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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.

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Our Words Are Not Your Spice Rack

Last Tuesday, the release of American Dirt, a book about the Mexican immigrant experience written by a white American woman, sparked major controversy. While the chief criticism seemed to be the white author’s inaccurate and ultimately irresponsible treatment of a subject and people which she knew of only secondhand, one of the many issues raised was the book’s handling of Spanish language words. The English speaking author apparently filled the book with Spanish words, italicizing them to help clue in the audience, presumably made up mostly of English language speakers, that what they were reading was in fact a foreign language. A parody hashtag #mylatinanovel even popped up, in which Latinx writers peppered their tweets with with Spanish words, sometimes hilariously spoofing the writer’s use of Spanish words. I found the discussion of foreign language words — whether to italicize them or not, whether to use them at all, or not, timely. I’d recently had a similar discussion with my critique partner, Bruce, in which I’d explained why, although most of my novels are set outside of the English speaking world, I avoid foreign language words in my writing.

I’m not monolingual. In fact, I speak five different languages, with varying degrees of ability, from entirely fluent (Mandarin Chinese) to advanced beginner (Swedish). You might think, with the many languages at my disposal, my writing would be positively full of non-English words. However, I’m actually a big advocate of the old “less is more” adage when it comes to foreign language words in English language works. In fact, my objection to foreign language words in English language works stems from the same reasoning that objects to the italicizing of foreign language words. The argument against italicization of non-English words holds that the practice is othering — that by italicizing the words, the writer centers English as the norm, and the foreign language words as something other than the norm.

While italicizing the words others the words themselves, the very use of the words, particularly by people who do not speak the language in question, is often nothing more than a form of orientalism, of othering in and of itself. The use of foreign language words is often meant as a flashing neon sign that this world is Not Like Ours. “They’re part of my worldbuilding,” a writer said to me recently. Without those words, the argument goes, how is the reader to know that this is a foreign land? I’ve heard the argument applied equally to fantasy, historical fiction, and contemporary, and my objection applies equally to all three. The writer that uses foreign language words as a signal, as a dash of “exotic” flavor, has failed in worldbuilding, but succeeded in centering the Anglophone world as the norm.

When foreign language words are used for easily translatable concepts, such as units of measure, or foods, universal concepts and yes, even familial relationships, the result is often the implicit message that this culture is so foreign, so different, so other, that their words impart a different meaning. An abuela is somehow different from a grandmother, a laoshi different from a teacher. It’s a signal to the reader that in this foreign place, the very words and concepts that we consider ordinary, are strange and different in this new place. When we think of the Japanese word “sensei” we conjure up a different image from the one we conjure when we think of the word “teacher,” even though a sensei is also a person who stands in front of a class and hands out tests and grades homework. And yet, the word has been used in such a way that most non-Japanese speakers certainly think that a sensei is something deeper than a teacher, something more profound. Are there certain sensei – student relationships that are more like a master to an apprentice, a deeper and more meaningful kind of partnership? Certainly. Just as there are teachers in the English speaking world who serve as mentors to their students. The only reason to use sensei instead of teacher is to signal that Japan is an exotic, foreign place, a place that transcends everyday concepts, a place that defies understanding. In Japan they don’t have teachers, they have senseis. These kinds of usage tell the readers that foreign places are inherently incomprehensible and untranslateable, forever other, forever just slightly out of reach.

There is an important distinction to be made, between legitimate code switching and throwing foreign language words in for a bit of spice. Code switching, or the process of switching back and forth between two different languages or dialects depending upon social context. If your characters code-switch in dialogue, this might indeed be a legitimate expression of their multilingualism, but still, writers need to be aware of what situations usually bring about code-switching. My two children call their father “baba,” but when they are speaking about him to other people, they refer to him as “dad.” In China, when I speak with in English with other English speaking people, there were some Chinese words we routinely used no matter what language the conversation itself used, like “kuaidi” for the courier services that delivered goods purchased online. If I were speaking with someone who did not speak Chinese, however, I wouldn’t use the word kuaidi because a non Chinese speaker wouldn’t understand it. Instead, I’d probably use the word “courier,” even though it isn’t a word commonly used in American English. Context matters, and ultimately, so does identity. If you speak a second or third language fluently you understand instinctively which situations might call for which language. If you are monolingual, your assumptions about when and why people code switch are likely to be incorrect. People who speak multiple languages fluently should feel free to use those languages however they like. Monolinguals, however, need to proceed with caution.

In my own writing,  I often (not always — there are some exceptions) choose translation over including non-English words. I translate words that do not exist in English, and ones that do. I want my reader to understand my world, not exoticize it. For instance, in one of my novels, I mention a food that is called, in Chinese, “chou doufu.” The words mean, literally, “stinky bean curd.” This concept doesn’t exist in the English speaking world, and I could have called this snack chou doufu in my novel, in order to add a slice of “authenticity,” but in fact, I wanted my readers to understand what chou doufu is, so I called it “stinky bean curd.”

