Writing Wednesdays: Orphans

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about orphans lately.

I don’t mean that in the literal sense. Though, come to think of it, there’s probably a lot to be said about orphans, and I’m writing my share – Maddie from Fall is an orphan, after all; so, too, is Willow, the protagonist of my back-burnered children’s book, Ten Witch Grave. There are a lot of orphans in literature, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. We seem to be drawn to them as characters. There’s probably a whole other blog post there. File it under Posts I’m Not Writing for now.

But that gives me a great segue into what I’m actually writing about: J.K. Rowling (as revealed on Pottermore) calls them orphans. My writing group calls them Stories You’re Not Writing (or Poems You’re Not Writing, or Plays You’re Not Writing, or…you get the idea). They are, simply put, the Very Good Ideas (and occasionally the horrifically bad ideas) that, sadly, have no place in whatever you’re actually creating. Because let’s face it: we all have good ideas. Even great ideas. Except, of course, when we don’t – but, for the most part, ideas are everywhere. They can be found in abundance. And the surfeit of ideas can be more of a problem than the absence of ideas.

In previous posts, I’ve used the machine analogy: your novel (or story, or even poem, in some cases) isn’t a simple thing. It’s a machine filled with many moving parts. You have to choose those parts well, and assemble them with the utmost care. As a rule, you can’t afford to waste your time and effort on useless frippery – or, worse, design and build mechanisms that actually interfere with the functioning of the whole device. You may also have heard of the concept of bandwidth. It’s mostly a computing term, referring to the amount of data you can transmit over a given connection at a given time. But human beings have bandwidth, too. Projects have bandwidth. You can only process so much information; you can only fit so much into a given work.

So this is something that anyone working on a creative project has to deal with. You have ideas. Many of them are Very Good Ideas. But even the best ideas may have to be ignored, or cut, or shouted down until they slink away, tail between their legs. You only have so much bandwidth. You only have so much time. And so, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes painfully, you force those Very Good Ideas out of your story. You create orphans. And those elements of your story will never see the light of day, except perhaps in author’s notes, or interviews, or blog posts like this one.

When I think of Fall‘s orphans, I think first of the two bits of Irish folklore that first inspired me. One of them is an old story (with a few different variations) that I’m not going to talk about just yet, as it may lead people to guess the outcome of the novel, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone before I’ve finished writing it. The other, as I mentioned before, was a charm against the Good Folk that I have been unable to find again – but it went vaguely like this:

Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in that hill over there, stay over there and don’t bother me.

I’m sure it was much more poetic in its original form (for that matter, it’s probably much more poetic in Irish Gaelic), but as I said, I can’t recall the exact wording and haven’t been able to find the charm again since I first heard it in a folklore class many years ago. But I was struck by the idea of wielding the natural order of things as a weapon against the Good Folk, of using logic and reason and nature against the illogical, the insane, the supernatural. It is not, perhaps, an entirely original concept – see the animated film version of The Flight of Dragons, or certain interpretations of Changeling: The Dreaming – but I found it fascinating nonetheless.

As I think on it now, there is, perhaps, still something of that dichotomy in Fall as it currently stands. Certainly the Fair don’t play by our rules, and their magic is not readily explained or explored through the scientific method. (Sidebar: Isaac Asimov wrote a terrific essay on magic, science, and Clarke’s Third Law in which he argued that, in fact, magic by definition is not bound by rules, where science is – appropriately enough, it’s in his fantasy collection Magic. I did not agree with the essay when I first read it. I’ve come around on the subject.) But they’re not creatures of madness and irrationality anymore. They would generally agree that today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. They would, in fact, point out that today is Wednesday and you’ve actually got it all wrong. The light of reason would not drive them out. It’s a wonderful idea. But there’s no place for it in the story I’m writing.

Actually, a lot of folklore has fallen by the wayside as I’ve streamlined the society of the Fair. As I was researching the book, I drove myself a bit crazy trying to catalog and codify all the fairies in European folklore, chasing down stories of shapeshifting witches and wise druids and talking cats and river monsters. This, too, I’ve discussed before. For a while there, it was enough to make me want to tear my hair out. Finally, for the sake of my sanity, I decided on two rules:

  1. I would only draw fairies from the folklore of Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and the surrounding islands, with a particular focus on Ireland.
  2. I would only allow a particular species to join the ranks of the Fair if it filled a specific niche that no other species quite occupied.

With those rules in mind, I sketched out the following list in my notebook. This is taken verbatim.

  • The bòcans became true shapeshifters.
  • The coblynau retreated beneath the earth.
  • The daoine sidhe came to resemble humans.
  • The dullahans became night terrors.
  • The leannáin sidhe adapted to feed on human blood.
  • The murúcha retreated beneath the waves.
  • The spriggans became more like humans, but kept their strength and power to grow.
  • The fir liath became creatures of air.
  • The ferrishyn became diminutive sprites and formed bonds with dogs.
  • The leanaí na gcrann became creatures of the forests.
  • The sluagh na marbh survived by recruiting/preserving the dead. (also consuming?)

