Fantasy Healing

Fantasy stories and healing powers go hand in hand. If it’s not a D&D-style healing potion or healing spell system, then it’s an X-Men style super healing type thing. This just makes sense – fantasy stories, especially stories that have anything to do with superhero archetypes, or any tropes that Western fiction shares with shounen anime, are often made much easier with the presence of a healer. It lets your heroes take a lot more damage before they’re out of the game entirely. Continue reading

Bad Writers Becoming Good Writers

Many quotes circulate around the Internet. Some of them are more dubious in origin than others. Some of them are downright stupid.  Fair warning – this is going to get ranty.

“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

“Yes,” the writers say, sagely, nodding their heads. “Yes, this is indeed wise. Oh, how noble our profession is.”

What?

No.

This is utter nonsense. Utter nonsense written by Stephen King, who has otherwise spoken much wisdom that I respect, but nonsense nonetheless.

The thing is, it’s attractive nonsense. And it’s got enough anecdotal evidence behind it to make it sound like it ought to ring true. But that just makes it the persistent kind of false.

Authors on the Internet, I have found, have this Thing about mocking poor writing. I mean, despite the ridiculously problematic premises of the books, by far the most common complain I heard levelled at the Twilight and 50 Shades books were complaints about the writing quality. On sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, for every list of “Creative Adjectives” and “Said is Dead!!” verbs, there is a post or meme begging writers to never, ever use the phrase “glittering violet orbs” ever again. There are entire sites dedicated to ripping apart mediocre fanfiction.

Yes, it’s frustrating to read these things sometimes. As experienced writers who have passed the “violet orbs” stage (or amateur writers looking to), reading people making not only the mistakes we used to make but also the mistakes we see so many other people making (especially regular fanfic readers … having to sort out the fics that are worth my time is the only thing stopping me from falling into the pit of fanfic and never returning) is incredibly frustrating. I’ve been an editor. I know.

I also know that the only thing more frustrating is when someone asks for your advice and then refuses to follow it, or immediately dismisses you as incorrect. It’s very tempting, when that happens, to dismiss that person as a lost cause. After all, you have to want to see the flaws in your work in order to improve, and obviously they don’t!

And so, there comes that quote. And it sounds right – like an extension of “only talent can recognise genius” – only those with a baseline level of skill can see the gap between themselves and where they “need” to be (or, perhaps more accurately, can tell the steps they need to take to cross that gap).

Look, at least this is right about one thing – in order to cross each gap, you do need a baseline level of skill. Skill, not talent. That baseline level of skill just coincidentally happens to be the skill gained by getting to that point in the first place. But the problem with skill is that it takes time to earn.

Fluff it up all you like, but writing is a skill. The only writer who doesn’t improve is the one who won’t practise, and gets complacent. And call me crazy, but I’m unwilling to believe that there’s a natural “cap” to the amount one will improve if one continues to put in effort. My beliefs on talent and skill are best summed up (with much more profanity than I’d usually use) here, at Chuck Wendig’s blog post on the topic

Think back to those fanfic writers. Would you say that a 14-year-old could never improve to be a great writer, just because they use awkward phrasing now, or don’t have a firm grasp of pacing?

On the opposite end of the scale, if you’ve ever been part of a writer’s group with a wide age range, you have probably seen the retiree who’s got a lot of time on their hands all of a sudden and wants to start writing. My writing group has seen three or four of them. They all improve, and in great strides, too, once they start to come to grips with the mode of writing. Some of them get published. Some of them do very well. Some of them talk about only just starting to learn the skill now.

How many great writers have you heard talking with embarrassment about their first literary attempts? The novels that ended up shoved in a drawer, never to see the light of day because of their blatant unsuitability for human eyes. Did being bad once ever stop them from becoming amazing?

I’m not saying it’s easy. It does require time and effort to progress, and some people will progress faster than others. But talent, or “being a good writer” is a trait we assign to people after they’ve already had those years of practice. So let’s quit telling people that writing is a ‘you have it or you don’t’ kind of skill. You have the desire to improve or you don’t. That’s all.

Reading as an Adult Sucks

List of things that will surprise nobody: I read a lot.
Not as much as I used to, of course – I have “adult responsibilities” and “career goals” (by which I mean I can never decide whether to spend my spare time reading, playing video games or watching anime, and doing all three at once is disappointingly unfeasible). But I still read a lot. And like a lot of people who read a lot, I’ve started to get picky.

