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Rick Novy Interviews Luc at Entropy Central

Interviews

Writer Rick Novy (FishPunk, etc.) interviewed me for his Wednesday Writer series at Entropy Central: http://www.ricknovy.com/2013/04/wednesday-writer-luc-reid/ . In the interview, we cover subjects like the origin of Codex, why I gave up music, influential writers, and what new projects I’m working on.

To my regular readers, I hope you’ll excuse how unusually quiet the site has been over the past two weeks while I’ve completed and launched the  CSA Matchmaker, which helps residents of the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York connect with farms to get deals on great local food, and then went on a brief family vacation. The articles will start flowing again this week.

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My Never-Ending Project Is Now Finished

Luc's writing projects

Talk the Talk 2006

My First Published Book–and Publisher Problems
My first published book was Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures, a dictionary of and guide to subculture slang in the U.S., appearing in bookstores in 2006. I received a small advance and an education in traditional publishing. My publisher’s royalty statements tended to be late when they came at all, and they didn’t appear to be very consistent or accurate. Eventually the publisher put out an entire separate printing, a hardcover version, that they neglected to mention to me–or pay me for. I didn’t know about it until I walked into my local bookstore and saw a bunch of copies of my own book. “Hardcover?” I said. “This was never released in hardcover!” Of course, it had been.

I did eventually get paid some of those royalties, but as the book came to the end of its life cycle and it started appearing on bargain tables, I turned my thoughts to rights reversion. Reversion is when a publisher assigns all of the rights for future editions of the book back to the writer, whether due to a prior arrangement, out of the goodness of their hearts, or perhaps as a peace offering to a writer whose book they have published in a separate hardcover edition without his knowledge or permission. Whatever the reason, Kindle books were starting to make a splash, and I wanted to make a proper Kindle edition of Talk the Talk.

The publisher did, kindly enough, agree to revert the rights for the book to me, and I started on an updated edition that I could release in paperback and for Kindle, figuring that I could probably have it out in a month or two.

Out with the old
Two and a half years later, I’m finally finished with that new edition: after a long time spent editing, updating, programming, formatting, checking, and tweaking, and with a cover based on a design very kindly donated by my talented artist cousin Nicholas, I’ve approved the proof, and the book is available for order.

The new edition is Talk the Talk in as ideal a form as I can imagine. The original edition was beautifully designed, with a sort of Soviet Rodeo aesthetic throughout and I thought it was very snazzy, but unfortunately it was also difficult to read and wasteful of space. Because of that design, I had to cut out a lot of material out from the original edition. I was also concerned that it wasn’t too comfortable to read in large sections (for people who wanted to do that), however pretty the design was.

interior of the original 2006 edition

interior of the original 2006 edition

In the new edition, I’ve dispensed with the Soviet Rodeo design (which I probably wouldn’t have had the rights to use anyway) and made the book much clearer and more comfortable to read. I restored a bunch of material that I’d had to cut out of the original, and removed a section the editor had really wanted that I didn’t feel belonged in the book because it was more popular culture than subculture (I’ve made the original version of that section, on hip hop slang, available for free on the book’s Web site at www.subculturetalk.com). I added some new sections on subcultures like geocachers and scrapbookers and painstakingly sourced and included well over a hundred photographs illustrating people, concepts, and items from the many subcultures in the book.

Talk the Talk 2nd editionThe old edition is 5″ x 7″ and 422 pages. The new edition, which I really like, is 5.25″ x 8″ and 620 pages. The ebook is much less expensive than the original, and the paperback costs a little more than the original did.

Shouldn’t I Feel Triumphant Now?
Completing the book doesn’t feel real to me yet. It’s true, I didn’t work consistently the whole two and a half years just on editing, expanding, illustrating, and formatting this book–but I did spend many months at all of that work. Everything took much longer than expected. Once the Kindle eBook was finally ready in January, I figured it would be a walk in the park to use the database system I had created for the book (which automatically managed cross-references, synonyms, indexing, and alphabetization) to output a paperback version. Many, many working hours later, I realized it wasn’t so simple: I needed to spend a lot of time defining and perfecting formatting for all of the different kinds of information in the book, including “see also” terms, synonyms, warning symbols, terms, definitions, examples, photographs, subculture introductions, table of contents, index entries, photo credits, and a lot more. Also, I was very, very picky: I tried to do everything in the best way I could devise.

There had briefly been a Kindle edition of the first edition put out by my original publisher: someone there had apparently forgotten to tell someone else that the rights had reverted to me, and they had just dumped their original layout into a file that made a terrible eBook. I contacted the proper authorities when that appeared and had it taken down, partly because they no longer had a right to publish the book and partly because I thought their electronic version was a mess.

Thew edition, however, has been available for Kindle since January, and the paperback went up for sale today; it will start appearing on Amazon next week.

It’s Hard to Stick With Hard Work
I tried starting several new projects while working on this book, but after a short time on each I always forced myself to stop and go back to finishing Talk the Talk. After all, the book was already “finished,” money lying on the table ready for me to scoop it up–at least, that was the idea. In any case, if I’m going to commit to a project, it doesn’t make sense for me start conflicting projects, no matter how appealing they may be, and no matter how much drudgery needs to go into the current project. Trying to do two such projects at once would only delay both of them. Still, from all of my other writing during this period I now have two mostly-completed non-fiction books in progress, a novel I started and set aside, and many completed short projects (flash fiction, short stories, and plays), some of which were published or produced in this period. I also published a collection of science fiction and fantasy short-short stories called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories and a previously completed novel set in my native Vermont, Family Skulls.

Was This a Good Choice?
I’m proud I stuck with Talk the Talk, but it may have been stupid to do so. After all, the amount of work I had to put into the new edition was hugely more than I expected. I’ll have to sell at least a thousand copies to be adequately compensated for all the time I put into just this edition, and that’s getting nothing yet for the value of the book as it existed in the first edition.

When I started, I can’t imagine how I could have known how much labor was going to have to go into releasing this second edition. Given what I didn’t know, the choice to go ahead was obvious. If I had known the amount of work involved, I’m not sure I would have proceeded. Fortunately, I can enjoy having the book out in this form now regardless of how much time and effort it took.

