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Handwriting vs. Typing

I learned to compose on the computer when I became a full-time journalist. I had no choice; it was the only way I could write fast enough to earn a living. For years, the only time I wrote with a pen was when I woke in the middle of the night to record stray thoughts. In the last month, though, I have returned to regular hand-writing, and I conclude that there really is a difference between how my thoughts come when I write by hand and by the keyboard.

I am not writing on paper. Instead, I am writing on a Remarkable 2, a tablet designed to take the place of a notebook. The Remarkable company boasts that it makes the thinnest tablet on the market, and uses an e-ink screen like the one used by ebook readers, which means characters have a higher resolution than the average screen and a lack of glare. The company claims that the Remarkable 2 is the closest electronic equivalent to handwriting, and, from what I can see, the claim is true without any exaggeration. In addition, it has the advantage of organizing my notes and of transferring them to my workstation without the nuisance of having to write them twice. It is not an all-purpose tablet, but one designed for handling text, a hybrid of the best of handwriting and the computer.

That is fine with me. For years, I have had a notebook on a lectern beneath my monitor, for the simple reason that it is faster to scribble a note by hand than fumbling to open up a text editor on the computer in the hopes of recording a stray thought before I forget it. I replaced my notebook with the Remarkable 2 seamlessly, and immediately enjoyed the improved organization. At night, I carry the tablet into the bedroom, and use it to scribble the thoughts that might come in the night. The next morning, I carry the tablet back to my workstation, and upload any notes that seem worth preserving.

So far, I have only written short passages on the Remarkable 2. However, what I have done is to do a lot of planning and background notes on it. The planning always seems to come more easily than at the keyboard — something I had not expected.

I have been aware, of course, of the arguments in favor of handwriting. Authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have long shown a fascination with handwriting, especially, in some cases, when they use a fountain pen. Tentative studies have suggested that handwriting is useful for visual learning, that it helps with memory retension, has an aesthetic quality of it own, and minimizes distractions. But I have listened to these claims — claims I used to make myself, sometimes before I bought my first computer — and thought them nostalgic exaggerations, of the same kind that lead people to buy computers disguised as typewriters.

However, now I take them more seriously. My ideas seem to come more easily on the tablet. Part of the reason may be that when planning seems necessary, I often leave my work station to work at a table or sprawled on a futon or my bed. The change of locale may be enough to relax me, which in turn makes the ideas come more readily.

Yet I think something greater is going on. The motions of the fingers on the keyboard are very much the same. By contrast, when I grasp a pen — or, in the Remarkable 2’s case, a stylus –the muscular movements of my fingers are more numerous and subtle. In other words, handwriting carries more information than typing can. For this reason, I am more easily aware of my mental activity. Possibly, the relation between the muscular movements in my fingers and my brain activity are not one to one, but more channels are open. Just as importantly, because my muscular movements and much of my brain activity happen on a largely unconscious level, when I write by hand, I can more clearly access my mostly unconscious imagination.

By contrast, the muscular motions for typing are fewer, which means they can carry less information. Moreover, because they are regular, I ignore them more easily. It is not impossible to access my imagination when I use the keyboard — I do it all the time — but it takes more practice, and perhaps it is less efficient or at least takes more effort.

Some time soon, I will have to try composing a story or scene on the Remarkable 2. Meanwhile, it remains well-integrated into my work flow.

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Reading the Abyss: Adult Themes in Young Adult Fiction

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of discussions about the future of Young Adult fiction, and particularly about how adult Young Adult should be. As a high school teacher, I have had the privilege of choosing books for our school library on multiple occasions for multiple school districts. Some school districts gave me nearly carte blanche discretion, and I packed those libraries with books from diverse authors, covering a wide variety of subjects, including race, LGBTQ issues, trauma, drug use, suicide, mental illness, basically the only books I avoided were those that were sexually explicit (because no matter how open minded your principal is, erotica in the school library is never going to fly) or depicted extreme gore.

Then, there was the school district where I tried to assign The Hate U Give to my 9th and 10th graders. I was gently pulled aside by the principal and the counselor and told that the book would not fly with the school board, and since one of my 9th graders had a mother on the school board, this book choice would cause trouble. I could not afford to lose my job, and Texas, my state, has no teacher’s unions that could help me fight, so I purchased multiple copies of the book, put them on my bookshelves and in the library, but I did not assign it as required reading.

The argument for more mature content in Young Adult fiction tends to rest upon the idea that teenagers experience heavy things, even traumatic things, on a day to day basis. If The Hate U Give is inappropriate for teenagers because of the themes surrounding police violence, then where does that leave the Black teenagers for whom police violence is not a fictional situation but an everyday reality? The same can be said for violence, depression, suicide, drug use, abuse, eating disorders. Teenagers experience these things, and pretending like these themes are too heavy for kids alienates those teenagers for whom daily life is a heavy thing, and deprives them of stories that could at the very least show them that they are not alone.

