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Contrast, Foreshadowing, Mood, Ice and Fire

Something that’s been driving me nuts in the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom lately is all the jokes about how George R.R. Martin includes so many food descriptions because he is fat. Somehow, fans have convinced themselves that those two things go together – because “obviously” writers who aren’t stick figures can’t possibly have self-control or the capacity to tell when one of their interests does not belong in their story. /sarcasm.

Now, most fans aren’t doing this, but an annoyingly large amount of them are and it’s them that are driving me batty. But I digress.

During the first few books of ASOIAF there has been a long summer (so there is plenty of food), and only a few wars. Towns are sacked and burned – destroying valuable crops – but famine is a man-maid phenomenon (siege-warfare) and it is only in the very north, beyond the Wall, that lack of food is already an issue. The main characters are all rich and therefore, even in a siege or famine, will be fed first – with extravagent and lavishly described meals which give the readers the feeling of decadence and how much food is available (Arya, the one wealthy character running around outside of her aristocractic background, in comparison is eating worms).

By the end of the last few books (that are currently published) only three out of nine (really ten) areas in The Seven Kingdoms have not suffered lossed crops – due to burnings and armies scavenging, and a lack of workers to collect the crops, which then rot – and of them, Dorne does not produce much food (due to it’s water shortage) and the Vale and Reach cannot support the entire surviving population of the continent – even with all the deaths from the wars. Up at the Wall, there are far to many mouths to feed and not nearly enough food for even the Watch alone to survive a winter. At this point in the story, the rich are STILL described as eating lavishly – because, again, they are rich and have hired knives to take food from the poor – while the poor are mostly starving. Meanwhile, on the eastern continent, Dany’s war on slavery has destroyed the agricultural supplies of Slavers Bay – meaning that, regardless of who wins, three cities there are dangerously close to starving.

In the two unpublished books we can predict some things: mass starvation will become enough of a problem that it will affect the rich, the combination of war in the east crushing the (slave based) economy and the series of wars – causing debt and starvation – in the west WILL result in those between the west and east (The Free Cities) being able to sell food for a massive profit but being unable to keep up with demand, and their will be more war – with more crop burnings and other starvation inducing horrors (remember: armies march on their stomaches) – before the winter even has a chance to properly arrive.

We can guess that in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring the food descriptions are going to be very different. Because there isn’t going to be food anymore. Not even for the aristocrats who make up the main cast.

It’s not technically foreshadowing, but by lavishly describing food while it is available – and describing the lavish meals the rich enjoy while the poor starve, and while the rich fail to understand what starvation really means – Martin has prepped the readers’ mood. He’s prepared us to expect food to be there, to be plentiful (for the main cast), and to sound attractive. That’s going to be one hell of a sucker-punch for the readers when the true depth of winter and famine set in and the rest of the cast have to join Arya with her worms and Bran with his, ehm, “long pork”.

There is no better way to describe the lack of something – and make the readers feel it – than to first contrast it by describing that something in abundance.

I don’t live in his mind, so I can’t tell you for sure, but I’m pretty sure Martin is writing about food so much because he is writing about a world which is about to undergo a terrible winter and an even more terrible mass famine, not because his weight somehow makes him incapable of controlling what he puts into his work.

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Naming Villains

If you didn’t grow up reading the Harry Potter books, you probably find the name (Lord) Voldemort to be less ominous and more laughable. It kind of is. It’s also the brain-child of a deranged teenager with ego issues, but that’s an in-universe explanation and this post is about how authors best choose names for their characters which induce dread, rather than why characters give themselves names which are dreadful.

A well chosen villain name can be the difference between the reader shivering every time they are mentioned and a reader coming up with cutesy pet names (like Voldie, Moldyshorts, and many others) …which generally means they aren’t taking your villain all that seriously. Personally, I was always more invested in what would happen when the prose – or characters – of Rowling’s books described the Big Bad as Riddle or Tom, because if nothing else his berserk button would be triggered and shit would get real. (The fact that he was a more effective villain – in carrying out plans – when he was still a somewhat saner child/teen also helped with that, but the point stands.)

 

So, what do you have to consider if you want to save your villain from being laughed out of the room the moment they introduce themselves? Well, that can be genre dependent. I might do a part two later about realistic genre villains (you know, people who should have normal human names for their culture), but for now this is geared to the various forms of Speculative Fiction, because that’s where most of this nonsense happens. But within that sphere, the best way to save your villain from being a laughingstock is to answer five simple questions.

 

1) What Does It Mean?

Between Lovecraft’s penchant for the unpronounceable and Tolkien’s fondness for invented language and names, there has been a long trend in speculative fiction genres of simply smashing a bunch of random letters or sounds together and calling it a suitably intimidating villain name. After all, if Cthulhu and Sauron sound terrifying, surely the heroic Eldric’s same-species nemesis Xecodontalzivrek is too, right?

