On Killing Characters: or, the parabolic functions of SFF

It’s almost inevitable that at some point in a project, a writer shakes out the Evil Author cap, dons it, and puts a character to torture or to death. I’ve known and read plenty of Evil Authors through the years, and claimed the label myself on occasion: usually it’s with a slight deprecating laugh, like when disclaiming one’s internet search history. How long does it take a stab wound to close? Asking for a friend.

Was it readers who first started the Evil Author moniker, or did writers start calling themselves that in reflexive self-defense? Impossible to say, but that in itself underlines that Evil Authorship is usually conceived in terms of the relationship between writers and their readers. (“You killed Major Blue! How could you??”) In an age in which readers have almost immediate access to authors on social media and via email (and authors use those media to seek new readers), this dynamic is often the opposite of abstract and hypothetical. It’s a prominent feature of a very real landscape; but it isn’t exactly anything new.

All this is by way of saying that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter for a while. Then I ran across a tweet thread that gave me to think:

(Once again catching up on old topics now that my site is back up. NB: some database capabilities remain offline until the site is migrated to the big server being set up by my web host. If you have a subscription it should then be restored. When I’m in my new server home I hope to implement some expansions. If this blog is Relevant to Your Interests, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to a regular newsletter. I toyed with starting one but then 2020 happened. Anyway, back to the topic.)

What’s it really like to kill a character? What is that process? I have heard some testimony from other writers, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. When I conceived the story that would become Ryswyck some years ago, some structural framework was immediately apparent, and none of it really surprised me because I knew what kind of story I like to tell myself.

If any given writer has their own narrative preoccupations, mine have been apparent for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamics of forgiveness — what it’s really like to deal with a wrong done you by someone who matters; what it’s really like to be that person who did the wrong; what it’s like when the person who wronged you isn’t sorry, or doesn’t know enough to be sorry, or is committed to other priorities. What kind of things actually happen in the mind and heart when trying to cope with a wrong. What that might mean for the restoration of human dignity to people who were robbed of it.

Still, although I’d tortured plenty of characters in the service of my preoccupying narrative, I hadn’t killed any that I recall. Yet as the proto-structure of Ryswyck emerged, the death of a particular character was there from the beginning, and the real question in my mind was whether I would actually use his POV in the story. (He insisted.) The day I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt tired and drained, but mainly from hard work. Emotionally I felt firmly satisfied: I thought the scene was solid, and the story still what I wanted to tell.

No, it was killing a different character altogether that gave me trepidation. Here was an ordinary, likable supporting character, bluff, sensible, inoffensive. And one afternoon, between the writing of one early chapter and the next, I realized there was a storyline in which he was not only killed but tortured first. The more I thought about it the more it made horrible sense: how he matched up to a foil character, how he could act as a catalyst for the endgame, how thematically appropriate his end would be, how parabolic not just for my future readers but for the other characters. I was going to do it.

I did the same work: laid the same foreshadowing, traced the same thematic touches, made sure that an appearance from my foil character in the narrative was followed by him being onstage, or vice versa. When I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt all the same tired satisfaction at good work well done. But I also IMed my betas: “I need a drink.”

Another tweet I can’t currently find has crossed my ken recently, something to the effect that instead of asking writers why they built a non-sexist fantasy world, why we don’t ask other writers why they built a sexist one. And fair play to that; we don’t want to give sexist tropes a pass. But it’s hard for me to imagine a non-sexist fantasy world not being remarkable: because it is remarkable when compared with ours. Of all the genres of storytelling, SFF is the most specifically parabolic; from “The Cold Equations” to Ancillary Justice, from The Blazing World to Frankenstein to The Inheritance Trilogy, when we tell these stories we are all but explicitly measuring the moral curve between the world of that story and our own.

A parable isn’t deterred by the prospect of unsettling its audience. In fact, it would happily afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. This is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the genre that in order to get away with using sexist and racist tropes these days, the writers of them try to re-identify who the afflicted and the comfortable in our world actually are. That the worlds are to be thrown side by side is never in question. The only question is what the ambition of the author is. What effect on our world are they aiming for?

I suppose that’s why, although I killed a lot of characters in Ryswyck, I was never less disposed to plume myself with the Evil Author epithet. An Evil Author might aim to make readers howl, but she isn’t out to mend the world with her song. I was out to imbue my characters with the power to bear witness, in life and death alike. Not to mention tell a cracking good story.

But I still probably need to disclaim my internet search history.

