General Writing

Harp and Carp: The Fantasy of Medieval Ballads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Writing

Finding the Right Title

Titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reason Why

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

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

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

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

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

Characters, General Writing, Uncategorized

Transparency and the Writer

Recently, together with my online student, a seventeen year old boy from Guiyang, I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Talking to Strangers. While generally audiobooks are not my thing, Gladwell’s book is a different sort of audiobook altogether. More like a podcast, Talking With Strangers explores all of the ways we perceive and misperceive people we don’t know, using interviews, stories, and research. While most of the chapters are fascinating, for this writer, chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Transparency,” was particularly enlightening.

Transparency in psychological terms, refers to how well a person’s personal mental or emotional state understood by others. The illusion of transparency is the idea that most of us tend to overestimate how well others can perceive our emotional or mental state — that is, we believe that others can tell when we are happy, sad, angry, confused, etc. We believe that our facial expressions, actions, and body language are expressive enough that our mood should be “transparent” even without us saying anything.

Talking to Strangers refers to a study done by Carlos Crivelli in which he showed pictures of various facial expressions to Spanish schoolchildren. When the schoolchildren saw a face with a downturned mouth, they were easily able to identify the face as sad. Wide open eyes and an open mouth indicated fear, knit brows indicated anger, etc. This is unsurprising, of course. These are the same expressions that writers routinely use to express emotions in our own stories. “He knit his brows in confusion.” “Her eyes widened” “Her mouth dropped open.” They’re also the expressions we see actors use when they are portraying an emotional moment.

Crivelli then showed the same photographs to Trobriand islanders, whom he’d been living with and studying for some time. Crivelli had learned their language and had been accepted in Trobriander society — the people trusted him, and what’s more, Crivelli spoke their language and was able to understand their responses without complicated secondhand interactions. However, the islanders response to the pictures was The Trobriand islanders did not identify the same emotions as the Spanish schoolchildren at all. Where the Spanish schoolchildren saw fear, the Trobriand Islanders saw aggression. The only emotion that showed any sort of consistency was happiness — it seems the Spanish schoolchildren and the Trobriand islanders both recognized a smile as a sign of happiness. In order to confirm his suspicions, Crivelli and his team traveled to Mozambique and did the same experiment with a group of fishermen known as the Mwani. The results were similar — while the Mwani recognized a smile as a sign of happiness, frowns, scowls, raised eyebrows, and open mouths were all interpreted in a variety of ways, none of which corresponded with the responses of the Spanish schoolchildren.

The obvious conclusion seems to be that facial expressions are culturally bound, but as it turns out, the obvious conclusion in this case is not necessarily the correct conclusion. While it is true that different cultures seem to have different perceptions of what a surprised face or a sad face should look like, the reality is that even within the same culture, we have trouble identify emotions through facial expressions. Talking to Strangers discusses the experiment done by two German psychologists, who put participants into a shocking situation and had them rate how surprised they were at the exact moment the shocking image appeared, and then compared the self-rating to a still photograph taken at the same moment. Very few of the participants faces showed the classic “surprised” face with an dropped jaw, wide eyes, and raised eyebrows. Instead, their faces showed a variety of different expressions. And this is where the illusion of transparency comes in. All of these people believed that their shock and surprise would be written all over their faces for everyone to see — but it wasn’t. An observer looking at the still photos of the participants, devoid of context, would not have recognized the emotion on their faces as surprise.

According to Gladwell, our facial expressions are a kind of folk psychology. Drama and fiction have reinforced the association of certain facial expressions with certain emotions and so we believe these are the actual expressions. It turns out, however, that our expressions are, if not arbitrary, than at least somewhat distinct and unpredictable. For the writer, the implications of this are clear — the facial expressions and gestures that we’ve painstakingly studied (how many of us have a copy of the Emotion Thesaurus? I know I do) in order to add realism to our characters may have nothing at all to do with actual emotions our characters are meant to be feeling.

