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Grounding Fantasy

Recently I was asked – by a long-time fan of one of my fanfics, which I am re-writing to be published as original fiction, as it was 97% original everything to begin with – how I manage to make the magic in my fantasy so realistic, subtle, and grounded. This had two results.

The first was that I had a moment of panic because the story they had been referring to is gaining some more …obvious and explosive magic in the re-write.

The second was the realisation that I didn’t actually know how I did it. So, I thought about it for a while and I realised the answer was goldfish. (No, I have not gone mad.)

You see, when I watch or read other works, I cannot turn off that part of be that acts like a belligerent toddler or a particularly sarcastic goldfish. Although I suppose I should specify that I mean a pop-cultural hypothetical goldfish, rather than a real one, as science has disproved the ‘fact’ that they only have three second memories. But I digress. Imagine that this stereotypical toddler is forever asking “Why?” and the stereotypical but snarky goldfish is always asking “How?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what goes through my head when I’m observing other fictions.

For example, back when the Lord of the Rings came out in film, I was watching the scenes in Moria and idly noticed that the characters must have superb balance to avoid falling off because there were no handrails in sight. That set the Sarky Goldfish off. Why are there no handrails? What kind of idiots make giants cities over ravines without handrails? Were they made of wood and simply disintegrated? NO dwarves wouldnt have used wood and if they were stone some of them should have remained. Do dwarves just have perfect balance? No elves are stated to have better balance and THE ELVEN CITIES HAVE FREAKING HANDRAILS. Besides, even if adult dwarves had epic balance skills and never, ever fell, dwarven children (you know, the ones who are always portrayed as rare and precious because ever since Tolkien did it dwarves do not reproduce quickly has been part of the Standard Fantasy Setting) would, because all children, in all species, are reckless idiots. Could it be a point of honour? Honour VS Practicality, City Planning Edition, Round One: TOTAL KNOCKOUT, PRACTICALITY WINS.

And on and on it goes. For every “it is this way” that does not match reality, the Sarky Goldfish in my head wants to know How and Why and won’t rest until it has a solid answer. For every “that can’t happen/be done” the Belligerent Toddler wants to know Why Not and will find a way if a suitably reasonable answer is not produced …or even if it is, because if it took too long the Belligerent Toddler will want to prove the answer-giver wrong. “It’s traditional”, by the way, is not a solid or reasonable answer. Nor are “Because” and “Just don’t think about it”. “Why Not”, on the other hand, is – so long as the question was “Why” and not “Why Not” or “How”.

So, you could say – if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like goldfish – that the answer is really just to think about it. Now, I’m sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying “But it’s fiction! It doesn’t have to be realistic! I shouldn’t have to think about it!” and I have one thing to say to that:

When you played with your blocks as a child you had to think about where to put them or they’d all come tumbling down on your head.  When you paint a picture you need to think about what you’re doing or you end up with a mess of squiggles and badly mixed brown. When you create new music – even if it’s jazz and improvised – you need to think about what you are doing so that you don’t make noises only deaf cicadas would love. And when you write fiction you have to think about the way the world you are creating works or it falls apart on you – but whereas child!You got a bruise when their blocks fell and some adult came to kiss it better, no one is going to tell you it’s okay and not your fault if your fiction falls apart because you didn’t construct it properly. Why? Because if you’re old enough to put it out in public, you’re old enough to take the heat for it.

Writing is hard, guys. Writing is WORK.

 

But I digress.

The reason fantasy authors like George R.R. Martin and Glen Cook (if you don’t know who that is LOOK HIM UP) can produce such high-quality writing, writing which is praised for being top-notch fantasy, is that the ground their fantasy in realism.

“Great,” you may say, “but not all of us have a goldfish living in their heads. What do we do?”.

Well, there are two things that work to ground fantasy – and all fiction, to be honest – in realism. The first is to treat the world you are writing as if it was real. But it’s just fiction? Not to the characters who live in it, I assure you. Not to the readers who want to be immersed in it, I assure you. It’s just fiction is an excuse that those who are too lazy, or too entitled, to put in effort hide behind when their half-assed attempts are not immediately hailed as the greatest thing ever. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort: you shouldn’t be writing. There’s enough crap on the market without you joining in.

The world you are creating may technically be just fiction, but good writing – and good authors – transcend that. Writers are often referred to as the God of their stories’ universe. What kind of evil, stupid god would you be if you created a real world but treated it like it wasn’t real enough to matter? Treat your fictional world as if it was a real one. Imagine you really are a god and you are creating the world. That means that, beyond the scope of the Adventure or Romance or whatever the story you are writing is, your world needs to make sense. It shows when worlds are invented to suit the whims of the plot and add tension. It shows in a bad way. People notice when you, say, don’t add handrails to a place where handrails ought to be in order to add Tension. So, what do you have to do? You have to think about the mechanics.

That’s the first thing. The second thing, which you have to do at the same time as the first thing, is to apply Logic.

I know. I know. It’s a scary Maths thing and it doesn’t seem fair to drag it into the world of Arts where you ran to get away from it, but it does need to be here.

In order to build you own Sarky Head-Goldfish and start grounding your fantasy in realism, you’ll want to apply three specific types of logic: Induction, Deduction, and Abduction (no! Not that kind! Don’t run off with that!). If it makes you feel better about adding something as icky as logic to your creative endeavours, put on a deerstalker cap and try not to think about the fact that, no matter what the original illustrations implied, Sherlock Holmes did not wear one of those.