Artifacts of the Internet Old: the digital dig

Part I of an as-yet undetermined series.

Further to my last post, Gretchen McCulloch’s book got me thinking about the history of my own experiences getting on the internet. I’ve been threatening for a while to do posts about the lexicon of Fandom Olds, but McCulloch’s book made me realize that for this era when the internet is new, the time at which you got on it is itself an artifact worth examining — worth, even, recording for the benefit of people who study these things.

When John Keats died in 1821, he wrote his own epitaph which his friends duly inscribed on his gravestone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. It was a reference to his perception of the fame and immortality he had achieved in his short life. Ironically, of course, Keats’s name and work turned out to be far more durable than his perception: people thought enough of his poetry to canonize it, thought enough of his letters to save and collect them, thought enough of his life to write biographies of it, and 200 years later you can take a class at nearly any university covering Keats as a subject in himself, or together with his set, or as an indispensable part of a survey of the Romantic literary period.

But in our own era — with the rise of the internet and the informal writing we use to navigate it — our usernames are writ in ether, and that can be a bug or a feature depending on when we joined the online world.

McCulloch divides the internet generations by adoption rather than age. Old Internet People are the early adopters, the techies and people with specialist interests who used bulletin boards, Usenet, and listservs as their platforms when they joined the internet. Full (and Semi) Internet People joined a bit later, in the late 90s and early 2000s, using blogs, LiveJournal, MySpace, GeoCities, and the like to create their web presence. The teens and young adults joining the internet now don’t remember a time when there was no internet; their first platforms were Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, or later Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

The fact that new platforms (together with their new practical uses) are continually rising to replace the old ones means that there is a lot of digital archeology building up. Some of it can be dug — and some of it can’t.

My first job out of graduate school was a temporary gig as a library tech working in the manuscripts and special collections department of my alma mater. I was also working on a novel at the time, and I was aware that the emails and AIM chats I was exchanging with my friends about the project, not to mention the chapter files themselves, stored on a handful of 3 1/2-inch floppy disks that were maddeningly subject to random corruption, were less easy to archive than the 20th-century manuscripts and correspondence I was handling at work. I made a haphazard effort to print out a lot of these, sometimes cutting and pasting chats into Word documents, but I wasn’t very thorough, and I don’t know where that file is, and as I recall it is very thin compared to the virtual reams of communication that died with my defunct AOL and Earthlink accounts. (I should probably archive my Yahoo email account, now that I think about it; but I never think about it.)

I identify myself as one of the Full Internet People McCulloch describes, because I am by nature a late adopter of new technology and new platforms, delaying to join until a critical mass of my acquaintances have already done so. I wouldn’t have known online fandom existed, much less gone looking for it, if a graduate school friend hadn’t liked a series I recced to her well enough to find a listserv for it.

But the fact that what she found was a listserv, and the fact that most of the people I met there were early adopter types who were already versed in BBS and Usenet, already had their own websites, were getting into the brand-new craze of blogging (“Blog — it’s a web log! Geddit?”), means that everything I learned about the internet I learned from Old Internet People. I learned enough HTML to code my own GeoCities website, followed my online friends to LiveJournal and learned to use Photoshop so I could make icons, absorbed enough CSS to tinker with the theme I was using, and occasionally joined chats for multi-person discussions.

More than that, I was in continual engagement with people who were older than I was, both online and off. Most people my age were not participating in fandoms or hanging out in chatrooms; they were launching careers and starting families. If it seems weird now that one would be doing either one or the other, it was even weirder to the people I knew offline what I was doing. For my older friends — fellow members of my religious community, coworkers, friends’ parents — I was wasting vast tracts of time communicating with people that would never be proper friends, about things that were by definition ephemeral. I wrote half a million words of fanfiction when I could have been writing original work of my own.

Bearing battle scars from arguing my case against this offline disapproval, I find it incredibly odd now that the internet — and fandom with it — are ubiquitous in “real” life, as if these arguments had never happened at all. You can hear phrases like “spoiler alert!” on the radio or television, and nobody is confused. News isn’t just discussed on Twitter, it happens there. My mother is on Facebook.

It’s my lifetime — not the lifetime of my parents, and not the lifetime of young people now — that has seen the full effect of the internet as a new and massive accelerant of change. When I was a college freshman, you checked your email by going down the hall to a small room of terminals in your dorm, typed “vax1” into a command prompt on a green screen, then put in your username and password. When I was a graduate student four years later, webmail came in, and I finally had an email with an @ sign and domain name, and accessed it via a browser. Ten years later, when my brother started at the same school, my university had graduated to using a Gmail client, and he probably had built-in DSL, too.

