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Pffft, I Could Totally Do That: Five Misconceptions About Writing

Have you ever told someone in your life that you’re a writer? Did you immediately regret it? As with any other profession, there is no lack of misconceptions about what it is like to be a writer. Some of these misconceptions are simply annoying, but others can be downright harmful. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about life as a writer.

You’re rich and famous (and if you’re not, you will be soon)

In 2020 one sad truth is that for many people, average people with average educations, writers are only notable if they’re famous household names. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin are names that the average person over the age of say 20 would be able to recognize (even if they couldn’t come up with the title of one of their books). It should come as no surprise then, that most people have no real conception of the thousands upon thousands of full time writers who are not rich and famous, but who make modest incomes more comparable to that of a teacher or a nurse than that of a NFL player. This misconception seems harmless on first glance, but it does lead to some dangerous assumptions — such as the belief that pirating books only hurts the rich and that writers who object to piracy are greedy, rather than worried about how they might pay the rent. And if you’re considering writing a book as a fast track to fame and fortune, understand that you might have better luck just buying lotto tickets.

Writing isn’t a real job

Has a friend or a family member ever said something to you along the lines of “wow, it must be nice to not have to work!” Most non-writers imagine you sitting at your computer after a leisurely lie-in, a nice cup of coffee in hand, sitting down to a relaxing few hours at the keyboard, doing that a few days a week for a few months, and then boom, you’ve got a book. Very few people have any idea how much work goes into producing a novel — the multiple rounds of revisions, the re-writes, the editing, the frustrations of the query process. Then, if you are lucky enough to get an agent, comes more editing, sending your book out on submission, waiting anxiously and hoping someone buys your book. Once you have a book deal, then come the pressures of marketing, knowing that if your book doesn’t sell well you might not be given the chance to publish another. All in all the process of writing a book involves several years of intense and stressful work. Is it the same as an office job? A teaching job? No. Writers have more control over their own schedules, it is true, but they tend to have less control over their income, and a lot more uncertainty, especially when they are just starting out.

Everyone has at least one book in them

Tell someone you’re writing a book and there’s a good chance that person will tell you they’ve always wanted to write a novel too.  One of these days, they say, they’re going to do it. After all, don’t they say everyone has at least one book in them? Peek your head into any amateur Facebook writing group and you’ll see plenty of people in those groups who harbor big dreams of big book deals but have absolutely zero sense of how much skill, practice, talent, and hard work goes into writing a book. Perhaps because writing itself is a basic skill — we are all taught in grade school how to string words together to form sentences, even to write essays. “I got an A in English,” they might think, “how hard could it be?” Some of them may even have dabbled in fan fiction even, receiving accolades from fans so hungry for content that they’re willing to overlook the occasional lapse in voice or shifting POV. However, the truth is that writing isn’t easy, and not everyone can do it. Even if most educated people do understand the mechanics of writing, actually crafting a novel requires more than just an idea and the ability to write coherent sentences. A writer must understand how to create tension, how to craft believable dialogue, how to write interesting characters. Simply the act of actually completing a full length novel takes more patience than many people.

Ideas are a writer’s most important currency

This misconception seems to be particularly common among people who have had one good idea that they think would make a great book (or sometimes movie). Once I saw a wannabe writer unironically ask a group of fellow writers “how much do you think my idea is worth?” as if an idea alone has inherent value and that authors should be paying top dollar for such quality inspiration. I’ve seen amateur writers ask, in writing groups, “how do you all protect your ideas?” and other equally amateur writers suggest, in all seriousness, that you should guard your ideas tight, never let them see the light of day, lest someone steal them. These sorts of comments are a sure sign of someone who has no real understanding of what goes into making an idea into a book. Most writers will gladly tell you that the ideas are not the hard part. I have at least a dozen book ideas rambling around inside my head, and have no need to steal anyone else’s ideas. The ideas are easy — what’s difficult about writing is taking that idea and molding it into roughly 100,000 words with characters, description, dialogue, conflict, the works. In fact, give the same idea to two writers and the end result might be two entirely different books, one might be a Nobel prize winner, the other one garbage. The idea doesn’t make the book, the execution does.

All writers do is write

While it is true that the bulk of a writer’s job involves the physical act of putting words to the page, there is actually a lot more to writing than that. If I am writing historical fiction, for instance, I have to spend hours upon hours doing research, almost as if I were doing a dissertation for a PhD rather than writing a novel, and that’s before I ever write the first word. I will need to find pictures of the places I’m depicting, know the dates and timelines and people involved, and know all of the details about life in that era. If I get even one detail wrong, you better believe my readers will be ready to pounce: “This writer clearly didn’t do her research. Actually, in medieval France the type of head covering worn in 1345 would have been an escoffion and not a gable hood.” Don’t think readers are this petty? Read some of the reviews of popular historical fiction authors, and focus on the one and two star reviews. Historical accuracy will no doubt figure heavily. And research isn’t just for historical fiction writers — fantasy writers have to do research, as do contemporary writers, thriller writers, horror writers, and well, practically all writers. Say you’re writing a book set in a British boarding school, yet you’ve never attended a British boarding school yourself. Good writers don’t just “make things up,” they make sure that the details of their story are as realistic as possible, which requires a tremendous amount of preparation work.

There’s no doubt that writing is a very misunderstood profession, and one that, like many artistic pursuits, inspires at the same time both envy and derision.  The next time you find yourself making generalizations or assumptions about the profession of writing, keep these things in mind. The writers in your life will thank you for it.

