Saturday, December 6, 2014

Links to sites about women that might be of use to writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy

 Since Ursula K LeGuin won both awards for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970, women have won approximately 1/3 of the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (and have done even better in the past two decades). And even before the 1960s, there were a number of women who wrote SF and F, including Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Judith Merrill, Naomi Mitchison. And Frankenstein, sometimes referred to as the first true SF novel, was written by Mary Shelly.

Frustratingly, many people think that female writers of speculative fiction are almost as exceptional today as they were back in the early 20th century. In fact, women are writing close to half of all fantasy and SF (numbers are greater to parity in the US than in the UK for some reason), and in the time period between 2010-2014, there were 13 debut SFF authors published (according to publishers marketplace), six of whom were women. However, female authors tend to be reviewed less often than male authors.

There is also a widespread idea that women don't read SF and F nearly as much as men do. It's hard to get exact numbers. The SFWA had an article a while back on the gender break down of SF readers specifically, and stated that fifty seven percent of SF readers are male, but it didn't examine fantasy. Approximately forty percent of comics fans are women. Conventional wisdom has it that women are more likely to read fantasy than SF, and are more likely to read urban contemporary fantasy than epic or secondary world fantasy, but my Google fu has not been coming up with any statistics to back these assumptions up. If anyone can direct me to any resources that shed light on this, I'd be very grateful.

I've been collecting links and information about gender equality and gender representation in speculative fiction since the SFWA "kerfuffle" during the summer of 2013. Rather than spend a lot of time discussing each and every issue that's relevant, I thought I'd sort through these links by category (as best I could, as some really could fit into more than one) and list them here. I know that having sites that are relevant to these things (somewhat) organized and handy is helpful to me, and I hope it might be of use o some other SF and F writers and fans too. And if you know of any good articles or data I haven't linked, please let me know. I'd be especially interested in any that focus on issues relevant to women of color in speculative fiction.

Equality in SF&F and elsewhere: As mentioned above, people tend to underestimate the number of women who are writing SF and F, and fans of both genders tend to name fewer female authors when asked to list their favorites. There are also some links on the more general issue of that very delicate topic that is known as "privilege" in society, more from the perspective of trying to explain what the term means in this context. Some links related to the 2013 SFWA "kerfuffle" are also included.

The Strange Horizons Count for 2013 This shows the proportion of SFF books by women and PoC received by Locus compared to the percentage reviewed.

Fandom and Gender: I've had a heck of a time getting any hard data on the percentages of fantasy readers who are women. If anyone knows of any surveys or data on this, please let me know.

Female writers of SF and F: Names of female SF and F writers and some statistics about the gender breakdown of writers.

Gender identity and sexual orientation in writing SFF: Though the issues facing people who are LGBTQ are not the same as those facing women, both as writers and readers, there is some overlap. I included some sites that may be handy for writers who are interested in including more diversity in their work but are afraid of perpetuating stereotypes.

Queer 101: Rooster Tales Comics.

Reaching Into the Quiltbag: The Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction, by Julia Rios

History and sociology: Historical accuracy is often used as an excuse for excluding women from fantasy (more than SF) or from limiting women to supporting roles in stories. There are a huge numbers of misconceptions about the roles women have played in history. And of course, one of the largest is that fantasy is usually taking place in a real historic setting to begin with.

History of the cesarean section part 1 and part 2

Inspiration: Sites that might be a source of ideas for characters, cultures, or stories: Some women from history and legend. Truth really is is often stranger than fiction.

Science, Sociology and Gender Differences: Some links to make you rethink everything you always thought you knew about gender differences. No one is saying men and women don't differ, or experience many things differently, for both biological and sociological reasons. But the variation within one gender is generally greater than the average differences between the genders.

Stereotypes and Tired Female Tropes in Fiction: Some of these are amusing, some are eye rolling. It's not so much that stereotypes are always wrong, or that any one use of these tropes is a problem in of itself. It's the rarity of stories and characters that don't embrace them that is the problem.

Writing as a Woman: Some reflections on issues facing women writers at a more personal level.

Writing female characters: Some more resources to help writers of either gender who wish to include more women in their stories and to make them better-rounded characters.

Fun stuff Related to Gender in SF and F: Some things that are worth a chuckle, and also some thought.

Blogs by SFF Authors Who Often Write About Gender-Related Issues.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 3

 This is the third installment of my take on questions that pop up frequently on online writing sites. The previous two can be found here:

Scene breaks: What are they, and how do I designate them?

These represent breaks in time or place (for instance, when you don't want to include a description of traveling from point A to point B). They're also used when you switch point of view character within a given chapter. In published novels, they're usually indicated by a blank line or a fancy little symbol, but in standard manuscript format, you simply type a # and center it.

