My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Another Round of Not Writing Questions (Mailbox)

Am I a communist? Is my tongue pierced? Why are all the "You Should be Writing" memes white dudes? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. And while I will answer these weird non-writing questions for cheap laughs, I tend to pick the writing kind most of the time.]   

It's time for another round of Questions that Have Nothing (or Very Little) to Do With Writing™. Gathered over the weeks and months and years, I usually don't answer them until I have enough to do a whole post.

Mike asks:

Are you some kind of communist or something?

My reply:

Don't you know that every artist is a dirty pinko commie? That's why you have to be very careful around us.

I'm not as much a [any label] as I am not a big fan of capitalism, which is sort of a bummer because I live in a place where being anti-capitalist is sort of outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable political discourse. The Demliest Dems in Demville still cleave to the idea that capitalism is the best thing since exploiting the proletariat to slice their bread. We fight wars, suppress whole populations, assassinated heads of governments against treaties we've signed for screwing around with socialism, and call any effort to mitigate intergenerational poverty cycles a "welfare state."

I could rehash all the weirdness of capitalism here like the rampant commercialism and conspicuous consumption, the privatization of services which should be part of the public good in a bidding war race to the bottom, liability shields, a need for humans to be "productive" despite growing automation, and the anti-democratic, anti-free market, and anti-individualism tendencies within capitalism that unfailingly show up whenever those things threaten a bottom line.

But mostly it's that capitalism requires inequality. And not just a little inequality because "humans don't have equal abilities, bro." It requires massive human suffering and human indignity. It requires an inexhaustible supply of exploitable labor. And in order to feed its insatiable hunger it requires the increasing commodification of things like health and shelter. It incentivizes naked self interest at the expense of ethics, the environment, communities, or any rival system of resource allocation. Nothing–not human life, not human dignity, not human health, not other species existence, not ecological sustainability, not even planetary health, NOTHING–matters more than profit.

And it requires a narrative that utilizes the greatest propaganda machine in all of human history to convince us that no other system is even possible, a narrative that blames people for their own suffering under it's baked-in inequality, and that manipulates our feelings of love, community, ambition, creativity, and solidarity to take our resources from us in an effort so sustained there is literally no getting away from it without leaving society altogether–all so that ever more can flow into the hands of a tiny few. A narrative that continues to scratch its head in bemused wonder every time a corporation screws people, our access to clean air and water, a species of super-fauna, entire biomes, and indigenous peoples because it's good for their bottom line. And a narrative that says that we're too are all just a few hard day's nights from being millionaires ourselves, so we must never think of ourselves as exploited.

So, no, I'm not a fan.

Unfortunately, I live in a country with a political landscape where my most pragmatic choice against the erosion of social security, progressive taxation, and health care I can actually afford is to vote against the person who swears to Charlie Brown that this time she won't pull the ball away the American people that this time tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs even at the expense of every social safety net that exists, and to hope that the politicians on the left will move towards democratic socialism instead of placating an increasingly shrinking neoliberal center left group of monied constituents while failing to realize that playing nice with plutocracy will only get them the mad scrill they want for as long as it takes those plutocrats to defang the other bases of their power like unions and colleges.

But don't think for a moment I'm going to shut up and not say nothing.

Mindy asks:

Is that a tongue piercing I see in your pictures? Why on earth would you ever do that to yourself?

My reply: 

Yes indeed.

As for why..... Um...I'll, uh, tell you when you're older.

Farah asks:

Why are all the you should be writing memes white dudes? Can we get some that are something else.

This question is referencing my Facebook page and Tumblr blog where once a day I post some sort of "You Should Be Writing" Meme.

I only create a handful of these with text adding apps–and am particularly fond of using meme creators to fit them into the "grammar" of existing memes–but most of them I find hither and yon across the wide interweboverse. And yes they are overwhelmingly white men. (Not all, but boy howdy....) I dig around and look for others, but finding one that is anything else is quite a quest.

I have some theories. I don't think any ONE thing is the only reason, but I think they all work in tandem to form the ultimate combo move. Based on where I find these memes, I think they are often made by women FOR women (heterosexual women, you understand). They sometimes have "Darling" in the text or are particularly "smoldering" views. The few that have women in them are usually more of the "badass and empowering" variety than something made for the male gaze. They are also usually of actors (not writers), particularly following fandoms, and that means lots of white dudes because Hollywood and fandoms have nothing if not a profusion of white guys in them.

Interestingly, from what I can tell having posted these daily for years, if I put up someone who is NOT a white dude, the comments are much more....argumentative. Sometimes they include slurs (though those folks get swiftly banned), but I honestly think the white guys are seen, in a racist and sexist society, to have more authority.

I also wonder if anyone who might feel like we need more YSBW memes that are not white dudes might be exactly the type of person to not just slap that text on any ol' picture of someone from a more marginalized group to appropriate their image for a message that that person didn't necessarily endorse.

Regardless I'm always on the prowl, and if you find any, please feel free to send them on my way, and I'll happily work them into the rotation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Best Dystopia [Diversity Poll] (Last Call for Seconds and Nominations)

What is the best (worst?) dystopia written by a woman or a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community? 

This poll is from our Year of Diverse Polls, and as such it can't includes authors who are cishet white men. Please adjust your nominations accordingly.

I am excited to run polls that don't just celebrate the same 20-30 white guys over and over, but only you can really see those polls succeed.

We totally need more nominations!

Be sure and drop the comment ON THE ORIGINAL POST, or it will get lost in the crossfire. That's also where you'll find the rules if you're confused about anything. There was a time when I could really go round and gather up all the breadcrumb nominations from all the various social media and posts, but things are way too busy these days.

Seconds are also needed. (And thirds. And fourths.) Remember that I will no longer be doing endless quarterfinal and elimination rounds. I will find a number somewhere between 8 and 22 of the most "seconded" titles. And there will either be two quick semifinal rounds or just the final round. I know that three and beyond aren't actually "seconds" but I'll still be taking the most.

So drop a nomination or two and second everything you want to see on the poll.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Is Fanfic Legit? (Mailbox)

What are my thoughts on fanfic?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. Feel free to turn my crank and aim me at the haters–I do that pretty well.]    

Arthur asks:

A friend and I started talking about the merits and shortcomings of fan-fiction. I think it's weird that people talk down on fanfic as an idea, because frankly I see nothing wrong with people taking an already established aspect of writing and utilizing it to flex their creative muscles. I do understand taking some issue with the quality of a piece of fanfic writing, but mostly in the sense of letting the writer know what and where they can improve on. That might be applicable only if the writer asks for that kind of feedback though.

It made me wonder what your thoughts on it are. Is fanfic a "good" thing, as long as the writer of it has a copyright disclaimer? Is it somehow selling oneself short by using another writer's characters/world rather than making one's own?

My reply:

Here's my basic attitude about people going after fanfic. (Copyright prevents me from embedding. You'll have to click the link.)

I'm really here for all the changes that the internet has brought to the world of writing (and not just because I'm a blogger who can (juuuuuuuuuust barely) afford to live in the Bay Area because of Patreon. For a long time the world of writing simply didn't have the strata of unpaid (or very low paid) artist in it. Your band could do do their gig for five bucks and free drinks or you could be a part of the local theater where maybe all the ticket sales could make for a cast party. You could do a community art show and maybe even sell a piece without a major deal. If you were a writer though, you could maybe show something to your friends, but that was about it until you cleared the threshold of profitability for a print run. Maybe you could get in on some tiny community newsletter type publications, but basically you were either "officially" published or no one had ever read you.