What most rip-offs of Tolkien don’t realise is that his names actually had meanings. They weren’t made up mishmashes. Tolkien created complete languages for his world and every name had a meaning. So names like Sauron (“the Abhorred”, real name: Mairon “the admirable”) and Morgoth (“dark dread” or “black enemy”, real name Melkor “mighty one”) make sense. They have meaning in that world and they fit alongside names like Feänor (“spirit of fire”), Manwë (“Blessed One”), and Curumo (“Cunning”, also called Saruman). Those names sound like they belong together because linguistically they do. And readers will notice if the big bad has a name that not only sounds like it doesn’t belong in that culture but also doesn’t belong in that universe. That being said: most authors aren’t writing complete languages and do not have the time or energy to develop root words and variants and grammar rules. Nor do most readers count such things in when they are emotionally affected by a story. Which means that even though Tolkien’s characters’ names made sense, there was nothing truly dread inducing about them. Likewise, “Voldemort” is made of root words which, together, roughly mean “Flight of/from death” but the name itself sounds like nonsense.

Then there’s Lovecraft. There’s nothing wrong with making an unpronounceable mess of a name if the creature who plays the big bad is a Lovecraftian eldritch abomination – something which would not be obliged to have a comprehensible name because it is not comprehensible to humans. But there is a VERY big difference between naming an eldritch abomination Cthulhu and naming a human or similar species character Cthulhu. If the name supposedly came from a being whose species uses a language humans or human-like species can understand, the names have to follow from that: have to be sounds those species not only could but would make. And, again, no one is scared of Cthulhu for being named Cthulhu. If we didn’t have pop-culture to warn us that he’s an eldritch abomination, we would not be automatically disturbed by the name (bemused and curious if the author suffered a coughing fit while typing, but not disturbed).

And here’s the funny thing, the name doesn’t have to mean anything inherently scary itself. It just has to mean something. Take two classic villain/monster names, which is scarier? Voldemort? Or It? It is scarier, not only because your reader isn’t distracted trying to pronounce it. A creature or person merely known as “It” is disturbing because it implicitly tells the reader that no one is quite sure what It is and humans don’t like things that they can’t define.

If you want a name to be ominous it needs to be an omen of something. Think about it, if you had to choose on name alone and could only flee one, would you flee the one called Asenath or the one called Soulcatcher?

 

2) How Did They Get That Name?

“From this day forth, I shall be known as LORD VOLDEMORT!” 

“…Tom, you’re drunk, go home.

The failure of the above to happen is quite possibly the least realistic thing in the entire Potterverse.

Unless you’re dealing with a second-generation evil, the big bad’s parents probably did not hold their newborn babe in their arms and think “aww, so cute, this one’s going to grow up to be a genocidal maniac, we need a name that says that”. Sure, you might have a world where everyone has a meaningful name, but in that case you can’t use an overtly evil name – else your back at the “why the heck did their parents call them that?!?” problem. It would have to be something which could, and would, also have less ominous meanings and could be equally likely to be found on a hero, else it wouldn’t be a name in that culture. (Note: some cultures have commonly used names with unpleasant meanings, but in those cases the names are chosen to confuse and ward off evil spirits and the names are as every day and usual as Anne and John are in the Anglosphere, meaning that they don’t actually count as ominous or even unusual.) People name dogs Ripper and ships Dreadnought, but they don’t name their children that.

So when it comes to birth names, the long and the short of it is: villains should still have names you could believably find on regular people.

Now, for the fun bit: epithets, pseudonyms, sobriquets, and nicknames. This is the fun stuff. It’s also the stuff where a lot of people go painfully overboard *cough*Lord-Voldemort-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-You-Know-Who*cough*.

Epithets can accompany or replace a name, but have entered into common usage – like a nickname which has become as common, if not more common, than the real name – which a Sobriquet has all but replaced the original name, and a Pseudonym is a disguise. But all of these beg the question: how did they get that name? Generally, if they just started calling themselves something wild other people aren’t going to start doing that and even if they can bully their minions into doing it, they aren’t going to be a very competent player if they spend all their energy trying to make people call them something specific.

If you want your villains to sound intimidating epithets and sobriquets which occurred naturally are probably the best way to go – that means that other people started calling them that and it took off. Like how the monster in IT is just called It. Why? Because no one knows what It is. Likewise, someone called The Impaler probably didn’t start out calling themselves that. They just impaled a lot of people and people came to associate that with them.

