Do you have a manuscript that needs a critique? Have you been quietly longing for an individualized writing workshop with me? If so, you are in luck!

My manuscript critique services include detailed general notes, plus individual notes in the manuscript itself. If you like, it also includes an hour-long consultation via telephone (you call me), or in person if you happen to live in Los Angeles. Optionally, I will give you advice on business issues (like getting an agent) in addition to critique. I am extremely honest, but not mean.

I can’t guarantee that your book will be published or your script will be produced, but some people I’ve worked with have gone on to publish their manuscripts. I was the main person who critiqued the two manuscripts linked below before they acquired agents. I also advised both authors on how to get an agent and write a query letter.

A Bad Day's Work: A Novel is a lighthearted mystery a la Stephanie Plum. This manuscript underwent major changes as a result of my suggestions, and ended up with a new love interest. The author got a three-book deal.

"Ready for the People": My Most Chilling Cases as a Prosecutor is nonfiction by a Los Angeles prosecutor. I edited this for clarity, readability, and manuscript format.

The woman who won my critique services in a Sweet Charity auction a while back rewrote her spec script for Supernatural according to my notes and submitted it to a TV writing contest, where it came in as a quarter-finalist.

I am willing to read fiction, non-fiction, and any kind of script, including comic book scripts. I have no content restrictions, and I will read partial manuscripts. I don't think I'm the best person to consult about poetry or sitcoms.

Rates: $2/page for manuscripts of 200 pages or under. For manuscripts of 200 + pages, the rate for the subsequent pages drops to $1.

ie, if you have a 50-page TV script, I will critique it for $100. If you have a 300-page book, the total cost (200 pages at $2/page and 100 pages at $1/page) is $500.

If you have a very short piece, like a query letter or college admission essay, the minimum rate is $50.

Turn-around: One month.

Comments to this post are screened. Comment if you’re interested or have questions, or email me at Rphoenix2 at gmail dot com.

I’ve sold nonfiction, fiction, TV scripts, poetry, and comic books, and taught writing privately, at writing workshops, a high school, and a university (UC Riverside.) For more details, I will email you my writing and teaching resumes upon request.
Tags:
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Sep. 12th, 2011 12:29 pm)
Sherwood Smith and I have a post up at Genreville, about how an agent offered to represent a YA novel we'd written on the condition that we make a gay character straight or remove him from the book.

I have copied the post here for the benefit of people who'd like to discuss it here. However, please note that Geneville offers a form of pseudonymity which I cannot replicate. If you are a writer who has been pressured by agents or editors to change a character's identity, you must go to Genreville to tell your story pseudonymously!

We thank everyone who has supported us in this matter, and helped us come to the decision to go public. It was not an easy decision, and your support was invaluable. We also give special thanks to Rose Fox for offering us a platform, to Mme Hardy for line-editing our post, and to Tanuki Green for hosting the book lists.

If you want to Tweet this, the tag is #YesGayYA.

Note to new commenters: Please be civil to each other, and please do not insult or label people based on group identity, as opposed to individual actions or beliefs. ("All LDS/Muslims/Christians/etc are homophobes" is not okay. "Homophobes are ruining America" is okay.)

Say Yes To Gay YA

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

We are published authors who co-wrote a post-apocalyptic young adult novel. When we set out to find an agent for it, we expected to get some rejections. But we never expected to be offered representation… on the condition that we make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether.

Our novel Stranger has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki's romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.

An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.

Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.

We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer – who knew if there would even be sequels? – and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.

LGBTQ teenagers already get told this. They are four times more likely than straight teenagers to attempt suicide We’re not saying that the absence of LGBTQ teens in YA sf and fantasy novels is the reason for that. But it’s part of the overall social prejudice that does cause that killing despair.

We wrote this novel so that the teenagers we know – some of whom are gay, and many of whom are not white – would be able, for once, to read a fun post-apocalyptic adventure in which they are the heroes. And we were told that such a thing could not be allowed.

After we thanked the agent for their time, declined the offer, and hung up, Sherwood broke the silence. “Do you think the agent missed that Becky and Brisa [supporting characters] are a couple, too? Do they ever actually kiss on-page? No? I’M ADDING A LESBIAN KISS NOW!”

This Is Not About One Bad Apple

This isn't about that specific agent; we'd gotten other rewrite requests before this one. Previous agents had also offered to take a second look if we did rewrites… including cutting the viewpoint of Yuki, the gay character. We wondered if that was because of his sexual orientation, but since the agents didn’t say it out loud, we could only wonder. (We were also told that it is absolutely unacceptable in YA for a boy to consensually date two girls, but that it would be okay if he was cheating and lying. And we wonder if some agents were put off because none of our POV characters are white.)

We absolutely do not believe that all our rejections were due to prejudice. We know for a fact that some of them weren’t. (An agent did offer us representation, but we ended up passing due to creative differences that had nothing to do with the identities of the characters.)

This isn't about one agent's personal feelings about gay people. We don't know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue. The conversation made it clear that the agent thought our book would be an easy sale if we just made that change. But it doesn't matter if the agent rejected the character because of personal feelings or because of assumptions about the market. What matters is that a gay character would be quite literally written out of his own story.

We are avoiding names because we don’t want this story to be about one agent who spoke more bluntly than others whose objections were more indirectly expressed. Naming names can make it too easy to target a lone “villain,” who can be blamed and scolded until everyone feels that the matter has been satisfactorily dealt with.

Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action.

When we privately discussed our encounter with the agent, we heard from other writers whose prospective agents made altering a character’s minority identity – sexual orientation, race, disability— a condition of representation. But other than Jessica Verday, who refused to change a character’s gender in a short story on an editor’s request, few writers have come forward for fear of being blacklisted.

We sympathize with that fear. But we believe that silence, however well-motivated and reasonable from a marketing point of view, allows the problem to flourish. We hope that others will speak up as well, in whatever manner is safe and comfortable for them.

The overwhelming white straightness of the YA sf and fantasy sections may have little to do with what authors are writing, or even with what editors accept. Perhaps solid manuscripts with LGBTQ protagonists rarely get into mainstream editors’ hands at all, because they are been rejected by agents before the editors see them. How many published novels with a straight white heroine and a lesbian or black or disabled best friend once had those roles reversed, before an agent demanded a change?

This does not make for better novels. Nor does it make for a better world.

Let’s make a better world.

What You Can Do

If You’re An Editor:
Some agents are turning down manuscripts or requesting rewrites because they think that the identities of the characters will make the book unsalable. That means that you, who might love those characters, never even get to see them.

If you are open to novels featuring LGBTQ protagonists or major characters, you can help by saying so explicitly. When agents realize that LGBTQ content does not lead to a lost sale, they will be less likely to demand that it be removed.

The same goes for other identity issues. If you are interested in YA fantasy/sf with protagonists who are disabled, or aren’t white, or otherwise don’t fit the usual mold, please explicitly say so. General statements of being pro-diversity don't seem to get the point across. We ask you to issue a clear, unmistakable statement that you would like to see books with protagonists or major characters who are LGBTQ, people of color, disabled, or any combination of the above.

If You’re An Agent: If you are open to manuscripts with major or main LGBTQ characters, please explicitly say so in your listings and websites. Just as with editors, simply saying “we appreciate diversity” could mean anything. (In fact, the agent who asked us to make our gay character straight had made such mentions.) You can throw the gates open by making a clear and unmistakable statement with details. For instance: “I would love to see books whose characters are diverse in all or any respects, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and national origin.”

If You’re A Reader: Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs by buying, reading, reviewing, and asking libraries to buy existing YA fantasy/sf with LGBTQ protagonists or major characters. If those books succeed financially, more like them will be written, represented, and sold. Your reviews don’t have to be positive – any publicity is good publicity. Review on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, anywhere you yourself read reviews.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with main or major LGBTQ characters is available here, with links to Amazon. Please bookmark this list for reference – it will continue to be updated as new books are released.

Characters of color/non-white characters are often also relegated to the status of sidekicks in YA sff, and are depicted as white on the covers of the few books in which they do star. Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs to support novels in which they are protagonists.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part I: Author surnames from A – L.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part II: Author surnames from M – Z. Please bookmark these lists for reference – they will continue to be updated as new books are released.