Then came tech. And tech has no time for your anachronistic culture based around yesteryear. You can print one book. Or just publish electronically. You can write for blogs or zines or just make your Facebook post public and hope it goes viral. And the role of the hobbyist writer to see their work in the world and even feedback has opened up and flourished.

And, of course, there's fanfic.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of fanfic.

Back when I was starting reading, a few authors *coughannricecough* would send really nasty with "Cease and Desist" notices to anyone fanficcing their work. Today, most of them seem to realize that's a pretty useless hill to die on *coughbutnotannricecough*, and they're just happy if no one is making money off of it or passing it off as official. Technically–legally–those copyright disclaimers don't mean jack shit unless the author has explicitly given their permission, and one of these days someone enjoying the spoils of a nice Patreon is going to get sued over intellectual property rights, but right now it's a pretty rare thing. Most content creators have come to realize that fanfic is basically free advertising for the source material and whether they are amused and encouraging or simply have an uneasy detente, they let it go on without blowing into the wind.

Are their shortcomings to fanfic? Sure! A lot of it's terribad all the way down to the punctuation and spelling. Characters becoming Mary and Gary Stus are ubiquitous. The disregard for the source material sometimes crosses into offensive disrespect. It's never going to make money for the writer who has done a shit ton of hard work making it. When people find their audience, they often stop publishing or go longer and longer between subsequent chapters.

And then there's the ships. Not that the ships are all bad, and don't think for a minute I'm too pure to slide into bed with a mobile device and the MCU Scarlet America ship with some Wanda threesome thrown in that I just happened to (quite unintentionally) run across earlier in the day. But...you definitely have to be ready to dig through some smut if that's not your jam.

But here's the thing and there's no getting around it.

(And if anybody asks you, this is why I'm really, really, really NOT here for that "Oh now anyone can be a writer,"/"They'll just let anybody in the country club these days" bullshit that goes on down its nose at the fanfiction. Or any claims that it isn't real writing. Or this convoluted idea that fanfiction is peeling away readers from "real" writing. Or that "real" writing–even occasionally the published kinds–don't ever have shitty writing or grammar errors.)

Fanfiction is done for the love of writing. It's done for the fun of creation. For the enjoyment of the craft and the characters and their journeys. It is done without regard for payment of any kind and often despite social censure from judgemental little snots who paint them all with the same brush and call them parasites, but who, in all likelihood. aren't doing half as much of their "real" fucking writing. It is done from the same impetus with which we've been reimagining and retelling stories since the beginning of our species–it is actually owning an "idea" and holding rights over it (particularly as a source of income) that is the fairly new development. Most people won't like it, some may be shitty about it, there will be no "tangible" rewards, and yet folks write it anyway–just to see it in the world. For me there could be few acts of writing done for purer artistic reasons.

And not that it HAS to be this, but in many cases it is the stepping stone to an author writing one's own worlds and characters (practice, so to speak), so people shitting in the fanfic sandcastle feel particularly to me like someone telling the junior high concert band to stop playing that Star Wars medley because they're not fucking brilliant at it yet and it isn't their own composition. Shit one of the best learning tools for new writers is to try to closely emulate the writers they love, so all this fanfic hate is really doing is saying "How DARE you show this to other people who like it! Crawl back into your cave!" Lots of starting writers make grammar mistakes and have clunky prose. That's not particular to fanfic, it's particular to starting writing, and counting only the worst of an offering is the same reason lit sommeliers are too fucking snobby to accept "genre" and "speculative fiction" (all while hailing a bunch of writers who have the same damned things in their fiction).

Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but most of the shit we think of as brilliant masterpieces ARE fanfic. The Hours is just a retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. Hag Sea is The Tempest. Cinder is Cinderella. The Coming of the Dragon is Beowulf. Shakespeare actually wrote ONE play–the rest are his creative reimaginings of other source materials. Many fan fic writers have changed a few names and gotten published–even mega-successfully so. And do you even know how many books are ancient myths and legends redone? This is one case where that high horse is actually a shetland pony with rickets.

Hating on fanfic is like so much elitist twaddle that belies the fact that its own supercilious snobbery is unable to feel superior without tearing something else down. It's the same "I don't read that crap" all over again repeated (loudly and often) as a marker of class and sophistication by those who don't want to be seen enjoying something "beneath them." If anyone doesn't like fanfic, they can just have a coke, shut the fuck up, and scroll wheel on by. And that's OKAY. We all have our tastes. (To be honest, I don't read much of it either) But acting like fanfic is this blight that must not be suffered to let live is pretentious and shitty.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why are Movie Adaptations so Iffy? (Mailbox)

Why do movie adaptations of books so often suck?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  Talking to me on the street may end up in your "question" being a mailbox and your name becoming Cedrick.]   

Cedrick asks:   

I just sat through The Dark Tower, and man I really wanted to like it, but...just no. I think the last time I thought a movie was really honestly true to its source material was The Shawshank Redemption. Even Lord of the Rings added all that Arwen bullshit and took out some of the best stuff. Don't even get me started on The Hobbit. What the fuck! They usually make such crappy changes to movies. Why can't movies just do a book fucking....RIGHT?

My reply:

They're not bad, Cedrick. They're just not BOOKS. Only books are books. I love movies, and I love books, but they're very different.

Full confession: this question didn't exactly get sent to me. It was more one of those questions that someone asks me and I pretend I got it as a letter. ("Surely that conversation I eavesdropped on overheard on the bus COULD be a letter someone sent in!") It was actually from a conversation I had around the time that I was doing The Book Was so Much Better poll a couple of months back. I'm not even sure the person's name was Cedrick, but they looked like a Cedrick, so I'm running with it. I'm writing it because last week Facebook has split down roughly the middle over whether A Wrinkle in Time was a terribad Disney adaptation that chose form over substance or a touching adaptation that cleaved close to the soul of the original while giving it a well needed makeover from it's 1962-strong-Christian-overtones source material. (And I'm sure that none of the comments on any social media will try to rehash that discussion because that's not really the point of this article. Yep. Just sure of it.)

Book nerds always want perfect movies and they'll pretty much never get them. Yes, of course there will always be the usual cavalcade of reasons movies suck from budget problems to director firings to producers trying too micromanage an artistic vision. But even accounting for the regular reasons movies suck, most word nerds won't get their fantasy come true, and there are several reasons for that but we can unpack the big ones.

1- Movies are just different.

If you want to piss off a film student, show them that meme with the iceberg.
That's the one.
Oh look...an angry mob outside my window. I wonder what they're on about.

Man oh man, will this make them turn that really pretty purple. You will get pages long screeds about how reductive this is. (Why don't they ever make a film about it, I wonder.) They will make counter memes and call you names. Whole empires will be crushed. It's inspired really.

The thing is, it's both true AND reductive. A movie is a different medium. You could just as easily reverse the words here and also be right. A movie shows you different things that a book can't.