The counterargument tends to rest upon the idea that kids should not be exposed to certain harsh realities if they have not been already. Kids will learn soon enough that the world is a harsh place, so why make them grow up faster than necessary? Reading should provide an escape. In fact, the argument goes, exposure to certain ideas can even be damaging to young people, who are simply not mature enough to handle certain topics. Others even say that certain books glorify topics like eating disorders or suicide, making them more appealing to easily impressionable teenagers. The controversy surrounding the book and television show Thirteen Reasons Why came about in part because many felt it was an irresponsible portrayal of suicide. The character Hannah, who commits suicide, extracts revenge from beyond the grave, making each person who wronged her understand exactly how they contributed to her death. In this scenario suicide seems almost appealing. Should teenagers, particularly teenagers already prone to suicidal feelings, be reading books that make suicide seem like an appealing answer?

As a parent, a teacher, and a writer myself, not to mention someone who was once a teenager, I do not believe that sanitizing young adult books until they are fit for even the most conservative school library is necessary or even best practice for YA authors. It is certainly true that many teenagers have had experiences that mirror, or even eclipse, what appears in young adult novels. By the time I was eighteen I had had sex, done drugs, had a friend who OD’d, driven drunk, been chased by the cops, had a guy try to force himself on me, and another guy expose himself to me. My teenage experiences were, I think, relatively typical for a late Gen-X teenager, and I didn’t need YA books to teach me about those things because I had already learned them through experimenting.

In those days books written expressly for teenagers were few and far between. The generation before me had “issue” books, heavy Young Adult books that moralized on topics like drug use or eating disorders or teenage sex, written by the likes of Judy Blume and Lois Duncan. Kids of my generation, products of the 1970s-mid 80s low birthrates, had fewer options. We graduated straight from middle grades reads like A Wrinkle in Time and then went straight to mass market fiction: Clan of the Cave Bear or The Firm or Interview with the Vampire, books which are marketed to adults and contain content that is well, adult.  However, for the life of me I cannot remember anyone ever objecting to my reading material when I was a teenager. At that time the prevailing wisdom seemed to be, in all but the most sheltered communities, that reading anything at all was better than not reading.

I’m not here to say “well I read what was essentially caveman porn and I turned out fine,” but I can say with certainty that reading adult fiction was not what made me try drugs or get involved with sketchy guys. Those of us who were suburban teenagers in the 90s probably remember our parents’ economic anxiety, the crushing weight of their debts, the mortgages that were unsustainable, the lay-offs and the temporary jobs, the mixed messages – go to college, follow your dreams, but get a good job. What could we look forward to? If you were a young woman, you were taught that you could be whatever you wanted, but you were still assigned Home Economics class while the guys were assigned Shop. If you were LGBTQ, you were growing up in the era of “don’t ask don’t tell,” and you were expected to keep your identity and sexuality to yourself. If you were sexually assaulted, well you were probably “asking for it.”

The American Young Adult fiction market that re-emerged in the early 2000s has dominated publishing for nearly two decades now. Some of the first books to achieve mass popularity were, tellingly, dystopian fiction, that is, books that depicted horrific versions of the future and teens who fight to break free from systemic oppression. There has been a growing movement, since the mid 2010s, for young adult fiction to reflect a realistic demographic. Whereas previously, books published for teens focused almost solely on the experiences of straight white kids, publishing has made an effort to diversify, and publish books that reflect the experiences of BIPOC teens, LGBTQ teens, and disabled teens. Often, but not always, these books include trauma, because often the very act of existing as a Black person or a trans person or a disabled person in the USA is, in fact, traumatic. When a book like The Hate U Give is blocked by school boards with the intention of protecting (white) children from harsh reality or unpleasant topics, what happens instead is that the Black student who might read that book has their reality, their very existence, dismissed and denied.

The anxieties and uncertainties faced by teenagers in 2020 are not created by the fiction they read, instead, the fiction they read reflects their anxieties and uncertainties, and yes, their trauma. The cold and unforgiving truth of the matter is that coming of age in a capitalist system is to experience alienation and to be traumatized by the various ways that this system oppresses those within it. Teenagers in 2020 are living in times of unprecedented uncertainty. A global pandemic, the looming threat of fascism, the terror of impending climate disaster – teenagers today perhaps have the greatest reason for anxiety since those of the 1930s, and if the trend in the 2020s is for fiction to be of a darker sort, then it is easy to understand why. It is rather laughable to think that anything teens could read in a book might be more emotionally damaging than the times that they are living in, and the systems that shape them.

