Author Archives: Kate Paulk

Prying A Closed Mind Open

First, take an ax… Okay, maybe not, but it’s certainly true that it’s very difficult to convince some folks that they might, just maybe, be a little bit less than correct. It is not, however, impossible.

This may be the appeal of fiction to the SocJus set: characters can be faced with situations that force them to re-evaluate their lives and yes, change their minds. The problem here being that life tends not to give a damn about social justice, and furthermore, is – by SocJus standards, anyway – horribly racist, sexist, and everything else-ist.

Life, after all, obeys the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth, all of which lead to such terrible facts as women generally having different physiology than men, and this being the actual basis of societal sexual differentiation. You know, if it can grow babies it needs to be protected and so do the babies. And the physical adaptations that make it possible to grow a healthy baby and give birth to it also cause women to be shorter, weaker, slower, and to have different thought patterns. This is called sexual differentiation, and occurs throughout biology. We humans may be able to override our biology, but we are still very much creatures of it – and if you disagree, try not eating for a few days. Or even better, not using the bathroom for a few days.

Biology and other things aside, it actually isn’t true that after a certain age it’s impossible to change someone’s world view. The clue here is that precisely what the certain age is varies depending on who you ask. Now sure, it’s harder, but it’s possible. And makes for a lot of the fun in fiction, throwing characters into a situation where they have to adjust their world view if they are to survive.

Like, for instance, a thirteenth-century knight, well educated for his time and station – he can read and write Latin and Germanic, and speaks a couple of other languages well enough to get by – faced with a collection of misplaced, formerly enslaved aliens and pagan humans he inadvertently freed from slavery (Yes, the setup is kind of complex. He thought he was killing demons, and figured people, even pagans, were redeemable. Demons, not so much. So he killed the demons – who are actually a different alien race. One that regards anything not of their race as talking animals at best. And food if they’re no use as slaves).

The poor man spent most of the story lurching from one crisis of conscience to another, trying to wrap what he’d always known was right and good and proper (namely, medieval Christian doctrine) around a reality that includes non-humans as well as humans from cultures that have never heard of Christianity and aren’t even as advanced (by his lights) as the pagans he’d been fighting before being abducted. He also wound up having to beat sense into some of his fellow knights – because he also understood a little of that tool of the patriarchy known as math and science, particularly the part that says if you have too small a population you die out, and there are only just enough people to make it possible to survive, so yes, we are going to have to make a few compromises and convince them to accept us.

This is, more or less, how minds get opened to new ideas. Not necessarily quite so dramatically, but the process is the same. First is being confronted with evidence that the current world view is not adequate for the reality (it might not actually be wrong, per se. Just not sufficiently right to work in whatever mess your character is in. Or you are in). This generates cognitive dissonance, which is a very uncomfortable sensation. Most people go to a lot of effort to avoid it, and when they can’t they react with anger.

Gosh. Explains a lot about modern headlines, doesn’t it?

Anyway, moving on. There’s two things you or your character needs for the world view to change: the cognitive dissonance is one of them. The other is to need something that you can’t get without accepting the thing the cognitive dissonance is about. In my character’s case, he had to accept that the aliens were also people and that he’d need treat the pagans and aliens as equals if he was going to survive. A rather more simple case is having to learn this shit to pass the exam.

Then you get an integration phase where the old and new play tag with each other and you’re never sure which one is going to be on top (at least, if you’re sufficiently self-aware and didn’t run screaming from the cognitive dissonance). Reality being what it is, people who make it this far generally wind up reaching the end of the process, where the integration has finished, and the new stuff is part of their world view.

Characters usually get that far because the technical term for a character who doesn’t learn from cognitive dissonance is “corpse”. Or in some cases “red shirt”.

Okay, it’s not as much fun as taking an ax and prying someone’s skull open to open their mind. But it’s not as messy, either, and if you want them to survive the experience you definitely don’t want to use the ax method.

And now I must go see what kind of disaster the berserker kitten is creating.

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Plausible? Impossible!

As a software tester by day, I’m always running headlong into the unknown unknowns. It’s part of the job description: finding this stuff before it goes live – if I can. I know and my manager knows that I’m not going to get all of it. If I can get the worst, we count that as a good job.