On some levels it’s a time thing – if my time for reading is limited, I don’t want to spend it reading things I’m not going to enjoy. But on another level, it takes a lot more to impress me than it used to. Fewer and fewer plots feel new and fresh, fewer characters and archetypes feel unique, all that stuff.

This is pretty cool, when you think about it. I’m finally gaining the life experience I need to really be able to analyse a book not just on its merits, but on comparison to its entire genre/subgenre. That’s kind of insane; to have a large enough sample size to be able to make detailed comparisons. Plus, I’ve got a large enough sample size of various plotlines and archetypes to be able to compare between those to one another. I love that. It makes everything so much easier.

But there is one thing it does make a lot harder. I very, very rarely find, these days, a book I’d consider un-put-down-able. Something that really catches me and engages me and leaves the book’s world lingering after the last page. You know, all that reading magic that Pinterest and Facebook people get all starry-eyed and artsy-captioned-photo-y over.
I’ve come to find that I appreciate books in two ways – as emotional experiences and intellectual exercises. I’ll enjoy a book with one but not the other (of what else are Guilty Pleasures made but emotional experiences without intellectual engagement?), but an artsy-photo book is definitely one that delivers equally and excellently on both.

Which leads us to possibly the most frustrating experience of my reading life. Enjoying a novel intellectually, but having very little emotional engagement.
It’s awful. And it’s awful because I can see exactly how the author is doing a wonderful job of setting me up and crafting emotions … that I’m just not feeling. A plot twist happens, and the reaction is “Wow, what an amazing balance of foreshadowing they got!”
And I always end the book feeling like I need to read it again, to see how everything was done, and how the author made things work so well, but also vaguely disappointed.
Get a stint of such books, and you start to wonder … is it me? Have I reached a point where reading no longer captures and fires my imagination? I mean, I remember as a kid just getting caught up in all the books. But now I’ve grown out of them, and maybe adult fiction is just meant to engage in a different way … and that makes me sad, because childlike wonder is just plain fun.

Thankfully, thus far there’s always been a Wonderbook to prove that no, I’m not broken, just picky.
It’s nice to have the reminder that, no matter how jaded I get, some books will just be awesome.

Getting Whiny about Frozen

So it seems I’m on a bit of a children’s movie kick at the moment, which is not entirely surprising (I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and children’s movies tend to be more whimsical, which is better for writing inspiration). And, of course, nobody can escape the cultural landslide which is Frozen, even this long after its advent. Therefore, this post contains unmarked spoilers, so if you’ve by accident or effort of will managed to avoid spoilers so far, ye be warned.
There is one thing that really sort of bugged me about Frozen, and it’s something that bugs me about a lot of kids’ movies.
I love that Frozen was trying to do something else with the ‘true love’ concept. I don’t love that it felt the need to contain an Obvious Villain.

I understand that villains can be the strongest part of a movie. I realise that Hans has taken the Disney world by manipulative storm (and there are some Internet theories out there on the subject that are my headcanon now). Still, though, Hans to me felt quite tacked on the first time I watched the movie.
I’m generally against adding new conflicts in the last ten minutes of a movie, unless they’re really necessary, and Hans to me just didn’t feel that necessary. I may be wrong on this; it may have been that without Hans’s betrayal, it would have just ruined the tension. On the other hand, simply having the kiss not work and nobody knowing to find Elsa, who may well be in the middle of a blizzard-freakout through worry for Anna, if the town simply being misguided is keeping her locked up in the castle still seems like a pretty good setup for some serious tension.

But then, it could also be that I have a bit of an ongoing “thing” about villains in Disney movies. There are a couple of other movies that have done it as well, where the villains just feel kind of unnecessary.
I think where I’m coming from here is that I don’t tend to like villains who aren’t really involved in the main conflict of a story, and I don’t like it when villains are evil for the sake of being evil. So even if Hans’s betrayal was completely logical given the character, and it was well-explained afterwards, I still felt like it took attention away from the main conflict, which was the disagreement between the sisters.

Plus, I have this weird thing about stories not needing villains. I’m always a little disappointed when a story has gone really well and then feels the need to incorporate a villain without it being necessary up until that point. I really, really like circumstances/society as villain – the idea that things are going wrong for the protagonists because they’re trying to do something that’s just plain difficult, or because there are groups who think differently to them entirely legitimately (or even because the people who think the same way as them believe in different methods), not because there’s a person out there who is specifically trying to thwart their plans because they’re mean and evil. And that’s basically how Hans came across to me. He was mean and evil because he was too ambitious and didn’t care about other people in his quest for power. And the story wasn’t about power. It was about acceptance and family.