Does this mean that we should discard these typical emotional signifiers as writers? Not necessarily. After all, regardless of whether they’re folk psychology or not, readers understand these facial expressions as universal. However, I can’t help but think of all of the possibilities this knowledge opens up. Instead of my character widening their eyes in surprise, I might give them idiosyncratic mannerisms. Although I would have to establish context, why couldn’t I write something like, “A always furrowed her brows when she was surprised, B had noticed”? And of course writers do like this, but what these studies show us is that these sentences would actually be more accurate than one depicting the typical expression of surprise.  Listening to this chapter, I felt a sense of possibilities unfolding.

Like most of us, I’d accepted the idea that emotions are universal and that facial expressions naturally reflected certain emotions. To learn that, if I was writing an ancient Roman historical fiction I would technically be inaccurate if I wrote, for instance, a Roman centurion frowning in consternation, was a bit of a surprise. However, the power of the written word is such that fictional depictions of emotional reactions have created a sort of template for an expected emotional reaction that have nothing to do with what the subject is actually feeling.

This template is what causes the “illusion of transparency” and makes us think we are so much better at discerning another person’s emotional state than we actually are. In fact, according to Gladwell, we are terrifically bad at reading each other’s faces. Many of history’s great misunderstandings have come from this sort of confidence in our own ability to read others (Gladwell gives the example of Chamberlain famously declaring that Hitler seemed like a trustworthy and honest person, and Hitler then proceeding to make a complete fool of Chamberlain). Thinking about each time that I may have written something along the lines of “I could tell by the way her face did X that she felt Y,” I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, the idea of transparency has unlocked for me all sorts of opportunities for glorious misunderstandings and conflict. What more could a writer want?

General Writing

Wannabe Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity, General Writing, Marketing, Publishing, Uncategorized

Lies Writers Tell Themselves: Forced Diversity

When it comes to diversity, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around in writerly circles. Much of this misinformation takes the form of reactionary strawmen, creating scenarios that make victims out of the (usually white) writers who are resistant to recent changes in the publishing industry and thus the status quo. These writers feel threatened by an increased awareness of the need for diversity.

One of the biggest strawmen is the idea of so-called “forced diversity,” the idea that publishers now refuse to publish manuscripts that are not sufficiently diverse, that editors are asking writers to re-write manuscripts to change the race or sexuality of a character, that agents who specifically request diverse or #ownvoices stories are rejecting everything else. When this argument comes up, righteous indignation usually follows, with grumblings about the author’s artistic vision, censorship, and lots of “how dare they tell me what to write.” Hand-wringing about cancel culture and the perils of being a white writer are usually not far behind, the sense of being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” being a major theme.

Here is something that is a fact: for as long as the publishing industry has existed, it has been dominated by white voices. While there have been amazing books written by marginalized voices over the years, publishing itself is a an industry that is predominated by upper middle class white people. A 2015 Publishers Weekly study showed that the industry itself is 79% white, and the editorial departments were 82% white. With publishing so overwhelmingly white, it is hard to take any claims of white victimhood particularly seriously. A look at the current New York Times bestseller list reveals 9 out of 10 books on the adult fiction book list were written by white authors and feature white protagonists. Does it really look like diversity is being forced upon authors who have no interest in writing diversity? Hardly. The idea that the white author is somehow at a disadvantage seems more a case of sour grapes, a ready-made excuse for the endless stream of rejection letters, than any reflection of the actual state of the publishing industry.

That all said, it is true that there has been some effort on behalf of publishing to become more diverse. Agents frequently include diverse books and the #ownvoices hashtag in their wish-lists. Certain segments of the industry are more diverse than others — YA, for instance, on the same New York Times Bestseller list, had 7 out of 10 white authors on the list, and of those there were stories featuring other types of marginalization — namely sexuality and disability. Still though, white authors are in no danger of being pushed aside, still occupying a full 70% of the bestseller list.

