General Writing

Writing Infodumps without Slowing the Story

I reject the word “infodump” categorically — that’s a smartass word out of the cyberpunks’ workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject “expository lump” also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It’s an attempt to say “fiction can only be stage business” which is a stupid position.”

  • Kim Stanley Robinson

Sooner or later, a story has to give some background on the characters or the setting. That is especially true in fantasy and science fiction, both of which often have to sketch in an invented background. However, even in a mainstream story, at some point you need to describe characters or give some of their history. For this reason, “infodump” and “expository lump” are thrown around far too freely. As I reflected on Robinson’s comment at thirty thousand feet, my eyes closed against the vague claustrophobia of economy class, I concluded that he was right. Infodumps are an unavoidable part of writing. The question is not whether you should have them in your fiction, but whether they are done poorly or well.

Poor examples of infodumps are easy to find. They are common in novices’ writing, identifiable by the way they stop the story from advancing. Here’s an improvised example:

“We’re surrounded,” Tyler said. He was young giant, blonde haired and with outsized hands. He wore black jeans and wore a sleeveless shirt that might have been called a wife-beater on a man with a less cheery grin. The son of Appalachian coal miners, he spoke with a slow accent that many took for a slowness of mind until they heard his ideas.

“Better break out the guns,” Antoine replied. He was a small man, whose skin showed his Mexican ancestry. Wiry, he was quick with his feet and hands, and his tongue as well. He had met Tyler one night in the student pub, when his fast-talking had kept Tyler out of a fight with a woman’s jealous boy-friend.

This is a parody, but only barely. I have seen dozens of similar passages that interrupt the action to give background. They are the written equivalent of a stage actor who steps out of character to talk directly to the audience about their character.

However the usual correction is no better. Told to mix the background with the general narrative, many beginning writers come up with something like:

His white-skinned hand wiped his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-blue eyes.

This strategy slows the story just as much as my first example, but by overloading the sentence with adjectives. Yet another doomed strategy is go to painful length to have a viewpoint character see themselves in a mirror or a reflection. All these mis-steps are often caused by a writer wanting to have done with the necessary exposition as soon as possible. After reading Robinson’s comment, I have reserved “infodump” and “expository lump” for passages like them.

So how do you fit necessary description or background into a story? One technique is to start each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional document, as John Brunner did in his classic, “The Sheep Look Up.” Removed from the action, such excerpts become more acceptable, especially when kept short. Similar excerpts can be added within the narrative itself as a character reads or hears them. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien frequently uses poems in this way, offering only snippets in moments of actions, such as the poetry that Theoden quotes before the Riders of Rohan break the siege of Minas Tirith, and long ones only in scenes where nothing much is happening, such as a quiet night in Rivendell.

However, the easiest way to weave information into a narrative is to take advantage of your viewpoint character. If a character has a background that includes the information you need to convey, all you need to do is put them in a position in which they would naturally think of it. For example:

Gareth leaped for the door, but he was too late. The door clicked shut, and he was trapped in precisely the part of the castle he had been warned not to go. In his childhood, he had heard stories of headless and hungry ghosts who haunted this wing, and now he looked around, half-expecting to see them.

In this passage, instead of halting the narrative, the background information is also used to give the character’s reaction to the setting, and add some tension. You could even make the information part of the character’s thoughts:

Gareth leaped for the door, but it had already clicked shut. Trapped, he thought, and in precisely the part of the castle I have been warned against. I wonder if the headless and hungry ghosts I heard about as a child are still around?

Or if you wanted to describe the character a bit:

Gareth had always prided himself on his speed, but his leap for the door was too late.

You might be able, too, to combine both the descriptive detail and reaction, although probably that would be too busy. Often, dialogue can convey information:

“I leaped, but the door had already clicked shut,” Gareth said.

“What do you do?” Linette said.

“Tried not to think of headless and hungry ghosts,” Gareth said ruefully. “Remember those tales we were told as children? I remember all of them.”

Any of these strategies would work, depending on what you want to do. Still, as a general rule, if a passage has more than one purpose, the chances are that it will convey information without any slowing of the story.

When integrated, background needn’t slow down the narrative at all. At times, as in Tolkien’s descriptions of Rivendell or Lothlorien, the description can even become an attraction in its own right. The next time you see background added to a story, don’t rush to condemn it. Rather, ask how well it integrates with the narrative. The question is not whether anyone can avoid such elements, but how well they serve your story.

General Writing

The Leap into Freelancing

One of the conventional bits of wisdom about freelance work is that it is chancy. Never quit your steady job, experts often insist, unless you have six months of contracts lined up, or a hundred thousand in the bank. It’s sensible advice, except for one small detail: I have never met anyone who followed it, including me. All of us seem to have reached a point where we had enough of the nine to five grind, and took a leap into the unknown.

