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.

Diversity

When Cultural Appropriation Is Forgiven: The Strange Case of Emily Carr

Cultural appropriation is generally easy to condemn. When someone borrows a painting style from another ethnic group, or wears a badge of rank from another culture, there is seldom any ambiguity. If nothing else, the appropriation is often poorly done. But what if the appropriation is art of the highest calibre? What if those whose culture is appropriated not only forgive the appropriation, but are honored and inspired by it? These are some of the questions raised in the case of Emily Carr, who is generally considered one of Canada’s greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Emily Carr was an impressionist who between 1910-40 painted the wilderness and First Nations villages in British Columbia, including totem poles and mortuary sculptures. She would wander the coast with a pack horse and her pet monkey, a well-known and respected eccentric. Her work shows limited knowledge of First Nations art forms, and she almost never attempted to work in them or to imitate them. All the same, her work has a brooding, restless atmosphere all its own.

Statue of Emily Carr by Joe Fafard

Like for many people, Emily Carr was my gateway to genuine Northwest Coast art, which I consider one of the greatest traditions in the world. However, after I learned about appropriation as an adult, my appreciation of her work became a guilty pleasure. Was it okay to like her work? Or should I be embarrassed about my taste?

https://d3d0lqu00lnqvz.cloudfront.net/media/media/7838fa5b-a490-47d0-9566-0c31280fa95e.jpg
Emily Carr, “Big Raven”, 1931

In 2018, the subject of Carr came up in a Facebook group dedicated to ferretting out fraudulent First Nations art – a major problem in the art world, with containers full of fakes being shipped regularly to British Columbia from southeast Asia. Since the group was full of artists, I expected to hear her denounced, loudly and indignantly. However, to my surprise, that wasn’t what happened.

Just the opposite, in fact. Nor was the fact that Carr lived at a time when such issues were viewed differently mentioned by most of the commenters.

It’s not that Carr never culturally appropriates, or that people are unaware of the issues. Recently, Gayton Nabbess, who studied at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, but is not First Nations himself, did not hesitate to respond with the term when asked about Carr’s work. And in the original thread, Brad Letwin described Carr’s ceramics, which were intended for the tourist market, as a classic example of cultural appropriation. Yet Sonny Assu, a post-modernist whose Interventions on the Imaginary sequence involved painting over some of Carr’s work with his own designs, defended her, saying her ceramics were done “reluctantly” to make a living, and debunked the widespread notion that she sought to record a dying culture. Although Assu’s feelings were mixed, he had obviously come to respect her works.

However, for others, the question of cultural appropriation hardly arises. Kwagiulth artist Carey Newman commented,”She didn’t set out to ‘save’ us or preserve our traditions,’ or proliferate our art forms. She didn’t make our work more famous or relatable, she was a painter, not an anthropologist, and when she painted us, she lived amongst us. One of the things that I truly appreciate about her works of villages and totems is the vibrancy and vitality that they communicate. Not a narrative of extinction, not a record for preservation, but a reflection of what she saw and felt, which, considering the cultural superiority of the day, is remarkable on its own and speaks to her independent thought. I guess I’m saying that I don’t see it as harmful, nor do I think of work as harmful in any other way.”

Similarly, Haida goldsmith and carver Gwaai Edenshaw wrote that Carr was “honest and unique. She was not taking money out of the pockets of the masters whose shadows land in her paints. She was a member, engaged with the community. If anything her work has increased the reach of our market.”

