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Artists and Gods

The go to metaphor for explaining the position of a writer to their work is that they are that work’s god (or goddess, or – arguably – pantheon if it’s a co-written project). To someone who is not an artist by nature, this can seem arrogant. This, typically, is due to a critical lack of understanding on the part of the non-artistic person. Writers aren’t merely “telling stories”. Writers create entire universes. And sure, those universes aren’t real, but gods (probably) aren’t real either and it’s actually impossible to prove or disprove whether the universes artists create actually do exists in reality – given that there is no proof that what we call reality is actually real. For all we know the worlds we write do come into existence and we, oblivious, truly are as gods to them in reality. For all we know something that is as a god to us is, oblivious, writing us into reality.

But even without getting philosophical and triggering existential crisis in people, the metaphor remains a metaphor rather than some form of “proof” of human arrogance. Why? Well, here’s the thing; there are only three things in human comprehension which can create universes: artists (writers, directors/producers, computer game designers, etc), the Big Bang, and gods. Of the three, one is what we are trying to find a metaphor for (artists) and one is mindless – thus incapable of the deliberate creation we are trying to compare to – and that leaves only one option (gods).

So why am I gabbing about gods and artists at all, if I don’t think the metaphor is somehow arrogant? Well, because while the metaphor itself is basically the only available metaphor for writers (and associated artists) you could argue that there is some arrogance in the fact that artists almost never flip it.

You see, the standard argument against putting actual gods – or for having them mentioned as real but not really letting them do anything other than send prophetic visions and choose the one hero whose destined to save the world – in fantasy is that gods are “too powerful and would solve the plot too quickly”. …But would they? Really? Sure if you automatically think of gods as omnipresent, omnipotent, pure good beings who nevertheless somehow let evil get created and won’t lift a finger to save their precious mortals from it because it’s a learning experience or unfair or some such. But that’s just true if you assume all gods in fiction must conform, on some level, to the model set forth by the Abrahamic religions. That’s absurd. If you’re in a position where you can choose to nullify the existence of gravity you sure as hell can branch out beyond the traditional forms of deity found in fiction (Greco-Roman-esque pantheons and good-nature-goddess versus evil-technology-god being the second and third choices of most writers, respectively).

The thing about a good metaphor is that it can work both ways. If a writer can be a god, then a god can be a writer – and that opens up, for those who would otherwise have gone for stock options – a whole slew of options for made up divinities beyond Abrahamic!god with the serial numbers filed off, severely confused and oversimplified “pagan” god and goddess, and cardboard cut outs of stock gods from Greece and Rome without acknowledgement of how distinct the two were.

Think about it this way: writers care about their chosen protagonists, but put them through absolute hell for the entertainment value and only reach in to lend a hand when the chosen one is really, really stuck (because deus ex machina ruins the fun of it) and yet are definitely on the hero’s side because they guarantee a win for them in the end (usually). That sounds pretty much exactly like what the non-interference-with-minor-inexplicable-exceptions gods of most fantasy do, only it makes sense because the motive isn’t goodness or righteousness it’s entertainment. Now, of course, if everyone automatically used that model instead it wouldn’t be much use either, but it seems that writers have a far easier time of imagining writers as being varied in nature and personality – of imagining them each with their own quirks and interests – than they do gods. This is probably because even the most reclusive writer has the benefit of learning about all the bizarre truths of famous writers who came before them.

If you start off by saying that your elves worship an omnipresent, omniscient being who happens to like poetry, chances are that the poetry aspect is going to fall by wayside as the worship slides into the clichés of every other Abrahamic religion cut and paste out there. But if you start off saying that your elves worship a Homer-inspired deity who happens to be all knowing and all powerful you are more likely to get something truly unique. (“Gracious poet who watches over us all, listen to my prayer and heed my call, I need advice at this time, preferably in a very brief rhyme!”)