As I said before – Frozen is by no means the only movie with this problem. I wish there wasn’t such a perception that movies can’t be interesting to kids without a villain (Studio Ghibli probably collectively sits back and laughs whenever it’s suggested in earshot of them). But I’m not the target audience, so I’ll just have my villains and like it, I suppose.

Video Games for the Narrative

You guys, I get so excited about video games.

No, really, games are very exciting.  I might not be one of those people who’s totally behind the gamification movement (I think a lot of it is really, really cool, except when it’s suddenly not), and I’m not convinced that the game will replace non-interactive media entirely (though I like the idea of transmedia storytelling), but I really do get excited over video games – how they work, how they integrate gameplay and narrative, how they allow the interactive elements to alter the experience from playthrough to playthrough … particularly how player choice and player input shapes the medium.

That’s the bit that really fascinates me – the player input.  It’s alright to do in tabletop RPGs, but the Game Master is infinitely flexible, unlike the code on a computer.  A player can really surprise me as a GM, and all I have to do is fix my notes and keep going, with maybe a slightly different plot.

A video game can’t do that – it can’t suddenly change the plot because a player never talked to a certain person, or killed someone they shouldn’t have, or just decided to go to the wrong town first.  Unless, of course, this was written into the game to begin with.

But that’s an entirely different blog post, and one I’m definitely not yet qualified to write.
This blog post is about personal preference, and why I feel a little bad about my choice in video games.

I do consider myself a writer, even if I’m not published.  I love the feeling of agency in games, the idea that I’m really affecting things in the game world as I play.

And yet, here’s a list of some of my favourite games:
Psychonauts.
Mass Effect.
King’s Quest series
Quest for Glory Series
Bioshock trilogy
Portals 1 and 2

I have played some Skyrim, but it doesn’t really make me stop everything and just play Skyrim like Mass Effect did.
I’ve also played FTL: Faster Than Light, and it didn’t really appeal to me, either.

I’ve been told by friends that they got really into their FTL characters, even though there are no real characters, no personality – it’s just a group of icons on a ship with stats.  Though the characters themselves had no lines and no backstories, my friends assigned personalities and goals to them, and were genuinely sad when they were painfully suffocated aboard their own ships.

Same thing with a lot of those kinds of games, I find – I don’t assign personalities to icons on a ship.  Skyrim is certainly easier – I am fairly able to care about the character I’m playing, generate motivations for them, all that sort of thing.
But I don’t get captivated by them.  Particularly with Skyrim – it really does just put you in a world and tell you to go from there.  I have a couple other issues with Skyrim, which I’ll address later (and for which you’ll have to bear with me, because I have only played for about an hour, total, and not very far into the game.

And I think it’s really a shame – I feel like I’m really missing out on a lot not liking some of these sandbox/open-world games.  I watched a friend play Skyrim once, and he killed a wolf, then jumped into a river carrying it, and the game happened to process this in such a way that he was, suddenly, waltzing with the wolf through the river.
I’d like to see Commander Shepard waltz with a wolf just because the player happened to feel like it.
I feel like there is, objectively, a depth of experience that you wouldn’t get in a linear story.  You certainly get the idea of a whole world, one that doesn’t all care about the plot of the game, and doesn’t entirely hinge on the protagonist.  It’s a great thing, and really exciting for anyone interested in the worldbuilding aspects of story.

But like I said, it just didn’t grab me.
Is that a bad thing, I wonder?  I’m an author, after all, isn’t creating stories what I’m supposed to be good at?  Am I too lazy to make up a “proper story” in these games?  Am I not willing to work for my fun?
Am I just unwilling to abandon my grounding in novels?  Is my brain too feeble to comprehend media that fall outside my limited view?

I’d like to think not.  So here’s how I justify this to myself.

