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.

Being salty about word count, redux

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! I am enjoying the day off by eating a champion’s breakfast and perusing my list of blog topics saved during the Great Blog Hiatus.

To begin, a tweet from November 25:

Spoiler alert: the next tweet in the thread begins with the words “total bullshit.”

When I read this tweet a month ago, my reaction was mainly an indignant Now you tell me! But I’ve thought it over a little in the time since (a little, not a lot — it’s not like there’s nothing else going on), and aside from the sprinkling of salt, for me it still really comes down to a question of competing priorities.

As Long’s tweet thread suggests, the problem of word count is a bit more nuanced than the Hard and Fast Advice of the Internet would suggest. But although my decision to self-publish was precipitated by a piece of Hard and Fast Advice about wordcount, it wasn’t actually that difficult a decision. When it comes to selling your manuscript to a publisher vs. selling your book to the public, the question was and is: which set of upsides do you value more, and which set of problems would you rather have?

Traditional publishing upsides:

  • In a word, cachet. You passed the gatekeepers! A Real Publisher published your Real Book!
  • You don’t have to do every last bit of the marketing yourself.
  • You also don’t have to do every last bit of the distro yourself.
  • Project managers produce the book for you.
  • You have access to professional editors as part of the deal.
  • All of this equals a head start in making bank, and as a friend said when I demurred about this as an ambition: “No. Make fucking money. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth making money with.”

Reverse these, and you pretty much have the defining features of independent authorship. Whether those are downsides depends on your point of view. From my point of view, these are the upsides of independent publishing:

  • “Project management” may not be a pair of words that an ADHD person likes to hear spoken together, but with that comes sweet, sweet control. To a publisher, you sell a manuscript. To the public, you sell a product: a product whose cover design you commissioned, whose layout you fashioned, and whose content you exerted your authority on. That’s worth a lot.
  • Likewise, this product takes as long to produce as you decide it should take. You can arrange another editing pass (or not), choose the release date, set up your targets, and go. There’s no hurry-up-and-wait once you’ve finished the writing part.

Like, I love Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, but her books have had some god-awful cover art, which she was not responsible for and over which her control was very limited. When I imagined myself having as little say over what Ryswyck looked like, I thought: ughhh. It’s worth it to me to shell out some cash for a cover design that I like.

And that brings me to the downside of my chosen lot, which is: just as the control is all mine, the success of the product is all on me. In a traditional-publishing scenario, I would only have to sell the book to one agent. The agent then sells the book to a publishing house, and the publishing house sells it to the people. But in the modern environment, the author still has to do some of the marketing, they’re not going to clear that much overhead, and their name’s still on it, so people have to decide the book is good. Is there all that much difference, when all is said and done, between this and what I’m doing, selling the book person by person?

I admit, I am sometimes inclined to lament my bad karma when it comes to viral magic. I’ve known for years that my social media prowess is not destined to bring me cultic popularity — or even, let’s be real, a double-digit number of engagements per post. That’s not a vicissitude that an independent author likes to have on the list.

But I don’t suck at small-bore networking. I have friends who, when I ask nicely, have been happy to assist me out of their expertise, and not only that but to introduce me to their friends who have helped my project along. This is how I was able to purchase stellar cover art and launch a website with minimal outlay.

It’s true, Ryswyck is 248k words, a daunting prospect for the potential reader of an unknown indie author, designed (God help me) to turn the ratchet of tension by slow degrees at the beginning. Selling that to one agent might have been difficult, but selling it copy by copy to each individual reader is, let’s just say a heavy lift.

But though the return data is small, it suggests that if I get a reader to a certain early point in the book, they’re likely to really want to finish; and if they finish, they’ll have been highly rewarded. It’s a damn good book, it’s a damn good product, and I’m proud of it. More people should read it.

So, for a minute there, Long’s tweet thread made me wonder if I made the wrong decision. But all things considered…I don’t think I did after all.

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.

The season of lights, and a rec

A very happy Lightfall to all! Otherwise known as Yule, Solstice, the feast of St. Thomas, and O Oriens in the antiphons leading up to Christmas Day.

This is, in fact, one of my favorite days of the year. I consider it the starting gun for my season of best creative productivity. It’s the end of that long ache of days growing shorter, of things husking and falling away, of incremental losses and seemingly undirected wandering into dimness of heart and mind. It’s the firm clasp of night, sparkling with stars.

This year, it’s also sparkling with the Grand Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Yesterday evening I managed to get a couple shots of it with my zoom lens. And perhaps the sky will be clear enough this evening to get them at their nearest.

Nearer to home, I took some shots of some excellent Christmas lights:

And finally, I have an enthusiastic rec. For my birthday, Erica gave me the book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. It is the poppest of pop-sci: a linguist’s examination of how the informal written language of the internet has evolved as the internet becomes more ubiquitous. This may be a specialized interest, but honestly I can’t tell, because I’m one of the generation of adopters McCulloch calls Full Internet People, and in addition to that, I would have been a linguist if I’d realized what it meant that my favorite classes in college were all linguistics and mind science courses.

