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That Which Divides by Christopher Nuttall

That Which Divides  by Christopher Nuttall

 

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

-Abraham Lincoln

One does not join a community by loudly and obnoxiously demanding entrance.  One joins by sharing the community’s goals and working with others to achieve them.

-Jay Maynard

I was actually planning something along the lines of this essay before the kerfuffle over the Google Memo hit the internet, for reasons I will explain shortly.  And while this essay isn’t primarily about the memo – it has more to do with fandom and diversity in general – it does touch on some very important points.

Last weekend, my wife, son and I attended the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London.  For me, it was a chance to meet up with some of my publishers and friends, as well as buying a considerable number of books.  And I came away from the convention with curiously mixed feelings.

Nine Worlds talked – a lot – about inclusivity and diversity.  And I am all in favour of making conventions as accessible as possible.  A fan in a wheelchair is still a fan and a decently-run convention will make provisions for that fan to attend panels or visit the vendors, insofar as it is reasonably possible.  And yet, I couldn’t help feeling – as I read the anti-harassment policy and studied the ‘chosen pronoun’ badges – that they might have gone a little too far. Indeed, some of their policies struck me as ones that could be easily abused by bad actors.

I was particularly dismayed to note that the ‘bathroom wars’ in the US had spread to London, with the most accessible toilets on the vendor’s floor designated as ‘gender-neutral.’  People were specifically warned not to question people using the toilets, whatever gender they appeared to be.  Fans who wanted to use a specifically male or female toilet had to go up or down a level, something that might have caused problems for disabled fans.  These toilets were not designed to be gender-neutral and the prospects for everything from accidental flashing to outright sexual harassment were evidently not taken into account.  My wife – who comes from a very conservative country – stated that she would not be comfortable using a mixed toilet and I find it hard to believe she was the only one.  Furthermore, it would be difficult for someone who was being sexually harassed to use such a toilet to escape their harasser.  Who has the liability then?

A further oddity was a stall being devoted to a bookseller that specialised in LGBT books aimed at young children, placed in the main vendors hall (while at least one small press and a gaming workshop was placed on the second floor, out of sight).  While I did pick up a copy of Interstellar Cinderella for my niece, I do question the selection of that particular bookseller instead of another SF/Fantasy publisher.  (I actually assumed that the con hadn’t had many applicants from publishers or booksellers, but this was apparently incorrect.)  Why was this bookseller chosen when its links to fandom are very limited?

At this point, I’m sure a few readers are wondering what’s my point.  Indulge me for a moment longer.

The problem with ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ programs – however well-intentioned – is that they call attention to differences, rather than celebrating what we have in common.  I don’t care if the person sitting next to me at a panel is male or female, black or white, straight or gay or bi or transgender or whatever.  It makes no difference to me.  Why should it?  As a fan, I should not discourage anyone from fandom.  Saying ‘you can’t join our club because you’re a [whatever]’ is both cruel and stupid.

But, like it or not, humans draw lines between groups of people.  It’s how we’re wired, like it or not.  And the more people talk about differences between groups of people, the easier it becomes to fall into the trap of dislike, distrust, suspicion and even outright hated.  Worse, as I have discussed earlier, the bad actors in a particular group will be used to characterise the rest of that group.  This is not fair, but it will happen.  Humans are more inclined to remember the bad than the good.

It is neither fair nor right to deny someone the chance to visit a convention or join a club because they are [insert inherent attribute here].  But one might reasonably ask just how far a convention or a club should move away from its base to accommodate them, particularly when doing so runs the risk of alienating older fans.

The Google Memo is neither a screed – despite some media outlets insisting that it is – nor is it particularly well-written.  But it does call attention to a problem within Google – the belief, justified or not, that corporate managers are putting social justice causes ahead of practicality and meritocracy.  The fact that some outlets state that nearly a third of Google’s employees – or at least the ones surveyed – agree with the memo suggests that this is not an uncommon belief.  Indeed, given the simple fact that very few people believe that ‘confidential’ responses remain confidential in a corporate environment, it is quite possible that the total number of employees who agree is actually much higher.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone, after 2016.  Trump’s victory surprised the pollsters because, at least in part, people were reluctant to come out and say they were going to vote for Donald Trump.  The social cost was too high.