Will I Be Able to Sell It On My Own?
I do have a promotion plan, one that’s quite different from what I’ve done with other books to which I own all rights, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss: it might bring many, many new readers or fail utterly. After all, I don’t have the ins that my previous publisher has. If you have any recommendations for reviewers, magazines, Web sites, or radio shows that might enjoy the book, please comment or contact me through the contact form. If the book gets extra exposure because of you, I’ll send you a free, signed copy.

interior spread from a digital proof of the 2nd edition

interior spread from a digital proof of the 2nd edition – click to enlarge

To my great frustration, the original publisher never sent the book to any reviewers or promoted it as anything other than a writer’s reference. It is a useful reference for writers, but I’d argue that it has even greater value as a surprise-packed thing to browse through for fun; Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing.net agreed, calling it “The kind of quirky thing that is endlessly fascinating and full of odd insights into worlds you never suspected existed.” Still, they did get it into bookstores and offer it through their book club, and by my best guess (recall that the royalty statements had some problems, so I will never know for sure) they probably sold about 10,000 copies–no amazing feat, but the book earned a good deal more than its advance, even though by my reckoning they never paid me some of the money I was due.

What have I gained?
I think there’s some real benefit in having seen the project through to the end, even if the payoffs turn out to be greatly diminished (they might) and although the work was many times longer and harder than I had planned or expected (which it certainly was). What I’ve learned through years of studying motivation and productivity has paid off well in helping me finish this project, and now I can reap whatever rewards may come: I know that I’ve persevered and conquered a difficult task. I know that this strange and arguably fascinating little book won’t vanish, out of print and inaccessible. I can even hope that the book finds a real audience–whether of original readers who want the updated and improved edition, new folks who never saw the original, or both–and that it will actually start helping support my family, as the small advance I received from the original publisher did in 2005 and 2006.

Most amazingly to me, I can now move ahead to my next book project with a clear conscience. Ironically, it’s very likely that finishing these next two nonfiction books, which are each probably somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 complete, will take less time for both together than Talk the Talk: The Slang of 67 American Subcultures, 2nd edition did for the one book. Heck, I probably could have completed a couple of novels in the time it took to revise and put out this book, especially since I could only work in certain situations due to the need to use the database I’d set up. The idea of just writing in a Word Processor is intoxicating–although both of the non-fiction books, as with most of my large non-fiction projects, are in Scrivener, which is not quite as accessible as, say, Google Docs.

It’s strange that completing a major project should feel more like something I need to recover from than something to celebrate. Still, maybe I’ll start connecting with some new readers, in which case there may be a celebration after all, a little further down the line.

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When You Hate Your Novel

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’ve been editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here. This is the final one, but you can read others by clicking here.

broken pencil

Writing a novel can be a little like a troubled romance.

Perhaps it started out with a flurry of excitement. Your idea swept you away and fascinated you–this was the one! This was the novel that was going to get finished … or be your first sale … or make a name for you. At the beginning, the characters were endearing or intriguing and the plot opened up before you like a twisty road opens up before a motorcycler on a crisp fall morning.

It’s Not You; It’s My Writing
Yet now … not so much. It’s not that you don’t still love your novel. Of course you love it! Except you also hate it. Writing it is no longer exciting: it’s work, and hard work at that. Worse, you begin to see the flaws in your original ideas and character conceptions, or you begin to worry that the whole thing is dull and unoriginal. You picture yourself plowing untold hours into the book and in the end having a manuscript that gets only contempt from agents and malignant disregard from publishers, or that you put on Amazon yourself and never sell except to your mother and her bridge partner. Ugh.

What happened? Well, of course it’s possible that you veered off the course at some point, that the scene that you thought would be so entertaining has undermined your character’s original appeal, or that you’ve resolved too many problems and now there’s no suspense, or whatever. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter whether the job is to continue writing the draft you have or to go back and rewrite part of it first: in both cases you have to actually sit down and work on the thing, and you are having all kinds of trouble forcing yourself to do that on a regular basis.

(If you never do have all kinds of trouble, of course, that’s wonderful, and this column is not written specifically for you. Congratulations, but please stop gloating.)

Passion, Not Judgment
There are two key questions here, one of which I’ll dig into and the other of which I’ll pretty much ignore.

The question I intend to ignore is whether the novel is good enough or not. That’s a topic in itself, and I’ve tackled it in a separate piece called “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing.”

The question I’ll dig into is this: if you’ve decided that you really do want to finish the book, how do you stop hating (or resenting, or avoiding) it?

Fortunately, the basic answer to this is simple: if you think things about the book that make you feel bad, you will have a hard time writing it. If you think things about the book that make you feel good, you’ll be likely to work harder, more often, and more energetically. You’ll also be likely to think about the project more, yielding better ideas, approaches, and insights.

For example, if I look at a novelette I’m collaborating on with a friend (yurt-living goat afficianado mom and talented writer Maya Lassiter) and think to myself “God, I am a jerk for taking so long to get those edits done,” then thinking about the novelette will consist mainly of me beating myself up for not working on the novelette, which will encourage me to avoid thinking about it so as to not feel so lousy.

If by contrast I think “I can’t wait for us to get that novelette sent out!” then I’m going to be much more excited to work on it.

Your Mental Firing Line
Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Sometimes negative thinking patterns are hard to break, and sometimes they’re extremely hard to break. (For help, see my articles on broken ideas and idea repair.) What’s more, we writers have a ridiculous number of things to worry about as we write: is it too long? Too short? Is the genre a good choice? How’s the style? Are the characters coming alive? Is it keeping the reader’s interest? Is it original enough? Is it so original that no one will know what to do with it? Are publishers buying this kind of thing right now? Are publishers even going to still be in business by the time I finish it?

If you want to finish the book, though, worry about those things only if it both helps the book and doesn’t make you want to go hide under the bed. If worrying about selling the book or about how good the book is prevents you from writing it, then assume it has a chance of being terrific and forge ahead.

Different people have different tolerance levels for this kind of thing, and the final measure is how a thought makes you feel. If you really need to get something done, then thoughts should be rounded up and forced to slave away making you happy so you can do it. Those who won’t go along with the plan of encouraging you to write your book should be lined up against the wall and shot. There will be plenty of time for their children, siblings, and friends to come after you seeking revenge later–when the book is finished.

photo by colemama

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Pamela Rentz on People Running Off to Have a Vision Quest

Society and culture

This is the ninth interview and the eleventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s interview we talk with author Pamela Rentz, a member of the Karuk Tribe.

