General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.

Fiction, General Writing

Good Intentions vs. Imagination

“Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
-Philip Pullman

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival would feature one country each — preferably one undergoing social strife. My wife and I used to refer to this habit as the revolution of the month. Reading the frequent discussions online about diversity in writing, I am reminded of those times, and my mixed reaction to them.

You see, the problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiments of each revolution of the month. I was a supporter of the causes, and even donated to them. However, it was a music festival, so I thought it only fitting that musicianship be at least as important as a band’s political opinions. For me, choruses like “US Out of El Salvador” lacked a certain artistry, no matter how loudly they were shouted, or how many of the crowd joined in. The bands meant well, but they were so caught up in their causes that they had forgot that they were supposed to be musicians as well as activists.

Reading recent discussions about diversity in fantasy, I have much the same ambivalence. Posters frequently discuss representation in their stories, and what stories they have the right to discuss. They talk about how to depict people of color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. All these topics are major concerns of mine, and I cannot fault the earnestness and sincerity of the posters. Yet, aside from the occasional reminder not to make a checklist of representation among your characters, I rarely see much discussion of technique.

Often, it sounds as though diversity is the aim, not storytelling. When samples of writing are posted, often they are wooden and unconvincing. Some posters are so focused on diversity that they fail to see the unintentional humor of developing stories concerned with the socially aware name for demons. Many more agonize so much about doing representation properly that they nobble themselves and never write out of a fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this lopsided focus is a matter of age. With rare exceptions, few writers in their twenties have developed their social awareness far more than their writing skills. So, for many, it is unsurprising that they dwell on what they are most familiar with.

However, the problem is not just one of age. At least once, I made the same mistake without the excuse of inexperience. In my current work, I wanted to make the ghost of my main character an example of toxic masculinity, and give him his comeuppance. I thought of several creepy things for him to say –some of which, much to my surprise, were later said by Donald Trump, which suggested uncomfortably that I had understanding of such a character. I thought of even creepier ones for the ghost to do. But do you think I could make that ghost interesting? Nor in the least. He refused to become a character. He remained a puppet, with his strings clearly visible, through several drafts. I could hardly write him, because I was bored with the contrivance.

In my desperation I remembered the advice that Carl Gustav Jung was supposed to have given to his students of psychoanalysis. He told them that the first thing they should do to prepare for their careers was to learn everything they could about symbols and metaphors. The second thing, he added, was to forget everything they had learned.

Jung did not mean that his students should totally ignore their study of symbols. Rather, he meant that they should learn it so well that they no longer had to think consciously about their knowledge. They had to let their knowledge become part of their unconscious, freeing their conscious minds for interaction with their patients.

The same advice, I realized, could help me with my writing. I tried and tried until I could hear the ghostly father speak and imagine how he would move. Then, I carefully submerged my knowledge that the ghost was a satire of the ultra-macho. Even more importantly, I did not let myself think how clever and woke I was in making the portrayal. Instead, in the scenes where he appeared, I focused on my main character’s reactions and the drama of the encounter. The scenes were still a struggle, but I inched forward, and completed the scenes at last. In the end, the ghost was stronger, I believe, because the character was not simply a piece of heavy-handed didacticism.

From this experience, I learned something important: My well-meaning political opinions could only take my writing so far. To write even halfway decently, I had to think about storytelling and suspense first, and my political outlook second. Otherwise, I was writing propaganda, not fiction, and wasting my time, as well as that of any future readers. I don’t know why that surprised me — after all, which would most people prefer to read, Ayn Rand who never forgets her purpose for a moment, or George Orwell, who tied his political purposes in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the life of an average man?

Social awareness, I discovered, might be desirable, but it was not nearly enough. To work, it needed to take second place to storytelling. Once the social awareness is fixed in my mind, I need to switch my focus to storytelling if either is to succeed.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.

Fiction, Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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.