Obviously I’ve expanded on that since, and some of it has changed since I sketched out that basic list. But there’s the skeleton: twelve species, each with their own niches, their own parts to play. And it fits the basic ideas of my story well. The Fair are not their ancestors, the legendary Tuatha de Dannan. They can’t change their form on a whim (with the possible exception of the bòcans, but even they have their limits), they can’t move mountains with a whispered word. They are changed. Codified. Diminished.

I had to bid goodbye to so much in the process: trolls and kelpies and knockers, nixies and nucklavees. There are a lot of orphaned fairies out there, and I wouldn’t want to run into any of them on a dark and lonely night. But Fall is stronger for it. The world is more coherent, more defined. The machine is not yet running perfectly, but it’s running well.

Don’t be afraid to make orphans. If something isn’t working, cut it out. Be ruthless. Cut and rearrange and cut some more until it fits – even if you’re losing Very Good Ideas in the process. There will be other stories. Or there will be notes, or interviews, or anecdotes to be told with a small, rueful smile. You don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this story.

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Writing Wednesdays: The Evolution of Fall, Chapter One

Earlier this week, I posted the first chapter of Fall. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to go and do so before you continue – this week’s Writing Wednesdays post is all about the evolution of that chapter, so it’s not likely to make much sense to you otherwise.

At this point, Chapter One has been through approximately four and a half drafts. The half-draft is my original handwritten version, which I never managed to finish. At the time, I actually wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going, so I didn’t really know how the chapter should end. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), that draft was written before I moved last year, and the notebook containing it is still buried in the bottom of a box which is buried beneath a pile of boxes deep in the wilds of the junk room. So I don’t remember a lot of specific details. I do recall that I was still using the characters’ original names at that point, so Kira was Aisling, and Bree was Siobhan, among other things. I also recall that the story did not start with Bree’s dream. In fact, I hadn’t yet hit on the idea of giving her strange, prophetic dreams at all. That only emerged as Bree’s story expanded beyond her romance with Maddie, and I decided…

Well. That would be telling. In the words of River Song, spoilers.

Anyway, that early draft actually begins with Bree/Siobhan already on campus, heading to class with her sister. Kira/Aisling doesn’t have much of a part in that draft at all – Siobhan complains a bit about how perfect (and evil) her sister is, but Aisling runs off pretty quickly, and then Siobhan literally bumps into Maddie, who reacts to her meeting with one of the daoine sidhe with rather more fear and distaste. I had the basic idea of who Maddie was in my head, but I hadn’t yet thought through what that meant.

Really, the point of that very first draft was to get myself to start writing this story. In that, it succeeded. But I hadn’t done a lot of the groundwork, and it shows. In fact, as I recall, I hadn’t yet explored the world of the Fair in full, so at that point in time, I was just writing about the daoine sidhe. I’m not even sure I’d brought Professor Gahan and his family into it yet.

You may be wondering why that initial draft was handwritten. That’s a habit of mine that I haven’t yet fully broken. I got my first laptop at eighteen. Before that, I was primarily using the family computer. Since I was, as you might guess, sharing that computer with my family, I only had a couple hours on it each day, and I didn’t want to waste that time pondering. So I’d write out my initial drafts on hand, then type them up when I got my turn on the computer and start making corrections and revisions from there. If I ended up throwing out the whole draft, I’d write the second one longhand as well, to save precious computer time. I still tend to do this on some projects – particularly when I’m running a tabletop RPG – even though I’ve had one laptop or another available to me for most of the past decade. Further, at the time I had an extremely long commute which involved a very lengthy bus ride, and I was nervous about bringing my laptop along. It seems silly to confess that now, as I am literally writing this during my 30-40 minute commute on the Red Line, but there you are.

I do have access to my first complete draft of Chapter One, though I had to go digging through my writing group’s archives to find it. Strangely, it seems I didn’t save a local copy. Actually, looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so strange – I’ve found myself wincing at several points. But I tend to hoard old files, sometimes to my detriment, so it’s still a little surprising that I didn’t keep this one.

With the first draft, the general shape of the chapter begins to emerge. All the characters have their proper names: Bree is Bree, Kira is Kira. Looking back, I see that I’d even settled on Deirdre as their mother’s name. There was a time when I was going with Gwynn, which ultimately became the name of Deirdre’s late mother. (You haven’t heard the story of Deirdre and Gwynn yet. You will.) That said, a lot of the details differ. Most notably, I hadn’t yet figured out Kira’s characterization. In the first complete draft, she was even more bratty and obnoxious than she is now. In fact, she initially woke Bree by dumping a bucket of ice water over her head. When I put this draft before my writing group, many of them pointed out that Kira seemed awfully immature for someone who was over a century old, and her relationship with Bree was not what they would expect from someone who was already grown when her little sister was born. In the course of that discussion, someone mentioned the idea of Kira seeing herself as a sort of surrogate mother to Bree, and I latched on to that. Kira still has moments of immaturity, but it’s all artifice. We see a little of her deeper nature in Chapter One, and we’ll see more as the story continues. Kira has motivations that go far beyond simple malice.

I was also describing Kira very differently – in fact, I was describing all the daoine sidhe of the Winter Court differently. In the first draft, they tended to be short and slight, and Bree, who stood at least a head above most of them, stuck out like a sore thumb. I ultimately decided to make them all a bit more like supermodels, and that meant upping their height significantly. They’re still slender and pale and coldly beautiful, and Bree, with her healthy farm girl glow, still sticks out like a sore thumb, but the differences are there nonetheless.

