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.
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.


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 – 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?


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 )
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 )
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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? %#%^%!!?
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? %#%^%!!?
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... )
Here's the call for submissions. It's from Zubaan Books, an Indian publisher, and will be edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh.

Sounds promising! I know some people on my f-list are extremely familiar with the source (you know who you are); consider writing a story. You have until June 1.
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!

This post will deal with manuscript critique. The post on individualized writing workshops conducted via email will come later. (Please comment if you’re interested in the latter, with a mention of what genre and media you’re interested in.)

My manuscript critique services include detailed emailed notes, plus handwritten notes in the manuscript itself. (You mail it to me, I read it and mail it back.) It also includes an hour-long consultation via telephone (you call me), or in person if you happen to live in Los Angeles. If you like, 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, forthcoming in trade paperback. This manuscript underwent major changes as a result of my suggestions, and ended up with a new love interest.

"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.
rachelmanija: (Staring at laptop)
( Jan. 28th, 2010 02:31 pm)
Sestina tends to have a scary ring to it, and I imagine many fall back with a look of fright at the mere sound of the word. We all have, it's all right.

While looking up the rules for a sestina, I stumbled upon a marvelous set of essays on poetry, written by Vince Gotera for an introductory poetry-writing college class.

When I was growing up in San Francisco in the late Sixties, the everyday talk of my friends and me often transpired in black slang (now called African American Vernacular English by linguists). We would say, for example, "My lady be stylin." Roughly translated, this means something like "My girlfriend consistently dresses in an attractive and fashionable style."

Perhaps this sentence in black English may remind you of an often-quoted sentence, "The style is the man himself" (Comte de Buffon). Or it may not.

-From Style.
There's this totally evil person who must be killed, and young and/or female Character A (let's call her Kitty Pryde, or perhaps Fred) is about to do so when older and male Character B (let's call him Wolverine or perhaps Gunn) says, "You can't take a life because you never have before and you're sweet and innocent. But it's okay if I kill people!"

This fake, artificial morality drives me nuts. I wouldn't mind if it was presented as "I've already been thoroughly traumatized by killing people, so what's a little more trauma to me? Whereas you haven't been traumatized at all, so let's try to avoid that." (Or in terms of "I can get away with this and you can't," though that I've seen and that is a different trope which I don't object to.)

But it's never presented in terms of trauma, but always in terms of innocence and morality.

1. Since it's always or nearly always an older male character protecting the innocence of a female character or a young man or boy, and since we the audience live in a world in which those states have history and connotations, it comes across as condescending and often misogynist: leave the hard work that must be done to the hard men who can do it, don't soil your pretty hands that ought only to sew pretty things, and aren't you glad that you don't have to make the really tough choices in life? (I'm tempted to draw racial correlations too, but Gunn/Fred is actually the only time I've ever seen it play out across racial lines. Every other example is white guy/white woman or old white guy/young white guy.)

2. Morality is inherent in the deed, not inherent in the doer. (Except for incest.) If killing someone is the right thing to do, it's not a deed which pollutes the doer. (Again, I'd buy that it would traumatize the doer. But this trope doesn't use that point of view.) If it's wrong for Kitty, it's wrong for Wolverine; if it's right for Wolverine, it's also right for Kitty.

The idea that the morality of actions rests in the doer rather than the deed is the mindset that says that anything the good guys do is okay, because we're the good guys. Whereas when the bad guys do the exact same thing, it's wrong, because they're the bad guys. This is often the official policy of my country (and of course often the official policy of many countries), but I don't think it's a good idea to encourage it in fiction.

Sometimes the point is that the deed IS bad, so it's better if a person of dubious morality does it rather than the "good" person, who can then stay good. This makes no sense, because...

3. Though the law does not recognize murderous thoughts which never saw fruition, if you're going to frame the thing as a matter of morality and innocence, then innocence is lost and the moral choice is made at the moment the supposedly innocent character decided to kill someone. If someone else snatched the gun from her hands and pulled the trigger himself, all that means is that they're both guilty, not that one of them is still innocent.

This moment of annoyance has been brought to you by X-Men and Angel - Season Four (Slim Set). I also recall it popping up in a lot of Westerns, though the individual instances escape me.
rachelmanija: (Staring at laptop)
( Aug. 11th, 2009 11:20 am)
I’ve been collecting books for a book drive, and began a bunch of them to see if there was anything I wanted to read before turning them in. I tend to think of the first page or so as a writer's audition: grab me sufficiently with the sixty-second monologue, and I'll at least give you a chapter-long callback.

That was why I read Frozen Fire, which had a killer beginning that it completely failed to live up to. It also got me thinking about beginnings. Especially when I came across this one, from Sarah Miller’s Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn:

Like most girls, I want a lot. Fame and fortune. Equal rights. Shoes no one else has.