Others in the thread praised her for the historical record she left. Haida artist and activist Dan Wallace observed that her work “shows actual family ties to the poles that were there at that time.” Veteran artist Richard Hunt wrote, “When people say, ‘Did you really live here?’ I say, “‘Yes, look, Emily Carr painted our pole here!'” Gitxsan artist and teacher Arlene Ness said that “it shows the power of our culture that the totems, culture, and communities captured her. The depth to her paintings reveal the impact the Northwest Coast had on her. She then belonged to the Northwest Coast. She stayed in the villages and was welcomed and accepted. Gitanyow and Kispiox (upper Skeena River/ Gitxsan) are two of the places she made home temporarily…. She is regarded favorably in my area.”

https://i1.wp.com/www.museevirtuel.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/emily_carr/data/images/VAG-42.3.104_lge.jpg
Emily Carr, “Kispiox Village”

I mention these comments because they are such a contrast to the usual narrative of cultural appropriation. While the culturally sensitive insist that appropriation is never acceptable, the reactions to Carr tell a more mixed story. Some may be surprised, but in Carr’s case, influential art, honesty, participation in the culture, and giving something back in return for hospitality and inspiration have combined to make appropriation, if not altogether acceptable, at least forgivable. And if members of the culture she painted and her artistic peers can respect her work, who else has any right to complain? The acceptance of Carr should not be mistaken for an unrestricted license for appropriation, but it does show that the issues can be more complicated that many people admit.

Emily Carr, “Zunoqua-of-the-Cat-Village”, 1931

General Writing

What sort of writer do you want to be?

“”I always wanted to be something, but now I see I should have been more specific.” -Lily Tomlin

Years ago, I met another would-be writer at a workshop. I remember that he praised several phrases in my submission, and that the presiding professional – who obviously did not want to be there – pilloried both our offerings. We commiserated, and discussed our writing ambitions. From time to time, we encountered each other at other conventions.

I turned out to be the most timid. Instead of pursuing my ambitions, I detoured into academia and technical writing, producing next to no fiction for years. Meanwhile, I watched with undisguised jealousy as the other writer gained a reputation for editing and started publishing fiction regularly. He was prolific, regularly publishing a novel per month, and frequently doing movie adaptations and theme anthologies. However, I rarely read his work; I couldn’t stand to. His success emphasized my shortcomings.

Last week, I downloaded a collection of ebooks that included one of his. Steeling myself, I made myself read his first. To my surprise, his work was no more than adequate. Background and characters were paper thin, and the plot thinly connected to the premise. I saw no sign of the literary ambition he had at the start of his career. Even allowing for my envy, his work was ephemeral and completely forgettable.

For all I know, he is perfectly content with his career. After all, he is probably making a living as a writer. He gets to deal with fiction daily, and if he goes to conventions, he can claim a place in the privaate room for professionals.

All the same, if I ever meet him again, I would like to ask: was where you are what you had in mind?

More importantly, my envy has drained away. I am in no way contemptuous, but I realize that I do not want what he has got after all. I realize I am more ambitious than him. I don’t just want to make a living writing fiction – my ambition is to be recognized as a writer. In my conceit – maybe in my naivety – I want to write something of value, something that will last. Granted, in today’s market, most works are here and gone in a few months, but I suspect that putting in the effort he has, only for each book to be forgotten in turn would only leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. Now, instead of a jealous chorus of voices whispering, “That could have been you,” when I think of this writer and his work, what I hear inwardly is, “Be careful what you ask.”

General Writing

Slaying the Dragon of Writer’s Block

To inexperienced writers, writer’s block is like a dragon – implacable, unexpected, and leaving behind a desolation of ruined hopes and desires. Probably, no other writing topic occurs so often on Quora, or in Facebook writing groups. Yet, strangely, for more seasoned writers, writer’s block is hardly worth discussing, and for good reason: like any dragon, it doesn’t exist.

Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t exist the way inexperienced writers seem to believe. True, upset or grief can sometimes interfere with writing (although writing is just as likely to help to with either), but, for the most part, writer’s block is not a mysterious, inevitable force so much as a misunderstanding of how writing works.

Sometimes, of course, writer’s block is more than that. In the vast sub-culture of wannabes, having writer’s block can be a rite of passage, a sign that you are part of the tribe. For some, it seems a convenient excuse for not for writing. If that sounds harsh, consider how many veterans say that the likeliest cure for writer’s block is a deadline. If you have responsibility, or when money’s on the line, you don’t have time to posture. You have to produce, so generally you do.

