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Your Most Hated Tropes Explained: Instalove

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

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

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

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

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

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Defeat the Bad Guys: Portraying Colonization in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Quit Your Day Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Words Are Not Your Spice Rack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No True Scotsman: Arguments from Purity

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

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

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

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

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

Critiquing, Uncategorized

What to Look for in a Critique Partner

Writing is a lonely passion. You spend hours alone, and sooner or later, you want someone to read your efforts. No wonder, then, that, online forums are crowded with aspiring writers desperately seeking feedback. Any feedback. There are even sites where you can find someone to exchange manuscripts with, the literary equivalent of dating sites. The trouble is, to find a suitable critique partner, you usually need to go through several. I went through six myself, each of various degrees of satisfaction — but my writing is all the better for it.

Some writers look for beta readers, a term borrowed from software development via fan fiction. However, for me, that term implies a one-way, perhaps one-time relationship involving a finished work, and reminds me uncomfortably of Brave New World, where betas are inferior people. I much prefer the the term “critique partner,” which is less one-sided and can start as soon as you have a finished passage to show.

So what should you look for in a critique partner? Here’s what I learned:

To start with, despite your eagerness, don’t accept just anyone. You may not be compatible on even a basic emotional level, which may make working together hard. Get to know a potential partner first, before you begin to swap stories. If you want more than a general reaction, you need someone in sympathy with your work. Usually — although not always — that means another writer. In addition, you are likely to get only general feedback from someone who neither reads nor writes your genre. That is particularly so in fantasy or science fiction, which has traditions like world-building that mainstream books simply don’t have. Without an understanding of your genre, a critiquer is likely to be of limited use.

A first critique can reveal other limitations as well. Someone who only corrects typos and grammar is not a critiquer — they’re copy editors. What they give you may be useful, but probably you want something more. Similarly, someone who keeps telling you how they would write the story, or who the main character should be without being asked is not going to be much help, either. I had one potential partner who insisted that militias named for animals must be were-creatures — which led to jokes about were-salmon swimming up river to spawn on the night of the full moon, but was otherwise useless to me. Someone who tells you what works, or what might work better is one thing, but someone who wants to continually rewrite your story is not working in the spirit of critiquing.

Even more importantly, do you respect their work? It can be difficult, if not impossible, to take advice from someone you don’t respect. Ideally, critiquing partners should have a mutual respect, even enthusiasm, for each other’s work. That doesn’t mean they can’t criticize each other deeply, but someone who points out only the flaws and never what works, is likely to quickly become an annoyance. Partners needs a mutual sympathy. Otherwise, how can the two of you have an interest in making each other’s work as strong as possible?

In addition to mutual sympathy, successful critiquers also require a deep honesty. With any luck, a critiquer will also be diplomatic, and point out faults discretely to make them more acceptable, but the key requirement is complete frankness about what works and how to fix what doesn’t. That means a family member or an existing friend generally makes a poor partner — probably they want to encourage you and to avoid hurting your feelings. By contrast, a useful critiquer makes honesty the higher priority. They should also be willing to talk out their comments in general. Such conversations, I find, are where I learn the most about writing. The conversations tend to turn into brainstorming, and both you and your critiquer can end up learning something.

All these points matter, but the most important one is that critique partners should at about the same stage in the work in progress and knowledge of writing. Otherwise, the relationship is more of a teacher-student one, which is useful in itself, but a subject for another blog. The entire strength of a successful critiquing relationship is in its give and take, which is next to impossible if the expertise is too one-sided. If necessary, partners can even look for outside expertise, and learn together.

For example, I have worked with Jessica, my chief critique partner, for eleven months now. We both have teaching experience, and we both have sold numerous pieces of non-fiction. Both of us are writing fantasies underpinned by a knowledge of history and of the genre, and are currently somewhere over two-thirds finished. The problem that one of us has is often one that the other has had, or has at least been thinking about, so comments are almost always relevant. I know that my work has improved my work immensely thanks to her dead-on observations. In addition, we have become online friends, and between Christmas and New Years, I flew down to New Orleans to hobnob with her husband, children, and cousins. We plan on meeting again some time. Meanwhile, we have joined with a third writer, who is about on the same level as we are, who is on the way to being another online friend.