First off, I like characters.  I like getting to play with new people.  I like getting inside their heads and meeting them over the course of a game.  I just don’t get that same experience when I’m the one assigning personality traits.  I can’t be surprised, for one, and one of my favourite experiences in a book or game is having my expectations subverted by a character.
Secondly, if there isn’t a true goal or a sense of character motivation, there’s no sense of urgency.  I’m not saying that the universe has to be in grave danger before I start to care (and there are some issues with this description, since Chell in Portal 1 can’t be said to have much motivation – though the player has ‘find out what’s up with these tests).  But mostly it holds – if Skyrim tells me there are dragons, but then leaves me alone in the mountains to do whatever, without ever giving me a reason that the dragons are my problem, or my issue – if FTL tells me “get a bigger ship” … well, sure, it’ll be diverting, but you’re never going to make me feel as hard as Mass Effect 2 made me feel when Joker did that thing that he did, or … “I am the very model …”.  I’ve yet to, in my time watching Skyrim or Minecraft, or talking to people who have played those games, seen any talk or mention of a Bioshock-level kick in the teeth.  They might have ups and downs, but impact in a narrative relies very heavily on timing, and removing the ability to time (and even the abillity to control what order a player receives information, in games like Skyrim) removes a whole lot of narrative tricks you can pull.

But here’s the main problem, for me.  I often find that an open game world feels a lot less real to me, because of the concessions the developers are forced to make to keep it open.  It’s just a matter of budget and time.  The variation you get in a game like Skyrim is admirable – you can annoy groups of characters and ingratiate yourself to others.  But it still feels very potted.  All elves hate you, or all people of a certain town.  You get a change of dialogue tree when you complete a person’s mission, but otherwise they offer you pretty much the same thing.  You can talk to every NPC, but you can’t really get to know them beyond a few broad character brush strokes.
You also can’t let the world change too much.  You can’t have a particular quest irrevocably change things on a grand scale, in case it’s one of the first ones the characters do, by accident, and they lose a lot of content.
Actually, that is entirely possible and pretty awesome, but it’s probably pretty bad design, and I’m too inexperienced to know why.  I’ve not really seen it.
On the technical side, try developing a motif or symbolism without being able to control the order the player experiences something in, or while allowing that any part of the whole thing may be skipped.  I’m sure it can be done (and I’d love to try someday), but you just can’t achieve the same effect.

I realise that, for all of the things I’ve said here, there are technicalities that can be argued.  I’m sure that, in open world games, you could show me a whole bunch with a “point of no return” section where you complete a quest and everything is changed.  I’m sure you could show me ones with intelligent NPC development, and a plot that holds up through any amount of faffing around between plot points.  Unfortunately, it’s not really going to change my mind.  There’s just something that doesn’t grab me so much about an open world to explore in as a really gripping, dense story with crafted characters and symbolism.

What about you fine folks?  Any staunch open-world fans out there?  Got one to recommend that’ll completely change my mind, make me see the potential of the medium?  Anyone dislike open-world games, but for a completely different reason?

And yeah, I’m not going to even try and pretend that was all intelligent and objective.  But hey, expressing personal preference is a difficult thing to articulate.

Why GMing Teaches You About Decision-Making

As some of you have probably picked up by now, I like gaming.  I was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games when I was about ten, by a group of friends who are still my friends, even probably my best friends, to this day.
It should also surprise nobody that I’m a GM most of the time.  Last time I was a player was a Shadowrun game, and about three sessions in, the GM was lamenting not being able to play.  I mentioned that I prefer GMing anyway, and the deal was sealed.  From then on, I was in the GM’s chair.

I often wish I could encourage more people to GM, actually, especially those with aspirations to being writerfolk.  Because it is truly amazing what you will learn from being in control of the world, but not the characters in it.

Ask any GM to give you a few stories of times their players did the entirely unexpected, and I bet you they could tell you about fifty of them.  I’ve had some doozies in my time, for sure.

One time, I was DMing a DnD 3.5 game, wherein my players were collecting pieces of a mysterious artifact called the Eye of the Druid (shush. I was, like, fifteen).  Here was how it was supposed to go: The players would hear that the object was an old wives’ tale from the wizards’ university in the town.  Then, they’d get overheard by a cult member asking around, and they’d almost get sacrificed, but in the process, find the piece they needed if they escaped.
Here’s what actually went down: Instead of asking where it was, the party asked the wizards for a finding spell, which told them it was at the bottom of the lake.  They then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince the wizard to drain the lake so they could get to the piece.

Or the time when one of my players decided the most expedient way to escape slaver was to cast Teleport while jumping into the privy hole … without stopping to check if the shackles he was wearing were magic-cancelling.
You have no idea how hard it was to keep a straight face while he proudly laid out his grand plan to me.

See, stuff like this is why I distrust the idea that I have no control over my characters.  I’ve seen what happens where the person creating the plot doesn’t control the characters in it, and it’s stunts like this.