Red TapeLUC: As both a member of a California tribe and a SF writer who writes Indian characters, what needs do you see in SF–or in literature in general–for growth or change? What’s broken right now in regard to Indian characters in fiction?

PAM: When Indian characters show up in stories, too often it’s to act out a narrowly defined role that’s about being Indian. They have to have names with hawk or eagle or bear in them. Some sort of personal spiritual quest is involved. In spec fiction they have to be shapeshifters. To be fair, I remember reading a great story, I think in F&SF, that featured a terrific Indian character and I’ve just spent about fifteen minutes trying to track down the author and title with no luck. But I still see a lot of the magical indigenous person, the spiritual wise one, the romanticized historical Indian. Or, who would have predicted this would develop in my lifetime: the casino Indian. Even in journalism I see the same tired narrative: a non-Indian person has managed to secure the trust of a group of Indians and via this special access is able to share his non-Indian perspective of what “real” Indians are like. The resulting story generally shows terrible poverty and/or something spiritual and exotic.

Where are the Indian detectives and librarians and space mission leaders and zombie hunters?

I’ve been asking myself what needs to happen to bring out more variety and depth to Indian characters and I’ve love to see more Indian writers telling their stories. I’m not suggesting that non-Indians can’t write Indian characters and especially the speculative fiction community tends to be better informed and more likely to do their homework. But, unless you’ve spent some time around Indian people it’s going to be difficult to capture the depth of characterization and unique Indian perspective I feel is missing.

I’m definitely seeing more Indian kids in social media and showing off great talent merging the traditional with the contemporary in fashion, music and art. I’m not aware of much fiction but I’m hoping it’s happening out there somewhere.

LUC: Why do you think that so many writers fall into the trap of Indians as keepers of some kind of secret knowledge or experience that reflects “real” Indians when, ironically, by doing that they’re ignoring the experiences of real real Indians?

PAM: That’s a terrific question. I wonder that myself.

I think part of it is that, not just writers, but most people don’t spend a lot of time with Indian people. I’m trying to figure out the best way to clarify this. Indian identity can be a touchy subject and I’m not trying to pick any fights here. What I’m talking about is spending time with Indians in connection with their Indian communities. Its one thing to have a friend or colleague who’s Indian and another thing to spend time in Indian Country.

Indian communities tend to be isolated and often not especially welcoming to outsiders. It’s tough to get an idea of the culture without seeing the tribal connections. I don’t feel like I really got it until I began working in Indian Country and seeing people from different tribes interacting and similarities in behavior. Things that I saw in my family but never connected to a bigger picture. As a writer, how can you give the Indian an authentic role without observing it yourself?

But then, why not see Indians like everyone else? There are Indian lawyers and school teachers and insurance adjusters. I don’t watch Law & Order but I understand that when Adam Beach (Saulteaux First Nations) was brought on the show his character was a detective who happened to be Indian not they needed an Indian character so they hired him. I saw Wes Studi (Cherokee) in a role once that wasn’t specifically Indian. In movies it seems like Indians show up because they need an Indian, but rarely because the appropriate actor happened to be an Indian. Of course, if you have a character and you cast them as Indian for no reason other than to be diverse, I guess that fails, too.

I think writers fall into traps with Indians for the same reason we often fall into traps when we’re inventing any kind of character. It’s an easy shortcut. The stereotype is universally understood. Why go through the trouble of inventing an Indian character if she’s just going to be turned into a zombie or be the guy on the space ship who says, “Yes, Captain”? You have a noble hero or a badass elder, why not have them save the day with some mystical Indian knowledge?

Every once in awhile I’ll see a description or discussion of something that is “typical Native American.” For example, Native American religion or Native American food. That’s like referring to European religion or European food. It might have value as a general shorthand, but really it’s meaningless. There are over 500 tribes and Alaska Native villages recognized by the US government. There are even more entities that don’t have federal recognition. They’re all unique and most of them don’t conform to stereotype.

LUC: I hope you’ll excuse me for referring to the vampire elephant in the room, but what’s your reaction to the Quileutes in the Twilight books and movies? I can’t help but notice they check off the “shapeshifter” point handily.

PAM: Well, I didn’t hate all of it.

What I liked is that the story had a small Pacific Northwest Tribe that is relatively unknown. It seems like Indians in stories are almost always from the same Tribes, usually Plains.

And in this story, Indians are introduced as regular people who are friends of Bella’s father. At least initially, their purpose isn’t to be Indian.

I also really liked that the tribal members were connected to their lands – the pact was made to protect the Indian lands.

I can’t remember every detail of the story but to the best of my recollection there was no stereotypical corny spiritual aspect such as a medicine man waving his eagle feathers around or people running off to have a vision quest.

On the other hand, Indians as shapeshifters cancels most of that out. It’s awful to see a Tribe’s origin story appropriated and rendered completely silly and then go on to make piles of money for all kinds of non-Native people. There was even Twilight inspired merchandise with “Quileute” designs.

I wonder if Stephenie Meyer had had any notion of how huge and far-reaching those books would end up, would she have done it differently? No way to know. Generally, I don’t think the dominant culture sees it that way. Urban Outfitters needed to be told that the Navajo Nation wasn’t honored to have their hipster panties named after the Tribe.

I’m not as outraged about Twilight as I might have been. The whole story is pretty dopey and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertainment. At least the Indians got to be on the winning side.


Pamela Rentz is an member of the Karuk Tribe of California and works as a paralegal specializing in Indian Affairs. She is a graduate of Clarion West 2008 and has been published in Asimov’s, Innsmouth Free Press and Yellow Medicine Review. She’s published a collection of short stories called Red Tape Stories from Indian Country available for Kindle and other eReader devices at Smashwords. She can be found online at: www.pamrentz.com.


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New Submitomancy Site Will Manage Market, Response, and Submissions Data

Writing

Submitomancy

Writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, whom I’ve been fortunate to know for several years through the writing group Codex, has fired up an ambitious project to create a site offering a variety of important writing and publishing information, filling in the gap that’s left by Duotrope becoming an expensive, paid service and adding on a number of coveted writerly items. If you’re interested in checking the project out, hop over to Indiegogo and see where it stands: http://www.indiegogo.com/submitomancy .