This crosses over to writing in several ways. One of the biggest is that a testing scenario is a story, complete with characters and plot. Characters and plot are usually pretty thin by author standards, but there are times when I’m quite sure they’re fantasy.

That testing story can get really fun when I get to go into the more esoteric aspects of the craft, like security testing (“I am Evil Hacker Dood. I am looking for way to make all your base belong to me.”) or load testing (“Just how high can I take this thing before it turns into a denial of service on the company intranet?”). Then there’s the stories I have to tell to convince people who don’t really understand the risks that yes, they actually do need to fix this problem.

Which is where I run right into the issue of something that’s plausible – even self-evident – to me looking impossible to someone else.

For work stuff I can make my case to the manager and he’ll make the call whether to do the thing or not. For fiction it’s not that simple.

To start with, it doesn’t matter if it can actually happen or not: if the in-book setup doesn’t make it reasonable, it’s going to give the book flying lessons. Hence, foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is where you the author carefully and ever so casually drop the little hints that your reader’s subconscious will grab and store away. Lots of little hints. You use Checkov’s Gun, and show the gun over the fireplace that’s going to be used several scenes later. Or in our genre, the sword. Or lightsaber. Or whatever. If you’re really good it’s not functional and has to be used in a non-standard way (I am not gratifying anyone’s feelthy mind, even my own, with speculation about how the hero is going to use the broken lightsaber).

Even better, you include everything to justify what happens later early on, in bits that are apparently red herrings or character development. If you need to explain how something works, you show it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand it and have them asking about it – if all Joe knows about dragons is that they’re big and they breathe fire, it’s perfectly reasonably for him to ask Bob (who, as everyone knows, knows all about everything) how he and his friends should deal with the beast. Have some business (in the theater sense, where the actors will do stuff that’s appropriate to the scene, like flipping through a book, or fiddling with the scenery) going on at the same time, like maybe Joe is sharpening his special-order Plus Ten Sword of Dragonslaying while he’s talking to Bob, or something. Even fiddling with his clothing works, but it’s better if you can contrive something that will be relevant later. Or come back and add it when you edit.

You see how that works? You can embed a heck of a lot of information about how things work and prepare people for your Big Reveal (or Big Encounter or whatever flavor of Big your ending uses). As a pantser of the extreme variety, I can say that you don’t have to be a plotter to do this. Even if you don’t know where the piece is going until it arrives you can foreshadow. It just has to happen in the editing passes instead of in the early drafts – something I’ve grown quite familiar with.

Half the time I find my subconscious has already put in the foreshadowing hooks for me to expand on. It’s a better writer than I am, or at least a better plotter. It’s also better at remembering that if I want people to know what’s going on, I have to actually write it down, not just leave half of it in my imagination.

Not like life which does erratic things like dump a couple of feet of snow less than a week after 70 degree temperatures. If I did that in a book it would meet the wall so fast… Which is a lesson in itself. If you need the snowstorm shortly after really nice weather, then make sure your characters make snarky comments about how changeable it is at this time of year so the snow doesn’t look like Act of Author.

Obvious Act of Author makes books get flying lessons.

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The Warm Fuzzy Glow Of Accomplishment

This weekend I finished the draft of the work in progress. I’ve been sitting on it a bit to let my brain move out of post-novel haze and to give myself a bit of space to focus. After which, the draft will go to my beta readers, some of whom I’m reliably informed are drooling at the prospect.

It’s a nice feeling. The draft took me about two and a half months, with very few dead days where no writing happened, and even fewer days where there was no writing and no world-building or research. So I guess if everything went well I could finish a novel in two months.

Not that I plan to. I do have a job, and said job is important to us being able to pay the bills each month.

I honestly don’t know what really pushed this though so quickly, but I do know what helped: I tried to write something every day. I didn’t always succeed, but on weeknights I aimed for around 500 words and if more happened so much the better, but if there wasn’t that much, well, at least I’d written something. Or I’d added something I needed to the file that has all the behind-the-scenes world-building stuff. Or dug up the Very Important Piece of information I needed to make the story work. Or – in at least one case – I’d checked with my sources that where I thought the plot was going to go was realistic enough that it wouldn’t cause the book to have sudden flying lessons. That generated a fair number of words in chat windows that were needed to solidify the plot, without adding anything to the book.