This trick, for getting a non-generic starting point for your deity, works for deities in the plural as well. If you want to avoid the typical Top God/Zeus-lite, Love Goddess/Aphrodite-but-sluttier, Moon Goddes/Artemis-without-anything-that-made-her-awesome, God of Evil/Satan-got-lost-on-the-way-to-Albuquerque, etc, imagining various authors into the pantheon and then working out how they relate to each other and what they represent can be a good method. If you have a writer friend (who can take a joke!) who typically micro-plans everything for their story and then fights with their characters when they try to run off and do something else, you could translate that into a Top God who Has A Plan, Damn It, and gets exceedingly frustrated by the lower ranks constantly not going along with it. If you yourself are the sort of writer who can’t plan worth a damn and adds and removes features at a whim, you can mitigate how bad that is for your story by putting into play a creator god in the story who is constantly making life difficult for their creations by adding and removing things (like, say, gravity) at random points because they aren’t sure they like the look of it. Or perhaps you might base a Top God on William Shakespeare – in which case there might be serious religious schism in the world over whether The Shaking Spear of The World actually created it, or if there was a faceless creator god before him and the Shaking Spear merely took over after the creation was done and breathed life into it.

That being said, in both of these cases there is a caveat: do not simply copy-paste a real person into your work as a god! Not you, not a friend, not a famous person. Use them as a starting point (Lord Byron was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” which could be a fascinating basis for a God of Love, but not if he’s Bireon the Club-Footed, whose daughter is the goddess of Mathematics and whose wife/favourite lover considers him to be the Mad God, and the god’s history is basically Byron’s life done paint-by-numbers).

 

When there exists something beyond artists and gods that creates entire universes intentionally, then, and only then, will it be arrogant to use divinity as a metaphor for artists. But just as writers can be gods – shaking off the restraints of reality to completely design universes of their own where even the laws of physics are not a requirement – so gods, in fiction, could do with being a bit more like writers. I’d much rather read about a divine war between the God of Politics (inspired by Plato) and the God of Wit (inspired by Oscar Wilde) and mediated by the Goddess of Fear (based on Edgar Allen Poe) than yet another God/ess of Good versus God of Evil fiasco.

Artists, creators, do not fear the omniscient, omnipotent nature you have taken upon yourselves when you began to create – shake off the norms of the (possibly not even real) reality you live in and get creative.

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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of World Building

Some authors have a truly astonishing talent for making everything in their world fit together in a manner which is logical, consistent, coherent, and follows each element’s consequences all while making everything up as they go and working without a plan. These authors have a rare and enviable talent for seeing how an entire world fits together in their heads while they are inventing random new elements they didn’t know about earlier. These authors are rare.

Authors who think they can do this but actually can’t, on the other hand, are surprisingly common. This isn’t a bad thing, nor does it make those authors who can’t tessellate a world on the fly somehow lesser, it just means that they do need to stop and do a bit of planning before they begin writing. It is, to give a more concrete example, as if one in every million architects can build a structurally sound and beautiful house without having a design (architectural plan, floor plan, etc), without ordering all the building materials they’ll need ahead of time, and without even starting construction on something which touches the ground. Those are crazy genius architects. Most really good architects would never consider doing something that insane and likely to fall apart. Most unwise DIY disasters are caused by people who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t realise they need a plan. The wise architect plans. The wise author plans their world building. But there’s more than one way to plan a world.

Now, typically the main methods of worldbuilding are described as top down (outside-in) and bottom up (inside-out), the former being the creation of a world on the grand scale before moving in to look at the location and characters which will focus in the story and the latter being the focusing on a specific location and set of characters and building the rest of the world out from there. The both have cons, they both have pros, and they both have more variables than the typical division acknowledges.

Starting by building the entire world is a great way to procrastinate while assuring yourself that no, really, you’ll get on to writing your epic work in a few more years once you’ve fleshed out those last few town’s economies on the opposite side of the planet some four thousand years before your story is going to be set. Starting by focusing just on the characters and locations of the plot and making the rest up as needed is a great way to turn your world into a DIY disaster because, chances are, you aren’t a crazy genius architect.