I still remember my own leap. I was consulting, and making heavy weather of my consulting work as a marketing and technical writer. I had just come off being an executive in two start ups, and was having trouble being just an employee. I was used to responsibility, and I was seeing too many decisions I believed that I could make better. At one gig, the CEO whose office I shared was honestly baffled that he had a morale problem when he had cut a quarter of the staff, including several key hires required to keep the company operating. At a second, the CEO had a habit of arriving at meetings two hours late and drunk, and unilaterally undoing all the decisions already made. Increasingly, I was fed up.

At the second gig, I was part of a team working long hours in a hot summer. Things hit bottom when the company decided to reward the team with an evening at a night club. However, nobody signed up. We were tired, and the last thing any of us wanted was more of each other’s company. When the company changed the evening to an afternoon event, nobody came. The human resources manager was reduced to flushing employees out of washrooms and closets, and from under desks, and herding them over to the club. There we sat, barely chatting, using our free drink tickets, and then, at exactly 5pm, leaving without bothering to make excuses.

The next week was spent doing last minute cleanup on the project. Still shaking my head over the afternoon at the night club, one day I went for a walk along the sea wall in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. I was weary, and realized that I no longer took even a professional’s pride in doing good work. I gazed up at the North Shore mountains, wishing I were there –or anywhere, really — and reflecting that the mountains would still be there, even if my development missed the final deadline but a few days. I had had enough.

I worked out the final days of my contract, and turned down an offer to renew the contract, despite my misgivings and the internalized voice of my upbringing telling me to be sensible and play it safe.. In the past year, I had done occasional articles for Linux.com, then the online newspaper of free and open source software. In my search for an income, I begged Linux.com’s editor, Robin “roblimo” Miller for a regular position. He said he would take a chance on me as a contributor, but that I would need to write twelve articles a month –over 15,000 words.

I was nervous about only being a contributor rather than an employee. I was even more nervous about researching and writing more than I had ever written in a month, and doing it month after month. But no other source of income turned up immediately, so I decided I could write for Linux.com until more steady work turned up.

I was still there a few years later when the Linux.com URL was sold to the Linux Foundation. In fact, I had found other sites and magazines to make regular contributions to as well. Moreover, when Linux.com closed down, I replaced my lost income in a matter of hours. Since then, I have done the same several more times.

Undoubtedly, I was lucky. Still, looking back, I realize the conventional advice about waiting until I could freelance safely is like the advice to take a regular job and write in your spare time: if I had listened, I never would have made a career out of writing.

I learned, too, that, far from being precarious, in some ways freelancing can be far more secure than regular work. With regular work, I had only one job to depend on. When I lost it, I lost my income and at times my self-respect. By contrast, as a freelancer, I could arrange my finances so that they depended on several sources. Lose one, and I still had an income. Moreover, because I developed a reputation for writing grammatical copy and meeting deadlines, I could almost always replace one lost source of income with another.

I’m not saying that anyone should rush blindly into freelancing. However, I am saying that freelancing is a calculated risk, and a moment may come in your working life when you can take that calculated risk. In fact, a moment may come when the calculated risk of freelancing is no greater than the calculated risk of taking a steady job. Rather than listening to the conventional voices of reason, consider your own circumstances, and whether it’s time to believe in yourself and take your own leap of faith.

General Writing

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

Judging from Facebook writers’ groups, chapter lengths are one of the main anxieties of new writers. Hardly a week goes by without someone obsessing about whether their chapters are too short, or too long, and craving for a scrap of certainty that, frankly doesn’t exist. I could say that I have seen chapters of two words and others of ten thousand words, or that the average length appears to be 3000-4500 words, but neither of those answers is very useful. Like most aspects of writing, chapter length is highly circumstantial.

One school of thought is that you should take pity on your readers, and keep your chapters short for the sake of those who want to finish a chapter before going to bed. Most people would also agree that chapters in a children or young adult book should be shorter than those in a book for an older audience. But these answers aren’t especially useful either. How short is shorter, or long is longer?

To get an actual length, you might start with with your structure. For example, if you are using a five act structure borrowed from Shakespearean plays, then you could plan on five scenes per act, and plan each scene as a chapter. If you plan on a 100,000 word novel, that means your chapters should average out to 4,000 words. The trouble is that Shakespeare himself rarely wrote a perfectly symmetrical play, and frequently had Acts with three or seven chapters in them. Nor are other standard structures any more useful.

Lacking a firm answer, I prefer to plan my chapter lengths by the rhythm they create. Chapters are a natural break in the narrative, and a fresh start. Just as short sentences have a different effect than longer sentences, so a short chapter has a different effect than a longer one. On the one hand, consistently short chapters are likely to create a faster pace, perhaps with more changes in point of view. If you want to go into more depth with shorter chapters, you may need more cliff-hanger endings — and, even if you don’t, the narrative will sometimes spill over into the next chapter, and is likely to break the rhythm established by earlier chapters (which may or may not be something you want to do). On the other hand, long chapters are apt to be slower, and perhaps more philosophical. Your chapters are more likely to come to definite ends.

