Announcing: Morning Lights

Welp, spring is creeping up on us and wriggling its little butt, ready to pounce. The elms in my neighborhood are plumping up to bloom and I have laid in a stock of Flonase for the season. I haven’t had any blog-post-sized things to say recently, just plugging away at work and words by turns.

But today I do have an announcement. For those of you who follow me on Facebook, I’ve been posting morning photos that I take while my tea is steeping — mostly of things in my apartment or the views from my window, but spring is likely to change how much I’m outside beyond trash day. A friend remarked that she found comfort and hospitality in the photos I shared, and that clarified a thought that I’d been having for a while. Which is that I have felt very much the loss of being able to practice hospitality, both in my physical space and my mental working space.

So I have started a “newsletter,” which sounds a lot more portentous than what it is: just a daily note, with my favorite of the morning’s pics, and a snippet of thought with a link, a poem, or a piece of music. When I have long-form blog posts here, I will link them out, as well as any author news that comes down the pipeline. It’s simple, it’s free, and it’s not subject to any goddamn rent-seeking algorithms you don’t have to wait for your social media feed to show it to you. You can sign up at the landing page here, or using the form I have embedded in the sidebar. It’s an experiment, so I’m sure this little project will evolve with time.

As Gregor Vorbarra likes to say: let’s see what happens.

Meet the main cast

Sometimes I forget, after years of working with my characters and nattering about them to any friends who are willing to stand still, that all everybody else has by way of introduction to them is the cover blurb and jacket copy. So here is a brief introduction to the five characters who serve as our eyes for the story of Ryswyck.

Stephanie Speir

Speir was the first character to develop a viewpoint in the embryonic story, and she is our ‘in’ to the world of Ryswyck Academy. By necessity she’s capable of reflecting on what she encounters, but given a choice, she really wants something to do. She has the fighter’s addiction to total abandon — in whatever arena she finds herself in. Her greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is her drive to set things right for people she cares about. Her motivating force is velocity.

(Disclaimer: The person in this picture is a real swordfighter and not an actor, and though I’ve been fascinated by this image ever since I first encountered it, I don’t know how much she’d appreciate being made the avatar of some rando’s original character. So I use it with cautious respect. Forgiveness, permission, &c.)

Walter Douglas

My first outline notes for “the Academy story,” to my amusement, contain the parenthetical aside: Is any of this in Douglas’s POV? It takes a while to draw him out, but once his presence unfolds, the pull of his gravity is irresistible. Continuously aware of the big picture, Douglas is not hasty to act, but when he does, it’s decisive. He loves deeply, and so can be hurt deeply. He’s not a visionary by nature, but he is a determined idealist. His motivating force is integrity.

(The image: Luigi Lucioni, Paul Cadmus, from the Brooklyn Museum.)

General Thaddeys Barklay

Ah, Barklay. In this story, everybody has an Opinion about Barklay. And nearly all of them are right. Like many visionaries, he is wilfully blind to his own compromises, and skates over the discrepancies between his visions and reality. Is he a good man who does terrible things, or a bad man who does some good things? My advice: don’t get hung up on the question. I write from his point of view because I wanted to evoke what it feels like from the inside to want to be justified, even when you know you shouldn’t be. His primary grace? He knows it’s not about him.

(The image: Hugh Bonneville, looking appropriately seedy.)

Emmerich du Rau, Lord Bernhelm

One of these days I’ll write a post about the collapsing option trees of choosing a structure. And du Rau will be at the center of it. An elusive man, du Rau is the Lord Executive of the country of Berenia, the antagonist of Ilona, the island country of my other characters. I wanted to write from his POV because I was tired of stories in which the enemy is the Other whose perspective is either given no place or depicted as evil. Forget that. Du Rau knows intimately the desperation of his water-starved people, and has leveraged all his leadership behind his plans to make Berenia stable and safe. He has more than one secret weakness, which he guards from view with the help of his wife, Lady Ingrid. In his youth he was friends with Barklay, before the war. Now he is an implacable enemy. Like every other member of the main extended cast, he is indispensable: without him, the ultimate situation would utterly deteriorate.

(The image: just imagine Diego Luna here aged up a little.)

