Category Archives: WRITING: ART

If you’re not appropriating culture, you’re not paying attention.

We’ve all seen the amusing Facebook meme: There are two kinds of countries in the world — those which use the metric system, and those which have landed on the Moon.

You could also easily say: there are two kinds of civilization in the world — the ones which culturally appropriate, and the ones which get left behind. Maybe even die?

It’s 2017, yo. Get your woke-ass panties out of your crack. Nothing you eat, read, listen to, drive, wear, or do for a living, was created in a vacuum. Each and every bit of your modern existence, is the result of people borrowing and stealing good ideas from somebody else. Doesn’t matter if it’s Hong Kong, or Paris, or San Francisco — every modern city is a gleaming, rich example of what happens when cultural appropriation is carried out with gusto.

Consider the nearest Chinese food establishment, employing Mexicans in the grill, a Filipino girl at the register, and serving food which bears little resemblance to anything anyone in China was eating a century ago. Because once people figured out how to jazz things up for an American palate, there was no stopping the culinary freight train. It was Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s from coast to coast. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Did anyone ever ask the general if his recipe could be used for this purpose?

Hell no!

And it doesn’t matter anyway. The general’s descendants are over at KFC, eating the colonel’s chicken. While listening to South Korean hip-hop. Wearing synthetic clothing made from artificial fabrics invented by a company founded by a Frenchman. That same company also supplied almost half of the Union Army’s gunpowder, during the American Civil War. Gunpowder: another Chinese invention, imported to the West via Mongolian and Arabic means, and originally used for fireworks, as well as rockets. Rockets, which entered liquid-fueled prominence thanks to a New Englander named Goddard, as well as a German named Werner von Braun, who competed with a Russian named Sergei Korolev — to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying hydrogen bombs to the other side of the world, but which put human beings onto the lunar surface instead.

So, there you have it. From Americanized Chinese food to Armstrong’s, “One small step for man.” A cavalcade of glorious cultural appropriation, end to end.

Which begs the question: what culture in its (collective) right mind wouldn’t borrow or steal somebody else’s bright ideas? That’s what human beings are good at! We wander around, bump into other people, see how those other people are conducting their business, say, “Aha, that’s the ticket!” and suddenly things are going Gangnam Style. In Yonkers. In Dubai. In Saskatchewan. Everywhere. A global orgy of people ripping people off. Happily. In every way possible.

Anyone who says things ought to be different, not only doesn’t understand how history works — she doesn’t understand how people work, either.

Because culture is not a genetic trait. Nobody is born with culture. It’s not property. You cannot trademark or copyright it, though you can trademark and copyright specific fragments, which the Peoples Republic of China will steal and facsimilize anyway — because they don’t give a fuck. “Suck our dicks, capitalist pig dogs!”

No, culture is absorbed, at the same time it is constantly re-synthesized. Doubt me? Go talk to the middle and lower-middle class white kids who grow up in the Cherry Hill area of Seattle, or maybe out in the Rainier Valley. Do they sound more like George Plimpton, or Sir Mix-A-Lot?

Clearly, nobody owns culture. So why do we worry about appropriating it?

(Cough, when I say “we,” I mean American progressives and Social Justice Zealots who clearly have too much time on their hands, cough.)

My take: If you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer, you have more to say on this topic than anyone. Because you’re extrapolating futures, presents, and pasts. Alternative histories. Possible horizons. The “What if?” that makes SF/F so much fun in the first place. There are no rules which you aren’t automatically authorized to break. The entire cosmos is your paint box. Nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Are we really going to be dumb enough to pretend that SF/F authors of demographics X, Y, or Z, cannot postulate “What if?” for demographics A, B, and C?

We’re not even talking about homework — which is a good idea, simply because some of your best syntheses will occur when you take Chocolate Culture and Peanut Butter Culture — kitbash them together — and come up with the inhabitants of a frontier planet for your thousand-year-future interstellar empire.

We’re talking about authors voluntarily yoking their creative spirits to somebody else’s pet political and cultural hobbyhorses. A game of rhetorical, “Mother, may I?”

