Diversity

Writing Other Cultures: A Musical Analogy

Writers are often told to stay in their lane and to avoid writing from perspectives other than their own. Often, this advice is accompanied by the statement that no one should even attempt to write from another perspective, and could not possibly write well if they tried. It’s a claim that comes from past examples, and out of understandable frustration due to inequalities in the publishing industry. However, based on an analogy in the music industry, I wonder if it is incomplete.

The inequalities in publishing today are reminiscent of the situation in the recording industry seventy years ago. Then, even more so than today, Black musicians were shut out. Worse, at the same time, White performers were stealing Black music. Many, unsurprisingly, insisted that Whites could not credibly play Blues, Jazz, or R&B, because they had not lived the life that gave rise to the music.

Yet in practice, in the coming decade, that claim was partly discredited, as some up and coming White performers looked beyond the limitations of borrowed Black music to find the originals. By the 1970s, groups like the Rolling Stones were appearing on stage with older Black musicians like Muddy Waters, and looking like fanboys, obviously delighted to be performing with their cultural heroes. More recently, a collection of Robert Johnson’s recorded work included liner notes by Keith Richards.

Trying to map what happened, my critique partner Jessica cited a recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” by the Neville Brothers, an all-Black band. For both Jessica and I, this recording could be called the definitive version of this classic spiritual. Like the best spirituals, it is not a hymn, rejoicing in religious belief, although it assumes a religious background. Rather, it is existential, concerned with mourning and human suffering. Like a tragedy, it is cathartic, allowing the listeners release through their identification with the emotions surrounding a family funeral. Although recorded several decades after the 1950s, it still comes out of the Black experience in the truest sense.

Jessica rightly pointed out that White performers could hardly hope to equal the Neville Brothers. By contrast, she mentioned a version of “Will the Circle Be UnBroken?” performed by Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Ricky Skagg – an all white ensemble. We both agreed that this version of the spiritual was nowhere near as powerful as the one by the Neville Brothers.

So far, this example supports the prevailing claims. However, while not reflecting Black experience, we agreed that the Johnny Cash version was skillfully done, especially in its use of Baptist call and response. In the end, we decided that the performers had borrowed the Black experience and produced something different. Although less effective, it still had some power to move listeners.

However, that analogy seemed incomplete. Neither of us believed that the average White musician could be as successful as Johnny Cash and company in using Black experience in a respectful way or in creating something different. Far too many attempts to do this were more like Pat Boone’s version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” which is built around a cheery, upbeat arrangement that showed little understanding of the song, and grated after only a few bars in its wrongness. A browse through YouTube showed that most White versions of the song were far closer to Pat Boone’s than Johnny Cash’s.

If this analogy has any validity, then it is mostly true to say that artists have to live the experience to depict it well. Without that experience, the results are apt to resemble Pat Boone’s. However, at the same time, a skilled artist, with a similar experience to draw upon in their own life, can do a credible rendition of the experience they depict, and perhaps turn it into something different, but interesting in its own right.

What this means is that while it may be an overstatement to say that writing outside your lane is impossible, it is unlikely to be done after no more than reading a few Wikipedia articles. It is a difficult undertaking, achievable even partially only by accomplished and conscientious writers. Unless you are prepared to work hard, and to listen to people who have lived what you borrowing, then it is better not to try at all. As John Le Carré said, “A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger” – but none of us are good writers in everything we try.

Uncategorized

How I Learned to Handle Criticism

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, regardless of your genre, as inevitable as covid-19, when you publish you are going to get criticism. Moreover, a lot of it is going to irritate you so much that if you were an oyster, you’d be producing pearls by the bucket-load. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty years of selling non-fiction, it’s this unenviable fact. I’ve come to accept, too, that the only choices are to stop publishing or to develop a skin as thick as plate armor.

Maybe I’m insecure, but one criticism can ruin my day even when accompanied by twenty comments that sing my praises. There are simply so many ways that a negative comment can be wrong. The least of those are the readers who are not talking about my article at all. Instead, they have something they want to say that is vaguely connected to my topic, and are using my article as a way to get more readers. Much worse are the ones who take a single sentence out of context. The ones who attack me for not saying exactly what I said. The ones who miss that a comment is sarcastic or flippant. Worst of all, those who have never met me but decide to dislike me, and become on-line stalkers (which has happened three times). I do not expect everyone to like my work, but I often find myself saying that, if people are going to criticize, they can at least criticize me for what I actually say or think.

Then there is the fact that criticisms can be mutually contradictory. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have had people call me a capitalist apologist and a communist stooge because of the same article. Still others have condemned me as pro and anti feminist as the result of one article. Such responses leave me baffled as well as irritated. How can one article produce utterly different responses? Surely, the article cannot support mutually exclusive views?

