Breaking the Chains

Cultural Approriation vs ???

chains

As a writer, I’m constantly aware that I write from a place of privilege.

I’m white. I’m cis-gendered. Healthwise, I’m in surprisingly good nick – and you don’t even need to add “for someone my age” because physically, I can stack up favourably to most people twenty, even thirty years younger than me – and I am not rich, but I am financially solvent enough that money is not a source of continual worry for me. I’m insanely well-educated, too, and despite the wrinkles and the middle-aged spread around my torso, I’m okay to look at.

It’s not surprising, then, that the books I write are not about being differently abled, or about neurodivergence, or about poverty, gender, or race.

They are – and I will not excuse this – based on northern European, homogenous societies and whatever I have written about sexuality within them is, for the most part, hetero-centric.

 

“Write what you know.” I do that. I have to. It may be fiction, and fantasy fiction at that, but it is rooted in the life and culture and reality that I have, personally, lived.

 

Because here’s the thing: if I were to write about how people with experiences alien and unfamiliar to my own (not “incidents”, but bred-in-the-bone, actual, lived experiences and emotions that transcend the boundaries of what I have, myself, a real understanding of) if I were to take those on, I am pretty sure I would get them wrong.

That would be far worse, in my not-humble opinion, than sticking to what I can speak to.

I have tried to branch out, a little. I do reference other sexualities – I don’t erase them. Dog knows, they weren’t absent in the cultures and eras I use as the basis of my work. I am considering the ways in which my characters can become more diverse, but it’s going to take me time and work, and I cannot be sure that I will get this right.

It’s important to get it right: it helps no one if I – a white woman in North America – produce a caricature of a black man anywhere. It is detrimental to the discussion for me to valorize or denigrate another person’s life experience by cannibalizing surface cultural markers for my own purposes.

 

But I cannot, in all conscience, attempt to speak for lives and understandings that are not my own.

 

And this is not a writer’s job, anyway.

 

No. Wait. Bear with me.

 

The writer writes out of their own experience.

Sure: they need to universalize it as much as they are able. Otherwise, there’s no point at all.

But it is not my role to create or illuminate experiences of lives I have not lived.

That’s your job, readers.

It is the reader’s job to open themselves up to the alternatives. The writer puts it all out there, and the reader has the responsibility to be open to it: to buy it and read it and to think about it.

Readers need to read wider, to be fearless in the face of diversity. They need to challenge themselves.

Writing is a conversation, not a monologue: the writer needs the reader. The speaker needs a listener.

It’s the chain that binds us together as a species, if you will.

 

It’s also the publisher’s job and that’s where the chain breaks down.

It’s the publisher’s responsibility to make the stuff available.

They have to. The writer can write, and the reader can read, but if you set yourself up as a “gatekeeper”, then you must/must/must accept that you have a global responsibility to open that gate to a far wider range than “what you did yesterday”.

 

Capitalism and profit be damned. The written word has no value if that’s all that you are in it for. The world is increasingly both smaller (because communication systems keep shrinking the distances) and larger (for the very same reason).

 

And I think, in the end, that unless the more mainstream and worldwide publishing concerns begin to do this on a far grander scale than they have, they will become increasingly irrelevant to the written word.

You need to give those writers their audience, and change the conversation.

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Bad Boys

This link came across my feed:

http://societyofrock.com/in-1985-dee-snider-testified-in-front-of-congress-and-stunned-everyone-in-the-building/?a=de&var=dee+snider+pmrc-ILCR&utm_campaign=dee+snider+pmrc&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_term=repost-ilcr-de&utm_content=dee+snider

and like any good writer, my mind leapt across the obvious and into some other territory.

I said to myself:

This actually speaks to why women do sometimes fall for “bad boys”

Because – contrary to what all you self-styled “nice guys” think – they are frequently reeeally smart and articulate.

Ain’t nothin’ sexier than that.

 

That’s why romance novels sell.

That’s why “nice” doesn’t.

That’s why, even in fantasy novels, as in every genre, the “love interest” tends not to be Prince Charming – but the villain often is.

It’s often, especially these days, the sweetly overprotective and outwardly obsequious character who turns out to be the dark nemesis – the wolf in sheep’s clothing*, if you will – in fiction.

It’s that nice person, the one who listens, the one who claims to be “there” for the protagonist, who turns out to be the truly dangerous one.

And that is at least partially because women have started writing in absolute droves – and self-publishing has made it not merely possible, but inevitable, that their voices have been heard, and influenced the mainstream of narrative fiction.