Got your cap on? Great, let’s go.

Deduction is the logic system in which you reason out the definite specific from the definite general – i.e. Dwarves never build handrails. Moria was built by dwarves. Therefore, Moria does not have any handrails. Deductive reasoning – when used correctly, which Holmes did not because he said deductive when he meant a different sort of logic – always comes to a logically valid conclusion. Use this type of logic to determine what parts of your world must be like (conclusions), based on your previous statements of fact (premises). If they don’t line up, you’ll need to change either the facts (“dwarves never build handrails”) or the result (remove the dwarvish handrails from wherever you had included them).

Induction is the logic system in which you reason out a hypothetical general from the definite specifics. The conclusion reached by properly applied induction is a probable, but not a fact and not a mere possible. The evidence given by the specifics supports the likelihood of the conclusion being correct – i.e. Handrails keep people from falling off high things. Dwarves think the risk of falling off high things is a matter of honour. Therefore, dwarven cities probably don’t include handrails in dangerous places. Again, if these things do not stack up when you look at your work, you need to change something. Or, given that induction is about probability, to show in detail what element logically accounts for the gap left by whatever components failed to pass this reasoning test.

Abduction is the logic system in which your reason out a hypothetical specific from the definite general. It’s basically deduction, but questionable. It is also known as “inference to the best explanation” and is the form of logic we are all most familiar with. Why? Because if it looks like a duck, and it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. This, incidentally, is the kind of logic that Sherlock Holmes used – as the conclusions he reached were highly probable but not definite. The sheer complexity of human behaviour meant that Holmes was always speaking as certain (a lady of obviously middling means with callouses on her hands from typing is a professional typist) what was merely probable (she could also be a writer or a journalist, you know). This might not seem like a useful form of logic to apply to your fiction, but it’s actually one of the most important, because it allows you to play out the hypotheticals as you try to explain matters to a realistic conclusion – i.e. Dwarves do not build handrails. Dwarves are facing extinction because their children are few and often fail to survive. Therefore, dwarves are probably going extinct because their children keep falling to their deaths.

Then you apply the realism test to your conclusion. In this case: Would an intelligent species – which dwarves have to be if they’re building cities – really wait until they’re nearly extinct to add handrails? Probably not. All it would take would be one human child falling and, honour be damned, a human city council would be under immense pressure to add safety features. If dwarves are building cities they are probably sufficiently similar in psychology to assume that a similar reaction would occur (see that? That’s abduction again).

At this stage you’d do one of three things. Firstly, you could add handrails to nullify the Plot’s Hole’s cousin: Setting Hole (the adventures just happened to pass through the one place where the handrails have been destroyed and note that in text). Secondly you could make it a point that the dwarves cannot add handrails (or do but they keep being mysteriously destroyed) and are trying to keep their children safely away but they tragically keep slipping away and, er, slipping away anyway – in which case you’ve suddenly developed a new and interesting plot which you can write a story around. Lastly, you can nullify the premise which you find most problematic (for example: dwarves are actually facing an overpopulation crisis and breed like rabbits, so the lack of handrails is a deliberate population curbing method).

 

 

And after all of this you are probably wondering “But what about MAGIC? You said you were going to talk about MAGIC!”.

I did, and I did. Whatever rules you give your system of magic – if it even has a system the characters can understand, given that magic is a liminal force that exists in fiction to make us question what we are incapable of understanding and how to cope with the unknowable – you need to treat magic as if it is just as real in your world as practical things like handrails.

Ultimately, the way to ground magic – the way to make it seem like it actually exists – is to treat it like it actually exists.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Author Status !? – The Stress Don’t Stop (because you published)

I am SO sorry for not having gotten back to posting regularly (it was supposed to go back to once a week – my bad).

As you might have guessed, this last …well, almost a month now if we’re counting from the Kindle release… has been hectic. I’ve only just published for the first time and have quickly discovered that – no matter how stressed I was during the publication process – it’s actually more stressful when you think the worst is behind you and then stumble upon the fact that [BLEEP of your choice] you now have to advertise the damned thing.

And if you’re an author like me, you probably know that having to do social media enough to build up a prescence – and a buyer base – is annoying because it takes a lot of time you could be spending on your writing. If your a technologically incompetent outcast with no social life, like me, you probably also know that – to those unfamiliar with it – having to abruptly create and manage a flood of social media platforms in order to market yourself is not quite your worst nightmare (that’s the one where everyone in the world hates you because you’re an embarassment and the spiders turn up) but it’s pretty close.

The one upside is that – while I was contacting my old fanfiction fans to let them know I was taking my fics down – I got back in contact with some wonderful people who used to like my fanfiction and whose opinions on my first published work I am now terrified and anxious to know. But I also really enjoyed getting back in touch with them, which is impressive given the whole “technologically incompetent outcast with no social life” bit. One of them even gave me some truly awesome ideas for posts which I will hopefully get to just as soon as I am no longer completely run off my feet.

The upshot of all this is that I will be trying to get back to a once-a-week posting schedule …soon. That and that you can now find me on several social media platforms. Technically. I’m still learning how to use them so I can’t promise I’ll be any good at responding, but still, I will work it out eventually.

