What is ‘Artistic Purity’?

Art is weird.

Entire University faculties are dedicated to the multitudinous ways that art is weird. Probably the weirdest thing about art is the sheer, impractical unreality of it. If I write a story, I am essentially lying to you (particularly since I’m a fantasy author). The things I write about, in most cases, never actually happened and would probably never be able to. Not only is that OK, in this instance, that’s actually the point. People who like to read will actively go through multiple people’s lies and choose their favourite liars, and wait anxiously for these people to produce more lies for them. Continue reading

Intending Your Audience

Or, who are you really creating for?

This is a trickier question than it seems. On the surface, it should be fairly obvious. If you write a picture book for children, then your story should contain a child-appropriate narrative, and child-appropriate content, of an appropriate complexity for your target age group. If you write thrillers, you know that there are some limits and boundaries on the thriller genre that your audience will be expecting. Whether you do or do not cross those is between you and your muse, but you need to be aware that they’re there. If you write a book for middle-aged parents of teenage children, then you’ve got your target demographic all sorted out.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. A few examples come to mind.

The first is when a demographic that wasn’t the target demographic picks up and runs with something. Minecraft was, reportedly, supposed to be survival horror, but only a very select few people choose to play it from that perspective. More dramatically, the Brony fandom: a cadre of boys and men in their late teens and older who got really, really into My Little Pony, a show targeted at primary-school-age girls, with varying degrees of social acceptance. Is this a bad thing? No. Did some people make it weird? Yes, but then, any fandom has at least one group of fans who make it weird. Of course, every fan subgroup always suspects another subgroup of being “that group”. It’s a humanity thing. This does not inherently make a demographic latching onto a work not intended for them a bad thing.

The second is when a show’s original demographic for whatever reason retains its sense of ownership of a work after they have moved out of its primary demographic. This usually happens with age – for example, comic book readers who read comics from childhood. The stereotype here is a forty-year-old complaining that comic books “are too childish”, ignoring the fact that they have always been childish and they have always been ‘for children’.

Most times, for the artist, these things are curiosities. The demographic who latch on to something not aimed at them is often doing so because the work has something they haven’t found in works aimed at them, so when they find it elsewhere, they stick around. For example, a YA book might have the simple plot, lighter themes or tone and vivid characters that a working adult is looking for in order to wind down after a long week at work. The adult wouldn’t necessarily get that in a book aimed at adults, which would likely focus on muddier moral quandaries and more subdued characters, so the adult goes elsewhere.

The problem for the artist only occurs when the secondary demographic gets vocal – when they start demanding changes to the source material to suit their needs.

Often, especially in the case of that stereotypical comic book fan, the argument goes something like this: “I’m a loyal fan – I have more money than a child, and I buy more of their products. It’s in their interests to cater to me and my preferences, rather than continue to sell to children.” Or some other variant of “my money supports this franchise, so that means that I am the real target of this fiction”.

From one standpoint, no. Just because you pay money for a work doesn’t give you a say in what happens in that work. An author isn’t required to change their work because you don’t like it, even if most of the fanbase agrees with you. You aren’t buying shares in a book or a show or a game, you’re buying access to the final product. Note that it is of course your rights to withdraw financial support from a content creator you feel is no longer producing content you would like to consume.

There’s a caveat there: Artists like to make money off their work. Or, on a less prosaic level, they like to feel that their work is liked and appreciated. People no longer willing to spend money to access that work is a sign that they don’t like it and don’t feel they will like future instalments enough to allot time to them, either. If it no longer becomes financially feasible for an artist to work on a particular project, it’s a perfectly sound business decision to abandon that project and work on something that people will pay money for. Whether it’s a sound artistic decision is not the point of contention here, and it’s impossible to make blanket statements one way or the other. This could mean anything from an artist getting better equipment to provide a more pleasing visual and audio experience and avoid technical glitches, to adding more varied female/racial representation in future works, or scrapping a long-term project entirely and beginning a new one with a different focus or genre.

However, sometimes taking that work in the new direction makes it completely wrong for the original audience. I’m sure if My Little Pony actually implemented half the requests the Bronies had for the story (even if the sexual/relationship-based requests were discarded), it would no longer be suitable for the intended demographic.

But would that be a good or a bad thing for the Bronies?

Let’s go back to the example of the adult reading the YA novel. If that reader and a group of adults all liked that YA novel, but thought the moral choice in the ending was handled too simplistically, the artist might decide that they’re the group contributing the most money to the book and choose to write something closer to adult fiction next time, to cater to their wants. These are adult readers, after all, who might find a simplistic moral quandary a little jarring, and breaking the suspension of disbelief.

But if you give that book a muddier moral quandary, and more complex character development, those adult authors – who, remember, were reading this book because they wanted a simple story with vivid characters – suddenly find themselves reading a dense book that’s too heavy for them to read to relax anymore. They put the book down, maybe they don’t pick up another. And the artist loses the demographic anyway.