This is their experience: that the duplitiousness of the self-styled “nice guy” has been their eventual backstabbing rumor-monger, their abuser, their rapist. Their killer.

And it is their experience, too, that the “bad boy” often has more sensitivity and awareness of them as unique individuals than the false friend who listens only as a way to achieve sex with someone that they do not actually know as one human to another.

This is the reality for many, many women.

And when writing, even/maybe more so, reality is everything.

 

 

  • Note: all “fairy tales” were once a way to teach life lessons. Make of that what you will.

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Be Here Now: Why Social Media isn’t “faux friendship”

You hear people dissing social media all the time.

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People laugh at people who refer to people they have never actually met as “friends”. They mock the kids (and adults, too) who measure their social self-worth by their Facebook friends count. They speak with contempt about those who mention the number of Twitter followers they have.

They feel that only people you’ve realio-trulio shared meatspace with should be called friends.

They are wrong.

They are wrong because they do not understand the underlying basis to friendship.

It’s intimacy. It’s vulnerability. It’s honesty. It’s trust.

I’m sure that there is not one of you that has not at some point noticed the anonymity that faceless computer interactivity gives. It’s why trolls exist, and who among us have not faced down a cruel and relentless troll or three?

But this is a sword that cuts both ways.

That anonymity, that very separation that lulls a troll into believing that they are free to torment others online has another face – the face of being able to present yourself and your situation in words that you choose: words you can edit and hone and rearrange to say exactly what you need to, before you hit the “Send” button.

It’s the face of a kind of emotional freedom that died in the ’60s when writing letters longhand began to drop out of fashion, not to be revived until the era of email.

Social media is more than that, though.

We find our commonalities, our points of connection by way of memes and lols, by way of sad/happy faces and rows of hearts.

We skip past the giggling and the chit-chat. We start with the things that matter: our fears, our values, our core beliefs. Even in 140 characters, we leap past the superficial and into the real. We talk about the things that matter most.

Through that we find ourselves, and through that, we find our friends.

Real friends.

And we get close within very short time periods, a thing which the dissers seem not to believe in.

I have listened as “strangers” poured out their hearts to me in PMs, knowing that they can express freely to me just how terrified or desolate or – yes – joyous they are at something in their lives, without the fear that face-to-face brings. Some of my FB friends know things about me that no one else in the world does – in a matter of days, we can build a level of trust that a lot of the people in my world at home are not able to share.

I’ve wept with them, I’ve shared their triumphs, and I’ve helped out with cash sent via Paypal when I could and things were dire for them. And they have done the same for me.

It’s not about being able to give actual hugs in person, or the nights spent drunk in seedy bars.

It’s about honesty.

It’s about trust.

It’s about vulnerability.

It’s about intimacy.

Don’t believe me?

There’s some science for it. Check out the link at the end of this.

Granted, the original experiment was done with two strangers meeting in real time, and some of it obviously cannot apply, but the truth is that we very frequently connect via social media on a deeper and truer level BECAUSE we are separate and apart, yet somehow brave enough in our separateness, to be able to share on levels that it might take weeks or months to get to in a more “standard” friendship.

And we can form the bonds of love (all kinds of love) through the accelerated sharing of ourselves through wires and waves and modern miracles of technology.

It’s not a joke.

Read this:

The Hard Stuff

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I want to talk about loss.

 

The fact is, as a writer, you have to deal with some pretty problematic stuff, sometimes. To make it real, to make it true, you have to think about things in ways that might seem almost clinical – you have to get underneath the clichés and the skin of it all, so that when you write, it comes from a place of honesty and understanding.

And loss – well, it’s pretty easy to fall into the familiar ruts and to parse it all out in the most common of terms. It’s less painful for the writer.

It’s less painful for the reader, too.

But it sells you short, and it robs your work of power, so it sells the reader short, too. You push those easy emotional buttons, and you know what? Maybe you get the reader to cry, a little, but you’ll also get them to forget about it really fast, too.

You have to bring something new to the table, every time.

 

I want to talk about loss. I want to talk about grief.

 

When you lose someone/something you love, you grieve.

Hell, when you lose someone/something you hate – you’ll grieve.

You grieve, because you’ve lost someone/something that was important to you. You grieve because your life is a little less.

You grieve because that life has changed its shape.

It doesn’t matter if the loss is from death, or misadventure, or just because that person or thing has decided to let go of you, or you have let go of it.

And I’m not saying your grief is not pure. I’m not saying your grief is selfish.

It isn’t.

I’m not saying it’s not real.