It sounds like I’m singing the old song “when I was in school we walked uphill both ways, over broken glass!, etc.” — but that’s not what joining the internet was like then. We knew it was new. We knew it was an innovation. We built our mental ships to take those waves, and willingly charted the new reaches of online communication. And, maugre the opinions of my offline relations, my online friendships are the ones that have lasted longest: they were formed from the start to withstand physical separations and other vicissitudes that make intimacy hard in the modern era. Erica, my most longtime beta and the one who gave me McCulloch’s book, I met on that first listserv in 1998. (Or thereabouts; we didn’t really get close till after we’d both joined the LordPeter list, so the details are hazy.)

So if this were an episode of Time Team, consider this Trench 1 in my digital dig. We know what kind of site we’re on; next, we’ll see what kind of finds we get.

Mother, factorial

[Crosspost from my Tumblr blog 15 October, where I stashed these thoughts during the site hiatus.]

Today I amused myself by ficcing my own ‘verse, as I like to do sometimes when I need a little pick-me-up. The majority of my main characters live in a country that is matrilineal, for reasons which I had fun building out. (Matrilineal, I say, not matriarchal — but even a matrilineal society is so far from the current landscape I live in that there seems little difference from this vantage, as I shall soon demonstrate.) One of them is the youngest of thirteen children, whose mother is a hard-working and locally influential farmer in a rural northern district. So today’s fun involved me making up stories for myself about his eldest sister and how she went about starting her own family with the help of a cousin from the next village over.

Now, I wanted to work out just how distant of a cousin I wanted her partner to be (I quite like him, he’s a nice fellow, very decent despite having grown up in a small and rather dysfunctional community), so I grabbed a sheet of paper and started to jot down a genealogical diagram…

And then had to stop, flummoxed. You know what a genealogical diagram looks like: a line is drawn between a man and a woman to signify they are married and/or had children, and then the next tier shows the children all depending from a single bar. But for Rosemary Douglas, mother of thirteen, head of her household, that doesn’t work. In her childbearing career she made contracts for children that double as local alliances with men who could afford to commit to sworn sponsorship. All of them planned — except for her youngest. How the hell would I diagram that?

I decided — I couldn’t. I’d just have to leave the fathers out. But neither did it make much sense to just have Rosemary, with a bar below her marked with all her children’s names in birth order from left to right, with no room for the kind of detail one would want for working out genetic relationships in matters like this. How would Ilonians diagram their genealogies, then?

I wound up drawing something like a factorial: Rosemary at the center, with her sons in a segmented line down the left, and her daughters in line down the right, the elder closer in and the youngest at ends of each line. Her daughters could be diagrammed the same way: a hinterland rather than a tree, very Ilonian. To work out genetic details at need, one could write the name of the father/sponsor on the line segment between Rosemary and each child, and work back to his mother from there. You could see then how often lines would cross and avoid overentanglements.

I have no idea how actual maternal lines are diagrammed in RL. But I was sort of shocked afresh at how spatially embedded in our minds patriarchy is. I was used to thinking of a Bowen genealogical diagram as a logical reflection of how humans are, how their generations pass, universally. But it isn’t, really. It’s like how “matrimony” doesn’t mean the same as “patrimony” except with mothers: matrimony means “I have acquired a womb!” and patrimony means “I have acquired a dynasty!”

In any event, in reference to quotations I’ve seen round here about sci-fi and fantasy as the kind of imaginative activism necessary to envision a better world for ourselves, I have been doing exactly that: telling myself stories of people living complicated, imperfect, not-always-easy lives in a world I want to see emulated, for the sake of my own sanity in these times. And I’m telling you about it, in case it helps.

The gift of dynamic readers

Without getting into that whole death-of-the-author thing, there’s no denying that once a book is out there in the world, the die is irrevocably cast in many ways. The author can’t really take it back, nor trail around after their readership explaining what they really meant, nor prescribe how people read the book when they pick it up, nor adjudicate their opinions once they have. In many ways, a book is its own and only advocate; it stands or falls on whatever ground it is written to occupy.

So when I say that dynamic readers are a gift, I don’t mean that I-as-author can or even want to do any of those things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Letting God mind God’s business is a lot easier said than done, generally speaking. But most authors want to get their trajectory right without having to correct it in midair.