Should I outline before writing or "pants it"?

This is really a matter of personal preference. Some people can't write a thing without a solid outline, some are inveterate pantsers, and many are somewhere in between. I tend to need to pants my first draft, but after, I'll outline in order to organize my thinking about what needs to be revised and rewritten. Some people pants some projects and outline others. Whatever works for getting a finished draft on the page. Finished drafts can be rewritten, revised, and polished.

Should I practice with short stories before trying a novel?

There's a lot to be said for this approach. Short stories are less intimidating and faster to write, and they can help you practice your writing chops. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have some writing credits when you're trying to sell your first novel. But if the novel isn't what an agent or editor wants, then all the publications and awards in the world probably won't help. And if you don't enjoy writing short fiction, then trying to force yourself to write it can be like hitting yourself with a hammer.

For a little perspective, there are plenty of successful novelists who never sold any short fiction prior to selling their first novel, and there are successful short fiction writers who have never published a novel. Short fiction and novel length are very different in some ways, and the skill sets don't always overlap perfectly.

Do what works best for you.

Should I try something bold and experimental for my first novel?

Most people will tell you no because you have to crawl before you walk (and there is plenty of disagreement about what actually is bold and experimental anyway). But if this advice means you're not writing that story that's been burning to get out for years and are trying to force something simpler that doesn't grab you, then it's not much good. The question is, how tolerant are you of frustration? How willing are you to rewrite, maybe even re-conceive a project if it doesn't turn out the way you planned or if your critiquers all tell you it gave them whiplash to try and read it?

Another thing to consider is what style of novel have you read the most of. If you have a penchant for literary fiction, then writing a fantasy novel that incorporates techniques that are more common in literary fiction might come very naturally to you.

Should I finish a first novel draft before revising or revise as I go?

Another personal taste thing. There are some revision writers, but consider that a lot of novels never get finished because the writer gets hung up rewriting and polishing the opening chapters. A crappy first draft is revisable, whereas a story that exists only in your head is never going to be perfected.

Showing versus telling. What does it mean?

It's the difference between writing a narrative summary of an event or emotion, and actually immersing your reader in it. And while we're often reminded of the importance of immersion, a novel that shows everything that happens in lavish detail would be excessively long and very slowly paced. There's a place for telling or summarizing, and there's a place for showing.

Example of telling:

I rushed across town but was late to the play. The usher wouldn't let me in until intermission. This made me sad because my date would think I'd stood him up.

Example of showing:

I dashed through the streets, dodging holiday shoppers and ducking though every alley. But when I arrived at the theater, the usher shook his head and pointed to one of the seats in the lobby. "Sorry, ma'am. Play's started. I can't let you in until intermission."

Tears pricked at my eyelids. Tom was probably sitting in there next to an empty seat, wondering why I'd stood him up. "Damn."

Notice that showing and telling exist on a continuum, and if you want to be ultra nit picking, everything we do in writing is really telling (since we are using words and not using a camera). But some word choices will depict a scene or immerse the reader more fully in the emotions and experiences of your character than others will. Telling/summarizing isn't always bad, either. Sometimes we should skim over things that are needed to connect the dots between the important stuff in a story. The thing you should really ask yourself is whether or not you want to present a series of events, words, thoughts, or emotions as if they are happening in the story's here and now, or do you want to summarize them for the reader.

Swear words in secondary-world fantasy. Are they okay? Are they required?

Yes, but they're not mandatory. There's an entire spectrum of approaches that work here, from Tolkien, who used none, to Jordan who made up his own swear words, to Scott Lynch, whose characters drop plenty of F and S

bombs. Many modern fantasy writers have characters with more contemporary, and often profane, voices, but not all do.

This article is an amusing dissection of the topic.

What is a query letter?

This is essentially a professional communication that is intended to convince an agent or editor that you've written a novel that's well-written and interesting enough to be marketable. The point is to get them to want to read the opening chapter and (hopefully) get sucked in.

Generally, queries consist of 1-4 short paragraphs, and are 250 words or less (shorter is better). They should be written in third person, present tense, and are not attempts to summarize the entire plot, but they should address a few basic questions.

1. Who is your protagonist?
2. What does he or she want?
3. What major obstacle must be overcome to get this?
4. What happens if he or she fails (the stakes)?

Janet Reid's website Query Shark is an invaluable resource for writers who are trying to hash out a query, as is the Absolute Write's Water Cooler's Query Letter Hell subforum (which is pw protected, so I can't link it here directly).

What is a plot synopsis?

This is a longer (usually one page to ten pages, depending on an agent or editor's stipulations) summary of your story's main arc. Like the query letter, it should be written in present tense and third person, but it is supposed to
reveal the main crisis and resolution, and the ending of the story, not just set up the major breaking point.