The usual protagonist of a YA sf/fantasy novel is a heterosexual white girl or boy with no disabilities or mental/neurological issues, no stated religion, and no specific ethnicity. Reading and reviewing novels whose characters break that mold in other ways would also be a step forward.

If You’re A Writer: If you have had a manuscript rejected because of the identity of the characters, or had an agent or editor request that you alter the identity of a character, please tell your story. If you want to use your real name, comment here, or leave a link to your own blog post. If you want your name to remain private, you can publish your story here under a pseudonym, verified in general terms by Rose Fox. (Such as, “I verify that the author of this comment is indeed a published YA author.”) You can also comment with complete pseudonymity.

Instructions for commenting pseudonymously are here.

If You’re Anyone At All: Please link to this article. If enough people read it and take the suggestions, enormous and wonderful changes could take place.

Who We Are

This article was written by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. Rachel Manija Brown is a TV writer, poet, and author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Sherwood Smith has published more than thirty fantasy and science fiction novels, including the adult fantasies Inda and Coronets and Steel, and the YA fantasy Crown Duel. Together, we created an animated TV series, Game World, which we sold to the Jim Henson Company.

Our YA post-apocalyptic novel, Stranger, remains unsold.

ETA: To be clear: Sherwood and I were trying to find an agent specifically for our co-written works, which are quite different from what we write solo. My agent for nonfiction, Brian DeFiore, is not the agent in question!
Love triangles, always popular in many genres, seem to have become a near-requirement for YA fantasy and science fiction.

I usually do not like love triangles. They bring up the possibility of infidelity, which I hate in literature.

They bring up a lot of angst which I find hard to identify with - this is probably a very personal reaction, but I always think, "Having not one, but TWO attractive guys you like? What a great "problem" to have! That's like getting two fabulous job offers, or being accepted by your top two colleges!"

Plus I find it annoying that, if the heroine genuinely loves them both, no one ever even considers the possibility of polyamory, or even not choosing immediately and seeing how things shake out. (Honorable exceptions: a few books whose titles are spoilery given that this is surprising and happens at the end, but they're by Janni Simner, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Caroline Stevermer. Um. And Laurell K. Hamilton. Maybe that one should be dishonorable.)

It's also usually excruciatingly obvious who the heroine will pick, making her angst annoying and pointless - one guy is clearly evil, unworthy, or doesn't reach the heights of exquisite wonderfulness as the other.

It is very annoying when the triangle is resolved without the heroine making a meaningful choice, because one of the guys dies or turns out to be evil or falls for someone else. Total bait and switch!

Finally, the ubiquity in certain genres may be why many seem to be pasted on as an afterthought. Elements pasted on due to marketability rarely add to the artistry of a work.

One of the few that I've ever liked was in Patricia McKillip's Changeling Sea, in which there were three guys and a girl, and they all had about equal screen time and were all attractive and likable in some sense. Plus, she picked my favorite.

Talk to me about love triangles. Why do you like them? Why do you like the ones you like? Why do you dislike them? And which are your most and least favorites?

Please mark triangle-related spoilers in the header of your comment, ie, "Spoilers for Hunger Games."
I was recently pointed to a new YA dystopia straight out of the YA dystopia generator.

Caffeine has been banned and the government controls water.

I have no idea what that book is actually like (unfortunately, it looks like it isn't a comedy) but my problem with a lot of recent YA dystopias is that they do didacticism badly: bluntly, to the detriment of other artistic functions, and in the service of a message that everyone already believes: it's bad for government to control every aspect of life. Love is good. Destroying the environment is bad.

Didactic art is art which intends to teach, and while we tend to use the word to mean “teach morality,” it can also simply be educational. Most nonfiction is didactic. Fiction too teaches facts (often wrong), about history or work or nature; it shades into morality when the lessons are about human nature.

While didactic fiction of the moral/political variety is so hard to do well, and so easily to do so badly that it invites reviewers like me to point and laugh, it’s nearly impossible to write a work of any length which avoids didacticism altogether. Every story has facts and beliefs embedded in it. If the intent was entirely to entertain and not at all to teach, all that means is that the facts and beliefs will be some amalgam of those held by the characters, those held by the author, and those held by the author’s society.

We label works “didactic” when they are either unsubtle or when the beliefs being promulgated go contrary to our own. When the beliefs are those we or our societies hold ourselves, they have to be pretty damn unsubtle for us to even notice them. This is why a cozy mystery with a lesbian protagonist gets labeled “pro-homosexual propaganda,” even though it contains not one word about gay rights, while the same mystery with a heterosexual heroine who gets married at the end in a flurry of rejoicing at this exquisitely happy conclusion will never be labeled “pro-heterosexuality propaganda.”

I’m not interested in writing fiction whose primary purpose is to teach moral or any other type of lesson. But I confess, there are some messages I do try to send, and not through Western Union.

When I grew up, it was very noticeable, just by the preponderance of books in which the heroes were boys and girls barely even appeared or appeared only as secondary characters, that American society, in general, didn’t believe that girls could be heroes. (I did not get this impression about Indian society, by the way, since the literature I had access to did not erase the historical presence of some amazingly bad-ass women.) It didn’t have to consciously try to send the message that girls weren’t heroes, or that the main importance of Jews was that most of us died in the Holocaust. Those messages were sent by our absence and the overwhelming presence of everyone else.

Another message, unintentionally sent loud and clear, was that people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities not only don’t get to be heroes, but exist only to teach those of perfectly sound body and mind not to try to help them out, because they will only pull you down. And also, people with mental illnesses are doomed. DOOMED, I tell you!

On the flip side, quite a few books sent messages which were much more encouraging and positive, and which I clung to for dear life: If you’re a misfit and bullied and don’t fit in where you are, you can leave and find a place where people will appreciate you. (I know lots of adults hate books with that message, because they are often blatant wish-fulfullment, are unfair to the original society, have protagonists who suffer for no reason and then are rewarded without effort, etc. But when you’re a bullied, depressed, misfit kid, they are an absolute lifeline. And also, quite often true, especially if your problem is something like being gay in a small, homophobic town.) Another message I benefited a lot from was that you can go through absolutely horrible stuff, but survive to find a happy ending.

I have no interest in convincing anyone through my writing that, say, global warming is real. (I don’t know why, but environmentalism ranks with libertarianism as the didacticisms most likely to be obnoxious in fictional form.) But I do try to suggest that trauma doesn’t have to break you forever, that hope and redemption are always there for the taking, and that anyone can be a hero.

Talk to me about messages: good ones, bad ones, the ones you send, the ones you receive, the ones you’re sick of, and the ones you wish you’d see more.
I realized the other day, while listening to an episode of This American Life about infidelity, that there are some topics in which I have so little inherent interest that a work focusing on them has to be extraordinarily good, or else largely about something else, to compel my interest.

One of those topics is infidelity. Another is zombies. (Zombies cheating on each other would be my ultimate "bored now.")

Perhaps infidelity doesn't horrify me on the level upon which I need to be horrified. I get the visceral anguish at the idea of being dumped or unloved or supplanted or lied to or infected with an STD, but not the horror solely at the thought of one's lover having sex or an emotional relationship with someone else. When faced with angsty love triangles, I tend to wonder why no one ever raises the possibility of an open relationship or polyamory. And finally, I've never been tempted to cheat myself.

But my lack of caring about infidelity goes beyond an inability to personally relate. I enjoy tons of fiction I don't personally relate to. But infidelity-driven plots nearly always strike me as dull, trivial, unnecessary, irritating, and give me a sense of second-hand embarrassment.

As for zombies, they are gross, rotting, and lack intelligence and personality. The first two actively turn me off, the last one removes the things that interest me in a character. The only zombie stories I've ever enjoyed are ones in which the interest is in the characters fighting or fleeing the zombies, and ones in which the zombies are still intelligent and have personalities. But in those cases, they are barely zombies at all.

I am also suspicious of vampires and faeries, but that's nothing inherent, it's just that they're so often done and so often done unimaginatively. Show me a new or merely extremely well-written take on faeries, vampires, or faepires, and I will happily settle down to read.