That is not to say that veteran writers never have problems. It means instead that they define problems as problems, not mysterious afflictions. By describing moments when the words won’t come as problem, practicing writers define those moments as situations that have solutions rather than some obtrusive force. Moreover, those solutions are based on a working knowledge of the writing process that newer writers usually lack.

When I taught first year composition at university, I did my best to teach that working knowledge to students, and for many of them, writer’s block disappeared in a matter of weeks. Basically, I taught that there were three distinct approaches to handling writer’s block:

Mixing Writing and Editing

One of the most common reasons for writer’s block is that you are trying to mix writing and editing at the same time. You can tell if you are doing this if you are continually writing a few words, then going back and correcting them, writing a few more, and then making more corrections, growing increasingly frustrated.

This effort is usually a mistake for the simple reason that most of us are hopeless multi-taskers. Moreover, writing and editing are two very distinctive tasks. Broadly speaking, writing draws heavily on the intuitive, unconscious part of the brain, while editing depends on the analytical consciousness. The two do not naturally mix, and constantly switching back and forth between the two only makes both harder.

The solution is simple: don’t mix writing and editing. When writing, relax your critical side and write. Get something down. Then, when you are editing, relax your creative side, and start thinking how you can improve the whole piece that you are writing. Ignore your attachment to a phrase or a paragraph, and decide whether to improve it or delete it based on whether it helps a piece or drag it down. Probably, you can’t completely separate writing and editing, but the more that you can, the easier and more efficient everything is likely to become.

The Road Not Traveled

Other times, a block is a hint from your unconscious that you are doing something wrong. Unlike your conscious self, your unconscious does not express itself in words. If it did, the need for art would not exist. Instead, the unconscious works with symbols, emotions and reactions.

If you find yourself at a lost of words or uncertain what comes next, consider whether your unconscious is signaling that you are not doing something right. If that is what is happening, then trying to push on will rarely work. To keep moving, take a look at your outline, no matter whether it is detailed or just a few scrawled notes, and look for an alternative. Often , the simpler alternative will be the better one.

If you are writing an essay, consider whether the point you are making should be mentioned at all. Or perhaps it is in the wrong place? Similarly, if you writing fiction, maybe something else should be happening? In either case, backing up and finding an alternate route can often get you writing again.

The Curse of Linear Writing

The new writers I have taught often have a very straightforward approach to writing anything. They start at the beginning, and continue step by step to the end.

That can work, particularly if you have a detailed outline. However, when any sort of outline does not develop and change as you work, something is very wrong. Stick too closely to whatever form of outline you made before writing, and you can end up blocking that creative development. At some point, that denial can transform into writer’s block. The discrepancy between what you want to write and what you are writing may simply become too great. Give in to the changes that happen along the way, and you can often start writing again.

However, if you are still blocked, take advantage of the fact that you have an outline. You know where you going, and that means you do not have get there in linear order. You can jump around. Start with the parts you know you can write – usually the parts that give uncontroversial information, such as the historical background to an essay, or the scene where your characters meet. By the time you have finished that passage, you will frequently find that you now know how to write another passage somewhere else in the essay.

Keeping jumping around, saving the start and finish for last. Both will be easier to write once you know what you are introducing and drawing conclusions from. The same goes for the title.

You and the Dragon

What these three tactics have in common is that they treat so-called writer’s block practically. They view writer’s block as something you can work with, as a friendly warning from the deeper parts of your mind.

If all of them fail, look for another perspective. Sleep on the problem, or ask someone for another perspective. Read what you have written out loud, or read it from a print out rather than a screen.

Whatever you do, do not surrender to helplessness. If writer’s block can sometimes seems like a dragon from a myth, remember what those myths tell us about dragons: namely that with courage and planning, dragons can be slain.

Diversity

Diversity: The Added Bonus

I take pride in my efforts at fiction. I like to believe that, eventually, readers will enjoy both my stories and my writing. I have trouble, though, understanding those whose response to even the barest mention of diversity is to insist that nobody can tell them what to write, and to denounce diversity as an infringement on their freedom of speech. I just don’t think that my work is so sacred as to be beyond reproach. Besides, in my experience, diversity is not only right, but its own reward.