Here's a decent rundown of what a plot synopsis is.

Why don't my friends/loved ones all want to read or provide feedback on my stories?

This is a common question newer writers have. Think about the strain it might place on a relationship you cherish if someone asked you to provide an unbiased review of something they'd poured their heart into, and you didn't like it. Then there's the fact that reading and critting a story, let alone an entire novel, represents a huge investment in time and energy, and most people who don't write themselves won't know how to give useful feedback anyway. Better to join an online or offline writer's group or critting circle.

There' also simply the chance that your friends and relatives aren't big on reading, or don't care for the kind of story you're writing. Do you really want your fantasy-hating brother to tell you whether or not you've written a good fantasy novel (unless, perhaps, your goal is to write fantasy for people who hate fantasy)?

A great site for people who write fantasy to discuss writing-related issues and to give and receive critiques is

If I dislike reading fiction, can I still write it?

This one puzzles me more than the others, I have to admit. First of all, why would you want to create something you dislike? I want to write, because ever since I've been tiny, written stories have been a source of delight to me. But that's me, and I suppose everyone is different.

To answer the question, though, of course you can write fiction if you don't read it. No one's going to stop you. But I think an enjoyment of reading (and doing a lot of it) is pretty darned important if you want to read fiction that very many other people will want to read.
One of the more puzzling attitudes I've encountered among would-be writers

The basics of storytelling, the rhythm and flow of language, and the fundamentals of grammar are things people have varying knacks for. And of course we can all improve greatly on our basic talents by studying craft and practicing it. But a lot of what feels intuitive to me as a writer, a lot of the things I feel (and have been told) I do fairly well are things I've picked up from reading a ton of fiction and non fiction both.

I suppose there may be a very occasional literary prodigy out there. But I suspect that the overwhelming majority of skilled (let alone successful) writers are also voracious and enthusiastic readers.

So this is it for now. Does anyone have any other questions or thoughts on the answers to such? 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 2

 My last entry addressed some questions that come up with unfailing regularity on the writing sites I frequent. today, I will continue with these questions. Again, these answers are my own opinions, though they're based on the consensus that generally emerges from discussion threads on these topics and from my own research.

Can a book have the same title as another book (or are titles trademarked)?

No, individual book titles are not copyrighted or trademarked. However, titles associated with franchises (like, say, Star Trek), or titles for a series of books (for instance, the famous Harry Potter series) often are. But if you're worried about the title for your individual book duplicating the title of another individual book that does not incorporate the name of a franchise or series, it's most likely not an issue.
An example of two contemporary novels with duplicate titles
In fact, a quick search for a book of a given title on Amazon reveals that it's exceedingly common for books by different authors to have the same titles.

Whether it's a good idea or not is another question. It's probably not great to have the same title as a classic work, or as a well-known work in the same genre. Publishing another fantasy novel called A Game of Thrones (even if the title hadn't been incorporated into that of a successful television franchise) is a bad idea, for instance, and you could get in trouble if it looks like you're actually trying to capitalize on George RR Martin's success by "passing off" your own work as his.

But some names are more generic than others, even so. A search of the title The Stranger, for instance, finds (in addition to the English translation of Camus's classic), a number of more recent novels.

Another thing to be aware of, if you're pursuing trade publishing (the route by which you submit manuscripts to agents and/or publishing houses), there's a very real chance your "working title" will be changed prior to publication. Editors often have a better idea than writers do what is potentially attention grabbing.

Is it bad to write in present tense?

Nope. The approach is fairly popular in YA fantasy (Wendig's Under the Empyrean Sky uses a deep, limited third pov in present tense), but there are plenty of examples in adult fiction too. Like with anything else, think about the effect you're trying to produce and strive to do it well.

Juliette Wade has a nice blog piece about writing in present tense.

Italics for a character's internal thoughts: Is it okay to do this?

This is a question that can probably be answered by grabbing some books down from your own shelves. Some writers use this technique, some don't. It's a function of voice and style. Some use it for some character povs and not others. In his First Law trilogy, for instance, Joe Abercrombie made heavy use of italicized thoughts for Glokta's pov, but not for his other pov characters. A few stipulations, of course. They're usually used to show first person and/or present tense thoughts in an otherwise third-person, past-tense narrative. And of course, you wouldn't show the thoughts of a character in this way unless you're writing in omni or limited third (and for the latter, only for the pov character).

Italics for telepathy: also okay?

Some authors do this. Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lacky come to mind. If you're also using italics for directly worded thoughts, be sure your context and tagging make it clear whether something's being thought or said.

How about for flashbacks?