You can't describe every last detail of a room the way a camera panning across it would, and if you tried your audience would be in a coma before the forty pages you needed were half over. One sweeping panoramic shot can take the place of pages of clunky attempts to describe a place's geography. Acting–especially good acting–can bring life and inflections to words. (Ever READ a Mamet play? Everyone either doesn't finish a sentence or says it at least twice, all while "MMMMM" ing their way through the scene changes.) A filmmaker has tools at their disposal that the pure linguistics of the written medium simply doesn't. Similarly showing a character's inner thought processes is a lot different unless you want to do shitty Dune-style voice overs. And a book can clear five minutes of vital exposition in a short paragraph. And no amount of prose rhythm or wordplay genius is likely to make it to a movie. Books have tools at their disposal that films don't. Different media will always create a different story.

2- You have to take out something. And not everyone's going to like what you pick.

You know the reason Shawshank Redemption moved to film so well? It's actually a surprisingly simple and oft unknown fact about movie adaptations. Obviously it had star power and a good director and a lot of things going for it, but the main reason the adaptation was so loyal to its source material is that it wasn't a novel.

It was a novella. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption clocks in at 38,000 words. Which is about 85 pages or so. (I'd have to dig up my copy of Different Seasons to verify this, but the PDF is 88, so I'm guessing that's about right.)

88 pages became a 2:22 minute movie. And they STILL took some minor stuff out. (Red's trial and such.)

And while they changed a few things, they were able to make a NEARLY two and a half hour movie and cram in almost the entire narrative. The same is true of Stand By Me. With short stories you have to add a bunch of padding and with novels you have to take a HUGE amount of stuff out. It's impossible to hit all the beats. And we're not just talking about Tom Bombadil and the scouring of The Shire. The shorter a source is, the more likely its movie will be loyal to its vision.

Now if an 88 page novella becomes a two and half hour movie, how much do you suppose you have to cut from a 200 page kids book to get a 100 minute film (which is around the average for younger audiences)? What about a four hundred and fifty page book with a run time of a couple of hours? Or a seven book series into a single movie?

You have to take things out.

And anyone who really likes that book isn't going to like one moment of it being cut away. ("What?? How dare they leave out Fiyero's diarrhea in this remake of Wicked.") And whatever choices you make, not everyone is going to agree with what you cut and what you kept. The ascension of serial television might see a great adaptation on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon, but we're probably not getting one down at the AMC-14

3- Not every change is for the worst.

We all know the Jonah Jameson Hollywood exec caricature lighting his Cuban cigar with a hundred dollar bill and saying: "Needs more sex! I'm not doing Wuthering Heights unless it has a car chase in it. Get me pictures of Spider Man!"

Reality is a bit more complicated.

This movie is crap crap crap megacrap.
I'll give you $200 million to produce it if you add a giant robot lizard. Kids love robots.
Image credit: Columbia Pictures CorporationMarvel/Enterprises/Laura Ziskin Productions

Yes, many decisions Hollywood makes are based on what will make a movie more profitable, and some of them display a remarkable lack of source-material knowledge (somehow I don't think Demi Moore gasping and grinding on the New England rice* harvest was quite what Hawthorne had in mind), but they do occasionally take a chance or release something that doesn't just sound like sweet angels printing money.


Hollywood is a business though. You want art films that lose money, you can go to film festivals or dig around on Youtube. Honestly. I'm not kidding. Some of that stuff is Br-fucking-illant. And yes, you might have to spend some time wondering why the clown is making pancakes, but a lot of it will just be fantabulous compared to Hollywood formulas. This isn't just my artsy fartsy side either. They're often compelling and fun and extremely well done.

When it comes to making movies out of books though, you probably need a budget that even a grad film student with a shiny grant isn't going to be able to match. And Hollywood has to try make back its significant investment, pay about ten gagillion guild and union members, and turn a profit because it's a business and THIS. IS. SPARTA CAPITALISM.  (Though some movies make back LOTS of money, most movies lose money, and so Hollywood is constantly trying to refine its recipe.) And that means someone's going to do some market research and try to figure out how to make the movie more accessible. "Accessible" is a little different than "add a giant robot."

Now here it's important that we acknowledge that two roads are diverging in a yellow wood.

When I say "not every change is for the worst" I want you to understand that some of them truly goddamned were. Turning Gatsby into basically a music video, dragging out a kids book into three indulgent movies (with shitty CGI), putting the white person front and center in the narrative even when they weren't, casting Mike Myers, whacky voice overs to replace "thought" text, stripping the religious undertones from a book about religious undertones and just turning it into a movie about a really kick ass polar bear, or abandoning the religious OVERTONES in a book that is an allegory about Christianity and turning the movie into a story about white kids running around killing Mediterranean looking bad guys, trying to completely change the tone from satire to serious or from serious to satire or from satire to satirizing the serious people who don't get that it's satire....well, you get the idea.

And then there's THIS shit.
New Line Cinima
Some changes suck and are terrible and are made because cis het white dude executives think cis het white dudes are "everyman" (and will sell) and white dude lenses on the world are the only ones that count.

But that's not always true these days...

Sometimes these changes really are inclusive and increase the access (not just the marketing image of whiteness, male gaze, toxic masculinity). Some of these books were written before civil rights or the ERA. They maybe have themes that are more resonant for the era in which they were written like anti-tribalism, capitalism, or exceptionalism. Perhaps they are are sausage fests and lily whitewashed whitefests. They espouse toxic masculinity. They have characters who are homophobic, transphobic, racist, or misogynist in a way that adds nothing to the story. Changing certain things to make the story more enjoyable to a wider audience is not always a bad thing. And I know you have some feels about Arwen, but she's probably in that movie because someone said: "This fucking wangfest needs more than just Galadriel and Eowyn!"

We've been telling stories a little differently to reflect the social values of the time since Beowulf and before.

Or sometimes it's just a case of what has happened in between within media and/or the genre. Having your villain be just a brain in a 1962 book is different than after 55 years of that being a sci-fi trope that got so cliché it became lampooned and then a big joke.

"Michaelangelo...dude, one smack with the chucks ought to
totally detubularize his pizza movie night."

And if our author is not beloved to the point of being understood in their own time (like maybe Shakespeare and a few others), some changes might get made.

Other than a few hundred thousand raging book nerd purists (and I want to make it perfectly clear that I am one of those raging book nerd purists), not a lot of people are going to see some anachronism that's dry like Russian black bread or steeped in postwar Christian allegory or because they loved the book. They're going to want the relatable (to today's multicultural audiences) protagonist, the resonate (to today's topicality) conflict, and...maybe that one scene that was a little navel-gazing could be given some panache.

Or you know....a car chase.

4- Once the changes start, it's really important to figure out what matters

Okay so now you, intrepid filmmaking team given a budget by the studio that isn't enough but will have to do as long as you add an action sequence that isn't in the book at around 30 minutes to keep the pace from plodding and losing the audience.

You also have to change a few things because it's 2018 and no one wants that purely cissexist heteronormative source material.

And you have to take a lot out to make a movie that isn't nine hours long.

You HAVE to make changes, so what will it be? What do you change? What if you pull an important character or relegate them to a minor role then farm their lines to someone else. What if the new person wouldn't say it that way? Which subplots will you be getting rid of? Is the narrative more important or the theme? Which characters do you focus on?

How do you go about deciding which core ideas are essential to the soul of what this book is? Once you've decided that and a vision begins to crystallize, it becomes a lot easier to decide what's not going to make it into the movie medium. ("Okay, I want to focus on the story of what it means to have free will, then I'm going to take out cyber babbel parts that focus on the tech and what it can do.") And whatever you pick, it's going to disappoint some of the people who know your source material well enough to know what you left behind.