General Eamon Inslee

In this landscape of idealists and antagonists, Inslee is just a practical man trying to run a military installation on an inhospitable rock. He views the Ryswyckian culture of courtesy with an ironic skepticism tempered by suspended judgment. Wise and (mostly) patient, he has a sneaking admiration for passionate skill, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he has to do. His POV is there to remind us that there’s more than one valid approach to the grind of military duty, even if those approaches come into conflict. Plus, I really enjoyed writing his dry sense of humor.

(The image: it’s hard to find a good type of what my idea of Inslee looks like, but here’s Kevin McKidd doing his level best.)

So there you have it: the people whose perspectives open the world of Ryswyck to our eyes.

Here be dragons…or not

Well, that’s fair. And not nearly as bad as I feared.

To be honest this was my baseline expectation as far as outcomes for this contest. Though I’ve seen readers of Ryswyck use the word “fantasy” in describing it, it really doesn’t have any of the classic features of fantasy: no magic; no talking animals; the spirituality of the book rises to mysticism in places but not so as to confer, say, Jedi powers or anything.

On the other hand, it doesn’t really have many of those classic sci-fi features either: no space opera, no interesting technology, no aliens — its futurism is almost entirely parabolic. After I entered SPFBO I saw where Hugh Howey was starting up a similar contest for the sci-fi side of things. Watch me enter Ryswyck in that and have someone say it’s not really science fiction. I’m having a genuine laugh imagining that. God, am I glad I didn’t start publishing books till my 40s — I’m continually charmed by my own poverty of fucks to give.

My impression, too, is that people are way more inflexible about science fiction bright lines than fantasy ones. I have tagged Ryswyck as sci-fi in digital marketplaces before but steadfastly describe it as “speculative” in my own venues lest I run into some Heinlein aficionado or similar who wants to start an argument. They’d be disappointed!

There’s an irony in this because although I’ve written a book that appears to straddle genres, I made no attempt whatsoever to be “original,” God help us all. Secondary-world speculative fiction is plentiful, and a lot of it is built with Eurocentric analogues. It gets shelved in all sorts of sections. No, what I cared about when building Ryswyck was not genre features but tropes. I put in all my favorite tropes and the proverbial kitchen sink, and let’s be real, my primary motivation for writing The Lantern Tower is that there are some favorite tropes I missed.

As a former library paraprofessional I get why we have bright lines for genre boundaries; you have to if you’re going to bother having genres at all. People like having the stuff they want conveniently sorted onto one shelving range. As librarians say, a mis-shelved book is a lost book. So, in another way, is a misidentified one. But the convenience can outlive its usefulness and diminish when boundaries proliferate and grow rigid. Still, it’s better to have one’s book be debatably one genre or another than to have it tossed into the literary fiction section where there is 99.44% weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So, you know — it could be worse.

The Protagonist Opportunity

First, go read this amazing essay by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton. I’ll wait.

So, speaking of hotel clerks, there once was a man who went to a conference at a hotel whose customer-service motto was “There are no such things as problems, only opportunities.” He went up to the desk and said to the clerk, “There’s a problem with my room.” “Ah,” said the clerk, tapping the sign, “but there are no problems, only opportunities.” “Call it what you want to,” the man retorted, “but there’s a woman in the room assigned to me.”

Yes, it’s a stupid joke, and faintly creepy to boot, but it plays into what Palmer and Walton are talking about in their essay, which is at bottom an issue of displacement, in the Archimidean sense. It reminds me of the time when I, with disastrous naivety, joined a writer’s group while I was working on Ryswyck. At one point another member grilled me about who the protagonist was in the story: I tried to say that if anything, Speir and Douglas (and specifically the friendship between them) was the protagonist, if there had to be one — but that wasn’t sufficient. I finally allowed as how the reader’s-eye POV belonged to Speir, but refused to follow the logic that was being pressed on me: they wanted me to refocus the story on one person and leave out what wasn’t relevant to her directly.

Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end of my participation in this group, but I’m really grateful to Palmer and Walton for bringing an even wider angle lens to this issue — for describing the continuum of storytelling from protagonismos through braided POV through tapestry. Not only does this perspective explain why I find pitch advice for aspiring writers so desperately annoying (“make sure to identify your protagonist and her conflict/desire/pain point!”), it shows how dangerous for our collective narrative diet it is to read no stories except those driven by protagonismos.