The argument about non-marginalized writers being forced to alter their vision to suit the demands of diversity crazy editors and agents also fails to hold up to any close scrutiny. Although this little bit of urban myth seems to get passed around writer circles, I’ve heard no first-hand accounts of an author directly being told “we’ll publish your book if you make the main character Black” or “I’ll accept you as a client if you make the romance gay.” What seems more likely is that authors have heard, perhaps from beta-readers, perhaps from critique partners, and perhaps even from agents, that their book lacks diversity and might be improved if more diversity was added. This isn’t forced diversity, this is a suggestion for improvement.

It has always amused me that artistic integrity and the sacred vision of the author suddenly becomes so much more important when suggestions are made about diversity than anything else. If an editor suggests that a character is unrealistic as portrayed, and that perhaps the author might give that character a different job, or a different socio-economic background, most writers will not take offense. But suggest that a character should be another race or a different sexual orientation (because after all, diversity adds realism to our fictional worlds, reflecting the world in which we live), and authors suddenly are very concerned about their artistic integrity. The former, it seems, is an acceptable example of the editor giving corrections, whereas the latter is an example of an editor trying to control the author.

Authors, understand this: if someone suggests your book would be improved by the addition of diversity, they are not trying to challenge your authorial vision. They’re not trying to force diversity on you. The person who suggests this — beta reader, critique partner, editor, agent — is telling you that your work does not reflect the world we live in. In the real world, people are not all white, all heterosexual, all cis-gendered. In real life, there’s a guy with a wheelchair buying cereal at the supermarket, there’s a woman wearing a hijab working at the bank, there’s a teacher named Chang at your high school and lesbian couple dropping their son off at daycare. For too long publishing has reflected a warped vision of the real world, and if now it seeks to self-correct, this is not an attack on the non-marginalized writer, but a long overdue chance for the industry to ensure that all readers will see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Because at the heart of the matter is this — diversity and representation matters, and it matters more than the hurt feelings or the righteous indignation of non-marginalized writers, and not just for lofty reasons either. Publishing is, first and foremost, a business, and marginalized individuals are customers too. At the end of the day, the writer may indeed write according to their own “artistic vision” but the publisher too will purchase what sells. If diversity, right now, is selling, then it is a reflection of a demand on the part of a significant segment of the population to see themselves represented in what they read.

If diversity is forced, then it is forced by the readers themselves, and ultimately, publishing is an industry that serves the needs of the reader, rather than the ego of the writer.

General Writing

What Writers Can’t Learn from Dungeons and Dragons

“If you’ve played a character, you are ten steps further towards being a writer than anyone else. You’ve made a character, you have a backstory, and you’ve engaged in narrative, just playing a character in a game. If you’ve DMed, you’re like thirty steps farther towards being a writer of a novel or a story; you’re an active storyteller.”
-Patrick Rothfuss

Like many writers, I went through a period of Dungeon Mastering. For almost two years, I spent every Friday evening masterminding a story for half a dozen friends, setting up a backdrop against which they could play out their fantasies and work through their real-life relationships with each other. Not surprisingly, when I started to write, I began with some of the characters and maps I produced for gaming. Some of that material survives to this day, mutated out of recognition from its origins.

But did Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk make me a better writer? Or give me transferable practice? Unlike countless of writers like Patrick Rothfuss, I would have to say it didn’t. The differences between gaming and writing are simply too great for one to influence the other.

Yeah, both games and fiction involve storytelling. However, like movies or graphic novels, they are different media for storytelling. Each media has its own advantages and restrictions, and moving from one to the other is a form of translation, in which some things are lost and some things are gained. Writing and gaming are no different.