When I first start selling articles, all these reactions left me shattered. In my naivety, I imagined that my articles would be universally loved, that I would be hailed as an essayist for all time, as the next George Orwell or Christopher Hitchens. Rudely disabused, I was left wondering if I had any ability at all. I would brood for days, so strongly affected that I could barely write the next overdue article.

For my own sanity, I had to snap out of this funk. I couldn’t afford to brood so much that I couldn’t write. Still less could I afford to answer every response that I felt misunderstood. For one thing, my critics seemed to have endless time to nitpick and argue. For another, practically none of them would ever admit they were wrong. I could have spent days, sometimes weeks arguing, and in the end I would have nothing to show for my time except wasted effort.

Still, staying quiet went against my nature. I could imagine myself as the angry figure in the famous xkcd comic, staying up late to hammer out a reply because someone on the Internet is wrong! While some commenters defended me, who was better qualified to correct all the misunderstandings than me?

Yet gradually, I learned how unimportant most of these comments were. They didn’t change the opinion that publishers and editors had of me. I was still paid to write, and a month later the flame wars the hostile commenters sparked were forgotten. The only loser was me when I was distracted by trivia. So, gradually I learned to control my annoyance and use my time in more constructive ways.

I admit, though, that I couldn’t bring myself to let all their misrepresentations stand. Instead, I compromised with myself. I would allow myself a maximum of two responses. In the first, I would correct anything I felt wrong in their comments. In the second, I would answer any further misapprehensions, and announce that I was ending the discussion. They might continue to rant but I’d have had my say, and they were left talking to themselves.

And in the end, why should I care what they said? I didn’t know them, and I definitely didn’t want to.

That is the advice that I would give to new writers overwhelmed by hostile reactions: don’t let them waste your time, and move on as soon as possible. Don’t let their hostility make you ignore legitimate comments — sometimes, people find significant mistakes in your work, or express a point of view you haven’t considered, and deserve your thanks and revisions. But if the response is abusive, with no redeeming features, don’t let it affect your life. Correct it if you must, and then ignore it. Your detractors will be left fuming, and you will be much happier.

Diversity

The Commodification of Indigenous Culture

Earlier this week, my blog partner Jessica wrote about the difference between an enthusiasm for another culture and fetishizing it. By fetishizing, I take her to mean having a view of the culture that is superficial and false and reduces the culture to another brand to sell. To illustrate this meaning, I can think of no better example than the prevailing views about indigenous cultures of North America — those who in Canada we call the First Nations. In their case, the commodification has become almost mainstream.

In the current political climate, to talk about Black culture might seem more timely. However, in Canada, the First Nations occupy some of the position as Afro-Americans in the United States. Moreover, the First Nation’s situation is something I know firsthand. Knowing many First Nations artists and supporting their work, I have heard these misguided views I am pointing at again and again (and also the mingled anger and laughter of the First Nations themselves, since there is no shortage of European ethnics to tell them what to think about their culture).

For one thing, many people are surprised that there are more than one First Nations culture. In the minds of many, the traditional culture stretches from Florida to Alaska. It is like assuming that everyone from Ireland to Russia shares the same culture. The truth is that there have been hundreds of First Nations culture, ranging from nomads to city states and even empires. Those cultures that survive today are united chiefly by their treatment by the European settler governments, who for several centuries have done their best to eradicate and assimilate them.

The imagined pseudo-culture is a grab-bag of traits and customs. The tipis of the plains mingle with the totems of the Pacific Northwest. Everyone wears feathered bonnets and build sweat lodges, and decorate their dwellings with dream-catchers. Everything is all very spiritual — much more so than in modern industrial society, as one potential buyer told a local carver who drives a pickup, lives in a suburban house, and earns most of his income from his online store. It is apparently a deeply romantic place, especially in Germany, where thousands of fans of Karl May’s early twentieth century novels gather to spend a few weeks camping in tipis and calling each other by what they imagine are First Nation names.

This pseudo-culture is so powerfully entrenched in our minds that the modern reality is mostly ignored. Nothing is said of the poverty that many First Nations face. If we think at all, most of us imagine that the First Nations people who survive live on reserves and are dying out, when the reality is that three-quarters are urban, and the birth rate is among the highest of any ethnic groups in North America. Tell them that First Nations like the Nisga-a and the Navajo are self-governing, or that other hereditary chiefs are enough of a power to start country-wide protests, as the Wet’suwet’en of northern British Columbia did, and none of it makes an impression. The pseudo-culture claims our imagination more than the reality.