 

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Why I Won’t Pirate Books

As a leftist, I’m meant to take a stand against profit driven enterprises. Many people on my end of the political spectrum decry copyright law as inherently exploitative, keeping art and literature in the hands of the privileged class and denying the working class access to content. To some extent, this is true. We’ve all heard stories about giant movie studies going after small YouTube creators for using movie clips, or HBO suing individuals who downloaded one episode of Game of Thrones. When multi-billion dollar industries, and the corporations behind them, take on individuals, people who usually have limited resources with which to fight these companies for small copyright infractions, it is hard to side with the creators. Those of us who were downloading music on Napster in the early 00s remember how much ridicule Metallica endured for suing Napster and asking the company to ban users who downloaded Metallica’s music (which they did). When piracy is seen as a conflict between the big guy and the little guy, we tend to side with the little guy.

The problem with book piracy is that often the piracy of books is not about the little guy versus the big guy, it is about the little guy versus the other little guy. Authors may be under contract with publishers, who are indeed large companies with a lot of resources, but the authors themselves have little control over what these companies do with their money. Authors themselves, contrary to what many people think, are not rich. Those six figure advances that the public hears about are the exception, not the rule, and for every J.K. Rowling there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who struggle to make even the equivalent of minimum wage for their work. While you may think that by pirating a book you’re sticking it to a big corporation, a publisher like Random House or a bookseller like Barnes and Noble, you’re also directly impacting authors.  Every book that you download is a sale the author does not make, and money that the author does not earn. Are the large corporations impacted? Yes and no. Because large publishing companies publish thousands of books a year, including bestsellers guaranteed to sell regardless of whether or not pirated versions are available, downloading one pirated book is unlikely to make the same impact upon say, Random House, as it would upon the author of that book.

Nor is book piracy similar to the piracy of television shows or movies. If you download an episode of Game of Thrones you can rest assured that the directors, actors, and writers will be paid regardless (and paid well). Downloading an episode of a television show means that you did not pay for the subscription service or view the advertising that funds these shows. Still, these shows are massively successful and piracy does not generally jeopardize their existence.  Book sales operate on an entirely different premise. An author is paid an advance for a book, and must make the amount of that advance in sales before they see a penny in royalties. Most advances are modest, and rarely amount to more than what would be a year’s salary for most people, say $30,000-$50,000, even though books represent sometimes two or three years worth of work on the part of the writer. Sometimes advances are even less. Again, an author does not start earning royalties until their books have earned back the advance. At that point, the author earns money, or royalties, on every book sold.

Authors, by and large, do not have many other ways to make money aside from book sales. While bands might sell merchandise and play to packed stadiums, or sell the rights to their songs to movies, TV shows and films, writers, for the most part, must rely book sales to make money. There is the slight possibility that a writer might sell the television or movie rights, this doesn’t happen to all, or even most authors. Some authors like J.K. Rowling may create an entire intellectual property based upon their works, with toys, posters, and t-shirts, these authors represent a tiny minority of the whole. The vast majority of writers rely on book sales and the occasional paid appearance to earn a living.

Many people who complain about greedy authors who oppose piracy seem to imagine the author as a figure of immense privilege, when in fact writers often work several jobs in addition to writing because writing alone rarely pays the bills. And while being able to write at all certainly implies a degree of inherent privilege — an education, perhaps, enough time each day to set aside for writing — writers are not, by and large, wealthy people. They struggle to pay the rent. They’re paying off college loans. They’ve got kids to support. Writers are not sitting in castles counting their stacks of cash, they’re people, just like you and I. Authors are not trying to deprive people of reading material out of greed, they simply want to be properly compensated for work that represents years of time and effort.

While it can certainly be argued that the entire capitalist system of modern publication is something that needs to be revamped, leftist thought has never involved denying workers the right to make a living. Writers provide an essential service, creating stories that entertain, educate, and inspire us. If writers cannot make a living, these stories will cease to exist. And in our current society, if publishers deem certain books unprofitable, those authors will lose their contracts, those books will cease to be published. Writer Maggie Stiefvater most famously planted a fake pirated copy of the fourth book in her Raven Boys series after piracy took its toll on the sales of the third book. When would-be pirates downloaded the fourth book and found it incomplete (with a message at the end the portion regarding the impact of piracy), they were forced to purchase the book outright, and sales of that book far outpaced those of the third. When we download books illegally, not only do our favorite authors lose the ability to make a living, we may lose the ability to read these authors’ books at all.

So, you understand that authors are not rich, and you don’t want them to lose money, but you still can’t afford books. What can you do? In the year 2020, if you live in the English speaking world, there are a great number of ways to access books online without violating authors’ copyrights or interfering with their ability to make a living. If your town doesn’t have a good old fashioned brick and mortar library, or your library’s selection is limited, most libraries now allow for the borrowing of e-books. Libby, for instance, is an app that lets you connect to libraries all over the country and will give you access to potentially millions of e-books for free. You are not limited to simply one library either — you can sign into multiple libraries with one device. Again, Libby is entirely free (I’m not being paid to plug Libby, I promise, I am just a big fan!), and because libraries have contracts with publishers that grant them legal licenses for the books that are in their systems, authors get paid when you use the service. Aside from Libby there are services such as Scribd which are relatively low cost — a subscription to Scribd costs $9.99 a month and grants access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks. And of course, any books that are already in the public domain are freely available on a multitude of sites.