Please discuss the subjects and tropes which make you flee in the other direction, whether they're well-executed or not. (Or share my loathing for zombies and cheaters.)
Tags:
I'm sure you all figured this out by now, but if you write a negative review of something I wrote, I will not descend upon your blog to insult you, sic my friends on you, vow to never work with you in the future, attempt to destroy your career, or otherwise try to penalize you.

I may be privately annoyed, but I will probably get over it. I may or may not even be hurt. I have written quite a bit, some of it work-for-hire which was doomed to badness from the get-go as I had to work off an incoherent original concept someone else came up with, some of it later rewritten by others, some of simply not that good, and all of which, I realize, may not be to everyone's taste. I once came across a review (of a doomed bit of work-for-hire) which said something like, The characters are barely even one-dimensional, and had to admit to myself that the critique was perfectly true.

So review honestly, should you feel like reviewing.

Context here. I would read the comments in addition to Janni's thoughtful post, as the comments go a long way toward explaining why people feel genuinely intimidated.

I've already written a post about why negative reviews are not unprofessional, evil, or mean, so I won't revisit that here. My opinions as stated there still stand. The last italicized argument, Since authors are all in the same field, it is unprofessional for a published author to write a negative review of another author’s work, is probably the most relevant to the current discussion.
Tags:
http://www.jusfc.gov/programguidelines.asp

I only just now found out about this, and I'm probably out of my mind to think I can pull an application together in nine days, but...

...Any professional writers here who think they could write me a letter of recommendation in that extremely short time frame?

If I get at least two yeses, I will email you to detail what I'm going to say I plan to do. Obviously, I have not yet figured that out, but I do so many things that it might depend on who (if anyone) offers to rec me! They are looking for fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and since I do all three, there are many possibilities.

I need...

4. Two signed letters of recommendation from professional colleagues, on letterhead if possible. Additional letters will be discarded. If necessary, the letters may be sent separately from the application. Letters should address each of the following:
* The artistic quality and evolution of your work
* How your work would benefit from interaction with Japanese arts and cultural life
* How you would adapt to the challenge of living and working in another culture

I have visited Japan five times, and I feel confident that I would not suffer from massive culture shock. I know some Japanese, but it's pretty lousy for lack of practice opportunities. It does improve, to a stilted, ungrammatical, and basic level, after I've spent a couple weeks on the ground.
Tags:
Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Flight/Fight Feels Like.

Fight! Part II: What Fighting Feels Like.

Fight! Part III: What Avoiding a Fight Feels Like

The other essays focus on some of the real-life elements that fighting involves, but this one is more specifically about constructing fictional fights.

Realism

Fight scenes in fiction aren’t all meant to be realistic, or to read as if they are. The level of realism (or faux-realism) is one of the major things to be determined when writing a fight scene. By “realism,” I don’t mean whether there are fantasy elements involved, like telepathy, weightless leaping, vampire swords, etc, but whether the scene is meant to be read as plausible given its circumstances.

Most fights in farce are non-realistic, depending on perfectly choreographed and utterly unlikely chains of events, like the pie fights in How Much for Just the Planet? (Star Trek, No 36) or The Great Race. If you imagine realism as a bell curve, those fight scenes are way off to the right. Way off to the left you have fight scenes in memoirs in which the authors didn’t make everything up – they’re real fights artistically recreated. Most fictional fights are somewhere between those extremes.

If you’re aiming for non-realistic swashbuckling, the characters can exchange quips as they fight. If the scene is supposed to be realistic, keep in mind that they’re expending so much energy that it’s physically difficult to talk, let alone chat, once they begin, and will get harder as they continue. If you really want them to talk in complete sentences, build some breaks into the scene while they take cover, rest between rounds, etc.

“Dark and gritty and gross” does not necessarily mean “more realistic,” though it generally means, “readers are supposed to think it’s more realistic.” I feel like I’ve read fifty books in which someone gets killed and someone else smells the stink of them shitting themselves on death. This is no more realistic than not having this happen. In fiction, it seems to be more of a signifier of “dark and gritty,” with optional manliness points, than anything else.

Speaking of bodily effluvia, a rule of thumb about blood is that there’s usually either much less than you expect or much more. People who have been shot or stabbed to death can bleed out internally or die of shock, spilling maybe a tablespoon or so of blood outside their body. Conversely, if you continue free-sparring with someone who got a small cut on their face or hands, while you’re both dressed in white, within minutes you may both look like you slaughtered a pig and forgot to step back. That is to say, if you’re fighting someone who’s bleeding, you will get some blood on you. While I’m on the subject, arterial blood really is brilliant, fake-cherry red, and is so bright that it can be hard to see on a very sunny day. Blood that soaks into cloth stays damp and red, or at least reddish, for quite some time.

Tone

Tone – heroic, comic, gritty, elegant, exciting, brutal – and realism influence fight scenes in similar ways. Generally speaking, the more harsh the tone, the more pain hurts. If the fight is a non-realistic farce, nobody’s going to get cut by a sharp pie-tin edge or anything else. If it’s heroic swashbuckling, minor wounds are there to show who just scored a point and possibly to accent the hero’s cheekbones. If it’s a barehanded fight, played realistically and not for laughs, that might be a good time to have blood from a small cut get absolutely everywhere.

Character and Physicality

I’ve already written about a character’s prior experience with violence. Now you’re putting two characters together. Looking at what they bring to the fight, and how that differs between them, can often do most of the hard work of structuring the fight.

Why are they fighting, and how does this affect their will to win? Think of the song about the fox and the hare: “He is running for his supper/she is running for her life.”

How far are they willing to go to win? Are they willing to wound? Are they willing to kill? Is there a significant difference in willingness – say, one fighter is willing to kill, and the other is barely even willing to draw blood?

Why did they fail or not try to avoid the fight? Do they both want to fight, or does one or both have some deep-down reluctance that might be exploited by the other?

How much training do they have? How talented are they? How good are they at reading each other’s level of talent and training?

Are they both fighting in the same style in which they’re experienced, or has, for instance, a skilled swordfighter been forced to fight barehanded? Similarly, are they both used to fighting in this type of situation, or is a street fighter stuck obeying the rules of a formal duel? Have they fought in this type of terrain before?

What are their body types, what does that bring to the fight, and how do they exploit their differences? Are they used to fighting an opponent with this skill level/skill set/body type?

Are there any rules in this fight? Do the characters bring their own rules to it? (ie, “You don’t kick a man once he’s down.) Is one character going to exploit the other’s sense of fairness, or pick up on and mimic it?

Mentally speaking, are they both in the same place? If one is in a sparring mindset and one is in a no-thought berserker state, that will affect the fight a lot.

What’s their physical state? Do they have any super-human skills which can come into play? Are rested and ready? Totally exhausted? Drunk? Does anyone get wounded part-way into the fight? Does anyone have any kind of disability? (There’s a fantastic scene in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint in which the hero battles a one-armed swordsman.) Does anyone have some sort of imposed handicap, ie, not really left-handed? ;)

What are they wearing? Are they both dressed appropriately, or did someone have to rush out and fight in a ballgown and high heels? Can elements of their clothing, by design (like a padded sleeve) or cunning (the cloak they happened to be wearing) come into play?

Setting

Similarly to the character questions, answering these almost makes the scene write itself.

Where are they? Are there elements of the setting they can exploit or be tripped up by? Any bottles that can be broken over someone’s head, any sun to maneuver so it gets in an opponent’s eyes, any obstacles that can be tripped over?

Are there bystanders? What are they doing? Are they an obstacle, or potential allies?

Sample Fight

You can take a look at how the answers to some of those questions play out in the scene I’ve excerpted here. I’m using one of my own scenes because I know why I wrote it the way I did, not because I think it’s perfect, so feel free to nitpick. In the meantime, feel free to tell me what you notice about it in terms of the elements I’ve been discussing.

Also, of course, feel free to discuss any other elements of this post that you care to, discuss your favorite fight scenes, etc.
This is a sample fight scene I'll be linking to for a "Fight!" post.

It's the climax to a story I wrote in the world of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. If you don’t want to be spoiled or want more context, the entire story is here: The Ballad of Mirrim and Menolly’s Ride.

Background, spoilers for the story, and the scene itself )
Tags:
Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Flight/Fight Feels Like.