General Writing

9 Signs A Fantasy Is Not Worth Reading

In Facebook groups, dozens of people post pieces of their fantasy works every day. Often, they ask for readers of their entire manuscripts. However, I, couldn’t possibly read all of them, even if I cared to. As a result, I’m become skilled at predicting the quality of the whole work. These are some of the warnings that the work is likely to have problems:

  • Maps without any sense of geography: If continents are shown, do they look like continental drift occurs? Do cities occur at crossroads, or key points where a city would spring up? Is there a gradual transition from desert to forest?
  • Dull or awkward names: Names should create a sense that the people or places that carry them might actually exist. On the map, the names should create a sense that people with different languages have crossed the map. They should not be full of apostrophes – those are for contractions, not just cheap atmosphere, or, in some cases, meant to indicate a particular sound. In addditon, they should be believable. Nobody is going to name an ocean The Silvery Depths or a wooded area the Forest of Fear. They’re just not.
  • Use of anachronistic language like “Okay:” Unless the story takes place after about 1820 in our world, seeing “Okay”on the page is like grindng your teeth over tin-foil. It destroys the mood. In the same way, a character in medieval fantasy is not going to “change gears” – cars haven’t been invented yet. Nor are they likely to go for a workout or a date.
  • Tolkien races: Like many would-be writers, I grew up on Tolkien. But unless I’m reading fanfic, where the rules are different, any variation of dwarfs, elves, or orcs is just plain lazy. More important, races defined by morality are so out of keeping with modern sensibilties that even Dungeons and Dragons is finally dropping the concept.
  • Anime and Blockbuster Movies as Influences: I like animation and film as much as anybody. However, they are different media to the written word, with both advantages and limitations to it. You are unlikely to learn to write from anything except books. If you are more drawn to film than books, you really should consider writing screenplays.
  • Making Social Awareness the Only Priority: Diversity and racial issues are a social priority, and the publishing world specifically needs change. However, while representation and writing the Other are skills that every writer should learn, they need to be developed hand in hand with learning writing skills. You can learn to balance them from dozens of books, like Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Dispossessed. And if you’re not equally interested, perhaps you should consider non-fiction?
  • Commodified or Pseudo-Cultures: Is your China a place of tea-houses amid the rocks and the mist, with every second person a martial artist? Do your First Nations have a single culture across North America, with Sasquatches and dream-catchers? If so, then you haven’t done your research, and you need to live with the actual cultures.
  • Self-Published Works Full of Typos: Nothing is wrong with self-publishing. It’s a legitimate way to present your work. However, if you’re going to self-published, take the time to do it right. Hold yourself to the same standards as traditional publishers – or even higher.
  • The Writer Is Looking for Rules: Beware of writers who ask things like: how long should my chapters be? Am I allowed to delay the inciting incident to the fifth chapter? Such questions reveal a crippling inexperience. Worse, they show a desire for rigid rules that simply don’t exist. A writer who wants rules may outgrow their desire, but it’s not a promising start.

What these practices have in common is a lack of effort – a decision not to put in the research and practice that is needed for an original work of fiction. They steer me away from reading because they suggest that the writer is looking for shortcuts, a way to make writing easy. A writer may outgrow one of these warning signs, but the more they display, the less likely they are to produce anything worth reading.

Unfortunately, what I am discovering in my own efforts is that there are no shortcuts. And maybe that’s the way it should be. If writing wasn’t hard, then anybody could do it.

Diversity

Writing Other Cultures: A Musical Analogy

Writers are often told to stay in their lane and to avoid writing from perspectives other than their own. Often, this advice is accompanied by the statement that no one should even attempt to write from another perspective, and could not possibly write well if they tried. It’s a claim that comes from past examples, and out of understandable frustration due to inequalities in the publishing industry. However, based on an analogy in the music industry, I wonder if it is incomplete.

The inequalities in publishing today are reminiscent of the situation in the recording industry seventy years ago. Then, even more so than today, Black musicians were shut out. Worse, at the same time, White performers were stealing Black music. Many, unsurprisingly, insisted that Whites could not credibly play Blues, Jazz, or R&B, because they had not lived the life that gave rise to the music.

Yet in practice, in the coming decade, that claim was partly discredited, as some up and coming White performers looked beyond the limitations of borrowed Black music to find the originals. By the 1970s, groups like the Rolling Stones were appearing on stage with older Black musicians like Muddy Waters, and looking like fanboys, obviously delighted to be performing with their cultural heroes. More recently, a collection of Robert Johnson’s recorded work included liner notes by Keith Richards.

Trying to map what happened, my critique partner Jessica cited a recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” by the Neville Brothers, an all-Black band. For both Jessica and I, this recording could be called the definitive version of this classic spiritual. Like the best spirituals, it is not a hymn, rejoicing in religious belief, although it assumes a religious background. Rather, it is existential, concerned with mourning and human suffering. Like a tragedy, it is cathartic, allowing the listeners release through their identification with the emotions surrounding a family funeral. Although recorded several decades after the 1950s, it still comes out of the Black experience in the truest sense.