Nor are we the only one who have found that critique partners can become friends. One writer online told me that her critique partner felt like a sister, and I have hints of a similar closeness from others. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, when the relationship involves people sharing their dreams and helping each other to reach them. You may have to swipe right dozens of times to find critique partners, but when you do, the search is worth the effort.

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Making Bitter into Sweet: Learning to Take Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversity, Uncategorized

Cutting Ties: Abandoning Our Problematic Favorites

When recent controversy revealed that J.K. Rowling was, to put it mildly, not an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t have much personal stake in the question of whether or not to support the fandom. While I am definitely an ally, I am not a Harry Potter fan. J.K. Rowling outing herself as TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist for those unfamiliar with the lingo), while disappointing, did not shatter any of my childhood illusions, did not make a wasteland out of a beloved fandom. I was too old for peak Potter mania by a good decade, and my own children a bit too young. I do not have my Hogwart’s house listed in my Twitter bio, and while I’ve seen the movies, I’ve never read the books.

However, J.K. Rowling is hardly the only problematic figure to produce beloved content. My first experiences with the phenomena were with the works of Woody Allen and Robert Heinlein. An aspiring filmaker in my teenage years, I watched Annie Hall enough times to memorize many of the lines. Later, I learned of the abuse allegations against him, and that he’d married his stepdaughter. I still think Annie Hall is a great movie, but I won’t spend money on Allen’s films any longer either (and yes, I’m aware he was never convicted of anything, but I tend to err on the side of abuse victims personally). I loved Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as a fourteen year old sci-fi nerd, and it was only much later, when I read Heinlein’s other work, that I realized the strange incestuous themes running through many of his books, his objectification of women. I was lucky enough never to have been a fan of Orson Scott Card, but many of my generation experienced that disillusionment as well. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on King Arthur’s court was my mother’s favorite book at one time, until even she turned out to be a horrible person.

The point being, every generation has it’s let-downs, our idols and heroes who turn out to be rather less than what we imagined. And when our heroes let us down, we’re left with the question of what to do, not with the heroes themselves, who most agree are no longer deserving of our devotion, but with the content that they created. Does the fact that Stranger in a Strange Land came from a man with a perhaps rather sexually twisted mind change the fact that I loved it as a fourteen year old? No. I can’t go back in time and stop fourteen year old me from loving it. Does it sully the memory, at least a bit? Perhaps. As much as I enjoyed the book at fourteen, I won’t hand a copy to my own child, which is a bit sad. My father introduced Stranger to me, and it would have been nice to have something of a literary legacy to hand down to my own children, but alas, that’s not meant to be.

Some suggest that we can continue to engage with the content, independent of the creator. For the Harry Potter fandom, which has taken on something a life of its own, with thousands of fan-created works, a theme park, spin-offs, and fans who consider Hogwarts houses as accurate as Myers-Briggs personality tests, perhaps the creation has indeed surpassed the creator. The sentiment seems to be this: don’t let good memories be overtaken by the bad, and don’t let fans who are new to the fandom be exposed only to bad takes, only to hateful rhetoric. If J.K. Rowling is a TERF, then the only way for fans to get trans positive Harry Potter content is for those fans to create it themselves. If trans and ally fans abandon the fandom, the argument goes, they’ll be leaving the fandom to TERFS and rightists, and perhaps exposing young fans to harmful messages with no correction.

The argument makes a certain kind of sense, and has an added benefit in that no one has to give up their beloved childhood memories, the beloved Hogwarts universe, the beloved Harry Potter community. Just pretend J.K. Rowling didn’t invent it, pretend Harry Potter exists in a vacuum, and continued engagement with the Harry Potter world will be just fine. The problem I have, however, is that ultimately, when Harry Potter continues to thrive, J.K. Rowling continues to thrive. J.K. Rowling has become rich beyond most authors’ wildest imaginings off the back of her creation. Whether we do it deliberately or not, engaging with her intellectual property means giving her a continued platform. As long as there is a thriving Harry Potter fandom, J.K. Rowling continues to make money.

