Posts tagged Writing
Posts tagged Writing
An open letter to authorial intent (x)
Finally, the Literary Cycle of Life can be completed!
I have never needed a bottle of booze more than I need this.
…I don’t even drink whiskey that often, but I need this.
When I was in sophomore English class, my teacher Ms. Barnes hit us with a revelation: The Author Is Not The Narrator.
I had never considered this possibility before.
In our essays, we got red marks against any phrase like, “The author believes,” or “The author states that,” correcting it to “The narrator states.”
“In fiction, you cannot assume the opinions in a book are the author’s, only the narrator’s.”
This is more obvious in a first-person narration. The narrator of Catcher in the Rye is Holden Caufield, not JD Salinger; the narrator of Jane Eyre is Jane, not Charlotte Bronte. But things get murkier with third person. Some third-person narrators are invisible, channeling only what the main character sees and knows. Some take a small step back, seeing and understanding a bit more than the main character can. Some go even further back, switching back and forth between two or more characters’ POVs. Others are omniscient, understanding everything at once. Some, like To The Lighthouse, flow in and out of characters’ consciousnesses. And still others are unnamed and yet have a presence and clearer personality.
The latter kind is the kind I write with for my adult novels: Austenland, Midnight in Austenland, and The Actor and the Housewife. I love the style and humor available to me with that narrator.
I assumed that everyone had a Ms. Barnes who cleared up the narrator/author thing in 10th grade, but I continually hear from adults who are confused.
“I can’t tell if the opinions are Jane’s or the author’s,” a reader of Austenland might complain.
The answer is: neither. The opinion is the narrator’s. Unless it’s stated in dialog, unless the narrator says it’s the character’s opinion, then the only thing you can be sure of is that it’s the narrator talking. I am no more the narrator of my books than Julia Roberts is Erin Brocovich or Heath Ledger is the Joker. I am the artist channeling a character. All the characters, including the narrator.
It’s not accurate to assume that the opinion of any of the character’s is the author’s opinion. Same of the narrator. The narrator is always character.
The narrator of Princess Academy likes to slow down and savor moments. She stays close to Miri and only reports what she knows, but uses words in a way Miri wouldn’t. The narrator of The Actor and the Housewife has a lot of opinions. That narrator wants to laugh, sometimes with the characters and sometimes at them. The narrator of Book of a Thousand Days is Dashti, the main character, reporting in the very moment the action happens, though translated from her native tongue into English by an unknown narrator who had license with word choice and expression. The narrator of my book coming out next year is the main character, told in retrospect from a point after the action occurs. The narrator of the Books of Bayern is close to that of Princess Academy with a desire for richness, the dramatic, the imperative of each moment.
It is as fun for me to write different narrators as it is to write different characters. And my narrators are as much me as are all my characters. Ani and Selia, Ungolad and Geric, Miri and Dan, Tegus and Khasar, Rapunzel and Jack—they came from the same place as my narrators, and yet all speak with a different voice.
We talk about these Vonnegut graphs all the time at Radiolab, but we usually just scribble them on a coffee-stained napkin. This is much nicer.
Image taken from tumblr.
Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:
“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.
History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.
But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.
This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”
The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.
But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?
The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, thatpixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.
Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?
Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.
And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalistMarie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.
But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in? The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica,Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiersthroughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, thefemale cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.
And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matriarchy of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty - including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.
And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively asthe Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.
I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.
Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.
Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.
Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.
This sentence has five words.
Here are five more words.
Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
I vary the sentence length, and I create music.
Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony.
I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.
And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this:
it is important.
This is by Gary Provost, as quoted in Writing Tools by Roy Peter.
Here are some of the most common openings I see, as they’re almost always a rejection:
- Waking Up: Avoid the first moments of the day, especially if your character is being snapped out of a dream.