Quick: how can you tell that a strident fire-breathing feminist is full of shit? Put 20 randomly-selected women in a room, ask them all to tell you what a “real woman” would do in a specific situation, and you will easily get half a dozen different answers. All of which are valid! Because nobody “owns” womanhood. Different women define their paradigms differently. Hell, we’ve even gone so far as to let dudes into the game now. Still have your junk attached? No problem! Just say you’re a woman, and we’ll be forced to believe you. Otherwise the Correctness Patrol will be along to Twitter-shame us into submission.

“Mother, may I?” is a lunatic way to go about imagining possible futures, and could-have-been pasts. You — as the creator — have your vision. Set apart from anyone else’s. Unique to you, and your specific blend of experience. You will have insights about, and inject flavor for, your world(s) in ways that nobody else can match. Because they are yours. It’s your blank canvas. Do what you want to do. According to your inspiration. Kitbash the hell out of those cultures! Intergalactic Comanche Samurai Inuit space whale hunters! Flat-earth fantasy Zulu Highlander elephant-riding clansmen! Cyborg Brazilian disco geisha Valkyries! Nobody can say you’re fucking it up, because you’re not writing a history paper. You’re doing what people have done throughout time: looking at the universe around you, taking the parts you think are awesome, and incorporating these parts any way you damned well choose.

And if the Wokeness comes to your digital door — torches and pitchforks raised — give the assholes a dose of the old phased plasma rifle, in the 40-watt range. They can go do their own heavy-lifting. It’s not your job to appease them. Especially since they cannot even agree among themselves, about what the “right way” looks like.

When they’re not busy being dicks to decent artists, they’re being dicks to themselves.

Not your circus, not your monkeys.

Go forth. Have fun. Make awesome shit. That is all. Carry on.

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Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART

Whoops!

Sorry, everyone, I completely lost a day.

That’s what happens when you time travel. Er, spend time travelling. I didn’t travel in time, really. *backs away slowly, shifty-eyed*

Actually, it’s quite simple. I spent a week travelling, and since I’ve been home, I’ve been working and sleeping and that’s about it. Today, when I should have had this post up bright and early, I was more focused on doing Mom-and-Wife things than authorial things. Which is, really, normal. As  a writer, we can spend rather a lot of time with our heads firmly stuck in the clouds, the better to see our imaginary worlds with. However, real life must intrude from time to time. With practice, you can learn how to switch back and forth fairly seamlessly and rapidly. I’m still working on that practice, to be honest.

It helps to keep a list. I make lists for a lot of things in life – earlier today it was a rough budget plan for the rest of the year, as my husband and I discussed what’s coming that we know of (the emergency fund is for the other things) and how we can plan ahead rather than be blindsided. In real life, this is very practical and usually works. In a story, as an author, blindsiding a character is fun and what leads to all the best plot points.

Like falling in love at first sight. My daughter gets rather indignant about the concept – if you don’t mind spoilers, I did an interview with her about Wonder Woman, which she loved, but the romantic subplot bothered her a lot. I think she’s right, somewhat. I also think she’s not yet seventeen and will learn in time that sometimes the most incompatible couples actually work very well. Which is why romantic tales about star-crossed lovers (don’t even get her started on Romeo and Juliet!) have been around since people started making stories up. I’ve done it, myself, both directly and indirectly. At some point my MC in the work-in-progress is going to have to explain how she came to be mostly Athabaskan with a bit of Inuit. I told my Mom that, and she gave me a look, and said ‘you do know those tribes are enemies?’ Yes, I did know, and that’s why I wrote the sc3ene with the MC being a bit touchy about her ancestors.

It doesn’t just happen in books. My First Reader and I would be incompatible on paper. We have a large gap in our ages, I’m a free spirit, he’s much more grounded. I’m always wearing rose-colored glasses, he adds a drop of acid to my sweet… it works. It’s better together than when we’re apart. I take things from real life, and put them in books, sometimes, and one of those things will likely be his reaction to my return home after this trip. “No more travelling without me!” Yes, dear. I didn’t like it, either. And that works very well whether I’m writing a SF novel of space travel with one left on the planet, or a fantasy tale of a quest undertaken while the other stays home in the village prosaically tending the farm. People are people, no matter what setting you build around them.

