Author Archives: Kate Paulk

Who Stole My Time?

As I write (as usual, the evening before the post goes live) it’s approaching the end of my 50th birthday, leaving me wondering where the hell the time went, and who stole it.

Inside, I’m definitely not getting old, despite the odd bit of silver in my hair and the aches and pains that come with the combination of too much me, not enough exercise (I’m trying to improve that), and my issues with resisting the pleas of delicious bad-for-me food sitting right there and crying out “Eat me! I’m wonderful! You’ll love it!”. Metaphorically, anyway. I’m not sure I could handle food that actually talked to me.

Seriously, my mental image is stuck somewhere in the mid-20s to mid-30s, with excursions back to late teens when I have an angsty fit (Yes, I was an angsty teen. It’s a good thing I grew up). Maturity? Oh, hell no.

Besides, there’s no way I’ve lived all those 50 years. There just isn’t. Everything has kind of blurred together and there’s suddenly this marker saying “thou art old” or something and I’m saying “Wait, whoa. Where did that come from and why is it talking to me?”

Actually, on second thoughts, I think I know where it’s got to. It’s taken off with my sanity and my brain, and they’re all having a threesome on a tropical island somewhere, drinking fancy drinks with umbrellas in them, and generally having a whole lot of fun. And they don’t even send post cards.

I have to wonder if getting old feels the same way for everyone, like someone’s played a dirty trick on you and slipped you a bunch of extra years you don’t feel like you really lived.

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Decisions, Decisions

Part of the fun of writing is – at least for me – figuring out how my characters will respond to the crap they land in. My basic method of plotting is “I have a character. They’re up to their eyeballs in shit. Let’s see how they get out of it.”

Obviously, me being the kind of extreme pantser I am, I’ve managed to internalize the basics because my plots usually work out reasonably well despite seeming awfully loose and not particularly well structured. Where I get into trouble is if I lose the thread of the piece in my head somewhere along the line.

It happens. I count a high ratio of completed stories to started stories as a good thing. It means I’m actually managing to hold a plot together long enough to finish the bloody things.

All of which is beside the point of how I make my characters make their own lives hell until they fix the messes they’re in.

It’s actually pretty simple. I figure out who they are. What kind of person they are. This is also something I’ll usually do at a subconscious level, to the point where I could tell someone how a particular character is likely to respond to any event, what their hot buttons are, what kind of personalities will grate on them… all those sorts of things. Knowing this, I can tweak the surroundings to keep them off-balance and push them into situations where they’re going to make bad decisions – and more crucially, readers will be able to see that they’re going to make bad decisions in those situations.

See, unlike real life, fiction needs to make sense. If you look at history and at real people, you’ll see example after example of smart people making ridiculously stupid decisions, of people doing things so bizarrely out of character you have to wonder what in the world they were on – and whether it’s possible to get any, because damn it would sell.

One could even go so far as to say that history chronicles the shitty decision making of most of the world – and that even in the crappiest books the worst imaginary rulers make more sense than a heck of a lot of historical leaders. One would be correct to say this – and also wrong.

That’s part of the fun of writing, too. Working out what kind of mindset and known factors would make a decision that our perspective tells us is a totally horrible idea look like not just the right thing to do, but the best thing to do. Figuring out how someone could have a mindset that to us isn’t just insane, it’s unthinkable.

Take the view that was common on both sides of the US Civil War, that black slaves and former slaves were inherently lesser beings. Some still considered enslaving them to be the wrong thing to do, but believed they would need to be cared for in some way and even that their descendants could never be proper Americans. Others believed that slavery was the best thing for them, because they couldn’t handle life without a master to guide them (we won’t go into how incorrect any of these beliefs were, of some of the more noxious notions – some of which were cheerfully transferred from the same beliefs about the Irish).

It’s even kind of understandable how beliefs like that can arise. Completely different cultures crashing together, one of them at an extreme disadvantage, will do that. To the dominant culture, the person from the subordinate culture will look like they can’t handle “normal” life – but history suggests that over several generations being expected to manage and held to the same standards as everyone else in the dominant culture, members of the subordinate culture will gain the skills they need and the mindset they need. Now try portraying that in a character somewhere in the middle of those several generations – regardless of which side of the cultural divide they happen to be on. It’s mind-bending.

