more of a voice, my comments had helped to transform Tonto from a supporting character to something of a shared lead. In places, he schooled the Lone Ranger, even correcting his views. He came across clearly as a lonely man, rather than a figure of stoicism. For the first time, he became interesting. Much more than I would have imagined possible, he had become a character in his own right, no longer simply part of the background to the Lone Ranger’s story.

Could I have said more? Undoubtedly. But I was new to sensitivity reading, and working for free. All the same, it was gratifying to see the results of my comments. From the story as well the author’s comments, I had played a part in helping her goals.

Sensitivity reading, like any critique, is probably what you make it. Still, judging from this experience, I am convinced that it can be a useful exercise so long as a writer is willing to listen. Although I think I avoided any major mistakes, I believe that, the next time I attempt to do a sensitivity reading, I can do a better job.

General Writing

Wannabe Writers

Few people would dream of becoming a painter or a musician without lessons and practice. Yet wannabes writers, the dilettantes who dream of becoming writers as opposed to those who are working to improve their skill, do so all the time. You can find thousands in Facebook groups, as well as an entire industry to support them in their daydreams, ranging from hybrid and vanity publishers and conferences to freelancers who design and animate covers and even sketch characters or produce lead figurines. Some of these aspiring writers will eventually self-publish, yet only a handful will ever write anything worth reading, and almost always for the same reason: a lack of the basics required for their chosen art.

Many, in fact, lack so much as a basic knowledge of grammar. I am not talking here of the crude prescriptive concept of grammar taught by inadequate teachers (although even that is frequently lacking), but of descriptive grammar that recognizes the multiple alternatives of the English language depending on the class and region of the speakers. Nor am I condemning the courageous adventurers who write English as a second language; I am confident that I could not do half as well as many of them. I am simply pointing out the obvious fact that grammar is a writer’s basic tool. Unless your sense of the multiplicities of grammar has become instinctual, you are not prepared to be a writer, any more than musician who has to watch their fingering can be more than accidentally competent. At best, thanks to both the grammar snobs and the lack of preparation, you are likely to be haunted by a sense of inadequacy, hoping vaguely to find hard and fast rules that simply don’t exist.

Nor do many have any sense of the history of literature. That is especially true in fantasy, in which the knowledge of wannabes rarely extends beyond the last five years or so of publishing in their genres. So far as they have any context, often it tends to be other forms of storytelling, such as film, gaming, or graphic novels — all of which are admirable in themselves, but can teach only a fraction of what a writer needs to know. You may not like the books in the canons of academia or genre, but they are important to an aspiring writer because they are shortcuts to learning. The canons show what has been done, which means that you do not need to experiment for yourself.

Besides, the classics can be fun. And yes, that includes the ones you dislike — sometimes nothing can be as entertaining as pinpointing why a work repels you. If you are not a reader, why would you care to be a writer in the first place?

Sadly,with countless wannabes, the answer is disheartening. They are not in love with words, living for the joy when they put together words in just the right way, a way that nobody has ever done before. They want success and fame without making the effort. In Facebook groups, they are forever asking for help naming a character, plotting their stories, and generally asking someone else to do their thinking for them. A few go so far as to look for a cheap ghost writer, who can do the first draft for them, which they hope to edit into a fortune.

These queries would not be so depressing if they contained any indication that the asker had made some effort themselves first. Even posting a poll would show some effort. Instead, though, the queries are asked of strangers and easily satisfied, suggesting that what is wanted is a shortcut, rather than the sounding board that might be asked of a trusted critiquing partner.

Accompanying this unwillingness to work is usually an overwhelming sense of ambition. Wannabes regularly boast of writing several thousand words per day, and while I haven’t seen most of these results, I have a suspicion that the results are low-quality, because they claim these results day after day — a level of production that is almost impossible to sustain by accomplished writers. If they are writing fantasy, they have already plotted a series of a dozen novels or more. Some actually claim to have written such a series, although samples are not forthcoming.

However, in contrast to these extremes of ambition, the wannabes seem strangely short of things they want to say. They are surprised by suggestions that they observe people, or make notes of how people talk. Instead, they borrow from the little they have read, calling their borrowings tropes — as though renaming can hide a cliché. Nothing is truly original anyway, they reassure themselves, absolving themselves of any responsibility to come up with something new. If, as happened recently in one Facebook group, a wannabe wants some sort of monster to inhabit the beaches, they turn to the D&D monster manual for inspiration. Instead of creating a character of their own, they use an elf or dwarf, whose characters are already delineated by their species. The inevitable results are a copy of a copy of a copy, at best with a small twist or two that is not enough to hide the essential blandness. At times, more effort seems put into the social interaction of NaNoWriMo than in the everyday effort of putting publishable words on the page.

Not everyone, of course, intends to write literature. Nor is there anything wrong with writing a genre novel with clean and competent hands, or a piece of fan-fiction as a learning exercise. In fact, both genre and fan-fiction novels can be sometimes be respected as decent pieces of craft, and, sometimes as art.

However, the combination of a lack of preparedness, an unwillingness to put in the effort, and imitative ambition makes the writing of most wannabes depressing. When their works are finished at all, over-earnestness and a lack of humor or perspective generally sabotage them beyond any hope of redemption or success. I can only hope that the wannabes enjoy their hobby, because for the majority, that is all their writing can reasonably be expected to be.

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.