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11 Essential Things to Know If You Want to Write Fiction for a Living

Writing

My 16-year-old son Ethan recently wrote his first short story intended for publication, and my niece, a high school senior, is visiting colleges like Middlebury, Williams, Wesleyan, and Bennington looking for a school that can help her develop a career as a writer. Just in case I wasn’t already thinking enough about the topic, I also recently received this question through my Web site:

Could you offer some advice for my 17-year-old daughter? She is about to apply to a Canadian college for English, and she aspires to become a novelist. Her strengths are writing, philosophy, drawing, photography. She wants to be her own boss, and not necessarily take courses that most people do if they want to become a writer–any advice?

In terms of my qualifications for answering this question, I should make sure you know I don’t make a full-time living at writing. At the same time I’ve won a major international writing award, sold a book and multiple short stories, gathered a large daily readership for my Web site, and appeared in magazines that are circulated around the world. What may be even more useful in answering this question is that I run an online writer’s group, Codex, and have had the opportunity to talk to literally hundreds of skillful writers, from people still trying to make their first pro sale to ones who make a comfortable living from their fiction, about their approach to building a writing career and their experiences trying to do that.

Based on that, here are the 11 most important things I can tell an aspiring fiction writer.

  1. Making a living writing fiction is a long shot, like making a living acting or painting. If you try to do it, try because you love writing and will write no matter what. If you don’t love it, spare yourself the heartache and aim for a field that can actually pay the rent. This article from a few years back explains some of the sad realities of trying to make a living in writing.
  2. As the article I just mentioned suggests, you don’t have to go to college to become a good writer, but for some people–especially people who haven’t had a college education in another field–it can be an important step. With that said, facing actual troubles in the real world and learning something from the process is usually the strongest basis for writing that connects with readers.
  3. Write only what fascinates you and draws your passionate interest. Don’t waste effort trying to write something solely because it seems more marketable, more respectable, more lucrative, more popular, or more seemly. Writing what you love will help inspire you, make it easier to push forward through difficulties, and will shine through in both your work and your promotion.
  4. You can make a living at novels, feature-length screenplays, and other long-form work, but consider writing many short works first to hone your craft, to boost your spirits with sales, and to gain some credentials.
  5. Never get angry at feedback or critique. Try to learn from it, and use it if it strikes a chord with you, but make a practice of understanding that your work is not the same as your identity and that nothing you can write will suit everyone. Also, learn to distinguish between “I don’t like it now, but I would if you made certain improvements” and “I don’t like it because I’m not the right audience for your work.”
  6. Becoming a better writer stems from practice and feedback. Write a lot and get people to read your work by joining critique groups, submitting to publications, blogging fiction, or any other means that gets you information about how people experience your work. A useful article on this topic is “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage.”
  7. Read a lot of books about writing, but watch out for advice that you have to do things a certain way. Many very successful writers seem to believe that their way of writing, editing, planning, outlining, or of structuring a career is the only one that works, and this is rarely true. They will promote their ways of doing things because those are the only means they’ve experienced. Talking to or reading about more writers will clarify that there is not just one way to succeed.
  8. The publishing world is in the midst of a huge upheaval, and the way to build a writing career has changed even in the last few years, closing some doors and opening others. Self-publishing and eBooks are now an essential part of the process, whereas they used to not matter. Pay attention to the changes in publishing, but don’t let them throw you. People will always be willing to pay for good stories, so there will always be writing careers of some kind, but don’t get too attached to your career unfolding–or continuing–in any particular way.
  9. The most important basis for a writing career is strong, professional, affecting, engaging writing. If you always strive to make your writing better, you will be investing in your career. However …
  10. Regardless of how good your writing is, you will almost certainly have to market it to someone, whether that’s an agent, an editor, a producer, the readers themselves, or some combination. Learn how to present yourself and your work professionally, how to summarize your writing projects effectively, and how to connect with new people who might just love your books.
  11. Guard your integrity: it’s extremely valuable and very difficult to regain if lost. Misusing online review venues, misrepresenting your publishing history, or mistreating your colleagues, for instance, will all ultimately tend to cost you more than you’ll get in short-term benefits.

Photo by Christopher S. Penn

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Anatoly Belilovsky on Atrocities and Menschkeit

Interviews

This is the eighth interview and the tenth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far in the series at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, I talk with Russian-American writer and physician Anatoly Belilovsky.

LUC: Your background and origins are very different from most English-speaking writers and readers. How does that affect how you read and write fiction?

ANATOLY: That used to be an easy question, until I found at least three other Anglophone writers with backgrounds somewhat similar to mine, whose writing and criticism of science fiction and fantasy (and much of everything else) is either different from mine, to varying degrees, or, in one case (and, no, I won’t drop names here) diametrically opposite. So, in a broad sense, I am not sure how my origins feed into my weltanschauung. I think the best I can do is tell my story and let readers make their own conclusions.

I grew up in a culture whose dominant language has no words for privacy and appointment, with an entire set rules of etiquette for behaving while on a queue, with another set of traditions for communal apartments with shared kitchens and bathrooms; a society in which, for most of its history, its own government, while pretending to look out for the good of the common people, committed unparalleled atrocities against them.

It was also a culture that took art and literature seriously – as serious tools for social engineering. “Inclusion” and “marginalization” had very different meanings there and then: “Inclusion” meant membership in Writer’s Union, which opened doors to publication, and “marginalization” meant being relegated to Samizdat (“Self-publishing,” a tricky proposition in a country in which typewriters were registered with samples of output to permit matching pages to their sources) or Tamizdat (“There-publishing,” by Russian emigre markets – the route that led to highly embarrassing Nobel Prizes in literature for Joseph Brodsky and Boris Pasternak, for works never published in their native country.) The Writer’s Union also took seriously the question of publishing underrepresented populations: having praises of Worker’s Paradise sung by a variety of voices in a variety of languages was a major priority. This led to a highly amusing episode: two banned writers encountered an unknown aspiring poet who was bilingual in Russian and another, obscure, language. Forming a mini-conspiracy, the trio wrote ideologically impeccable poetry that brought in money and prizes by the bucketful, and continued to circulate what they wanted in Samizdat.