Oh, and I’ve set in motion the beginnings of a youtube channel (in which I will do video versions of some of my blog posts, other similar content, and even do readings of bits of my books… just as soon as I work out how to use the sound and video editing software I have). …There’s also technically a Patreon account and a Zazzle store (both still under construction).

Expect all of these to slowly come to life over the course of the next couple of months.

 
 

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Author Status 2 – Destructive Distractions

So.

I’ve gone through the proof for my first book, the final cover has been decided and paid for (although the final print cover is waiting on the final formatting). I’m going to publish it within this month. I should be worrying about how it’ll be received.

I’m not. I’m too distracted by other things.

Ars Gratia Artis. L’art Pour L’art.

I’ve always preferred art for the sake of art, although I have always understood that for some artists art is for the sake of social change – warnings, improvements, commentary, etc. Nevertheless, when something in the world sufficiently bothers me I think about writing something to try to stop things from getting worse. The political situation on the other side of the world, in another country to which mine in no way belongs, in another hemisphere, upsets me. I want to write to warn those who do not see danger coming that actually the time to act was months ago, when they merrily sped through the DANGER END OF ROAD signs, but that they might stop complete disaster if they hit the breaks before they reach the actual edge of the cliff …instead of in a few years when they’ve plunged over and into the abyss while wailing that no one warned them this could happen. I want to warn them, even though they have not listened to any previous warnings, if for no other reason that then I can wash my hands of it and say that I tried. It’s not my country, though, so it is not my moral obligation to fix the mess they made.

Thinking about it makes me sick. It gives me nightmares. It brings my mind constantly back to the book in my house which lists all those from a single city, including a whole branch of my ancestors’ family, who did not come back from the camps alive. It reminds me that political prisoners and those who spoke out were the first to be dragged away, and that the world’s main resources for social networking and self-publishing are all trapped in the Silicon Valley – so how long before someone who writes something warning of the dangers gets a target painted on their back?

I have health issues, anxiety mostly. Thinking about politics makes it worse. It keeps me from sleeping and it distracts me from what I want to write about. Do I have a moral obligation to write about it – at the cost of my own health, in a best-case scenario? I don’t think so. I am not the only person in the world who can stand up and do something, and it is not my country. I am not obliged to bail them out at the cost of my own health. Could I write a terrifying tale warning them of things to come if they don’t stop hiding their heads in the sand? Certainly. Would they heed the warning? No. They haven’t heeded anyone else’s so far, so why would a quiet voice from the other side of the world change anything?

The part of me that gets angry – the sense of justice, I suppose – wants to fight, both the political problems and the copyright issues that come from fanfiction (trying to get it justified as “Transformative” so you don’t have to ask permission to write it is basically trying to ignore the author’s right to be recognised as the author, which means recognising their right to control their work).

The part of me that is my pitiful sense of self-preservation argues that I am literally (and I do mean that in the correct sense of the word) making myself ill from anger and I cannot actually change anything anyway, no matter how hard I try. If there comes a day when the fight is something directly related to you, it argues, then fight. For now concentrate on your health and on becoming a successful writer. If nothing else, one day if you have to drag them to court to keep control of your copyrighted material (which isn’t even written and published yet), you can slap the damn transformative works organisation people with the bill for all the anti-anxiety meds you had to take to be able to write while worrying about them possibly succeeding in their hopes of using ‘transformative’ to take control of copyright away from writers (it doesn’t matter if they’re not officially doing that, making fanfiction transformative as a loophole will have the same effect down the line – too many fans on their archive already don’t understand why they shouldn’t make money off copyrighted material and some even link their funding accounts to their fanfiction profiles). “No negative effects on the copyright holder’s ability to make art and money” my arse.

The part of me that is disgusted with humanity in general looks at all the warnings in politics and the arrogance of fan writers who want to make it impossible for artists to say “Don’t make adaptations of my work without my permission” and it says “Just let them get themselves killed. They had warnings. They ignored them. It’s on them now.

The part of me which grieves for humanity and the suffering current events are causing is making it impossible to write for my next project or research for the one after that. I can’t concentrate to write.

The part of me that’s currently keeping me from complete insomnia and regular panic attacks has been hiding out in Glen Cook’s books. That’s also slowing down my writing, but unlike AO3 and politics, it isn’t making me cry and forcing me to take valerian and other such things so that my chest muscles will unclench and I can breathe. I need to get more Garrett, P.I. and Black Company books, The Tower of Fear just isn’t impressing me. It’s nice to see non-Medieval-European fantasy for a change, though, I’d started to think fantasy in non-western settings was a myth.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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How Viewers of Inside Out Got the Message Upside Down

There’s a reason that I used the word Rants in the title of this blog. This post is full of strong opinions, italics, bolding, and ALL CAPS. I also had a bit of fun with the colours.

 

This has been bothering me for a while. It doesn’t bother me that often, but every time I see a theory article, comment, or youtube video asking why there were mainly negative emotions in Inside Out, and every time I see a fanfic which “fixes” things by adding another emotion – almost exclusively: lust/desire, love, or surprise – it makes me furious. As in: it makes the little Anger inside my headquarters not merely burn hot enough to roast marshmallows, but actually burn hot enough to turn metals into gas (like on the sun).