It is real.

But after that first tidal wave recedes, you need to know that some of your grief is not for the person or the circumstances or the thing that is now gone.

 

It’s for you.

Or rather, it is for the you that also died.

Everything you were before is irrevocably changed, and you will never be that person again.

Parts might survive, but they, too, are changed.

And so you need to understand that you mourn as much for the “you” that you have lost, as for the loss itself.

 

And when you incorporate that into the mix, when you next come to write about loss – even wholly fictional loss – your work will be richer for it, and your reader will understand how much more of a human you and they both are.

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Fact and Fiction – Weaving it Together

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I said at the beginning that I don’t do “writing advice”.

That was kind of a lie, because now I’m going to tell you about the terrible, dangerous nexus between all those carefully garnered facts and writing fiction.

Beware, beware: because the days/weeks/months you’ve spent organizing all those incredible details into easily-accessible files can trip you up.

It’s called the info-dump for good reason: it will appear like giant mounds of text: blow-by-blow summaries of exactly how the monetary system in your world/France in the 14th century works; recipe-by-recipe descriptions of forty-seven different kinds of food served at a medieval banquet; long political diatribes detailing the exact relationship of one peerage to another in a semi-feudal society.

You must resist. You must. Plenty of authors don’t, and while there are readers who like a fictional story to read like a high school text book – I’m not saying there aren’t – the vast majority of readers are looking for something that takes them out of themselves, takes them somewhere new – and that somewhere new should not be a classroom. Most readers are, in the end, looking to escape, and nowhere is this more true than in fantasy fiction.

You, as the writer definitely need to know and care about every bit of this. You need to know your world inside and out. It’s really the only reliable way to make sure your world holds as tightly together as the Great Wall of China.

But the hook in this enormous net of factoid fish is that your readers really do not care.

They don’t need to know those details and frankly, they don’t want to. There is nothing that will stop a reader faster than stepping outside the story to deliver a History 101 lecture on currency exchange in the fictional 1200’s.

But then – why bother doing all that work?

 

And this is where the very best authorial magic trick occurs.

When you know your stuff, it shows. You only need the most minimal of details to make your reader feel that they are in good hands, you only need to use those bits that are absolutely essential. Trust your reader and they will trust you – because for some reason, when you really, really know your apples, you don’t need to deliver everything from skin to seeds.

It all somehow magically bleeds through into the way the prose gets out. The reader senses that there is authority there without the writer having to prove it by listing all the minutiae or stopping the fight scene to explain how broken ribs can sometimes be fatal. They can feel the reality BECAUSE you aren’t spending 20,000 words naming every bone of the skeleton beneath the flesh.

And they will rave about your world-building, even though you have only twitched the curtain aside for a micro-second, and given them the merest glimpse of the mechanics – they’ll feel it, and they’ll know it, and they will sink deeper into the story, never daring to let go.

And that’s a reader worth having.

 

 

 

*** Yes, this was a lot of mixed metaphors. Blame it on the weekend, or the booze.

Lost in Space: Research Rabbit Holes and how to avoid them. Kind of.

 

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The trouble with research is that it’s kind of addictive.

The trouble with Google is that it panders to that addiction.

So you need to find ways to keep more or less on track when you do this.

First of all: write down the exact question you are looking for an answer to. “All about the fourteenth century” is not the best place to start.

If you are world-building from scratch, then at least try making some headings like “Food”,  “Architecture – elite”, “Architecture – Peasant”, “Transportation” and so on. Then start with one, and try really hard to follow it through till you feel you have a handle on that section before starting on the next one. Keep some paper and a pen beside you to write down any off-topic stuff that comes up as you do the research – but don’t abandon the original search.

For example: You are looking for information about food, and up pops a website about “medicinal plants”. Oh! You think. I need to know about those, too.

DO NOT suddenly start following that line of research.

Make a note, or add it to the list of the topics you’ve already got going.

Because if you click on that site at 9 am, I guarantee that with the best will in the world, you will suddenly realize around midnight that you now are looking at “Common poisons of 12th century Scotland”, and that your list of Foods of the 14th century still only consists of “bread, porridge”.

Try to remain focused on one topic/subject at a time. Really, really try.

Another way to tackle things is to open a .doc called “Additional Stuff” and every time you find a site that is only a bit off-topic, go to it just long enough to copy the URL onto the word.doc. I like to organize my stuff into folders and subfolders anyway, so I wind up with a folder labeled 14th Century, and then a folder called “Food”, one called “Architecture”, and so on. Inside each of those will eventually be word.docs called “Notes on xxx” and “list of related sites on xxxx” and stuff like that.