This is one of the reasons a lot of historical fiction – and quite a lot of fantasy and science fiction – gets flying lessons from me. Modern motivations in a character from 500 years ago, or in a culture that reads like a mix of ancient China and Imperial Russia, or in some future society? Oh, hell no. That’s not a good way for the characters to make decisions. They don’t come from any late 20th century Western cultures, so of course they’re not going to think the way we do. They’re not going to see the same things we do.

For me, learning to think the way someone from a very different culture does, and working out how they’d make decisions, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole writing process.

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Perils of Division and Conflation

The Dragon Award winners have been announced – and congratulations to all of them – which has led to some unseemly behavior in the comments of Dave’s latest post. I’m not call anyone out by name, because that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the all too human behavior that’s behind the actions.

We all tend to focus on the things that divide us from those who disagree with us. We also all tend to group everyone who doesn’t agree with us into a bucket labeled “the enemy” or more often simply, “them”. Last year, I deliberately crafted Sad Puppies 4 to try to bridge that divide. I chose to enter what might be considered (if you use enough irony) the heart of the enemy stronghold and attend last year’s WorldCon.

I made those choices because I was as close to certain as it’s possible to be without having the evidence laid out in front of you that most of the people who would be there would be just… people. Science fiction and fantasy fans celebrating our genre. I did not go there looking for enemies, which is just as well because I would have been dreadfully disappointed if I had. I didn’t find any enemies. I did find several new friends, not all of them from the lachrymose canine side of the fence.

Now, as I said, it’s human to band together into groups and assume that everyone in those other groups follows everything the loudest or most obnoxious members of said groups happen to say. The problem with fandom is it simply doesn’t work that way. We fans are horribly vulnerable to a power-hungry maniac because for most of us our inclination is to say something like “eh, so long as the books are good who cares?”. Fortunately we’re probably also frustrating as all heck to said power-hungry maniac for much the same reason. Power-chasers can’t get far without dedicated minions, after all.

The thing is, the Hugos and WorldCons are a very loose alliance of multiple different groups. The Hugo administrators I met last year were all the kind of people I can respect, and many of them objected to the proposals aimed at keeping “unwanted” works out of the ballots. Once those proposals are voted in by the membership at large, the administrators of the current Hugo become obliged to uphold them as best they can. This is rule of law and democracy. It doesn’t mean the administrators are in any way corrupt.

Nor, when people who have devoted much of their lives to the awards (and taken little if anything in recognition or compensation) choose not to speak about their misgivings, does it mean that they are doing anything more than avoiding damaging an already tarnished reputation further. At this point, airing the dirty laundry in public isn’t going to help anyone, and it could be seriously detrimental.

It’s easy to conflate the Hugo administrators – who collate the votes, hold the meetings, and follow the rules – with the WorldCon administrators (who, yes, run the WorldCon – including the Hugo ceremony) – but it does both groups an injustice. The Hugo award ceremony is pretty much entirely the work of the subcommittee in charge of it and the appointed toastmaster. It’s got nothing to do with the Hugo administrators (who I suspect don’t want it because they’re generally too busy dealing with other matters as well as their everyday lives which have to be factored in there somewhere).

For that matter, how often have folk on this blog bitched about being conflated with some of the more… ahem… outspoken (or in some cases, unhinged. Not that we’re without sin in that regard – we are the Mad Genius Club, after all) of Vox Day’s supporters? It doesn’t help.

And when it comes down to it, most folk who read and comment here or go to DragonCon or follow the Dragon Awards have much more in common with most of the fans who go to the WorldCons and follow the Hugo awards than we do that’s different. With relatively few exceptions we’re more interested in finding science fiction and fantasy that speaks to us and leaves us enthralled than we are in playing politics or arguing over (to borrow from Pratchett) the third sub-clause in the twenty-fifth subsection of point five of our respective reader manifestos.