5- And then you get the creative licence.

Not because a cut had to be made or a thing changed for today's audiences or whatever, but just something the filmmaker decides to change. Because that's something artists do. Because movie adaptations are essentially one artist retelling another in a whole different media. And a lot of times, even if their change is right on the money for a general audience and and right for someone who'd never read the book and right for a casual fan and right for a the folks who found the change interesting and delightful, they still annoy the folks who just wanted to see the print come to life on the screen with absolutely no alterations.

This is why the more reread and beloved a book is, the more likely you are to probably hate the movie. Those books you read once and can't really remember are the ones you'll not shed too many tears over.

All of these are the reasons why occasionally you get a movie like Blade Runner, The Godfather, or Princess Bride that arguably ends up being better than its book. (Rare, but it happens.) A team identifies a far more resonating facet of a story to focus on, and a lot people run around never even knowing there's a book.

So when we book nerds go to see movies, we can accept that if we're lucky, we're going to see a bit of audio/visual media roughly similar to the book we like with some familiar moments that hopefully cleaves close to the spirit of its source material. If we're not so lucky, the filmmaker has made some changes that pretty much ruin the whole thing. But either way we're not going to get "THE BOOK ON SCREEN™" so it's important to remember that we're watching the movie for a MOVIE'S sake and that it's an adaptation.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mailbox Week Coming

Hi everyone!

So this weekend turned into a swirl of side gigs and long nights.

Next week, in addition to a couple of other posts, I'm going to try to plow out some of this backlog of mailbox questions.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Question: Is Talent Important to a Writer? (F.A.Q.)

Short answer: Not really. At least not the way you're using the word.

Longer answer: This is less of a frequently asked question, and more of a frequently hot topic. Some comic or artist or writer or something expresses an irritation at having their years of studying, their decades of practice, their unpaid hours upon hours of building an audience all reduced to "talent" that someone envious of them wishes they simply....had. ("If only I had TALENT, I could be more like you....") And while the existence of talent might be a complicated topic for a series of conversations, the artist who is having decades of hard work reduced to some innate aptitude that one is either born with or not isn't likely to find this exchange quite as charming as intended.

But should they point this out, another group shows up.

There's a real loud faction out there advocating hard for the idea of talent and let me go ahead and spoil the ending for you: they're almost exclusively not the successful writers/artists/whatever. They want talent to be real because they want to believe they have it and that it is going to set them apart. The writers on the other side of paychecks and publication for the most part have a vastly different picture of what got them there than "talent," how important a role "talent" plays, and particularly what could be done by a determined person (no matter how old) if they wanted to become good at some kind of art.

Dissing "talent" seems to be an existential threat to the former group. I don't know if it's because then that means it's a wake up call that they'll have to get off their asses or just that almost anyone can become what they want to be with work, but they treat the idea poorly even though it is ubiquitous among those they often seek to emulate.

[Note: I mention this periodically in this post, but I want to acknowledge it explicitly now: Not everyone can write. There are limiting factors that are ableist to ignore. Physical realities of human bodies (including human brains) make it a skill that not everyone has and incredibly difficult for others to cultivate.]

First of all it's really hard to figure out what "talent" even means.

This is like trying to measure intelligence–what you end up with is a messy glob of data that has profound cultural biases, favor certain kinds of bellwethers, and belie a tremendous inability to separate nature from nurture.

It's a little easier in kids, but not that much. But by the time a linguistic aptitude shows up, it's very hard to know if that's some innate circumstance of genetics or has more to do with parents who talk a lot and use big words. By the time someone can be said to have a "talent" in writing, it would be nearly impossible to know if that was merely a result of their particular swirl of genetics or if had to do with their parent's love of books, dedication to library visits, trips to museums, quality of preschool, their culture's value on particular art forms....whatever. (And if you're noticing that a lot of this "talent" dovetails strongly with having upper class resources, that's very perceptive of you.) Even the famed geniuses folks want to hold up as proof of talent, like Mozart, had a childhood of dedication, practice, ruthless drive, and parents who could afford to be supportive–this complicates (if not undermines) the narrative of casual, unpracticed genius.

Not every writer writing for the same amount of time will produce the same quality prose even if we could somehow account for stylistic differences (we can't), but consider this: Fifty years ago the dominant thought in creative writing programs was that genius could NOT be taught. You either had it or you didn't. Then a bunch of education experts broke down what people meant by "genius" and discovered that actually most of it could be learned in a classroom. What will we understand fifty years from now, I wonder.

What IS clear is that very little under the auspices of what people call "talent" that can't be trained, practiced, refined, achieved through careful revision, or taught, even much later in someone's life than their "opening" skill set, and that seems to break with the idea that you're either good at something or you're not.

Trying to figure out whether you have talent or not is almost meaningless. Defining it and understanding it is nearly impossible and it won't take the place of work anyway.

Okay well whatever you call it, some people have a leg up, right?

Sort of?

Some people start with a leg up, though it probably depends on what you consider the "starting line."(First grade? Graduation from high school? 20 years old? Graduation from college? 30?)  Certainly some people, through some unknown cocktail of nature and nurture may have an advantage over others, but this will not last if they do not continue to work, particularly if they count on that advantage to keep them better than those who work hard. A hard working writer with less initial advantage can catch up, and eventually excel beyond them. And in fact, this happens quite often.

What seems to be clear is that, barring physical limitations, getting really good at a skill like writing might take a while and a lot of effort, but it doesn't require one to be innately "good" and can be started at any point. And while an athletic skill started after forty might mean someone is never going to the olympics, they can still get quite good, and furthermore writing tends to have a longer window of opportunity before it is made difficult by degeneration in most humans. Some folks write bestsellers and literary masterpieces into their fifties, sixties, and even nineties.

An aspiring writer never deemed to have "talent" and lacking a casual skill in writing could begin in their thirties to read voraciously, practice writing, commit themselves to improving, learn the craft, study narrative and storytelling, teach themselves the grammar they still struggle with, immerse themselves in absorbing words and trying to smith a few as well, write every day as a "debt of honor," and within a only few months would be writing at a level far beyond someone who was told they were "talented" in high school and got all A's in their English degree, who then went on to be a general manager at the Coco's in Arcadia, rarely reads anymore these days, and almost never writes except to poke at a half finished novel tucked in a drawer every once in a while when the inspiration hits on days off. Even if the latter still nurtures the quiet belief that they have talent. Within a few years the former might have an audience and perhaps be making some money while the latter is basically doing the same thing as ten years earlier except hoping that this time around they'll get that promotion to district manager. Where's the talent now?

Even the most inefable qualities of many writers like imagination and language play that can't necessarily be taught, CAN be practiced like a muscle and will get better. And what certainly merits out over and over again that if there IS something like talent, it doesn't mean bupkis next to hard work.

Is there something? Anything?

Sort of?

There are some obstacles (like learning disabilities). It would be ableist to claim that everyone will have exactly the same difficulty/ease becoming a successful writer. Of course some people have a physically harder time writing? And certain disorders make organized thought take more effort. It stands to reason that other folks will have an easier time. (But if you want an example of someone with two major learning disabilities [dyslexia and ADD] who has substituted hard work and passion for innate ability, and gotten to the point where they're making money writing, you're reading him.)