I have yet to meet a child who did not understand the basic message of Inside Out – that all your emotions, even if you don’t understand them, are necessary for your health. And yet, almost no adults seem to understand what the movie was about, despite the fact that the message was all but spelled out for them and the intended audience – some of whom are young enough that “not needing diapers anymore” is an important achievement – did get it. What I’m saying here is that adults are clearly idiots. Well, no, that’s a bit too mean, but it’s still extremely frustrating to see so many people not get it. Urgh.

The point of Inside Out IS that there is no such thing as negative and positive emotions: it is how the emotionals are handled which gives positive or negative results. Come on, people this was literally explained in the prologue and the rest of the movie was about the discovery that this applied to Joy and Sadness as well as Anger, Fear and Disgust. Heck, the movie could easily be summed up in the phrase “sometimes you need a good cry”!

Emotions are like magnets. Magnets have a North and a South pole – but if you chop a magnet in half you do not get one which is totally North and one which is totally South: you get two smaller magnets, each with their own North and South poles.

The emotions shown and dealt with in Inside-Out are – as per the psychological theory the film was based on – what can best be described as Primary Emotions. Like primary colours: if you divide pink into its basic components, you get red and white (or negative green, depending on how you look at it, since pink doesn’t technically exist). If, however, you try to divide red into its component parts you get …red. Red is the colour equivalent of an atom: it cannot be broken down into further pieces. Likewise, anger is a primary emotion; it is not created by mixing two simpler emotions. If you mix anger and sadness (in the right amounts) you get bitterness. If you mix nothing with anger you just get anger. If you mix anger and joy you (can) get vindictive glee.

So what does this have to do with magnets? Well, to the outside observer – unable to remove their own filter which divides things into separate categories based on whether they cause positive or negative results – these emotions seem to be double-sided. They aren’t: it’s just that we give different names to the different results and expressions of them. Nevertheless, if you chop them in half to separate the “good” from the “bad” you just end up with two smaller bits of the same emotion – just as the magnet will become two smaller magnets, rather than an all-positive/north and all negative-south.

This is made explicit in the prologue, when Joy is talking about her fellow emotions and what they do.

Anger is the one who “keeps things fair”. That is: Anger and a sense of Justice or right and wrong are the same thing.

Fear is the one who “keeps Riley safe”. That is: Fear and self-preservation/common sense are the same thing.

Disgust is the one who “keeps Riley from getting poisoned – both physically and socially”. That is: Disgust and comfort/non-sexual desire – and the ability to discriminate between things which are good for you and those which are not, the ability to dislike and like things – are the same thing.

The rest of the movie is about Joy figuring out what Sadness’ purpose is and learning not to be an egomaniacal tyrant. But the answer to that question is shown in the first minute or so of the prologue, when Sadness’ actions are what alert Riley’s parents that something is wrong when she can’t say anything (the baby cries to indicate it has needs). There is really no excuse to have missed it.

Sadness is the ability to empathise. Sadness is the sympathetic emotion. Sadness is what allows us to cope with all the terrible things that happen to us and the ability to give a damn about the suffering of others. Sadness and caring are the same thing.

So what about Joy? It astonishes me that so many people keep insisting that Inside Out should have had more than one “positive” emotion in it, given that Joy – as I already mentioned – spends most of the story as an ego-maniac who selfishly terrorises the other emotions because she’s convinced of her own superiority. It’s only when Joy experiences sadness that she is able to feel or express compassion. When Bing-Bong looses the one thing he cared about most (besides Riley) Joy is annoyed with him for getting in the way of her happiness.

Joy and selfishness are the same thing.

Anger-Justice, Fear-Self-Preservation, Disgust-Comfort, Sadness-Compassion, Selfishness-Joy. These things are one in the same. They’re magnets. You can’t take the selfishness out of joy. Joy is an inherently selfish thing. Anger always comes from a sense of justice (no matter how warped that sense can become). Fear is always about protecting the self and those things which the self has deemed important. Disgust is always from and part of the ability to discriminate between what is comfortable and what is unpleasant. And all Sadness is inherently about the ability to sympathise – sometimes with your own circumstances, sometimes with those of others. Someone who is incapable of feeling sadness is also incapable of feeling sympathy, because they are essentially the same thing. There are words for that, often which begin with psycho- or socio- and which typically end in –path. I AM NOT SAYING THAT RILEY WAS INSANE. If Riley had been insane in that fashion, she wouldn’t have had a Sadness in her head at all.

Which brings me to another point which the adult viewers, in general, have fundamentally failed to understand even though their toddlers got the message: Sadness and Depression are NOT the same thing. The main reason people keep not getting this, I think, is that there is a tendency toward exaggeration in language. The deeply grieved and sorrowful person who keeps bursting into tears and eats three tubs of ice cream wails “I’m soooooooo depressed”. No. No you’re not you fuckwit. You’re SAD. Deeply, deeply, grieved and sorrowful – but those are intense forms of sadness, not of depression.

As so brilliantly illustrated in the film when the console stop responding to the other emotions and turned dark (the lock out), truly depressed people don’t feel anything. They don’t feel. They’re hollow, worn through. The depressed cannot feel sad. They can’t feel anything – they are apathetic. To give you an example: my mother used to work in a psychiatric hospital and one of the patients there was truly and severely depressed. She was, literally, too depressed to move: she sat all day, every day, for years, in the same chair, staring out the same window – never talking, never moving. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t anything. That’s depression. It is the purpose of sadness to keep that from happening. Only sadness can lift a person from depression, because sadness is what allows a person to accept that terrible things have happened and then move on.