To start with, D&D is an oral form of storytelling. As you might expect, oral stories are geared to the speed at which human ears can comprehend. This speed is much slower than when reading. To remain comprehensible, oral stories develop more slowly than written ones. Typically, too, they involve a lot of repetition. In Homer, that repetition consists largely of metrical phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” or “Achilles, fleet of foot,” and patterns of action, while in D&D, it takes the form of meta-actions like rolling for initiative and damage done. In fact, being free-form, D&D has a lot of repetition that has no place on the page. Unlike in writing, there is no room for pacing, or a departure from chronological order.

Moreover, D&D is group storytelling, whereas a writer is generally on their own. A gaming session has more in common with improv theater than writing. DMs are closer to a writer than the other players, yet even they provide no more than a framework for the others to develop. That framework must provide space for the other players to improvise, and for the effect of chance. A skilled DM may try to take alternative storylines into account, but more than one has had to cancel the rest of the session or work on the fly when characters do something unforeseen. Writing, in comparison, has so little room for randomness or alternative storylines that examples are hard to find. I have heard that Phillip K. Dick used the I Ching to develop the story of The Man in the High Castle, but, if he did, no sign is visible on the page.

Still another important difference is that gaming requires much more material than the average piece of fiction. For a once a week session, DMs generally have to spend several hours a week in preparation — and I know more than one student whose DMing placed them on academic probation. To lighten the burden, DMs have endless sources of reference material, but often the result is a lack of originality. What matters is an entertaining session, not originality. By contrast, while clichés abound in fiction, too, to many readers’ apparent satisfaction, originality is prized, no matter how small.

However, the main difference is that D&D tends more to story, and writing to plot. Except with the most thoughtful DMs, D&D tends to be episodic. A main quest may exist, but the point is to stage an engaging session. Only rarely is a session complete in itself, with self-contained goals that advance the main quest while being complete in itself, like the best of TV series. More often, a session consists of events that are linked only by chronological order and that contain a large amount of randomness.

By contrast, with rare exceptions like Jack Kerourac’s On the Road, fiction is plotted. The first event causes the second, beginning a chain of cause and effect that only ends in the climax and resolution. This structure is extremely artificial, and less true to life than a gaming session, but is too well-established to be often challenged.

Really, I can barely begin to list all the writing skills you won’t learn by gaming: flashbacks, internal monologues, elegant prose, and much more besides. About all that gaming and fiction have in common is a love of the fantastic. Other elements of their storytelling do not translate. In fact, to assume any closer connection is an easy way to get lost when writing. I sometimes wonder how many of the beginning writers on Internet forums who are always asking for help with plotting are gamers who feel lost developing stories on their own, who feel lost telling stories by themselves. In the end, no matter how much they squirm, writers must rely on themselves. If they want inspiration to learn from, they are far more likely to learn from other books than from games — or from other forms of storytelling.

General Writing

Why I Sit Out NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (familarly known as NaNoWriMo) is not my least favorite sign of autumn. That would have to be the endless cold rain — no, the omnipresent pumpkin spice pastries and lattes. Still, as everyone online starts talking about their plans for the event, I feel like someone who has no interest in sports but is trapped in a city gripped by playoff fever. I just don’t see the point. In fact, NaNoWriMo seems to perpetuate ideas about writing that seem to me likely to be harmful.

Admittedly, the event starts off with a grating abbreviation. “NaNoWriMo” has a sharp staccato that always makes me think of Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Worse, it sounds like cute Newspeak, which is an oxymoron if I ever saw one. It makes me think of jackboots and the rats in Room 101.

Still, I could forget the cloying abbreviation, except for other irritants. To start with, the 50,000 word goal seems designed to be possible within a month, not because it leaves participants with anything useful. Either it leaves them with a novella, a length that is hard to sell to either publishers or readers, or with a fragment of a novel to be finished in the future. Both seem meager rewards for putting the rest of your life on hold for a month.