So can we please stop and check whether we’re conflating things that aren’t the same or widening small differences before we hit Send. Because we all know that once we’ve hit that button it’s out there for all eternity to embarrass the living heck out of us.

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Rites of Passage

The marker of half-a-century is less than a month away now, and I found myself the amused recipient of one of modern America’s rites of passage today.

Yes, I have received my first junk mail from AARP, trying to convince me to part with my hard-earned cash to pay for their dubious goals. Never mind that I fully expect to be working for at least another fifteen years, most likely more than that. Never mind that I keep looking at the approaching milestone and wondering where the hell all that time went because despite my various issues (and their issues, and theirs) I still feel little different than I did in my early 20s. Maybe a bit more secure in myself, but other than that I don’t exactly feel middle-aged, much less approaching old. (Yeah, I know, these days 50 isn’t old. It’s definitely well into middle-aged, though).

Which in turn reminded me that modern rites of passage kind of suck. It makes a coming of age piece set in modern times much harder, just because there really isn’t a big challenge that people can use to say that after successfully completing it you’re an adult. Instead you get a series of stuttering bits and pieces. Driving age, legal sex, legal drinking, voting age… It’s all over the place. Young adults here are apparently perfectly capable of having sex, voting, dying for their country, and starting a family… but not of drinking anything alcoholic. In other modern cultures there are equally “interesting” disjointed transitions.

What there isn’t, unless you’re fortunate enough to have the kind of family that teaches these things, is a partial shouldering of responsibility that allows someone approaching the child-to-adult transition to practice adult tasks with the supervision of someone who’s already passed the rites and knows the path.

The transition from “adult” to “elder” is even more blurred, possibly because it wasn’t until relatively recently that large numbers of adults survived into old age. There were still markers: the last child married, or failing that, an adult. Gray hair. Menopause (the sooner that finishes, the happier I’ll be. No more monthly mess). The first grandchild – which in my case will be the first of my siblings becoming a grandparent because I haven’t spawned and don’t plan to (too many genetic time bombs, plus I’d be a dreadful parent).

Of course, a big part of the reason we humans invent rites of passage is because we as a species suck at recognizing gradual transitions. We’re great with patterns, and not bad at distinguishing whether or not this is like that. But give us a slow process where over the course of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years that tiny baby becomes an adult ready to make babies of his or her own, we have as a species a definite need to find some kind of marker and say, “Here. Past this point this person is no longer a child.”

Human cultures are littered with arbitrary markers like this (they’re arbitrary because what is child and what is adult doesn’t change appreciably overnight, but our cultures insist on making it so. Same with a lot of other absolutes.) which of course give writers the opportunity to play with them.

So, Author, kindly cease sending me cultural markers that say I’m getting old. I’m bloody well not. Not where it matters.

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Blast From the Past: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

I swear I’m going through that time of life: I’m ridiculously scatterbrained, keep losing track of time, and I’m having hell’s own time remembering to get the essentials done. So, I’m reposting an old post. I’m also too bloody fuzzy-headed to do it properly so you’re getting it pasted from the original. That said, read on and enjoy.

Who will guard the guards themselves? It’s a question that’s never asked by those who want to prevent the “wrong” people from being published, or protect people from reading something that will upset them (as in the case of the idiot fad for “warnings” on everything – although in at least some of the fanfic communities I frequent… well, intermit, because I’m not there that often… it’s being turned into a joke because as often as not canon characters get included in the warnings. I’ve yet to figure out if that’s serious or not, but it’s funny as hell).

Sharon Lee has some good comments about the whole question, although she looks at it rather differently than I do (and let’s just ignore some of the rather political things she clearly hasn’t realized aren’t things everyone thinks). Her points about the many different things people can get out of fiction and the fact that there is a reader who is interpreting every word in the light of his own experiences and potentially putting his “bad thinks” into what he’s seeing (not to mention – hopefully – many many readers per author, all of them doing this… it rather limits the amount of bad-thinkness a given author can slide in there to be overridden by the reader bad-thinks).