And while I cannot prove it, I would bet good money that most of the employees who agreed with the memo work in the ‘hard science’ departments.

Google has, in many ways, the same problem as many other institutions, from the media to the military.  The people who make policy are divorced from the realities of life on the sharp end (or shop floor or whatever.)  Worse, the number of ‘core’ workers is actually quite small, relative to the overall workforce.  The policy-makers can therefore blabber endlessly about diversity and social justice, while the people who do the actual work grow increasingly frustrated because their jobs are being made harder.  A computer doesn’t care if the person writing the program is male or female.  It does care about their code actually running smoothly, once it is uploaded.  And the ‘core’ workers know this because it is their life.

The suspicion that people are hired and promoted for anything but demonstrated competence is poisonous.  If it is not actually true, employees will still act on the assumption that it is true; if it is true, the good employees will not put forward their best because they will believe, rightly, that there’s no hope of rising up the ladder either.  Google may or may not have been within its legal rights to fire the memo-writer, but firing him does not inspire confidence in upper management.  There was not (so far) any solid attempt to prove the memo-writer wrong.  Instead, the writer was punished for daring to offer an opinion that went against the grain.

People – particularly men – respect demonstrated competence.  A person with a solid track record will not inspire too much resentment, regardless of his skin colour (etc, etc), when he is promoted.  But a person who does not do good work – particularly someone who creates extra work for his workmates – will be widely disliked.  And if he gets promoted, it will not be long before the muttering starts or employees start looking for new jobs.  People who know their own worth very well – and people with solid track records do – are not the sort of people who will willingly stick around when they feel disrespected and/or that upper management is intent on ruining its own business.

The average fan, I think, does not care about the ethnic, racial, sexual, religious or whatever makeup of fandom.  Why should he?

But, at the same time, he doesn’t want fandom to change to the point it becomes unrecognisable.  We are not forced to be science-fiction and fantasy fans.  We are fans because we love it!  We want to read books and see movies and chat endlessly about tiny details that baffle outside observers.  We don’t want to be lectured, we don’t want to be told that we’re horrible people, we don’t want to have our faces constantly rubbed in the fact that people who had nothing to do with us were awful, once upon a time, to people who also had nothing to do with us.

We are happy – more than happy – to include people who want to join.  But why would we want people who want to divide and change us?

And why would they want to join?

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Winning the peace

I’m paraphrasing but something Dr. Jerry Pournelle said at the end of one of his stories stuck with me: Something to the effect of ‘All soldiers do is buy you time, for politicians to find a solution.’  Pournelle is a man whose thinking I admire, if not always agree with. Actually, you’re not going to find anyone I always agree with. This is called ‘thinking for yourself’. Everyone should try it. Sadly, many people find it ‘too hard’ and simply follow the herd. Not thinking for yourself is not a great survival strategy. I can only conclude it is increasing as a result of humans no longer permitting ‘didn’t think’ to be a capital crime as it had been for most of our species history. I hope we don’t pay dearly for this.

Anyway, I finished reading yet another fantasy novel (no, I won’t say who it was by, except it wasn’t published by Tor. I won’t buy or support their books) ending in a victorious war, in triumph. That’s an acceptable-to-many-readers end.

Of course, to people who read and look at the patterns of history (history doesn’t so much repeat as follow pieces of the same pattern) the end of one war all too often is the seed for the next – principally because soldiers can win wars, but it is a rare politician who can win a peace.

Part of that is – outside certain exceptions – it takes two politicians to tango – or rather make peace – and it is a requisite that they be from the winning and losing sides. I get very confused about US politics, so forgive me any gaffes, but to this outsider it seems that the Republicans missed the memo ‘from winning AND losing side’. Opposing your own side to find favor with the losers… is not going to work. That’s the wrong way around. Perhaps someone needs to explain this to them.

Speaking as someone who has some small experience of the consequences of war, and lived in a country with a civil war – you don’t want to go there. Common sense says yhe rank and file of neither side really does (contrary to popular belief being dead or maimed and on the ‘winning side’ still leaves your friends and family dealing with it.) There are times when it is necessary (a large part of the themes of several of my books, including the pacifist-who-had-to-learn-to-kill in SLOWTRAIN.). A good example might be when the ‘other side’ informs you they intend to eliminate you, or that which you hold dear – be that your nation, culture, or history. People who don’t want war should think carefully about saying ‘You’re on the wrong side of history’ – because that is – de facto – telling their foes that that they intend genocide.