While I was on the plane(s) I was reading, working my way through an Introduction to Bioarcheology, Dead Men Do Tell Tales (case files from a forensic anthropologist) and 1177 BC: the year Civilization Collapsed. The connecting thread through all of them, other than history, is the people. Even if you’re reading their stories through bones and artifacts, you can still connect and relate to them. The long-dead Hatshepsut who became a king in order to rule. The bones of the men who threw spears, and the women who ground at pestles. The bones warped by disease and trauma… there are stories of love, loss, warfare, and family, here. I’m not consciously mining history for stories and plots. But I do pick up bits and pieces that I can weave into tales later. Sometimes after I’ve forgotten where they came from.

And in the middle of all of this is my son joggling my elbow and wanting to know if I will buy him a kit to build a robot. Which reminds me that where we came from is very far from where we’re going – I can search online and find robot kits for as little as 20$ on Amazon – solar powered, to boot!

 

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Telling truths through story

I don’t have much for you this week. Other than remembering something one of my editors (who became a friend) said to me very early on in my fiction career. He said (and these are not the exact words, just a summary) “Fiction writers are making up lies as they go along — but these are lies which tell the truth.”

That’s always stuck with me. Especially as we progress toward the end of this century’s second decade. Who now dares to tell the truth? Especially in story form? Your average fledgling author, upon setting sail for publication, is promptly surrounded by a host of rhetorical U-boats — all demanding that the fledgling author conform to a blizzard of “correct” artistic and political expectations. Lest (s)he find herself on the “wrong side” of any number of editors, agents, other authors, etc. At which point said fledgling’s career will be sunk.

So, what remains? What’s the point?

Some people write for money. Others write for awards. Or prestige. Or to influence society. Or a combination of the same.

When I look at the stuff I’ve written over the past 8 years, I realize that I was — unconsciously — forever trying to speak the truth. About how ordinary, decent folk react to extraordinary, difficult circumstances. About how the universe is not just some happy accident of physics. About the timeless dance of romance, between men and women. About the noble dignity of a straightforward life, lived according to straightforward values. Even when the roof is caving in, or the bottom is dropping out.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

To choose one’s own way . . .

Ours is the era of, “It’s not my fault!” and “This was done to me!” and “It’s somebody else’s job to make my life better!”

But all of the quality literature on self-improvement, tends to reflect Frankl’s premise. That we alone, as individual human beings, still retain an underlying level of oneness and dignity. Which no earthly power is capable of stripping from us. So long as we do not forget who we are.

My protagonists tend to remember who they are, in the clutch. When it really counts. Not without bumps and bruises, mind you. Nobody goes through this life unscathed. Pain, or damage, don’t end the world. Each of us is fated to get it, in one way or another. That’s the state of existence. We can allow it to destroy us, or we can find within ourselves Frankl’s hidden, practically invincible freedom.

That’s probably the truth I want to tell. Because the world seems crazy, and it’s filled with people who react crazily.

Except, none of us has to fall off the cliff. We can look that crazy in the eye and say, “No thanks.” Re-button our collars, cinch up our ties, and get back to the business of building and preserving civilization.

What truths do you find yourselves unconsciously (or consciously) speaking through story?

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Self-Insertion

Every time I see this phrase, I feel like it’s a little dirty.

“Oh, go self-insert!” 

Yeah. Sometimes my brain is a 14 yo boy (although admittedly my 15 and 16 yo girls would make a sailor blush at times. Dinner conversations are frequently… interesting.) Anyway, I was talking about writing, not sex. Although….

Robert Heinlein famously said about writing to do it in private and wash your hands afterward, a clear parallel to a much more intimate act. If we follow that line of thought through, we come up with writing being a pleasurable act for the author (we’ll leave the other side of the equation out of it for a moment) which seems reasonable, because why else would we inflict this kind of effort and angst on ourselves? So yes, in a sense we the writers are, ah, F*&ing ourselves. It’s all a mindf*&k, though.

But does that make the main characters of our books a self-insertion? The more common, less literary term would be Mary Sue (or Marty Stu), which is outlined by TVTropes (here be dragons, or at least TymeEaters).