Speaking of the Winter Court, Bree’s first day of college was originally much colder – cold enough to make her put a nice thick sweater over her shirt and under her jacket. Here’s the thing about early September in New England: as a rule, summer hasn’t left yet. It’s hot and muggy and actually really unpleasant. So my writing group didn’t really buy that even the Winter Queen’s ambient magic would make the first day of college that cold. In the end, I decided that there was no real point in keeping that detail if it broke the reader out of the story, so I toned down the temperature difference a bit. Crowshead still has an unusually cool climate for Massachusetts, but it’s no longer freezing while the rest of the state is still sweltering.

Crowshead wasn’t Crowshead, of course. I’ve talked about that before – it was originally Tara, which was taken as an allusion to Gone With The Wind rather than the reference to Irish history and mythology it was meant to be. In fact, the town wasn’t even in the same place in that first draft: I originally placed it in central Massachusetts, and Greymont College was actually Greyvale instead. When I was pondering new names for the town, I hit on Cape Clear, came up with some really fantastic visuals for the Winter Queen’s palace (which you’ll see for the first time in Chapter Two), and moved the whole thing to the coast. My writing group didn’t like Cape Clear, either, so I did some research into the history of my home state, looked at the names of some other coastal towns, and finally came up with Crowshead. The name Greyvale wasn’t really working for me at that point, so I changed it to Greymount, which ultimately became Greymont.

Last but far from least, the dream was much shorter, and there wasn’t a single detail in it to indicate Maddie’s possible presence. Someone still grabbed Bree at the end of her dance with the handsome boy from the dream, but I didn’t really describe that someone at all, and my writing group actually wasn’t sure it was meant to be a separate person at all! So I tried to make that clearer in later drafts. Hopefully I’ve succeeded.

So the second complete draft introduced Kira’s new personality, Maddie’s hand, the coastal town of Cape Clear, and Greymount College. One thing it didn’t introduce: Bree’s magic. The fourth draft is the first version of Chapter One in which she actually uses any magic at all. Bree doesn’t rely too heavily on her magic – certainly she doesn’t use it as freely as Kira does – but yes, she has power, she is willing and able to use it, and she uses more of it in Chapter Two. Originally, however, she didn’t use it at all until that chapter. And yet she still noticed fine details like Maddie’s hand and the bracelet around her wrist from a good twenty or thirty or forty feet away. This was something else my group called me on. I had originally thought that the daoine sidhe simply had better-than-human sight, but my fellow writers pointed out that it was very difficult to consistently and convincingly write a character with superhuman powers of perception, particularly if those powers were constantly active, and I ultimately decided that Bree would have to make a conscious effort to see so clearly across such a great distance.

The third complete draft really didn’t differ much from the second at all. At the time, I was actually submitting the first chapter of Fall (along with some other pieces) as a writing sample for a job that didn’t end up panning out, so the third draft was mostly cleanup. I changed Cape Clear to Crowshead, and I believe I made one or two other adjustments, but most of the major changes, such as they are, came with the fourth draft.

And that brings us to the present. Major changes in this draft: Greymount officially became Greymont, I added some more details to the dream, and I tweaked Bree’s conversation with Maddie as well as the scene between Bree, Maddie and Kira. I also, notably, changed Dougal’s name. It had been Doyle, but my friend Katie pointed out that Doyle was the name of a prominent character from the Merry Gentry series, and while I’ve read the first book and my Doyle isn’t really at all like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Doyle, I still didn’t want to invite comparison. Both Doyle and Dougal are derived from the old-form version of his name, which is Dubhghall, and in fact Dougal has turned up more often as the modern form in my (admittedly sketchy) research so far, so after a bit of hemming and hawing, I finally made the switch.

As I said previously, this may not be the final form of the chapter. I may still make some tweaks, cut down on some of Bree’s ramblings, and generally clean things up a bit. But I’m confident in the general shape of it, and more than ready to move on. Truth be told, if I hadn’t decided to post the first chapter on the blog, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with another draft at all – at least not until I had the whole novel sitting in front of me, ready to be knitted into a coherent whole. I have much bigger dragons to slay: namely the second chapter (where I’m introducing a character who walked into the story three chapters late and demanded a place in the narrative) and the third (which has seen two completely different drafts so far and still isn’t quite right) and, well, every chapter afterward. Still, it did help a bit to look back at where I’ve been and come up with a new working copy. If nothing else, it got my head back in the game.

Onward.

If you like what you’ve just read, or if you’d like to see more of Fall, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I receive before April 30, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall or a short piece set in the same universe. I’ve already received a little over one hundred dollars, meaning we’re less than $150 away from the first benchmark. The same deal applies for every $500 I receive after the end of the month: a chapter from the book, or a short story exploring Bree’s world in more depth. If you can’t personally donate, you can still help by spreading the word about the blog and the novel. The more readers and potential donors I reach, the better. Either way, though, thanks for reading.

Writing Wednesdays: Write Now. RIGHT NOW!