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Skipping Through Time: The Whys and Hows

Most books proceed through a chronological version of events at a relatively regular pace. An author might jump forward a few hours, or even a few days, but skipping over months or even years of the narrative is somewhat less common. In my current manuscript I ultimately decided upon a two year time jump near the beginning of the story. I decided upon this jump because I did not want to spend the first fifty or so pages trying to explain complicated backstory with conversations and internal dialogue. I tried. It turned out it was much more efficient, not to mention interesting, simply to show the events as they happened, then to jump forward to the inciting incident.

A time jump can be useful for avoiding repetition of similar incidents. Perhaps your characters are on a journey. While narrating a few key incidents along the way can be interesting, reading a detailed narration of every step of a long journey (especially in a pre-industrial world, wherein travel could take months) can easily become tedious. How many campfires can your characters sit around before they all start to read a bit the same? I have several points in my manuscript in which characters are traveling from point A to point B, and they all make use of time jumps to some extent. On the last leg of one journey I cover three days in one sentence: “we are on the road another three days before we arrive, just before nightfall on the third day.”

An author might also find a time jump useful if your character matures over the course of the novel, growing from a child to an adult. My two year time jump starts off with events that take place when the main character is a teenager, and when we rejoin her story, she is a young adult. The thing about growing up is that we all do it, and while a coming of age story has its place, if your intent is not to tell one, then there is not a lot of reason to recount the character’s whole childhood or adolescence. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series does this well, starting off when Phedre is a young girl but skipping over great swaths of her childhood, only giving us select glimpses of important moments. We pick up the true thread of the story once Phedre grows into adulthood, although the backstory provided by the sections dealing with her childhood are integral to understanding her character.

So if you’ve decided you need a time jump, how will you execute it? When reading Kushiel’s Dart I was particularly impressed with the way that Carey handled her time jumps. Carey masterfully employs telling when telling is necessary, breaking the “show don’t tell” rule when telling is the best way to move the story forward. When Carey wants to avoid describing her main character’s encounter with a patron that would likely be much similar to a previous encounter, she writes “Of that assignation, perhaps the least said, the better. Suffice it to say that D’Essom’s ager had not cooled, and I was glad of it, for it suited my mood.” Sometimes a brief summary of the events skipped is enough so that the reader does not feel lost, a few lines, even a paragraph, depending on how much is skipped.

Other times, a more abrupt approach can work as well. If you’re skipping months or years, summarizing the events can take up too much space with little payoff. For my two year time jump I started the first post jump chapter with the header two years later. Occasionally I refer back to events that took place during those two years, just to give a sense that time did in fact pass. However, for all intents and purposes the intervening two years are fairly uneventful, so there’s no real need to linger over them (that’s why I skipped them in the first place after all).

Regardless of how you decide to execute your time jump, it is important to let your reader know that one is happening. Jumping forward in time with no warning is disorienting for the reader, even if you are only jumping forward a few days. Make sure that you find a way to signal the jump, either with a heading, a summary, or some combination of both. However, don’t be afraid of using time jumps. Many beginning writers make the mistake of over-narrating each and every detail, forgetting that readers are generally not interested in the minutiae of your character’s every day existence. A sure fire way to exceed your planned word count, not to mention slow your book’s pace, is to show the parts that you should be telling and recount the parts that you should be skipping.

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#Ownvoices, Authenticity, and Orientalism

I’ve written about authenticity before. It’s a topic that, no matter how often I write about it, never exhausts itself for me. A large part of my hate-on for the concept of authenticity comes from my years living in China, during which I was occasionally subjected to the rantings of fellow travelers who would express dismay that the city where I lived was too “Westernized.” Where is the “real China” they’d ask, hoping for some insider information, as if, by virtue of living in China for such a long time, I might know where the authenticity was hiding. Which village, which neighborhood, which experience, would give them the Instagrammable China they were hoping for. They didn’t endure twenty four hours of travel for Starbucks and Burger King after all.

This line of thinking always enraged me. Rich kids driving BMWs and sipping PSLs while wearing Gucci in Beijing were the real China, just as my sister in law selling leeks at the village market wearing a ratty blazer and sleeve protectors was also the real China. The criteria for authenticity is fairly straightforward: are you in China or does the experience involve Chinese people? Congrats, your experience is authentic.

The concept of authenticity, when applied to cultures and the products of those cultures has always had uncomfortable ties to colonialism and orientalism. The idea that cultures exist only to entertain and inform outsiders is not a new one, but this idea also intersects with publishing’s relatively recent emphasis on diversity in storytelling, and in particular, with the #ownvoices movement.