But it’s not just because of the funny stories that I wish more writers GMed tabletops.  I think it’s a very important exercise in information control.
When I’m talking about this, I’m often tempted to say “the characters take the most logical route”, but that’s not entirely true.  For some players it, is; others like roleplaying illogical characters and then all bets are off.
What’s far more true is “The players will take the route suggested by the information given to them.”
If the piece had been in the lake, rather than in a tunnel under it, that would have been an excellent choice to make.  If my player’s shackles hadn’t been magic-cancelling, his plan would have worked a treat.  With the information they had, my players made very logical choices.  Or, at least, ones that would have gotten them what they wanted, theatrics and pits full of fecal matter aside.

This, ideally, is what your characters should be doing.  I’m not going to say that any decision made by an RPG player is necessarily going to be what a book character ought to be doing (I’m sure we can all name one thing that a player has done that just … no).  But as you get better at GMing, you’ll get better at controlling what information your players get, when, and how.

There are a few levels where a good GM controls what information they give.  The first, and most obvious, is information given straight from GM to player.  One campaign I ran?  I gave the players a map of an island they needed to explore.
The map was very, very wrong.  Almost deceptively so – that is, it got them roughly to the middle of the forest.
We had to stop playing before they realised what I’d done.  This always makes me sad.
The equivalent to this in a book is probably describing places and people.  Choosing words to set up a scene, and then subverting or contradicting them later is quite powerful.  Maybe a character lies about their past to the main character.  That’s all on this level.

The second is a bit subtler, more misdirection than lying.  I didn’t lie to you, you just didn’t ask the right question.
One game, my players were trying to protect a briefcase containing a powerful device.  They asked me if it was still in the room, and intact.  I told them the case looked perfectly fine.
They got out of the headquarters, only to find that their new “friends” had run off, and the case was empty.
The writing equivalent?  Probably something where you set up a perfectly logical explanation for something, and then it turns out to be something different.  Is the main character shy about dgoing topless because in his years of adventuring, he’s collected a whole bevy of scars and cuts, and he doesn’t like people seeing them?  Set that up right, and you can have the audience believing that right up until they learn that no, he’s actually just shy.  Grew up in a household of many sisters who teased him ruthlessly about his buff, manly figure (or perhaps about his lack thereof), or something.  But remember, both options have to be equally logical.

Third, and probably one of the hardest ones to learn, is the art of overshadowing information with other information.  Sometimes it’s just selective hearing – I told that player with the shackles that they had runes on them, but he was more interested in hearing the layout of the room, so I guess he didn’t think to ask about the runes.  I’ve heard it described very well in a DM’s guide: If you lead the characters into a room, and say “There is an old, oak table and a wardrobe with a key still in the lock.  On the oak table is some paper, and an inkpot.  In the inkpot stands a pen with a huge, glossy feather, probably a dyed feather from some tropical bird.  The metal nib extends into a sheath, leading halfway up the feather’s spine, engraved in silver”, then the players are very likely to investigate the pen.  If you meant the pen to be important, that might not be the best way to go.  There’s no suspense in it.  But by the end of that paragraph, did you remember quite as vividly that the wardrobe’s key was still in the lock?  I bet you a significant group of players wouldn’t remember that at all.  If that’s what’s really important, then burying it under the information about the pen might be an excellent way to keep players guessing just that little bit longer.

The great thing about using GMing to hone these skills is feedback in real-time.  You describe a room, and you know exactly whether or not your players caught your veiled references within about thirty seconds, rather than three months, half a novel draft and an editing pass later, when you finally let it out of your hands to a beta reader.  Players will often talk about their thoughts as they go, so you can tell exactly what they did and didn’t notice or remember.
You won’t have the chance to retrofit the story to the plot, either, so you can’t weasel your way out of the stupid decision that way.  More than half the time, I look at what the players did and say “You know, that was disturbingly smart.”  I’d like to see that applied to some fantasy characters sometime.  Might give those cackling villains more of a run for their money.

What Would You Do in a Horror Movie

So, term just came to an end over here, which means two things.
One, amazing amounts of writing time.
Two, going to the movies.

The second, I think, will become a tradition for me.  Going to the movies has always been a bit of a special treat for my family.  I was at the movies last week, however, and there were a couple of guys talking a couple rows back and to my right.  Not obnoxious – they didn’t talk at all during the movie, nor were they talking loud enough to grate on the nerves.