(Not to mention, of course, that my energies in college were entirely devoted to averting the terror of Being a Bad Person, such that I hardly had headspace to recognize what I wanted and develop the nerve to pursue it. As Lord Peter said, there are reasons to want twenty years of one’s life back — but not the same twenty years.)

In any event, this book was so engaging that I wore my aging eyes out trying to read it all in one go — and in fact got to the end of the text sooner than expected, because the bibliographical information at the back is — necessarily — extensive. You can’t write a book about the internet without lots of URLs, and McCulloch thoughtfully keyed them to the Internet Archive so that it would take longer for the links to break. But in fact you don’t have to refer to the back material at all in order to enjoy this book, which covers the generations of adopters (rather than the generations by age cohort), rhetorical shadings in pixel text, emojis, memes, irony, passive-aggression, the development of spelling conventions, and lots of other things that you can recognize yourself in no matter what kind of relationship you have with the internet. If you want to geek out about language, this is an excellent book to do it with.

Light and peace to you this long night.

Ryswyck-verse ephemera

With this site back online and transitioning to a more robust server, I’m getting back into the swing of blogging with a dispatch update on the word trenches along this front. Regrettably, it turns out Pandemic Brain is not terribly conducive to writerly output. Fortunately, the solstice is approaching, and I’ve made use of some of this year, if not to put pixels on the page, at least to make notes on structure and dialogue.

The results of collecting up notes, quotes, and dialogue from wherever I had stuck them. My process is very lo-tech.

And, I have put a few pixels on the page — in the form of a couple loose scenes out of order which I will either use when I get there or cannibalize for other uses.

Plus there have been some very useful meta conversations with my betas the past several months, which I may attempt to synthesize in future posts; for the moment, here’s a snippet.

Me: Meanwhile I've found my metaphor for the plot of TLT
Erica: :)
Me: it's a textile one
Me: everyone has vital information that can darn the fabric of peace, and Speir is elected to be the needle
Me: but she has to figure that out first
Erica: nice
Me: I think I'm going to indulge nearly all of my crackalicious ideas, too
Erica: I mean why not
Me: exactly

Then follows some of the crackalicious ideas, which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it involves all hell breaking loose in a ballroom, and this anticipated bit of dialogue:

"Speir, don't -- Speir! Sacred fucking lights," said Selkirk.

(The good thing about conducting most interactions with my betas over IM is that I have a record of things I am otherwise likely to forget. This pandemic situation has left me with the memory of a goddamn goldfish.)

All in all, I did what I could with a difficult year, and not only did I get Household Lights out, I got a few other things done as well. Next goal: get back on track marketing-wise. If there are opps for virtual interviews or panels, I want to find them.

And finally, I made another soothing sound generator, named for Arisail, Douglas’s home district. Give it a listen and enjoy the calm!

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.

Incoming!!

Well, I’m back.

Not gonna lie, it was a little bit torturous going a couple months with no blog, but when your site is available ad-free courtesy of an OG code geek with his own server, you take the swings with the roundabouts when he has to replace it. I’m grateful.

Meanwhile, I’m been making a list of post topics which I will deploy tout de suite, so expect more Genuwyne Quality Content in due course.

Hurray!

This ain’t your usual Stadium Rock

According to Mark Polizzotti, when Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you,” his immediate translators did not do the Russian phrase any favors. Rather than issuing a direct threat, Polizzotti says, Khrushchev was saying that they would survive, outlast, be vindicated by the eventual demise of, the West. Not that anyone in the West cared for nuance at the time; believing your enemy to be wholly malevolent is a time-honored tradition in wars both cold and hot.

It’s possible Khrushchev knew this and didn’t feel like he had much to lose no matter how the phrase was translated. If so, I get the sentiment.

This morning I went down to the absentee polling place set up by my local election authority and banked my vote. I don’t usually vote absentee, though if I lived in a state with proper early voting I would certainly do that — but I wanted to get the basics out of the way ASAP. Now to the next thing: getting everyone I know and care about to do the same thing however they may.

Just do it. Just vote, as soon as you can. Why? Because the only possible answer to this revanchist zombie confederacy of misogynists, white supremacists, and white-collar thieves is to bury. them.

Bury them in an avalanche of votes, everywhere. Everywhere. You don’t live in a swing state? I don’t either. I don’t care. Bury them. You didn’t begin with wanting an ideologically unexciting septuagenarian white man at the top of your side of the ticket? I didn’t either. I don’t care. Bury them.

And if you’re already on the same page with me, I have an offer to make.

For at least fifteen years I’ve been following journalist Al Giordano for my electoral politics news. And for the last five years or so I’ve been subscribed to his newsletter, América, which he puts out on a semi-regular basis. He’s the most level-headed, light-hearted source of politics news in this country (and out of it). And when someone comes to him freaking out — and let’s be real, there’s plenty to freak out about — his answer is invariably, What are you doing about it?

Today, this is what I’m doing about it: I’m offering to subscribe an impecunious fellow-traveler to a year’s worth of Al’s América newsletter. The subscription fee is an $80 contribution to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism, which trains journalists and community organizers for effective work on the ground where they live. Besides the newsletter, subscribers get full access to the Fund’s website, Organize and Win — and thereby to a whole community of ordinary folks across the country and overseas who are doing things, however and wherever they can, to make a difference. This is good value even in a year that is not frickin’ 2020.