The #ownvoices hashtag was created as a way to highlight and amplify stories written by marginalized creators about characters that share those marginalizations. Increasingly, publishing and media in general have become aware of just how important representation is, particularly for children and teenagers, and #ownvoices is one way to ensure representation – that Black teenagers can read books that feature magical heroes that look like them, that Chinese-American kids like mine can see their culture represented in graphic novels, that Muslim children can read picture books about fasting for Ramadan. These representations, created by writers and artists who share the same background with the main characters, while not guaranteed to be 100% unproblematic, are usually less likely than those written by cultural outsiders to contain harmful stereotypes or outright racism.

Unfortunately though, we white folk are not. And, much like the travelers in China who complain about authenticity, white readers (and sometimes even publishing industry pros) often forget that the point of an #ownvoices book is not to educate white readers about another culture. A few weeks ago Arvin Ahmadi’s book How It All Blew Up was released. How It All Blew Up is a queer Muslim book by a queer Muslim author and yet many reviewers criticized the book for not being “Muslim enough.” One (non Muslim) reviewer said “I don’t really get how this can be labeled as a Muslim book, when that was not at all a main point, or even a side point in this book.” She was not alone in this sentiment. The popular criticism seemed to be that there was not enough “Muslim stuff” in the book. Ahmadi’s presentation of a relatively secular Muslim family was clearly not the exercise in cultural tourism that they expected. Ahmadi himself says, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, that “this is a religion of a billion people, so if you get five Muslim people together … they all practice differently. Some may be more secular, some may be more devout, and I would love to see that full range represented in queer Muslim stories.” Despite this, the (again, non-Muslim) reviewers seem to reject the notion that there is room in fiction for different kinds of Muslim representation.

Perhaps such reviewers should keep in mind that Ahmadi’s book was not written to educate non-Muslims about Islam. While education may be a happy by-product of #ownvoices writings, the assertion that such books must by their very nature adhere to an outsider’s concept of a culture, must satisfy the cultural outsider’s curiosity in order to be valid or useful, is an assertion that is rooted in orientalism. Just as the tourist exclaims that the big city is not the “real China” and demands that the country, which has existed for thousands of years on its own, satisfy their desire for a commodified cultural package, the reader devours #ownvoices novels as a cultural voyeur and demands the writer create an image of the culture which is suitably “exotic” and fascinating. To the cultural outsider a “good” diverse read should have just a hint of the “other,” perhaps foreign language words, some unfamiliar religious rituals, or a titillating cultural practice (see: white people’s love of novels about arranged marriages). Diverse reads that feature characters that just simply exist, rather than putting their marginalizations (and often, their oppression and trauma) on display find little welcome with these readers.

#Ownvoices is an important movement, and white readers can and should read diverse books by diverse authors. Reading and enjoying books is not the problem, but just as traveling should be done ethically and responsibly, so should reviewing. Cultural outsiders commenting on the authenticity of the culture represented, as if diverse books exist solely for their own edification, is bad enough. It is worse when publishers and agents insist upon a certain type of #ownvoices story, and pigeonhole the writer into a certain kind of representation. Chinese-American stories do not have to feature Tiger parents, Muslims do not have to be devout, Black stories do not have to be about police violence. And while they may feature these elements, if that is the story the writer wishes to tell, outsiders have no business dictating which narratives are and aren’t authentic to the cultures presented. The #ownvoices tag was not created so that white readers could be entertained by the “other,” with the expectation that writers satisfactorily perform their cultures for the cultural outsider. #Ownvoices creates non-harmful representation for the readers who truly need it, the kids, like mine, whose cultures are so often presented only in caricature. What does authenticity in representation mean to my twelve-year-old? “It means people who get it, mom.”

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Five Things That Writers Get Wrong About Character Motivation

I was recently listening to a writing podcast on character motivation in which one of the participants attempted to critique the (excellent) Priory of The Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. Despite being only a handful of chapters into a book that is nearly 850 pages long, the speaker had strong opinions about the motivations of one of the characters. Wrong opinions. And what happens when someone is wrong on the internet? You blog about it, of course. The following list consists of some of the more egregious misconceptions about character development, and particularly motivation, that I have seen from fellow writers.

  1. Characters must start at a low place

What is true about characters is that they must change over the course of the narrative, but there is no rule that says that the change must be growth. A character who starts off the story at their peak literally has nowhere to go but down. The podcast I mentioned used Tane from Priory of the Orange Tree as an example — her character wants to be a dragon rider and at the start of the story she is poised to get what she wants. The podcaster assumed, incorrectly, that this would lead to a bland narrative where the character who is at her peak remains there, at her peak, nothing left to achieve. However, if her motivation is to be a dragonrider and she achieves that within the first few chapters, clearly she’s being set up for a fall, which is, in fact, what happens in Priory. Shortly upon gaining what she so desired, Tane loses almost everything. But this doesn’t make her less interesting, it makes her story more compelling. In fact, writing a character who has nowhere to go but down can sometimes be even more satisfying that writing a character who has to work their way out of a bad situation. People who have it all are not used to losing, so if you want to throw your character out of their comfort zone, let them fail. Give them everything, and then take it away and see how they react. The result is unlikely to be a boring narrative.