More importantly, like so many wannabe writers do, the guidelines emphasize quantity over quality. At first, 50,000 words may sound impressive — but do those words sing like the poetry of John Keats, or plod like the prose of Dan Brown? If those 50,000 words take five drafts to become acceptable, or a third of those words are eventually deleted, the accomplishment is not so impressive. A serious risk exists that you will only waste your time to make the word count and end up little that’s worth keeping.

Yes, I know that conventional wisdom has it that a rough draft’s quality doesn’t matter. However, there are people like me who need to put the rough draft into close approximation of the final form before moving on. Personally, if I ignored this need, I would increasingly start feeling like a swarm of bees had taken up residence in my skull. As I pressed on to my arbitrary goal, I would only feel more annoyed. Moreover, almost the entire end result would fall prey to the ravages of the Delete key. I can consistently knock off a publishable 1500 word article in a couple of hours, having written over two thousand over the last two decades, but my fiction oozes out more slowly. I like to think that I save time in the long run by needing fewer drafts to make fiction presentable, but the point is, NaNoWriMo is set up with the assumption that we all have the same writing habits. We don’t.

If NaNoWriMo wanted participants to end up with a useful manuscript, its goal would be something like the first three chapters of a novel. A goal like that would still be challenging, but it would be far less than 50,000 words, which would give writers a chance to produce their best work. But I know that’s not likely to happen. Whenever I raise the points I make here, the result is another classic example of one of Orwell’s concepts: double speak. “Of course I know that the number of words is not a reliable counter of progress,” is the typical response. “Do you think I’m stupid?” Yet sometimes the indignation has barely faded before the same person happily chirps, “I did 3000 words today!” and preens themselves on their progress anyway. So I doubt that many would agree with me.

The true point of NaNoWriMo, I think, is to turn the private act of writing into a social one. When not rushing to meet their daily word count, people can compare results with other participants. They can watch videos online, or, depending where they live, go to an event where they can get a much-needed boost of encouragement. Most of the timewhen I hear participants talk about NaNoWriMo, what enthuses them is the camaradery, the sense of shared hardship and of facing the same challenges as those around them. For some, that may be enough for them to take part in NaNoWriMo year after year. However, I have critiquing partners, so I generally don’t have to look for writing-centered socialization. I have it year round. I look at the circus surrounding NaNoWriMo, and I wonder what it all has to do with writing.

Besides, who has time to start NaNoWriMo with a reasonable chance of finishing? I’m not a student taking a semester off, or retired and looking for ways to fill my day. Nor do I live with anyone who could support me for a month, or who might agree to do my share of the cooking or the laundry for four weeks. The best I can do is limp along the same as always, slipping in a few hours of writing when I can. My normal output for a month is far below NaNoWriMo’s goal, but I will keep far more of it.

For these reasons, I’m going to pass on NaNoWriMo, the same as every year. All that NaNoWriMo can do is help me ready my Scrooge act so that I’ve perfected it by Christmas.

General Writing

Writers Gotta Read

If you see an allusion in an online writer’s group, nine times out of ten it’s to a blockbuster movie or piece of Anime, or to a popular game. That’s not surprising. We live in a golden age of film and games, and I am no immune to their appeal than anyone else. I had to stop playing games more complicated than solitaire in order to get any work done, and the only time my streaming remote will leave my hand is when the batteries need replacing. Yet while the appeal is undeniable, may I suggest (already bracing for a barrage of criticism) that neither film nor game is the place for writers to learn their craft? Like writing, both are narratives, but if the general strategy is the same, the tactics are too different to be of much help in the development of the writer.

The reason is that film and other visuals are an analog medium, while writing is a digital one. A visual medium is a continual flow of information, while a digital one is made out of separate bits. As a result, analog and digital media can both do things that the other cannot. For example, an analog medium can give a panoramic view of the background in seconds. By contrast, in a digital medium, a panoramic view takes paragraphs, or even pages, and can take minutes for the audience to absorb. Similarly, a digital medium can present the inner thoughts of a character or offer background effortlessly, while to present the same information in analog requires a number of makeshift tactics like a voice-over or an info dump that halts the story in mid-stream.