Perhaps one day society will be remade and artists will be supported by state funding or endowments for the arts, and books, artwork, movies, and music will all be available to everyone at no cost. Certainly writers and artists would be the first ones to rejoice if there were a way to ensure that  not only would they be fairly compensated for their work, their work could reach an even broader audience. In the meantime though, we do not yet live in that society. It is cruel to argue that writers should have no control over the products of their own labor. And while there are some writers today who are willing to write for the sake of it (I’m receiving no money for writing this blog, after all), and who will freely disseminate their work, it is unfair to expect writers to do this on a regular basis while maintaining consistent output and professional standards. If we think of authors as workers, writing as labor, and books as the fruits of that labor, then taking books away from the writers who created them and giving them nothing in return, is hardly a progressive stance. What’s even more shameful is treating authors as the enemy because they have the audacity to ask that people not pirate. Authors are simply people trying to make a living. Speak out against an unjust system, against publishers, Amazon, big box stores, but authors? All authors want is some small compensation for their labor, and if that makes them the enemy, then so is anyone else who refuses to work for free.

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No, I Haven’t Written the Next King Lear

Many of us are currently under “shelter in place” orders, only allowed to leave our homes for supplies and essential work. Some of us are even quarantined, and not supposed to leave the house at all. It sounds, in theory, like a writers dream come true. After all, who among us hasn’t thought “imagine all the writing I could get done if I didn’t have to go to my day job?”

However, many of us aren’t getting much writing done. Twitter is full of writers who are stuck, unable to write, even under these seemingly “ideal conditions.” We are continually reminded that Shakespeare produced King Lear while holed up hiding from the plague, and feel guilty at being unable to do the same.

The problem is, these “ideal conditions” are actually anything but. These are uncertain times. Many of us have friends and loved ones who are ill, and even if we don’t, we are existing in a state of constant anxiety. It is hard for me to tear myself away from obsessively virus statistics, constantly refreshing Facebook, Twitter, and news sites, checking for new announcements. As of now, my state says we will return to school (where I work) on April 6th. I don’t see how that can possibly happen, but our state government refuses to make any long term plans. I am worried about the virus too. I am not technically part of the vulnerable group, many of my relatives are, including my mother, who lives with me.

Which is all to say, anxiety, worry, and uncertainty are not exactly the best conditions for creative output.  I was supposed to write this article on Sunday, but it has been hard for me to sit down and focus long enough to get it written. I know I am not the only one.

Creativity requires a particular mindset. Generally, writers work best when we’re not distracted by outside worries or pressures. Since writing takes a great deal of emotional energy, if your emotional energy is all used up worrying about the state of the world, about your loved ones’ health, about your job, or even how you’re going to survive being cooped up for another month or so, you’re unlikely to be at your creative best.

However, I want to write during this time, but paradoxically, in order to write, I have had to forgive myself for not writing. I cannot add disappointment with myself over being relatively nonproductive to my stressors at the moment. There is enough for us to worry about in March 2020, and we don’t need to add our inability to produce King Lear added to our worries. Give yourself permission to write, or not write, as you feel able.

For my own creative energy (and for my own mental health as well) I’ve also decided to make sure that I stay away from the news cycle and off of social media for a set period each day. No checking the news, no refreshing my Twitter feed, no turning on the television. I read a book, or watch a show, play with my pets, and sometimes I even try to write. We all need a break from obsessing over the increasingly depressing statistics about this pandemic. It is hard, I know. We’re experiencing something that most people reading this will not have experienced in living memory. The temptation to follow the news is greater for the newness of it all. It reminds me a bit of the post 9-11 days, when we the entire country was glued to our television sets, entirely unsure what was coming next. Eventually though, there comes a point when twenty four hour news cycle and the endless social media discourse only amplifies our anxieties. Give yourself permission to disconnect, even if it’s only for a few hours.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. Reach out and start a chat with someone if you’re feeling stressed out or overwhelmed. Pick up the phone and give that friend you haven’t spoken to in ages a call. Check up on your friends who you suspect might be having a hard time. Writers, by nature, tend to be sensitive people. We feel things deeply, which is what allows us to create moving stories that speak to our readers, but it also means that tragedies and crises like these hit us particularly hard.

If you have writers in your life, don’t pester them about why they haven’t written the next King Lear, ask them if they’re doing alright and lend an ear if they need someone to talk to. And if you’re a writer, remember, for every one of us who might be writing the next King Lear, there are many many more of us who are doing nothing of the sort. You are not alone.

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Writing and Readiness: Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Share

Sharing your writing can be, perhaps, one of the most exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying parts of the entire writing process. Most of us seasoned writers have been there — the anxiety as your finger hovers over the send button, the way you refresh your email with a mixture of dread and anticipation, waiting for that feedback, the rush that only a compliment can bring, as well as the crushing sense of defeat that comes with a bad critique. As creators, most of us are driven to share our creations, no matter how terrifying that sharing may be. Therefore, what I am about to advise may seem counterintuitive to many writers, who, eager for feedback, are considering showing their work to others.

Creating something is a heady feeling, and it is natural, having created something, to desire some sort of recognition for your creation, a validation of your efforts. However, no matter how strong that impulse may be, don’t click send right away. First, ask yourself several questions.

First, you should ask is my writing ready to be viewed by others? That is, have I produced a clean draft that is relatively free of distracting errors, that makes sense, and can be read with relatively little background information or knowledge? Showing a potential reader or critique partner a draft that is overly rough is going to leave a poor first impression on the reader. Furthermore, while your draft of course doesn’t need to be perfect, if it is full of errors, has continuity issues, plot holes, or other issues that you should have been able to catch yourself, your reader will be distracted and tempted to comment on issues that are easy fixes versus commenting on your true areas of weakness.