What I’m saying here is that if you are creating a world from scratch you do need to do some planning before you start writing, but it’s probably best to do that planning after you’ve got a basic idea in your head of your main characters and settings. Nevertheless, there are different ways to do that. All of these methods fit into the same basic structure: Step 1; have idea, Step 2; plan world, Step 3; write. When people put world build as step one they never really reach the writing stage. When people put world building after writing they end up with incoherent jumble worlds that only superficially look like they make sense. All of the following methods are different ways of doing STEP 2; PLAN WORLD, and all of them belong firmly between the stages of inspiration and writing.

Start From A Character: So inspiration struck and you’ve decided you’re going to write an epic about the buttoned up princess, her love affair with a hero wielding a great sword, and her epic struggle against the Dark One and now you’re ready to start writing, right? Okay, first things first: back away from the keyboard because (despite a complete lack of individuals titled as such in human history) everyone does “Dark Lord” and “Dark One”. Planning a world based on a character means taking those basic ideas you had and stopping to work out what kind of world would have to exist for those elements to be plausible. That is to say, take every single thing about the idea and note down what it means for the sort of world. Some will be exceedingly unhelpful (buttons have existed since c. 2800BCE, in the Indus Valley region so gives no technological level fix), other apparently obvious but do need to be noted because not all worlds will be the same as ours (princess is a gendered noun so we know the species has males and females as a presumable norm – which is by no means obligatory or default in speculative fiction genres and therefore is worth noting). The world princess has been used, that defines the setting as being a hereditary monarchy, and a bit of research will tell you what sort of cultures and technological levels are required to support such a system (many can, but it becomes a question of which is most likely when combined with other attributes).  There is a love interest, which either means that marriage for love is acceptable or that the princess is going to be torn between caring for her feelings and caring for the good of her people, meanwhile the love interest is called a “hero” (that means literary figure renowned for using their ingenuity, bravery, and strength for some greater good) and wields a great sword (is it just an awesome weapon or an actual Great Sword – in which case it’s probably a steel long sword of the kind favoured in the late Middle Ages, found from the 13th to 17th centuries and which would firmly fix the technological level of your world?). Lastly you have a Dark One which implies that your world and culture have the same, near omnipresent, light = good, dark = bad prejudice which is found in the western world.

Starting from a character means analysing like Mr. Sherlock Holmes when he meets a new client. Analyse every part of the character and write down what that means about the world they’re in and you’ll find that much of the world actually builds itself – you just need to map it out, make the history and keep things from contradicting it later.

Start From A Location: So maybe you don’t have any people planned yet. Maybe you just had an amazing dream in which there was a beautiful city of white and pink marble by the sea. Maybe it had high spires glittering and the sun setting behind it, with some mountains between them. It’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever imagined and you absolutely have to write a story about it. Okay, that’s fine, but you still need to plan and extrapolate the world before you can get writing. Despite how it might seem, you can actually tell an awful lot about that world from that brief description – it has a central cathedral, for one, thing, and a cathedral is a Christian church containing the seat of a bishop (which is typically a position of authority or oversight, making this a moderately important religious centre which was given great import when the city was build around it). It’s by the sea, which means that even if the sea is massive enough that they aren’t in contact with the continent on the other end, the people of that city will be sailing up and down their own coast to trade. They’ll also have a focus on seafood, given that most seaside cities develop from fishing villages. If the sun is setting behind it, with mountains between the city and setting sun, the city is either on the eastern coast (the sun is setting behind it in the west, on the other side of the continent) or the city is on a planet which rotates east to west as opposed to west to east as the Earth does. Either the city is obscenely rich from its sea-based trade and can import enough pink and white marble (is that real marble or just called marble by the construction business, which calls any crystalline calcitic rock “marble”?) or, more likely, it brought the marble in from those mountains, which means it has strong connections to mining. That, in turn, will affect what kind of bedrock and surrounding rocks and soils the city is built on, and therefore what grows and how earthquake proof it is. You also need to go back to the image of that location you had and ask yourself if it looked warm or cold (open plan, windows, many gardens, or pointed roofs meant to prevent snow from piling up, etc).