However, who says that chapters have to be a consistent length? A single sentence chapter can be used for a number of different purposes. In her Falco series, for example, mystery writer Lindsey Davis ends on chapter with a thrown knife, and deliberately breaks the tension in the next, single-sentence chapter in which her narrator simply says that he caught it. Suspense is not the main point of the narrative at that point, so Davis refuses to milk it. More recently, in The Cruel Prince, Holly Black glosses over a lapse of a decade with the simple sentence, “In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television,” implying all that a young girl might miss growing up among elves in just eleven words. Each is brilliant in its own way, even if I suspect both writers delight in showing off their writing skills.

Similarly, a chapter longer than those around it can also be useful. Consider, for example, The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows the tense retreat of Aragorn and the four hobbits from Weathertop, racing against time so that Frodo can get the healing he requires. In fact, ever since Bree, the hobbits have been pursued by the Black Riders, with next to no relief of tension. Once they are under Elrond’s protection, the tension is broken, and the characters and the readers alike are overdue for a rest. So Tolkien gives them one, full of welcome reunions and pages of history and debate which, if sometimes ominous, seem remote when heard in such a refuge.

Tolkien also makes effective use of a long chapter in The Battle of Pelennor Fields. The chapter describes the siege of Minas Tirith by Sauron’s army, and the mood gradually becomes grimmer and more hopeless as the city fights on, waiting for the forces of Rohan to relieve it. Just as the tension has been cranked up to an unbearable pitch, a cock crows, and the long chapter ends with, “Rohan had come at last.”

As these examples show, how long your chapters should be is not a trivial question. The problem is that it has no easy answer. The only meaningful answer is: that depends on what you are trying to do.

General Writing

Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A few weeks ago, someone asked for general advice about writing. My reply was, “Take the work seriously, and yourself not at all.”

I was trying to capture the combination of attitudes I have observed in successful writers over the years. However, as an aphorism, my reply needs more explanation. So let me add a few comments. I’ll start with the second half first.

As a writer, you can easily develop an egocentric opinion of yourself. You have a skill that most people cannot match. Probably, you are surrounded by family and friends who want to be agreeable and praise you so that everybody is pleased. Moreover, as you settle to work, you face long hours alone, much of which involves learning what works and what doesn’t. Under these conditions, to look for compensation is only natural. After all, it is arrogant think that you can write a whole book. Even a non-fiction book, which placed no demand for dialog or metaphor, is difficult simply in terms of size.

Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that you might daydream about finishing your current work, or imagine your future success. My critique partner, for instance, jokes about her future six-figure income. She’s as wistful as she is serious, however, so she does herself no harm.

However, the problem sets in when you start thinking of yourself as special — when you think of yourself as misunderstood, as lacking the respect you think you deserve. You rant about how other people don’t understand the importance of art (or, by implication, of yourself as a servant of the muse). Perhaps you start talking of visions, or of epiphanies, like James Joyce. You bristle at any critique that is less than wildly enthusiastically supportive. If the subject of diversity arises, you insist that no one should dare to tell you how to write, and allude to freedom of expression and the arrogance of encroaching on your sacred vision (see above).

The problem with such attitudes is that they make you miss opportunities for development. Moreover, by rejecting all criticisms, you miss the chance to learn how to separate the valid comments from the useless. That kind of attitude is especially harmful if you aim for traditional publishing, in which the transition from an agent to a publisher to publication is all about knowing how to learn to evaluate criticism. Before long, you are off on the wings of ambition, planning twenty book series when you are stuck on the first thousand words.

If you ever have thoughts like these, stop and have a look at yourself. You are not special; one Facebook writing group alone has over ninety thousand members, all a little ahead of you or behind you in their writing careers. The most that the majority of us can say is that we have — or might have — potential. That potential does not mean we are misunderstood or special (although it might mean that our ranting puts people out of sympathy with us). And if you find yourself rambling on about epiphanies, you might gains some perspective by recalling Ursula K. Le Guin’s comment that Joyce used have a lot of epiphanies, especially, apparently, in his bathroom. In other words. get over yourself. None of us are important because of our potential, only because of what we manage to actually do.

Instead, focus on making each work the best you can manage. Instead of isolating yourself in self-referential dreams, look at the trees and streets around, you, and the river of voices and noises around you. In the words of Fritz Leiber, the creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, make gathering snippets for your stories part of your everyday adjustment to living. If you see a good bit in someone else’s work, see if you can repurpose it and make it your own. If you need to information, research it. Learn to love editing. Listen to critiques until you can tell which are useless and why might deserve consideration. In short, put your ego away, and dedicate yourself to perfecting your craft generally, and your work in progress in particular.

It’s the work that matters. Not you. Repeat those seven words until you believe them, and they describe how you work. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. And when you feel pride in your work, it will because you earned it.

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.