Fight! Part II: What Fighting Feels Like.

On to an actual fight scene!

Just kidding. This got too long for that. Next time. Seriously.

A little-discussed but equally dramatic element of fighting is not fighting. When you hit a point in the plot in which it would make sense to have a fight take place, it can be worth considering what would happen if it doesn’t, or if it’s preceded by an attempt to avert it. You can get an enormous amount of comic, suspense, or emotional mileage out of a scene in which a character desperately tries to avoid a fight.

There’s a lot of reasons why a character might not want to fight. Maybe they don’t know how or know they’re outmatched, and don’t want to get beat-down or killed. Maybe they have a disability or condition that makes fighting very dangerous. (There are a number of scenes in the Vorkosigan books in which Miles tries not to get his brittle bones broken.) Maybe they’re a great fighter, but are masquerading as someone who isn’t and know that they instant they start fighting, their reflexes will give them away and blow their cover. Maybe they’re morally opposed to violence. (There’s a great scene in the movie Witness in which an Amish man, played by an extremely young Viggo Mortensen, lets a bully shove ice cream into his face.) Maybe they don’t want to hurt or kill their opponent, because they’re being forced to fight or their opponent is someone they care for or their opponent is not up to their level. (See much of The Hunger Games.)

All these motives, however noble, may lead your character to look or at least feel like a coward or a tool. That’s half the fun of those scenes, if they’re played from that character’s POV. It’s also fun to not do that, and maybe have other characters make snap judgments that they later realize were wrong. (Some good examples of this in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief series.)

Unless you’re dealing with career criminals, it’s often though not always the case that the more violence a person has experienced, the more reluctant they are to get into a fight. On the other hand, some types of past experiences with violence teach you that backing down, apologizing, or running will only make things worse. People with those sorts of experiences might try to bluff or threaten their way out of situations, though.

Whatever the reasons, you can avoid, or try to avoid a fight, by refusing to take a challenge, making threats, fleeing the scene, summoning help, talking your way out of it, or even maintaining a physical distance between you and the person trying to fight you until your opponent gives up.

I’ve used all those techniques at some point or another, but I’ll use the last one as a walk-through. It also comes closest to giving a sample of how it feels to fight when you’ve had some training, as the run-up to a fight is an important part of the fight itself.

(I can’t give you an example of an actual post-training fight, because I’ve never been in one. The other time I came close was when one guy accosted me, and while I was distracted, his two buddies stepped out of a dark alley and flanked me. I side-stepped the one on my left and ran like hell.)

I forget how long I’d been training at that point, but long enough to have a good grasp on the concept of distance.

In fighting terms, this means perceiving and maintaining various distances between you and your opponent. There is the distance at which you can kick, the distance at which you can punch, etc, and the distance at which they can kick or punch you. There’s the distance at which they would have to take more than a single step or slide in to reach you. There’s the distance at which you can hit them with some kind of close-in techniques, like an elbow strike, but if they have longer limbs, they’re too close to effectively hit you. Etc. These seem like simple concepts, but it takes a fairly long time for most people to internalize and effectively use them, especially as distance is constantly shifting.

In which I translate theory into practice while getting menaced by a very, very angry man )
Tags:
I’m offering the opportunity to take private, individualized writing workshops with me, online or in person if you live in Los Angeles. This is separate from my manuscript critique offer.

I’ve taught writing privately, at writing workshops, and to college and high school students. The media I’ve taught include memoir, narrative nonfiction, fiction, TV writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and comic book writing. I’m familiar with and comfortable teaching almost all genres: fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, mainstream, YA, etc.

My students have been extremely happy with my classes, and several have gone on to make first sales (details of the latter in post linked above) and place in contests. I’m honest but not mean. Some students have done extremely extensive rewrites after consulting with me, but no one has ever left in tears.

My approach is to help you make your work the best possible example of the story you want to write, regardless of whether that’s to my personal taste. I’ll tell you if I think you’ve written something that’s offensive in a way you didn’t intend, but I’m not going to hassle you over political or other views I disagree with. For instance, I’m a pro-choice Jewish atheist, but I once helped a woman with a memoir about how becoming born again saved her from the sin of having had an abortion.

Noted fantasy and YA author Sherwood Smith (disclosure: she is also my writing partner) wrote: "She has an excellent eye, is easy to work with, yet professional."

One of my workshop students wrote: “Terrific presentation, great writing exercise, funny and bright. So informative and helpful.”

Here’s how my individualized workshops will work:

You tell me what genre and media you want to write, what your goals are, and if there’s a particular project you want to finish or begin. I will also need a short writing sample.

I will design an individually tailored curriculum for you, broken into regularly scheduled classes. If you live in LA, these will be hour-long meetings plus some emailing; otherwise, it will be conducted over email and possibly some phone calls. The content of each session will depend on what you need, but may include writing exercises, rewrite assignments, reading assignments, and my critiques of your work.

Each class will be $50. (Low recession prices!) Please give me at least an idea of your total budget, so I know whether we’re looking at two classes, ten classes, etc.

Please comment if you’re interested. Comments will be screened, so only I will read them.
Tags:
These are my companion pieces to Marie Brennan’s ongoing series on writing fight scenes. Check them out!

Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Flight/Fight Feels Like.

Don't miss the comments, which have many more examples of people's experiences.

If you ask most people if they’ve ever been in a fight, unless they’ve had some sort of occupation which makes that likely, they’ll say, “No. Well, not real fights, just kid stuff.” I too did most of my fighting before I was fourteen. But my neighborhood was like Ender’s Game without the zero-g – no guns, but lots of rocks and razor blades, plus the occasional knife. For a period of about five years, I got involved in some sort of violent encounter, from comparatively minor ones to ones which ended with someone in the hospital, at least a couple times a week. So it felt genuinely dangerous to me, and I took it seriously.

I described the icy calm I feel right before the action starts. I felt it back then, too. But it wasn’t that beautiful, perfect clarity, but a flat, numbed sense of, “Okay. Here goes.” I only fought when I was (often literally) backed into a corner, not by choice, so though I wasn’t helpless in the sense of being unable to fight back, I was helpless to avoid fighting at all. And there was nothing good waiting for me at the end of the fight – no life saved, no respect to be won, no revelations about myself. The context sucked out any exhilaration I might otherwise have felt…

…mostly. Somewhere in between the first blow and a little way into the fight, I’d shift from that absolute calm into something halfway between animal rage and a pure sense of wordless purpose. I didn’t care if I got hurt. I couldn’t feel if I got hurt. I didn’t try to block or dodge. I ignored the blows – I could barely even feel the blows as impacts, let alone as pain.
I had nothing in my mind other than the wordless intent to close with them, take them down, hit them as hard as I could, and keep hitting them until someone else stopped me. The whole thing happened in a blur of motion and intention. I had no idea what was going on around me, or even more than a vague sense of what my opponent was doing. That part did feel kind of satisfying, though not enough for me to seek it out.

This wouldn’t be quite how I’d want to fight now. It was effective then because even though everyone was bigger than me, they weren’t that much bigger. Now, I wouldn’t deliberately try to get in and stay close. But to this day, when I’m in a potentially violent situation, I find myself thinking, putting words to the intention I had back then, “Fight and keep fighting. If he takes you down, rip out his throat with your teeth.”

(The latter, of course, is only a signifier of being willing to do absolutely anything to survive. Just that willingness, by itself, can sometimes be perceived by others and make them back off. Unfortunately, it only works for me if I really mean it, so I am sadly unable to intimidate, say, annoying co-workers. I expect a better actor could make more use of it.)

I didn’t always go into that sort of berserker mode when I was threatened, only if it came to an exchange of blows. If I punched someone and they didn’t fight back, I’d stop. If fighting seemed too dangerous, I’d hang back, consciously gauge the situation, and strategize.

For instance, a boy once backed me up against a wall and threatened me with a switchblade. I was pretty sure he was only trying to scare me, but I worried that he might cut me by accident, the way he was waving the knife around. (I remember thinking, He doesn’t scare me, but his knife scares me.) I made a move with my right hand as if I was going to grab it. He pulled it away, looking at my right hand, and I snatched it with my left hand and tossed it over the wall. In that state of absolute calm, I knew I could do it, and I was right. I don’t know how to square that with the usual loss of manual dexterity. Maybe I was in the sweet spot where mental effects had kicked in but physical ones hadn’t yet.