Which is why we still crave the return of evidence showing where the arrow landed. And that’s where dynamic readers come in.

I would have said “engaged readers,” but that term has dropped out of the realm of vital encounters between individuals, and fallen into the pan of ad-speak. I would have said “transformative readers,” but that comes on a little strong. “Active readers” doesn’t come on strongly enough.

A dynamic reader is one who, well, engages with the text and then makes their engagement known either to the author or to the public at large, in a way that reveals something about the text that the author couldn’t say or didn’t know. I have a pretty modest and quiet readership, so finding a dynamic reader is like gold.

Here’s a thing I didn’t really know about Ryswyck before a reader showed it to me: the characters grow slowly on the reader until the first major plot turn, when the security breach happens. Oh, I knew that the first two or three chapters were slow; I made a deliberate choice to start the story where I did despite the risk of losing people — which I suspect has happened more than once. What I didn’t know was that there is a certain point in Act One where readers tend to look up startled and realize that they’ve been drawn in, that the characters have got them compelled, that they’re invested.

It’s not that I wasn’t employing the skills at my disposal to make that happen. It’s just that I can’t know I succeeded till it actually does happen.

And that leads to the other face of the thing I didn’t know, which is that the characters — Speir and Douglas and Barklay, at least — are Ryswyck‘s own best advertisement. Intrigue, sure. The community, which I was determined to write as a character in its own right — absolutely. But those need advertisement. Let a reader get to that certain point, and the characters will advertise themselves.

This is actionable data. We likes it, precious.

Not actionable in the sense that I can or want to do anything to the book that’s out there. But there are things I now know I can and should keep doing, or do again to calculated effect.

And it’s extremely gratifying when a reader grasps things you tried to do, and tells you about it. When a dear Community friend went down to officiate at V’s funeral, I asked her to bring back the copy of Ryswyck that I inscribed to her, as she was bringing things away from V’s apartment. Now, I didn’t at all plan this, but putting a book in C’s possession, even for a short time, is a temptation to her to read it; so she read it, despite avowing that she didn’t want to read a Long Book in a genre she dislikes.

The next thing I know, she’s texting me with raves about how much she’s loving it. (You never have to wonder what C’s opinion is about a thing.) Then when she finished it we talked for two hours on the phone, about what we could have said in a three-cornered discussion with Virginia about it, about the nature of offerings, about du Rau’s secret illness, about Barklay’s peccadilloes and the thematic choices thereof, about my allusions to the Gospel of John, which I put in for Virginia and myself but which C did not fail to notice. There’s not much that she does fail to notice — and remember well enough to quote and ask questions about. After one reading.

And that really is a gift, a gift to me as an author as well as a friend. Other people might read my book as observantly and enjoy it as much, but no one’s obliged to tell me so. No one’s obliged to dig into the text up to their elbows and play with its ideas, explore its ramifications, have a dance with the story — or a duel. And if they do, I might never know about it. And that’s just the nature of sending a book out into the world.

“Are you going to write a set of questions about Ryswyck for book discussion?” C asked me. I hadn’t; I hadn’t thought Ryswyck the kind of book that would be in much demand for discussion groups, nor any idea what its readers would even want to talk about if they did.

But I sure do know who I’d like to ask for help writing the questions.

On stories and “On Stories”: or, how I updated C.S. Lewis’s argument by accident

Recent reading — my own and others’ — has inspired me to tackle a subject that’s been simmering quietly for a while: the value of writing stories that satisfy expectations.

This has been brought to mind by my social media’s reactions to Harrow the Ninth (which I haven’t read yet), leavened by the occasional post complaining about showrunners killing people or plots off to frustrate their viewers’ expectations that bobs up in the Tumblr flotsam from time to time, and topped off by a recent mention of Gérard Genette, of all people, on my dash.

Any post I was going to make about plot and story was bound to reference C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories,” in which the most memorable passage to me was about the quality of “surprisingness” in stories being what makes them worth reading more than once. So I pulled out that essay and reread it, and was rather shocked at how unwieldy the argument was. Lewis does not, for instance, have handy access to the idea of the trope. (If he could surf TV Tropes he’d know exactly what it was all about, but half his argument was circumlocution trying to get at what the word represents in our present fora.) He seemed to think that if a story had Things Happening, explosions and travels and adventures of various sorts, it would by definition not be concerned with character development or social commentary. I had to remind myself that in 1945 Lewis has not read N.K. Jemisin or even The Old Man and the Sea. Benveniste is not in his rearview, much less Genette or Joanna Russ or René Girard or Walter Benjamin.