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

The problem is that while somewhat obviously this is a deeply flawed, highly cliched character, it’s not always the case when a critic snubs a book for containing a self-insertion. A Mary Sue lacks a growth arc, first of all. She (or he, in the case of the Marty Stu) springs onto the scene perfect, and being practically perfect in every way, has no desire nor need to change and grow into the role the author has set them into.

Chuck Gannon has been criticized for his main character, Caine Riordan, being too skilled, and obviously a wish-fulfillment character. I can see why – Caine, in the books, is a very competent person. But I’ve also met and talked with Chuck and I know that he is a brilliant man, behind a humble approach. And I know that he has friends who can do everything Caine can, and more, so for him to write this character came naturally. Where it stretches readers beyond belief is actually in the fact being stranger than fiction department.

Our own Peter Grant caught flak for his Steve Maxwell character being a ‘golden boy’ who could make no wrong moves. Peter thoughtfully considered the criticisms, and added flaws to Steve, but thankfully he didn’t break his hero in the process. It took me a while to put a finger on what I liked about Steve, but it finally clicked in a recent conversation about favorite superheroes, and why so many of us like that other Steve, Captain America.

Captain America (I unequivocally reject the Hydra version) is a nice guy. He’s a superhero, yes, but he’s also a guy you feel like you could sit and have a cup of coffee with, telling stories, and that he’d get up to go rescue a kitten, and it wouldn’t come across as too-good-to-be-true, he’s just that nice a guy.

Coming back to the pleasuring oneself aspect of authorship, yes, simply writing a character we could insert ourselves into ,and escape the humdrum world into a more perfect place would be a masturbatory experience. However, I’d like to think that ideally, writing is more akin to a shared pleasure experience. We’re not creating a book we’ll be taking to bed, after all. No, we dress it up, straighten the seam on it’s stockings, and watch it sashay out the door… and waltz into the arms of a reader. That is the goal of writers who are publishing. A two-way street of mutual enjoyment.

I’ll not take this too much further… just know that if I can write something that makes my readers happy, it makes me happy. So yes, I am inserting some of myself into my work. And writing a heroic main character who wins through the obstacles placed into his path, growing and developing into a better person as he does so? My fans like that kind of thing. So do I. I don’t like dark, brooding characters for whom nothing ever goes right, and the universe is out to get them. I’m sure there are readers out there who do. Hopefully they can find the writer for them, because I’m not the one.

Writing is perhaps the ultimate mindf%$k. Was it good for you? Because it was good for me…

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Sawdust, chocolate cake, and New Coke

Regarding this item which crossed my desk over drill weekend, it’s typical of the attitude one finds among deck chair rearrangers — the men and women who think the answer to flagging trad pub sales, is to scold the genre for poor marketing while simultaneously scolding the audience for bad taste.

Because the field has evolved, yo. We’ve moved on from Star Trek. Nevermind that Star Trek spawned half a dozen television shows, as well as over a dozen big screen films, hundreds of tie-in novels, numerous kinds of video and paper-and-dice games, merchandising for light-years, and so forth. Star Trek is done, okay? Time for you to update your settings. We, the rearrangers, are here to notify you that the stuff you loved from the old days, is over.

A sales pitch which works wonders — on people who read things out of a sense of political duty.

The rest of us? We’re just looking for a good time. Not a mindless time. A good time. The sort of read which leaves us with a feeling of satisfaction. Because our hours were well spent. The author has properly rewarded our investment.

What constitutes a “good time” is definitely one of those de gustibus questions. Populists and taste-makers have both existed, since the first campfire storytellers regaled us over the flames — dating back to prehistory. Which stories are “worthy” and which stories are not? Can such a judgment be imposed, from the top down? Or will it invariably manifest itself organically, from the bottom up?

My personal belief is that it’s purely organic. Even when there are strong forces working to make this decision for us.

Taste-makers may secure for themselves the levers of academic or institutional power — pressing a kind or style of fiction on largely captive crowds. But nobody likes to be force-fed a handful of sawdust, while being told that the sawdust is in fact a rich, delicious piece of chocolate cake. A few people, wishing to join the taste-making set, may embrace the sawdust. Swearing up and down that the sawdust is, quite simply, the greatest treat (s)he has ever had. (S)he will gobble further handfuls of sawdust, to prove that (s)he has adopted the acceptable and correct values.