Jessica rightly pointed out that White performers could hardly hope to equal the Neville Brothers. By contrast, she mentioned a version of “Will the Circle Be UnBroken?” performed by Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Ricky Skagg – an all white ensemble. We both agreed that this version of the spiritual was nowhere near as powerful as the one by the Neville Brothers.

So far, this example supports the prevailing claims. However, while not reflecting Black experience, we agreed that the Johnny Cash version was skillfully done, especially in its use of Baptist call and response. In the end, we decided that the performers had borrowed the Black experience and produced something different. Although less effective, it still had some power to move listeners.

However, that analogy seemed incomplete. Neither of us believed that the average White musician could be as successful as Johnny Cash and company in using Black experience in a respectful way or in creating something different. Far too many attempts to do this were more like Pat Boone’s version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” which is built around a cheery, upbeat arrangement that showed little understanding of the song, and grated after only a few bars in its wrongness. A browse through YouTube showed that most White versions of the song were far closer to Pat Boone’s than Johnny Cash’s.

If this analogy has any validity, then it is mostly true to say that artists have to live the experience to depict it well. Without that experience, the results are apt to resemble Pat Boone’s. However, at the same time, a skilled artist, with a similar experience to draw upon in their own life, can do a credible rendition of the experience they depict, and perhaps turn it into something different, but interesting in its own right.

What this means is that while it may be an overstatement to say that writing outside your lane is impossible, it is unlikely to be done after no more than reading a few Wikipedia articles. It is a difficult undertaking, achievable even partially only by accomplished and conscientious writers. Unless you are prepared to work hard, and to listen to people who have lived what you borrowing, then it is better not to try at all. As John Le Carré said, “A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger” – but none of us are good writers in everything we try.

Uncategorized

How I Learned to Handle Criticism

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, regardless of your genre, as inevitable as covid-19, when you publish you are going to get criticism. Moreover, a lot of it is going to irritate you so much that if you were an oyster, you’d be producing pearls by the bucket-load. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty years of selling non-fiction, it’s this unenviable fact. I’ve come to accept, too, that the only choices are to stop publishing or to develop a skin as thick as plate armor.

Maybe I’m insecure, but one criticism can ruin my day even when accompanied by twenty comments that sing my praises. There are simply so many ways that a negative comment can be wrong. The least of those are the readers who are not talking about my article at all. Instead, they have something they want to say that is vaguely connected to my topic, and are using my article as a way to get more readers. Much worse are the ones who take a single sentence out of context. The ones who attack me for not saying exactly what I said. The ones who miss that a comment is sarcastic or flippant. Worst of all, those who have never met me but decide to dislike me, and become on-line stalkers (which has happened three times). I do not expect everyone to like my work, but I often find myself saying that, if people are going to criticize, they can at least criticize me for what I actually say or think.

Then there is the fact that criticisms can be mutually contradictory. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have had people call me a capitalist apologist and a communist stooge because of the same article. Still others have condemned me as pro and anti feminist as the result of one article. Such responses leave me baffled as well as irritated. How can one article produce utterly different responses? Surely, the article cannot support mutually exclusive views?

When I first start selling articles, all these reactions left me shattered. In my naivety, I imagined that my articles would be universally loved, that I would be hailed as an essayist for all time, as the next George Orwell or Christopher Hitchens. Rudely disabused, I was left wondering if I had any ability at all. I would brood for days, so strongly affected that I could barely write the next overdue article.

For my own sanity, I had to snap out of this funk. I couldn’t afford to brood so much that I couldn’t write. Still less could I afford to answer every response that I felt misunderstood. For one thing, my critics seemed to have endless time to nitpick and argue. For another, practically none of them would ever admit they were wrong. I could have spent days, sometimes weeks arguing, and in the end I would have nothing to show for my time except wasted effort.

Still, staying quiet went against my nature. I could imagine myself as the angry figure in the famous xkcd comic, staying up late to hammer out a reply because someone on the Internet is wrong! While some commenters defended me, who was better qualified to correct all the misunderstandings than me?

Yet gradually, I learned how unimportant most of these comments were. They didn’t change the opinion that publishers and editors had of me. I was still paid to write, and a month later the flame wars the hostile commenters sparked were forgotten. The only loser was me when I was distracted by trivia. So, gradually I learned to control my annoyance and use my time in more constructive ways.