  1. Characters must always be in control

A lot of fuss is made about agency, and yes, it is true that it is generally more interesting to see a character actively make decisions than it is to see a character pushed around by the plot. That said, there are times when it is alright to have external factors act upon your character. In particular, if your character is the type of person who is always in control, taking away that control can lead to very interesting challenges. In my current manuscript I recently made a change in which I actually took away my character’s agency in one specific instance (instead of her making a rather unrealistic decision to go somewhere, I decided that she would be sent to said place) and the decision was absolutely better for the story. Sending her ironed out some pesky plot holes, but also gave her something to push back against.

  1. A character’s motivation is static

As your character changes, it is natural that their goals and motivations might change too. The character who wanted nothing more than to join the elite guard might get what she wants only to discover that the elite guard is awful, at which point she decides to change the elite guard from within. Your characters motivations can change, but what are less likely to change are your character’s core values. Jude, in The Folk of the Air series, throughout the series places tremendous value on the idea of home and belonging. This core value shapes her immediate motivations, which change throughout the series. Redemption arcs in particular can highlight a character’s shifting motivations, and sometimes even shifting values. Think about Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose initial motivation is to hunt down the Avatar in order to end his exile, but who ultimately teams up with the Avatar to end the tyranny of his own people. So just as your character grows and changes, remember that their motivations will change along with them.

  1. Only young people have goals

Young protagonists are particularly common in fantasy, but it is important to remember that your older characters can have their own motivations as well, and those motivations do not always have to be centered on the younger characters. In fact, the older a person gets, the more likely it is that they will feel an urgency surrounding the things that motivate them. As a forty year old, I my motivation to write is stronger than it was when I was a twenty year old and felt I had plenty of time left to do things. Remember that you can have older characters that function as more than just mentors for the younger ones. And while we’re at it, it’s perfectly fine to write a main character who is older than twenty five. Older characters can have adventures too, and sometimes you might even find that it is easier to have a mature character make mature decisions than having to justify why a teenager is acting like they’re thirty five.

  1. Motivations must be altruistic in nature

While fantasy generally deals in high stakes, characters do not always have to be motivated to save the world or the kingdom out of their innate sense of justice and righteousness. Characters can be motivated in smaller, more personal ways. Perhaps the character wants to save the kingdom not because it’s the heroic thing to do, but because it’s the only place that has ever felt like home and they cannot bear the idea of losing it. Perhaps the character wants to save the world because they can’t stand the idea of their loved ones dying. Most of us can relate to more intimate motivations in ways that we don’t necessarily relate to entirely altruistic motivations. It is alright if your character is not entirely altruistic, and selfish motivations can be just as valid reasons for your characters to act as selfless ones are.

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Anachronism of Tone

Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey was a revelation to me. Her translation was in plain modern English, and removed some of the traditions of the past, such as calling slaves “handmaidens” or abusing Helen of Troy with dubious authority. It also stuck close to the text, its greatest departure being the reduction of the use of heroic epithets, which are a nuisance on the page. I enjoyed reading Wilson so much that when I heard that Maria Dahvana Headley was supposed to be doing the same for Beowulf, I immediately reserved a copy before its release. Unfortunately, instead of new insights into a classic, what I came away with an appreciation of the importance of tone – not just in translation, but in historical and fantasy fiction as well.

For some reason, Headley became infatuated with the idea that the heroic culture of Beowulf could be compared with the current Bro culture. This idea seems dubious even to my haphazard scholarship, for the simple reason that the heroic culture is all about the social obligations between war leaders and their followers. The leaders set an example, and reward followers with treasure and feasting, and in return follows imitate the leaders and show loyalty. By contrast, so-called Bro culture is about a freedom from obligations. Moreover, as Beowulf‘s text itself shows, the culture it depicts is artistic and sophisticated — traits completely foreign to Bro culture.The only way that Bro culture resembles the heroic culture is in its partying, although in Bro culture, partying is an end in itself, while in the culture of the poem, feasting is a reward for what someone has done.

This difference might not have mattered much, had Headley chosen a consistent tone. But the trouble is, Beowulf only has some passages that might be plausibly be compared to Bro culture. Much of the rest is description and musings on how to live. This variety means that Headley’s translation careens from one tone to another. She hedges, throwing in the language of Bros where it doesn’t belong, but the problem of inconsistency remains.