The pseudo-culture is especially strong when it comes to art. The best-known art among the northern First Nations of British Columbia is known as formline, a semi-abstract library of shapes and traditions that is often compared to Celtic knotwork. Often, it depicts family crests, although the art sold to the general public is more likely to depict stories from the traditional mythologies that are not owned by a particular family.

In its complexity, formline is regarded as one of the great arts of the world. Yet many of us, historically beginning with visiting surrealists and anthropologists, regard it as a primitive art form. Never mind that modern formline draw inspiration from Maori, New Guinea and South America, as well as from the minority cultures of China and Japan. Tourists on the streets of Vancouver see no difference between formline masterpieces and a carving done by an unskilled homeless person sitting in a doorway, except that the homeless person’s is much cheaper. Tourists are also easy marks for “artifakes” carved in Indonesia that are made of mahogany rather than cedar or alder, and mostly imitate formline with no understanding.

Instead, the pseudo-culture imposes its own meanings and standards. Countless gift shops sell pewter pendants and earring with a tag attached that assigns a characteristic to the animal depicted. Wolves, for instance, might be said to symbolize ferocity, or bears tenacity. Among those about to marry, rings or bracelets with pairs of hummingbirds are popular. I have often heard customers in shops natter on about this symbolism as they make their choices, although the entire system originated almost entirely in the minds of copywriters looking for a way to move more marketing.

Meanwhile, amid all this misguided imagining, the true cultures and reality of the First Nations are mostly ignored. A few writers, like Eden Robinson — who is First Nations herself — depict modern First Nations lives but such works are rare. Moreover, in any sort of fantasy, the pseudo-culture prevails. I have seen fantasies, for example, in which the giants of the Cherokees are conflated with the Sasquatch of modern Northwest Coast lore, although all the two have in common is height. Similarly, the Wendigo spirit of the eastern Woodlands is placed in Oregon, or the skinturners of the Pueblo legends in New York. It’s all the same culture, the reasoning seems to be, so why would the details matter.

After decades of genocide and neglect, this pseudo-culture is a final insult. After being nearly eradicated, now that the cultures are reviving, they are made into commodities — that, is, when they are not erased altogether in fantasy, or replaced by homo erectus, or orcs and trolls.

But in addition, reaching for the pseudo-culture should be deeply embarrassing to any writer. To do so, is to brand yourself superficial, if not actually racist. And, perhaps most importantly, it is to chose the trivial over the richness of the true traditions. Any writer who fetishes another culture in this way should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

Characters, General Writing

The Fallacies of Character Flaws

“What are your main character’s flaws?” I scroll past this attempt at conversation several times a week. I never try to answer it, because it is usually based on the assumption that a main character, if not all characters, are only realistic and sympathetic if they have defects. This assumption is so cluttered with fallacies that I have never taken the time to answer it until now.

So far as I can tell, the assumption seems based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics. In discussing tragedy, Aristotle introduces the term hamartia. Harmatia is often popularly translated into English as “flaw,” but, according to Wikipedia, is a much more neutral term, better translated as “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” Harmatia is the misunderstanding or lacking piece of information that determines the events of the tragedy.

So, right away, the belief that a personality flaw is needed is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding explains why it can be difficult to assign a flaw to a classical tragic hero. What, for example, is the flaw that leads to Oedipus marrying his mother? By every indication, Oedipus is a conscientious, upright soul with a strong sense of responsibility. Similarly, nothing is lacking in Orestes when he kills his mother. Rather, Orestes is caught between his duty to his mother and his responsibility to avenge his father’s murder. Neither Oedipus nor Orestes can be assigned a flaw without stretching a point, although many teachers have tried.

The tradition continues when Shakespeare is taught. I remember being told in high school that Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, while Hamlet was unable to make up his mind. Such over-simplifications create the illusion that we have a handle on complicated stories, but do we? Othello does not leap to jealousy by himself, but has his relationship with his wife poisoned by the whisperings of Iago. As for Hamlet, he delays only until he is convinced that what his father’s ghost has told him is true. If you had to assign Hamlet a flaw in Act V, it would be that he acts far too rashly.

Harmatia is a flexible enough term that it can cover Oedipus, Orestes, Othello, and Hamlet, but the hunt for flaws simply doesn’t work. However, few writers today are producing tragedies, so harmatia is irrelevant. Aristotle was not analyzing the structure of stories, but of tragedy, which is only a subset of stories. No matter how you translate Aristotle, his comments have no more than an indirect insight into a modern novel or short story.