As a rule, I don’t like to dish out advice that I haven’t followed. Now, it’s true that we all make mistakes, and we all learn from them, and sometimes that makes for fantastic advice…but if you keep making those mistakes, if you keep failing to take your own advice, that kind of makes you a hypocrite. So I’ll say this up front: when it comes to everything I’m about to say, yeah, I kind of feel like a hypocrite. I don’t think I’m particularly wrong about any of it, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen short of my own standards here.

The secret to writing is this: you have to keep doing it.

You have to do it when you’re nursing a hangover from that party you went to the night before. You have to do it when the cat spent an ungodly hour yowling at your door, destroying the eight glorious hours of sleep you’d planned for yourself. You have to do it when you were at the office until an hour that doesn’t bear thinking about. You have to do it when the black cloud of depression is upon you. You have to do it when it’s a beautiful sunny day and you just want to spend it lying in the grass and you can’t take your laptop because the glare is just awful. You have to do it when you’re staring down writer’s block. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. If you want to actually make something of yourself as a writer, you have to stand up, put on your big girl pants, and then sit back down again and actually write.

If you wait for inspiration to strike, you will be waiting until wolves devour the sun and moon, King Arthur returns from Avalon, and the whole grand host of the sidhe comes riding down from Tir na nOg. Oh, I’m sure that some writers live in a land of milk and honey, where unicorns hand-deliver brilliant ideas on golden platters, outlines and settings and characters hand-written by their muses and sealed with big, wet, sloppy kisses. But the vast majority of us know that our muses are fickle, arbitrary jerks. That nothing comes without a price, and that price is the blood, sweat and tears we pour into turning that thin glimmer of inspiration into something full and vital and real. Writer’s block is not something that merely afflicts us, that comes for a season and drifts away on its own – it’s a dragon to be fought with everything we have, to be hacked at again and again until it thinks better of bothering us and goes back to its cave. And inspiration is not something that descends from on high: it is an elusive quarry, a stealthy beast that must be tracked and hunted and flushed out again and again.

So you have to carve out time to do the work. You have to take it wherever you can find it. And, once you’ve found that time, you have to set down your schedule and stick to it. Writing is work, and like any other work, it requires planning, and discipline, and routine. A lot of writers I know try to get an hour or two in every day. That’s a worthy goal. It’s a goal I’ve fallen short of more often than I care to admit, but it’s what I’m trying for. I do tend to get more work done on the weekends, but I try to get in at least an hour with Fall each day. In the last week, I’ve actually been taking my computer with me on the train – I have a solid forty-minute train ride between home and work each day, so even after I factor in booting up and shutting down, that’s thirty minutes coming and going, or an hour altogether. I don’t have Internet access on the train, and my iPod blasts my Fall-themed playlist straight into my ears the whole way, so distractions are minimized. I have to keep an eye on which station I’m actually pulling into, but I can manage that and still get a fair amount of writing done.

Even if you can’t actually put pen to paper – or fingers to keys – for some reason, you can still do the work. People were creating stories long before we had the luxury of computers, or typewriters, or ballpoint pens, or even movable type. If you really want to feel bad about yourself and all your excuses for not writing, take a look at the backstory behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir composed entirely inside the author’s head and dictated to the outside world one letter at a time. I mean, I was in the hospital recently, as some of you may recall. I didn’t have it nearly that bad. I wasn’t nearly that dedicated to the work, either. Even so, I did spend my time in the hospital running through Fall in my head, and by the time I got out, I had a new character who filled in a lot of the gaps in the story. That playlist I mentioned? Well, on top of the 40-minute train ride, I have a 20-minute walk between the station and my house, and a 10-minute walk between the other station and my office. I keep the playlist running and I do my best to think about the book. Even when you’re not writing, you can be laying the foundation.

This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re not going to bang out a novel in a single sitting. Neither am I. You have to keep chipping away at it. You have to build up your stamina, find a routine that works for you, and stick to it. If you’re not writing regularly, you’ll never be anything but a wannabe. I don’t want to be a wannabe. Do you?

If you like what you’ve just read, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. If you can’t donate yourself, but you’d still like to help, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive itself. The more readers and potential supporters I pick up, the better.

Writing Wednesday: On Names

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
T.S. Eliot, The Naming Of Cats


Okay, so maybe that quote isn’t totally apropos here, but as I was pondering this week’s Writing Wednesdays piece, I couldn’t help thinking of it. Because, of course, the naming of characters – and cities, and institutions, and Heaven knows what else – can also be a difficult matter. You need to remember, first and foremost, that fiction is not reality. That much is probably obvious, but in truth, fiction bears very little resemblance to reality. One of the first things you learn in Creative Writing 101 is that the statement ‘But that’s how it happened in real life!’ does not ever excuse any problem with your story. That rule mainly applies to plot development and characterization, but it runs a little deeper. In real life, you might know a dozen guys named John, or half a dozen women named Sarah – in college, I knew so many Sarahs that we had to start color-coding them. In a story, well…you better find reasons for them to use nicknames, stat, or your readers are going to get VERY confused VERY quickly. Even similar names can cause issues, as I’m sure George R.R. Martin has learned to his chagrin over the course of writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

And while you’re making sure all your characters have very unique, distinct names, you also need to bear in mind that certain names convey certain images. There was a time, for example, when Ashley, Meredith, and Leslie were all predominantly male names, and you still see them applied to men in the modern era – but unless you’re writing a period piece, you’d best have a very good reason for naming male characters any of the above, and you’d best be prepared to address the matter in the story. Twyla and Tilda are considered strange, at least to modern American readers (despite prominent women graced with both names); Patricia and Donna are old-fashioned; Tiffany and Amber put one in mind of Valley girls. And so it goes.