All of this counts as progress. If it’s not the actual piece, it’s the structure behind it which a good author makes invisible because the flow of the story is what’s paramount. It’s why when you go looking at the work of authors like Pratchett, or our very own Dave Freer (who is criminally underappreciated. Go ye forth and buy his books), or… Well, quite a few of the Mad Genius cohort, actually. Anyway, it’s why when you look closer you can see that there’s a lot of layering and shading of meaning built into the works, but when you’re reading them it all flows seamlessly into an experience where you stop being you and become the characters. Or the world (I defy anyone to tell me the Discworld, Ankh-Morpork, Lancre and the like are not characters. I will laugh at you). I only hope I can be that good one day.

This is an aspect of reading I suspect some don’t understand. Every Pratchett book I own has been read at least three times. Some more. And every Pratchett book I own reveals more every time I reread it. So do Dave’s books. And Sarah’s. Usually what they reveal is a deeper understanding of how people work, although there can be some chilling commentary on political malfeasance or corruption as well (and how people who are otherwise quite decent people can wind up supporting appalling things). And that’s without the little nuggets of weird fact I’ve found buried in them. Things like the French optical telegraph system that Pratchett recast as the Clacks. Or the quirkiness of the various deities Dave played with in the Pyramid Scheme books. Or…

You get the picture. Maybe I’ll be able to do that someday.

Until then, I hope to keep practicing, preferably without the lengthy period of “OMGWTFBBQNoCanHasWriting” that preceded the latest work. Because I enjoy being able to sit at the computer and have usable verbiage happen. And I really enjoy that lovely feeling of having accomplished something.

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Writing What You Know, What You Don’t Know, and What You Know That Just Ain’t So

The current work in progress (66k words and counting) has taken me into very unfamiliar territory indeed – a few months ago I would have sworn black and blue that the only subgenre I was less likely to venture into than romance was military science fiction, and here I am writing it. Which has led to some musings on the whole question of writing what you know.

Now obviously, we genre writers don’t know what it’s like to pilot spaceships or cast spells or fight battles in powered armor, or any of the other staples of science fiction and fantasy. Some of us have experience in related fields – it’s no coincidence that a lot of the big selling mil-SF authors have military experience, or that their experience shows in their fiction. That’s one flavor of “what you know”.

I’m using a different flavor: since my characters are the descendants of a group of stranded Teutonic Knights (in space!), they’re organized along the lines of the Teutonic Knights. Their strategies have a lot to do with the balls-to-the-wall charge into battle and slaughter the pagan scum techniques their ancestors used, albeit updated for advanced technology and slaughtering slave-trading lizard scum instead of old-fashioned pagans.

The result, according to first readers who are getting snippets as I write, is different in a good way. This is the best outcome of writing what you don’t know in a genre or sub-genre you’re not intimately familiar with: you can potentially approach the familiar tropes with a fresh perspective (it helps that I’m not completely unfamiliar with mil-SF – just familiar enough to find some of the standard tropes a bit irritating *coff*NapoleonicWarsInSpace*coff*)

The worst that could happen is, well… The Handmaid’s Tale. Or certain science fiction or fantasy romances where the author had no idea how SF or fantasy actually worked and tried to reinvent that wheel, with hilariously awful results.

These are also salutary examples of What You Know that Just Ain’t So – particularly in the repeated insistence from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale that it isn’t science fiction because it lacks space squid or other tentacly things.

Clearly Ms Atwood Knows that SF is a genre of steel-jawed, blue-eyed heroes defending the Earth from the horrors of the tentacly monsters from outer space, and no doubt she’s seen any number of pulp covers along that theme. But SF is a lot more than just that. I mean, my evil monsters from outer space are reptiles, not tentacly things. So obviously they’re different (actually they’re not so much evil monsters as from a culture that is absolutely Not Compatible with ours, and isn’t likely to change any time soon. Or ever. But that’s another matter).

Silly asides aside, SF covers everything from grim dystopias through space operas with convolutions enough to put the average soap opera to shame to science fiction so hard if you hit it with a hammer your hammer would break – and absolutely everything imaginable in between, including space fantasy (and let’s face it, Star Wars is a space fantasy in space opera clothing) and things it’s next to impossible to classify. And what won’t fit in the very big SF tent sidles quietly over to the even bigger Fantasy tent where it orders some ale and pretends it always belonged there.