This difference in tactics explains why the book and the movie of a story are rarely the same. The movie has to add scenes or even characters to convey the same information as the book. Often, an effective scene in a book simply doesn’t play on the screen. A classic example of this situation is the banquet scene in Dune. On the page, it is a scene full of nuances, of verbal sparring and interpretation. But attempts to film Dune floundered for years, partly because Frank Herbert, the author, insisted on including the banquet scene, which was essentially unfilmable – unless, perhaps, it was allowed to be forty-five minutes long.

Somewhat further afield, but related, you may have noticed that some of Neil Gaiman’s earliest fiction could be a little thinly developed. I am convinced that this flaw was due to the fact that Gaiman was used to writing scripts for graphic novels – another heavily analog medium – and leaving the description to the artists he worked with to flesh out. The habits suitable for graphic novels were not directly transferable to short stories and novels. Learning to be comfortable as he switched media was part of Gaiman’s evolution as a writer – and a lesson that, of course, he long ago learned.

For such reasons, the fact that a writer should read should be self-evident. In fact, a critical mass of reading seems to be needed for a writer to come into their own, which maybe one reason that few writers produce their best work before their thirties.

But read what? Ursula K. Le Guin had a few suggestions. In “Learning to Write Science Fiction From Virginia Wolf,” Le Guin begins by insisting that you need to know your own genre – not everything that is happening in it (since that would be impossible), but enough to know the conventions. That is solid commercial advice for anyone looking to traditional publication, but it also teaches you the traditions and conventions of the genre. Without that knowledge, you risk the fate of writers like Doris Lessing, who ventured into science fiction with no apparent knowledge of what had already been done in the field, only to produce tedious, didactic and almost unreadable novels.

Moreover, unless you know the genre, you can’t know what sort of writer you want to be: a genre writer, filling the expectations a genre, or a writer with ambition who exceeds genre expectations, and may one day produce art. Nothing is wrong with either of these ambitions, but as Le Guin says, “genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language, it becomes a jargon meaningful only to an in-group.”

However, to make an intelligent choice, you also need to read outside your genre. After all, how else can you know what the alternatives are? Just like different media, different genres have their own specialties. Mysteries, for example, are adept at scattering clues throughout the story, many of which only reveal themselves at the climax. Similarly, the mainstream tends to excel at characterization. The media is the same, even if the genre isn’t, and you can easily add another genre’s tactics to your genre of choice.

Moreover, you can often find unexpected models outside your genre. With deliberate provocation, Le Guin talks of learning science fiction from Virginia Woolf. She refers to Orlando, in which, like any good historical, Woolf recreates the past – in particular, Elizabethean England. Le Guin also refers to Flush, in which Woolf depicts the thoughts of a dog, a process not that different from writing from an alien’s perspective.

But who knows what else you might find? We have a very impoverished vocabulary when it comes to writing technique, and for this reason the easiest way to learn technique is through example. Example is a very hit and miss technique, but I believe that most writers will know what they need to learn when they see it. No list of recommended books could possibly teach every writer what they need to know, so the best strategy is to be an omnivorous reader and increase the chances of finding what you need.

The broader your reading, the more possibilities you become aware of, and the better, more original writer you have the chance to become. Ignore reading for film and games, or even graphic novels, and your prose is far more likely to be shallow or jarringly off the mark. In fact, if you balk at reading, maybe you should reconsider your ambitions and study how to make movies or games. Both are perfectly honorable and imaginative professions, but the point is, neither of them are prose writing. If you want to write, you need to read, not watch a screen or clutch a joystick.