Two lines, and I already dislike it. It’s making boring generalizations rather than using interesting specifics (“I want fame and fortune” rather than, say, “I want to make the Olympic rifle team”), it’s making stereotypical generalizations about women, it’s making clichéd stereotypical generalizations about women (we’re all obsessed with shoes), the narrator (and probably the author) clearly thinks she’s witty but I don’t, and the book appears to be chick lit – a genre I dislike. It continues:

But I’d trade all that in for the Perfect Guy.

Of course! Most girls would trade fame, fortune, and the right to vote for a man! Book, meet wall.

I continued reading for a few more pages to see if that was really representative. Then I flipped to the end. As far as I could tell, it was completely representative.

Many of us who read also write. Sometimes the reader/writer identities are in accord, and sometimes not. Where I often see them split is over the question of how much of a book one needs to sample before deciding that one doesn’t like it enough to continue. Readers (and editors) frequently feel that as little as one paragraph, or in some cases one line may be sufficient. Writers (even if they’re also readers or editors) tend to feel that certain books (one’s own) can only be judged by finishing the entire thing. And possibly re-reading it. Maybe twice.

One can only accurately judge the entirety of a work by experiencing it in entirety, of course. But one can judge a part as a part, and often the parts reflect the whole. It’s rare enough, in my experience, for the parts to not be representative of the whole that I can name off the top of my head a list of books which regularly come with advisories to persevere past the beginning as later parts are sufficiently better and/or more comprehensible to make reading the beginning worthwhile, like Fuyumi Ono’s Sea of Shadows (the last quarter of the book makes the depressing slog of the first three-fourths worthwhile) or Dorothy Dunnett’s A Game of Kings (it starts making sense about 150 pages in).

(Manga and anime seem much more likely than single-volume novels to redeem themselves after slow or uncharacteristic starts. Since I think that has to do with the serialized form, I won’t get into that in this post.)

Authors often tie themselves in knots over the tendency of readers to make snap judgments based on beginnings. One unfortunate result is the plethora of books which begin with random action sequences that we don’t care about because we have no idea who the characters are, then do a 100-page “how the heroine ended up dangling from a burning helicopter” flashback. This is clichéd and doesn’t grab my attention. If the book is marketed as a thriller, readers know the action will begin at some point, so a non-actiony start, provided it’s otherwise interesting, is fine. Really. Likewise, urban fantasies need not begin with a magical prologue before introducing the heroine in mundane surroundings. Without exception, such prologues could have been cut without harming the book.

Writers often freak out over the thought of readers disliking the plot and characters in the beginnings of their books. This is because character change/growth and plot development/surprises are a big part of why many of us read, and so are the things which are most likely to be different at the beginning than they are by the end. Hence the fear that readers will put down a novel which begins with a boy being bullied by his adoptive family, and never learn that it’s really about a boy discovering that he’s a wizard and attending magic school.

I think most readers have more patience than that. Generally, they know the genre of the book when they pick it up, and will give it a little time before demanding helicopter chases or vampires.

What beginnings really demonstrate, and what they’re really judged by, is voice and authorial competence and choices. By voice I mean tone, style, prose quality, and sometimes dialogue quality—the gestalt of the way the words are chosen and put together. If I hate the voice at the beginning, I’ll probably hate it all the way through. In fact, I can’t think of a single example of a book in which the voice changes so radically from the beginning that it changed my mind about the book by the end. (Again, I’m not talking about manga or anime, in which I have had that happen. There's also an obvious exception for epistolatory novels or other instances of books with more than one and radically different narrators.) The tone (mood) may change, but that’s just one part of a much more complex quality. For instance, the tone of Lord of the Rings is much lighter at the beginning than the end, but it’s recognizably still the same voice.

A few books with particularly vivid voices are Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son, Kushiel’s Dart, Little Brother, Lud-in-the-Mist, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and pretty much anything by Terry Pratchett. With all those books, you may or may not like the voice, but you’ll know whether or not you do from the very first paragraph.

By authorial competence and choices, I mean things like, “Can this author write a sentence that doesn’t make my eyes glaze over? Does this author have teenagers speaking like fifty-year-olds? Am I tripping over grammatical errors or clunky phrasings? Is there anything that makes me question whether the author has written a book I want to read?”

For an example of the latter (another book drive book, Deborah Lynn Jacobs’ Powers), the hero has diarrhea the first time we meet him. You’ve got to be a hell of a writer to pull that off, and preferably writing a comedy rather than a sexually charged psychological thriller about power plays between two psychics. Psychic kids! I wanted to read that book. But I couldn’t get past the diarrhea. (Okay, really I did. I got far enough to not be inspired to continue. But the diarrhea did make me instantly doubt my compatibility with the book.)