Now, you can get away with just using a sobriquet for a villainous character – provided you aren’t giving their detailed backstory or telling an origin story. It also helps to have a social norm relating to this. In real history kings often got epithets so that they could be recognised because the same family names were often used. In fantasy an excellent example of both sobriquet use and social norms is Glen Cook’s Black Company series. In that world true names have power, so wizards adopt pseudonyms which they come to be known by, while most members of the Black Company itself are given a nickname when they join and never after bother with their real names. That being said, the top tier bad guys in that series tend to have names which are more sobriquet than pseudonym – The Limper probably did not call himself that, but he was the one who limps (and Cook thus managed to associate his name with terror when members of the company hear the sound of someone walking with a limp). Likewise Soulcatcher and The Lady have real names and may – although we are never told if it is so – have started out with different pseudonyms, but they came to be known by those sobriquets because The Lady was the evil overlord’s wife (his Lady, the only Lady who needed no introduction) and Soulcatcher …catches souls. By the time the reader meets them these names are long established, but they probably came from frightened enemies trying to identify which of the major villains they were talking about. “Which of the Ten Who Were Taken?” “The limper”, fast forward a few years and that’s “The Limper” as a name.

 

3) Why So Complicated?

The most common pratfall in naming villains is that authors tend to pile epithets and sobriquets, etc, on top of each other (Voldy again) instead of picking one really good one. What they don’t realise is that epithets and sobriquets are there to make people distinctive, not impressive. If you’re one of many King Peters and you happen to be very short, well guess what you’re going down in history as?

And if you’re thinking, “Well wait a second, if those terms are used to identify that one thing about a person which is most recognisable how is that scary?” You might want to reconsider what about your villain is so uniquely terrifying. Because that’s the point. Vlad the Impaler did a lot of other things in his life, but he’s remembered for impaling people. Lots of people. Soulcatcher is a cunning, manipulative, out of control, utterly mad, super-powerful, nigh-unkillable sorceress. What is Soulcatcher known for? Catching souls. Which becomes creepier when you realise that all the different voices Soulcatcher talks with are those captured souls (and some of them are children). The Joker is a killer and a lunatic, but he’s known for the form in which his kills come (jokes, as he views them). Slapping a dozen or so extra names onto a character (Fanged Deathstar The Magnificient Dark Lord of The Land Of Evil) takes away from the punch and the terror. They aren’t known for one specific stand out screamer, they have a whole list and so are less impressive. Why? Because if no one thing haunts people’s memories, which leads to the epithet or sorbriquet, then none of those things could have left much of an impression. None of them were scary enough to become what they were known for. Less, in this case, is very much more.

 

4) Why Is It ALWAYS Dark Lord?

Speaking of superfluous terms. Dark Lord (or Dark One, etc) is not just overused, it’s meaningless. Dark Lord – and, for that matter, The/Other/s – worked when Tolkien used it. The only person who is Tolkien was Tolkien. Yes, humans naturally fear the night – and the dark – because we are diurnal. We also are naturally terrified of spiders and disease, but we don’t automatically name our villains Web Lord or The Rot. Using Dark Lord is inherently problematic for a lot of reasons beyond how cliché the Dark Vs Light motif is. For one thing, Lord is a title belonging to a hierarchical system based in feudalism. Is Dark a place? Does this lord have administrative duties? If you’re dealing with a setting where such hierarchical systems are not part of the society (whether they are mere remnants or never existed) or where they are part of the society and in fact are very important, your villain can’t just go around calling themselves lord of something – in one case it is a meaningless addition that doesn’t even impress people around them (and wouldn’t mean enough to them for them to add it) and in the other it has a strictly defined meaning which their more decorative use would make into a point of ridicule (“he’s not a real lord”).

So what about Dark? Well what do you mean by Dark anyway? Please tell me it’s not their skin colour. Is there some metaphysical divide between good and evil that happens to have chosen to define itself by how much light things emit? If there is some knowable inherent difference between good and evil in your world, you’d better have an explanation for how any sane person would choose evil – and don’t just say “they’re mad”. Real mad people are more often victims of cruelty than themselves cruel and the insanity defence is “not guilty on grounds of insanity” specifically because being mad in that sense means being unable to understand what you are doing and why it is wrong.

…Dark Lord. Cliché term for “Wannabe noble who can’t afford a candle”.

 

5) What Else Can It Mean?

The thing about words is that sometimes they not only mean what you think they mean, they also mean something else. Something you really didn’t mean, but which people will notice. For example, there is only one reason fans of Tolkien remember the orc Shagrat.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Myths About Writing

I am slightly horrified by the realisation that it’s been about a month and a half since I last posted. In that time I have found a wonderful editor who was willing to take my project on for a lower than usual rate – which, after putting some of the money I’d saved for formatting and cover creation into the fund for paying my editor, I could afford. I’ve gotten my edited manuscript back and the improvement is amazing. There are no more incomprehensibly over-claused sentences like the one two before this one. I’m beginning to think that I might actually have my first book published by the end of January …or early February, given that everything’s about to close up shop for the holidays.

I’m fairly over-worked at the moment, so in lieu of a proper rant, here’s a quick list of myths about writing that are just plain wrong.