Outside of the never-never land of inter-ethnic harmony in Social Realist literature, things weren’t all that rosy:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deportation_of_Koreans_in_the_Soviet_Union
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volga_Germans
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deportation_of_the_Crimean_Tatars
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Murdered_Poets

To make a long story short, coming to America was a culture shock of which I’ll talk in another installment. Suffice it to say that, right from the start, much of what would be considered a dark dystopia by a Western reader, felt like a lighthearted satire of the real world (A Clockwork Orange, 1984.)

As for “literary” fiction, I never could bring myself to care for most of its characters and conflicts. Catcher in the Rye is emblematic of that: I’m afraid I never could see Holden Caulfield as anything other than a spoiled brat in search of excuses for his upper-class ennui.

LUC: What kinds of issues about inclusivity or disregard do you see in other people’s fiction that the authors themselves often miss?

ANATOLY:

I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.

–James Watt

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

–William Shakespeare

Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.

–Walter Miller Jr

I chose these quotes to illustrate a few points.

The second is to illustrate what inclusivity is, all too often, exclusively defined as: writing about characters whose “differentness,” and society’s callousness in dealing with that “differentness,” is the sole, or the major, driving force behind the plot and the character’s actions. That’s a perfectly valid way of looking at inclusivity, but it really isn’t mine. I look for common ground, for the universal experience.The first one is to illustrate what inclusivity isn’t. Hogwarts inclusion of the Patel twins and Cho Chang cannot be called inclusive: the twins’ roles rise barely above those of furniture, and Cho gets to break under pressure and then feel terrible about it. If plot is a river, Cho gets swept away by the current while the twins get to sit on the banks and stare at the water. Whatever roles were given to individuals who shared the panel with Mr Watt, they were clearly not the ones who rowed that boat.

Which brings me to the third quote. It bears repeating:

Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.

Miller is writing about a Jew – never mind what happened to that Jew later, he’s certainly a Jew writing these words – who is thinking what anyone would be thinking, with apocalypse looming beyond the horizon: he is thinking of his family.. And instead of drawing a huge red arrow that says, “LOOK AT ME – A JEWISH MENSCH WHO LOVES HIS FAMILY!” he is keeping that feeling in the subconscious, the tip of the iceberg of genuine powerful love showing up as a note to self to bring home some food. Leibowitz’s Yiddishkheit quite literally shows up in the grammatic construction (of is superfluous in languages that have a genitive case) and in the food choices, the limbs and outward flourishes, while his universal, transcendent Menschkheit (which I choose to translate as “humanity,” not “masculinity”) is responsible for the caring that drove it.

Now I get to talk about my kind of inclusivity.

Ken Liu’s Nebula and Hugo-winning Paper Menagerie [note from Luc: between when we conducted this interview and now, the story also won the World Fantasy Award] is about a kid who’s ashamed of how uncool his mother is. OK, the kid is half-Chinese and his mother barely speaks English, and the descriptions are good enough that you find yourself totally immersed in the story, you can see the scenes and the characters as vividly as if they were on film, and yet it brought up memories of my late, decidedly non-Asian mother, and the catharsis of the story’s protagonist triggered one of my own. I had a conversation with Ken about that story at Readercon, and I think it surprised him, at least a little, how broad an appeal this story had.

On the same Hugo ballot was Mike Resnick’s Homecoming. It’s a universal “fathers and sons” story, relevant to anyone, and here is the funny part: I first heard it as a podcast, narrated by an African-American voice talent. I could see the characters of this story as well, in my mind’s eye, and the father came across as a very definitely African-American elderly man. Didn’t change the universality of the story, only grounded it in a very specific mental image. And I really don’t know if I would have had the same image if I had read the story in print, first.

On the subject of “exclusion,” I have a bone to pick.

There seems to be an approved list of oppressions and atrocities as subjects for fiction. The deportations by the Soviet government of a number of ethnic groups dwarf in size, in casualties, and in sheer nastiness, the Japanese internment of WWII. Seen any Anglophone stories set in the Holodomor? Me neither. No one seems to be protesting the exclusion of such oppressed minorities as Koryo-saram, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Russian kulaks, Don cossacks, geneticists, students of Esperanto and abstract painters, all dealt with rather harshly back in the old country.

Amusing anecdote: I have my mother’s old 1950’s Soviet psychiatry textbook, somewhere. On page 100 there is a pearl the equal of which I have never seen – here in my translation:

Homosexuality is not necessarily a form of psychopathology. In reactionary societies where payment of bride price is customary, it may be the only possibility available to men of the poorer classes who cannot afford to marry.

I always wondered how drunk the editors had to be to come up with that.

I get the sense of Western civilization being singled out for criticism in both Western and non-Western literature, and I see this being accepted as the right and proper course, and I am not willing to leave this assumption unexamined in a comparative analysis. Suffice it to say that back in the old country at least, being “disregarded” was, for an individual or a minority population, the best of all possible states, and any kind of attention would have been immeasurably worse.

LUC: Now you’re bringing up a point that I don’t think I’ve really heard discussed before: prejudice and persecution of other cultures by other cultures. For instance, I suspect the reason we hear so little of Soviet oppression of the Koryo-saram (ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Union) in English-language literature is that English-speakers often have little familiarity with either Russians (and other Soviet cultures) or Koreans, to say nothing of Korean-Russians. It seems to be much simpler and more obvious for people who are trying to fight bigotry to focus on the bigotry of the people they know, yet the death by deportation and neglect of 40,000 Koryo-saram–not to mention some of the other atrocities you mention–dwarfs much of what happens in our own culture. What’s the case for learning about and writing fiction about persecution in other cultures?

ANATOLY:

It seems to be much simpler and more obvious for people who are trying to fight bigotry to focus on the bigotry of the people they know

There was an old Russian joke: a Russian and an American soldier are facing each other across Checkpoint Charlie. The American says, “It’s really better in the West. I can stand here all day yelling, “Down with Reagan!” and no one will bother me.” The Russian says, “So what? I can stand here and shout “Down with Reagan!” all day, too, and they might even give me a medal!”

I think the problem is better stated as, It seems more rewarding to focus on bigotry that affects them and the people they know. Which is a perfectly valid approach; my own activism, such as it is, is aimed at thwarting social – psychohistorical, if you will – forces that have a chance of leading us down the same terrible path as the one that had led to the 70-year Soviet nightmare, and to the crushing bigotry to which the resulting society subjected myself and my own family. And the first and most insidious of those forces is the demonization of success.