Of the tapestry stories mentioned in the essay, I’ve read only the last — Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, which a housemate lent me as a favorite book of his (in exchange for Doomsday Book, if I recall correctly). I would never have picked up this immense book on my own, but I was fascinated by this “tapestry” mode of storytelling, in which all the characters, and the landscape itself, are like the striations of a muscle, working away to drive the story along. I do believe that even a plague flea was given a brief POV in Rutherfurd’s book.

Like Palmer and Walton, I’m not entirely sure what made Rutherfurd the final outlier in the trend away from tapestry storytelling, but I remember the 90s, and recall how much of the fin of that particular siècle was dominated by avatars — the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Ryan White, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan (a lot of men are coming to mind, for some reason!). Stories were avatarized: A Night to Remember became Titanic; D-Day became Saving Private Ryan. Nowadays we’re getting villain origin stories, as if the only way to make Cruella de Vil interesting or compelling is to protagonize her. And let’s not get into Star Wars, shall we?

As the essay points out, the trend has swung so hard that a series like Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” — which in another frame would be seen as a bog-standard braided-POV story — is regarded as an outlier for having a large ensemble cast. Ensemble casts have been actively discouraged as making books unwieldy and hard to sell. My friend and fellow indie author Erica H. Smith has embraced the cast-of-thousands approach — structurally, her books are made up of disciplined POV braids mostly in tight-third, but every other chapter she finds herself inventing another fascinating walk-on character to stir things along and I’m usually like, “Ooh! I like them; are we going to see them again?” “…Maybe.”

This is one of the uses of independent publishing. Ensemble casts, intricate POV braids, walk-on multitudes, tapestries — they may not sell like hotcakes, but someone has to write them. Else the protagonismos displacement might go the way of the Ever Given and block global sea traffic for weeks.

Thanks to this essay, a widened perspective shows me that my own instincts were what I thought they were — a braided ensemble like the cast of Ryswyck is not grotesque, nor is it fully a tapestry story. But as I’ve mentioned in other places, I made sure that the turning point of the plot depends not on Speir or Douglas or any of the other POV characters, but on the most ordinary and unsophisticated character in the cast, a character whose legacy will ultimately cast a longer shadow than a charismatic would-be protagonist like Barklay. I did my best to make sure not only that every character had a trajectory but that nearly all of them are indispensable to the community and to the solution of the story’s dilemma.

The fact that this essay exists is a harbinger of what I certainly hope will come, stories whose moral imperative is based in community, with hope that doesn’t spring from powerful avatars or narrative exceptionalism.

Now excuse me while I go seize an opportunity.

Review: Heather Corinna, What Fresh Hell is This?

Subtitled, let us not forget, Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You.

A lot of my recs come from Twitter these days — an almost miraculous phenomenon given how narrowly I hedge my follow list and limit direct engagement with my timeline. (You people following upwards of 100 accounts either have an impressive amount of bandwidth, or else you use the platform way differently than I do.) Most of the people I follow are longtime acquaintances or otherwise folks I’ve interacted with in other venues; the few that aren’t are usually a mere degree of separation from that. If the people I follow don’t know me, they know other people who do, or vice versa. For this reason, I can’t even recall whose tweet or retweet alerted me to the existence of this new book.

My hat is off to someone who can feverishly complete a book of this stature in the middle of a pandemic, an anti-competent administration, and a bastard of an election year. Never mind if the book is actually good. Which it is.

In a snappy, salty, colloquial, and practically informative voice, Heather Corinna lays out what we know and are learning about the processes of perimenopause and menopause. It should surprise no one to hear that most of this work is taken up with ground-clearing of entrenched misogynist and gender-rigid ideas from the medical establishment up through the second half of the twentieth century. (There’s even a guest appendix in this book written by a trans woman.) Think of this as a sort of sweary What To Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting.

I’m being facetious, but Corinna takes great care to lay out options rather than giving advice, to document the science in the most accessible way possible, and to make you laugh doing it.

Having a bunch of arghful or super-demanding life stuff, all while our biochemistry is flying up and down like a haunted elevator or radically changing to a kind of hormonal makeup we haven’t had for more than a week at a time since we were kids — no shit that can have an impact on our mental health.

For instance, did you know that as the ovaries taper off making their kind of estrogen, the body supplements itself with another estrogen made by fat cells? In a strange coincidence, uterus-havers often gain new weight around the middle when they reach middle age. Could it be that human bodies are smart and know something about how to mediate this natural transition? This book does not insist we take a sunny view of this process — it’s named after a Dorothy Parker quote for a reason — but it does take on a project of demystifying it so that we can escape having an adversarial relationship with our own bodies.