But one of them said one thing, and that just made me want to turn around and explain why he was wrong.  I needed a little moment to calm down.
No, this is not a logical hatred.  It’s not even a pet peeve, per se – a pet peeve still implies a little too much rational thought and attempted justification.  This is just a thing that hurts me inside.  It really, really shouldn’t.  But it does.

“If I were in a horror movie,” this probably quite lovely person said, “I’d just run out of there as soon as I realised.  Just get out.  Movie over.”

My answer to this is: No.  No, you wouldn’t.  THAT’S THE ENTIRE POINT OF A HORROR MOVIE.

Now, let me preface this with a quick disclaimer: I am not really a horror fan.  I’ve not seen very much of it.  I’ve read a couple of books in the genre, I’ve certainly read some dark fantasy.  I’ve played games that could count.  But for a lot of the true horror classics?  Not my area of expertise.  I’ve heard a lot of people talk about them, though.  And here’s what I’ve started to piece together.

Horror is about feeling small and trapped.  A lot of the advice I see given to horror writers in any medium is based around making the monster feel insurmountable, inevitable.  A monster is not scary if the audience is not convinced that it is a legitimate threat.  This goes for horror where the antagonist is a person, too.

Conversely, this bleeds into the characterisation of the protagonist.  It is very difficult to make a horror film whose protagonist is, say, a soldier with full weapons training and access to an arsenal.  If you have a protagonist like that, you need a monster against whom these methods will not work.  Maybe it’s ethereal and immune to bullets.  Maybe it’s Cthulhu, and lives in disgusting mockery of your puny mortal weapons.  Either way, you’re disempowering the protagonist.

The guy who says he’d “just run away”?  If the horror writer has done their job well, and usually even if they do it badly, there is a reason why that will not work.  Very prominent in sealed-can-of-evil stories.  You popped the lid on that can, the monster has earmarked you for death.  And it follows you.  Everywhere.  Maybe it really is that the monster is tied to a specific place (like a haunted house), but it’s physically keeping you from leaving.  Corridors that don’t lead where you thought they do, doors locked shut from whichever side you’re not on.

Yes, there is a great expanse of mockery of horror tropes where the protagonists are clearly idiots for the choice they’re making (Let’s split up!  Let’s go back into the house we were specifically warned not to enter again!).  If your horror author is relying on stupidity to cause the plot to happen, you’re not consuming good horror media.  The reader should never be able to say “Why didn’t they just…?”  No.  Bad author.  No biscuit.  
Let’s just address the actually good examples of the genre.  You know, what all those bad examples were aspiring to be.

The point is, by the time you realise you’re in a horror movie, IT SHOULD ALREADY BE TOO LATE.

So, to conclude, dear person at the movie theater:
I have examined your statement, and present to you two options.
First, actually think about the genre you’re mocking, rather than just allowing yourself to feel superior to characters because you’ve got the distance to rules-lawyer your way out of the situation.  Wouldn’t have walked into a creepy house?  Well, first off, I bet you would, because normal people don’t automatically assume they’re in horror movies.  But even if you wouldn’t have, don’t pretend like the characters now have an option of escaping.  If your plan for escaping a horror situation involves leaving before being given evidence that it’s a horror situation, then no.  You aren’t smarter than any of the characters.  You’re just on the other side of the screen.
Two, damn well read better books.  Watch better movies.  Consume something that requires you to actually use your brain.  Don’t just paint the whole horror genre with the brush of Chucky XXXVI or whatever number.  That just makes you look more stupid.

Sincerely,
A random person whose opinion

I Posted This Because Reasons.

So, there was originally going to be a different post here.  But then there was a thing on the Internet.

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/english-has-a-new-preposition-because-internet/281601/

http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/because-preposition-language-internet/

So I figured I’d at least attempt to chip in.  It got me excited enough to have a crack.

Let me start this going back a little way.  From my posts before, and for those of you who know me IRL, you’ve probably figured that I’m a pretty descriptive grammarian.  My basic philosophy is that there are certain situations where Standard English is the best choice (writing essays … though I’ll get onto the topic of plain English some other time.)  This is not because it is “more correct” than other forms.  It’s mostly because, when you use Standard English, it feels more respectful – it’s like you’re taking the topic more seriously (not arguing that you can’t talk about serious topics in non-Standard English; that would be silly.  Just saying it’s a register thing).  It’s also what second-language speakers are most likely taught in, so it makes it a little easier there as well.

A little while ago, there was a huge furor over the dictionary definition of “literally”.
You know of what I speak.
I heard arguments that it was going to diminish the language by making it less “specific” and whole diatribes about how language tends towards overstatement and sensationalism nowadays.