 

1. Writers Can’t Do Maths. This one tends to crop up as an excuse to avoid working out the logistics of a story. “Space doesn’t work that way” a reader cries, and is firmly told that it doesn’t matter because writers can’t do maths. They aren’t rocket scientists, so expecting them to properly describe how huge space is would be silly. (What’s actually silly is blaming mathematics when it would be perfectly reasonable for an author to take artistic licence with the numbers because such a story won’t work without FTL travel or unusually dense civilisation in the universe, or both. That’s a perfectly good reason!) A character’s birth date does not match their given age? The hero and his five buddies take on an army of evildoers some 100,000 strong? And win? And don’t explain how the hell the Dark Lord of The Place Where Nothing Grows managed to FEED 100,000 soldiers? Well, why bother to make sure it works out “I’m a writer,” says the writer, “I can’t do maths”.

The eyebrow of disapproval is up, guys.

Firstly: most of those issues are logistics, not mathematics. Secondly: “don’t like” and “can’t do” are not the same thing. If you aren’t very good at something, there is all the more reason to double check it – and in a world where we have computers and phones with calculators essentially glued to our bodies, there is no excuse for checking. Remember, even if you really can’t do math, you are surrounded by machines which can do it for you – so claiming you specifically cannot do math does not work as a get out of jail free card for making mathematical (and logistical!) errors.

2. “Okay so the computer can do the maths but I’m a Writer. That means I’m too creative and artsy to be able to figure out how to work the machines that would do the maths for me.” When I was a kid I hated maths. I frustrated the hell out of one person trying to explain arithmetic to me by objecting to the premise that 1+1=2, on the grounds that it differed depending on what was being discussed. 1 Apple + 1 Apple is, indeed, 2 Apples, I’d argued, but 1 Apple + 1 Orange is still only 1 Apple, even if it is 2 pieces of fruit. 1 Antelope + 1 Lion would result in 1 very full Lion, not two living creatures, while 1 Bunny + 1 Bunny would have different results depending on what genders the bunnies were. I could not accept the laws which bound those theoretical numbers to always resulting in specific other numbers, because I was already trying to apply the concept of numbers to the real world where things happen differently. I always considered myself to be a writer and I was, as a child, a textbook case of Can’t Do Maths. I’m hoping to have my first book out within the next few months and am very definitely a writer.

I’m also the Chief Finance Officer for a small business. Admittedly I’m holding the position as a contractor and in need of a raise, but I work with machines that do maths for me for a living. I also do the maths myself. I’m not as good with Excel as some of the other employees and I’m still working on learning how to do financial modelling so that I can take that burden off the CEO’s shoulders (as I said: small company. VERY small company) but I am living proof that writers can both do maths and learn to work with the technology which can do maths for them.

But even if I was the exception, here’s the thing: adults (at least, responsible adults) do maths every day, in their heads, to work out how much they can afford to spend on anything and how long they have to make their money last.

3. You Don’t Really Need an Editor. Yes, you do.

4. Yeah but if you’re reaaaallly good with your language and have edited it yourself… You still need an editor. Maybe, like me, you can’t afford the standard rate unless you get a pay rise soon. You still need an editor. Don’t give up hope. Keep looking until you find someone who has the credentials and the ability to take on your project for less than their normal rate. (And don’t send them flowers or the like afterward – if you can afford that you can afford to add to their pay. If you really want to thank them for their generosity, when you can afford to pay the full fee for your next project, offer it to them – for their full price.)

Why? Well, let me put it this way: I’m reasonably good with English and I’d gone over my manuscript six times looking for mistakes before I found an editor who would take it on. I’d caught the missing ‘s where I’d accidentally written that the average human male’s member is about ten centimetres larger than the average gorilla – which is a kind of horrifying sentence without the ‘s at the end of it. I knew there was no such thing as a perfect book and was having so much trouble finding an editor that I was about to give up. (Seriously, what part of “I’m on a tight budget and will have to get creative with my finances to get anywhere above 350” sounds like “I can totally go up to 1k if you pressure me and am just low-balling it”? …I need a pay rise. Or for my book to sell well. Preferably both.) If I started the manuscript with a claim that the writing advice book was deliberately full of hidden problems to help train eager young writers, I thought, then I might just be able to get away with it by taking refuge in audacity.

I’m fairly sure that my writing career would have died then and there if I had. Somehow, despite going over it six times for mistakes, I’d missed that I kept adding an extra s to pus. Consequently, I had a manuscript which repeatedly referred to abscesses filled with CATS. I’d had one other person read it over between my fourth and fifth edits, for comprehension, and she’d missed that too.

Even if you’re really good with the language, you are too familiar with your work – you know too well what it is supposed to say – and so you will miss things. You need an editor.

5. Writers Have To Write Every Day. Should is a bad word. It shoves a vicious sense of obligation through the heart of the person it belittles and all but guarantees that they will feel guilt the moment they are unable to complete their “should” task. This is how you get people staring blankly at white pages or typing utter nonsense (All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy).

This is also how you get people who desperately need things like SLEEP refusing to go to bed until they’ve written something, because they’ve been told that to be a writer they ‘have’ to write something every day. Thing is: that’s bullshit.