Next, ask yourself, what do I hope to get out of sharing this manuscript at this stage? If what you want is to receive constructive criticism, to understand your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, then you’re on the right track. If your answer is validation, compliments, or encouragement, then think very carefully before sharing. If you are the kind of person who finds positive comments to be the best form of motivation, then you need to be very clear with your readers that you are only looking for motivation at this point, not criticism, even of the constructive sort. While I personally think there is limited value in this sort of reader interaction, I have known fanfic writers who find positive comments to be an almost addictive kind of positive reinforcement. However, the danger in receiving only positive feedback is that when you begin to receive honest, critical feedback, that feedback can be even more difficult to accept.

Which leads to another question you need to ask yourself, how will I react to negative criticism of my manuscript? Am I ready to hear negative feedback about something that I have invested considerable time, effort, and emotional energy into? As an editor, I have given well-meaning and gentle criticism that a writer has nevertheless described as “tearing apart” his work. I have known writers who have fallen into writing slumps, and even into depression, after receiving less than glowing feedback. Understand, once you send your manuscript to someone else or post it online, the kind of reactions you will get are entirely out of your control. It can be extremely disheartening when a piece that you are particularly proud of gets a harsh critique, and being disappointed is natural.

However, the ability to take on criticism and not take it as a personal attack is essential if you are going to be soliciting writing advice from others. An inability to do so does not mean you’ll never succeed as a writer, it means at this point in time sharing your writing isn’t a healthy choice for you personally. Be honest with yourself. Are you currently in the mental frame of mind to handle criticism? If not, it is fine to write simply for yourself — everything you write, no matter who sees it or doesn’t see it, is a step towards you becoming the writer you want to be.

Further, even if you know that mentally you could handle negative criticism, if writing is a relatively new endeavor, there may be limited value in receiving negative criticism, even constructive criticism. So ask yourself, am I ready to receive criticism at this point in my writing journey? New writers who receive too much advice too early on can easily become confused and frustrated. It is important before you start receiving critiques from others that you develop some writerly instincts of your own, and develop the ability to tell good advice, advice that will improve your manuscript, from advice that you can discard.

Receiving criticism is something every writer, in order to improve, must one day face. However, soliciting criticism is a big step, and each writer must take it when doing so will be most beneficial to the writer and the work. Taking this step at the wrong point in the writing process could in fact do more harm than good.

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Characters in Search of a Story

Over the years I’ve heard many writers say something along the lines of “so I’ve got this idea for a story,” but then they follow it up with something like this. “See, it’s about this girl. She has magic that hasn’t been seen for generations. Her parents died when she was a little girl, and she’s been raised by her grandfather. Everyone in the village hates her, and so she’s become very independent. She falls in love with the son of a lord, but his parents disapprove of her.” Or, they’ll approach me with ten pages of detailed character sheets, like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.  In both scenarios my reply is usually something along the lines of “great, but where’s the story?”

This is a mistake far too many beginning writers make, confusing story with character and assuming that a strong character alone is enough to carry a story. Even a character-driven story needs a strong plot to move the action forward, and the best stories are not those in which you could plop any old character down within the story’s world and the story would still hit the same plot points. If your story is designed this way, then congratulations, you’ve created a video game, and not a novel. After all, in a video game, the ending is pre-determined. You may choose various characters to act out the scenarios, and you may make various decisions along the way, but ultimately, your character is carried along by the plot, and not the other way around. Good storytelling in a novel, however, requires characters who are intrinsically tied to their plots, and vice versa.

The classic example often used to demonstrate the essential link between characters and plot is Hamlet and Macbeth. If you put Macbeth in Hamlet’s place, the play ends in the first act, Claudius dead, the end. If you put Hamlet into Macbeth’s place, then Hamlet never would have rebelled in the first place. The events of each play are intrinsically tied to the characters who create them. Events happen as a result of character actions and decisions.

This is why stories in which characters lack agency are often so frustrating. We keep reading, hoping that the character will act upon his circumstances, will make decisions, will do something to show why this character is so essential to this story. After all, if a character lacks agency, and is simply pushed along by the plot, then substitute literally anyone else, and the result would be relatively similar. No matter how interesting a character is, if that character’s unique traits are not driving the story, then the reader’s own interest will eventually wane.

This is why, for all that character sheets can be a fun and entertaining way to spend an afternoon, focusing too much on building a character without building the plot to go along with that character, can be a mistake. These sorts of stories are usually easy to recognize. The writer often starts off with a full cast of characters. We are given their full backstories, we meet their friends, their families, we see them on the job, we see them at school, but the story moves at a glacial pace and for all that the author has created a (sometimes interesting!) character, they have not presented that character with a conflict, have not given that character a motivation, have not written a story for that character.

The other type of character mistake occurs when a writer creates a character, and creates a plot, but there is a disconnect between the two, as if the characters and the plot each developed entirely independent of each other. Usually this happens when a writer starts with a character and realizes belatedly that the character needs a story.  Take our magical girl with the dead parents, raised by her grandparents. Perhaps the writer says, well, we need a conflict, so let’s throw in a war. Someone awful invades her country, kills someone she loves. She’s magical, and she makes it her mission to stop this invasion. There we go, plot. Rolling your eyes yet? Does this sound generic and interchangeable? It should! This scenario is where we end up with a character that lacks agency, who is pushed along by the plot, rather than being the force driving the plot. No matter how well developed our characters are, if they are not connected to the plot, the conflict will seem shallow.

