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.

Allusion: sixth (and probably last) in a series

“It is, let me stress,” says Robert Alter, “an unnatural act to compose a poem or write a story.” And now that you’re all set to quibble with him, he goes on: “No one would think of perpetrating such an act without having been exposed to poems or stories that present themselves as objects of emulation or rivalry.” He goes on to instance the sonnet as a form that no one would use to express themselves without knowing what a sonnet is and entering into its continuity.

And, he’s not exactly wrong. I mean, I remember the first sonnet I ever tried to write. Probably best that my old folder of poetry was lost in some move or other. Still, if we were exposed to no forms of literature, we would have to invent them — I’ve been watching a lot of Time Team and you wouldn’t believe the number of times Phil Harding holds up a chip of flint he’s just dug up and says in his adorable West-Country accent, “Now, this don’t look like much, but it’s actually a Neolithic worked scraper — an exciting find!” Creating or maintaining forms of literature may not be “natural” — but they’re as essential a human technology as any other tool developed from antiquity.

But the reason Alter is using this argument is that he is trying to combat the sense of allusion as, again, something accidental or incidental to a text, which is better spoken of as an agentless process of “intertextuality.” “You can ‘allude’ to something,” Alter says, “but you can’t ‘intertextual’ it.” Not to belabor the point (but I totally will because this is my blog and I want to), but this idea that the literary critic does things to books texts, and only writers and naive people let books do things to them, is one that I just can’t accept. Yes, to consider texts critically is not the same thing as to enjoy or write them; but half your critical apparatus goes out the window if you refuse to think of writers as active agents in purposeful engagement with the tradition they have chosen to enter into, or their stories or poems as anything but inert objects to be played with in your current academic environment. I loved my education but I often felt that it took away with one hand what it gave with the other. “Here is a boatload of life-changing texts, but you should feel embarrassed if you ever admit that one had an actual effect on your mental landscape.”

(This is perhaps not fair to my professors in the English department, who no doubt had their hands full developing callow twenty-year-olds into proper critics not hampered by the Dunning-Kruger effect; but even my most sensible mentor, a medievalist with a wry sense of humor, when suggesting we consider how a text might be designed to affect us, used a gingerly dryness as if to insulate himself from the spirit of the age. I took note of that along with everything else in those seminars.)

Anyway, allusion. Alter calls it “an essential modality of the language of literature,” rather than simply a device in the writer’s toolbox. That is: the act of writing a poem or story is an act of engagement with whatever other examples of the form the writer has read and been affected by, and that engagement gives rise to allusion in different forms and modes. Two of Alter’s examples are Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord.” Never once in Faulkner’s book does the biblical story of David and his son Absalom make a direct appearance. But the title, being an allusion to that whole tragedy, informs the story between the covers as a comparably tragic self-destruction of a house. Hopkins, on the other hand, starts his sonnet with a direct quote from Jeremiah, and then strikes from there at the heart of his own frustration and sterility.

These two examples of allusion are comprehensive, and there are also recurrent or fleeting allusions within a text — but to use allusion, rather than just to be colored by whatever you’ve already read when you sit down to write, is to set up and activate a resonance in your reader that enriches their experience. Do it really well and they may not even have to get the reference.

Of course, the writer can make allusions for their own private enjoyment as well. A casual reader of Ryswyck may note by the style that I’ve obviously read a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold and Dorothy L. Sayers, and if I wanted to conceal their influence I probably wouldn’t be able to. A person familiar with the Major Arcana would likely recognize the images of at least two characters, which I worked into the design. But I’d be surprised and pleased if any reader caught the several references to the Gospel of John in the text — I put those in the design for my own pleasure, and to remind myself of what I like best about that gospel, the telling of a story from beginning to end in such a way that time itself becomes layered and laminated, like an exploded diagram of a theological reality.