Years later, in high school, I briefly studied fencing with foils. If I were a character who had previously been fighting with swords, that might have felt a bit like the real thing. Since I wasn't, it felt like a sport. A sport at which I sucked. The mask was cumbersome and distracting, and I was aggressive but not fast, a horrible combination which meant that I was perpetually lunging onto my opponent’s foil and getting huge bruises on my chest.

Years after that, I began studying Shotokan karate. I never felt that I was in danger, so I couldn’t access the speed and clarity that I had hoped would kick in (in a non-crazy, non-berserk way), making me a brilliant fighter. I never got to be more than a so-so fighter, because I could rarely tap into the flow state while sparring that skilled martial artists can access. I did occasionally, if I sparred with people I was on a good sparring wavelength with, we’d move like musicians jamming, reading each other’s minds, more cooperative than competitive. But I never lost touch with reality, and could easily follow the action and plan my moves. My problem was that more skilled people could plan better and faster.

To me, fighting isn't about the moves, it's about the internal state. Punching someone because they attacked you doesn't feel like punching someone because you're training together. Sparring, when it was good, felt like playing. Sparring, when it was bad, felt like a test I was failing. It never felt like fighting, even though many of the movements were similar. Fighting feels like fighting. Sparring feels like sparring.

That being said, I have mostly fought defensively. When I write characters who are the ones to start the fight, for whatever reason, I draw more on my knowledge of how it feels to spar, because I imagine that it feels more similar in that you are choosing to fight of your own free will, and skip the "OMG this is happening" state entirely. The few times in my life when I've lost my temper and punched someone who hadn't hit me first (NOT SINCE HIGH SCHOOL) I wasn't in the "fight" state of freeze/fight/flight - I was just angry. I knew exactly what was going on, there was no sense of heightened or altered reality, and I could track what was happening just as I can when I'm sparring.

For fictional purposes, I would draw more on my experience of dangerous situations in general if I'm writing about an inexperienced or defensive fighter, and more from my knowledge of martial arts if I'm writing an experienced or aggressive fighter. Though, of course, every character and situation requires its own unique approach.

If you've never fought at all, for real or in training, here's my experience of how some of the physicality feels like.

Contact in my style is light (to the body) and just short of touching (to the head.) “Light” means just a tap: you focus the power of the blow on the cloth of the uniform. But accidents happen. (I trained maniacally for six years, went to tournaments, did all-day camps, etc, so there really weren’t very many accidents considering the time frame.)

I tend not to feel pain, or much pain, when I’ve been hit – it’s pure impact, as if there was a burst of light or a blast of sound made physical. You can get hit fairly hard and not let it phase you for more than a second or two. A harder blow to the head can make you feel odd and wobbly, and be unable to pay attention for the next few minutes. But you could still fight if you had to. You can quite easily keep fighting if you've broken small bones like toes or fingers, though you will probably notice because those hurt a lot.

Knocking people unconscious is difficult. I never saw it happen in the entire time I trained, not even at tournaments. I only once saw someone dropped with one blow and be unable to get up, rather than deciding that it would be better to sit out, or someone telling them to sit out. He'd gotten kicked in the side and cracked three ribs. If you hit someone hard enough to knock them unconscious, you've potentially hit them hard enough to kill them. A character who fights a lot would probably know that.

Contrary to what you may have heard, I never found that it hurt my hand to punch someone hard in the face, hard enough to blacken their eye or split their lip. It might knock some skin off your knuckles. Punching a wall, on the other hand, hurts like hell. So does breaking a toe, or cracking your toenail in half. But you can keep fighting. I twice broke a toe during a belt test, so I was pretty motivated then to not stop. The first time no one else noticed. The second time I screamed, then added, "I'm fine! Keep going!" Once you get back to what you're doing, you stop noticing the pain.

One thing that serious training will demonstrate is that pain doesn’t stop people – all else aside, they may not even feel it. If you want to be certain that you’re going to stop someone, you will have to cause some level of structural injury that makes it impossible for them to keep fighting.

The concluding part of this series will be on integrating martial arts into real life situations – both in life and in fiction.

As always, please feel free to comment with your own experiences, or anything else you'd like to add.
Tags:
Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Fight/Flight Feels Like

In Marie Brennan’s ongoing series on writing fight scenes, she mentions that her experience comes from martial arts and fight choreography. I thought that it might make a nice companion piece if I wrote a bit about how I approach fight scenes, since my experience comes from getting in actual fights. And from avoiding fights. And being in life-threatening situations that aren’t violent (car crashes, fires, etc.) I’m also going to pull from my experience talking to other people who have been in violent situations, but since there are confidentiality issues, I’ll either use generalities or change any identifying details.

A fight doesn’t begin with an exchange of blows, or even with the realization that violence is imminent. It begins with the past experience that the characters have with violence and the mindset that gave them.

Some people who’ve experienced a lot of violence decide that they’re going to die regardless, and get a “fuck it” attitude, take crazy and self-destructive risks, and, often enough, die young. Others decide that they’re going to survive. I’m going to focus on the latter mindset, since that’s my own and so I know much more about it. The ones who identify as survivors may also take what seem to be crazy and self-destructive risks, but they see it differently. They’re always calculating the odds, but the odds seem different to them than they do to people who have led comparatively safe lives.

A couple times I’ve gotten away from people who were trying to harm me by fleeing to an area too dangerous for them to follow me into – a thorn grove, a busy street, a field with unmarked wells. Which seems the more abstract and unlikely danger, another person who hasn’t actually done anything to you yet, or a well you can’t see from the ground, where someone your age recently fell in and drowned? A person who hasn’t ever had their life threatened would probably be more afraid of the well. An abused child would probably be more afraid of the other people. I had already gone into that field, found the well, and memorized its location specifically so I’d have a place to run to where no one would follow.

People who often don’t feel safe will seek out places, people, and situations which may also be dangerous, but in a way which seems more manageable. They may not actually be manageable – a gang, a parched wilderness full of dangerous wildlife, the abuser you know - but they’re familiar dangers which they’ve successfully faced before, and so feel comfortable. Survivor-types may not seek out objectively safe environments because, emotionally or intellectually, they don’t believe that there is any such thing. Better the devil you know than the supposed haven that you’re quite certain holds its own and unfamiliar perils. This is where the fight begins, with the baggage the characters bring to it.

The next step is the realization of danger. This is where the fight/flight/freeze reflex kicks in. These aren’t mutually exclusive, and you can cycle through all three. (My opinion is that everyone starts with “freeze,” but may stay in it only briefly.) Fight doesn’t necessarily literally mean “fight” – it really means “take action/go toward the danger.” Flight is “run/escape the danger.”

Depending on what sort of background they have, violence may seem comfortably familiar or a total shock. A character who is familiar with violence can still be caught off-guard (PTSD is a mental illness, not a super-power), but even if the moment of attack itself comes as a total shock, the concept of being attacked won’t. Those characters are likely to spend less time freezing in disbelief – though they may still freeze briefly.

Characters who are inexperienced and untrained may freeze indefinitely, caught in a loop of thought like, “He’s pointing a gun at me. He’s pointing a gun at me. He’s pointing a gun at me…” They may go into a dissociative state in which they feel as if the event isn’t really happening. I used to think that people chanting, “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t real,” was a movie thing, but no, people actually sometimes do that. They may still be stuck in that state for literally hours after the event. They may fixate on a single detail of the scene, such as the barrel of the gun (which may seem huge) and may literally be unable to see anything else, or to recall much else afterward.

Fixating on details can happen to anyone, but, again, more experienced people will tend to have a broader sense of what’s going on. They may still lose track of large portions of the scene. I have had my hearing shut off completely – I can see people’s lips moving, but I don’t hear what they’re saying. What that feels like is that the thoughts inside my head are so loud that they’re drowning everything else out.

I have found that my inner experience of danger is essentially the same regardless of the incident – whether three men have just stepped out of a dark alley and surrounded me, or whether the engine of my car has just burst into flames.