And I’m all for that. There have been many ways throughout my life that my body has looked out for me, even in the throes of cystic acne and digestive misery and mental illness, responding to life stuff with its own wordless logic, keeping me safe and even stable despite my unfriendly feelings toward it. I haven’t been embarked on middle age for very long, but it feels like the season of the Great Permission: to give no fucks — or to give lots of fucks — to nope out of things, to swear freely, to eat copious amounts of Louisiana Hot Sauce, but most of all and most importantly, to live here. Not to live outside myself like an antelope at a watering hole, or to surveil myself like a Russian Olympic judge.

So, yeah. I highly recommend this book to all kinds of people — it’s written like a conversation with people going through what it describes, but it’s highly informative also for the people who love and live with them — and I’ll probably be recommending it to my doctor, too. I’ll be tickled if I find out she’s already read it.

Well, we persevere

I’ve been neglecting my blog — it’s one of the hazards of blog-keeping, but I have been preoccupied with a lot of quotidiana lately, and all you who are signed up to Morning Lights have been getting small bulletins on how writing is going. I’m tempted to say that the short version is “Not great, Bob!” — but really, this is a recognizable stage in any project of mine, so the distress is minimal. To go back to the gardening metaphors, it’s not usually a good idea to dig up plants to see how they’re getting on.

Woke up this morning to the depressing news that the reviewer assigned to Ryswyck for an indie contest I entered has DNF’d it.

It’s true that everyone who has finished the book found it “exponentially rewarding” as one reader termed it. But I can’t hang over everyone’s shoulder urging them to go on reading — can’t, shouldn’t, don’t want to. I find myself in the position of being unable to repent my artistic choices, but knowing they have their consequences, and a depressing DNF percentage is one of them. Well, it was a long shot anyway, and as an old internet acquaintance said, we persevere.

I admit when things like this happen I wonder why I am bothering with this enterprise; but as soon as the thought takes shape its answer is already apparent. This is my vocation, and I can’t not do it. I think we think that if someone has a vocation that its truth will be proved by its success, that deserved fame and fortune is an ontological marker for what you were meant to be doing. But, as long as I’m breathing, I’m making up stories and finding ways to put them out in the world for others to find and enjoy and be lifted by. It doesn’t really matter if the work is bad, and I don’t think mine is. For a writer, writing — like blood — is compulsory.

Anyway, when I run into things like this, I give myself ten to thirty minutes to have a panic attack or a despairfest or a hot flush, and then I carry on.

In other news, my photography kick has extended itself now that I have a good phone camera, and I’ve wanted to post galleries on here to go with my daily selection for Morning Lights. I haven’t had the bandwidth to make selections from what’s becoming hundreds of photos, but if I sat down once a week or so to pick a half dozen I really like, it might be a way to keep the rhythm up here. If I want to. We’ll see. Post-pandemic life is a vast improvement on this time last year, but it does throw into sharp relief the stamina one doesn’t have. The bandwidth may just all go into writing, in which case I must beg my readers’ indulgence.

And so it goes.

On Specialist Knowledge

Some years ago, a priest who was teaching a class I was auditing sat down with me to teach me how to chant a collect. (A collect — accent on the first syllable because it is a noun — is a prayer said by an officiant on a specific occasion to “collect” the prayerful intentions of the whole gathering. It has three main parts: it names God in a specific way, asks for a blessing in keeping with that name, and finishes with a doxology. I digress, but this will be useful in a moment.) The lesson didn’t last very long, because she discovered that I already knew where to put which cantilations. “It’s a grammar,” I said.

But here’s the thing. I knew how to chant a collect because I had been listening to priests who knew what they were doing chant collects year in and year out till I picked up the grammar by instinct. I still don’t know what that grammar is, diagramatically. I have the knowledge-by-acquaintance of how to chant a collect; I don’t have the specialist knowledge of how these cantilation structures work.

In my aside above about the definition of a collect, I mentioned the emphasis on the first syllable “because it is a noun.” Until someone on social media mentioned this rule in passing, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that in English nouns that double as verbs, the accent goes on the first syllable for the noun form and the second syllable for the verb form — so a collect is a prayer that collects; a record is what results when you record something, and so on. Do we need to know this information? No, but somebody should know it. That context is meaningful, and may at times be crucial.