I’m completely in agreement that no author should be prevented from writing because of her opinion. Why? Times change. Every author will reflect at least some factors from her time because she can’t help being a creature of her time. She, like the rest of us, is not isolated. Her perspective is affected by her life, by all the people she’s known, and by her experiences. All of that is affected by the time in which she lives. We have to look at the common beliefs of her time and her culture before we can say whether or not she was bound by those beliefs or reached beyond them – and we also have to realize that in her time and culture things that we consider normal may well have been unthinkable. Literally unthinkable because there was nothing providing the scaffolding that would allow those thoughts to exist (Orwellian touch, but quite true: if someone has no concept of freedom, he can’t think about it. He can only think about changes to his state of servitude that will make it more or less bearable).

Similarly, I totally agree about the whole warnings thing being idiotic. We already have a de facto ratings system for fiction. If they’re in the children’s section they’re probably about things that kids will enjoy reading about, and they’re probably using language that’s appropriate to a young child. The teen section will have different topics, and more sophisticated language (just don’t get too close to the teen paranormal romance section. The vampires there sparkle). Some places split even further when they categorize books, and of course, the rest of the store or library categorizes by subject so if the thought of romance gives you hives you can always avoid that part of the store. Or library (honestly, I’m still mourning the bookstores deciding to move horror back into the general – or sometimes SFF section. I keep finding it when I don’t want it. When it had the nice big labeled section I could avoid it unless I was in the mood for being creeped out).

All of it comes back to the question of who guards the guardians. If certain people are to be prevented from being published because they’re horrible people or their writing is so wrong and icky as to justify this, who makes that decision and who verifies that the decision is not being made on the biases of the decision-maker? I’ve had arguments… erm… spirited discussions with people who could not understand that allowing someone to ban books they thought were horrible, evil, and wrong also allowed whoever was in that position to ban books they thought were wonderful and good. Because the power in question is “to ban books”. The decision on which books to ban is done by individual or committee (if committee the tendency is for that which offends nobody to proliferate, where individual you’ll get what the individual likes/approves of – even if all the censors are honest and doing their best to be unbiased).

Of course, you can take the position of turtles – or guards – all the way down, and have someone to watch the person who’s watching the guard. And someone else to watch that person. And so on. It gets unwieldy fast, and the result is a kind of giant circle-jerk where everyone is watching everyone else for missteps – and that’s the good scenario. The bad one is more like your Communist regime with informers making up between a fifth and a quarter of the population and filling the secret police archives with reports of how Johnny’s mom makes him capitalist lunches with – horrors! – bananas.

The alternative is one that’s already happening in fanfic communities around the Internets: authors typically try to make their description/blurb as accurate as possible, try to give the piece an accurate rating (Fanfiction.net has ratings from G through M and discourages explicit material, other places allow it but give it a separate rating), and an accurate “genre” (trust me, fanfic “genre” is quite a different beastie from what bookstores and libraries use). Between that, the number of reviews (because people tend not to review a piece they don’t like, they just drop it and go on – I don’t think I’ve seen more than a handful of negative reviews but there are loads of positive ones), pieces people want to read bubble to the top of lists quite quickly and the rest… don’t.

Which, while pretty much uncontrolled (the Fanfiction.net admins periodically go through the site deleting explicit material and anything else they think is against the terms of service), makes it fairly easy for people to find things they want to read and avoid things they don’t. Coincidentally enough, this also answers the complaints of those who lament the absence of gatekeepers in indie publishing: any system like this (which isn’t that different from Amazon’s rankings and tags) allows the pieces that readers like to become visible and effectively buries the pieces readers don’t want to touch with a ten foot iPhone holder – and at the same time, turns the whole issue with guarding the guards on its head: you don’t need to appoint special guards if everyone watches out for their own turf by ranking the things they like.

Scary thought, yes? Someone should write a book about that…

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Of The Giving Of Cues

Sarah’s been talking about mystery (and other) plot structures. If you’re going to market to a genre where there’s an expected structure to the story, you need to know these things. Similarly, if you’re going to market to any genre, you need to know how to give the right cues to your readers.