It is absolutely fine to start with a character, or to be better at creating characters than at thinking up plots. The mistake is to create a character , or even a whole slew of characters, and decide that from that point you are ready to start your novel. Once you have created your character, more than identifying minutiae of your character’s personality, you need to identify your character’s motivation. Character sheets might suggest you ask yourself what your character’s favorite breakfast cereal is, or whether your character is a cat person or dog person, but the real questions you must ask about your characters are “what does my character want?” and “who or what is stopping them from getting it?”

Take our magical girl. What is it that she’s always wanted? Acceptance? A family? Who is stopping her from being accepted? Her awful village and her boyfriend’s parents, right? So when the invaders come, is this perhaps her chance to prove herself? To win acceptance from her people? What about a family of her own — if she helps win this war, will her lover’s family accept her as his wife? And maybe she does win, but finds that is not enough to gain acceptance — what then? Or perhaps they do accept her, and she’s still not happy?  Maybe all along she didn’t accept herself either, and the conflict wasn’t between her and the village at all, but between her and her own self doubt? The story then is not at all about winning or not winning the war, it is about our magic girl struggling for acceptance and learning to accept herself, which is a much more interesting story (if still a bit cliched, forgive me, it’s an off the cuff example, not the result of actual novel planning) than a simple story of heroes and invaders.

Ultimately, character and plot are interconnected. The best stories take unique characters and put them in situations that are equally unique to that character. If your character lacks either a clear conflict or a clear connection to the story’s conflict, you’re bound to have a mediocre story, no matter how interesting the character is.

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Why I Avoid Grimdark

I’ve never been much one for violent media. Movies, TV shows, books — I tend to avoid the bloody stuff. Which is not to say that I can’t handle gore, or that I’m squeamish about the sight of blood — I can handle violence, I just don’t like it. When given the choice of reading material, if I am told a book is extremely violent, I will likely avoid it. Therefore, if you know much about the fantasy genre known as “Grimdark,” it probably comes as no surprise to learn that I am not a huge fan.

Grimdark is a sub-genre of fantasy that is characterized by extreme violence, an amoral or nihilistic worldview, and a general tone of hopelessness. Grimdark is full of antiheroes rather than heroes, characters who are ultimately, if not evil, then at least self-serving. Grimdark does not moralize, in fact, perhaps one of the biggest distinguishing features of Grimdark is its postmodern relativistic view of the world — there is no good, there is no evil, there is only the harsh and stark reality of people trying their best to survive.

It is perhaps not difficult to imagine Grimdark’s appeal. Fans of the genre often site their preference for “realism” versus overt escapism of traditional epic fantasy. Whereas traditional fantasy tells the story of the young hero, called away on a quest, often to defeat a great evil. The hero is usually victorious, and evil is defeated. Of course, it is true, in the real world evil is not defeated quite so handily, and it is true too, that the real world is often brutal. However, if traditional epic fantasy only shows one side of humanity, the heroic, optimistic side, then Grimdark swings far in the other direction. Real life, true realism, is more balanced than either.

Grimdark justifies its violence and amorality with a view that humans nature is selfish, that the quest for individual power is all that really matters. War and death are presented as the inevitable outcome of human conflict, but the sheer scale and scope of death, the graphic descriptions, at some point, no longer horrify the reader. One recent Grimdark novel (I will not name names, my intent here is not to bash specific authors or books) lovingly described war atrocities, in detail, for a full six pages. The characters in this novel believe these deaths to be “the only way,” but in the grand scheme of things, the deaths change nothing. The war continues, atrocities pile up. For characters in Grimdark, death is justified, but it isn’t meaningful.

It might surprise readers to learn that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a book of stories about the Vietnam war, and as such, it is not without violence. In fact, The Things They Carried is at times downright gory — it describes a man stepping on a landmine, it describes desecration of enemy corpses, it describes a soldier brutally killing a baby water buffalo. However, despite all of this there is an undercurrent of hope that runs through the novel. The soldier who kills the baby water buffalo does so out of sheer despair over losing a friend in the war. Death changes these characters fundamentally, because these characters want more than individual power and glory. Although they may do horrible things, awful things, they are not irredeemable as human beings. Death in The Things They Carried is never justified, but it is meaningful.

Ultimately, Grimdark is an essential expression of the kind of moral relativism that has taken up much space in our modern consciousness. It tells us that there is no absolute  good, and that therefore everything, even extreme violence, has its place in an amoral world. In a world where humans are ultimately self-interested, empathy, compassion and self-reflection have no place. Violence is a means to and end, and while it is sometimes regrettable, it is rarely preventable. Violence is the inevitable and “rational” result of human actions. In fact, there is perhaps a large Venn diagram overlap between the fans of Grimdark and the internet types who harp on about logic and reason. If violence is the logical result, then it becomes, once more, realistic, and none can argue that it is gratuitous.

In fact, when violence is seen as the logical and inevitable result of humanity’s selfish nature, then there is no reason to decry it. For those who relish violent scenes of death and destruction, Grimdark offers an excellent excuse. Go ahead, Grimdark says, and enjoy the awesome battles and gory beheadings, because what other alternative is there? The world is a horrible place, so here, have your bread and circuses, but don’t imagine for a second that there is any chance for change.