Step one is realization: the car is on fire. I’m being mugged. That’s a freeze reaction in the sense that I don’t move, but I’ve never had it last long enough to feel a physical sensation of being unable to move. That can happen, though, and when it does, it’s completely out of the person’s control. I think the purpose of freezing, though it doesn’t always work that way, is to give you a moment to take in what’s going on and decide what to do about it, and prevent you from leaping into stupid, counterproductive action.

Step two is the decision to take action. This can be very nearly simultaneous with the action itself, and feel like a reflex. Or it can take a moment. It can take a very, very long-seeming moment. For my sample walk-through of what this feels like, I’m going to use a dangerous incident that wasn’t a fight, because it’s my sharpest memory of the moment of decision. But it was very similar to what I’ve felt when people were threatening me, right before they struck or I did. Also, everyone has experienced some level of freeze/fight/flight, so hopefully this will demonstrate that you can extrapolate your own experience into quite different fictional situations.

In which there is a car on fire )

That is what freeze-fight-flight feels like to me. Please share any of your own experiences that you’re comfortable sharing in comments.

Part II: Actual fighting!
Tags:
rachelmanija: (Firefly: Shiny Kaylee)
( Nov. 17th, 2010 11:05 am)
[personal profile] rushthatspeaks has posted a thoughtful and lengthy review of Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk in which loved my story to death:

I am setting down my critical objectivity, over there on that table, and I will come and pick it back up again in a moment, I promise. I just-- THIS IS A LESBIAN STEAMPUNK GUNDAM STORY, OKAY? AND IT IS PERFECT. IT IS ACTUALLY GUNDAM. EXCEPT IT'S ALSO A WESTERN. IT MEETS ALL YOUR LESBIAN-STEAMPUNK-GUNDAM-WESTERN NEEDS, WHICH I DID NOT EXACTLY KNOW I HAD, BUT I TOTALLY DID! AND NOW THEY HAVE BEEN MET.

I haven't read the other stories yet, but I can't wait to do so - they sound fabulous.

You can pre-order the book by emailing editor JoSelle Vanderhooft at upstart.crow @ gmail dot com. It comes out in January.

In non-steampunk news, Marie Brennan is writing what promises to be a fantastic series of posts on fight scenes.

I might do a companion piece at some point on what it feels like to fight for real, and the different ways that can feel, and how none of it ever feels like sparring, except when it kind of does.
I read this while I was at horse camp, where I found it on the shelf and picked it up because I had enjoyed some of Friesner’s comic fantasy when I was in high school. (She is probably best-known for the “Chicks in Chained Mail” series.) This was not comic. I read it in mounting amazement, recounted plot points to a fascinated [personal profile] coraa ([personal profile] coraa: “And then they ate her?” Me: “No, the cannibals show up later.”), and then promptly forgot about it entirely until it came up in conversation recently.

It is a feminist dystopia, which is a genre which has thankfully become less popular of late, but was relatively common up to about fifteen years ago. I’m not saying that it’s a bad genre. Many examples are good. But they are nearly universally awesomely depressing, often with addition Cement Truck depressingness slapped on to an already inherently depressing set-up, and if you read too many of them in a row, you will get the impression that the future is wall-to-wall rape, broken up by cannibalism, oppressive religion, slavery, and sex with horses.

(Before I go any further, I have to note that the book with horse bestiality is not only one of the well-written ones, but is, remarkably, not awesomely depressing. (Though it’s the second in a series of four, and the first one is.) The society of hard-riding lesbian clones for whom sex with horses is necessary to make the parthenogenesis work is surprisingly functional, and the characters even sometimes have fun. But it’s impossible to have a discussion about feminist dystopias without someone saying, “And then there’s the horse cock book!”

Those books are by Suzy McKee Charnas, and if you can get past the slavery and the horse sex, they are actually quite good. The third and fourth books are about rebuilding society, which is an unusual topic and one I like quite a bit.

The Slave and The Free: Books 1 and 2 of 'The Holdfast Chronicles': 'Walk to the End of the World' and 'Motherlines'

The Furies (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 3)

The Conqueror's Child (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 4))

I also read I Who Have Never Known Men, in which women are locked up for no reason, then an apocalypse happens and kills all the men, and then everyone mopes around until the heroine, the last woman on earth, ironically gets cancer of the uterus that she never used, having never known men, and commits suicide, and, of course, The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library). Sheri Tepper practically made a career out of writing feminist dystopias.

I read all these because at that time it was more-or-less possible to read all the sf that was published that year or at least was available where I was, and I did. They did not make me feel like the future was anything to look forward to.

On to Esther “Chicks in Chainmail” Friesner’s cannibal apocalypse rape gang book!

The Psalms of Herod

Spoilers contain rape, sacred blowjobs, rape, mutant women, rape, lost legs, rape, cannibalism, and rape, and an annual rape festival. And rape. )

These books were part of a fictional rape trend, especially in fantasy. If a female character had a dark secret, it would inevitably turn out to be rape. Even today, especially in TV and movies, a female character’s dark secret is typically rape. (If it isn’t, it’s probably child abuse or a Secret Baby.)

Why all the rape? In some novels, it's a lazy shortcut to trauma: what else bad could possibly happen to a woman other than something sexual? In a few, it's pure exploitation. But in the feminist dystopias, and in many other books, the thought behind seemed neither lazy nor sleazy. These writers are clearly deeply concerned about sexism. The ultimate expression of sexism is rape, so if you're writing a book about sexism... The problem, or one of the problems, is that while the intent of the books individuallly is to say that rape is bad, considered as a group, if practically every fantasy you read with a heroine has her getting raped, what tends to come across was that rape is inevitable.

I eventually made the conscious decision that my female characters’ dark secrets would not be rape, just so there would be some island of sexual safety in the middle of the sea of fictional rape. In my efforts to avoid it, I have resorted to everything from “my sister was killed in an accident and I blame myself” to “I killed someone in a fit of rage when we were both kids and I will never forgive myself” to “I became a cannibal to save my life (and I blame myself.)” I especially like giving female characters trauma which didn’t occur because they were female. Which is not to say that I’ll never write about rape ever. But probably not till I run out of other dark secrets.

On the other hand, Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is one of my favorite books of all time. So is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures). I am a hard sell on fictional depictions of rape, but a soft sell on fictional depictions of trauma and healing. I’m less bothered by rape when that’s a large part of what the character’s journey is about than when it’s just lurking in the background or is a large part of what the setting is about.

One person’s deeply felt exploration of trauma and recovery is another person’s trashy exploitation, of course. But there is a place for rape in fiction so long as it exists in real life. That being said, I am rather relieved that I haven't read much written after about 1995 in which the apocalypse inevitably results in state-sanctioned rape, state-mandated rape, rape festivals, or roving rape gangs.
I am aware that the majority of published authors who read my LJ disagree with my stance on this, some of them quite strongly. [ETA: I mean that a majority of them, unlike me, do not write negative reviews. I do not mean that they agree with the italicized arguments. Sorry for the confusing wording.] It’s okay! I don’t hate or even dislike you because we disagree. (If I hate or dislike you, believe me, you will not unhappily wonder about it. You will know for certain that I do.)

Just because we disagree on an issue does not mean that I hate the person on the other side. Even when it comes to issues far more personal than book reviewing (though to an author, nothing may be more personal than a negative review of a book they wrote) I at least try to keep an open mind. I have friends who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and Meher Baba, I have friends who believe that abortion is morally wrong, I have at least one friend who thinks Touched by Venom was a good and important work of feminist fiction, and I have friends who think that authors who write negative reviews are being unprofessional and mean. We are still friends.

I respect other people’s decision to never say anything negative about a book in public. This is an explanation of why I do.

The italicized sentences are arguments I’ve seen against criticism. Please note that I am not quoting anyone I know personally. The people I know personally have been careful to state that their subjective opinions on why they don’t write negative reviews are subjective. The italicized opinions are the distillation of many opinions I have read repeatedly elsewhere. And yes, people do say outright that negative reviews are bad and wrong.

Criticism is mean and pointless. Also, life is too short to discuss negative things.