For some people, it is beneficial to have a set time and place within which to write regularly. But that’s not “should”. Should is an obligation which creates guilt – and guilt creates stress, which prevents creativity, which makes it impossible to write, which creates more guilt. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s perfectly fine to say “I try to write a little every day” because that leaves room for “oh fuck it’s eleven thirty and I’ve been at work since six in the morning and then had the washing machine explode and it’s finally fixed and I haven’t had enough sleep in a week and I’m not going to write today because I’m too fucking tired!” People who insist that you “must” write every day would call this an excuse. It’s not an excuse. It’s called COMMON SENSE. It’s about putting your physical and mental health before an arbitrary set limit imposed by someone who probably a) hasn’t got anything published themselves and b) probably doesn’t stick as strictly to it as they are pressuring you to.

Moreover, not everyone is the same. That means not everything works for everyone. Some writers may benefit from pencilling in “writing time” each day (and note the “pencilling” bit. Pencil can be erased). But others work best by writing continuously for a few days in a row (as in, all day or most of it, not “a little” as in the previous type) and then don’t write a word for days because they’re working through the story in their heads, and/or need time to relax after that bulldozer full-throttle effort of doing near nothing else. Some people have methods that aren’t covered by either of those two examples.

THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT.

If you want to give an aspiring writer advice, don’t say “You Should” because they may be – and usually are – a different type of person than you and will need a different method. Say “This works for me, but it might not for you”.

6. Writing is Easy. NO. No art is easy.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Project Status 5 – Cash Strapped and Exasperated

I don’t have the money to get my manuscript – which is WRITING ADVICE – professionally copyedited.

Oh, make no mistake; I’ve had people look over it, but no professional copyeditors. The main edit was content editing and the main person I’ve had to edit it is a second language English speaker – although she’s been speaking the language longer than I’ve been alive. Still…

This whole experience has made me realise not only how complicated publishing is (what the heck is trim size, anyway?) but also how expensive it is. And how the deck is – due to the nature of the beast – stacked against those who simply cannot afford to spend c. 1k on a professional editor, or cover design, or marketing, or formatting (which can easily get up to 3k total!). I mean, even the “cheap” rates of the major publishing platforms like Smashwords and Amazon’s Createspace and Kindle are still ultimately very expensive for anyone who doesn’t have that much, or any, money to spare. And then, of course, books which are not professionally edited, covered, etc, don’t do as well on the market or – worse – give the author a bad reputation. But if I wait to have the money to spare I’ll never get published.

I totally understand why these things are expensive – I mean, my own sibling is an editor and is struggling to find work (and won’t even give me a discount, despite knowing I’m the poorer of the two of us). And the jobs do take a lot of skill and effort.

But it’s frustrating. So is the whole system of formatting, etc, for self publishing sites. Could someone please assume I’m an idiot and explain it in a click this, click that way so I don’t have to get confused by all the options?

I’m still hoping to get this book out before the end of October. All (sure, “all”; like it’s not a huge bleeping mountain of confusing) I have left to do is make the accounts on the necessary websites, format the work, make a cover, and, um… have I missed anything?

Oh why do I even bother asking? It’s not like people understand that there’s a difference between hitting a like button and actually interacting, anymore. I hate like buttons. I have nobody to talk to and the walls can’t hold up a decent conversation. The ceiling’s all high and mighty and the floor’s all down and trodden.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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Project Status 4 – Folding and Fury

Not getting distracted from your writing is important. So is not getting stressed out by obligations so that you can’t write. This blog isn’t getting me people to talk to – which is why I started it – and it’s crushing my ability to produce my actual stories, so from now on it’ll be an if I feel like it/have news production schedule.

 

Project Status 4 – Folding and Fury

I’ve been trying to get a writers group working for a few months. Last month I began doing a content edit/critique for the only regular apart from myself. At the same time he agreed to do a light punctuation edit on my nearly ready to publish characterisation advice book. Since then I’ve read almost as many pages of his work as there are of my work, always getting his chapters back to him promptly, while he has only done seven pages of my work and has – since giving me those seven pages – been utterly silent and non-responsive on the subject of my work since. Nevertheless, he always responds near immediately to the return of his own work and talks about taking the edits in right away, so he clearly has the time.

I’m feeling very used right now.

I keep telling myself that maybe he forgot (but I’ve referred to it in emails about his work, so he’d have to be deliberately not acknowledging those bits) or that he’s busy (but not too busy for eighty something pages of his own work, taking in the critiques, and – if he told accurately – rewriting parts of his chapters) or that maybe he hates it and thinks he’s being nice by not saying anything (which is a break of agreement, unintentionally cruel, and unlikely because he seems like the sort of person who would – carefully – say something or at least lie to get out of it). You’d think that after all the times I had my helpful nature abused by other students in Uni I would be used to this sort of shit happening, but apparently not because I still got blindsided by it and it still hurts. I’m furious with him for the radio silence. I’m furious with him because, whether he meant to or not, I got used. I’m furious with myself for not seeing it coming. Mostly, though, I’m scared. If I can’t get this situation sorted, then my writers group will fall apart before it ever truly got to form and I will be, once again, without anyone to interact with. Blathering here is all well and good, I suppose, but with no one ever responding to me here and the rest of the world treating me as non-existent unless they want something out of me (a content critique, incidentally, is a service that can be a profession and is often paid for when friends don’t do it for each other)…

I’m furious. I’m feeling used. I’m tired. I’m tired of being used, of being angry, and of being friendless. I’m tired of putting in so much effort and getting nothing back. I’m tired of trying to build things, like this blog and the writers group, only to be walked over again and otherwise ignored – of trying so hard and watching everything fall apart anyway. I’m tired of being a failure.