Look, war is always ‘conquest’ of some sort (even elections might be viewed as war with reduced bloodshed) and the ways of ‘winning the peace’ are a well-established matter of historical record. So long as you don’t erase history, you can learn from it, and seriously, it tends to make books better. Now, one of the most difficult bits to erase is written in DNA. There are lots and lots of female lines… but a handful of male linages by comparison (regardless of race, place or anything else). That’s because all humans had the same basic strategy to win the peace, if you go far back enough. I’ve seen it live, in action, in a baboon troop. The conqueror/s kill all the males (including the children) and take all the women (who didn’t get much say in it. No=kill you too). The only way out of this was to run away, quite possibly applying the same to those whose territory you now invaded. There are no living humans whose ancestors haven’t, somewhere down the line, taken territory (and women) from someone else. Remember this next time you write your ‘noble savage’ tale. Of course the SWJ crew will attack you for this despite the fact that it is plainly true and un-erasable (getting rid of the Y-chromosome is more of a problem than your average statue. I know, it is goal in certain quarters, but in the meanwhile belittling it is the best they can do. It doesn’t change the facts. ).

When ‘conquest’ moved beyond merely acquiring your neighbor’s lands, hunting/livestock and women, but actually became about leaving the people conquered alive because they had more value alive than dead… winning the peace became a far more complex and varied problem. These of course blended into each other – and no, I am not going into infinite detail: this is a blog post, not a 10 million word treatise on the subject.

The simplest was a variation on the basic. Castrate the males, and enslave the conquered. Castrated slaves continued to flow out of Africa, eastwards, particularly into the Islamic world, and within Africa… well. I don’t think it has stopped. It’s quite a popular concept in certain extremist militant feminist circles. It certainly has a history of allowing the conquerors to stay on top, as it were. Of course it has failed too at times, notably where the conquerors allowed the castrati to rise to power.

The next step was the Saxon variation. Basically, after winning the war, kill any male who wasn’t a peasant, take the women as chattels, reduce the losers to what we would think of as slaves, destroy their culture, punish any sign of failure to accept subjugation with utmost brutality. Look at the number of Saxons who held England – and you realize it was both successful and the only possible way of succeeding.

After that, things become slowly more complex and nuanced. Conquerors started catching on to idea that the conquered could have more value than just fresh slaves and women. That it was possible sometimes to merely replace the rulers and get a new but working system to add to your holdings.

This was the start of this politics and tango stuff, because it required a balance between fear and reward. The Mongols (As I wrote in MUCH FALL OF BLOOD) honed this. They made a grim example of a few places. Very grim examples, and then offered a very tempting deal: Surrender… and for joe citizen things got better. They offed the head honchos of the conquered, took the princesses to add to the impressive collections of Mongol leaders wives (which is why Chinngis Khan’s genes run in so many of us) and actually lightened the tax load a little, and provided a system of justice that was less arbitrary, and made for a safer society – as long as you didn’t even hint at raising a finger to the conquering Mongol.

One can come up with similar variations on this strategy across Europe, India, China, Japan, Indonesia and the pre-European Americas and I suspect whole lot of places I know less about than I would like to. The commoners swapped rulers. The rulers fought to have possession of what de facto were a taxable resource. Peace might be hard to find among rulers, but realistically the peace was won for great mass of humanity just as soon as Baron X was killed by Baron Y.

Somewhere down the line someone figured out letting the ordinary people in on the wheeze was a bit cheaper than having to share out the loot with what were de facto mercenaries, fighting for reward. Yes, that is a rather cynical interpretation of patriotism and nationalism (which have roots too, in the genetic inter-relation of tribes of pre-history.) No, I’m sorry my American friends, you are not the first to cheerfully combine people of various ethnicities and geographical localities under one flag. Look at the make-up of Belisarius’s army for a good example (thanks to Procopius of Caesarea, who himself is a good example). The key was that they remained loyal to Justinian, and not their little factions.