Extrapolation like this will allow you to build up a good idea of what your main location is like, but also what other cultures are in the area and, when you come across some product or resource which would be rare to more than one of them, you can quickly start to fill in the blanks of their history and wars.

Start From Recent History: The key to believable worlds is that history affects what happens later (just like in reality) so if you try to write about some major event without having anything more recent than, say, the dark lord rising to power or the declaration of war between two planets affect it, it’s going to come across as false and cardboard. That would be akin to a world wherein everyone and everything over the age of thirty-five mysteriously vanished from existence, leaving even gaps in people’s memories so that no inherited grudges or prejudices can affect the new squabbles to come (which, frankly, is an interesting idea itself, but runs into the problem that nothing – architecturally, technologically, artfully, etc – could ever be achieved). History is built on cause and effect – and every effect becomes a cause to new effects. This does not mean that a world builder needs to know the entire world history in painstaking detail. It does, however, mean that you need to choose a point in history (preferably several hundred years before) at which point you start your (detailed) history, and paint what comes before in broad strokes which match what else you have created. The point at which to do this is the most major or recent massive change (for example, if you were working with the modern world, you would want to start planning history from the industrial revolution and work step by step to the now, then go back and paint everything from before the industrial revolution in broad strokes). The exception to this is when you are dealing with a story set in the aftermath of some massive, world changing event, in which case you need to work from the previous massive, world changing event so that you know what shockwaves the new change is actually creating and how it has made the world different than your characters remember.

The key here, I should point out, is that you pick a major change in history and work forward from there, as if that point was the start of the world, and every step which follows much make sense given and be built on that point and each step you build away from it. There is, of course, the danger of things not making as much sense as if you had built history from the very start, but it can be mostly neutralised by putting your date of major change far enough back that no one (except maybe immortal beings) is still alive from before it and the world has settled into its new form. This method comes with the benefit of preventing an author from obsessively compiling history as a means of procrastinating.

Start From The Beginning (of The Universe): As I mentioned before, this is the most procrastination inducing method of world building, so unless you’re working on a story in which ancient history or cosmic events are to be of huge relevance, it’s not the best of choices. It can be made more manageable if you work in deliberately broad strokes until you reach a point within a couple of hundred years of your story’s setting, and then begin to work out the history in more detail. In this case you would work out how the universe came to be, when the (or each) planet gained life, then where and when sentient life arose, which groups split off and travelled to settle new lands (and when) and you would make note of roughly when major inventions like the wheel and money turned up, what types of societies formed where, and – of course – who they were in major trade alliances and wars with, when. This is likely to induce self-directed muttering such as “okay so the Soandsos and the Suchandsuches have made peace in the fall of the Whoweretheyagain Empire and one remnant of the empire goes to war with the Soandsos …wait, that won’t work, last time I mentioned them they were trading partners. Okay, so the prince of the Soandsos ran off with the daughter of the governor of the imperial remnant and that sparked a major war – hey, cool, they could be the go-to tragic lovers of that world’s classical literature and be remembered in modern sayings”.

There are two key aspects to successfully using this sort of world building: firstly, you have to restrain yourself from going into detail at every point in history and keep it to manageably broad strokes until you reach things which will be plot relevant and the in-world modern era; and secondly, you have to make sure you stop and ask yourself what the broad results for everyone are each time something happens. This will create a very comprehensive and coherent history, which is good for the author – as it prevents them from putting aging ruins from the wrong culture in the wrong place – but which can be bad for the story as in-universe the people should not have that perfectly correct and accurate an understanding of the history of the world. Real history, to those studying it, tends to be painfully jumbled and the missing pieces get larger the further back you try to figure things out.