We live in a society which has falsely labelled happiness as the only “positive” emotion – a society which claims all the other feelings are negative. But, as shown with Riley, when a person tries to be happy all the time – even when it’s inappropriate, even when they desperately need to feel Anger, Sadness, Fear, or Disgust – they only ever wear themselves out and become empty, depressive shells. Depressed people, at least those who aren’t quite dead inside yet and still can be bothered to move about, are terrifyingly good at pretending to be happy. In fact, if a person who has been depressed for a long time suddenly starts being happy all the time, it is often – but not always – a sign that they are preparing to commit suicide. Depression and Sadness are not the same thing. Sadness is the cure for depression, because it allows the feeler to then move on.

 

Now for the other thing that’s been really pissing me off: the fans who feel the need to add an additional emotion to the primary five. STOP IT. Yes, in the psychological theory the film was based on there was a sixth: Surprise. But surprise as a character would have been a gibbering idiot because every moment of everything would have been a complete shock to him. The filmmakers knew that would never work and so combined surprise with Fear. Yes, surprise is one of the “primary emotions” but it was cut for cinematic reasons.

JOY, SADNESS, ANGER, FEAR, DISGUST, SURPRISE. There are no other Primary Emotions. All other emotions, in the psychological theory the film was based on, are made by combining those primary emotions – just like other colours are made by the painter who combines the three primary colours on their palette. “Love” is one of the more popular additions, but has absolutely no place in headquarters because Love is a COMPLEX emotion made by combining the others in uneven amounts (Joy/Selfishness, Sadness/Compassion, and a hint of Disgust/Comfort, most likely). Even HATE is more complex than the basic Primary emotions. Hate is a combination of Anger and Disgust.

Moreover, the idea of these primary emotions, and of the film, is that these are the basic emotions which EVERY SANE HUMAN BEING HAS. Which is why the other most common interloper who fans try to “fix” things by adding is so absolutely disgusting and offensive.

I’m talking about Lust/Sexual Desire/Desire/other name. Usually, as the fanfic cliché goes, this one turns up in Headquarters after the Puberty button gets pushed. This is especially egregious, given that many fans of Inside Out believe that Riley may be some form of Intersex or Genderqueer because she has both male and female emotions. In other words: most fans are aware that people who are not cis and straight can still be sane human beings, but somehow they still feel it is acceptable to try to “correct” Riley’s mindscape to feel lust. Because “obviously” everyone must feel lust.

How dare you?

Especially given how many of you know about the genderqueer, intersex, and so forth. How dare you?

I think I speak for every Asexual person here when I say: lust is NOT a fundamental part of human nature and we aren’t broken or in need of fixing.

Now, I’m not saying I think Riley is an Ace. I think Riley is a preteen girl. But that doesn’t mean Lust has any place as a primary emotion (things all sane humans are supposed to have all of – meaning that if you insist Lust should be a primary emotion you are saying you think asexuals are either not sane or not human). Lust is a physical sensation. To use a metaphor: if emotions are paint colours on a canvas (primary colours = primary emotions, complex emotions = mixed colours) then lust (like hunger and physical pain) is a bottle of perfume being sprayed around. Not everyone likes or wears perfume. And even those that do don’t add it to a canvas and call it a colour!

In other words, “dear” Inside Out fanwriters, I don’t care if you “didn’t mean to” – by adding Lust to the primary emotions you are engaging in the erasure of Asexuals by encouraging your readers to think of those people who do not lust* as broken or insane. KNOCK IT OFF.

 

*Lust is, by definition, sexual attraction (save when used in terms such as “wanderlust”) and as Asexuality is the orientation of not feeling sexually attracted to anyone, the two are mutually exclusive – regarless of whether or not the ace in question is nonlibidoist, although there is a distinct gray area of Gray-A aces.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2016 in On Writing

 

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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Scrap Pile 3 – My House: My Rules

I wrote this years and years ago… maybe even a decade ago (where did my youth go‽) in order to make my position on the idea of fanfiction in general clear. Many fans believe, erroneously, that fanfiction is a right when it is in fact a privilege. Notably that opinion is only held by those who want to be able to use other people’s work as they please, and never by those whose works are being used – and often mutilated or used to make a profit – without their permission. I got into a debate with a friend and – despite not yet being published – wrote this as an explanation of where I stood on the matter. I wrote it as if I was talking to a fandom I had (which I don’t) and as if I had already published books (which I have not yet) based on the idea that I would simply have this ready for one day in the future when I was famous (naïve much?).

 


 

My House, My Rules:

A fictional world is like a house built by the creator – the characters are the creator’s pets. Publishing a work is the equivalent of selling photographs of your house and pets. The purchase of said photographs does not transfer ownership of the house or pets.

Fan works are the equivalent of visiting the house and pets rather than just looking at the photographs. That is: a fan is a guest and the owner lets them in with the expectation that they will behave acceptably. No matter how casual a person is in reality, they aren’t going to allow visitors into their home if they expect those visitors will berate them for their choices, trash their furnishings, claim to deserve the house more than the owner (who designed and built it from scratch), claim that the owner and owner’s wishes are irrelevant, or rape the pets. When someone allows a guest into their home they expect polite, socially acceptable behaviour. No one would argue against a homeowner who forced out a visitor who behaved inappropriately.