Honestly, I think of SF as a subset of fantasy anyway. It’s a subset that focuses on possible futures and (sometimes) scientific accuracy rather than on past or present and magical events, but it’s still fantasizing about things that don’t currently exist.

Anyway, it’s the things you know that ain’t so that will bite you. Every. Single. Time. And the only way to avoid getting it hilariously or horribly wrong is to keep an open mind and pay attention to the facts. Even if you don’t like them – or especially if you don’t like them. Because if you don’t like them, that can be a signal that they’re crashing into something you thought you knew and breaking your brain.

Welcome this and use it to learn. It’s an uncomfortable process, but it’s worth it.

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The Inadequacy of Silence

I am an author. I’m not a warrior. Sarah has described me as possibly the most conflict-averse person she knows – and she’s not wrong. I do not like fighting and I do not like starting arguments for the sake of it.

There are, however, limits.

You see, as someone who knows what it is to have people lie about you to not only take away any support you might currently have but eliminate any chance that anyone will ever support you, I decided some time back that I will not stand back and allow that to happen to anyone else. Ever.

So when a controversial figure’s book deal is suddenly canceled because of a manufactured furor (not even over the content of the lies used to create that furor because the publisher has printed and supported far worse from those who happen to have not had the howling mobs roused against them) it impacts all of us readers and authors.

For the record, I don’t give a flying fuck what that – or any other author – does in privacy with consenting partners. Even if I would be squicked to high heaven by the details if anyone was crass enough to tell the world. I don’t care what he – or anyone else – believes as long as it’s not being shoved down my throat and nobody is being damaged by it. If I don’t like the author’s behavior or politics I don’t have to buy their books and I certainly don’t have to read them. I am sufficiently mature that I do not see the need for a legion of sensitivity readers to take their works and massage them into bland, tasteless pap.

What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.

Just because some degenerate prick who wouldn’t know a moral if he trod in one edits over an hour’s video to make it look like an author is endorsing one of the few reliable hot-buttons remaining (mainly because that prick’s fellow army of degenerate pricks have abused the other ones to such an extent people yawn when the old standbys of ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, or anythingelsist get aired) does not mean that a) the degenerate prick in question actually disapproves of said hot-button the way most folk with some notion of morality do; or b) that it is true.

It isn’t.

When people listen to lies like this and swallow them, they become the useful idiots who allow evil to happen.

Consider this: think of the most vile, disgusting book you have ever read. Would you ban it?

I wouldn’t. Let it find its audience and be judged on its merits – or lack thereof. The only time I would argue for something to be taken down is if it is a lie masquerading as truth, and in that scenario I would replace the lie with the truth and let the light of truth show the lie for what it is.

Because if we do not stand up for authors – or anyone else for that matter – when some excrement-laden offal tries to destroy them with lies, sooner or later our silence will be taken for disagreement, and we will be targeted.

Do not blame those who speak out when that day comes. The fault is in those who were silent in the face of evil.

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Unexpected Findings

Research is a challenge for me. Not the actual tracking down of weird and obscure information: I enjoy that, and do pretty well at it. No, for me the challenge is avoiding the rabbit hole of related interesting tidbits. Of which there are an abundance.

One of the fun aspects of the current work in progress is that I’m working two distinct strands. There’s the founding Teutonic Knights who were abducted by aliens in 1272, and their many-times-over descendants who have shown up in Earth orbit in our near-future. The 1272 part brings in action much sooner as well as providing a lot of worldbuilding – mostly from the perspective of a fifty-something knight who is well-educated by the standards of his era, but knows absolutely nothing about advanced technology or science.

Which leads to the research fun: concepts that weren’t around in the late 1200s don’t appear (or at least I hope they don’t) in their modern forms. Instead, my knight uses concepts he knows to describe things. Leading to (among other things) some interesting automated translator issues where the translator software lacks the context for something and goes for the closest equivalent. Like “fornicator” for “replicator” (which has the added advantage of dropping some much-needed light relief into a rather tense situation).

As part of writing this strand, I’m constantly searching for the etymology of words. If it doesn’t have a first known use around 1300 or less in Northern Europe, I don’t use it. There’s a lot that’s ruled out by this – words like technology, humanity, logistics… actually, just go with most of the big overarching conceptual things and you’re pretty much there. For a man who’s spent most of his life as a knight and a leader, not having the word ‘logistics’ forces him to think of the concept as the proper ordering of men and supplies – which is more or less the way it was considered in that era.