Before I get lumped in with Ayn Rand, I find demonization of lack of success equally repugnant. In fact, the only things worth demonizing are hypocrisy, in advocating changes sure to produce results opposite to those promised, and stupidity, in believing such promises.

What’s the case for learning about and writing fiction about persecution in other cultures?

Well, what’s the case against learning and writing about persecution in other cultures? Is it that it has no relevance to our world? Is it something that can’t happen here?

Or is it that, by pursuing one of these lines of thought, we…

ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita?

[find ourselves lost in a strange and darkened forest, where the direct path is lost — Dante’s Inferno]

as we realize that, in limiting ourselves to axes of oppression that intersect upon the standard model of privilege, we have been writing exclusively about spherical cows.

Let’s start with Internationale, which I remember by heart (in Russian, of course) having had to sing it countless times:

Весь мир насилья мы разрушим
До основанья, а затем
Мы наш, мы новый мир построим, —
Кто был ничем, тот станет всем.

We will destroy this world of violence
Down to the foundations, and then
We will build our new world.
He who was nothing will become everything!

Koryo-saram, Volga Germans, and others were not oppressed because they were poor, powerless minorities. They were oppressed because they were perceived to have power and privilege (in the form of land, a sufficiency of food, and a few non-spherical cows,) for not succumbing along with everyone else to revolutionary mismanagement. They were oppressed in order to make them into poor, powerless minorities that the Soviet state could then manipulate at will.

And to those who don’t think this has any relevance to the world we live in, I say: “Blessed are they who share the Universe with spherical cows.”


Anatoly Belilovsky came to the US from the USSR in 1976, learned English from watching Star Trek reruns, worked his way through Princeton as a teaching assistant in Russian, and ended up a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is the 4th most commonly spoken language. It is perhaps unwise to expect from him anything resembling conventional fiction. His fiction appears in NatureIdeomancerAndromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine the Immersion Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere. He can be found online at  http://apogrypha.blogspot.com/.


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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Aliette de Bodard on Crossing Over

Interviews

This is the seventh interview and the ninth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far in the series at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, I talk with British Science Fiction Association award-winning French/Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard about writing, reading, cultural divides, and the bridges that span them.

LUC: Just to bring your work to science fiction and fantasy readers in North America, you’ve had to bridge a number of gaps–ethnic, linguistic, geographical, and more. Does this affect how you choose your characters and how you think about writing?

ALIETTE: I have to admit that I didn’t quite think of it that way! For starters, I was hardly aware of the SFF market as being sharply compartimentalised when I started writing–and, if anything, I would have targeted my work at the UK market, since that’s where I started reading most of my genre. I also seldom think in terms of gaps when writing: rather, I write passionately about things that matter to me, and trust that this enthusiasm will communicate itself to the reader.

But yes, if we’re talking quite plainly–of course my origins, my personality and the milieu I grew up in and am still part of deeply and irrevocably approach how I’m choosing characters and how I think about writing. I would be a very different person if I had grown up white on the US East Coast–my family, my education, my friends, etc. have shaped me as a writer, and continue to shape me.

I tend to pick characters from non-mainstream backgrounds, mainly because I’m somewhat disquieted by how SF, which should be the literature of the mind-blowing and mind-opening, tends to over-feature characters from a certain background (overwhelmingly male, white and American or Western Anglophone) and from a certain mindset (what I would call “tech-loving” with a strong faith that science will make things better). Not, of course, that I have anything against those views myself, but the over-representation of these can be a little overwhelming in the bad sense of the term…

I approach writing as the sum of everything that I have read, which means traditional French/English/Vietnamese/Chinese literature as well as genre from Ursula Le Guin to Alastair Reynolds to Jean-Claude Dunyach. Reading so much in so many traditions has enabled me to see that the “rules” of writing (like “show don’t tell”) are deeply problematic because they enforce the conformity of a certain type of fiction–they’re a great help as you’re starting out, but taken too rigidly they can easily lead people to stifle their own creativity in the search of the technically perfect, but soulless story.

It’s hard for me to tell how much my approach to writing is shaped by my background and which specific bits are “different”–I know that I place a high importance on family in my fiction, and immigration and living between different cultures (obviously a very personal preoccupation!), but I assume there are more subtle effects on themes, characters and storylines that I’m not able to see because I’m too close to them.

LUC: There are a lot of interesting threads in that response, but let me grab onto one particular one, because I don’t think it’s ever even come up in this discussion for me until now: science fiction tending to include people of a certain mindset. I had never thought of it that way before, but it strikes me immediately as having a lot of truth to it. When science fiction stories emphasize strongly tech- and science-friendly characters, what points of view would you say aren’t getting a lot of representation?

ALIETTE: Hum, it’s one of those questions where I don’t think I can give a complete answer to, but I can provide a few examples… By and large, SF is mainstream US, 21st-Century and tech-loving, which means that anything outside those points of view is getting poor representation. I can mention a few things that struck me, beyond the most obvious ones of poor POC/female/non-US representation, but this is obviously very limited!

  • the paucity of stories where family is important, and in particular family outside the nuclear family (SF sometimes gets around to mentioning fathers and mothers, but aunts, uncles and cousins somehow seem beyond the realm of possible relationships)
  • a marked dichotomy between allegiance to a church or allegiance to science, generally failing to recognise either that the two points of view are not incompatible, or that religion doesn’t necessarily mean full allegiance to a church (in many Asian countries, people practise bits and pieces of religions depending on the circumstances, and don’t refer to a single church for prescriptions on every aspect of their daily lives)
  • a presentation of individualistic, lone mavericks who strike out to seek adventures as intensely heroic, and a deriding of people who do not follow that mindset as being cowardly (in Asian culture, people who abandon their families to strike out would be the cowards because they shirk their duties to provide for their relatives, and the act of falling out with your own family would be a tragedy rather than a cause for celebration).

LUC: Recently on your Web site, you quoted Juliana Qian:

Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.

This brings up the question of how different it is for someone within a group–whether we’re talking about, for example, Russians, transgendered people, or people with physical handicaps–to write about that group than for someone outside in terms of how the writing itself is viewed. How does this affect your work, or the work of other writers whose work you follow?