Nor has he read Robert Alter, who, I note, did not have a chapter devoted to Plot or Story in The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age — in blogging about that book I had to get at those things sideways from his chapters on Structure and Character and Perspective. (So it’s possible Lewis was right about critics having a blind spot there.) Yet part of Lewis’s argument is still relevant, if we clear away the class snobbery he festooned it with: that danger (no matter what quality) and plot twists (even — or especially — if executed in an adversarial spirit toward readers’/viewers’ expectations) can be a weight against the attraction of the story’s central idea; that being able to project what will happen is not by definition a flaw in a story; that “surprisingness” in stories isn’t actually generated by surprises.

I find this borne out by both how I read and how I write. I’ve mentioned before that when I pick up a book, I give my full credulity — and the author has to work to lose it. This extends, very often, to not guessing the murderer in mysteries even when fellow readers have it worked out halfway through; I’m often not just struck by the surprisingness of a story but by actual surprise. But if I really, really liked a book, the first thing I do is turn to the first page and start reading it again. If I like it even more than that, it winds up on my bedside table, or sits open while I eat dinner.

(Oh, that reminds me — I need to put out my copy of A Memory Called Empire so I won’t forget to lend it to F.)

The plots I choose for the stories I write are sometimes flagrantly projectable. With some plot points, my feeling is that if you didn’t see that coming, either you’re as credulous a reader as I am, or else I did something wrong. Sometimes the excitement of a story depends not on not knowing what will happen, but not knowing how it will happen. That’s halfway to “surprisingness” right there. Even so, I’ve had someone comment to say they figured out a story’s punch line early on, like I was trying to hide it and failed. Uh, I…wasn’t? Good for you?

We’re so aware of tropes now, so sensitized to their particular pitfalls of laziness and bigotry, that we rec a book or film or show to someone on the grounds that it “does interesting things” with the tropes of its genre — sometimes by subverting them but sometimes also by giving them their full dimension. Tropes themselves can be spoilers: there’s another handy word not circulating in 1945. I like to avoid spoilers when I can…but it’s not the plot so much I worry about being spoiled for. It’s the quiddity of the clutch moment and all that ties into it, the thing I like to come to without preconceptions being formed.

And it’s hard to market a story with “This story has Fencing and Explosions and Submarines and Grief-fueled Sexual Interludes, but they don’t necessarily happen right away because the story is Not Entirely About That” — though in keeping with strict truth in advertising, that’s my shortest pitch for Ryswyck yet. Despite the common currency of tropes as story foundations, it’s not (yet; Netflix seems to be working on it) the thing to sell or rec stories using nothing but the tropes they contain. (Though honestly, if someone maintained a rec list or a database of titles searchable by their tropes, I confess I’d use it. TV Tropes is too haphazard and sometimes disappears up its own whatever from high atop the thing, or induces me to do so, which is why I stay away.)

But even without that, we’re living in a rich, if somewhat frangible, critical environment, where you can seek out stories based on whether you want surprisingness or merely to be surprised — and have a menu of options for each. You can squee with an Oxford don on Twitter about Doctor Who, or read elegies for Chadwick Boseman from a savvy working man, swap Old Guard gifsets on Tumblr with a scientist on the other side of the world, or start a critical revival of Charlotte M. Yonge on Facebook. We’re all hoi polloi now; and possibly, if Jack Lewis were here to observe it, he’d call that the most surprising plot twist of all.

Ambition and salt: or, a fatphobia of words

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.

Angela Davis

I’ve been salty lately, and not just about other people’s books. It seems like every few days something pops up on my dash or my feed or some other place repeating sententiously that if your novel has more than 120k words in it, it is suffering from bloat, needs restructuring, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s good. Meanwhile, my book club is fixing to read The Stand. I cut my observant-writer’s teeth on novels by Richard Adams and Dorothy Dunnett. My copy of Gaudy Night has a crack in the spine. The best meditation I’ve read on death and grieving in fiction form is a brick by Connie Willis called Passage. And just as my classmates long ago were damaging their spines by carrying Stephen King’s tomes in their backpacks, folks are doing the same thing today with George R.R. Martin. What, as it were, the fuck?