This nationalism saved on the cost of cannon fodder, but vastly complicated winning the peace, unless you went right back to Saxon or earlier – which was not as profitable as merely annexing a new tax-base. Russia, Britain, Japan, China, Germany, Italy and many more… often conquered fractious states, some close at hand, some far off. And some were more successful at winning the peace than others. If you want to really pull it apart, the successes kind of went along with the Mongols. Either kill off, exile (risky) or better still buy off (allow to keep their jobs/positions is a form of this) the hierarchy – except the top. They had to go or be incorporated into the conquerors (see Chinngis’s collection of princesses). The people you really, really didn’t mess with were the tax base. You actually gave them perks, respect (even if they had lost) allowed them to keep some of the things dear to them – especially symbolic things which people fight and die for, but actually don’t have much tax value. Unite them under NEW symbols. And yes – you sat on your own troops, if they then took their national prejudices out on the newly conquered. To read a work of fiction by someone who understood this well, you could try LORD KALVAN OF OTHERWHEN by H. Beam Piper.

The key remains to gain reciprocity and mutual respect and honorable conduct: where the conquered foe and the conqueror end up making concessions to the other. The Second Boer War had a huge level of bitterness to overcome. They were at least to some extent successful – people like Generaal Jan Smuts and my Great Uncle, Generaal Koos de la Rey, were both respected by the British conquerors – and in turn, gave respect. Two more honorable men would be hard to find – and this meant that bargains made were honored and concessions given were recipriocated. The British made some reparations, and, as Kruger had fled, did not attempt any major purge or punishment. The boers were allowed to retain their culture and celebrate their heroes, and to have some political power under British rule. Peace had a few fractious moments – including the shooting of Koos de la Rey – but it was successfully won for generations.

Of course other methods were tried in other places, including genocide. And of course, some conquered people took the generosity of the conquerors – and smiled, and did their level treacherous best to destroy the conqueror. Sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes (more often) they lost. Inevitably reaction started by killing the leadership and making conditions harsh for their followers. Rather often that crushed them – those rebels are forgotten. But the peace was not won until the losers desired it and winners wanted to give it.

If you want an example of how not to it – which I think has some applicability to modern America – the treaty of Versailles is a good bad example. Germany lost – and various allied forces set out to cripple, hurt and to shame her. A global group set out to crush a national group. You can argue that they had cause, or that it was fair, or didn’t go far enough. What you can’t argue with is that it led to a far more vicious German regime, and another war, which, had Hitler not insisted on his ‘military’ ideas being followed, might have ended differently, or gone on much longer. As both of my parents served with Allied forces, I am glad it did not.

But afterwards the victors actually learned from the mistakes of Versailles and actually did a pretty good job of winning a fairly long peace, at least with their principal foes. It struck me, fairly pointedly that while comparisons between modern times in the US and the conflicts between the brownshirts and the reds leading toward Nazi Germany are frequent, it might also be seen as a global group trying to repeat Versailles. That didn’t work then.

The losers certainly are showing no signs of wanting to make peace, to accord respect, to match concessions with concessions. I kind of keep waiting for the winners to behave as winners do, in these circumstances. It seems the losers are hoping for actions against the foot-soldiers. But historically reprisals have inevitably been at the leadership, first.

Interesting times. I am glad I live elsewhere.

So how does all this tie into writing? It comes back down to understanding motive, and when you build such motives into your war-end either peace or another round of war will follow. The latter is more pleasant in fiction. It’s also useful for sequels –which are also more pleasant in fiction.

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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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Mystery Structure – The Cozy

Before I get into the post proper, I’m going to be gone for three Wednesdays starting next week.  I have a guest post lined up for next week, and will figure out the other two.  Do not be alarmed.  I haven’t forgotten this series, and will resume after I come back.  It’s just that I won’t be here, and connecting might be iffy.

Anyway, back to our series.  So, Cozies are a subtype of mystery, and I sort of get why the glitterati try to avoid the name.  They’re convinced it means “tea cozy” or something equally stupid.

If you divest yourself of that notion, “cozy” fits.

Cozies, a subtype of which is the “Malice Domestic” are murder mysteries that take place in and are solved in a small set of people, often related to each other.  Most of Agatha Christie’s work are cozies, except for what might very well be the worst thrillers in the history of thrillers.

My favorite of Christie’s work is the Hollow, closely followed by The Moving Finger (I WAS Megan from the Moving Finger, as much as one can be a fictional character.)