But in the end, it’s still sawdust.

Which is why a Hugo or a Nebula short list — in 2017 — isn’t indicative of organic enjoyment. The Hugo and Nebula short lists are created by, and for, the sawdust set.

If I am talking to a prospective audience member who skips over SF/F as a general rule, I know precisely why (s)he feels this way. She’s had too many bites of the sawdust, which masquerades as chocolate cake. It’s the Nutty Nuggets rule. You can’t keep altering the contents, while leaving the packaging more or less unchanged, without running the risk of alienating your readers. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the old contents are wrong, or bad, or outdated, or silly, or need to be revised simply to suit an arbitrary and purely internal sentiment. Remember how New Coke went over? Most of the people who want SF/F to “evolve” and “move on” probably aren’t old enough to remember New Coke — and how it brought a soda manufacturing giant to its knees.

The lesson of New Coke is, nobody asked for New Coke. The Coca-Cola folks were trying to figure out why their sales were slipping against Pepsi, so they cooked up this idea to reformulate Coca-Cola, and it bombed badly with consumers. Only the rapid and dramatic reintroduction of Coca-Cola classic restored consumer confidence. New Coke went down as one of the all-time great marketing and business blunders.

Now, speaking from memory, I didn’t think New Coke was fantastically different from Coke Classic. At that particular time, I was actually more of a Royal Crown consumer, with occasional Coke or Pepsi dalliances on the side. Especially Cherry Coke, which I still like very much.

But the point is: rattle your audience’s faith in your product, at your peril.

For the better part of two decades, SF/F’s rearrangers have been embarked upon their own version of New Coke. The sawdust-gobblers decided that we’d had just about enough of the blockbuster “old way” of doing things, even though the 1970s and 1980s invented the SF/F bestseller. It was time to move on.

And yet, the audience has not followed. In dribs and drabs, the audience has gone elsewhere. Trad pub numbers for SF/F continue to struggle, in comparison to a quarter of a century ago.

Some of this can be blamed on a media-diverse digital entertainment spectrum. Now that people can literally carry movies and television series and video games in their pockets, to watch or play at any time, the era of the paperback — as the single most convenient form of sit-down pass time — is over. Electronic books have also revolutionized the buying landscape, allowing consumers to get their books directly from the author, or from a clearinghouse seller.

But a lot of it — I believe very much — comes down to fans of SF/F Classic feeling burned, by New SF/F.

It’s not that New SF/F is measurably inferior — though some would argue it is. It’s just that the crowds from the high years of the genre’s print popularity, aren’t satisfied with what they’re getting anymore. New SF/F is “off” from SF/F Classic. Could you metric this on a chart? Not really, to the same degree that taste tests with Classic and New Coke yielded uncertain metrics. More, it’s the fact that print SF/F’s manufacturers have — since at least the year 2000 — decided they’re going to mix things up, even though there weren’t a lot of people from the old audience who had demanded such a mix-up.

SF/F Classic was deemed not good enough. So then came New SF/F.

And the trad pub numbers began their familiar decline.

Some of the 21st century’s strident SF/F activist-authors like to misstate the problem — accusing SF/F Classic fans of wanting to dial the genre all the way back to when actual coca leaf extract was in the formula, and it was administered as a pharmacological tonic.

I’m not sure what ground is gained via this line of reasoning, other than to further push SF/F Classic fans away from the very manufacturers who claim to want those fans’ business.

My own fear is that the zealots of New SF/F will so successfully alienate the audience, that SF/F et al will become an academic interest only. Ergo, the major trad publishers will jettison the brand, leaving it for the small presses and for a tiny reader base which is interested in SF/F purely as a political and sociological plaything.

We’re halfway there already.

Though, it must be noted, plenty of indie authors are trying desperately to ensure that SF/F Classic does not depart the digital publishing shelves. And there is also Baen, perhaps the lone holdout among all trad publishers, keeping SF/F Classic alive — with the flag proudly flown high. For these Classic SF/F parties, the taste of the original high-period audience (of print SF/F) is not in need of revision. Rather, it’s that very high-period taste which provides a solid market base.

Sawdust-gobbling be damned.