Similarly, would a group like the Bronies lose a core part of their engagement with and enjoyment of My Little Pony if the developers caved to their requests and introduced darker and more complex plots to the children’s series? Might not part of the appeal be that the stories are lighthearted and don’t leave the reader feeling emotionally wrung out after a particularly harrowing episode?

I feel this is the problem with a lot of characters who get Flanderized – the artist had a character who had a particular predominant trait, which the audience liked so much it became their only trait, or it became exaggerated over time. The Pirates of the Caribbean audience wanted more Jack Sparrow. Look where that got us. I hate to say “audiences don’t know what they want” because this isn’t an excuse to dismiss your audience as ignorant and saying they don’t understand your True Artistic Direction, but it’s also true that if audiences latch onto a specific scene or joke or character, you’ll hear very little else from them, and it’s easy to assume it was the only part they liked, or the gap between how much they liked that part and how much they liked everything else is much larger than it really is.

But back to the original point – who do you write for: The intended audience or the audience who pays for it?

In Defense of the Novel

In which I completely and utterly fail to defend the honour of even the worthiest novels.

More than once, I’ve gotten myself into an argument online about whether the novel is “better” than a television show or movie.

I often find myself in these arguments with other writers, which usually means that the vast majority come down on the side of ‘yes’. For a long time, I was among them – anyone who said otherwise was clearly mistaken.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I will love novels until the day I die. I want to be a writer, not a director or an actor or a special effects artist or any of the hundred jobs that goes into filmmaking. I very definitely and unequivocally think that novels have strengths that television and movies do not.

But better than?

Let’s examine the arguments.

Usually the arguments I see fall into one of several categories. First and foremost, in a book, you can write things you simply can’t show on screen. Second, that watching rather than reading stories is inherently a less cognitive activity, and therefore the book is better on an intellectual level. Third, that books can contain more depth, and thus, more substance, because they are longer, even if only in terms of hours spent consuming media. Fourth, that books are more portable, and not dependent on battery life or other technological circumstances. Fifth, the tactile experience of a book is superior.

So, I’ll get the quick one out of the way first: Books are more portable and convenient. It is a fact that a power outage or connection issue will kill your ability to watch television, phones are battery powered and can run out of charge, as can laptops, and streaming is dependent on an Internet connection. However, if we’re talking about books and movies as media, we kind of have to acknowledge that e-readers run out of battery, too. So, it’s not like battery life is a restriction inherent to only movies and TV shows. But let’s narrow the field to just paper-and-ink books for a moment. It’s not like paper-and-ink books don’t have portability issues. A single book can sometimes be the size (and approximately the weight of) a household brick – compared to a phone you can fit in a pocket or small bag. Your phone might run out of battery, but you also might forget your book. A power outage might kill your television, but the same power outage will leave probably two things: A torch to read your book by and the battery life on your laptop – often enough for at least one movie.

On another note: Why is portability a reflection of the medium? Why does a book have inherent worth over a TV show or a movie just because you can experience it in different places? The ability to travel with a book doesn’t change its content, its writing, or its thematic discourse So this argument can safely be discarded – there’s too little difference and it’s beside the point of quality of the medium.

The other quick one – tactile experience – is similarly dismissible. If we’re talking just about the quality of the medium, then the tactile experience has absolutely no bearing on the content. Now, I’m in no way arguing that it’s wrong to prefer books over TV shows because of the tactile experience. That’s your prerogative as a human being with opinions. But to say that the smell of a book (new or old) or the feel of turning pages makes the book a superior overall experience to all people? To say a book conveys tone or message or theme better because it smells better? I’ll have to see some pretty compelling evidence before I take that one seriously.

The third point I have discussed before – books can definitely contain more plot, and therefore have more opportunities for depth than a movie (whether or not they capitalise on this is up to the individual book and the individual reader). But a TV show? I tend to equate one novel with one season of a television show, in general, so we’ll use that as an estimate. Even one season of a show (using American standards: half-hour to 40-minute episodes and a 22-episode season) will take the viewer at minimum 11 hours to watch; a TV show with six episodes per season and 45-minute episodes takes 4.5 hours to watch. Contrast this with the average novel: Take the average reading speed to be 300wpm (estimates I have seen range from 200wpm to 350wpm, with a few instances of “250-350wpm”), and the average book to be 90,000 words long (a very short fantasy novel, but a very long thriller).  That works out to the average book taking the average reader 5 hours to read. So, really, a TV show has more time in which to introduce concepts to the reader, more time in which to flesh out motif and symbolism, and more time to develop characters and plot. Sorry, kids – I think the TV shows are overtaking us on this one.

Now, the thorny issue. Books are inherently more cognitive than movies or TV shows.

Hoo boy. Where do you even start?

Usually this is presented somewhere along the lines of “But in a book, you have to use the words to imagine what the characters and places look like! In a movie you just watch it all handed to you on screen!”