Still, believers in flaws are apt to say, a flawed character is easier to identify with. And it is true that an impossibly noble hero is unlikely to be sympathetic. Often, an anti-hero, an amoral rogue with some redeeming traits is more likely to keep readers turning pages. However, all stories cannot be about anti-heroes. More importantly, I have to ask whether a personality flaw really makes a hero more relatable. Do we actually like a character more if they are weak-willed? If they drink too much? Or sleep around? At the very least, flaws only make a character more sympathetic if they are carefully selected. We might identify, for instance, with a ruthless killer who shows mercy, or only murders the corrupt. However, flaws alone do not seem a consistent tactic to make readers identify with a character.

Besides, fiction is not a role-playing game, where characters exist in isolation because the story is shaped by the DM. In fiction, a character depends largely on the needs of the plot. Does the story require someone who changes sides? Then the character involved is likely to be someone with imagination and empathy. Does it depend on a betrayal? Then the betrayer needs a motive like a lost cause or a wish for revenge. Successful characters rarely emerge fully-formed — they develop in a complex interplay with setting and plot where it is hard to say which comes first. If they are created in isolation, they are likely to be unconvincing. No matter how many flaws you sprinkle over them like spice, there is no hiding that you are serving up a bland dish.

Anyway, who is to say what a flaw is? A character who is rash could be praised in one circumstance for resolution, and in another for thoughtfulness. By contrast, working with the concept of flaws seems almost certain to result in puppet-like characters whom no one wants to read about.

What characters do need is an arc: a movement from one state to another. They might set out to accomplish a certain task. They might learn as the story continues, becoming fit to realize their goals in a way they weren’t at the start of the story. Such arcs are what engage readers — not a set of arbitrary flaws.

General Writing, Marketing, Reviews and Analysis

How I Learned to Love Series

Shamefacedly, I have to admit: I’m now writing a trilogy. And to make matters worse, I feel pretty good about it.

It wasn’t always that way. For much of my life, I’ve looked down on trilogies. Tolkien may have needed to divide The Lord of the Rings into three books in order to be published, but that was something imposed on him, not something he planned. Those who have come after him usually don’t have the same excuse. As a result, trilogies have come to mean one book’s worth of material stretched over three, with a sagging second book that should be hurried over as quickly as possible to get to the better stuff. To me, trilogies were a sign of flabby writing and imagination.

As for series — well, I’d say don’t get me started, but I’m already on the backstretch. While I’ve read series, too often they seemed to me to be shameless catering to readers’ demands for more of the same. Nothing a serious writer (sniff!) would consider. Something always died in me when I heard aspiring writers cheerfully planning a twelve book series. “Why are you planning to be a hack?” I always wanted to ask.

Weighed down by these prejudices, when I became serious about writing fantasy, I resolved to only write single books. The trouble was, my current work in progress kept bolting and trying to become a duology. No, a trilogy. No, a series. Two-thirds of the way through and worried about length, I finally admitted the obvious: there were three sharply defined arcs in the tales, and I would have a far better chance of publication if I placed them in separate, shorter volumes.

I take comfort in the fact that in the marketplace, if not necessarily the canon, I am following in the footsteps of Tolkien. The only difference is that I am doing so before being asked. These days, that’s the likeliest way of getting agents or publishers to even consider me.

More importantly, I have to admit that a trilogy or a series does not condemn me to literary mediocrity. Plenty of respectable writers do series. Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, has kept her Miles Vorkosigan saga fresh for over twenty books. She does so by making each book independent of the others except for the same background and many of the characters. Mostly, they center on her hero Miles at a different stage in his life. More recently, though, the series have centered on Miles’ cousin, mother, and wife. And throughout, books have borrowed from genres ranging from space opera to mysteries and romantic comedies. Similarly, her forays into fantasy like the Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and her Penric novellas share little more than their background. With tactics like these, Bujold manages to keep the individual books in her series fresh. They benefit from the shared background, but stand on their own.

More recently, I have come across Daniel Abraham’s five volume series, The Dagger and the Coin. According to my former attitudes, this work should be twice-damned, because it is not only a series, but one with multiple points of views — a choice many writers have followed down the path to disaster. However, Abraham manages to pull off these challenging choices, largely because of his unusual characters. Ensnared by genre tropes, how many other writers would make one character a young girl learning the intricacies of banking, of all things? Or an utterly conventional noble woman forced to struggle for her family’s and country’s survival? Or a villain who is a lonely introvert out to revenge himself for bullying, who cares for his young ward? Each of his leads is so strongly motivated that arc could be a novel in itself, and the fact that most books in the series have a minimal resolution hardly matters. Like Tolkien, the books are really one novel, and kept me too busy hurrying on to the next one to exercise my prejudices.