Then, me being me, I have to fight the urge to follow the rabbit trail of documented logistics of the 1200s (there isn’t much, and what there is largely relates to supplying castles), the makeup of supply trains (it varied. A lot), and how much a militant Order of Knight-Monks, all of them sworn to celibacy (as were their men-at-arms, generally known as Half-Brothers because they weren’t full members of the Order) would vary from the documented examples.

Then there’s the question of whether it’s feasible my knight would arrive at the same or a similar word by virtue of his education. Since he’s a younger son of nobility who’s grown up in the Order (as many of the Teutonic Knights did), he’s fluent in Latin and Old High German, has picked up a smattering of Old Prussian from the native Prussians over the past 30 years or so, and speaks the local Vulgate and Germanic dialects. So if there’s something equivalent to the modern term that he’s likely to come up with on his own, I’ll do that.

The end result is the Prussians in the modern timeline don’t use the same terminology we do. Their scientific language originated with two of their member species and has no human basis, so the translations given are close equivalents to what we’d use without being the same. Instead of scientists, they have technologists.

And the author winds up off on even more odd research tangents looking for different ways to say things that feel like they belong in the piece and the culture without being obnoxiously different. Not that this is anything unusual.

Trust me on this: you haven’t lived until you’ve found black supremacist theology via trying to find out how a northern European culture in the 1100s or thereabouts would view someone with albinism. I think my eyeballs tried to crawl through my optic nerves to get away from it.

Research is dangerous. Choose your search terms carefully and try not to get distracted.

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When You’re Lost In The Depths Of The Pants

First, blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started this, particularly the commenters who identified themselves as pantsers (or in some cases, Panzers, which are clearly Germanic pantsers with really big guns. I’m presuming the DD caliber rack-mounted weapons I possess count, and I’m pretty sure there’s Germanic somewhere in the family tree).

Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.

I’m definitely one of these, but maybe not the best person to be throwing suggestions out here, given that I’m coming off several years of dry spell (on the plus side, a long dry spell kills off that pants-kudzu like nothing else), but I can give a few suggestions, ranging from minimal to extreme.

I’ll start with the least intrusive ones (and yes, I did try all of these. They all failed).

  1. Try to push through anyway. Even if your pantser intuition has deserted you and you have no idea where the thing is supposed to go now, try some formless middle stuff where things happen without any real definition (you know, kind of like the middle ¾ of the last Harry Potter book).
  2. If that doesn’t work, try some plot diagramming. If necessary, start at the beginning of the book and try to keep going after you ran into the kudzu by working out what should happen. It might unstick you, it might not.
  3. Take a short break to write something else – but make sure you give yourself permission to suck first. Fanfic can be helpful with this, because it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter, because it’s only fanfic. Sometimes the change of scenery/pace can be enough to give you a fresh perspective when you get back to the stuck piece.
  4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 a few times until you get desperate. During this stage, it helps to remind yourself that you personally do not suck even if your writing seems to have transmogrified into a supermassive black hole. Personally, I don’t recommend going this far. Even though I did.
  5. Throw it away and start again. This is drastic pants-surgery, but it can work, especially if you’re not writing something under a contract. If you have a contract and need to turn in the book at a specific time, this might be when you start locking yourself in the bathroom or book a library study room (thanks for the suggestion, Brad!) or somewhere else you can guarantee you won’t be disturbed with snacks, your laptop, and no Internet. If nothing else, Internet withdrawal might push you to the appropriate level of desperation. (Leave notes for yourself to do the research you need later).
  6. Write another book. This option is only to be considered if you aren’t contracted and you have the freedom to do it. When things are this desperate, and the pants-kudzu is that overgrown, it can be more important that you recapture the feeling of a story flowing than finishing the blocked piece. The reason this one can work is the psychological one: if you’re stuck badly enough for long enough it starts to eat at your confidence in all the ways Sarah described. Starting – and finishing – something else that isn’t that book can give you confidence to bull your way through that book later.

As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.

You could also do it the hard way: learn the techniques well enough that you can do what Sarah calls painting by numbers and plot it out in an outline then write to the outline.

Personally, I find that more difficult than any other method I’ve tried.

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