Some genre readers are more willing than others to accept structures that break their rules. To a certain extent, anyway. But miscue something, and you’ll have disappointed readers who’ll avoid you from then on.

Let me give an example without naming names. A few years back I was asked to give an opinion on a novel someone was trying to sell. It was an extremely well-written fantasy that used elements of epic fantasy and quest fantasy, the pacing was close to perfect, and the characters were easy to identify with. But the overall result was disappointing. It felt wrong.

It took me a while to realize: the relationship between the primary character and the hidden prince (secondary character) had all the cues of romance, but there wasn’t one. The relationship that evolved was somewhere between friendly and sibling.

The cues I saw and subconsciously noted were:

  • Female protagonist, and the first character other than the protagonist introduced is the secondary character.
  • Immediate chemistry between first and second character.
  • Subplots that are typical of romance subplots (misunderstandings between the characters causing tension, jealousy/rivalry when other characters are introduced).
  • Tension between the two characters increases over the course of the book.
  • Characters clearly like and respect each other even when they are disagreeing and/or arguing.
  • Much of the action and interaction is between the two characters.

Those of you who are familiar with any form of romance would be nodding along here and agreeing that if the book wasn’t primarily romance it damn well ought to have a secondary romantic plot line. Except that it didn’t: the author wasn’t aware that these cues pointed to a strong romance plot structure, so didn’t know why the novel wasn’t getting traction.

(Incidentally, if you think you recognize yourself in this deliberately vague description, don’t worry too much. I’ve done the exact same thing with miscuing, and then had to go and clean out all the bad cues to make the piece work. Think “learning experience”.)

The way to avoid this and make sure you’re giving the right cues in your work is to read widely. Especially read outside your main genre. You need to be aware that if you’ve got a strong mystery plot, you should be putting in the cues for the red herrings and the real culprit and all the other little goodies mystery authors tease their readers with. Similarly, if your epic fantasy does not have a strong romance subplot, take the time to make sure you aren’t throwing romance cues at your readers. That will just make the more romance-oriented ones unhappy. It could well make the non-romance readers unhappy too, because these cues are deeply embedded in our culture (yes, they do differ across cultures. The USA and other primarily English-speaking nations are similar enough that we don’t miscue each other too often, but it does happen. An Australian romance is not likely to include much if any of the really sappy hearts and flowers stuff, particularly compared to an American one. A Brit romance is more likely to include class-based differences as potential relationship block – and yes, that’s even in a fantasy or SF context).

So read a lot, work out what the heck you’re setting your readers up for, then go out and give it heaps.

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I No Can Haz Brane

But teh meenz people sai ai haz to rites. Is no fare. Ai wants to play wif teh cyoot kittehs. K?

Thx, bai!

(sounds of a scuffle and something being dragged back)

Bugger. Sorry.

It’s been a hectic few days. The day job includes the software development team being second or third tier support (depending on how little anyone in the actual support group wants to deal with things). Up until recently, it was handled by people other than me.

Then one of the three people in the hot seat resigned (lucky sod), and me being the most experienced of the remaining non-support-team dev people, I agreed to take it on. Unfortunately, this more or less coincided with the other two dev support folks being on vacation. So this week I’ve been it.

The issues with clueless users… well, okay. This is kind of the norm, after all, although I’m not sure how many times you have to tell someone to do something before they actually decide to do it. The flapping support team members… I wouldn’t mind so much except that they have a tendency to interrupt when I’m trying to focus, which makes it harder to get anything done.

Trying to figure why in hell anyone would think it was a good idea to store email recipients in the freaking Windows registry, on the other hand… Yes, it’s a service. Yes, it’s going to have to send error emails now and then. What is wrong with having the recipient email address/es in a bloody config file?

This, ladies, gentlemen, and beings of indeterminate sexual characteristics, is why I am completely pants at writing stupid. I can understand a lot of things. Evil. No problem. Saintly takes a bit of work to get into the mind space but I can do it. But dumb? That just makes my head hurt and causes random outbreaks of LOLSpeak.

 

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