I refuse to believe that the world is an inherently selfish place. Now, more than ever, I need to believe that there is an inherent drive in humanity towards cooperation, a desire to help one another, rather than hurt. I cannot relish in violence, in death. The author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, is a Vietnam war veteran himself, and his book is full of empathy for all of those people touched by the horrors of war. Those who have experienced war themselves know that hopelessness is no way to get through dark times, and these are dark times indeed. Embracing the grim darkness that represents the worst that humanity has to offer is something I cannot bring myself to do, not when the world is so desperately in need of the light.

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Your Most Hated Tropes Explained: Instalove

Every once in awhile a poll comes around on book and writers groups. “What trope do you hate the most?” the poll will inevitably ask. The responses are varied, although there are a few that are nearly universally reviled. This made me wonder — if these tropes are so hated, why do they keep appearing in fiction? Where do they come from? And is it possible, that despite our protestations to the contrary, we don’t actually hate these tropes as much as we claim to?

So, let’s start with the much maligned romantic trope “instalove.” Instalove is particularly common in Young Adult fiction, and basically, involves a couple falling in love, well, instantly. Instalove doesn’t necessarily mean love at first sight, but it does involve an accelerated relationship trajectory. Perhaps two young people who have only barely met each other are professing their deepest love by the midway mark. Sometimes they are thrown together by outside forces — a school project, a magical quest, a murder mystery — that require them to work closely. Sometimes it is indeed love at first sight — a soulmate bond or just a feeling, butterflies in the stomach, a tingling. Whatever the scenario, instalove is a popular trope.

The reason most people cite for hating instalove is that it is unrealistic. But is it really? Think back to when you were a teenager, in the throes of your first crush. I remember my first boyfriend well. We went from friends to lovers within the space of a weekend. No slow burn for us, we decided we liked each other, and by the next month we were exchanging “I love yous.” As young people we are often reckless when it comes to love, and that’s what makes young love itself such an enduring theme. Even grown adults feel nostalgic for that heady rush of first love, (which probably accounts in large part for why YA literature is popular even among adult readers), and young love would not be the same if it were the product of careful and logical planning. First love makes us irrational, it makes us impulsive, it makes us ultra-focused on our relationship, and in turn, our significant other, and magnifies their importance in our lives. First love, for many of us, may be our one and only “epic love story.” Is it any wonder that adults look back upon it nostalgically, and teenagers (those who desire romantic relationships, that is) look forward to it impatiently?

So do we really hate instalove? Of course not. Many of us have experienced instalove ourselves. When we say we hate this trope, what we are really saying is that we hate it when we are told two characters have a connection but we just aren’t feeling it. This mostly arises from an over-reliance on telling, constantly telling us that the characters love each other but never actually showing it. Consider, however, the insta-love relationship in Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. The entire narrative, which is primarily a love story (but also so much more), takes place over the course of one day. The whole premise is instalove, but The Sun is Also a Star takes the trope and flaunts it when the male lead, Daniel, declares that he can make the female lead, Natasha, fall in love with him in just a day, and proceeds to do so. Yoon makes us believe in these characters and their love. Daniel says, near the end of the book, “I didn’t know you this morning, and now I don’t remember not knowing you,” encapsulating the speed and intensity of young love. Throughout the book, Yoon doesn’t simply state that her characters are falling in love, she takes us on their journey,  and as we run through the streets of New York with Daniel and Natasha, we witness their love story unfold. By the end of the book we are as “all in” as the characters themselves are.

With instalove, as with many other tropes, the trope itself is not actually the problem, but rather, the execution of it that makes the story fall flat. When instalove is executed correctly even an adult reader like myself, who is several decades removed from the experience, can easily remember those first few days in a new relationship and the intensity of those feelings. It’s not unrealistic, in fact, it’s almost too realistic. When we grow up, most of us realize that a whirlwind romance is not always the best basis for a lasting partnership, but there is still something enchanting about the idea, something that can evoke all sorts of feelings, from fondness to longing. Writers with good instincts for romance writing will create a natural feeling relationship regardless of the length of time the characters have known each other, and those without good instincts can always learn how to create more believable relationships. In short, instalove is not the problem, poor writing is.

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Defeat the Bad Guys: Portraying Colonization in Fiction

A group of scrappy rebels from an underdog nation bravely fighting back against their oppressors is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, to such an extent that in some cases, our views on colonialism and imperialism are shaped more by what we’ve seen in fiction than what we’ve experienced in real life. Let’s face it, most readers, particularly white readers, have little direct experience with colonization. Even those of us in former colonies are several generations removed from our own colonial experiences, and while our nations’ cultures were certainly shaped by our colonial past, citizens of today lack the direct experience of having our bodies violated, our land stolen from us, our languages obliterated, our customs and cultures marginalized.

Fictional portrayals of colonization and imperialism are, necessarily, tales of violence. Fiction does not err when it portrays the brutality of colonization, but these portrayals are, nevertheless, often lacking in nuance. The conquerors are bad, the people are oppressed, and they need someone to save them. While so-called “chosen one” narratives are a staple of fiction, and have been for as long as humans can remember, pairing chosen one narratives with narratives of imperial oppression simplifies complex issues and further, places the blame for a group’s continual oppression solely upon the oppressed. The people just need a hero, or so the story goes, and if they do not have one, they need to find one, even if it means looking to outsiders to save the day. This narrative forgets the fact that rarely, if ever, has revolution been accomplished due to the efforts of one individual, and empires are much harder to dismantle than most fiction gives the credit for.