Well, now I guess I have the ammo against that.  It’s very difficult to argue that curtailing a sentence or explanation to “because NOUN” is sensationalist.  All the articles I’ve read about it conclude that it’s laconic, ironic, and open to wider interpretation.  So, basically the exact opposite of sensationalist.

The ‘less specific’ thing … now that one we might need to examine a little further.  The example given in the Daily Dot article is “the student hijacked the website because Guy Fawkes”.  This is explained to mean that the student is a member of the Internet group Anonymous, and the reader is expected to make the jumps through the logic that connects Guy Fawkes to Anonymous.  This would certainly imply that this usage makes things less specific.

However.  I’m not really a fan of how the Daily Dot article explains this new ‘because’ preposition.  I, though I might be lacking some experience here, have never seen, heard, or read it used like this.  Usually, the logical connections are very short, one-leap type things: “I failed the test because YouTube” is about as complicated as it gets.  The missing link there is failed the text –> because I didn’t study —> Because I was watching YouTube videos.
There’s also a section where the Daily Dot uses headings for some examples: “Intense, yet inarticulate feelings on a subject, because Tumblr”  the second involves a similar “because Reddit” construction.
These usages just rub me the wrong way.  The author is literally saying that Tumblr is the cause of people expressing intense, yet inarticulate feelings on a given subject.  That is a perfectly legitimate thing to say (“All the feels, because Tumblr”, for instance), but it doesn’t fit the context.  The preposition they want is “from”.  “From Tumblr.”

So … I’m not really sure I agree with that above example.  And I don’t think that this construction makes the language less specific.  After all, I’d be willing to bet you all knew exactly what I meant when I said above that “I failed the test because YouTube”, and “All the feels, because Tumblr”.  I’d be willing to bet that very few of you have come across one of these constructions and legitimately not understood what it meant (barring external circumstances like language barriers, typos and general Internet inarticulacy).

This, I think, must be a very specific form of speech, because, as other articles state, it comes from irony and sarcasm, and there is no room for unintentional ambiguity in those forms of humour.  The Atlantic’s article states that a possible origin is the “Because shut up” and “Because fuck you, that’s why” constructions where an insult replaces an actual explanation because the speaker either does not have a good answer or does not want to give that answer to the person who asked the question.  From there, it’s easy to see the jump to “I have hair all over my clothes because cat” – it’s a humorous comment on the situation, intended to ascribe the problem represented in the main clause to a trait universally common to the noun in the second clause.  In that case, all cats shed.  In the case of the exam and YouTube above, YouTube is always a time-sink.  There may even be an intermediary step there of the “because no” phrase.

Image

“I didn’t do my homework today because no”
“I hate coffee because no.”
You get the idea.

So what do I think of this new trend of Internet language?  Basically the same thing I thought about adding the figurative meaning of ‘literally’ to the dictionary, or the new meaning of ‘slash’.  Language evolves.  On the Internet, this goes double or triple.  It’s not going to ruin the language, anymore than those young whippersnappers in Ancient Greece ruined Greek, or the disrespectful youth in the 1800s ruined English then.  If we find that specificity is a problem, if we fail to understand one another using certain constructions, they won’t catch on.  If they catch on and problems occur later?  Then we’ll come up with workarounds.  Because that’s what language does.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to geek out over stuff like this.  Because dork.

 

Genre Definition

No, I’m not even going to try and come up with the definition myself.  Better people than me have tried and failed.

Again, I’m going to kick this off with an anecdote.  I was at a friend’s place the other day, helping him unpack books onto a bookshelf.  I noticed that this friend had an old writing manual, one of the ones that could be given to middle-primary-school children or early high school children.  I read through this, out of curiosity.  I will read pretty much anything that professes to tell me how to write better, but when I say it like that, I wonder why.

The first few chapters were actually excellent.  It was really quite straightforward in how it said to write about things, and actually gave concrete advice that sounded sensible, even talking about rhythm and voice (though not using that jargon, obviously).  So, that was good. But then it got to the ‘genres’ section.

It talked about four things a ‘realistic’ story needs: A character that sounds real, a setting that develops and informs the characters, a plot that presents real challenges to the character/s, and an ending that feels satisfying.  They kept the last two the same for fantasy, and then they they make me cringe.