It so happens that I have $80 right now, and I want to subscribe someone who doesn’t to a gold mine of good reporting. If you have $80, you should subscribe too. The pandemic has hit everybody in the pocketbook, some harder than others, and the Fund for Authentic Journalism like many nonprofits depends on donations and subscriptions for its bread and butter. So if you would like this subscription and need the scholarship, don’t be shy, drop me a line by email, comment, or social media message, and I will give your preferred email address to Al for the subscription rolls with my donation. You won’t be sorry!

And, in closing: VOTE.

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.

The ground-clearing of nonviolence

After an annoying spate of illness and a negative COVID test, I find myself with a small backlog of ideas for posts. But I think I won’t do an omnibus post for them, so here is the first topic: nonviolence.

The first thing everyone has to do when they raise the topic of nonviolence is clear the ground for discussing it. That is, we’re obliged to give some kind of sop to the idea that nonviolence “doesn’t work,” or “isn’t realistic,” or is somehow the province of the impractical, the unambitious, the servile, the passionless, and the naive.

I’m sure there are more than two ways of clearing this ground, but I want to talk about two: the tactical argument, and the strategic argument. The tactical argument is very familiar to me: nonviolence, it goes, is actually more tactically useful and effective than violence when it comes to leveraging, say, protest for change, or wrongfooting someone who is trying to dehumanize you.

I’d say that’s true. The disabled sit-ins in support of the ACA and Medicaid were far more effective tactically than many a “dirtbag” protest roundup. I’ve already noted how Michelle Obama’s dictum, “When they go low, we go high,” is (among other things) a way of offering generosity as a gift before racists can demand it of her as their rightful due from an inferior. Disrupting the script of oppressive action and reaction is itself a good tactic.

Then there’s the strategy of nonviolence. Nonviolent direct action does not take place in a vacuum: it takes place in a social context, in a nexus of relational connections between individuals and families and affinity groups, “the inescapable web of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it. The one who avoids being reactive is the one who can advance the more convincing insight into reality. Why would you let the oppressor decide what “reality” is and set the terms of the interaction?

So, thus we clear the ground to be able to talk about nonviolence and dispose of all the usual scornful stalking horses that seek to dismiss the topic as not worth examining. As G.K. Chesterton said of Christianity, nonviolence is rarely tried and found wanting; it is found difficult and left untried.

Because it is both concise and entertaining, I link theologian Walter Wink’s interactive lecture Nonviolence for the Violent — a title that acknowledges from the outset that people don’t undertake nonviolence because it is easy. Wink is interested not only in Jesus’s tactics of nonviolence, but in a larger critique of what he calls the “domination system” — a homeostasis of violence that strikes downward in the social order and has resisted eradication even by religious communities founded specifically to destroy it.

And in another vein, I also link Judith Butler’s present-day exploration of the strategy of nonviolence as shaping and being shaped by a more relational reality. (I found this link because of her recent interview pushing back against terfs’ efforts to pass themselves off as the face of mainstream feminism: another present-day instance of reactivity closing down the horizons of reality.)

Now wait a minute, you might say. Didn’t you write a book about war in which the characters celebrate the principle of single combat in an arena spectacle? And you’re talking about the superior tactics and strategy of nonviolence?

Yep.

Because as Judith Butler makes clear, we have refused to frame nonviolence relationally or use it as a tool of vision to reshape social reality, no matter how many times MLK told us that that was the whole point. Individual Ryswyckians may love combat or hate it, but the use of the arena is specifically to frame reality as a place in which people interact with one another in unambiguous mutual equality. The use of the community of Ryswyck is to foster respect for the other, both in body and soul, even if one is obliged to hit them.

The use of institutional violence, on the other hand, is to do mortal harm to the soul, to the human identity, of the other: to insult their existence by using their body as an effigy. Nonviolence isn’t about not-hitting the other, as Butler says. It’s about not using the other’s body as an instrument of insult.

“It’s deadly force that wins wars,” one of my characters says at a turning point in the plot. “But only courtesy can end them.”

So why clear ground for nonviolence now? Because otherwise we will be allowing the horizons of reality to be closed for us. I don’t need to tell you what’s going on outside: we are being treated to a vast spectacle of violence done by people who are so afraid of mortality that they have to pretend that dying is something only bad and stupid people have to do. So they tweet and rage and vandalize and kill and refuse to wear their goddamn masks for the common good. Is this who we want telling us what reality is? Is this who we want setting the tone for our concerted plans and efforts as a (trying to be) civilized society?

With the ground clear, this is my advice: put away any hint of thinking that your opponent’s body is to be used as an instrument of insult. Get with your neighbors in this network of mutuality we’re in, and start making plans now. Don’t wait to react. Start thinking about the reality you want to see acknowledged, and who you need, and who needs you. If you haven’t already, get used to the idea of making common cause with people you don’t agree with.

And stay tuned for one of my other topics on deck, which is: Vote.