To which I say OK, yes, alright. You got me – it’s harder to use your imagination on a TV show or movie. But at the same time … is imagining a character’s face really the only thing that’s going on in a story that makes you think? And isn’t that really just a trick – arranging letters into things that mean specific images to make your brain display those images?

It sounds a bit odd to say, but isn’t saying “Alice had blue eyes and red hair, in sharp comparison to Bob, whose hair was dark brown and whose eyes were nearly black” pulling exactly the same trick as “Quick, don’t think of a pink rhinoceros!”?

If we want to talk about tricks that make our brain fill in the blanks of an image or sequence, let’s go ahead and talk about montages for a bit. Montages are an amazing and fascinating piece of cinematography, simply because it’s a series of barely-connected images threaded together in such a way as to trick our brains into implying chronological sequence. Think about it – in any other situation, showing the same person one day, then suddenly two months later after one cut would be cause for adding some sort of explanation for why so much time has passed, or some sort of explanation of what happened during that time. But string enough of them together in a row, and the audience gets the impression that we’re watching time pass. Similarly, add music to that, and you give the idea of what the end goal is – is this a Rocky montage, where we’re training on the way to achieving victory? Or is this a montage of someone spiralling further and further away from victory? Add a different song in the background, and Rocky could very well be losing himself in his training until he forgets the real world, only to realise that no amount of training could prepare him, and his last hope is shattered. On that note, imagine a montage where there was no music, or the music changed throughout the montage, with each cut, just like scene music. Wouldn’t it get choppy and confusing? But adding music makes the brain make the association that this whole stretch of jump cuts is actually one scene in and of itself, and then infers that it is a scene designed to show large amounts of time passing.

Cinema tricks like that are the cinema’s version of describing a character’s “eyes darting around the room and finger tapping on the side of their coffee mug” and expecting the audience to infer that the character is either nervous or impatient. Varied sentence and paragraph length, and prose style are to novels what colour and lighting, and camera angle are to movies and TV shows. Cinema has a very different set of tricks for conveying implied information, but they still imply and use shorthand just like a novel. So, no, I don’t think a novel is actually more cognitive. In fact, if your TV show isn’t a cognitive experience, then you’re probably missing something. Whether or not you consider that a good thing is between you and your DVD shelf/Netflix subscription.

Which brings us on to the final point, and by far the most common: You can show things in a book that you can’t show on screen. This is by far the most common, and the most vehemently argued. But it misses the point in a similar way to the point above.

A great example of this I saw on the Absolute Write forums (unfortunately the username of the poster has been lost to the imperfection of the human memory and the search function) was “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass”. Is that technically a colour? No. But did a colour spring to mind when you read that? It’s quite possible that yes, it did. For me, it’s a very pale, almost translucent, blue in a summer sky shade.

In a movie, you’d have to actually colour the thing blue. You’d have to make that decision, rather than letting the reader make it for you.

But here the question is begged – why would you want to use language that way? What does “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass” suggest that “pale, almost translucent blue the shade of summer sky” not suggest?

Well, first of all, it suggests that the colour is not really a colour – that the senses are getting their wires crossed. On a very practical level, this may be an excellent way of demonstrating a character has synaesthesia. On a more fantastical level, it could be a way of demonstrating that the situation the character is in has transcended the laws of physics, or that a particular stimulus has overwhelmed them so much that they are no longer able to distinguish their senses, or entirely make sense of what they are experiencing.

Similarly, a book need not worry about a special effects budget – when I discussed limitations and rushing, I listed this as one of the advantages of a novel: That the novel has no special equipment or effects budgets to worry about, and thus won’t be limited or restricted on those fronts. This remains true, and it remains an advantage to novels. However, it is getting steadily less true as CGI becomes cheaper and more sophisticated.

But let’s think how a movie might show that same thing. Say what you will about the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it did an excellent job of demonstrating that whatever Dave was experiencing, it was not within the realm of his comprehension. Swirling colours and close-ups of his eyes darting around, looking for something that made sense all came together to create a sense of chaos. It did this by showing the audience chaos and then interspersing it with shots of the character reacting, indicating Dave was just as confused as we were.

Side note: I invite anyone who believes that a movie can’t achieve the same sense of a fantastical world as a novel to watch any Terry Gilliam movie.

So, I’m not sure that the book has the edge in ability to indicate things without stating them outright, either. I’m not even sure books will have the edge in special effects for long, either.

This does sort of paint a bleak picture of the future of the humble novel, which is why I think a lot of writers tend to reject the idea. If a book isn’t any better than movies or TV shows, then what is to stop people from reading books altogether? After all, movies and TV shows are in chunks more suited to today’s generation who can’t concentrate for as long as it takes to read a whole book, and contributing to the decline of literacy!

More seriously, and on a less extreme level, what’s to stop all the classics and the pieces of culture that make up our understanding of the world from being lost, if nobody wants to read them anymore?

Well, whether or not that’s a bad thing is a whole ‘nother debate, but let’s just slow down for a second.