On the other hand, there was the time when I was six and an instructor was trying to teach me how to ski down a slope. “Put your weight on one foot,” she said, and I tried to put one ski on top of the other. “No, it’s more like leaning,” she corrected, and I almost fell over. It wasn’t till a few weeks later, when I was playing and thinking about something completely different, that her meaning clicked and I said, “Ohhhh!” I didn’t have the experiential knowledge needed to grasp the special skill she was teaching me. I didn’t yet have the muscle memory of purposely shifting all my weight to one hip, that poised flex of the bearing knee, that sweet spot of placement for my center of gravity (what’s that?).

Many times, we pick up knowledge by experience and we don’t know what we know until we are presented with specialist knowledge. We have to make a successful handshake for the two knowledges to integrate, and sometimes that’s a real challenge.

Such a challenge came up for me last night when Adam Neely’s latest video dropped. I’ll wait here while you watch it. It’s worth all 27 minutes.

Yes, it’s about Céline Dion; yes, it’s about a power ballad I always thought cheesy — though thanks to Adam Neely I am now aware that it’s a deliberate quotation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. So that’s no wonder because, Unpopular Opinion time, I think Rachmaninoff and a lot of the other Later Romantics are cloyingly overwrought. But that doesn’t matter, because Adam Neely’s actual topic is fascinating: it’s an exploded diagram of the aural and emotional effects of a key change on a sustained note.

As someone who plays music as a craft but is not a practitioner of it as an art, I can appreciate the specialist knowledge Neely brings here, and I can even bring to bear my own experience of feeling myself in or out of tune with the ensemble when playing the flute, or the experience of blending when using my voice (I’m told I blend well, but I don’t get much of a chance to practice these days). I have the ghostly memory of what it means to sustain a note and feel the context change around it so completely that I have to hold up against a chill. I know what it’s like to try and sing without succumbing to the emotional power of the music. But even with all that experience, I still had to reverse the video three or four times in places and go, “Okay, Adam, run that by me again.”

It gives me a renewed appreciation for specialist knowledge.

But while it’s true that we don’t know what we know, we also don’t know what we don’t know. This is the basis of what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is how you get assholes convinced they are experts pontificating about shit they clearly know very little about. A friend recently sent me this article about the interpersonal pitfalls of encountering such people when you have specialist knowledge. When people experience a missed handshake between their experience and specialist information, it can read to their brains like an actual threat. The experience of being wrong can be felt as a kind of death, and the person inflicting that experience becomes a killer.

I don’t have to elaborate, do I, about how we’re seeing this aggression toward “experts” in the public square, to the point where “science” itself is a loaded catchall term for any situation in which we don’t put up with someone talking out of their ass? Okay. Let’s skip to what I said to my friend M who sent me that article.

What I said was, “I think women experts actually go through those stages [that Venkatesh Rao talks about] in reverse. We doubt ourselves; then we try to help; then we are reduced to manipulating people; then we wash our hands of it.” Who the expert is makes a vast amount of difference to the level of threat people feel when they encounter that uncanny valley between what they know and what they don’t know. I don’t think it’s an accident that expertise itself is being disparaged at a time when women and minorities are completing post-secondary educations at unprecedented levels.

Worse, post-secondary education has become inextricably tied up with class, so that we are all too likely to see someone with a college degree as someone who was able to complete a class gatekeeping ritual where others could not. The degree, and the jargon they pick up getting it, has no other meaning than that.

Yet this can’t be entirely true, or else Adam Neely wouldn’t have thousands of people watching (and reversing to rewatch) his explanations of music theory every time he drops a new video. It helps that Neely’s not threatening: he’s a cute young white guy with a Baptist haircut (an aesthetic I happen to like, so I’m not disparaging him here), operating on a social media platform. He’s clearly leaning in to all these advantages for his living; and why not, if it results in thousands of folks having fun while learning about music theory?

Step one, getting the expertise, is difficult enough. Step two, making use of it for the public good, is often dependent on whether we are the kind of person others want to recognize as an expert, and is therefore not necessarily within our control. But when we succeed, it’s nearly always because of a personal encounter: a priest teaching a theology student, or a ski instructor helping a six-year-old negotiate a slope. Even a one-way encounter on social media is still a place where one person (me) on a quiet Friday night during a pandemic can navigate that uncanny valley between what she knows and what she can’t yet grasp.