I've seen published novels that do this, but many people claim they dislike reading long passages that are italicized. My personal belief is that if you are writing a long flashback sequence, one that represents a genuine scene break, you should write it as a properly framed scene and not rely on font style to cue the reader. But this is also something that one's editor or publisher will weigh on heavily on.

Novel length: How long is a novel supposed to be?

Technically, for adult fiction, anything longer than novella length (40,000 words) is a novel, but this doesn't mean that a 45,000 word novel is long enough to be terribly marketable in most adult fiction markets. It also doesn't mean your 200,000 word opus will be an easy sell, even if it is epic fantasy.

This site is often sited as a good summary of average word count ranges for different genres, in the US at least. Does this mean something longer or shorter won't sell if it's really good? Of course not, but it means that agents might be more leery, as there will be fewer places for them to submit it.

Another way to get an idea about normal word counts in a given genre or subgenre is look at the submissions guidelines for publishers who take your genre and see what they stipulate for word count. There can be quite a lot of variety, even among Big Five subsidiaries. I blogged about word counts in debut secondary world fantasy novels a while back, and in fact, there are a number of longer ones that have been published in recent years. This is a small number of titles that probably do not resemble a random assortment of what's been published in recent years, and it does not mean that longer novels are easier to sell overall.

What is point of view?

Point of view (or narrative viewpoint) is the "eyes" through which your story is told. A writer has many options, including:

1. First person (narrator is in the story and uses terms "I" or "me" to refer to him or herself).
2.  Second person (narrator uses "you," as if addressing the protagonist, or as if the reader were the protagonist).
3.  Third Person (objective third, omniscient third, limited third). All characters referred to by name or as he/she etc.
There are different approaches, narrative depths and voices within each of these as well.
This site has a good overview of the different points of view.

What is deep point of view?

This is an approach or style that can be used in first person or limited third person where the voice and perceptions of the point of view character are presented in a very intense and immediate way. The purpose is to make the reader feel very close to the action, as if he or she is seeing and feeling the story through the protagonist's eyes as it unfolds, rather than being told it from a greater narrative distance.

Here are a couple links that discuss how to write deep point of view.

What is close third point of view?

I'm not sure. People mention it sometimes in writer's forums, but it's not in any of my craft books, and googling it comes up with nothing. I suspect it's a misnomer for "deep" point of view, or possibly just limited third.

If there's such a thing as "deep" point of view, what is "shallow" pov?

If the world really were arranged into binary pairs, then there would logically need to be a shallow pov to offset deep. Some writers say they resent the implication that anything that isn't "deep pov" must be shallow writing. But few things in life are all-or-nothing, and viewpoint is another example of this. While deep pov proponents can sound a bit like they're preaching about the One True Literary Way sometimes, pov exists of a continuum, and stories written at a greater narrative distance can be just as "deep" or compelling as stories written in deep third or first. In fact, some readers find continuous immersion in deep third to be exhausting and want or expect the narrative camera to be drawn back sometimes. The challenge lies in knowing when and how to do this effectively.

Omniscient versus Head Hopping

What's the difference between omniscient point of view and head hopping? Omniscient point of view is telling the story through the eyes of an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator who is usually not a character in the story (unless they are a first-person pov narraotr who has supernatural or transcendent prescience for some reason, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos). This narrator can relate the thoughts and perceptions of different characters in the story, and he/she can share things that none of the characters in the story know. But the narrator does this from the outside. This creates more narrative distance than limited third, but it allows the author more narrative freedom.

Head hopping happens when someone dives deeply into the pov of more than one character within a scene. It can result from a misunderstanding of what an omniscient narrator is supposed to be, or is can result from someone trying to write in limited third without properly cued pov changes.

This blog does a good job of explaining what head hopping is and how it differs from the skilled use of omniscient.

Multiple point of view characters. Is there a rule about how many I can have?

No. First-person novels most often have just one, but it's becoming increasingly common for there to be multiple first-person narrators. Jaida Jones and Daniel Bennet use this approach in their fantasy novels, and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible does it masterfully. The main thing to consider is how you're going to let the reader know you're in a new pov (named scene or chapter breaks are common) and how you're going to establish very clear and distinct first-person voices for each character.

It's far more common to have multiple limited third person pov characters. Many modern epic fantasy novels are written this way. An example I've read recently is Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. He writes in a fairly deep pov, and the voices of each of his characters are very distinct and permeates the narrative as well as their dialog. Not all authors do this to the same extent as he does, but it can work very well. One thing to consider if you don't want your tale to swell into a 200k or more word epic is whether you need as many characters as George RR Martin uses in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. The ideal number of viewpoint characters is the number needed to tell your story.

Prologues. Are they loved? Are they reviled? Are they ever necessary?