ALIETTE: It’s all but inevitable that someone within a group will perceive it in different terms than someone outside a group: it’s what I call “insider” writing vs “outsider” writer. There are two different problems: who is writing this, and for whom it is intended. I’ll leave aside the obvious combinations of outsider writer for outsiders only (which is a very dodgy proposition and fairly exclusionary) and insider writer for insiders only (posing no particular issue: write what you know for people who know it as well). That leaves the “crossing overs,” i.e., outsider writers writing for an audience which includes insiders and insider writers writing for an audience which includes outsiders.

If you’re an outsider, it is possible to achieve a sufficient degree of empathy with the group to make your depiction of it from the inside plausible, but it takes a lot of hard work, and I think people don’t understand how seldom this happens: the authors who pull this off, say, for Vietnamese culture, can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand, and generally have thoroughly immersed themselves into it for years. A few more authors will produce a passable description, and the bulk will unfortunately perpetuate majority stereotypes or latch onto what seems to them shiny elements of a culture–elements that are totally natural to insiders (one of my favourite examples from Sino-Vietnamese culture includes the over-emphasis on face, which is an unconscious thing–people don’t spend their time going, “oh, I’m going to lose face if I do this” every two lines!). Hence the importance of thinking very carefully about what you’re doing when depicting a culture and of getting beta-readers from said culture to correct you.

If you’re an insider, you have a slightly more difficult problem. I’ve already said that the elements of a culture that appeal to outsiders are not necessarily the ones that insiders think most important, and also that many things that seem natural to you (like food) will require explanation in order to make sense to outsiders. There’s a hard line to draw between making your culture a little more “accessible” to outsiders, and between twisting it out of shape so it appeals to the market.

In my work, I’ve done outsider and insider depiction: when I do outsider (such as in the Aztec books), I do my best not to exoticise or demonise practises that the main characters would have found totally natural, like human sacrifices. When I do insider writing, I find myself very often having to explain behaviours and attitudes that are perfectly normal to me, but that make no sense to outsiders (like filial piety or Confucianism): the first draft of my novella “On a Red Station, Drifting” basically had every (non-Vietnamese) reader terminally confused, and I had to do my best to clarify what I meant without having the impression that I was putting the “crunchiest bits” of my culture on display for Westerners (I enjoy writing about my background, but I certainly don’t want the feeling that I’m debasing it in order to sell better!).

LUC: I was interested when you mentioned those authors that you could count on the fingers of one hand, because while we’ve all seen examples of mishandling of other cultures, examples of people who do the job really well seem harder to come by. Are there any writers that come to mind to you offhand who really do an exceptional job, whether they’re outsiders whose writing rings true to insiders or insiders who make a real connection with outsiders?

ALIETTE: It’s going to be hard for me to point out outsiders who really do insider narrative well, as I can’t really appreciate anything beyond France and Vietnam in fiction; and a lot of portrayals of both, as I said above, are very debatable to say the least. That said, one of the works I thought did a great job of evoking the spirit of 17th-18th Century France was Kari Sperring’s debut, Living with Ghosts: the intricate plot and delicately-drawn characters made me think of a modern-day, more nuanced Dumas.

There are more than a few people who are insiders and who create a real connection with outsiders: the first one who comes to mind is the unstoppable Ken Liu, whose fiction is basically everywhere, and who creates really strong stories driven by Chinese culture. I can also cite Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, whose idiosyncratic Filipino SF is bound to make a huge splash (check out her “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life“, which tackles emigration, mixed marriages and power dynamics in a very spec-fic way), and Zen Cho, who has a knack for mixing comedy and poignancy in really well-realised stories (her “House of Aunts” is a really awesome not-quite-our-vampires story).

As far as novels go, can I point out to Thanh Ha Lai’s truly awesome “Inside Out and Back Again”, which shows emigrating to America from the point of view of a young Vietnamese girl and the resultant culture shock; and to Joyce Chng’s Wolf at the Door and sequels, urban fantasy set in a vibrant and rich Singapore and featuring a very strong main character in the presence of werewolf pack leader Jan Xu.


Aliette de Bodard lives in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time–her Aztec noir fantasy trilogy Obsidian and Blood was published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has garnered her a British Science Fiction Award and nominations for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. When not writing, she blogs and posts recipes over at www.aliettedebodard.com


 

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Writing Naked: How to Profit by Embarrassing Yourself

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

Ever have one of those dreams where you’re naked in public? Writing fiction is a bit like having that kind of dream, and some writing is embarrassing because it lays us bare.

I’m talking about the kind of writing where you say something to the entire world that you would prefer not to mention to anyone, just because you want to tell a meaningful story. Or you do something in the story that has very little to do with you personally, that means a lot in the piece you’re writing, but that embarrasses you because you don’t want anyone to think it’s autobiographical.

No, no — that’s not about me!
Let’s dwell on that second situation for a moment, being worried that people will think you’re writing about yourself when you aren’t. This can come up with truly horrible characters—the child molester/serial killer in The Lovely Bones comes to mind—with sexual behavior or fetishes, with gender identity and sexual preference … Looking at my own work, for instance, I find a modest number of stories about lesbians but very few about gay men (though I’ve written both). Like a straight actor who’s offered a gay part in a production, straight writers may not want to be assumed to be gay by the general public. Yet there are times when a gay man would be the best choice in a story, or where a BDSM fetishist (if we’re talking about sexual behaviors) or a male-to-female transsexual (if we’re talking about gender identity) would probably be the ideal thing. Yet for me, my own concerns about what people assume get in the way, even though I’m unconflictedly in support of the LGBTQ community and wish that more fiction were written about non-straight people.

My writing might also be stronger if I were more willing to write characters who are racist or sexist or prejudiced in some other way I find repugnant: certainly you can’t write The Lovely Bones or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Silence of the Lambs without sharing some contemptible characters with the world. Even Holden Caulfield’s bouts of ignorance and trouble with depression in The Catcher in the Rye require that kind of commitment from the writer.

So, note to self: man up and stop worrying about what people will think.

My hope is that most intelligent people understand that there’s a difference between the author and the characters — but even if that’s not true, I care less about what people think than about what my writing does to them. If you haven’t written about people you’d cringe to have identified with you, maybe it’s time to try — just a rough draft of a short story, filled with characters who really interest you but who might embarrass you. The story can be deleted or shredded afterward if necessary — although often it seems to be that stepping up to a fear drains it of its power, so perhaps you’ll surprise yourself.