The crime, which is described in glossed-over terms and where you don’t indulge in exactly what went where usually shatters an otherwise “normal” situation.  IOW, if you didn’t have a crime, that book would be a mainstream slice of life.  (Yes, even the funnier cozies which would be mainstream comedy.)

One of the objections of those who hate cozies and one of the reasons that in the nineties various people, from editors to reviewers to writers of how-to books tried to read the Cozy entirely out of the mystery genre is that they say it’s not logical. No old spinster, no funny little man, no people with no qualifications can solve a crime better than the police.  The police are professionals and have training, and writing these things is pure fantasy.

This is me rolling my eyes.  Someone pointed out that mysteries are morality plays, and the cozies are very much morality plays. What I mean is: it’s fiction.  Yeah, surely, in those medieval stories the babe at the breast didn’t talk, and if it did, it wouldn’t give the right answer.  And of course, in most cases little spinster ladies or smashed up fliers don’t solve the crime before the police.  Or do they?  Do you really know if someone with internal knowledge of the people involved did put the police onto the right track?  How would you know?

Of course you have to sell it.  Why is the police not on the right track?  There are tons of explanations you can deploy, including having all the physical evidence pointing in the wrong direction, or having the people in the group where the crime happens be so close knit and tight lipped that they’re hiding some essential point from the police.  At which point only one of them can solve the crime.

Often in the first books with a ‘detective’ this means he/she is personally and closely involved.  After that, they either become known for doing this or their extended family has really bad luck.  There are the Miss Hart and Miss Hunt mysteries by Celina Grace where one wonders why anyone employs these women as maids.  you know someone is GOING to die.

Be that as it may, the book takes place in a tiny circle, and its plot is usually spiral-form.  You go over the same people again and again, each time with something that happened or was told before forming the crowbar with which the questioner will uncover the next circle of deception.

Dreams are acceptable in pointing you at the solution, but should not GIVE you the solution because fairplay is important in these books.  it is, in fact all about pitting your brains against another “normal person” (the detective.)

The other part of the structure is that there is often a second murder halfway through.  This is so expected, I know I’m halfway through the book when I hit the second murder.  It is often the running suspect up to that time that gets murdered.  Piling on clues (false herrings, of course) against him helps you hide the clues against the real murderer, so that when you have to redirect, the reader has to re examine everything just like the “detective” has to.

How unpleasant can you make the murderer and the murder?  Pretty unpleasant.  The motives can be anything from hiding other murders to far worse stuff.  Then how is it cozy?  Well, you don’t usually dwell on filth that you’re bringing up, just mention it, matter of factly.

So… are these mysteries really depressing?  Oh, heck no.  Yeah, sure, these “normal” people are often terrible, but it is a normal person that solves the murder and returns order to the world, and this is often done to save the innocent (often two people in love) from suspicion.  In the end, good triumphs.

How to have a successful cozy series: have a sympathetic amateur detective and sidekick/s.

Take Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the books, not the series: she is everyone’s favorite grandmother, and you want to spend more time with her.

If you’re writing about younger “detectives” it’s not bad to have a little “romance” and will she won’t she going on.  It will make people look for the next book.

Must it be murder mystery?  Well, probably not, but some ghouls like me prefer if it is.  It makes the whole thing more important and puts the detective in more “peril.”

Oh, yeah, most mysteries have a “timing clock” that is something that will happen if the murder isnt’ solved.  In cozies this is often the imminent arrest of the wrong person, or of course, the killer striking again.

I think that’s what you need to know, but I confess I’m a little scattered with the impending trip, so I’ll be happy to take your questions.

 

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I’m working on it

Just a note to let you know I am working on this morning’s post. It’s taking longer than I expected. Please check back in the next hour or so. Hopefully, I’ll have it done by then.

 

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Now and again (and again)

‘I have a cunning plan,’ sayeth Baldric…

‘Do you dare countermand my divine instruction?’ Sayeth the Emperor Mong.

And then there’s the ‘Good Idea’ fairy…

Besides all these fine helpful folk we have the generous intervention of natural disaster, plain accident (and not just the ones looking to happen thanks to the intervention of the above-mentioned) and of course illness and the natural consequences of age.

