I forgot to do this: Yay – the book is now available in print!
I forgot to do this: Yay – the book is now available in print!
I was going to wait with posting this until the Print and Epub versions were also available, but I’m still waiting on Ingramspark for something and it’s already been two days since this was published. So you’ll get more posts like this in a few days (hopefully) when the other forms of the book become available.
It’s available on Amazon Kinlde here. It’s also available on other versions of Amazon (UK, AU, etc) if you search for it in the Kindle store.
…I’m not going to be done stressing until all of the formats are published, at which point I will make a Books page for my blog with easy links to them all.
So, this is just a quick update/apology for the most recent long break between posts. At the moment I am working on one writing advice book (and yes, I am acutely aware of the irony given that I’ve yet to publish any original fiction). It’s about 74k long and today I finished the second edit. Yay.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get it published (and printed and delivered) in time for the Armageddon expo this year – or, more specifically, will not have it ready in time to join some fellow indie writers in the area who have rented a stall at Armageddon this year. In order to have my book ready by then, I would need a phone booth or a DeLorean or a negative space wedgie of some kind and, frankly, none of those time travel options are available to me. So I’m quite disappointed at the moment.
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?
Sometimes when I read fiction I get the feeling that the only genre where authors believe in characterisation is drama – stories which hinge entirely on human flaws and interactions. All of the others (romance, humour, sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, mystery, even historical fiction; which really should know better, etc) come across as more interested in black and white good/evil characterisation and things which go BOOM. Flaws never inconvenience characters and all inter-relational problems are caused by someone doing something wrong or evil (or a big misunderstanding that even a toddler could clear up, looking at you romance and comedy) rather than actual human interaction – and the problem only gets worse in fanfiction. Real human interaction is full of minor flaws and arguments wherein no one is the bad/wrong/evil person who needs to be “cured” of their flaws, but no one is truly right either. Humans are social animals. That means we drive each other batshit for no reason and if we aren’t something is really wrong.
1) Not all flaws are created equal. There is an important difference between Learned Flaws, Physical Flaws, and Fundamental Flaws. That might seem fairly inexplicable, but it’s actually quite straightforward: authors typically are aware that characters should have flaws (as this is often toted writing advice) but all too often amateur and not-so-amateur authors think that “have flaws” means “one or two non intrinsic and easily fixed flaws which will never affect the characterisation or plot” and dutifully apply one or two as loosely as children’s stickers and then tick off that box as if the problem has actually been solved. Spoiler alert: it hasn’t. They key problem here is that authors tend to favour physical and learned flaws so that they can be fixed later and their character doesn’t have to be messy and imperfect. This is a problem because a character cannot be 3D or interesting unless they are messy and imperfect. There’s nothing wrong with giving a character learned and/or physical flaws, when portrayed realistically, but they are not as useful to characterisation and plot as fundamental flaws.
Physical Flaws: This category differs from the other two categories as it is to do with a character’s body, rather than their mind/soul/heart/personality/whatever you want to call it. Clumsiness is a physical flaw and the most commonly tacked on flaw in fiction. It’s also a dirty useless cheat because it is always there to “prove” that the character has flaws (no, no they don’t because that’s SINGULAR: one flaw, damn it) and has absolutely no affect on the plot or characterisation. It’s just there to tick a box and look cute. Ultimately, it doesn’t actually count as a flaw. Then there are other physical flaws which (sometimes) turn up in fiction… The character has glasses, OMG, so they’ll get contacts by the end that work just like laser surgery instead of like contacts. The character snores, but no one minds or looses sleep because it’s “cute” (it’s not). The character has, gasp, freckles – but good looking ones. The character is “tall and lanky” and then that turns out to mean “conventionally attractive”. But there are some other physical flaws that get used – like being in a wheelchair or missing a limb until that gets cured (that’s not a character flaw, by the way, that’s the author being an ableist, over-privileged bleep-wad). What I’m saying here is that physical flaws do not actually work for the tick box of “character has flaws” because they have nothing to do with the nature of the character and everything to do with the appearance.