History is filled with far more tales of failed revolutions than successful ones. It wasn’t until the Haitian revolution, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for instance, that an entire group of enslaved people successfully and permanently cast off their oppressors. While enslaved people have, throughout history, rebelled in ways large and small, for the most part these rebellions ended tragically. Rebellion against colonial control is also, historically, a tale filled with more tragedy than triumph. Going back to Ancient times practically every nation conquered by Rome — Britain, Gaul, Judea, Mauritania — tried to rebel against it at some point or another. Indians in India revolted against British rule, the First Nations of the United States and Canada fought wars against their colonizers. Revolutions don’t always fail, of course, but when they succeed, timing is usually a key factor. Vietnam’s defeat of France and then later the United States came at a time when both countries were exhausted by war and unwilling to continue fighting. The liberation of Spanish colonies in South and Central America came at a time when Spain was in a general decline. Revolutions can succeed, but when they do not, it is rarely because the revolutionaries lacked a good leader, didn’t have enough heart, or even because they lacked military know-how. They failed because empires are designed to be self-perpetuating and toppling them is incredibly difficult.

Fiction has a disturbing tendency to treat successful revolution as a fight of individuals, instead of institutions. While revolutions may need a figurehead, an empire is not like a snake, cut off the head and it dies. Nor either, is a successful revolution simply a matter of leadership, otherwise Tecumseh, one of the most talented strategists of the 19th century (and leader of a large multi-tribe confederacy united in fighting against the United States) would have succeeded. It isn’t simply a matter of heart, either, otherwise the native peoples of North and South America, who loved their way of life with all of their hearts, would have pushed back their colonizers. While the pretty speech in which the exiled ruler rallies the troops to take back their stolen home may sound lovely, it simplifies a nuanced problem.

Empires are complex organisms. They have multiple mechanisms in place that which serve to perpetuate oppression. Many fictional stories based upon defeating empires take the defeat of the evil monarch — an emperor, usually — as the objective. Kill the king and the empire falls, or so the story goes. In real life, however, empires are not constructed by one man, nor are they dismantled in the same way. The emperor dies, and a new one rises in his place. Heart alone does not defeat infrastructure, military might, and psychological warfare.

Empires are constructed with built in fail-safes which ensure that they continue beyond the lifespan of one person. A scrappy band of rebels defeating the big bad empire is a nice pipe dream, but it also dangerously ignores the insidious power or colonization. Colonization is often successful in the short term because when colonization occurs the colonizers immediately set to work winning over the hearts and minds of at least some of the colonized. The Romans brought roads and aqueducts to even the far flung corners of their empire. The Chinese freed the Tibetan serfs. The British brought political infrastructure and widespread education to India. It is not uncommon for colonizers to improve the lives of at least some of the colonized, thus winning over certain hearts and minds. In every colonized society, there are stories of collaboration, divided loyalties, and self-preservation. This is not at all to say that the colonized peoples are better off under their colonizers, but that rarely did colonizers exercise and maintain colonial control through unrelenting brutality. Colonies that were based upon abject brutality tended to fall quicker (such as that of King Leopold, in the Congo Free State) than those that maintained at least a facade of benevolence (a benevolence usually carefully meted out to the chosen classes, often, but not always, the elites).

Colonization is insidious. It replaces and erases native language, culture, political structures until it is often impossible to return to the original state, because that state has either been forgotten or dismantled to such an extent that it is impossible to recreate without massive societal disruption. While many in Tibet call, for instance, for Tibetan freedom, what Tibetan freedom would look like, after years under Chinese rule, is certainly a vastly different thing than what it would have looked like had the Chinese never arrived. Could all ethnic Chinese be expelled from Tibet? Could schools revert to the Tibetan language, even though there are generations of youngsters with only an imperfect knowledge of that language? Even among Tibetans, there are those now that advocate that the best thing for Tibet is to forget about independence and learn to make nice with its colonial masters. Colonization is insidious. A scrappy band of rebels may be able to over throw one leader, but can they dismantle the mechanisms of oppression and erasure? It’s easier said than done, certainly.

While a simple tale of a fight between good and evil, the oppressed against their oppressors, may be temping, consider the implications of simplifying these stories. A narrative that denies the nuanced way that empires exercise control and distills them into simple cookie-cutter villains is not a narrative that is helpful to the oppressed. It places the responsibility for their own oppression squarely on their own shoulders, ignoring the complex ways that erasure of identity, language, and culture are used as methods of control. This, along with the control of political structures and economic resources, often make traditional forms of resistance — the good old fashioned fight between the good guys and the bad guys — at best ineffective and at worst impossible.

Author’s note: I wanted to recommend a few books were colonization is handled well, and I actually rather struggled to come up with even a handful of titles. However, I do unreservedly recommend Tash Suri’s duology, Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash. These two books, and especially the second one, deal with complex and nuanced issues surrounding identity, erasure, and colonial control, set in a rich fantasy world inspired by Mughal India. 

Another book recommended by co-blogger Bruce is Malafrena, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which depicts an imaginary European country rebelling against the Austrian Empire. 

 

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Quit Your Day Job

Despite the sea of advice that says “don’t quit your day job,” I have decided to do just that. I am going to quit my day job.

I’m also going to tell you how you can do the same.

For writers, it can be difficult to juggle a nine to five job and also get writing done. Trust me, I know. For the past decade or so, I’ve managed to write while also working as a teacher. Teaching is a mentally and emotionally demanding job, and sometimes teaching has taken its toll on my ability to write consistently. I have often lamented about how, if I only had a less demanding job, if I only had more time to myself, fewer outside stressors, fewer drains upon my emotions, I could write more, an write better.

Finally, this year, I reached a point where I decided that instead of lamenting this, I needed to get myself into a position where I could continue to make a livable income while also having the time and energy to focus on writing.