As I should have known, the problem was never with series in themselves. It was with mediocre writers, mindlessly following conventions. If there are any limitations to trilogies or series, strong writing and originality can overcome them.

So, yeah, I’m writing a trilogy. Want to make something of it?

General Writing

Why I Use Chapter Titles

Chapter titles are rarer than they once were. Today, chapter titles rarely go beyond listing the point of view in the coming chapter. Instead, chapters are simply numbered. When I started to write, I had the vague impression that numbered chapters were a sign of seriousness — of being more literary. Yet many of my favorite childhood novels used titles, and, halfway through my first novel, I added them on an impulse. It was only as I went on that I realized that there were several solid reasons for chapter titles.

The first reason is the simplest: on the whole, English-speaking culture is not numerically literate. Or, to put it another way, most of us do not remember numbers as well as words. You might be a person who remembers where they left off reading, or a reviewer citing a chapter, but, either way, you are like to recall a title more easily than a number. Titles, I believe, are a more efficient way of identifying a chapter than numbers.

More importantly, a well-chosen title can serve as an additional hook. Just as the opening sentences of a novel lure readers into the book, so a chapter title can lure readers into continuing onwards in the book. The only difference is that a title has fewer words to develop the hook — usually no more than half a dozen words. Usually, a title usually needs to be less subtle than a conventional hook. At the same time, it should not give too much away. Yet, within these restrictions, you can still hope to catch readers’ interest. Offer them “The Unexpected Guest,” and with any luck readers will stay around to learn who — or what — puts in an appearance. Similarly, “Blame and Betrayals” promises conflict, while “The Salmon Road” might lure readers onware for n explanation of the unusual phrase. More elaborately, if you can trust most of your readers to know their Chaucer, “The Craft So Long to Learn” suggests that somebody in the chapter learns something important to them. Used as a hook, a title can encourage readers to continue for just one more chapter — and maybe just one more after that.

Titles can also indicate themes. For example, when I retrofitted titles to my own work, I noticed that many titles referred to the relationships between families. It was only after seeing a table of contents that I made this observation — and after I did, it helped me to unify my writing by more specific references to families. Without seeing the titles in a table of contents, I might never have realized what I was doing, or had any control over it.

Other, more astute writers, can choose titles for themes deliberately. For instance, a story set in the early 1960s might borrow quotes from Bob Dylan to emphasize the setting. The Canadian fantasist Dave Duncan (who deserves to be much better known) once used lines from the old folk song “Sir John Peel” and named his characters after dogs in the song to emphasis, obviously but powerfully that the story was about a hunt, although of people rather than game.

However, perhaps the greatest advantage of titles is for the writer rather than the readers. In a one hundred thousand word novel, writers get all sorts of opportunities to practice different aspects of their craft. Yet if you number your chapters, a notable exception is the title — that you only do once. Perhaps that is one reason why so many writers agonize over titles. I myself generated at least three dozen titles over a year, and the final candidate did not even originate with me.

By contrast, after generating some thirty chapter titles, the next time I came to choose a title was much easier. I produced three titles in an hour, and in another half hour had my title. The next time, I was just as quick. I can only conclude that finding a title, like most aspects of writing, becomes easier with practice. Chapter titles, I conclude, on warmups for the main event.

Numbering titles do give you one less thing to worry about as you write. Yet when I stop to consider, titles are more useful for readers, and can help with thematic structures in general. I once thought that choosing numbered or titled chapters was mostly a matter of whim, but, having experimented, I am never going to willingly do without titles ever again.

Fiction, General Writing

Making Infodumps Work

Like most writers, I struggle with back story. It’s often necessary, especially when writing fantasy, but how do you provide it with bringing the story to screeching halt? I’ve tried making the details interesting. I’ve tried doling out the information in dribbles and drabs. I’ve tried epigraphs at the start of each chapter. Whenever possible, I develop characters who would naturally think about certain matters. All these tactics can have limited success, the most effective tactic, I’ve found can be expressed in a single word: dramatize. Make the inclusion of the information a natural part of the story. If possible, have something else happen as the information is being given.

The simplest way to dramatize is to arrange a situation in which one character gives information to others. For example, have a student writing an essay. Place a general in a situation room, describing battle plans. Have a newcomer who needed to be brought up to speed. However, in writing any scene like this, you need to avoid writing a lecture, or of providing what TV calls “talking heads.” Such results are no better than a congealed mass of info-dump, and could mean that your extra effort to be reader-friendly is wasted.