Names carry their own meanings, as any baby name book or website can tell you. I prefer to refer to the (sadly out of print) Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook when naming characters; my process has been complicated by the fact that many of my characters actually have two or three distinct names, and one set needs to logically derive from the other. My protagonist, Bree, isn’t just Brianna Naughton; she’s also Brianna ni Deirdre o Neachtain. Her sister, Kira, is Ciara in the old form; her mentor, Professor Trevor Gahan, is Lord Treabhair mac Daimhin o Gaoithin. So I’ve had to do a lot of digging, trying to find old Irish names that have mutated over time into more modern forms, and I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded. And I’ve tried to balance that attempt at some kind of authenticity against my efforts to convey meaning through the names – Brianna, for example, as the female form of Brian, means noble, strong, virtuous; in short, the qualities of a champion, which is exactly what Bree must become. I chose the name Trevor for Bree’s mentor because he’s an academic, and the name puts me in mind of an intellectual…but the Irish name from which it can be derived (the name is also derived from the Welsh, and has a different meaning in that case) means industrious or prudent, and Professor Gahan, as we learn over the course of the book, tends to be a very cautious sort, holding his cards close to the chest and acting only when strictly necessary.

Last but not least, names can be allusions, and not always the ones you intend. Here’s an example of a successful allusion from Fall: Bree’s mother is named Deirdre, after Deirdre of the Sorrows, a tragic figure from a rather prominent Irish legend. I don’t know if everyone who’s read the story so far has picked up on that, but it’s there for those readers who are likely to appreciate it, and it hasn’t bothered anyone who didn’t get the reference so far.

Now for a less successful allusion: I had originally named the town in which Fall takes place Tara, after the hill in Ireland associated with the High Kings and prominent figures of Irish mythology. And this is where beta readers came in again, because almost no one got it – in fact, they thought it was a reference to Gone With The Wind, and could not understand why I was linking my story to that one! Much as I hated drowning that particular darling, it was clear that the name just wasn’t working. I tried again with Cape Clear (playing with another bit of Irish geography), but when my writing group raised objections to that as well, I had to give up the ghost and go through the history of Massachusetts instead. Ultimately I came up with Crowshead, which sounds like a New England town and sort of slyly references some minor aspects of my tale. So Crowshead it is, as of my current drafts, and Crowshead it’s likely to remain.

All in all, you can’t afford to leave anything to chance. You can’t just pick names at random out of a baby book, or go straight for the easiest, most common choices. You need to carefully consider which names work for each character, each place, each and every thing in your story that needs a name of its own. And you need to run those names past other people, because you will mess something up. The right names can make your world more complete, more vibrant, more vital. The wrong ones can pull your reader out of the story. Choose wisely.

If you like what you’ve been reading, please consider donating to the blog’s Summer Pledge Drive – I’m dealing with some medical bills, a dying laptop, and a bunch of personal and family expenses right now and I could really use the help. If you would like to help, but can’t donate, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive. The more readers I pick up, the more people who hear about all of this, the more likely I am to raise the funds I need. Thank you.

Writing Wednesdays: The Importance of Beta Readers

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

That’s kind of an old chestnut at this point, but it’s true nonetheless – doubly so when you’re shopping your book to agents and editors. Many of us, I think, have this romantic fantasy lurking in the back of our minds of writing the Great American Novel (or whichever country you call home) on our first try, wowing everyone who sees it, prompting a bidding war that ends with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Okay, maybe that part’s just me. At the very least, we assume that, with the right idea and a solid grasp of the fundamentals, we can come up with something that will grab an editor’s attention. Oh, sure, the book might need some work, but surely potential buyers will see it as the diamond in the rough it truly is, right? …right?

Yeah. Not so much. Trust me: as a writer, you need a second pair of eyes (and a third, and a fourth), and preferably well before you stop shopping your book around. I’m not just talking about proofreaders, either: you need someone to point out when the things that seemed so incredibly clear in your head are actually really difficult for the average reader to understand, when characters come off as obnoxious or unrealistic or boring, when dialogue is stilted and awkward. And while your close friends and family members may be able to offer you some useful advice, you shouldn’t count on their unbiased opinions. That’s where beta readers come in. And the sooner you bring them in, the better.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a little while to accept the concept of the beta reader. In retrospect, it should have clicked straightaway – I mean, my father’s a computer programmer and software tester. I myself have ended up pursuing a career in the software industry, specifically working as a QA tester, and I was participating in volunteer playtests even before I started doing it for a living. But we’re talking about books! Not software! Not video games or database systems! Books are art! They are too pure and wonderful and sacred to be sullied by such base ideas!