I’m tired of not being able to make myself give up. I’m tired of knowing when to fold ‘em but not doing it because part of me is still too stubbornly optimistic to admit that it’s pointless. I’m tired of being torn between the remains of my self-worth wanting bloody revenge on those who wrong me and the exhaustion of experience telling me that if I could just give up that last kernel of self-esteem I could give up completely, instead of repeatedly finding myself in these situations and being trapped – unable to figure out how to fix it and bitter that I’m too damn stubborn to be capable of giving up.

Fuck it, I’ll publish it anyway – without waiting for him to bother to do his edit.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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Dense Descriptions and Descriptive Density

I’m really overworked right now (and it’s not as people are desperately waiting for me to publish these) so I’m switching to putting up new posts fortnightly.

 

We all know the phrase purple prose. (If you aren’t included in “all” it means prose descriptions so convoluted and ornate that they intrude upon the story, render comprehension difficult, and often actually mean nothing or involve malapropisms and contradictory descriptions. In other words: it’s too complicated and fluffy for utility of writing.) Many of us have heard the phrase beige prose. (It’s overly simple prose. In other words: it’s too barren and brief for utility of writing.)  While both of those extremes of descriptive quantity are undesirable in writing, quality writing can be filled with or sparse with descriptions without being either of those unwelcome colours. It’s all about density.

No, not as in: being stupid. Nor as in: being difficult to follow due to being closely packed with ideas or complexities of style. Well, a little like the latter. But mostly as in: mass per unit volume.  Mass here meaning, well; meaning, and unit volume being: per word.

This is because, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, not all descriptive text is created equal. It’s possible to write pages and pages of description which are utterly worthless because they, ultimately, signify nothing, and it’s possible to write one word of description which is so evocative that it gives the readers one hell of a punch in the gut.

For example, which of these descriptions works the best?

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said. She was guilty. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she bewailed dejectedly. There were no words for the crushing anguish of guilt which filled her heart like frozen water sinking a broken ship. (Description word count: 24)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. (Description word count: 5)

“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. She blinked rapidly, holding back tears, but held her head high – as if that would prevent drowning in grief. (Description word count: 24)

Okay, so none of them are particularly brilliant, given that I came up with them in under a minute, but they illustrate the point.

Option one is Beige Prose; there is no indication of the feelings until they are bluntly, and emotionlessly, stated.

Option two is Purple Prose; not only does trying to invoke the Titanic and its friends detract from the emotional resonance of the scene, the sentence also mixes its metaphors (something that fills as it crushes), and – worst of all – it tells the readers absolutely nothing about how that particular character feels and acts.

Option three isn’t the greatest sentence in the world, but it avoids both the others’ pitfalls, showing rather than telling and, although it has the same amount of words as option one, the description of action and the inference of pain from it tells the reader more.

Option four, meanwhile, has the same amount of words as option two, but they don’t just sit there looking pretty – each word tells the reader something. The emotional situation option two takes a confused metaphor or two and more than twenty words to explain, option four gives in eight (and adds to it characterisation – she’s drowning in guilt but trying not to and holding her emotions in) which leaves plenty of other words for more information and descriptions.

Both options three and four are reasonable types of description, depending on whether you prefer to write minimalist (the least amount of description necessary to get the story across) or with immersive and lavish description (the most amount of description to paint the world and characters without clouding the story). This is because three and four give the reader more information and emotion per word than options one and two. It is also because, all importantly, options one and two – by their under and over stated natures – don’t actually make sense.

And this is what I’m getting at: it’s not enough to have descriptions – large or small – in a work. You also have to understand why they’re there, what they do, and which ones actually function properly.