Nobody said that novels are going away. They probably will eventually, but they’re not going away anytime soon, that’s for sure. They are still a vastly different medium from the TV show or the movie, and they have a different metalanguage and always will, so it’s highly unlikely that TV shows and movies will ever replace the experience, though they may eventually grow more popular than it, just like short stories and poems haven’t disappeared, but they are much less commonly read than the novel nowadays, when previously poetry or verse was the primary form of literature (at least in Western civilisations). Even if novels aren’t ‘better’ than newer media, they’re for damn sure still ‘different’, and that’s enough to keep them going.

I, for one, am glad to have different options available for telling stories and conveying theme and message, and different vehicles for different stories.

But I’m just as glad that, for now, I won’t need to learn how to properly compose a camera shot in order to tell stories myself.

Teaching Analysis

 

Ugh, here we go, back to Things I Have Trouble With. In both senses of the phrase – I have a lot of trouble with how schools do it, but that’s second only to the amount of trouble I have actually doing it myself.

Analysis isn’t so much a skill as it is a way of thinking about things, which is about the hardest thing to teach there is. There isn’t much you can do to teach a perspective except give examples and hope the other person picks up the general idea.

Here’s the thing that it’s sometimes hard to grasp: Literature has spent over two thousand years building up to today. Novels have only really been around since the early 11th century, though, and novels in English only took off a bit under three centuries ago, with some wiggle room for borderline cases. If you’ve ever tried to write dialogue, you’ll see how easy it is to fall into a strange trap where characters have to sound ‘natural’ but can’t actually talk like real people. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it”. That goes both ways – often, you can indeed say that shit, but you sure can’t type it.

When you read a work of literature, you’re drawing on every work of literature you’ve read before that. Just as when you’re watching a show, you’re drawing on your experience of all the shows you’ve watched before, and ditto with video games. This manifests itself in a variety of ways – the most obvious example I can think of is the use of video game controllers. If I sit down to play any first person shooter on my console, I can make pretty good guess that if I press the right trigger, my gun will fire. If I sit down to a game in the same genre on my computer, I’m even more certain that if I press my left mouse button, the gun will fire. How do I know that? Because in all the other games with similar mechanics I have played, firing the gun has been connected to either the right trigger or the left mouse button.

On a more complex level, say a story introduces us to a large man named George who hates mice. The author probably expects a significant portion of the audience to be able to make a connection to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and we’ll view the character through the lens of drawing similarities between the two Georges. Going back a step further, anybody who was familiar with Robert Frost’s poem should be pretty prepared for Of Mice and Men’s ending, because they’ll be able to draw the connection to the full line from the poem: “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley” (or, as it’s often re-rendered: “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft astray”).

When we teach analysis, we’re really trying to cram as many points of reference into students’ minds as possible so that they can recognise them in things they read and watch later. This is very hard – a lot of it seems disjointed and unrelated, and further, the student is also required to be at a reading level where they understand what they’re reading or seeing adequately to retain it and make thematic connections.

You don’t teach symbolism by handing a pre-teen a copy of Ulysses and telling them to have fun, is what I’m saying.

I tend to teach analysis in layers. The first layer is writing technique – short sentences, long sentences, alliteration (no matter my opinions on the subject it is useful to know), different points of view, first, second and third person and so forth. That’s easy to teach – you can give examples quickly and succinctly, and they generally have one or two effects that can be easily discussed. The second layer is tropes. Tropes require a broader knowledge of the genre the student is reading in, but can also be taught with a few succinct examples and are easy to discuss. They also connect more to the context of the story, so they either require or generate historical knowledge. Then you get to motifs and imagery, which tend to be a bit harder, since you only pick them up if you’re looking for them, and usually require more oblique references. An animal motif in a story is not only going to be conveyed through a series of adjectives scattered throughout a novel (if that – a character who has ‘wild hair surrounding their face’ and growls when angry could be going for a lion motif, without the word ‘lion’ or even ‘animal’ ever being mentioned). A tarot card motif might be obvious to pick up, but how many people do you know who can list the major arcana, let alone what they each mean? Finally, there are the historical and literary references, that you need a grounding in at least the genre, if not a whole body of ‘classic’ literature or centuries political and psychological ideas to pick up on most of the time.

Rules and their Malleability

About once a book, I do something that I once swore I would never do.

My teenage years were a bit of a mess, in terms of writing, but that’s nothing particularly uncommon. The cockiness of perpetually favourable English class marks plus a wide range of reading habits including several blogs of writers far more nuanced in their opinions than I gave me a rather black-and-white view of certain things.  Most of my opinions have changed since then, but there are a few ‘rules’ and pet peeves that stuck with me.