- School Showcase: A character introducing the requisite best friend and the school bully
- Family Showcase: Introductions of parents, siblings, pets
- Room Tour: A character sitting in her room, thinking, looking over her stuff
- Emo Kid: A character sitting and thinking about all his problems
- Normal No More: A character lamenting how normal, average, and/or lame her life is, which is the writer setting us up for the big change that’s about to happen
- Moving Van: A character in the car, driving to his new house, hating every minute of it
- Mirror Catalogue: Looking at oneself and describing one’s flaws, usually with a self-deprecating voice
- Summer of Torture: A character lamenting how she has to do something that she doesn’t want to do (live in a haunted house, go visit Grandma, work at the nursery) all summer long
- New Kid: A character worrying about being the new kid on his first day of school or wizard training or the vampire academy
- RIP Parents: One or both parental units kicking the bucket suddenly and tragically
- Dystopian Selection: In the dystopian genre, it’s the day of choosing jobs, getting selected for something awful, being paired with a soul mate, etc.
These are very common beginnings and all I ask is that, if you choose to forge ahead and brave one, make it fresh.
As a fantasy writer, I am RIDIC tired of reading the same goddamn story over and over and over again. It’s all basically Lord of the Rings, but with different names and different territories. (I’m dead serious about that. Whole books have been written about how LOTR changed fantasy as a genre forever, and while I get that, let’s stop rewriting it, ok?)What I’m not talking about here is historical fiction. That’s another thing entirely. Alternate medieval fantasy (also known as high fantasy or epic fantasy) takes place in a recognizable world that is somehow reminiscent of the medieval period in our own history. There are roughly eight billion examples of this, including but not limited to: A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings, The Farseer Trilogy, Kristen Cashore’s books, pretty much anything about King Arthur, etc.Most high fantasy has tropes. These tropes are fucking old. We can do better.
- Stop making everyone white. Guys I am so fucking serious, all this does is show that you know fuck-all about history and how many people of color were doing a m a z i n g shit in the medieval period. Also? You are MAKING THIS WORLD UP. It is NOT ACTUALLY BASED ON EUROPEAN HISTORICAL FACT ANYWAY. The hell is everyone white for? (There’s a much larger conversation to be had here about most people who write high fantasy having no idea that the European world they’re loosely envisioning as they write has nothing to do with the historical reality, but that’s another post).
- Don’t make it about white people vs. non-white people. If your white hero is going up against savages from the desert-lands, you’re fucking up.
- Yo, for serious, no one cares about your reluctant noble bastard-born son of the king. Every other alternate medieval fantasy story has a reluctant noble bastard-born son of the king out saving the world. I just yawned writing that sentence. Do something else. There are literally BILLIONS of different characters you can come up with as a writer, come on.
- People didn’t just start becoming queer in the 20th century in this universe. People have been queer basically forever, in a lot of the world. No1curr about your book full of straight people. Totally over it.
- If your protagonist is a lady, her entire story shouldn’t be about saving the kingdom and also suddenly finding LOVE. Love is a many splendored thing, love lifts us up where we belong, but I promise you can write a story where a woman falls in love that isn’t about the woman falling in love (with the only man who never doubted her!)
Avoid these hideous tropes and remember: YOU ARE MAKING UP THIS WORLD. Why should it be bound by the same bigoted bullshit we run into in our world all the damn time?
write whatever the fuck you want, since it’s your story. :)
newsflash: you can still write whatever the fuck you want in your story without writing a completely derivative, racist, sexist, boring story that’s been written time and time again before. it’s still your story if you’re aware of its potential impact. writing with a conscious effort to try new things and write something you haven’t written or read before makes you more of a writer, not less.
and sure, you can write a high fantasy story about a merry gang of white men who go to save the kingdom and get the girl, but that shit’s not going to make an impact anymore. that shit. is. boring. that shit has. been. done. to.
saying that you can do whatever you want because it’s your story is of course true. there aren’t rules. if you can do something well, you can do it — you just have to be able to pull it off within the narrative of your text. I actually have a hard time saying people should or shouldn’t do something in their writing because of my firm, passionate belief in that fact. but god, what does it say about the integrity of your writing if you don’t even care about trying something different?
On it on it on it all about it
given I’m not a writer, I’m a worldbuilder and I’ve been building this world since I was 14. I decided to chuck out boring ass tropes when people tried to recommend ideas at me for my world and it was always the same tired idea of a heroic white man being the emperor’s long lost son and the desert people, that I created and harbored in my teeny tiny teenage heart and my favorite of the people of my very own fantasy world, would end up really being evil spies for their evil God, either that or they were all noble savages.
Ignoring these tropes or pointedly mocking them has been a goal of mine for my world pretty much since it began.