Resistance to diversity, of course, is a struggle against historical inevitability. Increasingly diverse populations want diversity in their fiction. You can already see the demand on best-sellers’ lists, and it is only going to continue. Moreover, the call for diversity is one of the best things that could have happened in fantasy. Far from shunning it, or acquiescing with grumbles, any writer with ambition should welcome diversity for the new stories and maturity it brings when you attempt it.

To explain what I mean, I need to talk about my work in progress. Ordinarily, I dislike doing that – it seems a form of boasting, and a claim to a status that I do not currently have. I also believe that talking about an unfinished work to anyone except my critique partners is the surest way to ensure that it is never finished. But please bear with me so I can make my point:

My current work in progress has its origins in a long-ago D&D campaign. From there, it morphed in a failed attempt to sell an outline for a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book. With these origins, my first attempts to write a novel was heavily imitative. It had a wise old dwarf, and a horde of evil barbarians, against whom my Chosen One hero would eventually prevail. Kind readers would have called it generic, a faded photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of J.R.R. Tolkien and T. H. White. Blunter readers would have called it garbage.

Increasingly, so did I. All the same, I struggled on, increasingly puzzled about why I could barely get past the first few chapters. And why couldn’t I get more than the haziest idea of what would happen later in the book? For once in my life, persistence was not paying off. I put the manuscript aside many times, and took it up again just as often, never making much progress.

Then people began to advocate diversity and representation. Books that practiced diversity started to appear. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that, as much as I admire Tolkien, he might not be the last word in how to write fantasy. After all, Tolkien had published over sixty-five years ago. Virtuous elves and evil orcs might have been fine in his day, but just maybe the world had moved on a little?

Slowly, like a spring thaw, my manuscripts began to change. The dwarf changed to my version of dwarves, became human, and a member of a minority. My barbarians stopped being brutish and primitive, and became another culture, driven from their homelands by the ancestors of my main character. Suddenly, my crude concepts of good and evil became a clash of cultures, with something to be said on both sides. My pallid love interest became a young woman caught between two cultures and inclined to be sarcastic about her situation.

Best of all, I realized that, instead of imitating earlier fantasies, I could draw on my own experience. For over a decade, I have collected Northwest Coast art. In the process, I have become tolerated in certain First Nations circles locally. Those who had started out as barbarians in my novel became a beleaguered culture threatened with extinction, and my hero’s proud family history tainted with genocide.

The result? Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to write. My handful of chapters doubled, then tripled. I knew what was coming – not in a detailed way, but with a reasonable sense of the marks I had to hit, and how the story must end. I stopped struggling and learned to enjoy writing. I now believe that my inability to write was my unconscious, frantically telling me I was doing things the wrong way. Accepting the call to diversity freed me to write, because it changed the nature of my relationship to my materials.

I now believe that accepting diversity made me into someone who might one day have a decent chance to become a professional fiction writer. That, of course, is not its main purpose, but for me it was an important side benefit. It’s very satisfying to be able to do the right thing and help yourself at the same time.

If diversity places demands on writers, it gives as much as it demands. It gives us a new perspective and a new maturity. It gives us new stories to tell – deeper, more thoughtful stories. Original stories. Stories for our times, and stories truer to the historical past that is the basis of our fantasy. Even if diversity and representation were not right in themselves, writers should welcome them as gladly as they would anything that makes them better writers.

Better writing in return for being socially responsible? That seems more than fair to me.

Characters, General Writing

Transcription and the Illusion of Dialog

Description is mostly observation. By contrast, when learning to write effective dialog, observation is not enough. Instead, you need to write the way people think they talk, not how they actually do.

This gap between illusion and reality is partly why hearing a recording of ourselves is such an unnerving process. However, even more important is most people’s conviction that they speak concisely.

In fact, almost none of us do. Most of us ramble. We repeat ourselves. We change direction. We lose track of syntax and drop threads and forget to return to them. In twenty years of interviewing people, I have only met one person who spoke in complete, articulate sentences – and he was a lawyer and a professor, and probably a genius.