Obviously there are some people who have proclivities to tell stories or display linguistic aptitude. There are people who have the discipline to sit and write alone, calmly for hours that other people can't even fathom. There are people who are exquisitely precise with language. And there are people with a penchant for keeping large ensemble casts of characters in their heads. (This may have more to do with whether they end up being a tech writer, a poet, or a novelist than whether they can write at all, but certainly these inclinations exist.) Maybe we don't know if these predispositions are all in the genes or have something to do with early childhood (or hell...prenatal vitamins), but they're there early enough to affect a whole lifetime.

However, the most meaningful "talent" when it comes to who merits out at being a "successful" writer (by whatever bellwether is being used to define that) seems to be genuinely enjoying writing (and reading), and being passionate about doing it and getting better at it. It's the people who like sitting down every day to do some writing and who enjoy the endeavor even when it feels like work who typically have enviable careers or accolades, not the people who run around trying to find a Talent-O-Meter to use on themselves. If someone likes writing and has been doing it regularly for years, they're likely to be seen as "talented" by most of the world that uses that word as a synonym for "Skill that took a lot of hard work to acquire."

Mathematical aptitude exists too, but you rarely hear physicists worrying about their talent.

But what about prodigies and the completely talentless? Surely they are real?


And if you were one, I guarantee you'd already know it.

The Shakespeares and Faulkners and Morrisons and Rumis of the world may be beyond the grasp of most to approach and we may never compose such delectable prose, but keep in mind a few things:

1) These people may have had something talent shaped, but they stayed at the top of their game with hard work. If Shakespeare had gone into the goat breeding business and only ever wrote "when the muse moved him to words," we'd probably be down one Globe theater, all reading Beckett and Wilde in high school, and people would have to say my sweet and charming innocence is as pure as something OTHER than the driven snow, which it totally is.

2) An okay writer can become a good writer with work. A decent writer can write something poignant. A good writer can have a career, and even write a masterpiece with enough revision. Almost none of us are Shakespeare or Morrison, but most of us can develop our skill.

3) The truly "talentless" writer is probably as rare as the Shakespeare or Morrison. Most people who love reading and love writing (and are not just floridly expressing love for something they never do or imagining their more-plausible-than-the-garage-band route to fame and fortune) are pretty good at it. Not that everyone is pretty good at writing, but most of those who are not don't actually want to be writers, and many of them don't read very much. It's like having someone with actual amusia (not just an unpracticed ear) who wants to be a (non-percussion) musician. It happens, but it's very, very rare that someone with amusia actually passionately burns to recreate the note-y part of music (the beat and the lyrics are more likely). Most of us who love writing have gone through a hazing process that we weren't even aware of over the years, and we are going to get better if we get our asses to work.

Now if you're using prodigies to prove that there must be a bell curve that some people fall further to the right on, that's probably true in theory, but even if you could separate it from passion and hard work (spoiler: you can't), on a long enough timeline, it won't matter. Genius might give you a boost, but the work will always merit out.

Why do we have such a hard time letting go of this idea?

I think there are a lot of reasons. Cultural mythos narratives of exceptionalism. The ubiquity of prodigies–often messianic "chosen one" prodigies–in popular media. A deep societal demand that we be "really good" at something "productive" because that's what good capitalists do. A strong correlation that belief in talent has with unearned advantages (such as being born rich or being a white man) that probably leads to feelings of entitlement. And the fear of something called "effort shock," which frankly (when it comes to writing) should terrify the total fucking shiznit anyone who doesn't love writing for its own sake.

It's a seductive world to imagine that if we aren't good at something, it's because we lack some je n'ais se quoi we can't control, not because we haven't put in sufficient effort. Similarly, it's more compelling to imagine there's an "IT" (and we have it and could tap IT at any time, should we so choose) than to imagine that lots of folks could quickly and easily match and then exceed our skill if they started working hard.

What does matter?

Ironically, most successful writers (the ones you've heard of–the ones you might have a book of on your shelf or recognize the names of) have a very different formula for what got them to where they are. They don't spend a lot of time worried about talent. Not that there aren't any arrogant writers who talk about how awesome they have been since the moment of their conception, but for the most part, most writers pretty consistently talk about a handful of contributors to their success. Some leave out one or two (though never the first one on this list) but these are the recurrent themes.

Tons of hard work: I don't really know any writers (personally or through stories shared by those I've never met) who got to where they would consider themselves successful, and who don't ALSO have similar stories of the long, grueling hours they toiled away at perfecting their craft. A few of them undertook some part of this process in the service of another writing career (tech writing or content writing) some learned in years of college and MFA programs, but all of them have put in the hours. Some have put in decades of "unpaid internship" hours before they see their first paycheck or fan. Some had to walk five miles as children to get to the library that was their sanctuary against the bullies. Some worked full time jobs, came home and cooked dinner, put the toddlers to bed and crept into the hallway (since there was no dedicated office and that is where the TV was least distracting) to write for a half an hour a night. But all have worked hard and none relied on talent to carry them.

They do the work. And they recognize that the more work they do, the better their output becomes.

Unearned (and not innate) advantages: Oddly we come full circle to the idea that much of what we call "talent" might actually be privilege. A lot of writers acknowledge that their beginnings started with having access to a library, parents that read to them every night, a tiny bit of nepotism in the form of an uncle who is an agent or editor, or a trust fund to burn through in those initial years of writing without pay. (Some obviously have more advantage than others.) They acknowledge the role something that was neither earned nor innate had in shaping their destiny as a writer. They may not call it "privilege," but they acknowledge it.

And some will call it privilege–recognizing that publishing is whitewashed, sexism and heteronormativity influence what sells, class restricts access, and and even their titanic amount of work may not yet have found fecund soil were their circumstances different.

Luck: Most writers seem to have a sense of fortune. Maybe it comes from telling ourselves so many "believable" stories that genuine coincidences are things we would tell ourselves are implausible and deus ex machina. ("Ridiculous that this book offer would just HAPPEN. Please revise!") Not that these writers think anyone, regardless of skill, standing at the same place at the same time would have gotten the same opportunity, but it seems a lot of us aren't quite sure we quite earned every twist of fortune that came our way. (I often talk about how lucky I got to have my Facebook page explode–I would not be where I am today without it.)

Maybe just a little bit of nerve: The writers who are making money (or maybe not, but enjoying success by their own yardsticks) all seem to share just the tiniest bit of moxie. Most struggle with imposter syndrome. Many fret about their peer reviews and are devastated by criticism. But at the end of the day they do believe they have something worth saying and they keep putting themselves out there for the world to see (and point and tear apart).

Almost none, ever, talk about their talent.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Best Dystopia [Diverse] (Nominations Needed)

What is the best (worst?) dystopia (not written by a cishet white man)?

This poll is from our Year of Diverse Polls, and as such it can't includes authors who are cishet white men. Please adjust your nominations accordingly.

The world is in ruins. Or maybe it's not in ruins but there's just something a little off. Or maybe it's perfect, but the price is the torturous misery of a single innocent child. Or maybe there's some ham handed analog for racism that's going on between the white kids' strange methods of dividing themselves up by SAT vocabulary words. In any case it's a dystopia, and it is doing its literary work to hold up a twisted mirror to our own society.