I might be talking about the core of many a great novel – which, as often as not, are about dealing with the above, or the consequences of the same. Actually, I was referring to my weekend. For a change it wasn’t me listening to the great advice of the sage Baldric, the Imperial commander Mong, and eternally charming and beguiling Good Idea fairy. I’m sure they were as busy as ever, but their great work did not result in a demand for medical help, at least not here on our island. I was doing something that really was a good idea.

No. REALLY. Not a Good Idea fairy good idea, but one designed to help with the consequences of her good ideas.

You don’t believe me, do you?

Hmph. I’ll have you know that Ambulance Officers are ranked as the most trustable people, even narrowly eclipsing Fireys. That’s why all the puppy kickers trusted and believed me, and not ChinaMike ™ ‘cause no one trusts them ‘revenuoors’. Oh… wait. Oh well. There goes another good theory.

None-the-less, it actually is true, and exactly what I spent the weekend at – Ambulance Service training. We’re all volunteers and from a range of backgrounds. Our lot, anyway, are pretty much who you’d choose to ride the river with, who you’d love to have around when any of the above factors come into play. I’m very proud to be a very minor and junior part this group. We do 10-12 twelve hour on-call shifts a month, and a call is typically three hours chewed out of your day or night. It’s stressful, enormously responsible and physically and mentally demanding at times. And, yes, we help, and at times will put our lives and health at risk, for anyone who needs it. Anyone. (Which as you know from the gospel according Irene Gallo is what people who are nasty Nazis, sexists, homophobes etc. etc. do. Good people stay at home and join PC internet lynch mobs, or, if they’re really giving a lot to society join protest marches to silence people whom they disagree with.)

I spend a lot of time worrying that I’m going to screw up, because I have (possibly) someone’s life or at least well-being in my hands. Now, I do this diving (my buddy’s life) and climbing (my second and party’s lives). But there I actually have a reasonable idea of what I’m doing and how to manage best. I’m an utter obsessive perfectionist (and a martinet to boot, to those who do these things with me, alas), which comes through in my writing – which is not a good thing. I really, really don’t know enough human medicine and ambulance practice to make this a comfortable experience for me (for what it is worth, the same is true of writing books. I still spend a lot of time and effort trying to get better at it.)

So training weekends are something I really value, that I try to put as much mental focus into as I can. Okay, so there are some very good inappropriate jokes about our new training dummy – who according to the box she came in is called Ann. We had interesting times getting her electronics working, which as I’d been thinking about a ‘some-assembly-required’ IKEA style sexbot story and talking about it, was particularly fraught with bad puns. As she appears male (she has no hands or feet… or boomps-a-daisy) she’s been renamed trans-Ann. I think the jokes kind of go with doing something terribly serious – which no one is playing the fool about. They’re common in surgery and on grim search and rescue. Not on TV of course – but in reality. TV surgery and TV S&R show awfully earnest people. Which they are… they’re also coping with stress in a very psychologically appropriate manner – which at times includes laughing at it.

This weekend, particularly Sunday, however was really particularly great – because after the theory refreshers, our trainers put us through a series of scenarios with our poor hapless second dummy (who has legs. Her arms seem to have come adrift…) where we actually used our ambulance and the gear – quite a lot of times. In daylight. Without any real fear that dummy would die or feel pain. We still worked as if she would, but it lets you concentrate better without that worry.

You get faster, better, and far more confident. You also have your mistakes pointed out (and our trainer was great, making it about learning, not ‘you idiot’.) We WANT to learn. Doing the same basic stuff – getting a stretcher into an ambulance for example, or taking obs, over and over, so you don’t have to think about it, so you can concentrate on the real medical problems. Also… you start to see your own flaws (mine: being far too inclined to take charge. Which is all very well when you are the most experienced and do know what to do. This is not true of me.)

In case you hadn’t worked out: I was also writing… about writing. A lot of us are busy writing books. Books to sell, books as a final product. If we step back at all: it is to learn about the theory, the methods (marketing for example). That’s good and valuable. But… there is enormous value in writing NOT for your book (you can use it, perhaps) Just writing, where per se, the outcome does not matter. The piece is done as best as possible, but you can shred it, you pick the story apart, you can pick up faults, you can experiment and try doing things differently. That’s what it is for. Not to sell but just make yourself comfortable with your tools and skills. So when you go back to that book… you can focus on making it a great story, because the other stuff is muscle memory.