A few of them are fairly common to writers on the Internet: No ending a story by finding a loophole that makes the rest of the story have not happened (aka: the Cosmic Reset Button, if you’re a Troper), no killing someone and then resurrecting them in the finale. A general mistrust though not outright rejection of Chosen Ones, prophecies, and Wise Old Mentors of young farmers with magical swords and/or a love of books incongruous with their time period and social status. But some of them are more personal. I don’t tend to like love triangles in fiction, so I don’t really want to write them. For a long time, I told myself I wouldn’t write prologues because they were done too often and too badly in the genre. I would especially never write a prologue in the form of a fairytale or mythological story.

But as these things usually go, the older I got and the more I came up with stories, the more I realised that I’ve broken pretty much every one of those promises to myself. I’m pretty sure I broke the ‘mentor’ thing in the very first book I wrote, young farmer and all, though there was a distinct lack of swords. I’ve killed someone and resurrected them as part of a finale – and I intend to keep that ending in the published product. I’ve written a book with not only a mythological prologue, but a mythological epilogue to bookend it. My latest first draft features a love triangle as a primary conflict in the plot.

Is this a bad thing? My first instinct is to say ‘no’ because I like to think I’ve used these tropes for the right reasons, and in the right way so that they avoid the situations that really drive me up the wall. But that’s an incredibly optimistic view. It’s very hard to read objectively, as after all, you know what you meant. The hardest argument to work around giving critiques is “But it’s different because …!” and they’re even harder when you can see so plainly how your character Isn’t Like Those Other Ones. I also like to think that I have very good reasons for disliking those tropes in other books, and I have evidence that other people feel the same way. If I care about earning money from writing, why would I expect them to give me forbearance for things that I’ve personally put books back on the shelf for mentioning in a blurb?

On the other hand, it’s not good to be too rigid. For instance, I hate the Cosmic Reset Button because it makes everything that came before it seem needless and in vain (especially in those books where, I kid you not, a character just sort of realises they could have done that from the start and solved the plot on page 1), and it seems like a betrayal. I can, however, imagine a story where it was done correctly. It would have to only be able to happen at the end of the story for whatever reason, and it would have to feel like the emotional and thematic culmination of the story, rather than cutting the emotional and thematic threads short with no resolution. If someone could contrive to write a story where that was the case, I could see myself rather enjoying the ending, in a ‘you-magnificent-accursed-human-being’ kind of way. Besides, innovation comes from doing the thing that people say  not to do, and doing it well (leaving aside the fact that I dislike some of those because someone did do them, and did them well, and then a lot of other people did them and did them well, but then people started to do them in the same way as the people before them and then they started to run out of options and do them badly and then the whole thing just sort of stopped being fun).

This has been a rather pointless musing, but I’ll just leave this here: This is reason number Prime One that I always give books to beta readers before the general public. I’m sure one day I’ll write something so awful that I’ll lose a friend over it for that reason, but hopefully they’ll tell me why I messed up before they go.

The Horror Genre

Folks, we really need to start talking about the horror genre.

That is, if it even is a genre anymore.

Horror is sort of the forgotten middle child of the speculative fiction supergenre these days. Fantasy is going stronger than ever, especially now that special effects have developed enough that we can see more fantasy on screens both big and little without modern audiences failing to suspend disbelief at the streamers-and-cardboard special effects (something something perception of special effects over time goes in another blog post – it’s a longer topic than I have time for here). Science fiction is also going strong, with a lot of blockbuster movies (even the ones that don’t involve superhero origin stories) using sci-fi elements as plot points. In particular, the near-future, one-invention-changes-everything sci-fi plot of, say, In Time (2011).

But what’s the horror genre doing, at least in the mainstream?

Let me put it this way – in many stories that show a character travelling to the future, they will make a joke about a long-running franchise being up to some ridiculous number of movies. Usually, at least in the media I consume, those references are either to Rocky or a horror movie.

A lot of people these days think of horror as one really good movie (or a few really good movies, in the case of properties like Dracula werewolves), followed by a string of increasingly desperate sequels watering down the original premise until the monster has either undergone so much power creep, or has been beaten so many times that it’s no longer threatening.

The horror genre is possibly the least forgiving genre for sequels. Once the first installation comes out, the audience already knows what the monster looks like and what the “rules” are, but for horror, concealing those rules (and often, though not always, concealing the monster itself) is the bread and butter of the genre. Hence, something needs to change. He’s back but now he’s invisible. It’s not dead, but now it’s angry and doesn’t behave like it used to. Unfortunately, there are only so many changes you can make before you break suspension of disbelief. Add that to the problems already plaguing sequels – needing to untie the nice, neat bows the ending of the first wrapped everything up with, having to do something new with the premise without deviating too far from the original, and just plain running out of things to say on the topic – and horror sequels have a terrible, but not unearned, reputation.

Then, the rest of what comes out in the horror genre is either actual or borderline self-parody (think Cabin in the Woods, the Whedonest horror movie I think it was possible for even Joss Whedon himself to make)

But it’s not like we just up and stopped making horror fiction. We very rarely just up and stop writing a particular kind of story, much less an entire genre. But somewhere along the line we sort of ran out of new material for the genre as it was.