A prologue is an introductory chapter that contains information that's not part of the main story but it is required to set it up. There are different kinds of prologues, and some of these have become more or less fashionable in fantasy over the years. Prologues are something that many readers (and editors and agents) say they hate these days, but they still seem to be pretty common in published novels.

One piece of advice I've seen is to write your novel, starting with chapter 1, and try to weave your back story and essential world building into the main narrative in intriguing little dribbles. If you (and your beta readers) still think something's missing that's vital to the story, go back and add your prologue. What you should probably think long and hard about are those "in the beginning" kinds of history lessons, or a scene that shows your protagonist being born, or something like that. I've heard that these have become somewhat clichéd in fantasy in recent years. This is my personal opinion, but prologues that aren't constructed as scenes, where something is shown in real time, and where a character isn't at the center, are less likely to draw the modern reader in (modern readers have, after all, many things competing for their attention besides your novel).

Here are a couple of pieces on prologues.

This is a good stopping point for now. The next entry will cover a third cluster of common questions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Questions About Writing That Pop Up a Lot on Writing Forums

I'm a moderator over on a fantasy writing site, and we get a steady influx of members. I've also participated in the Cascade Writers Workshop three times now. Over the years, I've seen some of the same questions pop up over and over again. Many of them are questions I myself had not so long ago. So I've compiled some of the more frequent ones and have provided some answers.

Note that these are based on discussions I've had with other writers and on various blogs and craft books I've read as well, but in the end, they're my own opinions.

Active Versus passive voice.

Most of us were told at one time or another not to use passive voice in our writing, but many people are unsure of what passive voice is.

Some people think that any use of a "to be" verb in a sentence is passive, but this is not true. Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence is the recipient of its action. So in the above sentence "most of us were told at one time..." is passive voice, because most of us (the sentence's subject) is being acted on by its verb (told). The second part of the sentence "but many people are unsure..." is not passive, because the sentence's subject is performing the action. "Many people" is the subject, and they're performing the action of being unsure.

It's really more accurate to think of clauses within sentences as being active or passive, rather than the sentence itself, because complex sentences can have multiple clauses. Consider the following sentence:

"I went to the fair and was approached by numerous people while I was there."

The first part (I went to the fair) is active, while the second part (was approached by...") is passive.

You can also have a passive clause with no to be verb: "Racked by stomach cramps, I raced to the bathroom."

The first part of this sentence (Racked by nausea) is passive.

While the overuse of passive voice can indeed make writing cumbersome and roundabout, it has a place. For instance, rewording the sentence "Most of us were told at one time or another not to use passive voice..." requires us to actually state who did the telling so we can turn them into the subject of the sentence.

Our teachers told most of us not to use passive voice..."

This works well enough if we want the focus of the sentence to be on teachers, but if we want the recipient of the action to be the focus of the sentence, then keeping it passive is appropriate.

Like anything else, use it mindfully and for a reason.

Chapter Length

How long should my chapters be, and should they all be the same length? This one comes up a lot on writer's groups. The best way to answer this is to grab some novels down from your overflowing bookshelves (if you're interested in writing fiction, I'm assuming you're also a bookworm) and see for yourself.

The answer, of course, is that answers can vary in length from a single sentence to tens of thousands of words. The average length of chapters in a book will depend on the pacing, the structure of the story, and personal preference. Some writers (Pratchett is one) don't use standard chapter breaks at all. And many writers vary chapter length quite a lot within a given novel. Typical adult novel chapters are between 2000-5000 words long, but some are longer, and some are shorter. Use the approach that works best for your story.

Describing a character when you're writing in limited third or first person.

This one comes up a lot. Obviously, you can't randomly zoom the camera out when writing in character pov, and mirror scenes tend to be clichéd. So how do you show the reader how your character looks if you don't want him or her to come off as incredibly vain or self conscious?

The first question to ask yourself is how much detail does the reader need? Is the precise color of your protagonist's eyes or the precise shape of his or her nose important? Most readers are pretty good at drawing a decent mental picture from a few generalities. There are some details of appearance that can be important, however. Maybe your character has some feature that makes him or her stand out or that makes other people react to him or her in a certain way. Say your character has a hideous scar, or is of a different race than most of the people around him or her (sadly, most readers will assume a character is white, unless shown otherwise).

In these cases, it might be plausible to show other people reacting to the character's appearance and possibly to have the person thinking about his or her appearance. For instance, someone calls your protag "Ginger," or asks him how the weather is up there, or stares at the scar on her face. Another technique is to have the character responding to the appearance of another person. In the beginning of Jay Lake's novel Green, the protagonist is seeing a white man for the first time, and her reaction to his appearance leaves little doubt that darker skin, hair and eyes are normal to her.