 

General Writing

Bricks Without Straw: Making Useless Critiques Useful

After a while, critiques start to fall into recognizable categories. As you work with many critiquers, their responses can be like the Baggins family in Tolkien’s stories – you know what they are going to say without the trouble of asking them. Even worse, every once in a while, you come across a critique so out of the ordinary – so outré – that you don’t know how to react. Your first reaction may be to ignore it, and often you may be right. However, sometimes, you can incorporate such a critique into your work, although not in the way intended. Here are three examples:

Masculine Women and Feminine Men

I once had a critiquer who, every time they read an excerpt from my work in progress, would insist that the name of the female lead character sounded masculine. Every single time. Sometimes, several times in the session. However, I was not about to change it. By coincidence, the name was a woman’s in Finnish. More importantly, changing a name, even if only its spelling, changes the character for me. To change the character’s name would make me change the character’s personality, and I had no reason to do that.

However, it occurred to me that the critiquer might not be the only one who thought the name masculine. So I decided to meet the criticism head on by adding this exchange when the character was introduced:

“That’s a man’s name.”

“It’s my name now.”

Considering the character’s toughness, this short exchange showed her personality concisely. Through no intent of the critiquer, the comment proved useful after all.

The Curse of the Were-Salmon

Another time, a critquer became fixated on the militia units in my story that were named for common animals, such as Wolves, Salmon, and Horses. For reasons unclear to me, the critiquer got it firmly embedded in their head that the members of these units were – or should be – shape-shifters.

Nothing could be further from my intention, and a careful analysis of my words convinced me that I had written nothing that would suggest that conclusion. The misconception was a huge, unwarranted leap of logic, so I ignored it, except to joke that no doubt were-Salmon would swim upstream to spawn on the night of the full-moon.

At the same time, I wanted to trample firmly on the idea. After many unsuccessful tries, I made the idea that the militias were shape-changers an idea of a boy too young to know better. The boy’s moment of disillusion, of course, was his confusion over why anyone would to change into a salmon. What better way, I thought, to hint that the child was imaginative and questioned what around him?

Appropriating Shamanism

Jessica Larson-Wang, my critique partner (whose own comments, let me hurriedly say, are always insightful and improve my work) provides a third example. Her own work in progress includes a shaman. However, a discussion in a Facebook group was started by someone asking if using the word “shaman” was appropriation.

Ten minutes’ research would have revealed the concern is needless. “Shaman” is a long-established term in anthropology, and is widely used in English, even by those whose cultures include shamans. The only appropriation that concerns anyone is when some spiritual shopper debases the word to describe some Western-invented ceremony for the gullible – a practice as far from the concerns of actual shamanistic practice as can be imagined. Otherwise, the question never comes up.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to do this basic research. Instead, the group members wittered on endlessly, worrying about appropriation from an extinct culture and getting so so heated that one poster ended up being banned. Some suggested “witch” as a substitute, ignoring the conflicting connotations. Others favored substitutes that only covered a small part of a shaman’s role, such as “healer” or “village leader.”One even proposed “Shintoist,” cleverly avoiding the non-appropriation of one word by substituting appropriation of a still-existing culture. A few suggested inventing a word, although invention apparently proved lacking, since no new coinings were posted. All that our delight lacked was someone to suggest “medicine man” or “witch doctor.” The discussion alarmed one poster so much that they decided to avoid the word “shaman,” just in case.

By coincidence, Jessica was just finishing the chapter in which her shaman was introduced. After we finished laughing, she decided to use the thread with its implied criticism, inserting the partial descriptions to help any readers unfamiliar with shamans to understand their role, describing a shaman as “part healers, part shamans, part village leaders,” and later throwing in “witch” for good measure. Her use was partly an in-joke, but also for a practical purpose.

A Matter of Recycling

I suspect most people would simply ignore such off-the-wall comments. I used to do so myself. But as these examples show, even apparently irrelevant comments can sometimes contribute to your work – often despite themselves. And if there’s some nose-thumbing involved, you can’t say that the original critiques didn’t deserve it.