(I also have a notebook filled with questions that need to be resolved, and bits of other stray info I come across, because I’m not always handy to the computer.)

It used to have to all be on those little index cards, and inevitably I would lose some of those, because, yes, I am feckless. Organized, but irresponsible, that would be a pretty good summation of me, in general.

It seems a bit time-consuming, I know, but later on, when you start to describe a banquet scene, and you go looking at those files, that list of related sites will remind you that there was, literally, an extant menu of a feast hosted by Henri de Valois, and you have the link right there, and hey! Presto!, There’s all the information you need.

And you didn’t have to stay up past midnight even once.

 

 

 

One other important reminder: you are not obligated to read every article you come across, in total, before deciding that it is useful. This is especially true of academic articles, and the rule of thumb here is to read the abstract (to make sure that the paper actually treats the subject you are researching) and then scroll down to the “Conclusion” and read that to make sure it actually went where it said it was going. Only after that will it become potentially necessary to wade through the background literature summation, the methodology, the data, and the discussion of said data.

Trust me. It’s how everyone gets through grad school before their eightieth birthday.

Research and How to Mug It in a Dark Alley

Back in the Later Stone Age of the internet, people used to get really upset at how other people seemed to be able to find things on the web that they couldn’t.

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Rose of Cimarron

And then some well-meaning other person would start throwing around terms like “Boolean” and “confined relevance” and the upset person would slink away to the Public Library and try to do the research the old-fashioned way.

Times have changed. Google got rid of whatever it was that was making it so hard to figure out how to put search terms into the machine – where do the quote marks go? Do I need “+” here or “/” or the word “or”?

Now you can just enter three or four nouns that you think might be somewhat relevant to your subject and the genies in the bottle magically figure it out for you.

Seriously. They do.

Try typing in    magic street medieval tricks    into your search bar. No commas, no quote marks, no ifs, ands, or buts.

And you get perfectly comprehensible sites that deal with what you are, in fact, probably looking for, which is information on pre-industrial age marketplace entertainers who did what is nowadays called “sleight-of-hand” or “table magic”.

The real problem is getting to something more than surface information. Those first few sites are good, sure, but they aren’t in-depth.

And maybe that’s okay – maybe you just need the basic stuff so you can slide in one sentence about a nifty distraction happening on your village green on market day, so that the Main Character doesn’t notice her baby brother is being kidnapped.

But it’s possible that you need more. Maybe you need to make sure that the trick is something that would and could be performed in your mythical version of France in 1180. You might want to use a coin trick, but can you be sure that common folk even used coins in alt.Provence back then? And if so, what coins?

More Googling will ensue, but in many cases, Google might fail you. I’m not saying there isn’t at least one website devoted to any subject, be they never so obscure or nigglingly specific, but – like everyday news – you need to be sure that the information you are getting is accurate.

When this happens, here’s a trick:

Go back up to the search bar and niggle around till it gives you the pull-down menu of alternate choices relevant to the original search term. For the search terms I used here, it will probably look like this:

Secretum philosophorum
magic in medieval times
Medieval magic spells
black magic

Check those out…

There are also some alternative search engines, and I’m not talking Yahoo! here.

Try “Google Scholar” – it can give you some books and articles that can point you in better directions.

Academia.edu is a really good source as well: people who have written papers on pretty much every topic under the sun have uploaded things there, and it’s free (no paywall! A rarity for things like this) and if you can get access for something like Jstor, there are even more possibilities. Usually, most colleges and universities have that access, and while it is neither universal nor well-publicized, many of these institutions have options like “community cards” that can get you in the door and accessing those catalogues at will.

FREX: University of Calgary has gone almost completely digital, and will assign anyone a free user account good for three months, so that you can get onto a terminal there and look at/download anything you find, and there are literally thousands of aggregate sites with scholarly articles on everything under the sun.

Pro tip: Bring a USB stick with a lot of storage space.

If you aren’t sure how to use these things, read this   http://www.onlinecolleges.net/for-students/online-academic-research/   because it will help.

If all else fails, go to that college library and ask at the desk. Library people will (probably) be only too happy to explain things to you.

But you will need to use your judgment, no matter where the information comes from. Try to get more than one source, and look for things like citations and bibliographies that suggest that the author did not pull a research rabbit out of their hat.

Trust me. You don’t need some 2-star review just because you had the street performer in alt.Provence pull a denier out from behind the miller’s ear in an era when the franc was already in use.