I don’t think that if we are an expert in something that it obliges us to try to reduce people’s threat level in any given encounter. But it seems to me that a reduced threat level is part of the exploded diagram of a successful encounter between someone’s experience and specialist knowledge, whether that’s within our reach or not. And I don’t blame people for washing their hands of some folks for whom, clearly, the least scintilla of acknowledgment is a crucifixion. Some of these folks are just going to have to go through some things.

I guess my takeaway this morning is that we need specialist knowledge, and we need people who are practitioners of it, and we need those handshake moments without which we cannot integrate our lives as we’ve lived them so far with what comes next. It’s an uncanny valley, and the tone colors are amazing. Meet me here.

The winter kaleidoscope

One day soon I will make a Lenten-themed post, but today is not that day.

I braved the deep freeze last week to get my annual physical and purchase a new phone, as my old one’s memory was stuffed too full to function after five years. The new device, being well-designed in the much more recent past, has a camera that doesn’t suck.

Also, I can get a text from someone that downloads itself and doesn’t take ten minutes to do so, so there’s that.

On the TLT front: I finished the aforementioned chapter and have started on another. This one has been a bit of a slog, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s my mood or the deep freeze or the laborious transition to more promising dialogue, but there it is.

Stitching the plots of my two arenas together is becoming less frustrating as I start to actually do it. I just have to remember to put in all the little touches I thought of to set this or that up.

Since for the most part I’m away up in my little nest, working and cooking and taking random photographs and texting my sibling in Austin to make sure they’re okay, I feel somewhat like my view is telescoped in repeated refracted colors, like a kaleidoscope. It may or may not be good for creating art, but to be honest? I don’t want to leave it.

Perhaps when spring gets here, I’ll feel differently. But for now, it’s just me and the cat and the open Word document. And that’s just fine.

Things to be noted, snow edition

It is very cold and a very fine snow is misting down, and that is just as it should be. Some notes from the home front:

  1. While my tea is steeping, I’ve taken to picking up the camera and practicing shots on whatever I find marginally interesting in my flat. It is not yet light enough in the mornings to tempt me outside, but I take the camera with me when I put the trash out, and got some fine shots of a winter world this morning.

2. I lack half of one scene and the tail end of another to complete a chapter of TLT — I spent all my energy on a grocery trip on Saturday, but put down 1670 words on Sunday, which I call satisfactory.

3. My chromebook charger finally bit the dust last night, so I ordered a replacement and will have to make do with ye olde work computer until tomorrow.

4. A fellow community member said that thanks to C.’s rec she picked up Ryswyck and wound up reading it all in one sitting! — thereby confirming further that once a reader gets to a certain early point in the characters’ trajectory, the momentum takes care of itself. Gratifying.

5. I have named some characters from the diplomatic delegation of the Southern Consortium and made a start building up the part of the world where they enter. This also involves building up some of the world of Berenia, but that is less complicated: just think of the world’s most disadvantageous game of Settlers of Catan.

Things to be done:

  1. I have promised myself to make no promises to keep up the habit of taking morning shots.
  2. Keep going, of course. What else?
  3. One of these days I will need to get a more comprehensive laptop, but I’m allergic to spending large sums of money, so I expect it to be a while before I actually do any such thing.
  4. I really need to find someone with a good signal-boost radius willing to read and rec Ryswyck far and wide. Like, how do you ask someone to do this??
  5. What I’d really like is to have a conversation with someone who actually knows at least one region of Africa well and can speculate on the nuances of a secondary-world Global South empire. Quite apart from authorial primary research, it’d be an interesting conversation! Must gird myself to forage on Twitter, I suppose.

And that’s the state of the state. Now back to work.

Self-“insertion”

So that time-dishonored topic of self-insert characters has rolled around on the Birdie App again, and I had Opinions:

“I suspect this scorn for authorial “self-insert” has leached into the water supply from the early psychologists and New Critics, who liked to tout the “objectivity” of high art as against art that draws on personal narrative, i.e., what women were doing at the time.

This got mixed in with the whole "Mary Sue" Disk Horse and cemented "self-insert characters" as a benchmark sign of bad writing.