General Writing

The Color of Éowyn’s Eyes: Economy of Description

You remember Éowyn, the niece of the King of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings? The killer of the Nazgûl , for whom the confines of a woman’s life were not enough? You should remember her; she’s one of Tolkien’s only woman characters as well as one of his most fully realized. So try to tell me what color her eyes were, and I’ll suggest something important about description.

From the movies, or the fact that Rohirrim were based on the Anglo Saxons, you might deduce that her eyes were blue. However, no one can be sure, because her eye color is never mentioned. Not once. The closest Tolkien comes is when Aragorn observes a feeling of compassion in her eyes for her uncle’s condition. Éowyn’s eye color is irrelevant to her story and those who want to know it are likely to fill in the details for themselves. Readers don’t need to be given everything about her to appreciate her.

This observation runs contrary to the advice often given to beginning writers. Take, for example, bibisco, an open source equivalent of Scrivener. Bibisco’s first tip to users is that “in order to write believable characters, you must know everything about them.” All of them, apparently, from your protagonists down to the walk-ons. To help you, bibisco offers nearly a hundred different categories to fill, divided into categories like personal data, physical description, behavior, attitudes, psychology, ideas and passions. Under psychology, for instance, you are asked for “Each and every aspect of psychology.” The idea is silly beyond words, yet reviewers nod solemnly at it.

I don’t know about you, but that level of preparation would leave me with no desire to write at all. Just as importantly, it allows no space for the alterations of character due to the development of the plot, whose discoveries are one of the delights of writing.

Moreover, most of that information will never fit into the story. The days of Thomas Hardy starting a novel with a whole chapter of description are over a century past. Modern novels have no place for more than the essentials: the relevant physical descriptions and gestures are mostly all that readers will endure. And even then, you generally have to be selective. It is considered clumsy, these days, to pause the story for an info dump that reads like a police dossier. If more details prove necessary, you can give them as they become useful. For example, Tolkien might have chosen to give the color of Eowyn’s eyes from the perspective of Faramir as he proposes to her and gazes soulfully into them. Be careful, though, not to overdo the gradualism and have a character refer to his pale forehead as he brushes his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-green eyes – that’s just clumsy writing.

So how do you decide how much description is enough? In his master class, Neil Gaiman suggests that the general rule for any description is to ask how any object stands out from the rest. In the case of characters, I suggest asking yourself what you would notice when meeting the character for the first time. Is there a physical feature that is unusual? Something about the way they move? Or talk? Occupy physical space? Interact with others? It could even be the fact that nothing about them stands out (which might be a useful trait for a spy). Probably, you only have space for two or three features before the patience of the modern reader wears thin, so you can choose only what helps identifies the character, or anything that advances the plot. For instance, if you know there’s a scene coming up where the character needs to shout a warning, you could add some drama and character development by giving them a stutter to overcome. But you need to be economical.

One effective but difficult way to be economical in your description is to choose a theme in the details you choose. For example, if you describe a man as being as expressionless as a sheet of iron, and standing as immobile as a suit of armor, you create the impression of a hard, formidable person. Similarly, if you describe a woman in terms of the rich fabrics and embroideries she wears, you make her sound rich and fashion-conscious.

More simply, you can use a metaphor. The past master of description by metaphor was the mystery writer Raymond Chandler,who not only created vivid characters using metaphors, but let readers fill in the details and gave an impression of the viewpoint character in the description. Often, too, the metaphors were hilarious. For example, Chandler described one character as being “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” Another character described himself as being “an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Probably his best known description remains, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Notice how these examples concentrate on the impression that a character creates, leaving the reader to fill in most physical details. Chandler has been parodied so many times that many of his descriptions seem too over the top today, but a more subdued version of his technique remains possible. For instance, I recently described a character as looking like a plant that had been left unwatered for too long.

All these approaches to description demand thought and economy. All, too, are far more demanding than the encyclopedia-like info dump that novice writers often feel is required. But they are also more effective and efficient, and can move a story along in more way than one.