Confront most of us with a word for word transcript, and our reaction is likely to be even worse. In conversation most of us have learned to mentally edit out each other’s verbal weaknesses. But on the page, the truth is there for all to see and to refer back to. That is why journalists say that the worst thing you can do to someone is quote them word for word. In fact, you can tell from how a person is quoted in the media how popular they are — the more faithful the reporting, the worse a person sounds and the more unpopular they are. More to the point, our misconception is also why writing dialog for an interview or fiction is not simply a matter of copying or imitating how someone speaks. Even the playwright Harold Pinter, whose dialog has a reputation for being life-like, is actually giving an imitation that at least partly preserves our illusions of how we speak.

As a writer of any sort, you need to learn how to present this illusion. Otherwise, your dialog will lie dead on arrival on the page, and encourage readers to skip it.

The Lesson in Transcription

Fortunately, the learning is simple. Download a recording app for your phone and interview a friend or family member for ten minutes. The subject of the interview can be anything – you are after the structure, not the content. If all else fails, the interviewee’s life story or opinion on a news story should get most people talking. Start slowly, asking questions with easy answers, like where they live and work. As your interviewee warms up, they are likely to become less careful in how they speak, which is what you want.

When you done, transcribe the interview. Transcribing is an unlovely process that often involves going over a single sentence over and over until you get it right, but the effort does make you notice the interviewer’s habits and idiosyncrancies – the length of their sentences, their favorite words, and more. Probably, you will get something like this excerpt that I did years ago with a cartoonist:

“I need very strong pressure to do anything at all. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting on the couch.”everything I’ve ever done is because some has said to me, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ And in the studio setting, I definitely need someone to tell me what to do.” Never use ‘plan’ in connection with me doing anything. It’s just that some of my research is more entertaining than the actual comic. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to refer to — use stuff from the documents I’ve found. Because they’re very rare and you just find this stuff, and it’s really funny or illuminating or something. And I’m just like, ‘Oh, God, just look at this thing. I have to fit it in somewhere.”I think that a lot of the things that we live with every day have a bit more of the story in them. It’s dramatic, and it’s very very human, and there’s failure and success — it’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it. I can’t get away from it.”

Transcribing made clear that the interviewee is thorough, articulate, and excited about what she is doing. You can tell from the long sentences, and the way the same basic points are made several times in different ways.

However, to be honest, she rambles. Since providing information was my goal, I could easily reduce the original 180 words to less than 50, and even capture a hint of what the interview sounds like:

“I definitely need someone to tell me what to do. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to use stuff from the documents I’ve found. It’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it.

That reads far better on the page.

Transferring to Fiction

To seem realistic, your fictional dialog needs to be closer to the edited version than the original. However, because fiction is about expressing character,it can have a bit more of the original’s repetition.

For example, imagine that a friend named Jason is trying to persuade a writer named Leslie to go away on an overnight trip:

“You want me to do what?” Leslie said. “It takes a lot to get me off this couch.”

Jason clung to the door frame. “We’ve been planning for months.”

“Never use “plan” in connection with me,” Leslie looked up from her keyboard. “I’ve just found this new stuff for my comic. It’s funny, and Oh, God, I have to find a use for it. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, it’s very, very human. It’s a lot of story. I can’t get away from it, right now.”

See what just happened? Just from looking at a transcription, I have created a character who sounds realistic, and who reveals character in how she speaks. Substitute the unedited transcription, and all that disappears.

If you can, transcribe half a dozen interviews. To varying degrees, you will find the same difference between the original and the effective. If you choose, you could even collect a couple of dozen transcriptions and use them as sources when creating new characters. Yet, if you go no further than realizing that effective dialog is a conventional portrayal of how people actually speak, you will still have taken a major step forward in your writing.

