I am once again having a failure of imagination. Please pitch in by suggesting a trauma which would plausibly make a character willing to go on a suicide mission. For story purposes, I want this character to be motivated by externally-caused depression rather than solely by idealism.

1. No rape or child abuse. No "terminally ill" or "suicidal because biochemically depressed." I'd prefer to not do "My entire family/significant other/child was killed," but would consider it if the circumstances were interesting.

2. I'm not mentioning the exact setting to avoid giving you all preconceived notions, but it's steampunk in an area where access to steam tech varies widely. Tragedies that could only occur in very rural, pre-modern areas are fine. Tragedies that could only occur in a steampunk context, like tragic zeppelin accidents, are fine. Bullying via Facebook will not work.
[personal profile] cofax7 asked for recommendations for romances with a platonic start and a long lead-in, and I wrote,

The Time of the Dark: The Darwath Series (Book One), by Barbara Hambly. I would only read the first three books; sequels were written much later and are substantially different and really, really grim. Mostly adventure, but I really like the two main romances.

Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly. Wonderful, mature romance between two middle-aged people who once slew a dragon together. They're not married, but have kids. This was written as a stand-alone. For the love of God, don't read the sequels, which were written much later and are substantially different and really, really grim.

This made me ponder the existence of disappointing sequels. The horrifying Dragonsbane sequels are possibly the worst I've ever encountered: totally different in tone, excruciatingly depressing, poorly written, out of previously established character, and systematically undoing everything I liked about the previous entries in the series. My other contenders are the Star Wars sequel/prequels, for the exact same reasons minus the grimness.

And then there's Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed, an anthropological sf adventure primarily focused on worldbuilding but including adventure and female friendship between a human ambassador and a female alien. Its sequel, Ancient Light, wasn't badly written or an artistic failure. However, gur znva nggenpgvba bs gur svefg obbx jnf gur jbeyq. Va obbx gjb, gur srznyr nyvra qvrf va n shgvyr nggrzcg gb cerirag gur raq bs gur jbeyq. Ng gur raq, gur jbeyq vf nobhg gb or qrfgeblrq, naq gur nzonffnqbe pna bayl jngpu va qrfcnve nf ure qrngu naq gur qrngu bs rirelbar jr zrg va obbx bar nccebnpurf. (Decipher at rot13.com, since lj cuts are not working. Sorry!)

Speak to me of disappointing sequels. Spoilers are totally fine, but please put them in comment headings. (ie, "Spoilers for A Dance With Dragons.") If they're for very recent works, please disguise in some way, like via rot13.com.
I recently read a fantasy novel which was set in a Europe-esque landscape, with swords and bows but (unless I'm forgetting something) no firearms. They had the printing press and herbal birth control, but no antibiotics. People knew the concept of a republic, apparently based on theoretical writings, but actual governments were hereditary monarchies.

Given the ye olde setting, I was jarred to see characters use the phrase "mental health" and mean exactly what I would mean by it, and also the word "process" in the sense of "to process one's emotions." Those were the ones which jumped out at me, but there was enough in the language and concepts known and believed by the characters which was not merely modern, but distinctively modern, that between that and the thematic elements I ended up feeling that I was reading an allegory, not a fantasy. (Allegory is not a dirty word. It is a perfectly legitimate artistic form.)

The book, by the way, is Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue. I thought it was very ambitious and largely successful. But it struck me as an allegory of recovery from personal and political abuse and totalitarianism, not a fantasy on the same theme. I am not using "allegory" to mean "preachy," or anything else negative. I mean that the world of the book did not read as a fantasy world, but as a stand-in for our own. You don't need magical mind-control to be a brainwasher. It was the pervasive use of extremely modern concepts and phrases that made me feel that way.

Do any of you ever notice that sort of thing? What type and amount of modern language or concepts is invisible, what is jarring, and what tips the book into feeling like it isn't truly meant to be historical or fantastical at all?
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jun. 19th, 2012 07:32 am)
Riffing on Sherwood's worldbuilding article and the linked Lev Grossman's suggestion of things fantasy novels should do more often...

...what little details, to you, make good worldbuilding? What makes worldbuilding unbelievable?

For the purposes of this question, by "good worldbuilding," I mean "interesting, and also consistent and believable within the parameters set up by the book itself."

("I can't believe in giant bugs because they break the square-cube law" is more a comment about the reader than about the plausibility of the specific giant bugs in any given fantasy novel. I'd believe in the bugs if they're in an environment where they could plausibly have something to eat when they don't have hobbit, or if it's explained that they were created by someone and then released just to harass the questers.)