If I want to worldbuild, I can do it through description and detail, rather than using words like spices, sprinkling them here and there to liven up a bland manuscript. Most importantly, my worldbuilding is not centered around the idea that my world is inherently foreign or other. After all, the world I often write in, although not the world I live in now, is the world that was my home for nearly two decades. It was never other to me, just as it isn’t other for the millions of people who live there. I do not need to emphasize for my readers that my world is foreign, on the contrary, I need to write it so that my reader understands that even though the setting is unfamiliar, it is not incomprehensible.

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No True Scotsman: Arguments from Purity

The anecdote that gave the “No True Scotsman” fallacy its name goes something like this: I make the claim that no Scotsman would ever put sugar in their tea. My friend says “I’m a Scotsman, and I put sugar in my tea.” I then counter by saying “well, no true Scotsman would put sugar in his tea.” The fallacy is in the variable definition of what constitutes a Scotsman, basically a “true” Scotsman being only someone who I deem appropriately Scottish. The fallacy applies to all sorts of arguments that base their premise on purity. “No true American would ever support Communism,” or “no true Black person would ever vote for Trump,” or even, more recently, “no true trans person would ever write a story based upon the attack helicopter meme.”

Aside from the inherent logic in arguing from purity — after all, who gets to decide what constitutes a true Scotsman —  there is something dangerous in the way that the fallacy is used to discount and diminish marginalized voices that do not adhere to the acceptable and expected parameters for those voices. While cis het white folks seem to exist in a great variety of forms — allies and enemies, harmful and helpful, and everything in between, marginalized peoples are often held to a higher standard, and are not allowed to step outside of accepted lines. Notice the vitriolic reaction when Angie Thomas, author of bestsellers The Hate U Give and On The Come Up tweeted in support of a white author Sarah Dressen. Dressen had expressed sadness when her books were rejected for a college reading list for being too juvenile and feminine, citing a quote from a young college student as the source of her ire. Thomas, a Black woman, was expected to support the young college student, person in the exchange who had less power as opposed to Dressen, the “powerful” famous writer. Although many white authors also tweeted in support of Dressen, Thomas and other writers of color in particular were called out because it seemed they, of all people, was not expected to side with power. “No true Black woman writer would support a fellow writer instead of a college student,” the message seemed to be.

The No True Scotsman fallacy reared its head again recently in response to the short story published in the speculative fiction publication Clarksworld, entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”  The story, author, and publication received substantial backlash, and it was assumed, when the story first appeared online, that the author was certainly a cisgender heterosexual white person. Many even assumed that the author’s name, Isabel Fall, must be a pen name, for only a man would write something so blatantly offensive. “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” played upon the right-wing meme that has oft been used to denigrate non-binary and gender-queer individuals. The author, in response to the “no LGBTQ person would ever write such a story” sentiment of her attackers, felt the need to out herself as a trans woman. The attacks then followed the No True Scotsman fallacy almost to the letter, simply replacing trans woman with Scotsman. Despite the fact that many trans people felt the story resonated with them, and enjoyed the story for the satire that it was meant to be, many felt like the author’s use of right-wing terminology in her story was disloyal and hurtful. A true trans person would never write something that might hurt members of her trans community … right? The author eventually asked Clarksworld to remove her story, a move which reveals the extent to which the controversy personally affected her.

The question then became, are trans writers, Black writers, Asian writers, any marginalized writers, not allowed to take the risks that cis het white people regularly take in their writing? When a white person writes something potentially Harmful (capital H intended), the reaction of the industry is often to close ranks and support the person’s brave effort to do something controversial with their writing. Consider, for instance, when Laurie Forest wrote the controversial The Black Witch, Kirkus gave it a starred review and later even addressed the haters directly, reaffirming its support of the author and the book. The third book in the series will be published later this month. Marginalized people, on the other hand, are often proverbially cast out of the protective circle of the progressive community. In the case of Isabel Fall, even after she revealed herself as a trans women, many still denied her intentions, questioning whether or not she might be a rightist plant. Ethnic Chinese writer Amelie Wen-Zhao actually pulled her own book from publication after Twitter users named her book anti-Black. The author herself claimed that she drew upon her own experience of human trafficking in East Asia, and was not meant as a commentary on chattel slavery (the book was later published, but which much less fanfare and little buzz).  Online Progressive spaces invoke the No True Scottsman fallacy with alarming frequency, but rarely is it invoked equally. Marginalized people must, it seems, be perfect representatives for their group, at all times. They must align with the right people, have the right thoughts, and write the right words. Satire, anger, messy, off the wall, edgy, boundary pushing, and especially in-group critiques — these are dangerous for a marginalized writer, whereas a white writer like me might be celebrated for the same.