Nowadays, horror is sort of relegated to a series of elements present in urban fantasy and soft science fiction. When was the last time you saw a Horror section in a bookstore? It’s held out more in movies and TV shows, but really the last bastion of the horror genre is in video games, though there it’s diluted as well. For every Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there’s a Silent Hill sequel (remember, we talked about sequels). The sin of horror games is a different one, though – it’s the FPS mindset that gives the character too many guns for the horror to feel threatening. I’m reminded of Bioshock – at first, when your entire arsenal is a heavy wrench, a sharp shock of electricity (which only really buys you time), and a pistol and a tommy gun (that keep running out of bullets), encountering a Splicer is a terrifying thing, because you don’t have enough resources to waste them without cause, but you also don’t want to get within hitting range. Leave aside entirely encountering a Big Daddy, which can deplete most of your resources in the space of a fairly short battle, and can prove very deadly if you happen to accidentally anger one unprepared. But by the end of the game, you have about twelve weapons to choose from, you’ve stocked up enough ammo to take down most things, and enough money to replenish your ammo whenever you start running low, and you’ve been constantly boosting your health and mana bars until you can take a Big Daddy to the face and usually come out on top. Sure, the game is still compelling, but it’s not really scary or threatening anymore.

I think it’s a bit of a shame that it’s becoming so difficult to find pure horror in the mainstream anymore, if only because horror is such an interesting genre for looking at what makes people most uncomfortable, and it’s always very tied to the context it was made in. Speculative fiction has always seemed to me to be something like society’s dipstick – science fiction tells us what we think of progress and the future, fantasy tells us what we think of society’s unspoken rules and restrictions, and horror tells us what makes us uncomfortable. There’s overlap, of course, and they mix together very, very well. Horror, in fact, mixes so well into both that it’s a great support for both sides. Horror in fantasy shows the dark side of the rules and restrictions that the fantasy novel explores. Horror in science fiction shows the places where progress either can’t or shouldn’t go. Horror is the foil to both of those genres at once. But the uncomfortable is worth exploring on its own, for its own benefit, not just as a counterpoint to another argument.

But then again, I’m never one to say that a genre trend is permanent. Who knows – maybe the horror genre is up for resurrection next (and no, I don’t count vampire romance as horror). We’re going to need to find some new monsters to do it, or at the very least a different angle. We’re going to need to make some new clichés, definitely. My money is on video games innovating first, because we’re finally learning how to play with the different medium, and video games do really lend themselves to intensifying horror. But however we do it, horror is due for a revival, and when it does happen, it’s going to be amazing.

 

Lamenting the Weird

I love fantasy novels. I love them like a dog loves walks and whatever food is on your plate. I’m that dangerous combination of compulsive academic and intellectual snob that likes to be able to pick apart my books, to find meanings both intentional and unintentional, and similar pursuits that make high schoolers roll their eyes at their teachers. So, yes, I’m all about Srs Fantasy Bsns that discusses the human condition and is conscious of its metaphors and contains historical reference Easter eggs for readers, who know their Napoleonic Wars or whatever.

I am also a fan of the Dark and Gritty. I mean, I think the 2013 Hannibal TV series is among the best TV shows ever made. That show makes George R. R. Martin wish he could be half as graphically cruel. It’s safe to say I’m not opposed to Dark and Gritty.

Nowadays, my favourite books include the Rai-Kirah Saga by Carol Berg, which takes place in a cultures with strong ties to Welsh and Mongolian cultures, respectively, plus demons. The demons have a semi-feudal-Medieval society with castles and dungeons.

My other favourites are Neil Gaiman, who blends mythology and mythological creatures with modern life. I also like Jennifer Fallon’s Tide Lords quartet, which is Renaissance-flavoured (as far as I recall – it’s been a few years) with animal people racial tensions. Ditto The Priestess of White by Trudi Canavan, in a more late Medieval setting.

Those stories are amazing, and set in great worlds that I love to visit.

But let me tell you about my favourite books from childhood.

I loved The Edge Chronicles (written by Paul Stewart, illustrated by Chris Riddell. When I saw Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle illustrated by Riddell, I made noises that could not be replicated without inventive use of a cattle prod until my friend bought it for me. That reaction was only about a third because of Neil Gaiman.). I still love them. I read them obsessively, repeatedly, and it’s probably one of the least Earth-like worlds I have ever read. It had termagant trogs, halitoads with terrible breath, wood trolls, the terrible, nightmarish Gloamglozer (which gave my younger cousin nightmares just from the pictures), floating rocks providing lift for skyships … Willy Wonka’s got nothing on this World of Pure Imagination.

Don’t get me wrong – Urban Fantasy is great. There are books in the genre I love. When I read The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, I remembered everything I love about that kind of fantasy. I devoured that series. I will always champion fantasy grounded in reality. Choosing where one deviates from a norm is an important tool in the fantasy toolkit. I’d say it’s one of, if not the single, most powerful tools in the trade.