Inciting/initiating event versus plot catalyst

This is one of those pesky terminology questions, because different writers and editors will use different terminology for the same concepts. Typical stories have something that gets the ball rolling at the very beginning of (usually by the end of the first chapter). It is sometimes called the inciting event or initiating event or first plot point. This represents a break in business as usual that nudges the story along. In character-driven stories, it's most often something that happens to the character directly, but sometimes it can be something that happens off camera, or in a prologue. Regardless, it will disrupt the life of the main character or characters.

Stories that feel like they have ridiculously slow starts often are so because the inciting event happens too late.

The plot catalyst typically happens later on in the story (10-15% in usually), but still in what can be considered the first "act." It can be an event, another character, conflict etc. that forces the protagonist to make a choice about whether to act in some way. It's sometimes called the point of no return, because once it happens, there's no way out for the main character(s) but through.

Stories where it feels like the protagonist is wandering aimlessly for too long are often missing this element.

Is it all right to write characters who are a different gender, race, sexual orientation or culture than myself?

Yes. If it weren't, then many classic works of literature would never have been written. If you're writing something about or from the point of view of a culture or life experience you're not very familiar with, however, it's probably a good idea to do your homework, and to spend some time learning about stereotypes and potential pitfalls. Research what cultural (mis)appropriation is and how to write about other cultures, or create new ones that integrate aspects of existing cultures, without doing this. And run it by a reader or two who can tell you if you've made any gaffes.

And most of all, be aware that everyone is first and foremost an individual. No character can be a generic representation of his or her gender, orientation or culture, anymore than you yourself are.

But aren't you supposed to write what you know?

Write what you know is probably the most mis-cited, misunderstood piece of writing advice in existence. If writers could only use settings, experiences and characters that they have lived directly, or about which they are experts, most novels would never be written.

Write what you know means you are supposed to bring your own lived experiences to the table in your writing on order to create believable and emotionally authentic responses, but it doesn't mean that every character must be (or should be) you, or that you must have personally done everything your characters have. Use your capacity for imagination and empathy, not to mention your experiences with different people and situations, to create realistic, three dimensional characters.

And be willing to research things too. Never been in a battle? Don't just study historical records of real battles (though this is a good start). Read first person accounts of people who have.

This is a good breaking point for this week, but I've got plenty more FAQs that come up on writing forums and in workshops.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Some Medieval Myths

First and foremost, I want to emphasize that most of the fantasy novels out there are not, strictly speaking, taking place in the middle ages. Lord of the Rings, for instance, incorporated elements of "Merry England" into the shire, Anglo-Saxon culture into the Rohirrim, Norse mythology into his dwarves, and classical society into Gondor. Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy, for all that it lacks firearms, takes place in a world that bears more resemblance to the Renaissance, with its emerging class struggles and its brutal inquisition. And his Empire's military rank structure and the description of its officer's uniforms definitely conjure up images of the 18th century.

Part of the fun of fantasy is the ability to mix and match elements from different settings and cultures. And of course, the presence of the fantasy elements themselves (magic, active gods and so on) will cause even an alternative history to differ from the real one.

But inevitably, readers of fantasy will assume that the setting is medieval European, and sometimes writers will get comments about what is and isn't realistic about their world building based on misconceptions people have about the middle ages. I've got a long list of these notions, and it would take far too much space to cover them all this week, but I'll cover a few of them today.

1. Forty was a ripe old age.

I think this notion stems from the fact that average life expectancies were much lower in the middle ages than in modern times. Of course, life expectancies in general were much lower before the middle part of the 20th century, and in the middle ages, actual life expectancies varied somewhat by period (they certainly plummeted during the Black Death), location, social class, gender and so on. But the average life expectancy for a baby born in Medieval Europe was probably somewhere around thirty. This makes sense when you consider the high rates of infant mortality. Between 30%-50% ofchildren did not survive to their fifth birthdays.

But if you calculate the life expectancies of people who survived their childhood, the odds of making it to middle age and beyond improved considerably, even in ancient times. Of course, infectious disease, war, childbirth complications, accidents, and famine, claimed far more lives than they do in modern times. But this is not the same thing as saying someone in their forties was the equivalent of someone in their seventies or eighties today.

Or to put it another way, a high percentage of the people who perished before they were in their sixties or seventies did not die of the kinds of diseases we associate with old age today (heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes and so on).

There are many difficulties with obtaining accurate morbidity and mortality statistics for pre-industrial societies, but it's unlikely that people older than fifty were rarities throughout most of the middle ages.

2. No one ever bathed, washed their clothes, or cleaned their teeth.

When I was in school, my history teacher told me that medieval Europeans had only three baths in their entire lifetimes: when they were born, when they were baptized, and when they died. It's also stated sometimes that people only bathed once a year. This is simply untrue.