Learned Flaws: This is the category of things like; addictions, sexism, and racism. These are flaws which are not physical, but not inborn either. Typically, these are used to show that a character is either a) not perfect because they have some socially unacceptable view which will be fixed by the end of the story, turning them into a perfect cardboard cut-out, or b) evil. Madness in all most varieties belongs here (as with the exception of those forms of madness which a child is born with – those few caused by chemical imbalance and not psychological damage – which count as disabilities, not flaws). For example: people can be born with an inclination to be more easily affected by alcoholism, but no one is born alcoholic. Sometimes it is too late to change, but it is not naturally unchangeable. A person can be more or less inclined to question the beliefs they are a raised with, but no one is born racist, or sexualist, or sexist, or ableist. In all of these cases the flaw is something negative that a person has integrated into their character over the course of their life, rather than an unchangeable facet of who they were born and will always be. This type of flaw can, if used correctly, flesh out a character significantly, but if it’s only there to be cured or fixed in the end then it is worse than having no flaws whatsoever.
Fundamental Flaws: This is the best type of flaw for a character to have, yet for some reason (probably because it makes right and wrong into a murky grey area and renders characters realistic rather than perfect) most authors seem to shy away from it. When this type of flaw is used it is almost inevitably one of: a) selfishness, which is a ridiculous flaw because no one is selfish all the time and everyone is selfish sometimes, b) a quick temper, which somehow never seems to get the character into trouble or go off when not justified or useful, or c) being “too kind”, which likewise never has its real life negative effects like being brutally used by everyone around them and basically being little better than a doormat. Fundamental flaws are an intrinsic part of a character’s personality: they do not come from some event or incident in the character’s past (being cynical is often portrayed thus even though it shouldn’t be) and it cannot be changed or fixed. A person may become aware of their flaws and seek to mitigate them, but they cannot be expunged and the moment a person is put under pressure, the minor amount of control they have over their fundamental flaws will be the first thing to go. What’s more, mitigate does not mean change or remove – a person whose chief fundamental flaw is being rude as in short with people may spend their life mentally reminding themselves to not go so fast and be a little less blunt, but they won’t always manage and when they get stressed they will stop checking themselves for rudeness. Rudeness, inability to admit to being wrong, nitpicking, refusal to stop helping when asked because “helping!”, inclination to assume the worst of people, generalising when specificity is called for, these and so many more are the type of fundamental – inborn – flaws which actually make characters 3D and INTERESTING.
2) Normal people have dozens of minor and major flaws. In fiction dozens of flaws may well be too many to show without making a completely unlikable character, but that still doesn’t mean that the opposite – none to two and tacked on false flaws at that – is appropriate either. If you’re writing a novel length work and are dealing with a main character, you have enough room for about ten flaws – which is both a good number for simulating the dozens that real people have and comfortably shown, provided that you don’t try to have a character arc or “fix-it” moment for each (or any) of them. It also actually works better in a longer piece to have multiple (non-contradictory) character flaws because it means that not every argument or plot problem has to come from one, thus overstrained, issue. Which of the following seems more realistic? Mary; who is “too kind” and has a “short temper” but is never inconvenienced by them and is otherwise completely flawless beyond being slightly clumsy . Or Sue; who is viewed as a miser  because she stopped giving money to charities after scammers took advantage of her kindness one too many times [2&3 due to implicit gullibility as well as being “too kind”], who snaps at people easily and therefore strains her relationships (causing her to be nervous and wary  in social situations and more likely to snap), does her best to keep her pedantic comments to herself at work , who often misses deadlines  because she’s over critical of her work , but who always makes times for her friends (even when she cannot afford to ) and is never outright cruel, despite an unfortunate clumsiness  which puts her in even more awkward social situations? More importantly: who’s more interesting? Who’s memorable? Sue is – because there are ten billion “flawed” heroines like Mary, in all genres, who have that same trio of flaws “too kind”, “short temper”, and “clumsy”.