From the way she talks in her introduction, Headley seems to believe that she has done something clever. Sadly, though, her lines are more often unintentionally humorous, particularly when Headley sacrifices clarity and sense for alliteration. The difficulty begins right in the first line, where the Old English “Hwaet!” – an untranslatable call for attention – is replaced with “Bro!” Almost immediately, the founder of the Danish royal line is described as having “spent his youth fists up /browbeating every barstool-brother” and having “bootstrapped his way into a / kingdom.” With the introduction of barstools and the modern “bootstrapped,” the heroic tone is dissolved in laughter (and, of course, the fighting is not simply browbeating, nor are brothers the one being fought, although the alliteration sounds superficially impressive).

But it gets worse. Using “to daddy” as a synonym of “to rule,” Headley tells us that a “boy can’t daddy until his daddy’s dead.” At another point, readers are told that Beowulf “gave zero shits,” and has him dismiss his accomplishments as “no big whoop.” The last time I saw so many anachronisms in a single work was when I read George MacDonald Fraser’s The Pyrates – and, unlike Headley, Fraser was deliberately being funny. What Headley intended is harder to comprehend, although if she hoped that her choice of language would make Beowulf to teenagers, she is fated to be disappointed. By the time she describes treasure as “bling,” wrestlers as being “on the mat,” or the dead as “goners,” even the most sympathetic reader of any age is likely to be on the floor, doubled over with laughter. As for lines like, “Bros, lemme tell you how fucked they were,” they are positively dangerous to those with heart conditions. But these tone-deaf lines appear throughout, until Headley ends with “He was the man” and the reader flees in relief.

None of this would matter, of course, if Headley work was presented as a riff on the original. After all, the ahistoricity of Hamilton does not stop us from enjoying it as a romp. The trouble is, Headley claims to present a translation, which implies (or ought to imply) an effort at accuracy or at least an impression that bears some relation to the original.

To be fair, though, Headley’s Beowulf is only an extreme example. If you are going to set a story in the Middle Ages, or at least a fantasy version of the Middle Ages, you cannot, of course, write in Old or Middle English, nor even Shakespeare’s Early Modern English. Practically no one will understand you. Nor, if you are writing fantasy, does your imaginary world have to be an exact copy of the historical one. But you do need to settle on a consistent tone and maintain it. For example, Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist,” reads nothing like most fictional versions of Ancient Greece because he uses English translations of all the personal and place names. However, his tone is consistent, and readers soon learn to accept it.

Whatever your choice, a credible tone needs consistency, If you are writing medieval fantasy, you can avoid the mistakes of other writers and avoid avoid anachronisms like “okay” – a word that probably didn’t come into use before 1800 – and obvious mistakes like metaphors about cannons before they existed. You can also steer clear of garderobes graced with porcelain fixtures or nobility that goes clubbing. Otherwise your fragile efforts at drama or suspense will be swept away by laughter at your own expense.

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Five Unexpected Fantasy Favorites

While I enjoy mainstream fantasy, I also enjoy finding hidden gems. Some are books from big publishers that have not gotten as much hype as they deserve, some are put out by small presses and independently published authors. While heavily hyped books have disappointed me again and again, it is often the books that I went into with no expectations that have impressed me the most.

Asperfell, by Jamie Thomas

Asperfell is a Gothic fantasy that is set largely in a magical prison complete with necromancy, blood magic, monsters and ghosts. From the very first page of Asperfell I was sucked in. Thomas’ writing style has a charming almost Austen-esque quality to it, and her characters are at once endearing and intriguing. There is something timeless about Asperfell that reminds me simultaneously of the classics of both genre fiction as well as the  19th century literary canon, with long sentences and more traditional diction. The plot was intriguing and if a few surprise reveals were a bit predictable, others took me genuinely by surprise. Asperfell immediately went to the top of my list of 2020 reads.

The Vortex Chronicles, by Elise Kova

This series is a follow up to Kova’s popular Air Awakens series, but where Air Awakes is a sweet but ultimately somewhat derivative hero’s journey tale, Vortex Visions takes the familiar format of a young woman on a quest to save the world and weaves in time loops, glyphic magic, and makes us question everything we thought we knew about the Air Awakens world. Elise Kova’s skills as a writer have grown since her debut series and I enjoyed the Vortex Chronicles even more than I enjoyed Air Awakens. In particular, in Vortex Kova’s main character, Vie, is clearly a strong character with agency all her own, and rather than letting herself be pushed around by the forces of fate, Vie takes matters into her own hands, even when it means breaking her own heart in the process.

Half a Soul, by Olivia Atwater

A fantasy set in Regency England about a young woman cursed by a faerie. Theodora Ettings only has half a soul, which means that she doesn’t feel emotions the same way most people do. Theodora has no hope of making her way in society unless the curse is removed, and that is exactly what she sets out to do, with the help of handsome and inappropriate Lord Elias Wilder. Half a Soul is an accomplished book with an interesting premise and a tone that alternates between lighthearted wit and serious fantasy.