Characters, Diversity

Writing Other Cultures

Depicting other cultures is one of the hardest tasks in writing fantasy. Done properly, it requires experience and research. Moreover, the standards have never been higher. Many say that it should not be done at all out of sensitivity to the oppressed, although the commonly suggested alternative –inventing a culture — frequently results in a patchwork that risks being even more offensive.

Besides, writers will try to depict other cultures anyway. The effort is too much a part of the empathic impulse that lies at the heart of writing. John Le Carré said that a good writer should be able to watch a house cat cross the street and know what if feels like to be pounced on by a Bengal tiger. In the same way, a writer should be able to experience and observe a culture and convey to readers what it feels to belong to it.

So how do you write another culture and minimize the chances of offending or getting everything wrong? Some risk will always remain, but here are seven guidelines I have found useful:

  1. Do your research: A quick crib is not enough. Anthropology has a long history, but its studies are uneven in quality. Even Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology, sometimes marred his work by relying on a single informant, or by throwing out raw data as irrelevant. Unless you know the range of observation and interpretation, you can easily fall prey to skewed opinions. For instance, Wikipedia’s entry for the potlatch of the Pacific Coast is based on late versions of Kwakwaka’wakw practices, which are vastly different from the northern potlatches. The most reliable studies are usually those done by academics hired by members of the culture.
  2. Experience the culture: Being a tourist gives you limited exposure. Visit a culture you are depicting as often as possible. Make friends with members of the culture, and, if you can, live among them. Don’t be surprised, though, if members of the culture often have better things to do than answer your questions.
  3. Discard all stereotypes: They are not only hostile, but inaccurate. Only mention them when — as often happens — members of the culture make fun of them. Tolkien got away cultures that were entirely good or evil, but modern writers cannot. Barbarians who talk like they are brain-damaged are equally outdated.
  4. Remember that even positive stereotypes are racist: A friend of mine who is a Haisla artist tells me that buyers often lecture him on how spiritual and in touch with nature he must be as a status Indian. He is more amused than the angry, but the point is that these assumptions are as inaccurate and offensive than the negative pictures of the First Nations as drunk and uneducated. Treat your characters from other cultures as people, and throw out the Noble Savage and the Mystic.
  5. Do not treat any character as a representative of their culture: No, not even a chieftain or king. Be particularly cautious about ethnic villains– if you must have them at all, make sure that their culture is not the reason for their opposition or evil. Show a variety of different characters from the same culture to remove even a hint of stereotyping.
  6. Never show your main character being immediately accepted by another culture: Nor should your character immediately gain status in another culture or impress everyone with magic, technology, or tricks. H. Rider Habbard’s characters might gain acceptance by claiming to control an eclipse, but those imperialist days are long gone (unless, as S. P. Somtow’s characters once did, yours make the mistake of trying to impress the Maya with their advanced knowledge of astronomy). An outsider generally gains acceptance slowly, and with the help of allies. Go down to the neighborhood pub and start treating the regulars as old friends, and the resulting startled looks will help you quickly understand this basic guideline.
  7. Remember that cultures change how they are expressed over time: Often, the change comes from interaction with other cultures. For example, European contact, and access to steel tools and bright new paints and dyes propelled the art of the Pacific Coast to new heights — a process that continues today in interaction with mainstream art. Similarly, contrary to stereotypes,most of the First Nation people on the coast in the early Twentieth Century were raised Christian. However, the old ways did not disappear: the feast for the birth of a child became a celebration of baptism, with traditions continued under the eyes of unsuspecting missionaries. Today, older spiritualism has been revived by some, and most are as agnostic as the dominant culture.

Of course, even if you follow all these suggestions, you can still expect some hostility. Some commenters are too dogmatic to accept any depiction of a culture unless you have the correct ethnic origin. Sometimes, too, a history of oppression and misunderstanding will cause people to reject your depiction — sometimes without having read it. However, in my experience, depicting another culture is like trying to speak another language when you travel: If you have done your best to learn and are obviously trying, most people will be pleased that you are at least making an effort, even if you don’t get everything right.

And, yes, a lot of effort is required. But how can you portray what you do not understand? And anyway, who said that writing was supposed to be easy?