It's bullshit at the root. As better people than I have pointed out, it's easy to seem "objective" when your POV is already dominant enough to be widely understood.

But the point of creating stories is to speak to some truth. Everyone with a functioning human instrument can do that; it's just that our culture wants to pretend that only some of us are worth hearing stories from.

I once wrote half a million words centering on what I called a "Mary Sue on purpose" — but my so-called "self-insert" character quickly took on a life of her own, which is as it should be.

I’m not writing any overtly self-modelled characters right now, but I reserve the right to if I goddamn want. So there.”

Originally tweeted by L. Inman (@linman) on January 31, 2021.

This is a topic Erica and I revisit occasionally: how we make characters out of our own soul-stuff, how we spin a creation from the ephemera of our minds. All characters are, as I quoted above, made of the author in one way or another — modelled, acted out, mimed, wept out of our own tears. You can’t “insert” anything into a story of your making, even a simulacrum of your own self for metacommentary’s sake.

Yet there are these hidden rules of criticism like bear traps in the path, that the reader is obliged to guess what parts of your story are biographical, and your job is to make the guessing very difficult. But, as it turns out, it’s always pretty easy to guess — wrong.

Oh, certainly, a better-written story is seamless in its elements, and nothing feels manufactured or out of place. But: the rules are a lie. You don’t have to guess the author’s biography, and there are no prizes for guessing right. Cynicism is not the opposite of naivety; the trajectory away from naivety goes in an entirely different direction.

I find it kind of telling that an author like John Scalzi, who is a Notorious Feminist Patsy Ally, is being tagged here for “bad” writing that is associated with the “bad” writing of women. We all know that women can’t come up with fiction that isn’t based on their own meretricious lives, amirite? But it’s different when F. Scott Fitzgerald does it.

Which is not to say that we don’t occasionally run across a story in which the id of the author is painfully obvious. It’s just that I don’t think that kind of discernment is useful as a critical apparatus — or at least, not as a primary driver of criticism. In that sense, the project of the New Critics was a worthwhile project. It’s just that they started out with a lot of begged questions, and that doesn’t do the reading public any favors.

We need a new new criticism, for these factionalist times.

Another chapter down

It’s a thoroughly rainy Saturday: perfect for writing.

To be honest, it hasn’t been one of those dancing-through-meadows-of-daisies kinds of months, at least as far as writing mojo is concerned. Nevertheless, I did complete the chapter I started before the whole “white nationalist attempted coup” thing, sent it to beta, and started storyboarding for the next.

There’s a way in which storyboarding is a glorified means of procrastination for me, but the glorified part is useful: ordinary procrastination is about the paralysis of perfectionism, but storyboarding gives me something to do while I negotiate myself an acceptable level of not-perfect to get started with.

And it often turns out to be useful! In this case, I had some things to figure out to illuminate the immediate path forward. Like whose POV to introduce where and at what vantage point; what’s happening in one location while X is happening in the other; what tempo to start with so that it accelerates in the right place; trajectories for characters I’m just getting to know…

My usual MO is, as I’ve said, pretty analog — index cards and notepad scratches and sticky-notes with quotations and bits of dialogue jotted for later reference. But this week I also made a personal Miro account to keep track of the larger items. I’d been using it for a rolling workflow project at work; while their templates are attractive and (probably) useful, what I like is just having a virtual whiteboard for keeping sticky-notes in color-coded order, and drawing my own lines between text elements. I want to design it myself, dammit — which is the main reason I couldn’t get along with my trial of Scrivener. I will decide how section breaks and chapters are to be designed, thank you very much.

I hear that Scrivener also has a character naming function that you can use for minor characters and extras, which sounds cool when you’ve been faffing about on Behind the Name for an hour or two, but I suspect there’s a similar options funnel, and just, no. Sadly, though, BTN is rather thin on African names (like, hey, it’s a Really Big Continent, right?), so I’ve had to extrapolate somewhat to name a couple of Southern Consortium characters. Coding a more-developed quasi-empire to the Global South should be an interesting endeavor, to say the least. But what’s the fun in setting oneself an easy task?

Today, I’ve put in some satisfying work: finished a scene introducing a character POV, copied in a scene-plug from my greenhouse and cleaned it up, and sketched plans for the transitional material between the two. Not bad for a rainy Saturday.

Now to figure out what I’m going to have for dinner.