The motto of the ashram where I grew up was “Don’t worry, be happy.” This sounds great, but what it actually means when you’re not allowed to voice worries, or when identifying a problem is shut down because it’s worrying and not being happy, is that no problem can ever be identified and so no problem can ever be solved. Unhappiness cannot be banned, but discussion of it can. And so everyone continues, seething and miserable, unable to solve or even unburden themselves of their sorrows, putting on a fake smiley face.

I believe that bad things exist and are worth talking about. Bad prose exists. Unmotivated character changes exist. Books which are simply not to my taste exist. They do not stop existing if we stop discussing them.

If a thing exists and a person wants to talk about it, it is not wrong to talk about it.

I like discussing books. I have opinions on books. I like reading and discussing good books. In a different way, I like reading and discussing bad books. I find it very interesting, both as a reader and as a writer, to see how books go wrong, much in the same way that mountaineers like to read and discuss accident reports. One can often learn more from seeing how something was done badly than how something was done well – the badly sewn seam is more easily visible. And apart from the educational value, I simply find all aspects of books interesting and worthy of discussion – good, bad, ambitiously failed, un-ambitious, perplexing.

If I can’t write honestly about my actual reaction to a book, for me there’s no point in writing at all. And if I can only write about books which I unreservedly loved, but not about books which I hated or had mixed feelings about, then for me there’s no point in writing about any books at all.

Negative reviews are bad and mean because they hurt the author’s feelings.

I don’t write reviews for the benefit of the author being reviewed. I write them for the benefit of the actual or potential reader.

I too get my feelings hurt when I read negative reviews of my own work or of friends’ work or just of a book I particularly love. But that doesn’t mean those reviews should not exist. If I don’t want my squee harshed or my feelings hurt, I make use of the back button or don’t click at all.

Authors would do well to either cultivate a thick skin or avoid reading reviews. Either choice is completely respectable and valid. But to expect the reviewer – who writes for the readers – to fall silent for the benefit of a single person, who is not even the intended audience, is to misunderstand the entire purpose of reviews.

It’s okay to objectively state some criticisms, well-peppered with equally objective praise. But mocking is mean.

Book reviews are not supposed to be objective. They are the subjective opinion of the reviewer. I’m not sure it’s even possible to write an objective review, and I don’t know what one would even look like. Opinions are inherently subjective.

Mixed reviews are appropriate if the reviewer’s feelings are honestly mixed. They are dishonest if the reviewer honestly felt that the book was mostly or entirely bad.

That being said, I’m fine with people thinking I’m mean. I just want to go on the record that when I mock a book, it is because my honest impulse is to mock. I have enjoyed reading many mocking reviews, and will no doubt write many more. I wouldn’t point and laugh at an author, but the author is not the book.

It’s fine to criticize a book on political grounds, like for containing sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc, because that provides a valuable public service in warning away readers who might be hurt by reading such a book. However, criticizing a book on artistic grounds is wrong.

I have absolutely no problem with political criticism. But if all criticism is political, it removes the (admittedly often blurry) distinction between artistic merit and political merit.

I love Eminem. Many of Eminem’s songs are incredibly misogynistic. If I were to review one of his albums, I would praise him on artistic grounds and criticize him on political ones. If the only acceptable critique is political, my review would make it incomprehensible why I listen to him, and would elide key elements of his work. On the flip side, I could write a rap about how feminism is good and threatening women with violence is bad. It would be politically valid and absolute crap artistically. And if all critique is political, people would get the impression that I’m a better rapper than Eminem.

Not all political critiques must address art. Not all artistic critiques must address politics. But both types need to exist for criticism to have any validity at all.

Since authors are all in the same field, it is unprofessional for a published author to write a negative review of another author’s work.

I was a reader before I was a writer. Being published doesn’t make me magically no longer a reader, deprived of my reader’s opinions. And since reviews are inherently written by people who write, it is natural that many of them will also be published writers. Saying that published writers shouldn’t write reviews is essentially saying that success in one area of one’s field should forever ban one from another.

Attempts by published authors to squelch negative reviews, whether of their own books or in general, are ill-advised. Most books don’t get much publicity and could use every scrap they can get. In those cases, a mixed or negative review is better than no review at all. The worst fate possible for a book is to be ignored and forgotten.

It’s fine for individuals to have a policy of not speaking unless they have something nice to say. But it’s also fine and necessary for other individuals to speak when they have nothing nice to say at all. (And, for me as for Alice Roosevelt, those individuals should come sit next to me.)

A healthy culture of criticism, in which reviews voicing any opinion are acceptable, would produce more and more lively and memorable discussion of books, and this would be better for book sales overall than a bland culture of nicey-nice, in which only recommendations are put forth and they all blend together in an indistinguishable and forgettable mass of positivity.
Tags:
While writing a book review recently, I went off on a lengthy tangent about vomit in literature before deciding that it had little to do with that particular book, which was not a major offender, but with the sheer volume of vomit I’ve encountered in recent fiction.

I am not squeamish in real life – I’ve assisted at surgeries, I’ve seen crime scenes and corpses and revolting tropical infections, I have a pair of barfing cats – but, seriously? Authors! Why all the vomit? This is like a couple years ago, when every single new piece of media I picked up contained surprise incest. I feel like every single thing I’ve picked up recently contained surprise vomit. I liked the incest better.

It’s not that I object to fictional puking per se, though I would prefer that it not be described in detail. If a book has a bulimic character, or a seasick character, or a very drunk character, or a character with a vomit-causing illness, or a character who habitually vomits from anxiety, I expect and do not object to vomiting. I also don’t object when it’s relevant to the story (or funny).

However, it’s much more frequent for characters to vomit from pain every time they get hurt. Since I read a lot of action-heavy stories, characters in them naturally often get hurt, so there is a lot of pain and so a lot of vomit. I notice this both in published and fan fiction.

I get where this is coming from. Severe pain often causes nausea, and serious physical trauma definitely can result in vomiting. So there’s clearly some attempt at realism going on.

(Vomit, like piss, may also function as a signifier for "uncompromising gritty realism." But that's a whole 'nother rant which I won't get into here. Short form: more gross does not equal more realistic; "realistic" is extremely subjective.)

However, nausea does not invariably result in vomiting, and neither does injury. I have often been injured but have never thrown up as a result. I have been in severe pain quite a few times, once to the point where I was unable to hold a pen or walk unassisted. But I did not throw up. Just saying!

I didn’t pass out either. Never have. At times like those, if I am capable of analytic thought at all, I darkly suspect that fainting from pain alone, while definitely a real phenomenon, is also a form of wish-fulfillment. (And an easy way to make a transition to the next scene. I am guilty of this myself. Though more because I like the trope You Can Barely Stand. (Link goes to TV Tropes. Do not click unless you want to lose the next three hours of your life.))

I suspect that the basis for this is that acute pain, like other intense sensations (such as orgasm) is difficult to describe. So how do you quickly and easily let readers know that your hero is in that much pain? Have them vomit!

I sympathize. Really. I too find pain hard to describe. But vomit as shorthand for “hurts that much” is seriously over-done. I wish writers would figure out alternate ways of indicating how much it hurts. (Sadly, written fiction cannot resort to the very accurate pain scale – note that the link contains completely justified vomiting, and is also hilarious.)

While the physical sensation of pain is hard to remember, which I’m sure is also part of the problem, one can recall the events and sensations which surrounded the pain and use those for inspiration.

For instance, in the case I mentioned above (an ear infection which had started to eat into the bone), there were normal activities I couldn’t perform or had a lot of trouble performing: I had to be steered into the ER by a friend because I couldn’t walk without help. I couldn’t hold a pen or read the form they gave me to fill out. I could answer questions, but it took a lot of concentration to be able to understand what people were saying. I know this was from the pain itself rather than from other results of the infection, because I do all of those things within minutes of getting a shot of painkiller.

There were things I let slide or didn’t even notice that I normally would have been on top of: I didn’t ask the doctor what was in the injection he gave me. I had a heat pack that I had been holding to my ear during the drive which I only later discovered had burned me.

There are other people’s reactions, if anyone else is around: After I got a shot of whatever it was, I remember listening in on a conversation between two medical guys which had nothing to do with me, and giggling at something one of them said. He glanced at me and said, “Feeling better, huh? That’s the good stuff, all right.”