If you’re serious about writing, you need to learn this lesson right quick: your book is not pure, wonderful, or sacred. It may be art – time will tell – but for the time being, it’s work. It’s something you build methodically, piece by piece, until you come up with something that won’t blow up in your face. It’s a machine. And if you want that machine to perform well in the demo – as it were – then you need to test it.

Look, I tried doing it the other way. I tried writing my novels in a vacuum. I told myself that yes, of course, absolutely I’d let my friends and family see it…when it was ready to go off to the editor. And everyone else could just wait until the book came out. Maybe that works for some people, but honestly, they’re a rare breed. I joined a writing group a couple years back, and honestly – my work is the better for it, simply because they see things I missed. They tell me openly and honestly what worked for them and what didn’t. They point out boring passages and character moments that didn’t go over the way I thought they would. They force me to think about background details I failed to fully define. They keep me honest, insofar as any writer is honest. And I honestly can’t imagine trying to write Fall without them.

So how do you find beta readers? Well…despite what I said, your friends (and possibly your family) are a good place to start. If you have friends you trust to give you honest, objective criticism, you should definitely ask them to take a look at your current project. They might also be able to introduce you to other beta readers – I lucked out there myself; my friend Katie introduced me to the aforementioned writing group, which she’d already been attending for some time. While I do trust Katie to give me honest feedback, we’re also honestly in sync on a lot of stuff…sure, we have our disagreements, but I think our brains tend to work in the same way. And while I do consider the other members of our group friends, I’m not as close to them. We don’t share all the same interests (though many of us are fans of genre fiction to some degree, and geeky in our own special ways) and we definitely don’t think entirely alike. As much as I value Katie’s feedback, and as much as I love it when we’re collaborating on some project or another or just bouncing ideas off each other, it really does help to get some opinions from people I don’t speak with every day.

Past that, there’s the whole wide world of the Internet. There are TONS of writing groups and circles and trapezoids out there, and a whole slew of people who are only too happy to volunteer as beta readers. You might also look into writing workshops in your area – at the very least, they’re a great way to meet other writers who live nearby, and maybe you can forge your own group out of that. There is, quite literally, a whole world at your fingertips. You just need to take a look.

However you find them, though, you do need those beta readers – as surely as software companies need beta testers. To quote another old chestnut, any job worth doing is worth doing well. Maybe you’re one in a million. Maybe you don’t need anyone to review your masterpiece before you unleash it upon the world. But why take that chance? It’s better to spend the time passing chapters around to beta readers and soliciting their feedback than risk sending a potential agent or slush pile editor some shoddy half-baked novel that may never see the light of day, isn’t it?

Writing Wednesdays: Complicity, Responsibility, and Rue

Welcome back to Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’ll be honest: I really wasn’t expecting to tie my Writing Wednesdays post into the movie or the book. I’ve already talked about the influence The Hunger Games and its sequels had on Fall – namely, the realization that the present tense could make for perfectly valid and even compelling narrative, and I didn’t need to feel awkward about using it. So when it came time to figure out what else I could say about The Hunger Games and the writing process, I drew a blank.

And then the Internet happened.

As I said previously, I went to see the movie last Saturday, and while I had some reservations, I freaking loved it. Amandla Stenberg, who plays Rue, was a pretty big part of that. I noted in my review that Rue’s story in the book, while sad and compelling, didn’t actually make me cry (I think I did get a bit sniffly, but my full-out sobbing moment came two books later, in Mockingjay). The film was a different story: when the climactic moment came, I broke down completely. During the scenes that followed, I lost it. And I do think it was in large part because Amandla Stenberg so perfectly embodied Rue. She gave a face and a voice to the character. A person I had only seen in the abstract, in the depths of my imagination, became real. If I could give her a standing ovation right the hell now, I would. You know what, let’s call this a virtual standing ovation. Brava. Seriously, fantastic job.

This little girl didn't tug at your heartstrings? Really? REALLY?

Imagine my shock, outrage and sadness when I discovered that countless assholes on the Internet were tweeting and blogging about their anger over Rue’s casting. Colorlines has a great article about this. You can also read about it on Feministing. Or on Alyssa’s blog at ThinkProgress. Or you can just check out the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr. But to sum up: people were awful about this. There were people on Twitter who said Amandla Stenberg’s role as Rue ruined the movie for them. Others said that they were no longer saddened by Rue’s story – or they were no longer as saddened – when they saw her as black. Still others flat-out denied that Rue was black at all.

All things considered, it put me in mind of the ridiculous, overblown ‘controversy’ over the casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall in Thor…except, in this case, the outrage is even more outrageous because yes, for God’s sake, Rue is black! At the very least, she’s clearly a person of color. The Hunger Games, page 98, where Rue is first described:

I […] see the little girl from District 11 standing back a bit, watching us. She’s the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with her arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound.

Emphasis mine, naturally. So these jerks are not only openly racist – they completely fail at reading comprehension. But you know what, let’s leave aside the fact that yes, Rue is a person of color. Even if her race wasn’t described in the book – even if she was explicitly described as white – the casting of Amandla Stenberg would be perfectly valid and, in fact, praiseworthy.