 

1) Description has to Orient the Reader: Despite what many people think, description is not an optional garnish for the story. Description serves a very vital purpose. This is because it is impossible to show the setting or characterise the characters without describing them. Without sufficient description – without description serving its most basic purpose – you get meaningless, feeling-less, blather by talking heads in white space. The reason that beige prose is bad prose is that it is insufficiently descriptive prose. Minimalist descriptive prose, on the other hand, still has enough description to orient the readers in both the space and the people. Despite the term “Scrip fic” in fanfiction, even real scripts require description of character and setting. Not as much as prose, admittedly, but still a sufficient amount to allow the set and actors to be made and perform appropriately and orient the audience. If a writer fails to put enough description into a scene, the readers will be quite justified in wondering why these toneless, un-embodied, people are floating around in the middle of nowhere. Tacking a quick description onto the end of the scene won’t help, either, because it either is too late to convince the reader that the character’s aren’t in blank space, or – if the reader has done the writer’s job for them and invented characters and a setting for the conversation – it will destroy the mental image and understanding which the reader has built up. Similarly, shoving a quick description at the start will only serve to make the readers wonder where the setting and feelings went. Without sufficient description to orient the reader, they are left dizzy, confused, and failed by the author who did not take the time to ground them in this new reality.

2) Description has to Suit the Setting: Have you ever had the misfortune of enjoying a typically Medieval-esque fantasy only to have your suspension of disbelief brutally slaughtered when something very loud or very fast was compared to a sonic boom? What about a story focused around aliens which describes the villain as inhumane? Or a story set in Victorian London where the prose (which should match the point of view character) described an airship as “cool” or a love interest’s “cute butt”? If you’ve ever encountered anything like that, you probably already get what I’m going on about here. The ONLY excuse for description to be mismatched with the setting is if the point of view character (or omniscient third-person narrator) is explicitly and deliberately being juxtaposed with a setting to which they themselves do not belong. (A book about a time traveller written in tight-third person or first person smartarse might well use descriptions that reference things which have not yet been invented, while an omniscient third person narrator has the pleasure of being able to tell you exactly how many nostril hairs a dog on the other side of the universe, ten million years after the story, has – if they should choose to wander away from the main narrative like that with regularity – or to discuss why a character’s opinion of something being described is inaccurate. Stories which are told from any other point of view than those do not have this pleasure.) Now, this does not mean that every single word has to be from the time and place in which the story is set – else every Medieval-esque fantasy would be written in Middle English – but the author does have to choose their words with care, and avoid those blatantly inappropriate for the setting but normal for the author’s life, so that they do not disturb the setting.

3) Description has to Suit the Character: The funny thing about prose is that, while it is not as directly form a character as their speech, it is still inevitably the story as told by someone. That’s what point of view is, and there is no way to write fiction without a point of view. It could be the protagonist, or a revolving set of characters, or an omniscient being standing firmly outside of the story (i.e. the author’s voice), but it’s still someone’s take on events. This means that the descriptions should be in tune with the character whose point of view the story is written in. An omniscient narrator, who describes every character’s appearance in a sort of oddball way, focuses on the less common features rather than the obvious, and always starts with each character’s worst features should not begin describing a love interest with a loving and traditional run down of their hair, eyes, and skin. A tight-third person story following a taciturn, plainspoken character who is focused on getting to the cells to rescue their comrade should not veer off to gush over the beauteous architecture and how the castle’s high towers touch the sky like little silver needles attempting to pin blue silk. You might think that’s the best description in the world, but if the character whose point of view the story, even in the third person, is told through wouldn’t even be looking at the sky – let alone considering it in poetic burbling – the prose shouldn’t be describing it. If you absolutely need to include a mention of the tall towers for plot and foreshadowing reasons: make it match the character (he might notice the pattern of shadows the towers cause and think about if that will help or hinder the upcoming escape, for instance).

Likewise, an extremely visual or poetic character – such as a painter or, you know, a poet – would be inclined to more lavish physical descriptions, so blunt and minimalist descriptions would not be appropriate. For instance: a painter or tailor confronted with a “green dress” probably would automatically categorise it by the appropriate shade of green, and possibly the fabric, “dress of jade silk” – but if the generic is always used, it starts to feel like the “expert” doesn’t know jack shit about their profession and trade. And that is also important: a character’s profession – and mood – will decide what they will notice (and thus what the prose will describe) as much as their personality will. Thieves will notice escape routes and the expense (and fence-ability) of items before they notice how beautiful something is. Visual artists will give more vivid descriptions of appearances, but chefs and perfumers will take note of how things taste and smell first. A detective will be more inclined to catalogue things factually, while a writer will be more inclined to describe things with indefinite language (it might be this, it could be used for that, why does that person have that, etc).

4) Description has to Suit the Plot: The balance between keeping prose true to the person (that is point of view) from which it is told and keeping your audience from strangling you for seemingly pulling details from nowhere, or constantly dragging their attention away from what is important to focus on décor, is a difficult one. Generally speaking, you need to introduce all the details – that is, describe the things – that are vital to the plot before they become vital to the plot. Or, to reverse Chekhov’s famous point, if you want to take a gun off the wall and shoot it in act three, you had damn well better mention that it’s there in act one. Likewise, if you want to take a gun off the wall and fire it in act three, you have to make sure – back in act one – that the wall is not so cluttered as to render the gun un-findable. To put that in plain English: any detail relevant to the plot must be described sufficiently for its relevance(minimum: a passing note that it exists, so that it does not seem to have been pulled out of the writer’s arse thin air when needed).