As long as fans can behave like vaguely descent human beings while visiting my home and my pets, they are welcome. If they cannot I shall have to enforce a no visitors policy and leave everyone with only the photographs.

My writing – my stories – is my house: a property I designed and built (and own) all by myself.

You are welcome, as guests, to let yourselves in and make yourselves comfortable – to write fanfiction and make fanart, so forth. However, you must remember that you are guests and guests are only welcome as long as they respect their host’s wishes and general patterns of social acceptability. Since I have seen far too many other ‘houses’ trashed by badly behaved guests (many of whom feel they have the right to complain about being kicked out afterward) I have made a simple list of rules which, let’s face it, really should be so obvious they don’t need to be spelled out for you (so why, exactly, do I have to?).

  1. You are welcome to make use of my furniture, read in my library and make yourself tea in my kitchen. That does not mean you have the right to take any of my things with you when you leave. If you wouldn’t steal your neighbours spoons (or characters, ideas, etc) don’t try taking mine. [You were not the inspiration, nor can you claim ownership of any characters or ideas. Yes, even if a sequel has something you also thought up in it. That just means you know my characters well. Congrats.]

 

2. You are welcome to tell me, and the other guests, what you like and dislike about how I have designed and furnished my house. You are not welcome to claim that I did things wrong because it is not the way you’d like it, nor that you could have designed and furnished it better. If you could have done it better you would be the host and I the guest. It is not so and that is not ‘unfair’. I am not ‘stupid’ because I painted the living room blue where you would have painted it green, nor because I do not try to make my pets sleep together. [Your opinions are welcome as long as they are given maturely. ‘I’d have preferred’ is acceptable, ‘you’re stupid because you didn’t do what I wanted’ is not. You do not know better about my stories than I do.]

 

3. On that note: my cat and my iguana do not wish to have sexual intercourse with each other. Kindly stop trying to force them together. It is not cute. I wouldn’t make your hamster fuck your gerbil. [If my canon states that a character is not interested – be it in a particular gender, person, or sex as a whole – do not try to change this …especially not because ‘they’d look so cute together’.].

 

4. Also, I am aware that my house is near another house where the guests are welcome to roam. I do not own the other house, but I am pretty sure that its owner will be just as upset as I if we find that you’ve dug a tunnel under the garden fence to connect the two. Even if I owned both properties, this would still be unacceptable behaviour from guests, no matter how drunk they are. If I wanted the properties connected, there would not be a fence. [In other words: crossovers are a no-no. I don’t care if you’re writing this at three A.M. and you’re high, that’s not an excuse.]

 

5. Similarly, I welcome guests, but not when they are drunk or high (or otherwise compromised). I assure you that your neighbours would no more approve ‘I was drunk’ or ‘I was high’ as an excuse for defacing their walls and destroying their furnishings that I would. [If you are, drunk, high or otherwise compromised then you should not be putting up ‘fanwork’ – especially not with a mention of the fact to ‘defend’ yourself.]

 

6. If you and another guest feel the need to shout at each other over whether my blue living room should have been painted green or purple please do so on the main road. This not only stops you from disturbing and frightening the other guests, it also makes it easier for disgruntled neighbours to run you over. [Flame wars: no.]

 

7. I have no problem with you drawing up plans for extensions to my property and showing them to other guests – I might even have a look myself if I hear good things and I have the time. I do have a problem with any attempts to actually build such extensions. Furthermore, you came to my house because you liked it – you call yourself a ‘fan’ – so if you do draw up extension plans have the decency to put effort into it: this means making sure you get everything (including spelling, punctuation, etc.) right. If you do not have the time or skill to do so, but have an idea for an extension you’d like to see: tell the other guests, I’m sure it would make the day of some of them to try for you. [Do not claim it is canon, claim it ought to be canon, or try to publish it anywhere but inside the fandom; no making profit or selling fanwork. Furthermore, if you claim to be a fan put effort into your fanwork: there are no excuses for poor spelling, punctuation, capitalisation or just plain bad characterisation and plot. This also goes for getting your canonical facts right. If you do not have the time to get it right, put up a story request in a community, etc, and hopefully one of your fellow fans will help you out.]

 

8. It is not symbolic. No, really, it’s not. Nor is it symbolism that I have subconsciously put into the work – I spend far too much time going over and revising my work for anything to slip in subconsciously. Assuming otherwise only shows that you, as guests, have absolutely no idea how much effort goes into the building and furnishing of a house – yes, even those of you who hold official university degrees and teaching positions in architecture and interior design. If I put symbolism into my house, you can be certain that I will specifically mention it. [If I haven’t specifically and clearly stated, in the story itself, that something is symbolic, then it’s not. Any ‘symbolism’ or ‘intentions’ you might have ‘discovered’ are merely the workings of your own – distinctly lacking – imagination. I don’t care how many degrees in literature you have: you don’t know my meanings or intentions better than I do.]

 

9. Any attempts to imply that the house was – in any way – your idea and/or to make a profit off of it will result in you receiving a boot up your arse on your (assisted) way out the door. [Do I really have to explain this one?]

 

In other words, ladies and gentlemen, if on any normal day you would not do it while visiting the home of your neighbour, your best friend or any random stranger: don’t do it in mine.

 


I still hold to a lot of those principles, but I’d like to think I could explain myself nowadays without being quite that condescending.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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The It’s Easy and It’s Hard Fallacies

I called this blog L.C. Morgenstern’s Fantasy, Fiction and Folklore Rants and today it’s earning its name.