We live in a country where Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood and his murderer may not even be arrested, let alone prosecuted. We live in a country where Shaima Alawadi was beaten to death in her own home, her body discovered by her 17-year-old daughter along with a note telling the family to go back to Iraq, and the authorities think it might be a hate crime. I love my country. I do. I believe in the promise of the United States of America. But we have a problem with race. The whole Western world has a problem with race.

And that problem becomes especially egregious when we consider Hollywood and all its works. It is damned hard to be a person of color in Hollywood. When the film and television industry deigns to cast people of color at all, they are all too frequently delivery people, waiters, terrorists, criminals, token sidekicks…rarely, if ever, leading men and women. Rarely, if ever, characters with really meaty, vitally important roles (unless, again, they’re terrorists or criminals). And you know what? Popular culture influences culture, full stop. When we’re constantly told that people who look like THIS are criminals, people who look like THAT are terrorists, and if they’re not, well, it’s perfectly okay to ignore them…that sinks in. That’s precisely what at least some of us start to believe. I want to believe that things are getting better. I truly, deeply want to believe that. But I cannot afford to wave these concerns off. None of us can.

As a white person, I have the luxury of ‘not seeing race’. That is privilege in its most basic form. I have the luxury of looking at all-white casts and going, ‘okay, well, race wasn’t specified and those were the best people for the job, right?’ I live in a magical fairyland where people who look like me are the default. I lack privilege in other areas, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean I get to ignore the privileges I enjoy as a white American from a middle-class background. That doesn’t mean I get to fall into the trap of going with the default, where the default is white.

How does this tie back into writing? Well. I’m a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I love pretty much everything of hers I’ve read, but more importantly, I admire her convictions – her determination to break out of the mold, to refuse to accept the white person as default, to include people of color, people of all backgrounds, in her stories. She’s opened up and talked about race here and there. She’s talked about wanting people who are not white, who are not among the people in power, to see themselves reflected in her stories. That’s something I want to do, too. Hell, that’s half the reason I’m writing Fall: I wanted to write a story for people like me. I wanted to see gay relationships reflected in supernatural romance. If I fail to include others in my world – if I fail to show a broader spectrum of human experience – then it’s just that: failure.

I was trying to articulate this to a friend last night. I’m not sure I succeeded, but what I said was this: the world is a mess. And if we all look at that mess and say that we didn’t cause it, that it’s not our problem, that we’re not going to take responsibility for it, then nothing is ever going to get better. I mean, I’m a person of faith, but the cold, hard truth is that we know nothing about this world except that we’re here, now, and it’s kind of screwed up. Our first duty is to make things better. Here. Now. On this planet, in this lifetime. We can’t do that by ignoring the problems. We can’t do that by denying our complicity. We have to take responsibility for what we write, what we put on film, what we draw, what we create in any way, shape or form. As creators, we have to capture some part of a whole big wide world. It is terrifying. But it is vitally important.

And if readers don’t get it? If they reject that? Well, that’s on them. Some minds are bound to stay closed. Maybe we’ll open others, if we do it right. Suzanne Collins included a little girl with brown skin who stirred readers’ sympathies to the point where several of us cried at the end of her story. Some readers rejected that premise – at least once they saw the film and realized that, horror of horrors, they were sympathizing with a black girl. Pardon my French, but fuck them. Fuck that.

The central characters of Ten Witch Grave have brown skin. And while I have struggled with issues of race in Fall, given its white protagonist and its themes of Irish mythology and the Irish diaspora, I’m including people of color there, too, because – surprise! – they freaking exist, and when I deny that, when I ignore that, I am part of the problem. And if ever the books take off, if ever the film versions are made, and my so-called ‘fans’ go off about how they lost sympathy for those characters, how they thought the mere presence of people of color ruined the story, how they don’t believe the characters I clearly and explicitly defined as people of color actually are…then those are not my fans. Those are assholes.

This is a tricky issue. I get that. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. And, while including the whole range of human diversity, we have to be careful not to cross the line into cultural appropriation. But God damn it all – we have to try. If we fail, then we pick ourselves up. We listen, and we learn from our mistakes, and we go on and do better. But if we don’t try, then we are complicit. We have helped make the world just a little bit worse.

Try to make the world better. However you do it. Words and images have power, and as someone once said, with great power comes great responsibility. As writers, as artists, as creators, and as consumers of content, be responsible. Don’t be an asshole. Okay?

EDIT: Since first writing this post, I’ve come across Amandla Stenberg’s own statement to US Weekly regarding the racist tweets. I apologize for the omission. And, while a cursory reader might be forgiven for thinking the statement is awfully generic, I read it as a really classy way of pointing out that the people who flipped out over this don’t really deserve to be considered part of the Hunger Games fan community, and the actual fans are the ones who matter here. Way to go, Ms. Stenberg. 🙂

Writing Wednesdays: All The Small Things

In the past, I’ve remarked that I would very much like to be Neil Gaiman when I grow up. I do not, of course, mean that I would like to be a middle-aged man with perpetually untidy black hair, a keen wit, and a ridiculously awesome English accent, though of course some of these things are indeed things I envy and/or aspire to. (I currently have perpetually untidy red hair. It’s very different.) No, what I admire about Neil Gaiman is this: he is, I daresay, the authorial version of the Renaissance man. He’s worked in a vast array of media – comics, prose, poetry, music, beekeeping – and it’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. That’s the course I’d like my career to take. Ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, I’d like to look back and say that, yes, I, too, have done a little bit of everything.