I mean, I get it from the reader’s point of view. C.S. Lewis’s dictum, “You can never get a large enough cup of tea or a thick enough book to satisfy me,” never resonated with me, but that was for a very specific reason and it had everything to do with spoons. Even neurotypical people are being robbed of executive function spoons by this crazy society, and they all ask themselves what’s wrong with them that they can’t keep up in a culture that will literally feed children to the burning maw of the capitalism volcano god. My avoidance of long books is mainly about spoons. It is not about a book being good or otherwise.

But yes, I’ve mouthed the sneers too. “Does A Game of Thrones really need to be a thousand pages long?” Well, I haven’t read it, so I don’t actually know, do I? You can fit three of Book One in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we fans all gave that burgeoning book length a dubious side-eye. But ultimately we didn’t complain, because if we liked it, we wanted more of it. Every book I’ve read that needed editing, needed it on grounds other than word count. Word count is tangential, even ephemeral, to the real symptoms of a problem. It’s like we have a fatphobia of books.

A friend who, on hearing Ryswyck‘s word count, suggested I break the book up into its constituent acts and engineer its release as a series, started backtracking at the look on my face before I’d even measured to myself my own reaction. No, I didn’t research the prevailing commercial parameters of selling a manuscript to a publisher. I wrote to the parameters of the form I’d been reading all my life. The form I’d imitated and written papers on and dissected and absorbed. To me, a three-act story with a gradual build of tension leading to a sharp change in momentum at the end of Act Two was completely goddamn bog-standard. And it completely boggled my mind, and still boggles my mind, that I would have to remove two-thirds of its words to even get it looked at.

When I was a callow freshman in college, I finished an essay with a flourish that it didn’t take many years for me to cringe at in memory. The subject was gender politics, and my grand ambition was something like, “to add my note to the chorus in hopes it will bring the whole to harmony.” And I disavowed that sentiment as soon as I recognized how blithely unknowing it was.

But not really. Even in years when survival was my only conscious goal, when I suspected myself of every form of abominableness under God’s blue sky, when I wrote no words or crap words or the wrong words, when I abandoned and picked up again and abandoned again two novel projects, my disavowed ambition hunkered down, abiding.

Middle-aged me has compassion for callow me, now. And she may have been blithe and grandiose and unwitting how complex the world and the word really are, but she wasn’t wrong. A difficult situation needs an ambition to match.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t launch this website and engineer this independent author business on the express premise that I intended it to contribute to tikkun olam, to the mending of the world. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know I was doing things the hard way. But for me, there is no such thing as the easy way. There’s no universe in which I take a glossy photo, and pump out bestsellers and effortlessly draw a streaming comet trail of admirers. But any universe I’m in is one in which I tell all the stories I know, of joy and generosity and mutual vindication. That’s all I can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how uphill it is for me to gain readers. And as I’ve observed lately, there are far worse things than obscurity.

But there are times when the only thing to say is: “Fuck it. Pass the salt.”

What’s a redemption arc, anyway?

…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.

Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.

Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?

And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.

For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.

It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.

It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.

And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”

A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.

The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?

To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!

And now for my afternoon cup of calming tea.

After the plague, Piers Plowman

Now that the pandemic has roused the sleeping proletariat at least so far as to slap at the snooze button and miss, I’ve been thinking about professionalism in the modern age.

As I’ve said, an agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list.

I was already thinking about it a little bit since watching (and re-watching) a Netflix documentary about the music mogul Clive Davis — which is really quite fascinating as a rich vein of artifacts in our cultural history. The documentary follows not just Davis’s career, but several careers of artists he’s worked with over the years; but to me the most interesting on a personal level was the career of Barry Manilow.

Now, people snicker behind their hands about Barry Manilow, and I admit I’m not a fan. But here’s the story: Manilow put out a record on a small label and it didn’t sell. Davis recruited him for Arista Records and put together a songwriter shop to compose him some hit singles. Then Manilow streaked to the top of the charts! But as his career progressed, he pushed back on singing songs he didn’t write himself, and worked out a compromise with Davis about the makeup of his albums.

It seems to me that there are some parallels between the music business and the book business. As Davis points out, you need a “continuity of hits” to remind people that you’re there and get them to take interest in the rest of your work. A similar pressure seems to be weighing on authors to be massively prolific so they can continue to meet their publisher’s ROI goals. And content outlets like Kindle Unlimited have turned books into a commodity that can be sold in bulk — and who knows how much of that money the author sees. I’m guessing it’s not much.