3) Fundamental Flaws drive characterisation and plot. Here’s another good question: of Mary and Sue, from the above example, which one is it easier to create characterisation and plot for? Plot first. Whenever the author needs a plot device they could have Mary be kind to the wrong person (if they’re willing to let her, gasp, make a mistake) or have a temper tantrum (they’ll never call it that) at the wrong time, resulting in a big fight/misunderstanding with the love interest in order to stretch the plot another three hundred pages, or have her clumsily drop or break something important. But in all of those cases it’s fairly obvious deus ex machina at work and it’s utterly generic. ANY plot can be advanced by shoehorning one of those in. Sue, on the other hand, has more specific plot opportunities, but they’re also more unique and will ring truer than those shoehorned in. If Sue doesn’t like being viewed as a miser she might decide to do something about that or lose out on something because of it (plots!), she might struggle to learn to trust again and stop being gullible (plot!), or start a fight by snapping at the wrong person at the wrong time (plot advancement!). She might be struggling to make a major project by a deadline and may or may not fail to do so if she makes time for her friends when she shouldn’t (plot complications!). Sue’s plots are both more specific and more sensible for her character – they’re harder to slap onto any random character the way Mary’s options are.
So what about characterisation? Well, here’s the thing; plot is best run by characterisation. If you have deep characters you don’t need to further the plot when it stalls by throwing in random fights or EXPLOSIONS. If your plot is running on the power of realistic people you don’t need big misunderstandings to stretch it out or to toss in stray threads to keep interest up. I’ve often heard people say that writing about emotions and interpersonal drama just “isn’t interesting” because it’s “just people sitting around talking”, but the thing is: any well done interpersonal drama can be more riveting than “OMGOSH R they gonna save the world” take 938,934,579,253,283.4. Characterisation is a subtle beast and, when done right, should be infused into everything – the words the character uses, the way they react to people, the way they look (neat, messy, clothing choices, etc, not hair/eye colour or bust-to-waist-ratio!), what they do, how they move, the job they do and hobbies they have, the choices they make, the way the prose describes them, the way other people describe them, EVERYTHING.
The description of Mary shows us that she’s …pretty much identical to thousands of other fictional heroines out there and nothing else, not even an age-range. There is so little characterisation going on there that she’s essentially a list of traits without a character. Then there’s Sue. We know Sue’s an adult (has a job) who often misses her deadlines (so job has deadlines but either they aren’t overly important or Sue is going to be struggling to keep from being fired soon, which narrows down the fields somewhat, plus it’s implied that she has money to spare to be cheated out of and then hoard, so it’s well-paying). Everything we know about Sue points to her being somewhat embittered (viewed as a miser and having lost trust after being too kind and gullible and getting used for her trouble). She’s nervous and short-tempered around people because she’s clumsy and aware of her pedantic , snappish temperament, which tells us that she actually cares quite a bit what people think of her and is likely very sensitive to other people’s opinions. She’s not cruel and she has friends, so she’s not a total social outcast, unless she’s still gullible and those “friends” are just taking advantage of her. If we narrow that down to a briefer description we can say from her flaws that Sue is a generous, kind, distrustful, socially awkward, woman who is reasonably successful in a well-paying profession and probably has an eye for specifics and precision (pedants tend to have this). Furthermore, all of those descriptions bring to mind physical motions (won’t look people in the eye, rushing with stacks of paper, rare but brilliant smiles, cringing at the looks given to her when something pedantic slips out) and tonal clues (“snapped”, obviously, but also “pointed out” and “ostentatiously”) That’s WAY more than we got out of Mary. That’s practically a complete person. That’s interesting.
4) Flaws do not have to be “cured” or “fixed”, damn it. We want people not cardboard cut-outs. Now, one last question: if the author of Sue were to ensure that by the end of her story, all of Sue’s interesting traits – her social awkwardness, her tendency to snap and miss deadlines, her justifiable distrust of people who want things from her, her awkwardness-inducing-clumsiness, her pedantic nature, her overspending on friends, her too strong self-criticism, and all the others – and “fix” them so that they’d all been scrubbed out, would Sue still be interesting? NO. No she would not, because she would be nothing more than a cardboard cut-out of what “flawless” and “perfect” are supposed to be and no longer be a character. Why? Because all of those things were intrinsic to her personality (with the potential exception of the distrust, which is a learned flaw that comes from compensating for her fundamental flaws)! A character arc which focused on her learning to get over that distrust but still staying wise enough to no longer be gullible and easily used would be fine so long as she remained awkward, snappish, pedantic, over-critical and inclined to miss deadlines. Flaws are what make people people. People are interesting. Flat cardboard cut-outs that have “character” written on it are not.