 

In my experience people who are not writers tend to fall into two groups – the ones who want to be writers and the ones who don’t – and each of those groups has a typical fallacy they fall into when they think about what it means to be a writer. Worse, they tend to overlap – people who decide they want to be writers often get a harsh slap in the face from reality and thus fall straight from the It’s Easy Fallacy into the It’s Hard Fallacy.

THE IT’S EASY FALLACY: Don’t get me wrong: anyone who can make a living off writing is extremely lucky to be able to work in an industry that they love. But people tend to forget the two key words in there: WORK and INDUSTRY. Writing is a job. It can be a job you love and which come easier to you than, say, lifting heavy boxes all day, but it’s still work and work takes effort. Moreover, writing is part of the entertainment industry. People can cry about how writing is an art all they want, but ultimately art is an industry and industry is about working to earn a living. All work requires effort. Physical work requires physical effort. Creative work requires mental effort. Most of the work may take place inside your head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not work or that the only effort required is in the finger muscles. No one would say that an accountant, for instance, doesn’t have to put in effort and work to do their job, even though it’s mostly mental (and calculators). No one would say that a businessman thinking through what deals to make and how to keep their business running doesn’t work because there’s no physical effort involved. Yet people feel free to say that writers have it “easy” because they get to do something they love and it “doesn’t take effort” because it’s not physical. That’s bullshit. Firstly because writing does take effort – if you don’t put the effort in you get at best cliché-filled, cardboard trash copied directly off the work (and effort!) of those who have come before and at worst tlty epc fanfics liek plz R&R cuz liek its no a marysue dontliek dontread mean!!!1!. (For the record, it physically hurt to write that.) All creative work takes effort. Secondly, however, it’s bullshit because there are plenty of non-artistic jobs which the employees can count themselves lucky to have because they love the work. Sure, there are huge numbers of people who hate their jobs, but I’ve known plenty of business people, doctors, scientists, teachers, accountants and others with “not creative therefore not fun” jobs who loved their work – the challenges of it, especially – and who would have been utterly miserable as a writer because that wasn’t what gave them joy.

But I’ve seen far, far too many fools who believe that the world is divided into black and white – and therefore that either you have a job you enjoy (meaning you cannot complain about the bits which you don’t like or even admit that it’s not so easy that you don’t really have to do anything) or that you don’t have a job doing art what you love (which must be hard and complaint-worthy). Artistic jobs, writing included, are not akin to ordering a slice of cake in a five star restaurant and then complaining about how much effort lifting the silver spoon is. Artistic jobs are arriving at nine in the morning at that five star restaurant, using your employee ID to get into the kitchen for your shift and working – baking, washing, scrubbing, cooking, cutting, icing, stirring, etc – until midnight, only occasionally getting to pause to glance out at the dinner rush where other people are eating the slices of cakes you made (and rolling your eyes as they complain about how they would have iced it differently and it takes effort to raise their silver spoons) …and, if you love your job – if you love creating art – then watching other people enjoy what you made is worth the effort. Reading is getting to eat cake. Reading and then complaining about the effort is like buying cake and then complaining that you have to eat it. Writing is baking the cake, while rushing to keep up with other orders and keep the kitchen from being set on fire, and then not getting to eat it because you didn’t make it for you. You made it for the ungrateful twats who think digesting is a huge effort on their parts. You have to love the act of making, rather than the product.

Sadly, the It’s Easy Fallacy is extremely prevalent and – like a customer in a restaurant who can’t understand that no the customer is not always right – many, many people then assume that the cooks/artists don’t have to put in any effort and that anyone can do it because it’s easy. Kind of like the customers who berate their servers for being “idiots” and then go on to say that they could totally have made that five star meal at home cheaper and better …and then try it. Sometimes by storming into the restaurant kitchen to show everyone that they obviously can make a better five star meal because being a chef takes no effort. It’s Easy. Anyone can do it.

These people tend to get one hell of a whack in the face from reality when they step into the kitchen and realise they have no idea what the recipe includes or what all the strange items (i.e. the oven) actually are. Sometimes they leave the kitchen wailing about how it’s not fair because it’s supposed to be Easy. Sometimes, far FAR less often, they roll up their sleeves, wash their hands and admit that maybe they could use a cookbook. The second type take a few tries to produce something that’s even marginally edible and many will never make it to being five star chefs, but they do make something because they’ve accepted that it’s not easy and it takes effort – but they also enjoy the work and that makes it all worth it. The first type, however, run away the moment they hit…

 

THE IT’S HARD FALLACY: (Or should that be “But it’s haaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrd!!!1!”) The modern generation has grown up being told that they could be anything they wanted when they grew up (proven bullshit – evidence: I’m not a turtle), that art is “easy” (primarily because school teachers don’t give honest critiques of art by students due to pressure to not be negative and therefore being overly-praising of everything), and that writing isn’t “work” so it should be cheap or free (fuck you for that, by the way, Amazon, printing the books was NOT the highest costing part of making them and you didn’t need to shoot the industry in the kneecaps with 0.99-2.99 sales ranges for things which could easily cost 15-20 to make given how many hours writers spend, the editors and illustrators wages, etc, way to destroy the industry with your eBooks). In other, less aggressive, words, people have been taught that writing is easy and that they should get riches and praise for stringing so much as two words together while simultaneously insisting that they shouldn’t have to pay for it just like they don’t pay for roads and other government funded things which improve their lives (which would be just fine and dandy if the government was giving artists a living wage out of the readers’ taxes, but they AREN’T). 99% of writing on the market (and in fanfiction) is trash at the moment because society has recently decided that it’s wrong to tell someone, no matter how gently, that they’re crap at something even when they are extremely crap at it. Instead we are expected to lie and tell them that it’s really good – and that’s not fair on either party.