Which will not, of course, prevent the sawdust set from pushing New SF/F into ever more esoteric and obscure territory. Believing (vainly) that making New SF/F into a political cause, substitutes for returning SF/F to its natural state, as a popular cause.

In fact, there’s every indication that the zealots of New SF/F believe the political is popular, and vice versa.

But then, this is how zealots throughout history have always thought — theirs being the straight-line ramp of destiny.

I’m fairly certain the market disagrees. And it’s the market which always wins, too. It was the market which made SF/F Classic into a money-rich hit in the first place.

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Word Salad

Is delicious. I like mine with juicy ripe tomatoes, succulent cucumbers, and just a bit of finely chopped onion. But not lettuce. Greek vinaigrette, a crumble of feta, and heaven. On the other hand, you might like lots of shredded iceberg lettuce as a vehicle for ranch dressing, bacon, and cheese. Still a salad.

Still a story. Words do matter, but how much do they matter? I find myself fighting with word choice while writing from time to time. When the story is flowing I will sometimes get stuck on a word, ‘argh’ and move on, because I need to write the scene. Other times I find myself lingering and obsessing over the right word to use here.

I was thinking about this as I prepare to go over the latest manuscript with final edits. Some of what I will be doing is finessing my words. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. I mostly want the pacing to be solid, the continuity smooth, and the character to have a logical growth arc with setbacks for realism. I’m not writing poetry, here, just a story.

And yet there are times a well-crafted sentence can be a thing of beauty. I’m not personally a fan of novels that read like poetry, each sentence sculpted like one of those radishes carved into a rose. Those tend to be hard to follow the story, and you lose sight of the plot in this massive vegetal maze of intricate cuts and curls. Look up vegetable carving sometime… who would eat that?

Who wants to read that? Sure, sometimes I want to soak in the amazing versatility of the English language. I’ve been working on my Spanish, recently, and marveling at how much of the vocabulary I can deduce from knowing that an English word also came from that root. words like largo for long throw me a bit – I want to read that as large, which it isn’t. The ability of this language of ours to create a mental image with a few well-placed words is dumbfounding.

Most of the time, though, I am reading not to revel in the words, but the words are tools to convey as quickly and succinctly as possible the content in front of me. You can tell a deep, emotional story without using language I have to look up in my dictionary app with my phone while reading on my tablet. I do love to learn a new word, but sometimes I just want to lose myself in the story. And when I am reading non-fiction, I’d rather not have the emotional tugging and pulling. I’ve been reading a book for research, on the history of Siberia, and it’s taking me forever to get through it, because the author is spending time building a word picture that is painful to read. It’s not the writing, it’s the world through her eyes, the pervasive alcoholism and hopelessness and impoverishment of spirit… I have to walk away from it before the light fades and let some sun back into my soul from time to time.

For me, when I’m writing, I am not thinking about the level I’m writing on. I was amused, when one of my professors discovered I wrote, and asked to read one of my books, to discover that three full-tenure professors had discussed, and eventually looked up, a word I’d used. I hadn’t thought twice about it – anacephalic seemed quite acceptable as an insult when paired with goon. But it’s not the first time that I’ve had eyebrows raised over the vocabulary I use. My young adult books are, in theory, too difficult a reading level. I refused then and now, to dumb down my words. I learned much of this vocabulary in the first place by reading.

My daughter came home from school the other day, and was talking to me about a failed vocabulary test. Her teacher, it seems, had neglected to supply her with a word bank to study (she was a new transfer and it slipped his mind). She took the test, failed it, and was disappointed in herself. I looked at her and asked “you know what to do about this?” Yes, I need to read more.

Reading, voraciously, has many benefits in my humble opinion. From bibliotherapy to vocabulary, words jumbled together, combed into tidiness, and arranged in pleasing designs are marvelous things. Just like salads. The combinations are nearly infinite. In practical terms, unlimited ways to write stories, tell them effectively, and create mental images exist. And they are all delicious. Even if you don’t like lettuce.