Another tactic might be to have the point of view character overhear other tactics. The difficulty here is that it is difficult to have one character overhear everything they need to know without straining readers’ belief. It seems unlikely that your viewpoint character could conveniently overhear all they need to know.that the same character could conveniently overhear all they need to know — moreover, the overheard conversation is a cliché. Perhaps, though, you might give the cliché new life by having the viewpoint overhear a fraction of a conversation, or a few cryptic comments that they have to puzzle over, or else combine with information from another source

I suppose you could have a nervous character doing something for the first time, and muttering instructions. For example, a thief breaking into a secret room could be reminding herself, “Tenth brick from the fire place, press the acanthus leaf above it. Damn, why do secret rooms have to be so — secretive?” Similarly, a character might analyze information found in a book or in a film. So long as you establish that the character acts that way, mixing the information with a character’s self doubts and thoughts might dilute the dry, encylopedic tone of a recitation of facts.

Most of the time, though, at least two characters are needed to dramatize successfully. After all, you can hardly populate your novel with a dozen people who talk to themselves. But when you play one character off against another, the possibilities open up. For instance, imagine that it is important to your story that two ethnic groups have a hereditary feud. You might place a representative of both ethnicities together, and have them argue with each other. They could hurl insults and accusations. They could bring up the events of the past century, example being met with counter-example. While the information is being given to the reader, the characters’ argument can escalate, possibly to the point where they have to be separated before violence to begin. As they argue, the characters can also reveal their personalitiess.

To give a more specific example, recently I decided to give the history of a war through an alcoholic who fought on the losing side. He is at a dinner held by his former foes. He wants to show a generous attitude to his hosts. In his befuddled state, he concludes that the best way to do so is to stand up and praise them. However, his audience is impatient, because they already know the facts. Even worse, he is undiplomatic, mentioning incidents that embarrass his hosts. Worst of all, his audience includes his teen age daughter who is mortified by behavior. In his drunken state, he insists on not only having his say, but, interpreting the responses to him as an affront to his host, also starts scolding everybody. The situation works because the information is delivered with other purposes in mind as well: showing his character and his daughter’s, and the attitudes that linger between former enemies. If I have done what I intended, readers will absorb the information while being entertained by the dramatic cross-currents, the story being uninterrupted.

Presenting backstory as part of the story requires ingenuity. If you are like me, it may require several drafts before all the cross-currents work together. Yet, in the end, it provides a solution to one of aspiring writers’ biggest problems: giving back story without sabotaging their storytelling. Try it for yourself, and you will see what I mean.

General Writing

Why Mood Matters in a Story

Writing about writing is hard. Everything from world-building and outlining to opening hooks and sentence length has been covered so many times that finding some useful tidbit to add sometimes seems impossible. The truth is, though, that most articles repeat the same banalities and half-truths and plenty of room remains for originality. More importantly, some topics are never covered at all. As someone who started as a poet, I particularly notice the lack of discussion about mood (or atmosphere or tone, if you prefer). Perhaps as a result of this lack, many modern novels come across as flat and distant. So far as mood is created, it is usually by accident, with little control.

By “mood,” I mean the feeling that a passage invokes in a reader. In fantasy, mood used to be so common that it was a defining feature. Fantasy was supposed to be about sense of wonder, whether of awe or terror. The classic fantasies of Lord Dunsany or E. R. Eddison were all about leaving readers breathless in their descriptions of settings and events. As late as Tolkien, mood was an essential part of fantasy. Think of Tolkien’s home-like Shire, or the twilight glories of Rivendell and Lothlorien, or the wasteland that is Mordor, and you will understand immediately what I mean. The descriptions of these places are as important as the characters and plots. They are a main reason why some readers fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. A poet himself, Tolkien offers readers a poet’s eye view of his world.

Yet as fantasy has gained in popularity, mood has been de-emphasized. Part of the problem may be the amount of generic fantasy published. By definition, generic fantasy concentrates on the more superficial aspects — imitators copy elves and orcs more often than Tolkien’s worldbuilding or writing style. Another problem may be that blockbuster movies and games have made fantasy fiction a genre of action or plot, with less attention being paid to subtler aspects like mood. When attention is paid to mood, it is usually to admire the animation or green screen effects, rather than the audience’s response to special effects. As a result, mood has all but disappeared in fiction. With the emphasis on plot, mood is viewed as extraneous to the art of storytelling.

I find this state of affairs unfortunate (by which I mean, comparable to an alien invasion or a tidal wave followed by Godzilla’s relatives arriving all at once for a family reunion). Not using mood is as odd as writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”: you can do it, but why limit yourself so arbitrarily? Especially when the result is so unsatisfactory?