I didn’t know these things about the publishing industry when I was making my decisions what to do with Ryswyck. I plunged into the world of aspiring authors on Twitter and in writers’ and agents’ lists and forums; entered a few contests; wrote a few pitches. There was a pervading atmosphere of assembly-line marketing, and a tacit assumption that the apex goal of a writer’s schematic was to be accepted by an agent and publishing house and thus accorded the status of Professional Author.

I still feel the pull of that forlorn attraction. But even so, this seemed (and still seems) to me to be entirely backwards. As I saw it, the entire point of being a published author was to get the book I wrote into the world. I didn’t write a book as a means to obtain Pro Author status. I wasn’t interested in producing an upmarket, high-concept, trendsetting property of 110k words or less. I wanted to sell Ryswyck, which is (if I understand those buzzwords correctly) none of those things.

The disappointment was brief and acute. But I got up and dusted myself off, and shook out my Project Manager hat, and started making spreadsheets for all the things an independent author needs to do. And, as it turns out, really the signal difference between an independent author and a traditionally-published one is indeed that marker of status. My trad-pub author friends either have day jobs or families to support them; they do a great deal of their own marketing; their advances are designed to clear overhead and little more than that. Only the highest-grossing authors really make a living doing this; everybody else makes their living by doing “this” and some other stuff, including busting their hump to make appearances at cons and land speaking gigs.

So what makes a professional? In the modern age, we tend to judge it by the Olympic definition: a professional gets paid to compete, and an amateur pays for the privilege. But not all Olympic events are equal, and the more artistic ones suffer by this definition. Michael Jordan can play on the Dream Team and then go back to his highly-visible salaried position on a professional baskeball team; figure skaters, once they turn pro, are hardly heard from again unless they become commentators or you find yourself with tickets to an ice show. If I asked a 20-year-old who Kristi Yamaguchi is, would they know?

Our remaining tickets at the Symphony were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, enough philanthropists have underwritten the losses that the professional musicians did not immediately lose their jobs. But: they’re still professionals…even if…they’re not getting paid. The performing arts are heavily subsidized by philanthropists; the publishing industry is heavily subsidized by the day jobs of their authors. And I doubt they buy their authors group health insurance either, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

What makes a professional? Besides the Olympic definition, there’s the class theory definition: a professional is someone who completed an education or training course and has been certificated by the profession’s constituent authority. A tradesperson…sells goods or labor for their income. But very often they also have to get certified — I mean, you’re not going to hire an uncertified electrician for your house remodel. When I worked as a library paraprofessional — that is, a person with two degrees neither of which was a Library Science degree — I often thought that the market had become overprofessionalized. But now I think it’s the opposite: no one is a professional anymore; we are all in a trade. We all sell our labor and our goods for our living, only some (many) of us need some kind of certification to do so.

I don’t have the chops to go into how this is both levelling and massively difficult if not impossible in late-stage capitalism. Suffice it to say that while the publishing industry makes a good (if ruthless) business model, it makes a very poor guild.

If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from this, I don’t yet know what it is. Except that I think it’s high time we artists set about to rethink the definition of our professionalism and stop overlooking how much we subsidize our own careers. If these chin-stroking plutocrats admire feudalism so much, wait till they have a real guild to deal with.

5 ADHD-friendly criteria for choosing books

Happy Monday! I hope you’re at home. Wash your hands.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s today’s topic. I had thought about doing this one as a video, but as the ensuing post will illustrate, that plan has been (at least for now) scrapped. Mass quarantine has given rise to a new appreciation of the arts, including opportunities to read books, and I wanted to say a little bit about what it’s like choosing things to read when you’re ADHD.

First: a small briefing on what it’s like from the inside. Too often ADHD gets talked about in terms of its inconvenience for other people. (This is where a video would work well.) We all have a part of our brains dedicated to making plans — visualizing, ordering, measuring timescale, anticipating what “done” looks like. For most people, that part of the brain delivers plans without much thought: for those people, planning is like picking up a newspaper at a kiosk and reading it. For us, it’s like we have to consult Gutenberg and build the printing press, hire the reporters, gather the editors, invent the sections, instruct the galley mechanics, and print the paper, and by the time it comes out, it’s two weeks later, it’s old news, and we’re exhausted.

So instead, what ADHD people do is recruit other parts of their brain to get a plan done and executed. It’s like being right-handed and having to write with your left all the time; you can do it, but it’s awkward and tiring and the result looks kind of pathetic.