Pay no attention to the man behind that story!
The other kind of embarrassment, being embarrassed by what you reveal, may be a surprisingly rich source of material if you haven’t mined it before (or haven’t mined it lately). After all, the things we like least about ourselves are some of the most cathartic things to read–and possibly write–about. What would Hamlet be without Hamlet’s suicidal rants, his anger at his mother, and the horribly stupid mistake of killing his would-be girlfriend’s father through a curtain? I don’t know for certain how closely Shakespeare himself identified with these kinds of elements, but he clearly understood what it was like to be jealous, what it was like to be depressed, and what it was like to make a stupid mistake that ruins your life.

This kind of embarrassment can also be therapeutic. There are few things in this world more comforting than facing a fear and finding out you can best it–that there’s no need to avoid it any more, if there ever was.

Must … maintain … illusion … of competence …
While I’m on the subject of fear of embarrassment, let me touch on one last kind: fear of being seen as incompetent. As writers, we’re likely familiar with the kinds of stories and voices people generally accept in modern fiction, and it’s pretty normal for us to produce something more or less in the same vein. Trying things that are strange and bizarre, that we have no way of knowing whether people will like, is much harder. Yet ground-breaking work often comes from writing things that would be more than a bit embarrassing if they failed. Alice in Wonderland, if it weren’t full of genius, would be creepy beyond belief. If Watership Down had failed, Richard Adams probably would not want his eventual epitaph to be “He wrote about bunny rabbits.” Kurt Vonnegut broke writing rules left and right, though fortunately he was brilliant at it, since his stories would be laughably bad if they weren’t supported by skillful writing.

So there lies more encouragement to stretch and embarrass ourselves, because groundbreaking fiction is often the kind that stands out in a potentially humiliating way. What’s the worst that can happen? We’ll be laughed out of our writers’ groups? Laughed out of polite reading society? Enh, I’ve been laughed out of places before. It’s no fun, but it’s rarely fatal.

So let’s get embarrassed! Um … you first.

Photo by Shucker

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There’s Always Another Way to Write It

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

In Star Wars: Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn quips “There’s always a bigger fish.” Admittedly he’s wrong, because since there aren’t an infinite number of fish in the universe, so one fish or group of fish has to be the biggest. And I’m probably wrong too when I say “there’s always another way to write it”–but as with the fish thing, it appears that it’s a rule that’s always accurate.

What this means for writers is that there are hidden solutions to almost any writing problem.

Much, Much More Flexible Than We Thought
There’s a book called Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language by a brilliant but strange guy named Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter wrote this entire 832-page tome about the problems of translating a single pretty-good-but-not-amazing 16th century French poem. The thing is, like many decent poems, “A une Da-moyselle malade” (“To a Sick Young Lady”) has a very specific meter, rhyming scheme, interplay of meanings, etc. Since English, while closely related, is definitely not French, it’s impossible to accomplish everything the original poem accomplishes in an English translation … or is it? What Hofstadter goes on to show, with examples from a wide variety of translations by friends and colleagues, is that if you try hard enough, you can come up with a way to manage almost anything you want with language. This is especially true in English, with its enormous vocabulary.

I don’t know if this is rocking your world the way it did mine: maybe the full power of this fact doesn’t hit without 1) reading through the book, 2) becoming convinced that there’s something that simply can’t be accomplished in English, and then 3) reading an example that does the impossible thing and three other things at once. The moment where Hofstadter really got his point across to me wasn’t in the translations, though: it was when, about 200 pages in, he started talking about using nonsexist language while also steering clear of the awkward but more respectful “he or she” (or “she or he,” as I tend to write it). If you’ve ever tried to write nonfiction with these restrictions, you may have a reaction something like mine: that’s a great idea, but it’s next to impossible.

Then Hofstadter points out that he has written the entire book in non-sexist language without ever using “he or she”–and I had never even noticed! As difficult as that job sometimes seems, Hofstadter can do it so comfortably that it’s completely invisible.

I can’t change that: I need it
I was corresponding with a writer friend recently about a very engaging book he’s writing, and we were talking about a lump of text early on, an important quotation. I suggested that the text didn’t work well as is, and he agreed, but said “I will have to split it up, but I can’t really alter it … I need it for the end.”

Now, “need” is a red flag word for me in everyday life, writing aside, because it often indicates a “broken idea” or “cognitive distortion”, which is to say the kind of thinking that generally doesn’t get us anywhere and makes us miserable. In writing, there’s a similar issue: we may get it in our heads that something has to be a particular way without ever questioning that assumption. In my friend’s case, it’s entirely possible that it’s best for that chunk of text to remain exactly as it is, but does it need to? Our options as writers are practically infinite–is it possible there’s really no alternative whatsoever that still works with the entire story if he were to change that text?

This is the kind of thing that we can tend to get caught up in when we’re writing: “I know that part is kind of boring, but Ihave to get that information in so that people will understand the rest of the story” or “It would be great if character x had a change of heart here, but she isn’t like that,” or even simply “I wish I could try that, but that’s not how the story’s supposed to go.

Alexander the Great and Indiana Jones
It’s easy to make ourselves think that some piece of our book–a character, an event, the way events are presented, a description, dialog, whatever–has to be the way that it is, but the fact of the matter is that virtually anything could be changed in a way that doesn’t harm or even improves the story. This doesn’t mean that we have to rethink everything we come up with, of course, but it does mean that any time we find ourselves obstructed by a decision we’ve made or a chunk of writing we’ve done, it helps to step away from that and think for a minute about the other ways we could tackle the same thing. If it doesn’t seem possible, it’s often worth actually giving an alternative a try to see if it somehow works out anyway. There is virtually always a different word, a different character twist, a different event that can do what we want it to do if we work hard enough to find it. And practicing this is practice writing differently, which gives us flexibility and fluidity and options.

These kinds of possibilities are a challenge to us to write better, to do more things at once in our writing. Frankly, my feeling is that we need all the advantages we can get. As the writing world gets harder and harder to predict from a business perspective, the only advantage we can really control much is how good we’re getting at writing itself. Being able to cut the Gordian knot (Alexander the Great) or shoot the scary-looking guy with the sword (Indiana Jones) is a good skill to have, and the only time it’s not available to us is when we’re facing that one, biggest fish–at which point, honestly, translating French poetry wouldn’t have saved us anyway.

This was supposed to be a sword-vs.-whip fight, but Indiana Jones makes my point for me

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