If you doubt what I say, take The Return of the King from the shelf and open it to “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” The chapter describes the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor. The city is vastly outnumbered and waiting for allies who may not come. Detail after detail accumulate to create a feeling of hopelessness. As the chapter ends, Gandalf the wizard confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, who mocks him and promises destruction. Things could not get any worse. Then:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Just like that, the mood of despair, that keeps readers turning the pages with growing apprehension, is replaced by relief with a sentence of five words. The entire chapter, and especially the ending, is a masterpiece of mood control, and proof enough of the importance of mood. I would call it the best writing Tolkien ever did.

But how do you capture some of the same power in your own writing? I have no idea how Tolkien did it, but I have found a technique that works for me. I start by deciding what mood I want to create, and reduce that mood to a single word, such as grief or relief or strangeness. Then I open up the thesaurus and note all the synonyms for that word.

However, I do not use that word, nor any of its synonyms. Besides being unsubtle, that would simply not work. You do not create a mood of horror by using the word “horrible.”

Instead, as I write, I try to choose words and descriptions that create that word. For instance, to give an unsubtle example, to invoke grief I might mention shadow and night, and funeral hymns. Possibly, I might choose a viewpoint of someone who grieves. One word, one phrase at a time, I work, and, if I am successful, a reader will receive the impression I want. If I want to orchestrate a change in mood, as Tolkien does, I repeat the process, and figure how I want to make the transition from one mood to another. In effect, choosing the word is a form of outlining, but for mood instead of actions.

Sometimes, the effect is as simple as a simile or a metaphor. For instance, if I write, “Silence spread like a stain,” the comparison carries a hint of the ominous, of something out of control and wrong. At other times, the effect works through an accumulation of details. For instance, in describing a keep, I could have written simply

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire.

However, I wanted to create a sense of the uncanny, so I wrote:

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire. Giant-built, said others, pointing at the outsized stones. Built by others, harpers said when the fire was reduced to ember. Other folk, human only by whim.

The additional two sentences and fragment steadily move readers from history to legend, to hints of the supernatural — to ghost stories. And with their addition, a snippet of info-dump suddenly becomes more interesting.

Strictly speaking, mood is unnecessary to the story. Yet by working to create it, writers can add to readers’ experience. It may even be the case that, when readers remember a scene or re-read a story, the reason may be that they have been struck by the mood.

Queries

10 Ground Rules for Comping

Comping is the comparison of your submitted novel to similar ones in a query. Personally, I have doubts about comping — is everything a hybrid of existing works? — but comps are a quick way to give a sense of your work. In fact, many agents and publishers insist on them. Not being in a position to set the rules, I am dutifully selecting comps for when I begin to query. The process is harder than it looks — much harder, I find, than writing a blurb. So far, while I’ve made some progress, what I have most learned is how not to comp.

Here are the basic ground rules I’ve set for myself:

Favorites may not make the best comp

The point is not to gush over the books I love, but to start the process of selling my book. A basic honesty is required, since I am hoping to start a long-term business relationship (and, knowing me, I would probably get caught if I pretended that I had read a book that I hadn’t), but the goal is to attract attention, to suggest I write in a certain tradition, or have a unique juxtaposition of ideas. Some of my old favorites simply would not fit with the book I’m querying.

Avoid Mentioning Other Media

I have seen some queries reference films, games, or graphic novels. While these references may work with some recipients, I plan to avoid them myself. After all, I am pitching a book, not a film or a game. Moreover, I have noticed that the more aspiring writers reference other media, the less polished their writing is usually is. Possibly, I am overrthinking things, but I want to show my competence with the written word, not with other media.

Comps should be in the genre

Sometimes, genre crossovers work. My favorite example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, which could accurately be described as Space Opera Meets Pride and Prejudice in a Shakespearean Comedy. However, I doubt that such a juxtaposition would be well-received from a first-time writer. While some recipients might be delighted by it, I suspect more would find it too off the wall, and conclude that I have tried something too ambitious for my level of skill that would be difficult to market.

Comps May Be About More Than Style

Most writers I’ve talked to select comps in terms of plots and themes. However, they can also be marketing potential. For example, my critique partner Jessica, who lived for years in China and is married to Chinese man, is writing a novel set in a fantasy version of China. She is thinking of comping S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, partly because Chakraborty is an American writing about the Muslims and married to Muslim. The implication is if Chakraborty’s background makes her novel acceptable in the age of diversity, then so is hers.

Avoid Blockbusters

It used to be that all fantasies were described as “in the tradition of Tolkien.” You won’t find that on recent releases, though. Tolkien has become so ubiquitous in our culture that the phrase has lost all meaning. If anything, using would suggest a superficial knowledge of fantasy. The same goes for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter.