So, my first decision was to work at home. Over the years, with the help of the website Rat Race Rebellion(I am not paid for this plug, I just love this site that much!) I have found many “side-gigs” that I can do from home. Jobs such as freelance blogging, standardized test scoring, transcribing, have given me, over the years a nice little source of supplemental income, while also helping me build up a nice portfolio. The thing about these sorts of gigs is that they are abundant, and, if you’re good with words, as most writers are, relatively easy to land. They aren’t always highly paid, but they will pay better than a retail or service industry job, and can open the door to other, more well paying gigs.

For me, the bulk of my freelance income will come from academic editing. When I previously lived in China, I was a college applications consultant, helping Chinese students to craft their applications to American universities. I enjoyed the work immensely (I only worked for ethical companies, and never helped students cheat), and wanted to continue it in America. Luckily, I found several companies that I could collaborate with, and this turned out to be the the avenue which would eventually give me the financial confidence to quit my day job.

Of course, there is risk involved in giving up a steady income with benefits and insurance for the rather more precarious existence of a freelancer. And anyone who thinks that you’ll work less as a freelancer has clearly never freelanced. The difference, however, is that the work will be on your terms, setting your own hours, choosing your own tasks. The mental toll that modern employment takes on most of us is oftentimes entirely incompatible with long term and productive creative ventures. Our world has conditioned us to believe that we must work, we must have that full time job, that steady paycheck, and we must live our lives on someone else’s terms. It is entirely counter to our nature as human beings, who after all spent the vast majority of our time as a species on this planet living in egalitarian bands dividing labor among ourselves according to our skills and abilities. Shared economies — work from home opportunities, Uber, AirBnB, Etsy and others fill a gap that has been missing from modern capitalist life. That is to say, that desire you feel, to work on your own terms, to work according to your ability, to set your own worth — that’s natural. You’re not wrong for feeling that way.

This is all to say, if you have the urge to drop out of the rat race, don’t discount the possibility right away. While you may find, after research, that a stead day job is the best way for you to support your writing aspirations, you also may find that there are other ways to make a living for yourself without sacrificing time, energy, and emotion that could be better spent on your creative endeavors. I hope that reading my story might inspire some of you, those of you who wake up dreaming of quitting your job, those of you who wonder “what if I just didn’t go back?” those of you who know in your heart of hearts that you want more out of life than what you currently have, and show you that it is indeed possible. Be brave, think creatively, and it can happen.

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Why No One Wants to Steal Your Idea (and if anyone does, why you shouldn’t sweat it)

 

Jump into any writer’s forum online and you won’t have to scroll very far to find newbie writers terrified that someone will steal their ideas (which are, of course, all very valuable and definitely worth stealing). How do you ever manage to get feedback, they lament, when the internet is just crawling with people ready to pilfer your precious ideas? The replies are invariably filled with plenty of validation for this belief: Never share an idea, they say! Put a copyright on everything! Don’t even tell people that you’re writing something!

I’m here to tell you this belief is not true. No one wants your idea.

No, not even yours, reader. Yes, I understand it is a Very Good Idea. Still.

Now, I know people will appear from out the woodwork with stories of how a friend of a friend had a Very Good Idea stolen. Inevitably, these Very Good Ideas will have gone on to become full blown novels, sometimes even Hollywood movies. Others will claim to have sold ideas, as if there was a market for such things. A subscription service, perhaps.

I’m sure, in the entire history of the internet, it has happened at some point or another. Ideas have been stolen, and grave injustice has been perpetrated upon innocent idea-havers who would otherwise have gone on to fame and fortune. “Wizarding school, that was my idea!” they cry.

Sad though these stories are, as writers, they should concern us not at all. We’ve all heard the saying “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” Well, ideas are a little bit like that too. Ideas are everywhere, available free of charge. However, an idea does not make a book. An idea is simply that — a vague notion, something that might, with time and effort, take shape and become a book, a movie, a work of art. An idea is worthless in and of itself. The polishing of the idea, the development of the characters, the worldbuilding, the plot, the tension, the stakes the research, the detail  — well, you get it. All of this is what it takes to turn an idea into a book. Needless to say, ideas are the easy part.

What’s more, two different artists can take one idea and turn it into two very different things. Look no further than the various adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays to see how an idea (or even an entire plot) can play out in various different ways. Disney’s The Lion King is Hamlet played out with animals, whereas Ten Things I Hate About You is The Taming of the Shrew set in a high school. So even if someone does steal your Very Good Idea, do not fret. Chances are their book and yours will come out entirely different in the end.

Finally, and most importantly, writers don’t need to steal ideas. Ideas are perhaps the one thing that most writers have in abundance. We might lack the time to write every idea that we’ve ever had. We might lack the skills to turn a complex idea into a competent novel. We might even lack the creative energy needed to turn a simple idea into a fully fledged work of art. Ideas are the easy part. Writing those ideas is what’s hard. Currently I have at least five different novel ideas (aside from my main work-in-progress) simply waiting for me to write them. My critique partners have similar backburner ideas. Every writer worth their salt is constantly getting inspired by their world and experiences. The ideas are not the hard part.

Here is a controversial opinion: The writers who believe that their ideas are the best part about their writing are the writers who will have a hard time ever completing a novel. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting inspired by new ideas, but I also know that the journey from idea to completed novel is a long and arduous one. I will have many ideas as I grow as a writer. Some will become books, and some will not. Worry less about the ideas, and more about what it takes to become the sort of writer that can transform ideas into works of art.