In beige prose the problem is that a thing will not be mentioned at all until it is suddenly needed – whether this is a gun on the wall, the fact that the characters are human, or even the location something is taking place in. This is how some, badly written, pieces have characters suddenly and dramatically falling down the stairs and dying, when so far the prose has given no indication that they are embodied and in a building, let alone near sufficiently fatal stairs!

In purple prose, meanwhile, the problem is that the author misbalances the amount of attention each thing described is given – thereby still managing to make the readers feel that they have pulled plot convenient things from their rectums. In these cases the author will give long and complex descriptions about just about everything – except those things which actually matter (location, things that are going to affect the plot, etc). This is how some stories (which will remain nameless) end up with a vague mention that the character is walking down the street, then give paragraph upon paragraph on what they are wearing, only to suddenly have the character nearly run over by a carriage – leaving the readers to wonder why the hell it was not earlier mentioned that there was a carriage racing down the street or, at the very least, that the setting was pre-automotive! (For the record, if a carriage were racing down the street so wildly that someone could be hit, the character should at least notice the sound of hooves and the yelling of people trying to get out of the way that would accompany it.) Likewise, if a character – especially if it is the introduction to them – is described performing some action that is not usually performed while armed (renovating a house, for example) and then when other characters sneak up on them, they suddenly pull out a pair of guns from nowhere; the prose damn well should have mentioned that they were armed before that point.

5) Description has to Suit the Pace: The wonderful thing about prose is that it does not – for all that the overarching feel of a piece should be consistent – have to stay at the same level of description the whole way through. The downside of this is that you have to match the amount of description to how fast the story should be moving at any given point …and many, many authors fall into the trap of assuming that the more important and climactic a scene, the more description it requires. This is how some epic, “fast paced” battles wind up with a paragraph’s description of the light shining off the swords, or the fighters’ clothes and faces, or the picturesque surroundings between every slash and parry. Descriptive prose is not a video camera, dear authors; what the camera tells us in a millisecond takes a page in the prose. Slow and steady, or interaction focused, scenes can bear the load of large descriptions because they have the time and breadth to do so. Fast, or action focused, scenes cannot because they are thin, wiry things and the weight will crush and halt them. This, for the record, is why it’s so damned important to describe what exists before you get to those fast scenes. If the prose describes the winding alleyways, slippery rooftops, and secret escape routes while the thief is on their way to steal the crown jewels, it saves the readers from being rightly pissed off when – later – the thief is apparently chased through white space which morphs into convenient escape routes as needed.

6) Description has to have the Correct Meaning: Vermillion is a kind of red. It is not green. Although livid can mean reddish, when someone is livid with strong emotion it means that they look strangled by it (discoloured and blanched – that is, pale – with a bluish tinge). Tenebrous is dark, gloomy, or obscure – it has nothing to do with being tentative. Greaves means lower leg armour. If your character is wearing their greaves on their arms, they should be both uncomfortable and looking for a new squire. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than: don’t just assume you know what a word means. Check and make sure that your description does not describe something different than what you thought you were describing. Very few words have exact synonyms. More often they mean something very similar, but not precisely the same – be that slightly different shades of colour, or intertwined but distinct feelings, or other gradients. Don’t just look up synonyms in the thesaurus: check the dictionary to see if the words the thesaurus gave you actually describe what you want to describe.

7) Description has to have the Correct Implications: Serviette and napkin both mean napkin. However, in Victorian London (and even, to a far lesser degree, today) which you chose to use would reveal whether you were upper (napkin) or middle (serviette) class. (Long story short: the new middle class tended to use fancier words to sound more posh, while the upper class – secure in their pedigrees – used plain English.) Now, that sort of distinction is going to be more important in dialogue than in prose, but it is important in matching the prose to the point of view the story is narrated from. This fun game, however, is not limited to class-distinctions. Two words with the same meaning can have different implications. Laid off and fired both mean fired, but the general understanding is that laid off wasn’t personal and fired was, not because they have an official difference in meaning, but because people generally use them that way. Fired is evocative of swiftness, anger, and the personal touch. Laid off brings up feelings of mass action, inevitability, and depression. And this, this, is why you can’t just decide to be a writer one day – why not everyone can be one – and why it is actually very difficult. Writing is about knowing the value – the implications, the mass density – of every single word, and knowing how to evoke the deepest and most accurate feeling from them. Implication is to writing as the affects of atomic weight is to science: it is not enough to know what the mean or weigh; you have to know exactly what they can and will do.

8) Description has to be Understandable: Despite what the writers of beige prose think, minimalism does not mean the smallest number of words. It means the smallest number of words necessary to clearly convey the meaning and story. Likewise, writers of purple prose tend to assume that vivid writing is cramming in as much description as possible and highlighting the descriptions, when it is – in fact –using more description in order to give more clarity, realism, and oomph to the story.

 

Don’t be described as dense, know the critical density of your descriptions.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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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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