In an example of an authorial choice that didn’t make me stop reading but probably had that effect on some readers, Bones of Faerie opens with the murder of an infant. I think it’s safe to say that Janni knew some readers would stop right there, and that she was willing to lose those readers for the sake of writing the story she wanted to tell. Which is fine. Every book isn’t for every reader.

The flip side of “the readers will trust that the vampires will turn up eventually” is that while readers do trust in genre, what they don’t trust if they’re reading you for the first time is you. If the point of the sexist opening, for instance, was to set up some subversive feminism later, too late! I already hurled the book across the room. My feeling is that if you want to set up something in order to undermine it later, that thing should either not be actively offensive or off-putting as is, or else should be placed later, when you’ve already demonstrated, say, that the narrator is unreliable, or otherwise already established some reader-author trust.

So if any authors are taking notes regarding beginnings, my suggestion would be to worry more about voice and less about action and the establishment of genre. And also to avoid diarrhea. As in the real world, the relationship will go better if you don’t encounter it until you’re already thoroughly acquainted with and fond of the person emitting it.
rachelmanija: (OTP LA: skyline)
( Jul. 13th, 2009 12:17 pm)
I don’t write much about writing, but I was talking to a friend recently who has a completely different approach to setting than I do, so it was in my mind.

Many writers, especially of sf and fantasy, think inventing imaginary places is the best part of their job. I’m the opposite. Not only do I not like to invent places, I don’t even like to write in settings that I haven’t actually visited. Even when I write fantasy set outside of the real world, I tend to base the geography very closely on real places. If it’s mythological India, it’s mythic!will-become-Pune or mythic!will-become-Delhi, not mythic!totally invented Indian location; if it’s post-apocalyptic America, it’s a new town built atop the ruins of the real Marina del Rey (currently ten minutes from my apartment via the 10 W to the 90 W.)

Even when I do invent a place, like the city in The Taste of Honey, it tends to be more of a composite of real places (in that case, of every city I’ve ever loved) than a complete invention from scratch.

(It is very difficult to separate setting from culture. The buildings, the food, the crops, everything but the untouched wilderness arises from the cultures of the people who live in an area (and sometimes the untouched wilderness turns out to only be untouched by foreigners.) That being said, the last thing anyone needs is another white writer posting on how to write cultures she doesn’t belong to. So while I do realize that setting and culture aren’t really separable, I do not intend this post to be about how to write cross-culturally.)

(Also, I mean to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I don’t think that my way of writing is better than yours. Actually, mine may reflect a lack of imagination.)

My approach to settings is summed up by an interview with Tim Roth, a British actor who has frequently played Americans. He was asked how he approaches accents, and he said, “Everyone knows you can’t do an ‘American accent.’ But a lot of people think you can do a New York accent, or a Minnesota accent. I like to pick a very specific area and spend time there if I can, listening to people who live there. Maybe I’ll imitate one guy I meet. That way if I’m wrong, at least I’m only off by a couple of blocks, not by an entire state.”

I try to only be off by a couple of blocks. I’d rather mix up the décor of the subway station on Hollywood and Vine with that of the station on Hollywood and Western than to, say, be unaware that LA has subway stations, or to assume that they’re filthy and gross. (They’re very nice, or at least the Hollywood-downtown line is.)

Before I start writing, I like to know where I’m writing: ideally, not just what country and which state, but which part of which city or forest. I want to know the color and texture of the dirt, whether alleys smell like piss and whether it’s cat piss, goat piss, or human piss, if there are street vendors and what they sell, the season and the weather, what kind of plants grow there, whether the background noises are the cawing of crows and the tinkle of cross-walk music or the swish of cars and buzz of leaf-blowers, what you need to do to get a cold drink and whether it’ll be barley tea, boba tea, a bottle of Limca, or a green coconut with the top hacked off and a straw stuck inside.

I didn’t just make up those examples, incidentally. Food, seasons, and dirt are probably the top three things I want to know about before I start writing.

A lot of my favorite place-writers are English, which possibly inspired my obsession with weather, wildlife, dirt, and food. I almost feel like I’ve been to James Herriot’s Yorkshire, Alan Garner’s Cheshire, Kenneth Grahame’s idealized rural England of Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton’s equally idealized boarding schools (proving that you can create a memorable and convincing setting without either detailed description or being a particularly good writer), and of course Tolkien’s very English Middle Earth.

But I would be unlikely to write a story set in England. I haven’t been there long enough to get a sense of that one block that’s the minimum I’d need to fully observe. I could read travel guides and other people’s books, but for me, that wouldn’t be enough. The dirt I’d write about wouldn’t be my dirt, it would be Alan Garner’s dirt. The exception for me is fanfic. In that case, I’m basing my setting on someone else’s setting anyway, so it’s no problem if my sense of place is entirely filtered through someone else’s experience – in this case, the original author’s.

Speak to me of the sense of place in reading, the sense of place in writing, how you convey it, what conveys it to you.


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