Obviously, medieval Europeans (along with pretty much everyone else prior to the 19th century) lacked access to hot running water and a microbial theory of disease. But they did understand the basics of hygiene. They knew it was important to wash their hands and faces before eating, and health manuals extolled people to get rid of dirt and grime on their persons.

 As for clothes washing, people tended to brush their woolen outer garments instead of washing them, but they did wash their linen shifts, shirts, smocks and aprons. This site has a wealth of information about clothes washing in the middle ages.

People in the middle ages also spent time caring for their teeth and trying to combat bad breath. People often used tooth cleaning sticks or rubbed their teeth with cloths and mild abrasives, and used a variety of herbs and rinses to try and freshen their breath.

3. Girls were nearly always married and having babies by their early teens.

This is an assertion that has puzzled me for a long time, since it makes little sense to marry before one is likely to conceive or survive childbirth.

I read in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's book Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection that women reach menarche (first menses) much later, on average, in pre-industrial societies, and that there is a three year sub fertile period following menarche. If medieval girls didn't tend to start menstruating until their mid teens, and they weren't fully fertile until their later teens, or even early twenties, what would be the point of marrying 12-14 year old girls?

However, the legal age of marriage was as young as 12 in many places (and girls are sometimes married this young in modern times too), and there are certainly records of girls (and more rarely boys) becoming parents at very young ages, at least in noble families. This suggests that 12 has been at the lower end, at least, of menarche for girls throughout history.

Obviously, age of menarche has always varied around a mean, and factors like available energy, body fat composition, and socioeconomic status influence, and maybe even childhood experiences, will influence it. So there were certainly some girls who reached puberty earlier than average for their era, and earlier puberty may have been more common in the upper classes (where most of the recorded examples of early marriage come from). It's also important to note that legal marriages weren't always consummated right away. But there were many nobles and royals who did not marry for the first time until they were in their later teens or twenties. And the average age of first marriage was likely later for commoners (who were not marrying for political reasons).

This blog by Silvia Moreno-Garcia "The Trouble with Juliet," examines some of the available data about marriage ages at different times and places in the middle ages and provides evidence that refutes the notion that it was commonplace for pre and young teen girls to be married and bedded in the middle ages.

4. There were no people of color in medieval Europe.

This is often given as an excuse for omitting characters, or even any mention, of people with ancestry outside of Europe in either historic fiction or fantasy set in medieval-Europe like settings. In fact, Europe was far less isolated from the rest of the world than we like to think. Moreover, modern notions about race and racial segregation (including intermarriage) are much more modern than most people suppose.
One of the black gondoliers who worked in Venice during the 1300s-1600s

Malisha Dewalt's tumblr blog is dedicated to artwork that features people of color in medieval Europe. In addition to the influence of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula, and the presence of people from the Middle East in Southern Europe, there is evidence that there were at least a few people of African descent in medieval Britain.

What does this mean? For one thing, writers of historical fiction should take this into account when they depict medieval societies as being 100% white. And fantasy writers shouldn't assume that a society at a similar level of technology as the European middle ages would be lacking in racial or cultural diversity either.

5. Armor and weapons were so cumbersome and heavy that only the brawniest of men could wear/use them.

Actually, a full suit of plate armor only weighed around 45-55 pounds, which is in the same neighborhood as a soldier's kit today. This is hardly light, but since the armor was distributed evenly across the knight's body, it was actually easier to carry than a backpack. A treadmill study that placed volunteers in plate armor did discover
Full Plate Armor 1548-1569, Wikipedia
some interesting issues. Obviously, plate armor was hot, and it limited breathing. But it is a myth that plate armor was so heavy that knights couldn't walk in it and had to be winched onto their horses.

Plate armor was also elaborately jointed to allow full mobility.

They actually had plate armor for children (probably ceremonial, rather than utilitarian), and Joan of Arc reportedly had a suit of armor commissioned for her.

There are also many misconceptions surrounding medieval swords. One is that they were crude weapons that only allowed their wielders to hack at their opponents. Another was that they were extremely heavy (some people say in excess of 15 pounds) so that only the strongest warriors could lift them. Actually, medieval sword fighting was complex and involved cutting, thrusting and parrying. And medieval arming swords typically weighed between 2-4 pounds, not that much more than a modern fencing epee. Even William Wallace's claymore (a large, two-handed weapon) only weighs around 6 pounds 

These are only a few of the less than factual notions that people have about the European middle ages. There are plenty of others floating around. What are some others you'd like to see addressed?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sighs, Nods, and Shrugs: Those annoying Little (Literary) Tics

I teach college biology. One of the many perks of my job is that it provides me ample opportunities to observe human behavior in all its glorious, and not so glorious, variety.
My husband also teaches, so we sometimes share stories about amusing things that happen in our classes (in ways that respect the privacy of all parties involved of course). One thing we've both noticed is that every class seems to have a mad sigher--a student who emits theatrical sighs when the instructor announces a quiz or homework, changes topics in lecture, misspeaks and corrects themselves, or when another student asks a question.