The Rules:

1- As always, I leave the niggling to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you feel like J.K. Rowling writes dystopia, I'm not going to argue. (Though you might need to "show your work" to get anyone to second your nomination.) If you think Pern is a dystopia, nominate it. I won't be enforcing any rules about it being future Earth or anything.

2- Since dystopias are a setting, they can be for a single book, a series, or several series.

3- You may nominate two (2) dystopias. Two is the number of nominations. Neither one nor three shall ye nominate. And four is right out. I will NOT take any dystopias beyond the second that you suggest. (I will consider a long list to be "seconds" if someone else nominates them as well.)

3- You may (and should) second as many nominations of others as you wish. So stop back in and see if anyone has put up something you want to see go onto the poll.

4- Please put your nominations here. I will take dystopias nominated only as comments on this post. (No comments on FB posts or G+.)

5- You are nominating WRITTEN DYSTOPIAS, not their movie portrayals. CGI is making the Insurgent movies pretty fun to look at, but if you find the books to be a little contrived, you shouldn't nominate them.

6- No more endless elimination rounds. I will take somewhere between 8-20 best performing titles and at MOST run a single semifinal round. So second the titles you want even if they already have one. (Yes, I guess that would make them thirds, fourths, etc...)

A Year of Diverse Polls

I have a big announcement for our next twelve months (or so) of polls. This post is going to be half announcement and half rules that I can link back to each subsequent poll.

For the next twelve months and change, Writing About Writing will be running polls in the spirit of K.T. Bradford's challenge to stop reading cishet white dudes for a year. Every. Single. Poll. we run here for the next year will have an overarching rule of no cishet white dudes.

Recently I reran this post and our very last poll (about women and gender variant folks of color), and one of the most common bits of....feedback (yes, let's use that nice, steril word) I got was that people don't know and/or care who an author is when picking a book up. They just buy stacks and stacks of "good books" and somehow against all statistical odds their shelves fill with cishet white dudes. Magically.

The point of this exercise is that maybe it's time to think about these things. Maybe the publishing industry is so whitewashed because folks with reasonably good intentions will perpetuate the agendas of folks with absolutely shitstain horrible intentions if the former don't make an active, conscious effort to work against the latter. Maybe cishet white guys have a lot of unearned advantages in publishing (and everywhere else) and leveling the playing field just the tiniest bit will lift up everyone else and if it hurts any of them, it will really only be the mediocre ones.

Besides, it sounds like you all could use some fucking recommendations if you literally can't think of a book by a person of color OR a woman OR someone under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella that would be worth reading. So for the next year, we're going to do all our greatest hits–just without the cis het white dudes.

Here are the guidelines for our next year of polls that I will link with each new poll:

1) I'm not here to gate keep identity. If someone has talked about their race as non-white (in more than a "I'm 1/8th Cherokee" kind of way) or their sexuality in a meaningful way, they're in. They don't have to be living a particular life for us to believe them. (For example, I'm not here for any bi-erasure because someone has a traditional looking marriage.) On the other hand, James Franco....not so much.

2) Passing privilege is a very real and extremely complex and fraught phenomenon where people trade erasure of their identity against the experience of oppression in our society. (I pass as a cishet white dude even though only one of those things is arguably true [and even that I would caveat to anyone close enough to listen to the buy-me-lunch version]. However, I wouldn't be muscling to get onto these polls either as I know my life mostly operates as if I am a cishet white dude.) Let's all admit right now that we don't know (and can't know) all about every biographical detail of every author. We will stick to what we know and what these writers share openly with the world and remember that the spirit of this whole endeavor isn't to be "technically correct" but to encourage ourselves to read outside our normal comfort zone of voices.

3) I know this will likely lead to a lot of polls with cis het dudes of color or cis white women or cis white men who identify as queer.  And folks from these groups sometimes focus on their own experiences with marginalization while being a little insensitive to others'. However in keeping with the spirit of Bradford's challenge, we're only ousting the cishet white dudes this time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Best Modern Fantasy by a Woman or Gender Variant Author of Color (Poll Results)

The results are in!

Though I would have prefered to see a wider spread between second and third place, but at least it's not a dead heat–and the winner is clear.

Text results below.

Keep your nomination hats tuned to the diversity frequency. I have a big announcement for early tomorrow, and I'll start taking nominations for our next poll shortly after that.

The Fifth Season - NK Jemisin 44 29.14%
Kindred - O. Butler 29 19.21%
Inheritance Trilogy - NK Jemisin 28 18.54%
Who Fears Death - N. Okorafor 19 12.58%
Children of Blood and Bone - T. Adeyemi 14 9.27%
Bloodchild and Other Stories - O. Butler 10 6.62%
The Star Touched Queen - R. Chokshi 5 3.31%
Brown Girl in the Ring - N. Hopkinson 2 1.32%

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Admin Weekend

I'm going to do an Admin Weekend (focus on clearing out my e-mail and cleaning up menus).

It's just reruns on the various social media this weekend, but for folks following close, I wanted to let you know why. Got a big week planned starting Monday.

Friday, March 9, 2018

15(?) Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 1)

More like Dungeons and Dentists, amirite?
Image description: Badass fighter about to cut a red
dragon in the teeth.
[The title may change as I continue this work in progress (and what's in brackets will disappear), but this is probably almost certainly maybe part one of three.]

Ah the sweet nostalgic nerdery of Dungeons and Dragons.

Dodecahedrons. Thac0s. Saving throw charts. Mountain Dew. And the tension building question: "What did you say your armor class was?" The hours and hours (and hours and hours.....and hours) we used to take for granted that are now just so fucking hard to coordinate. ("You can only do every other Monday, but only maybe? What the fuck is that even???")

It's not just Dungeons and Dragons either. It's Ninjas and Superspies, Rifts, Robotech, Nightbane, After the Bomb, Beyond the Supernatural, Pathfinder, Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Star Trek: The RPG, Elfquest, Paranoia, Star Wars RPG (West End, WoC, and Fantasy Flight), Mechwarrior, GURPS, Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling, Hunter, Aberrant, (plus I've Live Action Role played a Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Changeling, and Hunter) and at least half a dozen one shots that I can't even remember what we were playing. However, for the sake of not listing all that out, I'll mostly use D&D for short.

1- Character is absolutely everything. Character is the story.

There's a reason every one of those games starts with how to create a character. Not magical items or monsters or how to adjudicate the rules for a fight. Building a character. The character is the throbbing pulsing core of the story. Without a character you have nothing, and the character makes all the difference.

When I first became a little D&D nerdling in the late 70s the game was far more focused on a character as a collection of stats and abilities and the series of encounters that gave experience points and treasure which enabled the characters to get into bigger encounters so they could get more experience and bigger treasure. It played a lot more like a very involved and intricate board game. Modules were painstaking descriptions of rooms, monsters, treasure and, if your Dungeon Master was playing hardcore mode, random encounters, things that could catch you off guard and end the evening.

"What happens if we get past the city walls and then take this
caravan we're supposed to be protecting for ourselves?"
Image description: Voldemort as my party's wizard.
Then people, as people are wont to do, began to break out of the mold of playing modules like DLC for a video game. They started caring about the character as more than a collection of stats and numbers and vague abilities and started wondering what they were like. Were they good? Evil? Selfish? Did they care about law and order?