Nobody needs to get that in order to enjoy my tale. But it’s part of the “high fun” of writing to make full use of all the nodes and meridians of meaningful stories in your reach. To think that a story should be full and resplendent with its own sui generis meaning, free of all dependence on other texts, is — well — a bit wanky, and a modern aberration. Some Stone Age person knapped a flint scraper for Phil Harding to find; I went to the store and bought a stainless steel knife. Guess who did more heavy lifting for the human race?

Now watch me dice this onion and cry some tears of gratitude.

This has been a not-so-liveblog responsive reading of the chapters in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Brought to you by the letters Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, and by the number Q. Tune in next time for…whatever I decide to do a series on next.

On (e)quality

Some years ago, I ran across a tweet thread that I cannot now find (alas), in which someone said that a certain comedy panel should have 50% women. Some dude shot back with something like, “Here’s a concept, why don’t we choose the panel based on how funny they are?”

Her reply: “No, we do need some men.”

The simplicity of that retort has stuck with me and kept me amused in all sorts of situations, from the choosing of board members for a church to the awarding of literary prizes.

I love the whole pris-de-fer of it, like “how can we add fifty whole percent of women to a thing without adulterating the quality of it, answer me that, huh?” was such a begged question that one can’t even parry that response.

“No, we do need some men.”

Or: “No, we do need some white people.” “No, we do need some cis folks.”

The problem is and always has been that Northern European white hetero cis male voices are presumed to be wholly representative of all humanity, and all other voices are presumed to be representative of nobody but themselves. That’s a real problem; shoring up standards against the incursion of minority upstarts is the opposite of a real problem.

(For a non-literary example, take ordination in my church, the Episcopal Church. We started ordaining women in the 1970s. Then, strangely, we felt the need to institute the General Ordination Exam to make sure our candidates for priesthood were fully conversant in all areas of ministry. Up till then, of course, a dude could just go meet with the bishop and the bishop could just say, “Okay, fine, go to seminary, take a course, and I’ll ordain you at such and such a date.” Now, the ordination process is insanely byzantine and varies from diocese to diocese. How strange! Yet despite that we are getting more and better priests and bishops and, not coincidentally, vastly more diverse priests and bishops as well.)

May I just testify briefly that the rise of diverse works in my genre has been good for me personally, as a white woman in a privilege-ridden racist society. I didn’t know to go looking for other voices; and structurally speaking, it was difficult to find them by accident — which is not an excuse but certainly a fact. Then I read a space opera by Ann Leckie in which the privileged skin color is brown. Then I read a story by Nnedi Okorafor in which a young African woman represents Earth on a voyage. Then I read a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin that is a mythopoeic tour de force, whose power has everything to do with the not-white point of view, but whose scope is the farthest thing from boutique.

I liked these things. I wanted more of them. And I knew that I liked them and wanted more of them.

That’s how I’ve benefited directly from deliberate inclusiveness, as a reader. And I hope to benefit directly from it as a writer going forward, as I gain acquaintance with other people’s vantage points.

I mean, it ought to be a no-brainer. But I practice my pris-de-fer just in case.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.

Commute wisdom: Brief thoughts on writing “good” characters

While negotiating the snow-mushy streets on the way to work, I found myself ruminating on what it’s like to write “good” characters, especially if one is only a fair-to-middling person oneself, morally.

It’s trendy right now to look at this from the reader’s point of view: to look at an author’s characters and guess at the moral makeup of the person writing them. Who does the story cast as the “best” character? What seems to make them “good” in the story’s viewpoint? Where does the gravity well of the story center itself? Do the morally-ambiguous or “bad” characters have more weight?

It’s worth asking questions like this to critique a story as a story; but I think the insights you can get about the author from them are limited. And who cares, really, unless you’ve got some torches and pitchforks sitting around begging to be used?

It’s an even trickier inquiry from a writer’s point of view. As humans, we generally don’t know what we don’t know. Our sense of ourselves as moral beings is its own benchmark. We recognize what we find morally repellent, but it’s much harder to identify what is morally superior to our point of view.

I got a sense of this once while writing fanwork about another author’s character. Inhabiting that character’s point of view, I was all set to write him as resentful and fretful against his superiors who were showing him compassion…when I realized abruptly that he wouldn’t do any such thing. He wouldn’t feel or act churlish in this situation: that was what I would do.