Start From A Map: As with beginning from the start of a universe, this method of world building has the double-edged sword of being both extremely good at keeping a universe coherent (assuming the author doesn’t throw a map together with no regard for how geography, geology, and climatology actually work) and extremely good at stalling an author from actually getting any writing done. This is also not the best choice unless you can either draw or use cartography programmes competently. If you’re starting from a map you have to start by deciding what sort of planet (assuming it is a planet or galaxy and not some strange dreamscape) you are dealing with (size, proximity to star, proximity to other planets, number of moons if any and their size, any other oddities to be noted). Then you need to ask yourself about the geological composition of the planet at large, because that will affect a great many things (if you find that one too complicatedly scientific to handle, go with “earth-like”). Now you need to decide on the number of and shape of the continents, based on the appropriate land-to-water ratio for your planet (Earth’s approximately 70% water to 30% land, for instance) so that you don’t make your continents and islands too big or small. Continents don’t perfectly fit together like jigsaw pieces but the general shapes should feel like they almost could – and they should be appropriately spaced so that they could have drifted apart and slammed into each other to form and have been formed by those shapes. Also, if you’re starting from the map, that means that you have to accept whatever currents and weather systems your grand design has caused you (you can’t just remove or shrink something later if you realise there’s no way the described temperate location is not in a rain shadow or should be frozen because there’s no ocean current to warm it from the south, for instance). Now, if you’re world building from a map-starting point then you probably don’t have characters, etc, in your head yet and are likely world building for the sake of world building (which is a perfectly valid thing to do) but if you do have those things in your head and you are struggling with an increasingly nonsensical map in order to make it fit, you might want to try a different method and flesh out the map later.

Once you have the continents in place (and know how much volcanic activity places have, plus a rough estimate of what types of rock are where) and you know how the current affect them and their weather patterns, you need to analyse where mountains, major valleys, rain shadows, and rivers are most likely to be and add them. Beware of being tidy about this – although all of these things need to be in places which make sense, nature isn’t particularly inclined to put things in straight lines or where it’s convenient for people and too many neat rows of mountains will not only strain credibility but snap it. Only once you have these geographical features in place can you start to add things which will be important for when you add sentient habitation. This is the point to work out where rainfall and rivers allow for forests, where the plains are, what areas are lush and which are arid, how far the freeze goes in winter, etc. This is also the point, as it happens, when you need to go back to that information from the start about what kinds of rock were found in abundance where – not only does that affect how plants grow and what kinds of animals will appear, but it also decides what building materials people have and what unlikely locations they might be willing to endure for mineral rewards. Now and only now, is it the time to start placing towns and cities onto the map – based, of course, on where humans would be likely to settle (having water, shelter, and the ability to farm first, then mining communities and the like). Then comes deciding who supports and wars with whom (over what resources are available) and who needs to trade with who (first for survival, then for luxuries). Then comes deciding national borders, as far as such things exist, and zooming in on your map (or creating a paper cut-away) to focus on whichever location on it you find the most interesting and from there to develop culture, characters and plot from the natural constraints of the world you’ve built.

 

All of these methods of world building have pros and cons and each person has their own preferences among them. But they’re all better than just assuming that you can world build on the fly with no planning whatsoever, because all that leads to is an incoherent mess.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 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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Rant On X-mas’ Assumed Universiality

The “holiday season” as it generally is known is upon us, with the approach of the year’s end, and that got me thinking about how often I’ve seen blatantly misplaced Christmas cheer plonked down thoughtlessly into Sci-Fi, Historical and Fantasy settings where it had absolutely no place being. Fanfiction is especially inclined to fall – or, rather, enthusiastically dive – into this particular pit trap.

You see, as an avid world-builder, it drives me absolutely up the freaking wall to see someone build – or explore, in fanfiction’s case – a beautifully designed, or researched, world and then completely ruin it by shoehorning in a fairly recent Christian tradition – or the trappings thereof by a different name – with no regard for the fact that it does not fit there.