Needless to say, it's a noticeable mannerism. It's something that calls attention to itself. And while everyone sighs from time to time, some people do it more (and do it more loudly) than others.
Mannerisms are an important part of character building in fiction. Some characters will sigh, nod, blink, shrug etc. more than others. This is fine if it's intentional, but we often don't even realize it. Simple, everyday gestures can become mindless insertions.

So how many times can a character nod before readers think herhead may fall off? How many times can a writer mention quirked or raised eyebrows before they start to resemble great fuzzy caterpillars that may escape and attach themselves to the wainscotting?

Writing instructors and editors often enjoin us to be more mindful of stock gestures. I've even run across blogs that suggest that you only get five or six nods per manuscript. While I agree that excessive use of these gestures can become annoying, I got to thinking. Why five or six? What's magical about that number? And do all  successful and popular writers (or their editors) follow this advice?

I have both a nook and an ipad, so I've become an avid consumer of e-books. One thing these devices allow me to do is to conduct word searches. So I thought I'd do a little informal experiment and count the number of uses of some of these "go to" words in some of the books in my e-library. My reading is heavily weighted towards fantasy and SF, so all the titles save one fall into this category.

The words I searched for were: sigh, nod, shrug, grin, frown, eyebrow, gritted (in the context of teeth), groan. I didn't look at specific context, though I did toss incidents that were embedded in unrelated words or not used in the description of a character, and I considered all tenses of these words.

The books I examined were: The Last Argument of Kings, by Abercrombie; Promise of Blood, by McClellan; Fool's Assassin, by Hobb; Ancillary Justice, by Leckie; Cold Magic, by Elliot; King Rat, by Meiville, Old Man's War, by Scalzi, The Thousand Names, by Wexler; Havemercy, by Jones and Bennett; Colours in the Steel, by Parker; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by Jemisin; Oryx and Crake by Atwood; Foreigner by Cherryh; Fade to Black by Knight; and The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Lynch.
Obviously, I can make no claim about how typical these are for their genre. One interesting thing I noticed is that the three SF novels on the list (Foreigner, Ancillary Justice, and Old Man's War) were all below the overall average in their usage for all of the words in question, as was the one book on the list by a writer who could be termed  "literary" (Oryx and Crake). The sample size was not large enough to do meaningful statistical analysis, of course.

What I did discover, though, was that while there was an incredible amount of variety between authors. And most of these words were used more than five times, on average. Of all of them, nod was the most popular, averaging over 60 uses per book, ranging from a low of 7 uses (Cherryh) and a high of 179 uses (Wexler). The largest single word use in one book, however, was frown, with a total of 208 uses in Abercrombie's book. Tooth gritting was the least popular overall, averaging 4.5 uses per book (and ranging from 0-28).

Every single one of these novels had at least one mannerism that was mentioned seventeen times or more.

After I did this gesticular bean counting, I went through my own manuscript and discovered that my own characters rarely grit their teeth or groan, but they seem to nod (78 incidents) and grin (60 incidents) more than the overall average for the novels I sampled.

So, what does this mean? Are uses of stock phrases like "nodded" and "shrugged" the kiss of death to a manuscript? Clearly not, since some highly successful writers make heavy use of them. Is there some predetermined number that represents a tipping point in a given novel? If there is, it's clearly much higher than five or six. But I'd also argue this doesn't means a writer should be oblivious to their use of these words.

One thing to consider is that some words also call more attention to themselves than others. Raised eyebrows and gritted teeth were mentioned less frequently overall, and probably for good reason.

In contrast, I think that some of the more common stock phrases, like nodded, grinned, frowned, and shrugged can be nearly invisible to readers, assuming they're spaced out reasonably well. Still, it certainly won't hurt anything to ask oneself whether or not the description is really needed, and if it is, whether or not there might be a way to make the gesture more evocative.

Also, are all the characters in a novel using all the various gestures equally, or is one more likely to, say, grit her teeth, while another is more likely to sigh like a forlorn maiden? Trademark gestures can be an aspect of characterization, but it doesn't take a huge number of repetitions to get across that a person is an inveterate sigher, or nodder, or shrugger.

A writer can reinforce that a repeated gesture is part of a character's mannerisms by having the other characters in the story notice them, especially if they have the potential to be irritating. It can be amusing to have one character call another out on it. The character can (if we spend time in their point of view) become self-conscious and worry whether they're doing it too often.

So are there any repeated actions or mannerisms you find irritating in a novel, or are there any you find you have to watch in your own writing?