Getting schooled by a fictional character is an interesting experience.

So when the characters are of your own invention, you have to try to get attuned to the harmonic overtones of your own moral knowledge, to sketch a dim sense of what you don’t already know. In a way, writing characters with a three-dimensional moral identity is as much hedging one’s bets as representing reality. It’s also why it almost never works to just have the story identify a character as “the good guy” whose viewpoint is upheld no matter what they do. A story should have a sense of some containing reality bigger than any one character, even (especially!) if the story operates through an unreliable narrator.

It seems weird to be talking about self-circumspection when we’ve got fascists and reactionaries stomping around using our own good faith against us. But good-faith circumspection is exactly what I recommend, both as writers and as readers. Nobody’s going to do our work for us. And we get to decide if we’re going to level up. But we don’t get to decide if other people will. It’s just as true in insane times as sane ones.

Or so I said to myself, as I was pulling into the office parking lot.

Blogback: Courtesy as a weapon

If it’s not costly, it’s not courtesy.

This is definitely one of the things I hope Ryswyck brings to the table: a way of defining courtesy that isn’t just “having a well-policed tone” or “using good breeding.” As one character (actually, more than one) asks: “How can there be courtesy if one side thinks they’re the only humans?”

There’s a very real sense in which Ryswyckians can afford to exercise courtesy — they’re being trained to be formidable fighters, most of them have a comfortable class status, and all of them are intelligent enough to clear the entrance exam. When they leave the school they will be qualified for at least a lieutenant’s position, or the equivalent thereof, in the army or the navy.

And there’s also a real sense in which Ryswyck Academy creates artificial conditions for courtesy to flourish — as Scalzi mentions, places where people are understood to be social equals are places where courtesy actually isn’t very costly. On the other hand, Ryswyckians are inculcated 24/7 with the community’s ideal of what courtesy looks like, so if someone were to accuse them of discourtesy outside Ryswyck, they’d quickly suss out whether the accusation is being made in good faith.

Courtesy, unlike civility in a lot of contexts, does not equal “never showing anger.” You can respect someone’s humanity and still make it bitingly clear that you are furious with them. At Ryswyck, you can hit them — within certain rules of combat, of course. But what courtesy and civility have in common is that sense of cost. It is a heroic thing to show courtesy when it costs you. When someone who finds it much less costly, who styles themselves the arbiters of who and who is not a true member of a community, demands your heroism as a right — well, that is a vast insult.

I know what people are saying when, for example, they complain about Michelle Obama’s maxim, “When they go low, we go high,” but it does have one effect that I don’t think is often considered. Coming from her, this is a seizure of the moral high ground before the fact. White supremacist haters lose their chance to demand her heroism as their rightful due, because she has already framed it as a gracious gift. It’s a nonviolence tactic that drives them crazy.

Still, it’s a tactic, not the whole strategy, and it’s not available always and everywhere. It’s very useful in direct action, and less useful in, say, a situation where someone has applied the letter of the law of civility but made it manifestly clear that they don’t respect your humanity at all.

An actual sense of courtesy seeks, where possible, to liquidate unfair advantages, which requires a person to be aware of the situation outside the boundaries of one’s self. That’s the other sense in which courtesy is costly. Scalzi is perfectly right to suggest that the people who usually call for “civility” would never do so if it turned out to actually cost them something. For a lot of them, there’s little to choose between “respect my humanity” and “never tell me I’m wrong about something.” But for all courtesy’s costs, shielding someone from narcissistic wounding isn’t one of them.

It really sucks, though, to have the responsibility of issuing a gentle and courteous criticism, only to be met with a Category 5 uncivil backlash. I guess that’s why I got such pleasure out of having my Ryswyckians turn courtesy into a weapon.

Smile. Bow. Hit them. What could be more gratifying?

Admiring other writers, and other invitations

Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?

I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.

This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”

It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.

Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.

So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.

(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)

Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.

And that is all the news that’s fit to print.