I don’t think anyone needs to burn their Harry Potter books, mind. I still have my ragged copy of Stranger in a Strange Land on a bookshelf somewhere, and I still think Annie Hall is a great movie. I believe that we can acknowledge that sometimes highly problematic people create really good stuff. It’s an uncomfortable reality, that their problematic nature does not automatically make their creations bad. What it does mean, however, is that no matter how great their art is, just as we boycott Chic-fil-A even though their chicken sandwiches are mighty tasty, we do not financially support and give a platform to people who promote hateful politics and policies. Sometimes, the harder a thing is to give up, the more meaningful the sacrifice. Ultimately, if we want a wizarding world that is LGBTQ positive, we should lend our support to original creators, trans creators and allies, who can give us that. Instead of trying to turn the intellectual property of an anti-ally into something that it isn’t, why not give that voice, that platform, to trans creators themselves?

Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy, and enjoyment isn’t always a matter of choice. What we do have a choice in is how we spend our money, who we support, and whose voices we lift up. It is absolutely alright to still enjoy the Harry Potter books despite J.K. Rowling’s TERFiness. It is okay to like Woody Allen’s films, to have a soft spot for Stranger in a Strange Land. What is less okay is to continue to promote those creators (well, the living ones), to contribute to their wealth, to amplify the voices of people who do not contribute to the world in a positive way. Some people might suggest a massive boycott campaign, but quietly withdrawing support may be even better. After all, the worst fate of all, for those who once courted notoriety, might be to slip quietly into obscurity, unremembered and unloved.

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Blood Heir: a Review and a Reflection

I have a confession to make: last Spring’s controversy over the highly anticipated YA release Blood Heir, by Amelie Wen-Zhao, only made me want to read the book more. Not necessarily because I was that drawn in by the plot (very loosely based on the historical story of Princess Anastasia Romanov), but because my inner drama-llama wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I assume I’m not alone.

To recap, Blood Heir was very nearly “cancelled” when accusations started appearing, based on advance copies of the book, that the Blood Heir was anti-Black. Op-Ed articles appeared in Vulture and Slate and the New York Times, and Wen-Zhao, a Paris-born Chinese citizen and long term resident of the United States, ultimately pulled her debut book, effectively cancelling herself. Later, she announced that the book would be published after all, but at a much later date. At the time of the controversy, only a handful of people had read the ARCs, and so it was hard to really get a firm grasp, as an outside observer, on what exactly had happened. Adding to fuel to the media’s flames were claims that all of this had started as some sort of personal Twitter beef, which prompted much hand-wringing about how social media could ruin the career of a new author out of spite alone.

I hadn’t read the ARC, but I remembered feeling a pang of sympathy for Wen-Zhao, recognizing in her many of my own Beijing and Kunming-based friends, people who had grown up in international communities with a sense of social justice that was disconnected from what is expected in American progressive circles. The issues were different, and in Beijing, oppression was much more likely to be class based than racially motivated. Wen-Zhao claimed that her portrayal of indentured mages was meant not as a commentary on race-based chattel slavery, but on the human trafficking problem that is so prevalent in Asia today. I remember feeling a hint of irritation, as someone with a more international background myself, that the US-centric assumption seemed to be that Wen-Zhao, a non-American, was obligated to write to American sensibilities.

On the other hand, I saw the point. The main complaint seemed to be a complaint about a child who had been (possibly) coded as a person of color dying so that the main character might live. There were also complaints about “oppressed mages” as a problematic trope in general. While Blood Heir is hardly the only book guilty of this sin, the point stands that treating oppression as somehow an inevitable reaction to the “danger” posed by the oppressed class seems to imply that oppression happens for justifiable reasons — which is clearly not a message that needs to be perpetuated.