But fantasy does not need to faithfully reflect reality in order to be meaningful or taken seriously. Fantasy can be a mirror, reflecting ourselves back at us while we try different outfits. But we also need fantasy to be a Hall of Mirrors at a fairground, where we look at ourselves squashed, stretched out of shape, distorted and distended, but undeniably us. Speculative fiction has the power to do that like no other genre, and fantasy arguably has the most free license of all. It would be more than a shame to not use that just because it’s hard or not currently popular.

Bring back weird fantasy, with its invented critters, strange peoples, impossible but plausible landscapes and blatant disregard for real life. Or at least, bring it into adult fantasy. We’ve proved that kids’ shows have appeal for adult audiences, and can be mature enough for both demographics. Time to allow that adults might enjoy some crazy imagination in the fiction meant for them only, too.

And if there is a whole bevy of fiction out there with that kind of purely invented worldbuilding, please tell me. I need to know about that as soon as possible.

A Quick Editing Ramble

I’m currently going through the editing process, so hang onto your butts, boys, girls and others, because ranting may happen.

Confession: I love the editing process. I love everything about it: I love the satisfaction of fixing problems with my writing, I love the tweaking and the rewriting, I love watching the wordcount change as I add or remove scenes, and I sure as sugar love complaining about it constantly.
Isn’t it great? It’s the one part of writing writers are allowed to both unironically love and unironically hate at the same time. You sit there and you bang your head or hands against the keyboard, cursing yourself for being so stupid as to write this tripe in the first place, and then feel all warm and glowy once you’ve fixed a problem.
I feel like editing is the one place in writing where novel writers have actual milestones to work towards. If you’re anything like me as a writer, you have no idea how long the story’s going to be when you’ve finished. This is referring to novel writing only, obviously – academic writing, journalism, and anyone who writes to short story submission criteria can safely ignore this section. But even outliners, who have a very certain idea of where the story will go, often don’t know the actual wordcount for their finished piece. I always “aim” for around 90,000 words, that is, whenever anyone asks me how long my book will be, or when I’m considering how many months the first draft should take, I use 90,000 words as my estimate. My actual book lengths? Vary from about 83,000 words to about 107,000 words (as of current drafts). This means, while you can sit down and go “Yes! I finished another 10,000 word milestone!”, it feels a little meaningless, because it doesn’t actually tell you how much closer to your goal you are. You have no goal.
Editing, on the other hand? I have a little red list of all the problems, and when one is fixed, I cross it off the list. It’s really easy to see how far along I am. I fixed four problems with my novel this week – that’s 5% of my 86-problem list!! At this rate, I’ll be done in 20 weeks!

Or, at least, it could if THE DARN LIST WOULD STOP RESPAWNING.

Big edits throw all these lovely things I just said out of the window, because there is nothing a writer can possibly do that will stop a big edit messing up a whole lot of smaller edits along the way. Restructure your book so the pacing is tighter? Get ready to go back and fix all the continuity errors! Kill a character at the end of the book? Yay, retconning your foreshadowing! Remove scenes and themes? Hope you remember where all the references to that are, because you’re going to be picking them out of the story like Cthulhu picks souls out of its teeth after a meal.

The upshot of this is: If you ever have a writer friend, and you’re waiting on their book to get through edits, please understand that whatever time frame they give you will likely expand, probably by three months at least. They’re not trying to annoy you. They’re just playing infinite whack-a-mole against their brain.
But I swear they’re probably enjoying it anyway.

Dialogue Tags and Education

Well, we’ve had a few ranty blog posts recently, and I’m a little over them, so let’s get down to business with something a little more on the ‘craft’ side of things.

Let’s talk about dialogue tags.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from tutoring, it’s that primary and high school teachers don’t always see eye to eye with writers on the Internet about dialogue tags. For a while, I was on Pinterest being subtly horrified at it every time it told me that it had picked a “Said is Dead” chart for my viewing pleasure because WHO USES THOSE ANYMORE? I had one in my Year 1 classroom; surely things have changed since then!
Of course, two of my tutoring students promptly brought those charts to their next lessons with me, and that’s when I realised how big a foot I was potentially shoving into my mouth with all my rambling about ‘efficient language’ and ‘don’t use a long word, use the right word”.

To be fair, at a primary school level, and to some level at a high school level, there is an excellent reason to enforce rules like this: Vocabulary. Primary school is a place where it’s important to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible, because the more time you have to get acclimated to words, the more you’ll be able to use them effectively later. It takes a while of usage and misusage to really understand connotation, after all.