Even if you don’t do it like this: write a lot. In my opinion it is better to push through a reasonable volume than endless fuss on two sentences a day (yes, I do know a ‘literary’ author who does just that. I think her work sucks).

I know, some people get it right first time. Most of us don’t.

 

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The best education for a writer?

I’ve seen the growth of specifically writing-oriented university courses and qualifications (e.g. a Bachelor or Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing or Creative Writing, offered by a number of institutions).  I can’t help but think that these courses and degrees are putting the cart before the horse.  They may be able to teach you to write, or write better – but they can’t give you a broad-based foundation on which to ground your writing, and on which to build.  They can give you training, but not education… and there’s a BIG difference between the two.  (If you doubt that, ask yourself:  would you prefer your pre-pubescent daughter to attend sex EDUCATION or sex TRAINING classes in school?  I think that illustrates the difference right away!)

I was inspired to think about this by an article titled ‘Majoring in History to Become a Writer‘.  Here are a couple of salient paragraphs.

If you want to write you’re going to need experience writing and a history degree, even at the undergraduate level, is nothing if not rigorous when it comes to writing. My freshman western civ class required a fifteen page paper on the Roman Civil War. Frankly, I didn’t do that much writing again until grad school where we were expected to produce twenty to thirty page papers every semester. The heart of history is writing, and writing in a clear style.

. . .

Second, you’ll learn to do research. That’s important because as a writer of fiction you’ll have to acquaint yourself with things you’re not necessarily knowledgeable about. In fact here at Uprising we often talk about research and how you can write what you know, by learning what you don’t know then writing about it. You can educate yourself on other cultures, places, geography and so forth. Whether you want to write historical fiction, genre fiction such as sci-fi, or steamy romance, you’ll have to learn about things you’re not really familiar with.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I understand the author’s reasoning;  but I don’t think he goes far enough in his analysis.  I was raised in the British academic tradition, if I may use that phrase, by parents who each obtained a Doctorate in their respective fields (my father in Economics, my mother in Sociology) in the 1950’s.  Each went on to command respect in their fields in South Africa, where they’d settled.  However, for both of them, their post-graduate ‘specialist’ degrees were built upon a ‘generalist’ Bachelor of Arts degree.  They regarded the latter as ‘education’, and the former as ‘training’ after becoming ‘educated’.  Their professors (in the immediately post-World-War-II generation) taught that approach, and recommended it.

My parents, in turn, influenced me.  I began by tackling a generalist BA degree as well.  Given the ongoing external wars and internal civil unrest in South Africa, it took me ten years of part-time study to complete it, but I managed it in the end.  I did a dual major in English and History, with sub-majors in Economic History and Philosophy.  I followed that with a post-graduate diploma in Management, plus a Masters degree in the same field;  then the good Lord decided to change my career path, and I started all over again by studying Theology to become a pastor.  I ended up with four university degrees, and a very broad spectrum of courses.

That turned out to be a blessing for my writing career, along with some very varied and extensive life experiences.  I had enough background to be able to tackle almost anything that came up;  and, more importantly, I knew how to research areas about which I understood nothing at all, because I’d had to do so many times before in my secular education and career.  I don’t think I could possibly have learned as much, or experienced as much, by tackling a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.

Another very important aspect of my education was that it was all part-time.  I never had the funds to be able to afford full-time study.  All my degrees were obtained by correspondence, studying in the evening after working during the day.  It meant that my progress was slower than it might have been… but there were no academic ivory towers involved.  I was rooted in and grounded upon the reality of earning a living, staying alive in a sometimes very heated combat zone, and not getting airy-fairy, artsy-fartsy, idealistic ideas about how the world should be.  I was too busy ducking and running from what it was!

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I think that educational background has served me far better, as a writer, than the more specialized, limited education offered by today’s universities in the field of creative writing.  I daresay many of the authors who contribute here would say the same.  To cite just one example, Dave Freer is very highly qualified in ichthyology, an intensely practical science, and has also experienced military service, farming, emigrating to another continent, and what have you.  I’m sure his writing would not be nearly so interesting without all he’s learned from those different backgrounds.

What say you, dear reader?  How have your life experiences and education affected your writing?  Have they helped, or hindered it?  Please let us know in Comments, with as many details as seem appropriate.

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