The Merciful Crow/The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen

This duology, although not independently published, rarely seems to make the big lists, despite these being easily my young adult favorite fantasy books in a great many years. This series deftly tackles big issues, like discrimination and class difference, setting them alongside more personal stories, like that of a young woman gaining independence and learning when and who to trust. The story and magic system are utterly original and the prose flows easily. I recommend this duology to pretty much everyone I come across.

Trick, by Natalia Jaster

This book is not a new release, but I couldn’t write a list of underrated books without including Trick. Trick is an enemies to lovers fantasy romance featuring Poet and Briar, a fool and a princess. Jaster’s prose is top notch, creating distinct voices for both Brian and Poet, and Poet’s sections in particular are filled with lovely musings from his point of view, written as reminiscence upon a particularly cherished period in his life. Poet is probably one of the most intriguing male leads I’ve ever read in a fantasy romance. He’s a court jester, bisexual, sharp-tongued, a single dad, a little bit fancy, and fiercely loyal. He’s an exceedingly fun character, but with a secret that makes it difficult for him to form close relationships. This book took me totally by surprise. I was expecting a middle of the road romance with a bit of smut, but I found lovely prose and intriguing characters too.

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Too Clever By Half

Plot and structure do not come easily to many writers. So much is obvious from the number of posts in writers’ forums from people who want to write, but are unable to begin, or have developed characters and wonder what to do about them. In my own case, a sense of story only came after I diagrammed a couple of dozen of my favorite plays and novels to see how scenes connected to each other. However, some of the secrets of plotting only become obvious after I observed and labored to do my own plotting. One of my recent lessons was to know when not to over-elaborate. Without a sense of when enough was enough, I was apt to produce what I call Scooby-Doo plots – structures that failed because they were more clever than strictly necessary.

I first recognized the potential problem in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Leckie is an accomplished writer, with a real gift for characterization, and her topic – an AI who in the past has operated space ships struggling with the limits of being in a human body – was perhaps the most original premise of the last decade in science-fiction. Unfortunately, though, Leckie chose to add a culture that uses “she” as the indefinite pronoun. The choice was a pithy comment on a still-current linguistic debate, but when added to her former AI character was smply too much in the same novel. When I should have been focused on Leckie’s AI character, I found myself wondering how that use of pronoun might have come about. What history created it? How did it influence the culture? A whole second novel could have been written around that single detail, but in three books, I got very few hints of any answers to such questions. It was as though Ursula K. LeGuin had created the hermaphodites of The Left Hand of Darkness, and then only talked about their civics. I had to give Leckie full credit for ambition, but the execution frustrated me.

Recently I finished Leckie’s The Raven Tower – and, so far, she appears to have the same thing. Her idea to treat gods as a species, immortal but always changing and adapting in their symbiosis with humanity is brilliant. But, once again, one good idea is not enough for her. She has to have one point of view in the second person, a difficult perspective that always seems to me the ultimate in mansplaining, with a narrator telling the “you” being addressed things they already know. Once again, I found myself swinging between admiration and extreme irritation.

Leckie can, of course, do what she wants, and the awards and nominations she has collected make my opinion easy to dismiss. However, I mean no disrespect. What I am saying is that her way is not my way, with the addition that it should not be most writers’ way, either.

I wish I had made this analysis of Leckie’s work a few weeks ago when I was trying to get my characters out of a fantasy town without being arrested. I am a long time admirer of Avram Davidson and his elaborate plots, and I thought I would celebrate their departure after several chapters by having three groups who were looking for them all appear at the same time, only to run into an unexpected fourth. In other hands, this premise might have been a wonderfully chaotic romp. In my hands, though it was too much handle, perhaps through inexperience. I tried several times, and I just couldn’t realize my intentions, not without far more pages that the importance of the scene would justify. Finally, after talking with my critique partner, I eliminated all but one of the pursuing groups, and got on to more important events.

Thanks to reading Leckie, I now realize my mistake. In the future, I resolve to attempt no more Scooby Doo plots, and to eliminate over-elaboration altogether.

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My Love Affair With the Editing Process

If you ask most writers what their favorite part of the writing process is, most would probably say worldbuilding, or plotting, or maybe drafting. Scant few would say editing and revising, in fact, many would probably say they dread editing, and why shouldn’t they? Editing has a reputation for being boring and tedious. Some people even farm the whole process out to others, paying editors to polish their manuscripts before they’ve ever crossed an agent’s desk. And yet, this is hands down my favorite part of the writing process.