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Gothic Dreams

I had gothic dreams last night. Most likely the product of working on the finale of my novel. Not that it’s gothic at all… For those of you aren’t familiar with gothic romance, it’s all dark and stormy nights, tons of angst, and heroines who are too stupid to live. Literally. I’m not familiar with the early beginnings of the genre, but think Jane Eyre, the author Barbara Cartland, or for that matter, much of the Victorian novels. Brooding heroes any sane woman would look at, slip into the powder room, and climb out the window to get away from.

But none of the girls in these books seem to have the sense God gave a goose. I never read many gothics, and the ones I did read were because there was nothing else. Or, in the case of Barbara Michaels, because I knew her work as Elizabeth Peters and wanted to see… Bleah, no. Looking back as an adult and an author, Barbara Cartland is impressive because she may be the most prolific writer, ever. I’m not sure how many were published, but a quick search taught me that she had 160 manuscripts unpublished at the time of her death at the ripe age of 99. I may not have been fond of her books, but I aspire to that kind of production level.

I’m straying from my intended topic. I did have one, really. The plots of these books were mostly very similar and easy to predict. A girl, or rarely, a spinster on the shelf at the shocking old age of say, twenty, was thrust by unforeseen circumstances from her home and into the cold cruel world. This didn’t bother the younger-reader-me much, I could see even back then that you had to work for a living, and if your parents both died, you were on your own. It seemed logical that governesses would be in demand. Some of the more modern books left me puzzled, since in them the heroine haring off across Europe thousands of miles from home making her living as an art restorer or some such seemed a lot more improbable.

It was the next part of the plot that always left me internally screaming at the fictional idiots. They never seemed to check up on where they were going. I could be wrong, but a major element in most gothics, almost a character in its own right, was the house/castle. If a house, it had to be huge, mostly empty, with miles of disused corridors. Whichever it was, it had to be falling into ruins. I mean, you would think a kindly villager would take our girl by the elbow and firmly turn her around to put her on the train. “Yer t he fourth one this month. That Baron, he’s not right in the head. C’mon ducks, here you go” and she’d be spared a lot of trauma.

Of course, we the readers know she has nothing to fear. This is where the glittery hoo-ha originates, after all, with the *ahem* notorious totally-not-a-serial-killer man suddenly being put on the paths of angels by one look at our daffy-brained heroine. But it’s not love at first sight, oh no. He will likely growl at her, verbally abuse her, and that’s if he deigns to show up at all when she does. Also, what is with the number of time he’s her employer, or worse, guardian, but romancing her is still on the table as a viable option? Most of these books are set in eras when that was beginning to be frowned on. I have to wonder about some people’s fetishes. Nothing wrong with having kinks, that’s just not mine. Makes me want to hit the girl in the book upside the head with the family Bible.

The remainder of the plot usually involves some sort of madness, because you totes expect to find some crazy relative locked up in an old ruin like that. There may be a ghost, or in the more modern versions, the mad relative dressed up in sheets like one. There’s probably a plot moppet in the form of the adorable and very traumatized child from the Brooding Hero’s first marriage. There is always rain, and none of that gentle spring stuff, either, this is driven and cold and will half drown you and of course our Daffy-brained heroine goes out in it.

Finally, the half-dead heroine, saved by the hero, accepts his offer of marriage, the sun comes out, and she settles down to make a happy home in the ruin. Me, I’m left gaping like a fish thinking “Run, dammit! Run away!” But no…

That’s not precisely what I was dreaming, which was more a muddled dark and rainy night at the edge of the sea, a coffin-like box strapped to rocks there, and a mad doctor torturing a pale faced girl who refused to give up the names of the Resistance even as he was closing the lid on her. You can see why I called it gothic. Horrifying, at the least. I woke up gasping and tangled in blankets, and lay there thinking about the appeal of the gothic novel.

Why do readers like that emotion storm? The emotions invoked by reading, or music, are no less real than ones brought on by actual events, they are just less powerful. Even when I was younger I didn’t care for angst, but I did enjoy other emotions invoked by reading. We all know that book hangover, after finishing a really compelling story that has made you laugh, and cry, and wind up in triumph on a high note. Perhaps this is what the gothic readers were in search of. A heroine worse off than they were, in some exotic setting, who they knew would wind up with a happily ever after. I prefer my characters with more spunk and less wet-noodle aspect, is all. Which is why I gravitated to science fiction, in the end.

 

 

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: ART