I admit, though, that I couldn’t bring myself to let all their misrepresentations stand. Instead, I compromised with myself. I would allow myself a maximum of two responses. In the first, I would correct anything I felt wrong in their comments. In the second, I would answer any further misapprehensions, and announce that I was ending the discussion. They might continue to rant but I’d have had my say, and they were left talking to themselves.

And in the end, why should I care what they said? I didn’t know them, and I definitely didn’t want to.

That is the advice that I would give to new writers overwhelmed by hostile reactions: don’t let them waste your time, and move on as soon as possible. Don’t let their hostility make you ignore legitimate comments — sometimes, people find significant mistakes in your work, or express a point of view you haven’t considered, and deserve your thanks and revisions. But if the response is abusive, with no redeeming features, don’t let it affect your life. Correct it if you must, and then ignore it. Your detractors will be left fuming, and you will be much happier.

Characters, General Writing

The Fallacies of Character Flaws

“What are your main character’s flaws?” I scroll past this attempt at conversation several times a week. I never try to answer it, because it is usually based on the assumption that a main character, if not all characters, are only realistic and sympathetic if they have defects. This assumption is so cluttered with fallacies that I have never taken the time to answer it until now.

So far as I can tell, the assumption seems based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics. In discussing tragedy, Aristotle introduces the term hamartia. Harmatia is often popularly translated into English as “flaw,” but, according to Wikipedia, is a much more neutral term, better translated as “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” Harmatia is the misunderstanding or lacking piece of information that determines the events of the tragedy.

So, right away, the belief that a personality flaw is needed is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding explains why it can be difficult to assign a flaw to a classical tragic hero. What, for example, is the flaw that leads to Oedipus marrying his mother? By every indication, Oedipus is a conscientious, upright soul with a strong sense of responsibility. Similarly, nothing is lacking in Orestes when he kills his mother. Rather, Orestes is caught between his duty to his mother and his responsibility to avenge his father’s murder. Neither Oedipus nor Orestes can be assigned a flaw without stretching a point, although many teachers have tried.

The tradition continues when Shakespeare is taught. I remember being told in high school that Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, while Hamlet was unable to make up his mind. Such over-simplifications create the illusion that we have a handle on complicated stories, but do we? Othello does not leap to jealousy by himself, but has his relationship with his wife poisoned by the whisperings of Iago. As for Hamlet, he delays only until he is convinced that what his father’s ghost has told him is true. If you had to assign Hamlet a flaw in Act V, it would be that he acts far too rashly.

Harmatia is a flexible enough term that it can cover Oedipus, Orestes, Othello, and Hamlet, but the hunt for flaws simply doesn’t work. However, few writers today are producing tragedies, so harmatia is irrelevant. Aristotle was not analyzing the structure of stories, but of tragedy, which is only a subset of stories. No matter how you translate Aristotle, his comments have no more than an indirect insight into a modern novel or short story.

Still, believers in flaws are apt to say, a flawed character is easier to identify with. And it is true that an impossibly noble hero is unlikely to be sympathetic. Often, an anti-hero, an amoral rogue with some redeeming traits is more likely to keep readers turning pages. However, all stories cannot be about anti-heroes. More importantly, I have to ask whether a personality flaw really makes a hero more relatable. Do we actually like a character more if they are weak-willed? If they drink too much? Or sleep around? At the very least, flaws only make a character more sympathetic if they are carefully selected. We might identify, for instance, with a ruthless killer who shows mercy, or only murders the corrupt. However, flaws alone do not seem a consistent tactic to make readers identify with a character.

Besides, fiction is not a role-playing game, where characters exist in isolation because the story is shaped by the DM. In fiction, a character depends largely on the needs of the plot. Does the story require someone who changes sides? Then the character involved is likely to be someone with imagination and empathy. Does it depend on a betrayal? Then the betrayer needs a motive like a lost cause or a wish for revenge. Successful characters rarely emerge fully-formed — they develop in a complex interplay with setting and plot where it is hard to say which comes first. If they are created in isolation, they are likely to be unconvincing. No matter how many flaws you sprinkle over them like spice, there is no hiding that you are serving up a bland dish.

Anyway, who is to say what a flaw is? A character who is rash could be praised in one circumstance for resolution, and in another for thoughtfulness. By contrast, working with the concept of flaws seems almost certain to result in puppet-like characters whom no one wants to read about.

What characters do need is an arc: a movement from one state to another. They might set out to accomplish a certain task. They might learn as the story continues, becoming fit to realize their goals in a way they weren’t at the start of the story. Such arcs are what engage readers — not a set of arbitrary flaws.