The question of setting, I feel they got absolutely right for fantasy: It still needs to inform the characters, and it still needs to be internally consistent.  They captured that.  Perfect.  But character?  They changed character from “a person who feels real” to “a person who has have fabulous powers” (both quotations paraphrased; my quote-remembering skills are still AWOL from essays this term).  OK, OK, so there was a bit in ‘setting’ about how the setting needed to explain the character’s powers so it felt like it could happen.  Totally not my problem with this sentence.

See, I would have argued that nothing needed to change about any of those four things.  Not just for fantasy, but for any genre.   You always need a character who could feel real, a setting that they feel like a part of, a plot that has actual stakes involved, and a satisfying ending.  None of those things are optional for any book (save avant-garde literary fiction, but then you’re reading the book for neither plot nor character, so it doesn’t matter).  What gives?

On one hand, they probably just came up with these rules and had to try and fit them around the genres; it’s not a book that anyone was ever supposed to think particularly hard about.  So, with that firmly in mind, let’s go ahead and think particularly hard about this.

The way I see it, there are two explanations for this inability to make those rules change believably for different genres.  The first is one that anyone who looks down on romance fiction, or who joins the endless arguments about whether a book is fantasy or science fiction, will hate me for, and that is that the genres only differ in ‘window dressing’, essentially.  Therefore, a book about a fantasy protagonist trying to find the man who killed his father and thus save the kingdom is not substantially different from a mystery protagonist trying to find the serial killer and thus save the innocents of the city.  Definitely, a lot of different elements from genres find homes in other genres, and that’s pretty much accepted – sci-fi/fantasy elements in horror, for example (or vice versa).  They don’t feel out of place at all, and can create some pretty cool books.  This theory is also substantiated in the ‘only seven plots’ theory, and the Monomyth (seriously, go look those up; they’re excellent concepts to think about).  So yeah, you could argue that window dressing is what separates the genres, and at the core, they’re all the same.

But … well, something does feel intrinsically wrong about lumping all genre fiction in together like that.  If they’re so similar, why do crime fiction readers often dislike fantasy and science fiction, even though some of the harder science fiction is probably no more unrealistic than the forensic science portrayed in CSI, NCIS, or any other crime thriller show?  Why do fantasy and science fiction readers end up fighting so often, and feel that they have totally different genres?  I’ve heard the ‘only seven plots’ thing used to explain why it’s actually not that bad to be cliche in fantasy – after all, there are only seven plots, we’ve used them all by now!  How can you be truly original when everything has been done before?  That, as a reader, made me want to hit them.

The thing that’s noticeable about those ‘only X plots’ or ‘only X conflicts’ explanations is that they’re incredibly simplistic.  Man versus man.  Man versus Self.  Sure, the story of a woman confronting the man who (to use my above example) killed her father is going to be incredibly different from the story of the woman who confronts her father because of the career path he forced her into.  But they’re still the same category of those two stories.

So, what exactly is the difference between fantasy and any other genres?  After all, a huge question in the fantasy genre is ‘does it have to have magic?’ (The protagonist certainly doesn’t; thus the earlier definition from the writing book is kind of awful already).  Would a fantasy novel still be a fantasy novel if it were about an alternate universe without magic, but with a different political system and different culture?  It’s not historical fiction.  It could be commercial fiction, but does it have to be?
That’s a question for another time.  That’s the really deep stuff.  More relevant is: Does fantasy need to have [X fantasy trapping]?  Wizards?  No, not really.  Dragons?  Nope, plenty of fantasy without dragons.  Castles and a feudal system?  No, that’s not necessary, either.  It’s really hard to find trappings that are ‘necessary’ to a fantasy novel.  Plus, the closer you get to urban fantasy, the more fantasy can overlap with sci-fi, until you get a sort of sliding scale effect.  Sure the works at the far ends are distinct, but what about the stuff in the middle?

My theory of genre is this:  You read a genre because it hits certain emotional buttons.  For example, fantasy generates a sense of wonder and sweeping scale, whereas science fiction creates the sense of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’.  Exceptions are probably findable, I’ve not given this a whole lot of thought, but that’s what strikes me at first.  Romance taps straight into wish-fulfilment, the need to put yourself into the heroine’s footsteps and fall in love with a perfect man (I don’t read a lot of romance, so this might be wrong/inaccurate).

Genre is not about what you do with the characters and plot.  It’s about the emotions you strike and the particular wish you fulfill within the story.  And that is why those four rules apply to all fiction, but also completely fail to describe what makes a genre different from any other.

So, valiant effort, I say, but missing some very crucial things to make that writer’s manual accurate.