But none of it mattered until I could read the book for myself, and way back in April, around the time the story reached its peak, I could not. However, it is now December, Blood Heir has been out for a bit under a month, and I have, finally, read it, and finally, I can say something educated, something informed, about this whole controversy, right? But here’s the thing: I thought Blood Heir was an alright book, and that’s about it. Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it terribly offensive? It’s not that either. Is it awful? No. In fact, it’s pretty run of the mill YA fantasy fare. A lost princess, a roguish thief, enemies to lovers, mages with different affinities — none of this treads new ground. And I’m left wondering, quite frankly, what all the fuss was about.

It is quite possible that in the intervening months between the would be cancelling and the eventual release, Blood Heir was scrubbed clean of any hint of scandal. The fact that the oppressed mages are in fact indentured workers, lured into unfavorable contracts, rather than chattel slaves, is made abundantly clear. Many of Wen-Zhao’s affinites are also portrayed as having extremely mundane magical powers. During one key scene, the main character, Ana, and her young charge May, are given cookies by a girl who is described as a “grain affinite,” an unglamorous magic if I’ve ever heard one. It seems that in this world most of the affinites, instead of being feared, are seen as useful commodities. Ana herself is feared, and for good reason, since she can drain a full grown man of all blood in a matter of seconds, but overall, rather than fearing affinites, the rich seem perversely intent on collecting them, like some grotesque version of human Pokemon. May, whose death in the original controversy provoked much outrage, is no longer explicitly coded as Black, but instead is, at best, racially ambiguous, with aquamarine eyes, tan skin, and dark hair.

I don’t know if the controversy made Blood Heir a better book because of the controversy, but I am certain it became a more careful book. But for all that care, I have my doubts that the critics will truly be satisfied. While yes, there are some crucial distinctions between chattel slavery and modern human trafficking, the way they’re depicted in fiction is always going to strike some similar crucial chords. I could refer to Wen-Zhao’s affinites as slaves and still not be wrong, and readers unfamiliar with human trafficking in Asia will still read Blood Heir and see echoes of the slave trade.

Furthermore, some of that painstaking, but ultimately futile care that Wen-Zhao took to make human trafficking in her world explicitly NOT reminiscent of the Atlantic slave trade, was effort that could have been spent on the narrative. The end of Blood Heir feels rushed, and certain revelations come late. While the main characters are well-crafted, side characters are introduced and only minimally developed. I would certainly have liked to understand better, say, the connection between Ana and her childhood friend who is the world’s equivalent of a Marxist, if only to make it less jarring when Ana eventually agrees to one day run away with him.

At the end of the day, Wen Zhao’s book left me vaguely unsatisfied. Perhaps I expected something either blatantly offensive, or a book that unequivocally got it right. Instead, it was something in-between, and I am left wondering whether or not the initial effort at calling out Blood Heir might have been better spent elsewhere. When there are so many good — no, great — books out there, books that handle sensitive issues with impeccable grace, books that are excellent examples of representation, why do we not instead focus on those books? Because here is one thing I know for certain: Wen-Zhao’s book got much more attention for its imperfections than it would have otherwise. YA fantasy releases come and go, and it takes quite a lot for a book to truly stand out. This book, while it is an entertaining read and I might pick up book two in spite of everything else, is not remarkable. I don’t know that it ever was. So why did we all collectively spend so much time on it back in Spring? Could we not have better spent that time lifting up great books that got things right? Books like The Merciful Crow by Margaret Own, (which tackles injustice in a fantasy world better than any other book I’ve read this year), or non-problematic #ownvoices books like We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal, or Spin the Dawn, by Elizabeth Lim?

Ultimately this is perhaps one of my biggest problems with the idea of (forgive me for using the term) cancel culture as applied to literature: the results are ultimately dissatisfying and no one really wins. Major popular white authors are never truly canceled, and continue blithely along, while marginalized writers must respond to the criticism or else risk their careers. Wen-Zhao’s book is perhaps the first time we’ve seen a book undergo a revision after a near-cancellation, and the results are honestly underwhelming. It occurs to me that this might be the difference between a careful book, and a good book. And perhaps we’ve got it backwards. Perhaps, rather than rewarding the caution needed to not get it wrong, we need to reward the bravery necessary to get it right.