One of the things which makes worldbuilding believable to me, in certain settings, is inconsistency. I don't believe in one planet with a single culture. In many settings, I find it implausible for a town to have a single culture. Often a mixture of levels of technology is much more believable and likely than, say, everything being done by sophisticated nanotech.

Along similar lines, I like extraneous elements (bricolage) without plot relevance, and things going wrong. If it's a rural or wilderness setting, there should be bugs, animals, and birds. Machinery should break down. Plans shouldn't work perfectly. People should screw up. The only item I really liked on Lev Grossman's list, which appears to be exclusively based on a perusal of epic fantasy from the 1980s, is people forgetting to do things. (My issue with his list: many items would not improve a book, but merely be blinking "I'm so smart and meta!" lights, and most of the rest are things which are already a matter of course since the eighties.)

I don't need to see peeing (please! my vote is for less bodily waste on-page, not more) but I do like to know if this is a society with or without indoor plumbing. On that note, I would like to see more low-tech societies with comparatively high sophistication. Low-tech does not necessarily mean disgusting and sordid. Mohenjo-daro had indoor plumbing.

Also, food is very telling. I don't think I have ever believed in a society where everyone eats protein pills or mystery mush every day. Hardscrabble societies are just as likely to evolve clever means of making whatever they have tasty as they do of despairingly mashing the one tuber that still grows after the apocalypse. A lot of Chinese cuisine, for instance, is clearly derived from people who really needed to investigate the edibility of absolutely everything... and then made it delicious.
Has any book which is not primarily a re-telling of the Christ story, and in which a character turns out to be some version of Jesus or the Christian concept of God, ever been good?

Note that my exceptions leave out books like Lamb, and also books in which characters turn out to be non-Christian Gods.

When I was reading Brain Rose, the instant a character said, "This is happening because [spoiler character] is God," I knew things would go rapidly downhill from there.
Has any book which is not primarily a re-telling of the Christ story, and in which a character turns out to be some version of Jesus or the Christian concept of God, ever been good?

Note that my exceptions leave out books like Lamb, and also books in which characters turn out to be non-Christian Gods.

When I was reading Brain Rose, the instant a character said, "This is happening because [spoiler character] is God," I knew things would go rapidly downhill from there.
On the drive to Judy Tarr's horse camp, Sherwood and I were talking about tropes which function as a warning sign, either of extreme badness or at least of stories we are sure not to enjoy.

Sherwood's nominee was serial killers. My nominees were Satan and Satanists (unless it's a comedy) and all stories in which abortion laws lead to ridiculous dystopias. For instance, "Because abortion has been banned and it's illegal to kill fetuses, parents now have the right to kill their children after birth and before age eighteen." (Actual book. I read that on the back cover, and my eyes rolled so hard they almost flew out of their sockets and bounced against the opposite wall.) And as I have ranted about before, I generally dislike stories in which infidelity or zombies play a very large role.

The ultimate Sherwood and Rachel scarer-offer would be, "Because abortion has been banned/legalized/made mandatory, parents have the right to kill adulterers. A serial killer takes advantage of this situation to create zombies to help him worship Satan." (Abort: a YA dystopia. Also, cats have been banned and the government controls heterosexuals.)

What are your Tropes of Ultimate Loathing?
On the drive to Judy Tarr's horse camp, Sherwood and I were talking about tropes which function as a warning sign, either of extreme badness or at least of stories we are sure not to enjoy.

Sherwood's nominee was serial killers. My nominees were Satan and Satanists (unless it's a comedy) and all stories in which abortion laws lead to ridiculous dystopias. For instance, "Because abortion has been banned and it's illegal to kill fetuses, parents now have the right to kill their children after birth and before age eighteen." (Actual book. I read that on the back cover, and my eyes rolled so hard they almost flew out of their sockets and bounced against the opposite wall.) And as I have ranted about before, I generally dislike stories in which infidelity or zombies play a very large role.

The ultimate Sherwood and Rachel scarer-offer would be, "Because abortion has been banned/legalized/made mandatory, parents have the right to kill adulterers. A serial killer takes advantage of this situation to create zombies to help him worship Satan." (Abort: a YA dystopia. Also, cats have been banned and the government controls heterosexuals.)

What are your Tropes of Ultimate Loathing?
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.
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.)
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.

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.


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