Everyone’s compensation strategy is different. Me, I use the part of my brain that makes lists. So say I want to get a particular book (without going to Amazon). So I make a conscious and explicit list of actions in order. I decide, library or bookstore? Then I choose a time to go when they’re open — and also when I’m not obliged to be doing something else. Then I leave the house, get in the car, drive to the place, and look for the book. I could check the internet catalog to see if they have it first, but that…doesn’t necessarily make it into the plan. Say I don’t find the book. I go to the nice person at the desk; they tell me they can order it for me. I say yes and go home. When I get the heads-up that the book has come in, I have to make this plan all over again and execute it.

Sounds simple, you say. It is — if you’re not doing it with the wrong hand.

So I have the book in my hands now and it’s time for Phase 2 of the plan. I open the book, start reading words, and keep doing that till I’ve read all the words. If something happens to interrupt me, I have to ramp up the momentum again as if I’d never started.

So you can see that when ADHD people say they can only do something if it’s interesting, they don’t mean that they just can’t be arsed to do a lot of stuff. They mean that if making the plan and executing it is so tiring, then doing the thing needs to have some intrinsic reward to make it worthwhile. In other words, if I’m going to make a long list of ordered tasks to get a book, it better be a damn good book.

(By the way, if you have a loved one with ADHD and you want to help them Do a Thing, you can approach it from either end. You can help pre-make some of the plans to funnel them into Doing the Thing without getting too tired and shearing off. Or you can find ways to raise the intrinsic reward of the Thing once they get to doing it. Offering rewards at the end doesn’t help; it just becomes, like, Phase 3 of the plan, one more distracting and tiring irrelevance.)

When I was a kid, I had less logistical labor to do — not no logistical labor, but less than I have now. So I had more energy for reading books. Now, well — on a normal day, I get up, make tea, take meds, do prayers, get showered, get dressed, get in the car, drive to work, do work over a period of 8 hours, get in the car, drive home, decide what to have for dinner, make dinner, eat dinner, allocate my free time, wash face, and go to bed. And that’s without extra stuff like meetings and fencing practice and doing dishes. So…I read less.

Which is why I’ve decided in 2020 to lean into my instinctive priorities for choosing books to read. And I’m telling you about it, in case it’s useful.

  1. Is the book easily available? This is what makes Amazon so insidious. If I’m interested in a title, I can shorten that list of tasks a whole lot by typing the title in the search blank, deciding if I want to buy it, and then *click* a Kindle copy is delivered. Instant phase completion! If I don’t want to spend my hard-earned cash at Amazon, then I ask: does a friend have it to lend? Do I have time to get to the library right now? Is it at the indie bookstore down the street? (Thanks, Will!)
  2. How long is this book? I’m not gonna lie: last time I was in the library I caught sight of This is How You Lose the Time War on the shelf, and said: “Hey, this is on my list — look at this, it’s skinny! I didn’t know this was a novella. I’m taking this home.” So I took it home, read the whole thing in an afternoon, and had time for a nap into the bargain. Win. I can read a long book, but it needs other selling points, as you will see.
  3. Is it recommended by more than one friend? Generally, I wait to seek out a book until I’ve had a critical mass of recs over a period of time long enough for me to contemplate them. This tactic rarely fails to pay. If I read a book off only one rec, the fail rate increases. So I’m leaning into this one now.
  4. Is it by or recommended by a trusted author? Major shortcut. Knocks out half the decision load.
  5. Does the description promise my favorite tropes? Look, after a while on this earth you get to know what you like. If the other criteria are weak, I might try a book on the strength of someone saying it has my favorite Love Between Enemies kink. And, since it’s me, if I can’t find a book that has the specific tropes I want, I wind up writing it. But that’s a whole other post.

And finally, one more principle I’m leaning into this year: forgiving myself for not finishing a book. I got interested in Tipping the Velvet enough to get a Kindle copy, and started reading it. Then I got interrupted, and didn’t come back to it, and didn’t come back to it, and I finally asked myself: finish the book? or go read spoilers on Wikipedia? Spoilers it was. I may get back to it some time, but I give myself permission not to. (On the other hand, I was reading Ancillary Mercy at Christmastime a few years ago, and got so busy with services and whatnot that I literally had to put it down for 48 hours, and it about killed me. So, behold the power of intrinsic reward.)

And there you have it. The shape of our daily logistical labor is quite changed right now, and may never be quite the same again, but I feel sure that these criteria will still be helpful to me choosing books in the future.

Be safe. Be well. Read books. If you want to.

Trajectories

Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.

Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.

However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.

So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.

This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.

But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.

Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.

Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.

At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.

A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.

Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.

Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.

Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.

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* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.