"Why are we here?" they began to ask. "Why are we in the same party? Why would we work together? Do I even like you? Why do we ever leave the tavern in the first place?" People started investing in who their characters were and what they wanted and suddenly you had a very different experience when six evil thieves were told they could make some money by leaving the city's portcullis up on Thursday night than the party of paladins.

In the mid to late eighties role playing games exploded in several directions. The pen and paper heavy versions with the calculators and the hit points for your left arm were still around, but there were versions that were practically improv theater, focusing much more on the drama. There were versions where your entire character was comprised of 1-10 stats in the four elementals. Even live action role playing came into ascendence during this time.

The point is the character always always ALWAYS became the story. A story about a dude with 45 hit points in his left arm was about as interesting of a narrative as you might expect, and mostly became a board game in terms of interest, but a war torn vet who wants to rest but is drawn into a local conflict became intensely interesting. A group of scoundrels and gamblers with nary a brash pilot among them defanged the Death Star by running a heist that took out all the Kyber crystals and blew up the hangar bays–it was still floating around a very intact Alderaan, completely defenseless, when the rebel fleet showed up–having been signaled by the character who (disguised as an officer) won three minutes on the long range transceiver from the radio guy in a poker game and persuaded everyone to give her some privacy because she was calling her girlfriend on Nar Shada.

2- Whatever the rules are, they actually change the story. 

For a while there everything was trying to do gothic horror, and even Palladium got in on the action with Nightbane. Nightbane was neither particularly gothic nor horrific, but they tried to reproduce those elements and even had a pretty compelling backstory filled with cultists, corruption, a mysterious day of total darkness, and things that go bump in the night.

The problem was, they tried to be gothic horror in the same rules universe where a sonic speed hero with Muay Thai Kickboxing could attack 15 times in a fifteen second round. A universe where basically every character you ever played took boxing "for the extra attack" rather than for some sort of exploration of the human psyche. Everyone was just...boxers.

Plus they had these weird charts of characteristics that weren't exactly.....horrific. Some of them were reasonably grotesque, but in typical Palladium style, they made massive random charts and threw in the kitchen sink. It was kind of like Nightbreed (you knew Nightbane sounded familiar, right?) characteristics but there were a few that were just...well....they were just absurd. Leading of course to the biomechanical and automobile Nightbane's lament song:

I was a motorcycle centaur.
I had a TV for a face.
I had hedge-clippers, not a left arm.
I was a Nightbane disgraaeeaaeeeace.
But as bad as I was, I wasn't bad as I could be.
At least I didn't roll and get tank tread feet.

Well...you get the idea. Not exactly overwhelming gothic horror. Plus you know I'm going to need a year of therapy and some really good MDMA to embarrass myself like this again....ever. (Holy fuck what was I thinking.)

And if your story has overpowered yahoos running around with hedge clipper arms and getting into fights that level small neighborhoods, you're probably not going to strike the gothic horror tone you wanted.

The system in place–the rules that governed the ambient universe–prevented any actual game of Nightbane from being horrific. They quickly became combat-fests with vaguely more gore and spiny monsters than an average Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas and Superspies game because the game wasn't designed to make players weak. Whether the initial attempt was survival horror or political intrigue or an origin story, eventually someone picked up a car, stood up from getting shot multiple times, or did a "Shadow blast" that did enough damage to vaporize a cop in full riot gear. And then things were less gothic horror and more you-got-your-S&M-gear-in-my-overpowered-superheroes-game.

Not that heroes in S&M gear is all bad you understand....

Writers have to realize that when they lay out the rules of their universe, they are freeing and constraining themselves simultaneously. A medieval fantasy with spectacular magical power levels is going to be implausible if the villagers one town over are worried about easily fixable shit like a couple of bandits with swords or this season's rainfall. You can't scare people with a creaking door or mysteriously returning ball once the ghost definitively IS a ghost and you've lost your what-ever-could-THAT-be? element. And if your pulp detective's entire interest as a character is based on the audience joining them in their slowly trying to piece together the mystery of the psychic aliens that ride corpses and try to determine the difference between nature and nurture, you probably don't want a voice over (or a prologue in the case of writing) that says exactly what's going on at the beginning.

Old school.
3- How to describe things.

In a role playing game it's the DM's (or GM's) words and the player's imaginations. That's all you get. You don't have spectacular CGI animation. You don't have Ian McKellen to voice your lines. If you don't take yourself too seriously and have practiced making noises you can maybe do some "Shiiiing" sounds when swords are drawn or "Pkshhooooo!" of explosions and some decent Sean-Connery-as-the-dragon impressions, but mostly you have to describe things.

You can't just say "You see a dragon" because the first question will be "What else is around me?" You can't just say Canebries is a dwarf because someone will want to know what Canebries LOOKS like. You don't get to just say, "It's an elven city," because people will want to know if they're looking at the Ewok wood elf village from Kelethin or the stonework of Rivendell or the some crystal palace shit with 300 yard vaulted arches.

Like so old school, the school has been torn down
for having asbestos and radon.
And it takes about two minutes to realize that the players will fall asleep at the most clinical descriptions of distance and space. No one cares how big the room is according to a tape measure, (and the only people who do care about that level of detail are about to throw a fireball and mostly just want to check that they're not going to pan fry the cleric in the backwash). No one cares how tall every dwarf is or what color their facial hair is or how it's braided (unless they're big for a dwarf or their meticulously braided beard reveals something about their character). No one cares about the circumference of a buckler shield or if it is folded steel or bronze unless those details are somehow meaningful.

This method of description serves writers well. What an audience wants are the significant details. And just a few of them. They can be precise and quantitative (if, say, your main character is a ship's computer in a body who would notice that sort of thing), but what a character first sees creates a significance of its own. And they still serve to quickly form a bridge with the audience.

Combat as a broad sword stroke (see how I cleverly avoided a mixed metaphor?) rather than described with every painstaking weight shift or riposte. Sex in terms of a few intimate details rather than a meticulous recount of every thrust and moan. Disaster told through the eyes of a few horrible details rather than a list of every terrible effect. From either side of the DM's screen, there is a sharp but valuable learning curve on how much is not enough, how much is too much, and the Goldilocks zone of significant details.

This covers the basics but you can google "Hero's journey" and
see how variations on the theme can get more complex.
4- The hero's journey.  

With a few exceptions (survival horror one shots come to mind where everyone ends up dying eventually–whether it's knifed by a cultist or gouging your own eyes out at the sight of an old one), when you play a role playing game, the characters gathered around the table are the heroes of the story. The more you fundamentally edge away from Very Complicated Board Game™ and approach something more like collaborative storytelling, the more each player sees their character as the hero of their own story and each will come to work for an arc that looks like the hero's journey–sometimes called the Monomyth.

At first there's a lot of resistance to the hero's journey as a template because people think it's literal and actually can't believe that human storytelling with all its infinite complexity could boil down to anything so simple. (How dare you suggest that it's all been done before!) They have trouble with the literal vs. figurative elements. Like there will not always literally be a call to adventure. Literally a supernatural aid. Literally a threshold guardian. In some stories there certainly is (Star Wars) and many even come out directly and use this LANGUAGE to describe these characters (The Matrix), but in many, these aspects are more figurative.

Want to continue on your journey? You have to get past us.
Hope you can fence, wrestle, and win a land war in Asia.