That being said, there is a huge problem with this, and that is the necessity of un-teaching it later, which just seems a really unintuitive way to go about things. It’s one thing to present a simplified version of the truth to get students to come to grips with a concept before you start bombarding them with caveats and exceptions, but it’s entirely another to have to do a complete one-eighty halfway through their schooling life. They do this with essays as well (or, at least, they did at my school) – they give you a very strict structure for how you write an essay or text response (introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion, TEEL paragraph structure etc.), and then suddenly in Year 10, they tell you to write an essay without that structure because that structure is so last year.
As a result, a significant number of people in year 10 suddenly have their essay grades plummet, because there’s been no lead-up to this change, no indication that their paragraph structure will ever fail them, and thus no reason to look at important things like the reason behind that structure, or the ways in which it works and doesn’t work. Unless you’re an English nerd – in fact, the only people who survived that transition unscathed were the ones who were experimenting with the structure before this change was announced.

Vocabulary is much the same – somewhere between high school and university, the metric changes on you, but nobody will ever tell you why. It’s actually really simple: the world goes from measuring how many words you know to measuring how efficiently and precisely you can use those words. That’s all it is. But because it’s such a change from how schools teach language use, people are blindsided by it. Some never even realise the change has taken place, because it’s so easy to conflate large vocabulary with intelligence (if someone uses an uncommon word because it’s the precise one that’s needed, it’s simple to just take away that they sounded intelligent because they used an uncommon word, especially if you’ve had it pounded into your head for upwards of ten years that good English students use uncommon words).

The other problem with the approach is that teaching and then de-teaching something is unnecessarily complicated. If you teach someone something, going back and then saying “that’s untrue” results only in confusion. You’ve taught a frame of reference and then you have to remove it and replace it with an unfamiliar one years down the track.
This is the intellectual equivalent of building a house on a concrete foundation, then getting partway through the building process, realising you’d like a reinforced concrete foundation instead, then having to somehow tear up the concrete, either reinforce the concrete you have or replace the concrete with reinforced concrete without actually damaging the house. It’s ludicrous.

Dialogue tags suffer most from this in fiction writing, I think, because they’re such tricksy goblins to begin with. They’re delicate things that perform a few very specific functions, but they do happen to be able to be loaded down with a plethora of self-important verbs, delicious adverbs and oooo, a nice selection of subclauses for after! And it’s very difficult to tell someone how and where they’ve used a dialogue tag badly because chances are you can use that exact construction well.

But … well, I said I wouldn’t rant, but here we are, a good thousand words or so into the piece and I’ve not said a thing about writing craft.
I’ll split this into two, then – first, the rant on the state of schooling (can’t promise that topic won’t come up again, by the way), and then the explanation of how dialogue tags ought to work.
Hopefully I can make the dry grammar stuff as interesting as working myself into a frothing rage over the education system.

Over-Overdone

Trite. Overdone. Cliché.
Personally, I hate these words. Not that they exist – I love that they exist. It makes my essays so much easier to write. I just hate it when people use them on my writing.

There’s nothing quite so disheartening as being told your work is cliché. It honestly sucks. You put so much effort and thought into this thing, and then it comes back and you’re told that someone else has already done all of it (with the implication that other people did it better, too)? This is not happy fun times.

And yet.
It is so easy to fall into the trap. Sometimes it’s simply not thinking. Sometimes it happens (and I’ve seen this done) because someone knows enough about a genre to recognise the books that are pretty cliché … and then misses a shift in the clichés of the genre and runs straight into a trite character because, well, a little while ago, that would have been original.
Even more infuriating, one reader’s cliché is another reader’s tried-and-true. One reader’s trite is another reader’s poetic. You might really, really like a character type (guilty!), but do you like it so much that you repeat essentially the same character over and over again? Are you putting a fresh twist on an old plot device, or are you just retreading old ground?
Or an even greyer area – is that plot device completely overdone, or is it still fresh enough to use in service to an overall story?

This, I think, is the problem with clichés. What makes it so hard to denounce clichés entirely is the fact that you can use them and use them well, basically no matter what the context. You can also use basically any cliché badly. And just to make it interesting, it is nearly impossible to write a story without running into a cliché somewhere along the line. It takes time and experience to distinguish between something that will just generate eye-rolling and something that can be spun into something new.
For example, in today’s market, you can be pretty sure that if you put zombies in a story, you’ll basically have to be brilliant to make it not “just another zombie movie”. But you might have a great idea that could revamp the idea of a wizard’s apprentice, even though most permutations of that are probably done. Writing a romance story about vampires might be getting to the end of its trend days, but you can probably write military sci fi and make it fresh and interesting (as far as I know; it’s been a while since I ventured into the military sci fi genre).

So is there anything you can do other than develop an ‘eye’ for things?
Unfortunately, not really. Run ideas by friends who read in the genre (important: Who read in the genre) and make them ask you questions like “what makes this story different from [similar story]?”
Also make them ask you questions like “If [x], then how does/what is/where is [y]?” – applying thought and developing plot points and worlds and characters along chains of thought where each choice is cohesive with the others will make everything feel less like a collection of tropes and more like a whole that happens to involve some tropes.
Unfortunately, in the end you’ll need to read and know what’s been done in order to know how to do it better/differently. Good luck, and just remember, you didn’t stay up late reading for recreation, you stayed up late doing career-necessary research.