Now, I’m sure that somebody will skim the title of this post or the content and assume I’m out to destroy their holiday. I’m not. I’m just sick and tired of seeing people who claim to enjoy another world where things are different assuming that because Christmas seems universal from their fairly mono-cultural viewpoint; that it must belong everywhere no matter what …and then force-feeding the holiday season to some poor other-world which they claimed they loved because it was different. Heck, the holiday season isn’t even universal on Modern Earth, let alone some other planet or reality (and history, damn it)!

1. If you are writing fanfiction, even seasonal fic exchanges don’t excuse breaking the canon to have Christmas. First step: check if the creator/right’s holder of the fandom you want to write in has issued a fanwork ban. If they have, back away from the keyboard with your hands in the air and remind yourself that just because it’s “Art” and “intellectual property” doesn’t make it any less property than say …the patent for a fridge design or medicine, or an architectural plan, or a painting or piece of music. Free reuse (such as fanfiction) is a privilege not a right. But I digress. There are canons that allow, or don’t disallow, fanwork where it could be believable to have the Holiday Season: I’ll blink when I see the Starship Enterprise throw a Xmas party, but given the ship is primarily human-manned and on a tub out in dull space, I could accept it. What I couldn’t accept is if it went on to show Andorians, Vulcans, and Klingons all having near-identical holidays at the same time of year. That stinks of authorial self-centeredness. Hell, just look at the differences between British and American Christmas celebrations, or Aussie and Kiwi vs Northern Hemisphere, or English speaking vs Continental Europe and you’ll see how absurd it is to assume aliens from other planets would have the same holidays! (See points 2&3.) Then there’s other canons which do allow fanfiction just plain don’t suit the idea of the holiday season at all. The most blatantly inappropriate is in canons set before Christianity existed. I’d like to keep giving examples here, but I’m afraid I have to go forcefully introduce my forehead to my desk now.

2. “Christmas” isn’t even the same in every country that does celebrate it. To give you some idea of how non-universal Christmas is, here’s a quick list of everything I (being a third generation atheist who has lived in countries that do Christmas my whole life) understand about the matter; a tree must be sacrificed and covered in tinsel and tangled lighting wires so that presents can be stored without being tripped over, shops close on the twenty-something-th of December before having several days of sales, people take it as an excuse to be horrid to people who don’t celebrate the Christian holiday, Santa drinks Coca-Cola, reindeer break gravity, snow is required even during summer, presents are exchanged along with biting and passive-aggressive commentary among family members, pudding gets bought and never eaten, something about goodwill to all that’s never practised, and some kid who might not even have existed was born with a glowing egg on his head in a barn a long, long time ago. The point I’m making is that you and your neighbours – assuming you or they celebrate anything Xmasy – may be celebrating completely differently, never mind how much more it will change city to city and country to country.

If it sounds like I know absolutely nothing and that shouldn’t be possible, the explanation is the same as the point I’m making: my family celebrate a secularised version of the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which is basically the Dutch version of Christmas but which is significantly different enough that an author cannot, or – more accurately – should not assume they can be exactly mapped on to each other. Sinterklaas (Sinter = Saint, Klaas = Klaus/Nicolas) is in early December, many adults give each other presents inside of things called “surprises”, which basically means you make something (a model or just a box with “this is a chicken” written on it) and a matching poem to give them a friendly-tease about something amusing they did/which happened to them earlier in the year. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, man originally from Turkey, but who comes to the Netherlands by boat from Spain and then rides around on a horse, assisted by white chimney sweeps with their faces covered in black soot – this has lately caused a political correctness gone batty scandal by people who call it “blackface and racist”, while apparently ignoring the whitewashing of Sinterklaas himself, and so now some people paint their faces blue and claim that without chimneys the helpers are coming through water-based radiators. And that’s just one example of how a seemingly identical celebration just is not the same when you leave your own culture. The farther you go from the modern, English-speaking world the more you have to consider this. Could an elf or alien culture have a winter celebration about gift giving and caring for others? Sure. But it had better not look a damn thing like Christmas or your audience will rightly call foul.