While it is true that this is due almost entirely to the way cis het white people view marginalized individuals — as ambassadors for their groups. Marginalized peoples must be wary, at all times, of perpetuating negative stereotypes or Harmful perceptions of their group. Ultimately however, requiring ideological purity from marginalized people simply perpetuates the othering idea of a monoculture, the myth of sameness. After all, even positive stereotypes do harm because they deny the fact that marginalized people have myriad voices, experiences, and truths. Sometimes those voices might make us uncomfortable. They might challenge what we think we know about a group, or about ourselves. We do not have to agree with those voices, but we neither should we suppress them, for they serve as a reminder of the diversity of thought that is inherent in all communities. All Scotsmen, as it turns out, are true Scotsmen.

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Making Bitter into Sweet: Learning to Take Criticism

Putting ourselves out there as writers is hard. The eternal dilemma of most writers is that what we write is often personal, private, and close to the heart, and yet, the very nature of writing is that it meant to be read by others, and we cannot keep it to ourselves forever.  We write alone, but we can’t become accomplished writers without the help of others. But, when we’ve poured our souls into a story, when it comes time to offer it up for critique, it can feel a bit like opening ourselves up for a knife through the heart.

By now you’re probably thinking yeah yeah, I know. If I don’t get critiques I’ll never get better. And that is true, of course, but reader, you have probably heard this before, and it probably hasn’t helped, otherwise you wouldn’t be stewing over that negative comment or getting teary-eyed because someone said your characters were flat. So instead, I’m not going to tell you that you need to take criticism, I’m going to tell you how to take criticism.

Criticism is never easy to receive, but in my nearly forty years on this earth, I’ve heard a lot of it. New writers, or those who have only recently started showing their work to others, take heart in this: criticism becomes easier to take the more you hear it. My own critique partner, Bruce, told me, “When I first started selling articles, I could brood for days on a negative comment. Now, an hour later, and I’ve forgotten it.” Taking that first step is always the hardest, but it gets easier and easier with time. I used to be deathly afraid of flying, not a good fear for someone who lived overseas to have. So, I researched how to get over this fear, and overwhelmingly, the advice was this: fly. So fly I did, and while, I still feel that prickle of fear at takeoff, I get over it quickly enough, and I book flights without a second thought, whereas before I would routinely take the train to avoid flying. Opening yourself up for critiquing is a bit the same. Once you start, the easier it becomes. Now, I actually look forward to posting new work for my critique partners, and while I might feel that tiny prickle of anxiety, it is overridden by the knowledge that my work has gotten better because I took their advice.

Here is the second secret to taking criticism: you don’t have to take it. Remember, your writing is your own, and if you don’t agree with the critique, then you thank the giver and move on. Now, this is said with the caveat that you certainly should not disregard every bit of criticism given, not if you actually want to improve your writing, and the caveat too, that if you hear a certain critique from multiple sources, its probably a valid critique. However, even valid critiques are critiques that you can disregard if they don’t sit right with you as the writer. Ultimately you have the final say. Remember this though: sometimes the hardest criticisms to hear are the ones that your work needs the most. Sometimes we don’t want to hear certain critiques because we know that fixing those issues will be a monumental task. For instance, I knew deep down that my main character was lacking something, but I avoided the issue, telling myself I would resolve the issue in revision. It was only through a conversation with my critique partner Bruce, that I realized exactly what was lacking. The result meant a rather large rewrite, but the new version is undoubtedly superior to the first. If you find yourself particularly resistant to a certain criticism, ask yourself why. What is it about this critique that makes it hurt so much?

Which leads me to this: everyone gets bad reviews, because no one’s writing is perfect. Next time you’re feeling down over a harsh critique, go to Goodreads or Amazon and look at the one star reviews for your favorite book. Believe me, there will be at least a few, and those are fully formed books that have been through editing and revision and probably a few rewrites as well before assuming their final form. No one writes a perfect first draft, and even final drafts will have their detractors. It doesn’t mean the detractors are wrong, but it means that for every hater, there’s bound to be a fan. Find your fans, and make them your critiquers. My critique partners are two of my biggest fans. They love my book, and that’s why they want me to make it better. They want to see it succeed. The best critiques will come from people who genuinely enjoy your work, not people who are reading it out of a sense of duty. Critiques are easier to take too when you’re absolutely certain that they’re coming from a place of love. I know how much my critique partners believe in my work, which is why I don’t flinch when they give me notes.

And here too, is the upside of learning to take criticism well: writing is a lonely process, and it is only made lonelier if you isolate yourself and refuse to share your work with others. While being critiqued can be scary, and tough critiques can hurt, ultimately, if you find good partners, you will gain your biggest cheerleaders. You will gain people who can share with you the ups and downs of the writing process, with whom you can share ideas, who are more than willing to listen to your late night “so hear me out, but what if I …” conjectures. While these sorts of people are hard to find, they’ll be the first people you tell when you finally sign with an agent or land that publication deal, and they’ll be the people you thank first in your acknowledgements, because you know the book wouldn’t be half the book it is without their help. Criticism is hard to take, sure, but the people who take the time to give it, to give honest, thoughtful, and constructive criticism, are giving you a valuable gift. Learn to take it gratefully and graciously, just as you would any gift given with love, even the ones you plan to return the next day.