Except the beekeeping. I have a deathly fear of bees. …I probably shouldn’t admit that kind of thing on the open Internet.

I realize I’m burying the lede, here, so let me get to the point: the stories we tell, the shapes those stories take, are determined by a million different decisions. Some of them are quite big and obvious. Medium, of course, plays a central role in the final development of a story. A film is not the same animal as a short story, a novel, or even a television show. But some of the decisions you’ll make will be smaller. Subtler. They are, nevertheless, vitally important, and at every turn, in considering every aspect of your tale, you should ask yourself how this choice or that will alter your story. Will it make your job easier? Will it help you tell the story you want to tell? If your choices are going to make the story more difficult for you to write, then why are you making those particular decisions? What benefit will you gain, and how will it outweigh the costs?

Case in point: my two major projects, Ten Witch Grave and FallTen Witch Grave is the working title of my children’s book, something that I hope will follow in the footsteps of His Dark Materials and Stardust. It’s currently on the back burner, though I’m planning to return to it after I’m done with Fall, and I hope to have it done by the time my niece (currently around 23 months old) is old enough to appreciate chapter books. Structurally, it’s very much a traditional novel: I’m writing in the third person, limited omniscient, past tense, all that. Narratively it reads like a fairy tale, which of course it is, to some degree. All well and good.

Fall is quite a different animal. It’s in the first person, told entirely from the perspective of my heroine, Bree, and thus it follows that the information available to her (and thus the reader) at any given time is limited. It’s also in the present tense.

I always saw the present tense as gimmicky at best. When I was younger, any book written in the present tense had to work that much harder to win me over. I vividly recall a silly little science fiction novel called This Place Has No Atmosphere which I did, ultimately, enjoy in all its corny, fluffy glory – but only after resisting the impulse to take the book straight back to the library after discovering it was written in the present tense. Even now, looking back, I wonder why the author made that decision, because I don’t think it served the book well. And while I liked the book, at the time, it reinforced my perception of the present tense as inherently artificial and hokey, something done in a flawed attempt to grab the reader’s attention or experiment with the narrative, seldom if ever yielding positive results.

This led to something of a crisis of faith when I started thinking about Fall and came to the realization that it would work so much better in the present tense – that, indeed, I wasn’t sure I could write the same story in the past tense.

Luckily, it was around this time that my friend Katie came to my rescue again. You may recall that I was inspired to write Fall after I read the Twilight series – entirely Katie’s fault, but since it did inspire my current project and it led me into the rather amusing world of Twilight fanfic, I’ve since forgiven her. (The jury is still out on her decision to expose me to His Dark Materials, which made me cry like a baby at the end, but I guess that’s inspired its own projects, so I have to let her off the hook for that one, too.) Katie ultimately made up for the aforementioned atrocities by making me read The Hunger Games, which also made me cry, but in a good, cathartic kind of way. More importantly, it showed me that the present tense was not a gimmick. It could be done well. In fact, it could be the only viable choice for some stories. Can you imagine that book, or its sequels, written in the past tense? Would the events therein have carried the same sense of immediacy? Would we have believed that literally anything could happen to Katniss if she was narrating those events from some undefined future date? I won’t say that Suzanne Collins couldn’t have written The Hunger Games in the past tense – but it would have been a very different series.

Similarly, the more time I spend with Fall, the more I realize that I can’t tell that story any other way, either. It has to be in the first person: this is Bree’s story, the tale of a girl coming to terms with her past and her future, discovering her roots and forging a new destiny for herself and the people she loves. It’s a lot of other things as well, but at its core, it’s Bree’s tale to tell, and no one else’s. And it is important – vital – that I as the writer and you all as the readers take that journey with Bree. This is not a story she’s going to tell at some unspecified future date – or, if she does, she’ll be editing it and censoring herself heavily. This is a story we will only get if we’re inside Bree’s head as it happens.

I talk a good game, but I have to admit I faltered on these points recently. Someone (I’m honestly not sure who) told me that they were surprised at my use of present tense and found it odd, and all my old doubts came rushing back. I tried writing a chapter in past tense, and it was like writing with one hand tied behind my back – and, more importantly, the prevailing opinion was that the story worked much better in present tense. Will I give up the faith again? Maybe. But maybe that’s not the end of the world, either.

Your story is not a breath of divine inspiration. Nor is mine. They do not, they will not, emerge fully formed from our brows. Neither are they flat-pack furniture: we can’t pull them off a shelf and assemble them from the standardized instructions with the standardized tools. Rather, we should think of our stories as the vast, complicated machines they are, sprawling devices full of moving parts. We must, with the utmost care, select just the right tools and parts for the job. We must make no assumptions. We must question every choice we make: structure, character, plot, narrative, dialogue, all of it. Only then will our stories function properly.

Don’t go with the crowd just because it’s the ‘default’ choice. Make your own decisions. Find your own voice. And keep at it. But that’s probably another post entirely.