3. Consider where your culture is, consider CAREFULLY. See what you can find wrong with this scenario; Our rag-tag band of heroes enter the secret Elven society of DefinitelyNotALothlórienRipOff,NoSir and find them in the process of preparing for their Yule celebration …by cutting down pine trees, which belong to a different eco-sphere, and putting them up in their homes which are in trees. Okay, how about this: a sci-fi story in which ice-powered blue-skinned aliens on their ice planet celebrate the first snowfall by riding around on reindeer as all the leaves fall from the trees and HOLD IT RIGHT THERE. Ignoring for the moment the ice-powers (suspiciously fantastical for a sci-fi!) and the fact that habitable planets which are completely one ecosphere are unlikely to impossible: why are these people celebrating a first snowfall when they presumably live in ice and snow year round? For that matter, how the heck do they even have trees if everything else you’ve described implies a single ecosphere of tundra at best? Are you trying to make me use multiple exclamation marks like a crazy person?!? Okay, one last try, a civilization from a Northern, temperate and often snowy in winter society colonise a southern hemisphere tropical to arid continent and insist on transporting their winter (now summer) celebration of lights to the same point in the year because it’s the birth date of someone famous. So they make a joke of it by changing the lyrics of all the carols to represent the ridiculous climate change and make it a celebration of beach-going over a celebration of lights that would never be seen because summer nights are too short. Of the three examples: the first two are cases of really poorly thought through world building and the last is Australia. An Aussie-like situation could work in fiction, but you’d need to make obvious the backstory of a semi-altered tradition from somewhere it had made sense, else your readers will be bothered. (In New Zealand the disparity is slightly less obvious because of the climate difference, but it’s still silly to put up lights given that it’ll be at least nine or ten before they’re actually going to be comparatively bright enough to make an impression.)

4. Consider whether beliefs actually have space for such a celebration: Why the heck would your Klingons, sorry, your Proud and Honourable Alien Warrior Race celebrate a holiday about peace to everyone? Would a fantasy culture which values truth above everything really have a celebration wherein a major event is lying to children about a fat home invader who leaves them gifts? Why would Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Wiccan, or any other non-Christian religion feel the need to celebrate the birth of the guy from all the curse words? Would a native people being invaded by Christians in the past have really given a damn about that holiday beyond the fact that all the invaders take the day off to go sit in a conveniently wooden building marked with a cross and therefore easy to identify and set alight? If people live somewhere that is so cold that winter is a time of terrible hardship, why would they waste resources celebrating in the middle with a feast? They’d be more likely to celebrate when it’s over. For that matter: what exactly are they celebrating? Is it light or some historical-religious event? The changing of the year? Why would the year change part way through a season and not at the end of one? Is it peace on Earth? Even if they live in a time before that was even a concept? What use is a festival of lights for nocturnal beings? Question everything.

5. Accept that peace on Earth and goodwill to all people doesn’t require the trappings of Christmas: This leads back to something I said earlier, about how the whole peace on Earth thing is always yammered on about but never shown in real behaviour, because everyone’s too busy screaming at poor shop attendants for “ruining their Christmas” because they ran out of some material item, and screaming at non-Christians for their beliefs, and screaming at everyone who’s even slightly tolerant of not demanding that everyone celebrate one religion’s holiday for trying to “ruin Christmas”. Peace on Earth and goodwill to all are noble goals. They aren’t reliant on presents and trees, on people saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”, or stocking one religion’s holiday paraphernalia and not another’s. If the “spirit of Christmas” is supposed to be kindness to others then maybe writers could focus on that bit instead of the trappings when they world-build and the rest of the world could, you know, actually try it out for a change.

 

…I’ve GOT to start making these things shorter. I know they’re rants, but damn, I talk too much.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2015 in On Writing

 

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