There are other stories. (You've heard there are only seven stories, right? Well The Hero's Journey really only matches up with two of them....maaaaybe three).  There are stories of tragedy, romance (comedy), rags to riches and rebirth that are just not as common in most role playing games. But things like "The Quest" or "Overcoming the Monster" are the stuff of RPG's. And so they're filled with hero's journeys. ("The Voyage and Return" is kind of on the edge there.)

And so your games have to be an infinite recombination of the hero's journeys. Players will want to fail. They'll want to be tempted. They'll try to refuse the call. All of this is straight out of our most primal storytelling archtypes and as a player and a dungeon master, you'll quickly learn both how to bend the rules of the hero's journey into infinite recombinations and to bring the familiar elements to those stories.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Duck Shaped Bigotry

You know, if you pour liquid into a shaped glass, it takes on the shape of the glass, but that doesn't actually make it that shape. (Shatter the glass and it would flow everywhere.) So if you had water in, say, a duck-shaped decanter, it would still be water. It would not be a duck, or even *actually* duck shaped itself. It's just held into the shape of a duck temporarily.

Bigotry is the same way.

People pour it into containers (like "economic anxieties" or "deep concerns about electronic security" or "children's safety") so that it looks like something other than racism or misogyny or homophobia or transphobia–and then they claim it is whatever shape it's taking at the moment.

It's not that those things aren't real. (Real ducks DO exist.) It's just that that's not what the bigotry really is, even if it's being held in that shape.

"That?" they gasp, clutching their pearls. "That's not bigotry! That's a DUCK. My goodness how could you possibly accuse that of being bigotry! You are the real bigot here trying to impugn my duck as anything other than absolutely ducky!"

And then they set about giving their duck a name like Howard and printing it out a little birth certificate from the farm and equipping it with galoshes and rain gear and buying it a little bed and adding feathers to it. But "duck" is still just the shape that is holding together what's inside–and that is their bigotry. Even years later when they can barely remember it's not really a duck or when they give it to their children with strict orders that they must never let anyone question its duckhood, examine it too closely, or themselves think too hard about what is sloshing around inside....

....even then, it is still not actually a duck.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Best Modern Fantasy by a Woman or Gender Variant Author of Color (Don't Forget to Vote)

What is the best modern fantasy book (or series) by a woman or gender variant author of color?  

We assembled the poll from your nominations, but now we need you to vote.

Only a week remains on this poll, and then we're going to start gathering nominations for our next one (and trying to claw our way back to a poll a month schedule). Don't forget to take a moment to vote for your favorite.

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Shattered Dreams (Personal Update)

Artist: https://222maya.deviantart.com/

The Day the Music Died: On Quality, Quantity, Facebook Followers, Fans, and the Return of a Drab Little Crab. 

It seems that in my last mailbox, I spoke too soon.

But first a story–not entirely as unrelated as it may first appear: This week something wonderful happened that almost never does.

I woke up to an email from a reader who just dropped me a line to tell me that they really appreciated my writing and my blog and they hoped I got better. (At the time I was still recovering from being sick.) Around here 99% of the emails I get are either questions or some level or another of "I have a problem with something you posted...."and if they are positive they are weirdly gushing in a I'm-not-sober-but-here-are-some-pictures-of-me, "Stephen-don't-you-think-I'm-pretty" kind of way It's nice to sincerely hear the good stuff once in a while.

Facebook recently changed its algorithm...again. According to them, they're trying to give the average user more of their friends and family to "enhance their experience," which amounts to fewer pages even though most of those pages are exactly what the users have clicked buttons to see.

Facebook frames everything like they're doing a big ass favor to their users because they are the bringers of magnanimous joy and only a LITTLE bit of Russian psyops, but what Facebook really wants is another round of squeezing their page admins to finance the Payola scam that literally is the Facebook business model.

At first, I didn't think it was going to hit me. Maybe it was just publishers. Maybe it was just news organizations and such that only ever posted links to their own page. Maybe my page, with its funky blend of memes, macros, puns, and articles from all over would be spared.

Narrator's voice: "It wasn't."

I watched my numbers collapse over the course of a week like the wind slowly going out of a massive sail. At first it was possible to convince myself I was imagining it. Then that it was just a bad run of articles, and I would bounce back. Then that I was doing something wrong–posting at the wrong time of the day or not writing a provocative enough intro.

But then, around March first on this chart, I realized what was happening, and I couldn't do much but watch in horror. Blog cried, "We're never going to make ten million now!"

"We were never going..." I started. "Eh, you know what. You're right."

Blog was inconsolable.
And so I took a deep breath and I kept on writing.
I'm guessing we're back to 2016 numbers,
but maybe things won't be that bleak.
The last time my numbers went way up it was also because of Facebook. My page took off into the stratosphere, cresting a hundred thousand followers and growing by thousands every day, and I got a thousand hits from posting anything. Everything I touched was going viral. It was lovely to imagine the days of struggling for 100k hits a month were behind me, and that all that lay ahead was a J curve of readers, fans, fame, and fortune. I figured it was nothing but brand name peanut butter as far as the eye could see and maybe even a studio apartment a mere three hour commute from The Contrarian (where such things could be afforded).

But then things went back to being drab.

You lie in bed when shit like that gets yanked away without you even having made a poor moral decision that sets you upon a redemption arc. You stare at the ceiling and you wonder how long it's going to take just to get back to where you were. Years maybe? You feel like a failure. You wonder how much of anyone who ever cared has only to do with some social media algorithm spinning away in a supercomputer in Menlo Park that can taketh away and even be destroyer of worlds.

But then I remembered that letter.

And I remembered my patrons.

Numbers are fun. The burst out from tens to hundreds of thousands was exciting and watching my hits climb is an easy bellwether to track. It's disappointing to see those numbers go away. I've got a plan to start shifting energy over to my tumblr page, and to tweak a couple of knobs that'll hopefully pull in more traffic. Hell, I've even thought of trying to figure out instagram. Someday soon, you might be swiping right on my sexy, sexy listicles.

I like walks on the beach, reading Jane Austen, and 7 ways to be a better writer.
But that's not why I write.

More to the point, that's not what keeps me going. Whether I have 4,000 hits a day or 24,000, what keeps me writing is 150 people who have generously donated their financial support to keep Writing About Writing going.

My current goal (to the left) is trying to make up for the cost that my insurance is going to jump up since I'm technically a freelancer and I have to buy my plans out of pocket. The ACA subsidized a lot of what I paid because my income is so low, but even the insurance companies think the tax changes are going to send their premiums up.

As little as a dollar a month can help and get you in on back channel conversations, polls, info of upcoming projects, and insider info into what's going on with my blog schedule. In fact, right now I still have way too much pressure on only a handful of donors (over half my entire Patreon amount comes from fewer than a dozen folks) and I could really use a lot more low level patrons to help develop a donor "ecosystem" that can survive if a big donor can't keep a big donation going.

Yes, numbers are fun, but I write because without writing I would die. And I write as much instead of working three jobs or 40+ hours a week on side gigs because 150 people help keep me going.

Those 150 people and occasionally a letter.

[As always if you want to help this post, but can't spare a dime right now, one way to do so would be to "like" or "comment" or otherwise engage it on social media so that more folks can see it. And if a monthly donation isn't your speed, you can always make a one time donation at My Paypal.]