What all of this means is that when someone who is not a writer by nature tries writing, on the assumption that “Everyone has a book in them” and “writing is easy” they quickly discover that actually …they don’t and it’s not. Unfortunately, the idea that writing a book is a cool thing to do means that many, many of these people refuse to accept that writing is just not their thing and keep going. Note that I don’t say “persevere”. Persevere implies some level of dignity. Someone who persevered in writing I could respect. But not these people. These people proudly call themselves “Writers” while bewailing that they have no ideas, that writing is haaaaaaaaaaaaaard and that they have writer’s block – when they do manage to string words together the character’s are flatter than cardboard, the setting and plot are both wholly unoriginal and filled with more plot holes and inconsistencies than things which make sense, and the technical side of the writing (grammar and word use) could have been done better by a bright five year old! News flash, people, it doesn’t matter what genre you write in – be it paranormal romance or dystopian or erotica or drama or genre busting things with penguins – if you are a writer you have ideas, you enjoy the hard work of finding the perfect word and editing the damn grammar (even as you curse it), you take the time to understand human psychology so that you can write 3D characters, you put some damn effort into making the plot and setting work and more often than not you can’t not-write because your head will explode from all the ideas if you don’t!

It’s like with cake. If you find that measuring all the ingredients, exerting yourself mixing them and having the patience to wait while it cooks is “too haaard” admit you’re not a fucking baker and go by one someone else made.

 

No matter how easy you find the creation process (assuming you’ve even tried it, which most of the It’s Easy Fallaciers have not) you don’t have the right to equate easy with effortless and then tell people who are talking about the exertion that they have no place to complain. Likewise, no matter how hard you find something, you have no business wailing that you are a “writer” and “love writing” but find the entire process “too haaard” (in that case you’re a liar on both counts).

 

Please consider the following: three people are set to climb Mount Everest.

Climber 1 reaches base camp and wails “But it’s soooooo haaaaaaaard. It’s supposed to be easy! Everyone says it’s easy! I thought there was an elevator to take me uuuuup! CARRY ME!”

Climber 2 turns to Climber 1 and says “If you don’t like mountain climbing, why don’t you go home and do something you’ll enjoy?”

Climber 1 replies “But I’m a Mountain Climbeeeer!” Climber 1 then sits down at base camp and refuses to climb the mountain, insisting that Climber 2 and Climber 3 will have to carry them and that they should be nice about their criticism.

Climber 3, meanwhile, puts on the minimum of climbing gear, gets into their hired helicopter and is flown to the top of the mountain – having never actually climbed the mountain – and waits for the others at the top, mentally congratulating themselves for having climbed a mountain and reiterating that mountain climbing is easy and effortless because they love it.

Climber 2 scales the mountain alone, weighted down by their equipment. Their arms, fingers and legs ache, they experience utter dread as they fight with the cold and the thinning air and eventually, eventually, with much blood and sweat, they make it to the top. Climber 2 looks down exhausted and, while Climber 3 watches, hoots. “That was so much effort!” Climber 2 exclaims in exhilaration. “What a challenge! …Damn that last crevasse did a number on my gloves.”

Climber 3 watches this in disgust and sneers, “You said you love mountain climbing. How dare you imply that it takes effort to climb a mountain – I didn’t put in any effort and here I am! You shouldn’t complain about hard bits in something you love, as if that can exist! Bah, humbug.”

At this point Climber 2 pushes Climber 3 off the top of the mountain because they don’t get that loving something doesn’t make it perfect and the challenge – the effort – is the point, and Climber 3 wails “it’s easyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” as they fall to their deaths in the valley of bright-jacketed corpses of climbers who didn’t make it.

 

I’m sure this is going to piss some people off. I don’t really care. ALL WORK TAKES EFFORT. THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED WORK. No matter how much you love something there will be things you don’t enjoy tied up in it. It’s never wrong to grouse about those things. It is wrong to claim you love something when all you do is whine (not grouse) about the bits you don’t like and don’t like any of it. There is a difference. Learn it. And don’t go about claiming that writing doesn’t take work because that’s the sort of bullshit which encourages the selfish and over-privileged to demand that writers do their job for free. Would you ask a businessman to run their company for free? Of course you fucking wouldn’t: it’s their JOB.

Art isn’t easy. No kind of art is. It’s never perfect either, and while someone who gets to do something they love for a living has less to complain about, it doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to complain – but if all you do is complain, instead of complaining about certain bits only and enjoying the effort, why are you writing? Writing isn’t just one thing. It’s the art of putting lots of things together – all arts are; and a whole extra truck load of other parts come into play once you’re trying to make it a profession.

The art of making art …is putting it together. The good and the bad. The ease and the effort – not one or the other – both easy and hard. That’s the state of the art.

 

 

Flame war in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2016 in On Writing

 

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