Watch for hidden pitfalls

Selecting some books would simply send the wrong message. For instance, while I generally admire Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, early in the book there are some anti-Muslim comments that are ignoant and hard to stomach. The last thing I would want is for an agent or publisher to think I approve of bigotry — especially if I submitted to someone who promotes diversity. On the whole, I think it’s a good idea to re-read a potential comp, just in case it has some passages that would sabotage me.

A comp can be misinterpreted

I briefly considered Patrick Rothfuss as a comp. What I had in mind was the fact that he tells a long, varied story. However, as my critiquing partner pointed out, most people associate Rothfuss with poetic prose. If I did use Rothfuss, I would have to make clear what aspect of his writing I referred to.

A comp should be comparatively recent

I have read fantasy for decades, and accumulated influences the way a ship hull accumulates barnacles. However, can I trust an agent or publisher to recognize an older reference? Could they take the comp as a sign I am out of touch with the market? At least one of the comps should have been published in the last few years.

Mentioning a major writer stakes too large a claim

I have been genuinely influenced by Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet if I use either as a comp, my choice can be read as a claim that I write as well as those famous authors. I’d like to think I do, being as egotistical as any writer, but the danger is that instead of intriguing an agent or publisher, I may encourage skepticism. “Oh yeah?” they might imply. “Prove it!” And I would probably have the same reaction.

Tailor comps to the recipient

Typically, a query names two comps, or at the most three. However, before I start to query, I plan to have at least half a dozen ready to swap in and out of my queries. Being a recovering academic, I am researching agents and publishers and producing a short list before I begin to query. I fully expect that different comps will appeal to different recipients. If I can anticipate which comps appeal to which, maybe I can increase my chances.

The Question Continues

Am I asking too much of myself? Will I be able to navigate around all these complications? Probably not in a day, or maybe even a week. Yet if I can finish a manuscript and survive critiques and revisions, then I should be able to generate a few comps. Maybe when I have my list of comps, I’ll blog again and explain how I chose them.

General Writing

Working with Flop-Sweat

Mainstream culture shuns anxiety. We are taught to avoid stress, and, at the first sign of unease, we are encouraged to find a remedy in the medicine cabinet. Such attitudes may explain why those attempting to write complain so often about writer’s block, or even an inability to get started. We are so conditioned to avoid anxiety that few have considered that it might actually be beneficial — a necessary requirement to do their best work.

This belief is widespread in acting circles. At the start of a new play or film, many actors experience flop-sweat — an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the new venture. Yet far from avoiding it, actors often believe that, unless they experience that nervous edge on opening night, they are unable to give their best performance.

Similarly, years ago, when I was competing in long distance running, I regularly experienced flop-sweat before a race, although I didn’t have a name for it then. The few times I didn’t, I either lost or clocked a slow time.

Maybe flop-sweat is a superstition, but I have a more logical explanation of it. I believe that flop-sweat is unfocused nervous energy. Left unchecked, it can become distraction. However, there is another alternative. If you can focus your tension on the task at hand, it can work for you, rather than against you.

In my experience, you can focus that tension is several ways. Most of them have to do with breathing exercises combined with simple visualization. In the simplest form, the tension could be focused by slow jogging while I focused on inhaling and exhaling. In a more complicated visualization, I would imagine each breath descending through me to create a pool of energy around my diaphragm. Sometimes, I would conclude by imagining one hand raising a zipper that started at my navel and went up my neck to stop below my chin.

When the starting gun went off, I would visualize that energy expanding into my chest, arms and legs. I would start the race in a burst of energy, often taking an early lead, or at least settling in near the fron the pack. Later in the race, I found I could get a second wind by repeating this visualization. My last visualization would in the last one hundred metres. Once across the line, I would often sit or sprawl on the ground, absolutely spent, regardless of what position I finished.

Of course, writing is a less physical act than running — although some dramatic or suspenseful scenes can sometimes leave me almost as tired as running five thousand metres. However, in recent years, I find that the same breathing and visualization exercises work just as well for writing. As in a race, they set me going with a burst of energy. I writer faster than normally, and less critically. Often, I write for several scenes before I start to flag. Almost always, the results are a polished first draft. By channeling my flop sweat instead of trying to suppress it, I can make it work for me rather than against.

I have no guarantee that anyone else will have the same results as I do. Possibly, you may be too conditioned for my technique to work for you. Still, the results are worth the experiment. After all, if you are overcome by writing anxiety in one of its many forms, you’re not likely to make much progress anyway.