There is how invested you are in concealing the pain or carrying on despite it. Most action heroes are extremely invested, possibly except when they’re alone with trusted loved ones. But not all of them! I recently re-read Turner’s The Thief, which is an excellent, smart, and funny portrayal of a hero who is not at all concerned with hiding his pain and discomfort.

There are things you do to try to ease the pain. There are your attempts to distract yourself. There’s the attention you have to pay to individual movements if you’re trying to do anything. There are aftereffects. There are the things you do and notice when the pain goes away. In short, there are a whole array of actions and moments which are potentially individual and interesting, and will convey just how much your character hurts… without vomit. Or at least in addition to vomit.

My favorite writer for describing physical pain and everything around it is Dick Francis, who knew all about it. (He’s also very good with emotional pain.) If I feel procrastinatory motivated, I may pull some of his descriptions later for analysis.

The floor is open for discussions of pain, puking, and problems of description.
Tags:
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Apr. 13th, 2010 01:34 pm)
I have been thinking about swearing in fiction, especially sf and fantasy. Sooner or later, if I'm writing something of sufficient length, I have to decide on how much to swear, and how to swear.

- If you curse a lot, it tends to give the story a air of grittiness, which is fine... except that most of what I write isn't all that gritty. It's really more to do with tropes in fiction than reality - I swear a lot in real life, and I live a very quiet and genteel existence by fictional standards. But if I open a book and it sounds like an episode of The Sopranos, it does give me a sense of what sort of story the book is going to tell.

- If you don't curse at all, generally it's unnoticeable that you aren't cursing.

- If you only curse a little, each instance is noticeable and jarring, which can provide useful effects.

- BUT, some characters are not in-character if they don't swear.

And then there's the whole problem of non-realistic or even historical settings.

The problem with swearing is that it both conveys meaning and a jolt of emotion - anger, shock, fear, pain, the intent to shock or intimidate, or the sense that this is a character for whom or milieu in which swearing is casual.

(Meaning: it wouldn't be bad to call someone a cocksucker if there wasn't the idea floating around that sucking cock is bad and/or gay, and that being gay is bad.)

In non-contemporary settings, it can be incredibly tough to get across both meaning and emotion, because for readers, the emotion is tied very closely into the actual words they're familiar with.

Deadwood used completely anachronistic modern cursing because the real historical curses (which were mostly based on blasphemy, IIRC) "made the characters sound like Yosemite Sam." So they went for a completely non-realistic mode of speech which they felt more accurately reflected the shock of grittiness that the historical "dod-gasted" (or whatever) would have conveyed at the time. I'm not sure that was the only possible choice, but I think it was a perfectly reasonable one.

BSG's "frack" was probably the best sf TV curse, because it sounds so similar to "fuck" that it ends up invisibly conveying its intended meaning. If it had been a novel, they probably would have just said "fuck."

Invented sf curse words tend to not work for me at all in novels, as I generally wonder why the hell they didn't just use real ones and be done with it. Especially if they have no inherent meaning, but are just sounds like "Grod!" or "Vulp!" Those are guaranteed, at least to me, to both pull me out of the story by making me register just how contrived they are, and to sound silly.

On the other hand, words with meaning can convey a lot about a culture: "Shards!" actually did say something about Pernese culture. What it didn't do was convey the impact of a real curse. To me, those always tend to sound a bit quaint.

Thoughts? Arguments? %#%^%!!?
Tags:
I have been thinking about swearing in fiction, especially sf and fantasy. Sooner or later, if I'm writing something of sufficient length, I have to decide on how much to swear, and how to swear.

- If you curse a lot, it tends to give the story a air of grittiness, which is fine... except that most of what I write isn't all that gritty. It's really more to do with tropes in fiction than reality - I swear a lot in real life, and I live a very quiet and genteel existence by fictional standards. But if I open a book and it sounds like an episode of The Sopranos, it does give me a sense of what sort of story the book is going to tell.

- If you don't curse at all, generally it's unnoticeable that you aren't cursing.

- If you only curse a little, each instance is noticeable and jarring, which can provide useful effects.

- BUT, some characters are not in-character if they don't swear.

And then there's the whole problem of non-realistic or even historical settings.

The problem with swearing is that it both conveys meaning and a jolt of emotion - anger, shock, fear, pain, the intent to shock or intimidate, or the sense that this is a character for whom or milieu in which swearing is casual.

(Meaning: it wouldn't be bad to call someone a cocksucker if there wasn't the idea floating around that sucking cock is bad and/or gay, and that being gay is bad.)

In non-contemporary settings, it can be incredibly tough to get across both meaning and emotion, because for readers, the emotion is tied very closely into the actual words they're familiar with.

Deadwood used completely anachronistic modern cursing because the real historical curses (which were mostly based on blasphemy, IIRC) "made the characters sound like Yosemite Sam." So they went for a completely non-realistic mode of speech which they felt more accurately reflected the shock of grittiness that the historical "dod-gasted" (or whatever) would have conveyed at the time. I'm not sure that was the only possible choice, but I think it was a perfectly reasonable one.

BSG's "frack" was probably the best sf TV curse, because it sounds so similar to "fuck" that it ends up invisibly conveying its intended meaning. If it had been a novel, they probably would have just said "fuck."

Invented sf curse words tend to not work for me at all in novels, as I generally wonder why the hell they didn't just use real ones and be done with it. Especially if they have no inherent meaning, but are just sounds like "Grod!" or "Vulp!" Those are guaranteed, at least to me, to both pull me out of the story by making me register just how contrived they are, and to sound silly.

On the other hand, words with meaning can convey a lot about a culture: "Shards!" actually did say something about Pernese culture. What it didn't do was convey the impact of a real curse. To me, those always tend to sound a bit quaint.

Thoughts? Arguments? %#%^%!!?
Tags:
Writing meta below the cut.

This involves spoilers for a recent episode of Supernatural, "Dark Side of the Moon." I enjoyed the episode as fanfic, which would probably have had this label if it had been posted as such: "Hurt!Dean, Puppyeyes!Sam, Soulmate!Winchesters (but no explicit 'cest), angst, character death (but not really), sorry there's so little Castiel."

But it also reminded me of why I stopped watching the show regularly in S2, and completely in the abominable S3. After that I'd occasionally watch an episode to see if it ever got back to what I liked in S1 - pretty boy brothers who love each other but never say so, hunting monsters and angsting and saving each other. It didn't.

So, spoilery and not very squeeful, but also possibly of interest even if you don't watch the show at all, since it's meta about the problems of a long-running series.

Keep in mind that I am only aware of post-S3 events via fannish osmosis and occasional out of context episodes, so correct me if I'm wrong. Cut for post-S3 and possibly inaccurate spoilers:

Read more... )

Premise Bait-and-Switch

As you may recall from my Dollhouse post, the concept of "two brothers helping people and hunting (supernatural) things" is the show's premise. So this is an unusual example of a show switching premises in midstream, to, as far as I can tell, "two brothers are caught up in an oncoming apocalypse."

Note that I did not think that Angel switched premises in S5, as the concept of the show continued to be "a vampire with a soul tries to help people and redeem himself." This is, obviously, arguable, and a lot of people did feel that it had switched premises and did stop watching.

That's the danger of switching premises: viewers signed up for one type of show, and may not be interested in or may be actively turned off by the other type of show. Given the enormous weight of the tradition in American TV that premises don't change, the new premise had better either be pretty damn cool, or contain a lot of elements which people who liked the first premise are likely to enjoy.

(Note: TV in other countries often follows different rules. I am aware of this, and am only speaking of US network TV. Nor am I arguing that it's always artistically better to stick to the same premise. I'm just explaining why, on US TV, problems can arise when you don't.)

So, is the new premise pretty damn cool? Well, theoretically it is. I tend to prefer arc-heavy shows to episodic ones, and I love apocalypses. In practice... it doesn't look like it. I liked the execution of the old premise enough to buy DVDs of S1. I haven't liked what I've seen of the execution of the new one. Nor does the new premise have many of the elements which attracted me to the old one. See below...

Cut for spoilers for "Dark of the Moon." Good angst, but...

Read more... )
.

Profile

rachelmanija: (Default)
rachelmanija

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags