Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Amazon, Goodreads, and Me

In the past couple months, I've only responded to a handful of the comments that daily fill my Goodreads updates. Sometimes, I just take a vacation from Goodreads for a bit--perhaps I'm not in the mood, or I'm busy with other things--such as my first novel, the last chapter of which I finished about a week ago (expect a post on that when I finish my first editing pass). But this time, I didn't come back to GR after a few days and catch up, like I normally do. Instead, I stayed away, and though part of the reason for that was my book, another reason was the censorship debacle that's been plaguing the site recently.

If you haven't read Ceridwen's take on the whole matter, you should, because it's much more thorough than mine, and well-considered. She is the chronicler of our struggle, the bard who went through the battlefield and made note of whose heads had been lopped off. I also love the fact that she's now moving past that. It's certainly not her responsibility, and so I thank her for the good work she's done. There will be links to her articles at the end of this post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Suggested Readings in Comics

Art by Duncan Fegredo
Growing up as I did amongst actors, singers, painters, potters, mimes, sword-swallowers, tightrope walkers, heavy metal musicians, master craftsmen, and all and sundry sorts of outcast and artist, I developed into a rather unusual child. 'Loud' is not a strong enough descriptor, 'frantic' too subtle a word, 'dramatic' a gross understatement. It drove my teachers mad--they yelled, they chastised--in first grade, my student report said that I would 'never amount to anything'. The only thing that didn't seem to get me in trouble was drawing, because when I was drawing, I was quiet. So I drew. When adults asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I was going to 'draw comic books'.

I loved comics as a child--well, I loved the pictures. I'd flip through, drawing inspiration for my little sketches of minotaurs, heroes, robots, dinosaurs, snake women--the usual. I never really had two issues in order, and I found it annoying that trying to read most comics felt like walking into a movie halfway through. I didn't start actually reading comics until I was in college, and by happenstance, the first comics I read ended up being some of the best ever written. As some of my friends have pointed out, this has given me extremely high expectations for what comics can and should be--the only person who is harder to please is my old college roommate, who has only read the top 10% of stuff I passed on to him.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part V: Where are the Strong Women?

Kate Beaton's 'Strong Female Characters'
Last time, we talked about the relationship between a woman and society--but there is also an odd relationship between the idea of the 'strong woman' and society: despite the fact that she's discussed so often these days, nothing seems to change about how women are portrayed--or at least, not for the better. As pointed out in great articles like A Plague of Strong Female Characters, Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women, and I Hate Strong Female Characters, as well as Kate Beaton's comics on the subject, 'Strong Female Character' has just come to mean emotionally damaged, commitment-phobic, laconic, and gun-toting.

Usually she'll have a rape backstory, too--and if she doesn't have one to begin with, a later writer will add one. It's really just another way to do 'damsel in distress', but with a female hero: in the standard formula, the bad guy shows up, steals the girlfriend, and then the male hero has to get revenge and save the girl; for a so-called 'strong woman', the villain steals the 'innocent girl inside her', and so she must go on a quest and get that part of herself back, by killing him. A lot of writers seem to think the natural state for a woman is frilly and sweet, but that a quick application of sex crime is all it takes to make her a violent buttkicker. Even Joss Wheedon, much lauded for how he deals with female characters, couldn't resist making the entire background for mystical female power in Buffy The Vampire Slayer into an extended rape origin story.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part IV: The Individual and Her Society

For Reference: An Individual (Hellé Nice)
Last time, I talked about the little stylistic details that can undermine how female characters are portrayed, but now I'd like to address something larger: the woman and her relationship to society. When we create a character, we are creating an individual. Though many of the thoughts, opinions, and assumptions of an individual are informed by the society they live in, an individual is not merely the combination of the ads they've seen and the things they were taught in school. Indeed, individuals are remarkably resistant to socialization, and love to reject what they've been told to do. So, when we make a character, it's not enough for them to simply be a distillation of their culture, a reversion to some 'type'--they must have unique qualities that set them apart.

There are many things that are intrinsic to a person, any person: the capacity for pain and joy, the need for self-actualization, the ability to think and reflect, the desire for companionship, fears and doubts--elements of humanity that have persisted through our whole history, in every time and culture. Then there are those things which come from the outside, social structures, and these tend to be drastically different across cultures and eras. When creating a character, it is important to distinguish between their internal life and the external structure of the society they live in.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part III: Subtle Inequalities

'The Monstrosity'
Last time, I spoke about how our own biases often end up dominating our books if we're not careful to look at what sorts of ideas we're presenting and why. Now, in the least skilled authors, this can be overt--a character might just start ranting about some pet political notion of the author's without cease for pages and pages--but it can also come out in ways that are much harder to recognize, to the point that many readers (and even the author themselves) may not realize what kind of message is actually being sent. Let me demonstrate with a riddle:

A young boy is wheeled into the hospital, he's unconscious and blood is seeping through his shirt. A doctor runs up and asks "What happened?" The paramedic pushing his gurney says "He was in a car crash, his father died at the scene, and the kid's got a collapsed lung." The doctor then looks down at the and suddenly recoils in shock, then says "I'm sorry, I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."

Get it?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part II: Independence in Action

Madonna, Whore, and Man in Le Fanu's 'Carmilla'
So last time, we talked about all the different things authors try to do to convince us that they've written a strong female character--despite the fact that such details have nothing to do with whether the character is strong or weak. What truly makes a character weak is when their actions and motivations are defined solely in terms of their relationship to other characters in the story--in the case of a weak woman, this often means that she is reliant upon the main character, who is male.

Women are impressed and intrigued by him, they follow him around, they arch their eyebrows at his quips. They get captured by the villain to provide something for him to do. Perhaps they come into conflict with each another over him, forming a love triangle, or some more complex polyhedron. Then, they sit back and wait for him to decide which one he wants to be with.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Writing Strong Women, Part I: How It All Goes Wrong

Bradamante, as depicted by H.J. Ford
I think I've had to mention the problematic depiction of gender in at least half the fantasies I've reviewed. It's either a manly power fantasy where women are secondary objects of desire, or a pink-glittered melodrama about psychic unicorns, brooding prettyboys, and angst.

And yet, until someone asked me flat out why I hadn't written about it, I never really considered it as a topic. I had just been assuming that either people had an inherent respect and understanding of other people, or they didn't--and that nothing I said was going to make much of a difference in that. After all, plenty of fantasy authors are deeply invested in misogyny--they want to write books where women are toys and objects--the most egregious example being Gor, though it's hardly the only one.

But then, there are other authors who are clearly trying to write women as strong, independent characters, but just absolutely failing. Why this happens is a much more intriguing question for us to explore than why some people are insecure chauvinists--and it also might highlight a few bad habits that we can look out for in our own writing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Writing Magic Well - Part II: Adding Depth

'The Magic Circle' by Waterhouse
In my first installment, I discussed a few pitfalls we, as writers, must avoid in our quest to create magic that feels truly magical--but success is not the same as simply avoiding failure. So, the question becomes: what can we do to inject a sense of wonder into our magic? How can we give our magic a substance, a texture, an enveloping quality that alters our entire world from within?

Reading classic texts, we can see that for earlier cultures and traditions, magic really was everywhere--it permeated all aspects of life, and people took it very seriously. It could inspire fear and hatred, it could be a source of respect or suspicion, it could produce conflict between different cultures--it often did all of those things at once. Magic was not merely physically powerful, but powerful as a cultural idea.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

On Writing Magic Well - Part I: Bad Habits

Rossetti's 'Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber'
The affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is one of the most recognizable representations of hidden passion in art, but the affair is hardly less well known by the characters in the story. It is a kind of open secret: something everyone is aware of, but which none dare speak against.

Under chivalric law, a man has the right to defend his honor in Trial by Combat, meaning that the fellow who dares besmirch a knight's honor must face him, blade to blade, to prove the truth of the accusation. The same tradition carried over into the modern era, with gentlemen fighting duels solely for the name of their honor--and a scoundrel who won was the equal of a truly honorable man, except the scoundrel didn't actually have to be a good person in the meantime.

It was especially problematic for any knight who took umbrage at Guinevere's infidelity, since to accuse her was to invite a crossing of swords with the most formidable warrior of the Round Table. And indeed, every time such an accusation is leveled against Lancelot, he merely raises sword or lance and does away with it. The idea behind this method of justice was that a good and righteous God would not allow a just man to be defeated by a blackguard. Of course, the fact that the disingenuous Lancelot did win, over and over, just goes to show that the Arthurian balladeers of a thousand years ago had a more developed sense of irony and realism than many modern fantasy authors.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Cult of Chomsky

In college, I certainly knew the name 'Noam Chomsky', though why I knew it, I wasn't sure. I worked security, patrolling the dark, deserted halls and subterranean passages which made the campus a labyrinth of shadows and half-heard sounds each time night enclosed it. My fellow denizens of the twilight realm included my nemeses: hobos, bike thieves, wall tagging skateboarders, drunken hedgebound copulators--and also my allies, my kine, those fellow security personnel who waited out the long shifts at their desks.

So I flitted from one to the next, patrol this building and visit one, then moving on to the next, spending a little time with each before returning them to their isolation. I still recall walking down a dim and lengthy hallway and hearing a clipped, minute voice echoing down it, reduced by boombox speakers to a buzzing, inhuman tone. When I arrived, my compatriot made to pause the recording, but I held up a hand and asked "what's this?"  

"Noam Chomsky," she replied, "the world's most famous intellectual".

Friday, January 18, 2013

Originality and the Fount of Inspiration

Last time, we talked about the source of creativity, now let's look at what I mean by 'originality'

Muse at Mt. Helicon
When I'm judging the quality of something I have read (or even something I have written), I find I have to contend with the idea of 'originality'--what is it that makes something original, or unoriginal? Is originality even a desirable trait for an author to have? Is true originality even possible?

Certainly, we might construct an extreme argument and say that, since all human thought comes from what we learn, from notions that have inspired us, that therefore, every idea has some source and hence cannot be considered 'truly original'. If we defined 'original' as 'something that springs fully-formed from nothing and is not related to anything that came before' then no, there could be no original thought. But it is silly to define originality as some impossible severing of man from influence or history, when in fact those are indispensable parts of the crucible in which original ideas are formed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Creative Barriers: Where Good Ideas Come From

Sinatra-Fighting, Jellybean-Hating Old Cuss
All writers get asked the question "where do you get your ideas?" Even nobodies like me hear it. It's become a cliche among authors, to the point that Harlan Ellison started telling people that he writes to a 'fine Idea Service' in Schenectady, New York, which, for a modest fee, provides him with new ideas upon request.

But of course, the very question misunderstands how the brain works: ideas don't just descend from nowhere, there is no store of them sitting out there, untouched, just awaiting discovery. Ideas are forced into existence by sheer necessity. Whenever you wonder how someone 'became so creative', it might be beneficial to sit back and ask yourself what 'creativity' actually means. To say that someone is creative means that they are capable of coming up with novel solutions to problems. When they are confronted with something that needs to be done, they find a workaround. This means that, in order for us to be creative, there must be some sort of conflict staring us in the face: there must be some conundrum that needs solving.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Makes A Good Writer?

As you may or might not have noticed, my Goodreads profile contains the somewhat confrontational statement: "No author who rates their own book five stars could write a five-star book". It's something I get asked about with some regularity, along with the question 'how can I become a good writer?' Luckily for me, my job is rather simplified by the fact that both questions share a common answer.

Now, I'm not claiming I am a good writer--indeed it's very humbling when people choose to come to me and seek advice--but I have spent quite a bit of time reading and thinking on the topic of becoming a good writer--in hopes of getting there, myself, one day--and it's hard for me to think of an act more directed at becoming a good writer than writing to other writers about the properties of good writing as I understand them.