I’ll confess, as a pantser, for me editing and revising is a slightly different process than it is for someone who outlines religiously. For a pantser, editing is often where you take the story that you’ve written and embellish, adding detail or, filling plot-holes and consistency issues. You know the characters and the story better, and you can shape your manuscript and watch it become the book you envisioned.

Sometimes, distance from the original material gives me new perspective. During the editing process a number of things became clear about my manuscript. I realized, for instance, that I’d started at the wrong point in the story, and wrote two new chapters earlier in the narrative. I realized that I’d made one character’s journey needlessly complicated, and that I could get her to the same place with one easy change. There are some simple and elegant ideas that didn’t come to me while drafting, but which, given a bit of distance, now seem obvious. Those sorts of revelations are the best.

I don’t mind the nitty gritty of editing either. I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd. Aside from English, I’ve learned four different languages, and I treat each one of them as a bit of a puzzle. English itself is no different. The editing process for me is like moving around pieces of a puzzle, trying to make each piece fit exactly right. For me, questions of syntax, including sentence length and word order, are simply a part of the puzzle. When I get the order correct, the sentences go from plain functioning words to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t even mind cutting. I’ve always taken somewhat of a scorched earth approach when it comes to editing, and I generally resist sentimentality about my scenes. Since I’m an overwriter rather than an underwriter, I always relish the opportunity to cut length. While I have a discard folder where my favorite scenes live forever in posterity, I find that when I cut, the new version soon becomes just as beloved as the old.

Some writers seem to have an aversion to editing, perhaps based upon attachment to the first draft, or perhaps because they don’t really know where to start. Luckily I have excellent critique partners who are happy to point out the issues with my manuscript, and what’s more, who are happy to discuss the craft of writing with me and brainstorm all of the ways that I can make my story better. When I talk about the changes I want to make to my manuscript, I get excited about making those changes. I can see the potential there on the page, waiting for me to unlock it.

Editing is truly the part of the process where I see the manuscript transform into something that I can truly call a “book.” I won’t call it magic, since it is more satisfying than that. Each change that I make, each little tweak of the language or change to the story, each chapter cut or line of dialogue added, brings the book one step closer to completion. Editing is hard work of the best kind, like taking a good hike up a mountain trail, or a long swim in the ocean on a hot day, the kind of work that leaves no doubt about the worth of the task.

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Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A decade as a technical writer has left its mark on me. Mostly, technical writers work anonymously. No one cared who I was — they wanted completeness, clarity, and structure. As a result, those were the things I concentrated on. I haven’t written a manual or a company blog for fifteen years — and am unlikely to in the future — but that emphasis has lingered with me as I moved into fiction. For that reason, I am always gobsmacked when I come across someone who thinks that wanting to write makes them special. It seems clear to me that such people have misplaced priorities.

You can hear this declaration of importance when the role of the writer is discussed. It crops up frequently when subjects like sensitivity reading comes up. “Never sell out your talent in order to prevent hurting people’s feelings,” one poster declared recently. “Writers are the epitome of free thinkers,” another declared, and still another, “If you’re not offending someone you’re not doing it right.” But my favorite was “It’s the responsibility of an artist to express what is within” — to which I replied, “Responsibility? Are you sure you don’t mean self-indulgence?” Such remarks rival Shelley’s declaration that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and at least he had a proven talent that demonstrably inspired people. But who are the unknowns make these grandiose claims?

Most writers, I suspect, fantasize about being published and remembered. But if you are a would-be writer, stop for a reality check. A single group on Facebook has over one hundred thousand members, and I’m confident that all the writing-related groups put together would make a minimum of half a million — perhaps even ten times that. So what makes me, or anyone else special in our aspirations? Even those who have actually published, traditionally or by themselves must be in the tens of thousands, and most of those have enjoyed a brief shining moment of publicity before disappearing into the mid-list.

As for being a free-thinker, all I can reply is, “Really?” Books don’t fit into a genre by accident. If you’re writing an imaginary world of long-eared, or a Regency romance or a cozy mystery, you make a damned unconvincing rebel. Far from being a free-thinker, you could hardly be more conventional. Thinking of yourself as an entertainer would be more accurate — nor is there a single thing wrong with that. Just don’t claim that your imagination is something precious that should be nurtured and cherished.

I mean, who gave you the responsibility to explore within? No one, unless it was yourself so that you could feel important. Being a writer does not make you exempt from common decency, let alone immune from criticism.

If you want to explore anything, explore the craft of writing. Learn how to tell a story, how to construct a plot, select a metaphor, and create a character arc. Instead of mentally replaying Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead with yourself as the misunderstood and under-appreciated main character, learn the craft that you claim to follow. That’s a lifelong study, and one that may actually gain you the respect you crave.

Or, as I like to put it: Take the work seriously, and never yourself. Otherwise, you’re not a writer; you’re just a daydreamer who has confused your dreams for reality.